Saturday Morning Post 97: Truth or Dare (Part 3)

The third and final part of the next short story from my collection “24 Exposures.”

We continue with another story from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century. Some old, familiar characters pop up in this one. Kevin, Rick, and Pedro game of Truth or Dare has spun even farther off of the rails.

“Truth,” Kevin said.

“New rule,” Pedro went on. “No more truth. Dares only.”…

“You can’t do that,” Kevin said.

“He just did,” Rick cut in. “What’s your dare, Kevie?”

“I’m not playing anymore,” Kevin whined. “You win.”

“I think Kevin here needs to go for a naked walk,” Rick said to Pedro.

“Right,” Pedro said. “Kevin. Clothes off.”

“I’m not playing — “

Before he could finish the sentence, Rick was there, knocking the glass from his hand, grabbing him in an arm lock, the other hand clamped under his chin, holding his face up.

“The game isn’t over until the host says it is, and there’s one more round to go.”

“Guys, come on…”

“Pedro, help me here.” Pedro nodded as Rick moved his hand from Kevin’s chin, grabbed the front of his t-shirt and ripped. He tore it all the way down, let go of Kevin’s arm and yanked it off.

“Hey, okay, enough — “ Kevin protested, but Pedro suddenly grabbed his ankles, lifting his feet off the ground. Rick caught Kevin by the shoulders and they dragged him into the living room, wrestling him to the ground. He put up a good struggle, but he was really no match, finally trying to curl into a ball, holding his boxers on. Rick grabbed a pair of scissors from the kitchen and, in two quick cuts and a yank, the boxers were history.

“There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Rick said. Kevin sat up on the living room floor, face red, legs together, body hunched, trying to hide in the carpet.

“Okay, there, you had your fun,” his voice wavered, truly close to cracking now. “Give me my clothes back, I’m going home.”

“The fun’s just beginning,” Rick said, standing above him, hands on his hips. “What’s the big deal? We’re both still naked. It’s just a game.”

“This isn’t funny.”

“No. You know what’s funny? A guy who manipulates everyone around him, always manages to cause trouble without getting into any himself. Mr. Instigator, aren’t you? What’s your story, Kevin, really? Why do you get off on making problems?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes you do. Or maybe you don’t. But if you don’t, then you’re a lot sadder than I thought you were. Hey, Pedro, what do you think we should do with him?”

“I don’t know. You want to go dump him in Compton?”

“That’s too far. Maybe just Van Nuys.”

“Rick, man, come on. What did I ever do to you?”

That hit a nerve. Rick thought about it, realized the answer was “Plenty.” Never anything openly or obvious, but Kevin had screwed lots of things up. Generally, it involved ruining some macking attempt by Rick at a party. He’d be moving in for the score on some hoochie, really catching her eye, and then Kevin would pop up, make some rude comment and vanish. But that would be enough. Women often judged men by their friends, rightly or wrongly, and their interest would wane.

And there were all those times that Rick would have succeeded at a party, stepped away to get drinks for himself and his new found female friend, and come back to find that Kevin had horned in, wouldn’t go away, became a parasite, and yet was apparently ignorant of the intrusion. Many a night with Kevin around had ended with a woman suddenly excusing herself, saying her friend had a headache and she had to go now, and the phone number she’d give Rick in parting was always wrong.

“Get up,” Rick suddenly said. Kevin rolled his eyes and huffed. Rick grabbed his arm. “Up, now.”

“Give me my pants,” Kevin said.

“Stand up and you’ll get them.”

They stared at each other, Kevin glowering, Rick realizing he’d never seen him look so angry. Finally, Kevin hauled himself to his feet, stood there with his hands covering his crotch, nostrils flaring.

“Okay,” he said. “I’m up.”

“And now you’re down,” Rick said, and he knocked Kevin cold with a single right hook that sent him spread-eagle onto the sofa, TKO.

* * *

The first thing Kevin noticed when he woke up was that he was staring at the carpet, lying across the coffee table. The second thing he noticed was the duct tape on his mouth. Third was that his wrists and ankles were tied to the table legs. Fourth, and most disconcerting in his mind, was that he was still naked, ass in the air, and he couldn’t move.

He heard Rick and Pedro off in the kitchen, talking in whispers, pausing, talking again. He pulled with his arms, but it was useless. He was pretty well secured.

Rick appeared from the kitchen, still naked, half full glass in his hand. Kevin lifted his head, turned his eyes. Pedro was hanging back, looking worried, fully dressed.

“Sorry about that, Kevie,” Rick said as he knelt in front of him, dick at eye level if Kevin looked anywhere but the floor. “Looks like you’ll have a little bit of a shiner there, but you kind of earned it.”

Kevin grunted an angry inaudible sentence through the duct tape. Rick lay on his side and looked up at him.

“I know, you’re probably pissed. But it was your turn for the dare.”

Kevin’s eyes flashed and he yanked and kicked, to no avail. Rick went on, “See, it could have been truth, but rules are rules. The truth part was so much simpler. How come you always get away with it?”

Kevin’s eyes widened, one thick eyebrow lifted. What?

“You know what I’m talking about,” Rick continued. “Everything you do, everybody you fuck with, and it never seems to come back to you. It’s like you’ve got this magic karma or something. I mean, what, were you Gandhi in your last life? Hell, you’re skinny enough to be, aren’t you?”

Rick reached out and pinched Kevin’s bicep, feeling bone. The kid was thin, pale, soft. If it weren’t for the genitalia, his body could have easily been that of a very tall, late-blooming thirteen year-old girl. “Remember Jennifer?”

A worried noise blew muffled through the duct tape. “Oh, yeah, see, you do. And you know exactly what you did. I didn’t think you were completely oblivious.” Rick lay on his back, looking up at Kevin now. “There I was, about to score with this hot young blonde with the huge tits, and poof! Kevin appears, to work his bad magic. ‘Hi, Rick. That rash clear up yet?’ ‘Oh, looks like Big Mac is gonna get him some special sauce.’ ‘G, thanks for letting me borrow your crab shampoo…’ But I can never figure out whether it’s revenge or stupidity. If it’s revenge, well, you’re in big trouble then, Kevie. If it’s stupidity, I’m here to give you some smart lessons.”

“Rick…” Kevin saw Pedro’s feet out of the corner of his eye, half-turned toward the door. “I’m going to go now, okay?”

“Sure, sure,” Rick said absently. “Hey, I told you, don’t worry. We’re just playing a game. Right?”

“Right. See you later.”

And Kevin heard Pedro leave, heard the door close, but something in the way Rick had said “right” scared him. It wasn’t a reminder, it was a warning, but whether it was to him or Pedro or both, he didn’t know. He tried to tell Rick the fun was over, let him go, but it came out as gibberish.

“Now, where were we? Oh, yeah. I guess you did the dare, now it’s time for the truth, so here we go. Truth, Kevo. Do you do it for revenge or are you just stupid?”

“Ow!” Kevin yelled as Rick suddenly tore the duct tape off his mouth, leaving his lips raw. And then Rick grabbed Kevin’s hair with his left hand, lifted his head, looked into his eyes.

“Which one is it?” he demanded.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kevin insisted.

“Liar,” Rick admonished. He brought his right hand up, gently touched the side of Kevin’s face. Kevin flinched at the unexpected pain. “That’s going to be a nasty bruise,” Rick said. “Ruin your pretty-boy looks for a while. As if.”

“What do you want?” Kevin choked out.

“I want the truth, that’s all,” Rick said.

“I haven’t done anything to you,” Kevin insisted. “Really. I haven’t. You’re my friend, Rick.”

“You don’t have any friends.” Rick leaned down, looked right in Kevin’s eyes. “Isn’t that right? Deep down, you know it. You don’t have any friends.”

Kevin’s lip trembled and he let out one gasp before he sucked it all in and changed strategies. “Melinda knows I was coming here tonight,” he said. “And Stacey. So if anything happens — “

“Kevie, I’m not going to hurt you. Anyway, you think either of them would really care if you just vanished? You’ve pissed them off, you’ve pissed me off. But, most heinously, you’ve pissed off somebody very important to me, and I want you to apologize.”

“Okay, who, I’ll do it,” Kevin sputtered. Rick grinned, leaning up on his knees, both hands wrapped in Kevin’s hair now.

“Well, see, you’ve really done a disservice to Little Rick here, by interfering in his affairs so many times.”

Kevin tried to turn his head away as Rick raised his hips, bringing Little Rick — who wasn’t that little — right into the line of sight. Kevin closed his eyes, but Rick put a thumb on the black eye, insisted, “Open wide and say you’re sorry.” Kevin squinted his eyes shut tighter but Rick kept pressing until he had no choice but to relent. He opened his eyes and Rick’s penis was less than an inch from his nose. It was limp, but it was a dick, for Christ’s sake. Kevin could smell the stale musky scent of Rick’s pubic hair, tried not to breathe.

“Now, say you’re sorry,” Rick said.

“I haven’t done anything,” Kevin squealed back, closing his eyes again.

“Yes, you have,” Rick replied. Then, he leaned forward and Kevin felt this warm, soft thing press into his face, Rick’s hairy balls swing around his nose. He breathed through his mouth, trying to pull his head back, hoping those things would drop low enough that he could bite them off, then he’d say he was sorry. But Rick pulled Kevin’s head forward, pushed his hips, rubbing that thing all over his face and Kevin could feel it getting less soft, though not much less.

“Stop it!” he finally screamed. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, okay, I’m sorry, for whatever you think I’ve done, I’m sorry, leave me alone, let me go. I’m sorry…”

“Well, I believe you,” Rick said, loosening his grip slightly. “But little Rick doesn’t. He says he wants you to kiss him to prove you’re sorry.”

“Rick, goddammit, this isn’t funny anymore.”

“This isn’t a joke. Pucker up, Kevie.”

Kevin screwed his eyes and mouth shut, trying to turn his head away, but Rick tightened his grip again, put his thumb to the bruise. Kevin cried out, trying to fight, but Rick twisted him around, then pressed his dick to Kevin’s lips. Kevin’s face went tighter and Rick let his head go, stepping away.

“See?” he said. “I knew you didn’t mean it.”

Rick picked up his drink and took a sip, absently scratching his side, watching this pathetic mess who had been such a confident boor only an hour earlier. This demon that had caused so much trouble, now completely helpless, ruined, scared.

Helpless.

Rick realized he’d gotten fully hard when that thought crossed his mind, but it wasn’t a sexual kind of arousal. It was power. He had complete control over Kevin, the boy was utterly subdued, and god, was it making Rick horny. He hadn’t expected that, hadn’t expected that at all. So this was the real excitement of war, he decided.

He put down his drink, went to the door and locked the deadbolt. He turned and looked at Kevin’s frail white body, sprawled over the coffee table, knees on the floor. He gave his dick an idle stroke, then walked back to the table, stood in front of it, looking down.

“You’re just a pathetic little girl,” he said. “Aren’t you?”

“Yes, whatever you say,” Kevin threw back sarcastically. Then he looked up, saw Rick’s erection pointing at the ceiling, and let out an incoherent gurgle of fear. “No…” he pleaded. “No, god, no, please…”

“Shut up,” Rick said, then he put the duct tape back over Kevin’s mouth. Kevin shuddered and started yanking at his bonds in earnest, helpless. Rick went around behind him. Yeah, from this angle, skinny waist and wide hips, it could have been a young girl. He stuck the middle finger of his left hand in his mouth, got it good and wet and shoved it, with little fanfare, up Kevin’s ass all the way to the third knuckle. Kevin’s hips leapt off the table and he tried to pull away, but couldn’t.

Rick pulled his finger out, thought about gently working his way into things, then figured, “Fuck it.” He’d gone too far to back out now, and power was an aphrodisiac. And so, he put down his drink, got on his knees behind the table, spread Kevin’s cheeks wide with his hands and jammed his painfully hard dick all the way home in one stroke, then raped the little fucker, jamming in and out and Rick didn’t stop until he’d cum and Kevin had given up any struggle, flopping like a rag doll onto the table, broken and finished, and in this evening’s game of truth or dare, Rick emerged the only winner.

* * *

Rick had felt guilty after last night, had cleaned Kevin up with a warm washcloth, then untied him and gently pulled off the duct tape. But, at that point, Kevin had been an inert lump, not really moving, face contorted in an expression of pain and fear. He didn’t do anything when Rick freed his hands, just flopped onto the floor. He was no threat anymore. Rick carried him to the bedroom, put him in bed and covered him, then grabbed a blanket from the linen closet and slept on the couch.

Morning.

Rick woke up to bright ten a.m. light, head banging. He sat up, remembering what had happened, looking at the coffee table in trepidation, seeing no one there. Aw, shit. He’d really been wasted last night, he didn’t mean to… maybe he hadn’t.

No. He had, he knew it. Fuck. He dragged himself off the couch, wrapping the blanket around his waist, went into the bedroom.

He’d expected Kevin to be gone, but he wasn’t. He was lying in the bed, crunched up in a fetal position, clutching a pillow. He looked so… harmless now. He was facing the door, and Rick could see the ugly purple-yellow bruise on his face. He regretted doing that, really he did.

He went to the bed, gently sat down on the edge, whispered a timid, “Kev?” Nothing. He raised a hand to reach over, pulled back. He dreaded this moment. “Kevie?”

Kevin’s eyes slowly opened, looked up at Rick. Neither of them moved for a long moment. Then, the silence of the room was broken by Kevin’s sharp intake of breath, a series of sobs. He sat up, staring at Rick, who didn’t know what to expect. If Kevin tried to kick the shit out of him right now, he wouldn’t fight back.

And then Kevin threw his arms around Rick, held him tight, face buried in his chest, sobbing. “I thought you were my friend, Rick,” he cried. “I thought you were my friend.”

Rick stared down at him. That face was so sweet and innocent. He was a child impersonating an adult, really. He listened to Kevin crying for a moment, and then wrapped his arms around him, held him.

“Sssssh,” Rick said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Kevie, really. I am so sorry.”

“I thought you liked me,” Kevin went on, and Rick felt the hot wet tears splattering down his stomach.

“I do like you,” he answered. “I really do. I do like you, Kevin. Sssssh.”

And they stayed like that for a long time, Kevin crying and Rick gently rocking him back and forth, holding him in his arms, wanting to do anything to stop his pain, to protect him from the cruel world, to make the hurt go away. And he knew, in that moment, that he and Kevin would be inextricably linked, bound together by fate, for years, for decades, if not forever.

“Ssssh,” Rick repeated, again and again, as this gentle harmless angel cried and cried in his arms.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post 96: Truth or Dare (Part 2)

Part 2 of the next short story from my collection “24 Exposures.”

We continue with another story from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century. Some old, familiar characters pop up in this one. Previously, Kevin, Rick, and Pedro started a game of Truth or Dare that may be spiraling out of control as Pedro is up for the next “Truth.”

“Pedro, truth or dare?”

“Shit. I’m not drinking bongwater. Truth.”

“Okay,” Rick thought, not really wanting to stick Pedro with anything nasty. He was too nice a guy for that. He thought, then settled on something innocuous. “When was the last time you got laid?”

Pedro didn’t even hesitate, but he looked nervous. “Last week, Tuesday afternoon,” he said.

Rick thought for a second, then gasped. “Wait a second, weren’t you at work?”

Pedro nodded.

“You got laid at work?”

“Bzzzzz,” Kevin interjected. “That’s another question.”

“Oh, you want to know as much as I do.”

“Sorry,” Kevin said, but it was true. Rick did want to know, but he wasn’t going to give Kevin the satisfaction. But he thought about it. Who did Pedro do on Tuesday? And, apparently, “do” was the right word. But who…

“Shit,” Rick said out loud, realizing. He looked at Pedro, who was looking away, calling out, “My turn. Kevin. Truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Kevin said.

“Don’t be a pussy,” Rick said. “Take a dare.”

“It’s not your turn,” Kevin replied.

“Okay,” Pedro thought, looking to Rick. He really wanted to help Rick out here, but didn’t know Kevin well enough to dig up anything really juicy. He’d have to go for an old standby. “How many times did you jerk off today?”

“Didn’t have to,” Kevin spat back, chuckling.

“Liar!” Rick pointed accusingly.

“Excuse me, drink,” Kevin answered him, pointing with his elbow. “No finger pointing.”

“Since when?”

“It’s a standard rule of drinking games. I thought you used to go to a fancy school.”

“Well then, you should know that another standard rule is you can’t say the ‘d’ word. Imbibe, asshole.”

