This is another book by a member of the writing group I joined a year ago. I think it was self-published, although the author uses an official-sounding publisher, Archway Publishing. I wonder if it’s trademarked? Anyway, I didn’t expect much after reading a number of self-published ebooks, and I wasn’t disappointed.
This was a first draft at best. The grammar and punctuation, not to mention cut-and-paste errors, increased exponentially from the first to last page. I felt like my eyes were bleeding by the last sentence. The beginning of the book introduces a first-person narrator who is also a central character, Jack Riordan, but somewhere, about a third of the way through the book, the entire writing style changed…for the worse. I have used multiple first-person narrators, and even third-person POV (point of view) mixed with first-person, not to mention two first-person narrators speaking in the past and present, so I’m not hung up on narrator style. But what the author does here distracts from the story; namely, he begins a chapter in the third person past, then drifts into first-person past, then periodically becomes omniscient, often in the present tense. It’s called head hopping among writers and it is a confusing style of writing. I don’t know if it is intentional or not, a choice to leave the reader in the same confused state as the characters.
The plot is simple, the last few weeks of an elderly man’s life. The source of his imminent demise is kept from the reader and a surprise is introduced before the climax. This was pretty good and I was interested, albeit confused.
I spent a couple of years in the company of elderly people, in RV parks around the south (BTW, the story takes place in Florida), and I’ve seen a lot of different couples, even groups of elderly couples. But I never saw four such couples who were as similar as the characters in this story; I couldn’t tell them apart, even though they were described as being different from the (constantly changing) narrator’s perspective. They were all totally fixated on sex. I understood that elderly people can have an active sex life within the first ten pages, but it was emphasized in every SINGLE chapter, as if this were the purpose of the story; this is ironic because the focus on elderly sexuality wasn’t required and contributed nothing to the plot. Even in a romance novel, sex is an important event marker, indicating a change in a protagonist’s view of their situation. That wasn’t the case here. It was gratuitous, but at least it wasn’t explicit.
The author should have been a poet. I was impressed by their use of words I had to look up, many of them used incorrectly (according to my understanding of Merriam’s on-line dictionary). And I was envious of their talent for turning a mundane event like sunrise into a metaphor that captured the moment perfectly in my imagination. However, they went way over the top in using metaphors (especially cliches), sometimes using similes (introduced by “like” or “as”) three times in a single sentence. Give me a break! An author has to sometimes forgo the cheap shot, but not King; no opportunity to interject a truism wrapped in a metaphor into a scene was skipped, often to the detriment of the plot.
This could have been a good story (it is rather short and redundant), or expanded into a real novel by exploring some of the characters who were suddenly introduced to fulfill their purpose. Instead the author chose not to look at their first draft and fix it, leaving an unsuspecting reader in the lurch.
This is an example of why there needs to be some quality control on self-publishing. I don’t have a solution in mind, but maybe Amazon could develop a grammar checker (at least) to prevent half-finished manuscripts (lacking periods for god’s sake!) from slipping into the literary world.
Don’t read this…
The drive from the Serena Hotel to Jinnah Convention Centre was taking longer than walking the 500 m because their path was intercepted by the E-75 highway, a modern superhighway that separated the Blue Area, the steel and concrete heart of Pakistan, from their destination in Zone III, the green heart of Islamabad. The convention center was located on the banks of Rawal Lake, surrounded by forests and grassland. Traffic was always heavy at this intersection.
Imam Muhammad Uddin Masood had to arrive at the conference on religious affairs with the proper amount of pomp and circumstance, including a limousine. The imam was lost in thought, preparing his speech for the first day of the conference, in which he would describe the persecution of Shia and Ahmadi Moslem minorities in a nation comprising mostly Sunnis. His concentration was no-doubt improved by having gone to the bed of Urwa Sayed, his supposed aide, the previous night and releasing any tension he may have felt. She had welcomed him because he was a virile man of forty-six with an appreciation of foreplay, prolonging his sexual pleasure as long as possible. He had been coming to her bed regularly since she’d accepted her mission, resigned to the meaninglessness of life. She no longer cared who sought sexual gratification in her company, hadn’t for many years.
Her gaze turned to the green spaces waiting across the highway; fig, tamarind, and oak trees hid the convention center, where she would get her revenge and end her suffering. The Mercedes finally crossed the highway and pulled into the line of luxury German sedans waiting to disgorge their occupants. When their turn came to join the throng, she covered her brown hair, pulled into a tight bun, with an aquamarine hijab and waited for the imam to exit before climbing out of the car without assistance—not even a glance—from the imam.
The Jinnah convention center was beautiful. Constructed in the shape of an octagon, full-height windows piercing brilliant white stucco walls to allow the sun to illuminate the discussions occurring within, a low dome capping the austere structure; it was the epitome of a place where open conversations could take place. There were no back doors or side rooms. Everyone who entered had to speak openly, possibly from their hearts, their words analyzed by the other attendees.
Imam Masood took her arm and led her to a corner of the open-air atrium fronting the convention center, out of hearing of the other attendees. “Do you understand your purpose? Do you have any doubts?”
Urwa shook her head. “None, Imam Masood, I will do exactly as I have been instructed and follow Allah’s will. I will not fail you or our people—the Shia and the Ahmadi. I cannot wait to look into the eyes of Bukhari Khan and send him to join his ancestors.”
Imam Masood took Urwa’s arm, the grip of his fingers reminding her that she had submitted to him and his cause. “We must not fail in this Urwa or the infidels will gain an unassailable position. There are still doubts among the Sunni, that they may be mistaken in the path they are following; but if we fail in our purpose, if Bukhari Khan remains the minister of religious affairs, we will have lost a major battle to gain equality. Do you understand this?”
“I will not let you down, Imam Masood…” Her voice trailed off, then she added what was uppermost on her mind. “I want to leave this world and join my family. Nothing would make me prouder than ending the reign of terror created by Bukhari Khan and his enforcers.”
They rejoined the other attendees and entered the conference center, where Urwa took a seat next to Imam Masood. She listened carefully to the welcome speech given by Bukhari Khan because she would have to get close to him when the time was right. He spoke authoritatively of the need for religious tolerance and held his arms wide, welcoming the Shia and Ahmadi into the fold, but she understood the sentiment his gesture conveyed. The Sunni wished to bring the true believers close so they could be eradicated. Keeping her hatred for Bukhari Khan in check, her eyes scanned the faces filling the convention center for reactions, noting that there were no protests, other than a few boos and catcalls from the Shia delegation. This would be another masquerade. There was no religious tolerance in Pakistan. So be it. Urwa’s resolve hardened like cement as Bukhari Khan described a Pakistan without religious minorities. They would be assimilated into the national culture. Sunni or death. Genocide.
Hard gray eyes observed Urwa and Imam Masood’s arrival at the Jinnah Convention Center from a distance, viewing them from behind a hedge and small trees. The eyes of a ghost. Sinister eyes that had no interest in the conference and even less in the appearance of a radical Shia delegate and his aide, nevertheless drawn to the slim female figure whose sad eyes mirrored his own. The ghost strained to read the dark eyes of the young woman as the older man questioned her. His intense contemplation saw in those hopeless, black orbs his own forlorn world view, and those two pairs of eyes made contact. Urwa had seen the ghost and acknowledged his presence by briefly returning his gaze before deflecting her eyes downward. The owner of those gray eyes recognized a kindred spirit in her, a lost soul wandering the earth seeking peace from the torment of a fragmented and incomplete existence. The ghost was intrigued.
Urwa couldn’t get the image of the young man she’d seen behind the shrubbery out of her mind. The expression on the narrow face dominated by large gray eyes, topped by a shock of black hair, reflected her own feelings of helplessness, counting the minutes until the unrelenting misery would end. She wondered what thoughts were flickering behind those intelligent eyes. Was gray-eyes thinking about making love to her? If so, he would have to wait for Imam Masood, whose enthusiastic lovemaking hadn’t lessened after months of helping himself to her body.
The thought would not die, even while she translated the lies spoken by the other delegates for the imam, pretending to take notes, even meeting Bukhari Khan during a tense and brief interchange between him and Masood. Familiarity would gain her the critical seconds to get close enough to assure success when the time finally came to avenge her family. Having no interest in the proceedings, her presence necessary only when the imam required her as a translator, she found herself wandering paths in the woods surrounding the convention center. It was difficult to remember why she was in such a beautiful place, surrounded by so much life, flowers hiding under the forest canopy, birds singing above her, the woodland unaware of the terrible crimes committed against her people by Bukhari Khan. She bent over to smell a large jasmine flower and, senses heightened by the breathtaking aroma, she became aware of a ghost watching her. Was it possible? Could it be the gray eyes?
She straightened and turned to face the interloper in the quiet forest.
“Do you speak English?”
She nodded dumbly, afraid to say anything, not wanting to break the spell cast by the jasmine.
The gray eyes met her sad gaze and the young man said, “Excuse me for interrupting you but I…” His eyes searched the forest for inspiration, finally settling on the flower Urwa had been enjoying before he continued, “I was taking my break and stumbled across you. I will leave you to enjoy your solitude…”
“Please don’t.” The words slipped out of her mouth. Unnerved by her forwardness, she smiled timidly and added, “I mean, the forest is large enough for us to share, what I mean is that I don’t mind company. I was just taking a break from the conference…”
“I also am on a break, from electrical work in the conference center.”
“What is your name?” Urwa asked.
He shrugged. “Does it matter? We are only sharing the woods for a few moments, two strangers treading the same path.”
“I saw you earlier, watching Imam Masood and me, in the atrium. Were you on a break then?”
He smiled casually and said, “Yes, the work is complicated and I must frequently wait for others to complete their tasks, thus many short breaks. I couldn’t help but notice the arrival of a beautiful woman at a place filled with old men. You must be an assistant—no, I think you are an interpreter from your excellent English, better than mine.”
Urwa had been selected for this mission because of her linguistic skill, her natural talent having been encouraged by her parents. She could pass without suspicion among the delegates because no one, not even Bukhari Khan, would believe that someone with her skills would be willing to die to avenge genocide. The thought occurred to her that this tradesman, who didn’t want to give his name, could move around as easily as she but in a different realm—behind the scenes, never meeting Khan face to face. She giggled.
He had been waiting for a response and humor probably wasn’t what he’d expected, so she lied. “I would hope that a translator would speak a foreign language better than a tradesman. You are not a native English speaker. I think you are Italian, maybe Spanish, definitely not Pakistani.”
“Of course,” he replied sheepishly.
They wandered along the path, skirting the edge of the forest, talking about the spring weather, avoiding any mention of the purpose of the conference that had brought them both to Islamabad. He described the electrical work he was doing, which didn’t surprise Urwa. Men who worked with their hands didn’t have free time to plan genocide or destroy the world, like Bukhari Khan or even Imam Masood. Those were two men with the same character who happened to find themselves on opposite sides of a divisive issue. This gray-eyed ghost was above that; he was not only a worker but not even Muslim. She wondered what it would be like to not be Muslim. She giggled again.
