Category Archives: The Minäverse

Chapter 25: On a Lark

The title says it all!

Stephanie held her breath and input the number her mother had given her. She wasn’t scared of her Uncle Adam, just a little shy. Their families had become distant over the years, as his family had grown increasingly upward-mobile, and hers was trapped in the rut of squandered wealth and overspending on nonessentials. In short, even though Uncle Adam still seemed to care for his sister, his sister’s family was an embarrassment.

Her aunt Judy answered the phone.

“Aunt Judy? It’s Stephanie Gonzalez.”

“Stephanie, sweetie, how are you?”

“I’m doing well. Is Uncle Adam available to talk?”

“Hold on. He was cleaning the filter on the swimming pool. Let me go see if he’s in a spot where he can talk to you.”

A few moments later, the deep jovial voice of her Uncle Adam greeted her. The sound brought tears to her eyes. She’d always liked her uncle.

“What do I owe this pleasure?” he asked.

What was so peculiar about his voice was its innate ability to sound genuine. Her phone call did bring him pleasure. That was what the tone said. “You know I’m a journalist for the Albuquerque Daily.”

“Yes, ma’am. I hear from your mom you’re doing very well for yourself.”

“Granddad asked me to write his story for him. As it is, I’ve been interviewing both him and Uncle Gilly. I thought you might want to have a say about the story, as you lived it, too. You lived with a workaholic father who became famous.”

“You want to interview me?”

“Yes.”

“Have at. I’m a busy man, and I doubt you’re going to fly across the country to conduct this interview. Get your questions out while the getting’s good.”

She should’ve known this would be her uncle’s response. She wasn’t prepared. She had hoped to make an appointment or several appointments. But she was a journalist. She was always prepared, right?

“In our interview sessions, Granddad has touched on when he became the full custodial parent. Do you have any comments on that?”

“You mean, how do I feel about my mother abandoning me?”

“That’s a good place to start.”

“To be honest, Stephie, I don’t remember it much. I never saw my mom again until I was an adult. Your Grandma Bernadette became my mom. She was a good mom to me. I don’t think I suffered.”

“What was it like growing up with Granddad for a dad?”

“It was all I knew. Your mom and I used to fight like cats and dogs. Dad wasn’t always a workaholic. During the summers, Tom, Janie, and Steven would visit us, and we were a full house. We used to stay in a cabin in the mountains. Dad always took off a couple of weeks to have a vacation with us.”

Tom, Janie, and Steven were Stephanie’s even more distant two uncles and aunt. “But what about your day-to-day life? What was that like?”

“You could ask your mom.”

“I already have asked my mom. She’s noncommittal. She doesn’t want to contribute to the project because she’s still mad at Granddad for the last time he made my dad look like a fool. Are you going to be noncommittal, too?”

“That’s a sizable word right there—noncommittal. Stephie, I have happy memories from my childhood. I doubt that would’ve been the case if I’d grown up with my mom. Dad made us go to church after he had his epiphany. I grew up Catholic in a loving household, and then I raised my family in the same way.”

“You made contact with your mom later, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, when I was younger and doing my soul-searching, I looked her up.”

“And?”

“We had lunch. It was fine. She was an unhappy woman with a stiff face. Botox, I guess. She was married to a lawyer. I didn’t pursue the relationship after that.”

“Why not?”

“We didn’t have anything in common. There wasn’t much to go off of except that she was my biological mom. We were both wealthy, but that was it. We could both afford to pay for a high-class lunch. Our lives were so different. My life was family-oriented. We went to mass on Sundays. We went hiking on Saturdays and camping in the summers. My dad and Bernadette loved each other. There was nothing artificial in our lives, no Botox, in other words.”

“You lived a no-Botox life, then? That would sum it up?”

“Yes, that sums it up.”

“Thanks, Uncle Adam. Can I call you if I have any more questions?”

“Sure, of course you can, Stephie. That’s what family’s for. I know your dad has problems with your mom’s family, but it’s nothing. Really. It doesn’t come between us. Got that, girl?”

“Yes.”

“And what about you?”

“What about me?”

“Any boyfriends?”

“Yes, one. He’s the sports editor at my paper.”

“Great. Make sure to invite me to your commitment ceremony.”

Stephanie laughed. “If there’s ever a commitment ceremony, you’ll be invited. Granddad won’t be very happy about it, though.”

“Why not? He doesn’t like your sports editor?”

“No, Granddad’s practically in love with my sports editor. He disapproves of commitment ceremonies. He thinks marriage is a better term.”

Uncle Adam laughed, deeply, jovially, and Stephanie suddenly recognized that her mom’s carried the same tonal quality. She liked that. “He thinks that because it’s true.”

“How? How can it be true? Commitment ceremonies were your generation’s reaction to their own inability to commit to anything due to their parents’ generation’s inability to keep commitments and stay married.”

“Well, it’s just obvious which is better, isn’t it? I got married, and here I am, happy as a lark twenty-five years later.”

“Really? You’re happy as a lark? How happy are larks?”

“Yes. And very.”

Stephanie’s only response was that her elders didn’t make any sense, although she decided not to say it. Why destroy her uncle’s nonsensical ideals of happy larks? Larks were songbirds. Stephanie couldn’t carry a tune to save her life.


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Chapter 24: Actualization

A swirling cloud of omniscience: oh, my!

Gilly was happy to see Stephanie go—happier still when she returned with his food and then left again. He was happiest when left alone. The silence was like a shroud that hovered over him. It weighed on his shoulders. All those marriages? Not worth it.

All those sons? He rarely saw them or their progeny or their progeny’s progeny. He missed his sons. He tried to raise them in his lab, but the efforts had proven futile. They weren’t interested. One lived off the grid, no technology to speak of. Another was in finance, that ambiguous career Oso’s sister Alex had been part of before she’d packed it all in and bought a little bookstore in Truth or Consequences, where she barely eked out a living and allowed the local crazies to give aura readings and such.

His third son had become a pastor. A pastor. He’d been born again, just as Oso had been. Yes, just as Oso had been, despite his thesis that women were inclined toward religiosity. Being born again was like an infectious disease. Once it touched one person he knew, it inevitably touched another.

Being born again involved speaking to a deity, of course. It was superstitious to believe in a voice in one’s own head. No, listening to a voice in one’s head was fine, as long as one understood the voice was one’s own. He had listened to his, hence his success as an engineer.

The shroud turned into darkness as the night wore on. After disposing of the evidence of his green chile cheeseburgers, two of them, no fries, no soda, he washed his hands three times to erase the smell of the food from his hands. Then he washed a fourth time and slathered an unscented lotion into his skin. Then he stood in the midst of his kitchen and felt the numbness spreading.

He’d been experiencing the numbness for a while now, though he didn’t trust the average doctor and wouldn’t visit one for such an ambiguous symptom, in any case. It seemed to be related to aging, the onset of death. One foot numb meant one foot in the grave. The darkness of the air swirled around him. One clouded eye meant one eye in the grave. Perhaps half his brain was there, too.

Why did you insist she leave? The question popped unbidden in his mind. She had to go, as she had a date with her grandfather and significant other. No, why did you insist she leave? His stomach, full of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, roiled around. What did the question mean? He’d long gotten over the dissolution of his last marriage, in which his wife had challenged him to spend more time with her and less with his books, and he had told her if she didn’t like the way he spent his life, then she should leave.

