Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Part One: “I Would Like to Have a Word with You about Songbirds”

Rainbow Captain America and Nebula

When Rainbow Captain America and the Green Squiggle finally confronted Ondcain the Lord of Bluebirds, Rainbow Captain America spent much of the time getting the piss beaten out of him.

Rainbow Captain America lived with his sidekick, the Green Squiggle, a single-dimensional literal green squiggle, in a neighborhood called Fertile Crescent, quiet save for the delightful daily songbird polyphonies, and their neighbor happened to be a villain called Ondcain the Lord of Bluebirds. Despite being composed of songbirds himself, he was a powermongery sadist who got his jollies playing practical jokes on neighborhood songbirds. The “Lord” in his name implied he liked to lord things over his own kind mockingly, as if to say living inside a human house made him a better bird. At first Ondcain was merely dressing the other songbirds in human clothes (business suits and dresses), and he laughed as if to say, “You are not as human as me!”

Rainbow Captain America would come home carrying groceries and see these little business-suited songbirds, and Rainbow Captain America would shake his head (the Green Squiggle had no head to shake because he was a one-dimensional literal green squiggle).

“Somebody needs to teach Ondcain a lesson,” said Rainbow Captain America.

“Maybe he’s just a weird hobbyist,” said the Green Squiggle. “Can you imagine the amount of patience it takes to put a business suit on a songbird? That’s pretty incredible.”

“I guess you’re right,” Rainbow Captain America said in a skeptical tone and continued to stare at the littlest besuited bird who seemed to be screaming in distress.

Then, one day, it became clear Ondcain was supergluing birds to branches. The little birds tried to flap to fly away, stuck fast by this Lord bastard. “That’s it, I’m not going to tolerate this anymore!” Rainbow Captain America said and threw the groceries on the ground.

The Green Squiggle said, “Not cool, dude. My Milano cookies are in that bag.”

Meanwhile, Rainbow Captain America knocked on Ondcain’s door, crossed his arms, tapped a ragey foot. He repeated the knock-and-tap routine until Ondcain opened the door, and Rainbow Captain America said, “I would like to have a word with you about songbirds.”

Long story short, Ondcain beat the piss out of Rainbow Captain America. He didn’t really have a chance.

The Lord of Bluebirds was a conglomeration of thousands of bluebirds, roughly gorilla-sized roughly and gorilla-shaped (as much as a conglomeration of thousands of birds can be any shape). Having a couple dozen bluebirds in the shape of a fist come down all over your body is no picnic. The other problem was Rainbow Captain America had no superpowers or even physical toughness beyond mountainous moral conviction.

He was a fortuitous recipient of a shape-shifting wish from an angelical monster who felt bad for the pathetic little guy, but when the angelical creature asked him what shape he wanted to be, he blurted out, “Rainbow Captain America,” but he should have specified the shield should be invulnerable or that he was at least a little stronger than normal, so he wound up with a shield that was just a bony outgrowth of his arm covered in skin with as many pain receptors as the rest of his body and a body as weak as the body he always had. Still, the yearning to embody the greatness of the identity he chose drove him to always do the right thing.

During his career as sidekick, the Green Squiggle had to witness a lot of unpleasant and painful losings, but as a one-dimensional literal green squiggle, he never actually had to receive any beatings himself, and he had to resist intervention because his one-dimensionality meant he sliced right through whatever fleshy body he’d try to fight. Fighting Ondcain, who was made out of thousands of birds, meant slicing him to a thousand dead-bird bits which seemed hypocritically to be far more songbird-cruelty than they were aiming to prevent. The Green Squiggle had zero anti-murder compunction, but he knew the boss would never go for the Ondcain slaughter. Still, he always made the offer: “I could totally just kill this dude if you wanted me to,” he said to Rainbow Captain America, splattered on the ground, redder than his normal rainbow. “I could slice this dude to pieces with very little effort.”

“No, we do not kill,” said Rainbow Captain America pulling himself together and standing through the pain. That’s the sort of guy he was and one reason the Green Squiggle agreed to be his sidekick. “As long as evil stands, we stand against it.”

“Your morality can be such a pain in the butt sometimes,” said the Green Squiggle. If he had eyes, he would have rolled them. Still, he couldn’t help loving a poor, beaten-down dude who talks about standing against evil when he keeps comically collapsing over his own lawn ornaments.

It happened again the following day even though Rainbow Captain America was totally bandaided up, but the Green Squiggle knew his partner would keep going forever if he witnessed some sort of injustice. He knocked again on his neighbor’s door, said, “I don’t believe you listened to my point yesterday regarding the song birds,” and he got another similar beating.

The Green Squiggle had to find a way to convince Rainbow Captain America to stop cultivating constant losing/beating/breakage, but during this particular beating, the Green Squiggle noticed every punch from the conglomerated bluebird monster broke the necks of a dozen birds that made the first layer of the monster’s knuckles.

He pulled Rainbow Captain America aside, pulling carefully at his rainbow-colored costume at a point before his poor partner lost the ability to stand, and he said, “Look, dude, we got into this business to save songbirds from superglue chicanery, but look at all the mass bird death our confrontation is creating.”

Rainbow Captain America looked around at the bluebird carcasses (wiping blood from his eyes to see better). Ondcain stood aside, agreeing to the momentary pause, breathing hard (or imitating hard breathing) like a dancer too-caught-up in dancing so that the pause gave him an otherworldly disorientation, and dead and bloody bluebirds fell from his fists like dripping blood.

“It’s a no win, buddy,” said the Green Squiggle. “A no win. Let’s go.”

Rainbow Captain America stared at the scattered dead a long time, panting (more legitimately) from the beating he endured for the sake of similar little birds. He finally limped away in silence, clearly knowing his inability to win presently was actually an inability to ever win and an inability for humanity to ever win anything (though the Green Squiggle might’ve been projecting this last point).

“Good,” said the Green Squiggle following him away, uncertain that was the right word.

The bluebird monster laughed as they parted, wiping knuckle blood across his chest (blood from Rainbow Captain America and from the dead blue birds who made up those knuckles), like a badass and also like a terrible person. He laughted the same sort of laugh as all bullies who win.

Rainbow Captain America just moped around the house for a few days after the no win. He fed his chinchilla too many times. He ate cereal for all three meals. He watched a Three’s Company marathon for no reason and never laughed. All his rainbow colors looked a little ash gray.

“Hey, buddy,” said the Green Squiggle patting his back (carefully). “You’re starting to look a little shadowy, buddy. Wanna go throw the frisbee?”

But he didn’t answer until hours later: “Why bother?”

The Green Squiggle had to do something. One advantage of being a superhero is you know a lot of folks with superpowers. The Green Squiggle had this idea to solicit a shapeshifter to cheer up his buddy and flipped through the superhero rolodex under “S” for shapeshifter. He went to this one shapeshifter he knew called the Sea Yak and said, “I need you to imitate this bluebird monster, so I can cheer up my buddy.”

“What’s in it for me?” said the Sea Yak (most superheroes seemed the Green Squiggle like self-centered little glory-loving assholes like this dude).

“What’s in it for you is I don’t kill you. You should thank whatever sea yak deity you pray to every day I don’t slice you to ribbons. How’s that for a deal?”

“You’re a sucky superhero, bro,” said The Sea Yak, but he agreed to do it (he wasn’t wrong about being a sucky superhero which is why he couldn’t let his buddy slip into ashen darkness).

The Sea Yak showed up on time outside of Rainbow Captain America’s window pretending to be the bluebird monster, mimicking the conglomerated bluebird body perfectly (at least he was good at this one thing), and shouting “America is dumb.” He was improvising on the script the Green Squiggle had given him. He may have been a good shapeshifter, but he was a terrible actor. “Also, I tricked you into thinking the beating I gave you hurt the, um, the birds in my knuckles. My beating doesn’t hurt anybody. You only fell for my trick because you’re dumb. That means America is dumb. Because you’re America I guess?”

Rainbow Captain America couldn’t take anymore. He put down his cereal bowl, turned off the Three’s Company marathon, unwrapped the bathrobe and towels he cocooned himself and his unwashed rainbow costume in and marched out to the street, ready to beat some bluebird monster tail.

But he was very bad at fighting. It wasn’t just the complete powerlessness. It was the total lack of skill. He was like an old man doing kung fu if he only saw kung fu on television. The Sea Yak shrugged and dropped and said, “You got me, dude.” Still, Rainbow Captain America kept savaging the monster as best he could.