“Imbibe this,” Kevin gestured, but he picked up a shot glass and downed it anyway. Rick did likewise.

“My turn,” Kevin said. “And, new rule — “

“Whoa, what?” Rick cut in.

“Another standard rule of dr — imbibing games, read the manual. Whoever’s turn it is can make up a new rule. And my rule is, if anyone violates another rule, they have to do the next dare, no matter whose it is.” He smirked and touched his nose and Rick really wanted to smack him upside the head. “Now. Rick, truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Rick muttered.

“Losing your confidence, huh? Okay, how many times have you jerked off today?”

“None,” Rick answered.

“Liar — “

“Wrong,” Rick said. “Today started at midnight, and neither of you have seen me play with myself since then, right?” Kevin looked genuinely surprised by that explanation, which was true. Then, he laughed and downed another shot.

“I meant in the last twenty-four hours,” he said.

“Well, better luck next time. My turn, and a new rule. You can only take ‘truth’ twice before you have to take a dare, and the rule is retroactive. Kevin, truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Kevin answered, but realized the trap before Rick could point it out. “Aw, shit. Dare,” he corrected himself.

“Hm…” Rick thought about it a while, then stood, walking to the kitchen. Kevin fidgeted, smiling wanly at Pedro.

“I think you’re fucked now,” Pedro said.

Kevin returned, carrying something behind his back. “Okay,” he said. “You have to put this down the front of your pants for three minutes.”

“What, your mouth?” Kevin sniped, but it was empty bravado, especially as soon as Kevin brought his hands forward, held out the frozen solid packet of blue ice.

“Oh, no fucking way, G,” Kevin said.

“Then it’d be game over and I win,” Rick taunted him, dropping the packet on the table, where it clunked and turned half a revolution, frosting white already.

“I’ll freeze my nuts off,” Kevin protested.

“You’ll never miss ‘em,” Rick prodded.

“One minute.”

“Three.” Rick was enjoying this, and it was par for the course. There were no convenient distractions in the game this time, nobody upon whom Kevin could deflect attention.

“Two…?”

Rick pretended to think about it, finally nodded. “Okay. Down the pants, two minutes. Inside the underwear.” Pedro laughed as Kevin reached for the blue ice, picked it up, tossed it from hand to hand.

“This shit is cold,” he said.

“I know,” Rick said. “Down the hatch.” Kevin huffed and stood, loosening his belt. Then, he gave Rick a really dirty look and shoved the blue ice on in. It took about three seconds for it to kill the dirty look and Kevin let out a yelp, fumbled the pack back out and dropped it on the floor, falling backwards onto the couch, holding his crotch.

“Son of a bitch,” he grunted.

“Well, nice try, but that doesn’t count, so you drink,” Rick told him snidely.

Kevin pointed an elbow at him. “And the next dare, you get to share, ‘cause you just said the forbidden word, motherfucker.” He tossed down his shot of Tequila and Rick cursed inside. Even when Kevin lost, he somehow managed to win.

“Okay, Pedro, truth or dare?”“

Pedro pondered. This was getting nasty between Rick and Kevin. On the other hand, Kevin didn’t know Pedro that well, he’d probably give him some stupid, easy dare, then Pedro would pick Rick and give him a free pass and the game would lighten up a bit. Confidently, he answered, “Dare.”

Rick rolled his eyes and Kevin smirked and Pedro realized he’d blown it.

“Welly, welly, well,” Kevin said. “This one is for you and Rick, since he broke the rules last time. Hm. What will it be, what will it be?”

Kevin stretched out his thinking, making a big show of it as Rick and Pedro swapped an apologetic look. Whatever was cooking in Kevin’s evil mind, this would be a good one. Suddenly, his face lit up and he froze for an instant, hands lifted in preparatory gesture. “Okay, okay,” he said. “The two of you… are going to go take a little swim in the pool, for five… no, ten minutes. But… you’re going to do it, from here all the way there and back, butt naked.”

“Come on, Kev, I live here.”

“It’s three in the morning, G.”

“So?”

Kevin got that stupid cockeyed grin again and clucked like a chicken. Rick looked at Pedro. “You up for this, Petey?” he asked.

“Nothing I haven’t done before,” Pedro said. “And it’s my dare, anyway.”

Kevin jumped up giggling and Rick and Pedro started to get undressed. The whole process took a good five minutes as they continued to haggle with Kevin. Towels? “No.” Flip flops? “Too noisy.” Keys? “What’s a matter, don’t you trust me?” Frankly, Rick didn’t, but by now he and Pedro were bare-assed in the living room and Kevin was standing at the door, all smiles, unlocking the deadbolt. His sole concession had been allowing Rick to take his watch, alarm set for ten minutes.

“Gentlemen, enjoy. I hope the water isn’t too cold.”

He opened the door and Rick lead the way, he and Pedro dashing down the courtyard. At least most of the lights were off and the moon was nowhere in sight. They got to the pool and waded in quickly. The water was a chilly shock at first, but at least it was dark and quiet. After a few seconds, Rick actually enjoyed this feeling and he swam underwater to the deep end, surfacing under the diving board. Pedro popped up nearby. Rick squinted the water out of his eyes, looked into the distance. Kevin was standing in the pool of light by the far apartment door, doing hysterical gymnastics, gleeful at his triumphant dare.

“He’s such a little fuck,” Rick whispered to Pedro.

“Why do you hang out with him, anyway?”

“I really don’t know,” Rick answered.

“You’ll have to get him really good on the next dare.”

“Oh, I will,” Rick said. “You know, it’s funny, I’ve lived in this building for two years, and this is the first time I’ve been in the pool.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Half the time, it’s full of screaming kids. Who the hell wants to swim around that? God knows how many of them probably piss in here.”

“Eeew.”

Rick kicked off from the wall and did the breaststroke to the shallow end, then came back. Pedro clung to the wall and Rick joined him again. “You can swim, can’t you?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Pedro answered. “You know, this is the second time this month I’ve been in a pool naked.”

Rick didn’t want to say it, but he did. “That have anything to do with the last time you got laid?” He thought Pedro shrugged, but couldn’t tell in the darkness. “It was Mrs. Cooper, wasn’t it?”

“Shit,” Pedro’s outburst gave him away. “Don’t mention that to anybody, okay?”

“Don’t worry, I won’t. I’m not surprised, though. I’ve heard things about her.”

“Rick, honestly, her husband will kill me if he thinks I told anyone about it.”

“You did fuck her?”

“Oh yeah.”

“And?”

“And it was great. But, really, don’t say anything, okay? Especially not now, not if I’m going to have to get out of this pool soon.”

“Understood, buddy. Hey — good for you.”

“Thanks.”

“Okay, changing the subject. How should we get back at Kevin for this one?”

“Tie him up naked and dump him in a bad neighborhood.”

“Ooh, you have an evil side. That’s new.”

“I was kidding.”

“It’s a possibility, though.”

“It’s too cruel. Come on, you know him better than me. He’s got to have some weakness.”

“He’s too shallow for that. You think it’s been ten minutes yet?”

“Not even close.”

“Kevin’s still watching, he doesn’t know how long it’s been either. Fuck him. Let’s go.”

“Give me a second.”

“Right.”

Rick swam for the shallow end and climbed out of the pool. It was an evening in summer and not terribly cold out, but the water on his body made it seem chilly. He wished he’d managed to bargain for those towels now. Instead, he stood there with his back to the pool, watching distant Kevin laughing, waiting for Pedro to join him. What was Kevin’s weakness? What would absolutely humiliate him, neutralize him for good?

Rick didn’t have a clue, and then he heard the slosh of water as Pedro climbed out of the pool behind him. “Ready?” Rick asked.

“Yeah,” Pedro said, hands crossed in front of him, shoulders hunched in as he shivered. “Let’s go.”

Rick grabbed his watch off the lounge chair, hitting the “off” button on the timer, and he and Pedro trotted back to the apartment. When they were halfway there, Kevin suddenly darted inside. Rick heard the door close, but was unconcerned. He got there first, tried the knob anyway, knowing it was locked. Pedro stopped next to him, shifting from foot to foot, looking like a drowned Doberman.

“Aw, shit…” he groaned.

“Don’t worry,” Rick whispered. “Play along.” He tried the knob again, rattling it, then rang the bell. “Come on, Kevo,” he said not too loudly. “Let us in.”

Kevin peered out the window by the door, cheeks chipmunked by a grin, body racking with laughter as he pointed with his elbow. Rick rang the bell three insistent times, gave Kevin a look.

“Motherfucker,” Pedro snapped.

Rick sssshed him. “I have a key hidden, I’m just adding to the effect,” he whispered.

“Oh,” Pedro nodded. “Just add fast. Shrinkage, you know?”

“Kevin…” Rick pointed at the door insistently. Kevin stuck his face up to the window, gave them a double finger and disappeared.

“Right,” Rick said, bending over and picking up a rock from the flower bed by the door, hefting it in his hand as he peered in the window. Then he turned the rock over and slid open the hatch in the bottom, pulling out his spare key, put the rock back and very slowly unlocked the deadbolt. Just as slowly, he unlocked the lower lock, then looked at Pedro, quietly said, “One, two, three…”

On three, he threw open the door, he and Pedro shot in and Rick shut and locked the door behind him. Kevin was standing in the kitchen pouring himself a glass of Tequila, looking startled. So startled, in fact, that he over-poured.

“Uh, hi, guys. I was just going to let you in.”

“Your turn, Pedro.”

“Aw, you guys win, I give up,” Kevin shrugged.

“Pedro?”

“Okay. Kevin. Truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Kevin said.

“New rule,” Pedro went on. “No more truth. Dares only.”…

To be continued…

* * *

Saturday Morning Post 95: Truth or Dare (Part 1)

The next short story from my collection “24 Exposures.”

We continue with another story from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century. Some old, familiar characters pop up in this one.

Another boring Sunday night, and it was the three of them again, Kevin, Rick and Pedro, sitting around Rick’s apartment, not much to do and not much energy to do it with. Rick was the lynchpin here. He worked with Pedro and went to school with Kevin, although he was halfway to quitting the job and half a grade point from getting booted out of school. He didn’t really care at the moment. Monday was his day off from work and his first class wasn’t until two o’clock. He sat on the floor, carefully shredding and combing a fat bud in preparation for another bong load while Pedro watched intently and Kevin sat on the sofa, legs crossed, holding Rick’s giant stuffed panda in an almost inappropriate way, chattering a mile and a half a minute about nothing.

“G, it was amazing,” he said, bouncing on the couch. “You should have seen it.”

“Uh huh,” Rick muttered, not listening.

“The cops came and everything, it was classic.” He giggled in that annoying way of his, like a Catholic schoolgirl seeing her first porno, then got a very serious expression. “G, call her.”

“Man, it’s two in the morning.”

“She’ll be up. Come on, call Melinda.”

“No.”

“Maybe she’ll bring her sister…” Kevin said, almost singsong.

“In your wet dreams, dude,” Rick said.

“I bet they would,” Kevin shot back, grabbing the phone off the dining room table.

“You’re a pig and you’re stupid,” Rick replied. “Here, suck on this and shut up.” He held out the results of his efforts and Kevin put down the phone, grabbing the bong and extending his hand for the lighter. “Melinda and Stacey are not some lesbian sister act. They’re nice girls. You should respect them.”

“Oh, I respect them,” Kevin said, making it sound even more obscene than he intended. “I saw Melinda’s tits once.”

“Yeah, so? I saw your mother’s tits.” Rick shot Kevin a grin, then saw the look on his face, like he almost believed that comment. “Kidding,” he added. “Sorry.”

“Don’t… don’t say stuff like that, okay?”

Jesus, Rick thought, that sure hit some weird soft spot. It was like he’d shot Kevin’s dog or something. “Hey, dude, I said I’m sorry, okay?” Rick offered. Kevin nodded and moped, head down, and then let out a choked sob.

“Shit, Kevin, I didn’t mean it, really.”

Kevin gestured vaguely and Rick and Pedro looked at each other, a little embarrassed. “Kevin…?” Rick started, but then Kevin looked up, a big shit-eating grin on his face. “Psych!” he said. “I don’t cry for nothing. Never.” Triumphantly, he picked up the bong and took a gurgling hit off of it.

“Sometimes, you’re such an asshole,” Rick said.

“I aim to please,” Kevin answered while holding in the hit, passing the bong to Pedro. Pedro took it and fired away while Rick stared at Kevin, incomprehending. Sometimes, he didn’t know why he hung out with this guy. Then he heard Pedro huffing up the smoke and remembered — Kevin did get the best weed Rick had ever had. Pedro was cool. If Kevin was King Asshole, Pedro was some kind of anti-asshole. Quiet, polite, agreeable. That got a little boring sometimes, but at least he wasn’t obnoxious. As Pedro passed the bong to Rick, Kevin finally exhaled. Rick put his mouth over the skunky tube, then looked at Kevin.

“So, when the hell did you see Stacey’s rack, anyway?”

“Melinda’s rack.”

“Same difference.”

“They’re not completely identical. We were playing truth or dare.”

“Aah, of course. And I bet the game was your idea, right?”

“Not that time, no.”

Pedro looked at Rick oddly. Rick noticed, raised an eyebrow. “Truth or dare?” Pedro asked.

“Yeah, some stupid party game for high school girls and sexually repressed college boys,” Rick explained.

“Who usually aren’t sexually repressed by the time the game is over, thank you very much,” Kevin added. He looked at Pedro, who still looked confused. “What, you’ve never played?”

“He’s not a skank like you are, Kevie,” Rick said, then put the fire in the hole and sucked away.

“It’s not a skanky game. It’s like group therapy,” Kevin explained to Pedro. “You really never played it?”

“No,” Pedro answered, shaking his head. “The girls I know aren’t like that.”

“Catholic school, is it?” Kevin laughed.

“He said aren’t like that, douchebag,” Rick barked out, holding the smoke.

“That’s right. Some of the best pussy I’ve gotten has gone to Catholic school.”

“Would that be St. Rosy Palm and the Sisters of Perpetual Motion?” Rick asked, punctuated with the proper gesture. Kevin shot him the finger, then popped off the couch and sat in front of Pedro.

“I still can’t believe you’ve never played it,” he said.

“And we’re not,” Rick said, rapping him on the shoulder and passing the bong.

“I wasn’t suggesting it, ass-wad,” he answered, grabbing the bong. “I don’t see any girls here.”

“No, just a big pussy.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

“Bite me.”

Kevin gnashed his teeth in Rick’s general direction, giggled, then took another hit. Rick turned to Pedro. “Don’t mind him, he doesn’t get out much. You okay? You’re kind of quiet tonight?”

“Fine,” Pedro said. “Very stoned, though.”

“Yes sir, I do agree,” Rick said. “This is certainly the most primo example of fine herbage you’ve yet commandeered for our personal use, Kevo.”

“Too many words, G,” Kevin said, passing the bong to Pedro, who declined and passed it to Rick. Rick took another hit, watching the other guys as he did so. Both of them were assuming the horizontal position, happily stoned floor flounder on the cheap carpet. Rick glanced at the clock. Five after two. It seemed like an hour since he’d last looked and it had been two o’clock. Time dilation had been achieved. He slowly eased the bong into position on the table, then lay down himself, staring at the ceiling, fascinated with the faint brown water spot that crept out of the wall and through the off-white cottage cheese. It had been there as long as Rick had. Longer. It would be there, no doubt, long after he’d gone.

Kevin was muttering some stoner monologue, about how there’d be no wars in the world if political struggles were settled with a game of truth or dare. “Like, I bet we’d just smear Fidel Castro in one move. ‘Okay, G, I dare you. Shave your beard.’ He wouldn’t do it, game over.” He laughed again. Rick flinched at the sound, which seemed to echo off the ceiling. It really was a puerile, girly giggle, an involuntary burst that always sounded like Kevin had just been gang tickled by a flock of animate feather dusters.

“Oh, you’re not Cuban or nothing, are you, Pedro?” Kevin asked, Rick flinching anew at that question.

“I was born in Pacoima,” Pedro answered.

“Truth,” Kevin spouted. The response was silence, which Rick knew was the most frustrating thing in the world to him. “I said, ‘truth,’“ Kevin continued.

“We’re not playing,” Rick said.

“I’m bored,” Kevin whined. “Anyway, it’s a drinking game.”

“It is not,” Rick shot back.

“It can be,” Kevin explained. “Anything can be a drinking game.”

“I like drinking games,” Pedro offered from somewhere across the carpet. “None of us’s got to do anything in the morning.”

