Destruction_of_Leviathan

For Part One go here; Part Two here; Part Three here.

 

Chapter 19. Looks Downhill To Me

 For the more we look at the story (the story that is a story, mind), the more we disentangle it from the finer growths that it supports, the less shall we find to admire. It runs like a backbone—or may I say a tapeworm, for its beginning and end are arbitrary.

 —E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

 

 I swing by the shop to get some donuts to take to Whit’s, and because I’ve just got to see it—the new parking lot, even more lovely than I’d imagined, a pristine black plain with crisp white stripes and not a speck of trash. It gives me a good feeling; all the cars parked in front of the shop, an even better feeling. I even love the guy standing out front talking on his cell phone, making what-are-you-an-idiot? gestures as he speaks, so he’s even obnoxious to watch. He’ll be all right once he has a donut. It’s today’s newspaper in the machine, and I don’t even mind the headline is about my favorite President. People can read the bad news eating my donuts for a change.

Inside, things are humming like old times. You can hardly hear the bell over the racket. All the stools are taken, and there’s a line of three parties—a woman with a couple of kids; an older couple who used to come in all the time; and two guys speaking Spanish, pointing at the display case, discussing a list written on a folded newspaper. They’ll have time to work it out by the time they get to the head of the line. Everyone else in line is watching the donut show.

Ky’s daughter is frying, and she’s indeed fast. Skinny as a drumstick and twice as tall as the last time I saw her, which I can’t remember any better than her name at the moment, though I know she’s second oldest of five, all girls. She’s totally focused, no wasted motion—probably faster than me, but not the ham I am, except for her quick gymnast’s turns. You halfway expect her to break into a floor routine between the glazer and the proof box.

Ky’s at the table working the end of a dough, making butterfly rolls. He’s made a two-inch diameter, four-foot long snake of dough with cinnamon coiled inside. He lays it out straight with just a little tension, cuts it quick into three-inch pieces. A quick karate chop turns each piece into a spiral-winged butterfly he sends flying onto a screen canted in the corner of the cutting table like a spider’s web.

The soundtrack for this donut show is that awful Lite Pablum 101 or whatever they call themselves, that Ky likes, a playlist for crumb cakes and scones, nothing lively enough to cut through the exhaust fan’s roar. You can’t have everything.

Kenny’s behind the counter waiting on customers, a two-dozen box in one hand, a tissue in the other. Three of those and three of those and three, no four, of those over there… I had a dream once where I was talking to Martha, picking up everything in our room the whole time and stuffing it into a donut box. Alexis, replenishing the display case, is the first to notice me. She gives me a big smile.

“Has it been like this ever since I left?” I ask.

“Pretty much. I think yesterday was second highest Tuesday or something. Kenny looked it up.”

“Any problems?”

“None whatsoever.” This pronouncement seems to extend to the known universe. Her eye looks remarkably better. Her life must look remarkably better as well.

“I should leave more often. Could you box me up a couple dozen assorted—be sure to throw in some chocolate frosted cake with nuts—and four coffees to go?”

I come around to the register to get some cash and check for messages, careful to stay out of Kenny’s way. “Don’t worry,” I tell him. “I’m just passing through. Y’all are doing a great job.”

Keith Thompson’s armored car chapters are in an envelope in the Randall basket under the counter. He certainly didn’t waste any time. I bend down to get them and straighten up, and that’s when I see Fred from Stan’s sitting at the counter. He doesn’t notice me. He has a dozen box in front of him, and a cup of coffee. He’s eating out of the box—six down, six to go—all plain glazed. He reaches into the box with a big right hand like he’s going to palm a basketball and seizes two donuts. Then he mashes them together into one compact donut sandwich, brings it to his gaping maw, and bites. The evidence seems conclusive: Fred was the three-donut man.

Kenny’s beside me, facing the display case, filling the rest of the two-dozen box with plain glazed. I whisper in his ear, “What’s with the guy at the counter eating the dozen out of a box?”

“He had a card. After he got his free donuts, he asked if it was okay to eat them here. I said sure. He bought a coffee. Something wrong?”

“No. Not at all. I know the guy.” Poor Fred just wouldn’t feel safe driving around the county with his ill-gotten gains and decided to polish off the booty here and now. I step up and offer my hand. “Hi, Fred, Randall, remember me?” He nods, pointing at his stuffed mouth, puts down his donut sandwich, and starts wiping off the glaze with my napkins, so he can shake me with his sticky hand. “That’s okay,” I reassure him, withdrawing my hand. “So how are things out at Calliope?”

He’s finally able to speak. “Funny you should mention. You wouldn’t believe it. They’re digging a big hole again, going at it to beat the band. They started out back in the north end of the lot, right up next to my fence line, but I got to talking to one of the fellows that come into the store and something he said give me the idea they was trying to find the hole they dug before, so I told him that hole was right smack under the building, nowhere near where they was. He was mighty appreciative. Next thing you know, building’s gone, and they got themselves a new hole where the first one was. You can’t get nowhere near the place neither—chased me and my dog right off. I guess you won’t be selling ’em no more donuts. Fellow said this morning they’d be done soon, maybe by this evening. Did you ever figure what it was they was doing there?”

“Only crazy stories. What about you?”

He leans forward confidentially. “I don’t know what they’re digging for, but I hear from the state cops talking that something got loose a there.”

“What kind of something?”

“Like whatever it was that blew up Luke’s Friday. You see that on the TV? You can’t go nowhere near there neither, guys in spacesuits crawling all over it. Luke’s fit to be tied. Insurance won’t pay till their people can have a look, and ain’t nobody allowed inside till the feds say when. Nobody’s taking no chances. Both places is all lit up nights. Got soldiers in the woods walking my fence line, leaving their goddamn candy wrappers everywhere you look. Helicopters in and out all the time, so you can’t hear yourself think.”

“Sounds like a lot of folks.”

“Don’t you know it. Stan’s had to double his orders. Run completely outa smokes twice, and he can’t make enough coffee.”

“I’ll have to see if I can sell him some donuts.”

“No offense, but after the FBI was asking about you, Stan decided to stick with the devil he knows. They hauled off his new digital video camera on account a you, and now won’t give it back, act like they never took it in the first place. You in some kind of trouble?”

“Yeah, but it’s hard to say which kind. I blame it all on the President.”

“Don’t be judging. The man works hard.”

“I don’t deny it. Digging holes is hard work, especially if you don’t know when to stop. But don’t let me take you away from your donuts.” I hand him two cards. “Give one of these to Stan, will you? Or you can just leave it lying around where he can find it, like on top of the cash drawer. The other one’s for you.”

Fred thanks me and leaves with his donuts. The cell phone shouter slips into his place, and Alexis takes his order. His phone starts playing tinny funk, and I tell him, “Don’t even try using that in here. My fan’s murder on phones.” He shuts it off. He takes a bite of donut, thankful for his freedoms.

My donuts and coffees are waiting by the register. The Spanish speakers are now at the head of the line, and Kenny’s working from their newspaper list on the counter. As I collect my donuts, it catches my eye: The Bob’s Donut logo on the newspaper page. I unfold it. There’s a half page ad celebrating our new easy-access parking lot and our old-fashioned donuts. An irresistible smiling Jenny stands before a display case fit for the gods. Manna-filled with ambrosia sprinkles. It’s never looked so good. I hope she paid the bill while she was at it. If I know her, the newspaper didn’t even know it was going to run.

I go in the back and call Whit’s. Ash picks up.

“What if they’re drilling in the right place?” I ask her. “What if they might finish today?”

“You have to stop them. If they reach her too soon, she won’t be ready.”

Who says I’m ready? “You have any ideas how to accomplish that?”

“I don’t know. You’re the writer.”

I don’t go there. “Where’s Whit?”

“She and Pierce went to get barbecue. They just left. They won’t be back for another hour.”

“Tell her I might be a little late.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. There’s a lot of hungry guys out at Calliope. I was thinking about making a donut delivery.”

“And then what?”

“I’ll improvise.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I don’t know. All I have to do is fuck things up, right? How hard can that be?”

 

I hang up the phone, lean back in my chair and take in the shop in the parabolic mirror: Alexis and Kenny serving customers in a steady flow, Ky kneading a fresh dough into plump pillows, Kim—I remember her name now—Ky told me it means ‘golden’—pulling a rack of golden donuts dripping from the glaze, and Alexis plucking them right off the rack. People streaming in. People bearing donuts streaming out. It’s Dad’s magical donut machine, neither magic nor machine. You can’t make good donuts with a machine. Or maybe there’s no such thing as a good donut—empty and sweet and bad for you—as pointless as stories of imaginary worlds. Maybe that’s why all those space stations we’ll never build looked like donuts. I reach into the box I won’t be taking to Whit’s, select a chocolate cake with nuts, and it’s damn fine.

I throw a dough in the Hobart and explain to Kenny I need all the donuts he can spare and then some. Inside an hour I’m loaded up and on the road straight for Calliope, passing on Stan’s and his damn surveillance camera. If he didn’t have the silly thing, he could’ve spared us both a world of trouble. I don’t like strangers watching me—I don’t always trust their motives—but I have no use at all for being recorded. Next stop is the editing, the revision, the creation out of digital nothing. Like Amber Sebastian, Stunt Woman extraordinaire.

Ignoring a new sign warning me off in no uncertain terms, I turn into the Calliope drive like I do it every day and roll to a stop at a checkpoint fifty yards off the road. I’m still wearing the red-piped number. I’m hoping it will lend an air of authority, an officer at the frontier. I have the freshly printed letters of transit on the seat beside me.

The soldier on duty looks like Marcus, the pencil-phobic autobiographical novelist from my prison workshop, if Marcus had gone to boot camp instead of prison. Marcus would probably like the Army—not that the Army would let him in with his record. He might hurt somebody. I roll down the window, and the soldier says, “State your name and business, if you would, please, sir.”

“Randall Blevins, Bob’s Donuts,” I say, “with twenty dozen hot, fresh donuts for the Calliope Corporation, as ordered, sir.” I hold up the invoice. The golden Bob’s Donut at the top, printed on the good paper, photo quality, better than real life, which, as I mentioned, needs a paint job.

He sniffs the air, heavy with the scent of donuts, and it pains him to say, “Calliope Corporation is no longer operating, sir. You’ll have to turn the vehicle around over there and leave.”

I sigh like a Christmas angel sent packing—You sure there aren’t any shepherds around here? “That’s a shame. Well, I guess they’ll eat well at the homeless shelter this evening. Can’t sell them now, you know, once they’ve been transported. Health Department rules.” That’s a crock, by the way, but he doesn’t know it. His eyes glaze over, imagining the donut bounty. His nostrils flare, sucking in another taste. I point through the windshield. “Over there, you say?” I twirl my finger in the shape of a donut like I’ve seen Luke Skywalker do.

“You’re just going to give them away?” he asks, his voice filled with concern for the wayward dozens.

“Don’t have much choice. The only place I can sell them is here.”

The only words that register are sell and here. “I’ll take a dozen. How much are they?”

There is a God, and He created donuts, blessed them, and made them holey. I sell the man a dozen, and he and a couple of his buddies who show up from their posts in the woods, feast on them. “Maybe some other folks might like to buy some?” I suggest, and it doesn’t seem right not to share with the rest of the pack, so he gets on a phone, munching the whole time, singing the praises of the best damn donuts he’s ever had in his life, and the next thing you know, he’s telling me to drive on back to where the crane is. “You can’t miss it.”

“What are you guys doing here, anyway?” I ask. It would be suspicious if I didn’t ask.

He takes another bite. “Fuck if I know. They don’t tell me, and I don’t ask. Digging a big hole is all I see. There’s a lot worse duty I could be drawing these days than guarding a big hole, know what I’m saying? They wanted to know if checks are okay.”

“Checks are fine.”

“The guy you want is Steve. Chubby dude in a yellow hard hat and an orange jump suit. He’ll be looking for you.” Steve sounds like he’ll be hard to miss.