He was walking next to her now, sometimes brushing her arm innocently. “Do you find electrical systems humorous?” he asked playfully.
She risked a personal question. “Are you Catholic? You didn’t correct me when I guessed that you were Italian.”
His answer came without hesitation. “I am atheist, but that is only my opinion, nothing more. I am not a zealot. I assume that you are Muslim, like everyone else attending the conference, or workshop…whatever it is.”
Without Imam Masood standing close by, listening to her every word, looking for any sign of doubt or weakness, Urwa felt emboldened to say, “It must be nice, coming from a country with a long history of religious intolerance, and now being free to not believe in God. Atheism is punishable by death in Pakistan. You would be on the most-wanted list if Bukhari Khan knew your name. It’s a good thing you didn’t tell me. I would be obliged as a Muslim to inform him of your disbelief immediately.” She grinned at the grey eyes and the ghost wiped his brow comically.
He looked down at his watch and said, “It’s time for me to work my magic. I will go ahead so that you are not seen with an unbeliever, but I hope to see you again.” He ran ahead of Urwa before she could respond.
Urwa felt the ghost’s grey eyes on her all day, spotting him occasionally in the background, bent over working on the electrical system, crawling around under the seats and central dais. Now that she’d met one of the workers, she recognized them everywhere, carrying tool bags and stopping to converse briefly, consulting clip boards.
When they were back in the hotel, she asked Imam Masood about all the activity and he told her that this was a major upgrade to the Jinnah Convention Center that couldn’t be postponed. When he asked if she was concerned about the male workers, she quickly responded that she’d had no interaction with them, only noting their presence. And she did feel their presence because of the ghost whose attention she was growing accustomed to. She badly wanted to talk to him again and was willing to risk a mildly inappropriate gesture to see him, hoping he was thinking the same as her. She crossed her fingers and made her request while the imam was doing some research for the next day’s meetings.
“Imam Masood,” she began, hoping to interrupt his train of thought. “Would it be appropriate for me to go for a walk around the hotel grounds? I’d like some fresh air.”
The ghost had taken a calculated risk in going to the Serena Hotel, where most of the delegates to the convention were staying, but he had to see the young woman again. His gamble paid off when she appeared from one of the rooms, a radiant figure draped in a flowing, black dress and matching hijab, her face reflecting the calm of Mona Lisa. He had dressed, hopefully, in a dark-gray suit, his head covered in a matching kufi cap.
He approached her from behind, his step quickening, watching the sway of her hips beneath the loose skirt, wanting to see the look in her eyes when he surprised her. But something was bothering him, about her presence at the conference—where she would be during Bukhari Kahn’s closing statement. As much as he wanted to talk about nothing with her, there was an important matter to be addressed, a topic that could not wait but nevertheless could not be discussed openly. His thoughts were in turmoil as he stepped up, ready to announce his presence, when she turned suddenly and faced him. Her face lit up in a smile that made the ghost almost believe in miracles.
“When did you become a Muslim?” she asked mischievously.
His hand went to the skullcap instinctively as he stammered, “This is a disguise. I hoped you would be having dinner or something with your imam friend and I might join you, innocently of course, and we could talk, with a man you trusted present. Did I startle you?”
Urwa was overwhelmed by the ghost’s statement and especially the pale eyes that looked at her so desperately. She pretended to think before saying, “I was hoping you would somehow appear, just as you did when I first met you in the forest, and throughout the day. I’m taking a walk for some fresh air. Would you care to share this beautiful evening with me?”
He stepped up to her side and they strolled along the brick path, touching slightly now and then as they avoided overgrown shrubs, sometimes just for fun.
Urwa’s heart was pounding as she ventured, “It only seems appropriate to introduce ourselves after meeting accidentally on purpose…again. My name is Urwa Sayed. I am thirty years old and the only survivor of my family. My father was imprisoned and murdered by the secret police, my brothers were arrested, tortured, and later shot down in cold blood, and my mother was murdered when a mosque where she was attending prayers was destroyed by a bomb.” She was near tears but felt empowered at having spoken the truth to someone besides Imam Masood. She scoffed at the idea that she was confessing her pain to an ex-Catholic.
His response was a surprise.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like to have your father killed by the secret police, but I did lose several cousins and an uncle to anarchist bombings when I was a child. I know it isn’t the same but it made quite an impression on me. I will never forget those years, bombs every few months, funerals…”
Urwa faced him and he wiped the tears from her eyes, causing her to sob at what she’d missed. She couldn’t stop the tears that flowed down her cheeks, caught by his handkerchief. His arms gently encircled her waist and she leaned into him, knowing this was exactly what the imam and her trainers had wanted her to avoid. Emotional release. With a stranger no less, an atheist. But she didn’t care, their admonitions forgotten in his embrace. He didn’t try to kiss her, a move she would have welcomed; instead, he waited until her tears had subsided and gently pulled away.
“I guess you and the imam aren’t close,” he quipped.
Urwa laughed before saying, “He comes to my bed every night, but I guess you’re right, we’re not close. I’m only an employee…” She suddenly realized that she was nothing more than a worker like the ghost, which reminded her that they hadn’t completed the introductions.
“I’ve been thinking of you as a ghost, because of your gray eyes and sudden appearance, as if from thin air. What’s your name, Mr. Ghost?” She tried to imagine what it was like to be kissed, the one thing she wanted more than anything else at that moment, her lips pursed, eyes half closed.
He kissed her lips, not passionately but enough for her to sense his desire. Their lips were still touching when he whispered, “Andrea Colombo. I am your servant, Urwa Sayed.”
Her emotional pain forgotten, she became aware of her throbbing pulse and befuddled mind, incapable of rational thought. Realizing her arms had wrapped themselves around his neck, she kissed him but with more feeling, the way her mother had described kissing her father the first time. Tongues were unleashed, exploring, caressing one another in a frenzy of desire. Andrea pulled back, leaving Urwa wanting more.
“I’m feeling a little dizzy, Urwa, so I think you should get back to the imam and your duties, and I must prepare for another day of electrical work.”
She didn’t want to let go of Andrea Colombo, afraid of what would happen to her, knowing her destiny and now having doubts about it, just as Imam Masood had feared.
Andrea couldn’t get Urwa Sayed out of his mind, knowing he had only two days to make a decision, one that would threaten his career and possibly end his life. Desperate to confirm his feelings, he sought her out the second day of the conference and found her waiting on the forest path, anticipating his touch and his lips. Her caresses were as urgent as his own, their destinies converging on an outcome he was no longer willing to accept. He expressed his fears when they met at the Serena Hotel the last night of the conference.
“Pretend to be ill, not such a big thing, because the serious meetings requiring your services have ended. You can stay at the hotel and let Bukhari Khan make his meaningless speech, which will not change the predicament your people are in. Your absence won’t change anything.”
“Why are you so intent on preventing me from attending the final meeting and doing my job?” Her eyes demanded an answer he could not supply.
“Why are you so difficult?” he retorted.
“I am not being difficult, Andrea. I have a job to do just like you, but you suddenly don’t want me to fulfill my commitment. I can’t just abandon Imam Masood and our work, which has been planned for a long time. Maybe Italians, or atheists, don’t live up to their obligations, but Muslims do what we have promised.”
Frustrated, Andrea kissed Urwa’s lips passionately and held her close. Her enthusiastic response verified what he’d known when he’d first seen her.
“I am not going to lose you,” he announced.
“I love you, Andrea,” was all he needed to hear.
The weapons technician attaching the explosive vest to Urwa’s chest spoke calmly as he armed the device. “This is a shaped charge which must be pointed at the target to be effective. Think of it as a really big pistol—”
“I know how it works,” Urwa interjected. “I have been trained on its operation and use. But I would add that it’s a really big gun that blows up in its user’s face. Right?”
The young man, who reminded Urwa of Andrea, nodded quickly and continued his work without further comment.
“Are you ready?” Imam Masood asked.
Urwa wasn’t sure how to answer his query. She was prepared to die, to end the reign of terror of Bukhari Khan and avenge the death of her family, but now she had a reason to live because she was in love with Andrea Colombo. Still, after a sleepless night, she had decided that her love for Andrea didn’t outweigh her duty to avenge the death of her family. She would go through with the plan despite her doubts.
“Let’s make certain it will work properly. I don’t like the idea of standing in the conference center, looking like a fool with a toy bomb attached to my chest, and then being tortured by the Pakistani secret police, the same men who murdered my father.”
The imam made certain that the technician did his job well. When he was done, Urwa stood quietly as Imam Masood dressed her in a loose-fitting gray dress that flowed formlessly and reached the floor. He touched her as only a lover would do, assuring her of the sanctity of her decision, finally kissing her lips. She wanted to spit in his face. She longed for Andrea’s caresses, the feel of his body next to hers, his essence in her womb; she wanted to have a baby with Andrea; a chance for a new life, renewal, but she had given that opportunity away when she’d agreed to die in the name of revenge. A decision she now regretted.
Andrea’s work was finished, the new digital internet-sound system installed and tested, by the time Urwa and Imam Masood arrived at the Jinnah Conference Center for the last day of the conference on Religious Affairs. His appearance had changed as well, no longer the electrician, now a member of the Sunni delegation, the aid to a conservative ally of Bukhari Khan. He had used this disguise several times during the three-day conference and had even fooled Urwa, who’d never known the ghost was always watching her. He had vowed to watch over her for the rest of his life, so the original plan had necessarily been altered.
Recalling Urwa’s fascination with his eyes, Andrea avoided making eye contact with her, despite wearing dark contact lenses. But he was never far away, shifting between delegates, pretending to recognize them and share their superstitious beliefs. He missed meeting her during her break, smelling her, touching her soft flesh, kissing her eager lips. He watched her during the morning break, sipping tea forlornly in the open atrium. The tension within his chest was unbearable by the time Bukhari Khan was introduced by a delegate from the Punjab. Just when Andrea’s head was about to explode, forcing him to act precipitously, Urwa got up to go to the restroom.
Andrea was waiting when she arrived but she didn’t recognize him.
“What are you doing in here?” she demanded.
“It’s me, Andrea. I’m wearing another disguise, as a delegate. I even met Bukhari Khan.” He approached her slowly.
She backed against the door and held her hand up in protest. “I don’t know who you are, even if you are Andrea Colombo. What’s going on? I should call security immediately…” Her voice trailed off uncertainly, her hand recoiling to cover her chest.
Something was wrong. Andrea moved quickly and encircled her waist to pull her to him but was surprised to find a familiar shape under her dress. He froze and looked into her eyes, silently asking her to explain why she was wearing an explosive vest.
