Category Archives: fiction

Who’s Crazy Now?

 

munchscream

“The Scream,” Edvard Munch

 

The following story has been rejected by both Analog and Asimov’s science fiction and fantasy magazines, so I’ve reverted to my most reliable publisher, myself, to give a wider audience a chance to reject it, too.  I think it’s amusing and somewhat reflective of my philosophy of life, such as it is.  If there is a target of the satire, it would be The System as it exists today, one that creates mental illness by feeding it through an interconnected web of perverse incentives.

 

 

I am a visitor from a different future.  They label me schizophrenic, not the paranoid type.  My official diagnosis in 21st century mythology, is “disorganized schizophrenia.”  In the past, this form was known as “hebephrenic,” from the Greek, meaning “youthful mind.”  In real life, it means I laugh a lot, for no apparent reason.

I have been hospitalized, this time, because I went to the emergency room on a cold rainy night and told them I wanted to kill myself.  Everyone in the ER knows me.  They ask my name anyway.  This time I say “Gunga Din.”

They write “Charlie Appleton” on their clipboards.  If they already know, why do they ask?  I play along.  I practice my postures in the hall. The ballerina pose.  The dog pose.  The boxer pose.  It makes them smile.  I talk back to my voices and laugh at their jokes.

When I laugh too loudly, they usually give me a shot of haloperidol, an anti-psychotic.  This makes my body slow but my feet restless, so I dance to music played by my friends in our shared future, music only I can hear.

If I’m lucky, they give me another shot, this time of lorazepam, a benzodiazepine and addictive relaxant, but on days Nurse Bully Bozo (not his real name) works, he substitutes diphenhydramine, a sinus and allergy medicine, for the lorazepam.  He gives himself the feel-good shot in the medical supply room.

I know this because I see it in his aura.  Where I come from, we all read auras, only we call these “energy fields.”  They are as visible to everyone as the clothes they wear. It’s impossible to keep a secret, so no one tries.  We could see through clothes, too, if we wanted, but nobody bothers. The clothes are more attractive than the flesh.

I’ve attempted to explain all this to the hospital staff, but there are no words in any Earth speech to describe unimaginable concepts, like alternate futures.  They write on their clipboards that I’m “delusional.”  It helps them sleep better at night.

When I threatened to tell Nurse Bully Bozo’s supervisor that he was giving himself the feel-good stuff, he hit me, then told everyone I’d run into a door.  I tried to tell them the gash on my temple came from his ring, but no one believed me. He has an evil-looking ring with spikes on it, but he hid it after the incident.  When I started screaming that the ring was in his pocket, they strapped me to a table for a full day to keep me safe.

I’ve quit telling people I see their secrets.  I merely laugh when the psychiatrist’s deceased mother carps at him during his interviews with me.  She is too, too funny.  She wanted him to be a surgeon, instead of a psychiatrist. She nags him and gives him no peace. “Psychiatrists aren’t real doctors,” she says.  “I knew you would never amount to anything.  Just like your good-for-nothing father.”

I almost feel sorry for him, having a mother like that.  No wonder he became a psychiatrist.  The more she harasses him, the angrier he gets.  His face gets red, his jaw sets, his knuckles holding his pen turn white, and his hand begins to quiver.  I know he can hear her, but he pretends otherwise.  I’m supposed to be the crazy one, in this past Earth I’m visiting.

“Where did I go wrong?” Dr. Gunn’s mama moans, winking at me.  I try hard not to laugh–he thinks I’m laughing at him and ups the dose of my medications.

“Do you still feel like killing yourself?” he asks.

“I’m already dead,” I reply, and laugh again.  Now his deceased father has joined his mother in his energy field, and they are arguing.  They are blaming each other for the fact that their son is a loser.  “He wouldn’t be an alcoholic if you weren’t,” his mother says.

“He might have a family by now if you hadn’t soured him on women.”

They are bickering so much that I have a hard time hearing his next question.

“Do you hear voices?”  Dr. Gunn asks.

“Everyone hears voices,” I say.  “Voices, choices, they make noises,” I chant, trying to drown out Dr. Gunn’s parents.  “I hear your voice right now.”  I dare not tell him what else I’m hearing.  His mother is mad with him because he blew his inheritance on a floozy, who ran off with his best friend.  His father holds a grudge for the time Dr. Gunn had him arrested for slugging his mother.

