In the picture here you see a Transformer mixed in with Lego Friends characters. Eagle-eyed readers have called this Transformer Mega-Octane, due to the colors, but I grew up knowing this face and form as Onslaught and that’s how I refer to him.
Why are these toys co-mingled? Well, in the rise of Fort Awesome, I ended up playing with toys alongside my two daughters. My eldest, logically, began a battle based scenario where her Japanese helicopter robot (fascinating import we bought at a Sanrio store) wanted to bully its way into getting whatever it wanted, regardless of who needed to get shoved. I knew such a narrative could lead to rambunctiousness with my sometimes not-so-controlled youngesy, leading to blankets falling down on my head.
Thinking fast, I posited a different idea: Onslaught was now a repentent Combaticon, a mechanoid that had done a lot of dirt but was trying to turn his life around. Since he was forged as a weapon, he still had guns, but one had been “remade” into an “anti-gun gun,” that would stop other weapons from functioning. He and all his “friends” (a bin full of non-display toys I had around including four Aerialbot knock offs, a lingering Combaticon space shuttle and Wreck-Gar alongside a latter day Buzzsaw wielded by the youngest) outnumbered the eldest’s helicopter and movie Arcee the eldest brought to bear, eventually sending the belligerence out of Fort Awesome in shame.
Onslaught befriended Stephanie (the blonde Lego girl on the bike), who introduced him to her teacher Miss Stephens (brown hair, glasses), so he could “learn how not to be a bad guy.” Now Onslaught has sleep overs at (outside) Stephanie’s house and they hang out, picking shapes out of clouds.
Is there a metaphor in here about me? A “bad guy” breaking good to spend time with someone smaller who adores him? Something to be learned about even how a true villain doesn’t have to be evil all the time, and has people who find them wonderful? Maybe.
What I do know is that my girls love giant robots and crawling under blanket forts on a hot Saturday afternoon as much as I do, even without learning how to make an enfilade with them, instead choosing not to fight. In my book, no matter your color scheme, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Photo by Leroy Hamilton
Saturday afternoon, after driving children to the northside to be in rehearsals for a big Hollywood play (link good until December 7, 2014) and piano practice to participate in a panel as part of Recharge, a completely teen-produced three day festival celebrating and educating the youth of south Los Angeles in conjunction with the Leimert Park Village African Art and Music Festival.
The event is for teens only — no parents, no siblings — to provide a safe space for the youth to be able to express themselves without judgement.
I was invited to speak on a panel called “Hip Hop Values: Gender and Cultural Appropriation” alongside educators Dr. Ayo Alabi and Sebastien Elkouby about … well, a lot. Like to hear it? Here it goes …
The teens were engaged, insightful, well-read, funny and fantastic. I’m doing another panel on “Police Abuse: Your Rights When Stopped.” I have to read up on that one — I knew this subject well enough to freestyle.
With two girls, every teen or kid I can help is one less person waiting in a grocery store parking lot about to shank my daughters. I’m just saying …
Playing (Music): “Sunshine” by Childish Gambino
While looking for a draft script for my podcast, I came across this. Even with Ferguson, MO heavy on my mind, this required sharing.
There’s no such thing as peace.
Rocket propelled grenades
sit next to breakfast bowl
play with 7.62 mm shell casings,
find blood splattered on street
four days out of seven.
More dead from fever and hunger,
less discriminating surge.
Baba fights the Americans,
Kalashnikov his companion
more often than mama.
Baba’s baba fought the Russians,
Americans at his side
more than his bride
whispered Pashto in his ear.
I am eleven years old.
I have never been kissed
by anyone not a blood relative.
I can make out
a passage or two of scripture,
know rustle of baba’s thick beard
and coarse clothes
when he hugs me,
taste of mama’s kahdoos.
Two years ago,
left a magazine near marketplace.
Kept it hidden for a month,
buried behind the house,
before daring to gaze upon
impossibly smooth skinned westerners.
Smiling and immodest,
shaven faced men,
like children, really
women’s bosoms in view.
They look like they’ve never known
bits of gravel in stew,
like they eat meat
less gamy than goat,
and not just on special days.
They look like relentless,
cloying smell of poppies
isn’t woven into every memory.
I don’t hate them,
fat and godless,
but I understand those who do.
I’m too hungry
to hate them.
sounds of shelling and screams
hopefully far from my pallet.
Wonder what nights are like
beyond hills of Sharobi,
where baby faced boy-men
sleep next to red lipped harlots
on endless pillows,
in safety …
Mama tells stories
about golden days of Afghanistan,
days when quiet wasn’t frightening,
times of plenty.
when she’s not around,
says we’ve always been
stop on somebody’s road
never wanting to be here,
always needing to control the way.
there’s no such thing as peace.
I don’t know about any of that.
I know sand and stone,
I know running and gunfire,
body parts and explosions,
prayer and waiting
for freedom even I don’t believe
will ever come.
“Jangi Shah: A Hymn For Afghanistan”
By Hannibal Tabu
Thanks to Myshell Tabu and KPFK
Just because you have it bad doesn’t mean somebody else doesn’t have it worse. That also doesn’t mean that what’s happening to you is all right. All things in perspective.
Playing (Music): “Black Hole Sun” cover by Paul Anka
Why does your Astro City 14 review completely diss the issue but still put it in the Buy Pile? That makes no sense.
I responded …
Thank you for reading my column and for writing in.
When a series has three “jump” issues in a row, it gets what’s called “buy on sight” status. I pick it up first when I get to the store and buy it without even opening it, reading it when I get home later on. Astro City hit that status … spirit, years ago. Before Dark Ages, probably, maybe around the Beautie special issue.
Once a title hits that status, it has to have three “bad” or “off” issues in a row before it gets dropped back down into the “striving for a shot” stack.
Astro City has had, in its current 14 or so issue run, three less-than-stellar issues, none of which were in a row. Therefore, it would be two more bad issues in a row before this would be dropped from an automatic berth in the “buy” pile.
Good question and totally fair. Thanks again for reading and for writing in, have a great day!
I may not have followed what I believe was Stan Lee’s rule on new readers: everyone is picking up the work for the very first time, so allowances have to be made for that. Maybe an alteration in my opening documentation. We’ll see.
Playing (Music): “Only When You’re Close” by Zendaya
Oy, all right then.
What an interesting time it is. I’ve spent months preparing for this July, and now, “finally we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi. Finally, we will have our revenge.”
First up, the prelude to it all was the Brave New Souls roundtable on KFI 640 AM with my good friend Mr. Mo’Kelly. I found myself in Burbank sitting across from Tony Puryear (screnwriter for the movie Eraser), Erika Alexander (the legendary “Cousin Pam” from The Cosby Show and Maxine Shaw on the equally influential Living Single), Geoffrey Thorne (whose career spans acting from In The Still Of The Night to writing and producing shows like Leverage and The Librarians), storyboarding instructor and inaugural Glyph Awards winner Robert Roach, CV Nation producer DeWayne Copeland, television and comics writer Dani Dixon and my esteemed friend, the Eisner-nominated Brandon Easton.
For an hour we discussed issues of representation and content, making jokes but taking things seriously. It was enormously entertaining and we should really, really do that sort of thing more often.
That was a Saturday, and two days later I launched It’s Komplicated: The Operative Word, a new podcast. I plan for it to be a monthly instance, and I have plans already for guests and new installments.
Monday also noticed the heralding of the all-new, all-different Operative Network, now a creative studio featuring not just myself but the Glyph Award-winning team of Jason Reeves and Alverne Ball, Legends Press owner Quinn McGowan and animation writer Damion Gonzales. Together we pool resources, collaborate, quality check each other and generally step the game up, which is fantastic.
All just preamble. At San Diego Comic-Con there were three more surprises.
The first ashcan from the Operative Network, Cruel Summer: The Visual Mixtape was available in limited quantities as a printed artifact. After the convention, available as a free PDF download. The first hit’s free, everything else you have to pay. Featuring pages from Project: Wildfire and the Glyph Award-winning comic One Nation, character profiles from the animated series T.A.S.K. as well as an exclusive preview of the new series slated for 2015, The Foundation.
The day before SDCC, New Money was released on ComiXology. Imagine Entourage with everybody being rich, not just one guy. It’s a hoot, and it’s only a buck. Can’t beat that.
At the Insights for Independent Creators panel, Alverne, Jason and I passed out ashcans and showcased an animatic sizzle reel for T.A.S.K.. Let’s roll that clip …
Oh, and one more thing …
I was named the writer of the the Aspen Sourcebook, an official handbook for the Aspen universe. I am working on Fathom and Soulfire first, but the line will expand into the Executive Assistant line and so on. It’s quite a committment, but I’m very happy about it.
This blog isn’t just an ad for myself. Largely, but not completely. I have learned a lot, working with a lot of talented people in developing the numerous projects I am bringing to market.
So, with Jason Reeves …
… Quinn McGowan …
… Damion Gonzales (with Sean Isaakse) …
… and Alverne Ball …
… it’s time to come out of the shadows. It’s almost midnight.
UPDATE: Interviewed on The Huffington Post …
I’ve had a busy time, promoting my very first comic book, which was released internationally on February 26th with a signing at Hi De Ho Comics. So many good friends came through (including the incredibly talented Leroy Hamilton, who took this great video) and I met new friends (and hopefully fans) who bought the book, got it signed and had a chat. I have never had a signing before, so it was a new experience but I believe things went really well.
First, I’m enormously grateful to my good friend Mr. Mo’Kelly who brought me on his wonderful radio show (KFI AM 640) on March 1st to discuss various and nerdy issues, which was a very enjoyable evening that had far more discussion of animal abuse than I expected.
Second, I got a wonderful invitation from Vito Lapiccola to appear on the extraordinarily entertaining (and slightly more profane) Comics on Comics podcast from Sideshow Networks. I was a guest alongside Jessica the Comic Book Girl as Vito and his partner Juan discussed a wide variety of topics. I think our Star Wars discussion alone is worth the price of admission, but I enjoyed so much of the talk that most of us were reluctant to shut it down.