“Let me get the drinks,” Kevin heaved himself up from the floor and stumbled off to the kitchen.

Rick turned his head, found his nose an inch from Pedro’s right ear. “Now you’ve done it,” he said.

“What?” Pedro asked, turning his head, eyes almost crossing to focus.

“I’ve seen him do this before, he’s always the first one to start this and the first one to back out of anything mildly embarrassing.”

“Yeah, but like he said, no girls here. How bad could it get?”

“You don’t know Kevin,” Rick sighed. Kevin was an instigator, the kind of person who took passive-aggressive glee in giving a group the right nudge, then watching all their neuroses and problems play out on each other while he sat back, always seemingly immune to it all. He had the annoying ability to fade away in a crowd when the sparks started flying, Mr. Innocent in the corner, never connected to the trouble he caused once things got rolling. Rick had no doubt that Kevin had seen Stacey, or Melinda, or whoever’s tits at a party, but he also had no doubt that he hadn’t had to make that demand to get his wish. Just a little clever manipulation of some other poor, dumb schmuck who wanted a peek — toss a few offhand comments into a brain already set on purée, and the resulting cocktail was Kevin’s recipe, someone else’s hemlock.

Why did people seem to like him? That was what Rick didn’t get. But hell, half the time, he liked Kevin, or put up with him, at least. It had to be that face. Not that he was cute. No, it was that he looked innocent and harmless, like an altar boy suddenly thrust into an adult body. No, not thrust. Stretched. He was tall and skinny, and you’d find bigger muscles in a bucket of KFC, although it was a toss-up between man and chicken which one was more deeply fried.

Anyway, no matter how annoying he got, telling him off would have been like punching a kitten.

Kevin came back with the Tequila — the good stuff, not the Cuervo, the putz — and three shot glasses, at least one of which still had most of the gold intact on the three Greek letters down the side. That was the only memento Rick still had from his eighteen-month freshman year at Purdue. That, and there was a faceless picture of his ass still floating around on the Internet, his souvenir to the world from his first and only Freshman Nude Olympics snow run.

But that had nothing to do with why he left.

“So,” Kevin explained, setting the glasses on the table and slopping Tequila into them, “You call truth or dare, and you have to answer honestly or do the dare, or else you drink.”

“And the point of this game is…?” Rick asked, sitting up.

“Staving off boredom,” Kevin answered simply.

Pedro dragged himself to the table and sat there waiting. Nobody said anything for a while. Finally, Pedro asked, “Who goes first?”

“I will,” Rick said. “Kevin — truth or dare?” he asked, knowing already what it would be.

“Truth,” Kevin said.

Ah, yes, always the safe way. “Okay, Kevo,” Rick said. “Are you a big fag?”

“Hell, no,” Kevin answered without hesitation. “My point, and… Rick. Truth or dare?”

“Dare,” Rick replied, defiantly.

“And the man’s got serious scrotage,” Kevin said to Pedro, thinking. “Let’s see…” Kevin’s eyes flickered around the room and he bit his lower lip. Then, he picked up the bong and passed it across the table. “Have a sip, Ricky.”

Okay, Rick thought, that didn’t take very long to get disgusting. But he wasn’t going to let Kevin get away with it tonight. He took the bong, looking Kevin right in the eye, Pedro staring in disbelief. Rick smiled, hoisted the bong in a toast and said, “Salud.” Then, he lifted it to his lips and tilted it back. God, the smell could have killed a hog, but he knew the thing was opaque enough that no one would notice he kept his lips shut. The water was cold and rancid, but none of it actually got in his mouth.

He put the bong down and coughed in half-mock disgust. Kevin’s face was motionless, mouth open and Pedro had fallen on the floor, moaning, “Oh, man. Gross.”

“My point,” Rick smiled.

“Fu-u-uck,” Kevin finally said.

“Pedro, truth or dare?”…

To be continued

* * *

Saturday Morning Post 93: Six-Pack Mary (Part 3)

The third and final installment of “Six-Pack Mary,” a short story from 24 Exposures.

We continue with more stories from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century.

Afterwards, Myron played the guilty angle, telling Doug, “Don’t tell my wife, okay? Don’t tell anyone.” Doug agreed that it would be their little secret and Myron told him it was pretty enjoyable, even if it was… weird.

“But not that weird, right?” Doug said as he hunted for his underwear, pulled them on.

“I don’t know.” Myron put on his best puzzled look. Doug got dressed, shook Myron’s hand and headed out for the front door. Myron followed, let Doug out. “See you Monday,” Doug said.

“Yeah, Monday,” Myron told him before he closed the door, trying to look baffled. As soon as he’d shut the door, he looked to the heavens, pumped a fist in triumph and let out a quiet but heartfelt, “Yes!”

* * *

Doug was a domino. Myron knew full well that he wouldn’t keep things completely secret, but that was all for the better. The guys started approaching him differently, spending more time talking to him, seeming a little more relaxed around him. He knew they knew he was a Six-Pack Mary, queer on beer, and so he upped the ante by acting even straighter, referring to his wife as frequently as possible. By this point, all it took was a whispered comment on late Friday afternoon. “My wife’s out of town, I’m bored.” Sure enough, that would lure one or another of them over and by now, at least in the sack, Myron was venturing the vague comment, “I don’t know, maybe I’m bisexual or something.” He’d even let Doug try to fuck him, but stopped him almost immediately even though Myron wanted it. That was a Big Event to be worked up to, dangled like a beautiful carrot at the end of a very long stick.

Within six weeks, he’d had all of them. All of them except Max. But Joyce hadn’t had him, either. Joyce was mousy, but not unattractive. She was around Myron’s age, but that kind of thing didn’t seem to matter as much to straight boys. Of course it didn’t. Unlike gay men, well, young gay men, it was difficult for straight guys to get laid. It was the law of supply and demand, and so even women in their late thirties still had the supply and got the demand.

Truth to tell, Myron couldn’t get Max out of his head, especially not after that night at the theatre. The kid was hung like an ox and he did have a swimmer’s build, and he seemed so unselfconscious, strutting around naked for a good fifteen minutes. Too bad about Christine. No one ever figured out why she freaked and ran, and then she sailed her car off Mulholland Drive the next morning. It was bizarre, and her accident was the topic of conversation on Monday, putting a damper on much discussion of Max’s performance, except for general comments that he was a very good actor.

That had been months ago, and Myron was getting it at least twice a week, but he still wasn’t happy, because whom he wanted to get and who he was getting were two different things. He was actually getting bored with Chris and Billy and the other Chris and Cary and Doug, even though Billy gave the best head he’d ever had and Doug had a perfect ass and both Chris’s were little hellcats in the sack and Cary was so sweet and gentle that Myron sometimes let him sleep in his arms until morning. He contemplated giving up the whole straight routine. Why not? The hard part was the conquest. Get there once, getting there again was easy.

Except, he couldn’t get there, not even once, with Max. There were rumors that Max had a girlfriend now, even though no one had met her. But he said he was dating some actress, a girl he’d met at an audition for Equus. He didn’t get the part, but he got her and stopped showing up at the random after-hours events. And out of all the boys, he was the one who stopped by Myron’s desk to chat the least often.

Then, one Friday afternoon, Max was excitedly telling everyone he’d just gotten cast in the lead of a new play at some theatre in the Valley, opening in six weeks. He was practically floating as he told Myron the news.

“You get naked in this one?” Myron asked.

“Nah,” Max said. “This time, I’m the only one who doesn’t.” And he walked away, Myron superimposing the vivid memory on that jean-clad ass. Out of all of them, Max was the hottest, and he just kept getting hotter, the little fucker.

And it was a Tuesday, four weeks later, when Max stopped at Myron’s desk, looking concerned. Myron asked him what was wrong.

“Oh, this damn play,” Max said. “I’m having a hell of a time memorizing all the lines, and my girlfriend is in a show of her own right now, so she doesn’t have time to help.”

“You need somebody to help you learn?” Myron asked, hoping he didn’t sound too eager.

“Oh, I couldn’t ask you to do that, Ron. It’s a huge part.”

It sure as hell was, Myron thought to himself. Then, “No problem. Hey, my wife is out of town, what else have I got to do?”

“Is she ever in town?” Max asked.

“Not often enough,” Myron said.

“Yeah, I hear you,” Max said. “My girlfriend is always at rehearsal, or doing a show, I hardly see her that much anymore. Hey, I don’t have rehearsal tonight, you want to come over after work, run lines?”

Myron almost shouted, “Fuck, yeah,” but instead uttered a subdued “Sure.” Max nodded, wrote down the address, an apartment in the Little Moscow section of West Hollywood. “See you around six?” Max asked, then rolled his cart away as Myron nodded.

* * *

Myron was waiting on the landing as Max came up the steps, grocery bag in his arms. He handed it to Myron as he pulled out his keys, apologized for being late. The bag held two six-packs and a bag of chips.

The apartment was a studio, bedroom separated from the living room by a low wall. The only attempt at decor was a large poster of a Vargas girl, taped to the wall above the bed. Max gestured to the kitchen, which was barely big enough for a fridge, stove and counter. “You can put that there, help yourself. I’m going to change.”

Myron nodded, set down the bag and pulled out a beer, then went to the sofa and sat. It faced the bed, and Max had already taken off his dress shirt and T-shirt, hung them up. With his back to Myron, he took off his jeans, carefully folded them and put them on a hanger.

“So, I’m playing this kid who gets molested by a priest,” he explained as he casually took off his underwear, tossed them into a laundry basket, then put on a pair of gym shorts and a tank top. “Well, not exactly molested, more like seduced.” He turned around, walked to the sofa, grabbing a beer and the chips on the way. “And the big scene, like I told you, damn is it hard. Monologue, monologue, monologue, one after another.”

He picked up a manuscript, handed it to Myron open to a page. “So you must be playing Jimmy?” Myron asked.

“And you’re Father Ralph,” Max explained as he sat down.

“Do I just start reading?” Myron asked.

“Yeah, let me know if I get any lines wrong.”

“Uh… okay.” Myron was nervous, more over having to attempt to act than anything else. Max had such a natural way about him that it was hard to be nervous. Myron read.

“‘I’ve noticed you’re not like the other boys, Jimmy,’” and Myron thought to himself, “That’s for sure.”

Max recited from memory, “Yeah, I hate sports, I like opera and I’m not an asshole — “

“‘Total asshole.’”

“Right, sorry. ‘I like opera and I’m not a total asshole.’ Damn. ‘Total asshole…’ Got it. You want to start that again?”

“‘I’ve noticed you’re not like the other boys, Jimmy.’”

“‘Yeah, I hate sports, I like opera and I’m not a total asshole. What’s your point, father?’”

“‘Is there anything you want to tell me, son?’”

And the scene progressed, and it was one monologue after another. Even though Myron was no theatre critic, he didn’t think it was particularly well-written, but Max was amazing despite the clunkiness of the lines. And he knew most of them, only stumbling once or twice, his eyes focused right on Myron’s as he said them. Those incredible green eyes, drilling to Myron’s soul.

“‘There are many reasons I became a priest,’” Myron read some time later. “‘My family expected it of me, for one thing. And I wanted to do it, preach God’s word and minister to people who are… troubled. You’re troubled, aren’t you, son?’”

There was a long pause in the script, which Max took, leaning toward Myron. “‘Isn’t everyone?’” he replied as Jimmy.

“‘But troubled in a particular way,’” Myron went on. “‘You don’t have to lie to me, Jimmy. I know exactly what’s in your heart.’”

“‘Yeah, father? What’s that?’”

Myron looked at the script, at the stage direction. “Father Ralph suddenly grabs Jimmy’s neck, forces a kiss on him.” He stared at the words, looked up at Max, went, “Uh…”

“Yeah, that part. I’ve got no problem with it, because it’s, well, it’s what the character does, it’s just acting, part of the game. Well, okay, he gets it done to him, except I’ve never done that on stage before. We haven’t rehearsed this scene yet. I think the director is waiting until I’m more comfortable with the actor playing Father Ralph…”

“Oh,” Myron said. Max got up, brought them each another beer — their third — sat down again, closer this time.

“You did a good job reading, by the way,” he said as he unscrewed the top, took a chug.

“Thanks,” Myron said, doing the same. “You’re a very good actor. Especially in that last play, you did an amazing job.”

“Thanks. Hey, was everything… you know, okay in that play?”

“It was a little long, but — “

“I mean me. You know, when I was… that whole monologue at the top of act two. I was really worried about doing that.”

“Being naked, you mean?”

“Yeah. But my voice coach told me that no one is really an actor until they’ve been naked on stage, so I figured I’d get it out of the way. I guess, I’m just wondering, nothing looked funny, you know, physically, did it?”

“No, everything looked… fine. I guess.”

Max nodded, looked away nervously. “Look, um, I don’t know how to ask this, but it’s really important, for this show, I mean…” He paused, took a sip of beer, staring at the floor. “We’ve known each other a while now, and I feel really… comfortable with you. Would it be too much to ask…?”

Myron stared at him, heart racing. “Wh-what do you mean?” he said, voice almost cracking.

“It’s really weird kissing a strange guy but I want the moment to be real, so would you mind rehearsing that part with me?” He looked back at Myron, face turned coyly upward, mouth curled in an uncertain half-frown.

“You mean… kiss you?”

“It’s just a play, but I’d feel better getting used to it with someone I trust, you know?”

Myron hoped the raging hard-on in his pants wasn’t too obvious. He tried to play it cool, looked at the script, shaking his head, taking his time. “Well, I’m no actor. It’s kind of…”

“Weird, huh? Okay, bad idea I guess. Sorry I — “

“Hey, if it’ll help you do your job, I guess…”

“You’re sure?”

“I… what the hell.”

Max smiled. “Thanks. Take it from your last line, then.”

Myron inhaled, nodded, then looked at the script. “‘But troubled in a particular way,’” he read. “‘You don’t have to lie to me, Jimmy. I know exactly what’s in your heart.’”

“‘Yeah, father? What’s that?’” Max responded as Jimmy, leaning close to Myron. And then Myron leaned forward, very slowly, brought his lips to Max’s and in an instant they were all over each other, tongues slithering in sync, hands pulling them tighter together, reaching under clothes, Max practically on top of Myron now. They went at it for a good four or five minutes, and then Max gently pulled away, grinned, looked at the floor.

“You know,” he said, “In the play… I mean, not on stage or anything, but… Jimmy and the priest do it, and, I’m kind of a method actor.”

“And it’s a good method,” Myron said, standing and taking Max by the hand. As they walked to the bed, the script fell to the floor, flopping open on the way. Myron noticed that the rest of the pages were blank, but didn’t say anything. He just smiled as they fell on the bed and continued the scene. As Max pulled off his shirt and lay down next to him, Myron couldn’t help but ask.

“You don’t have a girlfriend, do you?”

“And you don’t have a wife,” Max smiled. “But let’s just let that be our little secret, shall we?”

Myron laughed, then went in for another kiss and felt himself passing out of Chapel Perilous and grasping at last the Holy Grail as the curtain went down on his long performance and he returned, finally, to his real life.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post 92: Six-Pack Mary (Part 1)

The Saturday Morning Post is back with an all-new story from 24 Exposures.

Returning after a hiatus, we continue with more stories from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century.

Myron had decided, sadly, that he just wasn’t marketable anymore. He’d passed the magic age of thirty, but unlike his luckier friends, he looked like he had. That, and, despite the gym, he’d developed a bit of a gut. Oh yeah, and thanks to his maternal grandfather, his hairline was inching ever backward. Still, for a long time, he’d been hopeful, still going to the same clubs, hanging out with the same people, cruising the same guys. He was handsome, his friends told him that. Only, now, instead of getting lucky all the time or even once a week or occasionally once a month, there was nothing. Nobody looked at him, nobody hit on him, nobody wanted him.

It had been one year, seven months and nineteen days since the last time he’d gotten laid — and even that one had been a last-call desperation parking lot mutual handjob, and nothing more. All right, fine, maybe his wild days were over. He’d try to live with that, but in the meantime, he’d also keep trying, keep playing the game, hanging out in Boys’ Town even though he’d long since stopped being one of the boys.

There was this kid on the dance floor tonight, somewhere between twenty-one and six-foot three. Blond, muscular, grinding away and having a great time. He was wearing black boots and a pair of tight leather shorts that laced up the sides, an unbroken line of tanned flesh showing behind the laces, and god, would Myron like to get some of that, slowly untie those things until the forces of nature and the sleeping monster inside couldn’t be contained anymore and pop, the shorts would fall to the floor and… and fat chance, Myron. He’d seen this kid before, and he was a total cock-tease, especially last Hallowe’en, when his costume had been a G-string and green body paint. And only two years ago, Myron would have walked over to him and said hello and maybe have had a chance.