I hate seeing secrets nobody else sees.  If they only knew what a burden it is, to carry all that baggage.  At least Dr. Gunn is trying.  He understands how widespread these secrets are.  He knows his upbringing was pretty normal, in this past Earth’s time.

“Please, stop,” I tell his parents.  I cover my ears.  Dr. Gunn thinks these are my voices.  He’s so used to hearing his parents bicker that he doesn’t even notice anymore.  It runs in the background, like machine noise, but it drives him to drink after work.

“Stop what?” the doctor asks me.

I try to distract Dr. Gunn from his parents’ argument.  When he’s angry or hung over, he takes it out on me, the staff, and whoever is closest.  At the moment, I’m the closest, and I’ve already had enough feel-bad drugs to knock me bonkers.

“Stop de wop de boppedy bop,” I say, getting up, twirling and chanting.  Dr. Gunn’s parents stop yelling at each other and watch me.  They start to smile, so I whirl faster, then invite his mother to dance with me.  When I slip up and call her by name, Dr. G freaks out and calls security.  They haul me to a padded cell, my favorite place in the hospital.  They watch through a thick, plexi-glass window as my movements slow, and I fall down.  I drift off into my alternate future, where my friends laugh and applaud.

We gather around the instrument panel that monitors my past Earth body and discuss the effects of feel-bad psych meds on it.  We analyze the past Earth energy field and how it affects the hospital staff.  We pass the Spirits around and congratulate each other on having made the right choice in the Earth-split.

My best buddy, Henry, winces as he scrutinizes the scanning monitor and looks admiringly at me.

“They sure walloped you this time,” Henry says.

“This assignment is harder than you let on,” I reply.  “Those people are crazy.”

“That’s why you’re there.  They are suicidal, determined to annihilate the Earth and everything on it, to prove their prophets right.”

“I know, I know.  I’m supposed to prepare them for the coming Earth-split, when probable futures split off like sparks from a cherry bomb.  Different people ride into different futures, depending on their beliefs.”

“They believe in evil,” says Henry.  “At least some of them do.”

“So do I, after what Nurse Bully Bozo did to me.”

“It didn’t hurt.  You have evolved beyond pain,”

At the moment, Henry is beginning to look like Dr. Gunn, only uglier.  He sees my thought and smiles.

“You don’t feel my pain,” I reply, almost smiling, but not quite.  I have a slight crush on one of the other nurses, Nurse Bleeding Heart (not her real name).  She claims to feel my pain.  Her breasts graze my arm as she changes the bandages on my temple.  The cut, which required three stitches, isn’t healing as quickly as they want.  I gouge at the stitches when I get the chance, claiming they are worms eating through my brain.  No one has noticed I only do that on Nurse Bleeding Heart’s shift.

“I don’t feel your pleasure, either, Lover Boy,” Henry says.  “So quit whining and pass the Spirits.”  I give up the bottle, reluctantly.  It’s a great antidote for the anti-psychotic.  It allows me to communicate with my future home and future friends when I’m operating in the Earth past before the split.

We turn away from the instrument panel and sit down to a lively dinner.  I eat like I’m starving, because I am.  That past Earth food is more poisonous than the drugs, so I’ve been refusing it.  White bread.  Soda pop.  Baloney.  Limp lettuce.  Bottled dressing.  Ugh.  We discuss my work assignment for the next day.  Rather, the others talk while I eat.

In the future Earth I inhabit—when I’m not on assignment to the past—everything is free, and money doesn’t exist.  People work because they like it.  They gravitate to areas of special interest or ability naturally and slip into their niches, like so many jigsaw pieces in a puzzle.  Each is unique but integral to the whole.  There is no competition and no overlap.

My future friends voted unanimously to place me in this assignment.  I was the most evolved, they said.  I was normal enough to pass for crazy.  If I couldn’t bring the alternate future to the past, no one could.  The integrity of the Earth split depended on me.

I look suspiciously at them.  I decide they tricked me, set me up, and are having a whale of a time at my expense.  Henry sees my thought and grins.

“You are the most evolved, you know,” he says now.  “I couldn’t do what you’re doing.”

“I agree.  You’re not smart enough to play dumb.”  I know Henry has doubts about his intelligence, but I’m lonely on this assignment.

“I could use some help,” I say now.  Henry passes the Spirits back to me.  I take the bottle.

“Thanks for the uplifting Spirits,” I say, “but I’m talking about companionship.  When I’m strapped down, or in a strait jacket, I have to do therapy on myself.  ‘It really is them,’ I say.  ‘It really is them.’”