Lastly, I’m very grateful for all these opportunities (and the tireless efforts of my wife to help promote with her johnny-on-the-spot web flyers) and I look forward to announcing more, like the release date for my four issues of Project: Wildfire and my three issue story, Menthu: The Anger of Angels.
Playing (Music): “Everything Is Awesome” by Tegan & Sara feat. The Lonely Island
I am very, very pleased to report that on March 19, 2014, Stranger Comics will be releasing Waso: Will To Power, Episode 1, a fantasy novella set in the fictional world of Asunda written by myself and featuring a cover illustration by Hyoung Taek Nam.
Following in the footsteps of the comic series Dusu: Path of the Ancient by Sebastian A. Jones, Christopher Garner and James Cory Webster, the impetuous son of the chief is forced to take the reins of controlling the tribe after the dramatic events in the Dusu series. The book follows his struggle to help rebuild the tribe in the face of enormous odds in a tale set against the lush junglescape of Asunda’s untamed Ugoma region.
As a writer, it was a wonderful challenge workong inside the fictional framework of Asunda’s rich culture, with its striking linguistic differences and exotic flora and fauna (some of which I got to help create). Working with my editor Josh Cozine and Asunda’s creator Sebastian Jones has been a delight, a thorough education in world building and narrative experimentation.
Waso: Will To Power is a novella divided into six parts (most of which is already written) and will be released at the middle of each month for an affordable price of … wait, what? This can’t be right. Let’s read that again …
… nope, that’s correct. The first of six installments will be FREE, and will be available through online resources like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I hope you’ll check it out and I hope you enjoy it! I’ll have flyers to promote it next week at 6PM when I’m signing copies of Artifacts #35 at Hi De Ho Comics in Santa Monica.
The sound of breakbeats made the carpeted walls resonate, and Tonya Fitzgerald sat near the back of the curved bar, eyes closed, purse carefully tucked under her hands, swaying and smiling. She loved the sound of the drums, moving the song along as surely as a river kept a boat sliding along its channel. She risked a glance at her right wrist, and her numberless watch held its hands just past one thirty in the morning. “Looks like it’ll be another late night,” she sighed to herself, cursing another sunrise she’d probably miss.
She glanced over towards the door, and saw he was still watching. She’d seen him stumble when he saw her earlier, and immediately regretted another refusal she’d have to pull from her quiver. There was certainly nothing wrong with him — a tall, butterscotch man in a white cable-knit turtleneck, nursing a Heineken and keeping up the wall. Tonya had to be extremely careful about who basked in the light of her affection, had to keep her love locked up on a shelf. She found herself in this Adams Boulevard nightclub with the intention of hearing one of her favorite groups, Medusa and Feline Science, not romantic jousting with some heart-seeking missile.
Maybe he’d finally swallowed enough courage to make his approach, maybe he needed time to think of something. In any case, Tonya saw the decision flash across his face like the strobes that danced around the dim club, he switched his weight, and started towards her corner of the bar. Ending up in front of her, he finished his beer, set the bottle down on the napkin-littered bar, and gestured for another. As he dug out his wallet, he glanced at Tonya and smiled, saying, “Hey, girl, how you doin’?”
He eyes me for fifteen minutes, Tonya thinks to herself, and this is what he starts with? Let’s get this over with.
“I’m fine,” Tonya said demurely, waiting to see if he’d go for the cliche response.
“You sho’ is,” he offered predictably, his gaze hungry like a leopard. “I’m Jamar, good to meet you.”
Tonya groaned behind her eyes and shyly held out her hand, keeping her body language close and unreceptive.
“How you like the show so far?” Jamar asked, leaning into a pose against the bar, one Timberland boot resting on its toe.
“The sound was wack for Mystik Journeymen,” she said smoothly, predicting how many moves this would go until she declared checkmate, “and I’m really here to see Medusa.”
“Oh, word?” he asked, leaning in a bit to be heard over the DJ, as well as try and insinuate himself into her personal space. “Medusa’s tight, I like that ‘Silence’ song she got. Sound like you know little somethin’ ’bout some hip hop, huh?”
Tonya nodded, deciding that she’d take the funny tactic instead of the gentle one, because she could see Medusa’s DJ Cut Chemist on stage now, setting up. “Well, I been following Medusa on this tour for six shows now, I guess I better.”
The first glimmers of worry shone in Jamar’s eyes, but he was either committed to his course of action or buzzed, so he charged ahead. “I like a girl who knows some hip hop, that’s tight. So, you just in town to see the show, or what else you doin’ for fun?”
Tonya combed her memory for the right discarded detail, hoping it would close this conversation down before she had to get more brusque. “No, I live here — I was kickin’ it over at Different Light Bookstore in West Hollywood a few hours ago, getting a copy ofCavedweller for my girlfriend.” Tonya wondered if that was enough to send up a red flag in his mind.
Jamar looked puzzled for a moment, his eyebrows knitted underneath his crown of dreadlocks, but didn’t let it deter him. “That’s a new one on me,” he said slowly, “who’s that by?”
“Dorothy Allison,” Tonya returned, now holding the overheard memory firmly in place. “There’s so few lesbian writers out there on a national scene, and she’s probably my favorite.”
Jamar was very good, covering the flinch when she mentioned the word “lesbian,” but she read the change in his body language. He leaned back a bit and began to withdraw, sipping from his beer, and Tonya saw that her gambit was working as planned.
“That’s cool,” he said, and then reached for his waist. “Aw, uh, damn, that’s my pager.” He pulled the clearly quiescent two-way from its sheath and stared at it meaningfully. “Heh, my people are stuck outside, they need me to come hook them up. It was cool talkin’ to you …” Jamar paused, realizing he’d never gotten a name, but shook his head, unbothered by it. “Take it easy.”
With the pager in hand, still silent as he poked at it, Jamar disappeared into the crush of people just as Cut Chemist started scratching. Tonya smiled, happy to have avoided really rejecting him with only a few stray tidbits laying around her memory. As Medusa stepped on stage, Tonya sat up and smiled, ready to hear songs she had in the car, and sing along to every word.
* * *
Medusa left the stage under a cloud of applause and hollering, Tonya’s mixed in with the capacity Fais Do Do crowd. Spent and hoarse, Tonya found her bar stool unoccupied and returned to it, ordering a bottle of mineral water and leaving two singles on the bar in front of her for the bartender.
“That was really nice of you earlier,” a voice said from her left. She turned to see a six-foot, dark skinned Black man, clad in khakis and a matching vest, with an Xzibit t-shirt glaring out from beneath. Mentally, she started reaching for her quiver again when she saw his face, and audibly gasped. Her mind said, Sanu, knowing it couldn’t be, as Sanu had surely crumbled to dust in his grave years ago.
“Excuse me?” she replied after a moment, her footing unsure.
“The way you deflected that guy, Jamar?” the man continued nonchalantly. “That was tight. See, Different Light has been closed for two weeks for renovations, my editor was bitching about it all day when I turned in my voucher, since he’s jonesin’ for his special order.”
Tonya sat back and smiled. “You were sittin’ nearby …” she began.
“… and I heard the whole thing,” he finished. “Normally, sister wanna brush a cat off so she can watch the show, she’s gotta get all indignant. You were hella smooth, though. The bookstore, the bit about following Medusa around, with her ‘open sexuality’ and all. Real layered, real believable. On behalf of brothers everywhere, I gotta thank you for using such a gentle touch.”
The bartender left her water in front of her, and Tonya was caught flatfooted, her only possible response a guilty smile. This wasn’t Sanu — his voice was different, the short and immaculate afro was a long way from Sanu’s braids, and Sanu surely knew nothing of gay bookstores — but he had similar features, the same tilt of the head. If she thought he’d know far enough back, Tonya would’ve ask this man about his lineage.
“Well, I know it’s rough for Black men,” Tonya said slowly, “so I figured if he could get out of it without crackin’ his face, everybody could be happy.” A razor-thin wave of fear ran through her, knowing the dangers of letting a beautiful Black man like this talk to her.
“Just in time for the show to start. I wanted to compliment you on your method then, but if I didn’t hear ‘This Pu**y Is A Gangsta,’ I’da been hella mad.” The man sipped a glass of … it was cranberry juice, Tonya could smell no alcohol in it or on him.
“Well, that’s a real nice compliment, sir,” Tonya smiled, realizing that she was dangerously attracted to this man, “and I thank you for it.”
“Man, don’t call me ‘sir,’ though,” he cringed, “it’s bad enough I had to leave my twenties behind last year. My name’s James, James Edwards. Not that you got to give me any more love than old boy, just givin’ you more to work with. I can turn around and leave you alone, if you want.” Playing coy, he began to shift his weight towards the stage.
“No, you’re cool,” Tonya smiled, amazed at the fact she was getting gamed after so many years alone. “I’m Tonya. Glad to meet you, James.”
He shook her hand carefully, like he was handling fine china, and never let go of her eyes as he did so. “I feel like I won the lottery, not gettin’ shot down like those last three cats.”
“You saw all of that?” Tonya laughed, her hands flying to her mouth like startled crows. Jamar was just the most recent of the would-be suitors she sent packing that night. “You must think I’m some ice queen.”
“I think you a sister who was gonna see her some Medusa,” James answered wryly, “and now that you have, you’re in a much better mood. I’m the same way with Jeffrey Osborne.”
“Jeffrey Osborne,” Tonya nodded before taking a sip of her water. “That’s not a singer enough people are hip to.”
“It’s just time, you know,” James said, peering into his glass like it was a wishing well. “When I was little, he was like the Keith Sweat of the time. Ten years from now it might be Craig David. It’s all cycles.”
Despite every part of her mind telling her she couldn’t get involved with this man, or any man, Tonya fell into the rhythm of the conversation. “You a music fan?” Tonya said.
“I write about music,” James responded. “Music, news, sports … I’m a freelance journalist. Music is my favorite, though — you won’t catch me at a sports event unless I’m interviewing somebody. That’s what all those TV channels are for.”
Tonya took another sip of water, still a bit off balance. She knew the consequences of her affections, the consequences of intimacy … but it had been so long, and this was … different. A rare pleasure. If he’s hitting on me, she thought to herself, his style is interesting. No full court press … hm.