Rainbow Captain America was deep in the fury and could only release awkward and unpleasant gutteral snarls and slobber until the fed up Sea Yak, bothered more by slobber than the beating, said, “You got me, dude. That’s enough. I’ll never do evil again.” He walked away. Rainbow Captain America stood there panting, his own knuckles bleeding from the ecstasy of monster beating.

The Green Squiggle hoped he’d see his buddy smile again given this chance to beat someone for the first time. But there was no smile, and the color remained ash gray.

Rainbow Captain America did get some of his old color back over time for no reason other than the normal numbing of past misery sinking deeper into the sea of personal history. When he called the Green Squiggle to more adventuring, villainy abating, morality disseminating, all the old inanities, the Green Squiggle said, “Why?”

Rainbow Captain America said with no smile or irony, “Why not?” a certain ineffable misery eternally stuck in the bassline gravel of his response, but that was good enough for now.

The Horse with a Jellyfish Belly

Horse with a Jellyfish Belly collage

Junior Magicolo felt a little embarrassed to walk down the halls of his high school with his best and only friend, his Living Nightmare named Moths and Bats, fully aware most other kids (probably all other kids) lacked the delights of a flesh and blood nightmare as their best friend. Moths and Bats was made of two interlocking tornadoes of literal moths and literal bats, the moths part of his body billowing downward like a billowy hoopskirt, the bats part of his body billowing upward like a hoopskirt-wearing lady standing on her head, both funnels spinning and churning, eternally eating each other (or eating himself more accurately (the bats part of his body eating the moths part of his body, the moths part of his body constantly breeding to replace the parts of himself he’d eaten))(This awesomeness was detrimentally distracting in class, and Junior Magicolo had to constantly apologize to his teachers (“Sorry for my distractibility, but my Nightmare is too awesome.”))

Still, the other kids would whisper and turn away (even though Junior had a note from a psychoanalytical professional called Dr. Jason Oppenheimer Sophen that said, “Junior Magicolo is allowed to bring his Living Nightmare, Moths and Bats, to school; other students are not allowed to whisper and turn away under threat of psychoanalytical reprimand.” (Junior had a hand in shaping the phrasing of authoritative Nightmare excuses under threat of his own emotional manipulations (Junior may not have known much about making (non-Nightmare) friends, but he knew a lot about emotionally manipulating psychoanalytical professionals))).

His mom and dad didn’t have much appreciation or understanding of the need among kids of this generation to be cool and well liked. His mom, Lyn Magicolo, was a nurse (or a “semi-doctor” as Junior called her for no reason) and what does a nurse know about being well liked? His dad, Junior Magicolo Sr., was a part time stage magician and most of the time stay at home dad. The stage magician part of him was undoubtedly cool, but he manifested that aspect of his identity so infrequently anymore.

But then his mom told him about the Estonian exchange student.

Junior exploded in rage. At least he did on the inside. On the outside he said, “Oh, that’s nice. Except for four flaws in your plan: 1) Where’s he going to sleep? 2) He’s going to be inside my immediate and Nightmare-populated space for God knows how many bloody centuries. 3)What if Estonians are naturally very cool people, and you (my so-called ‘parents’ (why ‘so called’ was necessary there is a mystery but it felt good at the moment)) have this stubborn deafness to what coolness is. 4) Where’s he going to sleep? Our apartment is too small. He’ll have to sleep on the balcony with the pigeons. Or otherwise I’ll run away and hunt for jungle chickens with bow and arrow for the rest of my life. I bet you regret not getting me archery lessons. Oh well. Too late now.” But the truth is Moths and Bats had to have a place to sleep, and he didn’t feel like explaining that to some Estonian. For all he knew, Estonians were far cooler than the cool kids at school, and this Estonian Satan (for surely he must be equal to Satan) would spend the whole time saying things like “Nightmares are so nerdy and un-Estonian and in Estonia we define cool things by being Estonian.” And when he went back to Estonia, he’d tell all his cool friends, “You’ll never believe what this nerdy un-Estonian American kid had living in his bedroom: a Nightmare. A real Nightmare in the flesh, a Nightmare made of moths and bats – can you believe how uncool that is?” Junior was destined to be an international disgrace.

But the Estonian kid showed up one day, and he had a horse with a jellyfish belly. He was called Clearance Liquidizes, a name that didn’t seem Estonian, and his accent seemed more American than Estonian (of course Junior had no idea what Estonian names and accents were like). When Clearance arrived at his little apartment followed by a horse with a jellyfish belly (really just luminescent blue jellyfish-like tendrils hanging down from the horse’s belly) Junior wondered if this was just another thing he didn’t know about Estonia. Maybe all Estonians had such magnificent horses.

Clearance said (in his suspiciously American accent), “This is my Nightmare. His name is Pride in the Backstretch (based on classic racehorse naming rules).”

Junior decided to take the shame blanket off of Moths and Bats after all since this Clearance kid was likewise a Nightmare-having loser. “This is my Nightmare,” he said. “His name is Moths and Bats. He is literally moths and bats. In case you didn’t notice.” Junior was ashamed again at how uncreative his Nightmare naming was. Considering this was a fleshy outcropping of his subconscious, a completely literal name seemed to be a clever irony until he said it out loud.

Junior sat in his now crowded bedroom (with Clearance Liquidizes and the two Nightmare monsters) and said, “Kids in America like things like food and game playing. What do kids in Estonia like?”

“Mostly the same,” said Clearance Liquidizes and then silence (except the regular monster noises (breathing in and breathing out and self-eating moth/bat activity)).

Kids at school seemed even more intent on avoiding him when Clearance and his jellyfish-bellied horse walked down the hall with him. “This is American school,” he said. “We learn about math and animals. Also, cool kids are kind of mean to everyone else. What’s school like in Estonia?”

“The same.” Again, they had run out of things to talk about.

Then Junior said, “I think we should have a death match between our Nightmares.” Junior came up with this plan as the words left his mouth, but it was the most perfect plan in existence.

“Why?” said Clearance.

Junior said, “Because I kind of hate you right now. Plus also a Moths and Bats monster versus a horse with a jellyfish belly seems kinda rad and the sort of death match everyone on the planet should enjoy. Mostly, however, it is the hate I have for you.”

The next day, Junior made the poster and plastered it on all the viable spots. He shouted out, “Death match will begin shortly!” in noisy spots where no one heard him shouting.

But then the death match came, and Moths and Bats and the horse with a jellyfish belly just spent the whole time standing there looking at each other (as much as a creature made of moths and bats can stare).

They were alone. None of the other kids gave much interest in his advertisements.

“Why don’t you fight each other to the death?” Junior said to Moths and Baths. “It is the point of a death match, in case I have to inform you.”

“I’m honestly not cool with this at all, dude. I am not a fighting type. Man, I’m a Buddhist, for God’s sake.”

“Not cool, Junior,” said the horse with a jellyfish belly. “Not cool at all.”

“You realize they’re afraid of you, right?” said the Horse with a Jellyfish Belly. “That’s why kids don’t like you. They’re terrified.”

“Why would they be afraid?”

“It’s probably because your best friend is a tornado made of moths and bats.”

“That makes sense,” said Junior, and again they ran out of things to talk about.

It was pretty nice in the week of fear that followed in the wake of revelations that Nightmares made of moth-and-bat tornados might frighten normal kids. He didn’t know what to do with this power and spent most of the week planning scare pranks with Clearance and his horse with the jellyfish belly, but then he’d say, “Nah, better not,” because Jr was a good kid. Like “We can spook the football players when they kick the ball except, nah, maybe better not.”

But then Clearance said, “Dude, I gotta go back to Estonia now, so…” Right in the middle of school one day. He got up to go, and that was all there was to it.

They stood there staring at each other, making subtle protohandshake motions, initiating a hug but aborting it when it barely even started. Junior wanted to say, “You mean so much to me,” and “you are my best and only friend,” but he couldn’t.

Then he was alone again. He had the power to cripple others with fear, but he would never use it and he would always be alone because Junior was a good kid.

You’re Not That Special

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For the 2100, June 27th, 2014

Secret Hero, soon before realizing she was one of 2100 of the same human, posted a sign that said, “Needed by the Needy” in front of her DJ booth. “Needed by the Needy” was the title of her mix tape, and the excuse would be advertising this mix tape, but also this was the motto she wanted to plaster on everything as new subtitle to Secret Hero. She put “Needed by the Needy” sat in front of her turntable like a name for it, like knights name horses. The turntable functioned as an exteriorization of this defining power. People shouted at her, she’d tap her earphones. Shrug her shoulders. She’d mouth “Can’t hear you.” It was a loud club, and her job to make it loud and make everyone deaf to everyone else. Nothing she could do. No interaction. Sorry, humanity, out of luck. Keep spinning.

