The Saturday Morning Post #33: The Rêves, Part 11

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

Anabel and Ausmann

Ausmann had been so amazed by the possibility of having finally trapped the infamous Anabel that he did nothing with the trap for a while. No — he wanted to learn everything about her first, because he was definitely all about “Know thine enemy.”

He certainly wasn’t going to ask Joshua and Simon for information, because that would just tip his hand and make him seem weak. He gleaned what he could from their comments, but then went right to the online archives and files.

The main thing he could determine about her is that she had never really been famous and had died almost a hundred years earlier, in childbirth. However, when he searched for her son, all he found online were completely indecent search results pointing to some guy who had been born over seventy years after she died.

Now, her family had been well-known, and they were connected to several wealthy families back east, but given the theory he’d been developing on who had been remembered, how, and why, Anabel made no sense.

Everything he’d gleaned indicated that she was very important to all of these… things… but why would they settle on her?

He contemplated the trap that the boys had given him. It was unlike all of the others, which looked like nothing more than flat compacts with matte black exteriors. The only thing that they lacked was some sort of fancy branding, like an embossed silver stamp of J&S. Or S&J. He had no idea who was the boss in that relationship, but he didn’t really care.

This trap holding Anabel, though, was much more elaborate — an amethyst teardrop in a cage of gold that reminded him of the Kabalistic tree of life in three dimensions. He actually wasn’t totally sure they hadn’t been trolling him, but he decided, finally, once he’d had enough info, that it was time to unleash the beast.

He set up a triple containment field — two secured boxes, with an electromagnetic grid around that — then sent the trap up through the double airlock and used the remote manipulator arms to open it.

The usual fog shoots out of it, but this one is a vivid shade of blue, and seems to have more agency then most of them. Indeed, it isn’t long before the blue fog shimmers out into a human form, followed by pure white mists that form the head, neck, and arms, and then a black shoot that creates the cascade of hair.

In under a minute, there is the form a young woman in a long blue evening gown and matching elbow gloves. Her jet black hair streams down her back in a highlighted waterfall, one tress in front covering half of her right eye, which only emphasizes her thin face, alabaster skin, and glossy red lips. Her eyes are jade green and intense between dark black lashes, above sharp, high cheekbones, and below carefully penciled brows, set off by a pale dusty rose eyeshadow that serves as a quiet echo of her lips.

Her shoes match her lipstick, and she is just as tall as she needs to be to stand up in the inner box, although that isn’t full human height, of course. The images reminds Ausmann of the small ghost that says good-bye to guests going up the final exit ramp at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion in both size and appearance.

“Who are you?” she demands.

“It’s not your place to ask, Anabel,” Ausmann replies. “I’ll be asking the questions here.”

“The hell you will,” she fires back. “Do you know who I am?”

“That was actually my first question,” Ausmann answers. “Who are you?”

“You already said my name, so it’s too late to play stupid. Who are you?”

“That’s not important. You are the one trapped in a box,” Ausmann shot back.

“Do you really think that we all don’t know who you are and what you’re doing?”

“We all, who?” Ausmann asked.

“Have you ever actually trapped a true celebrity?” she suddenly asked.

“What do you mean?” he replied. “The Black Dahlia. How’s that?”

Anabel just laughed. “No, come on. Someone you’d heard of before going full asshole on them?”

“When  have I ever gone full — ”

She shot him a look that shut him up.

“Well, I’m sorry, but I had questions.”

“So do I, “Anabel replied. “Want to let me out of this cage and talk like adults?”

There was a long pause before Ausmann finally replied, “No.”

“Why not?” she asked.

“I don’t trust you,” he replied.

“Probably wise,” she said, “But I don’t trust you either.”

“Fine!” he spat back.

“Fine,” she waved him off.

After a while, he asked her, “Do you know where you are?”

“Not specifically,” she said. “Duh. But I do know that I’m a lot farther underground than I usually am. Do all of the evil assholes happen to have hidden underground lairs?”

“I’ll ignore that,” Ausmann replied —

“Please don’t,” Anabel spat back.

“Next question,” Ausmann  continued. “What do your people want from us?”

There was a quiet moment, and then Anabel began to laugh very hard. In fact, so hard that Ausmann began to worry that she might injure herself, so he cut down the pressure in the tanks and opened the inner tank to the next one.

“Are you all right?” he finally asked her.

“Oh, peachy,” Anabel replied. “I was laughing because you’re arrogant enough to think that my people want or need a damn thing from yours? Right. Hint: We are all goddamn dead, so we don’t need to eat or sleep or… anything, ever again.

“And that could easily get so boring, except that we’ve vowed to entertain ourselves as long as you aren’t doing something more interesting. So I suppose, to answer your question, what we want is for you to leave us alone and stop kidnapping our kind.”

“What kind even are you?” Ausmann demanded.

“We refer to ourselves collectively as The Rêves,” she replied, “Although that’s not so much a description as it is more of a family name.”

“Rêves,” Ausmann repeated. “French for ‘dream.’”

“That’s part of the reason,” she said. “It also refers to ‘revenant,’ a person who’s come back from the dead.”

“That could be a ghost or a zombie,” Ausmann said, “But you don’t look like a zombie.”

“We aren’t zombies, and we’re not truly ghosts, either.”

“Then what are you?” he asked.

“Bored by this conversation,” Anabel said. “So, what are you?”

“A scientist,” Ausmann replied.

“Mad scientist?”

“Don’t be dramatic,” he sneered.

“Well, what branch of science?”

“Several that hadn’t been invented by the time you died,” he explained. “Let’s just leave it at physics. I think that branch was around in your day.”

“And what would a physicist have to do with our kind? I thought that you science people didn’t even believe in spirits or ghosts.”

“I don’t believe that you are ghosts,” he said.

“Then you tell me what we are,” Anabel snapped back.

“Don’t you know?”

“No,” she insisted. “I’m not a scientist. How would I know?”

“Well… what rules do you follow?” he asked.

“Oh… it’s impolite to scare humans, never manifest in your current, actual physical form, especially if you’re still in that awkward decomposition phase, never try to have sex with a human — ”

“No, I meant more like… actual rules. Physical things that seem to control or limit you.”

She tilted her head and stared at him for a moment, then just laughed. “Do you think that I’m that stupid?” she replied. “Your real question is, ‘How can we control you?’ Sorry. We are not interested.”

“I already seem to be controlling you,” he said, tapping the side of the outermost box. “And it doesn’t seem that difficult. Look at what a tiny trap my boys caught you with.”

She picked up the trap, which surprised Ausmann because he didn’t think they could do that. She stared at it. “Such a pretty thing to be so dangerous, don’t you think?” she asked him, but something in her tone made it ambiguous whether she meant the trap or herself.

“You’ve got a lot of voltage running around outside this box. Well, not anything that would kill a human through air contact, but pretty similar to how these little traps work. There’s a problem with that, though.”

“What?” he asked.

“I remember a teacher in school — it was biology class — answering someone’s question. ‘What if an ant was suddenly as big as an elephant?’ The short version of her answer was that its legs would immediately shatter under its own weight, and it would suffocate and dehydrate at the same time.”

“What does that have to do with us?” Ausmann asked.

“Some things don’t scale up,” she said. “And when you give a thing a power source, you give it great power. I enjoyed our conversation. Good-bye.”

She smiled at him, then abruptly shoved her arm right through the Plexiglas of the traps and then her hand made contact with the static field that was supposed keep the Rêves in.

As soon as it did, the entire inner box filled with a bright blue flash, Anabel shot up to full size and through the top, where she stood there for just a moment, seeming more substantial than she had already, and locked eyes with Ausmann.

“Leave us alone,” she said. “That’s your only warning.”

And then she blinked away, but it was so fast that Ausmann wasn’t sure which way or where she’d gone. He hit the general alarm button, then buzzed security.

“An entity has escaped containment,” he announced. “I don’t know whether it’s still on the premises, but consider it keter. Put the complex on full lockdown.”

As alarms sounded everywhere, Ausmann sank back into his desk chair and sighed.

“Fuck,” he said.

* * *

Split

Joshua and Simon got up, showered and dressed, made and had breakfast, and then moved on to the main event of the day. Joshua retrieved the trap with Preston/Danny in it from the vault while Simon prepared the holding trap they would interview him in.

They had gone back and forth over whether to just let him go free range like last time and, while he had made no attempt to escape, they weren’t so sure he’d stick around after today’s interview.

Simon also made sure that what they called The Tank was set up with a perfect view of their living room widescreen, and he had already cued up the programming that would appear on it.

They set the trap into the slider that would take it into the holding tank, which unscrewed the lid as it moved to the center. A mechanism slid into place to lift the lid once it was there, and the inky black smoke they were so used to drifted up to fill the tank, swirling around for a while before it resolved into Preston in his favored garb.. He looked around until he saw the two of them, then smiled and pressed himself up against the glass. “What?” he asked. “Don’t you trust me now?”

“Today’s questions might be… difficult,” Joshua replied. “We want you to be safe.”

“Around two hot daddies like you?” he said. “I’d always feel safe.

“Stop,” Simon replied. “We’re not ‘daddies.’”

Young daddies?”

“Didn’t your sex drive go away when you died?” Joshua asked.

“No,” Preston replied.

“You mean you can still — ” Simon started to ask.

“Wanna watch?” Preston said, licking his lips.

“No, and no, don’t answer that question,” Simon said, looking away.

“We were wondering how much you remember, so tell us about this scene,” Joshua said, nodding to Simon, who tapped the coffee table, which had touch screen controls built into its top. On the TV, video played.

It was Preston with two other guys in what was probably a fancy apartment, probably east coast judging by the city view out its windows, which were clearly from high up and full of skyscrapers.

The three of them were mostly clothed at this point, but were making out heavily.

“Oh, yeah,” Preston said. “Last full scene I remember doing. That was… Blake Alan on the left and… Gabriel Stokes on the right.”

“Do you remember where you shot it?” Joshua asked.

“Yeah, it was this sweet apartment in Manhattan that our producer rented for the month, right near the south end of Central Park with a great view of mid-town,” Preston explained fondly. “God, this was so hot to shoot.”

“Do you remember when you shot?” Simon asked.

“Right at the end of the video, baby,” Preston replied. “Twice.”

“Oh, goddammit,” Simon muttered. “Really?”

“What was the date?” Joshua asked, giving Simon a loving look in hopes of calming his embarrassment.

“Oh… this was like the beginning of April, probably, so I think it was the last thing I shot with other people. Winston did let me stay in the place until the end of the month, then made it the end of May. I was all alone, but doing Only Fans stuff all the damn time. Otherwise, everything kind of stopped after that for a while. No more scenes, and not even bringing a crew in for a solo.”

“Do you remember the end of May?”

“Yeah. I mean, I definitely remember the middle of May, when Winston gave me this insane offer to go appear in Florida.”

“The Memorial Day circuit party in Miami?” Joshua said.

“Yeah. God, that was amazing. And not just that I banked five hundred K for the appearance, but I made a goddamn mint on top of that in tips for stripping, signing autographs, selling underwear, doing escort work. The whole… what’s the word? Nine inches?”

“Yards,” Simon corrected him.

Preston laughed. “Did you know that ‘yard’ is British slang for cock?”

“Really?” Simon replied, but the tone was one of disdain, not interest.

“Yeah, Winston told me that. It came from naval slang. Yardarm on a mast holds up a sail, and it sticks out like a hard-on.”

Preston laughed again as Simon gave Joshua a jaundiced look.

“Okay, so you did the party, the whole weekend, I’m assuming, then what?” Joshua asked.

“Let’s see…” Preston thought. “I went back to L.A. Jason — my kind-of boyfriend — suggested I just stay at home and focus on doing my own shit for Only Fans.”

“Not that any of us were really selling by that point,” he continued. “At around the beginning of May, there was this sudden explosion of new OF accounts, so there was too much in the market. Plus customers were out of work, so nobody wanted to pay anything for it. Not that I needed money by that point.”

“And then?” Joshua asked.

“June… middle of June…?” Preston trailed off and stared, seeming lost in thought. “I remember suddenly feeling really bad, and Jason and Winston and I did this video conference thing with some woman in a black robe… oh. Yeah, I think we got married. Jason and I, not Winston. And…” he trailed off.

“And?” Joshua and Simon both asked quietly.

“I remember being in Jason’s car, in the back, and then… sitting all alone in the cemetery before Anabel walked up to me.”

“She was the first one to come to you… after?” Simon asked.

“Well, she was my mother, right?”

Before Simon could speak, Joshua gave him a warning look. “Do you remember when and where you were born and grew up, Preston?” he asked.

“Hollywood. The first thing I remember is the first day I worked for Winston.”

“Really?” Joshua continued. “Nothing before that?”

“No,” Preston said.

“Do you remember that first shoot?”

“Just me and my fist,” Preston said. “That’s pretty normal for this business, right?”

Joshua nodded to Simon, who seemed apprehensive, but he tapped the coffee table anyway. Another video ran. In this one, a clearly younger Preston sat on a mohair couch that looked like it had been stolen from a university dorm break room, completely dressed, with a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes.

A voice from off camera asked questions, starting with innocuous things like, “So, you said you just got here and you need money?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I can probably arrange that.”

“Cool.”

Before it got to anything too personal, Joshua gestured for Simon to hit pause.

“This was your first shoot,” Joshua said.

“Really?” Preston said. “Wow. Yeah, I kind of remember that one, but it was so long ago.”

“Not that long,” Joshua explained. “But I want you to pay very careful attention to the questions and answers, okay?”

“Okay.”

“And you’re absolutely sure that’s you in the video?” Simon asked.

