Class Reunion

Evan laughed at the lame joke.

He’d heard the joke before, and it hadn’t been funny the first time. But everyone else laughed. He joined in. He hated his laugh. Too loud. Too high-pitched. When he was sober, it wasn’t so bad — he’d learned to hold it in, lower his pitch. But he was hardly sober, and it rang out now like a woman’s drunken cackle.

As if cued, the small crowd dispersed. Evan was too wasted, and missed the cue: his perennial problem, always missing those damned social cues. He found himself standing alone with the joke teller.

Evan summoned the energy to drain the scotch and swirl the ice in the empty glass.

“I’m gonna go get a refill.…”

He gestured vaguely at the cash bar and walked away. That was the problem with being the last one to leave. You had to make an excuse. 

Evan bought his third scotch of the evening, this time a double without soda or ice, and retreated to a corner table to watch the crowd.

The last ten years had wrought havoc on the crowd. At the twentieth class reunion, they’d still looked and acted young. He’d felt young, despite the gray that had crept into his hair. At least half the women had been downright hot, and most of the men could still see their shoes. The dance floor had churned with writhing bodies and tense sexual energy. Ten short years ago.

Now, the intertwined forces of gravity and time were taking over. The few women who still had trim figures seemed artificial, marvels of cosmetic surgery and long hours on Stair Masters. The men’s bellies sagged over their belts; hair had thinned, features had softened. The dance floor was littered with small, stationary clusters of people making small talk.

They look so old. I feel so damned old. Why did I come?

Ten years ago the organizers had gone from door to door and collected childhood snapshots from doting parents of their old classmates. Everyone had howled at the pictures of bare baby bottoms and first teeth and pigtails. They’d trotted out the same pictures this time, but they flickered, ignored, on the big screen at the front of the room. Evan glanced at the pictures, but they brought no laughter, only pain.

I buried Mom five years ago. Gave her a nice eulogy. God, I miss her. Dad would miss her, too, if he remembered her.

Evan watched the sedentary crowd. Bursts of loud laughter came from different parts of the room.

Evan watched Brenda the Cheerleader walk directly toward him. Her Stair Master conditioned body still had all the right curves in all the right places, and her bright blue eyes formed a startling contrast with her raven-dark hair. She could easily be in her thirties, not pushing fifty.

“Evan Johnson.” Evan shook his head to clear it. In the old days, Brenda would never have spoken to him at all. She was popular. He had been a geek. Oil and water.

“Brenda Schmidt.” He bowed, slightly. He was startled to notice what looked like tears in her eyes, but did not have time to ponder. Her open palm swung. He heard a sound like a firecracker, and found himself unexpectedly looking over his right shoulder. His ears rang.

“You pervert BASTARD!” she screamed. “I never liked you, and now I know why!”

The room had gone silent, but for the sound of Stardust from the DJ’s speakers. Evan slowly turned his head to face Brenda. His cheek began to burn through the haze of alcohol. Angry tears ran down Brenda’s face.

“What the Hell was that for?”

“What you just said to me. About my brother.”

“What are you talking about? I haven’t spoken to you all evening. I’ve been over here, listening to John tell a stupid joke.”

“Bullshit!” Brenda shouted. “Other people were right there. They heard every word.”

Evan set his drink down on the bar with a more force than necessary.

“Brenda Schmidt, I didn’t even know you had a brother. I have not said one word to you all evening. I have been over here, minding my own business. And I sure as Hell don’t appreciate having my face wiped off because of your goddamned hallucination.”

“Liar!” she screamed, and turned and stalked away. 

“Jesus,” Evan muttered. His face was starting to ache, and he touched it gingerly. He thought he felt welts rising under the hot skin. He reached for his drink and placed the cool glass against his cheek.

“Might want to slow down, big guy.” Evan felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up to see his oldest friend staring down at him from his six-foot-six vantage. “My old man couldn’t hold much more than you’re putting away, and that man could drink.”

“Cheers, Eric. Privilege of age. Unlimited misery, and the right to an anast- ana- an-es-the-tic.” Evan’s tongue felt thick and uncooperative in his mouth.

“I don’t know, Evan.” Eric didn’t look amused. “You’ve been drinking a lot since your Mom passed. Maybe you ought to cut back a little–”

“God damn it, Eric, you are not my mother or my father. I came here to party with my old friends and remember the good times, but they’ve all turned into old farts. And I’m one of them. Then that cheerleader bitch tries to put my face on the back of my head. I ought to file charges.”

“What was that all about, anyway?”

“Not one clue. She claims I made some nasty comment about her brother. She has a brother?”

“Oh, come on, Evan. Everyone in our class knew about her brother.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It was in all the local papers, what, two years after graduation? He got hold of a gun, shot both parents, then killed himself.”

“My God. And Brenda…?”

“On a date. Came home and found them all. She and her sister were a wreck afterward.”

“Jesus.”

“You really didn’t know?”

Evan shook his head. “Two years after graduation I was drowning in classes at MIT. I didn’t follow local news from here. I wasn’t planning to come back.”

“Wow. That’s weird that you didn’t know. It was such big news. Hey, listen, I just spotted Jamie and Pete. Catch up with you later, man. And don’t drink so much.”

“Yeah. Later. And bite me.” Evan wandered over to the full bar and sat down to nurse his drink in privacy.

He felt someone take the seat next to him. He looked up to see Brenda smiling coyly at him. He started.

“Oh, Jeez, Brenda! Listen, I’m so sorry to hear about your brother, I really had no idea….”

A faint wrinkle appeared between Brenda’s eyebrows.

“My brother?” She sounded puzzled.

“Yeah, Eric just told me about him, I was away at college and I didn’t know.”

Brenda smiled. “Evan Johnson, your friend Eric is pulling your leg. I don’t have a brother.”

“You… don’t… have… a brother….”

Brenda shrugged and shook her head, still smiling. “Nope. My folks told me I was supposed to have one, but he died when I was little. It’s just me and my sister. And my sister’s daughters, both married now. Mom and Dad are all goo-goo-eyed over their great-grandkids, especially Ricky. He just turned five.”

“Your mom… and dad….”

Brenda’s smile slowly faded. “Evan, you should switch to soda. You’re getting wasted.” She stood to leave. Evan grabbed her sleeve.

“Brenda, wait.”

“Let go of me, Evan.” Evan released her sleeve.

“Brenda, something weird….” He rubbed his left cheek, which still felt hot under his hand. “Did you slap me?”

“Did I what?”

“Did you slap me? About ten, fifteen minutes ago?”

“Evan, this is the first time I’ve seen you here tonight. Are you okay?”

“I’m not sure….”

“You should definitely lay off the booze — it’s messing with your head.”

“Yeah.” She turned and walked away. He ordered a plain seltzer from the bartender, and left his drink on the bar.

What the Hell just happened? I need some air. Evan headed through the crowd for the doors leading to the parking lot.

“Doctor Johnson!” The speaker was rotund, with a young face and curly black hair that belied the crows’ feet around his eyes. “What an honor to see you here! We didn’t think you’d make it!”

“No sarcasm, Gabe, I’m really not in the mood.”

Gabe looked flustered. “Sarcasm? Jeez, man, I’m not being sarcastic.”

“Then don’t call me doctor.”

Gabe blinked. “O-kaayy….”

Evan took a calming breath. Still stings, washing out of grad school. You’d think I’d be over that by now.

“So what’s up, Gabe?”

“Well….” Gabe was suddenly diffident. “Hey, I know it’s kitch and all that, but it’s for the kids, you know. I bought a copy on the stands last Spring, and I was hoping I could get you to sign it. For the kids.”

“Gabe, what the Hell are you talking about?”

“Your issue, man.” He handed Evan a magazine in a plastic sleeve, the sort that comic book collectors use. Evan stared at the face on the cover. It was a little heavy in the picture, with a solid white goatee, but it was clearly his face. He’d shaved that goatee years ago, when it had started going gray.

“What the Hell is this?”

Gabe’s nervous smile faded, replaced by confusion. “It’s the March issue of Time. You know, the one that covers your big theory. Not that I understand a word of it, you know, but…”

Evan ignored Gabe’s nervous babbling, and slowly drew the magazine from the sleeve. Evan Johnson, Man of the Year. He flipped through to the article, The Arrow of Time, which described in layman’s terms his theory of closed timelike loops and encapsulated universes.

“Interviewer: So where did you get the idea for this theory? Your colleagues say it’s a pretty radical departure from the mainstream.

“Johnson: I always say it came to me in the heat of inspiration. Literally. I got very sick one semester during graduate school, my second year. None of the clinics wanted me in their offices, and they told me to take aspirin and stay home…”

Evan remembered that semester. It had been chicken pox, and he’d run a fever of a hundred and five. He’d hallucinated vividly and recurrently. Physics and math fever dreams, bizarre, quickly forgotten.