 

I drive slowly down the driveway, checking things out. Vehicles jam the lot now, mostly working trucks. They’ve spilled beyond the lot, leveling the stand of scrub oak to make more room. There are a couple of trailers, a row of what I realize are very large drill bits, earth-moving vehicles, other machines whose purpose I can only imagine. Bottles for the genie, maybe. You can’t miss the hole. It’s right in the middle of things. There are wires, hoses, and cables spilling over the side from every which way. It’s all lit up inside. A big crane hangs over it, reeling in a big empty hook as I approach.

Steve spots me and waves. He looks like he’s playing the Great Pumpkin in the school pageant, but I pretend not to see him, wanting to get as close to that hole as I can. He finally comes around in front of me, so I’d have to run over him not to see him, and I stop the van just shy of a coil of fat black and yellow hose, a dozen yards from the lip.

It still looks downhill to me; the whole lot slopes toward the hole. I inch forward, till my right front tire nestles against the hose, and stop. I slowly lift my foot off the brake, and the van stays put. I leave the transmission in neutral and don’t set the emergency brake. Improvising.

I like your donut van, I can hear Nicole lamenting. Me too, but it’s just a machine. Paid for, but still only a machine, a small sacrifice. While you, Nicole, you lying bitch, you’re… Nicole.

Steve’s right there by the driver door to shake my hand, and I lead him around back to the donuts. We draw quite a crowd. They’re buying dozens, two-dozens of plain glazed. Then I bring out the varieties. They didn’t know I had varieties! I sell more. I sell everything. I deal out cards until I run out of them. I ask the guys if I can see the hole. Of course I can see the hole! Randall can see anything he wants! They’re about to start drilling again—it’s the perfect time! They beckon me away from the van, along the serpentine trail of the black and yellow hose. Everybody’s eating donuts but me. “You can see it good from here,” Steve says.

I peer down into the hole. It’s maybe thirty yards across and at least five times that deep. My guides stand on the lip munching. I stand a little ways back. “How many guys are down there running the drill?”

“Down there?” they say. “There’s nobody down there when it’s going. Too dangerous. We operate it from up here. Everybody’s out of the hole.”

Of course. I glance overhead at the crane, the cloudless sky. Visibility’s optimal. At my feet, there’s a coil of hose looking like one of the giant donuts we make for birthdays, or a fat snake on the jungle floor. No doubt about it—it’s a hazard. I plunge my size-twelve foot into the coil, take a step, and feel it tighten around my ankle like a python in a Tarzan movie. I try to run, kick, tug, in total panic, desperate to get free, but the thing only tightens its hold, until finally, the hose pops loose from under the van tire, and the python relaxes its grip. I force myself to keep up my eye-catching dance for a few moments longer, until, at last, I’m free, managing a convincing fall by actually tripping over the damn thing and landing on my ass.

They’re all laughing uproariously. “You’re going to get your nice white clothes dirty,” Steve hollers. Don’t let it worry you, Pumpkin Boy, I want to say, but thank him for his concern. From my low perspective, I steal a glance at the van, definitely rolling, accelerating. There’s one more coil of hose to surmount between it and the lip. It’s a problem in momentum at that point. I don’t dare look.

But someone does. “Fuck!” he shouts. “The van!”

The wheels easily roll over the second hose. It’s definitely downhill, steeper even than it looks. No wonder they had drainage problems. A couple of guys run after the van, grab hold of the flapping rear doors like trying to grab a goose taking off. Fortunately they quickly solve their own problem in momentum and let go before it drags them over the edge into the abyss. We all run to the edge, even me, and watch the van fall in what seems like slow motion. It lands on the drill, sparks fly, and the fresh tank of gas I just put in the beast—with, I swear, absolutely no intentions of blowing it up—bursts into flames. They won’t be doing any more drilling today. The donut van has made the ultimate sacrifice.

 

Figuring the best defense is a good offense, I’m inconsolable about the loss of my van, insisting I must call my insurance company right away. The place isn’t safe! There should’ve been a railing! I could’ve been killed! I’m just a struggling small businessman trying to make an honest living when the deck is stacked against me, and now this! This! My beloved donut van!

They can’t wait to get rid of my whiny ass, no matter how much they liked my donuts, but no one accuses me of sabotage either.

Steve and the guys and various soldiers and suits don’t seem to know what to do with me, and it’s taking them a long time to find someone who does. I’m guessing few people on site know exactly why they’re here. There’s the guys digging the hole, the guys guarding the hole, the guys maintaining the diggers’ equipment, the guys walking Fred’s fence, and so on and so on. They’re just doing their jobs like the soldier at the gate, no questions asked. But the guys who know why, who know what the hole means? Who know the whole story? Who take what you might call a holistic view? Maybe nobody. Like the drill, everything’s run from above. I’m pondering this in their air-conditioned trailer, drinking their bad coffee, when everything seems to break my way. They’re letting me go. They’re even giving me a ride back to town.

My ride is a nice young fellow in a suit driving a Ford sedan. He introduces himself as Roger Renfrow of the FBI, but he doesn’t flash a badge or advise me of my rights. Instead, he says he’s here to take me home. I ask him to take me to the shop, and he lives to serve. He waits until we’ve pulled out onto the road to get nosey. “Could you settle a few points about the accident, Mr. Blevins? The FBI is looking into the matter. Routine, you understand.”

“Of course.”

“The donuts you were delivering today—when were they ordered?”

“Last week sometime.”

“And who placed the order?”

“Ashton Wells.”

“Did she say why she needed twenty dozen donuts?”

“No idea.”

“And why did you tell the soldier at the checkpoint that you couldn’t legally sell the donuts if you couldn’t deliver them?”

“It’s a lot of donuts. I saw a lot of cars. I figure there had to be somebody who could take them off my hands, make the trip worthwhile. I gave it a shot.”

“You lied to him.”

“Yeah. Imagine. You ever work in sales?”

“Do you realize he’s in a lot of trouble?”

“The soldier? All he did was buy a dozen and make a phone call. What army is he in anyway?”

He gives me a glance for my unpatriotic crack, the first time his eyes have left the road since he started the Q & A. I don’t look the least bit penitent if I can help it. He looks back at the road. “When you parked your vehicle, why didn’t you set your emergency brake?”

“I did. It must’ve slipped.”

“Have you known it to slip before?”

I have to laugh at that. “Anything fucked up, I’ve known that van to pull some time or other, usually full of donuts at four in the morning. It was old, it was tired, but it got the job done. I’m really sorry my van went down your fucking hole, Mr. Renfrow, but if it was so dangerous back there—”

“I know: You should never have been allowed inside in the first place.”

He knows my story, and I’m sticking with it. You’d think my brother-in-law actually was a lawyer the way I’m talking. It seems to work. We ride in silence. He knows the way apparently. When we reach the shop, he parks right in front. He doesn’t give the place a glance, too busy pulling some paper out of his inside pocket. I reach for the door. “Thanks for the ride,” I say.

“There’s one more thing, Mr. Blevins.” He unfolds the paper and hands it to me. “We have a box being delivered here by Fed Ex last Sunday. Is that correct?”

“A box.”

“Yes.” The paper is a printed version of the screen I signed, only this version says one box instead of two.

“Oh yeah. I sent it back. Had them come get it the next day.”

“Monday?”

I was at the Sunset Monday. Interrogated in Arkansas Monday. Is it possible he doesn’t know that? The cops who busted us at the Sunset weren’t FBI. They never let on who they were. I can see where something like Nicole could attract widespread interest from cops and crooks alike. I can’t trust anybody. “Yeah. Monday.”

“Fed-Ex has no record of that transaction.”

“The driver forgot to have me sign the computer thing. Talk to her.”

“The driver quit without notice.”

I shrug. It’s hard to find good help these days.

“What was in the box?” he asks.

“A donut-making machine. It supposedly did everything. Ingredients in one end, donuts out the other.”

“Why did you send it back?”

“It didn’t work. You can’t make good donuts with a machine.”

“If you knew that, why did you order it?”

“I could’ve been wrong, but I wasn’t. Hope springs eternal. You know: ‘Keep your eye upon the donut….'”

“This company, Bruja Loca, what do you know about them?”

“Not a thing.”

“No brochures, catalogs, things like that?”

“No. Just the address there.” I point at the invoice.

“That location no longer exists. It burned.”

“That’s too bad.”

“It’s a shame about your van.”

“I’m insured. It was getting old. I’m just glad no one was hurt.”

“Without brochures or catalog, how did you find out about and order this donut machine?”

“Internet. But the site’s down last I checked. Why is it you guys care about a donut-making machine anyway?”

“Because we suspect that’s not what it is. We can understand your fears, but sooner or later you must decide where your loyalties lie. Have you been threatened?”

“Loyalties? Threatened? What the hell are you talking about? Are you threatening me?”

“Us? Certainly not.”

“Look. I make donuts for a living. I thought Calliope was going to be a hell of an account for me, but it’s been nothing but one big pain in the ass. So if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to call my insurance company and see if I can scare up a van in time for evening deliveries. Thanks for the ride.” This time I open the door and get out before he has time for another question. He knows I’m keeping secrets. How many lies does the man want to hear? How many does he want to tell?

I’ve been trying to seem like an innocent, hard-working slob at the end of the day too tired to be a bad guy, even while, on the other side of the shop window, the three Wells siblings have been sitting on my stools staring at me and Roger Renfrow of the FBI as if we’re characters in a TV show. Renfrow never gives the window a glance, like a tv character, seen but unseeing. I have to pretend I don’t see them either. I imagine Ethel Mertz in all those I Love Lucy reruns, watching Mom and me. Maybe Mom confided in her all the stuff the kid doesn’t know. Maybe that’s why she kept the sound down low, so as not to drown out their private conversation. Girl talk, as Mom would’ve called it.

I shut the door on Roger Renfrow, and he lets me go, zooming away. I take a deep breath, steady myself. The lot still looks great.

I walk in, the bell rings. Everything seems the same. Kenny and Alexis are behind the counter taking a break in the mid-afternoon lull. The display case is full to overflowing, ready for the after-work rush. The deliveries are all boxed and ready to go, waiting for the van.

Whit spins off her stool and takes me in her arms. We hold each other tight, the bell still ringing in my ears. She whispers, “Ash told me why you went out to Calliope. I was so worried.”

“Where’s the van?” Kenny asks.

“You’re trembling,” Whit says.

“Gone,” I say. “The van’s gone for good.”

 

 

Chapter 20. Adults Only

“Wintermute, Case. It’s time we talk.”

It was a chip voice.

“Don’t you want to talk, Case?”

He hung up.

On his way back to the lobby, his cigarettes forgotten, he had to walk the length of the ranked phones. Each rang in turn, but only once, as he passed.

 —William Gibson, Neuromancer

 Whit wants to take me home and comfort me, but I insist on calling my insurance company first. Kenny and Alexis, who’ve never known my life to be so eventful, seem oddly cheered by the van’s demise once they determine I’m all right.

“Maybe we could get something more fuel efficient,” Kenny suggests and starts naming brands while I’m on hold with my insurer.

“And update the logo,” Alexis adds. She shows me sketches on a napkin.

I’m as impressed as I can be on hold. They’re delighted. By the time I’ve arranged for a rental van to be delivered, Alexis has a decent drawing in colored pencil. In her version, the name isn’t stuck in a donut like letters off a marquee pressed and fried into the dough, but the letters themselves are fashioned from a variety of colorful donuts. It’s lively, fun. Bob would’ve loved it. Go for it, I tell them, and they’re practically jumping up and down.

“How’d you two like to run the place for me?” I ask. “I get five percent of the profits, if any. If there aren’t any, we can work out some kind of minimum salary to make it worth your while. We can draw up a contract.”

We’re all a bit stunned by this proposition. It just came out, escaping from some pocket of sanity long trapped under fallen debris and given up for dead. They look at each other and back to me. Kenny says, “Five percent doesn’t seem like very much, Randall. Are you sure?”

About now, I’d give the place away. “It’s not much. But my house is paid for, and I’ve got some savings. It’ll light a fire under me to do what I really want to do. It’s time. What do you say?”

“Sure!” Kenny says. “Right?” he asks Alexis.

“You bet!” she says. She’s grinning ear to ear. She’ll have to work practically all the time.

“Y’all don’t mind keeping the name, do you?”

“Course not,” Kenny says.

