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Category Archives: Our Modern Pantheon

Nature

I want to tell this story from the perspective of a single character, one who realizes, maybe, the dangers and evils inherent in our current way of life, and changes his ways. But that’s not how this is going to work. That isn’t the nature of this story.

We have always been at war with our mother. Perhaps this is in part, at least, because she refuses to coddle us. The temperatures range from boiling to frozen and every other animal, more or less, would kill us, in one way or another, if we didn’t them first. The Earth is not a safe place. That is not her nature.

But we have built a life here. A society. We have proven ourselves capable of great things. We have tamed or broken every beast we’ve encountered and we have turned almost every natural product into a resource for maintaining our own safety and ultimately comfort.

It is in our nature. We have been suckling at the Earth’s teat, teething on her fingers and wrapping ourselves up in her hair for as long as our species can remember or derive. Anything that was hers, we have taken, not just from her but from each other.

Now there is one of us who owns it all. A single human (actually a small group, but what are numbers?) has amassed almost everything that can be considered wealth and now he is drinking her blood.

He will choke on it.

Some of us are already choking on it. As I sit here writing, there is smoke outside clogging the sky, hiding the sun behidn a veil as though she were modest—or we were. There has been so little rain in this part of the country for so long—a part of the country classified as rainforest, mind you—that there are wildfires along the entire coast, and stretching inland.

“Only you can prevent forest fires!” But I wasn’t even there. Does that make it my fault?

On the other side of the country, they have the opposite trouble. The house that my sister lived in last year ended up under three feet of water. Billions upon billions in property damage, with more still looming. Another hurricane that reads like an earthquake is gathering on the sea, the strongest ever measured, strong enough to level cities if it reaches us. How do we use what nature’s given us to protect us from her wrath?

We have been abusing our power. It is up to us to change it—but what can we do? What can I do? What can one person do to save us from the havoc that mother Nature hath wrought? Is there some savior who can stand in the path of the hurricane? Who can divert the winds and rains to where they are needed? We have no such powers at this time.

It will do us no good to flog the seas for their impetuous tempests. We can scream at the winds all we want to stop stoking the fires, it will still draw them in. But though we are helpless in the face of the cataclysm, yet we are not without blame.

We have been shaping Mother Nature like a sculpture in the rock, but we have delved too deep and she is crashing down on us.

I don’t know who that one man is who ordered this. I don’t even know if he knew what he was ordering. Maybe he unwittingly made a mistake. That would be fine, if he stopped making it. But he keeps making it over and over again. We can blame that man. We should blame that man. He is driven by greed and sheltered by ignorance. But must we not also blame our own complacency?

We, too, have been ignorant. Or perhaps not ignorant. But we have been comfortable in our shells. We have felt safe, we have profited from our safety, even though that safety has come at the highest cost ever measured. We still drive our SUVs. We still use our televisions and computers, powered by fossil fuel plants. We still indulge in plastically manufactured trinkets that we don’t need. If we could only stop, if we could only show that man in his concrete palace that we do not approve, maybe he’d get the message. Maybe he’d stop what he was doing. Or maybe we could divert all our funds, raise someone else up, crown another king of industry—but no. It is too late for that. There is not enough left to go around the old king’s reputation.

What can I do to stop the hurricane? I can’t.

But maybe we can. One man did not cause this. One family did not set this disaster in motion. We did this together and it took centuries of deforestation and fossil fuel burning. We need to fight this together, not with personal sacrifice, not with elimination, not with demonization of the old way of doing things, but with new solutions. Cleaner solutions.

Solutions that he doesn’t want. He doesn’t want them because he cannot control them. He cannot control them because they are too easy for us to construct and manufacture on our own.

Why can’t we do this? Why can’t we work together towards a solution, a rope that will pull us back away from this ledge? Why must we be so selfish that we must blame ourselves and each other, each of us individually, for not choosing to be vegan, for having too many children, for driving to work, for living in the wrong country?

Is it in our Nature?

No. Because we are not Nature. We are Art and we are better than this. Together.

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Safe

The enemy had invaded. It was the one they had always been taught to fear and hate. “It is because they fear and hate us,” the older generations had always said. “It is because they are powerful and they take what they want and they control our rulers so that we cannot grow as a nation.”

And now, the enemy had finally gotten tired of them fighting back. “They are coming,” was the whisper. It was everywhere, like the buzzing of planes drowning out the birdsong. They were dropping bombs.

“Don’t worry,” says one, “They’re only aiming for military targets.” Maybe they often miss, or maybe they’ve started to realize every one of these people is a threat because every one of these people hates them.

“I just want to be safe,” says the child, and the mother doesn’t know how to answer.

The child grows into a boy and the boy to a young man.

“We need to fight back,” they tell him. “We are a proud nation and we are under attack. The enemy? They don’t share our values.”

“Remember who you are,” the young man’s mother tells him, “Remember what I taught you, how I raised you.” But everything is so different now, here.

“Your mother was not a true patriot,” the other young men tell him, and the older men, the men who are in control, who have been fighting this war the longest, the most effectively. “She never truly knew our ways—she has been corrupted by the enemy. The things she has taught you will not keep us safe. They will not even make you safe.” They beat the corruption out of him.

There are many people in this nation who have been made weak by the enemy’s corruption, or so the young man finds. But isn’t there something wrong?

“We must stamp out the enemy’s corruption!” say his companions, so in the name of fighting the enemy, what do they do? They do worse to themselves.

Finally, the young man finds his way to the enemy. “I just want my family to be safe,” he tells them.

“They will be,” the enemy promises.

The road is long and the road is hard, but step by step, the young man and the people he cares for are brought out of their country and taken to a new one on the far side of the world. They find a home, find a job, try to put the past behind them.