He contemplated buying the boy a drink, trying that old approach, when Myron saw Roger strolling toward the dance floor. That tired old thing — the girl had to be fifty if she were a day, and that couldn’t have been real hair. An nobody’s teeth were that white. That sad queen was just fighting the truth, and she looked old. Myron hated Roger, but at least seeing that relic made Myron feel a bit younger.

And Roger walked right up to the boy, they kissed each other and, with one hand stuffed proprietarily down the back of those leather shorts, Roger led the kid off the dance floor and out of the bar and —

“Motherfucker,” Myron muttered to himself. It was the money. Of course it was the money. Roger was old and ugly and pretentious as hell, but he had cash. Wads of it. And Roger didn’t, and he really hated that bitch.

“Hi, My,” it was Michael, one of the only people in these places who’d talk to him anymore. Michael readily admitted that he was (gasp) forty-seven, his hairline had receded further than a speedfreak’s gums, he was at least thirty-pounds overweight, and yet Myron knew he scored all the time. True, he’d never actually seen Michael leave a bar with anyone, but on those few occasions when he ran into him in the street, he’d have some pretty young twink with him. And, Jesus, even the way he dressed — Michael looked like he shopped exclusively at the Big K. How the hell did he do it?

“Okay, what’s wrong?” Michael asked as he sat. Myron shrugged, nodded his head toward the dance floor.

“Why do I keep coming here?” Myron asked. “I haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of getting laid, but…”

“But, like everyone else, you keep doing the things that used to work. Yeah, I know. Getting older sucks ass.”

“Yeah, but you…” Myron gestured vaguely. They both knew what he meant.

Michael laughed, took a swig of his beer, shook his head. “Pathetic, isn’t it? I have to beat them off with a stick — pardon the expression — but I make you look like Ricky Martin.” Michael studied Myron a long moment, making him uncomfortable. Myron could tell he was considering something, dreaded what he knew was coming. Michael was going to tell him how he should improve himself, all the things he’d already tried to no avail. Go to the gym — failed. Minoxidil — he was one of the impervious ones. Botox, facelift — not without insurance, babe. Myron was ready for that boom to fall when Michael instead drained his beer, put cash on the bar and got up.

“Follow me, I’ll tell you my secret.”

“Gee, Michael, could you?”

“Call me Mike. And, yeah. Come on.”

Myron followed him out of the club, past the sweaty throng who didn’t notice them, out the doors into the cool and quiet air and up the crowded street. It was Saturday night, prime time, and they were everywhere, the callow objects of desire who had become unobtainable Holy Grails.

At the corner, some hot little skate punk was strolling by with his friends. He trotted over, gave Michael a big hug. “Mike! Call me, okay?” the kid gushed, hopeful. “You still have the number?”

“Sure do,” Mike said. The kid smiled and hurried back to his friends. Myron just gawked.

Michael — Mike — didn’t say anything as they walked the rest of the two blocks to the Greenery, went inside, got a quiet booth in the back and sat contemplating their menus. Myron didn’t want to push it and Mike said nothing but small talk until their meals had arrived.

“So…?” Myron finally asked as he dug into his Caesar salad.

“So,” Mike replied, “You used to get it pretty regularly, right?”

“All the time,” Myron said. “I couldn’t go into a club without getting hit on.”

“Yeah, me too. Then it stopped, and I couldn’t figure out why. I hadn’t changed, not that much. And it stopped for me forty pounds and a head of hair ago. It was like a neon sign popped up over my head. ‘Danger! Thirty! Danger!’”

“I never looked thirty…”

“You don’t look thirty. Anyway, these kids can smell it, they know. You were there, you remember. They have this perverse belief that they can walk into a bar, get lucky and find a boyfriend. They all want to get married, and most of them want to marry guys their own age. They don’t wake up to that bullshit until later. Until too late. By the time most of them hit our age, they’re either half of an old married couple, rich enough to buy it or just tired of the whole thing.”

“But you’re not tired of it.”

“Hell no. But you only get tired of the game when you start losing, and believe me, I’m still winning.”

“Right, which is why we’re here, isn’t it?”

Mike smiled, wiped fried chicken grease off his chin and put down his napkin. “Right,” he said. “The secret to winning at the game at this stage is to change the rules.”

He let the statement hang there, but Myron was clueless. Change the rules. Didn’t that mean paying for it? Or dating people who were — gack — their own age? Mike let Myron look puzzled for a moment, shoveled a lump of mashed potatoes into his mouth, swallowed. Then he leaned forward, spoke quietly.

“The big secret,” he said. “You want these boys all over you, there’s one thing you have to do.”

Silence, until Myron could take it no more. “What?” he demanded.

“Go back in the closet.”

Myron dropped his fork. “What?”

“You heard me. See, if you’re an old, desperate queen, nobody cares. But if you’re a challenge…”

“A challenge?”

“It’s exactly what they do to us, but in reverse. Get it? I guarantee, when you were twenty-five, you wouldn’t have looked twice at half the guys you want to jump on now. But they’re not interested in you, and that just makes you more interested in them. But… if they think you’re straight — “

“Whoa, hold on. That’s what you did?”

“Yep. So, all of a sudden, I’m not an easy lay. Like I said, I’m a challenge. There’s a huge hurdle they think they have to get over to get into my pants, and when they succeed, they think they’ve pulled a big coup. They’re suddenly more desirable, least they think so, because they’ve managed to get a piece of something that has no desire for them.”

“Pretending you’re straight…”

“More than pretending, Myron. You can’t just go around telling people you’re straight. That doesn’t work. And you can’t hang around in the bars all the time anymore. Only every so often, and you tell the boys it’s just when your wife is out of town — “

“Wife?”

“Absolutely essential. No, you don’t have to get married. But you do have to create that illusion, or didn’t you notice?” Mike waggled his left hand, revealing the gold band on his ring finger. “It’s a little bit of an investment, naturally — half the closet full of ‘her’ clothes, tampons in the bathroom, that kind of stuff. But, believe me, it pays off.”

“This is insane.”

“I know it is, but it works. Hey, you think I like dressing like this?”

Myron studied him. Cheap blue dress shirt with a small rip in the sleeve, and he could see Mike’s T-shirt through the thin material. That, and he was wearing brown pants, heavy polyester, with a black belt. Mike stuck his foot out and Myron looked down. Brown loafers, white socks.

“Disgusting, isn’t it?” Mike laughed. “I cringe when I get dressed in the morning, but sometimes you have to swallow your pride.”

“And you get laid a lot?”

“All the time. That kid we met in the street? He’s convinced I’m his special project, the confused bisexual who’s trying to come to terms with things but can’t. I always kick him out afterwards, get all nervous and guilty. But goddamn, he could suck a bowling ball through a garden hose.”

Myron laughed, disbelieving. And yet, he’d seen Mike around with plenty of hot ones. Could it really be so simple?

“So, how do I start?” Myron asked.

“Are you out at work?” Mike asked.

“Yeah.”

“Then step one is to find a new job. Something in a liberal office where people can be open, but where they don’t know you. And you live in this part of town?”

“Right up the street.”

Mike shook his head. “Rule number two. It’s okay to live in WeHo, but not this side of town. This is the gay ghetto. I mean, you could keep living here, but then you’d have to be seen with a living, breathing fake wife, which just complicates things. No, at the very least, you need to be east of Fairfax and south of Melrose, although a move to the Valley couldn’t hurt.”

“Blech.”

“I’m just trying to help here.”

“It seems so… extreme.”

“Desperate times, desperate measures. Hey, if you don’t ever want to get laid again, fine…” Mike signaled for the check. Myron thought about what he’d said. It was just too much. Changing jobs, finding a new apartment, getting two new wardrobes. Or hanging out in the bars, the sad, drunken queen in the corner, never getting hit on, never meeting anyone, getting drunker and sadder and older and fatter and…

And fuck that. Maybe Mike was right. Myron had seen the evidence himself. Mike scored. A lot. And, by all rights, he shouldn’t have.

Mike studied Myron’s face as he signed the credit card slip. “You’re seriously considering it, aren’t you?”

“It’s so much, though.”

“But, believe me, it’s worth it.” Mike stood. “Just think about it. I know it’s a lot to get your head around right now, but you’ll appreciate it eventually.” He started for the door, Myron standing to follow. Mike stopped. “Oh, one other thing. Your name? Myron. It’s kind of… well, kind of gay. You have a middle name?”

“Bruce.”

“Ouch.” Mike thought about it a moment. “Ron. Try that on for size. Very butch-sounding. No straight man would ever willingly go by ‘Myron.’”

“Gee, thanks. I think.”

“Don’t mention it. Ron.”

Mike laughed, patted Myron on the shoulder and walked out. Myron just stood there, staring after him, not knowing what to do.

Roger and his twink came in the place and the owner greeted them, escorting them to the best table. Before they’d even sat down, Myron hustled out the door into the cold night air and walked the two blocks home, not looking at anybody.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post #86: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 3)

In this short story, we visit the world of small theatre in L.A. and one producer/director secretly using the artform to help his actors improve themselves.

Here is the next short story from my collection called 24 Exposures, which I wrote over 20 years ago, the first of three installments. This one is set in the world of small theatre in Los Angeles, something with which I’m very familiar as audience member, writer, techie, and performer. This story focuses on the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre Company in Hollywood, and its owner, Bill, who believes in creating his characters in order for his actors to have huge breakthroughs and learn about themselves. His latest effort involves Max and PJ.

Fifty minutes later, Bill crept back into the theatre, careful not to make any tell-tale noises. He snuck up to the darkened booth and edged to the glass. He looked down at the stage and smiled. He’d gotten the acting breakthrough he’d hoped for.

Max and PJ were on the bed, shirts off, PJ on top, making out like a couple of horny teens. If he could get that onstage, everything would work out. Max started pulling PJ’s pants off and PJ made no objection, but Bill knew they’d had enough rehearsal for today. He snuck back downstairs, opened the front door quietly, then slammed it, making sure it was quite audible. He turned on the lobby lights and dawdled, counting to fifty before he entered the theatre.

Max and PJ were sitting, keeping their distance on the stage, shirts on, although PJ’s was inside-out.

“Hi guys,” he called out. “How did it go?”

“I think I get the scene now,” PJ explained, Max covering a laugh and a glance.

“You two want to try it once, then?” Bill asked as he took his seat in the front row.

“Sure,” PJ replied, moving to the bed, Max joining him.

“Okay. And, lights are off, anticipatory laughter from the audience, cue the maid, she turns the lights on — go.”

Max and PJ looked at each other, startled. Significant comedy pause… and then they vacuum-locked their faces together, PJ wrapping a leg around Max, Max dragging PJ in with both hands and the moment was beautiful. It really would bring the house down, the big revelation when everything else made sense.

The boys finally broke and looked at Bill, who applauded. “Excellent,” he said. “We’ve got a winner on our hands.”

And indeed they did, at least for this third of the cast. All through the rest of rehearsal, PJ was flying, nailing everything, not holding back at all. Bill had broken the wall, freed his talent and he saw that it was very good.

One down, two to go…

* * *

The secret was always discovery, not revelation. With actors, it was like training lab rats. Never show them the cheese, let them wander the maze and think they figured it out themselves. Donna was great at figuring things out, but lousy at letting herself realize she had.

Then Bill saw her walk into a car. She was coming to rehearsal and happened to arrive at the same time as Vince, and they were both crossing the street, talking but not looking at each other, at least not openly. Since they were jaywalking, they had to go between parked cars and Vince lead the way, but Donna was paying no attention at all and — wham!

Right into the side of a big, brown American beast, rebounding, stopping. Bill heard her call out, “God, I am so stupid.” Vince hurried over to Donna, took her arm gently, probably asking if she was all right. He guided her between the cars to the sidewalk, looking very concerned. She kept nodding, looking for the hole to crawl into, but Vince’s concern was completely genuine.

They both spotted Bill, walked toward him.

“You didn’t see that, did you?” Donna asked him.

“See what?” Bill lied. “Hey, guys, you know what? Your director did a stupid thing tonight. Come on inside.”

They entered the theatre and Bill explained his faux pas. He had intended to work with Mark and Donna, but had called Vince instead. It was too late to fix that, and anyway all of Vince’s scenes were fine. But would Vince mind reading Mark’s part tonight, working with Donna?

And of course he wouldn’t, and so they did, Vince reading from the script as Donna played the scene — and played it with something much different than had ever appeared opposite Mark. That was, of course, the plan. Donna’s character was supposed to be madly in love with Mark’s but afraid to say it, until this moment in the play, when she confessed her love. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, Mark’s character was madly in love with her, et cetera, et cetera. Each of them was supposed to think they were talking about someone else.

Suddenly, it played beautifully. Donna was a little giddy and shy and hesitant, and so was Vince and the whole thing positively reeked of two people crazy about each other but unable to just say it. Artifice catapulted to reality, and Bill gave himself a mental pat on the back. This show was going to come together like none of the others ever had.

And by opening night, it did. He’d heard rumor among the company that Donna and Vince went out for coffee one night, then dinner and a movie soon thereafter. The grapevine reported that Vince finally admitted he was crazy about Donna but was still in the middle of getting a divorce, something he’d kept secret though, so he hadn’t dared say anything to her. But, as soon as it was final, would she…? And she would and they did, eventually, and on opening night, their acting soared.

So did PJ’s and Max’s. The curtain call got a standing ovation and the opening night party was rambunctious with the joy of success.

Except that Max was standing alone afterwards, PJ nowhere in sight. Bill walked over to him. “Good job, Max. But where’s your leading man?”

“He’s not mine,” Max explained, looking around. “There he is.” He pointed and Bill looked, seeing PJ talking to other cast members, his arm around a young man who wasn’t part of the company.

“He’s got a boyfriend already?” Bill asked, amazed.

“He’s had him for six months,” Max said. “He finally decided to let the big secret out.”

“And you?”

“You cast us on purpose, didn’t you?” Max answered.

“Okay, I confess,” Bill said. “I did. I thought…”

“No, I appreciate it, really. He’s a good kisser. He’s just taken, that’s all.”

Bill smiled, nodding. This play had been more of a success than he could have hoped for. He excused himself, started to walk away when Max continued. “And Vince and Donna. And Mark and Loretta. Funny how every time we do a show, some new couple gets together, isn’t it?”

Bill stopped, looked at Max, wondering if he’d figured it out yet. Maybe, but Bill wasn’t going to tip his hand. “Funny how theatre works that way, isn’t it?”

“Very funny,” Max answered, and Bill was sure his secret was safe. “So what’s next for us, Little Billy?”

“Oh, you’ll see,” Bill replied. “You’ll see.” He made a mental note. Max had mentioned once that he never thought he’d be able to do nudity onstage. That was an actor’s block that needed to be removed, one more step in Bill’s big mission. And removed, it would be.

All their blocks would be removed, eventually, and they would be better people for it. True love would be discovered and true talent revealed and Bill’s company would continue to be one, big happy family. That was the promise he’d made when he’d cashed that big check, the promise he’d continued to keep. It was the price he’d agreed to pay for his windfall, but it was a debt that constantly paid him back with happiness.

His fear had been removed, and he was going to do his best to do the same for others, for this big, wonderful company. His children, his stars.

Because stars were meant to shine, after all, and the show would go on.

Significant dramatic pause, and then Bill exited to his office, already working on his next play, hoping for another rousing success.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post #85: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 2)

In this short story, we visit the world of small theatre in L.A. and one producer/director secretly using the artform to help his actors improve themselves.

Here is the next short story from my collection called 24 Exposures, which I wrote over 20 years ago, the first of three installments. This one is set in the world of small theatre in Los Angeles, something with which I’m very familiar as audience member, writer, techie, and performer. In the first installment last week, we met Bill O’Ferral, owner of the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre in Hollywood, having just opened another successful original play and starting work on his next — but he has ulterior motives, as he believes in creating his characters in order for his actors to have huge breakthroughs and learn about themselves.

The first read-through had been hilarious, with Andy and the actors constantly cracking up. Only a few minor rewrites required, then they were good to go.

PJ was waiting for Bill afterwards, when everyone else had gone.

“Hey, PJ, what can I do for you?” Bill asked, ushering the actor up to his office.

“I like the play, a lot,” he said when they were upstairs. “How are you going to stage the… some of the stuff?”

“You’re worried about kissing Max, aren’t you?”