“Oh, hell yeah,” Preston said. “I still have that… still had that hat.”

Joshua nodded and Simon restarted the video.

“So, pay close attention to the questions and answers, then,” he said.

The off-screen voice, who must have been Winston, continued.

“So, you just got here and you have no money, is that it?” Winston asked.

“Yeah, I’m pretty broke. I was sleeping in the bus station.”

“What would you do for fifty bucks, then?” Winston continued, and a hand holding a fifty dollar bill came into screen.”

“Um, I don’t know,” onscreen Preston/Danny replied. “What did you have in mind?”

“What’s your name?” Winston asked.

“Danny,” Preston/Danny answered.

“Danny what?” Winston asked.

“Just… Danny.”

Joshua gestured and Simon hit pause.

“Danny what?” Joshua asked.

“Just… Danny? Danny who?” Preston replied.

“That’s you in the video, right?” Joshua said.

“Well, yeah, duh.”

“So you’re really Danny… who?”

“Dude, don’t you know that porn is all fake names and shit?” Preston replied. “I probably didn’t want people to know who I was.”

“So… you went on to have a porn career under your real name? That seems backwards,” Joshua said. “Where was Preston born?”

“Hollywood,” Preston insisted.

“And… Danny?”

“In some dude’s fucking imagination, I don’t know,” Preston shot back.

“That’s good,” Joshua told him. “That’s it. Hold that thought. Preston, who is the real you, did tons of porn so that he wouldn’t be identified under his real name. Meanwhile… where was Danny born?”

“Shit, I don’t know. The second some fat old fuck with money decided to pay me to jerk off?”

“Or was that when Danny died?” Joshua went on, giving Simon the signal. The video continued.

“Danny. Nice name,” Winston said. “So, where were you born?”

“Idaho,” Danny/Preston replied in the video.

“Ah. Potato planet,” Winston laughed. “Boise?”

“Nah,” Danny replied. “Pocatello.”

“Oh my god,” Winston laughed. “Did they name everything in that state one off from some kind of porn reference?”

“What do you mean?” Danny asked.

“Well, first of off, ‘Boys-me.’ Second, you’re from ‘Poke-a-Fellow?’”

“Yeah, but I grew up in Emmett. Fuck, that kind of sounds like ‘in it,’ doesn’t it? I never thought… oh, holy shit, you’re right!” Danny started laughing, then reached out and grabbed the fifty. “What do you want for that?” he asked.

“Take your clothes off,” Winston said.

“All of them?” Danny asked.

“All of them,” Winston replied.

Simon paused the video again.

“Hm. Innocent little Danny from Pocatello Idaho, on the casting couch. You’re sure you don’t know who he is?” Joshua asked.

“It was all just made up shit, for the business. You know, stage names,” Preston insisted.

“All right,” Simon chimed in. “This still doesn’t make sense. You came to L.A., did one little jerk off vid under a fake name, then started doing legit porn under your real name?”

“That’s right,” Preston replied. “All that Danny shit was just to get in the door.”

Joshua and Simon looked at each other, not sure what to do, but then Joshua signaled to Simon… let it roll.

He restarted the video, and it went through the rest of the set-up and story. The first fifty had gotten Danny naked, the next hundred got him hard, and the last hundred came after he did, and all the while Winston was asking him about his life back home, and he just kept giving details.

When it was over, Simon shut off the TV and Joshua decided that it was time to play bad cop. Not that he hadn’t kind of been already, but this felt like it needed extra attention.

“Okay,” he said. “So Danny was just this dude you made up for the first film, right?”

“Right,” Preston replied. “I didn’t even remember that until you reminded me.”

“Telling,” Joshua whispered to Simon. “Okay, so then you must have lied when you finally signed up to take the job.”

“What do you mean?” Preston demanded. Joshua snapped his fingers, and Simon put all of Danny’s proof of age docs up, which were all under his real name — and this seemed to have a slight effect when he read aloud…

“Winthorpe… Win… when…? Fuck…”

In the box, he collapsed out of his visible form back into the black mist. Simon and Joshua exchanged a concerned look, but then Joshua whispered to him, “Sorry. Ace in the hole, dear.”

“That seems really, really cruel,” Simon replied.

“Yeah, so do most of the things they do in rehab,” Joshua said. “Cue it up, and I’ll signal when I’m ready.”

Joshua went right to the box and pressed his ear against it as he spoke. “Hey, Preston. Hey, you okay? We were just trying to clear up all this thing, because rumors were starting to spread that you were not Anabel’s son, and we were hoping to, you know… stop that shit?”

There was a long moment, but then the black smoke sank and coalesced again, with Preston huddled in the bottom right corner of the box that Joshua had been speaking to.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“So am I,” Joshua replied, then he signaled to Simon, who fired up the screen again, this time with a copy of Jason and Preston’s wedding certificate — except that the name on it for Preston wasn’t Preston. It was Daniel Winthorpe.”

Preston turned, stared at the document, then began to shudder while letting out inchoate moans of some kind of existential angst and fear. He started to de-coalesce into a cloud of gray gas while keeping his naked porn star form. On the other side of The Tank, that gas reformed into a clearly younger, totally clothed, and more innocent looking form of Preston who was clearly Danny.

Each of them now knelt at opposite sides of the box before turning to stare at each other in disbelief. After a moment, both of them turned to stare at Joshua and Simon on the outside, then glare and point at them.

“Goddamn you,” they both said in unison, rising as best they could to point. “What the fuck have you done to us?”

“What’s your name?” Joshua demanded, defiant.

In unison, they each answered with the name they thought they had. “Danny Winthorpe.” “Preston LeCard.”

And no sooner were the answers out of their mouths that they turned to stare at each other in fear and anger.

Joshua turned to Simon and they nodded at each other, reaching for the emergency trap activation switch, but it was too late. Danny flew out of one side of The Tank and Preston flew out of the other, shattering the glass before they both roiled into trails of smoke and blasted out of the open patio doors and off into the night sky above NoHo.

“And… that went well,” Simon muttered to himself.

“Just shut up and fuck me if you know what’s good for you,” Joshua replied.

“Angry fuck?” Simon said.

“Yeah, I guess I kind of deserve that. Shut the doors and batten down the hatches. It’s going to be a humpy night.”

“Honey?” Simon told him as he slid shut the patio doors.

“What?” Joshua asked.

“We just managed to pull off a gigantic fuck-up. So all you’re getting tonight is, maybe, a little bro cuddle, And then we have to figure out what and how we’re going to explain this shit to Ausmann.”

“Are you saying that like it’s my fault?” Joshua demanded

“No,” Simon replied. “And that’s my point. We just both had a massive joint-fuck-up.”

Joshua stared at Simon for a long moment, then sank into the sofa in disbelief.

“We… lost one, didn’t we?” he finally said.

“No. We made two, then lost them both,” Simon replied.

“How the fuck did we make two?” Joshua asked.

“I have no idea,” Simon replied, “But that might be important later.”

Joshua sighed at the ceiling, tried to come up with an answer, but had nothing so, finally, he just pushed Simon onto the couch, climbed on fully clothed with his back to him and said, “First, I’m sorry. Second, just be the big spoon and bro-cuddle the fuck out of me tonight, because I think we’re going to need it for tomorrow.”

“Ditto,” Simon whispered into his ear before they drifted off together.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #26: The Rêves, Part 4

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

Preston on watch

Preston had spent most of the early evening drifting around the plaza next to Universal City station, invisible except when he got bored enough to take on the guise of a pigeon and jump into one of the flocks that had gathered around an old woman who kept tossing them breadcrumbs, even after she had been told by multiple authorities to stop.

To him, the best part about that had been the weird looks the other pigeons gave him. They weren’t really intelligent enough give it any expression other than a sideways look that said, “What the fuck, dude, you ain’t no bird,” but he was pleasantly surprised that they at least acknowledged him.

When it had gotten sufficiently late, he took the stairs down to the platform and then he spotted the dudes just as they were coming off of the train. They were pretty much what Anabel had described and he popped back into his human form — naked as usual but totally invisible — and just gawked.

He gauged them both to be probably about mid- to late-30s, but Anabel hadn’t told the whole truth. Sure, she had described them as a couple of lanky steampunk nerds, which had already got Preston going, but she had omitted the two most important words.

Hot daddies.

That had been Preston’s entire stock-in-trade back in the day. His catnip, his raison d’être. His raison d’être cet. He suddenly realized that getting captured probably wouldn’t be all that bad a thing and he started to strut toward them when Anabel suddenly popped up in front of him and, unlike a lot of the stuff around here, she had the power to physically stop him in his tracks.

“Glad you made it,” she said. “Don’t get jumpy.”

“I’m supposed to let them catch me, right?”

“Yes, but… again, can you just kind of fake clothes?”

“What? None of them can see — ”

“Or at least slap down the Angel Lust?”

“The… what?”

“Goddamn, you are way too new.”

“Yeah, sorry I’m not old like you… Anabel. Rose.”

“Shut up — ”

“Catherine.”

“You shut up now!”

“Chanler — ”

“You shut your fucking whore mouth!”

“LeCard.”

Anabel looked like something had punched the wind out of her sails and every aspect of her started to go monochrome before she recovered, grabbed the air, shrieked, although no one but Preston heard it.

“Who told you that?” she demanded.

“No one,” Preston replied. “I figured it out on my own.”

“Impossible,” Anabel said. “You’re… you…. no…”

“Oh, sorry. Were you about to say that I’m too stupid?”

“You heard me.”

“Yeah. I did. Ms. LeCard. Who died in 1926. Oh. Oh my god, stupid little himbo pornstar whore gets it — somehow, you married your ass into my family, so you’ve got some goddamn connection here. What is it?”

“Who told you that?” Anabel screamed at him.

“Architecture,” he replied. “So… why should I turn myself over to become the little prisoner of those two hot daddies?”

Anabel glared at him, shot him a look like she wanted to rip his head off, and then just sighed and shook her head. “Number one, because you fucking want to, you little whore. Number two because… yeah. I guess I know what architecture didn’t tell you.”

“What?”

“That Anabel Rose Catherine Chanler LeCard had a son. Named Preston.”

“You’re… your my mother? Then why are you asking me to sacrifice my ass in the first place?” Preston shot back. He turned away but she grabbed him and dragged him to the far end of the platform.

“Not yet. Idiot,” she hissed at him. They faded into the shadows and waited. It was still a little too crowded.

She was more infuriated that he’d figured out — sort of — who she was. She knew he must have stumbled into the family mausoleum, but also knew that he never would have bothered to do it on his own. Somebody must have tipped him off, but who could have done that? And why?

At least she didn’t have to worry about him not getting captured. He was going to let his usual lusts drag him into trouble. While she’d told the truth that she was going to keep an eye on him, they really had no intentions of rescuing him. They just wanted to figure out where the two hunters were going to take him and what they intended to do.

She was pretty certain that it didn’t involve any of the things that Preston was hoping that they’d do to him. Maybe she shouldn’t be so angry, though. So what if he’d learned her full name and a little truth? It’s not like he was going to be around much longer to do anything about it.

She contemplated just throwing him into the elevator and sending it all the way up. Underground, those things were fine, but once they’d risen aboveground, even a little, they were death traps to her kind.

* * *

Shadows and sparks

Joshua was the one who spotted the shadow first and he signaled. Simon. They both got up and readied their equipment, but this shadow acted differently than the other ones. When it clearly had sensed their approach, instead of pretending to be an actual shadow or trying to hide among them, it actually seemed to become darker and more defined and stopped, as if waiting for them.

It almost looked like the actual shadow of a human being cast on the wall. Joshua and Simon stopped waited.

“Well, this is new,” Simon said.

“And very disconcerting,” Joshua added.

“Excuse me — ”

They both turned at the sudden voice to see Brenda approaching them. She was dressed in civilian clothes but had a name tag and badge identifying her as a Metro employee. “Can I help you two with something down here?”

“Um… just waiting for a train,” Simon replied.

“Long wait,” she said. “Are you sure it’s a train you came down here to catch?”

“It’s not an airplane,” Joshua offered, trying to lighten the mood.

Brenda huffed, pulled out her phone and tapped, then showed them the footage of themselves from the previous week, as they tried to evade the creature on the stairs. “Look familiar?” she asked.

“That’s not us,” Joshua said.

“They have a great fashion sense, though,” Simon added.

“Cut the bullshit,” Brenda shot back. “Mind telling me what’s going on here?”

“We can’t,” Simon told her.

“Sorry, yeah, can’t,” Joshua said. “Government stuff.”

“Very classified,” Simon explained.

“The other one’s got bells on it,” Brenda said dryly.

“Are you a cop?” Simon asked.

“No,” she said.

“Oh, good. Bye!”

He grabbed Joshua’s arm and they took off running, catching Brenda off-guard. Before she could do anything, the shadow suddenly darted after them, looking exactly like a human form racing along the platform.

“Oh, hell no,” she muttered to herself as she took off in pursuit. She could see the two of them racing up the escalator even as the shadow ran up the stairs. This one was fast, too. Faster than the faceless beast from the other station. All of them were faster than Brenda, who’d been driving a desk for too long.

Then, as she was almost at the bottom of the escalator, a similar creature to the one from Hollywood and Highland passed right in front of her, looking at her briefly with its absolutely blank and indistinct fact, but it seemed to have no interest in her as it passed on and started up the steps.

Joshua and Simon made it up to the plaza, looking behind to see that it didn’t look like anyone was chasing them — but then the shadow drifted up, overtook them, stopped in front of them and, presumably, stood to face them.

“What?” Simon demanded.

