Chapter 4: Leg Up Or Leg Down

In which Oso encounters his one-legged nemesis!
The following is the record of the life happenings of the one and only Oso Beñat, aka Tomi Beñat, as in Tomi Corp; grandfather of Stephanie Mirabel Beñat Gonzales, and one of the greatest men who’s ever lived—in Ms. Gonzales-Beñat’s most humble opinion. When Oso read the opening sentence, he snorted and informed her there wasn’t anything humble about her except her sorry braided flats.

Oso began his seventh grade school year attempting to beat the school bus home on his bike. It wasn’t difficult to do. And once home, he had chores until bedtime. The earlier he started on them, the better. That didn’t mean he wanted to do anything but continue riding his bike, past the subsistence farm with its old, scabbed-together shotgun house where he and his family lived.

He circled the block past the booger-eater’s house, Bernadette’s house, and crazy Agnes’ house, and then pedaled back around to his own dim, dirty dive. He slammed the door shut and flung his backpack and shoes on his own personal futon space. He only wore shoes when he had to, at school, as his feet were flat, and his knock-off Nikes uncomfortable.

The only person present was his mom, who was sitting in the corner, meditating. She didn’t open her eyes, let alone flinch at the slamming of the door. Soon, his older sister Alex would be occupying the beanbag chair in her own kind of meditative state, and ignoring the filth and clutter around her. And all five of his brat younger siblings would be running wild.

Alex was supposed to pick up and do laundry every day, but she rarely did, always giving the excuse that she had schoolwork. It was funny how, come grade time, she always had Cs. The truth was she spent all her time reading, leaving Oso to do everything. He kicked her beanbag chair across the room and started his own laundry, which consisted of a few decent pairs of jeans and t-shirts he’d purchased himself with the money he’d earned as newspaper delivery boy. Whatever the case, his siblings might carry the “smelly Beñat kid” label, but he refused to.

“Mom!” he screamed. “The house stinks!”

What a surprise. There was no response. He slammed back out the tattered screen door at the front of the house, and then kicked open his dad’s much sturdier workshop door. At least his dad worked. The man had many ventures, as part-time subsistence farmer, full-time carpenter, and all-year-round weed grower. What he didn’t smoke to calm his nerves, he sold.

“Whatever you break, you have to fix,” his dad said in a mild voice.

He had a joint dangling from his mouth as he sanded the arms of a rocking chair he meant to trade for a car engine he planned to sell for part of their rent. The rocking chair was worth triple the price of the engine, but nobody had any money in Socorro in those days. Sure, there were the college professors at NM Tech and the astronomers out at the Very Large Array, but somehow Oso’s dad hadn’t found his way into the hearts of the local Anglo scientists.

Not that his dad, with his Basque heritage, wasn’t as white as any Anglo American, but that wasn’t how it worked. The pseudo surname Beñat sounded Mexican, and Mexicans weren’t white. Aside from that, his mom was only kind of brown and was related to the Saavedras with two “a’s,” who were a well-established family in politics and business—but his mom had married the dirt-poor Jerry Beñat because she was a hippy and so was he.

His parents disgusted him. Above all, Oso was revolted by their poverty. If Oso were in charge, his family would have money, and a lot of it. It was all Oso could think about, to be honest. In last year’s middle school yearbook, when the ditzy yearbook girl had asked him what his life goal was, he said, “I’m going to be so rich Scrooge won’t be able to count my money.” She had pulled the quote and highlighted its profundity.

“Where’s the rake?” he yelled at his dad. “I’m trying to do my chores, and the rake’s not where I left it yesterday.”

“Oso!” he said, as if conjuring the real boy back from the rage demon. “Calm down, and maybe you’ll be able to find it.”

Oso narrowed his eyes, which was a reflex reaction to the cloud of wood dust in the air. The workshop, unlike the house, was tidy and clean, except for the dust. All the tools were stored in their neatly labeled drawers, and the gardening equipment Oso was looking for was off to the side in an ancient steel drum where it wouldn’t contaminate the carpentry space.

His dad could have enforced the same kind of order in the house, but he didn’t. And it irritated Oso that he and his sister Alex were expected to do it for the parental figures, just because they were the oldest kids. More than that, it irritated him that they expected him to do it because Alex lived in daydream land.

“My name’s not Oso,” he said with as much ferocity as he could muster. “Call me by my name, or I won’t answer back.”

His dad merely creased his brow at the declaration, set down his sandpaper, and sat cross-legged on his bench. “Son, you can’t fight destiny. You were born in a natural state.”

He hated it when his dad waxed philosophic. “That’s meaningless.”

“No, it’s not. Far be it for me to meddle with your fate.”

“Where’s the goddamned rake? Did the brats break it?”

“You might want to check in the yard, where they were using it yesterday to clean up.”

Oso refrained from growling, as it was in part his propensity for growling that caused his parents to change his baptized name from Tomi to Oso. The other part was his mass of dark hair, and his improbable height, always in the ninetieth percentile.