“Well… a little.”

“Let me tell you my theory of comedy. The more intensely real the actors play it, the funnier it is. The magic word is ‘commitment.’”

“Yeah, but all three times?”

“My other theory of comedy. First time, warning. Second time, reminder. Third time, brings the house down. Fourth time, never.”

“Okay, but… why do they kiss, anyway?”

“Because… your character thinks he’s in the room with Stella, and the other guy thinks he’s with Elaine. This is it, they’re finally alone, or they think they are, with the woman of their dreams, wham. It ain’t gonna be a peck on the cheek. And then the maid walks in and turns the lights on. Boom. Funny.”

“Okay, but the second time — “

“You think you’re with Elaine now, and he thinks he’s with Stella. Only this time, both guys are much hornier, because now they think they’re finally with the women of their dreams, et cetera, et cetera, funnier.”

“Right. So why — “

“And the third time is kind of the point of the play, when the lights come on and the two guys see each other, significant comedy pause… and realize they’re the man of each other’s dreams. Set up, topper, reversal, house down.” God, Bill thought, I sound like some alta cocker ex-Vaudevillian. “Look, it’ll be a riot, people will remember you. You want to get noticed as an actor, this is the perfect part.”

“Okay. But it’s comedy, I’m more of a dramatic actor.”

“Weren’t you the one who told me you wanted to try doing comedy?”

“I… yeah. But I thought more like, you know. Verbal, like Neil Simon, wordy, witty… Comedy. Not farce.”

“Farce is the ultimate extension of comedy. Much more difficult to pull off. If you can do farce, you can do anything.”

“Really?”

“Think about it. How many Oscars does Tom Hanks have? Do you remember ‘Bosom Budd…’ No, of course you don’t. Well, it was a farce, and that’s where he started. And he was wearing a dress.”

“Tom Hanks?”

“Yes.”

“But he didn’t kiss anybody, did he?”

“I don’t remember, but probably. Because it was a farce.”

“They’d never let men kiss on TV.”

“Not in a drama, no, because a drama is all real and serious and scary. But comedy, you can get away with a lot more.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway, don’t worry about it. I’m not even going to get to that in rehearsal for at least three weeks. Maybe four.”

“Okay. Can I think about it?”

“You will anyway. But in four weeks, I think you’ll be ready.”

PJ nodded and left the office. Bill hoped this wouldn’t be a problem. Maybe hearing an audience laugh and knowing he did it would loosen him up eventually.

Bill also wished he could convince him to stop going by PJ and use his full first name, Peter. The initials sounded like a kiddie actor or a porn goddess. Of course, that meant he would absolutely have to change his last name. Or maybe not. Memorability was a plus.

Still. His last name was Packer.

His parents were either incredibly naive or terribly twisted.

His middle name was Johnson.

Twisted.

* * *

Donna was bumping into the furniture again.

Normally, this would have been a problem. However, Bill had written exactly this awkwardness into the part and it was working like a charm. Funny how she didn’t start doing it until Vince was at the same rehearsals. Yes, Donna was doing a scene with Max, Vince wasn’t even on the stage, but Bill knew exactly why she had turned into a fumfering schoolgirl. He made no comments about it during rehearsal, even though he could see that it was annoying the hell out of Max — but that was part of the idea, too. Max was a nice guy, but the part he was playing needed to have the limits of his patience tested. That’s what Bill was seeing on the kid’s face right now and it was perfect.

“I am such a clumsy, big-footed ox,” Donna whined to him afterwards. “I’m sorry, I was lousy up there today.”

“No you weren’t,” Bill said. “You mean you weren’t acting all that stumbling around?”

“No — “

“Well, you fooled me. That’s exactly what the scene needs to work.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Of course Stella is awkward, she’s madly in love with this guy, but she can’t tell him. You see?”

“Oh…”

And Donna smiled, sort of, a rarity, and went on her way. Bill saw Max sitting in the front row, looking at his script, sulking. He walked over to him.

“Hey, Max, nice job up there.”

“Wasn’t easy. She was — “

“All over the place, I know, I told her to do that. And I need you to remember that anger, use it. That’s what makes the scene work.”

“Really? But it’s a comedy.”

“A lot of comedy is really very angry underneath. Remember, you think you’re madly in love with Elaine and you’re trying to go talk to her, and Stella won’t leave you alone. You’re too polite to tell her to go away, but you let just a little bit of your annoyance show. You’re like a teapot waiting to blow its whistle, except that it doesn’t happen until the next scene.”

“Ah…” Max nodded, conviction in his eyes. “Of course. Now it makes sense. Thanks.”

Bill gave him an encouraging smile, then went onstage to work with Vince and Loretta. Vince was staring off into the house. “She’s good,” Vince said.

“You mean Donna?”

“Yeah. I had no idea she was such a natural comic actress. I’m jealous.”

“Well, keep an eye on what she does. Study her, and you’ll learn a lot. Now, let’s get cracking, act one, scene four, Martin and Elaine, you each think the other one is madly in love with you, but you’ve both been misinformed, let’s take it from the top…”

And they ran through the scene, Bill noticing that neither one of them was quite crackling like they should. Loretta never had that problem with Mark onstage. Those two clicked. Of course, they’d been dating since the middle of rehearsal for their last show. Max and PJ had that chemistry onstage, too, more or less, with Max enthralled and PJ distracted, which would make the ending work perfectly. They hadn’t rehearsed any of Vince and Donna’s scenes yet, by design, nor had they gotten to the big moment between Max and PJ. But they were going to, soon, and that particular rehearsal would be crucial to making this whole thing work.

Max and PJ, right. Bill turned toward the house, where the two were sitting, different rows, not together. “Guys,” he called out, “This is going to take a while. Could you two go up to my office and run your lines?”

Max hopped to his feet while PJ dragged his stuff together and stood. Bill watched them leave, then turned his attention back to Vince and Elaine. An hour with them, then it was time for act two, scene five.

That was exactly why PJ was so broody tonight. The kid was still nervous. Bill had assured him many times, “It’s only acting. None of it is real, you’re just playing games up there.” PJ always nodded and agreed, but it hadn’t seemed to have sunk in yet. It had better, tonight, or Bill just might trash this whole project. No sense re-casting at this point. But, as a director, he had a lot of tricks left to use. That was always the secret — make the actor find it in him or herself for real, then remember it, use it, be it.

If PJ and Max could manage their big scene, the others would be easy. If they couldn’t…

But Bill pushed those thoughts from his mind as he worked with Vince and Loretta.

* * *

Act two, scene five. The kiss.

Max was sitting on the bed onstage, PJ on one of the chairs, as Bill explained his approach. They weren’t going to start right in on the scene. Instead, they were going to do some exercises. He had the two actors stand toe-to-toe and hold their arms out, placing their hands palm-to-palm. Max complied like a trooper, but PJ was being sarcastic, making jokes, trying to distract himself.

“Now,” Bill said, “Here’s the hard part. I want you two to look at each other, so the ends of your noses are touching, and stare right in each other’s eyes. And you’re going to stay that way until you can do it for three minutes straight without looking away or losing it. Ready?”

“You better not get snot on me,” PJ cracked.

“Ready…” Bill reminded.

PJ nodded, put his nose to Max’s, then scrunched it up and shook his head to make it an Eskimo kiss, stepping away and laughing.

“Sorry. Sorry…” he called out. “Okay. Here we go.”

They assumed the position again, but after about thirty seconds, PJ lost it once more, letting out a snorted laugh. He apologized again, got back into place, but it just wasn’t working. Bill paced, thinking. After about five tries he’d reached his limit. “All right, all right, let’s try something else.”

“What are we trying to do?” PJ asked. “I mean, if you tell me — “

“It’s called trust,” Bill answered. “You two have got to trust each other completely if this is going to work.”

“I trust him,” PJ insisted.

“Then kiss him,” Bill shot back.

PJ made a face, then planted a perfunctory peck on Max’s cheek.

“Excellent,” Bill dripped out with sarcasm. “When Max plays your grandmother, that’ll be perfect.”

“Can we just try the scene?” Max asked.

“Fine, let’s just try the scene,” Bill gave up. “Max, come here a second.”

He pulled Max aside, where PJ couldn’t hear them, whispered. “Do me a favor, help snap him out of this for me.”

“How?”

“One word. Tongue.”

“You want me to — “

“If you don’t mind.”

Max laughed, smiled. “Okay. As long as you admit it was your idea, because he’s going to freak out.”

“No problem.”

The actors took their places, kneeling on the bed, arms around each other. Bill sat in the front row, called out, “All right, the lights are off, lights off… maid enters, lights on. Go!”

Max and PJ looked at each other, startled. Significant comedy pause… and then nothing, and then Max took the initiative and flew into the kiss and two seconds later, PJ was jumping away, wiping his mouth.

“Hey, hey. Gross. Jesus, he fucking frenched me.”

“I know,” Bill called out. “I told him to, that’s what his character would do. And yours.”

“No one’s going to see that.”

“I can see it fine from here.”

“Can’t we do a stage kiss?”

“Not in a theatre this size, not if you want this to be the funniest moment in the show. Come on, you want the critics to call you a wimp, PJ?”

“Sorry,” Max whispered.

“Not your fault,” PJ replied.

“Okay, let’s try this one,” Bill stood. “No tongues, but do the kiss and I want you to imagine it’s a wrestling match. Both of you try to push each other off the bed. Got it? Take it again.”

They repeated the scene, but this time the kiss looked different, more real, sort of, the two of them locked together in combat. One of Max’s legs slipped off the bed, but he braced himself against the floor, pushed back. The two of them toppled the other way, sliding to the floor, Max on top. He pinned PJ’s arms, lips still together, but then PJ turned his head away.

“Okay, uncle, you win.”

Max sat up, staying on top of PJ, and turned to Bill.

“How was that?” he asked.

“Better,” Bill said.

“Dude,” PJ called out, “Up, up. You’re busting my nuts.”

Max climbed off and they both sat on the floor, looking at their director, who was looking contemplative.

“Well?” PJ asked.

Bill rattled his fingers on his script, other hand pressed to his lips as he thought about it. He couldn’t recast and change Max’s part to an actress, that would undo too many other threads in the piece. He couldn’t replace PJ. Anybody else would be all wrong for this role. But what to do? Finally, he stood up again, grabbing his briefcase.

“I think I might be the problem here,” he announced. “I’m making you both self-conscious, and that’s unfair of me. So, I’m leaving. But — you still have another hour of rehearsal scheduled, and here’s what I want you two to do. Give each other a backrub. Keep the clothes on, it’s just a stress thing. And while you’re doing it, the massagee is going to tell his life story and answer any questions the massager has.”

He walked to the door, Max and PJ silently nodding, watching him. Before he left, he turned back and said, “I’ll be back in exactly sixty minutes. And remember, it’s all about the show. The play’s the thing, and all that.”

He turned off the houselights as he left, then ran up to the booth and adjusted the lights, dimming them and bringing up the blue gels they still had hung. He waved good-bye to them from the booth, killed the work lights up there, then made sure they heard him exit out the front door, then went down the street for a late bite to eat. The rest was up to them.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post #84: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 1)

In this short story, we visit the world of small theatre in L.A. and one producer/director secretly using the artform to help his actors improve themselves.

Here is the next short story from my collection called 24 Exposures, which I wrote over 20 years ago, the first of three installments. This one is set in the world of small theatre in Los Angeles, something with which I’m very familiar as audience member, writer, techie, and performer.

Opening night and the play was working like a charm. Near the end of the first act, Bill knew he had a success on his hands. He’d cast the leads perfectly, and their big emotional scene was dynamite onstage. They had achieved something beyond chemistry, and the entire audience was riveted in dead silence. That was always the measure of the success of a piece — the cough ‘n shuffle factor, Bill called it. Make an audience stop doing both of those things, and you knew you had them in the palm of your hand.

When the moment finally came, the big moment, when Mark and Loretta suddenly expressed their forbidden love and kissed for the first time, the audience gasped. In the world of Bill’s play, the priest and the nun had just crossed a line, broken taboos, connected… And Bill could see from his vantage point in the booth that these two weren’t just stage kissing. As the fade out on the first act came, Bill smiled to himself. Everything he’d just seen onstage was incredibly real.

As the play ended and the audience applauded the curtain-call, Bill left the booth and went down the dark, warm, narrow hallway, down the hollow-thudding stairs and opened the lobby doors. It was a small place but all his, one of hundreds of small theatres scattered all over Los Angeles. He’d been smart enough to pick a place near the great off-white way in Hollywood, along with all the other small theatres, near a subway station. It was named the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre, in honor of his mother. He wasn’t in this business for fame and riches.

The usher opened the theatre door behind him and the flood of houselights poured forth. The small audience snaked out, cigarettes deploying among the few who smoked as soon as they hit the sidewalk. Bill went back into the theatre where some of the cast were already wandering among the seats, ready to party. “Good show, everyone,” he called out. “Excellent work.”

“Author, author!” someone yelled back. It was Andy, the stage manager.

“What’s next, Little Billy?” That was PJ, one of the actors. Everyone called Bill “Little Billy” because he was six-foot-five.

“Oh, you’ll see,” he said with his best enigmatic grin. He did have a very specific part in mind for PJ, and thought he was ready to tackle it. Bill just hadn’t fine-tuned it all yet, so he didn’t want to tip his hand.

The party was as much of a success as the show, with everyone in a great mood. Somebody took over the sound system and kept an endless techno-beat going, and the company were dancing on the stage or schmoozing in the aisles. Bill looked around the room proudly. There were fifty people in the company, and he felt like they were all his children, even though he was only forty and, while most of them were in their twenties and thirties, there were a number of members older than Bill. Of course, the company felt like a family and quite a lot of them literally became family. They’d had eight marriages, all of them still together; half a dozen gay and two lesbian couples that had met here; and one very Bohemian ménage between two straight actors and a goth actress named Brigid. Yes, the place was incestuous, but in a good way.

Then Bill noticed Mark and Loretta, off in a corner together, his arm around her. It looked like the ninth marriage might be on the way. If not now, then definitely by the end of the run. It always amazed Bill how the veneer created by acting could make two people incredibly intimate insanely quickly. That was the truth highlighted by falsehood, the freedom of disguise. It was the secret of all great acting and all great art — revealing everything while appearing to conceal it.

He spotted PJ, sitting by himself on the edge of the stage, watching the dancers. He was an interesting kid, with a lot of raw talent, recently arrived from one of those flat, green midwestern states. But there was something holding him back so far, a certain timidity whenever parts got too intense, especially if they involved any degree of sexual tension. Bill had no idea what the wall was. Maybe it was just the insecurity of youth. But he was determined to crack it and make PJ a great actor.

Insecurity. That was the word for Donna. She was a walking neurosis machine, and she was off in her own corner, too. Bill didn’t even have to follow her eyeline to know that she was staring at Vince, resident young male romantic lead in the traditional mode. Donna was always staring at Vince when she wasn’t asking anybody she could buttonhole, “Do you think… does Vince like me?” It was as annoying as hell, but Bill knew better than to tell her the obvious because she’d crack like an egg. He’d seen the result once when Loretta had finally snapped at Donna.

“Why don’t you just fucking ask him instead of all of us?”

Donna fled the theatre in tears that time. She was a champion at fleeing in tears. Bill would have to write that into a play soon.

He really wanted to do something to help her, but he knew that telling Vince about her obsession would be risky. Then again, how could he not know about it? Everyone knew everything here. Or most everything. But Donna had reached the point in her delusion that she was saying things like, “He’s a Libra and I’m a Cancer. That’s a good match.”

But how would she ever know…?

Maybe that was the problem. People never wanted to know the answers to their most burning questions. Certainty would leave an unfillable vacuum behind, and fire can’t burn in a vacuum. Bill knew that every question answered always led to more, and those often led to interesting adventures, but that was a lesson he preferred not to force on people. Such things were always better discovered than revealed.

But Donna had spotted him and swooped, and now she was standing there, eyes darting to the floor when they weren’t staring at him with bothersome intensity. There was chit chat, mixed with random compliments, then the inevitable Vince question. “Do you think he’d go out with me?”

“Donna,” Bill gave her his most encouraging smile, “Why wouldn’t he? Have you asked him out?”

“Oh, he doesn’t know I exist.” She said more, she always did, but Bill wasn’t listening. He was already working on the next play in his head.

Bill’s eyes wandered and he saw PJ, who had been cornered by Natalie. She was talking and he was mostly listening, often gazing past her at the dance floor, at nothing in particular. But no, Bill knew, it was someone in particular. He could just never figure out whom. PJ was very sly about that — it was impossible to tell which company member had caught his eye, and he was as reluctant to approach as Donna.