“I must return to the meeting before Bukhari Khan completes his closing speech.” She tried to step away from the door but Andrea blocked her path.
All the pieces fell into place: her presence at the conference, accompanying a radical Shia imam with suspected ties to several terrorist organizations, her family imprisoned and killed by sectarian violence. She had come to kill her sworn enemy and herself. Andrea would not allow that to happen, so he took her hands in his, preventing her from doing something stupid like detonating the device. He gazed into her frightened eyes and spoke calmly.
“I am not going to allow you to end your life just to get revenge on Bukhari Khan for what he did to your family. I plan to spend quite a long time with you. I am not satisfied with the the few hours we’ve had. Do you understand?”
She struggled but he pinned her against the door. Her clinched lips finally formed words. “It is none of your business what I do.”
He smiled at her and retorted, “Oh yes, it is. You admitted that you love me, and I feel the same, so there will be no suicide bombing today Urwa, not by you anyway.”
Her mouth twisted into a grimace of pain and doubt before she shot back, “Why haven’t you called security? What are you hiding, with your disguises and sneaking around, pretending to be a devout Muslim, an electrician, a delegate? Tell me that if you can?”
He pressed her arms against the wall and leaned close enough to smell her breath before answering. “Of course, no couple should have secrets and, since you’ve shared yours, I am obliged to be as forthcoming. I am an assassin. A bomber, but not like you. I don’t plan to die or be captured by anyone, especially not the Pakistani secret police. I came to Islamabad to kill Bukhari Khan the same as you…”
Andrea kissed her lips, which thankfully didn’t try to bite him, and explained. “We don’t have much time, so you’ll have to trust me. I was hired by someone with more authority than your Imam Masood to kill your sworn enemy and as many of the delegates as I could, given the security situation. The center stage is wired with sufficient explosives to accomplish that objective, killing possibly ten delegates and severely wounding another thirty, including Imam Masood. Are you okay with that?”
Urwa relaxed as Andrea explained his reason for being at the Jinnah Convention Center. She chuckled when he asked if she objected to the imam being injured. “I was so naïve when I met Masood and so full of hate, that he easily recruited me into his network of desperate women with nothing to live for, and his personal harem. What you’re doing is his just deserves. Live by the sword, die by the sword.” She didn’t mention that, despite the imam’s sensual lovemaking, she had never liked the idea of his getting such benefits from her and the other women she’d met at the training facility. She was a little sorry he wouldn’t be among the fatalities of Andrea’s work.
“We should go now,” Andrea said, releasing her hands and kissing her quickly.
“What about my vest? Isn’t it dangerous? I have a button on my chest to push to detonate it…”
“Excuse me,” he said before lifting her dress, caressing her thighs, as his hand felt its way up her body, searching for something. “Ahh, there it is,” he added. She felt his fingers tickling her ribs and then he lowered her dress and faced her.
“Shall we go?”
“Is it safe now?”
“We’ll remove it when we are clear of the area, but we have only a few minutes. The device I planted will detonate when Bukhari Khan finishes speaking. Very sophisticated digital equipment. Nothing so crude as a beautiful woman pushing a button between her breasts.”
They slipped out of the conference center, past security guards who weren’t concerned about early departures, and climbed into a nondescript sedan, before Urwa breathed a sigh of relief. “What happens now?”
Andrea started the engine and slowly started towards the main road, carefully entering the heavy traffic before saying, “We get you free of that homemade device and into a private room at my hotel until we get your identification sorted out. You may be able to travel as yourself…” He shrugged.
Urwa shook her head defiantly. “I don’t want to be Urwa Sayed any more. She is dead. Can you get me a new identity? I mean, are you willing to—”
Andrea cut her off. “I love you and, with my contacts, I foresee no difficulties in creating a new life for you, hopefully with me, for a long time. Will you marry me?”
Urwa laughed joyfully at his proposal. “I thought you’d never ask! But what about your occupation? I’ve had enough stress in my life and I don’t know if I can be happy with a husband who’s constantly in danger of being arrested…or killed.”
“I’m turning over a new leaf, no more field work, only consultations from now on, unless—”
His sentence was interrupted by the muted rumble of an explosion at the Jinnah Convention Center. Urwa didn’t bother turning to look because her attention was focused on the future from now on.
I wrote a detailed review of this book and then WordPress deleted it, so this is going to be short and (not) so sweet.
The author isn’t a native English speaker and it shows. She didn’t copyedit very well and there are a lot of punctuation/grammatical/cut-and-paste errors, especially after the midpoint.
I thought it would be a thoughtful examination of how “beautiful” people think and why they do what they do. Instead, it was a cop-out: girl meets boy of her dreams, again and again and again…you get it. Some drama is thrown in as if following a Creative Writing 101 outline, but it didn’t stick.
It’s cheesy, incomplete, repetitive, cliche, and just not very interesting.
I won’t be reading the second and third books in the series, to discover what the beautiful and gorgeous couple will do next.
We didn’t go very far from home today, just down the road to Frying Pan Park; the field area was the hill and a creek near a Baptist Church constructed in 1792 and still in original condition.
A small cemetery, with one gravestone as recent as 1938, marks the entrance to a series of trails wandering over the hilltop where Confederate soldiers bivouacked less than 20 miles from Washington DC. There were a few skirmishes but no battles.
The geologic map of the area identifies the rocks exposed on hilltops and along the creek (indicated in the center of Fig. 2) as being part of the Newark Supergroup. These rocks were originally deposited between 237 and 174 Ma in shallow basins defined by block-faulted mountains similar to the Basin and Range province of western North America. This was during the early stages of the breakup of the supercontinent Pangea. The sediments were thus immature, i.e., conglomerates, coarse sandstone, siltstone, etc, all mixed together in restricted basins and their deposition changing rapidly over time as the surrounding mountains eroded.
Not long after deposition in rapidly subsiding basins, magma from the upper mantle welled up and filled fractures within the crust. These diabase intrusions heated the sediments of the Newark Group and metamorphosed them by temperature. They were not deeply buried. Thus the rocks we found didn’t look that different from sandstones although they are technically metasedimentary rocks.
The beds are relatively flat here because the rocks were never subjected to compression, so they weren’t folded. Instead, as the crust split apart, they tilted slightly along normal faults to form grabens. In Frying Pan Park, they were horizontal. Zooming in on a bed we can see how sharp the edges are.
There are a couple of details to notice: First, the beds are about six inches thick; second, the rocks show a darkening that isn’t due to surface staining, seen in the block just right of center in the photo; third, the blocks have sharp edges. The darkening is caused by “cooking” of the original sediments when igneous rocks were injected into the pile of sediments. This process is called contact metamorphism. Another effect of coming in such close proximity to magma is that the mineral grains in the sediments become more tightly cemented, producing very hard rocks. Thus the sharp, knifelike edges.
In accordance with the “Rocks and (no) Roads” ethos, I don’t break open hand samples to examine the minerals. I accept what is available because this is about amateur geology, not data collection. There were no freshly broken samples so this is the best I could do.
The salt and pepper color is caused by organic stains having nothing to do with the mineralogy. What can be gleaned from this poor field sample is that the individual mineral grains are not rounded and none of them appear to be large, so this is an immature sandstone (greywacke) and not a conglomerate. If it were from an environment like a beach, the grains would be visibly smoother, even to the naked eye. (For example, check out orthoquartzite.)
The sediments that comprise the Newark Group collected in intermontane basins. The Sierra Nevada is an example of what the topography may have looked like when these sediments were deposited about 200 million-years ago.
After being buried several miles (nobody knows exactly how deeply) beneath the surface for 200 million years, these rocks were exhumed when ice sheets advanced into Pennsylvania during the last ice age, which began at least 2.5 million years ago. Northern Virginia was never covered by ice, but it was within a hundred miles of an ice sheet that reached two-miles in thickness. Two miles! The result was felt far to the south, where massive seasonal floods at the leading edge of the ice would have transported very large blocks of stone down rapidly eroding valleys.
This is a great picture. Four things leap out of this pastoral image of a NoVA forest: (1) The graffitied block reveals bedding much thicker than that seen in Fig. 4, suggesting a dynamic environment, possibly an alluvial fan, when these grains were washed down the sides of rising mountains (see Fig. 6) and came to their final resting place; (2) the larger blocks show a joint pattern that determined how the rocks would break down and weather when the third event occurred; (3) the rounded blocks juxtaposed on top of the jointed bedrock outcrops indicate fast-flowing water that physically eroded them and transported them some distance (less than a mile); and (4) the modern creek flows weakly over its boulder-strewn bed. This short stream, its watershed consisting of a few hilltops, didn’t transport these behemoths anywhere.
But this creek isn’t relict, it’s simply operating on a different time scale.
This boulder field, littering a dry fork of Frying Pan Branch, suggests that the smooth flow over the upstream reach shown in Fig. 3 is capable of transporting large rocks; however, it’s all relative from a geological perspective. If I were to guess, I’d say that the boulders in Fig. 8 haven’t moved in several thousand years. My reasoning is that the clear path seen in Fig. 3 suggests that there are no more large stones to roll downhill and dislodge others, like dominoes. But we never know what comes next.
A summary of the impacts of the most-recent ice age in Virginia is available at this web site. Take a look.
See you next time.
I joined a writers group last year and I’ve been trying to read something written by my fellow aspiring authors. Most of them haven’t figured out how to self-publish, or don’t have anything ready, but several have managed to jump that hurdle. I reviewed one several months ago and found it interesting and well written (The Tollkeeper), even though it wasn’t a genre I read regularly. That was a paperback.
Todays’ review is by another fellow Inkling, but it I read it on my new Kindle because getting paperbacks has suddenly become challenging (I heard that the printers are running out of paper). I wrote a review for Amazon but that was brief, so I’ll elaborate here.
There isn’t much to say about cop/organized-crime thrillers. There are only so many combinations of bad guys/good guys (including girls), so this story couldn’t help but feel formulaic. Authors in this genre have to use words to get their readers’ attention and, unfortunately, this story doesn’t use language well. It comes close several times, but it was inconsistent, as if the author wasn’t really in the minds of his narrator’s subjects (the story is told from multiple points of view). It reminded me of the TV show, Dragnet. But it wasn’t told in the first person, and it couldn’t have been. Several threads are woven together, but then the pattern is broken and new cloth is woven; this was one of the strengths of the story. Very clever, but the storyline slipped a little, and the tension on the plot line increased to the breaking point. By the end, I was counting pages.
Part of my criticism of this book is due to the lack of proofreading. Hoda wrote an imaginative story that fits well within the crime genre (as I understand it) but he fumbled the ball at the five-yard line. As an author, I am familiar with the problem of deteriorating editing as a manuscript progresses because the later chapters simply aren’t viewed as often during the writing process. I combat this natural phenomenon by reading all of my books at least five times (often ten) after the first draft has been completed. That said…this book wasn’t ready for publication.