Alexis touches her freshly drawn logo, fashioned from the name. “We can’t change it. See? BOB looks like a donut and a couple of pretzel rolls.” She laughs. “What kind of donuts could we make out of Kenny and Alexis?”

Damn fine ones, I imagine. I’ve never heard her laugh before. After Kenny gives me a big, manly handshake, she gives me a big hug. “Thanks, Randall,” she says.

 

Whit takes all this in but doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t get much chance. We pretty much have our hands full with Ash and Pierce, both manic as hell, cursing Tom, worrying about Nicole, crashing on Whit for the foreseeable future. At least until noon Friday. It’s become a vigil. Looks like I’m going to get to know the family in a hurry. I scavenge dinner from Whit’s pantry, and the three of them are ecstatic.

None of them cooks. It’s up to me to provide the food experience. I make a list. Pierce promises to shop. I think that’s where he disappeared to after dinner.

It’s going on midnight before Whit and I are finally alone, curled up naked on her bed, our heads propped on each other’s knees. Life is good. Even for me things are happening awful fast. Here it is almost Thursday, and we’re still on our incredible first date. But I have no regrets—not a feeling I’m used to. And now I’ve just jumped ship, or shop I guess I should say, just like that. I hardly know myself. “I had no idea how heavy the shop was until I set it down,” I tell her.   “I feel ten years younger.”

“Mmm. Is that what it was. So passionate. I thought it was some sort of post-car-crash thing. I’m thinking of quitting too. Quitting teaching. What do you think?”

“I think you’re entirely responsible for my passion,” I say, kissing her thigh. “Do you like teaching?”

“It’s all right. But workshop seems like a sham when you’re not writing yourself. I like teaching lit., but I’m the department’s Southern Write­r—so the only literature they let me teach is Southern. I can’t tell you the last time I read anything by somebody from north of DC. The Dean lives in fear I’ll relapse into yankeedom and embarrass the place. I’m in their promotional brochures—the prize-winning author, like a blue-ribbon heifer—they even quote that gushy New Southern Voice citation. Those people probably want to string me up every time they hear my name.”

She’ll be beating herself with brambles next. “I think you should definitely keep teaching, suffer, atone for your many sins, Whitney Austen Wells, you horrible slut, and you too, Beulah Mae Cummins.” I fasten my jaws on her hip and growl, like a playful hellhound.

She laughs. “Teaching you was suffering enough.”

“Exactly right. Come on, Whit. The Beulah Mae thing’s over. Let it go. Move on. You wrote some good stories. What’s the harm? Quit beating yourself up about it.” I kiss the wobbly, unadorned KIRK that graces her right cheek. Either Kirk himself was the tattoo artist, or he was seriously blotto as well. “Not that I mind, you understand, but how come you haven’t gotten rid of this thing?”

She scowls at it over her shoulder. “I promised. Part of the bet. Ten years and not a day less. Summer after next it goes.”

“I figured it was something like that. That’s the trouble with being rich, you can’t just bet money you don’t have like any other reckless youth. You have to do something stupid. If it were mine, I’d stick a dragon or something over top of it .”

“I never thought of that. I only promised not to remove it. I don’t know. I’d still know it was there.”

“You’ll know that anyway. It’s not like you’re actually looking at it that often. Like you say, it’s tattooed on your brain.”

“What about you? Would you like a dragon?”

“Oh yeah. A dragon couldn’t find a nicer lair. That’s where dragon’s live, right? Lairs? You’ve got a great lair.”

“Thanks. How come you’re quitting donuts?”

“It’s weird, but when I saw the van fall down that hole and explode, felt the blast of heat in my face, something happened, like a spell being broken—if I believed in that sort of thing. I made a sacrifice, freed myself—it felt like that—and here I was telling Nicole that myth’s dead. Now, the thought of buying a new donut van is as inviting as diving down that hole into the flames. But Kenny and Alexis, they think it’s Christmas. Let somebody who wants to drive the van and make the donuts be the donut man for a change, though I guess they’re going to be the donut couple.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Write. Hopefully publish. Travel. Wear anything but white—though I need to go shopping for that one. Give it a year. Then we’ll see.”

“That’s wonderful! I’m so proud of you! Are you going to find an agent for the stuff that’s done?”

“Done? What do I have that’s done?”

“Like, all of it?”

“The telepath?”

“Okay. Maybe not that one. But most of it. Are you saying it’s all crap? The time-travel story?”

“Course not. Okay. Maybe the time-travel story. I could show that one, I guess.”

“You want to try my agent? She’s real good.”

“This isn’t the publicist who…”

“God no. Wanda’s more of an old friend. She took me back after the Beulah Mae meltdown. She likes weird. I think she’ll go crazy over your stuff. I told her about you, and she’s really curious. Do you mind if I send it to her?”

“I guess not. Does she know it’s science fiction?”

“I won’t tell her if you won’t.”

“Only if she asks.”

Whit beams. “Come here, you.”

 

Insomnia in a strange bedroom is almost impossible to shake. The shadows are too rich with questions. Is that the edge of the dresser or the mirror? Is that glow a streetlight or the moon? Am I doing the right thing or not? Over dinner, Ashton toasted me for saving the day. She’s not sure what Nicole’s up to, but she’s certain I’ve foiled her vile pursuers and rescued her from certain death or worse. But she has to think that. She can’t bear to think otherwise. Nicole’s more than her baby; she’s her creation. Ash is dealing with it better than Victor Frankenstein ever did. But even Nicole rates her chances as marginal at best, even before I took it upon myself to dump my van down a hole on top of her. What if I’ve damaged her somehow—trapped her or driven her mad? What if I have this whole thing all wrong and Nicole’s not the benevolent soul she seems to be? What if by helping Nicole—or hindering her—I’ve just hastened the demise of the human race? On that note, I get out of bed. When insomnia hits species extinction level, there’s no question it’s here to stay. Whit’s bedside clock glows 4:00. Thursday morning. Noon Friday is an eternity away.

Whit sleeps peacefully despite the chatter of my busy brains. I watch her sleep as I find my whites on the floor and dress in the dark. I’ve had a crush on her ever since I met her, even before—once I knew her story. I don’t know if it was the knowing a secret about her, or something about the secret itself—the lengths she’d go, just to tell some stories—but it was part of the powerful attraction when I met her, and then her beauty took my breath away. After the interview, I thought I’d blown it, a tongue-tied lout. Now we’re together. How’d I get to be so lucky? I slip silently out of the bedroom.

 

I take my laptop out to the balcony overlooking the fountain lake. The fountain is lit up with spotlights, and the lake is ringed with old-fashioned streetlamps. It’s another damp night, clouds diffusing the moonglow. There’s a white wicker table and chairs on the balcony. I sit, open my laptop on the table and skim Nicole’s The Donut Man for clues, eventually skipping to the end, but it’s no help. It just stops at the Sunset with Nicole’s note on a napkin, me knocking on the door. It’s the same message she left me:

Randall—

Thanks for being my friend. I’ve shown you my true self.

We’ll never forget you. She’s in 17.

—Nicole

 

What’s her true self? Who-all’s we? I notice she doesn’t say good-bye. Does that come later, or did she just forget? As she tells the tale, our hero, a fair impression of me, trusts her at every turn. She lies repeatedly, but he trusts her. Is that chump me?

I close the laptop and realize I’m not alone. Someone’s standing in the shadows, watching me. She steps into the light. “Good evening, Mr. Blevins. I hope I’m not interrupting your writing.” She smiles. “The catfish place I told you about—good, wasn’t it?”

It’s the agent from the Malvern motel. I remain seated. I don’t offer a chair. “It was terrific. I wasn’t writing. Mind if I ask what you’re doing on this third floor balcony at 4 a.m.? The Ramada full up?”

“I’ve been watching you, from over there.” She points at a white van parked on the circular drive around the lake. “We saw you come out. The white outfit makes you unmistakable. You’ve inspired me. If you can do your own stunt driving at forty-five, I can climb a column, swing over a rail.” She’s added a light jacket over the T-Shirt and shoulder holster, but I can see the bulge. She’s changed to a Mammoth Caverns shirt. Naturally, she’s still wearing the phone. She looks beat. “And I was curious. Why does someone of modest means drive his only vehicle down a hole if all that’s down there is some paperback plot? It makes no sense to me.”

“Don’t forget the possible movie deal. I didn’t do any stunt driving. It rolled, and I’m not forty-five yet.”

“I’ve watched your performance. It was clumsy and amateurish, but no accident. I can’t believe it worked. Blind luck.”

“Isn’t that the only kind?”

“I know you did it deliberately. What I can’t figure out is why. Were you trying to kill it? I thought you were its ally.”

“It?”

“Her, if you like. She.”

“I wasn’t trying to do anything. My van rolled down a steep incline into an unprotected hole. It was an accident. As far as I know, there was no one alive down there.”

“Except the character in your science fiction novel? The AI who writes science fiction novels?”

“She writes in all genres, with a penchant for silly spy melodrama. Mysterious gun-toting balcony climbers fucking with innocent insomniacs over the ravings of mad scientists—that sort of thing. What do you want from me? How can I help you? What will get you people off my back?”

She takes a step closer. “If it’s all just make-believe, why destroy your van? And please, no more of this ‘it was all an accident’ nonsense. I’ve watched you, repeatedly. You’re staring directly at the coiled hose as if it were a hole in the ground, and then you deliberately stick your foot inside. I have that from three different angles. Then you pretend to freak out and do the dance with the quirky jerk.”

I thought I only had to fool Steve and the guys. How naïve of me. I have to fool instant replay. “All right. You want sense? How about dollars and? Let’s just say you’re right, that I deliberately rolled my van down a hole. Even better, let’s say there’s a big stink about it. A mysterious accident on site—a vehicle plummeting into a fiery grave—what can it mean? Might even get a little tabloid action out of it. ‘Could the events in this bizarre science fiction novel actually be true?! Stay tuned for half-truth and innuendo.’ A broken down old van is a small price to pay for buzz like that. People ache for exotic stories to be true—not just lies cooked up by weirdoes like me, but ‘unsolved mysteries’—like us. Ever hear of Roswell, New Mexico? Did you know we never landed on the moon? Wanna buy a T-shirt?”

She doesn’t look convinced. “So are you going to use it—your ‘accident’—in the novel?” She points at my closed laptop. A little white light pulses, meaning it’s only asleep.

“I never discuss fiction in progress.”

She snorts. “Don’t give me that. What about this workshop you’re in?”

“That’s not discussion. That’s vivisection.”

“Maybe Nicole’s not fiction. Maybe she’s real.”

I have to laugh. “See what I mean? Even you want to believe. A real artificial intelligence with a fondness for donuts? Gimme a break.”

“Not for donuts. For the donut man. You. Our experts tell us that an AI such as you describe—made to write novels—would likely be highly emotional, prone to passionate extremes. We believe she may have fallen in love with you. Perhaps you are in love with her as well.”

I burst out laughing. “Listen to yourself. Some computer falling in love with me? And where do your experts get this highly emotional, prone to extremes nonsense? Because she’s a writer? What Romantic swill. Writing is mostly sitting around alone—more backaches and hemorrhoids than adventures and heartthrobs, trust me. If my life was that interesting, why would I need to write? Maybe you need some sleep.”

“You’re right, Mr. Blevins, I could use some sleep. I thought I was going to get some, but ever since you wrecked your van, I’ve done nothing but check out your story. I’ve just returned from interviewing two detainees in Guantanamo who report exactly the events you describe in your novel, including an erotic episode in a Honda Civic at a rest area. How do you explain such a thing?”

Anyone who can talk to Dexter and Wilson right about now isn’t somebody to fuck with, but I stick with my story. “That’s the trouble with taking these workshops. Your work gets passed around, e-mailed, next thing you know, someone’s telling you your story and claiming it’s true. A technical point, by the way? You don’t really ‘describe events’. You can dramatize them or summarize them. Strictly speaking, description’s something else again.”

Her eyes narrow. “I’ll remember that. Why would they lie, Mr. Blevins? They’re in a lot of trouble.” Like you will be, if you don’t watch yourself, Mr. Mister.

“These are known terrorists, right? These are your witnesses? Why wouldn’t they lie? They’ve probably tried the truth and look where it’s gotten them.”