Well, at least he didn’t talk about it. But Bill was going to figure it out. And he’d figure out a way to solve that acting problem, too.

But he had half of his next play cast already.

* * *

Gloria O’Ferral was Irish as far back as anyone knew. Her great-grandfather and his brother had arrived in the nineteenth century, via Ellis island. The name had originally been Farrelly, but underwent an immediate metamorphosis upon arrival.

Contrary to popular myth, though, the names were not changed by disinterested employees on Ellis island. Rather, the immigrants self-reported and, depending on circumstances, that could lead to big changes right there. Some were illiterate and couldn’t even spell their names, so you might wind up with Connelly, Conelly, Connelloy, Conley, Coneley, and so on in the same family.

Others wanted to sound less foreign, so a name like Schmidt might become Smith. Still others were proud of their heritage, and that was the case with Gloria’s ancestor, who proudly added the O’ prefix that his family did not have, then simplified the rest. Farrelly became O’Ferral.

Meanwhile, his brother couldn’t spell the name in Gaelic, where it had about four hundred letters, half of them “H,” so he just simplified it and scrawled it out the way he thought it was spelled in English, so he became a Fearl. Of course, they were both dead now…

As was Gloria O’Ferral. That had been thanks to a little sloppiness at the dialysis center she’d been going to, and their failure to completely purge the cleaning fluid out of a machine before jacking it into her. Ironically, she died half an hour before her pager went off announcing a kidney had been found. Bill, only child, widowed, orphaned, had finally been encouraged by his friends to pursue a lawsuit, and the payoff (after attorneys and taxes) had still been like winning the lottery.

He bought his dream, the theatre, and his other dream, a house, and still had enough left in the bank to live like a corporate executive on investment interest alone for the rest of his life. It had driven the dialysis center into bankruptcy, which was only the cherry on top of a sundae whose sweetness could never make up for the bitter dish in which it was served. But Bill could make up for it and would make up for it. His theatre was more than a hobby or a vanity project. It was a mission.

When his attorney had handed him the check and Bill counted the zeroes, an amazing thing happened. All of Bill’s fear and doubt vaporized. He didn’t have to do it anymore, didn’t have to justify himself to the world. He didn’t have to need or want, he didn’t have to kiss someone else’s ass. There was only one thing to do with that kind of windfall. Share it.

He invited his five closest friends to dinner a week after he got the payoff, and under their dessert plates, each of them found a check for two hundred thousand dollars. Two months later, he was showing off his new house and three months after that, was giving a tour of the theatre just before it opened. They were not a huge commercial success at first, but word of mouth started to spread, and eventually they were selling out. The location didn’t hurt, either. It became easy to get actors to join the company. Then again, it was always easy. Bill didn’t charge any dues, and the word “free” was thespian catnip.

And in two years, they had a thriving, happy company and the theatre critics only had to say “at the O’Ferral,” and everybody knew where that was.

Another show over, and Bill was spending his days writing the next one. That was how he liked to work. Concentrate on one project from beginning to end, then let it go after opening night and dive into the next one. He’d have a good first draft finished by the time this six-week run was over, or extend the run if he wasn’t ready yet. Then, he’d work it with the actors for two or three weeks, polish it up and start rehearsal. There would always be another play running during this process, but Bill left those to Andy to choose and direct, reserving only the right of casting approval for himself.

That was the key to it all for him — casting. He’d actually postponed plays if a particular actor wasn’t available. He was always very specific in his writing.

The next play was a romantic comedy. That was also in keeping with his pattern, since the previous play had been a tragedy. It was going to be something of a bedroom farce, involving three couples, lots of entrances and exits and missed cues and misunderstandings, with everything resolving itself at the end. Vince was a natural for the lead, and so was Donna. Anyway, Bill was always encouraging her to do comedy, and this was the perfect chance.

PJ had the doe-eyed innocence that made ribald situations even more amusing. Maybe Mark and Loretta would want to play the other couple. That just left one part open, the role that would be paired ultimately with PJ’s character. At the moment, Bill didn’t have a clue who to pick. He didn’t know enough about how this play would end, and that often dictated a character more than anything else.

He was still wondering about it a week later when they had a reading in the theatre of one of the plays Andy wanted to do. PJ was in the audience and Bill mentioned the role for him at intermission. PJ was excited about it, wondering who he’d be playing with. Bill told him he wasn’t sure yet, asked if PJ had anybody he wanted to work with.

“What about Brigid?” he asked.

“Hm…” Bill pretended to think about it, but Brigid was all wrong. A goth was already comic enough and he was doing farce, not satire. Besides, he was waiting until he could cast her as Lord Byron’s doomed sister, Augusta.

It was after the show, during the milling around time, that Bill noticed PJ off talking to Max. That’s when it hit him, and the play solved itself before his very eyes. Of course. If he matched up two actors as the third couple, then the comic implications multiplied. Suddenly, anybody could be suspect with anybody else. It was perfect. As he wove the knots in his mind, they all collided to form the tapestry with the answer. Yes. Start out with the male couple not knowing they’re gay, and using that complication to drive the other two couples together, apart and back together again.

He rushed out of the party and upstairs to his office, where he locked the door, turned on the coffee pot and started his frantic typing.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #61: The Rêves Part 39

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. We’re close to the end, with only two chapters after this one.

Septennials

Many media outlets had dubbed the incident The Day of the Dead, although there were also a lot of objections to this phrase, which was essentially cultural appropriation. Other media outlets preferred to use The Resurrection, while social media had a number of references: Heaven’s Last Call, Tomb Evaders, Coco Oh-no! and the probably inevitable Forest Lawn of the Dead.

In the first year after the incident, things changed a lot, some good and some bad. From the beginning, a lot of religious groups took it as the literal Resurrection of the dead that heralded the End Times, but for a lot of them it made no sense, because certain events had to happen first, and they hadn’t.

Three schools of thought on it emerged. One was based on the idea that no one could know the hour of Jesus’ return and that he’d come like a thief in the night, so it didn’t matter whether this Resurrection fit in with all of their hypotheses and prophecies. That wasn’t for humans to decide, so it was absolutely the real deal.

A second group took exactly the opposite tack: This did not fit their theology at all, so something was wrong. Their pastors and scholars had studied the Bible deeply, and had mapped out exactly what would happen when. Since this incident didn’t occur when it was supposed to in the grand scheme of things, it must have been the work of Satan, and all of the resurrected were actually demons. This group sought to have them all hunted down and eliminated.

The third group also believed that it was the Resurrection proper, but went off the rails to the extreme. While there were not as many members of this category, there were still enough that there was a substantial jump in mass suicides among families and small congregations who figured that there was no point in waiting around anymore, since they had already seen others brought back in the flesh.

Meanwhile, after about six months, scientists had a pretty good idea of what had happened, especially after a stunned government allowed a select team access to all of Ausmann’s files, as well as to Joshua and Simon, who had been intimately involved.

Of course, none of the cameras in the complex had been on at the time, so their story was that Ausmann had gone a little crazy — backed up by evidence from both the Simi Valley PD and the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Office — and while giving some insane rant from that top platform about using the machine to take over the world had slipped and fallen.

Since he’d been keeping Joshua and Simon at bay at the bottom with a gun at the time, they weren’t able to save him. Presumably, the gun had been vaporized along with the hand and arm that had been holding it when Ausmann fell through the plasma stream.

The end result was a 900-page report detailing all of the science, and which nobody in the government could even begin to understand outside of the science wonks, but Congress Peoples’ eyes would just glaze over whenever those wonks spoke, so the real content of the report only got through to a few.

Joshua, Simon, and the authors knew the whole story. Outside of that circle, it was heavily redacted, particularly to eliminate any mention of a machine designed to send messages back in time. That was a highly classified secret.

What was allowed out was an explanation that the machine had generated exotic matter in an effort to figure out what dark matter and dark energy were, how they interacted with regular matter, and what effect gravity had on them.

It was a completely bullshit explanation of purposes that a lot of physicists both astro- and quantum had picked up on immediately, but they also understood that the real reasons probably couldn’t be unveiled, and so kept their silence, at least publicly.

When it finally dripped down to the popular science media before becoming completely distorted in the laymen’s press, the story was that this exotic matter experiment had set up resonating wave fronts that, in effect, made people hallucinate projections of their own memories, which was why there were a combination of dead celebrities and people with living friends.

As for the physical resurrection of people, that happened when the machine was damaged, and this was the only point where they invoked time travel, but not as an intentional effect. Rather, when the generator broke down, the exotic matter briefly converted into something that in turn caused a “local temporal anomaly,” which is what de-aged the living LEOs up at JPL, and physically brought back the corpses in all the cemeteries within certain areas.

When it hit trash rags like the NY Post and The Daily Mail, the headlines were things like, “Science Smash the Dead to Life,” or “Atom-Smasher Accident Brings Back Your Gran.”

Naturally, all kinds of conspiracy theories popped up in the aftermath, including a group calling themselves the 9/2 Truthers (or 9tooTru, as their logo and T-shirts read), clearly taking inspiration from another totally discredited group from over twenty years before — although, to be fair, they did manage to dance around the hole in the donut, mainly the lack of references to working and intentional time-travel in the final report, mainly because they didn’t have access to that.

Where they went totally wrong, though, was insisting that the whole thing had been an intentional government plot to create a “resurrection beam” as well as fountain of youth, and what had happened was supposed to be a small, controlled test that got out of hand.

At least that final report had assuaged the fears of those who were not religious and had no idea what to make of it all. But it still left the problem of dealing with all the extra new people. Even if they didn’t need to eat or take up resources like that, they still needed shelter and a way to pay for it.

The County had greenlit and set up Brenda’s new Department of Post After-Care Entry Services almost immediately — and yes, the acronym was PACE, as in Requiescat in Pace, or Rest in Peace. They set up her offices in Culver City in a 32,000 square foot warehouse that had formerly hosted the county’s Internal Services Department. On the one hand, she wasn’t all that happy about it being a huge, windowless place. On the other, it was directly adjacent to Holy Cross Cemetery, which was ridiculously appropriate.

It was also a really short commute from home, although she could work remotely quite a lot. Within a month of everything being opened and the space allocated, she went to work getting it converted.

It would be a combination of intake/interview center, resource warehouse providing mostly clothing to their clients (accommodating any era-based, cultural, or religious preferences they had), as well as a temporary shelter. This was also where their social media and marketing offices were located, with a final corner of the old warehouse serving as a transit bay for the various shuttles that would take their clients to their new housing and jobs as assistants to the various historians, librarians, and archivists working all over the city.

They also kept their eyes out for certain very necessary lost skills in the modern age. For example, anyone who happened to know the programming language COBOL was immediately referred to high-end government work at various levels, since so many government computers were so old that they still ran it.

Oh, that wasn’t a function of government being out-of-touch, though. Quite the opposite. Part of it was because the scale of government would make updating hardware and software on the same schedule that people replaced iPhones ridiculously expensive and time-consuming.

Add on top of that continuity gaps in service and retraining people in new software and hardware, it was an undertaking to only be carried out every few decades and, even then, only one department at a time, very carefully.

The other big reason for not modernizing was that if no one knew how to code in the language, then no one knew how to hack it.

The drawback, of course, was that untangling the code, simplifying it, and making internal updates could only be done by the people who knew it.

There were some other “ancient” talents that were the new hot jobs to have, at least for the Rêves — who now called themselves Revivants — and Brenda’s people were tasked with keeping their eyes out for those.

One that nobody had to spot came directly to Brenda. It was Anabel, who expressed her true admiration for what Brenda had done. This surprised her, because what few interactions she had had with Anabel made her think that she disdained humans.

But Anabel had a plan and a request. She was very happy that Brenda was helping her kind back into society, but Anabel also felt that she had something to offer, and she described her vast and successful business experience, which blew Brenda away.

For one thing, she knew how young Anabel was when she had originally died. But she also knew that women were still fighting for the right to vote, and didn’t even get it until not long before Anabel did die. So she just assumed that a woman of the era wouldn’t have had any experience in business, beyond maybe typing letters and sending telegrams for some Wizard of Wall Street.

Experience shared, Anabel went on with her plan. She wanted to help the female Revivants who had only ever been trapped in domestic roles to break out of them by teaching them business skills, considering that the field was a lot more open to women now.

She reasoned that the basic psychology of business and marketing that she had intuited hadn’t changed because people hadn’t. Where she needed Brenda’s help, beyond making the connections, was in borrowing people to train these women in the modern tools they would need to use Anabel’s universal techniques for success.

Anabel could speak the language of the formerly dead women of the past, and translate the jargon of the social media and computer kiddies to them as well. If anything, it would become a sort of trade school intensive that would help re-integrate these women back into society, and at a higher level than they could have ever dreamed of the first time around.

Brenda didn’t even have to think twice. “Done!” she said. “I’ll just have to find a property where you can set up shop, and then assign you some of my social media and marketing people. Oh, hang on…”

She picked up her phone and dialed. “Stacey, who do we have in our vocational training department who’s really good at developing curriculum…? Uh-huh, yeah. She’d be amazing. Is she here today…? Great. Can you send her to my office? Thanks!”

She hung up. “Step number one. Design your course.”

Brenda’s door was open, so the woman in question strolled right in, all positive energy. “Howdy,” she announced, “What can I do you for?”

She was an older woman with a cascade of curly gray and black hair that tumbled down her head and well past her shoulders, with a friendly face and metal-rimmed glasses with circular lenses. Anabel liked her instantly. Of course, she had that effect on a lot of people.

“Anabel, this is Simone. Simone, Anabel is a Revivant I met before the incident. She has an amazing idea for a course to train women in business and marketing, and I want you to help her plan the curriculum. I’ve assigned her to the USC satellite office.”

“Fantastic,” Simone gushed. “I really look forward to working with you, Anabel,” she said. “When do we start?” she asked Brenda.

“You already have,” Brenda replied, grabbing a page that came out of her printer and handing it over. “Here’s the office info. Pick up the keys in operations. If you need it, I’ll have a driver take you both, and thank you so much for doing this.”

“Don’t mention it!” Simone said.

Anabel’s program turned out to be one of the most successful, and it was amazing how well the women she trained took to what she taught them. More than a few of them at some point would have the “A-ha!” moment. “This was exactly how I manipulated my husband into doing what I wanted while making him think it was his idea…”

“And that, ladies, is marketing!” Anabel would announce whenever the thought came up. “Or to put it in more modern terms: Sex sells. Well, the promise of sex, anyway.” There would always be nervous but knowing laughter after this.

Within a year, Brenda’s department had made a huge dent in re-integrating everyone, and she had been written up in countless publications, both internal government and business pubs, and in the mainstream media.

“The Woman Giving New Life to the Dead” was a common theme.

Despite her initial reluctance, Jonah and Esme urged her to get out more into the public eye and become the face of the department, and pretty soon she was the go-to expert anytime a reporter was writing a story about the Revivants, and then anytime any major media outlet was doing a piece on the same.

She started to get requests to appear on talk shows and balked until her mother sat her down and talked some sense into her.

“Do you not realize what a gigantic opportunity this is?” she said. “They are begging you to come on as the expert in your field. And when white people are begging a woman of color to do that, you do that. No ifs, ands, or buts. You elevate yourself, you elevate us all.”

Esme’s sincerity and intensity almost brought Brenda to tears, but then she replied, “The only reason I’m reluctant is because I don’t want my kids dragged into this.”

“Why would they be?” Esme asked.

“For one thing, Malia is kind of newsworthy. Especially since her doctors okayed starting hormone replacement therapy in about a month.”

“And if they bring her up?” Esme snapped back. “Simple. First, tell them that she’s got nothing to do with this. Second, tell them that if they’re trying to use her status in any way to paint you as a failed parent, they are wrong as hell, and turn it around. Ask them why they wouldn’t support their own child 100% in any of their decisions. That’ll put them on the ropes.”

“I can handle their bullshit, Mom,” Brenda said. “But what about Malia? If she sees herself being trashed in the media — ”

“Oh, child,” Esme replied. “I spend a lot of time with my granddaughter, and you want to know a secret? She is one of the strongest people I have ever met. She has long since learned the power of not caring what other people think about her, and if you don’t rip all them all new assholes for going after her, she will do it herself with a vengeance. That girl has got some salty in her.”

“Really?” Brenda just said, stunned.