This isn’t the first self-published novel I’ve read that disappointed me in its lack of quality control. Maybe some readers don’t notice but, as an author, I catch every grammatical error, missing comma, clumsy construction, and it seriously detracts from my enjoyment. I don’t mind wordy writing, sentence fragments, lots of unnecessary punctuation (I love ellipses and 2m dashes), but I get confused by missing articles, conjunctions, repeated words and even scenes.
And when I get confused, I don’t write good reviews…
This is my first post from Virginia. We went to Great Falls National Park on the Potomac River, only a few miles from our home in Northern Virginia. This is a fascinating area that reveals evidence of several cycles of collision between North America and Europe.
The inset map shows where we went, situated between the Blue Ridge and Coastal Piedmont provinces. Notice the linear topography of the Blue Ridge, which is the result of crustal deformation when North America collided with Europe about 500 million years ago (Ma). The inset photograph (taken from the park’s web site) shows rocks that have resisted erosion and created the narrow gorge south of the circled area on Fig. 1. This narrow border between Virginia and Maryland is called Mather Gorge. The 76 foot drop in elevation is a local manifestation of what is called the “fall line,” where rivers drop out of the Appalachian Mountains to the coastal plain.
A photograph of the metamorphic rocks at this location reveals a polished appearance, with quartz veins (white areas) standing out against the softer matrix.
Sediments deposited during the Grenville Orogeny included every imaginable lithology, from conglomerates to muds, over millions of years. These sediments were buried many miles beneath the earth’s surface and heated by the collision of tectonic plates about 500 Ma, when the proposed Iapetus Ocean was closing to form a supercontinent called Pangea. It is always difficult to infer original orientation of the precursors to metamorphic rocks like these schists, but they have a pronounced orientation of layers. For example, note the near-vertical lineations seen in Fig. 2. This overall structure is also visible at larger scales.
Figure 3 is looking towards the northeast. Note the dark lines between layers of schist on the left (western) side of the photo. These lineations are approximately aligned with the quartz veins and blobs from Figure 2. Compare this image with the inset map from Figure 1 which shows the topography of the Blue Ridge mountains. The NE-SW orientation at the regional scale (inset map of Fig. 1) is seen at the outcrop scale (Figs. 2 and 3) at Great Falls.
Looking southward along the Potomac, into Mather Gorge (Fig. 4), everything falls into place.
I admit to some geological speculation, but I won’t suggest anything unrealistic. Compare Figs. 3 and 4, which look upstream and downstream (respectively), and then glance at Fig. 1, which shows how the Potomac River transitions from a broad riverbed flowing around resistant islands to become restricted to a narrow channel. The range of intermediate scale (what we could see during our field trip) structures in Fig. 2 suggest that Great Falls was a transition zone, where the stress regime changed suddenly when these rocks were deeply buried, possibly because of a change in the lithology of the original Grenville rocks, maybe because of a sudden change in the rate of plate-tectonic movement.
To conclude this post, I’d like to add that the rocks seen at the observation point (Fig. 2) were subjected to the same forces that the rocks at the bottom of the current Potomac River (Fig. 3) are experiencing. That’s why the outcrops are so rounded and the quartz veins and blobs stand out in relief. Quartz is a hard mineral (7 on the Mohs scale). The river excavated Mather Gorge with the help of boulders rolled along its bed for millions of years, polishing the very hard rocks that resisted erosion.
See you next time.
It was a dark, rainy night. I was driving along a winding country road on my way home from a late meeting at Imagination, the company where I work as an electrical engineer. I was thinking about the challenging new project we were beginning, rebuilding the electric-power grid to integrate renewable energy and mobile storage. My mind was going through the list of requirements when I entered a sharp turn. Distracted, I didn’t slow down enough and the car’s tires lost traction. I hit the guardrail on the wrong side of the road. I breathed a sigh of relief and started the engine, glad to have survived but not looking forward to explaining the damage to my husband. My effort was thwarted when a pair of headlights appeared suddenly in the gloom, rounding the turn, heading straight at me. I pressed the horn futilely. The semi-truck hit my car and pushed it over the rail, my seatbelt pressing painfully against my shoulder as I was catapulted into space…
I woke up in a cold sweat and sat up in bed, mouth dry, shivering with the realization of imminent death.
“What’s wrong?” Jake asked.
The clock said it was five-thirty a.m., only a half-hour until the alarm would go off. I swung my feet onto the carpeted floor and stood up before saying, “That was the worst nightmare of my life. I died in a traffic accident. It was so real.”
“What time is it?”
I didn’t answer, instead going to the bathroom to wash off the sensation of death. I smelled coffee brewing by the time I finished my shower. I still ached as if I’d somehow survived the accident when I entered the kitchen, my head throbbing.
“Feel better?” Jake asked, handing me a cup of coffee. We both drank our coffee black.
“Sure, I guess, but that was unreal. I mean, I was there, as if it really happened. My clothes were still damp from running to the car in the rain. I had been at a meeting on a project we’re planning to put in a bid for. Do you think I’m just anxious about getting such a big job?”
We sat down as the toaster browned the bagel we would share, my half to be covered with avocado, his with peach marmalade.
“What else could it be? You aren’t about to be fired, are you?”
I shook my head and we kissed briefly, before our mouths would be contaminated with bits of bagel and fruit. Jake and I had been married six years, after living together for two years, after dating for a year. Neither one of us was quick to make personal commitments. But he was growing impatient with my reluctance to have a child, an idea that didn’t frighten me; I simply needed more time to solidify my career. That’s why we gave each other quick pecks instead of passionate kisses. We finished our breakfast, brushed our teeth, got dressed, and went to the parking garage to get in our cars and head to our separate jobs. Before climbing into my Honda, I smiled at him and waved.
“Drive carefully,” was his response.
I was lying in a bed, tubes running from my arms, aching from head to toe, my mind dulled, scared and confused. A stranger, an old man, stood next to me with an old woman.
“How do you feel, Mom?”
I was too frightened to speak. Who were these old people? My left hand raised, shaking uncontrollably as I muttered, “Give me a mirror.”
An oval hand mirror appeared, held in front of my face, revealing a shrunken countenance that couldn’t have been me. My hand fell. I gasped, “This can’t be real…”
Awakened from my nightmare, I jumped from the bed and staggered blindly to the bathroom, swiping at the light switch. Afraid of what would be revealed by the light reflected from the mirror’s surface, I dared to look. I gasped for breath, relieved to see that it had only been another nightmare of my death, then I was overcome with retching. But nothing came out. I was staring into the mirror when I heard Jake’s voice.
“Close the door, Kacey, I’m trying to sleep.”
I slammed the bathroom door and slumped to the floor, struggling to breath. My stomach hurt as if I’d been punched. I could barely move, so I sat a while, glad to be alive despite the pain.
“What the hell is going on?!”
I looked at Jake but didn’t recognize him. After two months of dying in my dreams, I didn’t know myself. I was a stranger in my own mind, whatever had been my life obliterated by my nightly encounters with death.
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m losing my mind. The pain dissipates within a couple of hours and I feel fine all day, until the next morning. Maybe I should go to the doctor?”
He shook his head. “You aren’t suffering from a brain tumor. I read about it. Your symptoms are all wrong. I think you should talk to Pastor Genoa. You’re probably having a psychosomatic response to the dichotomy of reconciling your career and—”
I held my hand up to stop him. “You have a point, Jake. I do want to have a family. Believe me, I’ve been struggling for years with that. I like Mark Genoa, he’s a good pastor. I’ll talk to him next week.”
“Dreams figure prominently in the Bible, as one method God uses to communicate to his people, such as the dreams of Abraham, Joseph, and Daniel; even the adversaries of God’s chosen people were contacted through dreams, the Egyptian Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar for example. Despite the importance of dreams as a means of communicating with God, it’s easy to misinterpret an experience we all have nightly as a message from God. From what you’ve said, these are persistent dreams with a clear message of your death, not calling for action that would advance His work on earth. Do you know what I mean?”
“Sure, Pastor Genoa, I’m not dreaming about the end of the world or even a catastrophe, unless my death is seen as a disaster. I guess I’m the only one with that perspective.”
He smiled knowingly. “Your death would be a great loss to all of us, but probably not the sort of thing God would warn the world of. Also, your dreams are not the same. If you dreamed of the same death every night, you could take precautions to avoid it, and thus live a full life doing God’s work. But there is no central theme to your dreams other than your death in innumerable ways.”
“So, you don’t think God is sending me a message?”
His head shook slightly and he changed the subject. “Do you mind if I ask whether you and Jake are having any marital issues? I’m here to help in any way I can, to help you identify family strife before it becomes a problem.”
There it was again, this time from my pastor. “We want to have a family but I’ve been putting it off, wanting to establish my career. There’s nothing wrong with waiting, is there; after all, I’m only thirty-four.”
He thought a moment before answering. “In one dream, you died alone on a bleak and dreadful night but in another you died an old woman with grown children at your bedside. Do you think you are conflicted about having a family? Young women in your situation have successful careers as mothers…might you be hiding something even from yourself?”
Just like that, he’d put his finger on it. I had to confess what was the likely source of our marital strife. “Three years ago, I became pregnant but insisted on a medical abortion, which made Jake very unhappy. He saw it as God’s will but I… I wasn’t ready. I think he may resent my decision, made over his strenuous objections. Do you think I’m having nightmares of dying because of guilt?”
He thought a moment before replying. “Your situation is not unique, but your family is, so let’s not be too quick to leap to judgement. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Do you think Jake would agree to a counseling session, an opportunity to talk freely about whatever’s on his mind?”
Pastor Genoa had shifted the topic from my dreams to my marriage in a heartbeat. He was right of course. About Jake’s resentment of my decision, but we hadn’t delved into why I was having those dreams. Maybe his experience told him that I was imagining many different scenarios, like having a family or being an old maid, but I was married. I wouldn’t die alone. Still, it struck me as curious that Jake didn’t appear in any of my dreams.
I convinced Jake to join me for a counseling session with Pastor Genoa, a licensed counselor and therapist. We aired our grievances and the blame landed squarely on my shoulders; I didn’t want to have children, for whatever reason. So, I had to deal with that, one way or the other, before Jake and I could straighten out our marriage, and I could hopefully stop having dreams about dying, whether alone or with others present.
Dr. Shera Knight wasn’t as easy to talk to as Pastor Genoa, not because she was a black psychologist, mostly because I didn’t know her and wasn’t as comfortable speaking to her openly as with a spiritual leader. I didn’t even know if she was a Christian.
“I’m not sure why I’m here, Dr. Knight,” I began.
“Dr. Genoa—you do know that he had a Ph.D. in theology, don’t you?”