“Papa,” says the young son, “why do the people here behave so differently? Why do they think differently? Why do they have different language?”

“People are just different,” says the father, “in different parts of the world. They don’t think like us.” But there are things the man does not say at that time.

“Daddy,” the son asks when he’s older, “are we bad people?” He has been told at school by the other children that he is the enemy (and even once, it seems, by a teacher).

“Of course not,” says the father, remembering the poeple he left behind, the things that they did, but also the bombs of the enemy. And he reminds himself he has not seen the kind of rampant outrage here that made him abandon his homeland.

Most days are good here. Most days, nothing actually happens. People are nice, respectful. They are different, which reminds him of how different he must seem to them, but most days, they do not attack him. Most days. However, now and then, often enough to keep him desperate, there are looks and there are words. They do not come to blows (yet) but they remind him why these people, where he grew up, were known as the enemy.

“Why do you hate us so much?” he asks a stranger one day. The stranger looks taken aback at first, but once the ice is broken, she says “A lot of terrible things have happened and I guess you just remind us of that. You make us feel unsafe.”

“So you make us feel unsafe, then,” he replies. “Because you feel unsafe? Wouldn’t it be better to help us feel safe again? Wouldn’t that make you feel safer?”

“I guess?” says the stranger, “But we don’t want you to feel unsafe or uncomfortable. We just want you to be, you know…” She wants to say “normal”. She doesn’t, but he can hear it from her heart.

“You want us to be like you,” he says, “because you don’t want to be yourselves corrupted by the enemy.”


Justice

Judge Robert Mengen didn’t usually like to go to bars. Public places made him nervous, not just because he was a public figure now, but because he just didn’t really like people. But he was coming up on an election year, so he figured he needed the practice. He started off low key, though. He was just here as a man, not wanting to draw attention to himself. And he would take a cab home.

Which kind of led naturally to the other reason why he was here. He kinda didn’t want to go home. Home was no longer where his heart was, but again, it was an election year and after two extremely controversial court decisions in a row, he couldn’t very well divorce her when he was about to be all over the news again. Folks had enough distractions.

When she walked in, he had already had two drinks, whcih was one more than he’d allowed himself in the last decade. Whether or not that made a difference is anyone’s guess.

She was easily the most beautiful woman in the bar, but hardly the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. There was just something about her, a lot of lady prosecutors he knew, but this girl was no lawyer.

He wasn’t going to cheat on his wife, he promised himself. Besides, it would be illegal. But it wasn’t illegal to look.

Or to offer to buy her a drink.

“Sure,” she said, much to his surprise. (He was surprised to be surprised, too.)

He ordered for her, then she turned to him to scrutinize. “Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?”

“I don’t see why,” he gambled.

“Yes I do!” It didn’t seem to be a sudden revelation. “You’re that judge, aren’t you? Mengen. Robert Mengen.”

Was he going to say it? Yes. “Guilty.”

“You’re up for the Supreme Court this year, aren’t you? The state one, North Carolina.”

“You seem refreshingly well-informed.”

“A democratic population should be.”

“So you’re a Democrat?”

She smiled. “Guilty?” she ventured. “But that’s not what I meant.”

“No, I know.”

Now that she had made her basic skill set known, she took him when he didn’t want to go.

“Weren’t you the guy who tried the Alchemyne case? The one out in Trinity’s Field? What was it? Those parklands?”

“Lot 872,” Mengen confirmed. It was how he preferred to think of that entire part of his career.

“Wasn’t that like an important ecosystem? The plantlife, the—“

“I thought so, too,” he interrupted her. “But once I looked into it, once all the facts were laid out, it was very clear there was nothing legally preventing Alchemyne from building their facility there.”

“Didn’t you try that other case, too?”

That other case. She hardly needed to specify.

“Douglass Cobb. Black guy. Serial killer. Allegedly.”

“Well, he was convicted.”

“By you.”

“I didn’t deliver the verdict. I just passed the sentence.”

“The death sentence.”

“He was a convicted killer.” To be perfectly frank, Mengen had always been somewhat surprised he had made it to trial and not been killed at the scene, or in custody.

“Except he was innocent,” the young woman said.

This was, of course, a popular narrative on the theme. The idea of the black boy wrongly convicted of murders committed by a white boy who had faked his own death months earlier had a certain appeal to identity politics as well as to adventure, but the alternative story provided  by the defense had been ludicrous.

“There are holes in that theory,” was what Mengen told her.

“And there weren’t holes in the idea that he was guilty?”

“Not by the end of the trial.”

“Why not?”

“Because every facet of the argument provided by the defense fell apart under scrutiny.”

“Like the missing body?”

This made Mengen chuckle. “Which one? The body of Charles Navaro that was never recovered, or the body that supposedly belonged to the real Alexander Navaro?” That really was the most ridiculous part.

“But what about Cobb’s alibi?”

“You mean the fact that even his closest friends confirmed he’d shot whichever Navaro it was?”

“Which Navaro boy it was was the heart of the matter, but I’m talking almost all of which he had an alibi for.”

“Yeah, his girlfriend.”

“So she lied? Under oath?”

“The things we do for love.”

“Then why wasn’t she charged with perjury?”

This caught him off-guard. “That’s… not how it works.”

“No? You’re so sure that you sentenced Douglass Cobb to death, but you didn’t even charge her with perjury? I’m sorry, shouldn’t that make her, like, an accomplice? An accessory after the fact?”

“The laws for that are more complicated.”

“The laws?”

“Yes.”

“But what about justice?”

“That’s what I said.”

“No. You said the Law.”

Robert Mengen did not like where this was going.

“Do you seriously not think that there’s a difference between Justice and the Law?”

“There isn’t,” he said, although what he really meant was, There shouldn’t be.