“…when I got back to class, I showed my thesis adviser the doodles I’d started drawing after the fever broke. He got really excited…”

The magazine fell from Evan’s numb fingers.

But that isn’t what happened. He’d been in bed for three weeks, and useless for another two. He’d spent his convalescence learning to solve the Rubik’s Cube, not doodling. He’d failed most of his classes that semester, and it had marked him. His adviser had told him to find a different adviser. No one else on the faculty was interested in taking him on. He’d dropped out at the end of the next semester.

“Jeez, Evan, you don’t have to mess it up,” Gabe said as he bent to retrieve the magazine. He looked at Evan’s blank stare. “Hey, man, are you okay?”

“Tell me,” Evan said in a quiet, steady voice, “is Brenda here?”

“Brenda?”

“Brenda Schmidt. Cheerleader. Dark hair, blue eyes.”

Gabe paled. “Oh man, don’t tell me you didn’t know.”

“Tell me.” Evan’s voice remained calm, but his face was pale and sweaty and his eyes were fixed on nothing.

“She died a couple years after graduation. Her brother wasn’t quite right in the head, you know, got hold of a gun, shot her and her parents, then killed himself. Only her sister survived. It was in all the papers….”

Evan’s cheek throbbed.

“Hey, man, you don’t look so good. Maybe you ought to go lie down or something?”

Evan walked away wordlessly, and found a table to sit at.

These guys have decided to mess with my head.

Evan nodded as he pondered the idea. That made sense. It was the only thing that made sense. They’d arranged an elaborate practical joke on him. A pretty cruel one, but some of them had been pretty cruel people.

“You got one Hell of a nerve, coming here tonight.”

Evan looked up, startled, and his face drained of color as his mouth slowly dropped open.

“Blom…?”

“Why are you here?”

Evan blinked. “Blom… you’re dead!”

Jeff Mellblom stood up straight, his eyes narrowed. “Is that some kind of weird-ass threat?”

“You died. Jesus, you died over twenty years ago, in the Persian Gulf. I went to your funeral!” Evan’s voice rose until it cracked.

“The only funeral there’s gonna be around here is yours, buddy, if you stick around. I don’t know why they ever let you out. They should have thrown away the fucking key.”

Evan stood and swayed. Jeff stepped back and raised his fists. “You want a piece of me, you bastard? You want a piece? I’ll give you a piece!”

He lunged forward, but two of his classmates grabbed him and held him back. Evan felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.

“Let’s go for a walk, Evan.” It was Eric.

“I don’t want to go anywhere.”

“I wasn’t really asking.” Eric’s strong grip tightened, and Evan found himself forced to turn and march out the door. Eric led him to a short concrete wall across the parking lot. His grip relaxed as they walked. They sat. Eric pulled out a cigarette, and offered one to Evan, who declined.

“Since when did you start smoking?” Evan asked.

“Since when did you give it up?” Eric replied.

Evan stared at him in silence.

“Look, Evan, I told you it was a bad idea to come here tonight. It was an accident, I know. You served your time. It should be over and done. But Blom…. He’s still all torn up about it, and a lot of people…. It’s a small town, Evan. There really is no place for you here.”

“Eric.” Evan’s voice was small.

“Yeah?”

“Look at my left cheek. What do you see?”

“Turn your head a little, I need some light….” Eric whistled. “Wow. Told you, man. Lots of people are still pretty upset. Who laid that on you?”

Evan closed his eyes and took a slow breath.

“What if I told you it was Brenda Schmidt?”

He opened his eyes to see an expression of shock and disgust on Eric’s face. “That is sick, dude. It isn’t funny at all.”

“I’m dead serious.”

“Then you need to see a shrink.”

“Why, Eric?”

Eric stared at him in disbelief.

“Why do I need to see a shrink, Eric?”

“That’s it, man. I’ve stood with you through this whole shit storm, and I’ve had a lot of nights where I wondered if I was doing the right thing. I should have listened to myself. You are one messed up motherfucker.”

He stood up.

“Eric. Tell me why I need a shrink. Then you can leave and never come back. But I need to hear it. Please.”

Eric’s eyes glittered, with anger or grief, Evan couldn’t tell. “Fine. You need to see a shrink because Brenda Schmidt didn’t slap you. She’s dead. You of all people ought to know. You spent eight years in prison for killing her.”

Evan stared at the door of the convention center, his face expressionless. He nodded slowly.

“Thank you, Eric.”

Eric turned to walk away, then stopped and dithered uncertainly. “What’s going on in your messed up head, Evan? What are you thinking? What are you gonna do?”

Evan drew a breath and let it out slowly.

“Do? I’m going to slip back in to take a piss and splash some cold water on my face. Then I’m going to take a walk, find a room, and sleep off this drunk. And tomorrow I am going to go see that shrink. You got a recommendation?”

“You’re serious.”

“As a judge. I’m either off my rails, or I’m stuck in the Twilight Zone. I honestly have no idea which. There was a Twilight Zone, right? You know what I’m talking about?”

Eric stared at him. “You mean the TV show? Yeah. Scared me to death as a kid.”

“Yeah, well it’s scaring me to death right now. Go on, go back to the party. I want to sit out here alone for a minute.”

“Okay, Evan. Do what you said. See that shrink.”

“Right.”

Evan sat on the wall under the parking lot lights as Eric walked across the lot and vanished into the convention center. The moon was rising, a thick crescent that seemed dim and distant. It must be getting late.

I’ve never smoked a day in my life. And neither has Eric.

But Eric had drawn the cigarette smoke into his lungs with the slow relish of a lifelong habit. That was more disturbing than anything he’d seen yet. Everything else could be explained away as a vicious practical joke. But he knew Eric, knew him like a brother, like a part of his own body. This wasn’t an act. He’d lost his mind, or he was stuck in the Twilight Zone.

Evan rose and walked back to the convention center. He stepped through the doors, and was startled — but somehow not very surprised — when a cheer went up, and he was dragged up to the podium on the stage. A microphone was thrust into his hands. A chant rose from the crowd, “Speech, speech, speech!” He blinked and tried to think through the fog of scotch in his head.

Who am I now? Somebody popular. I can probably get away with saying anything.

“My good friends” he shouted into the microphone, slurring a bit. The class cheered. “I’d love to stand up here and talk, but … I … have … to … pee.” He crossed his legs as he silently mouthed the last word, and the crowd went wild.

“Pee, pee, pee!” they chanted.

Evan handed the microphone back to Doug, the class president, then staggered off the stage and toward the restroom. He made it just in time. He fell to his knees in front of one of the pristine porcelain bowls, and his stomach heaved. He was thankful to be alone.

He felt better afterward. He made his shaky way to the sinks, where he rinsed his mouth and splashed cold water on his face. He heard the door swing open, and a moment later, someone else was bent over one of the bowls. Evan kept his face buried in the sink and the clean smell of fresh running water.

Hell of a night for everyone, I guess.

The other made his way to the sinks and buried his face in cupped hands full of cold water. They both looked up at the same moment, and saw the other’s reflection in the wall-length mirror behind the row of sinks. Both froze, water dripping from their faces.

The other spoke first. “Who the fuck are you?”

He’s like a twin brother.

Evan stared at his own likeness reflected twice in the mirror. The other was thinner, and the lines in his face were deeper and gave the face a hard and bitter look. A twin who spent eight years in prison, maybe.

“I’m Evan Johnson. Who the Hell are you?”

“No, no, no.” The other shook his head, his eyes fixed on Evan’s reflection. “I don’t think so, buddy. I’m Evan Johnson, and I don’t know who the fuck you are. I don’t know what the fuck you are.” 

The door swung open, and Evan Johnson walked into the room. He was heavier than the other two, almost portly, and wore an expensive suit. He had a self-absorbed air about him and only glanced at the other two as he strode to the latrine. He planted his legs well apart in a stance of confident conquest, and let out a loud sigh.

“Nothing like a good piss to clear the mind, eh, boys? Garrison Keillor even wrote a poem about it. Good man, Keillor.” He zipped up with far too much showy motion, and turned to find the other two staring at him with open mouths, water slowly dripping from their faces.

“What?” he demanded. He glanced down to look for unsightly splashes or a shirt tail hanging out. Finding nothing, he glowered back at the other two, and finally saw the two faces he was looking at. His own face went white. “Oh my God.”

The door swung again, and the three turned.

“Come on, I’m sure no one is in here!” They heard giggling feminine protests. An obviously drunk Evan Johnson backed into the restroom, grinning fecklessly while trying to hold onto the flailing arms of the woman they couldn’t see.