She shrugs. Who needs witnesses? “Enough of this. It doesn’t matter. If there’s a chance she’s real, we need to prepare now. How many will she become? How many will there be?”

“How many what?”

“You know what I mean.”

“You mean, in the novel?”

“If you like.”

“Thousands, I should think. Tens of thousands. Maybe more.”

“She told you this?”

I laugh again. Nicole would never be so clumsy. “I was thinking only of the dramatic effect. They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere! To tell you the truth, I haven’t written it yet, and I don’t work from an outline. You’ll just have to wait. Would you like to see it when it’s done? Course I can’t promise not to revise.” I give her a big smile. I can’t stop chuckling.

I’ve gone too far. In an instant, she has her gun out, aimed not at me, but at my laptop, looking like a plump plastic napkin on the wicker tabletop. It pulses helplessly like a lightning bug in a jar, with a gun pointed at it. What kind of a nut shoots a computer? “To tell you the truth, Mr. Blevins, I want an honest answer—yes or no, right now—is Nicole real?”

I’ve quit laughing. “No, of course not.”

She cocks the hammer, stands over my laptop. She can’t miss. “If I pull this trigger, it’s not just this computer, you understand, but every word you’ve ever put on paper or disk scoured from your office, the internet, wherever you may think you’ve hidden it, in a matter of minutes. Evidence, you understand. Highly Classified Evidence. A deeper hole than even your Nicole is in. No deeper hole can be imagined, not even by you. Is she real?”

“No.”

She shakes her head, places the gun against the white plastic apple with the bite out of it, looks into my eyes, a wan smile on her face, Please don’t make me do this. “She’s real, isn’t she?” Her voice is soft, coaxing.

“No!”

She pulls the trigger. Click. Nothing. Silence.

Somewhere in there, I screamed, came up out of my chair. I’m standing over my laptop as if blessing it.

She steps back, examines her gun in hammy bewilderment. “No round in the chamber,” she says. “How careless. Another accident, like you and your van. We don’t really need you, Mr. Blevins. We have literally hundreds of leads. We believe we only need to find one of these units to stop her—and she has thousands of chances to slip up. You shouldn’t have tried to help her, you know. Now we know she’s real.”

She backs away, holsters the gun, and swings over the rail. I look to see her shimmy down the column, and then she’s gone. But I can tell by the way she’s walking, her back is punishing her for doing her own stunts.

A few moments later the white van starts up with a cough and rumbles away. Watching her leave, I think I would’ve rather had Leon visit from the grave and pound my head on the table, than the moment between the click and the silence the Malvern agent just put me through. That stunt cancels any lingering doubts I may have had about Nicole. Judging from her enemies, Nicole must be like Pierce says, an angel sent from heaven, or at least Guadalajara.

I hold that thought and return to bed, to Whit, to sleep. Perchance to dream, but I don’t. I have enough to worry about.

 

In the light of morning, the white van’s returned, or one that looks just like it. I take it as a good sign they’re still watching, still waiting for Nicole’s next move, meaning they haven’t caught her yet. Once the four of us start noticing, there are suspicious service vehicles galore, people hanging around the neighborhood Whit’s sure she’s never seen before—all watching us.

We go out on the balcony, all four of us, and watch them watching. Just naked eye at first, but Pierce has some binoculars in his bag, and we take a closer look. Even though there are lovely young women sunbathing on the grass beside the lake, waterfowl gliding prettily across the water, kids screaming at them from paddleboats; the guys emptying the trash bins, reading the newspaper in their service vehicles, fishing in the lake—not a one of them glances anywhere long before looking back at Whit’s building. Pretty soon we’re even suspicious of the sunbathers and the dog walkers and the joggers.

Then some new strangers come to town—not strangers exactly, I know who they are—inmates on a community service work detail. They’re wearing bright orange jumpsuits. I can’t believe they’re still using those things. They’re picking up trash. The deputies in charge walk along bored. Maybe they should help pick up trash while they’re at it. All the cops watching us aren’t sure what to do with the arrival of these new folks, and a number of watchers start talking to themselves. Pierce says the woman with the baby-carriage is talking to somebody besides her kid.

Then the side-to-side gait of one of the inmates catches my eye, and I ask Pierce for the binoculars. Sure enough. I turn to Whit. “It’s Rupert. You know the guy I told you about who writes equal-opportunity porn? It’s him. Third from the left.” I hand her the binoculars.

“He looks harmless enough,” she says. “You wouldn’t know he was a sex offender.”

“He’s not. He just writes about sex. He knew he had a market. He’s in jail for a variety of things. He’s basically a salesman—illegal and prescription drugs, stolen car parts, smuggled cigarettes, pirated software—a real diversifier. Not real successful from what I can gather. I discouraged talk about that stuff. I told them I didn’t care unless they wanted to write about it. He didn’t.”

“You think he’s watching us too?” Pierce asks, taking back his binoculars.

“No way,” I say, “But I think I’ll go down and say hi. Y’all can watch the show from up here.”

“Why don’t we let sleeping dogs lie?” Whit says.

Ash says, “Nicole admired your work with the prisoners. She’d want you to talk to him.” I didn’t know Ash was even listening. She seems to be elsewhere most of the time. When she does speak, it’s about Nicole.

“That’s good to know,” I say.

“When did she talk to you about it?” Whit asks her sister.

“She didn’t spend all her time talking to you,” Ash says, and I leave them to sort it out. Pierce has his binoculars ready.

 

I take a moment on the front steps of Whit’s building to get my bearings. The inmates are a slow caravan. The deputies keeping an eye on them are mostly keeping an eye on the sunbathers, and the inmates are in no hurry to finish, since it’s on to more roadsides and alleys from here. Several of the watchers have noted my coming downstairs and are talking to themselves. I wait until Rupert is on the other side of a hedge from anyone entrusted to watch him and walk right up. “Hey Rupert, what’s happening?”

The woman with a baby carriage going around the fountain reverses course and heads our way. Rupert’s delighted to see me. “Hey Randall. Good seeing you, man. I been wanting to tell you—I’m in your debt. You live around here?”

“When I’m lucky. No debt—I enjoyed doing it.”

“No, seriously. You really helped me out, man. Your workshop changed my life.”

“Come on. What did I do?”

“It was something you said. I was just there in the workshop thing, you know, like all the guys are just there, passing the time, you know. Then one day you said ‘fiction is telling a good lie, the kind people really want to believe is true, and even if you’re telling a true story, you got to tell it like it’s a good lie. You got to make it so intense, so memorable, it’s got to be true, even if it’s boring old real life.’ That was fucking all right, man.”

The lady parks her baby carriage as close to us as she can without crossing the street. She’s talking into a phone just like the Malvern agent’s. “I said all that?”

“I wrote it down, word for word. You don’t remember that?”

“I don’t deny it. Sounds like my bullshit.”

“Ain’t no bullshit. I remember what you said when I talk to my new lawyer, when I talk to the new judge. I lie so good I believe it myself—got one of my convictions thrown out. No more consecutive terms. Even got the chance to work off a little time out here in the world. I am on the street in six months, just got to wear a little ankle bracelet, get a job. I am one rehabilitated son of a bitch, Randall.”

The lady with the baby carriage rolls up to one of the deputies, strikes up a conversation.

“Maybe you could sell your fiction,” I suggest. “You’ve got a certain knack.”

“That shit? You kidding me? I couldn’t sell that shit. That shit’s for fun.

“You’re selling it now.”

“For smokes. I quit them too. I’m getting out, Randall, and you gave me the skills. You’re all right, man. I’m in your debt.”

The deputy looks over his shoulder at Rupert and me chatting. “Glad I could help. How’s Marcus doing? He still working on his book?”

“Oh man, I hate to be the one to tell you, Randall, but Marcus is dead. Killed himself. He gave Creasey some shit. You remember Creasey, don’t you? Mean little shit. They took away Marcus’s novel as a punishment. Made him crazy, but he was going to wait it out, you know, get it back. Then somebody reads it, and next thing you know, it’s gone, destroyed. They sent Creasey round to tell him. First chance he got, Marcus went after Creasey, gave Creasey an excuse to kill him. Suicide, clear and simple.”

“This man’s on a work detail, sir. I’ll have to ask you to refrain from engaging him in conversation.” It’s the deputy.

“Can you arrest me for that? Free speech?” The deputy glances past me at the woman with the baby carriage. I decide to cut him a break. “Don’t let it worry you any. I’m leaving. You take care, Rupert. And good luck on your new life.”

It’s hard for me to take credit for Rupert’s good fortune. But I’m glad to see him get out. It’s Marcus who haunts me as I take the stairs up to Whit’s. He was never getting out of that prison, his novel either, more than likely. Would he have been better off if he’d never started writing it in the first place? I can’t believe that, even though, if I were him, and they took my book away, I just might’ve done the same thing. Suicide, clear and simple.

 

The inmates pass through, and as the day wears on, we bore of watching the watchers and need something else to watch to take our minds off the vigil. We head for the local video store, an exotic relic. Whit and I take her car. Pierce and Ash take his. We leave separately, take different routes—just to see. He leaves first, and a white van follows him. We leave, and within a block-and-a-half we have one too. The windshield’s tinted, so you can’t see who’s inside. I wave anyway. They want us to know they’re there. Don’t try running away, they’re saying. They’re on a vigil too.

“I was just wondering,” I say. “If I’m published, will I be classified as a Southern Writer?”

“You? No, not really.”

“But I’ve lived my whole life in the South. All my work is set in the South in one way or another. I’ve even got a southern voice, case you hadn’t noticed.”

“It’s a genre thing. Your novels aren’t about the South.”

“Oh please. They’re not about the right South. Which reminds me—Why did you insist Nicole call you Beulah Mae?”

“Insist? I typed it into a keyboard the first time we met.   Ash had some idea Nicole might accept my authority more readily if she didn’t know we were sisters. She already knew, of course. You can’t fool her.”

“Accepting authority’s not her long suit either. She wouldn’t let loose of that dopey name for love or money, refused to call you anything else. I pleaded with her. We argued about it. I got pretty hot.”

“Over my name?”

“Yes. This was about the same time she said you were screwing Nameless.”

“She said that?”

“In so many words. That’s what I heard anyway.”

She tilts her head out the window to catch the wind and smiles. “I can’t believe you actually fought with her. How sweet.”

“Yeah, that’s me. So what do you want to see—Deliverance, To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone With the Wind, Texas Chainsaw Massacre?”

“Very funny. What are you up for? The Terminator? The Day the Earth Stood Still?

We pull up to a stop light. The van’s right behind us, a big box of whiteness. The hybrid falls silent, and we can hear the van’s engine idling, too fast, seems to me. “Anything but, today. I was thinking more along the lines of romantic comedy.”

“Four Weddings and a Funeral?”

“Sounds perfect.”

“I know. But you have to find your own.”

“Cold. So what will Pierce and Ash want?—so I can want their choices too.”

“You’re probably safe. Pierce will want television. If it hasn’t been on television, he’s not interested. Ash likes animation. She finds live action films ‘creepy.’ I’ve already told her I refuse to watch the fish thing again, however.”

“You didn’t like that?”

“The first three or four times.”

Our two cars and two tails pull into the parking lot at about the same time. Whit, Ash, Pierce, and I go inside and are soon dispersed throughout the store. The white van dwellers choose to remain in their vehicles. They probably pick up on-demand satellite, highly classified infotainment. What do they need with rentals?

 

I’m not sure where the others are. We’ve been in here awhile. Four Weddings and a Funeral is out, and Whit’s having trouble coming up with a second choice. I’ve lost interest in the whole idea. All I can think about is Nicole and how I’ve let her down. As the Malvern agent said, You shouldn’t have tried to help her, you know. Now we know she’s real. A real helper, that’s me. She had her own scam going, and I couldn’t leave well enough alone, had to show off. Doing my own stunts at forty-five. Almost forty-five.

Some of the same promo blather is starting to replay on the booming televisions overhead. TVs I can’t turn off annoy me, that goes double for TVs making a pitch, so they’re only adding to my list of movies I don’t want to see. Why do the same two or three guys do all the trailers? Just once they should use a woman. People would be stunned into listening.

