Living in such a state taTestaTesTaTe etats a hcus ni gniviL of mind in which time sTATEsTAtEsTaTeStA emit hcihw ni dnim of does not pass, space STateSTaTeSTaTeStAtE ecaps ,ssap ton seod does not exist, and sTATeSt oFOfOfo dna ,tsixe ton seod idea is not there. STatEst ofoFOFo .ereht ton si aedi Stuck in a place staTEsT OfOFofo ecalp a ni kcutS where movements TATeSTa foFofoF stnemevom erehw are impossible fOFoFOf elbissopmi era in all forms, UsOFofO ,smrof lla ni physical and nbEifof dna lacisyhp or mental - uNBeInO - latnem ro your mind is UNbeinG si dnim rouy focusing on a unBEING a no gnisucof lone thing, or NBeINgu ro ,gniht enol a lone nothing. bEinGUn .gnihton enol a You are numb and EiNguNB dna bmun era ouY unaware to events stneve ot erawanu taking place - not -iSSuE- ton - ecalp gnikat knowing how or what TWENTY-NINE tahw ro woh gniwonk to think. You are in 09/30/96 ni era uoY .kniht ot a state of unbeing.... ....gniebnu fo etats a
Okay. So it happened again. I don't think we'll ever put an issue out during the month of August. Hell, by now it's becoming some strange tradition or something. At least you can expect the September issue to always be extremely good. And this one is no different.
I wonder quite a bit what it is about August that kills issues. Maybe it's the last month of summer, so all the high school and college folks that write for the zine go crazy and lock their pens and papers in vaults. Last year I was extremely lazy. This time, well, use this as an example of blind, cruel tradition. It makes me feel loved when I have people constantly asking me when the next issue is coming out.
And I guess there is the real reason: it gives me a chance to see if anyone else besides my writers really cares about the zine. Not that I would stop publishing if I didn't have any readers (like lack of an audience has ever stopped us before), but it is nice to see who out there is reading the zine.
Anyway, most of this issue is taken up by IWMNWN's story, which continues the saga of our friend Ethan. Nemo est Sanctus is back, and I've some stuff sandwiched in between. Noni was supposed to have an interview with Clockwork this issue, but he seems to have gone into hiding again. Any information on his whereabouts would be appreciated.
So, have fun, send me some stuff, and look forward to an issue in your mailbox or local ftp site every month until, well, next August. Ciao!
hi. i'm a big fan of your novels, mr. trout. put me on your mailing list or ELSE! Tell the following persons that i said 'hi' (and watch their looks of disgust! :)) ... J-- M------ W---- "Coyote", P------ "Reverend Toad" B------, M------ D-----(sorry, no nickname), and i guess M--- "P------'s Brother" B------. whoth'fuckami you ask????? iamadam they will know me by the trail of cough syrup.... credentials:founding member of intergalactic legion of socially comatose youth, alumnus of SSOPWXOTH and SSOPWSWTW and SSOPISS, as well as an exmember of the astronomy consortium, and i shit PURE GOLD!!!!!!! (insert maniacal laughter)
[send some of your pure gold shit this way. we might even dedicate a rock or maybe the piece of plaster that just fell out of the ceiling to you. nothing like the gratitude of SoB, eh? and remember, kids, cough syrup CAN be fun, just read the dxm faq first, okay? shalom.]
I Wish My Name Were Nathan
Nemo est Sanctus
Do you ever get the feeling that sometimes you'd be better off if your best friends had gunned you down instead of letting you do the stupid things you normally do? Like when you're drunk and puking and you insist on having just one more shot? Or you take a corner a little too sharply after the light has been red a little too long?
Or maybe you decide to go to a Baptist college. Isn't that a plea for death to take you away?
I dunno about going that far, but I do know Baptist colleges suck.
At first, it sounds like a good idea. You'll be the weirdo on campus with the long hair, the French filterless cigarettes, and the Aleister Crowley books. It'll be just like Sunday School except you get to fuck with people's heads everyday.
The problem is that you have to live with these people, too. And they like to fine you for nearly everything.
Last night, for example, I wasted thirty minutes at a dorm wing meeting where they reprimanded us for going and coming as we pleased. Yes, that's right, whenever we're going to go away and we're gonna be back after 1:00am, we have to sign out. If you don't, you get fined. If you happen to stub your toe in the hallway and you utter a curse word, you get fined. If, during the biweekly room check, there is trash in your trash can, you get fined.
Do I sense a pattern here?
I wonder if Baptist colleges are all like this. You'd think a Christian institution would be a tad bit more tolerant to the "heathens" due to all that "love your neighbor" crap that Jesus said. Apparently the people here think that strict control will turn everybody into good little boys and girls.
Did I mention the mandatory religious services? The ones with horrible Baptist hymn choruses and Bunny Martin, the yo-yo champion?
Most things about this school go against all of my ethics and morals. True, my Hebrew professor is slightly cool, but can one class really make up for the "happy Baptist camp" atmosphere this place exudes? Next thing I'm waiting for is an RA to do a spot room check and dig through my closet to make sure I don't have any contraband. Oh, right, that's already happened.
You must be thinking that at least some of the people on campus are cool. And I'm sure there are. Have I met any that I'd like to be friends with? No. The wing I live in is full of soccer players. They were all in my room, getting their daily fix of Duke Nuke3D on my roommate's computer, while I was reading my e-mail. Clockwork had mailed me that the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival was in town, and that we oughta go check it out. I happened to say aloud, "Cool... the gay and lesbian film fest is this weekend."
The only sound I could hear after that were crickets chirping. About twenty billion of them live in my bathroom.
I looked over at the soccer players, who were all staring at me. One of them finally ventured, "You're not gay, are you?"
Alarm bells on my bigot meter started going off. "No," I replied. The look of relief on their faces was amusing. These were, of course, the same soccer players who smoked pot on a regular basis, but if I had been gay, it would have been a little too alternative for them.
(On a side note, Clock and IWMNWN and I tried to go to the film fest, which was unfortunately sold out. I did, however, buy a t-shirt. Then we went and drank lots of coffee.)
If you're thinking about attending a Baptist college, don't. Unless, of course, you're Baptist, which then would make me wonder why you're reading this zine that even the NEA wouldn't give grants to. (Well, we figured they'd say no so we never bothered to ask in the first place. If you'd like to give us a grant, contact us. I'd sure like a new pair of shoes and a comb.)
One more thing I think I should make clear here. I like Jesus. I like the stuff he said. Ever read The Gospel of Thomas? Probably not. As King Missile sang, "Jesus was way cool." The problem is most Baptists are preoccupied with finding evil in everything around them. Sounds like Puritans for the twentieth century. Where's Hawthorne when you need him?
Oh well. There's something interesting about all of this self-punishment I've inflicted on myself by coming here. It's good for the creative mind, and it gives me a lot of time to myself. Still, if you do happen to attend the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, I'd be more than happy to meet you.
I'm the freak with the Crowley books and the blue sunglasses. Don't bring a rope.
"The poets? They stink. They write badly. They're idiots you see, because the strong people don't write poetry.... They become hitmen for the Mafia. The good people do the serious jobs."
I can feel you here -- my eyes shut so tightly, my arms quivering to move -- I could just reach out and touch you. The air, it even feels like you -- tingling, radiating warmth from where you sit. But am I, am I not imagining it all? The fleeting imagery in my brain brings up snapshots of you taken in sudden glances -- the secret smile, the skin folding around your eyes... is that all I -- your confident stride, sometimes, all the sitting you do, when I could walk right up. My mouth is dry -- why? You're not there, you never were... but if! Would we have to talk like we don't do now? We could express so much with eye, brow, smile, frown....
A hand on the shoulder, bridging such an uncrossable gap. A hand -- a hand! Why not? Think what that could do. Why haven't I laid a hand on your shoulder? Why not? What a hundred words could do, a hand could do better. So why don't we touch? So much, so much to say.
So much to say but nary a word. Silly me, to think about a hand before a word. To say but a word, why does that paralyze me? I wish there weren't any, such clumsy communication! I wonder if you expect a word from me, when not I, one of you. A word, it can be done -- right? We can talk. We can talk....
But in the meantime, I can imagine.
As he sat in the dark, he heard the voice again: "She is going back to his house."
A deep cloud settled over him; a fog destined never to leave. A measure of sanity was kept with firm disbelief, and no small dependence on oriental powders, mixed with tea, to keep his distance from his sickened body.
He recalled the last time he had heard that voice, back when she was given to him. He had called it God, and indeed it may be His angel, but if so an adversary, a satan. For she was not given, she was granted, entrusted. She was to be loved and set on a better path.
He had loved her, indeed, with every fiber of his body, his being. But not as the daughter he was given, not as a student. Like Abelard, he had taken her in absolute love. Like a fallen Nazirite, like a Samson, he had broken his threefold vow. He had left his God behind at the drop of a skirt.
With an agonizing wrench of the stomach, he felt, saw, knew she was being entered by another. Rather than having a comfortable distance of denial, he clung to disbelief like a man with nothing left to live for. He clung to disbelief, a man with nothing left to live for.
He had gone a step too far. Many steps, of course. Falling in love, as a lover, was one step, but hardly irreparable. Tossing away his studies of the finer arts; a foolish loss, but his carefully kept tomes could always be restudied. Tossing away his vows; they could always be retaken.
He took a final step. He made her his Idol, his Goddess. He made her everything to him.
What he tried to deny is that there is a Him, there is a God, and He is a jealous God. He made her everything to him.
Sitting in the dark, he sees clearly in the flickering of candle light. No candles flicker near him, though. He sits in the dark with a bottle of wine in his left hand -- shards of glass litter the floor, but this only sped up his drinking -- and his right hand warming the metal.
The candles do not only illuminate her, but warm her. Not so much as the Other. One in a train of Others that she -- and he -- have had.
He cannot lose himself in the arms of another. All he feels is her, inside, her now. All he sees is her, most vividly when her own senses lapse into a sensuous torpor. In her relaxation he comes painfully alive; in her pleasure, his agony reaches an orgasmic pitch.
Another Other, and he can take no more. He got his prayer. He prayed to the wrong Goddess, but the sardonic Archon who sent His satan granted his desire. She is everything to him. Every caress of his is as nothing; every touch she feels is his an hundred fold. What she sees, as she takes another lover, or a lover another time, he sees, sitting, in the dark, warming wine in one hand and warming metal in the other.
He cannot live like this -- who could? But what escape? Topple his idol? He has too much faith. Suffer, and pay in Purgatory? He has not the will. He has fallen with Satan, and, like an angel, has had his particular judgment.
He tastes bile as he feels the Other probing her lips, her tongue. There is one escape, and he curls his finger around the trigger one last time.
In a post orgasmic languor, she is distantly aware of a loss of an unpleasantness, like a mosquito that has taken to flight. Oddly, her paramour no longer looks beautiful, and seems to have an evil, knowing smile as his face looks at her, red-tinted in the candlelight.
What do you do when the earth opens up underneath you and swallows you whole? You pray to a dead god that you might survive. You clasp your hands together and bow your head as you tumble towards the center of the earth. You cry aloud for salvation, for grace, for divine intervention.
Does it come? Will it come? You open your eyes and see black. The sensation of falling disappeared a long time ago. Which way is up? How can you stop yourself? Can you stop falling?
Consciousness comes and goes. You have entered a state of limbo, where hope is the only movement you know.
"My teeth are falling out," Betty told me. "The fuckers come out so easily. I'm rotting away."
We were sitting on a dock at Travis Lake. The night sky was starless, and the moon was nowhere in sight. I put my hand on Betty's shoulder to comfort her.
"You should be glad it's only your teeth," I replied. "You should check out my CAT scan sometime. I've got it framed above my bed."
She smiled, revealing gaps in her mouth which had been full only two weeks before.
"What's happening to us?" she asked. "What did we do to deserve this?"
I grasped my right index finger and pulled. It came off without any effort. The pain I was hoping for didn't come.
"We're dead. It's only natural."
"We can't be dead. We're breathing, talking... we aren't dead."
"Stop fooling yourself," I said, standing up. "We've never been alive, none of us. It was all a ruse -- a big, fat, goddamn lie. Don't you see? Don't you understand? Or do you want to keep on deceiving yourself?"
Betty grabbed my index finger and threw it into the lake.
"What the hell was that for?" I demanded.
"You're pulling off your own fingers!" she yelled. "What the hell am I supposed to do? Laugh it off? Pretend like this isn't happening? Christ, Michael, what do you think we should do? Huh?"
I turned away and stared at the wooden planks in the dock. They were old and warped, and the ones nearest the water felt damp underneath my bare feet.
"I don't know. I really don't know."
When you're trapped, instinct takes over. You try to get out, to escape from whomever or whatever has captured you. But what if you don't know why you're trapped or who's keeping you there? Are you really trapped or is it just a delusion?
When you fall into the earth, you think everything's over. But it's not, and no one can make you believe that until you experience it. By then, of course, it's too late. Oh, you can sleep, but waking up there is hellish.
"Too many people alive," Jack stated. "That's the problem with the world today. Too many fucking people."
Jack and I were sitting in the back row of the church. The pastor was giving some sermon about going to hell, and since I was sure I was already there, I didn't pay attention.
"Overpopulation is something we've gone over before," I whispered. "What do you propose to do, start killing people off?"
Jack looked at me funny. "Hell no. Do you think I'm some lunatic?"
A young man sitting in front of us turned around and gave us a nasty look. Jack elbowed me and we left.
"No, I don't think you're some looney," I said once we were in the parlor. "But tell me exactly how you would solve the population problem."
"Okay. Now, we all know that there's more than enough resources to feed everyone on earth if all the countries worked together. Well, that ain't ever gonna happen, so we have to go about it another way. And we can't kill people, cuz then we'd be fascists."
"So you want people to kill themselves?" I asked.
"You ever watch that show Highlander?"
"The one with the sword-wielding immortals? 'I am Conner McLeod of the clan McLeod?' Yeah, I've seen it a couple of times."
"What about that? What if we could be immortal? No one would need anything to survive. Whaddya think?"
I punched Jack in the shoulder. "I thought you were being serious. Besides, then everyone would be running around trying to cut off everyone else's head."
"Hey, you gotta have fun in church somehow," Jack laughed.
"Do you have any ideas for a solution?" I asked.
He frowned. "Damn, man, lighten up. Besides, if I did, do you think I'd be flipping burgers after school?"
"I guess you're right. Any serious ideas would cause your brain to hemmorage."
Jack lunged towards me, and we both fell to the floor. Wrestling in the church always reminded me of Jacob and God trying to get a three-count on the mat. I wonder if God wore tights and a mask that night.
Sometimes you think you see a light when you're falling. It always turns out to be nothing, of course, but at least it breaks the monotony. When you've been in limbo for years, a fluttering memory of your last erection can occupy your mind for a couple of months.
Once I thought I saw someone else falling. It was just a glimpse, but I could have sworn I felt something pass me and a whiff of cologne. I bet that guy's tired of that scent by now. If he still remembers how to smell, that is.
You've got to understand that the hole only opens up for the worst of us. If you're a decent type of guy, there's no need to worry. Still, maybe the rules will change, cause there's a lot of room in here for more people.
We arranged Betty's pulled teeth into a stick figure. Maybe someday an archeologist would find them and wonder if it was some strange, ancient religious ritual. In a way, it kind of was. What diety is the god of teeth? Crest? "I pray to thee, almighty AquaFresh, that in all of your three-colored splendor you might give us peace." Hell, why can't God be a tube of toothpaste? At least that's useful.
Betty put in the false teeth I had bought for her earlier. Her smile was much prettier now. I had removed all of my teeth the night before and kinda knew what would go on tonight. Too bad I threw away all of my teeth, or we could have had an art exhibit.
"Do they feel better?"
I could tell she was licking the backside of the teeth. "Much better. It feels strange, but at least it's supposed to feel strange."
"I was thinking maybe we could keep on doing this. You know, replacing our parts with artificial ones."
"And what will that change? It won't make us better."
"But we'll be free of these bodies."
"Replaced with plastic and metal? That sounds even worse."
"Worse than what? We're just meat and bones right now. That's all we are."
"But how come we can still think? How come I still feel inside?"
"The feeling will stop. It just takes time. I've been this way longer."
"You mean you don't--"
"No," I interrupted. "It's just not possible anymore. I'm sorry."
"If we don't love, then what do we have to hold on to?"