“He never talked about that. He isn’t much for boasting.”
“Well, Dr. Genoa suggested that you may be suffering from a mild form of a personality disorder. He didn’t elaborate, leaving that for us to determine, but his summary of your sessions suggests that you are obsessive-compulsive. Mind you, he never said that and it’s only my preliminary diagnosis and—”
I interjected, “He’s—your right about that, but why would my being too organized and controlling make me not want to have children? Wouldn’t I just want to control them too? I mean, isn’t that what a soccer mom does? Why would that make me dream about dying?”
“You have a lot of questions and I don’t have the answers. Let’s start by getting acquainted. First, are you comfortable speaking to me, an African-American woman, about private matters, your thoughts and feelings, baring your soul so to speak?”
I nodded. “Not so much as with Pastor Genoa, but I don’t have a problem with your ethnicity. After all, Pastor—I mean Dr. Genoa—recommended you, so I have no problem with trust. I’m more concerned about being treated as a test subject, if that makes any sense…” I stopped talking, feeling that Dr. Knight wouldn’t understand where I was coming from.
She smiled knowingly. “You are not a test subject. I admit that every psychologist has an agenda, something we are interested in, but that never takes precedence over helping the patient. Helping you get through this is my highest priority.” She paused and looked at me, her brown eyes peering into my soul, before she added, “Why don’t you tell me the real reason you are here.”
I had been doing some internet research on dreams, neuroscience, quantum biology, and a host of related topics. I shared my conclusions with a skeptical Dr. Knight, ending with a supposition that I was experiencing a quantum leap in consciousness.
I got a CT Scan at her insistence, which showed no abnormalities.
Our sessions continued until I grew tired of talking about myself because whatever was driving my dreams wasn’t due to an abnormality in my brain or my upbringing. My personal research had continued and our conversations became more divergent as I obsessed more on quantum biology and its ramifications for my mental state. I didn’t need to speak to a psychologist, a fact she finally admitted.
“You aren’t suffering from any known personality disorders, Kacey. Your brain is functioning normally.” She paused, shook her head as if confused, and added, “I think Dr. Genoa referred you to me because of my interest in paranormal psychology. However, I don’t think you have presented clear signs of paranormal neurological activity; in other words, your case doesn’t fit into existing models of psychology, neither abnormal or paranormal. What I mean is that—”
I leapt from my chair and exclaimed, “You never told me about your interest in parapsychology! You’ve been leading me on, pretending that I had a normal disorder, maybe something from my childhood. I can’t believe you did that. I never should have trusted you!”
She explained the difference between her clinical commitment to her patient and her research interests to my satisfaction. I retook my seat as she elaborated.
“I think you should speak to a physicist who—”
I was on my feet again. “What is going on? All of a sudden, you think there’s a physical basis for my dreams?!”
She waved me back into my chair. “I have worked with a reputable researcher, who is very interested in a hypothesized phenomenon called quantum noise. The field of quantum biology is progressing very fast and conjectures are flying fast and furious, but Dr. Chris McGuire isn’t a dilettante. He may be able to help you either understand of what may be causing your unremitting dreams of death, or suggest a no-doubt controversial hypothesis of its cause. Either way, I encourage you to contact him. We should also continue our sessions, to help you digest what he may propose. He is not a psychologist and he’s a very difficult person to deal with, but…this is a controversial and unproven treatment for your condition. Let’s not get our hopes up but keep our fingers crossed.”
“How do I contact him?”
I checked Dr. Chris McGuire out and found his credentials to be in order so, rather than emailing or calling him, I flew to Miami to attend a conference on quantum biology at which he was presenting a paper about reducing reality to a point. Jake didn’t accompany me because it was a spur of the moment idea; in fact, I was planning to return the next day. I read several of Dr. McGuire’s papers and, although the math wasn’t particularly difficult, I didn’t see why Dr. Knight had suggested I speak to him. A holographic universe seemed light years from what I had decided was a simple case of extrasensory perception of alternate realities. Realizing that I was grabbing at straws—clever ideas I’d found on the internet in this case or seen in movies—I decided to follow my therapist’s advice.
His talk was interesting, delivered in an animated fashion, with the usual typos and oversimplified bullets littering too many slides for his fifteen-minute presentation. There were lots of questions, mostly critical of his mathematical theory, which I found to be the most consistent part of his talk. I was too confused to ask any questions but, fortunately, he would be presenting a poster on a related topic. That’s when I would introduce myself. I remained in the same room for the entire session and noticed that he had plenty of difficult questions for the other presenters. He gave as well as he got.
They were serving beer and wine during the poster session, so I got a glass of cheap white wine and wandered towards his poster. He was arguing with an older man about the parameters required to encode multi-dimensional information onto fewer dimensions. His poster suggested that the cosmic microwave background recorded the generation of the universe as a hologram. His older adversary was arguing that the cosmological constants had the values they did because that led to the existence of humans; the Anthropic Principle wasn’t an oversimplification of reality but a nod to the fact that we existed, an there were fundamental quantities determining the character of the universe. Dr. McGuire’s position was that they were imaginary parameters, created to fit our observations into our limited mathematical models. The debate ended in an impasse, the old man wandering off muttering to himself.
Before I could introduce myself, Dr. McGuire said, “I’m going to get another beer. I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll join you,” I blurted. I finished my wine and added, “I think I’ll need a fresh drink to understand your poster, even if you explain it yourself.”
I introduced myself while we waited in line at the bar. I skipped the reason for my presence at the conference, which could wait until a better opportunity.
“So, you’re an electrical engineer. What brings you to a conference filled with loonies?”
We made our way back to his poster as I explained that I worked on the power grid, designing control systems, but that I had a personal interest in his work. I wasn’t ready to admit that I was the biggest looney in attendance.
He explained his ideas to me, with frequent interruptions by others, as I sipped my wine. His basic thesis was that the existence of parameters in all of our equations was irrefutable proof that we were on the wrong track. There was no way to describe physical reality with the constraints imposed by such crude models without them. He became very animated when I mentioned all the parameters required to create an electric current, much less a functioning microchip.
“Just what the hell is permittivity?”
I grimaced and replied, “A parameter.”
“Just because our complicated models produce useful devices doesn’t mean they’re correct,” he retorted.
I saw an opportunity to steer the conversation to a topic of personal interest. “I see your point. Let me ask you this, if we are living in a holographic universe with no parameters, where does the individual fit in? Are we real or nothing more than an image, projected from the mind of God?”
“That’s one way of putting it, assuming that you’re referring to God as the enervating force behind the universe and not the deity of superstitious religions. We share a perceived reality because we—our essence—is contained within the same…the same bundle of information which determined from the beginning of time how we would develop, I mean how…” He jabbed his finger at an image of the CMB and continued, “For all we know, that speck in the CMB contains everything that has happened within the Milky Way in the last thirteen-billion years, including you and me standing here talking.”
I surprised myself by smiling shyly and saying, “And no parameters.”
A middle-aged woman interrupted us and, while she was talking to Dr. McGuire, I thought about his proposition. It wasn’t inconsistent with how Pastor Genoa presented the Bible. It made more sense to me than the idea of a Big Bang sending all those elementary particles spinning into space, obeying the laws of physics to become matter and energy. But that didn’t help me. I needed to tell him the reason for my attendance at the conference.
“Do you think dreams are real?”
He studied my face for several moments before answering. “Everything is real, including what we imagine. However, we haven’t evolved the neurological ability to grasp reality in its entirety, so we have glimpses, snapshots, bits and pieces of the picture, totally lacking in clarity and consistency. We call these fragments thoughts when we’re awake and dreams when we’re sleeping.”
I felt like a teenager, a groupie, suddenly enthralled by Dr. McGuire’s intellect and energy. I was more sexually aroused than I’d never been in my life and I wasn’t self-conscious about it. I started to respond but we were interrupted by the middle-aged woman, who had been listening to his explanation.
“Why don’t you join us for dinner Kacey and we can discuss Chris’ speculation further.”
I nodded emphatically, wanting nothing more than to be near Dr. McGuire.
I joined a party that grew until there were more than ten people. I was worried about where we might eat with such a large group. My fears were alleviated when the woman who’d invited me to dinner announced that she’d made a reservation at a restaurant that served an eclectic blend of styles. My relief turned into excitement when Dr. McGuire introduced me to everyone as if I were his date. I forgot about Jake and my marriage, overwhelmed by the atmosphere of camaraderie I felt, always finding Dr. McGuire at my side. He even made a point of seating me next to himself at the stylish restaurant.
“Tell us about your dreams,” the woman who was apparently the matron of the group said, facing me as if I were a student. Her name was Sam.
The topic hadn’t been forgotten in the fifteen-minute walk to the restaurant. At first timid to speak about something so personal, I opened up when Chris—it was an informal group—encouraged me to share my data as he called my dreams. My usually reticent personality dulled by wine, I described a few of the deaths I had dreamt, to the angst and awe of my audience, expanding on details when prompted, Chris at my side, touching me gently now and then. No one had heard of anything like my experience although Sam mentioned several studies that reported similar phenomena experienced by shamans in many cultures.
The analysis of my case proceeded as dinner was served, plates shared between us, and everyone expressed their opinions. Chris and I focused on the shakshuka and chicken pitas. When everyone had had an opportunity to express their opinion, he shared his.
“Kacey is the first datum to support the holographic principle that doesn’t come from an anecdotal story collected in the scientific hinterland. She is an engineer and, despite her Christian beliefs, she has shared her data with us, without disguising the facts within her personal faith. After listening to everyone’s comments, I am convinced that we are entering a new era of human evolution, a time when we will become aware of reality, although we won’t be able to prove this hypothesis for years. Furthermore, her case suggests that holographic noise is more than a conjecture. I propose right now—mark the date and time—that all of reality is contained within each one of our brains, possibly within our DNA, and we have only to find the key to unlock the mysteries of the universe. Her experiences are the result of holographic noise, expressed to her consciousness in dreams. I challenge everyone at this table to find a way to measure this noise and discover who we really are.”
He had stood up during his monologue, but now he retook his seat, and took my hand, holding it up like a prize. I was overwhelmed. Apparently, Chris was often inspired during roundtable discussions, so his pronouncement was followed by a vigorous conversation. I had come across the idea of holographic noise during my casual research, but he explained the idea while we finished our meal. I had another glass of wine.
When the discussion had settled down, Sam challenged his conjecture. “That is unsupportable speculation Chris, and you know it. You are grandstanding, like you always do.”
He held his hand up in defense. “No, I’m not using hyperbole, Sam. Kacey’s experience is consistent with the anecdotal stories told by spiritual people from around the world and throughout the centuries. We all heard her detailed accounts of death; they were just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine it, she dies every single night! This is bigger than quantum physics. I’ve been inspired to find a way to investigate this phenomenon.”