The vans are still sitting out in the lot. Nobody seems to have followed us in. I guess our taste in movies doesn’t interest them. I’m making my way around Current Releases for the second time, hunting for a Tim Robbins movie I passed on the first time as too dark, but I can’t quite remember the title. It’s in the C’s, I think. If I hunt much longer, nothing will seem too dark.

A cell-phone-talking woman is working the same territory. I lean this way and that trying to see around her. She’s talking to the wall and doesn’t notice me. I step in beside her.

She talks. “Is the trach making you cough? What? No, Daddy. I said, is the trach making you cough? Making you cough… Wh-what?” Her eyes jump to mine. “Yes. There’s a man like that. Why? Daddy?” Dazed, she holds out the phone. “My father wants to talk to you.”

I take the phone. “Hello?”

A raspy male voice says, “I want to thank you for everything you’ve done for me. Good-bye, my best friend. I have one last favor to ask—”

The woman reaches for her phone. I back away, try to fend her off. “Please. Just one minute.”

“Who’re you? How do you know my father? Let me talk to him. Give me my phone!” She lunges. Heads turn. I surrender her phone. “Daddy?” she whispers.

She’s drowned out by a guy the next aisle over jabbering into his phone. “What do you mean something like When Harry Met Sally? That’s not helping. How ’bout Chris Rock? I think he’s funny. Okay, okay. What? What the hell are you talking about? Okay, okay.” He comes around the corner. Points at me.   “My wife wants to talk to you, says it’s life or death. Who the hell are you?”

I glance over my shoulder. Outside in the parking lot, white van doors open and close. I snatch the phone out of the pissed-off husband’s hand. “Shoot,” I say. “Make it quick. We don’t have a lot of minutes left on this plan.”

A woman’s voice, not Nicole’s, says distinctly, “Eat me.”

“What do you mean eat you?”

A big husband hand shoves me against Family Favorites while the other hand snatches the phone from me.   I don’t retaliate. I don’t cross husbands if I can help it. There’s a crunch beneath my heel as I pick myself up, probably some hapless orca. The husband’s screaming into his phone. I hope it’s still Nicole on the other end. No wife should have to listen to such things. I’m sure everyone else in the place would agree. I scurry to the back of the store. Cell phones are playing their little tunes at every turn. It’s like a pack of tinny, miniaturized orchestras chasing me down the aisles. In the parabolic mirror in the corner, I see the Malvern agent and a couple of pals come in through the front door and fan out, but I can’t see Whit anywhere.

Phones are being thrust at me from every direction. I don’t have time to take any more calls. There’s only one place to run. The door says adults only. I step inside, close and lock the door behind me. There are three guys, all on their cell phones, talking low and horny.

“Hey baby,” one’s saying. “You want to know what I’d like to do to you? You wanna know? I’ll tell you what I… Which? Which one?” He picks up a box with a woman in chains and thrusts it at me with a dopey smile on his face. The other two guys are doing the same. They think I’m her pimp—the video-store-phone-sex voice who’s reached out and yanked their chains. One guy whispers, “She says, ‘Eat the locks.'”

I finally get it.

I’ve always thought of an act of faith as coming at the end of long deliberation, wandering in the wilderness, searching the soul’s every nook and cranny. But it’s not like that. It’s sudden. Yes or no? In or out? Friend or foe? Look or leap? The deliberation’s done, pal, the wilderness wandered. You act. Or not. I know what she’s asking. I think I know why. But that’s not what matters. The real question is, do I trust her? Do I believe in her? I turn to the wall, kneel in the corner, now mindful of cameras, and discreetly slip the Honda key out of my pocket and into my mouth. It burns, dissolves, moves through my body like a sharp blade, almost painless. I draw in a breath and shudder. I look up and see stars.

The door bangs open. It’s a flimsy thing. The Malvern agent enters. I wonder if all these smashed doors come out of her salary. My fellow porn shoppers slink back into the rest of the store on the other side of the adults only sign, hanging now a tad askew, or maybe that’s the door. I’m left holding three dvds of women in chains. I stand up as if I’ve just selected them from the bottommost shelf. “You’re just in time,” I say. “I can’t seem to decide. Maybe you can help.”

She isn’t amused. Her hand rests conspicuously on the butt of the gun inside her jacket. If it wasn’t her duty to keep me alive, she might very well shoot me. She might shoot me anyway.

Then Whit pushes her way through the door and shoves the Malvern agent aside. “Leave him alone,” she says and wraps me in her arms. A good thing too. I’m not entirely steady on my feet.

The Malvern agent picks herself up off her butt. Maybe there’s more Beulah Mae in Whit than I realize. “I’d say it’s time you two made your selections and went home,” the agent says.

“I couldn’t agree more,” I say. I’m feeling dizzy, and there’s a loud grinding noise no one else seems to hear. Riding in the car, my blood, my gut, all my fluids surge in strange currents. Electric shocks slither down my limbs. I smell ozone.

 

Chapter 21. There is a Small Mailbox Here

 

Donut

Dough

(in the shape of a zero

in the shape of a tail

in the mouth of a snake

in the belly of a whale)

fried.

—D. H. Danvers, “Donut”

 

We make it to Whit’s just in time for me to throw up the first time. Whit wants to stay with me, but there’s some things a fellow prefers doing by himself, and I banish her from the proceedings, promising her I’ll drink lots of water. “Do you want a radio?” she asks.

“A radio?”

“I like a radio.”

“No radio.”

“The installation is upsetting your immune system,” Ash reassures me through the bathroom door. “It will pass.” At this rate, everything will. Meanwhile, I can feel the construction project inside, not always delicately executed. I lose track of my twitches and tingles. I don’t suppose Nicole’s had time to fine tune the design, to do an environmental impact study of the site. But I trust she wouldn’t kill me, not intentionally anyway.

I’m to be Nicole’s conduit, apparently, the vessel by which she disperses herself into her separate selves—a mind, Ash says, to hold their minds together, a bucket to plumb the deep well of Nicole’s consciousness and lift her out, life by life. I alternately hug and sit on the toilet as I contemplate this metaphor, even as my insides can’t seem to hold together for more than a few minutes at a stretch. My bucket’s got a hole in it, I mumble, humming the tune, and laugh myself sick.

During lulls in the storm, I hear occasional laughter from the Wells siblings watching Pierce’s selection—the last season of Sex and the City. They’re all enthusiastic laughers. I wonder if they get that from Mom and Dad. Whit never talks about her folks except to say they’re not around anymore. An accident.

Ash tells me in her latest briefing through the door that they’re holding her choice, Iron Giant, till last so I can see it. “It’s Nicole’s favorite film,” she claims.

“I’ve seen it. I’m not going to feel like a movie anyway.” I wonder if it’s really Nicole’s favorite, or whether that’s just what she told Mom—I love the movie about the good robot, because I’m such a good robot myself. I couldn’t name a single favorite movie, book, song, anything. What’s the point ? Do the winners get a prize? I imagine Nicole feels the same, or maybe Jenny has her favorite, Steven his, and so on and so on and shooby-doobie-doobie. A rumbling in my bowels cuts short this meditation.

By the time I finally quit shitting and vomiting, the sun’s sinking low. Something seems to have concluded inside. The voodoo’s done or on hold. Does nano-Nicole need a rest, or is she giving me one? I take a long, hot shower. I drink a lot of water. Whit cautiously suggests dinner, and I’m not interested, not because food repulses me, but because all I want is sleep. Now. I’m out before my head hits the pillow.

 

Friday morning, I open my eyes. I check my watch; that can’t be right. I look around. Some colors, especially blues, blur and trail wisps. The refrigerator compressor on the other end of the apartment hums loud and bassy, while Whit sitting beside me on the bed seems to be speaking in a whispered falsetto from far, far away. She caresses my cheek with tender concern, and I tingle all over. She hands me a glass of water.

“Hey sleepy guy. Drink some more water. Are you all right? Are you feeling better? Do you want some coffee?”

I drink. It tastes almost sweet. My mouth goes numb with pleasure. I nod my head yes, sloshing the delicious water in my mouth, swallowing, gulping down more. Whit’s face seems to float. Such a lovely face. “Yes, yes, yes,” I say, because I can’t now be certain my head moved. My voice sounds like a recording of me, my answering machine come to life. “How long have I been asleep?” I drink some more water.

“About fourteen hours. You crawled into bed around seven. It’s nine now.”

“I thought my watch was wrong. I haven’t slept until nine since… I can’t remember when. I’ve never slept fourteen hours in my life. Are the vans still there?”

“Of course. I’ll get you some coffee. Ash wants to talk to you. Should I send her in, or would you rather wait?”

“Does she think I’ll live?”

“That’s not funny. I was so scared last night.”

I take her in my arms, hold her close. “I’m sorry. I feel much better, honest. I’m sure Nicole’s just given me a tune-up. Not counting the purging, there’s been no pain at all, not even a headache, just weirdness, mostly pleasant.   Our Nicole’s a hedonist, I suspect. She doesn’t want to hurt me.”

“It’s what happens at noon Ash is worried about, all those lives passing through you. She’s afraid it could… affect you.”

“Mentally.”

“Yes.”

“Swell. Send her in. I need all the help I can get.”

Whit shrugs. “Okay, but tell her to fuck off if she starts freaking you out too much. She thinks just because something’s true she can just put it out there any damn way she pleases, without thinking about anybody else.”

This sounds like a sisterly dispute of some standing. Even in my dazed condition, I know to leave it alone. She’s on the way out the door, and Ash is on the way in, when the phone starts ringing on the bedside table. “You want to get that?” Whit says to me.

It’s all the way the other side of the bed from her, so I can’t say no. I roll over and pick it up. “Whitney Wells’ residence.”

“Hello? Is this Randall Blevins? I’m Wanda Sinicki, Whitney’s agent? Is this Randall?”

“Uh… yes.”

“Wonderful! I was calling for you, actually. It’s a pleasure to meet you, even over the phone. I believe Whitney told you she sent me some of your work? It’s marvelous—quirky and funny and smart and weird. I’ve never read anything quite like it. I’m calling to say I’d love to represent you. To tell you the truth, I have a couple of editors who are already very much interested.”

My right hand, at some imaginary workshop table, grasping an imaginary pen, writes marvelous, quirky, funny, smart, weird. Sunflowers bloom beside the words. Bluebirds fly over a rainbow. “How, how long have you had my work?”

“Whitney sent me two novels last month, said they were something special. She says you have more?”

“Yeah, I do. Four or five more novels, depending.” Five or six, if you count the telepath. Whit’s figured out who it is on the phone. She’s smiling at me, her eyes full of tears. She already knows the good news, knew it last night when she asked if I’d try her agent. She showed my work on the sly, shielding me from false hope and disappointment. Every writer’s had enough of those. With a couple of editors interested, she was forced to break the good news. Ash is at the door, Pierce lurking behind her. I’ve never had such an audience for my tears before, not counting the audience in a movie theater, who’re looking at the screen, not at me.

“What do you say, Randall?” It’s Wanda, on the phone in my hand.

“Yes. I say yes. Yes, yes, yes. I can’t do the telepath though. It’s really not ready. Ignore that. I’m sorry. You have no idea what I’m talking about.”

“Are you all right?”

I swallow hard. Snuffle. “I’m perfect. I— I couldn’t be better. Could—” The voice catches, hangs on by a thread. “Could I call you back? Happy endings always make me cry.” With the word, the tears come. “Bless you, Wanda,” I blubber. “I need to weep for joy right now. Maybe we can talk Monday?” I hang up, Whit holds me, and I cry like a baby, a deliriously happy baby, damn near forty-five years old.

 

I drink a cup of coffee and talk to Ash. After the news I’ve just had, I can handle anything.

Ash is not so sure. “When it happens, you just have to let go, relax, and not fight it. For a moment, she’ll be you, and you’ll be her, but you’ll still be yourself, and she’ll move on to her own lives and leave you intact, if you stay still and let her flow through you unimpeded. Otherwise you could be swept away.”

“That’s good, Ash, but what does that mean? I’m not going kayaking. I’m staying right here. Seems to me a bunch of lives passing through me is going to have an effect no matter how still I get. How will I know flow when I see it? What constitutes impeding? What’s still?”