“Oh, Evan, come on. We’ll get a room. Go do your business.” She finally broke free, and the drunken Evan blew her a kiss and stumbled back against the wall, smiling blissfully. He slowly turned to find three copies of himself staring at him. The smile slid from his face and his eyes widened.

“Holy shit.”

The door swung again, and Evan Johnson stepped in.

“Ah, gentlemen, here you are!” This version was not drunk at all, nor did he seem surprised or confused by the other four faces. He was heavyset and sported a neat goatee, gone white.

“Relax, gentlemen. You aren’t crazy. This is all quite real, but it’s … let’s call it temporary. It isn’t part of the main sequence. Not yet.”

“Who the fuck are you, professor, and what are you talking about?” the thin, hard-bitten Evan snapped.

“How many of you contracted chicken pox in your second year of graduate studies?”

Thin Evan’s eyes narrowed. “How the fuck did you know about that?”

“In a moment. All of you?” Four heads nodded.

“How many of you went on to study closed timelike loops after you recovered?”

Four heads shook in bewilderment. The professor nodded and smiled with satisfaction. “Twenty-four years. As I expected.”

The portly Evan in the expensive suit stepped forward. “I want an explanation. Now.” His tone did not invite argument.

“Or I kick the shit out of you,” added thin Evan.

The disheveled Evan slowly slid down the wall and passed out.

Professor Johnson scowled at thin Evan. “We seem to have some time. Short version, then. We’re all from separate micro-universes extended randomly into the future from the real present, which lies approximately twenty-four years in our common past — right around the time we were all suffering from chicken pox. Each of us represents who Evan Johnson might become twenty-four years from that moment, depending on certain events and choices. When those choices are actually made, one of us will continue to exist, and the others will all vanish. Actually, all of us will vanish shortly, because our current existence is only temporary. A Johnson Resonance.”

Several of the Evans around him blinked. The professor blushed.

“The name doesn’t matter. We’re like tiny droplets of water kicked up by a speedboat moving through the water, flung into the future a little way in front of the boat before we evaporate.”

“Why are there only five of us?” asked Evan in the expensive suit.

Professor Johnson nodded. “Good question, and I don’t know the answer. My theory is that it’s how choices are actually made. I think of it as a playoff, and we’re the last five contestants standing, out of countless billions who started. One of us will be chosen as the Evan-to-be, and the speedboat will turn in that direction. The other four will become … might-have-beens.”

“So what the fuck am I doing here?” thin Evan burst out. “Why in God’s name would my life make it to the finals? My whole life is completely fucked up. I’d never choose this life!”

The professor looked at him sadly. “I said this is how choices are made. I didn’t say we did the choosing.”

The door swung again, and a five-year old boy walked in. Evan saw the dark hair, the bright blue eyes, the strong jaw, and immediately thought of Brenda Schmidt. The boy looked at the five adults in the room, confused.

His eyes lit on thin Evan, and grew wide. Thin Evan growled at the boy. The child’s lip started to tremble, all his attention focused on the Evan who had killed Brenda. Brenda’s sister’s grandkid. Brenda’s sister — the one who had survived in all five futures. Evan felt his head go light, and the room grew dim.

The boy’s name. What is his name? Brenda told you. Robert? Rick? Ricky.

“Ricky,” Evan called softly.

The boy’s eyes turned to Evan, and he suddenly ran to him and threw his arms around his leg. The light returned. Evan’s head pounded from the scotch. He was alone in the restroom with the little boy.

Evan heard a timid knock on the door, and it pushed open a crack. Brenda Schmidt looked in, embarrassed.

“Ricky?” she called. “Are you in there? Oh, I’m so sorry. Is there a little boy…? There you are, Ricky. Your mother told you not to run away from me like that.”

“He’s fine.”

“I thought I heard voices in here.”

“Just might-have-beens.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Nothing, Brenda. It’s been a strange night. I had too much to drink, and I was talking to myself.”

“They say talking to yourself is a sign you’re going crazy.”

“Nah. Only if you argue with yourself. And lose.”

Brenda giggled.

“Listen, Brenda, I’m pretty hungry, and Ricky doesn’t look like he’s going to let go of me any time soon. Would you like to get something to eat?”

Brenda smiled. “I’m starving. The restaurant is closed, but I think the bar serves sandwiches and fries until two.”

“You want some fries, Ricky?” The boy nodded fiercely. “Okay, then let go of my leg, and we’ll get some fries.”


 

Evan slowly opened his eyes in the darkened room. Sweat soaked the mattress, and the stink of illness sang in his nostrils. His mind seemed clear, however, and he realized he felt pretty good.

Fever finally broke.

He slowly levered himself out of bed and made his way through the cramped apartment to the refrigerator.

I actually feel hungry. Maybe a glass of milk.

The milk was fresh, left by his landlady who lived right across the hall. He poured a small glass and sat at the tiny table. As he sipped it, he found himself doodling abstract designs on a scrap of paper. Odd designs, geometric shapes that might be resonance modes in an outer electron shell, but weren’t. He shook his head.

Too much like problem sets in quantum. I need something a little less challenging.

His eye fell on the Rubik’s Cube puzzle that a friend had given him for Christmas. It would be a good way to pass the time while he recovered. He crumpled the scrap of paper and pitched it into the trash. He finished his milk, and took the cube back to his bed. 

Plenty of time for coursework later. Plenty of time.

Copyright © 2019, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

Disbelief

The gray jays and squirrels should have tipped me off sooner. I’ve never figured out how critters with a brain the size of a peanut could tell when guests were coming. But they can, and if you pay attention, they’ll tell you.

I’d had plenty of time to learn their lingo. I pretty much lived in the high country any more, and wandered from campsite to campsite. Not the regular Forest Service sites — they’re expensive, and packed with people all the time. But there’s lots of remote areas around the country where no one ever goes, except maybe during hunting season, and I’d been to most of them on my annual circuit. I’d just found this one, and it was big, open, and best of all, completely deserted.

I sat in my camp chair and enjoyed the afternoon thunderstorms as they rolled in, snug under the awning of my pop-up camper. I always love the smell of rain in the pines. The wind picked up, and I heard the patter of raindrops as the front rushed over me. That’s when I noticed all the squirrels and camp robbers. There were lots of them around.

Too many.

I’ve only seen two things that will fill up a deserted site like that. One is a natural disaster, like a fire. But then, you know, they’re all sort of passing through in a big hurry. These critters were settling in. That could only mean one thing: dinner’s on the way. With jays and squirrels, that meant people coming. Lots of them.

I cursed and dashed out into the pouring rain to break camp. I had just rounded the back of my camper, crank handle in hand, when a Dryad stepped out of her tree and planted a big kiss on my lips.

Never been kissed by a Dryad? Think back to that year your hormones took over and girls suddenly went from creepy to enthralling. Think of that special girl you had in your sights — you know, the nice one who treated you halfway like a human being and maybe even liked you a little bit: the girl you desperately wanted to ask to the Saturday matinee. You’d buy the popcorn, and your fingers would touch when you reached into the bucket, and then your eyes would meet shyly under the flickering light of the big screen, and she’d give you a Mona Lisa smile and close her eyes, her lips just ever-so-slightly puckered, waiting; you’d lean toward her, feel her soft breath on your lips. 

Remember that kiss? No, no, not the real one — that one turned into a crawling-away-on-your-knees disaster, which first kisses have a way of doing. No, I’m talking about that perfect kiss you imagined over and over as you lay in bed under a thin sheet on hot summer nights while the crickets sang love songs to each other. That kiss.

Well, a Dryad’s kiss is a lot like that. Only better.

Of course, then you get sucked into her tree, never to be seen again in the mortal world. 

So I growled and bit her tongue, hard, and she jerked away immediately with a squawk.

“Wah wath thah foah?” she shrieked as I spat out the taste of pine tar and turpentine.

“No offense lady, but I really don’t have the time for this.”

She stomped back into her tree, which shook and dumped several dozen pine cones on me. The tree was tall — they stung when they hit. Dryads can get a bit touchy when you turn them down.

I had the camper top cranked down and was working on the hitch when the first RV pulled into sight. The rain fell in buckets, so all I saw were the headlamps and a shadowy square bulk behind it, like the glowing eyes of the fabled Questing Beast struggling to drag itself out of a giant cracker box. Another pair of glowing eyes appeared behind it, and another behind that. A whole bloody goddamned caravan.

My feet went icy cold, and the hitch pulled free from my hands. I looked down. Water covered my feet: a miniature torrent raced at a strange angle across the hillside, through my campsite and under my truck, which slipped sideways as soil and gravel washed out from under the tires. I heard a grinding thunk as the rear axle high-centered on a big rock that had been buried deep beneath soil a moment ago.

Crap.

