In the beginning was the bottle

Fall was the chilling time, with the heat of summer leaving like an accursed thief, and the rain foretelling its coming descent by the sullen gray roiled clouds overhead and marbled dampness of the pavement below.

Where I worked, however, was always chilling in its labyrinthine ways, and once my meeting had finished, I hurried from the unruly mass of gray concrete hillocks with my satchel in my hand, while the clumsy clothing and painful shoes slowed my body and dragged my feet. A slow and putrid breeze came from the north, and caught my necktie in its grimy grasp. To wear such clothing was a nightmare made tangible and palpable, and its use demanded by unreasoning fiat.

As I walked rapidly across the sea of glossy paint and eye-burning chrome, I dared not look back at the jumbled concrete behind me. The tie reminded me, as always, of a hangman's noose, and more, my condemned status. I was universally regarded as living by the whims of my superiors, with the unofficial status of a useful object. I did not merit the label of 'slave', which was reserved for those of normal mind.

I crossed the eye-hurting automotive wasteland, and at its very fringe, I found my car. Here, there was no gleaming chrome, nor distracting colors, for which I was glad. After opening the door, I carefully removed the tie and its costly embrace from my neck, and placed it carefully in a fold of cloth, which I then slipped into one of the long pockets of my satchel. I then got inside, strapped in, and went through the car's starting drill.

The engine was still warm, so it started immediately when I pressed the button, and the crackling rasp settled down to a slightly uneven idle with an occasional muted pop. Home beckoned to me as if I belonged there, and not here, and as I scanned the gages, I watched carefully for signs of trouble.

I was not welcome here. As I backed out cautiously from the parking stall, I looked in my mirrors to see if I was drawing unwanted attention, then slowly drove out of the parking lot and turned onto the long and tiring eastbound road. I was glad there wasn't much traffic, and I smoothly accelerated to match its speed. There was a place that needed visiting on the way home from this outpost of hell.

I drove for roughly ten minutes, then came to where I could pay the electric bill. The change in scenery – and more, sensation – was dramatic, so much so that I had relaxed markedly. I suspected it would help more than a little while standing in line.

The electric bill paid – the line was short, but it still hurt to stand – I resumed my homeward road. Some ten minutes later, I felt a restless stirring within as I came into a seedy portion of town that lay like a bulwark to contain the sprawling hustle of the city behind me, and the 'frontier' to the west and south, that region of poverty and despair where I lived and labored in silent desolation.

For some strange reason, I turned left at the first corner I came to, the restlessness now dissolving into a more familiar sensation: there was something important here. Instinct, or rather, something more than that fable, had aroused itself. As I drove slowly down this dingy and forgotten-looking street, I began looking for what it was. I could tell there was something very important here; what, I had no idea, but I knew this feeling too well to ignore it. I had had this happen too many times in the past to ignore it. Experience had told me it was most unwise, even if I wondered at times if my life were indeed real and not a horror story with myself being one of the characters.

The sense of nearing the location – it was a location, not something else less solid moving as it hunted down what it was after; I knew about those things, too – was steadily increasing. Dead trees accused the owners of property far away of ignoring their dessicated plight, and slowly disintegrating ancient houses told secrets of death and destruction on my right. On the left, though, was the business at hand, the businesses joined cheek by jowl, and joined also by high prices and dirty brick facades.

One business, however, was a liquor store. I found being thusly surrounded by distilled spirits but slightly more desirable than being deceased and filled with embalming fluid while awaiting consignment to the grave. Society had already consigned me to the nether regions and was merely biding its time, my disgrace hidden and lonely, hidden by these clothes and painful footwear.

Yet in spite of this horrific realization, I knew that this particular store was the location in question, and I parked nose-in on the side of the street across from it. Where I parked was next to a condemned and ancient house slowly undergoing decomposition behind a low and unkempt jungle of vegetation. The comparison between the thick-clotted weeds and my clothing seemed an apt one, for neither of us were presentable as we naturally were, and neither clothing nor weeds fully hid the eyesores of our presence.

The house had a number of dead trees, and at the base of one of them – an oak, perhaps – two transients clad in cast-off patched clothing used a hatchet and large sack-hidden bottle of malt liquor as their tools of destruction. The hatchet had seen better days in its short and brutal life, and as for the vile liquid they were drinking, it too was coming to its end.

I did not intrude upon their simple pleasures, for another use occurred to me for the hatchet, and I did not wish to find out if they were so inclined.

As I removed myself from the car, I used the small round plastic 'key' in my right pocket to activate the alarms. There were three of them, each disabling a separate subsystem of the car such that it could not be moved or driven. The alarm system in the car chirped once as I turned and left for the front of the store across the road. I briefly turned, while still in the protection of the row of cars, and looked closer at the area I was in.

This entire region seemed to be both a product and enabler of a curse in some way, for the decay of the houses on the left and rotten aspect of the buildings on the right was hideous to behold. The windows of the businesses were dirty to an extent, the grime left by filthy air smeared with grease an emblem of struggle. It was a struggle to go into this unpromising location as well, for there were others out there, their hunt a ceaseless one; they had tried for me before, the screamed curses buried in the roar of their engines as they drove past showering gravel while I leaped into the bushes to escape their sideswiping cars.

I shook off the nightmarish flashback, ignoring the dire promise that had haunted me for years. Twice in the space of an hour walking lonely along that road I had been terrorized for merely existing as I walked by the roadside. I still could hear the faint and ghostly mockery delivered by those with no use for me but that one as I looked carefully and ran across the road to the safety of another line of parked cars. I was not paranoid beyond the nature of a hunted animal with no place to run and no place to hide, for that one time was but one of thousands of attacks; the recollection happened to fit in this region of dirt.

The warbling howl of a police siren now sounded faintly in the distance. I strained to hear the echoing gunfire and explosions, both sounds I associated with more nightmarish reveries. They were not carried on the breeze, so I looked now at what I knew was the location of what I was after.

This also brought back more unbidden memories: the mouthful of whiskey that caused spitting worse than gasoline – I had siphoned enough gasoline for the family lawn-mower to compare the two – the poisonous flavor of brandy mixed with milk, and finally, that bright blue bottle. The proprietor of such a place in another town far away had recommended it. After tasting its chemical flavor, I knew he would have been better served selling used cars of bad repute; it tasted like a communist nightmare long bottled under Stalin seventy years ago in Siberia, distilled from evil ways and the muzzle flashes of the endless steppe's revolting justice.

I took my mind from the recollection of that potable paint-remover that had no effects save upon my then near-vacant wallet and went into this store. Still, this place made me recall every nightmare associated with potable spirits – the evil 'chemical' taste of wine among them.

Beer, at least, was palatable, if an uncommonly-consumed thing in the past as an insomnia remedy – and now, all such liquids were no longer part of my diet. They had never been common, as there were too many unpleasant recollections of how people behaved toward me while drunk.

At least I now had an insomnia remedy that worked and tasted better at home in the medicine cabinet. I took it often enough to remain functional and productive, and seldom enough for it to retain useful effects; while easier to tolerate than most things of that nature, I cherished my sleep, and wanted to continue sleeping in the future.

Still, there was this store. The dingy front and filthy sidewalk riddled with cracks had but little effect, as did the slow-gathering darkness above. Sundown was hurrying to hide me from this hateful world crawling with malice and envy.

I stepped across the threshold after opening the dark blue of the wood-framed glass door, walking as if enchanted into a vast cavern full of musty odors wafting off of the alembics of old alchemists who transmuted muddy brown foul-smelling mash into concentrated evil. It was in here all right, but this wasn't evil. I knew that much about what I was after in this unpromising location.

I stood in the front of the store, looking quick and nervous as I stood my ground against the terror that I felt. Over to the left stood a Formica-clad counter with a cash register, small chromed bell, and possibly a carefully-hidden sawed-off shotgun.