But “Needed by the Needy” was also a hobby in her off hours, as pride driven as big game hunting. The way she’d prey on the Needy Ones developed from simple drink buying. They’d sit at the bar, converse with her. More like converse at her, as unidirectional as dancers shouting up at her DJ booth. Early on she tried to say with her eyes, “I’m using you purely for the self-importance dopamine, so shut up,” but they’d keep yammering. When later at the turn table they tried to talk to, the pain when she pretended she didn’t even see them was delicious.

The problem with this variety of dopamine addiction is the effect wears off too easily. When the simple drink buying failed to feed her like she needed it to, she started the friendship racket. She’d single out the most pathetic ones and say, “You’ve been coming to the club so much I feel like you’re my best friend.” The look in their eyes like witnessing paradise, for Secret Hero this was better than a megahit of any drug. She didn’t do drugs, and she didn’t even drink, but she couldn’t imagine simple consumption could equate to destroying lives.

In the middle of the friendship racket, she’d tell herself over and over as her predatory mantra, “Pretend to Care.” That’s what she was best at. She was the queen of Pretend to Care. If she could have two mottos they would be “Needed by the Needy” and “Pretend to Care.” She’d watch them crumble as they failed to reach her pedestal or get her real attention or know her outside of this. Soon the black ocean when Secret Hero, through force of pure will power, would turn these fake friends into pure nothingness. The total crumbling, from head to toe to soul to will to live, man, it was tasty.

There was this one guy named Arthur she used to know in high school (and she used to know everything about people then) but now not so much and everything she used to know and care about was jettisoned into a waste incinerator in her soul fueled by pure hate. This Arthur guy wanted to meet after this long set for drinks. It’s not like that, he told her. He’s married, he told her. He just wants to catch up, blah blah blah. Turns out after a couple times of Pretend to Care, they’re all of a sudden best friends, and he’s there every night. This would be her masterpiece, almost too delicious.

It got better: his wife beat him, scratched his face until it bled, and Secret Hero was the only one he had in the world who’d listen. He’d come in with scars up and down his body, bruises and black eyes, one time even a broken pinky. “My wife has a bad temper.” Who cares what the ogre’s name was, the more monstrous his stories and scars, the more monstrous Secret Hero imagined her. She delayed and delayed the final breaking, like a great tease artist, but when she cut the tie, ignored him like a nonexistence, it was a masterpiece.

Maybe he killed himself, maybe left his wife, who cares? Secret Hero saw herself as a herd-thinning wolf, killing the weak. If she ever did drive any of her victims to suicide, all the better for the gene pool, but she never cared enough to do follow up research.

But then she swallowed the wrong prey with Eve Eeny. She had the crazed look of a crab snapping but delicate otherwise. When Secret Hero saw that look in her eyes, she wondered if she could finally drive someone to orgasmicly commit suicide right in front of her. Eve Eeny tried to signal “We need to talk,” but Secret Hero was smarter than that (as she was smarter than most things). Later at a picnic table behind the club smoking a secret cigarette (her lone substance addiction she would always only ever do alone and kept secret from everyone for no real reason), Eve sat down beside her. Secret Hero wanted to scream but swallowed it. She’d already hooked Eve with her indifference, and displays of legitimate fear would ruin her hard work.

“Sorry to scare you,” Eve said.

“You didn’t.” Secret Hero looked around for weapons just in case. This could be the karmic consequence of her consuming friendship victims, one wacko she didn’t even know offs her in a back alley.

“It’s just I have…There’s things you need to know.

“Like what?”

Then Eve said, “We are the same person.” She left it at that as if that was clear.

“I don’t follow.”

“We are the same human being.” That didn’t clarify as she only changed one word. “We were born simultaneously. There are 2100 of us. We’re having a reunion.” She gave Secret Hero a flier. “The 2100,” it said. “Reunion of the Co-Born.”

“I don’t understand any of this,” said Secret Hero, giving up the mystique of superior knowledge for the sake of better understanding. Her gut, normally used for optimal predation, told her that this Eve lady was being genuine, and there was some connection between them she couldn’t quite place. “What do you mean we are the same person?”

Eve said, “Do you covet the regard of others just so you can reject them because you get a high?”

Secret Hero said, “Who doesn’t?” as if this was a common practice.

“That’s kind of our signature move. I do it with ghosts. Man, the heartbreak on a rejected ghost, unbelievable.” She was clearly a crazy person, but still Secret Hero wanted to know more.

She wanted to go to the reunion of the 2100 if only to solve the mystery of its existence. She made a mixtape for the occasion called “Myriad Stolen Night Cars,” decided to bring her boombox in her backpack, just in case demonstrating a singular skill could give her any advantage.

For many years, Secret Hero had worked on isolating this one pure sound she heard in a dream. She spent hours every day on that one note. She wondered if isolating this pure sound was her life’s mission, why she’d been given the fuel of misery. In the small part of herself that regretted all her destructiveness and delight, she wondered if this elusive purity could compensate for anything she’d done.

Most of the people at the 2100 reunion (and Secret Hero had noticed only the humans at first) remained isolated with those judgmental eyes Secret Hero must’ve given everyone. Imagine a meeting of vampires who are only capable of interacting with victims. The first step is to find the weak and open. To prey on an equal parasite would be a contradiction to the essential principles of soul destruction. But outside of this, there was nothing there, the 2100 were too untrusting of nonvictims (in this way “bestfriend” was less a lie and more complicated than the prey ever understood).

Eve Eeny was somehow different. This distrust seemed absent. This may be what real kindness looked like, but Secret Hero would never fall for it. Eve introduced Secret Hero to two friends (or “friends,” who knows?) sitting at a table together unlike anyone else there. “This is Dr. Havelock.”

Secret Hero said, “What are you a doctor of?”

Dr. Havelock said, “Just a doctor.” Good one. No hierarchical comparisons plus mystery plus she could go crazy on you any minute. Secret Hero regretted not thinking of that.

Eve said, “Show her your zombies.”

Dr. Havelock said, “Okay but brief background: are you familiar with the singer John Denver?”

“Yes” and Secret Hero rolled her eyes. They were both slipping into subtle habits of soul crushing. She tried to stop herself, certain the other versions of herself must know her tricks.

Dr. Havelock said, “John Denver has tiny people living inside him. Or used to. When he died, I dug him up and stole his tiny people. I made them all zombies.”

She was crazy. They all were crazy. But then Secret Hero saw the first proof that maybe there was a little more to this than some mass mutual insanity. Dr. Havelock pulled a breath mint can out of her pocket and dumped the contents on the table. Zombies. Tiny zombies. Hundreds of them stumbling all over the table as Dr. Havelock gently wrangled them. “I love these guys.”

“I named them all after sitcom characters. There’s J.D. and Dr. Cox. This is Donna and Donna (Donna Reed and That 70s Show).” And so on.

Eve introduced her to another friend: “This is June Einstein.”

June said, “I’m a world traveler. I develop relationships with buildings that become sentient.” She started showing wallet photos of her world travels and the sentient buildings as if anybody cared. “I started out with movie houses, gas stations. Boy those waitresses were pissed when I brought the restaurant home. Here’s me with the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”

Secret Hero said, “That seems painful.”

June said, “I’m sure he’s still recovering.”

“I’m glad you three are nice,” said Secret Hero. “This whole concept seemed like a terrible idea. Who would even propose this reunion? I mean knowing what we’re like. I mean you bring together a lot of people who define themselves as special and above everyone. What’s the point?”

Eve said, “It is possible to get over this sickness of our shared being. I used to have a ghost addiction, and I’m over it.”

Secret Hero said, “That can’t be common. The only purpose I would imagine for a meeting like this is kill us all. Whoever planned this wants to kill us so she could be the last remaining special one.” With this declaration, Secret Hero may have won the table. Just being a DJ seemed so far below creating tiny zombies, Secret Hero needed something beyond them. She’d be smartest by pointing out what seemed to be an obvious murder plot (but she saw obvious murder plots everywhere). They were silent. They changed subject. There was nothing else to do. “So I hear the monsters and superheroes are coming up soon.”

They spent the following half hour sharing techniques like a professional conference: “My favorite technique is the intervention. I corner the prey and tell him just how wrong and weird he is for his own good.” At “for his own good” the whole table howled with laughter. The old Pretend to Care line. “We should mail each other all our techniques.”

Then it was time for the parade of monsters and superheroes. They came into the convention center accompanied Led Zeppelin music. They probably thought they were original. Superheroes mostly chose “Kashmir.” Monsters mostly chose “When the Levee Breaks” or “I Got a Girl Who Can’t be True.” Most of the superheroes and monsters were males, surprisingly.