This year, as he was twelve and had his dignity to uphold, he’d instructed all his teachers to call him by what should have been his real name. That is, what should have been his real name, if his mom had actually given birth to her children in the hospital and filled out birth certificates for them instead of belatedly filing for birth certificates so they could go to school. After three years of unschooling, she found the process too tiring to continue. So they all ended up with birth certificates, and more marvelous than that, social security cards. But because she’d been calling her eldest son Oso for so long, she wrote it on the birth certificate: Oso Beñat, no middle name. She tried to pass it off as an accident.

For a few seconds, Oso stared at his father sitting cross-legged on the bench, like some kind of deranged biblical prophet, the wood motes floating golden in the sunlight that crept through the single window. Destiny? He would show his dad destiny.

He stormed back out of the workshop and ran like a hooligan around the yard, searching for the rake. One of his jobs was to rake out the chicken yard, scatter the feed, and collect all the eggs for the next day. If he didn’t do the job, they would all have to eat more beans. When he couldn’t immediately find the rake, he climbed the old apple tree that was at one end of the chicken yard. It was the oldest tree on the Beñat property, having long predated their family’s move there. It was also the only tree that was substantial enough to climb.

From his vantage point, he watched the school bus round the bend and drop off his youngest siblings. Just after it, the middle school bus came rolling to a stop. His sister exited, her nose stuck in a book and nearly stumbling down the steps. The boy behind her pushed her out of the way: the booger-eater, Gillilander. Oso scowled.

Gillilander was the only kid in seventh grade as tall as Oso, but he was a scrawny goober and wore glasses. Normally, a twit like Gillilander wouldn’t be much of a threat, but he happened to be the only boy who could beat Oso in math. Oso picked a still-hanging apple from the tree and flung it in Gillilander’s direction—for pushing his sister, of course. No other reason. The apple dropped near Gilly’s feet, and Gilly looked up and glared at the tree and did nothing. Typical of a booger-eater.

Finally, Bernadette exited the bus in her little short shorts and clingy shirt. She was the one Oso had been waiting to catch sight of. The girl flipped her hair and strutted, as if she knew she was being watched.

“Hey, Bernadette!” he yelled. “Nice—” He was going to say nice ass wiggle to humiliate her, but his voice was drowned out by a strange buzzing and shrieking coming from the opposite direction.

It was crazy Agnes, the neighborhood lady everybody avoided, just in case it turned out she was a witch who might cast spells on them. Outside her home, she’d put up two owl decoys. That said about everything the neighbors needed to know about her. The woman was riding an electric wheelchair and didn’t seem to know how to maneuver the vehicle. It was bumping in a beeline toward the Beñat property line, as if the brakes had gone out.

With one hand, the lady drove; with the other, she cradled her leg and caressed her face with her foot. What the—? Oso almost fell out of the tree at the sight. Instead, he jumped from his branch, grabbed a rotten apple from the ground and threw it at her to change her trajectory. His job was caring for the chicken yard, and she was about to run right into it. When the wild-eyed woman still didn’t stop, he threw another apple at her, which caused her to jolt and plow into the apple tree. The leg flew from her hand, landing in the chicken yard.

It was a prosthetic, a hideous plastic thing. For the first time, he noticed the lady was an amputee. The leg was the most obvious tell; generally, legs didn’t fly from bodies at the mildest impact. Also, she was wearing corduroy culottes today instead of her usual fluorescent colored bell-bottoms.

“What are you doing?” an indignant girl voice cried out behind him.

He turned around to witness Bernadette with her hands on her hips, legs akimbo, wearing the typical female expression of disgust on her face.

“What’s your problem?” he asked.

“Why are you throwing fruit at a poor, old lady? What kind of nasty beast are you?”

“She was going to run over my chickens.”

Bernadette, however, didn’t wait to listen to his excuses. She darted to the woman, who appeared trapped at the tree, the wheelchair miraculously still upright, the wheels spinning. Agnes was crying and babbling about having lost her leg.

Bernadette spoke to her as if to an inconsolable child, and oddly, she did appear as a child. She was barely taller than Bernadette and had smeared lipstick around her mouth. “It’s okay,” Bernadette told her. “Calm down, we’re here to help.”

Oso shoved her. “Get out of the way! You’re just making it worse.”

She shoved him back. “Sure, I’m the one doing that, not you. You’re such an idiot, Oso.”

Eventually, Oso’s dad emerged from his workshop, apparently drawn out by the disruptive noise, in a cloud of golden dust motes. He unemotionally turned the wheelchair off, before wheeling it around the opposite direction. If Agnes gunned it again, she’d end up in the clear, relatively speaking. She’d run over the same scrubby bushes she’d already careened over.

“My leg!” Agnes screamed. “My leg! My leg!”

Oso stared, speechless. The woman was crazy, crazier than he’d suspected. He silently fetched the prosthetic leg, which he then handed to her.

She yelped. “I used to have a leg. A real leg.” Tears dribbled down her cheeks. “I can feel it, but I can’t see it. How can I put this thing over it? It killed my leg; it was shut up inside.”

Before Oso could mumble a reply, a small old man with a wispy beard and glasses ran through the brush toward them. It was the strange man who lived with the crazy lady, a strange man who appeared to be twice her age, if not older.

“Agnes, I’ve talked to you about running off like this. You have to stop.”

Agnes looked up at him, her face wild with fear. “It’s there. I can feel it. You took it from me.”

