The Saturday Morning Post #55: The Rêves Part 33

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece 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.

Farewell, for now

It was a warm and sunny day, but with an uncharacteristic cool breeze that kept them all from overheating in their formal wear — Joshua had put on his favorite ghost-hunting outfit to match Simon’s funeral garb.

“That’s the Hadas,” Preston had whispered to him when they got out of the car and walked toward the funeral home for the viewing and service.

“What?” Joshua asked. Honestly, he was barely holding it together.

“The breeze,” Preston explained. “Otherwise, I’m sure it would be five hundred degrees out.”

“Wait. You can feel the breeze?” Joshua asked incredulous.

“And I can see it. That’s how I know it’s the Hadas.”

The room the service took place in was called a chapel, but this was the non-denominational one they had selected. The man who had set up the arrangements originally had referred to it as their “Secular Sanctuary.”

There were no religious symbols of any kind in it. Nor were the seats arranged in any manner resembling a traditional church. Instead of heavy wood pews and an altar and bema, it was more like a theater, with red velvet seats arranged in tiers in an arc around a semi-circular thrust stage.

As they entered, Preston announced, “We’re still here if you need us,” and then he and Danny respectfully faded from view.

Simon’s favorite songs were playing quietly in the background on a loop. Brent and Drew were already there when Joshua and company arrived, both dressed dapperly in matching and very formal morning wear. They greeted Joshua and gave their condolences.

Joshua thanked them, then excused himself and went to the coffin, which was open. He stood for a long time, just looking at Simon’s face, still not believing that he was gone — for the moment or for good — all the grief hitting him again.

“I’m going to get that motherfucker, honey,” he whispered before kissing Simon on the forehead, and he could have sworn he heard Simon very clearly say, “I know.”

Joshua wheeled around to see that Simon wasn’t there, but Brenda and her family had just entered the place. She saw him and nodded, then brought them over for the introductions.

“This is Joshua,” she explained. “A friend of mine I met on the job. Joshua, my mother Esme, daughter Malia, my son, Samuel, and my husband, Jonah.”

Esme took both of his hands and looked him in the eyes. “I am so, so sorry for your loss, dear. I can’t even begin to express it. Be safe, be well, be in his love.”

“Thank you,” Joshua said.

The kids greeted him with shy and awkward “Hellos,” and then Jonah shook his hand. “I am so sorry about your loss, brother” he said. “When it’s someone you love enough to share your life with… I can’t even imagine. I mean, I’d be devastated if I lost Brenda.”

“Thank you,” Joshua said, trying not to cry again. He distracted himself by doing the intros with Brett and Drew, and then said, “Looks like we’re all here. Well, almost.”

“This is it?” Brenda asked.

“By choice,” Joshua replied. “We didn’t want too big of a deal now, but maybe we’ll have a huge memorial later on.”

A side door opened and Olam escorted in Charity Walters. She would be officiating the services, such as they were, and was ordained in the Universal Life Church, having incorporated as The Holy Church of Dogs Are God, LLC.

She had officiated at Joshua and Simon’s wedding, but she wasn’t just a random fake holy person that they knew. She was also one of Joshua’s oldest friends, and by extension Simon’s. She was more like a sister to Joshua, and they would have done anything for each other — and had, many times in the past.

She wrapped him in a silent hug and they both cried together for a moment, then she pulled away and whispered, “How you holding up, baby?”

“Not great,” Joshua said.

“I know,” she replied. “Shall we…?”

“Please.”

Everyone took their seats as Charity took to the stage. As usual when she officiated, her attire was amazing, and really complimented Joshua’s and Simon’s, in a way. She was wearing a three-piece women’s business suit in a very 1940s cut with a long skirt, in a black and white houndstooth pattern — which was actually a very subtle nod to branding.

She wore white gloves and red square-heeled boots, and the suitcoat and skirt were piped in black, while the vest had white mock-ivory buttons. Her blouse beneath it matched her shoes precisely. Around but under the collar, she wore a white Geneva band, its two tails being somewhat reminiscent of British priests and barristers.

Her hat was a small black cloche with a half-veil in black lace, weighted at the bottom corners with white pearls that held it in place. Her lipstick matched her shoes and blouse.

Finally, she had a long, thin scarf draped over her shoulders to come down the front rather like a Catholic priest’s stole. For this occasion, she had chosen a rainbow pattern that repeated on each side.

The image was powerful, as it always was when she officiated, and she looked like some Golden Age of Hollywood era starlet reincarnated and put in exactly the right setting.

“Greetings, people — of all ages, races, beliefs, genders, orientations, origins, and classes, we have come together today to pay tribute to the loss of an amazing person, Simon Johan Aisling, who was taken from us far too soon.”

Brent put his hand on Joshua’s arm and gave him a look. Joshua just glanced over and nodded a thanks.

“Now, I’m not just officiating here today. It’s been my pleasure to have known Joshua and Simon for — how long has it been now? I want to say since just after college, which was — ” she mumbled — “years ago. And in all that time, I can’t say that I have met a more compassionate, passionate, caring, involved, giving, amazing person than Simon. He was a truly gentle soul but, at the same time, an intellectual and emotional giant.”

She went on with a series of stories and anecdotes over the years, some of which Joshua knew, and some of which he didn’t, and all of it sent the emotions racing through his mind — both joy at the love of a wonderful person he had known, and sheer despair at the loss.

She finally finished up with one that brought out all of the emotions in Joshua. “I still remember to this day the night that Joshua came to me to ask my advice. He and Simon had known each other for years at that point. Probably half their lives by then, since they’d met at thirteen.

“They’d been the best of friends since forever, but he called, I invited him over for dinner, and he was really confused because he realized that he’d fallen in love with Simon, but this was different. They’d dated other people before, and had come out to each other in college, but their relationship had always been platonic.

“‘But it suddenly hit me, Charity,’ he said, and I could see the look of confusion in his eyes. ‘He’s not just my best friend,’ he told me. ‘He is The One.’ So what do I do?

“Now, I’ve never told you this before, Josh, but… what I wanted to say right then and there was, ‘You ask him out, dummy!’ But I didn’t. My minor in social work kicked in, so I talked you through an hour of questions that got you around to your eureka moment of telling me, ‘I have to ask him out.’ Which is how therapy works, by the way.