“Oh, if you don’t have anybody with you, I’ll walk you to your car when you’re done,” James offered, raising his glass, not looking at her. “Crazy world, and all that.”
Tonya dodged instinctively, habit kicking in. “I’m in the valet, I think I’ll be OK.”
“Oh, it’s all good, no big deal,” James shrugged, his finger tracing the edge of his glass. “I was just trying to act right. I was at a poetry reading and this guy was telling a sister he had to make sure he got her to her car, or they’d kick him outta the Southerner’s Union. My folks got a kick out of that, since they’re from the South, and it stuck in my head, so I try to make sure sisters get where they’re going safely, you know?”
A satiny wave of attraction washed over Tonya, but she fought it down. “Thoughtful, cultured — you’re just a regular renaissance man, ain’t you?” She figured his ego would lead him to tasteless boasting. She hoped. This felt too good, too right.
James smiled, a wide and engaging grin showcasing white teeth that threw her defenses into a tailspin. He affected a gruff voice and said, “I’m just a simple man trying to make his way in the universe,” referencing the Star Wars movie. Then, with a mischievous grin, he added, “Thought you knew!”
Tonya giggled, and immediately thought to herself, I just giggled like a sorority girl. Why is he workin’ me?
“I’m messin’ around,” James said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “For real … you mind if I ask you about, you know, you?”
Tonya was surprised to hear herself say, “Not at all, my life is an open book.”
“When’s your birthday?”
Tonya managed not to hesitate, remembering the answer for this one. “September 4th.”
“Virgo, okay. Not prone to acts of psychotic rage, good to know. What do you do for a living?”
“Actually, I’m an art buyer for a small gallery,” Tonya said smoothly, this answer more familiar due to its veracity.
“Check you out!” James said appreciatively. “Art buyer! If you think I got culture, I must not be all bad. Hmph!”
Tonya laughed, an honest, open laugh that she felt down in her stomach. James’ expression at the irony caught hold of her loneliness and spun it around.
“I just wanna get the basics out of the way,” James said calmly, “since I guess you know I’m warming up to ask you out. I wanna find out in advance if you’re some unemployed nutcase that’s gonna be a bunch of drama. So far, so good. Oh, it’s okay to turn me down, I’ll still walk you to your car, don’t worry about that part.”
“Where did you come from?” Tonya asked softly. “You all upfront with your game!”
“You wouldn’t believe how many people ask me that. I’m from here. I grew up in LA, but almost nobody believes me. Went to Dorsey High, practically grew up at World on Wheels, the whole nine. Oh, and I don’t play games.”
“I guess not. I’da never took you for a brother from LA. So, I’m a Virgo, you must be … what, a …”
“Aquarius. January 30th. Freelance writer, but I do okay, my bills are paid. Photographer, wannabe graphic artist. Graduated from Howard with a Journalism degree. Thirty-one. B negative blood type. My resume is online at www.jamesfedwards.com.”
Tonya noticed she was leaning towards him, open as hell to his advances, unable to help herself somehow. “That won’t be necessary, I think you’re cool. If you wanna go out, that’s cool. You got a card?”
James patted his vest and dug around in the pocket before pulling out a worn black leather wallet, in which he filed around for a moment before pulling out a business card with a stylized photo of him, a name, and a phone number.
Looking at the logo she said, “Nice,” actually happy to have a piece of evidence of how closely he resembled Sanu.
“That took me forever to learn how to do that in Photoshop. Then a dude at the Weekly showed me this shareware that did it in like five minutes. Worked my nerves … sorry, techie talk.”
“You’re cool,” Tonya said again, sliding the card into her purse. Grabbing her water, she stood. “Come walk me to my car? I’m gonna be sleepy as hell tomorrow.”
James rose and replied, “It’s already tomorrow, but you know. Let’s rock.”
The made their way out the side door and walked towards Adams. Tonya quickly produced her claim ticket and the valet darted off down the street. “Where’d you park?” she asked.
“Actually, my cousin Dave lives a block from here. I parked at his house. His wife made me promise not to come back all loud and wake the baby.”
Tonya nodded, strangely nervous. “I really liked meeting you, James. Um … do you know about that Freestyle Fellowship show in Inglewood on Saturday?”
“The one at the Main Event?” James asked. “Yeah, my man J-Smoov already put me on the list. I can get plus one if you wanna go.”
Tonya’s brain reeled at the idea she was actually into this guy. “That’d be cool. Maybe catch dinner before that?”
He nodded, glancing down slightly, his brain working at the logistics. “Yeah, I know a little soul food place on Century that’ll be open. You’ll call me, right?”
Tonya bit her lip, then said, “Uh, I can give you my number. That way we both owe the other one a call.” Tonya dug out a scrap of paper and a pen, scribbled her number on it, and nervously handed it to James, just as the valet brought up her car. He accepted it gingerly, a slight smile crinkling the corners of his lips, as she climbed into her silver Chevy Malibu. She rolled down the window and waved, a gesture James returned, watching her pull onto Adams and off into the night.
As she made her way west, Tonya shuddered. “I can’t remember the last time I was attracted to somebody,” she thought to herself as she turned on the stereo, a Fela CD on track three. “I have to be careful, I can’t get caught up in him.” As the lights passed by her window, she told herself, “I’ll give him the brush off on the phone. End of story.”
* * *
Tonya stood at the front of the storefront Indian restaurant, looking up and down Melrose. She pulled her gauzy wrap around her, more out of nervousness than any sense of chill in the balmy early evening. She looked down at herself — her mango colored skirt brushing the bottom half of her knee, her favorite white turtleneck clinging in all the right places, and wondered why the story wasn’t over yet.
James pulled up in his gray Volvo — which was still a good car, though it had seen better days — and hit his hazards. Before she could get to the passenger door, he’d rushed out, forcing a Trans Am to swerve and honk angrily, and come over to open her door. Smiling, she took his hand and let him guide her into the car, closing the door behind her.
A few moments and another honking horn blast or two and they were on their way west down Melrose towards the Beverly Center. Tonya nervously fidgeted in her seat as James tuned the radio into KJLH for some soothing sounds.
“I wasn’t too long, getting the car, was I?” James asked, smiling eagerly at her. Tonya felt something inside melting under his sweet attention, and shook her head.
“You were only gone a couple of minutes,” she said quietly. “Besides, after what the valet did to my clutch last time, you were probably right to do it this way.”
James grinned as he leaned back in the black leather seat. “Well, I figured that you’ve been nice enough to go out with me three times already, and you don’t seem like you wanna kick me to the curb, plus you totally vibed on the chicken jalfrezi … what’s a little sacrifice on my behalf?”
Tonya nodded, staring at her hands.
James let a moment pass, with Luther testifying to how amazing it is to be loved, and then asked, ” You’re not gonna kick me to the curb, are you?”
Tonya looked up quizzically.
“It’s just that … I mean, we’ve had so much fun — the picnic last week, where you hit me in the head with the frisbee three times, you know. I thought we were connecting. Tonight, you’ve just been kind of … quiet.”
Tonya licked her lips to gain a moment to deliberate. “You’re right, and I’m sorry,” she offered. “I’m not gonna ‘kick you to the curb’ or anything. I’m quiet because I really, really like you … even after I made you watch that horrible House of Yes movie, you’re still a lot of fun and really nice and so handsome …”
“I’m sensing a disturbing conjunction slipping up on me,” James said, more worried than joking.
Tonya considered her next statement carefully. “You’re the first guy I’ve dated … well, in a long time. I’m just … scared. This is going so well, and it makes me nervous.”
James pondered this, his eyes on traffic, rubbing his goatee thoughtfully. “Lemme get this straight,” he began slowly. “You like me, which makes me so happy to hear, we get along, we have fun, we can overcome even a movie as terrible as The House of Yes, and you’re freaking out … because you’re happy?”
Tonya’s eyes connected with his, an electric tingle going through her as she caught the gaze of his deep brown eyes, and nodded.
The car was quiet for a moment, and then James stifled a chuckle. The chuckle, however, was awfully determined and charged out of his mouth as a full-fledged laugh.
“What … don’t laugh at me!” Tonya half-heartedly protested, starting to chuckle herself. “I’m opening myself up here! Come on!”
James’ hilarity managed to settle down to smirking amusement as he returned, “You gotta admit, that sounds pretty goofy. ‘Oh, being happy makes me nervous!’ C’mon, dawg, admit it.”
Tonya smiled sheepishly, looked away and nodded.
“You’re totally feelin’ me, aren’t you?” James grinned.
Tonya’s smile widened, and she nodded again.
“All it took was a little of the ol’ Edwards magic,” James said smugly, tugging on the collar of his tan blazer. “And a head that’s highly resistant to impact.”
Tonya burst into laughter, and James joined her, both enjoying the time and the company and the banter. Wiping her eyes, Tonya started to settle down and just turned to watch his profile.
James noticed her and smiled, patting her knee.
Tonya thought to herself, I can’t believe I’m feeling this way. Spirit, please, don’t let this go wrong.
“Whatcha thinkin’?” James asked.
Tonya smiled demurely and looked down to her lap. “Nothing,” she answered. “Just happy to be here.”
* * *
James woke slowly, aware of a pleasant amount of warmth in front of him, and the covers being in a more chaotic fashion than he was used to. He opened his eyes slowly, and saw the shell of black braids on the pillow next to him. He could make out the alarm clock on the nightstand — 4:17 AM — and realized he’d only been asleep a couple of hours, so happy with just being near Tonya he felt lighter than air. Four months he’d been dating the cagey vixen, first just running the normal plays and looking for the end zone. After the first three weeks, he found himself staring out the window and daydreaming about her when he was in the middle of transcribing an interview, or finding her name typed randomly through copy as he ran the spellcheck. The way she talked about politics, how good it felt chuckling at Seinfeldwith her on the couch — everything was interesting and alive when they were together. When she accepted his invitation for the family’s Labor Day barbecue, his father Pete joked that James looked ready to hang up his jersey at the Forum.