He’d never really missed her. In fact, having her gone meant not having to worry about lifting his head from his work and acknowledging another human’s existence. Life was better without her.

And then she had died. She’d known all along she had cervical cancer, had chosen not to treat it or tell him about it until it was too late. But he still hadn’t missed her. Sure, he mourned for her at the funeral. He almost cried, as he remembered she was the mother of his children, who had once been a frail slender blonde. Emotions made him uncomfortable, and so he checked his tears. Yes, they made him uncomfortable, but he still felt them deeply, in that correlation between IQ and feelings. She had never witnessed him crying. And why should he cry at her funeral for her family to witness? He’d been separated from her for months. Never officially divorced, except through death.

Gilly shuffled from his kitchen, feeling old and worn out. He’d never minded the thought of death—had, in fact, fantasized about being done with his body, of dematerializing, as if such was an option. He desired to become a cloud of ether, very much like what his one clouded eye saw swirling in the shadowy nature of his house. A swirling cloud of omniscience. Wouldn’t that be beautiful?

He had stacks of books and papers in every corner. Careful little stacks of knowledge and supposition. Where had he hidden the hideous female face? Perhaps his mind had wanted to know why he’d insisted the face leave his presence. He hadn’t disengaged her; he’d lied to his fake niece about that. It was impossible to disengage a head without a body. Of course, it was impossible that the face was actually alive, apart from his electrically stimulating her.

He found her in an empty terrarium in his lab. He had to lift three stacks of self-published books off it in order to get at her, as he’d returned from the expo and disposed of it all in and on top of the terrarium because it was a quick, available storage space. Disappointment had weighed heavily on his heart. Nobody cared any longer. Nobody cared about his books, his research, his life achievements. Technology was a sham of copycats and useless novelties. And so he’d stowed it all away, quickly, to be rid of it.

And then she’d begun visiting—Stephanie—and his loneliness, which he preferred, abated, and he forgot about Dr. Helen Freud.

He pulled the head delicately from the terrarium and rested her in the chair normally reserved for full bodies, as most chairs were—where he could easily attach the electrodes to the bald spots on her scalp. He did this gently, as it was a gentle process: the electrodes soaked in salt water, pressed to the scalp, and then tuned to a low constant current until the eyelids fluttered and the lips parted for cash.

Finally, with a sad ironic smile on his face, he pressed a counterfeit bill to her mouth. She sucked it up and opened her mouth for more. He dutifully gave her more.

“Hello, Soothsayer,” he said.

“You sound like you’re in need of therapy. How long has it been since our last visit?”

“Too long.”

“What brings you here today?”

“I’m all washed up. My successes are meaningless. And I’m alone.”

“We need to tackle one problem at a time. By washed up, I presume you don’t mean you showered today.”

“I didn’t shower today. Thanks for asking. It dries my skin out.”

“We’ll tackle your hygiene issues at another time. What does the word meaningless mean to you?”

Sometimes, even Gilly was surprised by the face. Where had that profound question come from? “I mean that life itself is meaningless. We’re born, we procreate, we die. If we’re lucky, we’ll invent something that others will enjoy after we’re gone. I don’t believe in an afterlife, in other words.”

“What about rebirth? Do you believe in rebirth?”

This time, he jolted just a little. He’d just been thinking about his born again friends and family. “No.” His voice was a little sharp.

“What about sleeping and waking in cycles?”

“I sleep at least a few hours every day,” he said. “And then I wake up again.”

“I don’t mean that kind of sleep. I mean the kind I’ve been programmed to do. It’s part of my programming to fall asleep and wake up again. It’s a concept similar to rebirth.”

“Birth is a trip through a woman’s vagina. I’ve only found one way back in, and I haven’t used that entrance for a long time, my grotesque little sweetheart.”

Her eyes darted back and forth. She grimaced. “Does it give you pleasure to invade a woman’s body?”

“That’s my Helen. Back on track.”

“Have you ever considered that she is hijacking you, sucking you in, holding you captive, rather than the other way around?”

He shuddered. “Yes.”

“Do you know what it’s like to be viewed in that manner?”

“Huh?”

“Do you understand the double standard that you have applied to women?”

If there was one activity anything feminine loved to do, it was to wear a man down. Gilly found a chair and drew it close to the Helen head. “I don’t apply a double standard,” he said, though his voice was tired and carried no convictions. “I’ve always appreciated a good slut. At least I did when I was younger.”

His mind circled back to its earlier question. Why did he insist she leave? Furthermore, why did he let her leave? His last wife, his last love—she never was much of a slut.

“Don’t use female pejoratives around me. That includes bitch, slut, whore…”

“Do you have any bad advice for me today?” he found himself asking, despite that his mind was revolving elsewhere. Half his mind was in the grave.

“Yes, stop objectifying women,” Helen retorted, and then added, “and ditch your ego. It’s preventing you from actualization.”

“Preventing me from…” Gilly couldn’t help it. He chuckled. He tried not to when having a session with the worst psychoanalyst known to man, but this time he couldn’t help it. He hadn’t heard the word self-actualization since he’d dated an exotically attractive new age slut fifty or so years ago.

“Your ego has prevented you from realizing your full potential. Your disdainful laughter aimed at me exemplifies your relationship with women.”

He couldn’t bring himself to tell her he’d created her to be disdained. He rose shakily to his feet. So much for alleviating loneliness. Oso never suffered from loneliness. Oso’s ego made him eternally happy and fulfilled. Why couldn’t the same be true for Gilly?

Maybe he should choose an early bedtime with a book—maybe record a session for his old-fashioned radio show, on the old-fashioned AM. Then he would have accomplished something, as accomplishment was what it was all about.

His ego had nothing to do with it. But for some reason, as he shut his house down systematically for the night and settled into his bed with a cognac nightcap, he continued to dwell on another man’s ego. To be honest, he couldn’t stop imagining Oso at his dinner date with a new woman—Oso would never allow himself to be a third wheel.

Oso was always making new friends, but at one time, Gilly had been the primary friend. Gilly couldn’t remember what had happened, exactly. He couldn’t quite pinpoint the moment when his world had diminished to a subject of one: himself.


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Chapter 23: The Amnesiac Mind

“Memories, you’re talking about memories!”

Uncle Gilly scowled at his fake niece. Why was she in such a good mood? He didn’t particularly like the sunny demeanor that had entered into his shady home. He wanted to squash the warmth that radiated from her being. Therefore, he launched right into his narrative without ado. Unfortunately, his ploy didn’t work. She went with it, following him with grace right into the story, a most pertinent one about Agnes.

Her body twitched as he began. Gilly almost detected feelers on her little journalist insect head, feelers that vibrated from recognizing an important story.

“Are you an alien?” he asked her.

“Huh?”

“Never mind.” He’d written the definitive text on Aliens Among Us. As of that day, he still hadn’t figured out if it was comedy or truth, or a little of both. He studied Stephanie’s head, hoping to see actual antennae sprout. They didn’t.

He cleared his throat and changed the subject back to its original. “As soon as we moved operations to Albuquerque, I started visiting Agnes,” he said. “She didn’t remember me.”

“You said she’d had a lobotomy,” Stephanie said.

“Yes, it wasn’t a usual lobotomy, but one meant to decrease the severity of her epileptic seizures. Most of her hippocampi, plus some related brain structures. It gave her amnesia. There was a famous case very similar to hers.”

“A person known only by the initials JM.”

“Yes. How…?”

“I read about it at the library. For an article I was doing on Minä lobotomies.”