There was one called The Wound with a gaping chest wound. The Wound sort of created an “i” with a split through the body from the sternum all the way down so he had long legs and too many joints.

There was one called The Ring who had a shimmering gold ring inside of which everything was indelible and inviolable. Anyone who blasphemed that scared ring was cursed to deteriorate into nothingness to a barrage of “How. Dare. You.” Say, for example, The Ring placed a random fork inside the sacred circle, and even if you joked “Let’s outlaw spoons,” The Ring would say, “How. Dare. You.” and made the blasphemer collapse into a tiny ball until soon there was nothing left. Secret Hero’s table saw this happen. “Serves him right.”

Then there was one called Schadenfreude who was all gray scraggly stone in monstrously strong gorilla proportions. Schadenfreude had porcelain fangs and strapped on his back a sword and a hammer bigger each than most humans present. All his old man wrinkles had humans inside them engaged in trench warfare. “I love Schadenfreude,” Dr. Havelock said and gave a wink like this love was the worst variety. “He’s a Promusaurifex like John Denver. That means he has tiny people inside him.”

Secret Hero said, “But we’re all the same person. That seems incestuous to love yourself like this.”

“Loving ourselves is kind of the whole point of our existence,” said Dr. Havelock.

Next the Lava Popes entered to “Misty Mountain Hop,” the obviousness of which became clear when they formed a lava mountain. Lava Popes were very literal. An army of popes made of lava erupting from the ground. One wall collapsed. But it seemed like a work, like the wall had been gimmicked to collapse this way. All the lava that splashed them was cold. “It’s only bodily fluid. Pretty gross,” said Eve. They formed a mountain so tall, they also disintegrated the ceiling.

Then Secret Hero saw something far above them descending like a meteor. She guessed this is the one who gimmicked the ceiling for this entrance. “My guess is this flying self would be the murderer,” Secret Hero said pointing upward to the meteor.

“That’s the Mountain of Screaming Mako Sharks,” said Dr. Havelock. He was another literal one, a man shaped giant of black stone filled with sharks. The screaming seemed to emit a sonic blast that scattered members of the 2100 to atoms. Witnessing the death of multiple selves hardly elicited any emotions, and Secret Hero was shocked by how cold she had become. She was right about the murder. She loved being right, but she hated being right. The Lava Popes were wiped out first. They collapsed into cave-like wounds. The Wound and Schadenfreude fought valiantly, but they had little defense against the sonic screams and inevitable atomization.

Secret Hero suddenly found herself jealous of this miraculous heroism. If only she could be like that. Of all the feelings she could have felt at this moment, jealousy was the most surprising.

The Ring put the ring around herself and made herself indelible. Secret Hero could understand this.

Secret Hero ducked behind a table with Eve and Dr. Havelock as if this could do anything to save them (June skipped out when business got real).

Eve suddenly started laughing. She said, “‘All the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!” and I’ll look down and whisper “No.”’’” Eve laughed an even louder and crazier laugh. “Somebody had to make that reference,” she said before dissipating as atoms along with Dr. Havelock.

As Secret Hero ran away and ducked into the kitchen, she remembered a story Arthur told her during her friendship racket and the Pretend to Care. He and his wife were going to see Watchmen with some friends. The wife wanted to sit near the aisle because of bladder problems. When the two friends arrived, Arthur stood to let the two friends have the aisle seat, and the wife in rage dug her claws in so deep she drew blood all the while smiling. Four beads of blood remained on his arm even later when he saw Secret Hero. She refused to save him like she refused to save anybody.

Now she put her mixtape in her boombox and fast forwarded to the pure note she found. This was her purpose. Stop the Mountain. Save the 2100. But it didn’t do anyting. Maybe she had to get closer, hold the pure note aloft against the sonic screaming. Maybe it did little good to hide away in the kitchen now. She looked at the door going into the ballroom and the door going out to safety. She could get away so easily, out to a world where there was no more 2100. Except maybe a handful of survivors who would know better now than to have a reunion. Then there was the Mountain of Screaming Mako Sharks who may seek her out some day, but she was so small. Why would he care? Why would he put the effort into finding little her?

The choice was simple really. She tucked her boombox under her arm and got the hell out of there.

Erzsebet Foldi

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For the 2100, June 27th, 2013

Secret Hero discovered at a young age she could make her little lavender plastic record player play just by wanting it enough. “Everything is nothing if you got no one,” she heard it play and then it stopped. Secret Hero was frightened when this happened the first time.

She decided to want it again. Long silence. Long staring. Then the record player gave a slow demon mumble, then, “You came walking in,” slow mumble, then “the real thing.” And so on.

“Oh my God,” she said. She looked down out of her window at the other kids playing across the street. It was hard to get them to do anything by wanting and this relationship with a lavender record player was so much more rewarding. The distance away from the kids felt good. The cold wood of windowpane felt good, far better than human play. She crouched in the corner so no other kid would see her and kept wanting music, wanting it and wanting it over and over until she played full records this way.

Secret Hero as an adult DJed in a lot of clubs, including a singles dance club called Guys and Dollys owned by a sentient teddy bear named Struggles. He told Secret Hero he built the club for her, but he was always saying ridiculous things like that to make her laugh.

“This club was here long before I met you,” she told him.

“I willed it into existence because I knew you needed the perfect place.”

At least it had her beloved elevated DJ booth to keep her above the terrible dancing people and their sweating hairy human bodies. She could stand back in most shadow like the entity the music turned her into.

But then Struggles did his dumb dances and made her laugh, invited her onto the floor to dance as well. She would never ever come, but Struggles might be the only one to make that happen.. Their whole friendship was this laughing denial.

Then one day while Secret Hero played her set, she saw Struggles came in with his three hulking bodyguards in fuzzy coats the deepbruisepurple of pimps. Those bodyguards were in truth all fuzzycoat and muscle from top to bottom. They had no necks or faces or any other sign of humanity but stood a head and a half taller than all other patrons. Sometimes seeing the fuzzy pimp coat heads was the only way Secret Hero knew Struggles was in the building. He was so small he drowned in the ocean of dancing people. She wondered if he started those wacky dance circles only so people could finally see him and he could be in the center. Or maybe it was only so Secret Hero could see him. One bodyguard pointed to Secret Hero, and then he pointed menacingly to the loft behind her. Struggles had never been mad at her in all the years she’d known him, but this seemed like angry pointing.

She extended her set as long as she could reasonably get away with. The uncertainty of what an angry Struggles would be made Secret Hero want to delay the experience, but soon her time ran out.

The glassed loft behind the DJ booth, built to be her lone retreat, was set up like a second bar. They sometimes used it for private parties, even a little elevated turntable for her to play, plush couches all around, now creepy in its emptiness in contrast to the crowded club. Struggles sat in a booster seat at a small table and lifted his whiskey glass with both of his tiny teddy bear paws. Since his insides were only plush, this made him wet and stinky. The khaki colored fur of his chest, dark and whiskymatted, could’ve lit on fire easily if Struggles decided to pretend to smoke. He was made of more burnable stuff than humans. “Secret Hero, come in and sit,” he said. “Want some whiskey?”

“I don’t drink.”

“I know, but boys can dream,” he said with the random creepiness of someone who imitates humanity.

“You’re not a boy.”

“Indeed.”

Struggles tapped his fuzzy paw against the table, a nervous tic or a method a tougher guy might use to make a menacing sound in the silence, but the table patting did nothing. “So…been busy lately? Still DJ down at the Mouse Factory after hours?”

“What’s this about, Struggles?”

“You think this is about something? Does it have to be about something?”

“You took me off the stand. I’m guessing it’s not to chat.”

“We used to chat. We used to have long chats. Is it so unusual I’d want one now?”

“…Yes.”

“Fine. It’s about the tapes. I sent you tape after tape after tape, and you didn’t respond.”

“And you don’t know why?”

“Of course I don’t know why.”

“Seriously?”

“Should I?”

“You wanted me to do music for your rap career…”

“Is it so wrong to want a rap career?”

“But you called yourself St. Rapes.”

“You see, it’s like Saint Rapes and Street Rapes and Strapes, like strafes and stripes. Because I strafe over other rappers. Also, I like stripes, and I can wear stripes in my performances.”

“Yeah, but on the tapes you say stuff like ‘St. Rapes raping across the countryside.’”

“So you listened to the tapes? That’s wonderful.”

“You’re missing my point.”

“You don’t like my word play?”

“No, I don’t think rape is funny.”