We had dessert and Chris convinced me to have some warm brandy, before the group broke up for the night. I was standing outside the restaurant, confused, uncertain where I was, planning to call Uber, when his voice brought me back to reality.
“Would you like to spend the night with me?”
Relieved, I nodded emphatically. “Thank god.”
I woke in a strange bed in a strange place, lying next to a stranger, but Chris wasn’t a stranger. He was my lifeline to reality, so how could he be strange? I remembered every detail of the previous evening, especially when we’d made our way to his hotel room and…and made love, because that was how I’d felt at the time. It was a necessary act, to finalize my understanding of my place in the cosmos. It had been an unworldly experience.
“Tell me about your dream.”
His blue eyes were hovering expectantly inches above my face.
“Since I’m already an adulteress, can’t we make love again before doing all that science stuff?”
I nodded shyly. “I forgot to tell you, with all the excitement, and hoping to find a solution to my dilemma, I got carried away. Please forgive me and make love to me again. I’m not over you yet.”
He shook his head. “First you tell me how you died last night.”
I sighed with frustration. “It was my twenty-first birthday. I went skiing with friends from a college I never attended—in fact, I never skied in my life—and someone, a guy I was dating named Lenny, convinced me to try a black diamond slope because I’d caught on pretty fast. I was really good after a couple of lessons. Anyway, I did well so we did another slope, the whole gang of strangers, who I knew well in the dream, doing this several times, really hard slopes. I guess we did one too many, maybe I was tired or my luck ran out, but I went over the side and fell…I felt my bones snapping before I died. I lived long enough to feel a lot of pain.”
I gave him a sarcastic smile and added, “Now, can we get back to what’s foremost on my mind at this moment…in this reality? I have a splitting headache and I hurt everywhere, but I think you can distract me from the aftereffects of another traumatic death.”
I didn’t tell Jake about my encounter with Chris, partly because I was unsure what to expect from the dinner I’d shared with a group of people he had described as loonies. I checked my email constantly, hoping for some kind of follow-up, a contact, something.
My prayers were answered when I received an email from someone called dreamer57, inviting me to a palm reading at their studio in Nashville. This person had been given my name by Dr. Samantha Adams and, after reviewing my case, was willing to meet me in person. I couldn’t believe the news. A contact, someone who didn’t speak in scientific theories, but actually read palms, obviously legitimate if Sam had arranged a meeting. I was elated. I shared my anticipation with Jake.
“So, you’re going to Nashville for a palm reading, is that about it?”
“I certainly am. I’m having regular counseling from Pastor Genoa and Dr. Knight, and they haven’t offered a better course of therapy for whatever is wrong with me. They’ve both expressed support for what I’m doing, and it would be nice if you did the same.”
“This isn’t like you, Kacey, to go galivanting around the country in search of a miracle cure for bad dreams. Next thing I know you could be using opioids and we all know—”
“Narcotics aren’t going to help me, Jake. No one has mentioned them, except you, just now. Desperate times call for desperate measures, not narcotics and addiction. I am going to exhaust every possible treatment to either end my nightly death or learn to deal with it. It would help if I knew I had your support…”
He finally looked at me. “Fine. Go to Nashville to talk to a psychic if that’s what you want to do, but you’d be better off spending more time praying, or maybe having a family…”
I parked my rental car on the damp street, and stumbled up the broken sidewalk, slipping on wet leaves, finally climbing a narrow wood staircase that led to a bright blue door. I raised my hand to knock but my act was interrupted when a disembodied voice said, “Come in, Mrs. Aston. I’ve been expecting you.”
I knocked anyway before opening the door to find myself in a small salon, furnished with two armchairs, a coffee table, and end tables adorned with decorative lamps. A map of the world hung on one wall, punctured with thumb tacks. A worn rug partly covered the freshly painted wood floor. I closed the door and stood motionless, feeling as if I were in a holy place, in the presence of God. A short, stout woman who looked Native American appeared in a doorway.
“Good morning, Mrs. Aston, I’m Halona Descheene. I am full-blooded Cherokee, the daughter of a shaman, my lineage goes back too many generations to count, all spiritual leaders of my people.” She stepped into the room and beckoned me to take a seat in one of the chairs.
I sat down and said, “Then, I guess you’re the right person for me to talk to or do whatever it is that you do…in the spiritual realm I mean. This affliction is driving me crazy, destroying my health, my marriage, upending everything I’ve worked so hard for.”
Instead of sitting down, Halona started boiling water on a hotplate I hadn’t noticed before. “Let’s have some tea,” she said, depositing leaves into a glass decanter. I wanted to ask if those were coca leaves but didn’t, afraid of insulting my host.
Still standing, waiting for the pot to boil, she asked, “Do you have something personal that I could examine?”
I started to remove my wedding ring but was stopped by her firm voice. “Something that predates your marriage, maybe a photo?”
I dug in my bag and retrieved my wallet, producing a photograph of me with my parents when I was a baby. I held it out and she took it from my grasp, before examining it closely for several minutes while I waited impatiently. Halona wasn’t in a hurry. When the teapot began to scream, she dropped my precious memorabilia on the table and poured water into the decanter. I scooped up the photo while she was distracted and slipped it back in its proper place. She placed the tea decanter on the table and produced two small teacups without handles, before sitting down.
“I don’t think I can help you, Mrs. Aston. Your spirit is too strong, greater than mine, the most powerful I have ever encountered. I should be asking you for guidance. I’m sorry…”
I hadn’t come to Tennessee to be told how powerful I was. “Let’s have some tea and break down your concerns, point by point, before we make any hasty decisions.” I took it upon myself to fill our cups, before adding, “I may be spiritually powerful, Halona, but I am a ship without a rudder. I need your guidance to keep from running aground in the tempest.” I held my cup up and she reluctantly did the same.
“I will try to give you guidance, but I don’t know…”
We sipped together, then I set my cup down and explained what I’d learned from Chris and his fellow metaphysicists. Halona was familiar with the Holographic Universe hypotheses so she nodded knowingly, occasionally asking for clarification on minor issues. I finished my monologue with, “So, do you think I am somehow manifesting the cosmos in my dreams, through my DNA as Chris—Dr. McGuire—imagines?”
She took my trembling hands in her meaty palms. Fear and anticipation were juxtaposed on her chubby countenance for several minutes, during which I felt nothing, not even a sense of my psyche being invaded. Finally, Halona released my hands and fell back in her chair exhausted.
I refilled our cups with the strong, aromatic brew.
She sipped from hers before saying, “My earlier sense was correct. You are Nunnehi, one of the Great Fathers of the world. I never dreamed that immortals were still among us…you have forgotten your own origins, probably because of spending so many millennia in a mortal body, witnessing the tragic downfall of the Cherokee despite your efforts to save us. It is difficult to speak of such things in English, Mrs. Aston, but you…you are not bound by space and time.”
This was a big leap for me to grasp. “What does that mean?!”
She refilled our cups and emptied hers before responding, “The Nunnehi—beings like you—were nothing more than myths and legends passed down orally for many millennia by the shamans of the Cherokee. This is the twenty-first century. I know that your race was never meant to save only my people. You are here to save humanity in its direst moment. I just never imagined it would occur during my life…”
After my conversations with Chris and his collaborators, I accepted Halona’s story and my place within it, but I didn’t see myself as a messiah; that was probably her interpretation of something she’d sensed, something scientific instruments couldn’t measure. Maybe she was right and I was simply an immortal imagining a death I would never suffer; or maybe Chris was correct, and I was seeing multiple, divergent realities; maybe I had chosen one and that was the one I was living, bringing him and Halona along for the ride. I wasn’t satisfied with that dichotomy. There was no reason, under either of these scenarios, that I would be aware of my status as one of the Lords of the Universe. The entire situation was ludicrous, and to think I’d let myself be drawn into such a fantasy world, where I was deciding between alternate fantasies; but the dreams were real and both a spiritual leader I trusted, and a psychiatrist who spoke openly, approved of the path I was following. Nevertheless, I doubted they would be so supportive after Halona’s revelation. It was obvious to me that centuries of scientific progress hadn’t improved on an oral tradition of ghosts and goblins.
I had several questions for Chris McGuire, besides asking him to help me forget my dreams for a few hours. For one thing, if I was living in a holographic universe in which my dreams had become a window to other worlds, why hadn’t I found a way to get off the treadmill? Another burning question was: Why was I experiencing these alternate realities now? I hadn’t suffered any brain trauma; nothing unusual preceded the onset of this phenomenon, which didn’t even have a point; no messages and no clues to the meaning of life, nothing.
I insisted on taking Halona out to dinner, to get to know each other better because, as I explained to her, I would be visiting her regularly in the future unless that would make her uncomfortable. By the time I dropped her off at her studio/apartment, we were friends and she was no longer calling me Mrs. Aston or one of the Great Fathers. I had also learned more about the oral tradition surrounding the Nunnehi, about her culture and how their spiritual beliefs weren’t so different from my own.
I opened my eyes to find Chris’ blue orbs gazing into my soul. Before he could ask about my dream, I volunteered a summary. “It was rather benign, as dying goes. I slipped on some ice at an apartment I didn’t recognize, although I was about seventy, maybe older. It didn’t look like a retirement community, no handrails or anything. I cracked my head on a step and died instantly. Can you make me feel better now?” I pushed the sheets down, baring my body as openly as I’d shared my soul.
Chris and I had become lovers after our encounter at the conference in Miami. I naturally turned to him after my disconcerting visit with Halona in Nashville, skipping returning to work, making excuses about a sudden death in the family; what counted was that I was with Chris, my rock-star science hero. I shared my feelings with him as he did his best to distract me from my rapidly escalating problems.
“Oh god…oh god, I love you Chris, even if you don’t feel the same…oh god, that feels so good, even if you don’t feel it like I do, I don’t care because you are the key, oh god, do that again!”
“Shut up and let me think,” he retorted as he fulfilled my request.
I was still shivering when his face reappeared between my thighs. He pulled himself up to face me and blurted, “I love you too Kacey, even though you’re a married woman. Goddamnit! I swore I would never have an affair with a married woman, but then you showed up. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a—you tricked me when we first slept together and now, I’m lost, confused…”
I breathed a deep sigh of relief, holding him close, clinging to my lifeline. Emboldened by his ambiguous support, I made a wild conjecture that felt right at that moment. “I think we’re a lot more alike than either you or Halona thinks. I feel something lying here with you that I’ve never felt before. I have a superpower…don’t get me wrong, my talent is loving you, not flying or any of—”
His finger against my lips stopped my foolish rant. “We’re going to talk to Jake and sort this out. I won’t live like this, sneaking around at night, meeting clandestinely. I have to make it right by him, at least not backstab him…”
It was my turn. “We’ll come clean but I’m not letting you go, Chris. You’re the only person who can help me determine if I’m crazy or immortal.” My grin must have given me away.