“No, I did not,” the man said. “Let’s get you home and put your leg back on.”

Oso stared at the man-and-Agnes procession, his creep sensors blaring. The man had an old worn look, old brown pants and faded brown shirt, thinning hair. He’d never seen the man up this close before, as the couple rarely left the house, unless Agnes wandered off as she’d just done. Sometimes, the man climbed in a beat-up Oldsmobile and drove off, but mostly the car sat unused in the dirt patch yard.

“Guy’s a creeper,” he said.

“My mom told me he’s her stepdad,” Bernadette said. “She knows the nurse from Socorro Mental Health that visits them. I think it’s kind of a weird story. Like he’s a doctor of some kind who treated her as a child, that’s why he’s stuck with her now.”

“That makes no sense.”

“I think it would be better not to spread gossip,” Oso’s dad interrupted.

That, of course, irritated Oso, as he wanted to know more. “It’s not gossip to know what lunatics your neighbors are.”

“Be that as it may…” The elder Beñat’s voice trailed off as his focus went elsewhere. Jerry Beñat had no focus. He reached up to pluck an apple from the tree. Then he snuffed out his joint, put it behind one ear, and tested the apple. “Lots of good apples here still. Don’t let them go to waste, Oso. Pick them and put them in the kids’ lunches.”

More chores. Oso glared and kicked at a small creosote bush. “What kind of doctor?” he prodded Bernadette. “A psychiatrist? Because that’s what she needs.”

“Be sarcastic if you want, I think that’s what he is. A psychiatrist.”

“How’d she end up with him?”

From the house behind Agnes’, Bernadette’s family home, drifted the sound of a triangle bell. Bernadette’s mom used it when she wanted her stray children to come home. “I have to go. My mom’s calling,” Bernadette said.

She didn’t move, however. She did that a lot lately, hanging around with Oso when she wasn’t supposed to. He couldn’t decide if it irritated him or excited him.

“No, tell me the rest,” Oso insisted.

“The bell would be your cue, Oso,” his dad said. “Get your chores done. I want you to have dinner on the table by at least six.”

Oso glared at Bernadette’s feet and noticed she had holes in her sneakers. He sorely wanted to punch his dad in the face. It was one thing for him to expect Oso to be the family kitchen bitch; it was another for him to say so around Bernadette.

“Oso, I mean it. Stop giving me your attitude. I’m still in charge around here.”

He looked up. “Right, Dad, that’s so obvious.”

“Sorry, gotta go. Mom wants me to do my homework. Or something,” Bernadette said and ran off.

Of course, she would. She had a nice family. Why stay around to see what would happen at the Beñat home? Would Oso be whipped? If he kept it up, sure. Would the younger children be punished at all for their bad behavior? Probably not. They ran in a pack and were harder to catch. Would Alex be punished for sitting around reading instead of helping? No. Their dad never whipped her with his belt like he did Oso.

As she ran off, Oso suddenly realized her shorts were so short and tight, as she’d grown taller over the summer, not to mention growing a bigger butt, that he could see her underwear line. This brightened his mood a little. “Hey, Bernadette!” he yelled at her. “I can see your underwear.”

She stopped short, turned around and huffed, her hands clenched into fists. Then she ran off again, as her mom kept ringing the triangle. He laughed. Yes, that had definitely made his day.

“Bad behavior, son,” his dad said.

“What? I didn’t do anything.”

This time, his dad didn’t appear to have the energy to whip Oso. Either that, or Oso hadn’t pushed him far enough yet. The elder Beñat just shook his head and walked off.

If you believe that prosthetic limbs are your best limbs, you might enjoy reading about a trepanning in my book The Jaybird’s Nest and Other Stories. Also, I hope you have two heads and a great Wednesday.


Chapter 3: God In a Tortilla

In which tortillas foretell the past, but Oso is stuck in the future!

Oso watched with some amusement as his granddaughter stuffed her face with food. Although she tried to hide her hunger, the sudden loss of manners was anything but subtle.

“Living off Nutrilla, I hear,” he said.

“It’s cheap and nutritious. Or so they say. It’s not bad,” she said, swallowing her mouthful and slurping a cup of strong black coffee. “Same with day old bread from the Rainbow outlet. And I use my coffee grounds several times before I dump them. This coffee is delicious.”

“If we’re going to work together, you need to eat better. And dress better. Try to have a little decorum.”

She looked up from the plate of green chile chicken enchiladas. They had chosen one of the recently refabbed traditional New Mexican diners, which were making a comeback after the years of nontraditional health food directives had taken over eating practices nationwide. It was obvious she was entirely unused to New Mexican cuisine, as she had grown up with the directives. Her eyes had that glazed I’ve found God in a tortilla expression. Historically, although images could occasionally be found cooked into a tortilla, for New Mexicans, it was the tortilla itself that contained the essence of the Father-Son-Holy Spirit. No images necessary.