“We know,” Henry replies.  “We hear you.  We’re there for you, just not physically.”

“Don’t I know it.”  By now, the past body is waking up and I know time is short.  I must return soon, lest they decide I’m catatonic and use shock therapy to jolt me into consciousness.

“You nag all day long, all of you at the same time.  It’s enough to drive a past person crazy.  There’s so much static in my brain I’m surprised other people don’t hear it.

“They do hear it, but they pretend not to.  You push the envelope on crazy, so that they feel normal.”

I look skeptical, so Henry continues.  “We’re all very grateful to you, you know.  If you weren’t there then, we wouldn’t be here now.”

 

 

What If?

What if time and space really are illusions?  To imagine such a possibility requires suspending conventional views of heaven and hell, and unconventional views about reincarnation.  It necessitates considering the “spacious present” as containing an infinite variety of probable pasts and futures.

In such a scenario, what we perceive as immortality is a given, with no beginnings, no endings, and no ultimate answers or conclusions, just a perpetual state of becoming.  In the world of the spacious present, time is not a line, and space is not measured in distances.  Immortality is a state of being, with varying focus creating the experience we call life.  We do not move through time or space; they move through us.  In considering this concept, the question becomes one of how a person might change his/her approach to life if he/she believes there is no final escape and no final reward, just a continuation of challenges and abilities encountered in this existence.

Mystics throughout the ages emphasize varying versions of “Be here now,” which gives the present its due.  Quantum physics is verging on the same understanding of time as a matter of perception.

The idea of timelessness subtends the premise of my novel, in which an immortal being from a seven-dimensional universe becomes stuck in space-time.  He hopes to save himself by saving the Earth from itself.  Unfortunately for Beon, he has contracted the disease of solipsism, which convinces him he’s the center of the universe, and everything outside himself is a figment of his imagination.

This excerpt from the chapter that introduces Beon describes his disease.  It seems relevant in light of our current Earthly challenges.

* * * * *

From “Beon’s Disease” chapter:

Suddenly, the word “solipsism,” caught his attention.  He looked past Bud’s throne to the far wall, where the large screen Interdimensional-Intergalactic Internet and High-Vibe TV transmitted news and programming from 7-D, Beon’s home universe, the one he escaped forever ago, in a moment of weakness.

“Solipsism has reached epidemic proportions in 7-D,” the newscaster was saying.  “Mutant life forms from the destroyed planets Reshiba, Charam, and Binorem are stalking the universes, desperately seeking vitality, spreading solipsism wherever they go.”

The announcer continued.  “We are honored to have as our guest Dr. Robert Strand, medical director for the famous Solipsism Treatment Center.  Dr. Strand is here to tell us about this virulent disease and how to protect yourself from it.”  He turned to face his guest.

“Hello, Dr. Strand,” he said.  “Thank you for joining us.  First, would you explain what solipsism is and why it is so dangerous?”

The camera zoomed in on the doctor’s haggard face.  Beon raised the volume and exclaimed, “Look, Bud.  It’s Doctor Stand.  He diagnosed me, remember?” Bud opened his eyes, yawned, and closed them again.

“Certainly,” Dr. Strand replied, “but I need to supply some background.  As many of you know, in 7-D, everyone is immortal, so life is measured in units of vitality rather than time.  It can flow strong or weak, but it never stops.  For us, time is a minor dimension, subservient to vitality levels.  We can past and future fish, changing the past and the future with our focused intent.  Our vitality levels determine the pasts and futures we reel in.  We know that peaceful living enhances vitality.  Conflict depletes it.”

The interviewer interrupted, his voice nervous.  “If what you’re saying is true, then our universe is severely vitality-depleted.  War and conflict have become the norm, and few remember peaceful times.”

“That’s correct,” said Dr. Strand.  “It’s the major manifestation of a solipsism epidemic.  It’s important to understand that solipsists deny any reality other than their own.  For instance, if I stopped taking my medication, I would begin to view you as a figment of my imagination, to be controlled or extinguished as I see fit.  I could deny your existence or sap your vitality by provoking you into a rage, or by manipulating you in other ways.”

“You are a solipsist?” the interviewer asked.  “I thought admitting you have it is proof that you don’t.”

“And denying you have it is proof that you do,” replied Dr. Strand, with a wry grin.  “There’s some truth to that, but primarily the disease is characterized by the pain you cause others.  Others are forced to catch it in self-defense.