This place saw imported evil hidden behind cast-off nylon stockings now and then, as I could see traces of blood hidden in the cracks of the linoleum tiles marching chessboard style to be hidden by long, four-high rows of shelves that covered most of the store's small region of gloom. The slow grind of a ceiling fan overhead stirred my thinning hair and made the trickles of sweat dry faster as they tried to run ragged down my face.

Where I stood was an open area, and in back, hidden behind a wall, was another, much larger area, with grimy concrete hidden by boxes piled high of the products of commerce. Light came from two large and grimy windows behind me, and their blue tinting and cobweb traces conjoined with red-tinted bulbs to show a ghastly purple hue in my peripheral vision. The lights flickered now and then as if to foretell of a coming holocaust.

I saw no clerk present in the main area of the store. From the well-hidden rear area, sounds muffled and faint traveled as if from a far distant country, and in their crude coarse speech I heard labor, sweat, grunting, the sliding of boxes across the floor, and now and then a guttural malediction in an unknown tongue.

I now began to wander the aisles in search of that which led me here. I wondered what it was; most likely, going by what was here, it was a bottled spirit, but I did not know for certain. I wondered if it was one in a lamp, some jinn that might grant me the true and wondrous insanity most took for granted called a normal life, but after a quick pass among the products of supposed Scottish pot-stills I knew that hope was in vain.

This was some species of potable lighter fluid. Was it a gift for a friend? I knew several who, for some arcane reason, liked drinking this stuff, and I had made up bottles of a cordial for them as gifts once. They liked it greatly, but the smell of the high-octane ingredients nearly made me vomit during the hours of its compounding.

I kept wandering the aisles packed with bottles of sundry shapes, each filled with high-octane liquid brain rocket fuel – I smirked at that description – when something grabbed my peripheral vision with a flicker and a flash.

“Is that it?” I wondered. There was no answer.

I went over to the source of the lightning-like flickering, and as I came closer, the sense I had of 'location' became steadily stronger. Alone upon a shelf, with nothing next to it, stood a strange-looking bottle filled with what resembled purple ink. I picked it up and nearly dropped it on the floor, for it became dazzling and iridescent like a neon sign. I held it securely, wondering if anyone saw what I had just seen. The store was empty of people save one: me.

I then returned my gaze to the bottle. The liquid's color was of a deep, dark purple hue that hinted of ancient long-expired royalties, while the glass of the bottle was a lumpy mottled yellow. It seemed ancient, hand blown, and touched deeply by the hand of an old gray-bearded glassblower sitting patiently by the side of his 'glory hole' with his tools near to hand.

The label – it had not been noticeable before – seemed to have come from a forgotten century, with coarse-looking paper and archaic printing. It seemed impossibly old, as did the thick and gritty gum adhering the label to the glass.

“This bottle looks older than time,” I thought. “Now I just wish I could read the label.”

That was the chief problem, for I could barely discern what the words meant. I seemed to pick out one particular word, that being 'gin'.

Purple gin?” I thought.

I had never tried gin before, but I knew there were meanings beyond 'a distilled alcoholic beverage made with juniper berries and other herbs'. I recalled the other meanings that I knew of: the cotton gin, which was a machine that tore the seeds from cotton wrested from the soil by hard labor ahead of a devouring multitude of sundry insects. Related to it was the old term for machinery, related to engines of war; and then, the archaic use of that word: a trap or snare.

That last thought was what occurred to me, for I now felt trapped in a morass of panic, and I set the bottle down with the goal of escape. The impression of doom, death, and decay that seemed to well up from beneath the floor and seep through the walls of my prison was such that I felt overwhelmed, and as I turned to run, the shelves on each side turned into high and awesome walls that surrounded me. Their height was that of skyscrapers, and their enfolding embrace, that of a labyrinth.

I felt like a rat in a maze, then smiled. I could figure out most mazes. The word 'most' then struck me as if a crowbar, and I knew – beyond all doubt – that this particular maze was not one I could solve.

I returned to the bottle and picked it up again, and then looked around. The previous scenery had returned, and the inescapable nightmare-vision-landscape was gone with no trace. I held the bottle closely, now and then glancing at its contents to see glimpses of its sparkling.

I felt much better now, and as I walked up the aisle toward the front of the store, the aisle seemed to grow and then weave slightly from side to side. I ignored what I was seeing, as this effect, like much else I had seen, was familiar to me; I had had enough strange things happen to me of similar nature over the years that I had an idea as to the cause.

As I continued walking slowly toward my destination, I recalled some of these events and my steadily growing knowledge of their most likely cause, that being interacting with the spirit world. I had 'done business' in that region a great deal, and while I had had my own suspicions, I still had seen far more than the common. I had been recognized by others that way.

“Those times in church made this look like a joke,” I thought.

Those times, both of them, had not been anything remotely resembling a joke, for the floor and pews had vanished to show a vast deep chasm but inches from my feet in the middle of a great desert. Both times, I had heard the command to walk, and the first time, I had shrank in terror. The sight of those stone spikes at the bottom of that mile-deep chasm was unnerving, to say the least. It was only exceeded by the second time, when I actually did walk on air for a short distance.

What I had just endured, in comparison, was a common thing, and I dealt with things like it frequently. I had never used street drugs in my life, nor did I wish to. These experiences made any drug-induced effects I had read of seem utterly and completely tame.

I came to the counter and set the bottle carefully on its aged and slightly stained Formica top. The sounds from the hidden rear of the store now swelled, their sound that of sliding cardboard over a sandy surface. Razor knives tore open cardboard boxes, the sound terrible as they sang, the half-cutting, half tearing sound a cogent symptom of a psychopathic fantasy. I had endured such people for years, living under their feet as a slave and beside them as prey to be slaughtered for their amusement. For some reason, my life had been preserved from their bloodthirsty ways.

I now rang the small chromed bell, its tinny tinkle lost in the maelstrom of sound coming from the rear area behind the walls. On the wall behind the counter in blazing red calligraphy was writing proclaiming the unvarnished truth of existence:

be patient, like an old-time distiller of moonshine sermons or hellfire and damnation liquor.”

This sign had ancient age writ hard upon it as the letters now formed flaming chasms in the cracked concrete of the wall. Time now seemed to slow and the walls to become mobile and twitch slightly as they became filmed with mist. I felt a shiver run up my spine and sweat run down it in a trickle. I reached in another pocket and ate a glucose tablet, then another, then a third. Hypoglycemia was not at all amusing, and I had been having trouble with it much of my life – and hallucinations were not at all rare if my blood sugar dropped fast enough.

The thrill I now felt, though, made me wonder if that was what it was, for the terror now grew to levels I had not felt in long years; I wanted out badly, but that bottle was a ball and chain, and the clerk was off somewhere in time and space unbounded. I looked to my left, hoping to see the sun again.

What I now saw was a black void, as if a shattered bottle of India ink had been slung across the sky to hide the outside hateful world. I was now sucked into this void, this black hole at the world's end in a strange cavern of a liquor store. I was lost, swallowed up in this black despairing realm, the feeling of solitary doom overwhelming.

The waiting, for there was waiting here, was eternal, and it was the waiting for doom. This was not the bullet of a thug, nor the needle of some irate doctor wanting my body for dinner, but a long and shining sword, a massive double-bladed ax of northern bloodshed, and a dagger clenched in the teeth to stop the screaming, with a maniac to use them as the tools of death. I was to be the sacrifice, my blood collected and my flesh burnt to ashes on a blackened and smoking blood-stained stone altar. I felt a stinging blow to the back of my neck that jarred me out of this state and back into the store. I wondered for a moment if I had been bitten by that head-cleaving double-bladed ax.

