Chapter 2: The Soothsayer

In which old friends are reunited by a bodiless head!
 

Oso took his party around and not through the Expo security, as the guards were jumpy with their modern version of tranquilizer guns, used primarily on Minäs, and known to eat the flesh around the wound. Once around the barriers, the three meandered through booths so that Stephanie could ask questions and take notes for the tech section of the paper she worked for. Spinning biological organs were old hat, but at least visually interesting. And then there were the booths showing off new apps that provided useless services, such as the ability to rate and review reviews since everything was reviewable, including people, and there seemed to the public only one way to fix a problem: create a new app and/or champion free speech by rating things.

According to the rules of the personal review boards, reviewers didn’t have to be familiar with the object of their review. However, if it was of a person, they had to make contact of some sort, e.g. brush against his coat in the street or stand near him in a crowded subway station.

Oso had holo-tattooed the pinnacle of his personal reviews on his study wall: “Mr. Beñat was the best one time cowboy I was ever with. I would sleep with him again and I’m sure he would agree I look great for seventy, but then I would have to permanently delete this review.” He had given the tattoo telehaptics, such that if he ran his finger over the words, it was like stroking the delicate skin of a…seventy-year-old.

In the midst of the booths that displayed their wares via spinning holo images, Oso discovered his old friend Gillilander sitting behind piles of old-fashioned fliers and books, and left his granddaughter to continue wandering on her own. No bright holo images pointed the way to Gilly’s booth; the silent energy was enough. If the shepherds were looking for the baby Jesus in this day and age, they wouldn’t be able to follow a bright star to his stable. A lack of star—now that might do the trick. Look for the old-fashioned, the dull, the ordinary—and lo! Jesus slept there!

Not that Gilly in any way appeared as a Christ child. The old man was hunched on a stool, his nose stuck in a book titled Space Out of Time. Oso clapped him on the back, which caused the fellow octogenarian to nearly fall off the stool and wheeze out a coughing fit. Dutifully, Devon clapped Gilly on the back, too. The Minäs never knew when to stop, though, and after about ten claps, Oso grabbed Devon’s hand and slapped the Minä’s own face with it.

“Don’t hit yourself,” he told Devon.

Devon then began a litany of repetition, shouting, “Don’t hit yourself; don’t hit yourself.”

“Will you shut the damn thing up, Oso?” Gilly said.

“Devon, I told you not to hit yourself. Can’t you get anything right? Here, fetch!” Oso pulled a small rubber ball from his pocket and tossed it into the crowd, which caused a general panic of frightened people hurling themselves under tables, lest the ball turn out to be a bomb. Devon dutifully chased after the ball, stopping the litany mid speech: “Don’t hi—”

“Why do you persist in keeping that dolt?” Gilly glared at Oso.

“He’s My Buddy,” Oso said, and pushed aside a pile of pamphlets emblazoned with an ancient sci-fi font, They Live! They Live! so he could sit. Then he proceeded to hum the tune to the worst Minä advertising jingle ever produced.

“Don’t mess up the display.”

Ignoring Gilly, Oso rummaged through the pamphlets in search of something, anything new. But it appeared his old friend had stunted himself like everybody else in the expo had. Well, it appeared that way until the papers revealed a grotesque female face that had been buried underneath the fliers.

“You don’t want to do that,” Gilly said.

“Do what?”

“Uncover the soothsayer.”

“The—” Oso paused and stared at the face, as that was all it was. She was middle-aged and round-cheeked, with fat orange lips and darting eyes. “Soothsayer?”

“I call her Helen Freud.”

“God have mercy.”

“I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in Helen. She gives really bad life advice if you feed her money.”

“Why?”

“No need to ask why. Look around you. Everybody here needs a little bit of bad advice.”

“But we were done with artificial people.” Oso watched the lady’s eyes dart back and forth, and shuddered. “Look at what I’m left with for amusement.” Devon was searching for the ball, which had rolled into a distant unseen place. He was on his hands and knees, creating another kind of stir, as women who were wearing pants were in sudden mortal terror he was looking up their nonexistent skirts.