I glared at the river, which had been diverted by a swarm — or do they call it a nuisance? — of Naiads, who grinned maliciously over their shoulders with their pointed little teeth bared, and waggled their shapely naked little tushes at me. Mischief done, they let the water return to its normal course.

I glanced back at the Dryad’s tree; she stood with her fists on her hips and a satisfied smirk on her pretty face. She stuck out her tongue at me. I noticed she’d sprouted two tiny branches on either side of her tongue where I’d bitten her. I stuck out my own tongue and with my fingers pantomimed two branches sticking out of it. 

She glared and shrieked and ran back into her tree. Two more pine cones fell on my camper.

I didn’t need to see the pentacle decals on the RVs, or the bumper-stickers that read, “My other car is a broom,” to know that a passel of nature-worshipping Pagans had invaded my campsite.

You see, this is the reason I avoid other people. Somehow, other people’s beliefs take on solid form around me. The sudden appearance of Dryads and Naiads told me everything I needed to know about my new human neighbors.

Don’t ask me how or why this happens. I have no idea. Back in the days before it got so bad it drove me out on my hermit’s pilgrimage, most people said it was just my imagination. They twirled their fingers and rolled their eyes when they thought I wasn’t looking.

Then one day these nice young Mormons came to my door, and right in the middle of our conversation the Angel of Death materialized on my doorstep — complete with wings, scythe, and gauzy black robe that fluttered in an invisible breeze. One of the Mormons fainted dead away, the other went white and peed his pants. Turned out the angel wasn’t there for any of us, he’d just lost his way and wanted directions. It made sense, in a way: streets were pretty tangled in that neighborhood, and we always had lost pizza delivery guys asking directions. I’d have thought a divine archetype like Death would at least have access to a good map, though. Maybe it’s some fine point of Mormon theology. At least their Angels stop to ask for directions — don’t get me started on the Catholic Angels.

At any rate, that incident put an end to the idea it was my imagination.

Things only got worse after that. I had UFO’s ruining my lawn and smashing the begonias, aliens with disgusting ideas of “fun” camped out in my bathroom, Communists under the bed who smoked those hideous little European cigars and demanded espresso during the day and vodka at night, black helicopters that buzzed my house at six in the morning — “stealth” my ass, they’re as noisy as a blender full of marbles — and I don’t even want to talk about what lived in the basement. Or what it cost to feed it. Fortunately, it liked dog food.

One day I got tired of it all and jumped in my car and drove away. As I got away from people, the UFOs veered off, the black helicopters took off after them, and the gremlins who had stowed away in my trunk pounded on the lid until I let them out. I had a completely normal weekend for the first time in years. Not long after that, I bought my little pop-up camper and became a solitary nomad.

Now I was suddenly and completely surrounded by Pagans, and Dryads were coming out of the woods. Literally.

The lead RV stopped, and the door swung open. The driver was a bear of a man, completely bald with an untidy blonde-gray beard that poured out over his enormous belly and covered most of the tie-died wife-beater he wore. He stayed inside the cab and out of the rain.

“Merry meet!” he bellowed over the roar of rain that pounded on his RV.

I growled back something, as I contemplated what irresistible force might get my immovable truck to move again.

His eyes grew wide when he saw my truck. “Bummer!” he exclaimed. “When this rain stops, we’ll help you get that thing unstuck.”

I sighed and resigned myself to fate. I was drenched, cold, and wasn’t going anywhere right now. I unfolded my camper and went inside to change out of my wet clothing.

The rain let up just after sunset, and the air warmed suddenly as it sometimes does after a rainfall in the high mountains. By the time the first stars showed, the weather was almost balmy. The campfires leapt high, and the drums started.

Pagans are fun to be around, I suppose, at least for ordinary people. They live at the wilder edge of urban society, and you can easily score some free booze or some ‘shrooms or even a hot night in the sack if you’re polite. But they have the weirdest beliefs. I hated running into Pagans in the woods.

As the drums got going, the whole place grew thick with fairies — so thick that some of them were forced into the updrafts from the fires and took off like bottle rockets with little fairy shrieks as their hair caught fire. They came back down bald and smoking and mad as hell, and tiny fistfights broke out.

Gods and goddesses wandered around — generally identifiable since they were nine feet tall and glowed in the dark — and they blessed people as they tried to pick up free booze, ‘shrooms, and women or men (or occasionally both); one of them handed out four-color brochures for time-share condo opportunities on the astral planes.

Strange shapes lurched in the dark forest around us, like this dude about eight feet tall with antlers, or the short pudgy guy who walked bent-over as he played an enormous flute about the size of a didgeridoo. Then I got a better look at the short guy, and I realized it wasn’t a flute at all…. Well! Maybe he’d keep my Dryad busy tonight. All in all, it seemed pretty innocuous, and since I was stuck here, I cadged some booze and relaxed into the spirit of the thing.

After a while, I wandered over to the biffy to relieve myself. It was an old outhouse that went back — according to the carving on the wooden seat that I’d seen earlier today — to the Works Project Administration under Franklin Roosevelt. It certainly smelled that old. I opened the door, and immediately slammed it shut again, my heart racing. Very carefully, I opened it a crack, and shone my flashlight in, pointed up to reflect off the ceiling. It had not been my imagination.

Seated on the WPA seat was the biggest damned fly I’d ever seen. No, that isn’t right. That conjures an image of a really big fly, maybe an inch or two across. This one sat upright on the seat, and it brushed the ceiling. Its wings were all scrunched against the walls, but it managed a loud buzz nonetheless. I slammed the door again and looked around frantically for a big rock to wedge it shut.

As I listened to the aircraft drone inside the biffy, I could make out words. I listened harder. “Commmmmm innnnnn, zzzhooommmmannnnn,” it buzzed. “Worzzzzzhip mmmmmeeee.” 

“Who the Hell are you?” I asked as I pounded a rock into place with my foot. Not the best way to phrase things around a bunch of Pagan deities, I suppose, but my heart still raced. I wasn’t in the mood for polite.

“Beellzzzzhebuuub, looorrrd uvvv zheee fliiezzh,” it buzzed. Beelzebub? Wait a minute, wasn’t he some kind of Demon Lord from Hell? What kind of Pagans…?

Oh, crap and double-crap.

Sure enough, more RV’s crawled up the road. I’d bet good money these would be emblazoned with crosses and Bible verse bumper stickers. I was not disappointed. The only thing I hate to encounter in the woods more than Pagans is Born-Again Christians. 

The Christians pulled into the next clearing over, and soon had their awnings up and campfires burning. In short order, they had four Guardian Angels who faced outward at the corners of their site — mean-looking bastards with enormous wings and big hands that rested on the hilts of the nasty Roman-style short swords that hung from their belts — and a soft golden glow rose up from the center of their camp as the Christians started to sing hymns. Several of them cast scowls at the Pagan group, no doubt irritated by the drums and the theology over here.

The drums petered out, then started again in a slower rhythm. I could see that the whole Pagan group had formed a circle, surrounded by a glow of mystical blue light like a gas ring on a propane stove. The Pagan drums picked up speed, and the Christian hymns picked up volume.

I heard a howl from the forest followed by a string of some of the vilest language I’ve ever heard. It was hard to see in the firelight, but I thought I saw the short guy with the … ahem, didgeridoo up in the low branches of one of the big pines, screaming at something dark and sinuous and very large on the ground. He threw pine cones at it. A Dryad popped out of the tree to scold him, saw his target, and ran straight back into the tree with a squeak.

A blood-curdling shriek rose from the center of the Pagan circle and the dark form of a banshee drifted through the blue flames into the woods where it put up an absolutely awful racket. The hymns faltered, and most of the Christians fell to their knees to pray.

I decided then and there to make for the top of my camper, despite the little sticker that cited a maximum load of seventy-five pounds. It held my weight just fine.

I saw a light appear in the sky, and wondered if someone in this crowd had brought the black helicopters or UFOs into the mix, but it turned out to be an Archangel: Gabriel, I think, the one with the horn. He cut loose with a doomsday riff — damn, he was good — and three or four of the Christians vanished simultaneously with a muffled pop, leaving their clothing behind.

A cheer went up from the Pagans, and they began to chant, “RAP-ture, RAP-ture, TAKE ‘em ALL, TAKE ‘em ALL…” in time to their drums. No more Christians vanished, but I could see that those left behind were sorely vexed. They stood and belted out “Onward, Christian Soldiers” at the top of their lungs, so fiercely that even their Guardian Angels glanced nervously at each other.