Behind me I heard a pimple-filled voice, one that yearned for sex under the bleachers, silently cursing the clumsiness of a vile and strange person in an evil place. The words he spoke, however, were “sorry, mister.” He lied, as did many here; he had a good arm, one worthy of tossing daggers to kill his victims. I felt a trickle of something crawling slow as sap in winter down my neck, like a vicious poisonous snake dropping from the ceiling. I wondered if what I felt was water.

Was it?

Or was it blood?

The paper-tosser had had enough practice tossing papers, as there were a number of them in dirty canvas sacks hung from his neck.

I then saw the cause of my assailant's seeming politeness: the clerk had arrived, doling out a quarter and a dime to the boy after first extracting it with exaggerated care from the till. The boy picked up a paper from the floor where it had hit me and handed it to the clerk; the paper and money exchanged hands, and pimple-face – I had heard right, for his face was a minefield of pus and redness – pocketed the money, and left out the slow-swinging door as if he had seen a pot of gold the size of a beer keg on the horizon. I never saw him again. Small favors deserved thanks.

The clerk, however, was much more polite, and genuine. He looked it; his face was like that of an old-time prize-fighter, with a crumpled nose, several scars badly stitched, and puffy eyes like half an extra eyeball lay underneath each eyelid. Tattoos etched each arm, old faded dreams of mis-spent youth, his height a few inches less than mine, his build seemingly wasted; his teeth were stained dark and lay crooked in a sagging mouth. His mouldering appearance spoke of premature decrepitude, but his voice was utterly incongruous: it was that of a educated man, cultured and well-modulated.

However his aspect, he was at first all business, saying “that will be twenty-eight dollars and seventy-five cents. Would you like a bag for this? We get it in so seldom, and...”

I wondered what he meant as his voice trailed off as if straining to recall some ancient dream or forgotten memory; perhaps of faded glory shredded, flying in the wind. I removed my wallet on its thin chain hidden in my pocket, then removed a twenty and a ten, placing them both on the counter next to the bottle.

Upon receipt of the money and making change, he said, “this bottle gets a special extra-thick bag. We use them only for this particular material, because the distiller supplies them as well as the product, and specifies that the bag has special properties...”

The last phrase piqued my curiosity; that lust had killed cats beyond number, and now it desired to impute to me its special brand of lethality.

“What do you know of this substance?” I said.

He was taken aback and seemed shaken by my first words spoken in his hearing; perhaps I had acquired a brain in his estimation, for this was not idle chatter – it was an all-too-serious question worth well-pondered thought. Besides, the label was still uncommonly blurred.

He picked up the bottle, then began to read in a dramatic voice as if practicing Hamlet on an old forgotten stage, “this is 'Slow Gin', the slowest drink a man can have. If you are in a hurry, drink of Slow Gin, and you will learn to be slow. There is never time to waste when there is Slow Gin on your hands.” He then said in a more normal-sounding voice, “that is all there is upon the label.”

However, in those words I saw an ancient-seeming village forgotten for centuries with horses and wagons, with the forge of a blacksmith frozen in time, waiting patiently for a hand to set it working.

The contents of the bottle was anything but frozen, for it was still sparkling. The clerk placed it in the bag, which was near cardboard in consistency, tying the bag shut with a red ribbon. I noted printed upon the bag a picture of a solitary blood-red rose. He placed the bottle carefully upon the counter, along with my change. I pocketed the coins, thanked him, picked up the bottle, and left the store.

The sun was in the west, the sky burning with the orange-red flame of sundown blasting a hole through the faint pollution that obscured the sky. I drove when need demanded it, as I had no time for amusement, save upon rare occasions, which was when the preservation of sanity – or my life – demanded driving.

Unlike myself, the two transients did have time to spare. They had succeeded in dropping the tree, and were now cutting it apart with slow measured strokes of their hatchet. The empty bagged bottle was gone, and now a second one was on its way to perdition. They looked briefly with envy on the old fastback, then resumed work as the alarm chirped when I thumbed the transmitter.

While my car was indeed old, I had worked on it during periods of unemployment over the course of several years. The lathe and milling machine, as well as a cobbled-together TIG welder, had been busy then, as well as the tools I had from previous years working in machine shops, ones I had made and bought. The car was as reliable as a new one, and performed as well as I could wish.

I did not need a lengthy period of unemployment due to being late for work, for in my case, the reason why would not matter. Others had excuses, while in my case...

I had no such thing. I had to march or die, and government jobs were for the blessed denizens of normalcy. I was not one of them, and could not be one of them. I had ruined my life trying to conform to the will of society and now I could no longer even make the attempt.

The bottle slipped readily in my satchel as I rearranged its contents, then slipped the large leather bag into the box in the rear of the car's sheet-metal interior after maneuvering it around the roll cage. Only the two front seats remained, and they were not original equipment.

That last accident had made a believer out of me. I found the ten pounds of Halon in the fire bottle behind the shift lever reassuring, even as the roll cage made for strange contortions getting in and out of the car. Strange contortions were a small price to pay for my peace of mind.

I strapped in, then went through the starting drill. Key in, turn to 'run', press starting button, then 'ignition on' once the gages show pressure. The engine crackled to life like a rabid Rottweiler, and settled down to its unsteady idle. The intermittent popping from the mufflers spoke loudly of a high performance engine. I tapped the throttle, and the engine responded with an intense and thunderous snarl.

I found reverse and slowly backed out. As I did, I saw astonished faces on the pair of transients. One of them shook his head, then resumed swilling from the malt liquor bottle as I turned to head down the street.

I turned right, then right again, then left. The steady rasp of the engine as I 'rowed' through the gears seemed to keep the nightmares away, and as I slowly left the town behind me, I entered open country with its higher speed limit. I could run the engine where it liked to be in this area.

The sun was dropping steadily, and ahead lay a rumbling rapidly-slowing semi. As I came closer, I swung out to the left of the long tedious truck, and saw the coast as being clear. I dropped into second, and mashed the throttle.

The rear tires howled and billowed smoke for a fraction of a second as the car shot ahead as if from a cannon, and the acceleration was so strong I needed to grab third once the tires ceased smoking. They squawked as the clutch went home, and I darted back into my lane and let off the throttle. The engine seemed much happier now, for I could hear the crackle from the exhaust clearer.

The semi vanished from sight as I crested the hill.

The remaining miles of the homeward drive were peaceful, with no traffic, and as the dark descended like a thicket of night I pulled into the drive to the right of the old house I lived in. I let the engine idle for a moment, then shut it down.

The small front area was thatched thickly with long grass and in need of mowing, while the area in back had a carport, a narrow strip of old concrete crazed with cracks and dotted with stains, and a windowless building that took up much of the remaining area. The carport I had just occupied was wider than common, somewhat old, made of faded white-painted sheet-metal and tubing, and closed on the driveway end with sliding doors, which I had opened when I left the house three hours ago.

Once out of the car with my satchel in hand, I finally felt my fatigue. I was worn out, beyond all language save the growling hunger of a famished animal as I stumbled to the rear of the house. The sun went down finally as I fitted the key into the lock. I was glad I had gotten home when I did, as I tended to drive faster at night. Why, I did not know, only that I did.

The interior of the house seemed neglected. Mrs. Ulyanov came weekly, and she was due in a day or two.

“And when she comes is up to her,” I thought. “Even if I neglected work and did little other than clean house, it would not be much of an improvement over this.”

The exterior was different as to outcome, if not much otherwise. I had done most of the repairs on the house during my first period of unemployment after buying it with a portion of what I had inherited. While I was working, in contrast, I did not even have the energy to pay others to do abysmal work at high prices, hence I waited until I was unemployed to do needed work, unless the matter was an emergency. I was glad those were rare.

I was glad I had Mrs. Ulyanov to look after me, as I could not take care of myself and work. If I wished to remain employed, I had to focus on work to the exclusion of all else and remain walled up in seclusion during the period of an assignment.