The shadow flickered and became slightly less umbral. Suddenly, there was just a hint of detail, enough for them to see that this appeared to be a short, young man. He was smiling at them and holding his arms out in what was clearly an “Arrest me” gesture.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Simon said, but Joshua had already pulled out a mirror trap and opened it. Looking extremely grateful, the young man leaned forward, went into shadow form, and whooshed right into the mirror with none of the sound and fury of their previous catch.

Joshua screwed the lid on. “Well, that was easy,” he said.

“Too easy,” Simon countered. “I guess we’re walking home from here.”

“I guess,” Joshua replied before adding, “Aw, shit,” making Simon look as well. Another one of those faceless creatures was standing at the top of the stairs, just watching them.

“How the hell did it get out of the station?” Joshua asked.

“We never knew for sure that they couldn’t, just that they didn’t,” Simon explained. “Do you think it’s trying to rescue our guest?”

“You know,” Joshua said, “I think it’s time to find out what these things can do. Here.” He gave the trap to Simon and started for the creature.

“Josh — no!” Simon called out, but to no avail. Joshua was stalking right up to it.

“Hi!” he called out. “Can I help you?”

It stared at him — well, metaphorically — but didn’t move. It seemed suddenly confused, but stood its ground. As Joshua drew closer, it actually seemed to shy away a step or two, and then transformed into the form of a wolf. Well, more of a werewolf, since it was standing on two legs.

“Cute,” Joshua said. “Look, we’d really appreciate it if you’d go back into the station and to wherever you came from. Our business is with… someone who apparently wanted to come along peacefully. So go on. Run along…”

The creature didn’t move, but it did go back to its more benign hooded, faceless form. “Oh my god,” Joshua suddenly said. “You’re not trying to stop us this time, are you? Of course. Simon!”

Seeing that Joshua hadn’t been attacked at all, Simon had already been on his way over. Now he broke into a trot and joined the other two.

“So,” he said to the creature, “Do you have anything to tell us?”

The creature gestured, as if urging them to be on their way and both Simon and Joshua got the sinking feeling that it wanted to follow them home. But before they could reply, there was a sudden loud snap, and then the creature was suddenly covered in arcs of electricity, like one of those plasma lamps. It went rigid and then its form changed to that of a quite normal-looking human woman who just stood there, transfixed.

Without hesitating, Joshua grabbed one of the tools from Simon’s belt, turned it on and aimed. This was one of their more high tech devices, and the creature, whatever it was, vanished into the mouth of the device with a pop. Joshua capped it and turned it off.

With the creature gone, Brenda was visible, standing there with a taser.

“I thought you weren’t a cop,” Simon said.

“I’m not,” she replied. “But I’m also not stupid. You two want to explain?”

“I guess we should,” Simon told her. “But… unofficially, maybe?”

“Oh, by this point, it damn well better be unofficial, because I don’t want anyone at work thinking I’m crazy. Coffee?”

“Sure,” Joshua replied.

There were a lot of coffee places in the area but it was also after three in the morning, so, since Brenda had her city car parked here, they all wound up at the Denny’s a few miles north on Lankershim, a couple of blocks from the NoHo station. Not exactly super-classy, but it seemed like the appropriate place to have this conversation.

* * *

Classes in crisis

There wasn’t really an official Rêves council, but those who were Class 1 had quickly realized that they really needed to create some sort of hierarchy, and then figure out how to deal with what they had wound up with.

Class 1 and Class 3 were not the problem. The former knew who and what they were, while the latter had no idea who they really were yet, but no problem being who they thought they were. The members of Class 1 thought of them as refugees or recent immigrants, since there had been such a sudden huge increase of their numbers.

The real problem were the members of Class 2, who thought they were more important than they were, had no idea who they really were, and were just generally a pain in the ass.

Meanwhile, while Brenda was having her conversation with Simon and Joshua at Denny’s, there was a sudden emergency meeting that took place in the forecourt of the Grand Mausoleum at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — although reluctantly, because this was clearly a place where Class 2’s could try to run roughshod, so it was up to the Class 1’s to get there first, rope the Class 3’s onto their side, and proceed…

That was why the announcement didn’t go out via the underground to the Class 2’s until about an hour after the meeting really started, which was also two hours after Brenda and company had sat down at Denny’s.

By the time the Class 2s did show up, the board had already been established, and they were mostly Chinese and Hispanic. The lower board, meanwhile, had no obvious identities, but a lot of enthusiasm, and the Class 2s had little say in the matter.

The real issue was that a lot of their kind, mostly Class 2s, were being kidnapped and trapped by various rogue hunters, for unknown reasons, and the group was meeting to figure out what to do.

Richard, who was on the upper board, explained what Anabel had explained to Preston earlier. He had been a wise choice for this position because, while he shared a lot of the attributes of Class 2, he had the family connections to keep him firmly in Class 1.

“As far as we know,” he said, “There are not secuestros, kidnappings. Nobody has demanded a ransom or made any demands at all — ”

“At least not as far as we can tell,” a woman on the board named Yut Ho added. While Richard didn’t know her personally — she had died long before he was even born — he had heard her story. Her abduction led to a gunfight between two rival companies in Chinatown, inadvertently killing a white man in the crossfire. This led to the Chinese Massacre of 1871, as a group of white people, many immigrants, invade Old Chinatown and proceeded to burn, loot, and lynch.

Seventeen people were lynched, ten perpetrators were brought to trial, eight were convicted — and every one of their sentences was overturned on a technicality. He hadn’t learned that from her, though. She never talked about it.

He had learned it from an historian who had worked for the city of L.A. until his death in the early 1980s. Specifically, he specialized in Hispanic, Latin, and Chicano history and culture in the city, particularly centered around the original Pueblo downtown.

The first Chinatown in Los Angeles had started on land leased from a Mexican family that owned agricultural land around the Pueblo, and it was founded long before California even became a state, when it was still part of Mexico. Eventually, Old Chinatown would be destroyed to make room for Union Station, the fancy new train depot that connected the newly thriving entertainment capital to the rest of the country. The New Chinatown would move farther east.

Richard couldn’t help but wonder if these disappearances weren’t in a similar vein to all of those situations where a  particular racial, ethnic, or religious group would be driven off of their land in order to make room to “improv” it i.e., make it more profitable to already wealthy people.

Hell, he had lived long enough to actually see the Battle of Chavez Ravine and read about it for almost every day of his life. It lasted from when he was about five until he was fifteen, and it was the same story. Rich people decide they want a piece of land to put something on, never mind that people already live and have a community there.

Ironically, the original intent had been to build public housing in the Ravine, but once the people had been removed, the voters of Los Angeles said “No.” They didn’t want no public housing, dammit, and a newly-elected conservative mayor agreed. Hell, being anti-public housing was part of his platform.

And so, Dodger Stadium happened instead, and it housed exactly no one.

Not that the people were originally happy about that, but they failed to ultimately vote against it.

It had been thirty years since the Rêves had made their arrangement with another L.A. Mayor who was really conservative in name only, so they allowed the Metro system to be built through their territory as long as they were allowed to inhabit it and use it for their own purposes.

They even agreed to protect it from acts of terrorism, and these were the only times, short of protecting one of their own, that they would show themselves to humans. They never even pointed these instances out to the authorities. They just made sure that they didn’t happen.

Since 1993, they had averted seven would-be acts of terrorism, including bombings, mass-shootings, and one bio-chemical attack. Funny how many of the would-be terrorists flung themselves before oncoming trains once a Rêve or two made an appearance.

The discussion continued, with the Class 3s being the most gung-ho to go out and figure out what was going on, while the Class 2s were most interested in making nice with the humans.

“They’re not all bad, after all,” one of them, who had been an iconic actress until her premature death, announced in a breathy voice that was the public perception of her but not at all reality. “I mean, I liked them once. I was one!”

“We all were, Norma,” one of the board members replied with full bitchy venom. That would be Holden Sutter. Not generally known to the public at large, but a famous and larger-than-life camp figure of the late 50s and early 60s who hosted the most amazing parties up in the Hollywood Hills.

The public never knew him, but all of hidden gay Hollywood did, and so did a lot of not-hidden straight Hollywood. He could get you anything you wanted, legal or not — men, women, weed, coke, opium. He also had dirt on absolutely everyone, and referred to himself as The Bullet-Proof Bitch.

That turned out to be not so much the case when he was murdered in 1967. Officially, a couple of punks had heard about “this rich fag up in the hills,” pretended to be rent boys in order to get inside, then knocked him unconscious, tied him up, and proceeded to grab and pack anything valuable they could get their eyes on.

Holden died not from a knock on the head but because they had left him on his back, he vomited while unconscious and proceeded to aspirate and die.

But, of course, everyone in the industry, and especially in the gay demi-monde, just “knew” that Holden had been murdered by some politician he had threatened to blackmail, usually a City Council Member said to be fond of the boys, sometimes a U.S. Senator, and that the two perpetrators, who were never caught, were actually his lovers.

Of course, if anyone asked Holden now, he would just laugh. “Oh, silly twats,” he’d reply. “No. It was nothing so sordid. Daddy got greedy and hired two really hot stripper twinks to come on up and have a good time. One was both 19, the other was 16. I was 67. I came and went and then they left, but I died a very happy man.”

This story had always stuck with Richard not because it was so sordid but because it was exactly the opposite. There was no great big conspiracy anywhere — just a tale of natural human weakness, and how the Reaper is often summoned by one’s own needs.

But if there wasn’t any vast conspiracy going on, who was grabbing the Rêves, and why? And why were so many of them Class 2?

Then there was a sudden commotion as a Class 1 burst onto the scene from underground. Richard recognized her as Anabel’s great-grand-niece. He thought her name was Cyntoia, but wasn’t quite sure.

All eyes turned to her as she looked at them nervously.

“Anabel!” she announced, panicking. “Anabel. They’ve taken Anabel!”

There was an audible gasp. They’d all been wondering why she hadn’t been here because she was, in fact, head of the board and president of the council. That would explain it.

“Well fuck me sideways,” Holden muttered.

“What do we do now?” Yut Ho asked, but no one replied.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #23: The Rêves, Part 1

The following is an assembly of separate sketches I started working on about three years ago, inspired by my love for the L.A. Metro System, as well as the various lesser-visited places and monuments in town. My intent was to weave them into one cohesive story, but this is the first time that I’ve put the three original sketches together and then started to expand on the idea.

* * *

Joshua and Simon

You could be forgiven for thinking that two Edwardian gentlemen from somewhere in Europe had suddenly teleported into the Hollywood and Highland Metro Station. You could even (and more probably) be forgiven for thinking that they were cosplayers going to a convention or costumed characters from some movie you’re too old to care about ready to skim the tourist waves for some sweet money.

To be honest, Joshua and Simon would prefer that this is what everyone assumes. It makes their job a lot easier. You’re not wrong in thinking that the costumes are part of the job, but not in any way that you’d think.

They’ve tailored themselves to be midway between Steampunk and Dandy, with Simon leaning toward more of the former and Joshua the latter. Simon’s the one wearing the greenglass goggles and long brown duster, with the strange sort of brass gauntlet on his left hand, cellphone strapped to his right in a case that looks like leather and steel but which is actually ballistic nylon and aluminum. His shirt is a black silk so dark that it’s almost impossible to focus on, ruffled in front but, again, hard to see unless you’re right in front of him.

Various small and arcane looking instruments in wood, brass, and glass dangle from various places on his belt. He wears tan suede trousers and oxblood boots engraved in elaborate paisley with contrasting tan coloring in select areas.

Joshua, meanwhile, is wearing a long black and dark green velvet brocade coat over an orange flocked paisley vest with matching tie and handkerchief, crisp white shirt with cellulose Pembrook collar — the actual kind that detaches, none of this modern fakery — dark black pants with very crisp seams and wing tips in shiny black and dark, emerald green. The phone in his pocket was connected wirelessly to the shiny glass watch on his left wrist. In his right hand he holds a walking stick of dark ebony wood, topped with a glass sphere that reflects a brilliant green from some angles, fading through the rainbow from others.

He did not have the cane due to any specific physical need for it. He, like Simon, was simply armed for whatever occasion they might run into.

Joshua and Simon can’t remember exactly how long they’ve known each other anymore, but it’s one of those friendships that began with a conversation that left both of them feeling like they’d known the other one for years. Now whether it’s that friendship or just the way things are, they resemble each other physically in so many ways that, were their faces not so different, they would be mistaken for brothers.

Both of them are tall and thin, Simon just a bit taller than Joshua’s 6’2” — maybe; it’s a point they constantly argue between themselves, although usually jokingly. Somehow, though, Simon always gives the impression of being skinnier than Joshua even though they can and do wear each other’s clothes all the time. That’s probably because Simon’s shoulders are broader while Joshua’s legs are much more muscular. The effect is that Simon looks leggier and Joshua looks squatter, but that effect, like their costumes, is entirely an illusion.

Joshua’s hair is as ginger as Simon’s is jet. Joshua’s eyes are deep blue except at those times they appear gray, while Simon’s are a very dark jade green. Joshua is pale although sometimes mildly tan. Simon has a much more golden complexion that betrays his Northern Italian ancestors on his mother’s side.

Other than the color, their hair is pretty much identical — thick, wavy masses that dance across their foreheads, and intentionally grown out to abet the costumes. Joshua generally has a beard but one that’s always only just under half way between nothing and full, at about two-thirds full scruff, while Simon sometimes has a goatee, but only that part and no moustache.

Joshua is the older one, but only by a year or so. Neither one of them really ever thinks of age, anyway.