“So you did, and he said yes, and the rest is history, and if I remember correctly, it wasn’t all that long after that the two of you started a very successful tech biz, and it was because your talents and interests meshed perfectly.

“They say that opposites attract, but that’s not really true. What attracts are people with similar interests, values, and traits. But what holds them together is the meshing of complementary skills and tastes, which was absolutely the case here.

“I’m not going to call anything out, but I know that one of you was great at coding, the other wasn’t. One of you was into marketing and the other wasn’t. One of you loved to do accounting and the other hated it. You were both smart enough to hire business consultants, and so there you went. Hand in hand together.

“And long before most of your friends and family knew you were actually a couple, I was lucky enough to officiate one of the most beautiful and moving weddings I’ve ever done. I am so, so sorry that I have to officiate this ceremony today. I wasn’t expecting to do this for another fifty or sixty years, if at all.

“But I wouldn’t have it any other way, because the joy that Simon brought into so many lives needs to be celebrated.”

She stepped aside and video came up on the big screen on the back wall — a series of video clips and photos of Simon’s life, with and without Joshua, most of them from Social media.

There were things here that Joshua didn’t even know existed, like “shot by potato” quality clips from low-res video cams and early flip phones from their college days just after the turn of the century, to photos from the years just before they had met in the late 90s, some of them even clearly taken on film cameras.

The montage ended with some of the high-res stuff they had done between five and ten years ago for their company social media, mostly excited announcements of new product launches in which the two of them engaged in playfully mocking banter and the chemistry between them couldn’t have been more obvious if they’d been wearing lab coats.

It ended with Simon’s name above the dates, 1985 — 2023, and then faded out.

After a bit of silence, Charity returned to the stage. “I’m not the only member of Simon and Joshua’s ‘Family by Choice’ here today, and I’d now like to introduce two men that Joshua and Simon both considered adopted uncles — ”

“Aunties!” Drew called out.

“That, too!” Charity laughed. “Anyway, two older men who were always mentors. Now, for a few words from Brent Rouseau and Drew Weisheit.

Brent and drew stepped from their seats, Brent helping Drew up, then went up on the stage, taking a bit of time as Drew moved haltingly, and finally taking their places. Olam rolled a lectern out and put on the brakes while they moved, so that Drew had something to lean on.

“I could tell you where and when I met Joshua,” Brent started, “But it’s kind of naughty, so I won’t.”

“It wasn’t naughty at all,” Drew cut in. “It was just a party.”

“Yes, but — ”

“All right, a bit decadent, but he was a good boy the whole time.”

“Okay, true. But what I will say is that I quickly realized that he and his boyfriend were a lot more special than I’d thought at first, and Drew and I pretty soon brought them into our inner circle.”

“Both of them really were into old movies and music, and that’s my field, so we really hit it off, and they could listen to me talk about them for hours — ”

“Or you just talked their ears off, dear.” Brent replied.

“It was to distract you from feeding them to death,” Drew said. “If you’d had your way, they’d both be over three hundred pounds by now.”

“I’m southern, dear. Food is love.”

“Food is overrated!” Brent scoffed.

Joshua just stared, chuckling to himself, and he could hear Brenda and Jonah trying not to, while their kids, being kids, were honestly giggly at this marital bickering. It was the comedy relief that Joshua really needed.

They ultimately wound up delivering a really nice tribute to Simon before sitting down, Olam removing the lectern during their exit, and it had done Joshua a world of good, because he knew what was coming up next on the program.

“Now, of course, we couldn’t finish this ceremony without a few words from Simon’s widower and loving husband, Joshua Hunter.”

Joshua stood and went to the stage, Charity taking both of his hands in hers and telling him quietly, “You got this, honey,” before he turned back to the crowd.

“Ha,” he thought. “Crowd.” There were seven people looking at him directly from the audience, two off to the side, and two more hanging out invisibly. He didn’t have any notes or anything really prepared. He took a moment to look at Simon in the coffin, and then just winged it.

“You know, I never suspected in a million years that I’d be here, giving this speech, on this day, so soon. I’m only thirty-eight, and he wouldn’t have been for another three months. No, we were supposed to both live as long as our uncle Drew there — who’s 97, by the way.

“Think about that one. He was born almost sixty years before Simon or I, and he’s still here. Meanwhile…”

He let it hang for a moment, trying to not get too emotional, before he reeled it in and found an anchor. “Meanwhile… 1998. That was only 25 years ago, but it was also in another century and another era. It was a Monday in December, and I remember the date exactly, actually.

“December 14, 1998. It was right before our middle school was going to go on winter break, it was lunchtime, and a bunch of us who had seen Star Trek: Insurrection during its opening weekend were discussing it. And I was quickly realizing that, while my nerdy friends and I had all been huge fans of TNG — um, The Next Generation, that’s the Patrick Stewart series that followed up the William Shatner one decades later — anyway, they are just gushing all over the movie, while I was not all that impressed.

“And I tried to express my disdain and explain why and kept getting shot down until, at one point, this kid I’d never met before who’d been eating lunch at a nearby bench suddenly came over and went, ‘Hey. I didn’t like it either for the same reasons, and I am the biggest TNG fanboy on the planet!’

“I kind of didn’t know I was gay at that point. I mean, I was thirteen, and puberty was in the first year or two of rearing its ugly head, although I preferred hanging out with the guys. And then here comes this one who is, honestly, really good-looking, even then, and he validates me.

“Oh — on the good-looking thing at thirteen, I know that sounds creepy, but when you’re in your own demographic it makes sense. It’s only creepy if they stay good looking while you get older, nod to the major creep moment in Dazed and Confused, with Matthew McConaughey’s ‘I get older, they stay the same age’ quote.

“No, thanks. But what happened in that moment was that Simon and I became friends real fast, spent every recess and lunch after that together, realized we didn’t have any classes in common, then swapped numbers and stayed in touch over the break, and beyond.

“So I suddenly had a school bestie, and that lasted on up into high school, and we even chose the same college — UCLA — and worked it so that we wound up as roommates, and then on the last night of high school, after graduation at one of the many parties — and after we’d locked in on the UCLA thing, he came to me and said, ‘Hey. Let’s take a walk.’”

“So we did. And we were at some house up on Mullholland near the Universal Studios side, so we wandered out onto a dark bluff above the city lights, mostly making small talk until we sat and stared off at the city for a long time, saying nothing.