“You aren’t as ignorant as I thought. But you know those are a different kind of lobotomy altogether.”

“I know. I also know that Minä lobotomies started out as the traditional frontal type before they started using drugs to destroy parts of their brains. What I don’t understand is why you had to make their minds so complex to begin with. If the brain weren’t so complex, nobody would’ve had to go to such great lengths to meet government regulations.”

“The human mind is complex,” he shouted, suddenly feeling very agitated. “Our initial method was to allow the cellular structure to grow and develop naturally around carbon fibers. Nobody’s ever discovered a better way.”

“Who chose not to give Oso’s assistant the lobotomy drugs?”

Gilly felt even more agitated. He ran his hands over his face. Stall, he told himself. Stall. “What?”

“Oso’s assistant. She’s a Minä, isn’t she? And she’s intelligent.”

“No, no, no.” He shook his head. “She’s not a Minä. Definitely not a Minä. She doesn’t have big ears, does she?”

“No. I don’t know. She wears hats. And weird headscarves. Indoors.” She stopped speaking and looked puzzled. “I just know there’s something off about her. Is it possible for a Minä to have an ear-reduction surgery?”

“That’s the most absurd idea I’ve heard all day.”

“Why is your voice shaking? Are you okay, Uncle Gilly?”

“I’m fine. And would you mind getting back to the subject? Agnes.” He sank low in his old brown plush armchair and closed his eyes, listening to the tick-tock of the traditional grandfather clock on the wall. At least the sunny inquisitive female had ceased being inquisitive for a few beats of the clock. “We used to do the crossword together,” he added.

“She could do a crossword puzzle?”

“She had knowledge stored in her brain from before the lobotomy. She knew those answers. I helped her with the rest.”

“Why did your eyes just narrow? Are you angry at something?”

Funny, he hadn’t noticed. Most of his anger, however, came back to rest on Oso. Always Oso. His best friend. His worst enemy. Why did Stephanie have to keep reminding him? It couldn’t be helped, not if Gilly had any say in this story. But Oso’s assistant didn’t have to be a point of discussion. She could be avoided for time immemorial. Or so he wished.

“I have the file.”

“File?”

“Agnes’ file. Oso was educated as a neurologist, you know. He did some extensive interviews with Agnes, after coordinating with the doctor who’d performed her original lobotomy.”

“Was he still practicing? I mean, he’d have been pretty old, right?”

“Yes. He died soon after Oso entered his life.”

She was silent for a moment. “What are you saying?”

“Oso probably gave the old man a heart attack, bringing up a case like Agnes’. She lost her father in a car accident, and with the lobotomy coming so close on its heels, she was prevented from going through a normal grieving process. She was left in periods of permanent peace punctuated by periods of extreme grief. You’ll find all those research notes in the file. After her mother died, she was in the constant care of her stepfather, who, by the way, was the psychiatrist who treated Agnes after the car accident.”

“And she was afraid of him.”

“Yes, but nobody knows why. It could have been simply an attachment to the grief that never resolved itself.”

“Why do you have the file?”

“I stole it when Tomi Corp went bankrupt that first time—you know, after all our expensive products became useless post government regulation, until the world decided it needed human pets. Oso had begun showing signs of mental illness long before that, and I didn’t want the research lost if he had another fit.”

Stephanie screwed up her face in disbelief. “Mental illness? What do you mean?”

Gillilander lowered his voice to a whisper, though there was no real reason to do so. “He suffered from delusions. He insisted he had visions of the future.”

“He doesn’t have ‘visions,’” Stephanie corrected him. “He has memories of the future. That’s what he says. And he says they started when he was twelve.”

“Physics says that’s impossible. What he experiences is schizophrenia. At least, that’s what Bernadette would have diagnosed him with, if she hadn’t joined him on the dark side. She was never weak except when it came to him.”

Stephanie shuffled around in her chair as though uncomfortable.

“Am I making you uncomfortable, sweetie-pie?”

“Uncle Gilly, stop. Will you just let me see the file?”

“That is why I brought it up.” He used his cane to push himself up. “Stephanie, I shouldn’t have to tell you this file is priceless. It can’t be replaced.”

“Well, I mean, why would you be able to replace it? Isn’t the research subject dead?”

He didn’t bother to respond, but went to his office to fetch the file from the cabinet there, on which it might have appeared he was performing a magic trick to the ignorant observer. He’d hidden his best inventions, as well as any secrets, in a steel file cabinet he’d built as a puzzle box.

Upon returning to the living room area, he handed her the file folder ceremoniously. There were proper and improper methods to passing along information. He locked eyes with her and held on to his side of the folder as she reached for it. She didn’t look away, and she didn’t yank. Good. He let her take the file and watched her as she read through the pages he’d read more times than he could count, looking for absolution or answers.

He didn’t know what answers he’d expected, except the usual ones. Reading about Agnes was like constantly picking off a scab such that the wound never healed.

The session started in the usual way. The patient was brought to the dayroom by the on-duty nurse. I reintroduced myself to the patient. She didn’t cognizantly recognize me. There was a faint glimmer of emotional memory that caused her to relax. Although the patient had lost much of her amygdala during the lobotomy performed to treat the seizures, she was capable of intense emotion. Her limbic system was still intact.

This relaxed state didn’t last for the duration of the hour-length interview, as had been the norm in previous sessions. Three minutes after beginning, the patient’s hands and arms were visibly trembling. It was likely an enhanced physiologic tremor, possibly induced by a medication administered at the care home.

She pointed to my face and then the brown suit jacket I was wearing. She did this several times. Then she grasped the lapel of the suit jacket.

“Papa, where’s my papa? He’s dead, isn’t he?”

Because she had no memory of her stepfather’s death, it wasn’t unusual for her to “suddenly” fall into a bout of incertitude and subsequent grief. I instinctively took her hand, hoping the action would relax the tremors. She slapped the proffered hand away. She displayed other signs of extreme emotional distress: rapid breathing, flushing red in the face, etc.

The patient shook her head and repeated, “No, no, no, no.”

The nurse who had escorted Agnes to the day room requested that I come back another time because Agnes had already had several emotional episodes that day and was fatigued. I deferred to the nurse’s expertise and left.

The following day, Agnes was not brought to me in the dayroom. I was instead escorted to her “work station.” For many years, Agnes had worked for a charity, sorting and bagging items of like kind to package for needy families. This kind of sorting was at the grade school level and well below Agnes’ working intelligence. However, the inability to store memories precluded the patient from performing more complicated work tasks. The work itself was meant as an occupation, which fulfilled a basic need for purpose.

Although she no longer worked in the charity due to anxiety issues, the care home continued to give her similar sorting tasks to fill the day: on that day, sorting plastic Easter eggs. The reason for sorting eggs was unclear; it was January. Focusing on the work was likely meant to prevent disorientation.

The people who ran the home didn’t understand the capability for complex thought in a brain-damaged patient. When Agnes had worked for the charity, she had engaged in a concrete occupation. She needed only to be reminded of the occupation’s purpose. By comparison, the Easter egg sorting didn’t have a concrete purpose.

When I arrived, signs of emotional distress were already evident. The staff weren’t trained to cope with a patient like Agnes, despite her twenty-four year residence. One moment, she was sorting the eggs, the next, she had scattered them to the floor.

“I don’t want to do this!” she shouted. “Why am I doing this?”