For a long time, their friends have been playing the “Are They or Aren’t They?” game, trying to figure out whether the two were more than just roommates. In fact, they were — but both had been too busy with their current project to arrange the time to gather their nearest and dearest and make the announcement. They had contemplated doing it by Facebook, but then decided that it would just be too impersonal. It wasn’t just going to be a “Hey, we’re a couple now” announcement. It was going to be an engagement party.

Oh, a couple of their very closest friends know already and are very happy for them — although the wedding date still isn’t set.

At home, Simon had framed and hung this quote from Plato over their bed: “Who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?” It was a reference, probably, to the Sacred Band of Thebes, the army of lovers that could not be defeated. He and Joshua thought of themselves now as an army of lovers, and they had descended into the Hollywood and Highland Metro Station ready to do battle.

They had reached the platform at two minutes after one in the morning on a late Tuesday night — which was technically no longer Tuesday. The last train going toward North Hollywood had passed through exactly twenty minutes earlier. They would wait, until the last train to Union Station came through eight minutes from now. After that, it would be three hours and twenty one minutes until the morning train, again headed to North Hollywood, would hit the station, at 4:31 in the morning. The southbound train would come through nine minutes after that.

As they both know from experience, it wouldn’t be until about half an hour after the last train leaves that things on the platforms would start to get… well, Joshua likes to think of it as “lively,” and he’d be the first to tell you that he was being completely ironic with the choice. Simon would describe it as “creepy weird,” with an accent that had started in that part of the Atlantic coast trapped right between north and south but which had been altered by more than thirty years in LaLa Land — especially under the influence of Joshua’s strong Southern California drawl, which used to be a lot more obvious to Simon, who couldn’t even really hear it anymore.

It’s a completely different drawl than the southern kind, anyway.

As the station clears out, they find a bench at the center, which is farthest from the engineers’ layover booths at either end of the platform. This will minimize the chances of them being seen and, as they also know from experience, the various Metro workers seem to have been instructed to leave them alone if they seem homeless.

The bench was long enough that if they laid on their sides facing away from each other and bent their knees up, they could both fit comfortably, with the backs of their heads touching. This gave them maximum visibility. Joshua was facing one side of the platform with an easy glance toward his feet to see the outbound end of the tunnel. Simon was facing the other side with an easy view of the inbound tunnel.

Before they lie on the bench, they take off and reverse their coats. Worn the other way around, they look like they are old, filthy, and badly battered. Simon also stows his goggles and they both put knit hats on their heads. They lie down and curl into position, pretending to go to sleep. But they keep watch, waiting for the next thirty minutes, after which they will start to show up.

* * *

Ausmann

People just called him Ausmann, and nobody knew for sure whether that was his first or last name, or even if it was a real name. He refused any titles as well, so he could have been just a mister, or a doctor, or a father. The one title he did have was the one that always appeared under his name on any company literature or presentations, or when he did his rare media appearance: “Quantum Ethics Consultant.”

But that was just the term they used so that the scientifically illiterate would get some idea, and Ausmann hated it with a passion. But he hated any abuse of the word “quantum,” especially when it was randomly slapped together with any word from the soft sciences, like sociology, or the non-sciences, like philosophy.

Yes, he would insist that philosophy is not a science, and this would lead to many arguments with staff from the philosophy department. They would remind him that his own discipline, ethics, was part of philosophy.

“And I’m no scientist,” he would reply, “So you prove my point.” Of course, he was, in fact, a scientist. His other PhD was in quantum chromodynamics, or QCD, and he was an accomplished theoretical physicist.

“So you’re a philosopher,” his scoffing colleagues would remind him, “”Since all you do is think about what’s going on at the tiniest levels.”

“What I do is play with the math that describes those levels,” he would reply, “And mathematics is the queen of all science.”

That was usually when he would tilt his head back, sniff disdainfully, and walk away. Ausmann was very imposing whichever direction he was walking. He was tall, pushing 6’5”, and thin to an almost ethereal extent. His face was oval and his dark eyes somewhat hollow, and he always seemed to have the beginning of an enigmatic smile teasing his lips. He grew an exceedingly long  goatee from his chin down to his chest under a bushy moustache, and had long black hair with a single white stripe that swept away above his right eye.

The visual impression was somewhere between a wizard and the demigod Pan, although he dressed in emulation of a character most often known as Jerry Cornelius, who resided in a neighborhood of many books and stories that had become their own legend. The uninitiated would probably look at him and assume it was steampunk, but it wasn’t.

The original Cornelius fashion ethos was pure Edwardian fop as interpreted by 1970s tastes, meaning ridiculously bright and clashing colors. Ausmann kept the Edwardian and the fop, but updated everything else to modern sensibilities, so the color scheme was a muted burnt orange velvet long coat over a dark brown suit. He wore a cellulose Westminster collar and a tie that looked like it was made of faded parchment, but it actually held, in 2-point type, the text of the first chapter of Finnegan’s Wake in a typeface that mimicked Joyce’s handwriting — his early writing, from pornographic letters to Nora Barnacle, not (ironically) his later writing, in which he composed this very book using crayons to scrawl large on butcher paper because his eyes had gone so bad.

Joyce would never have been able to read that tie.

Ausmann wore two-tone wingtips in burnt orange and brown and a top hat in the same shade as his suit. He wouldn’t have looked out of place in London in 1905 — but since he was a consultant working at JPL in Pasadena, he was even less out of place on campus.

He wasn’t actually working for JPL, just at a facility buried in a building under a building deep on campus, through two security checkpoints with three different biometric checks. Whoever he was working with he didn’t know, as they liked to keep things very compartmentalized. Ausmann thought that this was just bad science because the free exchange of ideas would lead to breakthroughs — it always did. But it was because of this separation of specialists that he always just knew the whole thing was a government project.

Hell, just from knowing what the actual machine did, he could tell that no private person or corporation had funded it. There was some major black ops taxpayer money being expended sixteen stories beneath Pasadena. There were even rumors that this was the entire reason that the Metro A Line which ran through the city had been built as an at-grade and elevated train instead of as a subway, even though the latter option is what the mayors of all the cities and the County Board of Supervisors involved all wanted.

Ausmann was undecided, thinking it might be the equivalent of the old “the auto industry killed LA’s mass transit in the 1950s” stories; something that everybody believed because it’s what they were taught growing up, but which was 100% false. The joke was that the mass transit system wasn’t killed by the auto industry. It was killed by people deciding to buy cars and stop riding the streetcars and trolleys. The real purpose of the legend wasn’t to spread the word about Giant Evil CorporationTM. It was so the people could absolve themselves of the guilt of having destroyed the whole thing in the first place.

People did a lot of that. Ausmann knew this. He ran into it constantly as an ethicist — people trying to absolve themselves of guilt or responsibility for unpleasant things.

And now whoever was running this project had brought Ausmann on to try to deal with exactly that: abolishing the guilt and responsibility for the unpleasant thing that happened.

Ausmann also knew for certain that there was another team working on the so-far unsuccessful effort to actually turn off the machine they had started, but what he did not know was why they couldn’t or the actual effect it was having. Meanwhile, it was the guilt over and responsibility for that effect that he was apparently here to get rid of.

In layman’s terms, his call to action had been, “Help us cover our asses whether or not we get this thing shut down, and figure out how we can spin it so that it is not your country’s fault.”

The last part had never been stated, only implied, but Ausmann was a very intelligent man. He was also endlessly curious and energetic, so he had found Simon and Joshua and assigned them to their task. They had gotten results very quickly, although Ausmann had botched the first three because he hadn’t yet figured out how to contain them while studying them, and they had a bad habit of running away at the first opportunity. Like humans, they didn’t like being detained.

They’d exhausted all of the stations coming southbound to downtown on the A Line and then made it as far as north as Wilshire and Vermont on the B Line before Ausmann had solved the escape problem. From there, they had eight more stations to hunt in. They hadn’t even tried at Union Station — that place was too busy no matter what time it was.

Ausmann also had Joshua and Simon start collecting data, observing their guests, and classifying all their various traits. They were proceeding toward North Hollywood, progressing to one new station per week night. Well, actually, from Sunday through Thursday nights, but these would have been Monday through Friday morning, technically, by the time Ausmann’s two steampunk hunters had hit the platforms.

He had been pleasantly surprised when the two of them had both come up with the idea of emulating his fashion sense in order to do their job. “After all,” Simon explained, “The best way to not stand out in L.A. is to look like you’re trying to.”

“Only tourists will stare at you,” Joshua added, “But they don’t count, because they just assume everyone is weird.”

“Besides,” Simon said, “Tourism is still down since the plague tapered off.”

“Plague,” Ausmann snorted. What he didn’t say out loud because he couldn’t was, “If only people knew.”

But… the boys had been doing their job, getting more successful as they rode the line, and there were only three stops left on the B Line before they hit its northern terminus and would then double back to follow the E Line.

After Ausmann had successfully contained and kept their results from Hollywood and Western, there was only the existing sample from Hollywood and Vermont, and the ones to be caught at Hollywood and Highland, Universal City, and NoHo stations left to go.

That would give him five strong samples, he hoped, and then the real investigations could begin. And, maybe, the stupid mistake they’d made down here could finally end.

* * *

Underground

They come down into the subway stations because it’s always warm and safe, and because most people who pass through are in a hurry from one place to another, so they won’t take the time to notice. As for the employees who are there all the time — they know of the existence of these regular visitors and also know to leave them alone and let them do what they want to. In exchange for that, the Metro workers are protected.

It’s a peace that had finally been negotiated back in 1993, after what was originally the Blue Line (now the southern part of the A Line) was finished and as the Red Line (now B Line) was just beginning. It was one of Mayor Riordan’s proudest moments, although one that he could never reveal to the public. Unfortunately, the public face of his secret endeavor manifested itself in cost overruns that plagued his entire administration — but there was no way that he could ever defend them without revealing the truth.

In exchange for being mostly left alone, they have looked after the trains and tunnels and observed the passengers ever since. They refer to themselves as the Rêves, but no one knows whether that’s a description of what they are or a common surname. The workers who’ve seen them have said that many of them look alike, but they can never remember details of the faces they’ve seen. Oddly, some of them don’t remember even seeing a Rêve when coworkers right next to them have.

I have a hypothesis on the source of the name. I think it might be short for “reveler,” and they’re a bunch of drunken party guests who got lost in the system one day but who have been allowed to stay. Of course, I only share this idea with people who come poking around about their identity at which point I refer to it as my theory because these idiots wouldn’t know the difference between that and a hypothesis if it bit them in their asses.

What the people who know about them don’t generally realize is that the Rêve bunch isn’t limited to staying in the subway tunnels no matter what time of day it is. They’re free to wander around the city and stay where and when they will. If you know L.A., you can find a lot of old, familiar places they’ve found to hang around in — and they’re far less confrontational outside of their territorial “dens” underground. They’re big with cemeteries, for example, although only certain ones, particularly one of the Forest Lawns, another that’s right next to a studio, and the other improbably at the edge of an airport.

A surprising number of them would hang out in Hollywood, just watching the tourists, sometimes intently so, and another large contingent would loll around the beach, especially around sunset and sunrise. This last group had been overjoyed when the Expo (later E) Line finally opened its last stop in downtown Santa Monica, blocks from the ocean, so that they no longer had to wander so far afield in ways to keep themselves inconspicuous because their general modes of aboveground transportation were rather… unconventional.

When they traveled this way, they preferred to stick to shadows, darkness, and alleys. They would also often use suburban streets and skip through the front-to-back-to-back-to-front yards of the homes, using their skills to give the impression of being a particular bit of wildlife most likely to discourage further investigation.

Tricking people into thinking they’d seen a rabid raccoon or a large skunk was their specialty, although the occasional coyote guise came in handy.

If they absolutely had to, they would take public transportation, but only if they got caught having to cover a long distance by daylight. Since they were willing to wait sunset out most of the time, it would take something extraordinary to force one of them to get on a bus. A Rêve could cover the distance that a forty-five-minute bus ride would take in two thirds of that time under their own power.

But that all became moot when the Santa Monica station opened and the entire E Line tunnel system became just another part of the great underground kingdom of the family Rêve.

Whatever the hell that name means.

* * *

Image: © 2017, Jon Bastian. Content, © 2017, 2020, Jon Bastian. All rights reserved. This content cannot be copied in any form or format without express written permission of the copyright holder.

How to be funny

Drama is easy. Comedy is hard. Why? Because, too often, we try to write the funny instead of the reality.

I’ve written both comedic and dramatic scripts, so I can tell you beyond all doubt that it is much, much harder to write comedy than it is to write drama. I should know. Over the years, I’ve had more than a few readings of comedic plays that I’d developed in workshop, and everyone in that small room without an audience thought the jokes and situations were hilarious. Hell, even I thought they were hilarious on re-reading, and I can be one of the harshest critics of my own work. And then we’d come to the reading with an amazing cast, quite often made up of actors I’d specifically written for, knowing their strengths and kinds of characters they could play well. Then we’d get it out there for an audience, read it straight through — and from the reaction you’d think that I’d written the darkest of tragedies. Not a laugh nor a giggle nor a titter.

This is why, as a writer, learning how to do improv is so important — it will inform your writing. (Not, however, the other way around, but that’s a subject for later.) For a long time while learning, I would aim for the funny while doing improv. A clever idea, a funny line, a weird character, whatever. My brain would tell me, “Oh, this would be hilarious here,” and then I’d do it, and sometimes it would work and a lot of the time it wouldn’t, and my teachers would give me the encouraging look a parent gives a child when they say something really cute but stupid, then proceed to give me a note.