“Solipsists drain others’ vitality to feed their own.  Working with solipsists would have sapped my vitality to the vegetable point if I hadn’t put myself on medication.”  The doctor paused.  The camera shifted to a group of various life forms in a large room.

Dr. Strand’s voice continued.  “This video clip shows a typical meeting of solipsists at the Solipsism Treatment Center.  I called the meeting for new patients to meet and set the day’s priorities, then I left the room.”

Suddenly, sounds of pandemonium blasted from Beon’s speakers.  Everyone was talking and no one was listening.  There was no moderator.  Beon felt his vitality levels decreasing, sucked across the dimensions into the vortex of the solipsistic gathering.

Beon winced and muted the sound.  He shifted his gaze and spoke to the cat.  “Do you remember Dr. Strand, Bud?  He said I was a textbook case of solipsism, the worst he’d ever seen.  He put me on medication after I caused the Triple-Big Accident that destroyed those three planets.  He said my chest pain resulted from toxic buildup of stolen vitality.”

Bud winked, or appeared to wink.  Beon couldn’t be sure.  His eyes drifted back to the High-Vibe screen, where the meeting continued.  “No solipsist considers anyone else wise enough to moderate a meeting or impartial enough to make a decision.  The meeting will continue indefinitely, with attendance waxing and waning, and no resolution possible.”

When the camera cut back to the interview, Beon turned the sound back up.  “How do you replenish vitality?” the interviewer asked.

“No one knows for sure,” Dr. Strand replied, “because no one knows where vitality comes from.  If we knew that, we might find a cure for solipsism, by providing pure sources of vitality for depleted individuals.”

“I know!” Beon almost screamed at the screen.  “I know how to harness pure sources.”

He knew attempting to communicate through the Triple-In was futile.  He could receive but not transmit, ever since he plunged the Cosmo Cruiser through that black hole forever ago.  From a 7-D perspective, Beon had ceased to exist, or so it seemed.

“I was once a hero, but now I’m not even a villain, even though I’m responsible for infecting all of 7-D.  I don’t get credit or blame, because solipsists don’t recognize specialness outside themselves.  They don’t even notice I’m gone.”

Beon muted the High-Vibe TV and jumped up from his chair.  He started orbiting Bud’s throne, a habit he’d developed since his ill-fated suicide attempt, the one that trapped him in this space-time prison.  He circled counter-clockwise, as if to recapture the lost past, with all the choice points that had landed him in this fix.  As he walked, he talked.

“For me, solipsism is a disease, but for you, it’s an art form, isn’t it, Bud?” he said.  “You are the center of the Cosmos, and life serves you.  Maybe I’m a figment of your imagination, conjured just to feed you, invent vitality-enhancing thrones for you, and build robots like Alfred to change your litter box.”

As Bud started purring, his throne responded to the change in vibrations, with its energy field brightening and sparkling. The musical tones quickened, and Beon’s pace kept the beat, stepping lively now, in his circuit around the throne.  The worry lines between his eyes relaxed.

Joe’s Nightmare

December 29, 2017–In a slight divergence from my normal posts, I’d like to present here the first five pages of my novel.  This magnum opus has been over 30 years in the writing, keeps getting shelved, evolves, and may be coming into its time.  I call it “speculative fiction,” describing visions that leap-frog over the Armageddon the sooth-sayers are so ominously predicting.

It’s About Time, Bud, Beon and the Bots, begins with “Joe’s Nightmare.”  Protagonist Joe and his doctor friend Marian are sitting at Mack’s  Bar and Grill on a busy Friday night.

I present this opening here, to WordPress friends and would-be friends, seeking correspondence of ideas and imagination.  I hope to entertain, tell a story, express a philosophy, and inspire the forces of vitality to all who are touched by it.

CHAPTER 1

JOE’S NIGHTMARE

Marian glared at Joe, but he didn’t see.  He was slouched low in the booth, staring at his beer. His faded white shirt hung loose over thin shoulders.  His brown eyes, usually bright and inquisitive, were dark, brooding, and sad as those of an old, dying dog.  His eyelids drooped, and even his large, floppy ears seemed to sag.  Marian chuckled at his woeful appearance.  Joe’s eyes didn’t move.