By contrast, Devon, who preferred french fries and orange soda, was slapping the table and giggling as he sat beside the pretty granddaughter figure. He was like a lovelorn, window-licking teenager. In the early days, Minäs like Devon had been used to staff low-paying jobs in restaurants and elsewhere, but that had quickly changed due to their inability to write down orders, remember them, or deliver even the wrong orders to tables. Instead, their enchilada plates had been delivered by a less-than-thrilled human waitress, who had glared daggers at Devon as he table-slapped. Some people believed Minäs were like pets that should be kept out of most businesses, due to health and safety concerns.

“Devon, stop, or I’ll disengage you,” Oso said, using his firm voice.

Devon immediately stopped, his face turning a peculiar shade of bilious yellow.

“Granddad, that’s mean. Minäs are people, too.”

Oso stared her down until she looked away.

“I can’t afford to buy better food and clothes,” she protested. “I’m trying to make it on my own, you know.”

“Which is why you asked me for an exclusive interview. Because you’re not trying to take advantage of your family connections.”

“Okay, I am, but it’s not like I’ve asked you for money.”

“True, you and your brother aren’t like my other grandchildren and nieces and nephews, which is why I said yes. I would also give an exception to Adam’s children.”

“Uncle Adam’s children don’t need money because their dad didn’t squander their inheritance like mine did.”

“I also approve of your honesty.”

Her lips almost curled in disgust—a bare hint on an otherwise placid, pretty face. “Mom will spend the rest of her life working because of him.”

“We all have choices to make. Olivia made hers when she married a man I advised her not to.”

“She committed herself,” she corrected him. “People haven’t gotten married for about thirty years. They have commitment ceremonies.”

“They get committed. How boring. In my day, marriage was an adventure, not a chore.” He paused and sipped his coffee thoughtfully. “In your mother’s case, boring might not be the correct word. She committed herself to the loony bin.”

Stephanie sighed and pushed away her empty plate. “Exactly. We all make choices. I make choices when I save money for the future and go without good food and nice clothes. I make responsible choices. I’m not going to get committed for love, like Mom did. I’ll commit myself pragmatically, if I choose to do it at all, which I doubt.”

“So young, yet so cynical. Been around the block already, have you?”

“No. That’s the point. I’m not going around the block. Ever. I’m going to find a freeway that will take me all the way to the end.”

She was so entertaining, this young woman who’d just spent an hour or more crying over some man she worked with, one Mark Anderson, to a mechanized face. Mark Anderson. He recognized that name. “As a journalist, you know that words mean things. When you commit yourself to this man you cry over, get married to him. One of those terms is restrictive, the other isn’t. I’ll let you figure out which is which.”

“Commitment is a fluid contract. Contracts can be made to allow for as much freedom as the signers want. Like Javi when he was committed to his androgyne mate. Shouldn’t we get back to the subject?”

“That wasn’t very deep, Stephanie. I’m disappointed.” Then he realized the import of what she’d just said. “Did your fool of a brother bother to get himself committed and not invite his grandfather to the ceremony?”

“Do you blame him? And, yes. Javi was committed for a while to Emmett.”


“The halftime clown. Everybody knows who Emmett the halftime clown is. Nobody was invited to the commitment ceremony, not even me.”

Oso shook his head. “Let’s talk about something we might both be able to understand. If you want to make it in this world, you must have priorities. You must first and foremost dress for success.”

“I try to!”

Devon jumped at her outburst, slapping his hand so hard on the table that it rocked.

“It’s okay, Devon,” she reassured the Minä.

“No, it isn’t okay, Devon. Go back in the shell you emerged from. And as for you, my dear, you’re an almost but not quite. Wear some heels, for God’s sake. And eat some meat.”

“I’m not wearing heels to work in. I’d fall on my ass. Excuse the language.”

“Maybe your Mark would be more interested if you wore heels. Just to be clear, you aren’t in love with Mark Anderson, sports writer and editor extraordinaire, are you?”

“The very one.”

“He’s a shiny star at that sorry paper of yours.”

“Mark is a shiny star? Don’t tell him. He adores you. And I have no idea whether I’m in love with him. I don’t know what his life plans are, and his excuse for dates is going to Casey’s Sports Bar.”

“Whoa. Stop right there. Save it for Dr. Helen Freud, and then marry him. He’s a good man. I can tell from his stories.”

“Granddad! This interview wasn’t supposed to be about me. It was supposed to be about you. Can we stick to it? I need to know where all this began.” She gave a long look at the Minä sitting beside her, who was drooling and blowing bubbles in his spittle. “And I want to know what went wrong. I mean, I know. Government regulations. But that’s not the whole story. And since Tomi Corp is coming out with their retro line, this is a good time to get a front-page story based on you.”

“A front-page story. Hmm. You’re not thinking big enough. You’re not thinking like a Beñat.”

“If Mom’s any indication, most Beñats don’t think like you.”

“I don’t care. Think bigger. Go ahead, do it. I’m waiting.”

“Well, I could write a book instead of a newspaper story.” She looked up and snapped her fingers. “I could write two biographies, one from Uncle Gilly’s perspective and one from yours. Maybe I could get a decent advance from a publisher, since you’re a famous person and they still give advances for that kind of work. I could put some money down on a house.”

Oso grunted. “That’s better, but I don’t know why you need to bring Gilly into it.”

“Uncle Gilly is a fascinating person, that’s why. And he’s overlooked in the media. You’re always the person the media wants, but I have connections to both of you. I can bring a whole new voice to the table. This is going to be so good.”