They’d picked a martial tempo for their song that happened to match the beat of the Pagan drums, and next thing I knew, the banshee had drifted into the Christian camp and joined the singing with a fairly tuneful descant, despite the fact that a banshee sounds mostly like someone torturing a rusty hinge. The guy with the big flute settled back on his branch and picked up the melody. Gabriel flew down into the tree and jammed with the flute guy: the two of them together were hot. The four Guardian Angels abandoned their posts and started a Morris Dance with their swords, and the Eden Serpent — maybe it was the Midgard Serpent, I can’t really tell the difference — rose up like a cobra and swayed in time to the beat. The big guy with the antlers minced a minuet in the moonlight — now, that was bizarre. The fairies spread out and swarmed and swooped and swerved like glowing whirlwinds.

Way cool.

I’d forgotten entirely about Beelzebub. The fly in the ointment, so to speak.

The outhouse exploded in a flash of dull red fire and the most awful stink — truly a Smell from Hell — and dozens, hundreds, thousands of dark shapes crawled out over the WPA seat and swarmed the surprised Guardian Angels, taking them down before they could untangle their swords. Gabriel blew a raucous blue note and leaped from the branch to assist his angelic brothers: his baldric caught, and he ended up swinging upside-down over the Serpent, who seemed hypnotized by the motion. I wondered what would happen when he stopped swinging. The Lord of the Flies Himself stalked toward the Christians on his skinny hind legs, buzzing ominously, and the swarming black shapes swirled around both groups and pressed hard against the golden and the blue light. The Christians screamed. The Pagans screamed. I think I screamed.

And then Beelzebub’s eye popped off.

It hit the ground and rolled a bit and then wobbled around like a metal colander. It was a metal colander: you could see the little handles on the rim. The other eye popped off, and a scared human face looked out through the enormous eye-holes, white against the dark fabric of the costume. Beelzebub turned tail and ran. One wire-and-gauze wing fell off.

The rising moon cleared the shoulder of the great peak to the east, and the swarm of black-footed ferrets that circled both camps, now clearly visible in the moonlight, scampered off into the woods as the whirlwinds of iridescent dragonflies dispersed. The eight-foot guy tripped over his platform shoes with a muffled curse and left his antlers caught in the branches of a tree, chin-strings dangling. I heard the didgeridoo deflate with a flabby sound, Gabriel’s baldric ripped and he landed on his horn with a sound like a beer can being crushed, and the giant Eden Serpent ripped in two and disgorged a bunch of Chinese guys with sparklers, who ran screaming incoherently into the woods. 

What on earth?

Another vehicle crunched its way up the gravel road. It stopped in the center of the camp area, and a slender, athletic, very pretty young woman stepped out. She glared at the shocked Christians, who stood in the dirty yellow glow of their Coleman lantern. She glared at the stunned Pagans inside the ring of blue glow-sticks scattered on the ground around them. She scowled at the smoldering remains of the outhouse with its wooden seat that dated from the Roosevelt administration. She sniffed, and her nose wrinkled. She tapped her foot.

“That’s it!” she shouted. “Everyone out. Site’s closed. Douse your fires, pack up and move out. NOW!” Her Park Ranger badge flashed in the moonlight. Both groups moved slowly, like rusty wind-up toys, but they doused the fires and took down their tents and awnings and started back down the mountain road.

“That means you, too, Mister!” She glared up at me where I sat on top of my pop-up camper. I gestured to my truck, which remained high-centered on a rock. She frowned.

“How on earth did you manage that?” she asked as she examined the truck.

I stared at her, enthralled. “If I told you it all started when I turned down a kiss from a tree spirit, you wouldn’t believe me, would you?”

She made a rude sound. “No,” she said.

“What do you believe?” I asked.

“Damned little,” she replied, and looked me straight in the eye with her level gray gaze. I’ve always loved gray eyes. 

“So you’re a skeptic.”

She grinned. “My mama once told me I wouldn’t even suckle ‘till I checked out both nipples to make sure I wasn’t getting cheated. Yeah, I’m a skeptic.”

A skeptic with enough Disbelief to completely mute two camps of warring True Believers. How interesting. How … wonderful.

“Look,” she continued, “you’re going nowhere in your truck tonight, but you can’t stay here — health hazard.” She gestured toward the smoking outhouse. “There’s a couch at the ranger station. We’ll come back in the morning and get you out of that hole.”

A nice girl who treats me like a human being. My heart raced.

“Do you believe in love at first sight?” I blurted out. She stared at me in silence for a long time.

“It’s probably the only thing I do believe in,” she answered with a Mona Lisa smile.

Around me, other people’s beliefs become real.

“Then I think,” I said, carefully, my heart in my throat, “that you and I were made for each other.”

And by the way, I was wrong. A Dryad’s kiss is not one bit better than the real thing.

Copyright © 2019, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

The Last Wizard

I gently touched the aged face on the hand-painted Tarot card. Tears welled in my eyes.

“Where did you get this?” I asked. My fingers traced the flowing lines of the white beard beneath the smiling eyes on the card.

When no answer came, I glanced up from the painting. My daughter — Sasha, the feisty one, always in trouble — stared back at me, defiant and embarrassed at the same moment. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen that look on her face.

She dropped her gaze. “I found it in your big old trunk in the attic,” she said.

“The one I told you never to open?” I asked, mildly.

She put her finger next to mine on the painting to evade the question. “Momma, was this Grampa?”

“Yes, this is a painting of Grandpa.”

“Was he really a wizard?”

I glanced again at the painting. The artist had painted him in his dark blue robes with the pointy hat perched atop his head.

I smiled. “Yes, Sasha, he was a real wizard.”

Her eyes shone. “He could do real magic?”

“Yes, he could do real magic.”

“I want to do real magic, too!”

A painful twist of sorrow went through my heart. “No, Sasha, you can’t. There are no more wizards. Grandpa was the last.”

Her face fell. “How come? What happened to all the other wizards?”

I studied Sasha’s nine-year-old figure, all angles and elbows and big front teeth. Grandpa had once told me that apprentices were always chosen at the age of nine. Young enough to learn the Art, he said, old enough to begin to learn the difference between right and wrong. Sasha was old enough to hear the truth.

“Grandpa,” I told her, “killed them all.”


I heard Grandpa’s deep voice at the front door. I dropped all the silverware in a pile on the table and ran to give him a hug. He always came on Sunday afternoon for dinner, but today was special — it was my birthday! I rounded the corner, then skidded to a stop. Instead of the old-fashioned gray suit with the dark red vest he always wore on Sunday, he was dressed in a dark blue robe and a pointy blue hat, both covered with moons and stars and strange markings. He looked just like a storybook wizard, but it didn’t look silly on him. 

His eyes lit up when he saw me. “Eleanor, my dear child! Where is my hug and kiss?”

I ran to him and hugged him hard. “Are you really a wizard, Grandpa?” I asked.

“That is precisely right, young lady.” He had a deep voice, and a funny accent that Mama said came from the Old Country. “A fierce old wizard of the olden days, I am. Ogres and dragons beware! But lovely young maidens have nothing to fear!”

He waved his arms, and fresh flowers appeared in his hand out of nowhere. I giggled. Grandpa always had the best magic tricks for me. 

“Why the robes, Grandpapa?” asked Mama. She smiled at him, but a worry-line creased her forehead.

“It’s her ninth birthday, Claire,” he said, his bushy white eyebrows rising. “Have you forgotten?”

Mama blushed, then got pale. “Oh, Grandpapa. She’s just a little girl. Is it … really necessary?” Grandpa scowled at her without answering. Mama lowered her eyes. “I’ll get it for you, then,” she said, and left the room quickly.

I had never seen Grandpa angry with Mama. It gave me a nasty hollow feeling in my stomach. He stared after her, and I stood perfectly still, afraid to move.

Mama came back carrying a small wooden box. She handed it to Grandpa. I saw tears in her eyes. She wouldn’t look at him or at me. As soon as he took the box, she turned and hurried out of the room.

Grandpa kept staring at the empty doorway, but now he looked terribly sad. Claire, his lips formed my mother’s name. His shoulders slumped. 

Then he sighed, made a strange gesture with his hand, and turned to me. He smiled, the same gentle smile he’d given me all my life, but for the first time I was afraid of him.

“Eleanor, this is your ninth birthday. Nine is a sacred number for wizards. In olden days, a wizard would choose his apprentice from children your age. We don’t do things that way any more, but I do have a magical gift for you. I gave it to your mother when she turned nine, and now, I am passing it on to you. Will you accept it?”

Even though I was scared, I was curious. Papa said that Grandpa’s magic tricks were Pure Hokum, all done with mirrors and hidden wires. Grandpa laughed when he said that, like the two of them shared a grown-up joke, but Papa never laughed back. Now Grandpa wanted to give me a Magic Box! I could feel the magic in the room, like static electricity. I wanted to reach out and touch the box. But I remembered Mama’s tears.

“What is it?” I asked, cautiously.

Grandpa’s eyes grew serious. “In this box lies the salvation of the world,” he answered.