I put out my four-fingered hand. "Pretty soon, maybe not even each other."
Betty tried to cry, but the tears wouldn't come.
I gave up screaming a long time ago. I used to scream for days on end, even though I could hear myself. Screaming was the only thing I could think of to get help. I should have screamed more often before I was swallowed.
We watched the sunrise together. Our bodies sat at the edge of the dock in a daze, staring at the pink sky. I rubbed Betty's knee out of boredom. Around 4:00am we had tried making out, but Betty's teeth were a size too big and kept slipping around. Kissing her without the teeth in felt like I was kissing my grandmother.
Not that I've ever had that experience. But I digress.
Jack came by around seven. He had a huge smirk on his face as he walked down the dock towards us.
"How's it hanging, Michael?"
"Fuck off, Jack," I said, waving him away.
"In a bad mood, I see. And how about you, Betty? Enjoying this wonderful Saturday morning?"
Betty grimaced and stood up. Her ankle broke and she fell back down. She was in worse shape than I thought. I'd have to get a replacement foot as soon as possible.
"Here, here," Jack said, bending over. "Let me help you. Looks like you took a nasty tumble."
"Go away," I ordered. "We don't need you here."
Jack looked hurt. "What the hell is with you, man? You're not at home, you don't show up for school, and you don't come to work. I was worried, man. Then I come here, and you get all pissy when I try to help Betty. She probably sprained her ankle."
"Look again, Jack. It's fucking broken."
He took a second look and noticed the bone sticking out from underneath her pant leg. Covering his mouth, he stumbled to the side of the dock and threw up. It made a sickening splash when it hit the water.
"Shit, Betty, we've got to get you to a hospital," he said. "You're hurt bad."
"Hurt worse than you can ever be," Betty retorted. "Just leave us alone."
Jack put his hands on his head. "What is going on here? Are you people nuts? Michael, we really need to get her some help."
I held up my hand and ripped my pinky off. "This little piggy ran all the way home. That's where you should be. Leave."
It always amazed me that Jack didn't flinch when I yanked my finger off. I sure would have. Instead, he stepped past me and tried to pick Betty up.
"C'mon, I'm taking you to the hospital."
Betty gouged his eyes out with her thumbs.
"Damn prick. I told you stay away," Betty said, wiping the blood off her face. I think Jack fell off the dock and drowned, although he might not have. I was staring at Betty in total disbelief.
"Why'd you do that?" I questioned. "Why? He was my friend."
Betty turned towards me and licked some blood off her lip. "The dead don't have friends, Michael. And we don't either."
If this were hell, at least I would know that I'd pissed someone off enough to be eternally damned. But I haven't seen any signs, and I doubt I ever will. Maybe at the end of time this will all be over, and I'll hit the bottom. Maybe you'll be there too. Or maybe you're still falling and have just forgotten.
NOTiCE: This story has prerequisite reading. Namely my stories in SoB issues #20, #21, #22, #23, and #27 . Please don't ask questions that are answered in those readings. My e-mail is still overflowing with unanswered questions about "Dan and Paul live through a tornado" (#11).
WARNiNG: This story may contain graphic depictions of violence, sex crimes, and rudeness. You must be over 18 to read those parts.
Ethan went into his room, leaving the door open behind him. It had been closed all morning facing the sun and the air inside was hot and dry. The open window alleviated the greenhouse effect somewhat, and as a result, the temperature inside was the same as outside. He could stand it. Hell, he'd been working in it for five weeks now. Odd jobs on a farm. Oh, what his parents would think of this!
He switched on the fan and took off his clothes to take a bath. He wondered about the new guy in Jeremy's old room. What kind of guy was he? Did he get screwed over by Chris or was he just screwed up to begin with? Whichever it was, it was another person.
All the other kids had left -- it got more and more unrewarding to work in the unending heat. They probably wanted variety. They usually got it, in jail or the youth center, whichever comes first. Ethan had experienced both. He preferred manual labor.
Most of the people who happened to wander by the farm and get spotted and nabbed by Chris were runaways or homeless kids who thought they could hide out in the forest. Ethan was technically both, having once been kicked out of his house and having once run away from it, realizing he liked it better outside.
"There are no televisions outside," he often said to people. "People haven't gotten that bored with life yet. But I won't be around when they do." In his first year of college, he'd been converted into a freedom-loving nature type, and decided to try living in the wilderness for a while.
Ethan had given up civilization. When he left his house in June, he left an unconvincing suicide note to his parents to prevent their searching for him. He happily walked the whole distance to a remote forest nestled ten miles between Juncture and Austin on a body nourished by eighteen years of junk food and junk carbohydrates. And two and a half weeks later, he came to the dim realization that he had no survival skills whatsoever. He'd come unprepared. He'd finished off his sleeves of crackers in two days, and later picked clean two bushes of blue berries, and had no knife or any way to catch an animal. He was starving.
As he scribbled in his notepad one night, "I've come to the conclusion that there's only one good thing about malnourishment: It makes the heat more bearable. Even though I was pretty slim when I came out here, now I'm once again able to see my ribs when I rest."
A few hours later after a nap, he continued, "The shallow creek I've been using to clean off with has gotten lower and lower. I couldn't come up with any way to save water -- no bucket. That's all I've been taking in lately. For six? days. Water is beautiful. Sometimes I lie on the bank with my head back in the stream. Used to be dangerous -- drowning -- but now it doesn't go past my ears. I still get hungry a lot but the water helps. It hurts to walk sometimes, my stomach's so tight."
Later the next morning, he added, "Another good thing. I get to sleep a lot and no one accuses me of being lazy. Yeah I'm turning into a cat. Ha? I think I'm done with this now. I think I proved my worthlessness as a hunter-gatherer, time to be a consumer again. I'm gonna walk to Austin soon. Maybe I can find some food."
So, that morning, Ethan decided to seek some food in Austin, where he'd once been homeless for a week. He walked out through the forest, using the blinking light of a radio tower as a guide. He found his pace slowing each mile he went. He found the temperature rising and much- needed sweat rolling off his body, exacerbated by the jeans he was wearing. More and more times a tree seemed like a good thing to lean against for a while.
When he finally emerged from the forest beside a road, he was hunched over and breathing hard, looking quite dangerous, not having shaven in three weeks and wearing one of his two changes of clothing, muddied and stained after even the harshest washings in the creek. The fiercely independent and determined gleam in his eyes didn't improve the image. He climbed clumsily over the fence, ignoring the pain in his stomach, and set off down the road.
Staggering along the side of the road and so weak that he didn't notice his own gyrations, he attracted the attention of an easily frightened motorist, who promptly called the police upon reaching town. This woman was a good Christian and knew the sick and deranged would be best handled by the police, and not picked up. Ethan knew none of this and continued his trek to Austin.
An hour later, a police officer pulled to the side of the road ahead of Ethan and jumped out with a gun in his hand. He quickly realized that Ethan was merely weakened but not dangerous so he put his gun back in his holster.
"Good Christ Jesus," he muttered, "you stink like a fuckin' nigger." Ethan raised his eyebrows at the offhand remark and again lost all faith in humanity. Still, he accepted the ride back into town, which as it turned out took him right to the police station.
After taking a breathalyzer test and eating some doughnuts and coffee, Ethan's dizziness went away, a sensation that struck him as soon as he entered the white coldness of the building. Much too cold, he thought, shivering. God, do they keep meat on racks in here? He pressed his hands to his temples to fight the headache that replaced his dizziness. He watched the colors in the tiles swim in front of him.
After several minutes, reality returned to him and he realized where he was. He thanked the secretary sitting at the desk near him for the snack and started to walk off. He didn't know there was an officer standing behind him, but he figured it out when his shoulders were grabbed fiercely from behind. Ethan didn't realize that, in being a starved vagrant, he was an automatic suspect in several crimes.
They led him into a small room where a beefy-looking officer stood in the corner and another more fatherly-looking figure sat at a desk. He was asked to sit down on a stool.
"Now, young man," the fatherly-looking figure said, instantly making himself out to be an asshole, "I am told you were found staggering around in the middle of nowhere between Juncture and Austin. There are no houses anywhere along that road for twenty miles, son. What were you doing there?"
Ethan answered politely, "I was walking to Austin."
"Not very well, I heard," Asshole chuckled. "Do you live there?"
"No, I live in Juncture," he rattled off, numbly wondering if he should be quiet.
"Why, you were awfully far away from home, son. Did somebody drop you off there?" In a thoroughly unsympathetic tone, Asshole added, "I'm thoroughly prepared to hear a story of wrongful automotive ejection."
Ethan boggled, wondering if that term was official or not. "No sir, I was there of my own doing," he said, instantly biting his tongue.
"Oh you were, weren't you? I don't gather you could have walked from Juncture to where Officer Smith found you in your condition."
"That's true," Ethan said, wondering if he had ever given an alibi before in his life.
"You were camping out in the woods, weren't you, son?" Asshole asked.
"Yes I was," Ethan admitted, wondering if it might just be as simple as that. Then why the hell did he feel so dizzy suddenly?
"Did you get thrown out of the house, or did you just run away or something?" Asshole pried, suddenly full of eagerness, as if readying to make his kill.
"I... I just wanted to see what it would be like to camp out there."
"Can you tell us your name, son? I'm afraid we'll have to charge you with trespassing and unlawful camping," Asshole proclaimed, as if having used a pawn to capture the king. Checkmate.
Ethan became infuriated. What the hell was this shit? There wasn't any sign on the fence. No one lived there. He hadn't even made a mess. "Blow me," he declared.
"Excuse ME?!" Asshole cried, wanting to lunge from behind the desk but apparently trained against it. The beefy-looking cop in the corner stepped closer.
"Blow me, I said! What kind of a stupid charge is that? I'm starving, about to die here, and you just care about levying all these idiotic charges?"
"Son, you broke the law, and now you are evading arrest. State your name and address."
"My address now? What difference does that make? I'm not going back home!" he cried. He quickly realized it was true -- he would go to jail instead, the way he was acting.
"What are you son, some kind of Free-man or some wacko cutting hisself off from society like that Kersinski fella? You warn't makin' bombs, were you?" Asshole insinuated.
"Good lord, asshole, I was just out there starving to death, that's all!"
"Asshole?!" Asshole yelled, standing up. "I am a certified police officer of the City of Austin, and I will not take such insults! I demand respect! Tell me your name right now, or else you just might not be able to make bail!"
Ethan relented, and then decided against it. "I won't tell you my name, sir. I haven't committed any real crime."
"Don't talk back to me like you know the law! I know the law and I know it's illegal to trespass and it's illegal to set up tent on someone else's land!"
"I didn't have any tent," he muttered.
"Fuck you, kid, alright?"
"Is it legal to say that?" Ethan asked.
"I sure don't give a shit, kid. You've pissed me off. You ain't acting like someone who's innocent, that's for sure. Whatsay we try to match you up with some unsolved crimes around Juncture, eh? The police there have us on the lookout for certain runaway criminals."
Ethan's stomach cramped up. He could have sworn for the longest time that "bum raps" were just misunderstandings. Live and learn, kid, alright?
"Lemme see those files, Iggy," Asshole asked of the beefy-looking guy. Iggy. Wow. "I suppose you wouldn't have committed any burglaries recently, eh, Free-man? You have no money, do you?"
"Nope. I have a quarter to call the ACLU with, though."
"Good fuckin' luck, kid. No one here will tell you the number."
"Shut up, alright?" Asshole asked, leafing through the files. Suddenly his eyes lit up. "Look at this. More than a year ago, on July 31, 1995, one Jake Bergess reported picking up a hitchhiker around your age with short black hair and an awfully stubborn attitude. Then after he bought this hitchhiker a meal, the hitchhiker beat him up and ran away. He says his name was Ethan. Do you know anyone matching that description, Ethan?"
The suspect sat frozen on the stool. His widened eyes betrayed him. He'd completely forgotten about Jake. Suddenly he felt the room grow brighter and more colorful. Officer Asshole grinned widely and set down the papers.
"Why son, you look shocked. You're not too stubborn any more, are you, Ethan?"
Ethan blinked and released his hands from the stool. The officer's face appeared to grow more gruesome by the second and he had to look away. A single "Wanted" poster tacked on the bulletin board on the blank wall attracted his attention. From ten feet he was sure he could read it with his exhausted eyes. It said, "Wanted for rudeness," and under two pictures of himself, "Ethan." He hadn't told Jake his last name, had he? Fear stole over him. The letters on the wanted sign flashed accusingly at him. He dragged his line of sight back to Officer Asshole.
"I'm sorry you had to find out you were a real criminal, Ethan. We do have to arrest you now. Would you like to tell us your last name and your home address?" he asked, as sweetly as sugar. Ethan didn't know it, but the officer had an erection.
"No," he whispered, not answering the question but wondering why the officer's head looked like a balloon about to pop.
"Ethan, Ethan. You'll never learn, will you, son?" he growled. He looked back down at the statement and pretended to find something new. "Oh my dear Lord!" he exclaimed. "Looks like this Jake Bergess you beat up thinks you might have done it because you thought he was a homosexual. Now, I can't argue with your reasons, but if he decides to bring that up in court, you might find yourself in violation of the Hate Crimes law."
He jerked his head back toward the Wanted poster. It now read, "Wanted for resisting buggery." Flummoxed, Ethan fell off the stool. He didn't feel himself hit the ground until a few seconds later.
"You know, Iggy, I never wanted that shit to pass, but it sure does come in handy, don't it?" he commented. He turned to Ethan quivering on the floor and read him his rights.
The officers threw Ethan in a holding cell until they could press charges. An assistant named Sherry Trinidad, instructed to look up all people named Ethan who had run away from home in the past two years, found only one match. Ethan apparently wasn't a common name. One Ethan Porteri, age 18, had been missing for a few weeks from Juncture under suspicion of suicide, she found. The report also said he'd had a history of problems. At age 17, he'd also run away from home, for two weeks, but didn't leave a suicide note then.
Sherry had seen Ethan's condition -- he was emaciated and appeared to be highly confused. She had also heard the outbursts and read the crime report. It sounded like bullshit to her. So she decided to do him a favor -- the woman was compassionate and hadn't yet been weeded out of the system.
She made a call to the Juncture Police Department and pretended to hold a conversation with a recorded message. Then, she threw away Ethan's printout and made a report to Officer Asshole. She said no one named Ethan had resided in Juncture for ten years. She said also that Bergess' charges had been automatically dropped after six months. Finally, she advised Officer Asshole to ask the boy his age.
An incensed Officer Asshole hit Mrs. Trinidad, and angrily and reluctantly told Ethan, or whoever he was, that he'd escaped prosecution for the beating. Even further to his astonishment the boy told him he was only seventeen.
Ethan had been careful not to carry identification solely for this purpose.
Mrs. Trinidad then made another call, this time a real one. As she suspected, Ethan was to be immediately referred to the juvenile authorities. But she also knew that they wouldn't keep him. So, three hours after he'd been escorted in, Ethan was escorted out of the jail, and hauled to the juvenile detention center.
There, the officials merely laughed off Ethan's charges. They knew about runaways and the occasional brush with death. "You have to watch out for Officer Asshole," they said, "he's a cuss."
Ethan asked why he wasn't fired for tallying up so many bogus charges. They replied, "He single-handedly prevents the need for quotas."
"Anyway," they finished, "if you don't want to go home, that's your decision, because you're over sixteen. I recommend you stop by the youth shelter for a few days though if you need somewhere safe to sleep."
And with that, he was again free. Having largely recovered from the flashback, he realized that he'd somehow been very lucky.
Out on the street, Ethan breathed a sigh mixed with relief and worry. He glanced down at his clothes, still stained from his two weeks in nature, even after being professionally sanitized at the prison. He felt his face, furry with beard, itchy, and suffocating him in the humidity. He felt his pocket, which had one quarter in it. Looking around fitfully, he walked to the nearest bookstore.
An hour later, having bought a nice paperback with his 25 cents, Ethan walked to the Drag, found a place on a short brick wall, sat down, leaned back against a pillar, and started to read. While he read, he watched. Analyzed. Memorized. Wondered.
After half an hour, he dogeared a page, closed his book, and stepped out onto the sidewalk. He spotted a woman with a grocery bag.
"Excuse me, ma'am, could you spare some change? I've got to eat."
She walked by without a word.
"Excuse me, any spare change you'd like to give?" he asked another passerby who also failed to hear him.