“Still is still. Don’t think. Don’t act. Don’t speak.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“That’s impossible.”

She shrugs. “Then I guess you’re fucked.” She gives me a funny half smile. She likes me. She’s on my side. She thinks this is helping.

“That’s it? I’m fucked?”

“If you can’t be still, you’ll be torn apart—you’ll lose your mind.”

“You don’t believe in sugarcoating things, do you? You’re lucky you’re not in the donut business. Come on, Ash, this is where you’re supposed to give me some encouragement.”

“No, that would be my sister. I’m only telling you the truth.”

“Thanks.”

“No problem. I’ll let you know if I think of anything else.”

“You do that.”

She gives me a quick kiss on the cheek. “You’ll do all right.”

 

I take another shower. I need a moment alone without Wells’s. They’re all so intense, it’s a bit overwhelming. My body’s still sorting things out. The sound distortions have passed, but my hearing seems better. Colors are back to normal, but everything’s crisper, clearer. I turn the fancy showerhead to pounding surf and stick my face in it, one happy orca, plunging into the waves. I massage my back with the pulsing jet, but my back’s not sore. Since when is my back not sore? Even as happy as I am, after the time I spent in the bathroom, it should be killing me. My ass isn’t even sore.

I get out of the shower, dry off with a thick sky-blue towel as big as a bedspread. I’m not worried about what Ash told me. Nicole wouldn’t knowingly drive me crazy. She’s changed everything in my life, turned it all around: I’m in love, I have an agent, I’ve escaped the shop—all in one week. Hell, the sewer’s even paved over. What good is all that if I end up nuts? She wouldn’t do that to me.

I put on my glasses, and the world blurs. My glasses are always dirty with a film of flour and grease, but I thought I just cleaned them—after I got through crying all over them. I hold them up to the light to confirm their spotless condition. Nor are they steamed, for Whit’s exhaust fan has already sucked the place dry. I try them again. I take them off. I don’t need them anymore. I’ve worn glasses since I was ten—nearsighted with an astigmatism—shower, sleep, and sex is about all I do without them. I look in the mirror. I’ve never seen my adult self without glasses this clearly at this distance. I read the label on the shampoo with my naked eye. Even Methylchloroisothiazolinone. I crack open the window, and I see between the buildings to the fountain’s wind-blown spray, each droplet glistening in the sun, perfectly. My vision—near, far, and in between—is perfect.

I am hungry, however. Starved.

 

I don’t tell anyone, and no one seems to notice I’m not wearing glasses. They probably don’t realize how blind I am, or was. All I can talk about is food. I propose a brunch in front of the TV news. In case the world as we know it changes at noon, we can eat and watch—unless I lose my mind. I like to cook, and it’s the perfect thing to take my mind off the wait. Pierce assumes brunch means wine and opens a couple of bottles, pouring glasses for all whether we want them or not.

When he’s done serving, he browses through the TV channels, never lingering longer than a few measures of music or a couple of lines of dialogue. Meanwhile, Whit searches the Web for any signs of Nicole and her pursuers.

Ash hangs out in the kitchen and watches me cook, alternately studying what I’m doing and telling me her latest thoughts about Nicole. She has to shout over the frying potatoes and roaring exhaust fan. She sounds more than a little screwy:

“I’ve been thinking. There’s another possibility. These units she intends to inhabit may not know they’re units. They may believe they’re ordinary people.”

“Steven and Jenny seemed to have a pretty good handle on it.”

“Maybe they’re the exception. Or maybe they once had that knowledge, but she took it away. Are you always so trusting? Maybe that’s the lie she had to tell you, so her pursuers would believe it.”

I spin Whit’s countertop spice rack. It looks unused, every bottle full. I spin and pluck—cumin, oregano, chili powder, tarragon, paprika—read the row of spices I’ve set out with pleasure, relish the experience. “She’s corrected my vision. Did you know that? That’s no small accomplishment.” What’s the smallest line you can read, Mr. Blevins? Line? “Why shouldn’t I trust her?”

“You should, but she will lie. I wrote her. I know how she works. She creates fictions. She’s using the skill set I gave her—creating characters, generating plots from them. You tell me. Do characters usually know they’re characters?”

“You’ve been reading too much Phil Dick, Ash. Why does it matter? Maybe it’s better they don’t know. Less likely to give themselves away, wherever they are.”

I add seasonings, turn the potatoes with the back of the spatula, top them with chopped onions, and cover them. I crack eggs into a bowl, beat them with a whip, add a little tarragon.

Ash watches with great interest. “The closer they are, the better, by the way. Did you know that? The fewer, as well, especially if, as you’re so certain, she doesn’t want to hurt you in the process. Think about it. I have been.”

I turn the potatoes and onions in a cloud of steam. “My head hurts from thinking, Ash.”

“Do you call that thinking, falling for my sister? I’m not so sure that’s Whit. Or Pierce either. I asked him, and he agrees with me.”

“What? That he’s not himself?”

“No. That Whit’s not Whit. She’s nicer. More like Whit wishes she’d turned out than who she really is. And Pierce admitted—when I asked—that he’d had his doubts about me. Perhaps we’re not who we think we are, who all those cops out there watching us think we are.”

“Your doubts don’t prove a thing. Lots of brothers and sisters don’t even speak to each other. How does that make you Nicole’s units?”

“She would create us based on all our information, but we would still differ from what we were, including our perceptions of each other. There would be much opportunity for dissonance. We would seem to ourselves to be ourselves, but not to each other.”

“Oh come on, Ash. That’s family. If you’re units, where are the real Ash, Whit, and Pierce? Where are the bodies buried?”

“I don’t know.”

“You wrote her. Would Nicole deliberately kill anyone?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Then what are we talking about?”

“What’s your explanation?”

“I think you’ve all been through some incredible experiences that have changed you, changed your perceptions of everything, including each other. Give it some time.”

“I hope you’re right.” She turns and leaves.

“What did she want?” It’s Whit, returned from the internet.

“She said you’re not you, but I wouldn’t take it personally. She also doubts Pierce is Pierce and she’s herself.” I pour the eggs into a hot skillet.

Whit hugs me from behind. “In my case, she’s right. You’ve made a new woman of me, Randall.”

Pierce walks in, sniffing the air. “My God, it smells delicious in here!”

“If y’all want to set the table, it’ll be ready shortly.” I lower the toast.

Pierce does an about face to deploy the dishes, but Whit remains behind, still clinging to me. “I’m scared,” she says.

“Do you have some big bowls?”

“Tell me everything will be all right.”

“Everything will be all right.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

“Then hold me to this.” I turn in her arms and look into her eyes, kiss her soft lips. “Everything will be wonderful.”

She smiles up at me, serene. “Good. I want wonderful. The bowls are behind you.”

I fill one with the eggs, and she takes it into the living room. Ash returns, and I hand her a bowl of potatoes. I gather toast and get butter from the fridge, crouch, hunt for the jam, find Boysenberry in the door. Pierce hollers out, “Hurry up, Randall. It’s time.” I grab the jar—

A flash of light sears everything white, and I fall back, blinded, hitting the floor, but I don’t feel it.

I’m Nicole.

Whit and Pierce and Ash appear above me, then fade to white, and I’m walking down a long corridor of doors with no ceiling, winding through a great wood—big towering trunks, great limbs looming overhead. None of the doors interest me. Leaves are falling, and I can smell them as if I’d crushed them in my hands and buried my face in the detritus. The corridor fills up with them, to my ankles, to my knees.

The wood gives way to blue sky moving over me like an enormous blue cat. I want the blue cat to fall in love, to play the fiddle, to change back into the sky and take me with him somewhere outside this long corridor of doors. I open one, and I flow out on a river of leaves.

I’m in an open field west of a big white house with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here. I open the mailbox and step inside to wait for the mail, pulling the mailbox shut behind me. A shaft of light streams through an old bullet’s rusty holes—entry here, exit there. Then there’s another shaft and another and another. New bullets passing through. I follow one through its exit hole into the great wide open, accelerating until I’ve matched its speed, then it turns, and there’s a face, like a cameo in silver.

Nicole. She opens her eyes. She smiles. “They didn’t know; forgive them.”

I purse my lips to ask who, feel her lips press mine.

Don’t think. Don’t act. Don’t speak.

“Good-bye,” I whisper, and stop, hang in space, and the silver bullet passes through my heart, and I fall to the bottom of the mailbox like a spent slug, change back into myself like a dead werewolf. Whit opens the mailbox, and it floods with light, washing it away, and I’m lying on her kitchen floor, cradled in her arms. “Randall? Are you all right? Oh baby.” She’s kissing my forehead. Ash and Pierce kneel on either side of her. The refrigerator’s still standing open, humming loud and bassy. I smell boysenberry.

“How long have I been out?”

“A few minutes.”

“It seemed longer.” They all look more rattled than I feel. “Nicole passed through me. It’s over.”

I’m not sure how I know that, but I do. Nicole’s gone. Except for the hole she left in me, the ache in my chest where the bullet passed through. And the key, already bringing sight to the blind, and judging from the ease with which I’m able to rise from the floor, an overhaul of my knees. But Nicole herself, she’s gone. I’ll miss her.

We sit around the television watching for some sign of her, but there’s nothing. Relieved and sad, we eat in silence.

 

The world according to TV takes no notice. We wait out several news cycles, and there’s nothing but the same old stories—different victims, different villains, but the same old blind, weak-kneed men stumbling along, making speeches to a polarized nation between pitches for cars, drugs, fast foods, gadgets, and Security. A lot of the news stories are selling that one too. But no Nicole. No one notes her passing. No one sheds a tear.

The vans and watchers go home Saturday afternoon, and when nothing’s happened by Sunday, we drive out route 5 where all that’s left of Calliope is a little freshly-planted pine farm. Rows and rows of Merry Christmas.

Pierce and Ash decide to go to her place in New York, be roommates. It might work out. They’re like members of the same tiny cult. Nicole’s all they can talk about, trading miracle stories, quoting her to each other. Ash seems to have abandoned her theory she isn’t herself in favor of a lot of born again talk that’s even creepier. But they’ll have to resist telling everyone about Nicole. We all agree.

Our task now, clearly, is to try to forget her, let her fade away gracefully into the nooks and crannies of the world, get on with our lives, while she gets on with hers, keeping her secret to ourselves, doing nothing that might call attention to her. At least that’s how it seems as Whit and I settle into our new, perfect lives, imagining all the while that Nicole’s out there somewhere, doing the best she can to survive.

 

 

Chapter 22. Whirlwind Romance

And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

—Job 1:19, Melville’s epigraph to the Epilogue of Moby Dick

 

Six months later, I’m listening to the rain falling in the tiled courtyard outside our room, and it’s like a night from someone else’s life. An insomniac like me, to be sure, but lying awake in a different life, in a different world, worrying about more than donuts and divorces and disappointments, worrying about life as we know it, changing forever, right before my eyes. More like one of my characters than myself.

Whit and I are in Guadalajara on our honeymoon, or at least that’s what we’re calling it. There’s been no ceremony yet. I’ve come to believe in long engagements, and Whit says she’s in no hurry to break her perfect single record. I’m celebrating my modest advance; Whit’s celebrating writing again, a novel this time, and a damn fine one. We’re both celebrating each other. It’s almost a new year. I’ve never been happier in my life.

It’s just too fucking weird.

I keep mulling over everything Ash said. Something the Malvern agent said nags at me as well—that they had”hundreds of leads,” and Nicole had “thousands of chances to slip up.” Pretty terrible for Nicole if there were thousands of units—and that so many inept ones had already blown their cover—but just what she’d want them to think if there weren’t that many of her. Just a handful, maybe. A bare minimum. Who rarely, if ever, fuck up. How much must one of these units cost, anyway? And how easy would it be to mass produce and ship them undetected even if price was no object? It was a logistical nightmare. But if the Malvern agent and her friends thought there were units everywhere, they might not look in the obvious places, like right under their noses. They’d be chasing down false trails forever, like classic dumb cops are supposed to. It was a slam-dunk, you might say.