“Finally, he turned to me and said — and I remember his exact words — ‘Dude, don’t hate me, okay? But I think I’m into dudes and not girls.’

“I just turned and looked at him, and I think my jaw hit my knees, and I said nothing for a while, but I could hear him muttering, ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry. Really, I’m… sorry.’ Then I finally mustered up the courage to reply. ‘Dude, number one. Shut up. Number two — me, too.’

“And it was his turn to fall silent until he replied with a very timid and weak, ‘Really?’

“’Yeah, man. Really.’ And so we hugged, and kept our secret, and went off to college for four years and had a wonderful time, and even wound up coming out in college to everyone and joining a group called Ten Percent, but never once did we even consider doing anything with each other because… well, honestly, that would have felt like incest and icky. Or something.

“So we graduate college, each of us had had several boyfriends by that time, and several after, and then, one day in July 2009, a couple of years out and after we’d gone to see a movie and then hung out afterwards, it hit me.

“’He is the one.’ And so I called Charity, like she already explained, then I made the date with Simon and we went on it and… our first date was a disaster. Oh, not because of us. Rather, it was because we wound up going to no fewer than three highly-rated restaurants that had actually shut down, mixing up the summer and fall venues of the L.A. Philharmonic, and then getting a flat tire on the way home.

“And none of that shit mattered. We had a great time through it all, and by the end of that evening, both of us knew it, and he actually said it first. ‘Dude… I think you might be the one.

“So that was that,” Joshua said. “Looking back, it really was love at first sight. We were just too immature to realize it. But once we did, then that was it. And it was supposed to last forever, but…”

He looked back at the coffin, then at the audience, and then the tidal wave of emotion hit him. Before he collapsed completely, Charity rushed on and hugged him. Meanwhile, Olam came on and took center stage.

“Thus ends our memorial service. We shall now move to the internment site for our final good-byes.”

Since there were nowhere near enough pallbearers, the casket had been placed on a pair of Boston Dynamics robots (with matte black finishes, of course), which rose to the occasion and proceeded to march down the center aisle and out the doors.

Joshua smiled at this bit. Simon really would have loved it. But the real surprise didn’t come until Joshua and the others stepped outside and into the sunlight.

Preston and Danny were standing on either side of the doors, fully manifest — and Preston had even put clothes on — and when the coffin came out, they took their positions as first and second pallbearers. Even though they could not have supported any of the load it was a beautiful symbolic gesture.

On top of that, there were seemingly hundreds of Rêves, probably all Class I and Class III, lined up along the walk, and as soon as the coffin came down the steps and onto the path, every single one of them knelt and bowed their head.

Joshua was so moved that he almost fell over, but then Pearl and Anabel were at his side to guide him. At least Brenda, Brent and Drew had already seen Rêves, and Brenda’s husband and kids had seen them on TV.

Olam, not so much, and he just stood in the doorway in shock.

At the gravesite, Charity took her place at the head as the coffin was placed onto the green canvas straps that would lower it home.

“I know that the ashes to ashes thing is popular at times like this,” she said, “But I prefer Carl Sagan’s description. ‘We are all born of star-stuff.’ In fact, we are nothing but what was created by the deaths of countless supernovae — motes of dust. So, in the words of another tradition, ‘So mote it be.’ Rest in power, Simon.”

She bowed her head and the robots each placed a foot on the cranks at the top right and bottom left corners of the grave and spun, lowering the closed casket into its final place.

As everyone turned away, Brent announced, “For anyone who would like to attend, we’re having a reception and luncheon afterwards at our place. Ask me for the address.”

Everyone, except Olam, of course, got the address, and so they were on their way, although Joshua hung back for a bit with Danny and Preston.

“So… that’s that,” he said.

“Yep,” they both agreed.

“Only one problem left, then,” he said. “I need to find Peter Lorre for Ausmann, and I have no idea.”

“Are you kidding?” Preston asked.

“What?” Joshua replied.

“If you want to summon a Rêve, you only have to go to their grave and bring a Rêve with you.”

“Are you shitting me?” Joshua demanded.

“No. What? No one ever told you?”

“Um… no?” Joshua exclaimed. “But, wait. I know where Simon’s grave is, so can’t I just — “

“Not yet,” Preston insisted.

“Why not?”

“They only just pulled him out of the freezer and put him in there, okay? It’s going to take a little bit of time.”

“Okay, okay, I forgot,” Joshua said. “So — do either of you know where Peter Lorre is?”

“You can probably look it up on the intrawebs,” Daniel suggested.

“Oh, right,” he said, quickly finding the location. “There he is, let’s go,” he told them.

“Don’t you have a luncheon to go to?” Preston demanded.

“I do,” Joshua replied. “But Mr. Lorre is going to be a guest of honor.”

“Why’s that?” Danny asked.

“I have my reasons. Now just lead the way!”

“Okay, daddy,” Preston replied, and they guided him as he drove to Lorre’s gravesite in Hollywood after a bit of a schlep.

“Now what?” Joshua asked.

Preston laughed and dropped into the ground. A few seconds later, he returned with the Rêve Peter Lorre, who was in full-on bug-eyed Casablanca mode.

“Who is it? Who disturbs my rest? Reek, Reek, help me — ”

Before he could finish that sentence, Joshua had deployed the trap strapped to his wrist and sucked Lorre in, slamming it shut. Danny and Preston both looked at him, alarmed.

“Dude!” they exclaimed.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “But if you want to defeat Ausmann this is absolutely necessary. Trust me. Now come back to the car, and let’s get this party started.”

By the time Joshua made it up to Brent and Drew’s, everyone was well into the meal. Just before they entered, Joshua told Preston and Danny, “Stay visible. I want you to meet them.”

“Are you sure?” Danny asked.

“Yes,” Joshua said. “There wouldn’t be two of you without them.”

They looked confused but manifested, Joshua warning Preston before they entered. “Clothes, please. There are kids present.”

“Sorry!” Preston sighed, materializing his funeral suit.

“There he is!” Brent called out. “Naughty boy. Late to your own funeral party.”

“Sorry! I had business to attend to at the cemetery. Plus two friends to pick up. Preston and Danny, this is Brent.”

“Enchanté!” Brent announced, moving to kiss each of their wrists before realizing. “Oh… you’re… I see.”

By this point, the four of them had entered the main living room, and when they walked in, Drew spotted Danny and Preston and gasped.