“You’re immortal all right, but I don’t want to risk your life to prove it because I could be wrong. No experiments with immortality, except maybe as I get older and you remain young and healthy. Deal?”
One thing no longer bothered me. “I wonder what our children will think about that?”
I accompanied Jake to a retirement party for one of his coworkers the day before Chris was going to fly down to settle things. Our affair wasn’t really his fault; after all, I’d forgotten about Jake during that incredible evening in Orlando and subconsciously tricked Chris into falling in love with me. And now, he was so invested in whatever was happening that I felt like a lab rat, devoted to the scientist experimenting on me. Chris and I had had several other meetings with his colleagues for official interviews and even experiments in a sleep center; and now he was coming to Alexandria to announce his feelings for me to my current husband, as if asking my father for my hand in marriage. It was overwhelming. I was sure that Jake suspected our marriage was about to end because I started sleeping in the guest room after my trip to Orlando. I didn’t think Jake and Chris would get in a fist fight or anything, but I was definitely nervous about their meeting. I was going to make this Jake’s and my farewell celebration, a good time we would remember for years to come.
Jake didn’t drink much at the party because he would be driving home later. He always drove because he didn’t trust my driving. He also wasn’t much of a drinker; a glass of wine with dinner and a couple of beers on the weekend sufficing; thus unburdened, I let myself go. I was nervous to say the least.
People tend to be more judgmental when they’re sober. Jake was like that when the conversation turned to everyone’s plans for retirement. Alvin, the guest of honor, was planning to stay right where he was, but start taking long walks to become familiar with the town he’d lived in for thirty years. The next-oldest person, a thin woman named Maggie, shared her vision of moving to Florida to escape the cold and the endless chores associated with owning a home. Her husband had recently died, so I understood her better position better than Alvin’s. The participants in the game were apparently rank-ordered by age, so it took a while for Jake’s turn to come. I was pretty tipsy, having forgotten how many glasses of wine I’d consumed, not to mention a couple of gin and tonics shared with Maggie and some other women. I was playing my role, our last party together, smiling and holding his arm to keep myself steady as much as to give him spousal support. I was glad I’d drunk too much when Jake started with the past-perfect conditional and imperfect subjunctive tenses in the same sentence. He had some complex issues to resolve.
“If you had asked me how I would spend my retirement six months ago, I would have said we’d be living in the Caribbean, maybe Barbados or Belize, but that was before my wife began having nightmares. Now, I don’t know what to expect, maybe one of her dreams of death will come true and I’ll be spending my retirement alone…always thinking about a trip to the Caribbean with Kacey.”
Determined to have a good time and go with the flow, I smiled nervously, welcoming the interest of the other retirement plan contestants, reminding myself that this wasn’t the time to announce our imminent divorce. The mention of death had aroused a great interest in me personally, so I shared everything that had happened, regaling my audience with stories of horrible deaths as well as quietly passing into oblivion.
“Did you get some help?” Alvin asked.
“Oh yes,” I replied conversationally, a fresh glass of wine in my hand. “I am currently following a rigorous treatment regimen, including therapy sessions with my pastor, a psychiatrist, a genuine Cherokee Shaman with an impeccable pedigree, and a neuroscientist specializing in paranormal phenomena.”
The room exploded in a hubbub of disparate conversations centered on me. It was a nice feeling, to be the center of attention. That thought made me laugh and then the hiccups appeared. I knew they would pass so I sipped wine. When everyone was assured that my hiccups weren’t a sign of my imminent death, a possibility I hadn’t dreamed of yet, Maggie dared to query me.
“What is the consensus of all these experts?”
I scoffed and waved my hand, spilling a little wine on the carpet. “I’m either losing my mind or—” I laughed, blowing wine out my nose, sneezed a few times to a captivated audience, and finally finished my thought. “I may be immortal.”
The room was silent.
Finally, Jake said, “That would at least explain why you don’t want to have a family.”
That was uncalled for, but I didn’t lash out, too drunk to care about his fantasy retirement. I nodded and shrugged at the same time, trying to indicate my awareness of a potential problem with having a family, remembering my jest to Chris. I replied in a noncommittal voice, “Probably, because if Halona Descheene—my Cherokee Shaman therapist—is right, I don’t remember my previous lives in detail. I could forget who my children are!” My laughter was joined by others. I was on a roll, enjoying my fifteen minutes of being the life of the party for the first time in my life.
Another guest, a young woman who hadn’t had her turn to fantasize about retirement, spoke up with a concerned expression. “I can see that you’ve done everything possible to diagnose whatever’s happening to you but…well, do you think it’s a supernatural power, like…like God or maybe Satan, who’s trying to tell you something?”
I dismissed her naïve question with the flip of my free hand. “Been there, done that. My pastor, who is a licensed therapist, has assured me that my dreams aren’t a message from God. And they aren’t an enticement to do evil, delivered by Satan. My psychiatrist assures me that my dreams are not symptoms of a behavioral or psychiatric disorder.” I took a drink from my wine glass and threw my free hand in the air as I added, “I’m off the charts!” A little wine spilled and I grimaced, apologizing for my clumsiness.
“Don’t worry about it, Kacey,” I was assured by my hostess. “It’s obvious that you’re a very intelligent young woman, tormented by something neither faith nor science cab explain…this must be terrifying for you.”
My wine glass was taken from my hand by someone and I hugged Willena, catching her off guard in my sudden, emotional embrace. I held her and felt her arms wrap around my shoulders. I cried. My tears turned into a torrent, a flood of fear, pain, anticipation flowing down my cheeks as I clung to this older woman for dear life. She shared my emotional release, squeezing me, her hand caressing my head, telling me it would be okay, as long as I remained true to myself. She was right about that. I finally lifted my head from her shoulder, smiled tearfully, and reluctantly stepped back from her comforting presence.
“I don’t know what came over me. I’m sorry for spoiling Alvin’s retirement. I just felt so comfortable with all of you, I guess I got carried away…”
I was assaulted by everyone, except Jake. They shared their recurring nightmares, their fears of failure, dissolution, even death, with me as they hugged me, holding me as tightly as I had held Willena. I felt their fear in a way I hadn’t empathized with anyone before in my life. Having admitted my anxieties, I was capable of sharing theirs. I didn’t understand why Jake was staring at me as if I’d shared his deepest secrets to these strangers because I hadn’t mentioned him once during my monologue. I smiled, still trying to make this a great last date, took his hand and kissed his cheek, a kiss goodbye. I wouldn’t be comfortable pretending to be his wife when Chris arrived the next day, but I liked Jake; maybe I had loved him once upon a time, but that time was gone.
Jake and I were the last to leave. I was drunk but he was as sober as a church mouse.
I relaxed, knowing I wouldn’t be trying to follow those winding, poorly marked roads back to Reston. I was about to take a nap when Jake’s voice, dripping with sarcasm, jolted me awake.
“You should get an Oscar for that performance. My coworkers were standing in line to kiss your hand, as if you were Jesus, and I can’t imagine how your crazy story will impact my position within the company. Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
Fully aroused by his strong words, I sat up and faced him, blinking to reduce the double vision, which was a waste of time because I was really intoxicated. “Why don’t you explain?” I asked, hoping to nap while he ranted about everything I had just shared at the party. I had revealed my innermost fears to complete strangers, but apparently my action had only been a ruse in Jake’s mind.
“You have continually undermined me in our dealings with my coworkers. Do you remember last year, at the Christmas party? You maligned my greatest accomplishment of the year, calling it a hack job to cover a technical error that had grown into a marketing problem. Do you know how that felt to me?”
I was drifting in and out of consciousness by this time, unable to formulate a coherent response, so I remembered my vow to myself. “I’m sorry about that, Jake. I guess I got carried away. I’m really sorry…”
I dozed for a few minutes as Jake’s voice rambled through time and space. I was awakened when my seat belt cut painfully into my shoulder. Time slowed to a crawl. Fully conscious, I screamed when the car tumbled off the road as if we were in a dryer. My head was bouncing around, hitting the roof, colliding with Jake’s skull. His eyes were open and dull, his brain unconscious from the beating it was receiving. Probably dead. As if following a script, my hand found the seatback lever and I reclined fully, escaping the collapsing roof as it crushed Jakes head against the steering wheel, spewing a fountain of blood on me. I hung on to my seat but it didn’t help. I was tossed around as much as Jake, sharp metal tearing at my flesh, turning him into sushi, swords plunging into our bodies as if wielded by the devil. I was in hell.
Our tumultuous careening down the steep slope was stopped suddenly by a large tree. It was dark and raining, just as I’d dreamed months before, but reality had continued beyond my death. I hadn’t died. I was alive, trapped in a twisted car with my husband’s lifeless arm draped across my chest, covered in his blood. I was hanging from my seatbelt, the crushed roof inches from my face, the passenger window a slit beckoning to me. I could move my legs, the front of the car having suffered minor damage, a significant deviation from the head-on collision of my dream.
I smelled gasoline. Motivated, I released my seat belt and winced as I fell onto a sharp piece of the roof, before struggling through the jagged aperture that had once been the passenger window. I felt my flesh tear as I crawled towards freedom, away from the time bomb that ensnared me. I was struggling to get my hips through the window frame when I was plunged into the depths of hell.
My waist was twisted painfully against the door frame by the blast, flames engulfing me, burning my clothes and searing my flesh. I ignored the agony and pulled myself out of the pyre, running then falling, sliding down the slope, cold rain extinguishing the flames behind me as I came to a stop at the edge of a cliff. Pain motivated me to get to my hands and knees in the rain, lean against a tree, struggle to my feet, before I realized that I’d held onto my phone during the entire ordeal. I glanced down and, lit by the dying flames of our car, saw that my pants and shirt—even my underwear—had been burnt by the inferno. A thin ribbon all that remained of my bra, jeans reduced to a few wet and blackened shreds clinging to an elastic strap around my waist. I felt like Eve in the Garden of Eden, covered by a fig leaf, only I was in Hell.
I collapsed on the wet ground, shivering in the cold rain, and called 911. After explaining my situation, I made a point of asking them to bring something for me to wear. That request confused them; I probably shouldn’t have mentioned it, but I was more than a little freaked out and not thinking clearly.
My second call was to Chris.
I watched the hands on the clock slowly mark the passage of time. Seconds sweeping by, their expiration represented by the thinnest needle on the clock’s face. Normally, I wouldn’t have noticed the imperceptible movement of the minute hand either, but these weren’t normal times. We didn’t have a lot of customers in the restaurant where I worked as a short-order cook because of the COVID-19 restrictions. Take-out only. Masks. All that jive. The servers were the first to disappear, quietly fading into the humid, shaded streets of the French Quarter. I didn’t feel too bad for them because they would be getting fat unemployment checks.