“Why didn’t you go by Struggles? That’s a fine rap name.”

“Struggles is my given name. That’s awfully hypocritical of you quote unquote Secret Hero quote unquote. Nobody knows your given name.”

“It’s Erzsebet Foldi.”

“Oh…I didn’t know that.”

“You never asked.”

“Oh. I thought I knew you a long time.”

“No problem. Not a lot of people care to.”

“I don’t think you know how personae work in performance. As St. Rapes, I’m a douche. I’m arrogant and stupid because that’s hilarious. Rape is wrong, sure, whatever, but in my St. Rapes persona, I don’t know that. I act like I think it’s cool. That equals hilariousness.”

“I really can’t be friends with you if you think that’s true.”

Silence.

“Oh…I didn’t realize…it was like that.” He was trembling. He liked to pretend he was drunk when he drank, but this was involuntary. “That’s not a big deal. I…I make friends so easily, I can hardly keep them all straight. I sometimes even forget we’re friends. My best friends are these three guys. They’re Cuddle Monsters. They’re only golems you buy at the store. But inanimate objects only come to life if you give them love so they must love me, right?”

“I don’t think it works that way.”

“Me and the Cuddle Monsters, we have long conversations you wouldn’t believe.”

“Cuddle Monsters have no faces and no mouths and ears.”

“I didn’t say it was two sided.”

Silence.

“Look, I’ll do the music for you if you do one thing for me.” She pulled a book out of her satchel and handed it to Struggles. “It’s called Teaching Men Not to Rape.” Struggles had difficulty holding it in his little paws. He said, “Condescending title. Like all men rape and need to be taught not to.”

“We use it at the crisis center.”

“Why? For you to feel superior?”

“Write a song based on these ideas, and I’ll help you make the music.”

“That would turn St. Rapes into the wrong kind of asshole.” Secret Hero stared at him with the sort of cold severity she hoped one day could cause legitimate combustion. Struggles, in a weird sort of terror, said, “That’s…okay, I’ll do it.”

Secret Hero knew he would. She wanted to say, “After that, climb on the roof and jump off. After that, climb in a blender, push on.” He’d do it. She only wanted him to do this because it would be the most satisfying way to humiliate him.

Like the idiot he was, Struggles opened the door separating the loft and the club and shouted above the music: “Party in the Champaign room! My bff is still my friend!”

He put a record on the player in the smaller room that competed psychotically with the music in the bigger room: “Baby when I met you I found a peace unknown, I set out to get you with a fine tooth comb.”

The whole room, she suddenly realized, was amazingly the same lavender as her childhood record player.

“Stick around,” Struggles said. “We can hash out the song details and our practice schedules and all that.”

She did stick around, but she sat in a booth alone as Struggles danced with a hundred people he essentially paid to like him, nearly as humiliating as the blender image. Struggles tossed money and pretended to be drunk because he so needed others to think this meant something.

The afterparty lasted so long only sleeping people remained on couches and Struggles alone dancing with Cuddle Monsters. Secret Hero in the same spot all night found herself slipping into sleep when music got slow and quiet and dancing got repetitive.

She woke up when she felt Struggles humping her leg. She kicked him across the room.

“I’m drunk,” he mumbled in his heap.

Secret Hero stood and walked away without saying anything.

Struggles shouted after her: “Just gonna leave like that? You know what your problem is?” She stopped and waited to hear what her problem was. She didn’t know sometimes. But he had nothing. He staggered in his pretend. Or maybe she’d just kicked him that hard.

“Well?”

“No, seriously, you know what your problem is? You’re frightened. Too scared to be you. That’s why I’m your only friend. Because I can’t hurt you, and you’re too afraid of hurt to have any other type of friend. I’m just somebody you can stomp on and he keeps coming back for more stomping. You have to think you’re better than me to feel okay at all. When you squeeze all the evil joy out of me you can get, you drop me like a dry husk, some lonely pathetic shit you used to know. The problem is you’ll always be afraid and you’ll always think you’re too good for me or anyone like me and you’ll never feel. And you’ll never love because assholes who only care about their own fears can never know how to love!”

“Are you done?”

“I think so.”

“You can keep the book. I hope you read it.” She left. She didn’t come back to that club.

She thought about Struggles every once in a while only to laugh. He called every day for the first week, but then he stopped and never called again.

She liked to ride the elevator to the top of the tallest building in the city at a height where the sky looked lavender, stand back in the concrete corner of the observation booth, feel all the cold of it. In this way, Secret Hero was able to make things okay, at least in that moment.

The Good Thing

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Brian Panowich got the hero bonus at his station in a slow year for fire danger and bought his soon-to-be fiancée a unicorn. Joanna Levesque had told him long elaborate stories of her own father’s abandonment (“he used to come home bloody knuckled, but I never knew what he did for a living, but he took us on these RV trips up in the mountains until one day the RV was gone and everything he had was gone like some magic act,” and so on, and she’d always be crying at this point). She told him all about the unicorn-and-dollhouse set that stood in metonymically for the dirt bag abandoner (“The only thing he left behind was this empty ‘Usury-the-Ware’ brand dollhouse, a one of kind, and a single unicorn, but I made these paper knights to ride in on the unicorn to fulfill the destiny of the imaginary no one inside the dollhouse. We lost them all later in the fire,” and so on).

So Brian knew the only acceptable proposal was to ride a unicorn. In fact, she directly ordered it. “The guys down at the station would rag me no end if I did something like that,” he told her as a way to teasingly keep that future from existing.

But he was raised to always do the good thing, and that meant making loved ones happy over all else. If he couldn’t bring himself to do this unmanly unicorn riding today, he could keep delaying as long as possible.

But then he noticed a unicorn farm near the station, and a unicorn cost exactly as much as the hero bonus. It seemed like destiny did the deciding for him

Brian hired a Peter Cetera impersonator to sing “Glory of Love” (their song) while he rode into the scene (Joanna surely assuming the Peter Cetera impersonator was the extent of Brian’s romantic gesture) dressed in his rented knight costume on his unicorn (whom he named “The Good Thing” under racehorse naming principles). Her shockface in seeing this whole set up, real unicorn included, would soon double in intensity when he knelt down and pulled out the ring – and double again when he told her they owned the unicorn. He unfolded the paper with his proposal but still fumbled (he had never been so nervous): “You are vibrant, transcendent, and astonishing. I can’t wait to embark on this journey together,” and so on.

But Joanna’s face was not the sort of shockface he hoped for.

Then he realized she was looking behind him at the unicorn. Brian turned around and saw blood dripping from the Good Thing’s mouth. The Peter Cetera impersonator had no head and stumbled this way and that, spurting blood out of the gaping hole where his head used to be until he fell and filled a red puddle at the unicorn’s feet. The Good Thing kept chewing dispassionately like he hadn’t just bitten a dude’s head off.

Joanna said, “I don’t know how I should feel about this.”

After the Peter Cetera impersonator tragedy, Brian and Joanna didn’t see each other a long time. Brian considered staging some new elaborate proposal as an apology, but a girl who’d break it off because he bought her a unicorn who just happened to bite a guy’s head off – who could’ve seen that coming? – maybe she wasn’t a good girl. But then there was the matter of how to care for the beheading monster (whom he now only called the Thing because he could no longer bring himself to call it the Good Thing). He kept it leashed outside of his trailer in the yellowing hay field, but it refused to eat the sparkle daisies all the farm supply stores sell as unicorn feed, and Brian couldn’t let it starve to death.

“What’s your deal? Do you only eat human flesh?” Brian said because he was very lonely and had to say all his thoughts out loud these days.

The unicorn didn’t answer and only stared at him like it could never die.

He spent nights on the phone to the most horrible places trying to get deliveries of human flesh. “I’m a good guy,” he kept saying over and over to people who couldn’t care less.

“You want to hear a crazy thing,” Joanna said to him one day over the phone. “That Peter Cetera impersonator, you know the one who got his head bit off by the unicorn, he was kind of a murderer. He was a serial killer, actually, called Ondcain hiding out in a stupidly elaborate way. Your unicorn must’ve known that because of the magic of purity…or something. Isn’t that amazing?”

Brian realized the Good Thing wasn’t an evil monster after all (despite the pounds and pounds of human flesh Brian fed it on a daily basis) and Joanna, who had watched a unicorn bite a man’s head off, only needed time to shake off the awfulness of the vision. Maybe Brian was the bad one for thinking anything other than this. He had to make things right with a new proposal.

Brian bought that dollhouse Joanna called one-of-a-kind, the Usury-the-Ware brand, and he knew enough bad people now he could find any rare thing he wanted. He held his hands over her eyes and led her to the room where he had the dollhouse wrapped in a bow and the tiny knights riding unicorns all set up.