“My god!” he said, way too loudly. “You actually found that porn star, and now there are two of him?”

“Ixnay, Ewdray. Erethay areway ildrenchay, okayway?” Brent said out of the side of his mouth.

“We do need to talk about the twin thing,” Joshua said, “But later, okay?”

Drew made his way over to them and looked intently at Preston and then Danny. “My god, I can’t even tell which is which.”

“That’s because I made the naughty one not wear his work uniform,” Joshua whispered. “But… I am really hungry and want some of your husband’s amazing cooking. If you want, you can show the boys your library?”

“Good idea,” Drew said. “Boys?”

“Daddy…” Preston leered at him as Danny slapped his ass in protest. They followed Drew off and up the stairs to his inner sanctum.

At least Joshua knew that it was impossible to molest a Rêve.

He spotted Charity, who was chatting away with Brenda, and joined them.

“Hi!”

“Hello,” Charity said. “So Brenda was just explaining to me what all of those… spirits were we saw there. You never told me that you and Simon were involved in hunting them down.”

“We thought it was research,” Joshua said. “We were lied to. So now, we’re involved in stopping the guy who wants to destroy them. Well, we were, now it’s just me… but I’m going to do it.”

“And you really don’t want that job I offered you?” Brenda asked.

“It sounded to me like that job was just what Ausmann had us doing, but on steroids.”

“The terms are probably subject to change if you give them new information.”

“Too late for that, really,” Joshua said. “I think I’m pretty close to what they call in chess and the MCU the endgame.”

“Are you sure?” Brenda asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Joshua said. “A pawn is about to be promoted, and then two queens are going to take out the opposing king. Checkmate.”

“You sound so confident.”

“I am confident.” he replied. “So… let’s just celebrate Simon now, and our victory over Ausmann later. Which won’t be all that much later.”

Brenda gave Joshua a skeptical look, but Charity turned to her and said, “I know him. He only gets like this when he’s about 125% sure of himself. Otherwise, he’s a ball of doubt. Trust him.”

“And… thank… you?” Joshua said to her.

“You know it’s true, silly,” Charity replied, and he did. She could read him like a fucking book. She’d always been able to.

The three of them intentionally turned the conversation away from anything to do with the Rêves and Ausmann and went to hang out with Esme, Jonah, and the kids, who had already taken a trip to Brent’s fabulous dessert bar.

Brenda gave the adults a jaundiced eye when she saw the ice cream monstrosities that Malia and Samuel had doled out way too generously in their bowls, but Esme just rebuked her quietly.

“Stressful event, let them,” she said. “You know you want to, too. No… you know you need to. Go. Gorge. No guilt. No guilt at funerals.”

Brenda turned to Charity and Joshua, who both said almost the same words, to the effect of, “Always listen to your mother,” and very soon they were loading bowls with way too much ice cream in the most decadent flavors, topping them with chocolate sauce, hot fudge, butterscotch, and every kind of sprinkly thing imaginable.

By the time all of them had finished, they’d collapsed onto the various sofas in food comas, the only sound coming from the water running in the kitchen and Brent happily humming to himself as he did the dishes.

“Yeah, I needed that,” Joshua muttered eventually, and Charity agreed.

“Amen,” she said.

“Probably best we be making our move now,” Jonah announced. “The kids are going to be crashing, and we should leave the real family alone for the evening.”

“True,” Brenda said, and she and her husband and mother pulled themselves to their feet. Jonah picked up Samuel and Brenda did likewise with Malia.

“Thank you for the invite,” she told Joshua. “You’ll have to come on down for dinner and game night soon. Both of you.”

“I’d love that,” he said.

“We’re all about game night,” Charity added.

And so the Family Mason made their way out, and then Joshua and Charity were rebuked when they asked Brent if they could help in the kitchen. The two of them wandered back to the living room.

“So, I should be going — ”

“No,” Joshua insisted.

“But I should,” she said, “Because you still have one bit of business left to do, and it probably doesn’t concern me.”

“What? How…”

“You sent your little ghost boys off with the older husband a while ago, and you’re very sure that you’re close to defeating this… what was his name?”

“The less you know the better.”

“See?” Charity said. “I can read you like a book, Joshie. And right now, that book is saying, ‘Strap in for the climax.’”

He just stared at her for a long beat, then finally broke out in a smile and laugh. “And this is why I fucking love you, Charity Walters.”

“I know,” she said, winking and stroking his inner Star Wars nerd — and yes, one could be both a Star Wars and Star Trek nerd at the same time, Joshua and Simon had been living proof of that.

Goddammit, Joshua thought again. Had been.

But then Charity left, and it was now down to just Joshua, Brent, Drew, and the boys, so Joshua went to the bottom of the stairs and called up. “We’re ready for you all now!” he shouted.

After a few moments, Drew descended the stairs, Danny and Preston flanking and supporting him as best they could, and Preston was back in his porn star costume.

Joshua shot them a look that clearly said, “What did you do?” But Danny and Preston both just winked back at him as if to say, “Whatever.”

Drew certainly seemed happy, then he turned to Joshua and smiled. “The boys told me you had an assignment for me,” he said.

“I did. I do,” Joshua said. “Let’s go outside.”

Out on the deck by the pool, with the Sun sinking in the west, Joshua quickly explained everything. How Ausmann wanted to destroy the Rêves, but in order to do that, he had to steal their secrets. But, in order to steal their secrets, he had to find a Class II Rêve who was only known for playing cowardly characters who would sell out anyone else to save their asses.

“Well, shit,” Brent drawled, “Just go find a dead Senator or two…”

“Amen,” Drew exclaimed.

“No, he came up with someone very specific. Peter Lorre,” Joshua explained.

“Who was far from cowardly, goddammit,” Drew exclaimed. “That is absolute slander!”

“I know, I know,” Joshua said. “Which is the whole point of this exercise.” He pulled the trap from his pocket and showed it to them. “Do you remember what happened with Ramon Novarro?” he asked.

“He didn’t seem too happy when he left here,” Drew replied.

“Well, that changed,” Joshua said. “And look at my guys here. Danny and Preston. You gave us the info, Simon and I accidentally made them, and now…? They are the best of friends.”

“Okay, so… what? You want me to split Lorre because I knew him? Is this just some sick experiment?”

“Not at all!” Joshua countered. “No. This is our secret weapon against a genocidal maniac who wants to destroy not only you, but the recently deceased love of my life.”