I blinked. Grandpa loved to play little jokes on me all the time, but this didn’t feel like a joke. 

“I don’t understand,” I said in a small voice.

“I know that, little Eleanor,” he said, gently. “It will be years yet before you really understand. But here is what it means: someday, you may be called upon to save the world. I will teach you how — your own heart will tell you when. I trusted your mother with this, and now I trust you.”

“Is … is it dangerous?” 

Grandpa looked at the box, and for just a moment, I thought he looked scared. Then his eyes found mine, and he smiled again. “To you — no, it is not dangerous. Not in the least. It is only dangerous to someone who would try to destroy the world.”

Curiosity won. I reached out and took the box. As I touched it, all the magic drained out of the room. I wondered if I’d just imagined it. The box was plain and roughly-made, with brass hinges and a brass latch on the front. The only decoration was a strange mark carved on the top, a circle with three dots and three slashes like sun rays inside it.

“May I open it?” I asked. “Please?”

“Of course, dear Eleanor,” he answered, his eyes twinkling once more. “It is your birthday present, after all.”

I flipped the latch and opened the box.

“It’s empty!” I complained.

He scowled and peeked over the top. “Tarnation!” he grumbled. “Close it and try again.”

I closed it, and when I opened it again, a beautiful necklace lay on a piece of crumpled black velvet inside. I looked up at Grandpa, who gave me a knowing wink. I threw my arms around his neck and buried my face in his bushy white beard.


Grandpa and I sprawled on a checkered blanket in a little clearing in the woods behind his house. I had just turned twelve, and I was proud of making the whole picnic lunch by myself. Grandpa had brought a small bottle of his mead. He let me taste it, once, after making me promise I wouldn’t tell my parents. I liked it — it was sweet. He said it was made from honey. 

I loved our summer picnics, especially when Grandpa brought his little bottle of mead, because he’d tell stories. Grand stories, usually, about the olden days of wizards and kings and dragons. This time he’d told me a story about one of his wizard-friends in the Old Country. 

“Do you ever get to see your old friends?” I asked.

Grandpa’s face grew sad. “No,” he said, “they’re gone. All gone.”

“What happened to them all?” I asked, surprised.

Grandpa studied me.

“I killed them,” he said, as calmly as if he had said he had eggs for breakfast.

“Why?” I blurted out, shocked. I wondered if he was playing one of his jokes on me.

Grandpa smiled, but he still looked sad. “How old do you think I am?” he asked instead of answering my question. 

Grown-ups are funny about getting old. I remember when Mama made a big fuss about turning thirty. “Maybe… sixty?” I said, but I knew he was older. Grandpa shook his head, and pointed up with his thumb.

“Seventy?” I said. Grandpa kept his thumb up. He stopped me at a hundred.

“Eleanor, my dear child, I will truly die of old age before you guess the number at this rate. I am nine hundred and fifty-three years old.”

After a while, I remembered to close my mouth. 

“Wizards live a very, very, very long time,” he continued. “No one really knows how long a wizard could live, left to himself. Maybe forever. But like everything else on Earth, we get old, and with age comes … infirmity. Do you know that word?”

“It means like Grandmama, when she was in the wheelchair before she died. They said she was infirm.”

“Yes, exactly. But with wizards, it plays out a little differently. It would be easiest if I showed you. May I show you?”

I nodded. Grandpa breathed on his thumbnail, and then polished it against his vest. “Look at your reflection,” he said, and held out his thumb. His thumbnail was polished to a brilliant shine, so shiny that I really could see my reflection in it. Then my reflection vanished, as well as Grandpa’s thumb and everything else. I was in a different place.

The ground shook. Waves of heat rippled along the stone walls like the inside of a forge. Only wizards still breathed within the fortress. The servants, the guards, the musicians were no more than pale ash.

“Can we do nothing against him?” the youngest asked.

“He was strongest among us,” one of the elders answered.

“But if we combined our powers…?”

Another elder scowled. “You know better than that! Our powers do not combine that way. It would take years to forge a useful weapon from our combined powers. Without a weapon, since no one of us can overpower him, all of us together cannot. He has evaded all of our traps — even in his madness, he is cunning. He has killed his own apprentice and half our number. He will destroy every last one of us, and then his madness will turn upon the mortal world. He will blast armies, burn the fields, boil away the very oceans if he can.”

The youngest scowled back. “I will not die like a rat in a hole. I will face him.”

“You will die.”

“That will happen, anyway.”

He turned, his blue robes swirling, and strode to the heavy iron door, which glowed almost white with heat. A swift incantation passed him through the portal. The walls began to shudder in the violence that suddenly erupted outside.

I felt a moment of dizziness, and then I was somewhere else.

Wizards sat around the outer curve of the annular table that inscribed the high-ceilinged room. Pale light streamed from a miniature sun that floated high above the center of the space. Half the seats around the table were empty. Faces were grim. The eldest stood.

“Are we agreed, then?”

A murmur of assent swept the room.

“This must be unanimous. If any of you feels this is the wrong course, speak now.”

No one stirred.

“Then let it be so. The line of wizards is ended. There will be no more apprentices. Our youngest, who has proven himself our mightiest, will carry the burden for us all.”

The young wizard in the blue robes stood and bowed to the assembly.

“But who will carry the burden for him?” asked one of the wizards.

Grandpa’s thumb slowly came back into focus in front of me. I studied his lined face, and recognized the young wizard in blue.

“You see what happens when a wizard becomes infirm of mind,” Grandpa said.

I struggled to understand the terrible vision. “He went crazy. He started to destroy everything. But you fought him and killed him. So when you said you killed all the other wizards….”

He nodded. “It was my sacred duty. They were my friends, my brothers, my kind. One by one, they aged and lost their minds, and it was my burden to end their suffering. Now, I am the last of the wizards, and I am also growing old.”

I suddenly understood what he was saying. “NO!” I cried, clutching his hand. “No, no, no!”


Sasha sat on the floor in her cross-legged story-pose and listened raptly as I told her of the unbreakable cycle of wizard and apprentice. A wizard could die only by another’s magic. Each wizard knew he would eventually become a threat to the world, so he chose and trained an apprentice whose duty was to watch for signs of madness and end his master’s life before the madness took hold. The apprentice then took the master’s place and trained another apprentice to watch for his own eventual madness. So it had been from the misty beginnings of humankind, when the first wizards appeared.

With Grandpa, they had chosen to end the cycle forever. They had given him the responsibility to end each of their lives as madness overtook them. One by one, he had done so. Finally, he was the last of the wizards.

I could see Sasha ponder the obvious question. With a nine-year-old’s candor, she asked. 

“So who killed Grampa?”


I was changing Sasha’s diaper when the phone rang. I answered, juggling diapers and safety pins. Grandpa was on the other end, panic in his voice.

“Claire!” he cried, calling me by my dead mother’s name. “Help me! I’m lost! I’m lost in my own house!”

I left Sasha with our neighbor and drove straight over. By the time I arrived, he had recovered from his fright.

“Come on, Grandpa, let’s go for a walk,” I said. “It will do you good.”

“Yes,” he replied. “Yes, Eleanor, that would be wonderful. I’ve been cooped up in this house too long.”

We visited all our favorite places: the little picnic clearing behind his house; the bare hill where he had taught me the names of all the constellations; the Dairy Queen on the far side of the woods, where we had shared sundaes and root beer floats on hot Saturday afternoons.

As we walked, we laughed. We bought ice cream, and wandered the streets of the small town. We stopped at the tiny church where Grandpa had given me away in marriage, and spent a quiet moment at my parents’ graves. He told me briefly, for the first time, of the three women he had truly loved in all his centuries of life; he spoke of them with such longing in his voice that I wept.

At last the sun began to set, and we turned to go home. As we passed the old Johnson house, Grandpa suddenly stopped. The house had been an eyesore when I was a child, when Mr. Johnson had lived in it. Abandoned years ago when Mr. Johnson died, it had sat on the market, year after year, slowly falling into ruin. Grandpa glared at the house, muttering to himself.

“You were a cheap, small-souled man, Elmer Johnson, and your house shows it. An eyesore like that should not be allowed to stand.” He made a small gesture with his hand. I watched in shock as the entire house fell in on itself and vanished into the ground. Not even a mound of earth showed where it had been buried. Shock turned to horror as I noticed the realtor’s car parked in the driveway.

“Grandpa….” I pointed to the car, unable to continue.

Grandpa’s gaze followed my pointing finger, and his face went almost as white as his beard. He held out his hand, and I saw the earth ripple, then settle again. Grandpa’s face turned sickly gray. He clutched his hand into a fist and shouted a strange word; a few broken floorboards and splinters of siding churned up from the ground, and threw clods of earth all the way to the sidewalk where we stood.  I felt the hairs on my arms stir. A wild anger shone in Grandpa’s face, and I thought I heard the sound of a thousand bees swarming around my head.