He pulled Tonya close, hearing her sigh contentedly, and thought about the evening. Picked her up for dinner at Roscoe’s at 8:30, just because she found it so funny when the waitress called “Mama” bent his ear for leaving his elbows on the table. One of the Lakers was having a birthday party at the Century Club, and one of James’ endless list of friends at record labels had dropped a pair of passes into his lap, so they danced for hours in the decadent nightspot. After the Century Club turned out its patrons, James playfully suggested a nightcap at home, and was really surprised when she agreed to it. One Amaretto sour later they were dueling with tongues on his leather couch as Maxwell crooned, “… you shouldn’t know these things … about me-ee …”
Grinning, he thought about the experience they’d shared that night. Other than making out, he’d not made any attempts to make it past second base with Tonya, telling her that it was her decision, and he’d respect it, he just wanted to be with her. The way she tasted, the smooth fluidity of her curves moving against his hands, his chest, his thighs. She was very vocal and very appreciative, so he had to guess that she was happy with his performance as well. Worth the wait, he thought to himself.
James frowned as he felt the Coronas and the Amaretto pushing against the side of his bladder. Carefully, he eased his arm from under Tonya’s neck, brushing kisses across her shoulder to quiet her groan of displeasure. A quick visit to the bathroom later, he smiled as he came out and saw her sleeping there, curled up and serene. Delight washed across him like a high tide, and he felt like his feet weren’t even touching the ground.
He made his way out to the living room to tidy up some, and as he picked up the glasses from the coffee table, he noticed sleepily, Do I always have to bend over this far to … ah whatever. In the kitchen, he carefully placed the glasses in the sink, and then frowned at the window. There’s dust on the top sill of this window! I gotta get a cloth and … hang on a second … how can I see the top sill? I’m only 5’11″!
James looked down, and saw his feet hovering easily a foot above the floor. He remained that way for a while, neck slanted and eyes staring downward, as if trying to force his brain to reconcile the completely impossible thing his eyes were trying to relay. His mouth hung open in dull surprise, and a droplet of saliva made its way free and succumbed to gravity, falling past his feet on the way to the floor. Finally, out of options and unable to figure this out in any way, James’ brain threw in the towel and allowed him to faint, his entire body finally surrendering to gravity’s very patient embrace.
When the heavy thud of James hitting the kitchen floor shook the bed, Tonya leapt into consciousness, sitting up in bed suddenly. “Shit,” she muttered, “this is gonna take some explaining.”
The moonlight dodged its way through the bedraggled blinds like a soldier ducking for the last chopper leaving a firefight. It fell across the matted orange carpet and tumbled towards the stained bedspread, where Raphael Riley sat, observing it. He looked at his hands in this light, turned the over, this way and that, as if the moon’s illumination would reveal something he was unable to see in daylight. His breath escaped his chiseled form in a slow, deliberate sigh as the night wore on interminably.
Raphael stood up and looked around the solitary room. The creased and worn notepad had long since seen its last sheet of paper leave its grasp, but still it shone the logo of the Snooty Fox and scrolled the address and phone number of the South Central motel across its surface. Unusual blemishes — bodily fluids that wouldn’t wash out, cooking grease that hadn’t been cleaned up fast enough — dotted most of the room’s surfaces, and the moulding along the baseboards was cracked and pocked like the roads outside. Riley bit his lip, thinking to himself, “Thing’s've been bad, but damn, this is messed up.”
He glanced back at the bed, the unfamiliar shape of his body still worn into the laughable padding of the mattress. Again he raised his hands and examined them, reaching over to grab a pen and stab downwards at his right hand. He still was amazed as it smashed against the skin and shattered, leaving no mark at all.
The ringing of the phone sliced through the room’s silence like a shuriken. Quickly, he rushed over and grabbed it from its cradle, careful not to break it.
“Who is it?” he asked breathily, his eyes scanning the window for signs someone was coming.
“It’s me, Ray,” a tired but welcome female voice returned. “I got your message, are you okay?”
Raphael wiped his forehead and sat down. “Yeah, I’m cool, Angela.”
“Listen Ray,” the voice continued, “I’m your big sister, and I love you, but you know you’re stupid, right? How do you expect to live, with everybody and they momma lookin’ for you? What are you gonna do if they bust up in there?”
Raphael looked over at the remnants of the pen, lying on the floor. “I don’t think I’d have too much problem getting away again.”
“What then, Ray? Keep running? You ain’t got no plan, and you’re gonna need to come up with one unless you wanna end right back in Mule Creek.”
Raphael took a breath and thought before he answered. “Ain’t no more Mule Creek, Angela.”
The phone was silent a beat, and then Angela asked in a soft voice, “What do you mean?”
“I’m not gonna tell you all this over the phone, and I’m scared to go out. Either let it go or you gotta come here and I’ll tell you.”
“Aight, aight, I’ll come over, we gotta figger this out.”
“Angela, hold up.”
“Can you stop at Popeye’s and get me, like, a whole lotta chicken? I’m hungry as hell and I ain’t got no money.”
Angela laughed softly, a sound that was clean and simple, and she responded, “I got you. Lemme make sure Momma’s really sleep, and I’ll be right there.”
• • •
Raphael and Angela sat across from one another on the bed, a slight smirk resting on her cognac colored face, as he devoured piece number eleven of the sixteen in the package.
“Dude, this is the bomb,” Raphael managed between bites, his thick fingers nimbly manipulating the intricacies of the wing to extract every bit of meat from the reluctant bones. “Thanks for bringing this.”
“You used to eat like a bird, Ray,” Angela smiled, running a hand through the kinky curls cascading from her head. “I used to be bigger than you, too. What the hell happened out there?”
“Well, I guess you got time to hear it all,” he said, sitting up and wiping grease from his lips, “so I can tell you how it all went down. Now, I know some of this might sound crazy, but I’ma tell you exactly what happened the way I saw it, aight? And don’t interrupt a lot, since I gotta try to get my head around it.”
Angela nodded wordlessly, setting her brown suede jacket and matching purse aside on the nightstand. Raphael bit back a thought about the surfaces of the room and began …
• • •
Raphael Riley walked dejectedly from the liquor store, his left arm cradling a brown paper bag. He pulled his hood up and scowled as he walked, still stinging from losing his job. He replayed the supervisor’s words over in his head, “With the economy the way it is, we just have to let some people go. We’ll give you a good reference, and we had no problems with your work, it’s just the way it is …” Spitting on the sidewalk, he picked up his pace a bit and walked on. He thought to himself, “They knew I was fired when he got there, why they wait until after my shift to tell me?”
About half a block later he saw the car, parked on a side street. The occupants looked like they were reading something on the screen, the greenish reflection lighting up their faces, as the street light’s arc fell just short of their front bumper. Raphael looked down at the sidewalk and kept moving, not wanting any more problems today. As his left Puma sneaker left sidewalk and landed on blacktop, he heard the low growl of their engine come to life. Muttering a curse, he kept walking, knowing no other way to play it. Even with his head down, he could see the reflection from their headlights as they rounded the corner.
They pulled up alongside him as he walked, and shone a light on him. His face still stuck in a snarl, he glared into the center of that oppressive cone of luminescence and held his hands out to either side of his body.
“Aight, I don’t want no trouble,” he said loud enough to be heard. The car stopped, and the policemen got out, hands resting on the butts of their pistols, and one walked closer to Raphael.
“How’s it going?” the cop asked. He was a head taller than Raphael, a light skinned Black cop in short sleeves despite the edge to the wind. Raphael looked up at him, his left side blocking some of the spotlight, and took note of the cop’s musculature, figgering he could probably run and hit, which made things bad.
“I’m aight,” Raphael replied cooly, “what’s up?”
“Where you heading?” the cop asked calmly. Raphael could only make out the outline of the partner, radioing in and still watching the conversation carefully. Raphael also glimpsed the name on the uniform, “Baldwin.”
“I’m goin’ home, man, I just lost my job,” Raphael admitted, hoping his bad luck could inspire some sympathy.
Baldwin slowly pulled out a notepad. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said quietly as he scribbled something down. “Been to the liquor store?”
Raphael nodded. “Yeah, I’m old enough.”
Baldwin smiled slightly at that, something in his eyes flashing for a moment. Raphael felt this might be over in a few seconds. “What’s your name?” Baldwin asked, his notepad still at the ready.
“Ray Riley, well, Raphael. Ray for short.”
Baldwin took note and asked, “well, Mr. Riley … would you step over by the car? Thank you … Mr. Riley, would you place your hands on the hood of the car? We’d just like to make sure you’re not armed.”
Raphael consented, having become very accustomed to this sort of thing since moving to LA when he was 16. He looked down at the ground as Baldwin patted him down and the silent partner remained on the other side of the car, watching. When Baldwin was done, he patted Raphael’s shoulder twice.
“Mr. Riley, we’d like to take you down to the station for a few questions,” Baldwin said calmly. Raphael glanced at the partner — now the name “Harris” was visible in the dim streetlight — and back to Baldwin. Sighing, Raphael agreed, letting Baldwin usher him, hand on head, into the back seat of the squad car. As they got in silently and started to pull off, Raphael thought about asking questions but decided it was pointless. This would be over sooner or later, and he’d have to go home and figure out how he was going to pay rent, or if he’d have to move back in with his mother. Raphael stared out the window at the dim houses along the road, somewhat happy for the distraction.
• • •
The detective walked in, a portly Black man in a cheap brown suit, carrying a file and a cup of coffee. Raphael had been sitting in the interrogation room, glancing at what had to be a two way mirror, for about twenty minutes. Thinking back to the hard glares he got when he came in, Raphael guessed whoever they were really looking for was in some kind of trouble.
“My name is Detective Samson,” the man said, sitting down. “Can I get you anything?”
Raphael thought to himself, “You can get me the hell out of here,” but just said, “naw.”
“Mr. Riley — can I call you Ray? Ray, I’d like to ask you to tell me what happened tonight.”
Raphael sighed and started. “I was at work, I used to work for Consolidated Plumbing on Arlington, and I was there until my shift got over at 8. When I was clocking out, my boss came and told me they had to let me go, some shit about the economy or whatever. I walked to the liquor store on 71st, got me a beer, and was walking home when the cops came and got me.”