“Okay,” Drew muttered, still seeming confused. “But how can a B-List foreign star who generally only played creeps and villains convince anybody of anything?”

“What did I just tell you? Remind him of who he was. That’s the Lorre we need. That’s our secret weapon. Understand?”

“What if he doesn’t — ”

“How well did you really know him?” Joshua asked.

“A lot,” Drew finally answered.

“Great,” Joshua replied. “Then you are our secret weapon.”

He raised the trap in his left hand, thumb moving into position to open it.

“What if I can’t split him?” Drew asked.

“Oh, you will,” Joshua says. “I’m sure of it. Ready?”

“Fuck no!”

Danny and Preston flanked Drew. “Don’t worry, dude,” whispering in his ears. “We’re here.”

“So, ready?” Joshua asked, but Drew didn’t reply Neither did Joshua. But then he opened the trap and Peter Lorre drifted out. For a brief moment, he flashed through his more iconic roles before suddenly sticking in place, looking very young and curly haired as he did in The Maltese Falcon.

“Joel Cairo,” Drew said, in awe. I loved that movie. I was about fifteen when it came out, and I saw it a dozen times. Memorized all the dialogue — ”

“You always have a very smooth explanation ready,” Lorre as Cairo said.

“Like that line!” Drew perked up. “What was next…? Oh, right. ‘What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?’”

Lorre looked at him oddly. “You look different, Sam.”

“That’s because I’m not Sam, Joel,” Drew said. “And you’re not Joel. Pete.”

Lorre stared and started to morph through his various characters, finally stopping in what were clearly casual civilian clothes of Hollywood in the early 60s. “Andy?” he said quietly.

“Long time, no see, huh?” Drew told him. “Oh, remember all those times you told me stories about working with Bogart and Greenstreet, and you had me laughing my ass off?”

“I don’t know the lines…” he muttered, a little panicky before swapping back to Ugarte from Casablanca. “Rick?” he pleaded with the familiar drawn-out pronunciation: “Reeek!

“You were always good at learning lines, Pete. Oh — you used to quote your films when we all hung out together, too. Except that you’d exaggerate and make fun of your performances — ”

“I have the transit papers, Rick,” he offered, hands shaking. “Please don’t — ”

“I remember you very well, Pete. Well, that’s what you insisted I call you, but you’ll always be Mr. Lorre to me. A real Hollywood icon, sure, but also a real friend.

“You despise me, don’t you?” Lorre as Ugarte demanded.

“Not at all,” Drew said. “I loved you as a friend — ”

“Follow the damn script!” Ugarte practically screamed before shrinking into apologetic human Chihuahua mode. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Sometimes I say things — ”

“That other people wrote for you, Pete.”

“You are a very cynical person, Rick, if you’ll forgive me for saying so.”

“I told you. I am not Rick. I am Drew. You knew me as Andy. I knew you as Peter Lorre, but your birth name was László Löwenstein, and you were born in Hungary.”

“Rick. Rick! Hide me — ”

Before he could continue, Lorre’s eyes rolled, he morphed rapid-fire through a bunch of characters, and then collapsed in a puff of black smoke onto the patio.

Joshua grinned at Drew and gave him thumbs-up. As they’d seen before, gray smoke moved away as the first cloud coalesced into character Lorre. The second one approached Drew and took on the form of real Lorre.

“Andy!” he smiled, his accent not quite as strong as on film, though still present. “How are you?”

“I’m doing great, Pete. And you?”

“Couldn’t be better.”

He suddenly vanished in a wisp of smoke into the trap Joshua had redeployed, now closing it and pocketing it.

“Why did you do that?” Drew demanded.

“Couldn’t have him noticing his double and getting away,” Joshua said. “He’s the key to the plan.”

“What about the other one?”

“He can go back to Hollywood and hang out with the tourists if he wants.” Joshua turned to look, and character Lorre didn’t hesitate to take the advice, shooting off into the night sky.

Joshua looked at Danny and Preston, and all of them grinned. He indicated the trap in his pocket. “I think I’ve now got the key to destroying Ausmann.”

“Brilliant!” Preston exclaimed, Danny nodding in agreement. They said their good-byes and left, passing a very nonplussed looking Brent in the back slider. He watched them go, then turned to Drew.

“Honey, in the contest between whether this year or 2020 is weirder, I think we’re quickly catching up.”

* * *

image source: Melissa, Peter Lorre — Hollywood Walk of Fame, licensed under (CC) BY-ND 4.0

The Saturday Morning Post #52: The Rêves Part 30

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece 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.

A grave undertaking

The next day, Joshua made the arrangements with the cemetery. Well, he activated them at least, because they’d set up the plot, marker, and other extras previously. Neither of them had ever planned to have a big to-do, and they certainly never planned to have it so soon, although they had taken the precaution when they decided to go into the ghost-hunting business, just in case.

“Metro Stations can be dangerous,” Simon had advised Jason, who agreed.

Funeral insurance covered the cost, and Simon’s life insurance payout would give Jason a nice donation to make, via the Ada Lovelace Foundation, to Simon’s favorite charities.

“So at least I won’t be completely useless in death,” Simon had half-joked when he had explained those wishes.

Preston and Danny stuck with Joshua the entire time, and he really appreciated having them there. He jokingly referred to them as “My emotional support Rêves,” wondering whether this meant that he could take them into stores everywhere.

“Only if he learns how to materialize clothes,” Danny joked about Preston.

“I think I should just call you Dr. Manhattan,” Joshua said.

“Dude!” they exclaimed simultaneously, and then said in similar words at the same time that Watchmen was their absolute favorite book, and they even liked the movie if it was… different.

Joshua agreed with them, although they had both also read Doomsday Clock, the graphic novel sequel while he had not.

“You know they made a sequel miniseries based on it?” Joshua told them. “It came out four years ago or so.”

“No shit!” Danny gushed.

“Is it any good?” Simon replied.

“Oh, yeah,” Joshua told them. “Hey — we’ve got nowhere else to go until the funeral, and it’s only about nine hours. Want to binge it?”

“Yes!” they both announced excitedly, so Joshua dropped the black-out shades, fired up the big screen, and they all settled back for a marathon.