“Well, why the hell not?” Esme replied. “She’s her mama’s daughter — and you are my daughter. We are one tough bunch of biddies, and you know it.”

“Well, okay then,” Brenda finally agreed. “If you believe in me, then I believe in me.”

“You better believe it,” Esme smiled at her.

Right after that, Brenda checked in with Rita, who hooked her up with a major Hollywood talent agency as well as the County Communications and Social Media Department, and then the bookings came fast and furious.

Over the next few years, she became a regular guest on talk shows left and right, as well as getting called on regularly to do stand-up news interviews after various events, both positive and negative, effecting the Revivant community.

A couple of years in, she tried to contact Joshua and Simon to see if they’d help out, but she could only get hold of Danny and Preston, who were kind of vague and only explained that the other two were off on some fact-finding mission and impossible to reach.

It would be years before she suddenly heard from the twins again out of the blue, but what they had to tell her was going to be very exciting news. She had asked the boys how they were doing, and while they didn’t provide specifics, they did mention that they were finding great success as entertainers.

Elsewhere, there were two performers for whom it hadn’t been so easy: Lewis and Davis. Or sometimes Davis and Lewis. They had gone through a year of improv classes with an excellent teacher and amazing classmates, but, for them, it just wasn’t clicking.

Each of them had their strengths and weaknesses, but they did not add up to a sum greater than the parts. When it came to anything with words, like rhyming and pun games, Davis would just freeze up and, for the life of her, not even be able to rhyme a word like “cat.”

The concept of puns eluded her completely, while Lewis could reel them off one after the other, effortlessly. He could also rhyme like a son-of-bitch on wheels.

But… when it came to scene games, which were all about building stories with characters, that was where Davis excelled, and Lewis just went flat. Davis could remember everything that was set up, while Lewis could remember nothing.

So Davis would walk into a scene in which “Jill” and “Susan” were established as sisters working on their glove farm in Oregon and glue herself to those names and concepts and build on them, but Lewis would go into a scene, even one where both characters had named each other at least three times, and immediately address “Bill” as “George” and “Ken” as “Keith,” and then also completely forget the relationship and insert a new one.

That could get awkward if, for example, Bill and George were father and son, but in Lewis’ mind, Ken and Keith were a couple. He was what improvisers quietly referred to among themselves as a “platform killer.”

After about six months, they both despaired of ever becoming the next Nichols and May, but then an off-hand comment during the warm-down huddle after a class changed everything.

One of their classmates, Ryan, mentioned that he’d started taking stand-up classes at a nearby theater, and another one, Tyler, chimed in to say that he was taking the same class and it was great.

Davis and Lewis made sure to catch up with the two of them as they all walked out the stage door, and asked them about the class. As it turned out, there was a new session starting in two weeks.

“So… for this, you write your shit out in advance?” Lewis asked.

“Of course,” Ryan explained. “It’s all about honing your story-telling and refining your jokes and your persona.”

“Hey, if they can make my sorry ass funny,” Tyler said, “They can do it for anyone.”

“Oh, honey,” Davis told him, “Your ass is far from sorry. I happened to think that you are totally hilarious.”

“Really?” he asked.

“Yes, duh,” she insisted.

She took down the information, and the next day she and her husband contacted the teacher and signed up. They were a little sad when they had to email their improv teacher to tell him that they wouldn’t be continuing, but Rick was an understanding guy, told them that he totally got it, and wished them luck.

Six months after their first stand-up class, they entered a beginner’s comedy competition at the club Flappers in Burbank — and Ryan was one of their competitors. They did a couple’s act in which they talked about their marriage, but each of them with obviously differing points of view and complete blindness to the other person’s — and it brought down the fucking house.

They took first place, then started to do the premium Friday and Saturday 8 p.m. gigs around town, took their act toward a political bent by pretending to support different presidential candidates starting around June (they didn’t, they were on the same side), and wound up being invited to do their thing on SNL’s October 2024 premiere as a feature in the opening sketch.

After that, the offers came left and right, but so did the press attention, once their former lives as cops combined with their de-aging during the incident came to light, but there was the downside, because the little revelation that they were a pair of fifty-somethings who only appeared to be in their mid-20s thanks to a lucky accident brought out the resentment in people.

It died down a bit leading up to and after the election, and they dropped the dueling politics aspect right after, but then decided to address the other part head-on. They spent the rest of the year figuring out how to write funny about their situation, and brought Ryan, Tyler, and their teacher into it, as well as continuing to take classes.

They even went back to improv, and while Davis still couldn’t rhyme or pun for shit, Lewis had suddenly gotten a lot better at listening and doing scene games. After about three years, they both managed to audition and join the main company, and a couple of years after that, an agent approached them after a show.

“You two have really got something,” he told them. “You’re probably way too young, but you remind me of Nichols and May.”

Davis and Lewis shot each other a look, their smiles telling each other to not give it away. “Really?” Davis said. “We don’t know who they are, but what are you thinking?”

He presented his card and said, “I book some of the major showrooms in Vegas, and we’re always in need of opening acts for the headliners. It might include having to relocate, for at least part of the year, but given your talent, I’m sure we could work something mutually lucrative out.”

Lewis and Davis exchanged another look, then turned back to the booker. “Hit us,” they said.

He gave them the paperwork and a week. Four days later, they had signed and were scheduled to do their first shows in two weeks. They would regularly be taken by limo to Burbank Airport and flown the half-hour to Vegas, put up in whatever hotel owned the showroom, then do their opening act for six nights plus a matinee (the non-filthy version) before being flown back to L.A. for two weeks.

Lather, rinse, repeat, ridiculous paycheck.

After a year or two of this, they got a gig being the audience warm-up act for Penn & Teller’s Fool Us, and that became the game changer. It was a lot more money spread over a shorter shooting schedule, and with better accommodations.

They even worked up an act where Davis played Penn and Lewis played Teller and they mocked the relationship as an old married couple. They were nervous as hell when they first presented it, but the real Penn & Teller laughed their asses off, taught the duo a couple of stage illusions, and let them loose on warming up the audience.

They eventually went from warm-up act for the TV show to opening act for the main stage show, in which Lewis played an arrogant, know-it-all magician, and Davis played the mostly silent assistant who was clearly the actually talented one, and the big joke of the act was the audience slowly realizing that the magician would have fucked up every single trick if the assistant hadn’t suddenly helped him.

It was a total crowd-pleaser and got rave reviews.

What was even more amazing was that by this point Teller was in his early 80s and Penn was in his mid-70s, and neither one of them showed a single sign of slowing down.

Then again, neither Lewis nor Davis had shown the slightest hint of aging since that particular “incident” at JPL which was now about seven years ago.

Coraline never knew enough to realize the irony that the same incident that had brought her back to physical life was also the one that had taken her (former?) husband out of it permanently. But when she finally made her way home the first time after a couple of weeks to find a completely vacant lot, she wasn’t sure what to do.

Her first instinct was to visit her daughter, Gretchen, which she immediately realized was a bad idea when she answered the bell, opened the door, screamed and fainted. Her husband, Henry, hurried into the foyer to see what happened, took one look at Coraline and just stared.

“Um… hello?” Coraline offered.

“You’re one of them, aren’t you?” he asked.

“One of…?” she replied.

“One of those abominations from hell,” he shot back before slamming the door in her face.

“Rude!” she thought, so then she went to her son’s house. When he opened the door, Valentin seemed a bit more accepting of her, but there was still a certain wariness in his attitude.

“Mom,” he exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”

“My house isn’t exactly livable right now,” she explained. “And has anyone mentioned that your father killed me?”

“What?” Valentin exclaimed. “Oh, crap.”

“Yeah, that’s a good description.”

“No, not that… we’ve already filed probate, since Dad left wills for both of you, and we found out a couple of days after the whole… thing that he’s dead, too.”

“Oh,” she replied with no feeling. “Was it painful?”

“They kind of only found bits of him from the tits up and thighs down.”

Coraline tried not to laugh.

“Anyway,” Valentin went on, “That’s kind of a done deal, because in the wills, everything went first to whichever one of you survived, and then next fifty-fifty to me and Gretchen. That included any property or possessions or, since those clearly aren’t a thing anymore, any insurance benefits. It’s already been settled.”

“But, I guess there’s a hitch now,” Coraline replied. “Because I’m not quite that dead anymore, so it sounds like everything should go to me, since I survived.”

“Except that you and your kind are not considered legally alive, Mom. Sorry. But that’s how it goes.”

“So… that’s it? You have nothing to offer you mother who’s been put through this ordeal of being murdered and then brought back to have nothing?”

“Um… I hate to say it, Mom, but you and Dad were never the best parents in the world. He was totally abusive to us, and you just let it happen.”

“Because he was just as abusive to me!” she exclaimed. “Couldn’t you see that?”

“No,” he replied. “What? It’s hard to see someone else’s abuse when all you see is your own. You two totally fucked it up raising us. Gretchen and I haven’t spoken in years, although I suspect that her husband beats her. But I can’t force myself to care. And when I heard the news that Dad was dead? I felt an enormous sense of relief. No, almost joy. May that motherfucker rot in hell!”

“Valentin!” Coraline snapped. “This is not the man we raised you to be!”

“Oh, no, Mother. This is exactly the man you raised me to be. I finally pulled the lever and hit the jackpot with those wills, you don’t have a legal leg to stand on, and you can just fuck right off. Have a nice day.”

He smiled and gently closed the door.

Coraline didn’t know what to do, so she wandered, but the closer she got to L.A. itself, the more she suddenly started having feelings, like voices in her head, telling her, “Find Brenda!”

She had no idea what that meant until Anabel suddenly appeared next to her. “Family problems, huh?” she asked. “You need to talk to my friend.”

Coraline hooked up with Brenda, and the first thing she managed was freezing all assets and payments Valentin and Gretchen were scheduled to receive — they hadn’t gotten the checks yet — and then setting County lawyers off to prove that Ausmann had died and Coraline was not dead. It took about four years, during which time Coraline studied with Anabel and started her own business.

Eventually, she collected on all of Ausmann’s life and property insurance, reminded Valentine and Gretchen’s husband of their reactions when they came sniffing for their slice, and used her new-found fortune to retire to a nice little ten-acre ranch in 29 Palms.

Coraline had had to deal with being dead and trying to prove herself alive again, but it was just as difficult for the LEOs at JPL, who had abruptly dropped three decades in age.

Once it became public knowledge that there were a number of officers between the ages of just under 31 and about 42 who had suddenly been turned into anything from newborns to 12-year-olds, actions had been taken to either find their actual parents, or to find families to take them in.

All along, no one ever questioned how they managed to retain their memories all the way into how long they’d lived, but that was probably a good thing, because the scientists who had studied it knew exactly how. To explain it would be to reveal too much, because it was all wrapped around the idea that the machine could send thoughts and concepts back in time, which it had when it failed.

In essence, even as it dredged up the hardware via the physical bodies, it downloaded the last back-up, which was the one in their heads either right before the LEOs were de-aged, or the last time a Rêve hung out with humans or any other entity giving them any kind of input.

Again, no one outside of the land of science ever thought to ask that, so social workers did what they could, but this also meant that Schrantz was a bit SOL, being apparently too old for the criteria.

What she did get was temporary housing, a promise of disability pay until she had returned to adulthood, and an ancient cell phone that wasn’t even smart, but at least wasn’t a flip. It was an early 00s slider.

While she got the housing, she wasn’t going to see any money until Congress ironed out the whole deal on how to declare people no longer dead, and she wasn’t holding her breath, so she finally gave in and called her parents in Indianapolis, and got both of them talking on the same cell phone speaker.

They had seen the news stories and heard mention of her agency being involved, and had been beside themselves. She spent the first half hour reassuring them that she was fine, mostly, before she broke the big news about her now much younger status.

“So, it’s kind of weird,” she went on, “But I’m like this adult teenager in limbo, until Congress figures out how to classify us. I’m wondering, then, can I come home and live with you both again until this all resolves itself? Or five years, whichever comes first.”

There was a long silence on the other end, and then her mother spoke. “Of course you can, dear,” she said. “But… can we tell everyone that you’re our niece or something?”

“Why’s that?” Schrantz asked.

“Been a lot of bad blood out here between the living and the undead,” her father replied in his unvarnished way. “Not that we actually have any undead here. But mother and I wouldn’t want you getting killed or anything,” he continued. “I mean, if that’s possible.”

“I’m not ‘undead,’” she reminded them. “Just… unaged.”

“We know that,” he continued, “But people in these parts are not the most critical of thinkers, and you popped up at the same time, so you’re all the same in their minds. But sure, of course we’ll take you in.”

“Of course, dear,” her mother continued. “How soon can you be here?”

“Well, that’s the other thing,” Schrantz sighed. “I kind of need a ticket to ride, as the Beatles said. Bus, plane, train, some cousin I’ve never met who’s driving that way…”

“Right,” her mother replied, her father obviously sighing heavily in the background. “But, how are you going to get on most of those when your ID probably doesn’t match what you look like now? I mean, if that whole de-aging thing is true.”

Schrantz froze and looked at the screen. “Shit!” she finally muttered.

“I think you can still do the bus,” her mother went on. “Although you do have a cousin who’s about to drive out here.”

“Really?” Schrantz asked. “Who?”

“You remember Tommy?” her mother asked.

Schrantz did, and her immediate reaction was to say “Oh hell noes,” but she didn’t, because all of her negative reactions to him had happened, oddly enough, before the time she’d aged into the form she was stuck with now.

And the more she thought about it, while those moments had been creepy, they had also not really been rapey either. Then again, he was the same age as her, which she wasn’t now, so she didn’t know what to say.

“I’ll give him a chance, Mom,” she finally replied, “But he used to be really creepy, so if I say no to him — ”

“Understood, dear,” her mother replied. “I think you’ll find that he’s changed.”

“Whatevs,” Schrantz thought, but she finally told her mom to send him along. What’s the worst that could happen? She could easily dick-punch him into the next county if she wanted and if he tried any crap, since she’d been trained in that.

All her worries vanished when he pulled up to her place and hopped out of his car, a Toyota Yaris with a huge rainbow flag sticker on the back. He certainly had changed since the days of being a creepy youth. He was tall, thin, all glowed up, a bit on the flamboyant side, and a very snappy dresser.

“Cousin Becky!” he cried out. “Look at you, girl. I remember you at that age. And I remember you a lot older.”

“I didn’t think I’d seen you since I was about fourteen.”

“We were both at grandma Remy’s funeral,” he explained, “Although we didn’t talk because I didn’t stay for much of it. It was right before I came out to the family, so I wasn’t in the mood to be social just then.”

“Well, you’ve certainly changed,” she said.

“Nah, I haven’t changed. I just burst from my cocoon into a beautiful butterfly. Now, come on, baby girl. We’ve got some driving to do to get you home.”

They loaded her stuff into the car — she had stored or sold almost everything, although she had to rely on a friend on the force who hadn’t de-aged to handle renting the storage and arranging movers.

They took a few days to drive back to Indiana, staying in nice hotels when they stopped — and always two separate rooms. Tommy explained up front that Schrantz’s parents had paid for everything and reserved the rooms online.

He finally got her home and stayed for the evening and the next day socializing with his aunt and uncle, then continued on his way. As for Schrantz, she finally did wind up living at home for the next five years. Somewhere during that, although not soon enough, the governments involved finally got the whole restoration of personhood thing sorted, and she began to collect her permanent disability benefits from San Bernardino County and the state of California, despite not living in the state, which was a thoughtful exemption they’d included.

Once she’d been declared a person again and had her prior information restored, she used her graduate degrees in Law and Criminal Science to get into a PhD program and, while she couldn’t qualify for Quantum Physics like she’d wanted to, she did get into a PhD program in Quantum Ethics, finishing the program as part of the class of 2030, at the technical age of 20 going on 50.

She would never know the irony: She had gone into exactly the same field that had brought Ausmann to Operation Slingback in the first place.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #59: The Rêves Part 37

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. In this one, the shit hits the fan.

Zero Hour

Simon and the Boys made sure that Joshua was up well before seven in the morning, although Joshua himself was uncharacteristically ready to go. At seven on the dot, he called Brenda.

“Hi, Josh,” she answered when she picked up in the middle of the first ring. “Construction barriers have been set up on all freeway routes into Pasadena, with at least three-mile detours before off-ramps, but which will lead to really complicated street routes back, and we’ve also shut down all Metro stations in all of Pasadena.”

“Wow,” Joshua replied. Thanks! So… once you re-open, how long will it take people to get to us?”