Samson took some notes on a big yellow legal pad — his handwriting all big swoops and furious curves, but unreadable upside-down and probably not much better right-side-up. “Is that everything that happened tonight, Ray?”
Raphael searched Samson’s face, still looking down at the pad, for some sign of what he was looking for. Thinking back, Raphael said, “That’s it. Nothin’ much goin’ on, man.”
Samson looked up at Raphael with a cool expression. “You said the liquor store on Manchester was right by your job, right?”
Raphael suppressed a desire to roll his eyes. “No, I said I went to the liquor store on 71st. Manchester is too far to walk for a beer.”
“So, you’re saying you weren’t on Manchester tonight?” Samson asked, a note of disbelief coloring the edges of the comment.
Realizing something must have happened on Manchester, Raphael saw what direction to go. “I was nowhere near Manchester. I live on 69th, my job is close to 73rd … I had no reason to go there.”
Samson’s forehead wrinkled in a way that indicated he was mulling things over. He looked down at the pad and changed gears. “What time did you leave work?”
Raphael glanced at his watch, a cheap glittery thing made to look like one you’d see in a Jay-Z video. “I punched out at 8:04, clock said. Ol’ boy talked to me for, like, ten minutes, and gave me my last little money in cash. I was prolly outta there a little before 8:30.”
“The officers picked you up at 9:04 PM,” Samson said, tapping his pad. “Can you account for that forty minutes?”
Raphael thought that didn’t sound like forty minutes but ignored it. “I walked to the store. I got me a beer. I looked at the latest issue of The Source for a minute, peeked at the nudie magazines, bought my beer and left. I was walking home when y’all got me. I wasn’t walkin’ fast because I got no hurry to be nowhere. That’s where I was.”
Samson sighed and leaned back in his chair. “That’s a good story. I think it went a little differently.”
Raphael leaned back and stared at the ceiling. “Okay, you was there. How did it go.”
Samson leaned in and said, “You left work at about 8:25, 8:30. You were mad. At the end of your rope. Tired of playing by the rules. You started walking fast, and ended up on Manchester. You walked in, walked around a few aisles, grabbed a beer, and when it looked like you were gonna buy it, you pulled a gun on the cashier.”
Raphael chuckled, letting Samson keep going. Somebody really messed up, and since it was a Black guy in that general area, he had to go through this drama. Whatever.
“She handed you the money,” Samson continued, watching Raphael carefully, “but you were still furious and you shot her. You then ran out of the store, dumped the gun, and our officers picked you up shortly after that.”
Raphael started thinking back to all the cop shows he’d seen on TV. They wanted him to incriminate himself, he knew, but he was in the best position in the world, since he actually was innocent. “I don’t know why you think I had anything to do with this. I didn’t rob anybody, I sure as hell didn’t shoot anybody, I don’t have a gun and never did, and I was blocks away when you sayin’ this shit went down.”
“This will go easier on you if you just tell me what happened. Maybe it was an accident, you were a little agitated on the tape. You must not have seen the camera, tucked between the Corvossier and the Southern Comfort,” Samson said, leaning back with a pleased look on his face. “We got the whole thing on tape, Ray. Same sweatshirt, hood up like when we found you. Same black pants.”
A shiver of worry went through Raphael. People had been sent up on less. The silence in the room had a tangible leaden quality to it, the air perfectly still and without interruption. Ray said, “I got this shirt at Slauson Swap Meet, in the middle of a whole bunch that looked just liike it. Black pants ain’t nothin’ special. Even if I am wearin’ the same clothes as the guy you’re looking for, I ain’t him. I ain’t robbed nobody.”
“Had any illicit substances today, Ray?” Samson asked, his expression smug. “You must have been high as hell because not only did you miss the camera, but you missed the shopkeeper’s husband, sweeping up a few aisles over. We can see him on the tape, peeking out at you. I’ve been in here waiting for a tap on the glass, which would mean he didn’t recognize you. You’re going down for this.”
Raphael paused a second and glanced at the glass. They wanted him for this crime … but …
“Detective Samson,” Raphael said calmly. “Am I under arrest?”
“I asked if I was under arrest. The cops who brought me in said they wanted to ask me some questions, and I seen enough episodes of The Practice to know that, unless you wanna arrest me, I don’t have to be here. You tryin’ to get me to admit to some shit you can’t prove. If I’m not under arrest, I wanna leave. If I am under arrest, get me a motherfuckin’ lawyer right now.”
Samson raised an eyebrow and frowned. He gathered up his folder and stood up, looked hard at Raphael, and left the room.
• • •
“Ray, I know most of this already,” Angela protested. “That shitty public defender you got, I was in court watching every day, they sent you up to Mule Creek. Mama still dealin’ with that new lawyer on your appeal. What I don’t know is what happened after I left you here … and how you did all that … and hell, how you got out.”
Raphael took a swig from the Arrowhead bottle before saying, “I was gettin’ to all that. I wanted to make sure you knew I was innocent, and how they got me.”
“Fool, I been kickin’ your ass and protectin’ you since we was little,” Angela chuckled, tossing a pillow. “I knew you was innocent before the phone rang. Now tell me what happened …”
Raphael stood up and snuck a peek through the blinds. “Well, what had happened was …”
• • •
The nights at Mule Creek, filled with screams and fitful sleep, were bad. The days were worse. All the stories Raphael heard about prison gangs were true, but they sure didn’t recruit much. Raphael was a solo act, which was a dangerous way to be, in a prison. Fortunately, Raphael had always had little flashes of insight growing up — he’d always start singing a song right before someone turned on the radio, where that song would be playing, or he’d walk by the phone just before it rang. He noticed those slips in time becoming more useful, as he never walked by the wrong corner and narrowly escaped some unpleasant encounters in the shower. For about three months, Raphael was able to keep safe by merely not being around when any dumb shit happened.
The only real problem came from his cell mate, a guy named Sherman Pierson on a twenty year bid for armed robbery, who always felt like he had to be extra hard core. On his second night, Raphael was surprised in his sleep by Pierson holding a pillow down over the back of Raphael’s head. Pierson struggled to try and get Raphael’s pants off, muttering over and over, “you gon’ be my bitch, not the other way around,” but Raphael was able to apply his slight size advantage and shove Pierson off. A very brief scuffle went down, and neither man ended up clearly beating down the other. Pierson muttered, “You not worth the trouble, fool,” and hadn’t bothered Raphael since.
None of his luck could help Raphael on the yard, however, where trouble could walk right up to you and knock you on the ground. At least three or four times a week, Raphael could count on an encounter with a Stormfronter. The Stormfront was the name of the white supremacists at Mule Creek, and on his third day in, Raphael managed to accidentally bump his tray into their leader, six-foot-two inches of mean, David Dillon, in the lunch line. That minor slight meant every skinhead at the facility had Raphael on their short list, and every skin tone lighter than his was a cause for anxiety. The guards were little help — Stormfront had friends on the outside, it seemed, who funneled cash in to secure preferential treatment. Prison life was one of routine, and more routine, so the regular things Raphael had to do, every single day, continually pushed him into danger. For the three months before the breakout, Raphael could count on at least two chances to get his face dented per week, few of which he could avoid completely.
Raphael was just coming in off the yard when they were bringing what turned out to be the last batch of prisoners into Mule Creek, pleased to have gotten done with the free weights just as Dillon and his boys made an appearance. Looking over his shoulder, he misjudged his step and bumped into a skinny, bedraggled looking Italian kid with some kind of vine tattooed around his arm, one of a stream of orange uniforms parading into the facility. The kid coughed and glared at Raphael, but offered no comment. A commotion rustled Raphael’s attention from behind as he saw Dillon walking through the doorway, and Raphael made a sudden move for his work assignment, a door just feet away. Dillon shoved the coughing Italian out of the way as he strode forward, but Raphael was safely talking to a guard supervisor by the time Dillon caught up. Raphael glanced over at the door, and Dillon let slip a hungry grin, held Raphael’s gaze a moment, and turned back into the crowd.
It took a few hours for Raphael to notice something was wrong, by then sitting on his lower bunk, reading a letter from his mom. He started to cough uncontrollably for a moment, and felt a funny tingling all over. He stood up, stretched, but still the tingling sensation, like someone brushing feathers over all of his skin simultaneously, persisted. Irritated, he lay down and was already half dozing when they announced lights out.
The horn sounded the next morning for breakfast, and Raphael awoke with a start. That tingling had stopped, but still something was funny, and he couldn’t pinpoint it. He swung up and banged his head on the top bunk really hard, which was odd, because he’d never done that before. Rubbing his forehead, he stood up slowly and started to reach for his towel, to shower. He had a flash of something and decided against it, thinking he didn’t smell all that bad from yesterday, so no one would probably notice.
That day was kind of weird all around, but passed without incident for Raphael. It was a good thing he hadn’t showered, because something weird happened with the water, and everybody who was in there got really sick, with huge boils all over their bodies. Raphael kept glaring down at his shoes, which seemed kind of tight for some reason. There was a weird moment when the guards ran a room-to-room search for somebody who just up and disappeared, practically in front of them. This disappearing guy, some booster called “Fast” Eddie Chase, turned up in the pantry sooner or later, somebody said, stuffing his face like a damned fool. The whole place balanced precariously on a tightrope of stability, struggling to maintain its tense equilibrium of captives and captors.
The next day is when things really went nuts. Dillon and his team went about their regular ritual, shooing anybody away from the weights who didn’t conform to their concepts of racial purity, and doing some reps. Dillon himself was lifting a lot more than normal, and the rumor around the prison was that he had gotten a batch of steroids or something. When he suddenly cried out in pain after twenty flawless reps of 300 lbs, none of his comrades knew what to do. The bar descended slowly as he growled, the red grimness off his face a taut mask of agony. Before the bar got all the way down to his tattooed chest, he screamed and pushed, with what looked like a blast of energy hurling the barbell several yards into the air to crash down powerfully several yards away. Exhausted, Dillon had slumped onto the ground long before the four guards made it over to drag him to solitary for making a disturbance.