The house had two small bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, a sizable 'main room', and a basement. My bed and living arrangements were in the main room, while one of the bedrooms was my 'quiet room', where I worked. Mrs. Ulyanov had the other bedroom as her 'office', with a desk, shelves, chairs, computer, supplies, and much else.

I had arranged the house this way by her advice. She had a great deal of medical training; as far as I could make out, she was just below a full M.D., and her husband, Ivan, was a good deal beyond that, having taught at a medical school as well as worked as a surgeon in the Ukraine. For some reason, their medical certificates didn't carry much weight here; it might have been their vintage and issuers. I had seen the documents, and had been impressed.

Both Mrs. Ulyanov and her husband were near retirement age, and had but recently come from 'the old country', and while they weren't able to practice medicine, she was a good cook, among other things. The desk had a zippered envelope of blue vinyl, and a portion of what I put in there was for food.

I was glad for her cooking, and glad for her ability to find the needed food in the nearby stores. The products of my attempts to shop were frustration and food I could not eat, and the outcomes of my attempts at cooking were ruined utensils, smoke clouds, and occasional marginally edible meals.

I staggered into the kitchen, where I put the Slow Gin in the refrigerator, and from there, I wobbled into the quiet room, where I dropped my satchel and nudged it to the side. I then stumbled into the main room, and sat down on the bed. Here, I dredged out my 'reminder' – a small semi-obsolete computer the size of a calculator – so as to examine my 'list' of what I needed to do.

Between days that often blurred together, hours of sleep crammed in when possible, the mental fogginess of hypoglycemia, and the illness of chronic pancreatitis, I had trouble recalling what I needed to do, and hence such electronic assistance was a requirement.

“Is it Tuesday, or is it Wednesday?” I thought. “Or is it a newly-added eighth day that everyone knows about except me?”

I was thankful for the keyboard on what I had, even if it required care in use. Handwriting recognition software usually balked at my handwriting, and the ruggedness of this old dark-green 'box' had astonished me repeatedly. It had survived drownings and droppings with no ill effects.

My guts stirred, and I set the computer down to stagger to the bathroom, where the cramping caused a moan of agony and the pain vision blurred with tears – it was acting up more than a little lately, the pain that of a red-hot iron bar stabbing me in the upper abdomen – I returned to the main room to sit on the bed until the pain was less. While I had pain pills, I did not wish to endure the horror they would induce, nor could I afford to take something else with them and then sleep. I needed to get to work.

Work meant the quiet room, that windowless tomb that shut out distraction and noise, and as I put away the reminder, I thought to change into work clothes. That meant soft cotton underwear, a soft yet thin robe, padded slippers, and a large insulated glass of ice, water, and diet soda.

My 'cell' was as padded as my clothing. I had converted it into a windowless tomb, a soundless enclosure thickly covered with carpet, cork, and foam rubber, with a door coated with sound deadening materials and sealed carefully against noise. The lighting within this realm of the cursed was dim, like that of a subterranean grotto, and all within had been rendered as silent as possible.

I spent nearly all of my waking hours in this room during assignments, and while I had taken what steps I could to eliminate distractions, I still found myself distracted. Often, I detected movement in my peripheral vision, and when I turned, I often saw fleeting glimpses of strange creatures. Less frequent, but more threatening, were small but threatening filmy figures. Once, I had seen a coiled rattlesnake some few inches tall on the desk a few inches from the keyboard as I pounded out copy, and another time, I had turned to see a black cat a few feet from my desk, with its fur on edge and back arched as it spat in fury. Spiritual harassment was not uncommon, and I lived with it. It had been so for many years in one form or another.

While my current life was horrible, there were worse forms that I knew of, and such knowledge kept me me mired in my particular circle of Inferno. I lived the life of an ant, beyond night, day, days, or weeks. The clock told of time, and the deadline for an assignment or a discharge slip was the only means of closure other than my death. There was but one alternative way of life left to me: the streets.

Others – those socially-adept paragons of virtue deemed 'normal' by society – might get assistance. I had used up what little goodwill I might have had by continuing to exist, and the streets meant a time of perhaps a few days before my death, assuming I hid well. At the end of that time – or before, if I didn't chose my hiding place with especial care – either some 'gangster' would make his bones by my murder, or some bored police officers would riddle my carcass with bullet holes while they laughed at me for providing them with 'live-action target practice'.

There would be no crime needed in my case, for my mere existence provided ample 'probable cause'; I was different from the bulk of society, and therefore that sufficed, even if I had learned long ago that crime was a waste of time for me. I would be hunted down like a rat, and then shot like a mad dog, for the following simple reason:

difference is evil; torment, amusing; and cruelty, an answer to boredom.

It was not comforting to now be so certain of such matters, but I was indeed certain; I had had too many people over the years wish my death for no readily apparent reason save that of not being the fully-owned and fully-cloned slave of my assailants.

The reality of this current hell now intruded upon me for a moment as I sat in a daze from the pain, it being a reminder of what life was like for me. I worked from assignment to assignment until I was discharged, with the length and number of my days dependent on the limits of stamina and sanity. I didn't get much sleep, and 'time off' was mostly a long-forgotten dream outside periods of unemployment.

In contrast, the others where I worked had days of nine to ten hours, and five-day weeks as a rule, save during rare periods where they might work part of an added day. I knew their schedule wasn't like mine: bed to desk to bathroom to desk to bathroom for a bath to bed, sleep a few hours, then repeat until either I became too sick to work or the assignment was finished. I was ill to some extent all the time.

There was no time to be sick, and little time to eat. I took care of myself when the reminder chimed its set alarms, assuming I heard it. Often I did not, as what I was capable of was none too good, given what I was doing. I had to do my absolute best, and then, I barely made the grade.

When I received discharge papers – I seemed to be tossed out at the whim of someone with some frequency, the reasons never given, but I had suspicions as to why – I had a reprieve from this hellish treadmill. Not having to perform the incomprehensible and counter-intuitive rituals of socialization usually resulted in feeling far less ill within days.

Just the same, I usually slept as much as possible during the first few days of non-work, and while awake, I made medical appointments. Once rested, I began looking for work.

Finding work, however, was exceedingly difficult. My age had something to do with it, as well as my disabilities – hearing trouble, a mangled left hand, and other issues that were harder to pin down but no less crippling – and finally, the serious illnesses I had in addition to chronic pancreatitis. I had no idea why I had that particular ailment, but I knew I had had trouble with hypoglycemia since childhood.

I checked my blood sugar, and found it to be about where it belonged. The pancreatitis didn't just cause pain; it also caused diabetes and digestive difficulties. The latter meant malodorous floating stools and oil slicks, which indicated just how bad it actually was. Mrs. Ulyanov said I looked like a Zek from being so ill.

“Being told I'd lived like one doesn't help,” I thought, as I recalled someone's comments. She too had been from the Ukraine. They knew about concentration camps there, unlike where I lived.

I went to the refrigerator and got out the small yellow plastic box labeled 'dope'. For the first months of insulin, I felt like a drug addict, complete with needle, and recalling how I had felt brought back more nightmarish memories: cursing by both parents, and then a comment, one issued by my mother.

My mother was the 'sane' of the two, and she had spoken of turning me in had she found me under the influence of 'drugs'. She was also the more 'reasoning' of the two, and my stepfather was all too fond of his twelve-gage – and had he learned of such a transgression, or any of a thousand other transgressions, either real or imagined, he most likely would have emptied it into me. He would have done well at Auschwitz with his attitude, and I had lived in fear for my life every day for years.