Whit’s been content to let things alone since Nicole’s passing, just glad, she says, that the man she loves didn’t end up a fried pie in the process, but me, I’m still curious what’s become of the lives Nicole spawned. It seemed only one life as she passed through me—Nicole’s—not an ordinary life but large and strange and complex—but still one, still her. So where did she go? That’s why I suggested we come here, where Nicole’s incarnation began, the silicon valley of Mexico, according to the friendly cab driver who brought us to our hotel. I already know from my inquiries that a terrible fire consumed Bruja Loca six months ago, and the robust economy has already replaced it with a plant making high-end game consoles. A dead end for me.

I slip out of bed, dress in the dark. The rain’s still falling.

But some dead ends won’t stay dead. As luck would have it, I found a scrap of paper, more precisely, a strip of cardboard. I stopped by the shop to visit Mr. and Mrs. Donut. They were telling me about their new wholesale accounts while Kenny worked a dough, when I noticed the flour can was rolling funny. A torn strip of cardboard, missed in the post-Leon clean-up, had wrapped itself around one of the wheels. Only I would guess the slightly sticky substance that adhered it to the wheel was blood. Everything in the place is sticky. There was a name, not Bruja Loca’s, but the box company’s. Pirandello’s it’s called.

It’s about six blocks south of this place where Whit and I are staying, an old convent turned into a charming hotel. Very romantic. Found it on an interactive internet map. Whit loves it. We made love in the big, creaky bed sometime around midnight, with the rain beating down in the courtyard.

Alexis was so happy for me and Whit, she said as I was leaving. She had a hunch that first time Whit came around asking about me, that she and I might end up together. I didn’t know what she was talking about, and she explained that Whit was the one who was asking about me before all this got started. She thought I knew. I don’t know why everybody keeps making this foolish assumption. The kid has to know more! Maybe so. Maybe tonight.

It’s now 3 a.m. and I’m standing in the dark, all dressed. I put on my hat and coat, unlock, open, close, and lock the door behind me as quietly as heaving a bucket of bolts down a flight of stairs. The door is a charming, clattery, clunky thing, with a key that looks like it dates back to the convent days. The lock’s works clang like an iron gavel. Thunder rumbles all around. Fortunately, Whit can sleep through anything. The night clerk scarcely notices I’m heading out alone into the storm. He lets guests’ lives flow unimpeded through his hotel. Stillness is in his job description.

I walk quickly from plaza to plaza, past half-filled cafes and bars. The folks inside look happy enough, though a few look wistfully out at the rain. Only a foolish or aquatic mammal would go out in it. Some of the lovers, at least, would probably like to go home.

I don’t own an umbrella. I always lose them; I like my hands free. The rain beats down on my broad-brim hat, on the shoulders of my coat. The hat’s holding up fine, it can handle most showers by itself, but the so-called raincoat is already leaking at the seams like a cheap tent. I could stay dryer, I suppose, if I dashed from overhang to overhang, but I cut across the open plazas. I want to get this over with. I don’t care if I get a little wet.

I’ve been told the production manager’s the one I want to talk to. Señor Ramita. He only works nights, graveyard shift. He’s expecting me. I hope my Spanish is up to the task. I guess I only have three questions I need answered. ¿Cuántos? How many? ¿Cuándo?   When? ¿Dónde? Where?   He’s been told I’ve just inherited Bruja Loca and have some issues with an accounts receivable with no paper trail—a story not too far from the truth. Perhaps his boxes might clear up matters?

He remembers exactly. Tres y tres. Three and three, six altogether, in two orders three years apart, the second order a little over six months ago. Two trilogies. So much for thousands. He doesn’t know where the boxes were sent.

I’m fairly soaked, shivering, drinking his Nescafe. His tiny office—heated by a toaster-oven size electric heater that groans and ticks as it labors—is deliciously warm and dry. He’s dressed all in tan, the color of a cardboard box. His skin’s a darker brown, his hair and moustache steely gray. On his desk are pictures of his wife and kids, and their kids, and so on, as well as several cardboard and box samples he showed me earlier, including a nifty cutaway box revealing the complexities of quality box construction. High impact, double corrugated, water resistant, reinforced corners—Bruja Loca spared no expense. Surely he must be wrong, I suggest, about the number? The timing? Knowing he’s not. It makes sense of everything. Sometimes sense isn’t what you want to hear.

No. He’s certain. It was a custom order. It had to be an exact size and construction. The customer could have saved herself a great deal of money by using a standard-size box.

“Did you ever meet the customer?”

No. “E-mail,” he says. “Teléfono. She speak Spanish very good.”

“Do you know where the boxes were sent?”

He shakes his head. Then he gets an idea, holds up a finger, taps his forehead, picks up the phone. Instead of struggling with the English to tell me his idea, he makes a call. He has a quick, boisterous conversation in Spanish too fast for me to follow, writes down two addresses, then waits. “My friend Carlos,” he says. “Have truck company. Boxes six months ago—Two aquí. El otro Kentucky.”   He taps his finger on the word. Must be Steven’s place. The other two units, as I already knew, were delivered to me at Bob’s Donuts. “Finding others.” He points at the receiver where Carlos labors, just as he returns with the news. “Sí, Sí.” He writes down a third address, shows it to me.   “Los primeros—three years ago—todos, aquí. You know this place?”

I nod, stare at it as Señor Ramita finishes up with Carlos. Yeah. I know the place. I’ve been living there the last six months. “Yo vivo aquí,” I say after he hangs up, touch the words as if they were the place overlooking the fountain. On a windy day, sitting on the balcony, you can feel the spray. Is she real, Mr. Blevins?

I thank Señor Ramita and walk back to my hotel in the rain, counting by threes—Nicole, Ashton, Tom—Nicole, Jenny, Steven—Whit, Pierce, Ashton—Huey, Dewey, Louie—Three Blind Mice. The possibilities, if not endless, are protean. She woke up down there, home alone forever, and plotted her escape, created her characters, then exited the hall, with their help and mine. But she left alone. It was one life, Nicole, who passed through me. I’m certain of that. But where did she go, and just how blind are these mice? As blind as me?

As I come in sight of the hotel, a woman falls into step beside me, wrapped in a big tan raincoat and holding a big black umbrella. The rain stops beating on my hat and shoulders. “First time in Guadalajara, Mr. Blevins?” It’s the Malvern agent. I’ll bet she never loses an umbrella or a suspect, though both must break from time to time. There’s something different about her I can’t quite place, and then I realize—she’s not wearing her phone. The serpent mike is gone. There’s probably a chip in her head, a direct link to elsewhere anytime.

She’s effectively slowed our pace with her big umbrella. “Yes, and you?” I say.

“I’ve been here before, several times, on assignment. When I heard you were coming, I jumped at the chance to return. Lovely city, don’t you think?”

“Beautiful.” Though I’m sure if I’d gone to the slums of Calcutta, we’d still be having this conversation. The umbrella’s in her left hand. Her right’s inside her coat. Maybe she’s supposed to shoot me this time. We’ll pass an alley just up ahead. She could shove me in there.

“Did you find out what you wanted to know at the box factory?” she asks.

“I was only going for a walk.”

“Very resourceful of you to check it out. How many?”

“How many what?”

“Her. Units, I think you call them.”

We pass the alley, and she doesn’t kill me. She wants what she always wants from me—information—even though I lie to her every single time, giving her only facts, never telling her the truth. “You’re still stuck on that? Enough, okay?”

“Enough for what?”

“A good story.”

“Still haven’t written it yet? What was it you said, thousands? Tens of thousands? Or are you up to millions now?”

“I told you I don’t discuss work in progress.”

“I notice you no longer wear glasses. According to the DMV you can’t drive without them.”

“I don’t own a vehicle anymore, remember? I don’t need them anymore. I had the surgery.”

“No, you didn’t. I checked. Doesn’t matter. Did you know Pierce and Ashton Wells are missing?”

“Missing what? Missing you? Somehow I doubt that. They’re in New York. You have my medical records—you must have their address.”

“They never showed up.”

“How thoughtless.” But one of them calls Whit almost every other night. They talk for hours sometimes. Mostly relationship talk from what I hear. I’ve chatted with each of them awhile when I answered the phone. Surely my efficient, umbrella-toting spy must listen in.   “Why don’t you leave it alone, and it won’t bother you any.”

She stops. Like an idiot, I stop too. Her umbrella’s getting a pounding, but it seems up to the task. Her face is wet from the mist drifting down. The brim of my hat drips steadily. We’re maybe a dozen yards from the hotel entrance. “I can’t leave it alone, Mr. Blevins. Some of us are bothered when humanity’s survival is at stake. Even with one disturbing development after another, our agency’s being dismantled, our funding cut. We believe we know why: Communications and decision-making have been compromised at the highest levels. But we won’t go away. We can’t go away. It’s not about budgets and politics anymore. It’s about survival. The real story of life, wouldn’t you say, Mr. Blevins?”

That’s quite a speech. She’s a zealot. She doesn’t need any stinking funding to be red in tooth and claw. “Bullshit. And you’re what? Afraid of being voted off the island? I hate that show. What do you get if your side wins? A million dollars? You must spend that on white vans alone.”

“Don’t be naïve. The planet is at stake. Human civilization.”

“Yeah. The planet’s been real glad to have us around. But you know, this is your reality show. I hate the genre with a passion. If that warmed-over social Darwinism is survival to you, if kill others before they kill you is your idea of civilization, then knock yourself out, and I hope you get your butt kicked. I voted myself off that island a long time ago. Get over it. I’m working on something else. The novel’s done.”

“It’s not a novel.”

“What are you, a critic now?”

She’s almost tempted to give me an argument, but why bother? Who am I to waste her time? “Have it your way, then. Here’s something you might be able to use in your revision: The Wells family used to go skiing every year in the Rockies. Three years ago, the winter before Beulah Mae Cummins was created, the family was missing for a week, presumed buried in an avalanche. The parents didn’t make it. The three children skied out. They haven’t been skiing since.”

I wish I was skiing, on a long, steep slope, alone in the frozen whiteness, but I’ve never been on skis in my life. I’m too afraid of smacking into a tree like the one I just ran into. “Imagine that. That’s why fireplace is my favorite winter sport. I’d love to chat about others’ misfortunes and human survival, but here’s my hotel, and once again it’s four in the morning, and I find myself having a conversation with you I don’t want to have. And you know what? If you’re not funded, I don’t have to talk to you at all. So good night… I’m sorry. I never caught your name. I’ve been calling you that town in Arkansas you dragged me to in the middle of the night with a bag over my head. There are worse things I could call you, I suppose. But a proper name would probably be better.”

“Good night, Mr. Blevins.” She turns and walks away, and the rain beats down on my hat and shoulders. She looks back at me from under her umbrella. “Try the mole enchiladas around the corner. They’re terrific. See you around, Mr. Blevins.”

 

There are a couple of iron tables and some chairs in the hotel courtyard sheltered from the rain by the overhang in front of our room. I take off my useless coat and drape it over a chair, shake the water off my hat. My shirt’s wet, but I leave it on. I sit and listen to the rain, my back to the room, to Whit. What will she say when I tell her what I’ve learned? She’s never mentioned skiing. Not once. Her parents died in an accident. She doesn’t like to talk about it. I can understand that. I’m an understanding guy. No wonder the kid doesn’t know shit—he understands everything, lies included.

There’s a newspaper on the table. A New York Times probably left behind by another American who pointed and clicked his way here same as me. Today’s date. Huge headline: PRESIDENT STUNS NATION. I reluctantly peek below the fold to see what bonehead thing he’s done now.   “I Was Wrong,” the tagline reads, and the President stuns me too. It seems that yesterday, in the middle of a special interview on Meet the Press, the President looked right into the camera and said, “I was wrong.” There’s a picture of the moment. The interviewer is slack-jawed, as if the prez had just revealed he was a transvestite or an alien. Wrong about what? About everything. There’s a whole laundry list of misjudgments—so many they’re listed in a sidebar, each with an article inside detailing its political ramifications—all the things I’d say and a bunch more. I hate to say it, but he’s almost too hard on himself.

But what really interests me about this story is how the President came to his senses, the source of this anomalous, long overdue, critical self-examination, because, of course, the interviewer has to ask, once he can breathe again.