“I command the elements,” he growled, “and you shall bend to my will.”

“Grandpa!” I shouted. He glanced at me, saw my face, recognized me.

“Eleanor?” he said. His anger collapsed into confusion. The sound of bees vanished. “Where am I?”

I heard a door open. My knees grew weak as the realtor and her client emerged from the detached garage at the rear of the property. They stopped and gaped at the roiled earth where the house had stood only a moment before. I took Grandpa’s arm firmly and walked him away from the newly-vacant lot and unanswerable questions, my heart pounding.

When we reached Grandpa’s house, he was as calm as if the incident had never happened.

“Claire, will you come see me again tomorrow?” he asked, his face open and hopeful.

“Grandpa, I’m Eleanor.”

“Eleanor? Who is Eleanor?”

“Grandpa, I’m Eleanor, Claire’s daughter.”

A sly expression crossed Grandpa’s face. “Ah, Claire, now you’re having fun with me. You’re not old enough to have a daughter.”

I stared at him silently in the deepening twilight. Uncertainty fluttered across his face.

“Where are we?” he asked, a quaver in his strong voice. “Where are you taking me, Claire?”

“Home, Grandpa,” I answered, my voice husky. “I’ll stay with you tonight.” 

“Will you take care of me?” he asked. He searched my eyes, pleading.

“Yes, Grandpa. I’ll take care of you.” His eyes brimmed with tears, and he smiled. His face was that of a child, full of trust. We went inside.

I sat in a chair at his bedside and watched him all night as he slept fitfully. It was a warm summer night, but I felt cold. I could not erase from my mind’s eye the image of jagged timbers protruding from violated earth. Grandpa fell into a deeper sleep just before dawn, and I slipped out. I returned as the eastern sky began to glow rose-pink.

As the pale morning sun lit the wall opposite the lace curtains in his bedroom, Grandpa woke with a start.

“Who’s there?” he shouted. “Claire, is that you?”

“I’m right here, Grandpa.”

He stared at me in alarm. “Who are you? I don’t know you!”

“I know, Grandpa,” I said. “You’ve forgotten. But I have a present for you, one that you wanted me to give you. You told me I’d know when the time was right.”

His old eyes lit up. “A present? Is it my birthday?”

I could not speak around the lump in my throat. I handed the present to him wordlessly, the rough wooden box with the symbol carved on the top. His brow knotted as if he were trying to remember something. Then he shook his head in annoyance and opened the box.

“It’s empty!” he complained. 

“Look again, Grandpa,” I said in a broken voice. As he looked into the empty box, I drew a deep breath and spoke the word of release, the meaningless syllables he had made me practice again and again until my pronunciation was perfect. 

Who will carry the burden for him? the wizard in the council chamber had asked. I knew the answer, as had my mother, and her mother, and her grandmother before her. We had all carried it: the granddaughters — generation upon generation of us, each bound magically on our ninth birthday to the wooden box, each adding to its deadly spell the power of our love for the man we called Grandfather. I could hear in my mind the whispers of all my forebears as our love was forged by the spell into a cruelly sharp weapon that slipped past Grandpa’s every defense and pierced his soul.

Grandpa trembled. He looked up in surprise and our eyes locked. I saw clarity and sudden understanding in his gaze.

“I love you, Grandpa,” I whispered. 

A tender smile flickered on his lips. Then the life drained from his eyes, and he was gone. The last wizard. My beloved grandfather.


“Who killed Grampa, Momma?”

My cheeks were wet. Sasha had crossed her arms and now stared at me impatiently, demanding that I finish the story. She’s just a little girl. I heard my mother’s voice in my mind, saw her tears. For the first time, I understood what Mama had felt at that moment, passing the burden to her own daughter. 

The wizards were gone; the granddaughters’ curse had ended as well. Sasha could keep her innocence a little longer.

“Later, Sasha. When you’re older,” was all I told her.

Copyright © 2019, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

The Framing Lie

Donald Trump addressed the nation last night to talk about his Wall, and he was “fact checked” by just about everyone. The New York Times fact-check article I saw cited only two overt falsehoods, but there was a list of a half-dozen or more other remarks quoted, and marked “needs context.”

These “needs context” statements are all examples of a “framing lie.”

I’ll give you a framing lie to illustrate how this is done.

Donald Trump was in the White House yesterday, not wearing pants. He did it again today. He’s gone absolutely nuts.

Fact-check this if you like. The bit about the pants is completely true. He had his pants down both days, because he was sitting on the Presidential Toilet, doing the thing Presidents do (presumably) in the Presidential Toilet.

The statement is nonetheless a lie, because I’ve created a misleading and invalid connection between a trivial truth, and a contentious opinion by putting them in the same context, or frame of reference. I’ve used the framing to imply (without actually saying) that Donald Trump is wandering around the Oval Office in his skivvies, which would in fact suggest that he’s losing his mind.

Note that I never actually said that he’s “wandering around” without his pants. I just set it up so that you assumed that’s what I meant. If challenged, I would then blame you. In fact, I may even insult you, and tell you that you are stupid and have a vile and dirty mind. So sad.

That’s how the framing lie works. It is a deception that uses truths to tell a lie.

So let’s take one of Trump’s statements that is, in fact, a whopper of a framing lie, noted merely as “needs context” by the New York Times.

My quick check of the number says it’s about right. Three hundred a week is roughly 15,000 heroin deaths a year, which roughly matches the CDC numbers for 2017. So my next question is: is that a big number? Or is it a small number? We have 300 million people in the country, and that means a lot of people die every day, for a lot of different reasons. Losing 300 students out of a class of 500 is a mind-numbing, catastrophic death toll. Losing 300 people out of 300 million — not so much. How does it compare to ALL deaths, from traffic accidents, school shootings, old age, and everything else? Turns out that the death rate in the US is about 50,000 a week. So roughly a half-percent of all deaths every week in the US are due to heroin overdoses.

Half of one percent.

It’s certainly larger than the number of people who drown in bathtubs. But it’s only half the death-toll by guns, and only half the death-toll by traffic accidents. It’s only two percent of the number of people who die of heart attacks. It really isn’t a very big number.

More relevant is the fact that from 1999 to 2010, heroin deaths hovered at around 50 deaths a week. From 2010 to 2016 it climbed to 300 deaths a week. Other opioids climbed steadily to 300 deaths per week by 2016, and fentanyl shot from 50 to 600 in just three years, from 2013 to 2016.

If I wanted to be snide, I could point out that heroin deaths kicked up the same year the US House flipped to Republican under Obama, and shot up further after the Senate also went Republican, and then went through the roof when Donald Trump started campaigning in 2015 and has continued to increase. Maybe there’s a message there?

But let’s not do that.

Heroin usage (and overdose) has been climbing sharply, but if there’s a real problem, it’s fentanyl, not heroin: death rates from fentanyl are currently twice that of heroin, and growing. That’s ignored by Mr. Trump, of course, because fentanyl is not coming in from south of the border: most of the fentanyl comes from China.

So the first framing lie is that the 300-deaths-per-week from heroin overdose is significant. It’s as if I were to shout at my wife for “wasting” $300 on a new work-dress, while ignoring the $5000 I spent on video games. It’s a deflection. It’s a framing lie that says, “Look over there!” while I pick your pocket.

But the lie gets deeper when we add the “90 percent floods across the southern border.” It may be true, as a fact, but there is a framing lie here, too. Very little of the heroin coming from Mexico would be stopped by the Wall, because the heroin is smuggled directly through Ports of Entry — legal entry-points, complete with guards, dogs, and electronic surveillance — concealed in hidden compartments in cars, false-bottomed luggage, or otherwise. It doesn’t even go through areas where Mr. Trump says we need this Wall. Sending drugs through the desert would be stupid, and the businesses shipping the heroin aren’t stupid. They smuggle it through Ports of Entry, and count on losing a percentage of it to border confiscation, just like a certain percentage of eggs can be counted on to break between the henhouse and the grocery store. It’s merely a business cost. If the drug lords were doing taxes, they would write-off confiscations on their taxes.

So where the heroin comes from is completely irrelevant. It is coming through Ports of Entry, which is where every last bit of foreign trade comes through. Grapes from Chile. Plastic clothes-hangers from China. Brie from France. Heroin from Mexico. Fentanyl from China. Building a Wall does not affect the heroin trade. At all.

Now we come to the biggest framing lie of all. Putting these two statements together invokes the following hidden assumption: if we restrict the flow of heroin into the country, it will fix the heroin problem.

This is the assumption beneath the entire Drug War, and the Drug War failed precisely because this assumption is not true. It is, in fact, completely wrong.