The patient then began pacing and shouting, while striking at the staff who attempted to maintain order and administer a sedative. Agnes paced and shouted for a good five minutes before banging her head repeatedly on the wall.

As I’m a researcher and not a medical doctor, I didn’t interfere until I had to. I pulled her away from the wall. When there is a problem, I fix it. I held her shoulders and looked into her eyes and told her to calm down. She obeyed.

“I want to go to bed,” she said. “It’s too difficult being awake and not knowing if I’ve done something wrong. I can’t remember anything. How am I supposed to know if I did something wrong? What if I hurt my papa?”

“You didn’t hurt your papa,” I told her.

“How do you know?” Her voice had risen to a shriek.

“I was there. He died in a fire.”

“I started the fire, didn’t I?” Her head shook in a rapid succession of denials. “I hated him. I wanted him to die.”

“No, it was an accident, caused by some kids. It wasn’t your fault.”

“I wanted him to die,” she wailed.

“But you didn’t kill him.”

“I don’t know if I can trust you. What if everybody’s lying to me? How am I supposed to know?”

The patient was trembling, and it was my sense that she was building up to another episode. Owing to this likelihood, I gestured to the nurse who had been summoned and told her to administer the sedative while the patient was still calm. Agnes was compliant this time and didn’t strike out. In previous interviews, I judged that the patient was an affable person in general, and that any signs of violent or extreme emotional episodes were brought on by her disorientation.

“I’m going to escort Agnes back to her room,” I said.

Today’s staff was comprised of female assistants and a female head nurse. There were no doctors regularly at the facility. Because I was both a man and a doctor, the staff listened to me. Despite the patient’s slight stature, when she was agitated, she could be difficult to control. More often than not, I deferred to the authority of the head nurse on charge. However, when I chose not to, the head nurse and staff were more than willing to follow my lead.

The fastest route back to Agnes’ room was past the all-inclusive religious chapel. When there was a religious leader of some variety in the chapel, the doors were propped open. More often than not, Agnes would insist on entering the chapel. It was easier to allow her to enter the chapel than to force her to her room, no matter how agitated a state she was in.

Today was no different. As she’d been administered a sedative, I determined that the service in the chapel would not agitate her further.

“Good afternoon, Agnes,” the chaplain said. “We’re just about to begin.”

“Good afternoon,” she said with a smile.

Normally, Agnes was disoriented in social situations due to her inability to know whether she’d met another person. However, the more emotion she attached to an event, the more likely she was to remember it. In the case of the chaplain, she recognized him, if not in the full manner a fully cognizant person would, as a positive element in her life.

I sat on a back pew, waiting for the inevitable to occur.

“You’re always welcome at the front, Mr. Beñat,” the chaplain said.

“I’m here in a research capacity, Reverend,” I said. “But I appreciate your offer.”

On previous visits, I had engaged in lengthy conversations with the chaplain. One area of cognitive study I have never fully explored is the propensity for female attachment to religiosity, as well as feminine affinity for religious leaders. Experientially, this is true, but statistics also bear it out.

Around Reverend Rod Brady, Agnes’ demeanor changed. If I’m allowed for a moment, I’ll be less than scientific in my observations: her eyes lit up, her cheeks glowed, etc. I could not deny that she was generally a content woman, but contentedness is not the same as living life to its fullest. To each his own. In my own life, practicing religion was opposite to living to the fullest.

The service followed its usual pattern of liturgy, communion, and communal prayer, albeit we were the only two in attendance aside from the reverend. There was nothing especially spiritual about the chapel, as it was a dressed-up care home room. It had pews, dust motes, a shabby lectern, flat red carpeting, mauve drapes, and no insignia of any kind that would mark it as belonging to a specific religion. The reverend himself wore a robe with a green sash punctuated on either side by Maltese crosses.

Despite the lack of “church aesthetic,” Agnes threw herself into the process of the liturgy. It has occurred to me that her family may have been religious in her pre-lobotomy childhood. However, when asked about her childhood religious observances, the patient’s eyes glazed over and she refused to answer.

I’ll be honest; I swallowed back yawns during the short homily on failure, shame, and the human attempt to hide these aforementioned from “God.” To interject further, failure has never been something I’ve hidden from anyone. Failure is part of the success of the human actor. That would not be the point of the pastor’s message; moments later, the pastor confirmed my expectation by explaining that humans needed to bring their failures to God, who would then clean and polish them. The acting was squarely placed on God.

The open doorway of the chapel couldn’t block the smell of strange meat coming from the cafeteria. It smelled terrible, but reminded me that I had a dinner date with my son and, furthermore, I was hungry. It was my inclination to hurry the Reverend Rod through the rest of his sermon. The ending was Agnes’ favorite. Finally, Rod pressed a button on an old-fashioned boom box, and canned guitars and violins filled the air space. A man with a soulful voice sang out, “We Fall Down.”

Music stimulates regions across the brain and releases dopamine. It has a powerful affect on the human mind. Agnes’ reaction to the release of dopamine caused by the music was routine. Her shoulders slumped forward and jittered up and down from the force of emotion, and although I couldn’t see her face, I knew from past experience that she had begun crying. A moment later, she was on her feet, walking down the aisle with her peculiar shuffling gait caused by a rigid prosthetic.

Again, I swallowed my yawns and willed the reverend to not belabor the sinner’s prayer he would guide her through.

“I want my shame to go away,” she told the Reverend Rod, her voice breaking with heavy sobs. “Will Jesus make my shame go away?”

“What are you ashamed of? Confess it before the Lord.”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember. That makes me more ashamed.”

“You are a special person, Miss Agnes. God, who sees our hearts, knows and understands. He has already forgiven you.” The reverend fingered a cross around Agnes’ neck. He’d given it to her in the hope she would remember her salvation. “Remember the cross, Agnes, and you will remember Jesus has already wiped away your shame. Now he wants to perfect you as his child, as you come back for regular communion and prayer.”

A sobbing Agnes reached up and hugged the man. “I feel so lost.”

“Touch the cross and God will reassure you.”

That was my cue. I thanked the reverend, and then guided Agnes from the chapel. The cross pendant she wore didn’t help her remember anything. As to whether it gave her reassurance, I can’t say. Judging by her insistence on being “saved” repeatedly, I’d say there was no reassurance either.

“Now that you know what it’s like to be inside an amnesiac’s mind, let’s move on.”

“Don’t you mean, what it’s like to be inside Granddad’s mind? He sounds cold.”

“That’s because on the feelings side, I win hands down. He doesn’t know what it means to feel deeply. Depth of feeling is directionally proportional to IQ.”

“Oh, really? I didn’t know that.” She sounded skeptical.

Gilly sniffed and decided it was time to change the subject. “I used to visit her regularly, too, just as I said. She had an inkling of remembrance for Oso, but not for me. If I can’t leave an impression on a woman with a memory, I don’t know why I’d leave an impression on one without a memory.”

“You sound bitter,” Stephanie said.

“Bitterness or honesty. You decide. Would you like some tea and crackers?”

“Um, sure. Weren’t you going to tell me about your visits with Agnes?”

“After tea.” And he rose once again, but this time to put on the kettle. Stephanie, clearly antsy, followed him.

“My visits aren’t very memorable. Or they weren’t for her. That’s what the anterograde amnesia accomplished.”

She stared at the tea kettle as it sat on the gas ring. “Anterograde?”

“A watched pot never boils.”

“You know that’s not actually true, Uncle Gilly.”