The hours were an interminable series of eternities in purgatory, the hour hand standing over me like a prison guard, watching, noting everything I did. Aware of its scrutiny, I worked harder than usual, getting the few take-out orders that came in perfect, cleaning and wiping the entire grill area afterward. I would have kept cleaning that kitchen until hell froze over if I’d had any control over time. But I was only a cook.
The day ended and I removed my apron, washed my hands for the umpteenth time, and went to collect my paycheck from the manager.
“Look, I’m sorry to have to let you go Devon but…well, it looks like we’re all going to be unemployed. I feel like I’m standing on the deck of a sinking ship, going down with it. For what it’s worth, you’ve been an outstanding worker and I’d be happy to give you a letter of recommendation, talk to a prospective employer…”
“Thanks, Tom. We both know there’s not much chance of that. I guess I’ll just ride out the pandemic like everyone else.” I was struggling to keep the darkness from closing in, standing there in Tom’s office, the clock watching me, counting the seconds, waiting for me to implode.
But I didn’t, at least not right away. You see, I suffer from severe, episodic schizophrenia, which is like losing my mind every now and then, like when something really stressful happens, like breaking up with a girl or losing my job. There’s no cure and drugs like Thorazine, Prolixin, Haldol, and all the others don’t work for me. The problem is that the cure is worse than the disease for people like me; my episodes don’t last as long as it takes for the drugs to kick in. But I got to tell you, I wished I had a bottle of Navane in my pocket when I left the restaurant, out of work, my last paycheck in my pocket, facing the prospect of dealing with the unemployment office to get my COVID unemployment checks coming in. I was stressed. At least I didn’t have a girlfriend.
Whenever I feel an episode coming on, I head towards Jackson Square. That’s where the homeless hang out, many of them suffering from severe schizophrenia, unable to keep a job or even have a relationship, not even with themselves. They don’t scare me because I’m like them—now and then.
It’s pretty weird, knowing you’re about to have a psychotic trip, like doing LSD. I don’t need that shit because my trips are way stranger than what hipsters get from diluted acid. Mine are real, and I mean real.
I knew something was wrong when my path along Royal Street took me into the Quarter, crossing Orleans Street, passing windows filled with artwork, antiques, shit like that. Everyone was looking at me as if I was running through the street naked. I was in my work clothes—jeans, long-sleeve green shirt, boots for working in the kitchen—but everyone was watching me, trying to get into my head. They were trying to assimilate my consciousness into a group think through my phone. Unwilling to throw my expensive mobile device in the gutter, I winced but kept moving. I turned the phone off, knowing that wouldn’t stop them. I had an objective, the Café du Monde for a cup of coffee, if I could only make it without being overwhelmed by the relentless onslaught of the people around me. They were all unwitting accomplices of the Deep State.
I sipped my coffee, accompanied by a beignet, and avoided making eye contact with anyone, but there was one guy who kept watching me. He wasn’t much older than me, with short-cropped blonde hair and mean eyes. He looked familiar but I couldn’t place his face.
Fuck your feelings, I feel like I play for the Saints,
I just want to hurt you, aim for the skanks.
That guy was in my head. He wanted to kill me. An evil look transformed his face into a caricature, a demon with horns, grinning at me. Then I recognized him as the evil twin of Eminem, the rap star. His words gave him away. I had to escape, so I jumped up, knocking my table over, and confronted my tormentor.
“Stay away from me! Get out of my head, motherfucker!”
I left him with a surprised expression at my recognition of his identity, and ran out of the restaurant without paying. I fled from his retort.
This darkness comes in me
And comes again
That ain’t me
He’s just a friend who pops up now and again
So don’t blame me, blame him
My hands flew up to cover my ears, running; out of breath, I stopped in front of an art store, not far from Jackson Square. The evil countenance stared back at me from the glass, taunting me, its smug look reminding me that there was no escape.
“I am not you, asshole!” I shouted, turning away from the reflection, fearing the truth, I was the evil twin, destined to commit some evil act to appease the monster that had gotten inside my head.
Stumbling, driven like cattle, my footsteps carried me to my destination.
Welcome back to the land of the living, my friend
You have slept for quite some time
“I don’t want to hear your foul words,” I said, falling onto the steps of St. Peter’s, oblivious to the people walking past. I looked up at the ornate doors, closed to me, not letting me enter and seek asylum in a house of God. I got to my feet and fled, seeking sanctuary elsewhere, stumbling into Washington Artillery Park, collapsing on a bench under a live oak.
Bed-written and destined to never leave the
Bedroom ever again like the legend of Heather Ledger
My suicide notes, barely legible read the
Bottom, it’s signed by The Joker
I had to fight Eminem’s evil twin, who was not my own, with the only weapon that would work against such unspeakable evil. I joined battle.
“I hear you talking you sonofabitch,
Kiss my ass and go to hell, like the stench that I smell,
Every time your filthy mouth rings a bell.”
And I got an evil twin, so who do you think that’s 3rd and that 4th spot’s for?
And as crazy as I am I’m much tamer than him
And I’m nuts, then again who the fuck wants to plain Eminem?
“Is that all you got?
Fuck you must have been shot
In the balls to talk like such a big fool,
Cause only a fool wouldn’t know what I got,
I’ll rip off your head and throw it in the gutter
Just to show I don’t stutter”
My last verse was met by silence.
I’d won the rap battle with my evil twin, silence was golden as they say, so I leaned back on the bench, enjoying the sweet smell of victory, but my triumph was short lived.
“Are you okay?”
I looked up to be confronted with my evil twin, no wait, not mine, Eminem’s evil twin, standing there with the same smug smile, taunting me, pretending to ask about my condition, his sarcastic smirk revealing his true purpose. I had won the battle but not the war. Evil never surrenders and it never sleeps.
“Hey fool you talking to me?
Like get outta my face before I feed your gizzard to a lizard
Just to see how it feels.”
Despite getting the upper hand, I knew that he was devious, acting like my friend. Sure enough, he rapped his true intent, the words I heard with my inner ear not matching his lips.
Reversed evolving, turning people into beasts
They’re feasting on each other, strong consume the weak
Flaming ruins, society is lost
Shattered city streets filled with blind, nameless creatures
The sky cracks open, dust is descending
Breath the black air, feel darkness in your lungs.
His vision of hopelessness was drowning me, filling my mind with doubt and a torrent of incoherent thoughts with one purpose: my evil twin wanted me to jump in the Mississippi River.
“You’re so full of shit your breath stinks,
Suck my dick like eating sausage links,
Get outta my face and crawl back in your asshole,
Punk whore you got no game, just a big mouth and a mind game.”
My words made him reveal his true purpose. His leering expression molded into hate and destruction as he advanced, planning to use his super-strength to throw me in the river himself. I fought him physically, pushing his grasping claws back. He stumbled and fell to the sidewalk, a look of defeat and revenge on his face. No more mister nice guy game.
“What the hell’s wrong with you? You can’t talk to me that way and knock me down. You should be in jail, asshole!”
I laughed in my—no, not me but Eminem—evil twin’s face and flipped him off.
“Stay in the gutter you skank whore,
Get in my face again and I’ll show you more,
Who’s gonna throw who in the river shore?”
“You’re fucking crazy,” he said as he got up to face me, his eyes admitting that I’d won.
“Fucking right, motherfucker, and don’t forget,
I’m the bro who knocked you on your ass,
Yeh I can take your best and give back trash.”
I felt better about not being deceived by my evil twin, another victory. Our battle was interrupted by a familiar voice.
“What’s going on her, Devon?” It was my friend, Dwayne Peltier, wearing his uniform and a gun to protect me from Eminem’s evil twin.
“It’s the man in black in black in black,
Got my back my back my back,
Not gonna let evil suck me dry not today not this shack.”
The evil twin faced Dwayne and said, “This guy assaulted me. Arrest him. He oughta be locked up. He’s crazy.”
Dwayne looked at me and at Eminem’s twin, nodded, and said, “I saw the whole thing. You were approaching him menacingly and he overreacted. But he didn’t hit you or threaten you, did he?”
“He was going to throw me in the river!”
Dwayne looked at me again. “Did you threaten…” He turned to the evil twin and asked, “Do you mind if I ask your name, sir?”
“Robert Johnson, from Milwaukee. Down here on vacation. I just asked if he needed some help. He was ranting and crazy—”
Dwayne interrupted, “Yes, sir, Devon does that sometimes, when he’s having a really bad day, not that often most of the time.” He turned to me and said, “Why did you threaten to throw Mr. Johnson in the river?”
I’m not so sure anymore. Another trick of the evil twin. He had possessed this guy, who no longer looked like Eminem.
“The evil one possesses who he wishes,
It’s just like doing the dishes,
He just steps in and fulfills his wishes,
Swish swish swish until the man in black claims his riches.”
Dwayne nodded and turned to Robert Johnson, who was no longer possessed by the evil twin. “Devon didn’t mean you any harm, Mr. Johnson, but he mistook you for someone else and your threatening behavior made him defensive. He thought you were going to throw him in the river. In his state of mind it was an act of self-defense. If you insist, you can press charges against him but, I can tell you from experience that it won’t go anywhere because he has no history of violence. He works and has a home, he’s not a vagrant, but only suffering from episodic schizophrenia.” He turned to me and asked, “Isn’t that right, Devon?”
“I don’t hurt no one,
It’s the evil twin who does that shit,
Invading the brain, deluding the wit,
I got none of that, not a bit.”
Eminem’s victim shook his head in bewilderment. “No, I’m not hurt, so I guess it’s okay,” before turning to me and adding, “Did something happen today? What made you think I wanted to kill you?”
“The clock goes ticktock ticktock ticktock,
A big fat check and a foot in the ass,
Turned my world into grass,
Mowed down by the boss’s cock.”
Dwayne added, “Do you understand what he’s saying, Mr. Johnson?”
“Yeh, I get it. He got laid off today, and it sent him over the edge. I’m sorry for scaring you like that, Devon. Please accept my apology.” He offered a hand, no longer a claw, and I grimaced as I accepted his proof of being freed of the evil twin’s control.”
“Cool cool cool cool cool,
But you gotta watch your six
Or you’ll become his bitch,
Ain’t no other way to not be a stitch.”
Robert Johnson left and Dwayne looked me in the eyes, his gaze assuring me that I had defeated the evil twin again. “Are you okay, Devon? Can you get home on your own?”
I was tired. I looked up at the sky, bright clouds dotting an azure background, then at the deep green of the live oaks, then at his dark face, my ally in the fight against evil.
“You got my back,
I got yours,
We scratch each other to get the cures,
Hell yeh I’m straight thanks to my man,
Never let me down don’t think we can.”
He nodded and slapped my shoulder. “Good man. See you later.”