I appreciate every opportunity like this, though. Honest criticism is the only way to learn, and I needed a lot of it. But, sometimes, the best way to learn about your own mistakes is to watch someone else make them, and recently I wound up working with a fellow student who is genuinely talented and very funny — but he would always aim for the punchline as well, and that’s when I realized what the problem was. But let me back up one second for a technical explanation.

There are really two types of routines (or in the parlance of my improv troupe, games) that improvisers do, ignoring short vs. long form for the moment. There are scene games and there are so-called “jump out” games. Now, for the “jump out” games, which are essentially a series of dueling one-liners, it’s all about the jokes and the funny and the humor. You might not be familiar with any of the games our group does, but if you’ve ever seen “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” then you may know of games like “Scenes from a Hat” and “Props.”

In the former, the host will read out a prompt, like “Things you can say to your dog that you can’t say to your partner,” and then the improvers will jump out, make a quick joke, then go back to their spot. (“Sit!”) With the latter game, two teams each get their own weird prop or props, and they have to alternate coming up with as many funny uses and lines for it as possible — for example, if the props are two traffic cones, a quick Madonna impersonation will probably happen.

All very funny, very fast, and none of it would create an entire evening of satisfying comedy. They’re more like punctuation.

Scene games are, well, what they sound like. There may or may not be an audience suggestion, but then the players are let loose to interact with each other, and that’s the key word. Interact. And the secret to scene games, and to comedy in general, is to never go for the funny. Go for the relationship. It isn’t about the jokes. It’s about the reactions, in context of that relationship, and where they go. And the humor comes from that.

Imagine two people walk on stage and you have no idea how they’re connected. Then one of them says, “Nice hair,” the other one says, “Oh, shut up,” and they exit, end of scene. Not very funny, was it?

But bring the two people on and let them establish their history. Maybe they’re siblings, or parent and child, husband and wife, lovers, co-workers, best friends, worst enemies, whatever. And they don’t exist in a vacuum, so they’re somewhere, and they each want something. And then, once we have that framework, we have something else very important.

See, what makes comedy happen is its relatability. That is, when the audience identifies with the characters or situation, they empathize, and it’s that empathy that leads to the comedy. The reaction is either “Oh, I’ve been that person” or “Oh, I’ve put up with that person” or “Oh, I’ve seen that happen,’ and it leads to the laughs.

During a space work class recently, I had this insight while doing a scene with another student that, to me, felt like it really didn’t go anywhere, and it all started with him creating an invisible revolving door and entering a hotel lobby. I entered after, and we quickly established that he was a tourist in New York and I was a local — and then I proceeded to appear to be rude, but when his character called me out on it, mine would explain that I wasn’t, it was just the way New Yorkers did things, and we’d patch things up until my next offense.

And my offenses were not coming from a place of, “Oh, what would be funny here?” Rather, they were coming from a place of, “Okay, he’s a yokel, I’m urban, he just said that, so how do I (in character) feel?”

I found myself very present in that conversation with him. I wasn’t trying to think of anything funny to say, I was just listening and reacting. At the same time, I was thinking, “Shit, we must be boring the hell out of everyone else right now.” But we went on. And on. And on… it seriously seemed like a good ten minutes, although I’m sure it wasn’t.

And when it was over, the teacher jumped up and asked the rest of the class, “Wasn’t that totally engaging?” And they agreed. “I could have watched that all night,” he told me and my scene partner, and I was kind of bowled over.

I was also reminded of Nichols and May. If any of my readers know them, they probably know them as the film directors Mike Nichols and Elaine May, but many eons ago they were an improv comedy team. I only learned about them because my grandfather was a record collector. He would buy boxes of LPs at garage sales, pull out what he wanted, and then leave the “crap” for me and my cousins. Well, his definition of “crap” was “anything recorded after 1950” and “anything spoken word,” so I wound up with quite a collection of stand-up and comedy albums from the 50s and 60s — Newhart, Carlin, Bruce, Berman… and Nichols and May.

And the thing about Nichols and May is that they did not go for the jokes. They created relationships, and then created the emotional stakes, and subsequently the drier and more matter-of-fact they got, the funnier it got. Sure, they would pull out old tricks like repetition (the rule of 3s!), callbacks, sudden tilts, and so on — but everything was about the relationship between the two characters.

I hadn’t even thought of their stuff in years and hadn’t listened to them since I was a kid, but this little improv lesson in character and stakes as comedy builders brought them back to mind tonight. Here’s a particularly great example that begins with one of the most basic and common relationships of mother and adult son, and then spirals right off into hilarity that probably every one of us can relate to, but it’s all built on the emotional reactions from one to the other. Not a joke in the bit, and yet, you’ll be laughing your ass off.

Here’s the thing: while all art should reflect the truth in some way, comedy needs to be ten times as truthful as drama. Why? Because drama may depict travails and tragedies we have not gone through ourselves, but which we can understand. But for comedy to hit, we have to relate to the situation and the relationship, and everything else. We cannot laugh at a universe we have not experienced, and we cannot make others laugh until we show them that we have also experienced that universe.

One other way to put it: Drama shows other people being strong. Comedy shows all of us being weak — but, in exposing our weaknesses, sharing our vulnerabilities, and coming out better and more honest for it on the other side. That’s why laughter is cathartic. Humor is the great leveler. A sense of humor is the most important thing any of us can have.

As Mel Brooks put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”


Image of Mike Nichols and Elaine May by the Bureau of Industrial Service for CBS Television

Sunday Nibble #16: Truth and fiction

Here’s an appropriate version of the telephone game. You’ve no doubt heard one of these quotes. Your job is to identify which was actually said by the person so named:

  1. “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” — Jonathan Swift
  2. “(A) Lie would travel from Maine to Georgia while Truth was getting on his boots.” — Fisher Ames
  3. “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”— Mark Twain
  4. “A lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.” — Winston Churchill

The quote may or may not sound familiar, but who seems like the most likely source? I’ll get to that later, but the important point is that no matter which one of the quotes above is the actual one, each one of them does say something important.

Lies will spread like wildfire, and that’s especially true nowadays with the internet, social media, and the instantly shareable image macro, “news” post, or meme. We can see this every day when the latest outrage share or “shocking” news story goes viral (pardon the expression) before the debunking begins, but by then it is often too late.

It’s a problem that affects all political beliefs and I’ve seen both sides do it, which is why there are a few very important things you have to remember to ask yourself before you share that story.

  1. Does this offend my political sensibilities and confirm all the worst things I think about (insert hated foe here)? Then you may be getting played. Do a search, especially with sites like Snopes or Politifact, and especially if the claim seems too over the top. Hint: flip it so it’s your preferred person doing it, and see how plausible it sounds.
  2. For alleged news stories, always check the sources to make sure they are reputable outlets, and not places like shitpostnewslol.com or joeschmoemedia.me. A lot of satire sites will identify themselves as such, but you have to click the links and go to their “about” link, where it will clearly say, “Hey, we made this up.” And if you don’t know that the Onion and Borowitz report are mostly satire, you shouldn’t be online. Finally, while Forbes itself is reputable (if biased), if an article is under the URL forbes.com/sites/, then it could have been contributed by anyone, and shouldn’t be trusted.
  3. Avoid weasel words or stories without clearly identified parties. “Experts say” or “scientists believe” mean nothing. The same is true in a lot of “this injustice will outrage you” stories that happen to omit things like the location, at least the names of a local official or citizen interviewed. “Family kicked out of local diner for praying over breakfast” is a nice outrageous headline, but what does the story say? If all you get is “a local family of six is considering legal action” and “unidentified diner,” and not a lot more, don’t trust the story.
  4. You can ignore random opinion polls, because they can be made to say anything, depending on how the questions are worded and answer options are given, and the results can be spun as well. For example, the question, “Politicians accused of eating babies should: a) Be given a fair trial, per their rights; b) Executed on the spot because accusations are truth.” This can easily turn into the shock headline, “60% of Americans Support Politicians Eating Babies!” Again, ignore.
  5. Most science stories promising either miracle cures or killer asteroids are bunk, especially the latter. If you see a headline that says something like, “Mayo Clinic Breakthrough: Toe Jam Stops Cancer!” then you should look for the original study and ignore the story, because the reality was probably more like “toe jam kills 4% of foot cancer cells in vitro, peer review pending.” Translation: “Toe jam don’t kill cancer, and a petri dish isn’t a human body anyway.”
  6. Remember, most of all, that the authors of stories aren’t the ones who write the headlines, and the headlines are written to make you click. So do yourself the biggest favor of all, and don’t just read the headline. Read the entire story, and then research it further if it seems fishy.

Because… well, here are the quotes from above and the actual sources for them. Did you pick the right one?

  1. “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” — actually Jonathan Swift, 1710
  2. “(A) Lie would travel from Maine to Georgia while Truth was getting on his boots,” — attributed to Fisher Ames by William Tudor, North American Review, 1821
  3. “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”— attributed to Mark Twain by Burris Jenkins, in the Denver Post, 1921
  4. “‘A lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.’” — attributed to Winston Churchill by Ernest W. Lefever as quoted by Francis X. Clines in the New York Times, 1981

Hint: although a lot of people think it was Mark Twain, it wasn’t. The closest to an actual and verifiable first-person citation we can come is… Jonathan Swift, whose quote isn’t at all like the others in wording, but which is identical in sentiment.

Don’t help the lies fly. Help the truth get on its boots and run.

The Saturday Morning Post #14, Part 1

Last week brought us to the last first-person short story. Now comes the closing novella, told in third-person, in which everyone comes together. Since a lot of us are still locked up, I think I’m going to share a bit more of this one in a few installments, since this part is 20,000 words or so. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top here.

TAKING HOPE

September 23, 2029, was the high point of the Los Angeles social calendar of the year, possibly even the decade, and it all began early on that Sunday morning at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, at Grand and Temple downtown or, as locals knew it, DTLA. The wedding was going to be presided over by Archbishop Cacciapuoti, successor to Archbishop Gomez, with the actual celebrant being Father O’Malley, who had been the bride’s first confessor.

Apparently, it had taken some finagling on the part of the bride’s parents to make it happen, since the groom was the son of a Lutheran mother and a father of no particular faith, but since his father was a prominent real estate developer in the county, enough wheels were greased that it was not a problem at all at all and he didn’t need to go through the motions of converting, and that the ceremony would still be a full Mass, which was very unusual in the case of “mixed” marriages. But, nowadays, the Church really needed the money, and the cathedral did need some repairs after the earthquake, the groom’s father knew people, and the work was agreed to be donated by the middle of August, ahead of the wedding.

There were half a dozen media vans parked outside the Cathedral, antennas extended and reporters deployed to harass arrivals by six a.m., although the arrivals for the pre-ceremony luncheon weren’t set to start until ten a.m. Say what you want, but only in L.A. would you find a green carpet and a step and repeat in front of a place of worship early on a Sunday morning. (Yes, the green carpet was in keeping with the chosen wedding theme.)

The schedule of events had gone out in advance to all of the invited guests who had RSVP’d, as well as to the media, planned out to the minute as follows:

11:00........Arrivals Begin, 2 North Grand Avenue
11:00 to 13:00.....Pre-Luncheon, The Plaza at CTG
13:30......Ceremony, Our Lady of Angels Cathedral
15:00.................Reception, Upper Grand Park
18:00 to 20:00.............................Dinner
20:00 to 23:00;............Cake, Dancing, Karaoke
23:01....... Departures from 2 North Grand Avenue

The luncheon and dinner menus were elaborately detailed, with guests instructed to choose up to three entrees per meal, with options to pick the same for both meals or different ones for each meal. There were ten choices here, covering all the bases through the five most common meat food groups (beef, chicken, pork, fish, lamb) and specialized options (vegetarian, pescatarian, keto, ovo-lacto vegan, and vegan). Any or all of these could also be requested as gluten- or lactose-free, kosher, or halal.

The mayor’s planning team had missed nothing, so there were also heart-healthy/low-sodium options and diets catered to diabetics, with an email and link on the wedding website set up to take even more specific requests, and there were going to be multiple wedding cakes to cover all possible options — yes, even a vegan, gluten-, dairy- and nut-free version that was both kosher and halal. It was also sugar-free and made without salt, baking soda, or baking powder.

The entertainment during the reception included a bunch of A-listers, mostly local talent: music from Tudor, The Valet, and Tom Goss, with comedy from Lauren Pritchard, Bill Chott, and the dynamic duo of Rebekah Kochan and Ryan Kelly, better known to fans of “A Little Late with Lilly Singh” as Ryko Rebkel. Rounding out the bill were Gandalf the Magician, some aerial work from Kennedy Kabasares, and a ComedySportz improv show with eight performers and a referee who were well-known from the hit Amazon Prime interactive series that was now in its fifth season.

Of course, none of the people who stayed inside the “snooty party,” as Alejandra had taken to calling it in private, would probably ever figure out to wander down to what was being billed — quite separately and in channels the rich would never see — as The People’s Concert in the Park. She had planned it that way intentionally, and the County was footing the bill for that one.

She could plan it that way, after all, since she was Alejandra Peréz, the mayor of Los Angeles, and mother of the bride. To her, there was something symbolic about Grand Park anyway that she didn’t think a lot of people picked up on. The bottom end of it — literally. Since it was the lowest elevation — faced the steps of City Hall. The second division, the same size as the first, was flanked by the L.A. County Hall of Records and the Law Library. The L.A. Metro Station was located at the top end of the second division — rather appropriate in the scheme of things, as will become apparent shortly.

The upper level, which was as big as the other two combined and much higher up, was flanked by the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration Building and the L.A. County Sheriff’s headquarters. Opposite the top end of that part of the park was the L.A. Music Center. It was also the part with the huge fountain and elevators.