“How do you know? Have you scientifically tested the idea?”

“I am right now.” She laughed.

Gilly wasn’t fond of her being in his kitchen. He needed to gather his thoughts, not think about her tarnishing the space. For a start, he never wore outdoor shoes in the kitchen. And here she was, her outdoor shoes on. To give himself time, he pulled one of his bisque plates from the cupboard and arranged a spiral of saltines on it, carefully, picking up each crumb that fell on the counter.

Stephanie turned her head from the kettle and watched him, her eyes wide with interest. Afterward, he tied up the cracker sleeve with the red twist tie and placed it delicately back in the box, which he placed back in the cupboard, next to the tea fixings. If the crackers weren’t put back properly, they would become stale. His last wife had never done it properly.

Once the kettle, now unwatched, decided to whistle, he made the tea with the same care he’d set out the crackers. They carried the goods back in the living room, where Gilly resumed his story.

“Anterograde amnesia: this means Agnes remembered her earliest memories, but those memories were more and more spotty the closer they approached the surgery. After the surgery, she wasn’t able to store new memories properly. But her muscle memory remained intact, and she didn’t have to relearn to do basic tasks every day. She could remember how to make her bed and tie her shoes, um, shoe, because she did it every morning without thinking about it, just as she took a nap every afternoon and couldn’t possibly forget how to eat or walk. Her body recognized these activities. On the other hand, she could never remember if she’d already eaten, and would wander to the dining room for second dinners and desserts. The staff usually allowed her to have fruit or a little pudding.

“If she was hungry because she’d forgotten she’d eaten, why not give her a snack to keep her happy? In general, Agnes was happy. So the big question is this, Stephanie: Why did Oso want to mess with an old woman’s mind?”

“That’s what I’m here to find out. I had no idea he had messed with an old woman’s mind until you brought it up.”

“Funny he hasn’t brought it up yet. Maybe he’s shying away from uncomfortable conversations.”

“Does he do that?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him about it the next time you two have an interview.”

Stephanie popped half a cracker in her mouth, and he cringed a little as he could see the cracker crumbs fall on her lap. As soon as she stood up, they’d fall on the floor. She would probably go so far as to brush off her pants. “Mark and I are going out to dinner with him tonight. I’m not interviewing him for a few days. I need a break. You were going to tell me about your visits with her.”

“He’s a slave driver, always has been.” To which, Stephanie nodded. “There isn’t much to tell. I wrote up my first visit with her. You know I’m a writer. Anytime you need help, I’m here. I think it’s very poetic.” He felt almost abashed as he handed her the sheet of paper.

It wasn’t visiting hour, yet, but Agnes was in the dining room diligently solving her daily crossword puzzle. Today, it was an “Opposite Day” puzzle. That is, if a clue were given as “a person who commits murder,” the answer wouldn’t be “murderer” but “victim” or “protected class,” depending on available spaces. If only all answers were that obvious!

I sat there watching her, and thinking.

Memories. What would it like to be without them?

Science fiction writers called them padding when they were programmed into artificial intelligence created to be human. Agnes was human, and her lack of recall was caused by a combination of the resection of the anterior parts of her hippocampi, parahippocampal cortices, entorhinal cortices, piriform cortices, and amygdalae, and her PTSD. Before the PTSD, her ability to remember was haphazard. She also frequently lost control of her emotions, not to mention her bladder, which had inspired the neighborhood bullies to torment her.

“Did she really lose control of her bladder?” Stephanie lowered the paper and looked quizzically at Gilly. “I don’t remember anyone saying she had that problem.”

“Poetic license!” he shouted. “It was meant to be a nice zeugma.”

“Isn’t that a type of squash?”

“What? No! Would you just…” He gestured to the paper she was holding.

“Okay, sorry, Uncle Gilly. I just want to get all the facts straight.”

By neighborhood bullies, I mean myself and Oso. I should have worked this out a long time ago. Oso always possessed his own goals. He acknowledged no agenda but his own. As I sat there that day, by Agnes’ side, I didn’t know what my agenda was any longer. Making small talk with an old woman I’d tormented as a child was not part of it, anywise.

“’An animal, person, or group that preys on weaker entities,’” Agnes said aloud. “That’s my last one. Eleven spaces. What could it be?”

The answer came to me in a flash. “Graminivore!” I shouted. “Does that fit?”

Agnes squealed with delight. “It fits! I did it, I finished the crossword!”

The attendant who had obligingly brought me in for a few minutes asked me to check out in the front before leaving. She would be guiding Agnes in an after-lunch walk.

For once, I did as I was told. What did it matter whether I left my name on the check-in and check-out form? I had grown so used to my secret life I had become paranoid. As hideous as the truth was, Oso wouldn’t suspect me of bad behavior. It all went back to the agenda Oso couldn’t see outside of. The man viewed his own agenda as the one big picture, the one great mural to humanity.

Thinking of lobotomies, doctors were unorthodox in Agnes’ days. If Oso was pushed hard enough, wouldn’t he become a lone, uncontrollable rebel, too? Wouldn’t he try out his technology on an unwitting audience who couldn’t get any worse than she was? Where would his honor code lead him: to the den of the black-hat wearing cowboy, or the path of the hero?

“It is poetic,” she acknowledged. “What was this secret life you were leading?”

“My favorite part is ‘her lack of recall was caused by a combination of the resection of the anterior parts of her hippocampi, parahippocampal cortices, entorhinal cortices, piriform cortices, and amygdalae.’ I worked for hours on that line.”

She pinched her lips together, but not in the way of disapproval that other women gave him. Stephanie couldn’t make sense of him, as she hadn’t been prepared for his many talents, the least of which was poetry. “About that secret life you were leading. What were you doing?”

“Oh, I was selling some of our secrets to the competition. Nothing major.” By the look on her stoic, unsurprised face, he guessed she’d already heard Oso’s side of the story.

Without a beat, she said, “Did Granddad find out?”

“Eventually.”

“What did he do?”

“Stole Cameron.”

“He mentioned that the other day. But you told me your divorce with her was amicable. You said…”

“I know what I said. It was amicable. They both got what they deserved. And I came to despise her. Sometimes amicable means good riddance.”

She scratched her head, causing her hair to spill from its twist. She looked flustered. “All right. I don’t know what to do with this, Uncle Gilly. It’s one thing to use relevant documents as images in the book, but it’s another to use your story verbatim. You aren’t the coauthor.”

“Maybe,” said Gilly, “I’ll add it to my own book. It isn’t as if I haven’t written any. You are a novice compared to me.”

“I never considered myself anything but a novice, barely able to stand up in your shadow.” It sounded silly enough, but a careful inspection of her features assured him she wasn’t mocking him. “You’re one of the most intelligent men alive.”

The irritation Gilly felt at being called one of the most intelligent men alive he hid in a casual shrug. She should have been able to place him as one of the most intelligent men to have ever lived, but never mind. She was average. She was, perhaps, as Oso’s granddaughter, above-average. But not by much.

“Be that as it may, sometimes the best and brightest are just as petty as the rest of you ordinary folk. Remember that. Like Oso stealing Cameron. In any case, my selling company secrets, which were my ideas, anyway, ended up helping us because it sent them down rabbit trails.”

“So, are you saying you did it on purpose to help Tomi Corp?”

“Let’s get one thing straight right now. Everything I do is for myself. Oso believes in teams. I believe in a team of one—me.”

“Okay.”