Eddie Chase turned up missing again, and the guards were crazy until finally a sentry on the watchtower noticed him, mere yards from freedom, already outside the gates somehow. A brief but energetic chase ensued and Chase was dragged back to solitary as well.
During all this time Raphael found himself hungrier than ever — he traded four cigarettes for two extra dinners and ended up trading up for bigger shoes, two sizes bigger than he knew he was. The top bunk continued to bang his head every time he got up, even though he swore he was ducking. Raphael snuck into the infirmary during a free moment and confirmed that somehow he was four inches taller than he used to be. Raphael laid on his bunk, pushing his brain harder and harder to understand what was happening, and nothing made any sense.
Four days after Raphael’s chance encounter with a line of prisoners, he awoke to the sound of gunfire and explosions. He leapt up, again finding the rim of the bunk with his forehead, but somehow it didn’t really hurt. Raphael rushed out of bed, not seeing the dent his impact left in the top bunk, and made for the surprisingly open cell door.
People were streaming towards the yard, and Raphael let himself get caught up in that river of human motion. Once there, Raphael saw things he could not believe — there was a guy who looked like a big lizard, jumping around and throwing people and gym equipment. In the air above, a human figure was suspended in a nimbus of fire, with incendiary spheres randomly flying from his body and smashing into people, walls, dirt. The explosion, Raphael figured, was the cause for the huge hole in the wall where a guard tower once stood. People were rushing out the hole, far too many for the guards to stop, and scattering throughout the desolate terrain. Over the sounds of sizzling flesh, Raphael heard a laugh he recognized, and saw David Dillon near the hole in the wall, literally picking men up two at a time and smashing them together like cymbals. Dillon, the air around him wavy like over a barbecue grill, glistened with the sweat of exertion, the swastika on the left side of his chest rippling as he assaulted victim after victim. Raphael decided, “Today is not the day to die,” and snuck around Dillon’s blind side and out the gap in the wall, running, running, running …
Four or five hours later, Raphael finally got tired and stopped to rest in a small wooded area, far from any lights or roads. He had no idea how far he’d gone, and couldn’t believe he was able to run so long. His stomach protested its lack of nourishment with great vigor, and Raphael wished he hadn’t run so far from everything. Looking up at the sky he figured he’d managed to head south, and figured sooner or later he could find some way to head back to LA. “What else can I do?” Raphael asked himself. “I don’t know anybody anywhere else, ‘cept back in Alabama. I gotta find a way home, maybe Angela can help me think a way outta this mess. I can’t involve momma.” Ignoring his hunger and his exhaustion, Raphael got up and started walking.
About an hour and a half later, the outline of a farmhouse appeared on the horizon. Raphael wondered, “are the farm people out here anywhere near as bad as they could be back home?” Carefully, Raphael crept up towards the house, using tall grass as some kind of cover, looking for a clothesline or something that could help him out of his distinctive orange garb. He did see a clothesline, as he got closer, but it was empty. As he got closer, he realized there was no car nearby, no activity at all. Whoever lived here was gone, it seemed. Making a circle, Raphael noticed the name “Ortiz” on a mailbox and felt a pang of guilt. Many Black people he met in California had negative attitudes about Latinos, but he remembered his mom say, “Baby, that’s just ’cause they’s all treated like crabs in a barrel. Lookit’ them — they poor, the police hate them, they can’t ever seem to get ahead, and they got a few stupid politicians always talkin’ and never doin’ a thing. If they was a little darker and spoke English, they’d be Black!”
Remembering that, Raphael regretted the thoughts in his head, of breaking in and taking things. Still, his need was severe, and he sure as hell couldn’t go around dressed like this, unless he wanted to end up right back at whatever was left of Mule Creek. As he walked around to the back door, Raphael signed and took off his shirt, wrapped it around his fist, and smashed the window, allowing him to reach in and open the door.
It was clear, from the second his wide feet hit the rosy tile pattern on the kitchen floor, that this was not a house of abundance. None of the carefully placed dishes on the side of the sink matched one another, and dime store knicknacks decorated the sparse shelves. Raphael almost tiptoed through the small room and into the hallway. He saw a living room, barely larger than the kitchen, with a threadbare couch next to a cracked leather recliner, a 17″ TV perched atop a plastic TV tray, perfectly positioned between them. Raphael sighed, walking the few feet to the bedroom.
Inside, he saw a handwoven bedspread with Latinesque image of the Virgin Mary all over its face. An 8″ x 10″ picture of what was obviously the Ortiz family hung over the bed, illustrating the hard but rewarding life they must lead. Raphael leaned in to examine it. The husband, balding and ponched, with a his shoulders stooped from labor, smiled under his freshly cut mustache as he held his wife, obviously striking in her youth but showing some gray hairs in the black bun carefully atop her head, the plumpness of age and a sedentary lifestyle showing on her frame. Two kids, twin boys from the look of them, grinned at the camera, freshly pressed gray gabardine slacks under matching blue v-necked sweaters, their bowl haircuts as identical as their smiles. Guilt once again smacked at Raphael, forcing him to look away. He carefully opened one dresser drawer, and then another, before he found some clothes. The husband was shorter than Raphael, by a considerable measure, but he’d long since learned how to wear pants down around his behind. He slid them on, and found a sleeveless white T-shirt that was long enough to cover his adapted waistline. Another few minutes turned up a 3/4 length raincoat in a nearby closet. Feeling goofy but less conspicuous, Raphael looked himself over in the mirror on the dresser. “This will get me a little farther,” he thought to himself, “but I feel bad about taking from these folk. Maybe I can make up for it later … oh damn, fingerprints! I gotta get outta here.”
Raphael made his way back towards the back door, using his uniform to wipe clean every surface he thought he’d touched. He vaguely remembered TV shows where other things had gotten people caught, but he couldn’t be sure what they were. Tolerably pleased with his results, he closed the door quietly behind him, wiped the doorknob well, and headed towards the road with his uniform tucked under his arm. He turned once to note the address, and hoped he could remember long enough to jot it down.
It was dark when Raphael got to the bus station, a small terminal in some one horse town. He looked at the schedule and indeed saw a bus headed for LA, but the fare was more money than his empty pockets could come up with. Raphael got a feeling he should go sit by the bathroom, but didn’t know why. He’d long since stopped second guessing the instincts in his head, walked over and took a seat next, jammed in behind an ancient black-and-white coin operated TV.
About ten minutes later, he saw them, a mid-twenties white couple dressed in rough hewn clothes with two-hundred-dollar pairs of sunglasses perched on their heads. He looked them over — recently purchased Jansport backpacks, designer jeans slightly torn and smudged by travel and wear. They were arguing about something, with the guy apologizing through his close cropped blond goatee, and the girl gesturing angrily at him, her manicure having seen better days. Raphael didn’t know how, but as he picked up a discarded newspaper and acted like he was reading it, he somehow understood they were his ticket home.
They took a seat a few places down from Raphael, their agument in full swing. Seems they were taking some kind of “freedom ride,” across the country by bus and “getting in touch with the people.” She was pretty clearly tired of it all, and he kept telling her about getting to know the real America like it was an old friend. Raphael noticed the LA bus pulling in as this was going on. The woman took off her bandana, turned and glared at her companion, asking if he got a good acquaintance with that waitress at the truck stop in the last town. Bursting into tears, she jumped up and ran for the bathroom. Distraught, the man leapt up and followed her. Raphael furrowed his brow with thought, then noticed they’d left their backpacks on the bench. He glanced towards the women’s room door, behind which a full-scale shouting war was in place now, rose slowly and walked past the bags, grabbing one. As he walked towards the sleepy ticket counter, he rooted through the bag and found over four hundred dollars in cash instantly. He grinned, pulled it out, and thought to himself, “they probably have money in her bag.” Raphael bought a ticket and quickly boarded the bus.
Fifteen minutes later, as the bus was pulling away, the second backpack was still on the seat and neither of the bohemian wanderers had emerged from the bathroom. Raphael, seated alone, took the time to stuff his uniform in the backpack and rest it between his legs, one strap over his knee. The miles began to fall under him, and the grumbling in his stomach made him wish there had been a cafeteria at that bus stop. His forehead resting against the cool glass of the window, he began to doze, and finally fall solidly asleep.
• • •
The whistle of the hydraulic breaks competed with the driver’s voice, amplified by the bus’ speakers. “Welcome to LA,” the voice said with no welcome, and Raphael glared around. The backpack was still safe between his knees, its contents apparently untouched. He looked out the window and groaned at the darkness enveloping Hollywood, Cahuenga Boulevard somnabulent. He followed the throng of passengers and stepped into the night.
Raphael walked south to Hollywood Boulevard, where a bus roared past him. He thought about it, remembering some busses ran all night, but also thought that there were cameras on busses. He decided to keep walking, since he hadn’t felt any signs of exhaustion since running out of hs cell that morning, just a powerful hunger. Before he reached Melrose, Raphael saw a taco stand open late. He checked his cash — plenty left — and ordered a huge, greasy feast: seven tacos, four burritos, two orders of nachos and a huge drink, no ice. As he walked along, he inhaled the food, heading east on Melrose, and was scouring the bottom of the bag for crumbs and dripped cheese before he crossed Vine. “I’m still hungry than a mug,” Raphael pondered, and resolved to grab more food at the next spot he found.
Raphael walked calmly down Melrose, passing lush green lawns and flashing neon messages of commerce. He was able to make good time and still look unhurried, finding an effortless pace that required none of his attention. Passing a 7-11 near Paramount Studios, a police car rolled past him, the officers inside paying him little attention. Raphael worried a bit about that, but decided to wait before he did anything about it.