A couple of teenagers walked by with soft drinks. "Spare some change, guys?" he asked. The one further away kept walking. The one closer hesitated, glanced back, and walked on.
A vampire chick walked by, and Ethan was nearly caught up wondering why she was out during the day before he remembered to ask, "You have any spare change?" She turned around and said, "Sure," fishing for some pennies in her pocket. "Do you have any black nail polish?" she asked. "Sorry, no," Ethan replied, grinning, taking the change. "Thanks!"
He looked up and down the sidewalk again and saw the flow was thinning out, so he returned to his spot on the wall and continued reading. A few times he glanced up to gauge passersby, variously asking them for change. After half an hour, he'd garnered a whole dollar.
Ethan frequently found himself distracted from reading, with all the foot and car traffic passing by. He hadn't been near it for weeks and his whole situation seemed surreal. He got down and decided to walk along the sidewalk a little and take it in, even if it meant getting hot due to the jeans he was wearing, and more tired, due to his utter lack of energy save for the doughnuts.
He realized he couldn't get enough of the people. It was an active summer day, and even with the heat, he could imagine that under their sweaty brows and painted-on frowns, the people were glad to be alive and outside with others. He imagined that even with their elusive dodges and downcast eyes and their tight purses that they were all good people. He couldn't explain his sudden change of heart, but for some reason, even being completely ignored by all the selfish consumers was euphoric, because he was with them, outside on a beaming day in a vibrant city.
None of this alleviated his hunger, though. He wanted to rest and save his energy. In fact, each time he jumped down from the fence to confront someone, he felt the coffee and doughnuts slosh about in his stomach, almost prompting him to throw up.
"Nice day, isn't it, sir?" he asked one man, walking along with him down the sidewalk. The man looked aside nervously and muttered an mmm- hmm. "Could you donate some money to the starving?"
The man grimaced and stopped to fish out some change from his shorts. He shoved some coins in Ethan's hand and said, "Go home," and walked off.
"Excuse me, sir?" Ethan called kindly after him. "I must have misheard you." The man quickened his pace. Ethan smirked sardonically and turned around.
He pretended to look at a newspaper machine. He motioned to a woman passing by and asked her, "Do you have a copy of this paper on hand?" She shook her head and looked at the paper rack, interested. "Then could you spare me thirty-five cents to get a copy?" She happily handed over a quarter and a dime. Ethan nodded a thank you and put in the quarter. He looked back and saw the woman had walked off but was looking back expectantly. He pretended to put in the dime and tried to open the box. He slammed on the box a few times then pressed the change-release button. He took the quarter, looked at the woman, shrugged, and walked off, grinning.
Ethan wondered if that hadn't been entirely ethical. But then he saw the woman get into her Dodge Stealth, honk loudly as she butted into traffic, and accelerate through a red light. His conscience was clear.
A grizzly old guy came up to Ethan. "Cudya spare a cigarette? I'm dying for a smoke." Ethan told him he didn't smoke. The old man replied, "I saw ya beggin', right?" He nodded. "Then howda hell you spend your free time?" Ethan pulled out his book. "Aaah... shame you're out here, kid; you cud prolly get a job." Ethan shrugged, saying, "I'm not feeling suicidal yet, man."
They both laughed, but the encounter forced him to think and came as an unpleasant shock. He wandered over to a convenient place against a brick wall and sat.
The forbidding stench of pragmatism tickled at his nose. What am I really doing here? he thought. Immediately it all started to unravel; delusions are best kept ignored and unconsciously reassured. He didn't really need to be here. Whether or not he agreed with his mother's rash decision to enroll him in Trumpet, he had done quite well. He could continue for the next three or four years and get out with a job ticket. Instead, he'd gone off on this equally rash decision to achieve liberty through poverty. What's the point? he asked himself: why is it necessary to even do that? That would just give him a complete life full of panhandling and evading the police. And he'd certainly have no right to bitch about his life then, would he?
Had it been pride? He dwelled over his reasons for doing this. Philosophy, ideals, adventure of spirit... qualities utterly unwelcome in America. Also the disgust with the sheeplike lives of others. They go to school, to school, to school, and then get a job, a job, and a job, and die. And bitch about it. And lament their economic woes, utterly preventable by either leaving behind their attitudes about the necessity of luxuries, or leaving behind their hated jobs for different ones.
But they're all continually stuck. Isn't that the common thread? Adults whine about their jobs -- but can't change them, lest they sacrifice the stability of their family. High school and college kids whine about their lives -- but are hard-pressed to start anew until they can wrench themselves free from their families and hometown friends. Maybe it's the single adults who are free... really no family ties in either direction -- but look at the costs of living alone: the hard work, the bills, and the loneliness, until they get attached. They're just as stuck as anyone. Stuck in the infinite regress of work-spend- work.
How to wrench free? Go homeless. Leave it all, and let yourself fall from grace. What a crock, Ethan thought, I'm more stuck than ever.
But that can't be right, he thought. I wouldn't have done this all without a reason. He looked up at the passersby, faces drawn down with worry, fear, guilt. He caught a quarter tossed in his direction. Even now, he wondered, how am I different from them? He knew what it was, had it tucked safely in the back of his mind for reassurance -- he'd done it by himself and for himself. He wasn't pushed into these circumstances, he didn't fall into them; he walked into them. And consequently he could walk out of them, if he so desired, with the same steadfastness -- albeit with more substantial resources.
He sighed. Is all this worth it, just for some philosophical ideal? He grinned slyly. Hell yeah.
Ethan continued to sit, sweating and reverently watching a trail of ants consuming a bread crust nearby. He pondered the fact that people ignore ants except when they get bitten. Hell, people ignore most insects, except for the roach, who has been branded as the immortal disease-carrier. As for other animals, they're either kept as pets, or despised as car-stainers from above, or feared at the beach. And the rest of the animals aren't really even living here, but are contained in food factories, on display in zoos, or on land not yet confiscated by man. Why do people think we're the only "real" inhabitants on earth? he wondered. Because these other creatures don't think like we do? Because they're ignorant? Or because they don't wage war on us anymore? ...except for ants and roaches. It's because we don't care. Because they can't kill us anymore as nature intended, aside from the edible ones, animals are of no real concern anymore. So they're relegated to the position of resentment. We have to avoid murdering them when we want more artificial living space. The environmentalists were finally able to get that message across. But other than that, they can't make us respect animals. They must be able to kill us before we can respect them.
What if, he wondered, the government made America's resentment toward animals official? Say they were required to get jobs and pay property taxes and pay for the plants they ate. They would be utterly unable to pay, of course. But what a propagandistic ecstasy there would be! "I feel your pain, Mr. and Mrs. Hardworking American. Look at all the slaving you do to support your family, your luxuries, your entertainment. And look down there at the ants who are stealing your food on the sly without any remorse!" Or even better, extend the taxes to the fungi. "How much bread a year do you have to throw away when those thoughtless criminal fungi lay claim to it?" It would make a rousing campaign speech:
"America for Human-Americans! So these diseased, immoral animals, insects, and fungi continue to plague our country and destroy the fabric of our society and break up our families! None of them file their taxes, although we've given them many opportunities to do so! And they continue to steal, as if they didn't even care! So I propose a sweeping overhaul of the anti-terrorism measures -- for isn't it terrorism when a roach crawls across your leg at night just to spite you? I propose wide-sweeping punishments for these inhuman destroyers! First, we will hire 260,000,000 new police -- the citizens of the United States -- to round up and capture all offenders! There will be no vigilante justice, however -- we still firmly believe in the right to a fair trail. At appointed courthouses we shall try all offenders before a judge -- a jury system is impossible when all their peers are tax- evading criminals like themselves -- and sentence them to jail like they deserve!
"And, foreseeing the inevitable prison overcrowding that would follow, we will have to execute the most repellent of the offenders -- and I think we all know who they are -- the child molesters! These diseased, deranged psychopaths prey on our children every day -- ants, fleas, lice, ticks, and roaches! There's no use trying to understand them because they're just so sick. And, foreseeing the inevitable executions, we will appoint all 260,000,000 of you citizen-executioners. Two-hundred fifty billion dollars will be moved from defense spending to the makers of Raid to fight our real enemies and develop wide-ranging execution devices to handle the heavy workload.
"For any of you dissenting left-leaning liberal wackos, I assure you that this bill is completely constitutional, for how can it be genocide when it's not against people, God's intended inhabitants of earth? And for those of you who still cling to ancient notions about the useful medical possibilities of animals, I ask you -- are we not the world's most intelligent and innovative nation? Can America not do without the huge bureaucracies that handle our shameless, shameful, parasitic, savage, criminal populations? Can we not forge a new path and put earth to its full potential without the backwards-moving murkiness of the diseased criminal masses? America has always had a clear purpose -- honest, hard-working people first. People first. Thank you, thank you."
Ethan really had to wonder how much of that hadn't already happened.
When he noticed the sky darkening and the storefronts brightening, Ethan marveled at how much time had passed. Again, he wasn't entirely sure when he walked out jail either. Time seemed to pass faster than when he had been in the woods. He was glad for that, since it was damned hot outside. Hardly any shade out here.
He stood up and looked for food. He counted his change and found he had nearly two dollars. If he drank water, that might be enough for a crappy sandwich. Or some fries. Or a bag of chips. Then again, he could just save it and eat tomorrow. He was already used to eating nothing.
One thing he did realize when he stood up was that he needed to shit. He tried to remember which places had public-access restrooms. Mostly none of them, unless you bought something too. He figured the easiest place would be a fast-food joint, only he didn't want to waste all his money on fries, and he didn't want to eat either. He looked around. Seven-Eleven? Hmmm, maybe. And he could get a big bottle of Gatorade too.
Ethan walked down the Drag toward the nearest Seven-Eleven, happily crossing against the light and steering clear of bums. He walked into the Seven-Eleven and talked to the clerk. "Can I use the restroom?" he asked.
"Sure, go on in, guy," the clerk said. He was a college student too; he understood. Ethan smiled.
It was difficult getting started. That was one thing Ethan realized he'd have to get used to -- lack of comfort. Depersonalized business bathrooms. They don't go all out for toilet paper, and choose the cheapest sandpaperyest kind (better than leaves, though, he thought). Other folks come in and forget to flush or aim properly. Gotta lose those taboos, Ethan told himself. It's dirty but it's here. He recalled having to go in a dumpster once. It was beyond disgusting. And he got a rash that lasted a week too. America for Human-Americans, he thought morosely.
And the worst part was the other people who came in, like some heavy-footed person right now. They always drove open the door to intimidate the guy taking a shit. Or the guy taking a piss. Instant sphincter tightening. If that wasn't bad enough, they had to smell your glory too. And even worse was when they commented on it.
"Whew, dude! Watch your diet!" he cried out, leaving.
"Fuck off," Ethan muttered, farting. He recognized the unmistakable odor of coffee and doughnuts, and sighed, remembering he hadn't turned on the fan. It was an oversight, but the messy people and the stinky people are the ones who made businesses so reluctant to open their toilets to the masses.
That's probably the one thing other people have over me, Ethan realized. Privacy. He tried to dismiss that issue as another basically materialistic concern, but got to thinking that he'd need to jerk off in this kind of place too. But how safe was that? Certainly, someone would be able to tell the difference between constipation and an orgasm if he walked in. And stopping every time someone came in would make the job take hours. Not stopping at all would turn him into a public indecency case. Wow, I'd love to go to jail for ejaculating, he thought.
So, he tallied up, to be homeless, I have to give up shelter, property, food, privacy, and my sex drive. Or he could date and move in with someone, and be stuck. Please, please, I mustn't turn to religion.
He finished his work, flipped on the fan, and washed his hands. Looking in the mirror, he was appalled. He'd never seen himself with so much black beard and moustache before, nor had he looked so old. He told himself it was the facial hair making him look old and not exhaustion, although he knew the real cause. Gotta shave, he thought. Shaving cream and razors each cost $3.50, he remembered. I'll get used to this, he decided.
He walked out of the restrooms and headed for the drinks section. He spotted a liter of grape Gatorade and picked it out. It'd be funny if this cost two dollars, he thought, and saw it was only $1.50. What the FUCK?! he cursed, replacing the drink and comparing prices. A liter of Coke was $1.50. At least that sugar-garbage isn't more expensive. He glanced over and saw a liter of Evian/Naive was $2.00. Do they want me not to get real fluids? he wondered. He quickly realized he wouldn't be shopping at convenience stores for sustenance. Maybe if he found five dollars in the street. Instead, he opted to drink copiously from the water fountain between the restrooms.
Ethan headed out of the Seven-Eleven. The clerk called out, "Hey, guy, you oughta at least buy something." Ethan froze in his tracks, incensed. Make enemies here and he'd have to shit elsewhere. Buy something here and he'd have to starve. Old supply-demand curve.
"Okay," he replied, and headed back toward the drinks section. I guess I could use something to carry water in. He settled for a quart of an off-brand fruit juice called Nectarino for $1.25, $1.35 with tax. I hope it doesn't make me puke.
Outside again without enough money to buy even two gumballs, Ethan took a sip of the Nectarino. It tasted like watered-down honey. I'll nurse this, he thought.
It was a lot darker outside now. He didn't know what time it was, hadn't bothered to look at a clock. The time was hardly important anymore. But since it was getting dark, Ethan thought he'd like to find somewhere to sleep.
Before doing that, he again found himself amazed at the total change in the pedestrian traffic after dark, as he had been last year. While the day traffic also consisted of all sorts of yuppies, senior citizens, parents, and little kids, the nighttime traffic reduced the proportions decidedly in favor of teenagers and college students. It made sleeping a lot more comfortable that way, knowing his own kind was around.
He walked down Guadalupe, looking empathetically at the groups of street kids in hopes they could give him some advice. He hoped to avoid last year's nightmares.
A girl stepped forward as if to tell him something important, but she only asked, "Spare some change, dude?"
Ethan shrugged and said, "No fair! I'm begging too."
"Oh, that's cool," she said. "Could I have a sip of that? Wait -- that's not your piss, is it?"
"No, might as well be though. Try some," he said, handing the Nectarino to her.
She took a sip and grimaced, looking at the ingredients. "I guess it's healthy, anyway," she said, and handed it back. "Can't even get drunk off it."
"Nectariiino," Ethan said jokingly, taking a gulp from the bottle.
He glanced down at the two guys and the girl sitting on the edge of a decorative planter. "You all live on the street?" he asked.
One of the guys stamped his foot on the concrete and nodded. "This is our home, yup."
"Could you suggest somewhere to sleep?" Ethan asked, for some reason embarrassed. He unconsciously played with the Nectarino bottle.
"Did you just get here? I ain't seen you around any," one of the girls asked.
"You could say that. I was here last year a while."
"Well, there's a camping ban now. So ya basically gotta hide out. You cud stay in the church up there too, but they don't letcha smoke or drink. Or you cud go to the youth shelter. But you gotta sign forms and give up your soul. Oh, but wait, you're over 18 I guess, you cudn't do that." Ethan shrugged. "Wait, you have a car?"
"Hmmm. Well, we know somewhere --" she started, when the other girl shook her head. "-- But I guess we don't trust ya enough yet. You're kinda cute though." The other girl hit her shoulder. "Ah whatever. The cops don't bother ya much if you're out of sight."
"I understand. Don't worry. Bye," Ethan said, heading off. Ah yes, he thought, trust. That's hard to come by.
He headed up the street toward another group of youths.
"Any of you know where I could sleep?" he asked.
"Your house?" one of the kids asked sarcastically.
"Why you asking us?" another asked.
"I, I just thought you'd know," Ethan said, suddenly wondering if the kids were just sloppy dressers on purpose.
"Yah, fuck off, faggot," Sarcastic said, lifting a finger. Faggot saw it had a nice little skull tattooed on it.
"Hey, it's cool," Ethan said nervously, walking on.
"We ain't poor, asshole," someone called after him.
Flustered, he walked on to an empty area of storefront and fitfully leaned back against a wall. From where he stood he could catch snatches of music coming from the venue called Hole in the Wall. He closed his eyes and listened. Only the high notes made it his way, so he got to hear a lot of guitar solos and screaming.
Ethan wasn't distrustful enough of people, so he momentarily wondered what happened when he felt his bottle of Nectarino disappear. He jerked his eyes open and saw a kid running away, pouring it out on the sidewalk. Ethan gave chase, which was pointless since the kid soon threw the empty bottle bouncing into the street. Ethan looked aside for traffic and dashed out to get his bottle before it got run over. "Shithead," he muttered after dodging an angrily honking car. "Do they teach that in school now?"