“Wow,” said the young woman. “That explains something.”

“Look,” said Mengen, “you were the one who brought up democracy. In a democracy, we agree upon what is right and we make that Law.”

“Even if we were a Democracy, though, that still wouldn’t be justice.”

“Well, then.” He felt confident and drunk enough to chide now. “What would justice be?”

“Well, it would start with examining any law that privileges companies above people.”

Oh, I see, thought Mengen. It was a brilliant switcheroo—if she wasn’t a lawyer yet, she should be. “So this is about Alchemyne.”

“No, Your Honor, this is about you.”

“Are you a reporter?”

“Like I said, I’m a concerned citizen.”

“And my decisions concern you?”

“I’m starting to think your entire value system should concern every member of the human race.

This was the moment when, if the roles had been reversed, Mengen would have hurled his drink in his accuser’s face, ice cubes and all. But men simply don’t do that. So instead, he politely paid for his drink and excused himself.

“Cobb’s execution is tomorrow,” the young woman informed him. “Do you have any kind of celebration planned?”

To be perfectly honest, he hadn’t even been following that judicial aftermath, too concerned with her own political trajectory.

He left without another word.

Her various accusations haunted him, though, all the way from the bar back up to his hotel room. Of course justice and the law were… well, they were related, of course. But had he been wrong about Cobb? Had he been racist? Oh, no, no, not that, surely. Not that. He was certain of Douglass Cobb’s guilt.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt?

They had had a hand in the legislation, of course, but that was democracy, wasn’t it? It wasn’t the part that got talked about in the media, at least not in that context, it wasn’t popular, but it made sense for the companies that produce, that manufacture the things that we need, to have a hand in policy. Think how much they had given to society! How much they knew about their own business, for that matter. These were the people who knew best. By the time he arrived back at his hotel room, he felt a bit better.

He turned on the light, let out a deep sigh, walked into the room and saw a different young woman pointing a gun at his chest. It took him a moment to place her. The girlfriend?

“I guess you probably thought you’d outlive him, didn’t you?” she said.

Judge Mengen swallowed, not sure what to respond, but confident that in the long run, given the long arm of the law, justice would be served.


Private

What did Gordon Richards have to do to get some privacy?

“Well, what can I say, Gord?” his landlord offered instead of apology. “Should’ve worked more when you had the chance. Made more money.”

“How about you should just keep the damn rent what we agreed on!” Gordon countered. “A contract’s a contract!”

“Your lease is up, Gordon; you wanna blame someone, blame the government for jacking the property tax!”

“What’s it gonna take for you to sell me this place?” Now at last, Old Man Richards was sincere.

“Trust me,” said Phil Mulberry, “even if I wanted to sell, you couldn’t afford it.”

But Mulberry didn’t want to sell, of course—on the contrary, he wanted to buy up the whole building, if he could. And for what? Turn it into a parking lot? It wasn’t close enough to downtown for that to make any sense. No, no, for guys like Mulberry it was all about control, all about conquest. He wanted everything, but he knew what his limitations were, so he’d settle for the whole damn building.

“Why couldn’t I get an apartment from McDowell?” Gordon muttered. But it was too late now. McDowell was the other owner of multiple units in the Leverett building, but he kept to himself—hard not to, really, seen as how he lived in Canada or someplace, thousands of miles away, but he still owned property here and from what Gordon could gather (and he could gather an awful lot) McDowell was a heck of a lot better than Mulberry at managing his property, even though Mulberry lived in the same damn building. Gordon wished he could have that. Actually, no. What Gordon really wished was that he could leave here and go buy some cabin out in the woods or something, out where people weren’t so nosy, out where neighbors didn’t try to strike up a conversation just ‘cause they felt like they knew you after nine years living in the same building. He just wanted his privacy.

But he couldn’t even have that.

“What you need a two-bedroom apartment for, anyways?” Mulberry finally asked.

“That’s none of your business!” Gordon insisted, though to be perfectly honest, he didn’t have a better answer. He just liked his space.

But Mulberry was right—not about doing what he was doing, but about the solution to it, given that it was done. If Gordon was going to continue to live in the Leverett Building (unless he wanted to move to unit 32, which was obviously haunted, so no) he was going to need a roommate. A roommate, god dammit! He hadn’t had a roommate in damn near forty years, unless you counted his ex-wife, and you shouldn’t, even though you might as well. And since he didn’t really know anybody seen as how he didn’t like people, that meant inviting a stranger into his home. That provided some opportunities, of course. There were certain types of peopel Mulberry really didn’t like… Unfortunately, these were the same types of people Gordon was none too fond of, and besides, Mulberry would get final say anyway, so what the hell?

Once the applications started coming in, it was pretty easy to weed out most of the undesirables, mostly the folks with really odd-sounding names like “Kawabanta” and “Laminetsky” and goddamn “Ng”—what the hell kinda name was that? What was harder to spot was the black people—excuse me, “African Americans” (like any of them ever been to Africa)—but he got those at the interviews. Which only left two things to worry about: queers and muslims. He wasn’t quite sure which one would be worse, but he was goddamned if he’d have either one of ‘em in his house. Or apartment.

Finally, though, he didn find one guy looked like he could be trusted. “What kinda name is ‘Laird’?” he asked the guy. “That Scottish?”

“I think so,” said the man, name of Raymond. “Never really gave it much thought.”

“All right, fine,” said Gordon. “If you want it, this is what it looks like, your room’s over there, make yourself at home. Deal? “They’d already hashed out the details by then, so they shook on it.

At first, it was great. Raymond Laird didn’t really have much stuff, so the living room didn’t really change too much except for one painting he really seemed to want over the TV, which was fine, it was this pretty standard landscape with some ducks and a little girl in a dress, utterly inoffensive.