By the time he got to Western, he was bored of walking and indifferent to who might see him. He leaned against the stop for the 207 southbound, a bus he was pretty sure ran late, and started rooting through the backpack. He was very pleased to find a baseball cap, a roomy gray flannel shirt and jeans that were probably baggy on their owner, but looked pretty good to Raphael’s changed physique. He stopped a moment and thought about that. “I grew four inches in a few days. My hands look bigger. Something happened back at Mule Creek, something to me, and Dillon, and probably some other people too.” Raphael glanced around and walked over to an alley, where he quickly changed clothes. Raphael wrapped his prison uniform up in the clothes he’d taken from the Ortiz house and shoved the whole thing into a drain hole, hearing it splash and hopefully end up in the ocean. He walked back to the bus stop and took out a legal pad and a pen from the backpack, scribbling down the Ortiz’ address before he forgot, figuring he’d find out what town they were in later. Just as he was shoving the legal pad back in the bag, he saw the telltale yellow quintet of lights that signaled the top of a bus, several blocks down. He pulled the baseball cap over his eyes and checked his money, ready for the long ride south.
• • •
Crumpling the Popeye’s bag into a ball, Raphael said, “… and that’s about it. I got off at Vernon and walked back up here, since I didn’t wanna get off on King, that close to Southwest Division.”
Angela leaned back, her expression pensive. “That’s some story. What do you think happened to you at Mule Creek?”
Raphael shrugged. “Prolly some secret government experiment, got into the food or something. I saw a news story talkin’ about almost all the prisoners in the jailbreak were killed. Still, you gotta figure if I got away, some other folk did.”
Angela smiled and nodded. “If a meathead like you can make it outta there, must be damned near a hundred morons got out safely.” Raphael frowned at her, then chuckled along. “Seriously, though, what are we gonna do about you, baby brother?”
Raphael looked down at the floor and replied, “I dunno, Angela. Just promise me you won’t tell Momma.”
“Ray, when she reads the newspaper one of these days, or the phone rings when I’m not there, she’ll think you’re dead, like they’re saying.”
“Maybe that’s better …”
“Ang, I ain’t never did nothin’ worth anything. I didn’t go to college, I can’t try and be no real estate agent like you. I couldn’t even stick to being a plumber. I’m just a big ol’ nothing.”
Angela moved closer, so she could look in his eyes. “You gon’ make me slap you upside your big fat head, bigger or not. Don’t you remember what Momma called us? Her angels — that’s why we named the way we are. That pretty needlepoint by the couch, talkin’ about your name, ‘Raphael, the shining one who heals,’ and all that. You’re not a nothing. You’re a good man caught up in some bad stuff.” She patted his hands, and he nodded solemnly.
“Now, you’re staying here tonight and tomorrow during the day. I’ll come get you tomorrow night and move you to another motel, maybe that one over off Buckingham. We’ll figure this out, all right? You need any more money or anything?”
“I got a hundred and thirty bucks left.”
“Okay, that should last you. I’ll drop off some more food tomorrow — your growth spurt probably explains why you’re so hungry. Get some sleep and I’ll see you before my noon class, aight?”
Raphael nodded. “Be safe, going home.”
“I’ll ring once.”
Angela slid out of the door and Raphael was left with the thick silence draped over his shoulders like a cloak. Maybe sleep was the best thing for him now. He kicked off his shoes, turned off the lights, and took a last peek through the tattered blinds and fell over on the bed, soundly asleep.
Cool currents of air tiptoed across Josie’s dewy countenance as she rocked back and forth, her body moving in time with Billy. She scanned the bright, starry night as he huffed on top of her, her thoughts adrift with no real focus. She spared a moment to glance at Billy, hair like lengths of dirty straw, and make a pleased sound before resuming her stargazing. It wasn’t that she didn’t like sex — that summer with Jerry, hitchhiking across the desert states grabbed her consciousness with a flash before just as quickly letting go — and Billy was a sweet guy who she’d probably end up marrying. He just didn’t have much going in the passion department, and she’d gotten used to that over the last five months they’d been together.
She smiled as she noticed Billy starting to whisper her name over and over. That normally meant it wouldn’t be much longer before he was done, and Josie began thinking about the blue green gaze he’d be giving her in a few minutes, the textured sentiments of devotion that were worth more than any sexual experience she’d ever had. She leaned back and smiled at the sky, and her eyes were almost closed when she saw them.
Josie tried to concentrate on the sky and tune out Billy’s insistent whispering and insistent thrusting, because her Kansas-bred brain was having a great deal of difficulty wrapping itself around what she was seeing. In the sky, like it was a big movie screen, two … well, she didn’t even know what they were, but it was clear they were fighting. The one on the left, which looked something like a man, was dressed in some kind of loose blue and red tunic with baggy pants and no shoes. She noticed as his leg swung up for a kick that he had no toes, just one seamless extension at the end of his leg representing a foot. She’d first noticed his back moving towards her (towards the ground? what was this?) as he was seemingly pushed into her view. The other combatant looked like some kind of octopus or squid, all flowing translucent colors and what looked like six trunk like tentacles. Josie stared, dumbstruck, at the sky as they traded blows and ducked each other’s attacks, not even bothering to keep up her pretended pleasure as Billy proceeded, blissfully unaware.
Thankfully he was indeed done in a moment, and she looked down at him with a forced smile. He kissed both of her cheeks, and leaned back, his back settling on the left side of the Mustang convertible that had been safehouse and bedroom for them many nights since meeting at the Chi Delt spring social. He leaned back and finally took note of what was happening over his head.
“What the f …” Billy started, his eyes locked on the sky’s ceiling.
Josie reacted as though she hadn’t seen it before. “My god, Billy, what is that? Is it some kind of movie or something?”
Billy was quiet a second, his attention fixed above. “It can’t be,” he surmised finally, rubbing his clean shaven chin. “Look — you can see actual stars _moving_ as they fight, like they’re running into them. Man, I don’t … I don’t know what’s happening.”
Josie realized that she should probably be scared, but for some reason she felt a strange sense of indifference. Still, playing along had been her plan for most of her life, from her month-away degree in education to her love for this plain, simple boy Billy. She reached for him and drew herself close, saying, “Oh, Billy, I don’t understand.”
Billy rubbed her red shoulder-length hair absently, never looking down, and whispered that it would be all right. Josie suspected he was right — nothing ever really affected her life, which was as normal and plain as the nightlife around their school, University of Missouri-Rolla. She nuzzled into his neck and wondered if she left her iron on in her dorm.
* * *
The reports began to come into the newsroom fast and furious, and it was too huge a story to be a local hoax or phenomenon. Jeremy got up from his desk and walked over to the TV, turning to the ABC network feed, now going out over his own WISN affiliate in Milwaukee.
Alison Stewart was on, an almost comically serious African American newscaster who’d come over after tours of duty with MTV News and CBS. Jeremy met her once, on an affiliate junket to the mothership at ABC News HQ in New York, after the terrorist attacks. She’d smiled brightly at him and all the other backwoods yokels just like they were big city newspeople, and he’d always appreciated that.
“… across the nation. There is no clear understanding of what is being seen, and the scientific community is dumbfounded by the appearance of this gargantuan battle taking place millions of light years away.”
Jeremy stopped to think about that. If this was really happening, and two strange giants were trading blows in space, it was happening literally billions of miles away. As long as it takes light to travel, this could have all been over before the first Cro-Magnon turned to his Nenaderthal cousin and realized he could do better. He turned his attention back to Stewart, now adjusting her schoolteacher spectacles as she read from something that had been handed to her.
“According to scientists at NASA, there will be some kind of tidal disturbance along the coastlines of the world, which should pass within a week, but could happen soon and cause damage. This is based on these images showing a planetary mass hurtling rapidly through space, which will pass about forty-five million miles away from the earth. According to NASA, there is no danger as it is clearly on a trajectory that will pass where the earth was a month ago. It is not clear if this is connected with the phenomenon in the earth’s skies. ABCNews goes to Dr. Brent Rollins at NASA in Cape Canaveral. Dr. Rollins …”
Jeremy walked back to his desk, disturbed. He’d been a newsman for just over six years, taking his spunk and determination from crappy UHF copywriting to a major network affiliate in a decent sized market. In that time he’d seen a lot, but the sheer scale of this cowed his comprehension into a corner, took its lunch money and talked about its momma. He flopped down in his chair, knowing the news director would call a meeting soon and discuss how to cover the “local” angle of this story, but somehow it just seemed … unimportant. He let his eyes look across the newsroom, with the never ending drone of information gathering massaging his eardrums, and wondered.
* * *
Ahmir growled at his monitor, wishing he’d spent the money on the faster Athlon processor as he waited for his familiar Linux command prompt to appear. When he woke up and saw the news, he rushed into his room to turn on the computer, knowing that anything worth being heard or seen would not be on TV, but on Usenet, out in that vast chasm of raw data and unfettered ego that comprised so much of his life. Absently he thought about calling in to work, and telling them he’d be late or was sick, but as soon as the blinking cursor signalled his brain to the machine’s readiness to go, all other thoughts were gone.
Ahmir didn’t consider himself a conspiracy nut. Sure, the bumper sticker on his broken-down ’96 Metro said, “THE FEDS SELL DRUGS IN THE GHETTO,” but that was a fact discussed regularly in popular media. Okay, maybe his nightly sweeps of his one bedroom apartment with the “bug finder” he bought at a gun show was a little paranoid, but nobody had ever been hurt by it. Especially Ahmir. In times like this, he ran into the welcome arms of the truly informed, those who kept their eyes out while he was ordering around high school morons at the Foot Locker.
Sure enough, the discussion was lively and passionate on talk.answers and alt.conspiracy.cabal. Ahmir kept both windows open while trying to load a hacker site in his browser, and the sheer volume threatened to knock him offline. Just for fun, Ahmir considered checking what the straight media was saying about all this. He set a window to try and open CNN’s site, which was predictably swamped with requests and unable to answer his.
A regular on alt.conspiracy.cabal called EthiCal had posted a series of links involving Roswell and so-called technological advances of the last few decades, implying that either one or both of the fighting super-sized aliens were well known to the Feds, and that Dubya himself was in communications with their home world. Ahmir saved the post as a text file, knowing he had most of those links bookmarked already, but figuring he could always learn something new. Another poster going by the handle Sally Babcock (“What kinda name is ‘Babcock?’” Ahmir wondered to himself, “Nobody could have a name that kooky!”) quoted passages from comic book writer Grant Morrison’s JLA, suggesting that the AOL Time Warner megacorp had summoned one of these creatures to help them take over and/or destroy the world, and the other one was heroically fighting to save us. She unfortunately couldn’t or wouldn’t note which was the relative good guy, which drew flame posts from all corners.