Alejandra always thought of it as a very subtle topological representation of the politics of failed capitalism. City Hall was a reminder that all government should derive its power from the People, and no one else. It stood at the lowest end of the park as a reminder that even the lowest citizen had equal rights and standing in the eyes of the government — and the steps leading up to its portico across Spring Street were a visual reminder and invitation: Anyone in our system is welcome to climb. Well, in a true Democracy, sure. In capitalism? Not so much.

The second level represented citizens who were a bit more well-off, but still in view of City Hall, with two public resources of information on either side. These were the folk who benefited (or should) from society’s most successful implementations of socialism: public education, and public libraries. Alejandra wondered whether the placement of the Metro station at the top of the hill above this part of the park was intentional or not. In reality, the station long pre-dated the creation of the park, but really turned out as a fitting marker, because the L.A. Metro station had turned out to be a great equalizer and method for helping the poor to have greater access to their own city, in effect, pulling them up the metaphorical hill of Grand Park.

As for the upper part — it was a bigger piece of the pie, had the better stuff, and was surrounded by the halls of power. If you started at City Hall and walked up, it took real effort, and if you were handicapped or unable to walk uphill in any way, forget it. You weren’t making that journey. But if you did wind up in that rarefied atmosphere of those on top, you would emerge from the park to find yourself at the bottom of a set of steps that almost seemed designed to say, “Stay out,” because you really couldn’t see what was at the top of them.

What was at the top was one of the premier theater companies in the city — the two thirds on the right for the people — and the snooty, old-money ballet and opera company on the left for the old and rich. It was sort of a microcosm of Grand Park repeated and turned on its side, with the plaza between an analog of the Metro Station — the place for all wedged between the place for common folk and the place for the overlords.

Kind of ironic that from the POV coming up from Grand Park, the former was on the right and the latter on the left, but that was probably something way out of the hands of city planners. After all, the Music Center complex up top had been built in the 1960s, while Grand Park didn’t open until 2012. (What Alejandra had no way of knowing was that the Music Center was one of the reasons that Cindy’s mom had convinced her father to relocate the family to Los Angeles, even if Cindy’s mom did wind up at Universal instead of Center Theater Group.)

Still… because Alejandra had always had this take on Grand Park, she had requested of the wedding planner that the wedding party start there, and basically follow the route of Los Pobladores, who were the (mythical) original 44 settlers who founded Los Angeles in 1781, when it was known as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula. This was another reason that she had insisted that her daughter made as much as possible in the wedding green, because everything else that didn’t involve the couples’ clothes was either red or white, and la alcaldesa, Alejandra, had also arranged for there to be live eagles trained to snatch (but not kill) non-venomous snakes from among the crowd outside and then tow them to conveniently placed rocks around the area, one of the largest in the middle of the Grand Park fountain.

Those who needed to get it would. Those who didn’t, well… they would probably inadvertently wind up donating a ton of money to the city because of all of the souvenir stands that appeared to be set up by locals, but which, again, were all the mayor’s doing. That, and stuff that would be happening here later, during the reception.

To be honest, Alejandra was tired of this shit, but since she had found an actual non-corrupt way to soak the hell out of the rich upper classes in this city of vast income inequality, she was going to milk it for all it was worth, and then let it actually trickle down.

Every single person on the work staff was going to split at least 10% of the total sales take in tips, which would probably be enormous, and there were going to be at least five opportunities during the reception for the stupidly wealthy to get into a dick-measuring contest over who could donate the most or bid the most or whatever, all of which would (unbeknownst to them) be divided up equally among the reception serving staff. All they would hear is that they were donating to a worthy cause, so they could feel good about themselves, never suspecting that the people they were helping were actually the people around them that they ignored or insulted or patronized every single day. If anybody pressed her or her staff on it, they would only respond, “Your donation is going towards fighting poverty in the city.”

Well, it wasn’t a lie, was it?

Alejandra really didn’t care about the mechanics. She only cared that the really big bucks sucked out of rich assholes in this way would get divided among all of the non-management workers and would probably cover all those stupid things like oh, who knew… rent, food, insurance, utilities, student loan debt? Possibly for several months. You know… those “luxury” items the rich don’t think that the working class need.

It was her version of backdoor socialism, or an arrogance tax. Make the superrich feel like they were stroking their egos by wasting money on shit, then smile and say thanks while that money actually did some good.

She had been open and transparent about her plans within the government itself, and while not made public, the plan was vetted and approved by her own legal counsel, the City Attorney, the City Council, and the County Commissioner and Board of Supervisors for good measure. If word ever did leak out, the paper trail — well, electron trail — would be incontrovertible proof of her honorable motives and, if anything, it would really boost her popularity. Who knew what she could accomplish in similar fashion as Governor?

The best part, though, was that not a peep about it leaked to the entire wedding staff, and she would have word sent out about halfway through the reception that there was a mandatory meeting at the end of the event, with her direct staff instructed to act like it was a bad thing, but say nothing. Then, when they’d gathered everybody into the lobby of the Mosk Courthouse, which was serving as a staging area, she was going to come in looking royally pissed, let them all shake for a moment, and then break into a broad smile and say, “I bet none of you expected that this job came with a nice bonus,” and then explain what had happened and end it all with the per-dollar figure per person.

Hey, she had been a stand-up comic back in college, which is what led to her becoming an inspirational speaker, which is what led to her becoming mayor in the first place. And she loved nothing more than making people happy but knew the power of hills and valleys when it came to emotions. (She’d spent some time as an actress, too.) Make them feel bad for a moment, then give them amazing good news, and they’ll shoot even higher into sheer joy, and that was the emotion she wanted them to feel.

Meanwhile, the people who had helped make the whole thing happen got the VIP express transport to and preferred seating in the Cathedral long before any of the celebs or politicos who thought that they were special did.

Alejandra moved her tailor and all of his staff and guests and SOs front of line, so that Jackson and his date Cindy, and Finley and his dates Tycho and James, just get to waltz right in and take up the pews to the left of the altar, closest to the action. In gratitude and at the bride’s request, Alejandra also lets the vendors and contractors in, so that Jackson was able to bring Fumiko Miyade, Jackon’s fabric provider, and Haru Toyama, her nephew and assistant. Jackson even finagled it so that Adam and Tony got to sit with Finley and company, since they all apparently had some sort of complicated multiple relationship going on.

As for Toby Arnot, he bought his way in, because of course he did, but after his ridiculous donation, he’s allowed to bring in his assistant, Adrian, to the latter’s extreme gratitude. They both also, although it’s not clear at whose behest, bring along an older Chinese woman, Wei-Tso Yung, and an even older American woman, Edna Ferris, and only a few of the much older conservatives in attendance recognize her from her film work, but ashamedly say nothing. Toby is also able to grease the wheels to be able to bring along all of Wei-Tso’s tenants, of which there are 44 at the time.

Thanks to some advance notice via Alejandra to Jackson (and her largesse), all of the early seated, non-wedding party VIP guests to the left of the altar got their own matching wedding garb — nothing as fancy as the wedding party, but the men got tailored evening suits in corresponding colors, and the women got gowns and shoes. She had also personally paid Jackson to outfit every last server, usher, cook, bartender, and bar-back in similar fashion and, just for shits and giggles, she had him outfit the photographer, videographer, and planner to boot. Again, they were all outfits that could be worn at places that weren’t weddings.

She had paid for all of the non-wedding party outfits herself although, ironically, while she could have easily afforded it, Toby’s little admission “bribe” (which wasn’t really one) more than reimbursed her the expense. Luckily, in her mind, there was no way in hell she would approve any of the crazy gentrifying projects of his that had been in the pipeline to date.

Eventually all of the guests were seated, with the press awkwardly stationed on top of the part of the narthex that technically jutted into the nave at the back of the sanctuary. Well, okay, technically not the narthex, because the layout of this cathedral was very non-traditional, but it served that purpose, being the atrium outside of the entrance down the center of the nave. Above it, they were on a platform about thirty feet up, with a perfect view of everything from here to the back of the ambulatory and the bema and altar dead center.

Just before things began, Alejandra looked around and thought, “I wonder how many people in this room realize that this part means absolutely nothing, and that my daughter and son-in-law are already married because they signed the paper in my office yesterday afternoon?” Maybe it was just because she’d been involved in the law for so long but, despite having grown up Catholic and still appreciating the trappings, Alejandra also knew that a church ceremony didn’t mean squat when it came to actually, you know… marrying two people. For that, only a license from the government and two witnesses were required. She’d known this for years, and it was one of the things that most frustrated her as she’d fought against Prop 8 in what seemed like the dark ages. No matter how many times she’d told the religiously recalcitrant, “No, nothing about this will force your church to perform gay weddings,” they turned a deaf ear.

Then again, as an elected official, Alejandra had learned what everyone else in a skilled and trained profession also knew: Everybody who doesn’t do what you do thinks that they know everything about it and could do it better, and every one of them is dead wrong.

Something something Dunning–Kruger effect… but then she heard the opening notes of the procession from the back of the nave.

What nobody expected, but which Alejandra and the groom’s mother, Brenda, had planned for months, was how much of a pageant this would be and, for a lot of people, probably a mind-bender because it would account for the background of both partners.

To be continued…

The Saturday Morning Post #8

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter 8. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one is here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novella is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. 

Last week, we met Tycho, an assistant to a local government official who got a quick promotion due to a family emergency his former boss suffered. Along the way, he met a tailor’s assistant, Finley, and they proceeded to get friendly. Finley picks up the thread from here.

Warning: Graphic content ahead. That’s true of most of the novel, but I think this is the first chapter where it comes at the top. So to speak. So strap in. But keep in mind that this chapter in particular, as is the finale novella, is one gigantic political satire. If you’ve been reading along all the way, though, you’ve probably gotten enough hints to have figured that out by now. Enjoy!

INTO THE MATTRESS

I haven’t been plowed face down so hard for at least six months, and never in such a nice hotel by such a hot guy. And certainly not by someone so young — in fact, about three years younger than me — and never someone in such a powerful position but, to be honest, it wasn’t his money or his power that first caught my eye or kept my interest.

The first thing I notice (after that whole “God, he’s cute as fuck” thing) is that despite me being merely a tailor’s assistant while he’s getting the royal treatment — such as is given to new government employees on a certain level — whenever my boss and this guy’s assistant aren’t around, he talks to me like I’m a real person. And, besides the aforementioned cuteness, he’s also got a sort of goofy but endearing manner about him. So, what the hell. I flirt. Because I’ve got good gaydar, and he’s setting it off.

And… score. I figure out that I was right in a few sentences, and he soon tells me what hotel and room number he’s in, and I am so there.

And all of this less than a week after the city and county of Los Angeles get ripped a new one by a gigantic quake out in and named for Riverside.

It’s a week after the quake when I wake up early Tuesday morning in his (government provided) hotel room out in NoHo, his arms wrapped around me, his morning wood sandwiched in my ass-crack, and I’m trying hard as hell to remember his name, because the last thing I want is for him to think that I’m just some shallow gold-digger, because I’m not. Hey, I work for a clothing shop that does a lot of contracting for local governments, so I am really used to dealing with bureaucratic assholes, and this guy is not one of them. Not to mention that my boss is generous, our clients tip, and I’ really not hurting for money.

But, honestly, this guy is a breath of fresh air. Again, because he treated me like a human. And when I asked him if I could stay the whole night after he rocked my world and he said yes, I kind of shivered in joy, because it made me feel like he wasn’t looking at me like I was just a whore.

But Jesus Christ, what the fuck is his name? I’d give anything to remember that right now. All I can remember is that it starts with a “T,” but so many names do. Tae? Taj? Taki? Tamal? Tanner? Taylor? Ted? Terrance? Thad? Thadeus? Thagrador? Theo? Theodore? Thomas? Tim? Timothy? Titus? Tobias? Tobuscus? Toby? Tom? Tomás? Torrance? Travis? Trent? Trenton? Trey? Tripp? Tristan? Troy? Truman? Tucker? Turner? Tyler? Tyrion? Tyrone? Tyson?

Fuck!

This was as hard as I was. Still, at least he was wrapped around me at the moment, so I might have a chance to organically ask the question if I was patient. At least when I’d asked him if I could stay the night he’d said “Yes.”

Ultimately, he let me and so I just stayed there all night as I felt him gently breathing on the back of my neck — which also made me really horny before and after I slept — and then his alarm went off and he suddenly jerked and spasmed.

“Whoa, hey. Wait, hi!” he sputtered as he woke up, and I swore he got harder. “Um… stupid question time again, and sorry for this, but… what’s your name?” he asks even as we’re both trying to nonchalantly get the cork in the hole without it looking like either one of us is trying to make it happen.

“Finley Potter,” I reply, grateful that he’s given me an opening — or is close to giving it to my opening, shut up. So I ask, “And you are…?”

Thank god he doesn’t bat an eyelash at that one, or try to flaunt his degrees, and simply says, “Tycho Ford. Well, Tyty. And… I seem to be about to accidentally shove my cock up your asshole for some reason?”

This makes me laugh and remember why I like him so much, and I just reply, “Why, yes, sir. Yes it seems so. And why isn’t it up there already?”

“Because, I’m just wondering one thing…”

“Whether it’s your money that I’m into, right?”

I can feel him hesitate behind me and sigh a little before he whispers in my ear. “So… is it?”

“Fuck no, you silly insecure douche. It’s all you,” I reply, and with that he proceeds to eagerly ram it home and fuck me into the mattress again, over which I have no complaints, and when he’s made another delivery via the back door and I can’t help but mess the hotel sheets because of it, we cuddle for a while until the alarm goes off again and he apologizes.