Her eyes followed his to the glass, then scanned the room.  Mack’s Bar and Grill was hopping, the Friday night crowd jubilant and loud.  Tiffany lamps interspersed with hanging plants sparked with bejeweled light.  The misted window beside their booth gleamed with trails of glittering raindrops outside.  Mack’s mirror collection covered the walls, giving an impression of friendly spaciousness that Marian found refreshing.

As people swarmed, eerie, surreal shadows played across Joe’s face.  Televisions with muted sound in front and back showed sports highlights.  A dank, musty smell rose with moist heat from the milling bodies.

Marian leaned back and closed her eyes, absorbing the lively mood.  Occasional bursts of laughter here and there rolled over her like waves.  A loud gruffaw from the center of the room startled her, but Joe’s eyes remained fixed on his glass.

She sat up and sipped her wine, watching her strange friend.  As narrow as a line in his personal life, Joe was a genius when it came to science.  More than a genius, he was a wizard.

But tonight even the bubbles in Joe’s beer showed more signs of life.  “Joe!” she almost, but not quite, shouted.  He jumped.  His knee hit the booth’s underside and jostled the glass, but he caught it before the first drop spilled. He held the beer and glared at her.

“Where are you?”  she asked.

“I’m here, of course,” he retorted.  “I live inside my body.”  He put finger to pulse with a flourish and closed his eyes. “My heart is slowing now,” he finally said.  “Had me worried for a minute, a minute and six seconds, to be exact. It was racing at 144 beats, after you so rudely interrupted my experiment, but it has calmed to a mere 86.”

He released his wrist and blew on the chilly glass.  “I would fog a mirror if I had one, so I appear to be breathing.  Would you like to see? I didn’t bring my blood pressure cuff, this time, but perhaps you have one in your purse.”  He chugged half the beer and thunked the glass on the table.

“What experiment?” Marian asked.

Joe gave her a disgusted look.  “I was calculating the volume of air coming out of an invisible speck.  I was counting the bubbles, of course, to multiply their spherical volume by the number.  Then, I was going to add another speck and keep track of its air volume.  From that I was going to determine how much CO2 was dissolved in my beer to see what effect it might have on global warming.  Why?”

Marian sighed.  “I wondered if something was wrong.”

“Nothing but the ruin of my experiment.”  He chugged the rest of the beer.  “Another scientific failure.  Now we may never know how we could save the world by dissolving more carbon dioxide in beer and drinking fast.”

He waved his glass high in the air, exposing a thin wrist bounded by a frayed white cuff.  A passing hand with rings on every finger swept past and escaped with glass on tray, leaving a trail of french-fry smell. When the next beer arrived, Joe slumped into bubble-counting position, his head at eye level with the glass.  His feet struggled to find room under the table.

“Quit kicking if you want me to be quiet.”

“OK,” he said.  “Sorry.”

Marian was left to her thoughts.  Marian wasn’t sure when she first noticed Joe.  Like a cloud, he had eased into her awareness, emerging as if from thin air, until one afternoon he was sitting on a barstool at Mack’s in full flesh, still and silent, his stiff brown hair forming spikes around his head, unshaved chin jutting over a coffee mug. He sipped coffee and stared at the back bar mirror, which revealed the scene behind him, of booths, mirrors, and windows lining the restaurant’s long side.

Over the ensuing weeks, Marian noticed Joe sitting on the same stool every afternoon, drinking coffee, staring into the mirror above the bar.  She liked relaxing at Mack’s, too, where she, exhausted from a long day of writing prescriptions and ministering to other people’s ailments, could let Mack alleviate suffering instead.  Most days she watched, sipping herbal tea at her favorite barstool near the cash register.  Here, she and Mack exchanged ideas on economics, as he collected low-overhead money for treating customers’ problems.

Mack’s Bar and Grill was an independent country, the front door claimed, the “State of Freedom, Democracy, and Capitalism.”  It pictured a lion with Mack’s face lapping beer out of a mug.  It declared Mack’s roar the “Loudest in the Land.”  So far, no one had challenged his independence, and the local police were some of his best citizens.

Mack claimed the lion was the ideal free market capitalist, king of the jungle, who sleeps 20 hours a day, eats two hours, and makes whoopie the remaining two.  Also, he gets his harem to do the hunting and killing for him. Mack complained that Linda, his wife, didn’t understand lion thinking.  She thought he was too fat.  “You have to work for your supper,” she told him.  As for the harem, she only smiled and shook her head.

Until the day Marian noticed Mack’s limp, she could have believed Joe knew only three words.  “Just coffee, Mack,” was all he said.