As for what went into Raymond Laird’s room, that was none of Gordon’s business. He kept his own private things to himself, too. That was a part of the bargain neither had even had to bring up while talking.

Yet once the other man had stowed away all his secret boxes, Gordon found himself growing curious. Oh, shut up, you old fool, he kept telling himself. You wouldn’t want him snooping around in your room, either, would you? And what would he think if he caught you? You with your hands on his pretty things?

But how do I know that what he has there isn’t…

What? What was it that he was afraid of?

Well, there were a lot of things to be afraid of, weren’t there? This Laird guy was living in his house now. Gordon’s name was on the lease. Anything this lodger did, Gordon could be held responsible for. He pictured the aftermath of the inevitable postal killing spree—not that Laird was a postal worker, he was an accountant, but that was almost worse. Who knew the sorts of depraved thoughts those degenerates kept hidden under their numbers.

It wasn’t that Gordon objected to guns—his own, for protection of his private property, was stored under the coffee table in case of emergency, and Laird knew that. So if Laird had a gun, too, Gordon expected him to disclose that. But he hadn’t. Which made Gordon suspicious.

There could be other things, too, though. He imagined the police raid and all the things they might find. Drugs, for Christ sakes, kiddie porn! Can you imagine! The Headlines: “Old Man Richards Arrested with New Roommate on Suspicion of Involvement!” “I didn’t know!” curmudgeon insists, but we know better, don’t we, folks?” I always knew that crazy old man was up to something!” says landlord Philip Mulberry, decorated upstanding citizen and whatnot.

No. No, it was too risky. This was his house, dammit, he had a right to know what was going on. This Raymond guy bursting in here like he owned the place—who did he think he was? Who was he? Expecting charity and whatnot—well, Gordon Richards did not believe in charity! Charity was for schmucks who trusted people. And trust was for idiot children.

So he waited until Laird was gone for the day and snuck into his room. Serves him right, he tried telling himself, for not having a lock on his door.

It’s not like he was stealing anything. He just wanted a look around. In particular, he wanted a look in those boxes…

No…

They were dresses. Dresses and skirts. And blouses, and—ugh!

Girls’ clothes!

This was so much worse than Gordon had expected. He almost wished there had been kiddie-porn, or instructions on building bombs, at least then he could’ve called the cops and started over with a new roommate. One who wasn’t some damn freak of nature. But no, nowadays you had to be “tolerant” and “understanding” of grown men playing dress-up even down to their goddamn underwear. It made him sick to his stomach even thinking about it.

After he put everything away back where he found it, he went back and sat in the living-room. He thought about Raymond Laird wearing women’s clothes. He told himself he didn’t want to think about it, but every time he did he got a thrill like you wouldn’t believe. It made him angry, but the anger made him happy; it felt justified.

Then when Raymond got home, he couldn’t even look at him. He didn’t want to. He had a secret, now: that he knew Raymond’s secret, and Raymond didn’t know. And he didn’t want him to.

Raymond acted like he knew there was something wrong, or off, or different, but he didn’t say anything.

Having a secret turned out not to be all it was cracked up to be, though. So the next day, as Raymond was starting to head off to work, Old Man Richards found himself hollering at him from his chair “You gonna go out dressed like that?”

Raymond stopped, confused, turned around, looked himself up and down, trying to see what was wrong with his outfit, making sure his shoes and socks both matched. Finally, he gave a helpless shrug in Gordon’s direction.

Gordon just stared at him, and finally Raymond understood.

He was running late to work, though, so he didn’t say anything. But as he turned and walked out, Gordon could tell there was a look of shame and fear on his face.

Well, fine, he thought to himself, let him do some stewing for a change! These freaks and perverts, it’s about time! If he feels enough shame, hell, maybe he’ll, I don’t know, stop doing it? Christ sakes. 

Sure enough, Raymond didn’t even come home until pretty late. When he did, it looked like he’d been drinking. Couldn’t handle it, could you? thought Gordon. Just couldn’t handle somebody knowing the truth about you. 

Raymond sat on the edge of his seat, leaned forward, legs spread just a bit, and ran his hand across his open mouth, almost like he was making his leaps, you know?

“You went in my room,” he stated.

Gordon said nothing.

“You went in my room without my permission.” He flexed the fingers of his right hand and his joints popped. “That’s not what we agreed to.”

“What you gonna do about it?” Gordon sneered, then added another word, a word he shouldn’t have said, a word that gave the game away and made things unnecessarily uncomfortable in their living situation.

But after a short, tense moment of silence in the wake of that word, Raymond snorted and started to laugh, only a little bit at first, a few rocks before the avalanche, like he was uncovering several different layers of irony over the course of laughing.

“Well, what’s so funny!” a frustrated Gordon finally demanded.

So when Raymond had calmed himself down enough, he finally replied: “You just don’t get it, do you? Oh, it’s not what you think. It’s not the obvious thing.” Then he paused and continued, “But once I tell you what it really is, you’re gonna think it’s so much worse!” And he burst into giggles again.

This was doing nothing to help Raymond’s case in Gordon’s eyes.

“Oh, let me have my fun,” he finally said. “Probably the last time I’ll get to laugh like that for a while. “And then, more thoughtful, “It’s been a while since I’ve laughed like that.” Finally, he composed himself. “I’m not a transvestite.” He was calm by now. “Well, at least… Those women’s clothes. I don’t wear them in secret or anything. I’m assuming that’s what you meant when you used that word. Although I guess technically… But I’m not… exactly… a gay man, Gordon. Because I’m not… exactly… a man. Yet.”

Gordon had no idea what Raymond was talking about.