His granddaughter’s eyes were glowing, as though the whole romantic business had already been settled. He had to let her down gently. “He won’t agree to it; you know Gilly. I’m not sure yet I’m going to. It will be an enormous time investment.”

“What projects are you investing in these days? You’ve been holed up in the Sandias for a year. Everybody misses you.” The glowing eyes blinked back tears. “Everybody knows you’re suffering out there alone, missing Grandma.”

He couldn’t let her down, gently or otherwise. “All right, I’ve got a proposition for you. You write this book for me, according to the way I want it written, and I’ll pay you for your work and feed you, too. And again, no guarantees with Gilly on that part. Even if he said yes, he wouldn’t feed you. Still, there’s no need to hold your breath for a book advance.”

“Really, Granddad?” She leaned across the table and kissed him on the cheek, which jostled the table, woke Devon from his bubble-spitting stupor, and caused the poor Minä to give her a wet sloppy kiss. She wrinkled her nose and wiped it away, which made the poor excuse for a man guffaw.

“In exchange, aside from the book you’re going to write, you can introduce me to Mark Anderson. His work in that paper is the closest thing to poetry I’ve ever read.”

“He writes about sports like it’s theater. He’s a conspiracy theorist.”

“What you mean is a conspiracy realist.”

“Granddad, can we not talk about Mark? We were going to talk about you.” She leaned over and searched through her voluminous faux leather purse and pulled out what appeared to be a teletyping machine.

“What in God’s name is that weird technological relic you’ve got there?”

“Oh, it’s standard League issue. We can send and receive articles between machines and upload them to our ancient bling-ring drives.” She held up her right ring finger, and what appeared to be a ruby red crystal set in a titanium ring blinked with glittering lights. She turned it off. “And we have access to our own databases, but can’t, at least with this machine, access any version of the internet. I can also take fairly good dictation with it and make recordings for backup purposes once you put on this mic. The only problem is the recording’s not great tech, so I’ll end up with a lot of background noise.”

He looked at the mic in distaste as she handed it over. It seemed a useful enough machine, though, so he conceded to attach the mic to his lapel. “You should have said something. Next time, we can do this at my house where it’s quiet.” As her face immediately fell into a worried frown, he quickly added, “I’ll pay for the travel up the mountain and feed you well, just as I already said. I promise. It will be better food and coffee than this.”

Her face relaxed into a peaceful smile. “I like it here, Granddad. Thanks for bringing me. I feel—I don’t know. I feel attached to my roots while sitting with you in a New Mexican restaurant.”

“There’s nothing like chile to invigorate the soul. I’m sorry you didn’t grow up with it.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“I never said it was.”

He looked out at the cafe, at the groups of families sitting in the cheery yellow booths, at the chrome stools that sat at the coffee counter. The windows were fogged up, and lights flashed outside. If he squinted, the world looked as it did then, in his childhood. Of course, he hadn’t grown up in Albuquerque, but in a small city to the south. And his childhood had been hard. Not that he would admit it to anyone, as he had always been expected to be a survivor. The one who never gave out. The adult child among adult adults who couldn’t manage.

“Granddad?” Stephanie gently nudged him back to the present.

He cleared his throat and began his narrative where his life story had all begun. “I’ve been having memories of the future since I was twelve,” he said. “And it isn’t a coincidence that the first time I had one, I had a run-in with Agnes.”

“Who?” She stopped in the middle of her typing. “Memories of the future? You mean prophetic visions?”

“No, I don’t mean prophetic visions. Every so often, in the middle of an otherwise normal life, I would remember something that was about to happen.”

“That’s impossible.”

“For you, maybe. It didn’t take me long to recognize that the rest of the world didn’t see the world as I did.”

“And how did you see the world?”

“The best description I have is of a 4D tree hanging with golden globes of fruit.”

She squirmed in her seat. “Okay?”

“I’m going to tell my story now, and you can take your notes and ask your questions afterward. I refuse to be constantly interrupted.”

She was far too poised as a journalist to roll her eyes. Instead, the sarcasm leaked out in her tone. “All right, whatever, Granddad.”

“If you want to cop an attitude, you will call me sir, Mr. Beñat, or nothing.”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s better.”

If you find this near-future reality to your liking, you might like to purchase Jaybird’s Nest and Other Stories for only $.99.


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.”


“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.


Chapter 1: The Lumberjack’s Last Stand

In which Oso must rescue his granddaughter from illiterate protestors!

The first sight Oso Beñat witnessed on an overdue visit to his Tech Expo was a twenty-seven-foot-tall lumberjack bearing his own likeness. Once upon a time, the lumberjack had towered over the Vietnamese May Cafe on Louisiana Avenue, a great big ax in its hands. Then, in one fell swoop, a windstorm had torn the forearms and ax off, leaving Bunyan with stumps. As Bunyan was on private property and couldn’t be repaired through public funding, it remained stumpy until a wealthy artist purchased it, refashioned the face to resemble Oso’s; restored the arms and ax, and had it erected outside the Expo building.