“Usual time,” Brenda said. “Which is why we’re not going to open until you tell us to. The only complication might be Federal agents, but we can at least provide them with enough union rule headaches to stall them for half an hour or so.”

“Great,” Joshua said. “So, we are going to send the message and go pick up the package. Thanks!”

“You too. Good luck!” Brenda hung up and Joshua dialed Ausmann’s burner.

It took him a few rings to pick up before he answered with a terse, “Yeah?”

“Hey, Assman,” Joshua replied in high spirits, “We’ve got Lorre, he can definitely tell you how to destroy the Rêves, and it’s go time. We can be there to pick you up in half an hour or less.”

“What do you mean ‘pick me — ’”

Joshua didn’t let him finish. “You heard me,” he said. “It’s for your own protection.”

“How the hell do you even know where I am?” he demanded.

“Because we have spies,” Joshua said. “What? You thought that turning my husband into one of them wouldn’t have consequences?”

“Oh, goddamn you!” Ausmann spat.

“No, dear,” Joshua replied glibly. “God has already damned you. Now get ready, because we’re going to be there really soon. Bye!”

Joshua hung up and the four of them headed downstairs and piled into the Tesla. Joshua drove — of course — and they were actually in DTLA and at the Alexandria hotel in about eighteen minutes — the advantages of a traffic-free Saturday because most people had already fled the city for the holiday.

Preston and Danny took advantage of their physical state to skip the elevators and head on up, while Simon also begged off of the elevator, but promised he’d wait for Joshua upstairs. Joshua took the slow human transit and, when he arrived, found Simon true to his word.

They went to Ausmann’s door — the boys had told them the number — but before they could knock, they heard a lot of commotion inside.

“Fuck it,” Joshua said, moving to ram the door open, but Simon stopped him and pushed his way through it, unlocking it from inside.

Joshua’s entrance startled the other occupants — Simon, Danny, and Ausmann.

“All right,” Joshua called out. “Fucking freeze. We are here to take you back to JPL in order to do what you need to do to end the Rêves. Okay?”

“What makes you think I want to go back there?” Ausmann demanded.

“Because it’s the only place you can do what you want to,” Joshua explained.

“What if I don’t believe you?”

“Well, then,” Joshua replied, approaching him, “I believe that the term is… oh, what is it?” He quickly swung up his arm and jammed the high voltage Taser into Ausmann’s shoulder, bringing him to the ground. “Oh yeah. Right. Bringing you into custody in a subdued state. Boys?”

Simon, Danny, and Preston merged together and picked up Ausmann’s unconscious body. They dumped it in the convenient wheelchair, and then the three-in-one of them rolled it out and down the hall, letting Joshua take it into the elevator.

They all reconvened in the lobby, got Ausmann out to the guest parking lot three stories down, then dumped his ass in the trunk, shut the lid, and set off for JPL.

They made their way out of downtown via the 110 and then the 2, heading almost due north. As they approached the 210, Joshua saw the brilliance of what Brenda had done — the entire interchange between it and the 2 was shut down, allegedly for construction, traffic being rerouted off the freeways in all directions.

Joshua pulled up to one of the workers standing by a barrier and rolled down the window. Danny and Preston were hiding in Simon again so that he would appear like a normal human and not draw any attention.

“Road’s closed,” the man said, but then Joshua showed him the credentials Brenda had sent him on his phone. The man pulled a device from his tool belt, scanned it, then nodded and whistled loudly.

He was soon directing some of his men and they quickly lifted one of the concrete rails and moved it out of the way. One of the other men waved Joshua and he drove through, onto the completely deserted 210.

“Wow,” he said to Simon. “Want to see what this thing can really do?”

“I’ve seen what your thing can really do. Besides, you don’t want to overshoot the exit.”

“Party-pooper,” Joshua teased him. But it was true. They were at the exit to Oak Grove Drive in no time. Joshua drove up, but not directly onto the campus. Instead, he pulled up outside of the emergency exit they had used the last time they left.

Simon took a still groggy Ausmann out of the trunk and carried him to the door, which is when Simon realized that it had no keypad or keyhole on the outside, Danny and Preston slipping out of him once he had put Ausmann down.

Meanwhile, Joshua did a quick search of the neighborhood, found a safe residential street nearby with no parking limits, and sent the Tesla off to park and wait until he called it back.

When he got there, Ausmann was starting to focus, and he looked at the door.

“We can’t get in from this fucking side, you idiots!” he spat at them.

“True,” Simon replied, slowing pushing his way through the door, then opening it from the inside. “Ta-da!”

“This way, please,” Joshua said, gesturing Ausmann in, and they all headed toward the tachyon generator chamber.

There was a surprise waiting for them before they got there.

“Well, hello, dear!” a voice called out as a trio of women stepped around the corner into view. Joshua and Simon recognized two — Anabel and Pearl — but not the third.

“Coraline!” Ausmann exclaimed, stunned.

“I bet you never thought you’d see me again, dear,” she said. “Correction: hoped. I would get my revenge on you in the obvious way, except that your machine would just bring you back, meaning we really would be stuck together forever.”

“Revenge? You died when the house collapsed.”

“I saw what you did,” she countered. “That’s what you get when shiny things fall into the basement from the upper floor. I knew you couldn’t resist coming here, so I brought some friends.”

There was something weirdly mythical about it, Joshua thought — the young and ethereal Anabel, the earthy Pearl, and the very senior Coraline, standing shoulder to shoulder, apparently with one goal.

“So what are you going to do?” Ausmann asked nervously.

“We can’t stop you,” Anabel explained, “If that’s what you’re wondering. All we can do is let you try.”

“I will succeed!” Ausmann insisted.

“No, darlin’,” Pearl cut in. “You will fail and see the futility of your efforts, and then maybe you’ll turn yourself over to human justice for all your crimes.”

“There is no futility!” Ausmann shouted. “I have a secret weapon.” He turned to Joshua. “Where is he?”

Joshua looked anxiously to the women, but Pearl gave him a look and a feeling shot over him that he understood as full permission. He took the trap out of his pocket and opened it. The usual smoke shot out and coalesced into Peter Lorre, in character.

He was about to speak to Ausmann when he looked past him. “Pearl?” he said nervously.

“Mr. Cairo,” they replied, but said nothing else while giving him a serene look as he heard the whispers of the Hadas in his ears.

We know exactly what you’re all doing and what you have planned, so do it as you planned it, and we will play along. But don’t be afraid of anything we say, except in character, of course.

Pearl smiled broadly at him, and then Lorre turned to Ausmann, feeling an enormous sense of confidence and relief — so he turned up the performance as weasly sell-out lackey to ten.

“What do you want of me?” he pleaded to Ausmann. “I am innocent, I did not do anything.”

“I want information,” Ausmann said.

“Anything, anything please, I beg you,” Lorre went on in a very convincing manner.

“All right,” Ausmann said. “What will destroy the Rêves for good?”

Lorre started at him bug-eyed, then looked at Pearl nervously. She glared at him while sending him encouraging thoughts on his performance.

“I… no. No, please, anything else, but they are my friends. I cannot let you destroy them.”

“So it is possible?” Ausmann asked him.

“Of course it…. oh, damn you! Damn me, you have made me say too much,” Lorre exclaimed, making what could have been melodrama work by sheer virtue of his well-crafted creepy little screen persona — which was nothing like him in real life.

“And you know how to do it.” Ausmann announced in triumph. “So give me the information.”

“Or what?” Lorre attempted defiance, but it was backed by terror.

Ausmann just pointed to the trap. “Back in there for you, sealed in forever and no getting out. Didn’t that happen to you in a movie with Vincent Price?” he suddenly asked.

“I was in that movie,” Lorre replied, briefly changing character, “But I was Montressor. I could be again, but then I would not negotiate.”

“Fine, then back to whatever sniveling little coward you were.”

“Is there anything else I can tell you, please?” Lorre groveled.

“No.”

“But you have no idea what they’ll do to me if I tell you,” he said, looking at the three women, terrified.

“If you tell me, they’ll be gone,” Ausmann explained. “They couldn’t do anything.”

“But I would be gone, too,” Lorre added sadly. “You are asking my suicide.”

“Actually,” Simon suddenly spoke up, “If he’s in the trap, he should be protected from anything that happens to the rest of the Rêves, and we can let him out later.”

“So there’s your offer,” Ausmann said. “Save yourself, or I swear that I will get one of you to give the information. After all, if you have it, one of them must — ” he gestured toward Simon and the boys, “And I don’t care who I have to torture to get it.”

Lorre realized that this was the climactic moment of the scene, so he fell to his knees, tearing up although he didn’t go so far as to sob. His eyes darted from the women to Ausmann to the men and back, and he finally let his entire body sag in defeat.

“Deal,” he said. “I will tell you.”

The women feigned outrage — well, all except Coraline, who wasn’t faking it, but Anabel and Pearl easily held her back. Meanwhile, the other four were quietly elated.

“It’s fucking working,” Joshua thought to himself.

“So tell,” Ausmann replied.

“It is the machine sustaining us,” he explained. “In order to destroy the Rêves, you need to create a paradox.”

“Doesn’t the machine already do that?” Ausmann asked.

“Apparently not,” Lorre said.

“There’s a certain self-correcting dynamic in time travel,” Simon explained. “It helps prevent paradoxes.”

“So how do we uncorrect it?” Ausmann demanded.

“I do not know what it means,” Lorre explained, “But they have told me, you have to drop mass into the containment field.”

Joshua stepped forward in a fake a-ha moment. “Of course!” he said. “So far, we’ve only been sending messages on the thing. But if we sent something with mass back, it kind of breaks the rules of physics, which would create one hell of a paradox — ”

“And un-create all of us,” Lorre added sadly.

“So what kind of mass?” Ausmann asked. Joshua pretended to do some quick calculations, then announced, “Not much. Maybe a kilo. And not that big. I mean, you want it to pass between the super-conductor pipes, right?”

“I know just the thing,” Ausmann said, heading for his office. The other men followed, while the women and Pearl stayed behind.

In his office, he took a highly polished metal sphere off of a stand. It was about four inches in diameter. “Beryllium,” he said. “This is a kilo. Highly valued in the aerospace industry because it’s so light. It should do the trick, so let’s go play ball.”

As they started off, Joshua caught Lorre’s attention and pulled out the trap, indicating it. Lorre nodded and Joshua opened it, pulling him back in for safe-keeping. Ausmann led the way back to the generator itself, and then they all ascended the many flights of stairs to the catwalk above.

Neither Joshua nor Simon had ever seen the view from up here, but it was beautiful, really, the lightning-like stream of electric-blue plasma flying down the space between the six bright yellow pipes that shepherded it all the way to Virgina.

It was an impressive feat, really. Kind of a shame to shut it down, although Joshua felt no regrets now because, obviously, the thing didn’t really work. Telegram to the past, my ass, and he knew that first-hand.

But then, Joshua noticed something that wasn’t apparent on the ground, nor was it in any of the specs. He could see a reflection from here, between the pipes, and it obviously wasn’t coming from the plasma, since that was impossible.

The overhead lights were reflecting off of some sort of transparent shielding around the plasma itself. “Shit,” he sighed.

“What?” Simon asked him.

“Reflection,” Joshua pointed as Ausmann announced, “All right. We’re all doing this together, because if this shit blows up, we’re all going together, okay?”

He headed up the last stairway, which led to a railed observation platform that was directly above the first stretch of the plasma and tubing.

Only now, Joshua and Simon were feeling uncertain. Why hadn’t that shield been mentioned in the specs? Was it made of some top-secret indestructible material? Were they about to fail spectacularly as the sphere bounced off of it harmlessly?

They and the boys followed Ausmann up to the platform, Joshua and Simon exchanging a look, then glancing at Danny and Preston, who decided to suddenly take refuge in Simon just in case.

Ausmann stood at the rail looking down.

“I know she’ll survive this,” he said. “Oh — the machine, not my former wife or any of those creatures down there. But it’s probably going to be interesting.”

“No doubt,” Joshua said.

Ausmann leaned forward and held the sphere over the tube, closed one eye to aim, and then started counting down. “Three… two… one.”

On one, he let the sphere go but, at the same time, Joshua and Simon — who of course was able to do so — grabbed each of Ausmann’s legs, lifted, and pitched him over the side.

They could hear the sphere shatter glass first, but then an instant later, Ausmann hit the pipes. Danny and Preston abandoned Simon and they all took off in Rêve fashion, Simon warning Joshua as they went, “Run!”

Joshua didn’t need to be told twice. He skipped putting his feet on the stairs and rode the hand rails down as many cases has he had to until he was able to burst out a door and slam it behind himself.

That left no human witnesses to what happened next.

The sphere cracking the glass actually did nothing. It dropped through and vaporized almost instantly when it hit the plasma. The containment field did its thing.

But when Ausmann hit, he was flailing and had managed to twist sideways, so that his entire torso hit two of the pipes. They didn’t give right away but, true to Simon’s calculations, the joints to the adjacent sections had been weakened enough that they were slowly giving away.

Ausmann was stunned enough to do nothing for a few seconds, which was also all the time it took Joshua to get his human body away from the area and onto the safe side of thick concrete walls. Then, right as Ausmann tried to roll over and get up, the pipes gave way.

He and they fell, shattering the tube completely, and he kept right on going. The parts of him between his shoulders and his knees were incinerated instantly, the other bits hitting the concrete below.

When the pipes broke, liquid hydrogen immediately boiled out, sending up white clouds that were still very cold. With the containment gone, the plasma suddenly expanded as well and, unlike the hydrogen, it began to cool down rapidly. The blue glow vanished almost immediately, and by the time the burning plasma had expanded to about three times its original volume, it was no warmer than a Finnish sauna.

With the containment gone, the tachyons were free, and they had actually firehosed out of the initial small breach in the plasma, which had happened in the first microseconds after Ausmann fell in. Unlike the other escapees, no one could see the tachyons because they were gone before they got there, so it looked like nothing was happening. At least below ground.

But that stream shot up and got wider as it went, a like lawn sprinkler sending up a cone of water.

What Joshua and crew also couldn’t see was that they had a lot of company upstairs, and they’d all basically arrived at the same time about half an hour ago, traffic block notwithstanding, because all of them had originally intended to make this a pre-dawn raid, which meant they’d been aiming to arrive by six a.m., not nine.

Captain Shrantz and her crew were here, along with Captain Davis and Lieutenant Lewis on their own. About twenty minutes after they’d arrived, the FBI did show up — and then none of them could figure out how to get into the complex, so there were a lot of calls to home base and haggling back and forth, so all of them were distracted when… something happened.

There was no big bang or flash or anything like that. There was definitely a feeling that came with it, but suddenly everything within about a hundred foot radius just… changed.

No one knew what had happened, only what they experienced. Davis and Lewis suddenly both looked like they were in their late 20s again, although their cruiser and their uniforms — and all of their clothes and other possessions — had vanished, with the exception of Davis’ chai necklace, which her grandmother had given her when she became bat mitzvah, and which she never took off, and their wedding rings. They had married at 26.

The same thing happened to countless other law enforcement officers around them, with most of the vehicles in the lot within the area suddenly gone, the few exceptions being employee vehicles like a fully restored OG Volkswagen Bug, a couple of vintage cars from the 30s or 50s, or anything from earlier than about 1990.

And the place was populated with hordes of now naked people of varying ages, all the way from infants to, at most, maybe mid-40s, but the latter were few and far between.

Shrantz found herself thirteen again, or so she estimated, and awkward and embarrassed as hell, although that was a very common reaction from everyone right now.

Then it became apparent that a lot of the younger officers in their 20s were just gone. Not there at all. Vanished. And though no one noticed, the trees were shorter and younger, some of them not even there, and the buildings, especially Ausmann’s complex, looked decidedly newer.

So did some of those 80s and early 90s clunker cars still remaining.

But everyone was blind to the obvious because they were all so focused on their own situation and their inability to process what had happened. That, and suddenly being naked in front of their co-workers.

Well, except for two Mormon FBI officers, who had owned the same sets of secret underwear since their mission days in their early 20s, which they had almost caught up with, but not enough that they lost their undies. Of course, to them, that was just as bad as being seen in nothing.

But if they had actually taken a moment to think about what had apparently happened, their next question would have been, “But then why do I remember my future?”

Down below, Joshua had seen none of this, and he had managed to get to where Simon and the boys were before shit went down. This also happened to be where Pearl and the ladies were, and he joined them, breathing heavily.

“Well,” he said, “I think that worked.”

He smiled, and then the other six of them abruptly vanished.

“Fuck!” he exclaimed.

* * *
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