“That is to say, I am a man,” Raymond continued. “I always have been. In my own way, I guess. It just never occurred to me that I could be, I mean, I kept hearing about it, but me?” He chuckled, then stopped. “I was born… a woman, or… with women’s… I was assigned female at birth. I just never felt comfortable in my skin, you know?”

Gordon still looked at her blankly.

“No, I guess you really wouldn’t know, would you?” she sighed. “I’m still attracted to men,” she continued. “For a while, I thought maybe that was why I… So I guess that word you used earlier does technically apply to me, or to what I want to be—I’m still new at this, see? I’m still… I’m trying it out. Trying to what I want to be—I’m still new at this, see? I’m still… I’m trying it out. Trying to see if it… fits me better, and I gotta say, I’m liking the results. So far. For the most part.” After another moment of silence, “Those clothes in there are mine, or were mine—I don’t know why I kept them, I just didn’t think—I didn’t know… They’re just in case, I guess. Listen to me, I’m fifty-three years old and I’m still experimenting. Going through ‘phases’—“ But he caught himself. “No. No, this isn’t a phase. But they’re still… I don’t know. It’s a safety thing, I guess.”

Finally, Gordon managed to clear his throat. “So are you…” he began, then adjusted, “that is, do you… He wiggled a bit in his seat. “What are you? Now, I mean?”

“I’m a person,” Raymond said coldly.

“But what… what parts do you have?”

Raymond drew himself (herself?) up in the seat and said confidently: “I don’t have to answer that question. It’s private.”

That just seemed patenlty ridiculous to Gordon. They’d been talking about this for ten minutes already, he (she?) just hadn’t made… Oh, hell, hadn’t made it clear in all the rambling monologue.

But that was it. Raymond said no more, just got up and went back to h—to Raymond’s room, leaving Gordon alone to stew.

He’d actually make a pretty nice-looking woman, he found himself thinking. Prettier than my ex-wife, anyway… And he snickered.

But at night, he found it drove him crazy. He tossed and turned as he’d never tossed and turned before. He just couldn’t stand not knowing such a basic fact when Raymond knew so much about him.


Different

Ronan Carroll did not understand the concept of race. He watched these old movies—or movies about olden times—and he thought Wow, people really were so stupid back then, treating black characters as less than human or segregation as normal. It was an atrocity.

Ronan Carroll was, of course, white.

It was a while before Ronan actually encountered what he could undeniably classify as racist behavior in his own time and place. He was growing up in a part of the United States with less than two percent African American population. Growing up he didn’t really have any close friends who were black and frankly, he was embarrassed about that. When he did meet black people, he would try to be friends with them—he would even go out of his way to. But to no avail. Personality clash, presumably. He just hadn’t met the right black person.

Come to think of it, it eventually occurred to him, I have kind of similar problems when it comes to women. Not that he didn’t have friends who were women—actually most of the people he considered friends were women—but none of those women wanted to be any more than friends. Which is fine, he tried to tell himself, but secretly he resented their absence from that part of his life.

“I’ve actually been thinking of going gay,” he once said to the one gay friend that he managed to have, a guy named Brodie. “Doing you think I could pull that off? I mean, I know that it’s not a choice and all that, can’t choose who you love, right? But I mean, I don’t know, sometimes I wonder…” Sometimes, actually, he wondered if his gay friend Brodie might not actually have a crush on him, which would be flattering, he thought. But he didn’t want to ask in case it got awkward.

The problem was, he didn’t really have any friends who were straight white men, either. Straight white men scared him, to be perfectly honest. Actually, black men scared him, too, but for the same reason: they were men. And men like to play games. Hungry, angry little power games using testosterone playing cards where the loser ends up looking like a loser and he always ended up losing because he never even knew he was playing until it was too late. This was why most of his friends were women. Women probably play games, too, he thought in moments of honesty, but with them, I can’t even tell if I do lose. Aside, of course, from maintaining his chastity.

This was actually why he was relieved when he found out about Brodie. He had been nervous around Brodie, he realized, because of the way he looked, like a big, burly, hairy bouncer who eats raw chicken whole and chicken-liver’d wusses’ livers by the pound before heading off to the steel-mill in the morning. But then at a cast party, Brodie brought along his boyfriend (who was black, as it turned out, but not quite as friendly with Ronan) and suddenly, Ronan’s entire image of him changed. This wasn’t the kind of guy who would crack his knuckles, beat his brow and shame you—well, that part maybe, but only if he deserved it. This was the kind of guy Ronan could go out and have a drink with and have a good, not-antagonizing time.

But that was all over now. They hadn’t talked in months. Brodie told his friends Ronan had just gotten too clingy, too needy. “Straight guys,” he said, shaking his head. “They just don’t know when to stop!”

Which was why Ronan was sitting here in the food court at the mall. He needed more friends—a more diverse set of friends—so he had put an ad out on craigslist and a few other places asking people who were off the Straight, White, American, Able-Bodied Male-beaten path to hang out for some speed-friending. It was so stupid. He even knew it was stupid, but he liked doing stupid things. And, being a Straight White American Able-Bodied Male himself, he had the luxury of doing so with impunity whenever his Straight White American Able-Bodied Male heart desired.

He didn’t actually expect anyone to show up. Actually, he was actively hoping no one would show up, if only to prove to him just how stupid he actually was for doing this. More Straight, White, American, Able-Bodied Males needed to be proven stupid like that—for him it was a matter of pride.

But someone did show up.

Tabby Williams was pretty much exactly what he was hoping for. She was so different from him, it was crazy. She was a fifty-year-old black lesbian who worked at a dry-cleaning service—not doing the dry-cleaning, just the customer service part—and then it turns out her son who she had when she was sixteen is in jail, which is a cliché, if you think about it, but statistically maybe isn’t it also pretty much on the nose?