The small yellow box did not contain 'drugs', at least how my parents defined them. It contained the three vials of insulin, the syringe currently used, and some alcohol wipes, and after setting it on the bed, I returned to the refrigerator. My guts had stopped hurting for the most part, and I took out the uppermost serving container, removed its lid, and popped it into the microwave to warm up. I then returned to the bed. It was time to 'shoot up'. I still thought like a junkie of sorts.

There were three types of insulin, and three separate shots, as the total 'load' was a sizable one and would not fit in the syringe. In all cases, the injections hurt, and the last one – long-acting insulin – I had a bloody finger afterward. I'd been instructed to put a finger over the injection site after removing the needle, and I'd 'struck oil' with the last shot.

I looked at the bloodstain before wiping it with cotton, then muttered about being a 'dope fiend' as I went back into the kitchen to put away the insulin. I had been doing this for years, and I still felt like that ultimate agglomeration of concentrated evil known as a drug addict; and as I took the food from the microwave and grabbed a fork from the appropriate plastic restaurant bin, I blinked. It was time to get to work, and I wobbled to the quiet room.

“At least she can cook edible food,” I thought.

My cooking was a disaster of such consistent proportions I considered myself fortunate that I remained alive.

One one occasion, however, she had cooked a delicious dish containing a great deal of sour cream. While the flavor was much to my liking, the hours of pain and cramping in the bathroom were not; I had hoped it would not cause trouble, for my guts were fickle that way. I could usually eat ice cream and not have trouble, but sour cream was terrible – most of the time. When I was not working, I could eat more or less anything with no more trouble than some floating stools a few times a day, no illness, and no pain. While working, it was so much worse I wondered if I could be fed by vein.

When she had found me in the bathroom after one such bout of diarrhea, she had noticed the 'hot' smell, the 'floaters', and then the oil slick – and then I wished that I knew Russian, for her muttering had sounded dire indeed. The noodles-and-sour-cream dish no longer was on my menu, while foods that did not cause trouble – diet soda, ice, frozen yogurt, and things similar – were.

She had asked me about alcohol, but when I said I had never been much inclined that way, she shook her head and muttered something about 'Baba Yaga'. I had no idea as to who – or what – that person or thing was, but I did know she knew I wasn't merely a disaster at cooking. I was also a disaster at lying, cheating, or doing wrong.

Those qualities, as well as a great many more, were needed to achieve much of anything; the acme of achievement seemed to demand amorality and a nonexistent conscience, and the ultimate good was that of a sociopath. I could not be that way if I wanted to, for it required capabilities I lacked, including the desire to be so. I knew being that way was chiefly a matter of desire, at least for the majority. They did have a measure of choice that way.

I laid the food aside in the quiet room, and began reading my mail on the 'mail' computer. There were several 'superannuated' computers networked together where I lived, and my networking hardware was equally 'old'. It was also cheap and effective.

My mail backlog had steadily accumulated over the last few weeks, for I had not even checked it while working on the last assignment. Important mail – from work – went directly to the main computer's screen, and if the matter was truly important, I was called. I was glad for the answering machine, as the jangle of the telephone, like the doorbell and other noises, didn't get into the quiet room. The mail didn't get in there either: I checked the mailbox every so often, dumped the junk mail, and then looked for bills needing immediate attention. Those were very rare. I paid my utilities months ahead, and I usually paid – in person, when possible – three months or more at a time.

For some time, I continued going through my accumulated electronic mail, dumping the meaningless garbage with the goal of saving the 'important' mail for later review. So far I had saved ten messages out of more than three hundred. I suddenly felt dizzy, then recalled the need to eat.

The next fifteen minutes I spent eating and reading. I was glad I had felt the insulin 'kick in' this time, and between each group of deletions, I ate several mouthfuls of food. I lost my appetite before I ran out of food, and I still had a long list of messages that needed deletion. I moved the remaining food to the side, and now fully concentrated on my task. Time seemed to stop, but work continued as the long list of messages became steadily shorter.

After what seemed hours lost in 'space', I ceased with my typing and looked around. The walls of the room were slowly changing, with slow languid movements, and the walls themselves seemed to be altered. The dimensions of my room had changed, for the ceiling was now so low that I thought I would dent it with my head if I stood up from my chair.

I looked for the container of food – noodles with chopped meat, I now finally realized – and found it over in one of the corners near one of the bookshelves. It was as dessicated as an Egyptian mummy and covered with cobwebs. The whole room had a layer of dust so thick that I found myself mystified – other than I would need to slip more money in that zippered envelope in Mrs. Ulyanov's office and let her know. It would keep until tomorrow.

I yawned, it being bedtime. I had a vastly smaller backlog of mail, having deleted nearly eight hundred messages, and that seemed the only good thought I had. I scraped out the dish in the garbage and placed it in the soaking bucket, then put in some disinfectant after it – it kept the stench down and did not eat the silverware. Bleach was cheaper, but it devoured stainless.

Prior to bed, I checked my blood sugar – which, not surprisingly, was low. I drank down a glass of milk with soy protein powder, then dumped the glass in the soaking bucket after rinsing. I went in the bathroom, took one of the pills to help with sleep, then turned on the radio after plugging in the headphones. The soft glow of the tube filaments in the radio was a soothing night-light for my tired eyes.

The next morning, though, I awoke chilled and stupefied. The headphones were on the floor, and when I tried to get up, I fell down on my face. A roar of gunfire and streaming fire-red tracers shot out of the hall far in the distance, while directly in front of me lay a syringe and vials of insulin. Faint ghostly letters hovered in front of me, and as I traced out their lines and angles, I formed the letters, and from the letters, I formed words. It took what seemed an hour to discern the coming holocaust.

The DEA, in all its wisdom, wanted all insulin junkies dead. No prisoners need apply; they wanted heads to show our glorious leader Dugashvili, and he had screamed for a pile of them the size of the great pyramid.

I shook this burning truth off, but the syringe and vials had been replaced by a green and slimy trunk with the red coffin of Dracula in it. The trunk was but a few miles away, and I crawled toward it, for I wished to become undead. Only thus could I sleep in a little red coffin like the one I saw.

An abrupt lurch caused the former soft grass to turn into gray soupy mud, and from all sides, I heard and felt the roar of gunfire. The blasts of shells were screaming splinters all over, their lethal fury a testimony to rage. That green trunk was now a copse of bushes. I reached it and was delighted to find the red coffin, opening it and embracing the dead skeleton, then putting its bones together. A massive blast hit to the left and I felt the sickening nausea and pain of a splinter in my upper arm – but that wasn't the only part that was hit.

I pulled up my left hand from the mud. The palm was torn open such that it resembled hamburger, and the tip of the ring finger was gone. All that was left was a splinter-gnawed stump showing the white shattered tip of the bone, and on the back of my hand, there was a ripped-up track of a splinter. The pain was frightening, for it came from both wounds, and both wounds steadily dripped blood.

With a further massive thundering roar, the copse vanished, and I now lay in an ancient battlefield. This was the reality of life; I had been badly wounded; I was bleeding; I was in shock, with gut-churning nausea, profuse sweating, stark-white pallor, and rapid pounding heartbeat. I was intensely thirsty.

I crawled ahead some feet at at time. A shell detonated some hundred yards in front of me as a kaleidescope of sound and splinters, the scream of the later making smoke trails through the air. This shell was followed by another some hundred feet to the side, then someone yelled with echoing roars, “over the top!”

Whistles shrieked like damned souls, greenish-yellow billowing chlorine clouds came crawling across the withered landscape, fresh clouds came on wings of steel as gas shells softly ruptured behind me. A barrage followed the advancing soldiers, now coming up even with me, and the shells burst with big black clouds of fury among them. I spy a shell-hole some few feet away, and now I crawl for its safety in hopes I will not get hit again. As I reach its edge, another object – either a bullet or a shell splinter – hits me in the side, flipping me sideways several yards.