He sighed and looked at the empty bottle, taking a sip from the last few drops inside. He looked at the stores to decide where to fill it up with water. He spotted a video arcade and assumed that would be an inconspicuous place.
Inside, the noise was nearly deafening, at least compared to the noise difference between the city and the forest. Also, for some reason there are red and blue and green strobe lights going. Dazed teenagers clenched joysticks, handles, and plastic guns while mumbling eagerly to themselves. Screams and cries erupted often as quarters were lost and enemies were destroyed. Ethan shook his head and looked for a water fountain. He filled up the Nectarino bottle and realized bitterly that he didn't have a cap for it anymore.
He took a drink and walked among the machines, lazily gauging the players' performances. None of them noticed him at all, even when he accidentally stepped on a kid's shoe. They might as well have been drugged. If I had money, this is how I could spend the week, he thought. Better than acid.
Ethan peered at some of the rare, vacant machines' demo modes, amazed at the increase in technological proficiency since just last year. Still, he sighed at the overabundance of shoot-em-ups and fighting games. Why don't they make a burn-the-forests or a starve- the-vagrants game? You can already do that in real life, I guess.
Soon finding the effect of the strobelights triggering unpleasant visual flashbacks, Ethan walked outside into the night, again wondering what he was going to do for sleep. He decided in the meantime to look for his bottle cap.
He traced his steps back -- it was easy to do, noting the unusual trail of sticky liquid on the concrete. At the beginning of the trail, he paced around in circles looking for the white cap. Luckily, he found it had rolled into a relatively clean corner of the sidewalk. He dusted it off, sniffed it, and placed it back on the Nectarino bottle.
"That's really unsanitary," he heard a kid say.
"Huh? Oh, it belonged to this bottle." Turning around, Ethan asked, "Why, did you see someone pee on it?"
"No," said a kid with a shaved head. Suddenly grinning, he asked, "Say, what's your name? I'm Jeremy."
"My name's Ethan. Nice to meet you. Say, can you spare me some change? Some fool kid emptied out my priceless nectar," he said, shaking the bottle.
"I'm sorry about that. Some people are real assholes," Jeremy said, fishing in his pocket for change. "Here ya go."
Ethan gawked. "A dollar? That's really nice of you."
"It's okay, I don't eat much anyway."
He looked Jeremy over. He was wearing a tattered black shirt, which hinted that it was convenient for not needing much laundering, big baggy shorts with bulky, sagging pockets, and a backpack. "No way, are you also homeless?" he asked.
"I can't take your money, man," Ethan said, shoving the dollar back into Jeremy's hand.
"No, no, don't worry, I have a job," Jeremy said, smiling, shoving the dollar back into Ethan's hand.
"Oh? Okay, that's cool, I guess. Thanks," he said, and started walking down the sidewalk again. After he had gone a distance, he looked back and saw Jeremy was trailing him, with a goofy smile on his face. He stopped and raised a hand toward him. "Say, do you know somewhere I could sleep?"
Jeremy grinned and suggested, "With me?"
"Where do you sleep?"
He stopped grinning and put on a serious expression. "Sometimes I stay with friends, else I sleep in Juncture."
"Juncture? Oh God, are you from there too?" Ethan asked sympathetically.
"Yeah! There are worse places, you know."
"Okay, okay, I guess so. So are you with friends now?"
"No, I haven't found any tonight."
"Oh. How do you get back to Juncture then?" Ethan asked. "Oh wait, you must have a car."
"Nope, I don't. I wasn't planning to go back to Juncture tonight."
"Aaah. So you're looking for somewhere to sleep too?"
Jeremy looked at his wrist and sighed. "Yup, guess so."
"I talked to some kids hanging out near here a while back, and they said either the church, the youth shelter, or some secret place they didn't trust me enough to tell."
"Yeah, it's all look-out-for-old-number-one out here."
"What about UT? Any hassles there?"
"Oh, I'm not in college," Jeremy said.
"No, I can tell that. I meant, do you know if it's okay to sleep there?"
"If you got a dorm, I guess."
"Yeah," Ethan muttered. "Well, I'm gonna go look around." He walked to the crossing and waited for the light to change. Jeremy hovered around him. When he crossed, Jeremy followed him across. Ethan nodded at him but otherwise ignored him.
He walked up the steps and past a fountain, whose spray was annoyingly sticky in the already humid air. Ethan noticed several miniature decks built around trees to the sides of the main sidewalk. Those might be nice, he thought, looking around to see if anyone else was taking advantage of the spots. Three college-age guys walked by and Ethan stepped forward and asked, "Say, do the police harass the homeless if they sleep on campus?"
A guy with big long curly hair said, "I dunno. Don't press your luck around here, man, that's all I can say."
The four walked away and one of the guys whispered loudly, "I bet you thought he was gonna ask if you're from San Antonio!"
The curly-haired guy replied, "You know where I'm coming from!" They all laughed.
Ethan shook his head and stepped up onto one of the decks and considered lying down on it, but then he remembered what the girl had said about the camping ban. He didn't know if lying down would be a violation, but as he so clearly knew, "Ignorance of the law is no excuse."
He stepped off the deck and wandered back toward the Drag. I'm not walking across that huge campus and turning around, he thought. He saw the Jeremy kid was still hovering around.
"You want a drink?" he offered, holding out his bottle.
"Oh, no thanks, Ethan."
Great, he's calling me by name now, he thought, casting a glance up and down the road. "That direction," he asked Jeremy, pointing left, "goes to the highway, right?"
"I won't sleep next to the highway, then," he mentioned, heading right. "God, I'm sweating! These fucking jeans. How many times am I going to walk up and down this street today, anyway?"
"`How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?'" Jeremy offered.
Ethan turned around and smirked. "I don't care what they call me as long as it's not `faggot'."
He smiled sympathetically. "Yeah, that's really cruel, isn't it?"
"Hell, it just isn't true."
Jeremy frowned and sighed to himself. He thought Ethan was cute.
"Say, up here," Jeremy said a while later.
"Turn left. It gets you into a residential area."
"You know somewhere?" Ethan asked.
"I know for a fact that there's a house around here whose owners are on vacation. Their porch is hidden behind bushes."
"Hmmm... you slept there before?"
"I guess I, er, we could try it out. I just got out of jail today, though," Ethan said, hoping to scare Jeremy off.
"For trespassing or something?" he asked, unamazed.
"Yup," Ethan admitted, chagrinned. He wanted some privacy, at least tonight. Well, but at least this guy was younger. He was probably safe. Worst he could do is steal his water bottle and forty cents. Dollar and forty cents. And clothes -- that would be funny. Oh, stop being so freaking paranoid, he thought.
"Don't worry, they usually give warnings first. Check it out, though, Ethan. The lights are off. That's a plus."
"Oh yeah," he admitted. He'd forgotten the garish brightness of cities at night. "Alright, let's try it out."
"Just be casual. No one's on the street right now." Jeremy went up the walk, took a sharp turn at the porch and sat down. Ethan followed, taking the other side. Bushes surrounded the whole porch except for the area visible from the walk.
"No pillows, I guess."
"Try your shoes. And be happy it's not winter."
"True," Ethan said.
"Check it out. No ants."
"Oh, good. Not right now at least. Well, I'm gonna head off to sleep."
"Okay, see ya in the morning," Jeremy said, and then, "Or not, whatever you prefer."
"I guess we could hang out."
"Cool! G'night, Ethan."
Ethan took off his shoes, set them under his head, stretched out his legs, and lay on his back. For several minutes, deep in thought, he stared at the eerie glow of the overhang's white boards in the darkness and listened to the sounds of the occasional car passing by. He turned over, rested his head on his arm, and closed his eyes.
Ethan woke up the next morning stiff and aching. He groaned as he sat up, resting his head on his knees. His legs felt rubbery, his back like dead weight. Why am I doing this? he thought. Doing what? he countered. I didn't do shit yesterday, did I? He couldn't remember much.
He looked up, almost having forgotten about Jeremy. He was still asleep and still wearing his backpack. Also he had all sorts of odd things sitting on the concrete around him. Ethan peered into the shadows and tried to make them out. There was a little bar of hotel soap nestled in its loose wrapping (That's a great idea, thought Ethan, sniffing himself gingerly). Near that lay a razor (He must have used that to shave his head --) and a comb (-- and that's just dead weight now). In other pile lay a strip of condoms (That's how he spends his free time, Ethan thought), a pocketknife (More basic tools of life I lack...), and a pen and pencil. And here I am with a dollar forty, a bottle of water, a cheap paperback, and a notebook, and... no pencil! Where'd my pencil go? Jeremy was a walking hygiene control center compared to him, and he probably had t.p. in his backpack too.
Ethan let himself become mildly depressed. After all, what am I but an outcast? Even outcasts need their stuff. How little can I live with? By forcing myself homeless, what did I really free myself from? Responsibility? Maybe in the form of personal or financial obligations, but I'm entirely responsible for my own well-being now. That's a lot more than most people would be able to stand. But was that my purpose for doing this? To force upon myself a lot of unnecessary hardship? What is this all for?
Letting himself get worked up caused the juices to flow and Ethan's stomach growled painfully. What's edible around here? he thought. He looked into the window near his head and could see the refrigerator inside the house clearly. Door's locked, I bet. They're always locked; they always have been. A while back it was just a boulder rolled in front of the entrance to the cave.
Jeremy stirred and opened his eyes. He saw Ethan sitting up, still nearby, and his heart grew warm. He slowly sat up and yawned. "Hey, Ethan," he said amiably.
"Hey, Jeremy," he replied, finding himself grinning at the small kindness. That's something I've been missing -- nice people. "Sleep well?"
"Sure, about the same as usual. Are you sore?"
"Hell yeah," Ethan said. "I need to get some more training before I can walk around all day and sleep on concrete all the time."
"That's a thought. Prolly the best way to get used to it is just by doing it, you know?"
"Yeah, well, I guess."
"We ought to get out of here before people hear us."
Jeremy filled up his pockets again and then stood up in front of the door and knocked on it. He motioned to Ethan and he stood up. Jeremy peered through the window and shrugged his shoulders and turned and headed down the walkway. Ethan followed.
"Do you have a backpack hidden somewhere?" Jeremy asked him.
"Dammit, no. In fact, I was just envying all your stuff."
"That's no way to be homeless. I could get you one if you like."
Ethan shook his head. "I don't know. Only if it's free. I don't wanna get into debt with you."
"C'mon, you really need a way to carry stuff around. It's a necessity. I wouldn't bill you for it. That's a disgusting capitalist idea."
Ethan grinned. "That's for sure. What, are you a commie?" he asked sarcastically.
"Let's just say I love people."
"That's a radical philosophy."
"Yeah, ssssh! don't tell anyone."
Ethan held a finger to his lips and winked.
He led Ethan up the street to a outdoor supply store, where he bought him a pretty hefty backpack for forty bucks. "It'll keep you in shape," he gibed.
Afterwards, outside, Ethan said, "Thanks a lot for this, it's really beyond belief."
"Hey, ya know?" Jeremy babbled, grinning.
"I feel awful doing this, but, uh..."
"You want something else?"
"Yeah... a Boy Scout manual. I need to learn some basic survival skills."
Jeremy blinked, confused. "Oh! Uh, alright, sure," he agreed, scratching his head. "Where would that be?"
"In an outdoor supply shop?"
"Oh! Let's go back in then."
Inside they found several old tattered copies of Boy Scout manuals, but the most recent one Ethan found was from 1979. "This sure won't tell me how to deal with acid rain or polluted rivers. Damn." But he let Jeremy buy it anyway.
"This is technically black market," the counter guy said. "Not for sale." But he sold it anyway. He wanted five bucks.
Outside again, Jeremy and Ethan stood around wondering what to do.
"So, what were you going to do today?" Jeremy asked.
"Beg or steal I guess. I haven't eaten since early yesterday."
"Well then, let's go eat somewhere. Where do you want to go?"
Ethan blushed. "You're gonna spend more money on me?"
"Listen, Ethan, I sometimes make a hundred dollars a day. And I don't even have to spend it. I usually give it away. C'mon... Wendy's, say? There's one at the end of the street."
What the hell kind of job does he have so that he's still homeless? Ethan wondered suddenly. Does he mug people? Is he going to try to initiate me into his ring of criminals...? Jesus, I'm being too paranoid. Oughta sit back and enjoy the free food, he told himself. His happy mindset had quickly turned suspicious. Unnerved, he accepted the offer and followed Jeremy down the street. And this is starting to feel familiar, he thought, remembering the deal with Jake. I won't beat him up this time though, he nervously joked to himself.
Having received their orders and sat in a booth, Jeremy said, "You're acting awfully nervous. Did you have a bad dream?"
Ethan looked up, expressing nervous apprehension. "No, no bad dream. It's... it's just, this," he said, generically waving his hand around.
Jeremy started to feel uncertain. He doesn't trust me, he thought. "This... what?"
"All this fucking generosity I don't deserve," he replied, anxiously looking around. Doesn't he ever look away?
"It's not that much trouble, really. After all, you accepted it, right?"
"I guess so."
"So just eat, c'mon."
Ethan looked up and saw Jeremy was smiling at him. And still looking at him. It was absolutely unnerving. "Look away, alright?" he snarled weakly.
Jeremy's eyes widened in surprise. "Oh! Oh, sorry, sorry. I didn't realize it was bothering you."
"You always stare at people?" he asked.
"I... I just --" replied Jeremy, startled. Oh, this is going all to hell. "I didn't mean anything by it, I just wanted to see you eat. After all, I'm just trying help out a fellow homeless person, that's all...," said the uncertain immortal.
Again! He's lying! He's not homeless, he just wants... "Yes, yes, I know! It's just... It's just that too many people...," he stammered, spinning a fry endlessly in a glob of ketchup, "... too many guys... they always try to..." Why is everything crashing down?!
Jeremy's mind suddenly filled with feelings of fear and hatred, alien feelings, not at all his own. He grimaced and started to feel terrible. What the hell happened to him? He looked at his guest who was trying to appear as if he were concentrating on a very important french fry and not making eye contact. It's always a dead giveaway in the eyes, he thought.
"Ethan," he interrupted. "Stop it," he said, without any sign of nervousness.
"What?" he asked, looking up.
Jeremy saw what he needed to know. "Listen, I bet you're wondering if I'm trying to hit on you. Well, I am gay --"
God damn! Ethan cried. Walked right into it again! He whipped his head around, looking for exits. "I just knew --"
"But I'm not hitting on you."
"No, and you won't, and I thank you for all this shit, and I have to go and --"
"Ethan! Stop it!" he whispered angrily.
"What?! I'm stopping it, whatever it was going to be, right now!" he retorted, scooting out of the booth. "You don't know how many times--"
"Don't leave!" Jeremy whispered angrily.
"`Don't leave'!" Ethan retorted sarcastically. "I recognize that little chant. `You'll get arrested again! You should stay with me and be safe.' Fuck this!" He walked around the array of booths and headed for the exit.
"Gimme back that backpack then, asshole!"
He smirked, surprised, wrenched the new backpack off his shoulders, and threw it sharply back. The Boy Scout manual inside gave it some momentum and the pack struck Jeremy in the head. He sat back, dazed, listening to the indignant footsteps fade away.
Ethan hastily returned to the Wendy's, shoving the door open and stretching across the partition between the entrance and the row of seats to the left where he had just sat. Jeremy lurched back away from him, fearing an attack. Ethan only grabbed his unfinished burger and left again just as suddenly.
Boy, was that ever a bad call, Jeremy thought sourly. He slowly folded up the new backpack and shoved it in his own. He leaned back in the booth and stared resentfully at his untouched food. He didn't like food. It made him shit.
Ethan crossed the sadistic five-way anti-pedestrian intersection and returned to the Drag. He felt painfully out-of-place. It was only ten in the morning and the sidewalks were crammed with affluent adults and little children. He supposed most of the other people his age were asleep still.
He perched up on the same wall he'd commandeered the previous day and continued to read his paperback. He was agitated by the experience with Jeremy. If he'd had less sugar in his bloodstream he might have doubted his sanity and wondered if he were indeed the only heterosexual in Texas. One good thing, he thought; I got a dollar from that kid.