Secretly, Ronan had to admit he was a little disappointed this black woman wasn’t also secretly trans, but then before he could even stop and count his chickens, another new friend stopped by with a smile. This was a young woman who looked Asian and also looked like she was possibly new to being a woman. “Hi,” she said (Careful you don’t misgender her, Ronan thought.) “Sorry I’m late, I just came straight from Temple.”

Temple? As in Synagogue? This was a Jewish Asian Trans-woman?

Jackpot.

She introduced herself with a name that sounded hard to pronounce and impossible to remember, or vice versa, “But you can just call me Kimmy, everybody else does.”

Kim? So she was Korean? Nice. “Well, welcome,” said Ronan, and introduced Tabby and himself, whereupon he gave a brief run-down of Tabby’s background.

“Now hold on,” Tabby interrupted him before he got to the part about the son in prison, “I just gotta ask, what’s your gimmick, boy?”

Ronan remembered something about black people and the word “boy”… Oh, that’s right, you’re not allowed to call them that, That’s okay, then. “Well,” he answered, “like I said in the ad, I’m just trying to get to know more people who are different from me.”

“Why?”

Ronan took a deep breath. How far into this should he go? How quickly? He decided to dive in: “I don’t like straight white American men. Cis-men,” he caught himself, for Kimmy’s benefit. “I’m trying to diversify.”

“So that’s all I am to you?” said Tabby. “Just a token black lesbian?”

“You’re not a token,” he assured her, “I’m just trying to figure out how other people think.”

“Other people?”

Ronan sensed a trap. He had said something wrong—although he wasn’t sure of any other way to phrase it.

“Listen up, white boy,” said Tabby, “if the only reason you want to be friends with me is ‘cause I’m black, then, what’s the difference ‘tween that and hating me for being who I am? It’s still reducing my black ass to a buncha damn lables.”

Ronan felt confident there was a flaw in this logic somewhere, but was too flabbergasted just now to figure out just exactly what it was. He began, “I’m just trying to—“ Open a door, is what he’d wanted to say, but his target audience was already getting up out of her rickety-cheap mall-food chair.

“You know what,” she said, “I don’t need this shit. Read some damn Crenshaw and get back to me, you know what? White boy!”

Ronan wasn’t sure why the woman was upset. What had he done wrong? As she walked away, he turned to Kimmy, who seemed equally dumbfounded.

This, at least, proved to be a fairly promising budding friendship. They talked until the food-court runners kicked them out, covering topics from K-pop (about which Ronan knew nothing) to classical mythology (about which Kimmy knew very little) before settling on the old standard of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

“We should do this again sometime,” Ronan said on their way out to the parking lot.

“Well, why do we have to stop?” asked Kimmy. “I live just five minutes down the road.” She pointed off towards the general direction of the university.

Ronan started to get the distinct impression she was hitting on him, and this brought on an avalanche of questions on propriety. It honestly hadn’t occurred to him before that a trans-woman interested in men might some day take a liking to him, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about the prospect. He knew—or thought he knew—how he should feel, that it didn’t matter, that she was still a woman regardless of what she’d been assigned at birth, and yet he couldn’t stop his thoughts from drifting to the perhaps-suddenly-relevant question of anatomy, which he knew was not an appropriate question, but if the person was making advances, did the rules change? Until finally, he realized Kimmy had never actually introduced herself as trans, so now he was wondering if he was, in the end, misgendering, or something.

“It’s okay to say no,” said Kimmy, as thought she’d been half-expecting it.

“Oh, of course,” said Ronan. “Um… But, like, no, we should definitely, um, we should definitely do this again. Soon, I’ll, uh, do I have your…”

They exchanged numbers and he did eventually text her, he just realized he had some soul-searching and some research to do first, if he really wanted to make his life different.


Family

There was nothing more important to Dorothy Rogers than her family.

She married Hal right out of college. He had talked about going into politics, but business would do. It was just as respectable. He had come from a good family (so important) and became quite successful. She, too, was successful—by the end of her twenties, she had given her husband three beautiful children, two boys and a girl.

Timothy was rambunctuous as a child. Always getting into trouble. He was precocious and not afraid to speak up, but he was a good kid.

Stephanie, though—she was a handful. She was abrasive and obstinate as a young child and in primary school, she was quite the tomboy. Getting her into a dress was like pulling teeth—and yet pulling teeth was not something she would shy away from.

William, though… William was different from either of his siblings. He was quiet and shy, he disliked fighting so much that he didn’t even seem to have a problem with his sister fighting his battles for him—and she was willing enough to do so.

“We need to toughen him up,” Dorothy would complain to her husband before bed.

“Leave the poor kid alone,” Hal Rogers would groan at his wife. Hal didn’t care about family like she did. “He’ll grow out of it.”

In a way, he did. But not in the way that his mother would have preferred.

Stephanie, at the tender age of eighteen, just months from graduating high school, became pregnant. Her mother was distraught. “How could you do this to me?” she kept screaming. “How could you do this to your family!”

“‘My family’ is not the one this is happening to. I am!”

“You are the one who did this!”

“You think I asked for this? You think I wanted to get pregnant?”

That, of course, launched a tirade about knowing to keep your legs together.

In the end, there wasn’t really any “choice” involved for Stephanie. Dorothy insisted that her daughter go out of state “to visit relatives” so that she could have the procedure done in secret. She wasn’t, strictly speaking, pro-choice, but if it was that or be a grandmother before her time to an illegitimate mistake, then so be it. As for Stephanie, she’d been debating herself and was relieved to have her mind made up for her. If I’d wanted to have it, she told herself, I would have told Michael first, and forced her hand. But she also knew she would regret her decision.

“At least you’ve never gotten a girl knocked up,” Dorothy said to both of her sons together.