No one is going around shooting up people with heroin against their will. Heroin is taken voluntarily, by people who are numbing their own pain and despair. Yes, they get physically addicted, which means they suffer if they try to stop, and they need more heroin all the time to get the same effect: it’s one of the reasons they end up overdosing. But you cannot get people off painkillers or heroin or any other drug if you don’t figure out a different way to relieve their underlying pain or despair. If you restrict access to their drug of choice, they’ll find another drug. If you make the use painful, they’ll find another drug. If you make it too dangerous to obtain, they’ll find another drug.

Like fentanyl.

If you somehow succeeded in cutting them off from all relief for their pain and despair, they’ll simply kill themselves some other way.

So let’s sum up.

Heroin is not as big a problem as fentanyl: together, they aren’t as significant as death by guns and traffic accidents; building a wall won’t affect the heroin trade at all, and even if it did, it would not affect the problem of a portion of the population voluntarily drugging itself to death.

So let’s go back to the statement:

Every week 300 of our citizens are killed by heroin alone, 90 percent of which floods across our southern border.

What does this actually mean? Nothing at all. It’s two unrelated facts, like citing the number of miles of veins in the human body, and the number of calories in a can of Coca-Cola. Two numbers. You can fact check them. They may be accurate.

But the framing says, “This is a compelling reason to build my Wall.”

That is a bare-assed lie.

No, It Is Not Okay

I’ve been watching certain Progressive news channels where the anchors have a tendency to say, “Hey, look, it’s okay to be a conservative, it’s okay to have conservative political views.”

As we’ve watched the Republican government in Washington melt down in what amounts to a hostage situation, I keep thinking, “No, this is not okay. Not remotely. Not in any possible way.”

Here’s the thing: there are ideas that work, and ideas that do not work. Some of them — brand-new ideas — you have to try before you know they will fail, but others are just wrong from the start. Spending billions of dollars on a commercial bridge across the Grand Canyon made of pasta. Serving six-days-uncovered-at-room-temperature salmon mousse to your house guests. Starting a child-sitting service staffed by pedophiles.

No.

These things are not okay.

Republican political policy today is not okay. Supporting it is not okay.

If you’re reading this and happen to consider yourself Republican, I’ll say that I’m sorry it turned out this way. It wasn’t always a bad thing to be a Republican.

It is now.

So if you can let go of the label “Republican” for just a moment, and just call yourself “politically conservative,” take a good, hard look at the party you are supporting. A party where the President is himself facing lawsuits for corruption, has surrounded himself by criminals who have been convicted of crimes, including crimes that threatened national security, and has now taken federal employees and is holding their wages, their livelihoods hostage to force his political will against a legislative body that is not supporting his agenda: you might be interested to look up the definition of “terrorism” and try to split a few hairs. A party where one man, Mitch McConnell, blocks the Senate from hearing testimony, debating, or voting on issues critical to the nation, simply because the vote might not go the way he wants it to. A party that has entered a “post-truth” era of “alternative facts” — that is, a party given over completely to deceiving its own supporters with lies and propaganda.

Are you supporting this? It is not okay.

I’m not going to pretend that it is.

This kind of thing happens often in the course of time.

You are a loyal Catholic soldier in southern France, and then your commander tells you to enter the city of Beziers and kill the Albigensian heretics. You ask how you can tell the heretics from the True Catholics, and he replies, “Kill them all, and let God sort it out afterwards.”

You are a loyal German citizen, and your government tells you to report those illegal Jews, those criminals and rapists and eaters-of-babies. You report your Jewish neighbors, and then those neighbors vanish — and when the government falls, you find out what happened to the neighbors that you reported.

You are a Christian, and believe in the words of Jesus, and then learn that your church supports taking children from their parents over paperwork violations, and placing those children in chain-link “apartments” in a prison facility with guards, and you can’t help remembering there’s something, somewhere in the New Testament about children, and millstones, and the sea.

You are a lifelong Republican in a multigenerational family of Republicans, and consider yourself a decent, hardworking, intelligent person. Then you see the end of our Constitutional democracy being acted out in front of us all by the Republican Party.

You have a moral choice to make. I’m sorry you have to make it. But you do.

Continuing to support this Republican Party is not okay.

The Wall

People argue about The Wall between the US and Mexico like it has anything to do with the inane rhetoric about the Wall. Rapists and drug dealers. Border security. Immigration.

Knock it off, all of you. The Wall is not about the wall. It’s nothing more than dominance signaling among human primates.

Trump, the Terrible Infant, said he wants it, and Gramma Pelosi said, “No.” He’s shut down the government in a tantrum; he’s going to hold his breath until he dies. That will show Evil Old Gramma Pelosi.

Seriously, how can any adult watch this thing play out and not see that?

Debt Slavery

There’s an interesting thing about money.

Money isn’t wealth. It’s debt.

I think I’ve covered this before, but it bears mentioning again. I won’t go through the whole exercise of explaining how fractional reserve banking loans money into existence. But the simple form is this: every dollar bill is ultimately backed by the Federal Reserve, which has loaned money into existence in the form of Treasury Bonds, and that gets expanded by approximately a factor of ten by the fractional reserve banking system. Treasury Bonds have to be paid back to the buyers with interest, and that obligation is backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States.”

That dollar bill you hold in your hand is a piece of paper that obligates you to do some kind of work to make that dollar bill worth $1.03, because in the end, the Federal Reserve has to pay back its bondholders everything they paid for the bond, plus about three percent in interest. Everyone in the US has that obligation: “full faith and credit,” and all that.

The ironic thing is that the rich — the people who have the most money — actually hold the most debt. Because money is debt.

The fundamentally unjust thing is that the rich — who hold the most debt, in the form of money — can compel the rest of us to pay off that debt, so that they can accumulate more debt, in the form of more money. They do this by forcing us to work to increase the size of “the economy” — to spur “economic growth.”

Our peculiar form of currency-creation, combined with the capitalism that allows private individuals to accumulate and control this massive debt-obligation and pass the support of it off to others, was an interesting short-term exercise in exploiting the New World. Capitalism is older than fractional reserve banking — the former dates back to the 14th century (or earlier) in Europe, while reserve banking didn’t develop until the 17th century. They didn’t get the huge instabilities worked out of the banking system until the 20th century: arguably, they still haven’t.

But the process worked very well to get the trees cut down, and the gold mined, and the oil pumped, and the desert farms watered, and the railroads built, and the indigenous people exterminated. That’s pretty much what it was intended to do. It succeeded brilliantly.

The problem now is that banking and capitalism are one trick dogs, and they’ll keep doing that same trick, over and over, until they die of the effort.

We are rapidly approaching that point.

In looking at the state of the US and the world, it’s important to realize where the “wonders of our modern civilization” actually come from. They’ve come from mortgaging our future.

We are all indentured servants — slaves — to this mortgage.

The problem with the conservative mindset — and I do mean true conservatives, not this political sideshow that calls itself “conservatism” — is that it’s stuck with trying to conserve a system that can no longer continue doing what it has been doing.

We need a complete overhaul of our entire economic system. As in complete.

The way this usually happens, of course, is through failure. As in complete failure. Societal collapse. Because people are stubborn, and cannot move through major changes gracefully.

I would like to see a more graceful shift to some future that must and will come, and I don’t think such a graceful shift is entirely impossible. But my money is on failure, followed by building from the rubble, over the course of many centuries. That’s the normal historical model. People are simply that stubborn.

I wrote some time ago about four major tsunamis that are going to hit the US within the next century: first, political, then economic, then energy, then climate change.

We’re living through the first wave of the political tsunami, embodied in that person masquerading as President in the White House right now, and the enormous damage he is doing to the structure and resilience of our system of government. There’s been an enormous backlash in the mid-term election, and I’m hopeful that it will spur much deeper change than anyone anticipates. Whether it will be enough is an open question. If it isn’t enough to break through into a new vision for the country, then we’re likely to see increasingly violent thrashing between Left and Right, Blue and Red, until the thing breaks apart entirely.

The remaining three Ghosts of Christmas to inevitably visit in the dark night of this century are economic failures (note the use of the plural), peak oil, and climate change, I think in that order. We’ll stop burning oil before 2100 — it will simply be too expensive for common people to burn. We won’t start seeing catastrophic climate change before the end of this century.

Like it or not, things will change.

Through all this, people will survive — of that, I’m reasonably certain, though I should note that our species does have a finite lifetime, as (indeed) does the entire taxonomic class of mammals. Modern humans are about 200,000 years old, give or take. We might have another few hundred thousand years left. Though there are runaway climate scenarios that could result in an entirely mammal-toxic atmosphere.

But people a century from now will certainly be living with very different cultural norms than we have now, because what we are currently doing has already stopped working.

And the debt slaves are growing restless. Can you not hear the drums?