Thinking back, he made some connections. It wasn't until he'd gotten kicked out of his house that this swarm of perverts had started to descend upon him. Before that, at Juncture High School, he clearly remembered having several dates. Real dates, with girls. No guys ever came on to him during school. But once he was outside.... He hadn't really thought about it before. They don't mention the existence of homosexuals at school. Probably that was to be learned in church. He didn't know; he'd never gone. School was a tightly controlled social caste system, separating kids into distinct cliques, like brainers, stoners, mall chicks, jocks, nerds, etc... but no gay clique, right?
He tried to think. Who were the fags in Juncture? He'd heard the rumors floating about every once in a while, but were those really true? He'd heard about the two guys discovered beating off in the locker room... but that was just a rumor. All the rest he remembered were just general accusations, followed by general outcasting or general meanness. Ethan never knew for sure. It didn't even interest him. What about that Jeremy kid? He didn't look old enough for high school, so there was no chance of seeing him around. And could anyone really turn gay that early? Maybe he was just kidding.
Ethan was genuinely puzzled. Why wouldn't they have taught about that in school? In health class or something? Maybe it was in the rule book. Again, he remembered the distinction -- they seemed to come out in full force outside of school. Probably they just all kept quiet during school. Even with that, he doubted there had been many at his school in the first place. No one sure seemed to fit the stereotype.
He then remembered, though, all the guys who really hated faggots. Had they all been assaulted like Ethan? That couldn't possibly be right, could it? Otherwise adults would have talked about it much more often. They would have made it a big issue if guys were getting molested left and right. But they didn't even seem to care. They didn't even mention it. Probably those guys had all been educated by their dads. That was probably how it happened. Could so many dads have been molested at a young age? That couldn't be, could it? His own dad had never expressed gratitude for not being molested like so many others in Juncture supposedly had.
It's not just me, is it? Ethan wondered. If none of this makes sense, Ethan thought, then I must have been seriously misled somewhere along the line.
He thought back to his own experiences. They've all been bad... or have they? Only Steve really took advantage of me, that asshole. But Jake? Hell, what had he even said? He seemed way too nice. And nervous. He knew he was doing something wrong. He told the police he thought I thought he was gay, so he must have been. And Jeremy? He told me he wasn't coming on to me, didn't he? What happened then?
Ethan finally put down his book, which he'd been holding listlessly between his thumb and forefinger. This is idiotic. I have to talk to him, he thought.
It had been at least ten minutes since he'd left the Wendy's but Ethan rushed back, hoping Jeremy hadn't yet left. He looked side to side for oncoming speeding cars and dashed across the street. Taking a few steps inside the Wendy's, he saw Jeremy was gone. He stepped back outside and scanned the horizon. It was so difficult to make people out of the stream of constantly moving shapes lining the sidewalks. He acted on his best intuition and ran back across the road of death to the Drag.
Ethan scanned the faces and shapes of the people in the crowd, trying to isolate the five-and-a-half-foot shaved-headed dressed-in- black Jeremy. It was a difficult assumption to make that if he were on the Drag, he would be seen by one trip down the sidewalk. Ethan took about five minutes to walk all the way down to a hellish three-way intersection; from there, he scanned into the distance again, not able to make out Jeremy's shape from there either. So, he headed back. He found his attention diverted by a growing thirst and took a sip of his water. He felt sure he could have missed Jeremy in that time. He continued his trek back, pausing irritably at busy intersections he couldn't run across, glancing occasionally across the street, wondering if the kid had headed over to UT. Halfway back, once again next to the Hole in the Wall, Ethan remembered that Jeremy easily could have gone into one of the air-conditioned businesses; the increasing heat at eleven suggested the possibility. He walked on further, becoming frazzled, his current utter confusion about his beliefs, his steadfast devotion to the truth, and his absolute lack of responsibility driving him on toward a confrontation.
Ethan remembered Jeremy's mention of returning to Juncture, the high possibility that he had other clothes and might have changed, the infinitude of possibilities about where he might have headed, and he became discouraged. Not to mention exhausted and hot. And he stank. And the burger he'd hastily eaten was resting uncomfortably in his stomach. But no matter how uncomfortable it was, he didn't want to waste it on more pointless walking in the sun. He decided to give up for now, sighed, and trudged back to his spot on the wall several blocks away.
Jeremy had in fact detoured to the restroom of the Wendy's to masturbate. After ten minutes and only one interruption, he headed out of the restaurant and stood on the sidewalk wondering what to do that day. He usually only stayed in Austin when he became bored with the prospects in Juncture. While most teenagers found Juncture incredibly boring at all times, Jeremy found unlimited interest in the people and places already there. He considered himself immortal, and had proof to back it up; knowing this had largely eliminated his selfishness and materialism. Therefore he could be humored by anything. Boredom would only come about when he could predict the future. He had no plans to learn how.
He had become intrigued with Ethan. He had nothing -- no money, no backpack -- and seemed too weak to take what he wanted. It was as if he'd just run away from home on the one hand; and on the other, he appeared to be travelling around -- his lack of hygiene wouldn't have been tolerated at home.
Jeremy wanted to find out what his story was, but was wary of approaching him again -- he was much too homophobic for anyone's good. Where he stood on the sidewalk, he saw Ethan dashing about on the Drag. Someone had probably pulled a prank on him again and he was likely to be agitated as hell. So Jeremy took an alternate route to avoid him for the time being.
Before long, as he feared, Ethan finished his paperback. He only had about a dollar and a half, so if he wanted to get another book and eat, he'd need to beg again. He had quickly learned what a thankless job panhandling was, garnering him roughly a dollar an hour. He hadn't counted on the stuffy heat of the downtown draining his energy and spirit. I could have sworn it was cooler last year, he thought. Maybe I didn't have a beard and a layer of grime caking my body then.
"That does it," he said aloud. Bewildered at his state of mind, which allowed him to acknowledge his filth for two days but forget to act on it, Ethan leaped off the wall and decided to head off to find water somewhere. He wondered where he could go. Probably not a public pool -- people would have a fit, even more than when kids whiz in it. A river? Just how polluted were those now? He didn't want to go to the youth shelter if all that about the signing of forms and selling one's soul was true. He still wanted to shave though. Hmmm, he thought.
"Excuse me sir?" he said, tagging a passerby. "Could you spare a razor?" The man gave him a confused expression and headed on.
"Will anyone wash and shave the vagrant?" he called out, not expecting any response. He didn't get any direct responses except a nervous chuckle. He looked around and took another sip of his water. He noticed it was getting low, so he walked down the sidewalk toward the video arcade he'd so effectively tapped the night before.
During the day the strobelights weren't as noticeable, and also there were a lot more kids inside not to notice them. Ethan squeezed his way through to the water fountain and refilled his bottle. On the way out, in an effort to pretend that he had entered the arcade with an interest in video games, he loitered around, staring disinterestedly over kids' shoulders. He could have sworn the same kids were in the same positions the previous night.
He walked toward the exit only to see Jeremy walk in, feeling about in his pockets for change. "Hey!" Ethan cried out. Looked up apprehensively and seeing the intriguing grungy-looking guy calling him, Jeremy gave a weak smile and a wave. "I've got to talk to you," Ethan said.
"Really?" he asked, surprised and a little concerned. "I didn't think you'd ever want to see me again."
"I apologize for what happened. I had no justification."
"Well, apology accepted. Thanks."
"My fault entirely," Ethan said, pretending to tip a hat. "Now, I have selfish reasons for wanting to see you. I want to take advantage of your wealth."
"Oh yeah?" Jeremy replied, grinning with all his teeth.
"Seriously. Let's go somewhere where we can talk."
Ethan and Jeremy crossed over to the UT campus and walked aimlessly around.
"First things first," Ethan started. "I am in dire need of a shower. Do you know where I could go?"
"Just go to a swimming pool. That always does the trick."
"No, no way. I don't want to pollute the water."
"Are you serious? They have showers at the pool. To get rid of the chlorine smell after swimming. No one will care if you happen to shower beforehand."
"Good lord!" Ethan exclaimed. "That was a no-brainer."
"Not really. You just have to learn to think differently."
"How do you mean? Like, `at all'?"
Jeremy smirked, but his eyes conveyed uneasiness. "Don't be harsh. I gotta ask you, how long have you been homeless?"
"About three weeks."
"You haven't bathed in that long?!"
"No, I washed off two, three days ago, without soap," Ethan said sheepishly, mildly offended.
"Oh! Well, okay then, that's something. I didn't think it was that bad. But I mean, why this scurrying around now? Where did you wash off before?"
"Oh, I wasn't here before. I was out in the woods until a few days ago."
Jeremy's eyes widened. "Did you live out there?"
"Yup, for a few weeks."
"Wow! That's really cool!"
"Not really... I nearly starved."
"It sucks having to eat, doesn't it?"
"Well, uh," Ethan said, confused, "it's a way of life I guess."
"Yeah," Jeremy replied, forcing a laugh. "What was it like out there?"
"Strangely, it was cooler. None of this concrete to reflect all the heat around. More trees, more shade. Also, lots of real animals. Not like the ones the city plants here to imitate a sense of naturalness. Lots of mosquitoes too... but I think that after a certain threshold was reached, they got bored and left me alone."
"I like it outside too, in general. But Austin's way too overcrowded. That's why I like Juncture."
"Never thought I'd hear anyone say that sentence."
"You must be projecting your own feelings, Ethan. By the way, I really like that name."
Ethan restrained himself from lashing out but knew that he'd be scrutinizing the rest of the conversation. He didn't appreciate that fact and felt guilty for it. To cover up, he said, "I like the name Jeremy too."
"Oh yeah?" Jeremy asked, instantly noting the change in his attitude.
"Sure...," he replied, and still trying to cover up, he said, "it rolls off the tongue, like slobber."
Ethan started laughing in spite of himself. "Uh, hee-hee, I didn't mean to -- ha ha! -- say that." He continued laughing, freeing himself from a general sense of pressure. Thinking about what he said, he laughed harder. The laughter came in waves and he didn't want it to stop.
"Oh wow, you're really alive!" Jeremy exclaimed.
"What?!" Ethan now got to say, his laughter suddenly ceasing. "What the hell! Fuck you!" He was offended.
"C'mon, I was just noting the obvious."
"You didn't have to say it that way."
"It's true, though. I haven't laughed like that for months... half a year even."
"Oh, man, that's dangerous," Jeremy said, very concerned. "Does any of this have to do with being homeless?"
"Not really... I only laughed the previous time because I was high. Other than that...," he trailed off. Is there anything at all to laugh about anymore?
"Why are you homeless, Ethan?"
"I ran away from home."
"Oh! Well... why?"
"I couldn't stand sitting at home watching TV with my parents."
"You ran away for that?" Jeremy asked, incredulously.
"Don't give me that condescending tone of voice, kid. It's much more complicated than that," he said. "Wait, let me take a breather. .... Okay, sorry. That's much better.
"Here's why I ran away. One, I hate television. It's overflowing with useless sound and video. It numbs my mind and my emotions. Plus there's the fact that 99.9% of Americans own them. And necessarily, those people live in buildings with televisions. So I figure the only way to get away from TV is by staying outside.
"Two, I wanted to live in the wilderness. Have you ever read Walden? Thoreau gives excellent reasons for escaping society in the interest of saving one's sanity. That was fucking written in the 1840's. Nowadays it's twenty times worse. If anyone thought Thoreau was a crank then, doing it 150 years later seems only necessary. You won't believe what that did for me, even though I almost died. For one thing, I've lost track of time. I hate time too. I'm not a computer; I don't have to be controlled by a clock. Something else: I've learned to appreciate the art of survival. It's too damned easy to live nowadays, if you have money. But in the wild, no amount of money is going to make you food or shelter; you have to have survival skills. Oh, by the way..."
Jeremy pulled off his backpack, opened it, took out Ethan's backpack, and handed it to him. "Here ya go," he said with an admiring smile. Already his perceptions of him had changed dramatically.
"Thanks a lot, Jeremy," he replied. "You know, the more I say it, the more I really do like that name. It kinda grows on you."
"Thanks," he said. Although he'd had no control in deciding his name, he knew Ethan was probably projecting his feelings about the name onto its owner. However roundabout, he accepted the compliment.
"Well, let me go on, Jeremy. Three, I hate money too. While it simply used to represent the right to attain privileges, it's now used to prove one's right to exist. I say, fuck that! I made myself homeless to get away from money, even if only to martyr myself and force myself to come back here to beg. I'll never put in an honest day's work for money, though I'd do it for free.
"Now, if you put all that together, you can see why I didn't want to stay home and watch TV with my parents. I hated TV, I hated the money it took to get the TV, to get the apartment, and to get the freedom to have nothing to do but watch TV. I left home on an ideal and nearly killed myself. I guess in a sick way I can be proud of that."
"Oh wow," Jeremy said, amazed. "My reasons for being homeless aren't nearly as noble. My parents kicked me out for being gay so I became a prostitute."
Ethan was taken aback. Guys do that too? But he finally realized where Jeremy got all his money from. It came as an odd relief. "You don't watch TV, do you?"
"No, hardly at all."
"Then I can dig it," he said, grinning.
"Say, Jeremy," he started to point out, letting himself toy with the idea; "I don't even resent all the money you make. Didn't you say you usually gave it away?"
"Uh-huh. I really have no use for it."
"Not even for food?"
"Well... it's not that expensive."
"See there, that's cool. In a way it's also really funny -- yes, funny. Wait, you say your parents kicked you out just for being gay?"
"Yup. Happens a lot, really."
"What the fuck! News to me. See there, again supporting my line of thought -- your insensitive, stupid parents -- tell me if I shouldn't be nicer -- kick you out just for that, but you turn around and scoff at the whole economic system by taking on the oldest occupation in history, and make a lot of money -- but then you give it all away! I'm not sure of the ins and outs, but that's one damned righteous way to be!"
Jeremy was smiling and nodding. "I figure it's a good way to waste time."
"Fuckin' awesome!" Ethan said, suddenly in a wonderful mood. "I wish I coulda thought of that. I mean, I wouldn't do it, but, ya know."
"Doesn't it faze you in the slightest? My being a whore?"
"Whore, spore, score!" he scoffed. "It's the old law of supply and demand. Someone's got to supply, eh? Ain't just heterosexuals who have the demand, right?" he went on, not knowing or caring how he sounded. Somehow all his negative experiences in the past -- and reconsidered it was really only one -- seemed small. In the grand scheme of things, nothing as insignificant as what kind of people you wanted to screw mattered at all. Ethan knew what he thought about overpopulation, for example, but the effect people like Jeremy would have on it seemed only to be an added benefit, not just an excuse. Or something like that. "Oh no! Now you've got me considering it! Ha ha! No offense, but my mind's already made up. Oh, forget it, you already said you weren't pushing."
Jeremy didn't have the benefit of reading Ethan's mind to understand the connection and could only nod thoughtfully and chuckle. Wondering if Ethan's sudden evolution of reason from this morning was for real or not, he decided to push the issue. Not to mention he still yearned for a chance. "But, you know, Ethan, if you ever want to bone me, we can do it for free."
Ethan blushed. "No, no, Jeremy, that's not what I want to do. I'm not gay. Some folks are, some folks aren't, I don't know how... but I'm not."
"Thank you. That was very tactful."
"Besides, you're too young."
"Well, damn, I'm pretty sure I've gone through puberty," he snapped.
"What does that mean?"
"Weren't you referring to me being a minor?"
"Oh! No, I just think you're too young for me, if that were the situation. How old are you anyway?"
"Oh wow, I thought you were much younger. But I can't tell ages worth shit anyway. How old do you think I am?"
"Nope, eighteen. It's the unbearable cynicism, right? Or the beard? That's it. Dammit, like I said, I need to take advantage of your wealth. Do you have a razor?"
"Yup, sure do. I'm planning to use it on my face someday."
"Ah-hah! Don't shave yet. So you must look younger than you are."
"Yup, sure do," Jeremy said, grinning. It was in fact one of his best selling points. Plus, it averted suspicion from the police.
"Okay, okay! Things are moving along nicely. Now, do you know where I can find a pool with a shower?"
"Yup, sure do," Jeremy repeated, waiting eagerly for Ethan to convey his annoyance.
"You have shaving cream and soap?"
"Yup, sure do."
"Alright, let's go!" Ethan said, holding out his arm for Jeremy to lead.
"Yup, sure do -- oh, that's bound to get annoying sooner or later!" he said, exasperated.
"Nope, not at all. I'm just happy to be in the company of a real- life human being -- not in any way to lessen what I think of you. Now, let's go!"