William looked away shyly, as was his way, but it was Timothy who said “Yes, mother,” even though it was Timothy who had by that time funded two abortions of his own to keep girlfriends quiet—and one of those times, he had had to force the poor girl into it.

William was the next one to be disgraced. It took a long time for him to acknowledge his sexuality, even to himself. For his parents’ sake, he did his best with girls and even slept with them, but only to keep his secret. It was one of those girls, though, who finally confronted him about it. “It’s okay if you are,” she said, more heartbroken than she let on, “I don’t judge. I could even hook you up if you want.”

And she did. She had a cousin who was William’s first love—the first that counted for him, anyway. But he let his mother continue to think that “Natalie” had been the one who had gotten away, since it pleased her to think that and since he wasn’t one to make waves, much as his later boyfriend Serge wanted him to. “It is a new world,” he told William in the world’s thickest, saltiest French accent, “She will know now from you or she will find out later. Like this, you can control the narratif, no?”

But William had no control over narrative. He just moved to a part of the country where his mother didn’t hold sway—or so he imagined—and lived as private a life as he could manage.

“Won’t you come home, though?” his mother would beg, and there was only so long he could put that off until she sent him a ticket and told him to make it work.

She found him with his boyfriend in flagrante.

He assumed after it happened that she would tell people—his father, at least—but when he brought it up, Hal Rogers was speechless. He had no context for having a gay son. It was unthinkable to him.

It was as unthinkable for Hal Rogers as it was unspeakable for Dorothy.

“I always knew,” Stephanie told him. He didn’t bring it up, but it was all their parents wouldn’t talk about. “I mean, I figured. Guess I’m just smarter than Mom and Dad.” She put her hand on his. “And more supportive.” And then she hugged him and kissed him on the forehead.

Stephanie, meanwhile, had ended her series of shallow affairs by falling in love with a successful black man. If Linus Hinkle had been any lighter-skinned, he would have been exactly what her parents required in a son-in-law. He was a respected doctor, about four years from going into private practice, he had no tattoos or piercings, he was handsome, strong and healthy and just not anywhere near good enough for their daughter.

“I’m not racist,” Dorothy assured anyone who didn’t just cut her off right there, “I’d just prefer not to have grandchildren who come out looking like they’ve just spent nine months up a chimney!”

It was a phrase that had Stephanie and William both cracking their knuckles and gritting their teeth, but Linus, whose mother had “raised him right”, as they say, just smiled, nodded and never spoke to his mother-in-law unless she addressed him.

After she had had two children of her own, Stephanie volunteered to act as a surrogate for William and his husband, Adam. There was some strangeness, perhaps, in a woman bearing a child for her brother, but since the egg wasn’t hers and the sperm wasn’t his, they didn’t think much of it—and nor did they think of their poor, distraught mother and what she might think of it.

“Of all the things!” she bellowed when she found out, and soon she called her favorite son. “Your brother and sister are determined to ruin me!” she cried to Timothy. “It was all supposed to be perfect! They were my little angels! But now I see you were the only angel I bore, weren’t you, Timothy? You’re my little angel!”

“Yes, Mother,” said Timothy Rogers.

He had married well: the boss’s daughter at a Fortune 500 company he was now about two years from running. She was nearly as vapid and shallow and conceited as he was, but she was just starting to realize there was more to him than met the eye. When she actually caught him with their youngest daughter, when she saw what he’d been doing to her, all the pieces fell together and something changed inside her as she made a decision about him in the last few moments of her life.

Stephanie wasn’t surprised when she heard he’d been arrested. She was shocked, shaken, but some part of her had always known what he was capable of, could almost remember…

William was there with their mother when they heard the verdict. He knew Timothy had tried to cover it up, had tried to make it look like a burglary gone wrong, but his brother had never been as smart as their mother had always made him think he was.

She insisted on seeing him before the sentence was carried out. She begged him to tell her the truth, to tell her that he was innocent, but he couldn’t do both of those things, so instead he told her “I had to do it, Mother. Don’t you see? Don’t you understand? Think of what that whore could’ve done to our family name!”

Dorothy never did accept any responsibility for spoiling her favorite child, for teaching him that appearances and perceptions were more important than real people’s lives.

“Why do you think she doesn’t get it?” William asked his sister.

Stephanie shrugged and sighed. “She has a very different idea of what Family means. Family is blood to her. It’s a name. It’s a history and a future. But that’s not what family is, is it? We know that. You and me? We know that family is the people that we choose to share it with. Family is a present.”


Truth

What do they call it when you put your glasses together for a toast and they make that tinkling sound? Is it “clink”? Whatever the word for it, that’s what Jake and Curtis were doing right now.

“Congratulations, man,” said Jake LeCarré. “It’s a hell of a publication.”

It actually wasn’t all that great a publication that had just hired his friend Antoine Lamarr Curtis–if anything, it was a rag, a fluff vanity called Zealot Magazine run by a tycoon who’d come out of nowhere determined, it seemed, to make himself heard and make money in the process. But it was money, an actual job in journalism, or something like it, which was more than Jake could boast.

“Thanks, man,” said Curtis, “That means a lot coming from you.”

“Hey, hey, settle down now.” The fact that he still hadn’t managed to land a steady job was somewhat of a sore spot for Jake. Not that he wasn’t good—he never questioned that. He’d even had offers—plenty of them—but he turned them all down on principle. Jake’s research skills were exceptional and he loved putting them to work at finding connections between the bigwigs in charge of the newspapers and the bigger whigs in charge of everything else. And it turned out, pretty much everyone was in somebody’s pocket. Everybody but Jake’s white whale: the Sunday Monitor.