But Marian’s interest in Mack’s arthritis brought Joe out of his trance.  He jumped into their conversation and regaled them for nearly an hour on the anatomy of the knee, physiology of muscles, histology of bones, the causes of inflammation, and all the current treatments.  Marian was awed, because he was accurate in every detail, and his knowledge seemed infinite.

Who is this strange creature, she wondered.  He looks like he lives in the street.  Over time she found that his aloof manner discouraged personal questions, but Joe was always eager to discuss medicine, technology, and science.  Now Marian took his wizardry for granted and followed him from topic to topic with delight.

“How do you know so much?” she asked tonight.

Joe’s eyes didn’t waver from the glass.  “I’m a curious person,” he said.  “I read a lot.”

Suddenly, a hot dish of fried calamari landed in front of Marian.  Joe looked up.  He glared at the calamari.

Marian offered Joe a sample but knew in advance his answer.  He knew everything about squid, except the taste.  He explained its biology, physiology, anatomy, life cycle, mating habits, and preferred habitats the last time she ordered calamari.

“Fried food is bad for you,” he said now.

“That’s what they say,” Marian replied.  She dipped an offending morsel into tzaziki sauce and popped it in her mouth.  “But I believe in homeopathic doses of lard, from time to time.”

Joe’e eyes followed her hand, glanced at the TV screen, at Mack behind the bar, then looked briefly at Marian’s face before settling back on the beer. He spoke as if to the bubbles. “I had a nightmare,” he said, his voice barely audible.

Marian laughed.  “Is that why you’re so gloomy?  I thought it was something serious.

Joe ignored her.  Marian sighed.

“Is there anything I can do?” she asked.

“Shoot me,” he said.  “That might help.”

It’s About Time: Bud, Beon, and the Bots

kcoartsplit1

Sunday, July 2, 2017—This is a scene from my novel, a decades-old perpetual work in progress.  Superficially sci-fi, it is based on a philosophy that life is immortal, everything has consciousness, and everything runs its course then evolves into something else.  Time and space are illusions within a “spacious present.”  Death is like a phase change–like water converting to steam–while retaining the essential qualities of water.  From this perspective, there is no end point, and the process is the goal.

The purpose of the novel is to make you smile.  Let me know if you want more.

CHAPTER 4

CAUSE AND EFFECT

The sun, shining through dingy, crocheted curtains, cast a mosaic of light and shadow across the worn rug. By the angle of the light and content of the shadows, Joe knew it was at least 11 AM.

His head throbbed with an intensity of 200 on a one-to-ten scale.  The light hurt his eyes, but he didn’t have the courage to move.  He remained curled stiff, eyes clenched shut, until his bladder forced him to attempt the impossible and get out of bed.

He moaned, then winced.  He eased to a slouching position at the edge of the bed, resting his aching forehead between tender hands.  Slowly, ever so slowly, he stood and staggered to the bathroom, carefully shielding his eyes from the light.  He downed two aspirin and then a third, to abort the stroke he must be having.  It was at least a stroke. Maybe an aneurysm had burst.  He stared into the mirror.  Images of his certain, agonizing, and imminent death spread like acrid black goo across his quivering brain.

“I’m dying,” he told his haggard face. It stared back at him—coldly critical, his appearance substandard today, even for him.  He and his reflection eyed each other.  He noted the dark eye sockets, red eyes, fuzzy vision, chin stubble, wrinkles, and greasy hair.  He didn’t smell too good, either.  Let the embalmer handle it, he decided.  That’s what he’s paid for.

He trod a wobbly path through the living room to the kitchen, where the percolator was full of yesterday’s grounds.  His stomach wasn’t feeling much like coffee, but his head told him he was in caffeine withdrawal.  He cursed Marian for getting him so drunk that he forgot to prepare the coffee pot.  He imagined her boiling in a vat of coffee, begging for mercy.

Suddenly, Beon’s face loomed across Joe’s inner screens.  The balding, round visage grinned like the Buddha, his eyes innocuous, his portent ominous.  Joe’s head pounded harder, and his knees felt weak.  An image of lab rats, pinned to boards and randomly shocked, blotted out Beon’s face.  Then, the lab rats became little Joes, with Beon delivering the shocks.

Joe listed the objective, measurable reasons for his agony.  Unendurable pain. Undetectable caffeine levels. Betrayal by his only friend.  Violation of sacred coffee ritual, and death without absolution.  Beon.  He threw fresh coffee in the pot, spilling half the grounds on the counter, creating yet another reason to feel miserable.