My intestines are now spilling out into the soupy mud, and the pain blots out everything, even the watery gray of the sun. Mercifully, even that subsides into blackness, and I know not this world as vision, only pain – and soon, even that is gone. Perhaps one of the large shells will save them the bother of my disposal.

I awoke some few hours later miserable, sick with the intense nausea of Glucagon. A few feet away lay the kit's bloodstained syringe and vial, and as I looked at my left arm near the shoulder, I saw a crust of dried blood.

“How did I mix that stuff up and take it?” I thought. There was no answer.

The site of the shoulder wound in my hallucination was the same place as where I had injected the Glucagon, and where the nausea lay coiled cobra-like was the site of where that larger piece of shell hit me in the stomach.

I went to the army tool satchel – I kept the majority of the usual drugs there, at least those that didn't need refrigeration – and removed the vial of vanilla-flavored corn syrup. The glucose tablets were for emergencies away from home.

I was stunned by the pain once I got the stuff down. I nearly began hallucinating again. As I stumbled to the bathroom, I said weakly, “right location... The pain, I am not sure. This is so bad I...”

I sat in intense misery as my gut spasmed, and the flashing dots in my vision were such that during a brief interlude in the spasming, I took one of the pain pills, as well as one of those for sleep. I knew the results of doing so: I would be sleepy but sane, with relief from the current agony.

A short time later, my gut let up, and I was able to return to bed. The sense of sleepiness was steadily increasing, as was a feeling of relaxation and calm. I was able to think rationally, surprisingly, and as the pain steadily faded, I felt my gut squirming again. I returned to the bathroom.

There, the gas erupted, along with more diarrhea. I was glad it did not hurt, as usually that particular type of discharge normally caused a degree of pain that was difficult to put into words. I had once had trouble there – a rectal fissure and severe strictures – and I had needed surgery to correct it. The pain then had been so intense and constant I had longed for a colostomy.

Calling work was out of the question; I would get a discharge notice in the mail. Only young, healthy fiends without consciences could live 'life in the fast lane'. I wasn't stupid, even if I felt 'stupefied'.

After an hour had passed, I tested my blood sugar, and found it close to normal. I ordered another Glucagon kit from the pharmacy. Eighty dollars was cheap when it meant life.

I then began to work on my next assignment. The bulk of the documentation I had to work with was on several CDROMS, with two pieces of paper indicating what was wanted. This was much of the reason why I was used and often abused.

While written instructions were common, many of the instructions were of the 'wink, nudge, wink' type imparted in person, and I tended to misunderstand those. That language was difficult to understand at best; more importantly, such rites of inclusion demanded a likable exterior, and I could not manufacture one of those, no matter how or what I tried. I recalled someone saying, “if you wish to be liked, then be like-able.”

What he did not bother saying was, “as a rule, if you wish to be like-able, you must be like those you wish to be liked by in word, thought, and in deed.” Perhaps he thought it obvious, as he was blessed with a 'normal' mind, where such behavior was as natural as breathing – and as thought-intensive.

As I examined the documentation, I typed my notes in another terminal window. I would later transfer them to 'index cards' for organization, as well as keys to further research. What I was doing seemed to usher in a recollection of the day before and where I had gone to get both assignments and documentation.

It seemed that every time I went in that place, it was more unreal, more amoral, more like swimming unprotected amid chunks of blood-seeping meat with great white sharks on the prowl. On the way back to where I would meet my contact-person – I was held at arm's length in that place, as befitting my 'worse-than-pariah' status – I had passed an open door in a line of back-room offices. There, I paused for an instant.

The darkened room contained the usual office furniture, and something more: the face of a grim-eyed monster, a mouth replete with bloodstained fangs, eyes that telegraphed drooling hunger for flesh and blood, a visage that spoke of lunatic rapacity – a killer, a night-crawling assassin.

The sole light within that room came from an ornate desk lamp of brass and green 'antique' glass, for the computer's monitor was dimmed out from lack of attention. The massive oak desk had a legal pad in addition to the desk lamp, and the attention of the room's sole occupant was riveted upon the lined yellow surface.

This man had a well-known reputation, with sinister rumors of connections, and of power, as well as something else entirely: 'the new thing, this thing of theirs'. I had overheard this scrap of speech during one of my previous trips inside the concrete warrens of the firm.

I met my contact, was given the CDROM collection, the written specification list – it was tentative, and some details depended upon what I learned. I had used an elderly laptop to list what the firm customarily used to do the work involved. I would need to fetch what I needed, and in one case, purchase a group of libraries. I didn't use the company software.

They had money, time, and a well-paid IT staff. I had none of those things, and I needed software that worked.

I was glad I needed to know but a few there, for my trust in humanity had been destroyed by time and the murderous intent of those around me. More, there were aspects of who I was that tended to cause fear in others, even those at work who could pass for mafiosi. Until very recently, I had but little idea as to why.

I now had a much better idea, even if that particular explanation bothered me to no small degree and I wished it were not the case, and more, there were other issues that made that explanation harder yet to accept. Still, nothing else explained some of the things that happened to me, even if I had recently learned another piece of the puzzle as to why I was so routinely disliked. The combination of the two things was almost impossible to acquiesce to.

With each paragraph I read of the documentation, I began thinking back on all of the things that made that portion of the explanation the most likely one of the few I had heard.

The differences began to show at birth. My mother said I had taken four days to be born, and this during a time when care was much more primitive than it was currently. Why it had taken so long was a mystery, but I suspected no normal child would have survived – especially given how she also said I was a month overdue, unusually large, and she ill-equipped to have children. She had been told to not have any more of them.

This statement seemed a 'curse' of some kind, and before birthing my younger brother, she had had a number of miscarriages. The most likely guess as to why she had tried further was my stepfather's demands: he wanted one of his, and I was not suitable.

I was born without a right ear, that being the most visible of my many 'deformities' that rendered me non-human in the eyes of all and sundry. Erasure of this fault was begun at the age of three, with surgery every few months, with terror, ether, starvation, pain, and rejection by all mere facts on the road to my assuming the guise of normalcy – for at birth, the doctor assisting my mother's delivery hid me from her. His reasoning...

“No, he did not think kindly of her,” I thought. “I was defective, and she did not need to see a monstrous 'object' that was better off burned to ashes. He wanted to burn her as well for bringing such a creature into his world.”

This thinking had been born of decades of such treatment, for I had first learned of it in the hospital as a small child. There, I was an object, a case-study for students, a curse for those looking after me, and above all, a less-than-an-animal creature not worth the care and attention due a 'normal' child, much less an adult. My different 'wiring' had ensured this, even in those days.

Being a single mother in those days was not easy, especially with a child like myself. It wasn't long after the death of her parents – they had looked after me for the most part – that she began looking for another husband.

Why she had divorced my father shortly after my birth was a mystery to me, and the most plausible reason – she was far too ambitious to tolerate my father's 'irresponsible' behavior – was a guess on my part. I had had a chance to observe him and his second wife over the course of years, and I had formed my conclusions over the course of nearly two decades. He had 'outgrown' his 'irresponsible' behavior shortly thereafter, and otherwise, he was, as I learned much later, the only 'normal' parent I had.

At least, he was normal for temperament.

I could not say that about my mother's second husband. While he was better at earning a living – she had found a match for her ambitions that way – in all other aspects, he was so much worse that there was no comparison possible.

His way wasn't merely that of harsh and strict discipline, but it went beyond that: torture, occasional beatings, unconditional obedience, arbitrary discipline, and complete, rigid control that steadily stiffened with the years. At first, I had wondered as to why he was so strict, but as I reached the age of fourteen, I started seeing a picture.

Much of what he did regarding me did not make sense, save in a very narrow context: a sadistic sociopath with a strong vengeful streak. I was told I could do nothing right, and yet not shown how to do anything to his satisfaction. I soon learned that only by being absolutely perfect in all areas of life would he be 'appeased', which guaranteed a life of failure, torment, and punishment.