The statue gazed stolidly into the blue sky of Albuquerque, ignoring the group of much smaller protestors who hacked away at its lumberjack boots. The protestors were like all of their ilk these days—annoying, like whining mosquitoes that evaded squishing.

Fortunately, their hacking did little good, as they had, to all appearances, lacked the stamina to complete the fifty pages of paperwork required to buy a potential weapon, settling instead for the symbolic gesture of beating the lumberjack with the padded toy variety.

After Oso directed his self-driving classic electric roadster to park itself in his VIP spot, the octogenarian, a frail six-foot version of his counterpart, stood leaning on a cane rather than holding an ax. It was always better to ignore the protestors, even those who were attacking him. Unfortunately, his Minä-brand android Devon never could ignore the potential for fun. The Minä ran over, whoop-whooping, and banged on the lumberjack’s legs.

“You’ll need a stick,” Oso said, tearing a piece of plastic tubing from the poorly constructed protest zone surrounding the ankle-hackers, who paused briefly to let out a litany of screaming insults about Oso’s being an establishment shill.

With zeal, Devon swung his newly acquired pipe at the giant’s ankles. The protestors backed up for their own self-preservation—one of them right into the staunch form of Oso himself, which, unsurprisingly, caused the small man wielding a soft ax to cower like a child and run off. But that was all right. The protestor’s cause still stood a chance at relevance, as there were a hundred more versions of him around. There were always more, especially when a big event loomed right around the corner.

And one did loom. In precisely three weeks, two days, and seven hours, Tomi Corporation was set to release their much anticipated line of retro androids that had one great skill: delivering to their owners tacos, made with Nutrilla brand yeast product, direct from the Tomi Corp brand Taco Toasters. This marketing maneuver was meant to bring healing to their image, as the androids were a patchwork of ebony and ivory, possessed no noses, and had small lumps in relevant areas that gave them an aura of being either male or female.

From advanced biological Minäs to taco waiters, it was a long fall into oblivion for the company Oso had founded. A coalition of young humans and their Minä-android buddies were gearing up to coalesce on Tomi Corp’s home city of Albuquerque and protest the release of the retro androids. Their main reason for protesting was the same as it had always been: after seventeen years of mandatory education, they couldn’t find the kind of employment that would allow them to purchase $500,000 taco-bearing vanity bots.

“All right, enough fun, Devon,” Oso said. “Relinquish your weapon. We’re here for a serious reason.”

“Tech Expo!” the Minä shouted, jumping up and down, his unruly hair flopping away from his endearingly large ears. All Minäs had large ears. That was how they were created.

“Yes, but first, we’re going to meet my granddaughter. Do you remember Stephanie?”

Of course, Devon wouldn’t remember. Minäs lived perpetually in the moment, and it had been almost a year since Oso had visited the girl, as he’d holed up in his home in the Sandia Mountains to heal from the death of his wife, Bernadette. For a while, Oso thought he’d die in his sad, downcast hibernation until Stephanie called him and begged for his help in her career. First, a press pass to the Expo. Second, an official interview with him.

The Minä was game for any kind of potential excitement, though. “Stephanie!” he shouted, still jumping up and down.

Oso smiled tolerantly. And then he froze when he caught sight of Stephanie across the street. She was the spitting image of her grandmother—short, but with long legs, tiny waist, doe eyes. He shook his head to clear the ghost image, but there she remained. The young woman had grown up a lot in the last year.

The shouting behind him cleared his heart of the bittersweet sensation that filled it. His granddaughter, being a Journalist Of Integrity for the Albuquerque Daily, could very well be in danger. The protestors had a list of rules to follow, which were posted on yellow signs, most of which had been torn down and were fluttering along the sidewalk.
  1. Remain in your designated identity space inside the yellow police tape;
  2. Make certain businesses within reach of the designated identity space accept liability for any damage done to their storefronts;
  3. Expect passersby to carry the requisite medical insurance in case of injury from walking too close to rocks being thrown at them.
It was the last rule that concerned him; the Journalists Of Integrity, or JOIs, were not popular with the standard media crowd. To one side of the Expo center’s turnstile doors, the JOIs were rioting because their papers hadn’t been accorded the Truth In Reporting designation. Stephanie would be safe with them, if they bothered to look at her press pass. To the other, the mainstream journalists were rioting the existence of the Journalists Of Integrity by burning JOI papers, including the locally popular Albuquerque Daily. At this point, they didn’t appear to be roughing up any people, but they’d been known to for the sake of Freedom of the Press.

Across the street where his granddaughter was tentatively weaving through the crowd, however, a much larger group of rioters were smashing dummy shop windows because the CEOs of Tomi Corp were rich and had created mindless robotics to unemotionally do the jobs their window-smashing counterparts used to get paid for. Most of them hated Oso, as he was the original CEO of Tomi Corp, but some of them saw him as a hero or, similarly, a martyr to government oversight as well as a man who had done great things before retiring to a quiet life in the mountains.

Oso didn’t know what they thought of JOIs with visible press passes swinging from their necks, who were forced to step inside the protest space to avoid the traffic on the street. Stephanie appeared calm enough as she pushed her way through a line of topless women who had pasted protest stickers on their nipples. One of them had written FREE MY NIPPLES across her chest; another STOP RACSISM. It appeared the protestors were ignoring Stephanie, until a group of men bearing signs that said STOP FACSISM surrounded her.