It had been as good as Joshua remembered from his first three viewings, and it was nice to watch it with someone who’d never experienced it. Danny and Simon were squeeing left and right like total fanboys, shuddering in giddy excitement at every sudden revelation and big plot turn.

The appearance of the teleported squid in Episode 5 really sent them into ecstasy, because this was one of the biggest — and most criticized — changes in the movie version.

Joshua couldn’t help but notice, too, that time apart, so to speak, had let Danny and Preston differentiate a bit. Not that they had started out as the same people, mentally, but their reactions were not absolutely identical, even if physically they were.

The only difference between them were their haircuts, which made sense because Preston had had access to and the means to afford high-end stylists while Danny hadn’t, but the changes were subtle enough that he really had to look for them.

They had started the marathon around eight in the morning and finished it, with an hour break for lunch and slightly longer for dinner (well, for Joshua) just after 7 p.m., at which point he opened the shutters and went onto the balcony with his phone, leaving Danny and Preston to eagerly discuss what they had just seen.

Nerd pornstar. Who knew?

He called Brett and Drew first to let them know the details of the funeral, then had to talk them out of inviting anyone else along.

“We’ve both always wanted this to be very private,” he said. “So I hope that you’d respect Simon’s wishes.”

They insisted on hosting a huge funeral procession, but Joshua explained that the funeral home was on the cemetery grounds, so it would be one hearse bringing the coffin out to the gravesite before the mourners arrived, and there wasn’t going to be any kind of religious service at all.

“A reception. You need a reception!” Brett insisted.

“Yeah, well… maybe an intimate dinner at someplace with great steaks after,” Joshua said. “But that’s it.”

“Done, and on us!” Brett replied.

“Thanks,” Joshua said. “See you there, then.”

His next call was to Brenda, for the same reason, and after she took down the details and agreed to the invite, he said, “Hey, so tell me about your family.”

She explained that there would be five of them — in addition to Brenda, one husband, two children, and one mother, hers. They had one other daughter, but she was off to school, and hadn’t come home for summer break because she was picking up extra units in summer school.

“Oh… I should explain,” Brenda added. “Our youngest is transgender.”

“Oh, cool,” Joshua replied. “What are their pronouns?”

“She, her, and hers, and thank you for asking,” Brenda said.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Joshua replied.

“A lot of people are not understanding and, sorry to say it, that includes gay people as well.”

“Oh, you don’t have to tell me,” he replied. “I’ve met plenty of transphobic gay men, generally the older ones, who can also be total racists. Just because we’re part of a traditionally oppressed group doesn’t mean we can’t be bigoted assholes, too.”

“Amen to that, brother. So, we’ll see you at the funeral, then. Is there a service before, or is that family only…?”

“No service,” Joshua said. “And our friends were and are our family. We’re probably doing dinner or something after though, and you all are absolutely welcome.”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Brenda said.

“Thanks. See you there.”

Joshua hung up and realized that he’d probably just added another really close friend to his group, and it had all started with a government official harassing him and his husband while they were doing their job. Who knew?

And that had been only… what? A week and a half ago at most?

At the mortuary, the mortician started his work on Simon the afternoon after he arrived. It was always sad to see someone so young die. Fortunately, his cause of death had left him looking relatively intact.

Contrary to popular belief, human beings do not explode like watermelons when dropped from a great height. Most of the damage is internal, and Simon had been no exception. A lot of his bones were broken, and presumably he had suffered major internal organ damage — at least that’s what the attending physician’s report had said.

After the embalming part was done, the mortician, Olam Sharon, took a look to see what he had to work with.

It was going to take a lot of packing of the chest cavity to give it some sort of shape, since the hospital had removed the internal organs in the autopsy and the ribs were too fractured to support anything.

Oh, the organs were all there. They were just sealed in a biohazard bag left in the abdomen, and it wasn’t a mortician’s place to put them back together like an anatomical model. He just left them in there as he filled in the rest of the cavity.

Olam placed an assortment of newspaper, sawdust and florist’s foam in the space, with more florist’s foam on top so he could easily mold the chest into something looking normal. This was made easier by the fact that they hadn’t sewn up the Y-incision that ran from each of the decedent’s armpits to a midline just below his sternum, then all the way down to just above his pubic bone.

Olam preferred to never think of his clients by name for two reasons. One was that it made it much easier for him to think of them as precious objects to be restored for their loved ones. The other was that thinking the name could alert evil spirits to their presence, and should their soul still be hanging around, the evil ones might snatch it instead of letting it be extinguished to leave only their good deeds and life behind.

Okay, he didn’t really believe that last part, but his bubbe Mavet had told him many tales, including why you should never name a child after a living ancestor.

Once he’d filled in the decedent’s chest and abdominal cavities, he folded the skin back in place and then began to sew it shut, from top right all the way down, then from top left likewise, to give double stitching down the abdomen.

He’d learned to sew from his uncle Moishe, who had been a tailor, and at one point his family expected him to go into that business. Olam had wound up taking a different path, though, after his best friend died in a terrible accident just after they both became bar mitzvah.

They’d been playing around the train tracks near where they lived in the West Valley — this was back in the mid-1970s — and given that safety standards were a lot looser back then, the freight trains thundered down the rights-of-way mere feet from the back walls of tract homes, with nary a gate or wall to keep curious kids from wandering onto the dirt sidings next to them.

The only precautions were the flashing lights and guardrails that dropped across some (but not all) at-grade intersections.

Decades later, this line would be converted into the Metro G line, a busway, with huge warning signs saying “Keep Out!” on the sidings at every crossing along with fences blocking pedestrian access.

But Olam and Jakov were free-range children and had been playing near the tracks that summer afternoon, doing their usual shenanigans of putting pennies on the rails. When the penny came flying out flattened, Jakov ran to retrieve it, but misjudged it somehow and got too close to the train. The bottom of a ladder on a boxcar caught a sleeve on his jacket, whipped him around to slam his face into the metal, and then dragged him over a hundred feet before he fell off.

Olam screamed and ran to him, but it was obviously too late, and Jakov’s face was a bloody, unrecognizable mess. Olam ran the two blocks home, his mom called the authorities, and Jakov was buried two days later.

The thing that must struck Olam was that they actually had an open-casket viewing for Jakov (his father was Catholic), and that he looked so… perfect. No sign of the trauma at all. Sure, he had a sort of artificial, overly made-up look, but who knew that such a thing was possible?