“Sorry. Last snooze. But… same time tomorrow night?” he asks and I lean back and say, “Oh, fuck yeah.”

And we both hop on the Metro together, riding until the point when he gets off two stops before I do, and we part with a kiss, but I can’t help but think about him all day long.

Although a lot of those thoughts come back to things I don’t want to think about, like the quake. When I get to work, the OLEDs in the lobby blare the news, and it’s all Tycho, the youngest county department director ever, even if they do keep calling him “acting.” Damn if he doesn’t look sexy as hell in the footage of him leaving the county building. We sure did a good job of dressing him well — although I can’t help but think, “That hot dude’s been in me several times.”

He doesn’t comment to the reporters and I know he hasn’t done a presser yet. I have sensed a touch of anger in him about this whole thing, so I’m wondering — as his responsibilities increase, are the fucks he throws in me going to get harder and angrier?

The thought that it might makes my hands tremble as I cut fabric to patterns, although it’s a good tremble. I mean, if he wants to take out all of the tension and anger on me… I would so be there for that. Note to self: when we get home tonight, point that out. Sure, he’s younger than me, but I’ve got nothing against role-playing an Angry Daddy scenario where I’m not the daddy.

But… it’s a long day, because, apparently the big quake has also created a big government shake-up, and I don’t know whether that’s reality or a bad pun. All I do know is that we’re suddenly winding up with a lot of “acting” folk for various positions, and every single one of them who deals with the media is getting a ridiculous new wardrobe. At least we only actually tailor the clothes here, except for the rare custom job, but those are special-ordered ahead.

It’s the first time in months I’ve worked O.T., actually, so I don’t get out of there until nine p.m. — not a problem at all because more money — but I text Tycho as soon as I’m leaving.

“On my way,” I say.

“What kept you, honey?” he replies.

“Too many people needed new clothes,” I text back.

“I’m not wearing any and need you likewise soon,” he answers.

“Gonna ride the train down then I’m gonna ride you all night long,” I reply.

“As you should,” he texts back just as I’m taking my seat on the Metro.

Of course, our conversations were much more abbreviated, but I’m not one to share that in the ridiculous TXT/m o g speak, because I’m kind of owskoo, as they call it now, or “hipster” in the disdainful words of our parents. All I know is that I’m gonna get some, so I am elated for the entire B Line ride back up to the Lexen. And by “elated,” I mean hard as a fucking rock.

When I get to the hotel, the desk clerk just hands me the keycard without asking my name and gives me a wink and nod. “Go on in,” he says, and so I go up to 23 and key my way into the door to find Tycho lying face up on the bed, legs spread, arms crossed over his face, butt-ass naked, and his gorgeous golden dick standing at full attention above his more than adequate balls. I don’t have to ask. I strip on my way to the bed, kneel between his legs, and have at it.

I start bobbing up and down on it and he starts moaning and squirming, and then suddenly says, “Oh my god, Darren, that is so hot.”

I pull my mouth off his dick and look as he uncovers his face, looks down, and then smiles. “Hi, Fin,” he says. “I knew it was you. Just joking. And can I call you Fin?”

“Um, sure… But what can I call you?”

“Tyty,” he replies.

“Okay,” I tell him, “But for the moment, can I just call you ‘daddy?’”

“Ha!” He replies. “That’s not normally my thing, but whatever floats your boat.”

“Wait,” I ask. “Are you a bottom for daddies?”

He laughs. “No, dude. I’m into topping the hell out of them. And you’d be surprised how often that works out.”

“Really?” I reply. “Whoa… Then again, I am older than you. Technically, a baby daddy, so…” I give the tip of his dick a lick, but I think what I’d said had already raised the sails a bit higher.

“I think I told you, I thought you were younger than me,” he finally says, “But since you’re older…well, then… shit. you’re going to be coming on over a lot more often. Meanwhile… you seem to have stopped — ”

He coughs and gestures, and I don’t need another word, so dive back down and continue slurping. He’s bucking and moaning until he suddenly grabs my hair to pull me off.

“Bottoms  up,” he commands, and I don’t hesitate. I throw myself down on the bed, does a little prep work, then whispers in my ear. “Ready?”

“Oh, fuck yeah, daddy,” I reply, and then he rams it home. He seriously pounds me into the mattress. Hell, if this one is memory foam, it’s going to have stories to tell for centuries. Although it’s not. It’s just a hotel mattress, but something about lying face down and taking a really hard dicking from a really hot guy just… rustles my jimmys. Well, my prostate.

As usual, right as Tyty announces what he’s about to do, I clench up tighter than a landlord on deposit refund day and quiver like the city did during the quake and then we’re both grunting and moaning incoherently until we collapse into a silent, sweaty heap.

And… scene…

Image Source: Hotel Lexen, NoHo, CA © 2020 Jon Bastian

The Saturday Morning Post #1

Now for a slight change of pace and a bit of creative writing, because that’s what I do when I’m not being less fictional here. The following is the first half of the first chapter of what became a 90,000 word novel set in Los Angeles and comprising 13 short stories capped by a short novella that brings all of the characters and story threads together in a massive wedding celebration at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and in Grand Park in downtown L.A.. And, as it worked out, each successive short story was taken over by the point of view of someone introduced or referenced in the previous story.

This whole thing happened because of a late-night shopping trip to a chain drug store near my house that’s open 24 hours. I don’t even remember what I needed to pick up, but I found myself in line behind a middle-aged man who was buying two twenty-four packs of TP at that hour, and nothing else, and he seemed to be in a bit of a rush, so of course the line took forever.

Originally, I was only going to write the short story because the whole concept popped into my head as a whole before I even finished my transaction, but once I had written it, I had to ask myself, “Okay. Where does this character go next?” I found the answer to that question in another character starting their day in the next story, and so that set the structural pattern

None of the bad things in the first story happened in real life, but that’s why we write stories. The parameters I set for myself were that it took place in very identifiable locations in Los Angeles and happened a decade in the future. And, slight spoiler, an earthquake does figure into things because, L.A., of course — but only a few days after I finished the first draft, we had an earthquake in Southern California of exactly the magnitude and in the approximate location as my fictional one. You’re welcome! Now on with Chapter One.

* * *

THE ROCKY ROAD FROM WALGREENS

I can’t believe how crowded it is at four in the morning in the 24-hour Walgreens on 7th in the Jewelry district. It’s your typical urban storefront business, taking up the entire ground floor of a 12-story building erected in 1923. Once upon a time, its footprint probably comprised multiple stores. Then again, in those days, specialization was everything, so that the bakery, butcher, deli, dry goods, grocer, liquor, newsstand, pet, pharmacy, stationary, and toy departments were their own individual businesses.

There’s a reason they call them supermarkets, superstores, big boxes and… face it, those terms are retro. I really mean Amazon Alphabet. Same idea. Everything available under one big metaphorical roof, delivered by the same drone army. Except for those of us, rich and poor, who buy local. Like me, this very morning.

Above the store are tons of apartments. I’d read somewhere one time that this building has the equivalent of just over five acres of living space in it. For some reason, most likely the lack of proximity to schools, there are also several hundred registered sex offenders living in it. This might explain why this particular Walgreens has adult magazines, although they come wrapped in discreet black plastic with only the title logo, date, price, and UPC code printed on the outside in stark white. Well, UPC in black bars in a white box, but there’s nary a VQR or AQR code showing, for reasons that should be obvious.

As I wait in line, I glance out the windows, not missing the irony that this Walgreens is directly across the street from a similarly-situated Rite Aid — they’re direct competitors — although it’s only the Walgreens that is open 24 hours a day.

I can’t believe that anything down here is open all night long, but a few years back, right when they finished the Purple Line extension, the city started paying pharmacies in certain areas to stay open, providing them with armed, on-duty LAPD officers, two per storefront.

The real razón de ser for the extended hours is that the city also subsidizes them to keep a good-sized supply of naloxone auto-injectors on hand to be administered for free by the rotating staff of ever-present nurses (these subsidized by the county) in order to prevent yet another needless opioid death. Yes, this sort of defeats the whole “auto” part of “injector,” but by the time most of these people make it in the door, they’re on the edge of not being able to do anything ever again.

Before the program, it wasn’t uncommon to walk down certain city blocks in the morning and have to step over the bodies. They were as prolific as those e–rental scooters had once been, and just as annoying. At least the scooter companies had all folded after the perfect triple disaster. First, pissed-off residents had started vandalizing and trashing the things almost from the beginning, one annoyed citizen becoming an infamous folk hero for tossing them into the Venice canals. Certain cities banned them outright, starting with Beverly Hills, then extending to Burbank, Glendale, Malibu, and West Hollywood. Next, an endless parade of hackers kept pumping out what they called “Scoot Free” apps that would fool the system into not charging riders, and they would defeat every new patch as soon as it came out in the longest known run of continuous Zero Day Exploits ever perpetrated.

This was just about the point that the original scooters that had survived started to hit 5,000 miles of use, at which point a terrible flaw suddenly revealed itself. Because some manufacturers had gone cheap, the batteries in the things would explode with enough force to launch the entire handlebar assembly into the air at least a hundred feet — or about thirty-two if the average hapless rider didn’t think to let go. Ironically, this was one of the few times that obesity saved lives by reducing the launch altitude to a survivable height (yay, physics?), although dislocated shoulders were very common.

Those companies had all either gone bankrupt or moved to other endeavors before the summer of 2025. But that really has nothing at all to do with why this Walgreens is so crowded at four in the  morning on a Tuesday in April. I’m thirteenth in line with two checkers on duty behind the dozen registers and, it being four in the morning, everyone looks extra bad — especially more so under the fluorescent lights. I’m trying to imagine what circle of hell this resembles through the 16K HD cameras that are watching us all from every direction when I notice the customer in front of me.

He’s twelfth in line, and he has only two items — both of them family-size twelve-packs of toilet paper that I can see are labeled “triple-ply” and “ultra-absorbent.” (Ah, “ultra” — that super meaningless advertising buzzword!) I look at his face, general demeanor, and hollow desperation in his eyes, and put it together quickly. Junky. Up until probably this morning, when for some reason he couldn’t score, and the inevitable end result of suddenly going off of a powerful constipating agent is probably just starting to kick in and he knows it.

Well, isn’t this going to be fun?

I shift the pint of Häagen-Dazs rocky road from my right hand to my left to warm up my fingers and wonder how long this is going to take. My ice cream run is an occasional indulgence, although it’s usually just in and out. I have no idea why tonight is so different. Still, I know I have time, since they keep the freezers cold enough here that the ice cream stays at brick consistency for ages.

On the other hand, the glacial pace of the line isn’t giving me any confidence. I have to wonder what the hell all these people are doing up at this hour. In my case, it’s simple. I had business to conduct online in real-time with Hong Kong, Melbourne, and London simultaneously, and the only time that synced them up was a window that had started two hours ago, even if it meant that Melbourne had to stay a bit past office hours. I’m used to it, everything turned out very well, and so my ice cream run was a bit of a celebration of a job well done.

As for the rest of these people, though? It’s doubtful that any of them have just completed a multi-billion dollar deal. Most of them seem to have come here desperately seeking relief from some great physical malady. I can see that a lot of them clutch small cardboard boxes that are strapped to security devices three times their size.

Small enough to steal easily, expensive enough to care about — ergo, cures for the torments that steal the sleep of humankind. You never see those security devices on playing cards or Scotch tape, either of which can vanish into a pocket in a second. And the customers’ distresses were etched deeply into their faces and even distorted their bodies. Hell, if I were a casting director, half of these people would make it onscreen for the next Zombie or Medieval Plague thing to be shot. The other half would probably land on the exciting new reality show Poor Life Choices!

Meanwhile, the flat screens are everywhere around us, scrolling through a series of happy images of stock-photo people of all possible demographic combinations as they enjoy freedom from acne, allergies, arthritis, athlete’s foot, bloating, constipation, cramps, depression, diarrhea, ED, hemorrhoids, migraines, social anxiety, and more. (Name your malady, it’s up there.) All of these seem to involve exuberant poses on stark white backgrounds or frolicking somewhere in nature with an implied loved one or family. The predominant color palette outside of white and various tones of human flesh involves “serious medicine” blue and “snap out of it” red, both of which happen to be Walgreens logo colors.

What? I’m in the psychology of marketing. I know how this shit works: All too well, especially on those who haven’t been vaccinated against it. But as I stand here waiting for the line to take one more Sisyphean step on its way up to the summit of catastrophe, I realize that I’m standing in a pile of anti-vaxxers, to use the quaint term from my college days before we got real and called them what they really are: pro-diseasers. Except that these people don’t avoid vaccinations against the diseases we finally did kill (again) like measles and polio. They embrace the ones we still can’t kill, like capitalism, commercialism, and corporatism, all of which are ultimately fatal.

Well, fatal unless you’re actively spreading them, in which case they confer a weird immunity on you which is called wealth. But that’s neither here nor there. And, anyway — ooh. Look at all the shiny hope they’re advertising on those screens!

And as the people in line distract themselves with the magic totems of HEALTH and HAPPINESS and SATISFACTION and LOVE and SEX and POWER being projected at them, I start to distract myself with the people in line and, sure enough, it’s a parade of all of the typical personas we create and manipulate in the lab before we take them into the field.

Oh. Pardon my jargon. A “persona” is a profile created by marketing people to describe a segment of the target audience for a particular brand, product, or industry. Generally, a company will have three or four, ranked in order from most loyal customer down to “not loyal, but still buys our shit.” And yes, thank the Lords Zuckerberg and Brin, because creating personae became so much easier once social media exploded and everyone became all the more willing to unknowingly complete marketing surveys with every single click. What? You think those free personality quizzes are there just out of the kindness of someone’s heart? Nope.