“Devon,” Oso snapped. “Stay where you are. I’ll be right back.”

“Stay? Stay here? I should stay here?”

“Don’t leave the square you’re standing on.”

Oso hurried across the street. The protestors seemed in mellow spirits today, and he wasn’t especially worried. Nonetheless, he was prepared to rescue Stephanie if worse came to worse.

He bent down and ducked under the yellow tape, his daily tai chi style exercises serving him well. With his cane, he prodded people aside, pausing only to tell one of the young topless women to stop being a fool and put a shirt on.

“Equality,” she said. “You put yours on first.”

He curled his lip at her. It wasn’t worth it to explain that he was, in fact, wearing a sport coat due to the gusty spring winds, under which was layered a shirt.

“Excuse me,” he told her and waited for her to move aside. And then he repeated the mantra until the rest of the crowd parted like the Red Sea at his forceful tone.

Finally, he shoved aside a STOP FACSISM man, who was in the process of yanking Stephanie’s press pass from off her neck.

“Hey, watch it!” the man shouted at Oso, before a look of recognition dawned in his eyes. “Oh.”

“Yeah, oh. Return the press pass.”

“I was just trying to figure out who sent her. We don’t allow reporters in our protests.”

Stephanie let out a deep, gusty sigh. “Granddad, I told him three times I was here to cover the Expo. He didn’t believe me, even though my press pass says so.”

“All right. No need to be dramatic, either of you.” He turned to the illiterate protestor. “Apologize to my granddaughter, and we’ll be on our way.”

“I’m sorry,” the man mumbled.

“I’m sorry, Miss Gonzalez, just as her pass says.”

“I—I’m sorry, Miss Gonzalez. I couldn’t read the pass. I can’t read.”

Oso shook his head. “Seventeen years of schooling.”

“I only went to twelve,” the man said, hanging his head in shame. “My parents pulled me out early.”

Satisfied with the lack of danger from FACSISM man, Oso guided Stephanie back under the yellow tape, and across the street to where Devon waited. The poor Minä was staring at his feet that were trapped disconsolately in the square.

“Hey, Devon,” Stephanie said, and hooked elbows with him.

Devon tried to kiss her, but the positioning made it awkward. “Girl,” he said. “Pretty girl.”

The bittersweet sensation filled Oso’s chest again. Up close, Stephanie resembled her grandmother just as much, even down to the rather too large derrière. Except Bernadette wouldn’t have been caught dead in the shabby, unfashionable clothes Stephanie was wearing—old tweed skirt, weird braided leather flats.

“I don’t know, Devon,” Oso said. “She has a fat ass. And her clothes could use some work.”


“But she get points for not protesting with her shirt off,” Oso concluded with a snort of amusement.

The thought of Stephanie taking her shirt off was clearly too much for the young Minä, and Oso had to physically restrain him in order to enter the Expo. Security was tight there. Security was always tight, like a pair of pants one couldn’t quite peel off.