Jeremy cheerfully led the way.
Ethan found it much less conspicuous to enter the pool with a friend. Armed with Jeremy's towel and soap, he entered the shower. Luckily, it had a door, so no one would realize he was naked instead of simply washing off. He'd tried to convince himself before that he could do with certain privacies but he was glad to enjoy them when possible.
He was unduly shocked to look down at himself in the shower. He was much thinner than he'd ever been, able to see his ribs and hips, like when he was ten. The patches of hair on his chest didn't help the image, however, reminding him uncomfortably of Holocaust footage. It make him realize how hungry he was, having only eaten a burger and some doughnuts for twenty-four hours and nearly nothing the week before. He knew that hunger used to mean "time for the next snack" when he was at home, able to eat something every hour. With determination, or by default, he'd learned to ignore the largely unwarranted twinges of hunger. And with that, his body saw fit to digest what little fat was on him and would soon start to take away his muscle. Unless, of course, he ate well and often.
He was annoyed to find he didn't bring any shampoo. Not having used soap itself for three weeks seemed more important, though. So he soaped up his hair and washed it out. The results were just as good as with shampoo except for the fact that his hair felt entirely stripped of oil. Hair care is not high on my list of priorities, he told himself.
He also hadn't brought the razor. I'll do it outside, where everyone can see me, he thought humorously. For a while I'll still be a vagrant, but a damned clean one.
Suddenly he heard a knock on the door, interrupting his silent self-appraisal. "Hey!" he blurted out.
It was Jeremy. "Sorry to bother you. I incinerated your clothes. You can have some of mine. Extra-baggy so they won't go highwater on you."
Ethan was touched. "Hey, wow, thanks a lot, Jeremy. I'll pay you back somehow."
"No need," he said, leaving.
After he towelled off, Ethan put on the clothes, thankful for being able to wear shorts instead of jeans. He was glad to see his notebook and pocket change were still extant as well. He smoothed back his hair with his hand, happy to let it dry in the sun. He wandered out near the pool where Jeremy was waiting.
"Wow, you're white!" Jeremy exclaimed jokingly. Ethan was in fact lightly tanned.
"Ha-ha. Here ya go. I shook out the towel and tried to dry off the soap," he said, handing them back.
"Now you wanna shave, right?"
"Sure do. Hand me the equipment, I'll be done in no time."
"Well, wait. I have an idea."
"I wanna shave you."
"Uh, wait a second, that's sorta weird," Ethan protested.
"No it isn't. Just your face. It's like being a barber. Listen. Were you gonna shave it all off?"
"Yes, and --"
"But don't!" Jeremy said, stepping closer. "You prolly don't look at the guys around here much, but hardly any of them has a face-hugger."
"It's one of those dealies where you have a goatee and a moustache that connect together? Making a little circle around the mouth? I call 'em face-huggers. I think you'd look good -- even better -- with one of those."
"You think so?" Ethan said, grinning.
"Yeah! Only thing is, I might not be able to keep my hands off you afterwards."
"Oh, I trust you," Ethan said, realizing he really did.
"I appreciate that. So you wanna let me do it?"
"All right. And if I don't like the outcome, I have my options," he remarked slyly.
"Yeah, I'll give you a wedgie."
"I don't know which would be worse," he laughed.
"Oh, you will. Now, Ethan, listen. You know I'm gonna have to touch your face to shave it. For some reason, Americans are really fucked up about being touched. Is that okay? It won't mean anything."
"Sure, it's okay," he said.
"Let's go find a sink then. This'll be fun."
They went into the bathroom next to the pool. There was a nearly steady stream of kids going in and out of it. It would have been an incredibly inappropriate place for a shave had they been respectable citizens. But they made do.
Ethan and Jeremy stood on opposite sides of one of the sinks. Jeremy turned on the hot water tap and wet his hands. Ethan looked at the wall, expecting to see a mirror, hoping to take a last look at his furry face. Thwarted, he looked back and smiled. "I didn't get to see it much anyway."
With that, Jeremy began. He brought water up in his hands and pressed them against Ethan's face. Much of it stayed trapped in the whiskers. Then Jeremy peered at his subject's face, imagining the area he was going to shape out. It sounded pretty simple, but the shape of the face was all-important. Making his decision, he squoze some shaving cream on his hand and applied it to Ethan's sideburns and cheeks, carefully rubbing it in.
A few kids went by them and snickered. Jeremy simply said, "No respect for art at all."
He turned Ethan's face toward the wall, wetting the razor under the hot tap and bringing it up to the tip of Ethan's cheekbone where his ear attached. Then he drew down along the perimeter of his face down to the edge of his chin. He repeated the motion further in, and washed off the razor in the tap. Then he drew the razor up his face, completing the side. He looked at his work and grinned. Jeremy then turned Ethan's face away from the wall and repeated the gestures on the other side.
He wet the razor under the tap and turned Ethan's face toward him. Ethan saw the determination and care in Jeremy's face and it almost shocked him with its sincerity. Jeremy tilted his head and smiled. Then he put his hand to Ethan's face and swept the razor down in a slight arc around the edge of his mouth. He switched his hand and did the other side. He ran the razor under the tap and pressed his warm fingers around Ethan's mouth to shave the inner circle around his mouth. Jeremy made a short swipe below his lip and nodded happily. Ethan watched and felt all this with wonder. Even with the occasional snickers coming from the incredulous people passing in and out of the restroom, he felt serene and detached.
Jeremy rinsed off the razor and tilted Ethan's head toward the ceiling. He applied more shaving cream to his neck and then drew the razor upwards toward the jaw. Finally he cleaned off the areas below the ears and put down the razor. He wet a corner of the towel and wiped off Ethan's face. Finished, his eyebrows rose with a smile and he simply said, "Beautiful."
Outside again, Ethan remarked, "Man, this is great. It's like, I don't just feel clean, I also feel cleansed. You know? Is that corny?"
"Corny but honest, right?"
"Yes, that's true," he said, briefly enjoying himself. "Something else. I really admire you now. I don't know if I'm just imagining too hard, but I can imagine you helping out so many other people, almost like a saint. Any truth to that?"
"A little. It's not a full-time career or anything. Just sometimes I just like to help people out, that's all." He thought about his friend Jonathan Squires who was still working at the Shop 'n' Shop in Juncture. Jeremy had gone a little out of his way to help him out, mainly by getting him a drug connection.
"Well, I'm happy you're helping me out. I admit it; I wouldn't have ever gotten a shower or a shave, or even a meal, if it hadn't been for you. I was getting apathetic."
"Apathetic? Was that just here, or the whole time you were homeless?"
"Frankly, just here. This town sucks if you're homeless."
"I'm not so sure about that. I've had a lot of fun around here recently."
"I can imagine," Ethan said, chuckling.
"Oh, not like that, even. There are nightclubs around here. Loud music, flashing lights, spaced-out people. It's enough to trigger a flashback."
"Tell me about it. I think the arcade is less expensive for those purposes, though."
Jeremy laughed. "Actually, I go there too for that reason."
"You want to visit one for a while?" Ethan offered.
"Sure, let's do it. I wanna get my hands on some Virtua Fighter II."
They headed down to the Drag to visit an arcade. The walk there was animated with discussion about video games, computers, and the hypnotization of youth. Both were refreshed to think about something new for a change.
Before they entered the arcade, Ethan said, "Hey, Jeremy, just a sec. I think I've got a trick."
He tagged a man walking by on the sidewalk.
"Say, excuse me sir, could I borrow fifty cents? For a video game."
The man smirked and handed him two quarters.
After the man walked away, Ethan grinned and said, "Oh wow, that one's just too easy."
They spent a few hours in the arcade, When Ethan started feeling particularly numb and hungry, they left in search of food. Outside, it was nearing dark.
"Good lord! What time is it?"
"About seven I guess."
"That's great! Oh man, Jeremy, yesterday went by so slowly I could barely stand it. That's great; you can be my time machine."
"Sure, whatever roasts your beef," he said, winking.
"So, you want to eat?" Jeremy asked.
"Hell yeah. You must be starving too."
"Oh, sure. Where to?"
"Let's go to that Wendy's again, for old time's sake."
"You mean, as in this morning."
"Uh-huh! And we'll sit in the exact same place, okay? I shall defy those who dare to thwart me!"
"You go," Jeremy said, grinning.
They went back to the Wendy's, crossing the intersection of death. Ethan ordered a salad, a burger, and a tall glass of water, vowing to finish it all. Jeremy got an order of fries.
"You sure don't eat much," Ethan remarked around a mouthful of lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumber.
Jeremy finally let out with it. "Yeah, I'm immortal. I don't need food."
"Oh, all right," he replied.
There was a long pause.
"What about water?"
"That's odd, you know," Ethan said, confused, wondering if a punchline were coming up.
"Yeah, it is. If it bothers you I won't talk about it anymore."
"No, this is interesting. If you don't mind being scrutinized..."
"No prob, ask away."
"What about invincible? Can you get injured?"
"Yeah, briefly. I can heal fast."
"That's pretty much invincible, I guess," Ethan admitted, awed.
"Although there's some strange thing about it I haven't figured out. Once I got a VD from some guy -- it had to happen sooner or later -- but I thought it was interesting. I wanted to keep it. It was interesting to watch it progress. I started to rot."
"Oh my God, that's disgusting!"
"Yeah, I thought so too."
"Was that syphilis?"
"I dunno. I never really studied up on those things. So anyway, I decided I wanted to keep my job, so I willed the disease away. I was okay the next day."
"That's fucked up, Jeremy," Ethan said, expressing disbelief. "So is that how you think you're immortal? Maybe it's just like the power- of-positive-thinking to the fifth degree."
"I guess so. I haven't told hardly anyone about it though, so don't go bragging around that your friend is immortal. I don't like doctors."
"Sure, sure, it's safe," he said, eyes wide. After a sufficient pause, he added, "Sure you don't want those fries?"
"Wanker," Jeremy said, sliding them over.
"You know, it's sort of weird, but some people would think you were superhuman for that. Maybe even like a god."
"Yeah, that's true. I thought that myself for a while," he said. Then, solemnly he added, "I single-handedly destroyed one man's faith in God and left him with an inferior imitation."
"He was deluded before I tricked him, and he still is. I feel really bad about it. At least he's alive, though."
"I don't get it."
"He was... well, he was suicidal before. Stuff like that. I stopped him from... completing the act, and helped him through. All with the end result that he thinks I'm god," the immortal boy said, not wanting to overwhelm Ethan with the whole story of revivification and mind control.
"Well, whatever happened, it sounds like you did him a favor. I mean, we all know religion is false, right? Or are you religious?"
"Not really, I guess."
"Okay, well look at it. It's something man creates for his own purposes. A way to explain the unknown, to share common beliefs, to structure a society. I mean, for those purposes, it's okay. I just don't think people give themselves enough credit. Look at what people have done all over the earth. Some of it's damned astounding! And with all this, people still believe that some untouchable unknowable entity controls their lives? To put it in a nutshell, whoever thought up God had no self-confidence."
"Yeah, I've heard that before somewhere."
"Right. So, all I'm trying to say is, I bet it's more healthy to believe a person is a god -- or maybe an idol -- for a little while. Then you can see the human traits, the motives, the emotions in that person. With a transcendental God, what can you know? You can only guess what He wants and flail around, and in the worst case, imagine that you're doing His bidding, when you're just serving yourself. With a person, you can clearly tell. I don't know, I guess people already do that in a smaller sense when they love each other. It's more satisfactory to love other people, as opposed to a God or a dollar. But you know, that's so much harder to do. God and money don't respond, they don't insult you, they don't go against your wishes. Love is hard, but worth it."
"And you know, the way my life has gone, I like to think there is no God. That's more comforting, because that way I know that everything I've done was of my own free will, and not by some unknown force. I mean, most people praise God when good things happen -- how selfish! However, when bad things happen to people, I suppose that imagining that some God is controlling your life, or just giving you hints, is a way to get off your ass and change things. But again, I don't think people trust themselves enough."
Ethan hurled a french fry across the Wendy's and struck a senile old woman on the head.
"I do that of my own free will."
"You don't have to prove anything to me, Ethan. I'm not god."
"Maybe not, but you still have the right to think so. As long as you're not a conservative," he said, laughing.
"As an agent of the Almighty Lord, and equally as immortal, I bring down a judgement against ye for the hellish sins of sloth and the taking of charity, and I smite ye!" Jeremy said in a Baptist pantomime.
"Yeah, that would be pretty funny if it weren't true."
"So, Ethan, let's stop talking about me. What are you going to do in the future?" Jeremy asked.
"The future? You sound like my mom. I guess I could go back to college."
"Oh, you've been there?"
"Yeah, for a year. The most overly depressing year of my life, probably. `God' disliked me, I guess."
"Hmmm. Actually, I wasn't asking you to think that far ahead. I was sorta thinking about this summer. I mean, I'd be happy to hang around with you, and feed you and all, but I need to, you know, make some money every once in a while."
"Oh, sure thing, Jeremy. I wasn't planning to leech off you for long. With my trusty Boy Scout manual -- and some tools -- I'm going back into the wilderness. I might live there until I go to college or get arrested again. I mean, it's a good way to waste time."
"That sounds fun. Could I tag along?"
Ethan's eyes widened. "Really?"
"Yeah, why not?"
"Sure, sure, that's an idea! Then it might actually be bearable. Plus, neither of us needs to make money, right?" Ethan asked slyly.
"Right! I was planning on returning to Juncture soon, but I can detour..."
"Actually, it's on the way to Juncture."
"That's cool. It's a plan. I'll help you look for tools."
"That'd be super," Ethan said. "As for tonight, though, we probably have to stay here."
"Yeah, I think so too. Better get another good night's sleep."
"You mean quote good night's sleep endquote," he countered, remembering his soreness.
"Silly mortal," Jeremy said, giggling.
Half an hour later, Ethan had finished all the food he bought, and felt stuffed. As they were planning to leave, Jeremy tapped his arm.
"Say, Ethan, I think I've got a plan," he whispered. He scooted out of the seat and walked up to a guy ordering at the counter. "Hey, Tony!" he called.
"Jeremy!" he said uncomfortably. "Uh, what's up, kid?"
"Not much. I'm just visiting Austin again with a friend. You think we could stay over at your place for the night?"
"Oh, uh, I don't know, I don't have much room," Tony stammered.
"I'd gladly, uh, do a little work for you, if you want compensation."
Tony closed his eyes and tilted his head back with a smile. "Oh God, how can I refuse?"
"Is it a deal?"
"Yeah, sure. I'll see if I can get my roommate to leave for a while."
"Wow, thanks a lot. We'll drop by later, okay?"
"You know where it is still?"
"Yup. Laters, Tony."
Jeremy walked back to meet Ethan. "Okay, that's settled."
Ethan grinned and shook his head.
"You can watch if you want."
That night after they sat on Ethan's wall on the Drag for a few hours, Jeremy announced that it was time to visit Tony. Ethan politely refused to come in when they were together and instead spent thirty minutes in a Half Price Books, gathering some more cheap reading material for the rest of the summer. It was amazing what sort of interesting little books one could find in the ultra-bargain bin for fifty cents each. He found a book on meditation, one on the formation of the USSR, a book of poems about nature, and a pamphlet on starting your own farm. Being a conscientious spender, he discarded the USSR book. Politics were nothing to be worrying about in the wild. The cashier let him get away with paying $1.45, leaving Ethan with one penny. It wasn't a shiny penny, though.
Ethan followed the directions to Tony's apartment and rang the doorbell. He heard a voice yell, "Go away!" out of breath. He loitered around for ten more minutes and rang the doorbell again. Jeremy opened the door and let him in.
"You missed a fine show," he said. "Tony said we could stay for a week if necessary."
"Does he think you're God now?" Ethan asked.
It was around eleven at night, and Tony and Jeremy sat in the TV room. Ethan preferred to think, so he lay down in the roommate Howard's bed. He recounted the past few days. He was likely to spend only three days in Austin this time, and they were nowhere near as horrible as last year's, if only by the grace of Jeremy. Ethan planned to go with Jeremy into the woods and perhaps live there the rest of the summer. Perhaps his mom had signed him up for college yet again even though he apparently committed suicide. If so, maybe this would become a tradition.
"Oh dear, Ethan has committed suicide again. Clean his room and sign him up for another year at Trumpet."
Sounds good to me, he thought.