“You're just like a trained rat,” came the tormenting words from my recollection. It was an exact quote.

That statement was flawed – I knew how animals were trained by the time of that statement – and I knew that reinforcement needed to be positive as well as negative to achieve success. My reasoning was this: “if I truly am as stupid as I am being told, and he truly wants me to do as he wishes, then he will reward progress as well as punish misdeeds, and he will start at an appropriate level so as to achieve his goals.”

His failure to do so spoke of a goal other than mere 'cheap labor'. Punishment was frequent and severe, with its goal something other than 'edification', and positive reinforcement was conspicuous by its absence. Such 'bribery' had been rare when I was small, and within a year, it was gone. He had better things to do with his time, and now, he was doing them.

It took nearly twenty years before I realized what he was actually doing – that, and reading books about the Nazi concentration camps. The parallels were frightening, at least in some areas, with the chief differences the degree of extreme behavior he indulged in. Had he gone further, he would have been arrested in that time and place, as the then-current 'definition' of child abuse had as its centerpiece routine visits to the emergency room, and suspicious-looking – and externally-visible – injuries.

If one avoided such blatant excesses then, one could indulge one's sadistic inclinations as per one's inclination of the moment.

At the time of my 'learning' this truth, I realized that he had been far more sophisticated than I had given him credit for at the time. He had known the 'approved' limits, and stayed within them, which made him a 'successful' sociopath. Thankfully, I was no longer under his thumb and downrange of his shotgun.

I was also thankful the 'definition' of child abuse had been updated, and people now had some idea as to what to look for beyond the blow-to-the-head-obvious externally-visible injuries. They now knew about less-visible things: sleep-deprivation, denial of bathing, needing to ask to go to the bathroom, confinement, laboring like a slave, threats of starvation and injury, and the worst of all, the unspoken but omnipresent threat of immanent death.

Such doings were less satisfying than the thundering roar of the shotgun as it turned raw flesh into bloodshot hamburger ready for the transplanted ovens of Birkenau. They were but little less injurious.

Most importantly, he knew full well what he was doing. Had he done such things twenty years later, he would have done hard time in prison, and I would have been placed in a foster home. As it was, I was still paying the price of his misdeeds.

“Like now,” I thought, as I realized my distraction. I then looked at the clock. My recollections had been fleeting, for they had lasted but mere seconds. I stared at the screen, and knew my hit-or-miss concentration was 'missing' right now. There was nothing to do. I was doing the best I could.

Minutes later, the recollections resumed in spite of my best efforts to concentrate on the task at hand.

The area proper of those early years as a budding slave was a violent region. There had been a large riot to the west of that region the year prior to my mother's marriage, and during the time of that riot, I was in the hospital. Most likely, it was UCLA Medical center, and once that portion of my erasure had been completed, my mother retrieved me. Some years later, I spoke of this matter, and was told it could not be true.

My mother told me the truth years afterward. It was indeed as I had spoken.

While this was the first instance for me doing as I did, it was far from the first instance for my mother. She had once spoken of having 'eyes in the back of her head'. There had been other things as well, but that one I recalled easily.

Then, there were the things that happened outside of home: being doused with urine, accused of being 'retarded' and other types of harassment, attempts at injury by other children, and finally, being attacked with a knife by an older boy. This last was a bit of a quandary, for I ignored both his advantages in size, age, and strength, as well as the knife, and nearly put him on the ground when I hit him. Something had 'snapped' inside, and I didn't know what it was.

I never lost a fight in that neighborhood again, even if I was something of a coward. That episode with Eric and his knife was the first instance of such 'snapping'. It wasn't the last.

Some months later, I had to be bodily pulled off another boy when the same thing happened. I wanted to kill him, and in a state of blind ferocity I had knocked him down to then resume beating him. It was thought 'bad form' to hit people when they were down. I didn't know about 'bad form', and when in that state, such ideals did not exist. Everything beyond the enemy and his needed destruction vanished in a blurry red mist that gathered between my ears.

My parents knew 'the system', and their fully-enmeshed pursuit of wealth and status, while incomprehensible to me, was something they did well. Property – a status-symbol – demanded moving 'up' in the world, as well as lateral moves, and we did that multiple times while I was a child. Property also demanded hard labor, and I labored as an adult. I also nearly fainted from hypoglycemia as a child, and my ravenous appetite – both growing and low blood sugar – meant threats, curses, and other punishments. Neither parent thought to investigate beyond the superficial and obvious.

I wasn't fainting, I wasn't unconscious, and most importantly, I wasn't dead. Therefore, I was merely causing them trouble, and punishment was the most efficacious and enjoyable antidote.

Home was not the only place of torment. School had always been a hell of harassment, with torment of various natures. At least physical challenges were rare, for between my size, and supposed craziness, few people wished to come to blows.

There were other matters, however, and some few had spoken of, chiefly my lack of involvement with the social 'scene' – I was mostly unaware of it then – and also, my behavior. I tended to be loyal, truthful, and a genuine friend. I said what I meant, meant what I said, and 'ulterior motives' seemed beyond my capacity, for I did not have them. I could not conform if I tried, in spite of all the messages implying it was readily possible. I was told by all and sundry that non-conformity was exclusively a matter of choice on my part.

A choice made consciously, and that choice being embracing of evil.

“How could they not tell?” I asked in mental speech. “Couldn't they not see?”

There were other things equally difficult to hide, including my 'near-insane' behavior on the wrestling mat, where I bodily flung people and slammed them again and again into the mat in in a frenzied attempt to pin them once I had made up my mind to not let myself be pinned. Had I been permitted to do so, it was likely I could have made the team.

The demands of the slaveholder at home prevented doing so as I could not measure up no matter how hard I worked.

For some reason, this stream-of-consciousness series of recollections faded, and I was able to return to my work – until some minutes later, I had to go to the bathroom. There, I heard faintly the screaming of tires followed by the clash of metal. That sound triggered another flashback, and as I stood in the small close confines of the room, the walls faded and vanished.

The night was dark, with my underpowered car now vibrating from a bent valve. I had bent it missing a shift while fleeing from an aggressive driver, and the previous lack of power had been replaced by a greater lack. It was the last day of moving, I was moving off campus, and I had dropped off the boxes of canned and dried food at the house of a friend. She had a family, and I encouraged her to eat what she could. She looked distinctly underfed.

I was now driving her to where her husband was, as I felt obligated to do so. The area was unfamiliar, the traffic was ugly, and I had trouble hearing her as she spoke of where to go. A left turn came, one where one paused near the brow of a hill, and turned when the intersection was clear.

The intersection was indeed clear as I entered it at about ten miles an hour, and as I began turning, a sickening impact struck the corner on the passenger side, flinging the car backwards and sliding some distance to come wheels abutting the curb. The instant of impact caused time to slow so much that the turning seemed to take several seconds until the car came to rest.

This was far from the first time; I had had this happen during hunting, and often, while being attacked.

The car was on fire, and she was in emotional shock. I unbuttoned her seat, grasped her by her underarms, and dragged her some thirty to forty feet away. I did this to prevent her back possibly being injured, my thinking at the time being 'life over limb' as I had been taught. She now came to herself, speaking of her shoes. I went back in the car to get them.

By this time, the flames were not only some ten to fifteen feet high, but they were in the passenger compartment as well. I had seen flames when I took her out, but now – no glasses, dark, fire, no shoes – I went in there again. I could not find her shoes, but I did get what I could find and put those things by her side.

She was still concerned about her shoes. I said in a eerily calm voice, the stone-cold logic that of a computer, “Your shoes are replaceable, your life is not” – and if that car had gone up I would have shielded her with my body. I had thought about that at the time, and was fully prepared to do it.