So Olam switched from the idea of being a tailor to being a mortician. His parents weren’t happy at first, but once he’d learned that sewing was part of the process, and that it was kind of medicine adjacent, they supported him fully.

He’d been in the business for years, but every time he had a client who had died young and in a terrible accident, he took special care, and this decedent was no different.

Normally, he’d leave the torso a little lumpy, because the inevitable fancy clothes that would be put on them would cover imperfections, but here Olam made sure that everything looked as normal as possible.

He had even used his best, finest but strongest thread that most matched the decedent’s skin-tone so that should anyone happen to look (they wouldn’t) his chest would appear intact. Finally, he put matching foundation over any obvious bruises on the front of the body and blended it.

Next was the face, which he carefully tightened up by pulling back the muscles that had been cut in order to remove the top of the skull and excise the brain. Normally, a mortician would just stuff the mouth and cheeks with couch-packing cotton to keep things from sagging too much, but Olam had an additional trick that he used on decedents he really felt sympathy for, and this was one.

Part of his training involved anatomy, so he brought each facial muscle back to its original bone process to reattach, although he pulled them a little tighter than they normally would have been because they had lost some elasticity in death.

He had several reference photos to work from and only four muscles to put back in place — one on each side, and two in the front, stretching up roughly above either eye.

Obviously, he couldn’t sew muscles to bone and expect them to hold, but that was okay. He had glue. What they used was a generic, but it was similar to and stronger than what civilians knew as Krazy Glue or Super Glue or generically as a cyanoacrylate. It had been used during the Vietnam war to seal up wounds on the battlefield, hence its notorious ability to stick fingers together.

That was exactly what Olam needed, so he misted the skull and muscle with water and while wearing gloves that the glue would not affect, held the muscle with his right hand while slathering the skull with a generous coating of the glue.

When he was done, he pulled the muscle and put it in place, adjusting it and watching the decedent’s face tighten until he was happy with the results, then pressed his palm down and held it while he counted to one hundred.

He repeated the procedure for the other frontal muscle, then gently turned the decedent onto his left side, placed a block behind his shoulder to keep him in place, and did likewise for one side muscle. Lather, rinse, repeat for the other before he was flat on his back again.

While he’d been doing this, he noticed that someone at the County Morgue also knew their trick for putting the skull cap back on after it had been sawn off — denture adhesive — and they had aligned it perfectly.

He was also amazed to see that the decedent had managed to not fracture his skull at all, but that made sense then, because he’d read in the coroner’s report that he’d been brought to the hospital alive after a fifteen-story fall.

“Okay,” Olam thought. “That all looks good,” so he then went to work on making up the face.

Normally, this would just involve slapping on enough base to hide the pallor of death — maybe a little eyeshadow and lipstick if it was a woman, pale lipstick and rouge if it was a man.

Oh, he referred to the “make-up” as that, but you’d never find this kind in a fancy department store or a woman’s boudoir. It was made special for the industry because it had to stick to dead skin. It was more like very waxy paint, and designed to conceal.

Despite his injuries, this decedent didn’t look as bad as a lot of them. Quite often, there were bruises to cover up, or discolorations due to lack of oxygen or gangrene or dozens of other things.

They even had a trick for people who died due to liver conditions and came in incredibly jaundiced — just run a tank of condensed milk through the veins before the embalming fluid, which was Olam’s preferred method. He also knew of morticians who plopped four Alka-Seltzer into the pre-injection chemicals, added a gallon of water, pumped it in without letting it drain and let it sit for fifteen to thirty minutes before flushing it out.

This one didn’t need any of that, but got the full-on beauty treatment. Base first, and then a Hollywood studio-worthy process of blended layers that made him look about as life-like as possible and match him to the pictures his husband had provided.

When Olam was happy with that, he slathered the still exposed skull with a ton of the glue, then pulled the scalp flap up and over, being sure to yank it taut before bringing it back down in place. Fortunately, the decedent’s shaggy hair style would cover the incision, although he of course camouflaged it himself.

When he was done, he stepped back and looked at his work, before giving himself the chef’s “finger-kiss” salute. The finishing touches involved washing and manicuring the hands, which probably made total sense to people.

But the last bit before he dressed the corpse was one that was necessary and, probably, unknown to most civilians. He placed a rigid plastic plug up the decedent’s anus, making sure it was in tight. No need to have sudden anal leakage ruin the festivities, after all.

The last step was to put on the clothes that the husband, Joshua, had brought, and Olam couldn’t help but wonder what kind of interesting people these two were. Well, one was, one is. The outfit is a long brown duster, with a brass gauntlet on the left hand, a ridiculously dark black ruffled silk shirt, tan suede trouser and elaborate oxblood boots, engraved in paisley, with contrasting tan areas.

Olam is thankful that the accident made it easier to get the boots on, because if not, he would have had to shatter the decedent’s ankles. Otherwise, everything has been slit down the back and put in place in rather the same way that one would put a fitted sheet on a mattress.

The final touches were attaching his cellphone to his left hand, and placing a low top hat, in the same tan suede as his trousers but with an oxblood band, in the crook of his right elbow. No crossed arms for this one, and he didn’t have to strap down the hands because the arms weren’t “floating” as they often wanted to do.

When Olam is done, he steps back and gasps. This one has got to be his masterpiece and, although it is ridiculously against the rules, he cannot help himself but take several photos of the results.

At least he’s smart enough to never share them on social media, or with anyone. But he does make a mental note: “Drop by this funeral. It’s got to be spectacular.”

There was a witness to his transgression. However, she could not have cared less. As soon as Simon’s corpse had been delivered, she had felt something, but couldn’t name it.

Ironically, what had finally drawn her in was Olam’s deep concern over this one, even though he’d neither known nor met Simon in life.

But that kind of emotional attachment to a dead person was like firing off a signal flare to the
Rêves, so she had hurried over to the mortuary to keep tabs.

To Olam’s credit, she had no idea who he was working on until he had completed his amazing job on Simon’s face, and the clothes had just cinched it.

“Holy shit,” Anabel muttered under her breath. “He’s going to be on our side now?”

She wasn’t sure what to think or do, but if this one was here and the other one wasn’t, then she just might have acquired the dual generals who would win this war.

Against her better judgement, she summoned Pearl. The Hadas had to know about this one. It was news too big to keep quiet.

* * *

Momentous Monday: Homecoming

May 11th has become a date inextricably linked with all three of my dogs because of events a week ago today.