Lying calmly in Howard's bed, one wouldn't realize how much work was going on in Ethan's mind. The most appalling realization he'd had, with which he was now struggling, was the tenuous line between depression and elation. He couldn't understand how he was happy when he'd been depressed so long. He couldn't understand being depressed when he was happy. It made him a little wary of his mind. It made him respect it too. Any organ with the ability to utterly change state over the course of a day without self-destructing was something to admire.
Overwhelmed, he greatly overemphasized his transformation. The situation of being alone had fed back on itself and helped to ingrain all the negative connotations associated with it. His mind had entered a state where he accepted his situation grimly and believed nothing would ever change. But he had learned there was a way out. All he had really needed was a friend.
Jeremy came into the room an hour later. "Tony doesn't want me to sleep with him. Share a bed?"
Ethan sat up in Howard's bed and said, "Sure, I guess. You sleep facing that direction."
"Ah, the old 69 formation, eh?" he asked.
"Yeah, I guess so," he replied, ignoring the innuendo. He was in a state of peace, thinking about how startlingly important Jeremy was to him. He knew that at some time in the future he would need to springboard from his current state and learn how to properly live alone.
Jeremy climbed into bed and jokingly prodded Ethan's chin with his toes. "See you tomorrow."
"G'night, Jeremy." Ethan turned out the light and lay back. He listened to the faint sounds of Tony milling about in the hallway preparing for bed. It was so peaceful that he didn't even want to sleep, for fear of losing the tranquility. Into his mind popped a question. "Hey, Jeremy. Why do you sleep?"
"It relaxes my mind. Otherwise I'd surely go insane."
"Good answer.... Well, goodnight!"
The next day they woke up and Ethan ate breakfast from some of Howard's stores. "I'll tell him he ate them himself when he was drunk," Tony said. "Dumbfuck always falls for that."
"Sounds good to me," Ethan said around a mouthful of Pop-Tarts and grape Gatorade.
Hesitant to head off into the wilderness immediately, Ethan and Jeremy enjoyed that Sunday at Tony's expense. Ethan forced himself to watch some television, just to make sure he still had the right to dislike it, while Jeremy and Tony rattled the walls in the other room.
He found he had even more reason to resent television: Tony had cable. Ethan wanted to see which videos accompanied the songs he'd heard on the radio at his apartment, so he turned to MTV. He caught a Rockumentary about an upstart band he despised. Several other times during the day, he caught a two-hour baseball game between washed-out rock veterans, an hour devoted to the joys of "extreme" water polo, and two episodes of Singled Out. No music except snatches from the Bananareamer Rockumentary.
Between those high points of culture, he flipped through the channels and found himself drowned in 1970's reruns of one-hit wonder sitcoms, dramas, and police stories; Spanish soap operas in which he verified his analogy to horror movies (just as when you remove the music from a horror movie, it is no longer scary; when you remove the dialogue from a soap opera, it is no longer even remotely interesting); serious CNBC talk shows revistiing the O.J. Simpson trial months after its dismissal by the public; not-even-pretending-to-be-serious talk shows tilling the rotten soil of human lives gone terribly awry; real-life drama shows reenacting near misses and fatal tragedies for all of those who yearn to have such import and publicity in their lives; three stations re-airing episodes of "Saved by the Bell"; the Discovery Channel nostalgically reliving World War I; the Learning Channel teaching viewers about the scandalous sex lives of fish; A&E glamorizing the capitalistic sodomy of the 1920's; and the old standby CNN once again applauding the latest breach of American justice.
All in all, the same 'ol same 'ol.
Thoroughly sickened, Ethan got his mind on track by reading the Boy Scout manual. Why is the Lord's Prayer in here? Is the wilderness that bad? he wondered. He formulated a list of necessary supplies. He remembered to gather matches, a pot and pan, utensils, a pillow, a canteen, a roll of toilet paper, and some cans of beans, just in case. Some of these Jeremy had, some they bought later that day, some they stole from Howard. "I'll tell him he threw them out when he was drunk," Tony explained. When Ethan asked him where Howard had gone, he said he was visiting home to explain wrecking his car in a drinking accident, and to get more booze. "I think I'm gonna kill him someday," he said.
For the rest of the day, Ethan and Jeremy didn't have much else to do. On Ethan's suggestion, they went outside and hung out on the balcony. He abhorred the preternatural darkness and cold of Tony's apartment.
"Yeah, the woods will be much more real than this, you know?" he said to Jeremy. "It'll only be light in the day, only be dark at night, barring clouds. It's what people have evolved into, it's what's natural. I wonder how people's health deteriorated back when the first streetlights shined through their bedroom windows all night. Their minds probably thought it was daytime, fucked up their sleep schedules. Hell, now with all the lighting, people can work at night and sleep during the day. That's like trying to transform people into nocturnal creatures. We aren't."
"I wouldn't know. I use sleep for my own purposes," Jeremy said.
"Yeah, that's true. Well, for us mortals, sleep is overwhelmingly important. I've found that even when I slept on a leaf-covered rock in the forest, it was easier to sleep than on a bed in the city. I don't know, it's just more natural to sleep out in the open."
"You like to say `natural' a lot. You think that's the deciding factor? What's `natural' about how anyone lives? Like in houses, or with plumbing, or with medicine, or processed food, or anything?"
"I recognize that, and I can't say I approve of it. I mean, it makes life more comfortable -- and I'm a big fan of comfort -- but people forget how to live in that kind of pampered lifestyle. I certainly failed when I tried to live in nature the last time. That's why we're going to do it together, the right way."
"Yeah... oh well, I'm not going to pretend that I should reinvent the wheel to do it right. I need a little help. But in the grand scale of things, it'll be practically nothing. Just tools, not the finished products."
"Except for the beans."
"That's just in case. I'm not going to starve or come back early if I can't get food for a while."
"I guess that's a good reason. You know, I sure hope I'm not just dead weight on this trip. I really won't get much out of it. All this worry about `survival skills' really goes over my head," Jeremy said.
"I could use the companionship, you know."
"That's true," he said, smiling. "It'll be fun."
The next day, Tony drove them to the spot where Ethan had entered and emerged from the forest. He and Jeremy waved Tony off, climbed over the barbed-wire fence, and headed in.
"You'll love this. It's such a trip," Ethan said, spirits high. They hiked into the forest and found the place where he had lived for a few weeks. The weather was still hot and there was no chance of rain.
Ethan kept a journal, which he penned in the mornings:
"Jun 24: The place is still the way I left it, pretty much. The old jeans I left behind due to the moldy smell hardened in the sun. They make a nice cushion for the rock I sleep on. Those leaves have really dried up and gone to hell. Jeremy, as expected, finds the ground quite acceptable as is. I had breakfast this morning so I bet I can go on one meal today. The creek sucks now -- mostly dried out except for a trickle. We call it `Somewhat Creek' now. For the rest of the day we're gonna pick weeds, find water sources, and make traps. Whee! Sorry, can't help it, it's gonna be great!"
"Jun 25: Yesterday was damned fun. I found some brush to make fires with. We're gonna catch food, dammit! Saw three different rabbits hop by. They're dead meat. (Had to say that.) Wanted to read the B.S. manual but Jeremy and I talked too long -- philosophy, religion, economics, you name it. For some reason he can't stand to read. Probably bad associations from school. So I told him about all the books I've loved, and he seemed to enjoy it vicariously. Other than that, the conversation was great. I've never talked to anyone remotely as intelligent before. We work great together."
"Jun 26: Only one bad thing so far. I think water's gonna be a problem where we are. The nearest source (besides the muddy slush in Somewhat Creek) is about half a mile away. We might move over there if necessary, but it's way overgrown with cacti. Anyway, happier things: our trap worked! We caught a rabbit. Skinned it, gutted it, boned it, all that fun stuff, buried the remains. Didn't think it would smell good to burn it up or throw it away somewhere. Jeremy ate some just for the taste. He might make a good gourmet, I told him. He says he just doesn't like to eat."
"Jun 27: Hunted around for some plant food yesterday. (For me, not for plants.) Sorta skimpy results. Drought killed a lot of useful food. Tried eating a cactus (after removing the spines) but the taste doesn't throw me. No salt or pepper. Good water source though. Didn't catch anything. The trap got sorta damaged by that first rabbit. No problem since I saved some meat for the next day (yesterday). I ate it before it went bad. No damned preservatives out here. Here's what I did: I put the meat in some water in the pan and covered it with the canteen to keep insects away. Then the next day I roasted it (more like boiled it) over the fire. I could tell it was about to turn, though. Also, Jeremy told me stories about his exploits in Juncture. I never would have suspected some of the people or the acts he told me about. Interesting what sorts of things you don't know about people."
"Jun 28: Spent a good portion of yesterday collecting water. It was stupid. We went to the `crick' half-a-mile away, and brought back a pot and a canteen of water, as usual. But then I remembered it was time to wash clothes. (Whoo-whee!) So, rather than go back to wash in the crick, I got the bright idea to wash the clothes in the pot. Way too small for any good. Don't think I got much soap on them either. I hung them up to dry overnight. There was a little breeze so that was good. They smell okay right now but are a little damp. I'll move them into the sun. Anyway, about yesterday -- we had to go back to the crick and get more water again. Jeremy just didn't like the monotony but I was getting tired and achey. By the time we got back it was getting dark and I hadn't caught anything. Jeremy suggested that I throw a knife at a passing deer. No luck. So I ate beans. For a whole meal, they suck hard."
"Jun 29: Things got better and worse yesterday. Caught another rabbit. I ate it for lunch and dinner -- a big treat after days of beans and plants. The clothes came out alright, smelled fine, dry, just a few grass stains. No strange animals have bothered us yet, which the B.S. manual warns about a lot. (No damn bears in Central Texas!) Haven't come across snakes or anything weird yet. I think that manual is paranoid. It came out in the time before massive litigation, so I must assume it's just earnestly trying to cover all the bases. I think they devote too much to form and showiness rather than content sometimes, but, hell, it's written for Christian teenagers. Now, the bad things happening: Jeremy is getting homesick. Other than helping me get water and talking, he's not doing much. (i.e. no fucking.) He doesn't like the monotony. I'm trying to convince him that it's a challenge to leave technology (and society, but I guess that's only my kick) and that it's a learning experience. He agrees glumly. Today I'm planning for us to explore through the woods and have fun -- screw the food, I'll eat beans."
"Jun 30: A turn for the better, most definitely. Jeremy went for the exploring idea, had a great time. Played hide 'n' seek. That's an excellent game in the woods, oh yes. Glad we'd seeked out the territory enough, though, or else we could have really gotten lost. There was that, and, when we came back to camp the trap had caught another rabbit! I'm surprised no squirrels ever got in there, but hey, I would have tried one if necessary. So I planned out a `preservation' scheme better this time. Ate beans for lunch, cooked the rabbit late at night, had a meal from half of it. Then, we kept the rabbit on the spit, keeping the fire low, and set up the pan to catch the juices as they sizzled off. Jeremy stayed up all night, occasionally pouring the juices again over the rabbit, recycling them. Looking at it now, it seems to have worked. The juices diminished and left a sort of goo on the meat, but I can stand it. Much better than if the fire had dried it out completely. Also, Jeremy has stopped complaining about not getting any. I theorize he's learned the utility of jacking off. (sarcasm)"
"Jul 1: Yesterday wasn't so great. Had the rest of the rabbit for breakfast. Sorta upset my stomach. Ate the last can of beans for dinner. We went to the crick and cleaned our clothes there. Scouted for plants I might eat today. Found some, but I'm not looking forward to eating them. I'm becoming really tired lately. Not enough exercise I suppose -- not as if I had enough food to support that in the first place. Don't want to trek half a mile to get water anymore. Last night we discussed picking up camp and moving closer to water. I don't like the thought of leaving this spot, though. It holds a sort of magic for me. But it's getting ludicrous. However, I'm not giving up! I told Jeremy I'd think about moving and tell him today. I've decided it -- we have to move. My intuition tells me to go east. It's based on a silly notion that since West Texas is so dry, perhaps moving even a few miles east would find us more water. Maybe it's just the sun getting to me."
So Ethan and Jeremy packed up their wares, bid farewell to the trusty camping spot, and hiked east. They left a little after noon, with the justification that "the sun will be behind us." The process of moving represented both a loss and an adventure. Ethan, although a little weak, was not starving; and the move picked up his spirits a little. But after an hour or so of hiking, with no warning whatsoever, the forest ended and they stepped upon tilled soil.
"Wow, a farm. This sucks," Jeremy said. "Civilization."
"Yeah. Well, look down a few miles. The forest starts again past the farm," Ethan said.
"Want to cross then?"
"That'll be some work. It's hot."
"I'll carry you if you pass out, okay?" Jeremy said snidely.
"Yeah yeah. I wonder if it's trespassing though."
"I don't see a fence, do you?" he pointed out.
"Well, all right."
They were forced to tread through the tilled soil, since the field ended abruptly in tall weeds. The unpacked soil slowed their progress, making the trip much longer than it could have been. To worsen things, they had emerged in mid-afternoon and there was no shade. Ethan distantly recalled the last time he'd done this, but was sure his half- filled water bottle would suffice.
Nonetheless, he found himself tiring. Jeremy, of course, didn't tire but became sort of anxious. Neither of them had the energy to run when they heard a shout from the farmhouse:
"Hey you kids come here right now!"
The distance to the opposite forest was now at least a mile. The distance between them and the lanky person running toward them with a shotgun in his hands was steadily decreasing. They sighed, held up their hands, and walked toward the man.
"Well, you're a couple of nice-looking teenagers," the man, who really looked more like an overgrown child, said while peering at them through the sight of his shotgun. "Thinking you could trespass on my farm, weren't you?" he asked slyly. Something in his tone sounded false, as if he were pulling a joke.
"We weren't trespassing, sir. We were just passing through. Didn't want to walk through the weeds," Ethan explained.
"Weren't trespassing, eh? Just passing through, eh? Didn't want to walk through the weeds, eh?" the man repeated.
Jeremy looked at Ethan and made a face. He thought the guy was a fake too.
"That's true. Could you please put down your gun? We're not armed," Jeremy said, stepping in front of the shotgun.
"Not armed, eh? Not even a hunting knife? You kids weren't just traipsing about in the woods, were you? That's pretty dangerous."
"Actually we do have a knife," Jeremy pointed out, "but it's jammed in my backpack." Ethan glared at him but Jeremy just nodded.
"A knife, eh? Jammed in your backpack, eh? Let me have it," the man behind the gun repeated annoyingly.
"No," Jeremy said. "We're just passing through. Let us go."
"Let you go, eh? I'm thinking.... Say, doesn't your friend want to defend himself? Does he want to get arrested alone?"
"No, sir, I don't. And I don't think you care about getting us arrested. You're just on your own little power trip," Ethan pointed out.
"Hmmm, maybe, may-be. So, are you boys out here hiking for fun?"
"No, we're living out here. Are those your woods?" Jeremy asked.
"Nope, not mine, not mine. You're lucky for that. The guy who owns those woods presses for execution when he finds trespassers."
Ethan rolled his eyes and sighed. "Is that true?" he asked disinterestedly.
The man grinned. "No, of course not." He put down his shotgun and held out his hand. "Glad to meet you, my name's Chris." Without the shotgun, he indeed did resemble an overgrown kid -- around twenty, tall and gawky with long blonde hair.
Jeremy tilted his head and grinned. He shook Chris's hand. "I'm Jeremy, and this is Ethan." Ethan shook his hand incredulously.
"You didn't believe it for a second, did you?" Chris asked.
"No, we didn't."
"That's pretty cool. You shouldn't believe it. This is a free country, do as thou wilt. Although I've gotten kids to cry before."
"That's cruel," Ethan said.
"I know. It's necessary. Too many kids are afraid to stand up for their rights. Just look around. It's clearly not barricaded, there are no signs... nothing wrong with trespassing. But those kids, they'll just shit their pants when they think they'll get arrested."
"I've had quite enough experience in that department, thank you very much," Ethan said.
"Maybe. But say. I own this farm -- inherited it from my dead parents. I'm looking for some workers. You get free room and board. I might even be able to offer financial compensation," Chris offered.
Jeremy, not at all interested in working for things he didn't need, immediately said, "No thanks."
But Ethan asked, "What kind of work?" He'd read the pamphlet about starting your own farm three times, and yearned to emulate Thoreau.