Remember these important words: “If a company is willing to give you something for free, then you are the product.” If you’re fine with selling yourself for nothing, then great. It makes my job much, much easier.

A consequence of this, though, is that I’m always hunting personas in the wild and, like I said, this place is full of them.

Look right now — there’s a “Karen.” She’s with checker number two. Well, Karen is the general industry term. In my shop, we refer to her as “Expired Yoga Pants.” I watch as she wastes a good ten minutes predictably bringing up the “Nordstrom Argument,” as in, “You should give me what I want because Nordstrom will refund anything without a receipt!” I wonder if she knows that a policy like that would drive a company out of business fast.

TL;DR: Nordstrom was infamous for allegedly actually giving refunds for anything, whether they sold it or not, with the classic example being a tire, or tires, or snow tire, or snow tires, returned for a cash refund from either an experienced clerk, a new and confused clerk, or the founder of the store himself, in either Nome, Fairbanks, or Seattle. In other words, the story is complete bullshit, even though you’ll hear it in business classes to this day as an example of “The customer is always right.”

By the way, “the customer is always right” is also bullshit. The correct version is “you should always make the customer feel like they’re right.” A huge difference, because you maintain goodwill either way, although the correct version is generally impossible to achieve with a Karen.

Now, while I’m watching Expired Yoga Pants go into high dudgeon at the young woman behind the counter, I realize that the guy in front of me has started nodding up and down, and I can hear him saying the rosary under his breath in Spanish, picking up the words “Santa Maria, madre de Dios ruega por nosotros los pecadores…”

“Perdóneme, señor,” I ask him, “¿Usted está enferma?”

He glances at me with a mixture of surprise and suspicion — white guy speaks Spanish? — then replies quickly, “No, no señor. Estoy bien. Sólo es que está muy temprano.”

Before I can reply, our conversation is ended when the customer at the counter pulls the ultimate “Karen” and screams, “I want to talk to your manager,” I can almost hear some of the other people around me shrug in glee when the tiny transwoman behind the counter, who can’t be more than 19, quietly replies, “I am the manager. I won’t be talked to like that. Get the fuck out of my store. And don’t come back. Bitch.”

So much for the customer always being right. Sometimes, the business is so much more right.

Expired Yoga Pants huffs out without her goodies and, I suppose, if everyone in this line at four in the morning on a Tuesday in April weren’t so desperate to check out and get relief, there might have been some kind of applause. Or at least smiles.

All the time that “Karen” was taking up the manager’s time, the other checker is being monopolized by… well, there’s no marketing persona for this one in my industry because, frankly, we don’t care, so we don’t even spend time collecting their data. At least my shop came up with a creative name for them — “Bathtubs.” As in… they’re usually white, mostly empty, going out of style, and circling the drain.

Yeah, cruel maybe, but they’re not a victim of marketing, they’re a victim of capitalism and time — although not quite a victim in the sense you’d think. My grandfather told me that what I’d heard about his father was true: When people back then retired, they could afford to do all kinds of shit. Travel. Maybe go back to school and learn new things. This bathtub’s generation wasn’t victimized by capitalism and time by having too little of either. Rather, he was victimized by having too much of both.

People like him are also victims of themselves. They grow old and die because they refuse to stay young and think.

Casinos, cruise lines, hotels, manufacturers of all kinds of assistant devices, pharmaceutical companies, and resorts market to these people hand over fist. Why? Because the good times of three quarters of a century ago meant that they actually retired with lots of money and pensions they could live on and they probably owned real estate that they bought for a few thousand dollars that is now worth a few million. I don’t deal with those industries, although I’d guess that they probably call their versions of their personas Thurston and Lovey — either that or Rich Uncle Pennybags.

But those people must have been a total fantasy, right? I’ve heard rumors that they existed, but I think they all finally died out around the turn of the century. The ones that survive now, the bathtubs, are their kids more likely. And it’s really sad to see how being forgotten by society grinds them down to… stubs, really. Or… no, there’s probably a better word (note to self: pitch this idea tomorrow, although we’ll never market to it) Yo-yos. An alleged toy from their youth that describes what they do — they keep coming back to what they know.

Which is why I watch this old man pause for at least twenty seconds between every step of this fucking transaction, and it makes me want to throw things at him.

Clerk: “That will $55.23.”

(Take your time to view a streamer on your dev here.)

Yo-Yo: “Fifty… fif… uh?”

(Loop that vid about four times, we’ll get back to you.)

Clerk: (heroically) “Yes. Yes. How do you want to pay?”

Yo-Yo: “Oh… kay…”

And then begins the epic drawing of the sword. No, sorry… the wallet. The ancient wallet full of actual money that is laboriously pulled Excalibur-like from one of the pockets of the ill-fitting and ridiculously colored shorts that this Yo-yo wears over black socks and sandals. Yes, it’s on a chain. Yes, it has too many snaps and zippers, and yes, it’s as much a mystery to him today as it was the day that his granddaughter gave it to him ten years ago because she had no other ideas and found it when she stopped to get FroYo in a strip mall on the way to his 75th birthday party.

This is about the point where I resist the urge to ask him how he even got here or if he knows what year it is. Hell, what century? And if you think that’s being snarky, sorry. But by the time I’m that old, I’m pretty sure we’ll have cured it, and migrated off of the planet anyway.

Or we’ll all be dead. Did I mention that, a week ago, it snowed here? And today it was 110. Four in the fucking morning and it’s still 85 degrees out. In April. A week after it snowed.

Between the time that “Karen” has come and gone and Yo-Yo is halfway to counting out two dollars, some kid who’s probably about fifteen hits the other counter. He’s riding a one-wheel, busily dictating a text into the headphone/mic dangling from his left ear, and has about fifteen items in his basket. Damn if he doesn’t get them all out to be scanned in something like ten seconds, is swiping the pring on his left hand over the paypoint even before the checker announces the total and has bagged everything before she smiles and says, “Have an okay day!”

He was in and done in less than half a minute. God, I love this generation, whatever they decide to call it, although one commentator, I forget who, suggested Generation Yuzz, because that was the first letter “Beyond Z” in the Dr. Seuss book of the same name. I suppose it would also work as Generation Yass, because these kids get shit done fast.

Oh yeah — kids his age fall under a persona we call “Jacobella,” named for the two most common baby names of the decade they were born in, and nicely also delineating the idea that they really don’t believe in any kind of binary designation, whether it comes to gender, race, sex, sexual orientation, political belief, religion, or… anything. They are definitely not generation “Either/Or.” They are generation “Yes, and more.” And they are the first generation which we have not broken down by gender or sexual orientation because, honestly, that would be impossible and pointless.

They’re a tricksey bunch for marketers because they’d rather spend their money on experiences, preferably ones they can share with their friends, or spend it on loved ones or give it away to charity. Of course, the oldest of them are only just about to graduate high school, so they’re living at home, and the youngest of them haven’t been born yet, but they’ve been monetizing their lives since at least fourth grade and will probably either live at home until well into their 30s or move into group homes with at least twenty people sharing an open loft or warehouse space in the seedier parts of the edges of the centers of town, like DTLA.

In other words, in five years, about six blocks south of here, between Pico and the 10 and Hope and Lebanon, is going to be full of Yuzzes, but that will only last for about five years before the Millennials smell money and gentrify the hell out of that place, too.

But I do digress… The end result of a Jacobella following up the “Karen” and beating out the Yo‑Yo is two customers down, eleven to go, and I could continue to tick off the marketing personas all night long, except I won’t, because when we got to ten to go (another Yuzz, only buying one thing, in and out, five seconds), something I should have predicted happened.

Remember the guy in front of me? The one buying bulk TP and nothing else at that hour? The one with the wild eyes and desperate look? I pegged it — a junky who’d suddenly been knocked out of the saddle, and was soon going to face one really, really major need.

See, when you’re on any variation of the opiates that don’t kill you, a very interesting thing happens. Your intestines nope out, your asshole shuts up for the week, and everything in your digestive system turns into cement. Boom. Locked. Your anus treats your shit like it’s the gold in Fort Knox.

All well and good, until somebody lets the Night Watch go, at which point it doesn’t take long before the dragon melts the walls, the castle gates open up and the troops all flee. (Sorry about the old streamy metaphors, but I had a nostalgic rewatch of that classic HBO tits and dragons series a couple of weeks ago. )

The tub of ice cream in my hand has just barely started to soften, but I can tell by El Vaquero’s expression that his stool has gotten a lot softer, and he’s not going to make it through the gauntlet of remaining personas, which include such gems as All the Things, Chatty, Coupons, another Karen, Price Check, Sloth, and “What?”

When he’s about eighth in line, I hear the quiet but unmistakable, “¡Chingadas!” so I calmly step back…

If you’d like more from the rest of the book, let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading.

Photo Credit: City Hall, DTLA, taken by the author, © 2017 Jon Bastian

Neither Face nor Feelings

A while back, the website BigThink had an ultra-short science fiction story contest. This was my entry, which took first place — your Thursday night bonus.

No carnefab Manager liked hearing from an NFA Inspector, but especially not when the message said, “Fieldspec high neuro count. Site audit 213245-1330. Pres Req.” Paul Ingersoll read the message and checked the time. 213245-1312.

“Shit,” he muttered. He barely made it to the factory floor before the Inspector arrived and gave Paul the lot number from the batch in question.

“Restaurant stock, Mendocino,” he explained. “Chef reported a twitcher.”

Paul checked the number, heart sinking — one of their “perfect” batches with ideal genetics. Every vat in this factory was churning out a thousand kilo slab that had been born from those cells. Now the government said every batch from that lot might be useless. No. Not might. Was — if the Inspector’s results confirmed the chef’s report.

The Inspector was already at the nearest vat, a large, open-topped box full of pinkish liquid. Inside sat a rectangular red slab, riddled with veins and marbled with fat. This slab was only at five hundred kilos, so had a few weeks to go, and had never given any indication that it was anything but an entirely senseless block of artificially grown meat, built from cells that divided without consciousness. That was the point — to produce meat with neither face nor feelings. It had worked for nearly a century, except for the two times that it hadn’t, both long before Paul had been born.

The Inspector pulled out a wand and touched it to the slab. There was a blue flash and snap and the slab twitched along its entire length. “Okay,” Paul thought, “Not world end without genetics,” although he knew he was lying to himself.

The Inspector tapped his forearm repeatedly, sending notes to a government computer. Then, emotionless, he pulled out a biop kit, dipped a finger on each hand into a vial of blue goo that grew sterile gloves up to his wrists, sprayed anesthetic on the slab and proceeded to gingerly poke it with a rod that plucked out a small cylinder five millimeters wide and deep. He stuck the rod into a hole in the biop kit case, then sprayed the wound with healer. By the time he peeled off the gloves, the results came back, Paul feeling ill as he waited for the hammer to fall.

“Neuro count exceeds Fed Regs by one hundred sixty parts per million,” he finally said. “Recall ordered for every batch from this lot. You retire the rest. We confiscate the original germ lot. Sig off inspection and results, please.”

The Inspector held out a flat pad and Paul touched his palm to it. What else could he do? They had been producing bad meat and nobody noticed. It probably wasn’t in the original germ lot, but mutations were always possible, and so were deviations with stem cells that decided to grow into

something besides meat, fat, veins and red blood cells that were kept oxygenated by the vats. Still, stem cell deviations generally led to things like hair or teeth, sometimes a hoof. They rarely led to the development of brain cells — so rarely that this was only the third time it had happened, and Paul Ingersoll was the poor unlucky son of a bitch in charge of the factory where it happened. Had been in charge. All the recalled meat that wasn’t already dead would be euthanized. The meat in this factory would be retired, the employees held on retainer until a clean germ line was brought in. Paul, however, would be transferred. Not retired, and not laid off. He would carry the responsibility for this problem for the rest of his career, which was a long time, since he was only twenty-seven.

* * *

The warehouse known as “The Old Cows Home” covered thirty square kilometers in the California desert. Inside were endless rows of swimming pool-sized vats where retired meat went to live because nobody was sure whether it was aware or not and nobody wanted to take the chance that it was. Perhaps the bad meat that had already been sold was lucky. Even if it did develop consciousness, four minutes out of the vat without oxygen would have killed it or severely damaged any sort of brain, so it was easy to think of as dead, and no one would feel guilty if tasked to destroy it.

The retired meat was not so lucky, and neither were the people who had to deal with it. It had to be treated like a living thing, brought from the vats to the warehouse on life support, then re- installed in the larger vats, to be left for… nobody knew how long. The lots already here had arrived thirty-eight and sixty-two years previously, and were still going strong and growing. Each vat started with one slab, the size of an adult cow. The oldest slabs had filled half their 2,500 cubic meter vats, and it was time to worry about what to do when they started to outgrow those. Thanks to the Compassionate Food Act of 2034, amended 2070, killing the slabs would be murder; letting them die, negligent homicide. Paul’s job now was as one of the nurses to all this meat that would have been food had it not developed nerves and at least some rudimentary feelings. Maybe.

Everything was predicated on “Maybe.” Maybe this meat felt pain. Maybe not. No one knew because the world of 2132 was black and white, either/or, and the only way to answer the question was to commit a prohibited act. As long as there was any chance that these inanimate slabs of protein might experience an unpleasant sensation, the question was considered answered, and the answer was, “They are our responsibility for as long as they live.”

If they ever became sentient, and vengeful, Paul hoped that they would understand — they had been created out of the desire to feed the planet humanely.

* * *

You can read this story where it was originally published at BigThink.