Authors: Patrick Ness
Jacki sighed pleasurably. She had so much Forum in her bloodstream that Councilman Wiggins could bite away and she wouldn’t even notice until the next day rolled around and salve would be required for her inflamed, maltreated aureoles. Taking Forum was like kicking back in a hot bubble bath you could take along anywhere. The world became one movable, ongoing massage. It was fair to say she couldn’t remember what life was like before Forum, back in those non-prostitute, number-filled days with her sons and ex-husband, but one of the side effects of Forum was the peculiar accompanying belief that all of a sudden there
a life before Forum, that it was always there, that it would always be there, that no problem was ever too big or too unpleasant that it couldn’t be washed away in the enveloping stream of Forum. She barely registered the Councilman coming out of the bathroom looking both sheepish and peeved.
—I thought you said you were going to learn some new things to keep that from happening.
She blanked on his name.
—Darling. It happens to a lot of men.
—But you said you could slow things down, that it wouldn’t be a problem.
—I did slow things down, but let’s face it, you’re a little soldier who wants to shoot as soon as he gets to the firing line.
She sighed, but didn’t lose the smile from her face.
—I don’t mean literally little. I meant it as a term of endearment.
—I’m not little.
He was. He was almost six inches shorter than Jacki, a good two stones slighter, and his genitalia, while proportional, were on the smaller side of what Jacki had seen in her most recent business days.
—No one’s saying you are.
—You just did.
—I didn’t, but we were having such a fun evening. Come here. Come back to bed. We’ll have a nice, relaxing time for the rest of the hour.
Wiggins looked skeptical.
—Maybe we can make you go twice.
—You think so?
—Honey, I’m sure of it.
What were these words? Where did they come from? She didn’t even call her children ‘honey', had never addressed her husband during the eleven years they were married as ‘darling'. And what were these clothes? She was a mathematician, for pity’s sake. Mathematicians didn’t wear rubber panties or silicon bras with zippers down the front of each breast. Accountants sure as hell didn’t wear black hosiery attached to a black metal band that gave a slight electric shock when touched. At least not on a regular basis, they didn’t. Who was she? Who was she right now?
Sometimes with Forum came the Lions, and they could kill you if you let them drag you away. Jacki closed her eyes
and fought. Forum had a vibration, and while Councilman Wiggins resumed sucking down her nutrient-rich breast milk (also, incidentally, Forum-rich; Councilman Wiggins had quite unknowingly developed his own habit), she concentrated on working her way back into Forum’s vibe. She could even see it when she closed her eyes. It was honey-colored and shimmering and just out of her reach.
Breathe, Jacki, breathe.
The Lions were at her heels, trying to drag her back to the present, if she could just, if she could only, if she could—
it was. Oh, my, yes. There it was.
Everything’s all right, honey. Nothing could be finer, darling.
Was she talking aloud?
She exhaled slowly, and her unconscious hand tenderly stroked the Councilman’s thinning brown hair.
The questions were as old as time itself, but no less rigorous for their familiarity:
Are there reasons for love? And are they all intangible? If not, what if intangibles are the only things I have? Am I justifying all of this for my own wishful thinking? Is that love then, or is it just rationalization? Is this what we
when we’re in love? Is there nothing real? Or is he just beyond my reach? And what does he think of me? Is he reminded of me during the rest of the week? Does my name enter his mind at work? Do I exist for him when I’m not here?
Peter hadn’t slept much. He glanced over Luther’s slumbering neck at the clock. It was still a little while before dawn. Staying for the whole night was another rarity in a clip,
especially since Luther had already paid and Peter had logged in a completion over the phone hours ago. He put his face to the back of Luther’s neck, inhaling a funk that verged on the offensive but steadfastly remained deeply sexual. It was a smell only lovers got. A stranger would have wrinkled his nose at the presumption.
—Are you awake?
—Oh, sorry, Luther. I didn’t mean to wake you.
—I wasn’t sleeping.
—Just things. How about you? You’ve got to get up for work in a couple of hours.
—So why are you awake? I don’t go on shift until tonight. I can afford to waste sleeping time.
—It’s not as if I’m choosing to.
—What’s bothering you?
—I’ve heard that before.
—You wouldn’t understand.
—Do you have any idea how insulting that is?
—Sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. I only meant that I don’t quite understand it, and that’s why I’m awake, because I can’t figure it out.
—Maybe I could help you.
—You wouldn’t want to get involved in my problems.
—Why wouldn’t I?
In the blue darkness, Luther turned to face Peter.
Luther’s eyes reflected the moonlight that crept in through the slats in the windowblinds. He held on to Peter’s arm and peered deeply into Peter’s face, as if the answer were literally written there and he would have to make it out in the dark somehow. Peter could feel the pressure of full attention. Here was, if not
moment, then certainly
moment, a turning point where wished-for but unexpected advancement just might be possible, where the door opened a crack and a small light flung its way toward the promising. Peter couldn’t catch his breath. He could actually feel the sweat coming off of his brow.
But, curses until the end of time, it was too early for him to rise to the occasion.
—I think … I mean, you’re a great guy.
—Oh. Well. Thanks. That’s very sweet.
He kissed Peter on the forehead.
—I think you’re great, too, Peter.
—I just mean—
—You don’t have to say any more. It’s all right. Just me and my boring problems. Let’s just try to get some sleep, okay?
Luther turned back around, away from Peter. Peter nuzzled closer to him. Neither of them slept during what remained of the rags of the early morning, Luther lost in his thoughts, Peter berating himself for not saying something,
better. And so neither of them found out what there was to find out, neither of them spoke when the opportunity was there. Which was too bad, because if either of them had had that tiny bit of bravery available right at that moment, so much of what followed could have been avoided.