"I've got chickens -- so you need to feed them, clean their coops, collect eggs, slaughter one occasionally. I have three cows -- you milk them, feed them, clean their pens. And two pigs. They just need to be fed and killed every once in a while."
"That's a lot of work!" Ethan exclaimed, excited.
"Actually, not really. I've got some kids like you already working here. You may just get to till the fields and water the grass."
"Oh," Ethan said, disappointed.
"I mean, unless they'd rather do something easier themselves."
Jeremy shook his head. "Ethan, you're a fool."
"C'mon, how? It's something to do, isn't it?"
"Have you lost all your common sense? How do you know this guy isn't dangerous? What if he won't let you leave when you get bored?" he asked.
Chris interjected, "You can leave whenever you want. No contract or anything. Hell, only downside is you might have to listen to me jabber during meals."
Ethan laughed. "Oh, man, this sounds so cool. I've always wanted to do something like this before. Can you teach me how?"
"Certainly I can. My dad and my mom both taught me a lot. I can pass down my knowledge."
"C'mon, Jeremy, you want to join me?" Ethan asked.
"I'm not so hot on doing work like this," he said.
"Hey, no problem, kid," Chris said. "I've got two empty rooms on the second floor. You don't need to work for it as long as your friend's here. You can each stay in one."
"C'mon, Jeremy, it sounds great! I've always wanted to do this."
"What am I going to do all day?" Jeremy whispered. "I could really use some... more enjoyable work."
"Oh! Well, there are other kids here. Maybe one's your type."
Jeremy rolled his eyes and looked away. "Fine!" he snapped.
"Okay, we'll stay," Ethan said. They followed Chris up into the house.
The house was baking, even with the windows open. "No air conditioning," Chris explained. "It's an incentive to stay outside." Ethan laughed, looking about politely. Chris showed them the upstairs, where there were five rooms. Two faced the sun in the morning, and two faced it in the afternoon. The largest faced south and was the coolest all day long. That was Chris's room. One of each of the west and east facing rooms was taken, by boys named Thomas and Lanford. Ethan took the west room and Jeremy took the east one.
"The outhouse --" Chris said, waiting for a response and getting only a raised eyebrow from Ethan, "-- is in that direction. Watch the door, it'll pop open on ya. Say, you guys make yourselves at home. I'm going into Juncture to start my job."
"Your job?" Ethan asked.
"Yup. I've spent all summer cooped up in here. I finally decided last Friday to get one. Lucky you guys happened along today. I'll teach you everything you need to know in the mornings before I go to work. You'll need to get up early, around four. Until then, look around, learn the place. Don't steal anything. I'll be back late."
Jeremy shook his head and sat down in the living room. "I knew it. He's going to screw us over."
"How do you mean?"
"It's awfully suspicious that he herds us in to take over his farm right as he's starting a job."
"Lucky for us, I say. We have water here, I'm sure. We get to work at something other than mere survival. You see? I've always wanted to do this. This is just the natural next step from living in the wild."
"I thought you preferred that."
"Now that I think of it, this is what I'll like best. I can tell. Just wait."
"I don't know if I'll like it, though. I might go mad."
"C'mon, try it out. It'll be fun."
Ethan and Jeremy spent the rest of the day exploring the various features of the farm. They found plumbing and wondered why there was no toilet. The water ran at a low pressure, for one thing, which suggested that a water-wasting toilet wasn't a good idea. There was no telephone or television, which was good. There was electricity, but all the outlets were at least fifty years old. The biggest thing plugged in was the refrigerator, also a vintage. Several wire-frame fans were plugged in around the house, which testified to the lack of air conditioning. Other than that, the house was relatively luxurious, in that it was larger than most farmhouses. The living room adjacent to the kitchen had a high vaulted ceiling, which carried heat away from the lower floor. The bedrooms enjoyed no such privileges and were hot; however, it made sense, as ordinary people didn't lie in bed during the day.
Besides the electricity and the largeness, the house was a bare- bones establishment. There was not much furniture except for the kitchen table, some chairs, a couch, and the beds and endtables in the bedrooms. The house, however, was far from gaunt. Large windows allowed the sunlight to fill the rooms; more than anything, the house appeared to be an extension of the outside, not a barricade from it. Therefore the house had a pleasing quality of naturalness about it, Ethan found. It was comfortable. It seemed like a place to return to after a hard day's work.
Later that night, over an impromptu dinner, Ethan made friends with Thomas and Lanford, who were both thirteen. The meal consisted of some remaining beef and bacon along with a lettuce and tomato salad. They were happy that Ethan and Jeremy would take some of the work off their backs; they had been preparing to slaughter a cow by themselves. They, however, expressed sympathy toward Ethan and Jeremy for becoming Chris's new "prisoners."
When asked to explain the term, Thomas recounted with much conviction and fear Chris's threats to hunt them down and kill them if they tried to escape from the farm. They had encountered Chris while riding their bikes down the road in front of the farm; they were running away from home and admittedly were lost and afraid, so they accepted Chris's offer to live there and work. He said they would be safe from the police that were swarming around looking for them and planning to arrest them for leaving home. That night, however, he turned nasty, taunting them for believing his lies about the swarms of police -- they'd only been gone three hours and their parents wouldn't even have been worried. But then he claimed that by coming into his farm of their own volition and offering to work, Thomas and Lanford became slaves, although they didn't use the word "slave" anymore. Then Chris became really sugary and thanked God that they had come along, because he was looking for some people to help him out around the farm. He said he would let them have free room and board if they helped out, and that they would be free from whatever family situations prompted them to run away in the first place.
This argument convinced the boys, who were looking for adventure in the first place. They latched on to Chris, who treated them nicely and didn't hit them or anything. They stayed for three days before expressing boredom, and that's when Chris became maniacal. He reminded them that they were slaves, and that the law said that if they slept on the farm for two nights that they were contracted to his will. He then acted sugary again and said he was happy for the work they'd been doing and couldn't do without it any longer. But then, he threatened, if they left without securing his permission, he had the right to hunt them down and kill them.
Ethan tried to convince the boys that Chris was just kidding, that he was playing off their fear, that all the laws he spoke of were false. They could leave whenever Chris wasn't looking. Lanford asked, "You want us to get killed?" Ethan didn't know what to say.
Jeremy asked bluntly if Chris had sexually abused them. They testified honestly that he hadn't, and never even hit them. Jeremy was sickened nonetheless; Chris had apparently attained a pure psychological grip over them.
Before they went to sleep, Thomas and Lanford begged Ethan and Jeremy not to try to escape; they wanted new people to talk to.
The next day, Ethan woke up miserably early when Chris knocked on his door at 4:30 in the morning.
"Why so early?" he moaned.
"It's tradition!" Chris peeped.
"So is Christianity...."
"Good one!" he said, laughing. "I can see you've got spirit."
"So does alcohol...."
"Don't wear out your compliment, eh?" Chris jibed. "Now listen. Do you have any jeans? You'll need to wear those unless you want bruises and scratches all over your legs."
"No, don't think I have any."
"'Sokay, I can lend you some. There's a pair in the bathroom. Get yourself waked up and we've got ham 'n' eggs downstairs with the boys."
Ethan trudged around the room, which was remarkably cool due to a small but precisely located fan, and got dressed and ate breakfast. He and Chris went outside where he demonstrated the ways of the farm. Ethan had picked up a lot from his pamphlet and didn't need to learn much. He kept an ear out for any strange words coming from Chris's mouth to verify the boys' stories, but he said nothing odd.
Chris left for his job, apparently a Hardee's, around seven-thirty, leaving Ethan, Thomas, and Lanford to work. Ethan didn't know what to think about the kids' situation, and saw nothing more than a little trickery going on. He kept his distance and concentrated on his own job. When he headed in to make dinner, he heard that Jeremy had been doing a little snooping.
"Well, I explored the cellar and attic today, but I didn't turn up any bodies," he said.
"Why the hell where you looking for those?" Ethan asked, hot and tired.
"Just a hunch."
"I don't know what you're so worried about."
"Again, I don't think you should worry. They seemed pretty happy when they were working. They were bantering back and forth, seemed to like their jobs."
"It's because all they have is each other, Ethan! It's a coping mechanism. It's what the black slaves did!"
"Jeremy, you're blowing it out of proportion. They're not really being threatened, because there's no real threat. It's all in their minds. Now, I think that's sad, but we can talk to them. Just cool down."
Over dinner, which Ethan cooked thoughtfully nostalgic for the spit, Jeremy subdued his worry, and instead asked Thomas and Lanford (who he called Tom and Lan) about their lives back home. Tom explained that after about a month of summer, he and Lan had become extremely bored of their lives in Creedence. The city had no arcade, park, or anything kid-oriented, not to mention being very small and confined. Most of the adults commuted to work daily and didn't consider the atmosphere left for their kids. It wasn't much fun to play during the summer, since the few kids that went to their school were the only kids around during the vacation. Pretty much all of them considered Creedence a prison. Their parents had tired of their requests to drive into Austin, and when faced with complaints about the subsequent boredom, had told them to simply find something else to do. So they got on their bikes and headed out.
In actuality, Tom said, they found Chris's farm exciting and interesting. They had resigned themselves to being captive and instead got into their work. It was something to do, and rewarding as well, since they were supporting themselves -- tending the animals that provided their food, tilling the soil for the plants that would someday grow again, processing their own food (they'd really taken to the slaughter), doing it their own way.
Ethan admired their spirit but was sure it'd be crushed when they entered the work force as adults. Jeremy was astonished to find the devotion to the farm the boys had and considered it nearly opposite their opinion from the previous night. In this new light, he nearly reconsidered his opinion of Chris's trickery, but remained skeptical that it had been morally right.
A week's worth of dinnertime chats didn't prepare Ethan for Thomas and Lanford's sudden disappearance, however. He didn't notice they were gone until he'd come in for dinner. Examination showed they'd taken their bikes, clothes, and possessions sometime during the day.
Ethan was surprised, but not disappointed. Nine days of outdoors toiling had instilled him with a genuine respect for nature and freedom. He'd adopted the philosophy that all people were by nature utterly free, and only bound by the earth. The boys' disappearance seemed to him as natural as that of the birds leaving the nest. He was in fact happy to have the issue of their possible psychological imprisonment off his mind and to take over their responsibilities.
Jeremy had no explanation either, but said he was glad they got out of Chris's sphere of influence. He was however appalled at Ethan's indifference. He had hoped Ethan would decide based on recent events to leave as well, but instead he seemed more willing to stay. His patience was wearing thin. So was their friendship.
That night, both awaited Chris's return to tell him of the boys' disappearance. Both expected fireworks, some proof of the boys' stories about Chris's fabled wild mood swings. Chris merely expressed his disappointment that they had left without leaving word, and urged Ethan and Jeremy to be more considerate when they left, although he hoped they'd stay. Ethan expected this to turn around Jeremy's suspicions about Chris but he remained resolutely ambivalent.
With no kids around, Jeremy felt free to spend dinnertime complaining about his lack of a sex life. He said he hadn't masturbated for two (and a half) weeks straight in years and it was cramping his style. He said he would consider fucking Chris if were just around long enough to determine his sexual orientation. Ethan laughed off the griping, stating that he'd only gotten some three times since he was sixteen. Jeremy wasn't amused.
A week and a half later, around the 21st, Jeremy disappeared too. Ethan disliked having to cook such small meals, but other than that, he figured it was bound to happen. He and Jeremy had drifted apart. They hardly talked over dinner, didn't seem to share any important convictions anymore, at least judging by the content of their small talk. Jeremy had become increasingly agitated over the weeks, and had even resorted to working for a week simply to have something to do. Jeremy didn't spend the time working side-by-side with him although he hinted that their friendship was the only reason he stayed. Ethan had shrugged and said, do what you want to.
Ethan ate silently alone that night and reflected on the impact that something as simple as Walden had had on his mind. He decided he was more resilient than he'd ever dreamed. He'd done what he wanted that summer. He left home, fended for himself. By chance he got arrested, but rebounded beautifully. He'd made a friend, even if it didn't last. He'd discovered what he loved to do, and was allowed to do it. He was working hard outside in nature and enjoyed it immensely. He was building up muscles he'd never seen before. He felt healthy and spiritually alive, being in contact with nature most of the day. His work was keeping his mind calm, no longer saturated with self- destructive doubts. He was serving a purpose, helping out, working not for the stench of money but for love.
Sitting at the table, he formulated a plan. He would go back home and go to college that year. He would see how he handled Jeremy's absence and use that to prevent becoming lonely at college, if he let that happen again. He would take classes in agriculture, philosophy, biology, religion... the future had suddenly opened up for him. He was looking forward to a great adventure.
That night when Ethan headed to sleep, he found a note under his pillow from Jeremy. It read:
I was the one who persuaded Lan and Tom to leave. I discovered that they weren't telling us everything Chris was telling them. They said that each morning around one when he returned from work he would wake them up and give them lectures about politics. It's scary. Ultra-right-wing paramilitary shit. He was advocating terrorism and revolution and murder. What's sad was the kids were eating it up, not aware of the brain-washing they were under. Chris told them he was "preparing them for a new life." I guess they really weren't afraid of him, but they were fucked just the same.
I spent a long time convincing them of the truth and finally one morning they packed their things and left. They're safe now, luckily.
Yesterday (Sat.) when Chris got back from work, he came into my room, took me downstairs, and asked me what I thought about the farm. I told him I didn't like it. He said that since I didn't work, my mind wasn't going to much use. So he said, "I'll give you something to think about," and started feeding me his psychotic rhetoric. He insulted me and called me a "sheep" when I told him I didn't care to hear it.
So I told him that it was me who convinced Tom and Lan to leave. As expected, he went into an absolute rage. He screamed, cursed at me, threatened me. I told him he was dangerous and a brainwasher. He flipped out, threw me around, broke my arm, tried to castrate me with a knife. I'm leaving, man. I urge you to leave too, for your own safety. No matter how much you like it, I doubt even you'll stand for this. I'll be "home."-- Jeremy
P.S. I'll be alright.
Ethan was surprised. He hadn't detected any subtext of revolutionary propaganda in the boys' conversations. He hadn't heard any of it firsthand, either, so couldn't decide whether he agreed with it or not, but he was sure Jeremy had overreacted. Once he'd gotten out of his element he had become scared and defensive. Whatever Jeremy's reasons, Ethan didn't want to leave.
Ethan could adapt, however. Over the next two weeks, he found he could do without Jeremy's companionship. He diverted his attention from the matter with conscientious work on the yard, whose grass was nearly dying; with care of the cows and pigs, of which only two remained in total; with tending of the chickens, who he loved to watch perform their ritual mating dances; and with other matters only he could attend to. Jeremy just didn't seem that important anymore, although he'd fed him, clothed him, cleaned him up, and generally had given him much more attention than he should have expected from anyone. Ethan had taken it for what it was, however: simple charity that he couldn't hope to repay. And why should he try to? Jeremy didn't need anything; he was immortal. He could fend for himself. The farm wasn't his niche. He didn't need to be here.
Sometimes in the cool dimness of the 4:30 sunrise, however, Ethan would wake up from his dreams and briefly remember the strange slide show of surreal images, leaving him mesmerized for minutes. And when reality washed over his groggy mind, he'd be left enveloped in murmuring breezes of love, joy, and sadness, feelings which often stayed with him for hours until he could work them off. He knew what the breezes meant, and he recognized the ephemerality he had imposed on the memories he wanted to forget. In his meanest mood, Ethan had said good riddance to Jeremy. But in his heart, he knew he would miss him.
--SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-- State of unBeing is copyrighted (c) 1996 by Kilgore Trout and Apocalypse Culture Publications. All rights are reserved to cover, format, editorials, and all incidental material. All individual items are copyrighted (c) 1996 by the individual author, unless otherwise stated. This file may be disseminated without restriction for nonprofit purposes so long as it is preserved complete and unmodified. Quotes and ideas not already in the public domain may be freely used so long as due recognition is provided. State of unBeing is available at the following places: CYBERVERSE 512.255.5728 14.4 THE LiONS' DEN 512.259.9546 24oo TEENAGE RiOt 418.833.4213 14.4 NUP: COSMIC_JOKE THAT STUPID PLACE 215.985.0462 14.4 ftp to ftp.io.com /pub/SoB World Wide Web http://www.io.com/~hagbard/sob.html Submissions may also be sent to Kilgore Trout at <firstname.lastname@example.org>. The SoB distribution list may also be joined by sending email to Kilgore Trout. --SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB-SoB--