“No, I know it’s a gig,” Curtis added, perhaps by way of apology for the subtle dig. “I know it’s not gonna do much other than line my pockets and clutter my portfolio with fluff.”

“Hey, man, if you’re comfortable with that…”

Comfort didn’t have anything to do with it, and Jake damn well knew it. They’d had this conversation before, about how privileged it was to act solely out of “principle”, to be able to afford to.

“That’s why I do it, though,” Jake always insisted when it came up. “I’m not telling you it’s what you should do, but considering I’m in a position to, I figure that’s what’s right. You know?”

Still, it was a point of contention between them.

“Hey, babe,” said Nancy when Jake got home. “How was it?”

“Great,” he said, in a tone that said “We didn’t fight or anything!”

“Good,” she said. “You two should hang out more often. You have so much in common.” She wasn’t saying this (just) to be patronizing. They actually did have quite a bit in common, even beyond journalism. Similar levels of intelligence, similar tastes in music and art. And women.

“Sure,” Jake agreed. “When we have time.”

A lot happened between then and the next time both of them “had time.” Jake had been freelancing and he continued to do so, selling his investigative think-pieces to anyone who would give money for them. He refused to start a blog. He claimed it was because he didn’t trust them and no one should, because there wasn’t any vetting process going into it, but Nancy secretly understood it was because he hated the ass-kissing that goes into marketing almost as much as he hated the idea of being a corporate shill.

Curtis, meanwhile, got some positive attention at Zealot, hooked up and broke up with a number of girls who never quite seemed to make the right noises, until he found one who did. He moved out of estate, traveled out of country, came home.

The biggest shifts, though, were for Nancy.

Nancy Pribess was an artist. Photographer, mostly. She’d had some shows, sold some pieces, balked at more modern technologies. She didn’t have the same relationship with words that Jake did, or Curtis. Maybe it was because words are too easy to lie with.

But then her sister died. Wendy Pribess, known to her colleagues as the “Spyder”, was a special agent in the FBI. She’d tracked a serial killer who called himself Kaman Set on a rampage across seven non-contiguous states to his hometown of Trinity’s Field, NC, and there, in accordance with horror-movie logic, she got caught up in the action and killed in the crossfire.

Nancy started to show the signs of grief pretty immediately, but she must have gotten caught up somewhere in the middle. “Something doesn’t add up,” she insisted every time she went over the police reports, the witness accounts.

“It does,” Jake assured her, and he tried to explain, but—

“No,” she would say. “No, no, it just doesn’t feel right!”

She started looking into it, the whole case. She had, at last, become somewhat a journalist in her own way. Just maybe not the right way. “I’m telling you,” she’d say, “there’s something more going on here!”

“And I’m telling you,” he’d retort, “even if there is, you can’t go anywhere without evidence!”

Still, she persisted. They broke up, but not until after she’d gone down to Trinity’s Field herself, moved there to be closer to the investigation. What she found there frightened her, but that only made her more desperate to discover (and reveal) the truth.

Jake, meanwhile, stopped thinking her obsession was cute even long before she started her blog on how supernatural events had shaped the small town’s history. But he couldn’t help but visit her when he found himself out on a story he thought for sure was unrelated.

“Does he work for Alchemyne?” she asked him, concerning the man he was coming to interview.

“I guess most of the people here in town do,” he said, not wanting to give anything away if he could help it.

“All the sketchy people do,” she said. “And a few who aren’t, but they eventually figure out what’s going on and then a lot of them disappear.”

Well, that sounded like bullshit.

Until he actually talked to the guy who’d called him, heard what he had to say (still thinking it was bullshit) and then what happened happened and the guy and his family were never heard from again.

“Sure lends credence, doesn’t it?” said Nancy.

“It doesn’t prove anything!”

“But it should still be reported!”

“People go missing every day!”

“Whole families? And all in the same situation?”

Then she called Curtis. Zealot, as it turned out, had it in for Alchemyne, had been looking for something like this for months, and now Nancy had brought it to them. Curtis launched an investigative report on Alchemyne Industries, their chemical manufacturing practices, their Human Resources Controversies and opposition to Affirmative Action or even color-blind hiring practices, strange unexplained disappearances and deaths in their offices all over the world, as it turned out.

The public ate it up. Everyone loves to attack Big Business, and Jake LeCarré rolled his eyes. There just wasn’t enough evidence. All these people screaming to prosecute, didn’t they understand the proceedings would be subject to due process? There just wasn’t enough evidence to bring it to trial, let alone convict. “You’d only be hurting your own case.”

But Curtis still got rich writing article after article for Zealot. “Hey, man, it sells. People want to hear it. And it’s not like we’re lying.”

“You’re just drawing conclusions from incomplete information.”

“And we’re admitting to that: look—“

“They are still reading it as fact, Curtis.”

“But what if it is true?” Nancy pointed out. “Look, if it’s not true, we will have taken down one horrible, horrible company that acted within the law to do horrible things—“

“And you will have lost thousands of people their jobs—“

“But if it is true… can you imagine? Jake, we could be saving the world.”

Jake shook his head. “I’m not buying it.”

“Is that because the evidence isn’t overwhelming enough, or because you support the free market?”

“I’m not saying that they’re not evil, I’m not saying they wouldn’t deserve it, but dammit, Nancy, there is a process!”

That’s when Nancy stopped talking to him.

“Can you blame her?” said Curtis.

“She’s not a journalist,” Jake insisted.

“Neither am I, by your standards,” Curtis pointed out. “And you? You’re freelance!”

“There’s something wrong with this country.”

“I won’t disagree,” said Curtis, “but that doesn’t mean there’s not something wrong with you, too.”

“I just want to tell the truth.”

“So does she.”

“But I want it to matter!”

Curtis took a deep breath. “What matters, Jake, might not be for you to decide.”