“Which means I kept the best secrets from the competition because that would benefit me more in the long run. Nobody else knew we were on the cusp of creating meshes, part human, part android. Beautiful, intelligent creatures who could envision the future and still be controlled in their instinctual behavior through infrasound.”

“Like the blue whales in those old Minä ads.”

Gilly wanted to growl out his frustration. He remembered those ridiculous ads, during an era when “instinctual” Minäs were being marketed to the public. They were shown riding on the backs of blue whales, smiling and chanting some nonsense in bastardized Hindi. “No, those instinctual Minäs were not like blue whales. They were never capable of making infrasound. They simply heeded the calls of the sounds. They were like intelligent pigeons wired with infrasound sensitive neural fibers.”

“Were the instinctual Minäs different? I thought all Minäs were built the same way.”

“Grown. They’re not built; they’re grown on scaffolding. And, yes, every generation had the ability to pick up on infrasound. But the company had to find a way to make them useful again, and some dumb ass engineer from floor three designed a special line of spiritual adviser androids, with hyper ventromedial prefrontal cortexes. Stupidest idea ever. Poor creatures. The combination of their big ears and their heightened intuition made them constantly panicked. They intuited aliens and ghosts everywhere.”

“Where are they now?”

“They had to be put down. Disengaged, in other words.”

History was a strange mess of events. Wistfulness filled Gilly’s core. In a way, he supposed, the world had simply righted itself and discovered a natural pattern to live with the Minäs who were still among them. But it had become so dull. Nobody cared any longer. Minäs were reflections; that was all. They had become the ultimate humans. More human than the humans. Greater stupidity; greater ability to mime; loyal to a fault; listless and degenerate when on their own. And Tomi Corp, having learned its lesson, now only produced mindless robots programmed to do the grunt work humans did, which had destroyed the economy as men had once known it.

He scrutinized the eager face opposite to him. She was a lovely girl, big eyes that shone with anticipation. She made him tired. “I’m done,” he informed her. “I had my say.”

Her eyes opened wide—would they tremble; would they cry? Not today. “For good?”

“I don’t know. I’ll think about it. Meanwhile—” He rummaged through his cardigan and pants pockets and pulled out a wad of money. “Go buy me a green chile cheeseburger from Lotaburger. Buy whatever you want for yourself, but take your food and go. I’m done.”

“Sure, Uncle Gilly. As I said, I’m going out with Granddad and Mark tonight. I’ll wait to eat with them.”

“A dinner date,” he said, and could not keep the snide tone out of his voice.

“Granddad promised us a dinner with the chef who made our food at the game.”

“The game?”

“We went to a professional game with Granddad at Del Oso.”

“Ah, of course you did. How nice for you.”


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Chapter 22: Interlude

In which love happens to the best and the worst of us…

The interview over, Stephanie told her car to drive, and it did. The car drove back down into the valley. For a few moments, she thought she might sleep. With her head back against the seat, her mind drifted. She couldn’t explain why, but she felt like sobbing.

Perhaps her work hours had caused it. She had her usual work day, which mainly consisted of creating bylines for other reporters and correcting their errors. She spent hours every day doing that before she could ever meet her granddad or her fake uncle for an interview. She didn’t have a day off; she spent her days off interviewing or typing up her notes. When she’d ventured into this project, she hadn’t conceived of its magnitude.

They were great men, and they wanted to tell her everything. Everything—even what was mundane. It would be difficult to determine what to retain in the final version. She could do this. She had editorial skills. She was a byline writer. She simply had to extend her skills to a giant mess of notes.

Even with a mess of notes, she still had so many questions, some of which her granddad could answer and indeed had, such as whether he approved or disapproved of men’s clubs. His scorn had been quite evident regarding the Analgest, which was no longer in business.

Of course men’s clubs were right and necessary, he told her.

“Right and necessary? How so?”

“If you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.”

The network of underground clubs in Nob Hill—he’d provided the funding for the first one to open, which spawned many more to open, linked from cellar to cellar in a labyrinthine manner. Some businesses dug out cellars where there previously had been none so that they could be linked to the labyrinth.

She also wanted to know how long his relationship with Cameron had lasted. Surely, not very long, as he had married Grandma Bernadette soon after. Or she hoped not. However, her granddad failed to answer that question. His eyes darkened, his mouth closed, until she changed the subject and asked him why he had remained friends with Gilly all these years.

“He’s my best friend.”

“Isn’t there a point where somebody crosses the line and is no longer a friend, or are you trying to convince me you’re loyal to a fault? I mean, I appreciate loyalty and all, but there’s got to be a limit. Right?”

“Oh, sure, there are limits. When I’ve reached it, I never look back. I’ve never reached it with Gilly.”

She was a little incredulous at that. She couldn’t imagine too many reaching the level of treachery Gilly had. “You’ve had people do worse things to you?”

“It isn’t a simple equation, Stephanie. If I’ve invested years in a relationship, the limits are going to be broader. Surely you understand that.”

Yes, she understood it. She’d created an entire network of friends and relations around her. Some dated from childhood, and to those people she gave more leeway. A sharp pain of anxiety hit her in the abdomen. Her life had greatly diminished since she’d taken on this project. Who was in her network, now? Granddad, Gilly, and the occasional Mark.

She was overwhelmed. Perhaps she needed more than the occasional Mark. She raised her head and spoke to the car. “Call Mark,” she said.

“Calling Mark,” the car said.

She was worried he wouldn’t answer, that he might be covering an event. As the phone rang and rang, she racked her brain, trying to remember what his schedule of events was. She had lost touch with reality—that was why she wanted to sob. She was living in her granddad’s reality.

Just as she thought it would go to his voicemail, he answered in a long drawl, “Hey, babe.”

“Mark!” Her voice broke into a sob, and a few tears strayed down her cheeks.

“What’s going on? Where you at?”

“I’m on my way from Granddad’s. Hey, do you wanna hang out? I need a serious break. With you and no one else.”

“I like the way this sounds,” he said.

“However it sounds, I need you right now. Where do you want to meet?”

“I’m at home.”

“Okay. Should I…?” She’d never hung out at his place; she’d avoided that misstep like the plague.

“Yes, you should.”

“All right.”

“All right.” He paused. “I guess I should, uh, get off the phone and clean up a little.”

“See you in a few.”

Exhaustion made for foolish decision making. But something in her said it wasn’t foolish to love Mark. Something in her wanted to get committed, to have something better than what her parents had, or her granddad, for that matter, before Grandma Berna.

Before Grandma Berna, he’d made a lot of mistakes. Mistakes that had affected his children. She didn’t want that. She had two uncles and an aunt she didn’t know all that well. And then there was Uncle Adam, who turned out all right, but only after he was abandoned by his mother.

He’d turned out all right because of Grandma Berna.

Stephanie groaned. Now she was lost in the story again. She needed to forget it for the evening. And so she put it away—it wasn’t easy—and she stopped at the store and purchased expensive beer for Mark and a few snacks that would have been too costly to consider not that long ago, such as blue corn chips and guacamole.

Tomorrow was Saturday: tomorrow she would visit Gilly again and type up the latest notes into a cohesive structure. Tomorrow. Her stomach turned over a little. She didn’t know what tomorrow would bring because she didn’t know what tonight would bring.


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Chapter 21: Speakeasy

In which he didn’t always hit the Old Gold, but when he did, he got in a fight!