It was still dark, and the sleeping bodies of the herd were scattered across the Arboretum’s wide main field like boulders thrown from a volcano. Maggerty slept in a nervous curl at the base of a tree, somnolently shooing away a murder of dream crows that pecked at his bare dream feet. A clear sky huddled overhead, the stars whispering in urgent tones about some universal matter or other. There was no artificial light on the hill of fields, but the moon was bright enough to cast crisp shadows of the many clutches of snoozing rhino hillocks. All was quiet. It was late enough for the olive bats and Hennington flying foxes to have finished their nocturnal feedings and scoot themselves off to inverted slumber. Even the breeze had settled down to rest.
But she was awake. She wasn’t upset, she probably couldn’t have even been called troubled, but there was definitely a disquiet in her. For hour upon hour now, she had been unable to work it out. She was lying down and had pulled distractedly at the grass within reach of her lips until a bald spot had appeared in a semicircle around her. Even then, she kept at it until she tasted nothing but dirt. Finally, she just sat up, twisting her ears this way and that, listening for the usual sounds of the deepest part of the night, hearing some, not hearing others.
Everything was wrong and nothing was. Her nostrils could smell the hint of dust in the air, yet that in itself wasn’t troubling. The eagles weren’t in their nests, but maybe they had just started mating season a few weeks early. The grass tasted bitter, but maybe something had just gotten into the groundwater. Maybe her anxiety was misplaced. The rest of the herd didn’t seem to notice anything wrong. The birthrate
had held steady, and the nine calves that had been born this year were neither more nor less healthy than in previous years. The last animal to die was almost two years ago when an ancient male was unable to pull himself out of a mud bog and the animals had to mill around helplessly while he slowly bleated his way to death by dehydration. There was no disease in the herd, no malnourishment, no hoof or skin malady.
So what was bothering her? The herd might be oblivious but the thin creature that always followed them had sensed something, too. He gave off a horribly forlorn and confused smell in the best of times, but lately it had increased to the point of almost being distracting. He also stuck closer to the herdmembers than he had before, even daring to nap in the middle of the herd while they grazed. It didn’t prove anything, but at least she wasn’t alone.
The sky began to change color, glowing slightly along one horizon. She hadn’t rested all night, but forcing herself, she laid her head down onto the dirt mat to snatch whatever slumber she could before full-fledged daybreak. It was still a long while before she finally slipped off to shallow, fitful sleep.
Eugene’s first job for Tybalt ‘Jon’ Noth was the procurement of a car (—Something black, Eugene, maybe a convertible, a sun roof at the very least), so when Eugene pulled up in front of the Solari in his brother’s seventeen-year-old orange Bisector, the one with the sideboards that kept killing old ladies before they moved the bus benches further away from the road, to say that Jon was non-plussed was quite possibly to understate the matter.
—And just what under the expanse of great blue heaven above is this?
—It’s my brother’s.
—Is he adopted?
—It’s the only car I could find.
—What a curious search that must have been.
—Well, I just thought that, you know.
—Oh, I don’t have even the slightest idea where you’re going with this, Eugene.
can get a rental car.
—Of course they can. That’s the whole point. Convenience, you see, matched with desire. It’s called capitalism.
—I thought, I guess, you wanted something, I don’t know, singular.
—My brother’s on a fishing boat for the next four months.
—So this … mobile clown cutlery is at our disposal.
—Look, if you don’t like it, I can get you something different. I just thought—
—I know. Singular.
—Fuck it, I’ll take it back.
In truth, there
something spectacular about it, if Jon was going to be honest about things. The car was gargantuan with a long sloping roof that ultimately made its way to a third row of seats near the back. The half-dome hood swooped down to meet the twelve-bar radiator with a thud that could have raised mountains. Eugene’s brother had gotten the optional fifth door that served as a convenient escape hatch in case of fire or police stop. And then there were those lethal protruding sideboards. Bisector, It Divides the Road, had quickly entered the lingo as Vivisector, It Dices Wide the Old. Uniambic perhaps, but accurate. Eugene’s as-yet unnamed brother had kept it spotless and buffed to a point where both the wooden and chrome parts shone with equal glare. Such a monstrosity could never have been called beautiful, but it certainly was
—I’ve either grossly over-estimated you, Eugene, or grossly under-estimated. Either way, I’m curious as all hell as to how things are going to go.
—So you’ll use the car?
—'Car’ doesn’t quite cover it, does it?
—You’re not the easiest person to figure out, you know that?
—You’ve no idea.
Jon opened the passenger side door. Eugene looked surprised.
—Wouldn’t you rather drive?
—If I’m going to be seen in this Day-Glo meteorite, I think being chauffeured is probably the only route to take. Wouldn’t you agree?
—Whatever you say.
—That’s what an employer likes to hear.
Eugene shook his head. Jon smiled.
—Good. It’ll be easier if you think I’m loony.
—What’ll be easier?
—To City Hall, Eugene.
—I have an appointment with the Mayor.
—Don’t tell me she’s—
—Yes, she’s the friend.
Eugene turned the key. A sound like a two-story house being shat out the asshole of a zebra ripped through the dashboard. Jon had to strain to hear what Eugene said next.
—She’s married, you know.
They exchanged a long look until Eugene finally shrugged, put the car in gear, and thrust off in a cloud of purple smoke.
Jarvis Kingham’s lifelong intellectual ambition had always been academic theology and that he ended up a practicing priest instead was maybe not the ironic hair-splitting that some of his more cynical friends presumed. For was not active ministration simply theology in action? While he had moments where he wished he could spend more time with his books and while the vigor of some of his parishioners
sometimes scared the daylights out of him – Head Deacon Theophilus Velingtham to name just one – the benefits, both personal and spiritual, more than rewarded the decision he had made to follow this slightly divergent path.