On May 11, 2001, #2 Dog, Shadow, came home to me for the first time. It was exactly eleven days after I’d said good-bye to #1 Dog, Dazé. Last week, May 11, 2020, #3 Dog, Sheeba, came home for the last time, and her ashes joined her sisters’, completing the shrine to them that I started over 19 years ago.

I finally also got around to printing their memorial pictures in the same style and finding nice standing frames for them, getting them all arranged, but then realizing to my great disappointment the total mismatch of funerary urns, as it were.

Over the years — and I think it has to do with the growing importance of our fur babies (at least when it comes to marketing to them) those ash containers have gotten a lot fancier.

Back in 2001, Dazé got a can wrapped in paper. Note that the paper is blue although she was a girl. I don’t think it’s because they mixed up the dogs. Rather, I think that it was whoever was running things at the time took one look at her goatee, assumed “boy dog,” and picked blue.

It was a common enough mistake in life, and for exactly the same reason. Humans assume “goatee = male,” forgetting that dogs have a lot less sexual dimorphism than humans do. Hint: if the only way to tell the difference is to flip them over and look at their junk, then the dimorphism is very low.

And, of course, humans throw a ton of artificial dimorphism on top of the moderate degree that we already have in all of those secondary characteristics — namely body shape, body hair, vocal range and timbre, and whether taking your shirt off will offend prudes. But I do digress.

Shadow also got a can, this one papered in pink, but it came inside of a nice brocaded box in a pale blue decorated with an abstract gold paisleyesque pattern.

Finally, Sheeba only got a vacuum-sealed bag, but in a lovely locking cedar box with a plaque with her name on it. This one also came with a paw-print — something that I think had been an option with Shadow that I’d turned down — a fancy certificate of cremation, a little wooden heart with her name engraved on it, a paper heart on the whole thing with her name and my last name on the cord on the mesh bag everything came in, a packet of forget-me-not seeds, and a tiny vial with a bit of her hair in it.

Wow. Considering that Shadow and Sheeba went just under five years apart, Sheeba’s send-off was quite a bit fancier.

At first, I was upset that I don’t have exactly the same memorial for each of them, and even while Sheeba was alive had considered getting matching containers for all three of them. But then when looking at the rag-tag collection tonight, something struck me.

They absolutely should not be the same because none of these dogs was at all like the other two, and that is what made them special. And the more I considered the ways they came back to me, the more I realized that each container actually reflected the dog in it much more accurately than the crematory could have ever predicted, and this made me very happy.

After all, I have their collars with the containers as well, and all three of those are very different.

So Dazé came back in a simple, possibly misgendered, metal can. And that suits her perfectly, because when it came to training and dealing with her, she was the simplest dog I’ve ever had. No frills, no drama, didn’t need anything fancy.

Her favorite “toys” were old socks, and her prized possession was a huge sock-toy I made out of my old, worn-out ones. It was about the size of a large ferret, and she loved nothing more than to pick it up and “kill” it over and over, or get me to toss it around the room for her to hunt.

Like the can, Dazé was pretty basic and, in fact (as a friend pointed out when I told them this) you could say that she was the original basic bitch.

She wouldn’t have disagreed.

Shadow got the same can in pink, but inside of a simple box, and to me this represents her also sweet and simple nature, but one which came with a need to be protected by me. She really didn’t like to show her true self outside of the few humans she trusted. And, like with the box, no one not privy to the knowledge could really know or predict what was inside.

When she trusted a human, she did so completely, but even when she did trust a human, any kind of big energy made her very nervous. She would freak out and tremble in the corner if I got into even a minor disagreement with an S.O., then would come skulking back to me when things had settled down as if it had been her fault.

Dazé had never had that reaction, by the way. She’d just give us a look as if to say, “Stupid humans. Work it out. I’m taking a nap.”

Of course, Shadow would also freak out if the vacuum cleaner came out, or somebody whipped the sheet in order to drape it onto the bed, and so on. Inside that trembling, delicate façade, she really was made of the same stuff as Dazé in terms of love to give. She just never had the confidence to know it.

Then again, I think that Dazé may have come from the unwanted litter of a family dog in the first place, so she was a middle class dog. Shadow was found wandering the streets of South Central L.A. in the company of a male Siberian husky, so who knows where she had escaped from. It could have been a family. It could have been a junkyard. It could have been a dog-fighting ring. She was never able to tell me.

Sheeba’s funerary gear is completely different than the other two, but she was completely different as well.

The first big difference, of course, is that her ashes are in a clear bag. They’re also a lot finer than either of the other two — yes, I’ve looked. This is fitting, because Sheeba never pretended to be what she was not. What you saw was what you got, take it or leave it.

But that transparent bag came in a hard wooden exterior with a lock and key. She was tough and aloof on the outside, hard to get inside, and it took her a long time to trust anyone who wasn’t me. Oh, she would tolerate everyone and be friendly, but actual petting privileges were limited to the very few.

The elegance of the box indicates that she was never a kids’ toy. Sheeba, in fact, hated and feared children. I never held that against her because I’m not so fond of them myself.

Finally, the plaque on top with her name on it echoes a game I used to play with her when I got her to give me a high-five (four?). I would hold her paw up and say, “I am Sheeba. Yay!”

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She seemed to enjoy it.

I named her for a queen because she always presented herself as one, and the fact that her final remains came with a much more elaborate presentation is only fitting. The folks at the crematory knew.

So those containers sitting on my altar of dog are absolutely mismatched on the surface — but they absolutely match the heart and soul of each of the dogs within them.

I — and they — wouldn’t have it any other way. And Sheeba finally coming home for the last time on the anniversary of the day that Shadow came home for the first gives a really nice full-circle closure, although that doesn’t mean that the grieving is over.

If anything, this is the start of round two. I still imagine that I see or hear Sheeba here, and I think about Shadow more than I have in a while. I absolutely know that the perfect way to complete the current memorial to my lost dogs is to rescue my next dog, and give her or him a long, good life in honor of the others.

That’s how I wound up with Shadow after I lost Dazé and thought there could never be another. It’s just that I’ve never lost a dog before in such extraordinary times.

Then again, having been through over two weeks without a dog, I realize that, perhaps, one is the only way to survive such extraordinary times.

Image sources © 2020 Jon Bastian. All rights reserved.