But when he said “Surprise!” they both saw the room covered in headless neighborhood songbirds and the dollhouse smeared with blood in a place that might be the mouth if dollhouses had faces. One thing was for certain: the dollhouse had become some evil predatory creature and decapitated a hundred songbirds. Of course.

Brian said, “You gotta be kidding me.”

Joanna said “Is it bad that I’m super into this?”

Postal Automations :oR: The Blood Has Stopped Pumping

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“As you may know, the Red Queen Corporation, when it bought the U.S. Postal Service, decreed all of you would be replaced by robots.” Maury Holliday, the postal supervisor, had given a similar sort of speech for a million mornings (it seemed) with dispassionate tones he hoped sound professional and authoritative and stone-like in its superior power, but certainly his subordinates must have seen it as the pure broken sucked dry dispassion it actually was. All the postal faces he spoke to were so drawn down by gravity, so prone to die at any moment, how could he put any passion into any of this variety of speechifying? “We’ve known for a long time you’d be integral in training the robots who’d replace you. However, news has come down the pipeline that, considering the expense of programming robots, the Red Queen Corporation has outsourced the development to mad scientists who work on the cheap with the agreement that their robots may also be used one day to take over the world. That being said, as you train your robot replacements, please, and this is vital: don’t let them take over the world.”

“Is it likely they’ll stage some bid for world domination from the post office?” said one of the workers whose name Maury couldn’t recall and didn’t really care to recall.

“It’s part of the contract that they can, if they choose to, conduct world conquering business elsewhere as long as that does not interfere with mail delivery. However, I have to remind you that these are not regular scientists programming these robots. These are mad scientists. Ergo, therefore, keep an eye out, people, see something, say something, and so on. Insanity is not the topmost psychological state we’d wish for for postal efficiency, but it’s our job as representatives of the postal service to be stalwarts of sanity.”

Silence. As usual.

The Red Queen Corporation sent three robots:

  • The Bloodmonger Porcu-Bot Mark 19 (or “Mark” for short) was a robot who ran on blood he sucked from victims with porcupine-like needles all over his body, scored like drill bits spinning, so his body seemed to be covered in tiny spirals (likewise, the mad scientist decorated his face, chest, and shoulders with blood-red spirals). The postal workers had to give him a daily break to hunt down and suck dry park squirrels to keep him from degenerating into lethargy (on both the physical and psychological level). They had to often stop him from stabbing the hands of stamp buyers (who screamed and ran and left their stamps behind), so often they had a broomstick behind the counter designed only for smacking Mark’s spikes and hands away.
  • doG the Soulless, who looked a lot like a dressing dummy the size of a teenager, was supposedly traveling backward through time for the sake of historical assassinations, but he seemed to spend most of his time holding his mechanical belly and moaning, “I want a baby” with his pathetic and crazy head hanging to the side. He’d scare off stamp buyers for entirely different reasons than Mark’s blood sucking. A customer might say, “One book of stamps, please,” and doG would reply, “I want a baby,” and the customer would be stuck, uncertain how to proceed, looking backward to flee, wanting to stay to help the pathetic little bastard. The customer might then say, “I’m going elsewhere for my stamps now. Good luck with your life.”
  •   Ultra-Mecha-Frankenstein, a creature who seemed created by a child aiming to one up every past version of Frankenstein and all other automata by combining every version into one gratuitous creature – the embodiment of gratuitousness. He had the clichéd massive green monster body at base but covered in (apparently non-functional) gadgets and laser cannons and spiky silver armor that made walking through the too-small post office doors extra awkward. Plus there were the pockets, lots and lots of pockets. The pockets didn’t seem to hold anything or function in any way. It’s as if the child-like creator got the concept that robots needed pockets for some reason and decided the best robot must have a thousand useless pockets. Ultra-Mecha-Frankenstein, for his part, seemed desperate to be loved, as desperate as his creator was to make him seem badass. “I’m so glad to be here, you guys,” he said, touching postal workers on the shoulders way, way too much. “I think this is going to be some fun times. I don’t want to speak too soon, but I think we’re all going to be really good friends. Am I right?” The postal workers looked at him with their dying faces and didn’t bother to respond. He talked a lot about his dreams as if to emphasize he was as human as everybody else, not realizing no human ever likes to hear about other people’s dreams. “I had this dream I was a giant black dog with a Lincoln zombie hanging from my face,” a childish concept of what dreams are like if the child never actually had one himself. “That’s weird, right? Or normal? Maybe?” The most unpleasant thing about Ultra-Mecha-Frankenstein was the way he gave his flesh bits over to the Mark the Bloodmonger in a tacit agreement to give him love in return for blood, a love he seemed incapable of giving. Ultra-Mecha-Frankenstein had to keep replacing his dry-sucked pieces of flesh. This would seem pathetic except he insisted on talking about it so much: “You guys ever have to replace your flesh pieces? That’s normal, right?”

There is no force on earth quite like postal workers who no longer give a crap, but in this case, the postal workers only had to stand back and do very little and laugh with a joy they’d rarely ever known as the Red Queen Corporation’s plan to automate away the humanity in postal service obliterated itself with such glory and majesty.

There was one postal worker who took no joy in this failure: Maury Holliday. He would be the sole human remaining in this post office had this plan succeeded. He looked on at all his workers laughing at these horrible robots in silence, but he couldn’t punish anybody. What good would that do? What could he possibly hold over their rock bottom existences to force them to stop laughing? But he couldn’t laugh along with them.

Take, for example, Mark the Bloodmonger: workers slapping his hand down from the counter soon became pointless when customers stopped coming all together, but the workers kept doing it, smacking him around with broken broomsticks and laughing.

Then one day when closing by himself, Maury saw Mark’s mad scientist creator (Dr. Hydraulic Pastor, a man seemingly made out of prosthetic limbs, his maybe-missing nose and mouth obscured by a gas mask) pull up in a ratty sedan (tricked out in stupid ways) to take Mark home. “Why are your hands always busted up?” he said. “What do you do all day?” Mark gave a servo-buzzing shrug (most of his arm mechanisms were loudly malfunctioning). “Get in the car! Don’t stand out here embarrassing me one minute longer!”

Then one day Mark was too slow getting in Dr. Pastor’s car, so his maker kicked him against the wall and drove off. Some of his blood vials broke, and he slumped onto the ground in a puddle of blood (kindly given to him earlier that day by Ultra-Mecha-Frankenstein).

Maury walked up and said, “Hey, pal, you need somewhere to stay tonight?” Mark looked up, the blood-red spiral decoration on his face like a baffled eye, the neck turning mechanisms loudly pulling against his malfunctioning shoulder sinews. “Come on, let’s go,” Maury said and pulled him to his feet, careful not to prick his finger on the needles or get the stupid leaking blood from the broken vials on his postal uniform.

They sat together at the kitchen table, and Maury ate in silence as Mark slumped lower into failure (Maury knew the slumping well). “I don’t know how to fix you, pal. You sit there as long as you like.” That was the last thing he said that night. He let Mark sit and buzz alone and went to bed.

Maury’s home was empty. He never lived with anyone else. His whole life was the post office. He hated the post office.

Soon, the Red Queen Corporation called it quits on this robot program. Humans may keep running the postal service apocalyptically, caring less and less, until the whole thing spiraled down to nothing, and their human bodies gave way to death.

Maury took in all three of the robots on the agreement that Ultra-Mecha-Frankenstein would never say anything, so he held his hand over his mouth and wiggled like a kid who needed potty. Meanwhile, doG, slumped always the same sort of slump as the servo-busted Mark the Bloodmonger, but holding his belly and moaning about his baby needs. This was at least a little more tolerable than Ultra-Mecha-Frankenstein.

Even in forced silence, it was nice to have these three bodies in his home. Maybe this was the better life he always needed to block out the bland awfulness of postal work, bodies of any kind, even barely living bodies.

But he was so old, and there was so little left of anything.

Blockhead :oR: Leaps Away

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“The Blockheads that haunt this apartment complex will kill you the worst way, worse than any other ghost,” said Sister Mary Michael (whom Eve Eeny called “Sister Mary Michael Jackson”). “But don’t worry. They’re easy to spot and leave alone.”