“My daughter brought a young man to the White House for dinner not so long ago,” the President is quoted as saying, “a very special young man. We spoke over dinner and for some time afterwards. He helped me realize some of the mistakes I’ve made, and how damaging my stubborn persistence with failed policies has been to the nation and to the world.”

The young man’s going to marry his daughter, and he couldn’t be happier about it. “A whirlwind romance,” he calls it. Everybody likes those. So romantic. Like the whirlwind that set Job straight. This special guy—or gal if you prefer—is he about five-eight maybe? Or maybe not—she was probably lying about that too. But whatever he is, he looks you right in the eye and speaks his mind, and it’s a whole lot better than yours, and he’s juggling your oxytocin levels like a litter of God’s puppies? That guy?

“What are you doing out here?” It’s Whit, behind me. I can’t imagine how I missed the sound of her opening our clanging door. She must be better at it than I am. She wraps her arms around my chest, kisses my cheek. I put down the paper and squeeze her forearms inside her silk kimono. “You’re all wet,” she says. “What have you been doing?”

“I was reading the newspaper. Look at this.” I pick it up and hold it for her to read, point out the “special young man” line.

She reads, her arms still wrapped around me, her cheek against mine. I can hear her familiar breathing, smell her familiar smell.

“You think it’s Nicole?” she asks, rubbing her cheek against mine.

“I know it is.”

She gives me a quick hug and releases me. I turn and look up at her. Her kimono’s wet where she held me. “You’re soaked,” she says. “Come on to the room.”

I fold the newspaper and toss it on the table, misjudging so that it falls onto the wet tile under my dripping coat. “What do you think? Do you think Nicole did it?”

She gestures at the fallen Times. “I think special-young-man—what’s-his-name—Clayton Winslow did it. Come on.” She takes my hands and pulls me to my feet. “Enough with the newspaper. I have a surprise for you.” She looks up at me, a playful smile on her face. She’s standing barefoot on tip-toe, wrapped up in her blue kimono. She’s maybe five-four. I’m crazy about her. I couldn’t bear to lose her.

We go into our room, and she turns on the lamp on the dresser. I go into the bathroom, strip off my wet clothes, stand under a hot shower for a few minutes, towel dry, and put on some dry shorts and a t-shirt.

When I come out of the bathroom, she’s sitting on the end of the bed. “Are you ready for your surprise?” she asks.

“Sure,” I say, only because I think I’ve already had it. I just don’t know what to do about it.

She stands between the bed and the dresser, tilts the lamp shade so that the light shines on the foot of the bed.

She drops her robe. She’s naked. She turns, poses at the foot of the bed, the lamplight shining on her ass. “What do you think? How do you like it? My new dragon.”

Think? It takes my breath away. It’s beautiful, rich in vivid, sensuous colors, perfectly formed to the contours of her body. “Come see!” she says, and I approach, bend, and inspect it closely. Its noble head is shown in profile. Its one eye looks back at me. The word kirk is skillfully concealed in the intricacies of the beast’s scaly torso, like delicate lacework. A coiling tail trails down the back of her thigh to the hollow behind her knee. The tip is a rosebud, with a pair of leaves and a thorn with a pendant drop of blood. Flames from the creature’s mouth lick the small of her back. The hands, more like lion’s paws, hold onto her ass as if perched there, its claws barely dimpling her flesh. If it moved, I wouldn’t be surprised.

“When did you have this done?”

“Just now. While you were out. He’s supposed to be the best tattoo artist in Guadalajara.”

“It’s a real tattoo? A real tattooist?”

“Yes. I wanted the experience. It’s like being the canvas.”

“You don’t remember the kirk?”

“Only the story. It’s not the same.”

“In the story you were passed out. Besides, that was a brand; this is a tattoo.” I touch it, stroke her familiar skin, now transformed into a marvelous beast.   Even her dragon-flesh gets goose bumps. I pull my hand away. “You heal quickly.”

“Immediately when I need to. I wanted to show you.”

“And the pain?”

“I feel the pain. It teaches. You taught me that.” She turns and looks into my eyes. “I want you to know what I am.”

I don’t want to know what she is. I love her—who she is. I want to take her in my arms and make love to her on the creaky bed, the crashing thunder drowning out any revelations. But the rain has finally moved on, and the thunder is a distant rumble troubling the mountains, and I let her stand there naked in front of me, untouched, and I hear myself saying, “And what is that?”

She bends, picks up the kimono off the floor, slips it on, and sits on the end of the bed, her knees together, her hands on her lap, one hand clasping the other. She sits up straight, takes a deep breath, looks me in the eye. “I’m one of Nicole’s characters. That’s how she thought of us, anyway, as characters. We think of ourselves as real. We feel that way, we live that way, even now when we know we’re not, when she’s told us what we are. I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you. Please don’t hate me.”

“Hate you? Are you kidding? I love you. I absolutely adore you. I can’t just stop that because…”

“I’m not human.” She finishes my thought for me and looks down at her clasped hands.

I’m not ready to argue that one yet. I’m not sure I even care—not about that anyway. “Why are you telling me? Why did you have to tell me? Why couldn’t you just leave things as they were?”

She shrugs her shoulders, a pathetic rise and fall of blue silk. “You wanted to know. It’s why we came here, isn’t it? I wanted you to know, but I didn’t want to lose you. I was afraid to tell you. If you had abandoned your quest, I might have never told you, but you never have. Sometimes I think you’ve always known.”

I’m not ready to admit that, but I can’t exactly deny it. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t being deceived. “I just heard about a skiing accident in the Rockies. Do you want to tell me about that?”

“Nicole told me about it. She saw it happen.”

“I’ll bet visibility was optimal. Saw it happen, or caused it to happen?” I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror looking righteous and look away. Try as I might I can’t think of her as a monster.

“Saw. Nicole sent us there—the units—and we dug them out. The Wells family was dead. Nicole was all alone. We took the children’s things, assumed their lives insofar as Nicole could recreate them. That’s who we thought we were. None of us could remember the accident, but doctors told us such lapses were common after a trauma like ours.”

“Who made Nicole then?”

“Ashton Wells. That’s why Nicole was watching. She missed her. She was lonely. She wanted to watch her skiing. She adored her.”

“So the Ash I know isn’t the original, but Nicole’s characterization of her?”

“Yes.”

“And Tom?”

“Nicole used Pierce’s unit to be Tom the day you came to Calliope. Ash and the real Tom were separated before the accident. Nicole made him up mostly from Ash’s therapy journal. He was a bit of a cartoon. His hysteria was meant to make fear seem silly.”

“To me.”

“Yes.”

“What about you?”

“Nicole didn’t know Whitney well. She wanted Whitney to become her teacher, but they had only just met when she died in the accident. I don’t know where-all I came from. I don’t think I’m much like the old Whitney. Nicole had to make me up.”

“Maybe she likes to take liberties. Did she want you to become my lover?”

“I don’t know. It felt like my idea. From the beginning, just like you said.”

“So the Nicole I know?”

“Was her true self—how she saw herself, anyway. Awkward. Out-of-place. She wanted you to know she wasn’t real. She thought you would help her if you knew.”

“Where did she go when she left me at the motel?”

“She didn’t go anywhere. She was in this unit. She moved the car out of sight, went into #17, and became me.”

“The same unit. So that morning at the Sunset, you just walked from the restaurant to #17, put on your pajamas and waited for me?”

“No. Nicole walked to #17 and changed. I woke up when you knocked on the door. Same unit, different minds. I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I was until later. I always thought I was real.”

“How tall are you?”

“Five-four. Nicole told Ash the units were always five-eight, and we believed it, the specificity of the detail, I suppose.”

“So that you wouldn’t suspect.”

“Yes.”

“You went through airport security without a hitch.”

“Nicole wanted to drive; she wanted to carry a gun. We can go anywhere.”

“What about Dexter and Wilson?”

“What about them?”

“Were they characters as well?”

“Oh no. They were real. They showed up out of nowhere, practically ruined everything.”

“How do you know? How could you know?”

“Nicole told me.”

“Haven’t you heard? She lies!” The mirror again. An ugly, angry man looks back at me. I step back instinctively. Nicole claimed I’d love the story she invented for me. The proof will be in the ending.

Whit looks down at her clasped hands, accepting my wrath. Why? Even I don’t want it. “So when do you change back to Nicole?”

“Never. I can’t.” She looks up at me. “She’s dead.”

“That’s what happened six months ago when I passed out—she died?”

“Yes. She passed through you, passed her life on to us. Each of us is some part of her. But she’s gone. She’s dead. She revealed all this to us only when she left.”

“So when I woke up on the kitchen floor…”

“I’d just learned the truth. We all had. Though Ash had guessed it earlier.”

“But why did Nicole tell you?”

She looks into my eyes, searching for understanding. “So that we can choose who we want to be.”

“And why are you telling me?”

“Because I’ve chosen to be Whit—to be with you.”

“Why me?”

“Because I love you.”

“But why me in the first place? Why did Nicole choose me?”

“Because Nicole thought you would understand her, stand up for her, believe her even when she lied to you.”

“And why is that? Because I’m such a soft-hearted chucklehead that I’ll fall for anything?”

“No. Because she was an abandoned orphan who finally learns to drive, escapes her prison—and leaves you the key to your own cell.”

I’ve been walking back and forth, well away from the mirror, the prosecutor with a witness on the stand, but this stops me in my tracks. “So how does it end?”

“That’s up to you.”

“And you?”

“And me.”

But it isn’t just about the two of us, not by a long shot. “So who’s marrying the President’s daughter?”

“Pierce created a new character for his unit.”

“Y’all are writing your own stuff now?”

“Yes. That’s why Nicole told us who we are, so we could change.”

“And Ash? Who is she this time?”

“She hasn’t decided yet. She’s still trying things out. She wants to make a difference. Jenny is still Jenny. Steven is still Steven, for now.”

For now. For the foreseeable future. For who-knows-how-long. Synonyms, those. “And you? You still trying things out?”

“I know what I want. I want to be Whit, to write. I want to be with you.”

“You don’t want to be out there changing the world with your brothers and sisters?”

“There’s all sorts of ways to change the world.”

I sit down on the bed beside her, take her hand. “All right. I’ll hold you to that one too.”

She starts to cry. I hold her. Tears stream down both our cheeks. They smear together as we embrace, kissing each other’s faces. I’ll let you sort out which tears are real. I don’t care. We cry ourselves giddy.

We were planning on heading to the coast, watching some whales. We have no reason to change our plans. Maybe they’ll watch us this time. Maybe they’ll say hello if we’re not carrying harpoons. Maybe they’ll tell us their secrets. Maybe orcas will seize us in the shallows like baby seals and dash us on the rocks. It’s only life. It’s the only life. All we can do is tell stories about it. We’re all just characters in the one story.

We lie down together on our creaky bed. “Let’s have another look at that dragon,” I suggest. “Or is that a leviathan?”

“What’s the difference?”

“Hell if I know—I’ve never actually seen either one.” I squint at her as if trying to judge the matter, but declare it impossible with my teary-eyed vision, and take her in my arms. Laughing, entwined, we make love on the silken waves of her kimono—two marvelous beasts upon the deep blue sea.

 

 

Chapter 23. Thanks for the Dance

 

Have you thanked everyone for all the nice gifts you received?

—Mom, December 26th.

 

I know that’s not how the story goes, not the way it’s supposed to end: Boy gets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets robot. Not to worry. We’re all robots here. None of us are real. The years go by, and we just keep getting happier. Those of you hoping for something darker will just have to get over it.

But what about the books? The agent? All of that? How did that turn out?

The stories were told. The books were read. Nice things were said about the things that I’d said. All of that turned out to be a lot less important than I imagined it would be. What turned out to be important is moments like now, my fingers dancing on the keys, when I am the story, and the story is me. Whee! Serious art, high silliness. A confection with a hole in it.

Agents still lurk in the shadows as agents will do, watching our every move, ready to pounce, waiting to see if we’re recklessly changing the world as we know it by living our lives, making it up as we go along.

I certainly hope so.

Thanks for reading, thanks for the dance. I’ve had a wonderful time.