“Helen’s intelligent.” Gilly pulled a stack of bills from a beat-up satchel at his feet. “Here, feed her. You’ll see.”

Oso had not arrived at the place he had by being profligate with money. In fact, after purchasing his expensive suits, a decent car and house, and settling the alimony on his first two wives, he was downright stingy. He looked at his old friend in disgust. True, they were both too wealthy to worry about a few stacks of bills here and there. It was the principle of the thing. The principle. A wealthy man simply didn’t feed a stack of bills into the mouth of an ugly dame—not even into the mouth of a pretty one, though that would be more amusing.

“Don’t worry, it’s counterfeit,” Gilly said, and riffled through it. “I made it with my counterfeit machine.”

“You made a counterfeit machine? Never mind, don’t answer that. Of course you did. A man like you should never grow old and bored. Give me some bills.”

Gilly cackled in his creepy, awkward way as Oso stuffed a bill in Helen’s hideous fat, slick lips. She sucked it up in a fraction of a second. She said nothing, her eyes still darting back and forth.

“You have to give her more,” Gilly said, and clapped with glee. “She won’t speak unless she eats enough cash.”

“I like her already. Easy to keep her silent. Just don’t waste money,” he said, as he stuffed the face with bill after counterfeit bill.

Finally, she spoke: “I can see you’re in need of help.”

“Aren’t we all, sweetheart?”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “My professional name is Dr. Freud. I would ask that you respect my position and refrain from sexist language.”

Oso shook his head. It was obvious Gilly had programmed this beast. “What is your wise advice for me, soothsayer?”

“Check your privilege,” the face spat with some force.

“Eh, what?”

“Check your privilege before it checks you.”

“Gilly, I thought you said this thing was intelligent.”

The face revealed no emotions at his evident disgust with her. Instead, her eyes darted back and forth for a few seconds as though processing the latest information. “You are becoming obsolete,” she said.

“Obsolete? Well, I ain’t young any longer. Got any other good observations?”

“Your kind is becoming obsolete. Men like you. You will not be part of the new paradigm unless you heed the call. Knowledge becomes horizontal and not vertical. No hierarchy of men.”

“Horizontal. That sounds like the rungs of a ladder, and a ladder sounds like a hierar—why am I talking to this hideous face? Shut her down, Gilly. She’s annoying me.”

Gillilander shook his head and pushed up his glasses. “She won’t shut up until the end of the session, which will probably not be for a while because you fed her a few hundred dollars.”

“I’m not amused.”

“At least she’s educated and doesn’t chase after balls.”

“That’s because she’s a head. Can’t cause much damage that way. And speaking of….here comes Devon with the Granddaughter Gonzales. It looks like she helped him find his rubber ball.”

“Who let her in the door?” Gilly’s expression was a cross between hope and disdain.

“I procured her a press pass. Grandfatherly duty, you know. She has something else up her sleeve, too. I didn’t get the full gist of it from her phone calls. Something to give her a career a lift.”

“I thought she was a starving Journalist of Integrity for the moralistic Albuquerque Daily. Those people don’t need money, just some really high ground.”

“Oh, she is. Starving that is.”

“Oh, joy, oh JOI.”

“It never was a funny joke.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Gilly had risen from his stool on arrival of Stephanie, to rearrange the papers Oso had disarranged. Or because an attractive female nearby made him jumpy. It was difficult to tell. Regardless, Devon saw that the one seat available was free and sat on it. He sat dumbly hunched over, the ball in his hand, staring with mouth agape at the people who milled past. Meanwhile, Stephanie had spotted the peculiarly hideous female visage, which darted her eyes and continued to wax poetic about a new age of harmony.

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing her finger in a horrified way, as if at a spider.

“Here.” Gilly thrust a handful of bills at her. “Feed the lips before they starve.”