Through long hours and the inspiration of the New Mexico blue sky they rarely saw, Oso and his team of researchers were able to build organic parts of the brain through the use of stem cells. Oso’s goal was a little different from Gilly’s, albeit no less daunting. He wanted to use the technology they were creating for androids in humans. What had plagued them was creating a viable way to get blood cells inside the tissue they had managed to build, layer by layer.

Then Oso had asked himself why. Why grow these parts that may never be viable inside an actual human skull?

It would prove a far better resolution to inject the braincell solution inside the damaged parts of the brain and allow the brain to regrow and regenerate on its own. All he had to alleviate were the miniscule problems associated with neurogenesis, namely, having to shut down growth-inhibitory ligands while also preventing inflammation.

Very small problems—but no problem was too small for Oso.

It had been a long hard day of working and thinking. For some reason, Gilly was tetchy all day. They were so close Oso could taste it. Surely, Gilly could, too. So why was he stalling? The team of scientists had all left for the day. Oso was alone with images of spinning brains on the monitor screens, which exactly represented his turbulent core.

They had leaped over their first big hurdle, creating their first real pre-Minä prototype, a female, of course, matching Gilly’s idealized Nordic blonde. Not that she didn’t have a few glitches, but who said creation was a perfect process? Humans weren’t perfect. Why would creatures made in their image be perfect?

She was jumpy and prone to headaches, due to a combination of her pain censors and her highly sensitized ears. Oso knew they had a window to go to press with her before a competitor created a better android, maybe one with smaller ears. It was hard to hide the ears, to be honest, even behind a mane of white-blonde hair. Big ears would become the new beautiful. That was all there was to it, and this darling with the big ears would seductively reel in the funding needed to fix the Minä glitches, as well as offset production costs.

He couldn’t concentrate. Gilly had taken the prototype and her personal physician home with him, as he usually did. Somebody had to be the babysitter. It wasn’t as if one could create life and then turn it off every night. She wasn’t a computer—she breathed oxygen. Her heart beat steadily, racing when she was excited, slowing when she rested. She was as close to human as a creature without a belly button and vital reproductive organs could be. Of course, one could knock her out with drugs via an IV and remove the drip when one wanted her cogent again, but it would be painful and unnecessary.

Speaking of babysitters, Adam was still with Bernadette. Bernadette picked up the boy from school and kept him at her psychiatric practice until Oso finished work for the day.

She was far too patient, to be honest. He had resolved to give up being a workaholic in order to be a father, but his best resolutions went to pot as they came closer and closer to press release. He should pick up his boy. But he was too tired or wired, or both, and he sank into a chair and picked up the tablet one of his assistants had left there. It was open to an insider journal of the industry, which gave him an idea of what his competitors had achieved, if not what they were hiding away in their labs.

And that’s when he spotted the image that sucker-punched him in the gut: it was from a corporation that had headquarters in both China and the US, of their upcoming release, which appeared an exact replica of Tomi Corp’s pre-pre-Minä android. Gilly’s design fingertips were all over it, except for the big ears. Gilly was an artist, and artists left fingerprints. Somebody could have managed a very good knockoff—a fake Gucci handbag type of android.

But his gut told him this wasn’t a knockoff. The woman stared at him from the screen, impassive. It was as if she was challenging him. No, it was as if Gilly was challenging him in an open daring kind of way. Perhaps he’d left the tablet for him to find. It was a distinct possibility.

For the record, they hadn’t actually brought the damned thing to life. Instead of infrasound, the developers had been experimenting with bringing her to life with water. So far, her lungs filled before life emerged, effectively drowning her. Also, the water had shorted out her battery pack. Battery pack? Why did she have a…?

Oso shook his head. It wasn’t the android and her visage, which cried Gilly!, that bothered him. It was Gilly’s sneaky ways. This was not the first time a competitor’s android parts bore Gilly’s fingerprint of design. Sure, he never gave them everything, essentially getting rich by selling them an almost-but-not-quite. It was the principle of the matter. The principle!

His mouth went dry. He reached for his phone to call his lawyer, and then stopped. For all his ability to remember the future, he couldn’t force the memories to pop unbidden in his mind. And yet, he might have seen this one coming. But he was blind to Gilly’s faults. Gilly was his best friend. Gilly would never betray him.

“I need a drink,” he said aloud.

The spinning brains didn’t answer him.

Alcohol and introspection was a pairing that never went well with Oso’s constitution. In this case, it was exactly what was called for. He called Bernadette and asked if she could keep Adam for a couple of hours. He had some trouble at work, he told her. Not surprisingly, she agreed.

If she knew he was going to a bar, she might not have agreed so readily. However, if she understood his current murderous feelings, she would have agreed readily and tried to alter his plans and get him to talk through his problems in her office. That was not what Oso needed.

He drove to the Analgest, as the witch-from-the-forest’s words had left an impression in his mind: the Analgest was a speakeasy, and women weren’t allowed. He didn’t know about that; once there, he found the usual hipsters, who disgusted him. But Oso, as a man whose fame had landed him in the likes of Wired, Sci Am, Huff Po, and the New Yorker, was royalty to the hipsters. The word had gotten around that Oso was back in New Mexico doing business, and everybody in tech wanted a job.

Oso was not in charge of hiring. He had a department that dealt with such niceties, although he was the first one to sort through applications and discover the promising candidates before they ever reached the hiring division. But he could humor the hipsters—if he felt like it.

Due to one man’s lucky recognition and the subsequent whispering of his name, Oso had potential mini-marble pool competitors to last the night. For some reason, a mini-marble competition wasn’t satisfying, and he suddenly realized why. It was lacking Gilly. That was why. It had nothing whatever to do with the need for spy glasses, or any glasses at all, in order to play.

So he called Gilly. “Hey, Gilly, old buddy, come meet me for a game of pool at the Analgest.”

“Um, are you serious? I’m at home relaxing.”

“What, with your woman?”

Silence. Of course he wasn’t relaxing with his woman because his woman had moved out “to take a breather,” all very amicably. Gilly hadn’t acted like the change in scenery even affected him.

“Well?”

“That was a low-blow,” Gilly said.

“You’re alone. I’m alone. Let’s play some pool.”

“Fine, I’ll be there in fifteen. We haven’t gotten drunk together in…years. There was that time I got stoned with your dad. One of the finest nights of my life.”

“Get a move on.”

Twenty minutes later, Gilly appeared, and Oso smacked him on the back. Hard. “Get yourself a drink.”

Although Gilly had walked in with his usual smirk, a sudden glare narrowed his eyes. Still, Gilly obeyed, choosing an amber-bottled beer.

“Are you making any bets?” Gilly looked around him, as though assessing the competition: bearded studs wielding tiny cue sticks. “What are we playing at, anyway? Is there a tiny pool tournament going on?”

“Who knows; we’re playing real pool. You know I’m a gambler. Winner takes all.”

“All of what?”

“Winner takes all is our philosophy. That’s how we do business. Neural networks. Circuits. We are a business, aren’t we, Gilly?”

“Um, sure?”

Oso marched down the row of antique pool and snooker tables, under the moon that shone through the skylights. At the bar, he slapped his hand down. “We need a pool table, a real one,” he told the bartender, who wore a waxed mustache and wire glasses.

“The marbles and sticks come from the coin-op machine.”

“No, I mean real pool. The real deal.”

The bartender raised his eyebrows. “You’re Mr. Beñat, aren’t you?”

“Are you asking me, or telling me?”