Eve Eeny had been in therapy for “anorexia brought on by fear of sexual assault by ghosts,” as the doctors called. She’d gotten so bad about this fixation she bolted from all court imposed therapy and all enclosed spaces and lived unhauntably out of grocery carts containing only a small number of objects she needed to live:

  • A safe full of bullets and ballet money (she still worked and showered at the city’s best ballet, and she was a very, very good dancer, so she would never lose her job, but she bought nothing but onions and bullets and batteries);
  • Onions (she’d only eaten ghost-frightening onions and garlic for years (her physical condition was more like classic malnutrition than anorexia, but doctors only called it anorexia out of ballerina stereotypes));
  • Batteries;
  • A battery-operated record player (to play her Michael Jackson records, from Off the Wall to Dangerous, because what else does anybody need?);
  • Plenty of other bauble charms she had for ages to keep the ghosts away (a particular metal might ward off a scratch ghost or there was an incense for sheet specters or any kind of charm for any kind of ghost ever, but it felt like it did little good because the closer she got to living in any walled building, the closer she felt to being hauntable).

That’s when Eve Eeny’s friend Sister Mary Michael Jackson found her chronically losing as a street person and saved her. At least that’s what Sister Mary called it to anybody else who’d listen: “I saved her from a street life, suffering and miserable,” and so on.

That’s all it took to go from constant fear of everything to give a fearless existence a chance: one person caring. It had been so long. Eve had this uncanny feeling in her gut. Could it be happiness or self-respect? It was tiny and deep, deep down below the diaphragm, so she could hardly even get access and explore it, but it was there. Sure, there was the dancing that everybody loved, mostly because Eve was very, very good at it, but this was something Jesus blessed her with and she destroyed her body over, and still most people only considered it a gift object from Jesus delivered to their eyeballs with Eve only as the conduit.

But then there was Sister Mary caring for no reason at all, and it made all the difference. “I’ll get a house if you want me to,” Eve said, “but only because you want me to.”

“I know great realtors,” Sister Mary said. “I know way more about real estate than a nun ever should.”

“Is real estate something inherently sinful?”

“Well…it can be.”

But then Eve, whose natural inclination was to doubt/escape/hate/fear/that sort of thing, said, “I doubt realtors would listen on the ghost assault phobia.”

“Well…we’ll see.” Sister Mary may be a nun, but she was an honest nun.

Later, they went together on tours of possible apartments, and Sister Mary, with her honesty and delicacy, would be the buffer between the normals and Eve’s particular issues.

The realtor might say, “This next apartment is the former waiting room of a family doctor.”

And Eve would say, “Any evil doctor ghosts?”

The realtor stumbled, attempting to avoid rudeness and not shatter the poor delicate crazy lady’s hope of getting a home: “It … depends … on your definition of ‘evil.’”

Sister Mary saved them both: “Sweetheart, houses at this budget are historically inclined to be haunted. I can find you a house with a nice ghost like a Blockhead. A Blockhead is known to be very slow and very rarely ever attack. He just shows up and hangs out. More a light bother.”

“Why is he called a Blockhead?” Eve wondered aloud.

“His head is kind of block shape.”

“That name makes a lot of sense then.”

It was only later, after Eve had chosen an officially Blockhead-haunted apartment, that Sister Mary said, “The Blockheads that haunt this apartment complex will kill you the worst way, worse than any other ghost. I just have to warn you about that. But don’t worry. They’re easy to spot and leave alone. Just do your little ballet leaps away from them, and you should be fine.”

She was inclined to do her little ballet leaps away from all of this, and this Blockhead business sounded far more terrifying than anything Sister Mary could understand, but for no dramatic reason other than Sister Mary asking and her sickness at the sameness of her homeless existence, Eve broke her long history of ghost avoidance, Eve agreed to live there. She didn’t back away out of the door and run down the open sidewalk screaming in her brain. This gave a sort of bravery she’d never known, a forgetting, a sort of bravery where anything untoward went to dark outofview places, and her dealings were with waking pleasantries. It was like peeling away black clouds to find out a sun existed when you assumed suns were only myth.

She lived alone, an out loud “I can do this” filling all the silent moments the first day and Michael Jackson records filling the rest. She only planned one weekly visit from Sister Mary on a Thursday noon, giving her four days of nobody but ghost potentials and Michael Jackson and her own echoes of “I can do this.”

“Are you sure?” said Sister Mary.

“I can do this.”

“Repeating something doesn’t make it true,” said Sister Mary with her damned honesty.

“…I can do this,” Eve said because other phrases seemed beyond her at the moment.

The truth was Eve could do this. Delighted by the new sensations of bravery, she embraced all the things that being homeless and ghostphobic robbed her of. Like dishwashing and grocery shopping. That’s about it, really, but that was huge. Eve used her surplus ballet money to buy a pot and a pan and stopped because that was overwhelming enough, but she spent a lot of time staring at her pot and pan and washing them though she hadn’t cooked anything yet. She still mostly only bought onions and garlic to eat, but now she had a place to put them. Then she decided to go wild and buy some bacon, lots and lots of bacon.

Then she saw a Blockhead.

The first time (and, honestly, there would only ever be two times) Eve saw a Blockhead, it didn’t seem exceptionally good at murdering.

It sort of hung there in the hall like any normal ghost. Both she and the Blockhead froze midmotion a long time. Both seemed to own this frozenness as a natural position.

Eve was only going out to get her mail. It was only junk mail. Nobody would be writing her. Junk mail was utterly fascinating to someone who had never received it. But then the Blockhead blocked the hall. Eve’s heart beat hard seeing it suspended there. This was the only sound, this heart beating. Once motion was finally possible again, she ducked back in her new place and slammed the door, but this door slamming hardly made more noise than her heart in her ears thumpthumping.

But wait a minute, she thought (or at least the new Eve forced this thought into the real Eve’s brain): she was strong and independent now. She had to be reasonable about the danger of some silent and still unmoved ghost. She opened the door for one more peek. Besides, she needed to get her mail someday, maybe a couple days from now.

When she opened the door in her forced bravery, the Blackhead was gone, frightened off by the smell of her courage and the whoosh of her door, like ghosts were secretly made of a smoke that would be blown away that easily.

But her courage went in the wrong direction, not bolstered by this first victory. Instead, it seemed like luck was a commodity she used up totally her first brave ghost encounter, and death in their second meeting was more certain. Soon the Blockhead haunted her dreams but only that brief uncertain glimpse hovering just in the distance, assaulting her just as she always feared but remaining impossibly always at the original distance. Soon it was all she could think about. She couldn’t walk down halls anywhere without assuming Blockheads would be waiting.

Only a few days after she moved in, she decided leaving her new home and entering that horrible hall was no longer worth it. Who needed mail? Or the world?

But then the junk mail called her. What if a furniture store had a sale she might one day, years from now, need to know about?

When she opened the door again to the Blockhead hallway, after only a day of dithering, there was the Blockhead. Of course. It was her fault really for wanting to check her mail. Why this obsession with mail? Damn you, Eve. What foolishness.

Then a strange feeling filled her up. A different resignation she hadn’t known before. The inevitability of this second meeting and oncoming death only a few minutes away allowed her to leave the door open a few extra minutes to get a good look at him.

The scariest thing was his stillness and his silence. Like a creature born from nothingness to take others into the nothingness must resist movement or speaking or any other form of certainty.

Also, his head was a giant block. This was certain. The name Blockhead was literal. A block shaped like but bigger than the cardboard box Sister Mary lent her to move her stuff in (a box she hardly filled with onions and records and a record player). Except the head of the Blockhead was covered in brown puppet felt and wide enough to nearly hit both walls of the hall. His body was long and droopy like proper ghosts, but he wore the boring brown suit of 70s insurance salesmen. What an odd and awkward and terrifying and not-so-terrifying ghost.

She slammed the door and made wind that scattered apartment renting paperwork and junk mail all about, cut her finger locking the lock too hard, got blood all over the paper. All this renter info she’d likely be making irrelevant soon as she’d likely be leaping away at the first opportunity.

She stuck her bloody finger in her mouth and sucked (a blood she seemed to need to drink in her poorly nourished condition), and she hoped the Blockhead wasn’t the sort of ghost who smelled blood. Like a halfshark halfghost. (She imagined the breeding process of sharks and ghosts, laughed half a second, then kept her mind on the business at hand.)

Sister Mary said the Blockhead murdered worse than any ghost, and Eve now had to imagine what that meant. It had to involve eating. Eve (hungry now in the weirdest way possible) cooked herself some bacon and onions, all of her bacon and all of her onions, but had to cut it all tiny with her one tiny knife and eat it one tiny piece at a time because she was weird about pretty much everything in her life. Eve hoped the Blockhead wasn’t the sort of ghost attracted to bacon smell who’d come into your house to murder you and eat all your bacon. This was no way to survive, to eat the last of one’s bacon as a murderous ghost lingered outside. She’d be without all food as soon as she wolfed this all down in her slow, slow way. The desperation to now remain inside could overpower any animalneed including eating, drinking, sleeping, company.