A look of distrust settled over her face like affection. That was not surprising, given that she’d known Gilly all her life.

“She’s a soothsayer. She’ll tell you everything you didn’t want to know,” Oso reassured her.

“Oh, all right, I’ll bite,” she said, and tentatively rested a bill on the pair of fat lips. The lips clamped on the bill and then sucked it up.

“Ah, just shove the whole stack in there,” Gilly said, and he proceeded to do the job for Stephanie. The soothsayer didn’t gag, just chewed and blinked.

“I can’t believe you did that! All that money,” Stephanie mournfully said.

“There’s more where that came from,” Gilly said.

“Not for me. I’m poor. You could have fed me with that money.” Her large brown eyes opened wide with sorrowing hunger.

“So said a very fat Judas.”

“Uncle Gilly!”

The soothsayer had finished chewing and clearing her throat of debris. “What do you believe I can do for you, dearie? What are your hopes for me?”

“I—I don’t know how to find myself.”

The face smacked its lips, as if in anticipation. “Have a seat. Let’s talk about this.”

“Will you please move?” Stephanie politely asked, then shoved Devon off the stool and took it from him.

“Are you as bored as I am?” Oso asked Gilly.

“I never get bored,” Gilly said. “I’m far too amusing.”

“Yes, we can all see that. We should take your amusement around the Expo. See what it thinks of all the new apps to fix all the old apps.”

“It’s not amused.”

“Is it more amused by the psych session happening?”

From behind his thick glasses, Gilly’s eyes turned in the direction of Stephanie and the grotesque face.

“What’s the most important thing in your life right now?” the lips were busy asking.

Stephanie let escape a strangled little sob. “Working. Saving money. It’s all I do. I live off Nutrilla toaster tacos and the day old bread from the Rainbow bakery. I buy my clothes secondhand. And then Mark Anderson came along.”

“Why don’t you tell me about Mark?”

“I work with him. We’ve been out a few times, but I don’t know…”

“Not really,” Gilly muttered darkly.

Oso smiled as his friend plucked his own Possoti Ombrelli cane, complete with greyhound handle, from behind his booth. Oso’d given it to Gillilander as an eightieth birthday present. The two men walked through the crowds, swinging their canes, clearing the way. No bionic parts—nothing internal. Nothing robotic. The only problem was, of course, Devon, who followed them, mimicking their every move. Except Devon didn’t have a cane, only his hands.

An hour later, they were bored out of their wits, and Stephanie was still talking to Dr. Helen Freud. She was slumped over on the stool, her shirt now untucked from her tweed skirt, her business flats cast off on the floor beneath the stool. Even her hair had gone into disarray from its twist. If Oso wasn’t mistaken, streaks of tears were drying on her cheeks.

“How much more cashola did you feed her?” Gillilander asked, as the mouth continued to intone.

“Shh…” Stephanie held up her finger.

“We should give it a rest for the day,” the voice said, “and come at it again another time. I feel we’ve made progress.”

“Yes, yes we have.” Stephanie sighed as the mouth gave her a last sweet orange smile and fell silent. “I didn’t feed her anymore. It’s just we were in a high point of therapy. She didn’t want to quit. I think she’s my new best friend. Can I come visit her, Uncle Gilly?”

“She’s abusive. And horrible. You really want to visit her?”

“She’s the first person my entire life who ever listened to me talk about myself.”

“Well, this friend,” Oso said, taking her hand and putting it in the crook of his arm, “or Granddad to be precise, is going to take you to lunch. That’s got to count for something. You look like you’re starving yourself, my dear.”

“From fat to starving, I guess it’s a step up.”

“Ah, now. You’re as lovely as your grandma was.”

She smiled at him, such a bold, yet delicate smile. They both bid adieu to Gillilander and the face, though the face didn’t smile back at them—she’d been given no more money to eat. Devon didn’t need money. He needed nothing, for he was special all on his own.

If you don’t appreciate bad advice, you might want to take the good, instead, and buy my book: Anna and the Dragon.

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