Camus Kaze and the Best School Project Ever

The world, at times, is not a happy place. So it was for Al Camus from the time he was a small girl. If he was a girl -- which he doubted. He was also never small. Large, tubby, corpulent: these were the adjectives that described Al.
 "Alberta!" his mother hollered from the bathroom. "You used the last tampon and didn't tell me!"
 It was useless to explain to his mom that he couldn't have told her he'd used her last tampon because boys didn't use tampons. Al's mom believed he was a girl. Al's mom was frustratingly unenlightened about the world.
 Often, and especially at times like these, Al wished his mom were Japanese. Oh, she was Japanese; she just wasn't uber identity-based Japanese. She was American and had slovenly American ways. When Al passed the bathroom, he had to turn his head because the bathroom door was cracked open, revealing the mess of clothes and towels on the floor. At dinnertime, Al generally wished his dad were really French, too, so they could eat decent food.
 Put it all together, and Al was disgruntled with his life. He snagged a package of Nutter Butters and a bag of Hot Cheetos, and made his way to the back patio table where he could work on his homework in peace. He swept off his dad's beer cans and cigarette butts and spread out his books. He opened his math book and closed it. Al hated math. He opened his science book, and then shut that one, too. He was failing science, and it was too late in the year to fix it.
 But Al had a bigger problem. Tomorrow, he had to give his oral report for history class. The students had drawn World War II topics from the teacher's disgusting greasy ballcap; he had drawn "kamikaze pilots". At his peak performance, Al was a mediocre student. He had resigned himself to this reality years ago. Someday, he would no longer have to be a student. For now, he put most of his effort into keeping his head above the social waters.
 Oral reports were not the best way to prevent this particular style of drowning. By now, it was standard practice for someone to make farting noises at him while he walked up to the front. Last year in English, someone had oinked like a pig, while Al had stumbled, blushed, and forgotten what his topic was mid sentence. It didn't matter that the teacher had sent the oinker out of class because the damage had already been done. Even the teacher couldn't quite keep the grin off her face.
 This year, he'd prepared ahead of time by dying his hair black, and then adding white stripes. Sick dyed hair was a good way to gain instant street cred. Until oral report day, though, he had to wear a beanie. He didn't want the shock value to be lost.
 Al's phone bleeped at him, and all thoughts of schoolwork fled from his mind. Well, not exactly. Al was trying to recruit the class gamer boys to help him with his presentation by doing cosplay. So far, two wanted to be samurais, and the third said he would come as a sumo wrestler if it wasn't blatant cultural appropriation.
 "But I'm Japanese," Al reminded them.
 They'd all laughed uproariously. "Sure, you are, Alberta."
 They'd repeated his name several times, as if it was relevant to being Japanese or not.
 One of the samurai volunteers had just texted him to ask him where his sword was. Al had promised to provide real swords in exchange for their help. It had seemed a good idea at the time, an easy prop to acquire -- surely, something the school would allow once they realized it was for a history lesson. Because kamikazes. Because kamikazes had nothing to do with samurais, but they were both Japanese, and Al was Japanese, so...
 "I'll have them on the day," he texted back.
 "You'd better," was the response.
 Al racked his brain, trying to come up with a secondary option. If he couldn't get a hold of real samurai swords, maybe he could empty his mom's change jars and buy Nerf swords at Wal Mart. If he couldn't get anyone to drive him there, he guessed cardboard and foil would look snazzy.
 His phone bleeped again. "Hey, ur going to be the sumo, right? Lololol."
 That was all the text said. Al's face heated up, and his heart pounded. Didn't the gamer boys like him? Wasn't he one of them? Maybe they wanted to include him in the cosplay. Maybe it wasn't a dig on his weight.
 Who was he kidding? It didn't matter, anyway. What mattered was their making him look cool.
 From the kitchen this time, Al heard his mom hollering at him. "Al, get in here and clean up this mess! I want the kitchen clean when i get home from work."
 His mom worked nights at Circle K. Since his dad was still gone God knew where, nobody would be around to take him to Wal Mart. Al would have to make cardboard swords. If he worked really hard on the design, they might look even better than real ones.
 He pushed aside his largely empty 3x5 cards and spread out some soggy broken down boxes that were in a stack on the porch. So he hadn't gotten around to writing relevant facts and information on the cards. He figured he could fudge a little, as long as everybody was distracted by samurais.
 After working steadily for a couple of hours -- he'd never had any intention of doing what his mom had told him to -- his swords didn't live up to the image in his head.
 But he was tired now, and he had to live with what he'd prepared for his oral report on kamikazes, which included a few samurai swords and a vague idea that kamikazes were suicide pilots. He'd be fine.
 Alberta was never fine. When he rolled himself out of bed the next morning, he threw up. Nerves. Or too many Hot Cheetos. Why couldn't his parents make dinner like normal people? He opened a bottle of Red Bull and chugged it. After that, he pulled off the beanie he'd been wearing for a week and pressed his hair down with water. After that, he barely had enough time to make a run for the school bus.
 Once he'd managed the social nightmare of sitting down, he realized he'd forgotten the swords. It was no use asking the bus driver to stop so he could run home and fetch them. She waited for nobody.
 The school's air conditioner had broken, which made Al sweat profusely. That didn't even count the sweat that poured down when he thought of history class. He saw the gamer boys at their lockers, and he turned from them, afraid. They weren't popular. It wasn't that. They had a place in the world, and Al didn't.
 If they helped him, people would say, "Oh, I didn't know Al was a geek. That explains everything."
 But eventually, history class rolled around, like all dreaded classes did. And when he arrived, there was nobody there. A note hung on the door: "Meeting outside today at the lunch tables. Too hot inside!" Al groaned. Sunlight was the worst kind for his complexion.
 From a distance, he watched his classmates settled comfortably on the benches, including the gamer boys, who were leaning over their phones. Phones weren't allowed inside, but now they were outside, so...
 Al pulled out his phone. There was a single text: "No swords, no deal. But awesome sumo costume."
 He couldn't do it. He couldn't go through with it. And that was when it happened, the sudden compulsion to squash them like the tiny insignificant bugs they were. Either that, or hurl himself from the roof and end it all. Conveniently, the air conditioner work people had left a ladder for him to climb.
 Wow, they really did look like insignificant bugs from up here.
 "Hey!" he screamed. "I'm giving my oral report up here!"
 Their pleasingly shocked faces stared up at him. Mr. Thorpe, the teacher, looked like he was sending for help, as his pet student went scurrying off.
 "Alberta, you need to come down from there!" he shouted, hands cupped around his mouth.
 "My name's not Alberta!"
 The entire class was now huddled beneath him. They looked worried. Good. The teacher was on his phone now, completely ignoring Al. Or calling the po!ice. Oh, God, not the police. He hadn't meant for this to get out of hand. He paced nervously at the edge of the roof, huddled over in anxiety.
 One of the gamer boys pointed at him. "Oh, my God, she really is a sumo!"
 "I'm not a she," Al cried. "I'm not a..."
 This was going to be his best oral report. Melancholy filled his soul, as he now knew what he had to do.
 "I'm a Camus Kaze!" He declared, as the divine wind rushed through his godlike hair.
 And then he jumped, aiming himself right at the teacher.
 It was too bad he missed.