Ahmir didn’t have a theory, and therefore felt comfortable lurking through Usenet, his randomized IP address emulator and his Usenet alias FamilyMan extra layers of security he wouldn’t need today. No, he just felt a pressing need to find out all he could and figure out what to do with that knowledge later. Much like the gigabytes of data he’d already collected and burned onto CDs, littering his bedroom amongst Gundam figures and photo printouts of Lisa Nicole Carson.
Ahmir finally found something really useful after about a half hour of reading through guesses and hypotheses. An independant news outlet in the Phillipines had aimed a pretty good webcam at the night sky and was beaming the results to the world. A number of his favorites had already set up mirror sites to handle the demand, and some even had earlier excerpts archived. “God bless the internet,” Ahmir thought to himself as he let the QuickTime stream load.
It was almost 11 a.m. in San Jose, which meant the United States was aimed the wrong way, cosmically speaking, to get a look at what was going on. Ahmir cursed himself for taking that cough medicine and knocking out while watching Kilborn last night, because it seems like this all started a few hours after that. Most nights would find Ahmir awash in the glow of cathode rays until at least three, fingers hammering down on his keyboard relentlessly. Last night he gets a tickle in his throat and is down before 1 a.m. Dammit!
He watched the fight. Ahmir considered the humanoid, if you could call it that. He figured any bipedal creature with opposable thumbs, one head and two arms was humanoid enough for him, despite not having clear eyes, mouth, nose … as though once it had them but they faded from lack of use, like vestigial tails on some humans to this day. Anyway, the humanoid fought smoothly, using a combination of moves that were reminiscent of t’ai chi but somehow more fluid. Most blows he was able to brush aside or redirect without taking much of the impact, but his strength was doing little against the cephalopod, who reminded Ahmir of Shuma-Gorath, the chaos demon from that Marvel vs. Capcom videogame. They seemed pretty evenly matched, and for the most part seemed to be holding one another at bay. Every once in a while, one would blast the other with a sneaky milk-colored energy discharge from a hand or a tentacle, and once it was clear that the cephalopod actually threw a grouping of stars (nebula? constellation? Ahmir made a note to consult the web later) at the man-fighter, which sailed past due to a well-timed duck.
After about fifteen minutes, Ahmir started to get bored. Sure, this was the most important discovery in human history, that not only was there life in outer space but it was frickin’ huge! Still, it was a fight like almost any other (and the more he watched it, the more it did seem like Marvel vs. Capcom, only with worse animation … reality often disappointed him) so he bookmarked the mirror site and swore to download any relevant highlights later. He looked up at the clock and cursed, grabbing his gear and making a run for the door, determined to catch the next bus as his computer kept showing the images to the empty room.
* * *
Andrew Card walked into his office quickly and shut the door behind him. In the time that he’d been White House chief of staff, he was certain that he’d seen the worst of things, the worst any chief of staff had ever seen, and it couldn’t get any more intense.
He was wrong.
Storming past the standing men and women around his desk, he took a seat behind the mahogany piece, originally a gift to his father from George Patton. He dropped a pile of folders to his left and bid them all sit down.
“I have to brief the President in a half hour,” Card said to the assembled room. “Talk to me.”
Some looked nervously to each other, others simply glanced at the floor, the ceiling, the window. Finally, Dick Myers, holding his blue Air Force cap in hand as he stood to the right of the desk, spoke up.
“As I’ve already assured the Secretary of Defense,” he began slowly, “we are certain that there is no threat to the United States at this time from this event.”
Card looked at Myers with a slight smile. “General, there’s gonna be a whole planet flying past us in about seventeen hours. According to everything we know, all of this has been over for centuries. I get all that. Tell me something _useful_. Who or what are we seeing?”
A balding man in a trenchcoat near the back spoke up. “Sir? I’m Dr. Donald Henderson from NASA, sir.” Henderson nervously wrung his hands as he spoke. “We’ve gotten the latest telemetry from our long range telescopes planetside and in orbit, and we’re sorry to say we have no new information to report. This is certainly not a hoax, as the same thing can be seen across the globe, and other agencies are reporting similar things back to us.
“The human shaped fighter, who we’ve dubbed ‘Big Man’ is basically a being much like us in shape, just considerably larger. He stands aproximately thirty five million miles tall, and the creature he is fighting, who we’ve dubbed ‘Big Squid,’ is slightly larger than that. We were able to approximate that by looking at the stars they bump into and calculating the difference in size. Our body of science simply has no capacity to work on this kind of scale. How these creatures came to be, where they’re from, why they’re fighting … we have no way to know.”
Card knitted his fingers together and leaned his chin on them. “Okay, so we’ve got ‘this is harmless’ from General Myers, and Dr. Henderson throwing up his hands, unable to give us any hard data on what we’re dealing with. In the meantime, we’ve got the whole world looking at the sky and wondering what’s next. What do we tell them?”
A clean cut young man leaned against the wall in an impeccably tailored suit cleared his throat, and all eyes turned to him. He looked up and smiled, a bright alabaster expression of happiness made for television commercials and breaking hearts. “Well, sir,” he began, “this is the kind of birthday present that someone else always seems to get, that you’ve always wanted.”
Card frowned a moment and considered this. “Excuse me?” he asked.
The man stood up and brushed down his suit jacket. “I’m Ted Baxter, Office of the Chief of Protocol, State Department. I just see this as an opportunity par excellence, sir, and we’d be remiss to let it slide.”
Card glanced around the room. “Anyone in here have less than Alpha level security clearance?” he asked.
No one spoke up as they all glanced around. Card gestured to Baxter to go on.
“I spent seven years with the company, sir, and we learned to never look a gift horse in the mouth. My former superior was in charge of the Hussein scenario, and that did very well for our 41st President. While we had a huge windfall of good tidings from the unfortunate events of September 2001, that public opinion is beginning to sway and this could serve to secure them once again to our side.
“You see, sir,” Baxter continued, pouring himself a glass of water, “the American people are scared spitless. The entire world is scared spitless. Thirty five million mile tall giants fighting in the sky, hurling planets at us willy nilly …”
Dr. Henderson interjected, “We have no proof they threw this planetary mass, Mr. Baxter, and we can be sure they didn’t throw it at us.”
“_You_ can be sure, Doctor,” Baxter smiled, sitting on the edge of the desk. “Can Jonny and June Pitstop in Backwater, Oklahoma be so sure? How about Rahim and Shaniqua Jackson in Chicago? Or whoever. There’s a story to tell, and a profit to be gained from that story …”
Card nodded slowly, the wheels in his head starting to turn. “If we say we need to defend the people against possible interstellar threats …”
Henderson wondered aloud “… the budget would be astronomical itself …”
Baxter finished, “… with no one able to say, one way or another, about where or how the money is spent. Billions of dollars vanishing into the void without having to fake a $700 hammer or a $2000 toilet seat. Money we can use for whatever the administration deems necessary.”
A brunette woman sitting to the left finally spoke up, her nametag identifying her as Maureen Arlington from Defense. “Are we saying that we should recommend the president redirect funds from the national budget for undisclosed purposes, under the shadow of monsters from outer space?”
The room was silent a moment before Baxter noted, “It sounds so … wrong when you put it that way.”
Card nodded. “I mean, we’re all about stopping terrorism, true, but do you really think there’s any connection with the offshore oil drilling we snuck through Congress and Osama Bin Laden? We work to achieve lesser goals on the coattails of larger goals. It’s the philosophy behind every legislative amendment. I don’t believe we’re saying _none_ of the money would be spent on research and development of tools to negotiate or defend …”
Baxter nodded, “That would be wrong. But … well, Dr. Henderson … how would you like for NASA to have a listening post on Mars, as an early warning system for incursions from outside the solar system?
Henderson nodded vigorously, unable to form a sentence due to his excitement.
Card said, “That could happen in … hell .. less than 10 years, with the right funding. Good thinking, Baxter.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I believe I know what to tell the President, unless there’s anything else pressing on this matter?”
No one had anything else, each already sizing one another up and planning on backstabbing somebody, anybody for their share of this financial windfall. Card rose, satisfied, and left, as the rest filed out quietly.
* * *
Ramon and Gloria sat on the roof of their apartment, with other neighbors nearby, watching the sky. Ramon was a big boxing fan, so this was better than pay per view. Gloria just kept trying to think about where the beings in the sky came from — did they have families, were they missed by somebody? — and she loved seeing Ramon happy.
“That guy got moves like ultimate fighting championship!” Ramon exclaimed as the cephalopod took a kick to the midsection.
Gloria smiled and cuddled closer to him, reaching for the bag of corn chips resting nearby.
“Aw … no! Aw, man, no!” Ramon exclaimed. Gloria looked up and saw that the two were still fighting, but that kick nudged the monstrous squid creature away from the earth, and they began to grow smaller and smaller in the sky. After a few minutes, the sky was as empty as it had been for most of human civilization, with only pinpoints of light to keep humanity company.
Ramon stood up, fists clenched, looking up. All around, people were packing up their towels and blankets and climbing down off the roof.
“That’s messed up! Get back here!” Ramon cursed at the sky.
“Baby,” Gloria comforted, “they couldn’t be up there, fighting forever, it’s okay.”
“I just wanted them to finish the fight!” Ramon said, picking up the picnic basket they’d packed so carefully. “I had two hundred riding on the squid thing winning it all.”
“What? You told me you stopped gambling!” Gloria crossed her arms and turned away, angrily.
Ramon came up behind her, encircling his arms around her waist. “Baby, the odds were 17 to 1, and if we won, I could take you on that vacation we’re always talking about. As it is, we didn’t lose anything — all bets are off if the fight doesn’t end.”
Gloria thought about it. “So you only did it for this?”
Ramon nodded, turning her towards him. “Mija, we never seen nothing like this. Nobody ain’t ever seen nothing like this. I ain’t bet on nothing in more than a year before this, and I’m done now, I promise.” He brushed her cognac colored lips and squeezed her.
Gloria wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him tight, her eyes scanning the sky.