Eve decided after a few bites, screw this, and she step out into the hall to stare at the Blockhead. She’d never get this opportunity to stare at, contemplate, study, understand, appreciate, and love the worst thing possible while it was immobile.

Then an old neighbor lady came out of the door and saw Eve staring (she must’ve seemed crazy). “Do you need help?” said the old lady staring in her scruncheyed way at Eve.

There was no good/noncrazy answer to what she was doing: “I’m looking at this ghost to be less afraid of it”? That wouldn’t be good.

Then the Blockhead moved. It reached out a hand with its long skinny finger and touched the old lady. She folded in half at the middle. She folded the worst way to be folded: at the waist and backwards. The terribleness of this murder lived up to the hype. There’s no defense against a touch that folds you in half backwards at the waist.

“Holy crap, that was terrifying,” Eve said out loud and laughed.

Then somebody exploded out of the old lady’s apartment, looked at Eve, looked at the Blockhead. “Why didn’t you say there was a Blockhead out here, crazy bitch!” This must’ve been the lady’s son. He had an axe in his hands for hacking. “You just killed my mom!” he screamed to Eve perhaps but mostly to the Blockhead but maybe mostly to Eve. Who knows? But the fact that the axe-hacking son had an axe so easily accessible for hacking a Blockhead to pieces at a moment’s notice and that seeing his mom split in half backward had an obvious Blockhead cause indicated to Eve that this was a familiar experience. People in this apartment must’ve just known what living with a Blockhead was all about. The axe-hacking son ran screaming at the Blockhead but one touch, a surprisingly quick and graceful touch, and the son split in half backward too. The axe and the rage did little good to save him and did little good for anything at all.

“Hmm, that was horrific,” Eve said in an understatement that surprised her, considering the two split corpses in the hallway. She laughed again. A little, tiny laugh. It was entirely inappropriate and senseless to laugh in this situation, and the Blockhead likely realized she was being kind of horrible right now, so Eve ducked back in. Out of embarrassment at her laughter as much as fear at this point.

Eve assumed she should call a doctor. Maybe not the police because she never heard of arresting a ghost. Then again what could a doctor do for two people so thoroughly dead? Still, she had to do something.

Eve called 911: “I sort of have some dead people in my hall. A ghost killed them. I’m not sure who needs to know.”

“911 does not officially acknowledge the existence of ghosts,” said the operator. She sounded a little like Sister Mary, kind and honest, and this was comforting. “If this is a prank, I must remind you of the legal implications.”

“Sure. Great. Regardless, I’ve still got dead people in my hall?” She inadvertently turned this into a question as if that would be a polite way to communicate with a 911 operator.

The 911 operator said in a definite and officious tone, “Let me finish: officially 911 does not acknowledge the existence of ghosts; unofficially, can you let me know what kind of ghost you’re dealing with?”

“A Blockhead.”

“I see. Thank you. We can handle this. I’m going to get you to do a few things, and you have to do what I say as quickly and quietly as possible, and you should be safe. First, answer this question: Are the walls in your building wood, plaster, concrete, or other?”

“Other. Oh wait, wood. I think.”

“Wooden building increase the danger of Blockhead hauntings. Your realtor should have informed you of this. Has the wood gotten hotter?”

Eve put her hand against a near wall. “Yes. Weird. I mean … relatively.”

“There is a possibility that you will be trapped soon. This may last an hour or several days. If you are trapped, extraction teams are available though the official status and duration of extraction process must remain, by necessity uncertain. Do you have enough food?”

“I’ll manage.”

“Just stay there in your apartment. Waiting is the safest option.”

“The ghost won’t come through the wall?”

“The Blockhead doesn’t go through walls. It warps walls to trap victims, but he does so only in cases of vendetta and/or family history. This is important to remember: in most cases, a Blockhead is perfectly harmless. In other words, avoid a family history of ghost murders, and avoid pissing the Blockhead off, and you should be fine. I repeat: the best way to avoid a Blockhead is to avoid vendetta and/or family history.”

“What about axe attack? There was this guy who tried to get the Blockhead with an axe while I was watching.” Eve laughed a little. “And I laughed a little at him dying. In my defense, I am fully aware that this was inappropriate, but I think the Blockhead saw me. Do you think this pissed the Blockhead off?”

The 911 operator didn’t reply. This silence was unsettling.

“Hello?”

“Listen to me carefully,” the operator finally said. “This Blockhead may be very pissed and may be coming through your wall soon. Try not to be afraid. It feeds on fear. Remain low to the ground. That is the Blockhead’s blindspot. This is your only option. Don’t let it touch you, or you will die. Repeat: if the Blockhead touches you, you will die.”

“That’s terrifying.”

“That’s the point. But, you know, I’m sure you’ll be fine. So…yeah…good luck.” Then the 911 operator hung up.

Eve wondered if that really was Sister Mary on the phone. So typical.

But the room didn’t change. Everything was silent. “This is not so bad,” she said out loud. But of course the room really did start to change shape. Eve noticed it first when she tried to open the window to escape because Eve Eeny loved escaping and wasn’t an idiot. But the window seemed sealed shut, and soon there wasn’t a window at all. Then the wall opened. Like the weird brainwarping of the horrible medicines she’d known too long, but this was real as all this tactile stimulation told her, all the heat and splinter grain of the windows wood as it soon ceased to be a window. The whole room seemed to shift into a dozen possibilities of rooms, and soon it was only one hall, no apartments, all the apartment’s innocent residents tumbled together as the walls narrowed. It’s like the Blockhead and the building together were a single being made for consuming. Like a pitcher plant. Like the building funneled in the prey and the Blockhead delivered the killing touch, blood and flesh absorbing into wood.

The Blockhead picked off the floor’s residents one by one, a touch and split in half along the waist. Every last one. There was nothing they could do.

Eve, in her immobility and alien calm, was the most readied for survival of a ghost like this.

The calm in Eve now, the calm of realizing there was nothing left: either split in half or calm. She knew well what resignation to rockbottom felt like but always the ghostfear remained: rockbottom or this. Now she saw the Blockhead, the worst possible manifestation of ghostfear, and it was like all the fears shorted one another out. She fell to the floor, not as a surrender as she might once have done but in a pure knowledge of the Blockhead, the way it moved down the hall like she and the wood and the Blockhead were all one now. Ballet had made her movement so delicate, the living building trap and the Blockhead couldn’t see her as any separate living being. Homeless starvation had made her so thin the Blockhead would pass over without touching. Any part of him might split her, even a toe touch, but Eve was too thin for this.

Still, she had to hold her breath as he passed over. He stopped. I’m dead, she thought. Only a moment of her old self creeping in, but she was okay with dying now.

But then the Blockhead kept moving.

He’s nothing but a pitcher plant she thought, just responding to stimuli. Nothing but a creature made by evolution to eat fear and split bodies. That’s all he was. That’s all this was. I can do this.

Once he finally passed, Eve stood and tiptoed through gore. She tried to pick up the axe, but the same starvation that saved her kept her from lifting it. Hate might help. Hate might give her power. But the same realization that took away fear robbed her of hate. She cried about not caring. She cried at the loss of her old self.

This somehow unlocked a dark box inside her containing all those wasted years living on the street. For what? For a pitcher plant with a stupid looking block for a head. She couldn’t hate it, but she could hate herself. Before she realized, the axe was through the Blockhead’s right arm and ribcage.

But now the axe was stuck. She couldn’t dislodge it. The Blockhead started to turn around, finally recognizing her presence, but the axe handle caught the wall, pushed the axe head all the way through his torso, so his whole bottom half fell off. He seemed to look down though his lack of eyes and stupid block for a head made it hard to tell if he was looking anywhere.

She laughed. “You dumb ass.” Eve was easily able to duck him now. She grabbed the axe, lifted it with greater ease, and considered finishing him, splitting the remaining bits of his body to pieces. But he was floating to the ground, sinking like a wrecked ship. It was a very pathetic death. Very silent. Very slow. Eve felt sorry for him. Briefly. He was cute with his brown fuzzy face.

She used the axe to open a bottle of wine from somebody’s apartment and drank it as the Blockhead slowly died. She finished the bottle as first responders broke the wall with their own axes.

If they denied the existence of the Blockhead, what must they think of this skinny little ballet dancer holding an axe, surrounded by a dozen split-in-half corpses?

She had a good laugh, the best and biggest laugh of her life.