Percolator finally started, Joe turned to face new trouble.  He opened the freezer and scowled at empty ice trays.  The little Joes in his head jumped and slumped.

He dragged his failing carcass to the couch. He imagined the pain in his head could power a small city, if he could figure out how to harness the energy.  Not today, though.  And tomorrow wasn’t looking too good, either.

Beon’s face returned, and with it, thoughts of the healing machine.  Joe wondered if it could cure his headache.  “Yes,” said Beon’s image.

“Who asked you?”  Joe demanded, not realizing he spoke out loud.

“You did.”  Joe decided he was going crazy, too.  “DALE,” said the face.  “Diet-Associated Life Enhancer.”

Joe covered his ears, but it did no good.  Beon’s image swelled in his head, and dream pictures bombarded his brain, rocking his scientific foundations.  The throbbing and pounding got louder, clanging against his skull.  Joe closed his eyes and waited to die.  Through it all, Beon’s face smirked, as if he enjoyed Joe’s suffering.

But death defied him, and Beon continued to grin.  Joe glanced around the room.  A single picture, hung askew, showed a listing clipper ship, an artifact left by the previous tenant.  George White left a few pieces of tired furniture, too, good enough for Joe.  His mailbox in the foyer downstairs still bore White’s name.  When neighbors called him “George,” Joe didn’t bother to correct them.  It was as good a name as “Joe.”

Now Joe wondered for the first time what happened to George White.  His couch may not look great, but it had personality.  It was warm, comfortable, inviting.  It was friendly.  It was taking care of him, helping him feel better, as a friend would do.

“I have tangible evidence that you existed,” he told the former tenant, “even if we’ve never met.  I still get your mail.  Beon is only imaginary, but he’s torturing me, and I can’t get away from him.”

Joe’s eyes began to blur.  His stomach felt queasy.  Vague terrors swept over him, and sweat poured from his upper body.  He wiped his face with a dirty napkin and dropped it on the floor.  “This is only a hangover.  It clouds my perspective, makes me think crazy thoughts.  It was only a dream.  A machine like that is impossible, and Beon doesn’t exist.”

Fiction: Belle, 0806

by Katharine C. Otto
Posted April 13, 2016 katharineotto.wordpress.com

“Help me,” cries the aging but still beautiful Belle.  Huge bejeweled rings sparkle on her liver-spotted hands, and diamond pendants drag cuts into her earlobes.  Her eyes are wide with pain and fear.

He can see that she is fragile.  She limps and leans heavily on the banister.  The modern Southern Gentleman takes her tenderly in his arms, soothes her sobs, and says he, too, suffers.  No one understands him.  People can be so cruel.  They gossip, tell lies.  He feels he can trust her.

But today’s version of the Southern Lady has 150 years of experience under her Oscar de la Renta sweatsuit.  She has thrown the corset into landfill, invested in liposuction, and now breathes a lot easier.

“Are you proposing?” she asks.

“Not exactly,” he stammers.

“Good.  I don’t believe in marriage.”

“Nor I,” he says, with a sigh of relief.  “I propose a toast, instead.”

He pulls a bottle of Chivas Regal from a shimmering sack and offers it to Belle.  She pours hefty dollops into crystal tumblers. They toast their mutual understanding with delicate sips.  He kisses her.

They toast their understanding again.  And again.  They lose count.  She pours more Chivas.

He pops a Viagra.  What they do the rest of the night is unprintable.

He promises to return for dinner that evening.  He blows a kiss goodbye from his convertible Saab.  She spends the whole day cooking.

At dusk, Gent gets lost on the way to Belle’s colonial townhouse.  He stops at the Oglethorpe Club, then the First City Club, or was it the other way around?  He stops at Johnny Gannem’s for directions.  He stops at O’Malley’s to get a cup of coffee, and doesn’t remember how he got home.

She waits and waits.  She tries to call his cell phone and gets a voice mail.  The dinner overcooks.  She cries.  She takes a bite of the salmon in white wine and dill sauce, decides it’s awful, and throws it away.  She finishes the white wine while staring into the glass, an antique, engraved collectible that she bought for too much money downtown.

She goes to bed, worrying that Gent has been killed, or worse.  She must find him.  She must.  But she’ll worry about it tomorrow.  She falls asleep and dreams of stock in Pfizer.