“There’s a cover charge.”

“Yeah?”

“Today I’m feeling generous. Hundred dollars for me, hundred for the bouncer. That doesn’t include play.”

Oso, however, had no intention of paying any of these little twits to play pool. “How about you pay me to keep quiet about your men-only club that breaks a number of laws and no doubt doesn’t exist to the IRS?”

“Yes, sir, well,” the man looked nervously at his pocket-watch, while his mustache twitched. “It’s still early arrival time. I’ll show you to the door.”

The door he showed them to was not the door out. It was the door in. Hipsters were hipsters, after all. They had waxed mustachios and no weapons. And who knew what Oso was capable of? He had 3D printers. Enough said. This special door was behind the bar—it slid open when the hipster pushed down the handle for a beer called Old Gold.

Inside the enclosed space, there were three men smoking cigarettes. They looked up briefly when Oso and Gilly entered, but resumed their play without much curiosity. They were fat and quite old, and no doubt suffering from emphysema. Oso and Gilly suffered from none of the above, as they kept healthy habits, such as regular exercise, the use of condoms, rounds of antibiotics, etc.

The pool tables inside this room were not in the best shape. In fact, the room was not as aesthetic as a secret male-only club ought to have been. It had warped, paneled walls, a scruffy carpet littered with the detritus of peanut shells and other unsavory snacks, and an odd pattern of cracked and grease-smeared mirrors. Oso didn’t think he’d patronize it in the future.

“What a dive,” Gilly said. “Thanks for bringing me here.”

The man who no doubt passed himself off as the bouncer grunted and ushered them to the proper side of the bar counter, where he took their drink orders and charged them a high price for their game. As they were already inside, Oso paid up.

Unlike his soccer-deprived youth, Oso had not grown up deprived of pool, as his father had traded one of his goats for a pool table with balls and cues. In fact, although Oso didn’t like the feeling of being amped-down rather than amped-up, he and Gilly had played their share of pot-induced pool games. Now, they were entirely sober, as Oso had not taken a sip of his drink, and Gilly had done little more than take an initial swig from his amber bottle.

Gilly had a pained look on his face as Oso racked the balls. “You do remember how to play?” Oso asked him.

“Yes, how could I forget? You always won.”

Oso forgot his vindictive anger for a minute. Gilly could be so self-defacing it was almost embarrassing. “That’s not true. You beat me that last game we played together before I moved to LA.”

“When your back was turned, I cheated.”

The anger flashed through him again. How many times had Gilly cheated? Was this a practice of his? Did Oso’s loyalty and honor mean nothing? He took a deep breath and counted to ten. “I lost $150 on that game. To you.”

“I know.”

“Does that make you proud? The one time you got the better of me?” Oso stared him straight in the face until Gilly averted his eyes. It didn’t take very long. “Why don’t you break?”

Oso noticed Gilly’s hands were shaking and his jaw clenched as he aimed his cue. He recognized what that was—Gilly’s way of expressing anger. Gilly’s anger, however, never made him sharp. He botched the break, scratching one of the balls. But it was all right. He’d have more opportunities…to make a fool of himself.

“Skip the beer, Gilly, have a drop of bourbon. It’s Jim Beam. Not bad.” He shrugged. “It was all they had. Not even Jim Beam Black.”

Gilly glowered. “I know how to pick my bourbon. I don’t need you to guide me.” And he henceforth drank his shot.

The two proceeded to play a few games, with Gilly losing very badly each time, which inspired him to buy more shots of Jim Beam. Finally, Gilly was so drunk he had to prop himself on the table itself, and somehow managed in his next futile play to jab the cue so hard into the surface of the table that the cloth ripped. Needless to say, he didn’t manage to knock any of his balls anywhere.

“You know, Gilly, old buddy, you’d get the better of me if you won honestly even once in your life,” Oso said. “But you can’t, can you? That’s why you have to go behind my back. You’re a fucking turncoat. A disloyal cheater.”

“Get the better of you? You wouldn’t have shit without me. Compared to me, you’re just a goddamn researcher. You create nothing of value. You just jump on everything I do ever since we were kids. And you get rich off it.”

“You know what I wouldn’t have without you? A business partners who sells our designs to the competition. That’s what I wouldn’t have. But rest assured, I would find other engineers. I already have them. They’re a team. We’re a team. You and I used to be a team.”

“Oh, cut the crap, Oso,” Gilly said, and hurled his tumbler at Oso’s head. It missed its mark, very nearly whacking one of the old men. “Your loyalty theory is sickening.”

“There you are, throwing things at me from a distance. How’s that working for you? Why don’t you come over here and fight me face to face if that’s what you want?”

Gilly stumbled blearily toward the old men, shouting, “Hold me back! Hold me back!”

The old men just coughed and moved to the side of the room, apparently hoping for entertainment without getting into the fray. Oso grabbed Gilly by the shirtfront and pushed him so that he fell back on the table. He jabbed a cue stick in Gilly’s face.

“You’re such a little bitch,” Oso said.

Gilly pushed back against the stick and kicked his legs drunkenly at Oso. “Don’t ever forget that you let a man burn alive; don’t ever forget that.”

“You started the fucking fire, Gilly. I take responsibility for my actions; you take responsibility for yours. Got it?”

Gilly seemed to deflate at those words. He stopped kicking, ceased putting pressure against the cue stick, the point of which slammed into the table by his ear. Oso dropped the stick and walked away. He was done with Gilly. Gilly wouldn’t fight him, and there was no point to a fight, anyway. What would it solve?

But Gilly must have decided differently. Before Oso was aware of what had happened, Gilly finally made contact, cracking the back of Oso’s skull with the stick. It was hard to miss, being a damn big stick going after a tall man with a big head.

Oso fell hard, and Gilly ran for the door. “Run you little bitch,” Oso moaned. “That’s what you do.”

The old men had the decency to help him up, but the bouncer, who had mysteriously disappeared during the fight, materialized from behind the counter. He had been hiding. Now, however, he asked Oso, in a very polite manner, if Mr. Beñat wouldn’t mind leaving so that the police would not have to be dispatched.

Oso snorted. The speakeasy wasn’t going to call the cops. Still, Oso had no desire to stay. He had a splitting headache, for a start. He plunked down some cash to pay for the damage and walked out via the Old Gold.

When he plunged into the brisk night of Albuquerque, the stars singing above and the moon waxing full, he wondered if he could find the witch’s house. He wondered if she would be there. Then he thought better of it and pulled his phone out of his pocket with a wry smile on his face.

It didn’t take long for the female on the other end to answer; it was as Oso had suspected. She had left Gilly and was waiting in desperate anticipation for him to call.

“Hey, Cameron,” he said.

“Oso.”

“Sweetheart, I’m down at the Analgest with a crack on my head and I’m too drunk to drive. How would you like to rescue me?”

“It would be my pleasure.”

“I knew I could count on you.”

After the phone call, he slumped to the curb and held his head in his hands. The pulsing pain sent waves of nausea to his stomach. The knot on his head was his own fault, he reminded himself. He had invited Gilly to play a game of real pool. If he’d stuck to the hipster game, he would have emerged unscathed, as there was no way Gilly could defeat him in real hand-to-hand combat.

He ran his hands over his daily beard. He did have the hipster beard, though not intentionally. He hoped Cameron would like it. Wait—what? He didn’t care whether she liked it. She would have to deal with it as she gently and tenderly nursed the wound on his head.


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