Some half-hour later, I felt utterly horrible, depressed, and miserable. A police officer said, “that is why they call them accidents.” That much, I recalled clearly; someone else, who I did not know, said 'they have to blame someone' – and I was blamed. The stated reasons had to do with me making the left turn, a rear tire starting to show a little cord – and the unstated reason, which I asked about after the fact, was most likely the poor condition of the car. I suspected other things as well years later.

My passenger ended up with a small facial cut, but after an hour, I needed to go to the hospital. The seat belt had shredded my chest and shoulder muscles and I had somehow acquired a knee injury, both of them in later days being extraordinarily painful. At the time, though, I functioned as though not injured in the slightest. Both injuries continued to give pain for months.

Another incident occurred some few months later, when an old woman was crossing the street using a cane. She got about two-thirds across the street when the light turned green. The first car in line stopped for her, but the car behind that one passed on the right and came charging out. I saw the car, reacted instantly, and got right in front of the charging vehicle, where I stood staring down the driver. That person stopped also. I stayed with the woman, getting out of the way when she was safe – but if that car had come further, I would have stopped it or died trying, as I had planned on jumping to punch through the windshield.

The flashback – the second was a continuation of the first, all had happened in seconds – now lifted, and I went back to work. The document had not changed during these times of revery or whatever – I had almost expected it to, for some reason – and I wondered why I had expected it to do so. The strange happenings of late faded into the background as I silently thanked God I was not in pain, and the lack of further interruptions showed progress on the document over the following hours.

I needed to have something of an outline to show those at work, as I could not 'smooth-talk' those responsible and fill their minds effectually with a grandiose vision that 'guaranteed' success. Others could – and did – routinely do so, which saved them time and ensured further ostracism for me.

In some senses, however, the structured process of an outline was helpful, for manuals needed planning, and while my 'plans' tended to be somewhat too 'logical' and 'detailed' – what my contact spoke of after distilling hours of profane eruptions from the half-drunk decision-makers who reviewed them – they helped me enormously and most likely saved me time.

I sent the 'finished' outline – it would be annotated with changes, most likely – along with an estimate of its filling-out. I had specified a common-sense estimate of time, one that would make for less-than-suicidal labor on my part. After checking to see that the thing had arrived and was indeed viewable, I turned to the printer, and began carefully loading it with 'common' paper for the reworking of my notes. I would be able to resume work upon notification.

The reviewers at the firm would demand high-priced rag-stock, as anything less would be beneath their dignity. I had to eat the cost of the stuff, at least in wages.

I resumed work on the mail backlog after checking my blood sugar and mixing up a protein drink and gulping vitamins. Digestive enzymes didn't seem to help much, and I therefore avoided their cost. As I sat in my chair with the door to the quiet room open, my mind drifted, and it washed up on 'alien' shores, those that documented what I might well be. Being an 'alien' twice over wasn't an easy thing to endure, and while one aspect was well-documented, the other portion had little documentation of any kind. It was more a myth than reality, or so I thought when I didn't recall the things I had done or look at the television monitors of banks.

The ill-documented portion was especially disquieting, for it was connected with pagan practices, and I wasn't a pagan, even if I had been raised as one by default. The evil dumped on me as a child and later had caused such hellish torment I had wondered about suicide, but had not done so. Instead, I had been 'drafted' in my early twenties. I didn't know what else to call what had occurred, but the end result was something very unusual. I had no idea saying such a simple prayer would do what it did, but it did. God had me and his son died for me that I might live, and the things that happened after were so unusual, my experiences so different, that I wondered about that, too.

I ended up silently praying: “God, is there room in heaven for people like me?”

I knew the answer – 'yes' – and he had proved it amply – but the question remained as to why I had so many strange things happen before, and after, and during, and everything. I really was asking that question before that time in that old VW bus, but then, I had believed I was the most evil person in the area, mostly because of all the negative things that had been dumped on me. I had since learned I was closer to average regarding genuine wrongdoing.

Now, my question related to why I had been made the way I was.

For this wasn't a choice, any more than I had felt I had a choice with that prayer. At the time, I was so utterly certain of not only the reality of hell, but that I was going there – I recalled moaning in misery about fighting the devil in hell, fully believing it to be an accomplished fact and that I was doomed, with no talk on the subject – that it felt as if a shotgun barrel lay cold at the back of my neck with a psychopathic fiend caressing the trigger, a fiend that waited for an excuse to kill me.

I knew about 'psychopathic fiends' and shotguns. I had endured both of those entities for years, with the one looming large on the one-dimensional sphere of life, and the other yet hidden and utterly real, waiting with its cold muzzle yearning to become hot, black, and filthy with unburnt powder.

What I had felt prior to saying the prayer, and what happened afterward – ten years of unwept tears coming out abruptly and with such suddenness I was overwhelmed, followed by an absolute realization of a cogent reality that had only grown stronger with the passage of time – was fully as real as the dead wood and cold metal of that shotgun. The shotgun was real enough to touch, and I had once touched the thing, and this other, while untouchable in the same precise fashion, was equally as real.

“And touching electricity is impossible,” I thought, “even as it flings you on the floor.”

It was certain, then. I had, indeed, been 'drafted'.

The question remained, however, for it wasn't merely the 'red mist' that overwhelmed my mind during periods of intense anger or frustration...

Frustration wasn't part of the 'myth'. A lack of sexual interest was diametrically opposed to what was written about it. I recognized friends and enemies while in that state, and as always, I remained loyal, much as a dog might. I felt remorse, usually afterward, and apologized if I had hurt someone.

I had done that more than once, and I had become fearful.

Frustration had built once with the slowness of fatigued individuals, and what normally took three men straining was an easy thing for me to lift and then in hot-headed fury slam the metal thing into the bed of the truck. He had said he was late, and needed to leave quickly, and the others seemed to ignore him. I had not, and could not. It was important, and he was a friend.

I turned a metal electric razor into bent and twisted junk when it no longer worked as it should. I could not control myself until the fury burned itself out.

And the other matters that were clear and not murky: dark hair, and unusually broad shoulders, with a strange-looking face that seemed at best hard to describe. I wasn't 'ugly', but then, 'ugly' and 'beautiful' were strange terms; they were beyond me, at least regarding people. I tended to react to behavior more than appearances, and the deep-hidden subtexts of behavior – those which spoke of the inner being – were things I responded to most of all.

That part wasn't easy to hide, for some reason, even if I didn't reliably pick it up, and much of what I 'felt', save at rare times, was hostility directed toward me.

That was possibly a portion of the unusual perception, and that was a region of blurring. The well-documented portion spoke clearly of a perception differing far from the norm...

“But that stuff?” I thought. “They didn't mention that.”

The other part had, although what I experienced was not part of it, at least, so far as the content. While 'visions' had been mentioned, and pronounced intuition, I strongly suspected what I saw, felt, smelled, and perceived had little in common beyond their spiritual origin. Again, this spoke of incongruity, and made for wondering on my part.

And then, the really strange things that seemed to belong to another world.

Seeing Ruth standing on the platform with bluish-white flames in place of her eyes. She had been preaching then, and when I next saw such flames a few months later, I was in the bathroom alone. I looked in the mirror, and there saw the very same flames.

Praying for Maria while she was in the hospital. Then, I had felt what she was enduring: unable to breath, ferocious pain, and over all of the sensations, a near-compulsion that was overwhelming. I learned many years later what had actually happened, and I could not accept it, even when it was shown to me in stages. I was horrified, sickened, and shocked at what I learned then, and it took years to accept it even partially.

Being spoken to by a well-known individual. He had named me as to what I in truth was, and more, had spoken of doing what I had done. I was most reluctant to speak on the matter, but the truth escaped multiple times, and in three states, it was attested to by many people. I was still without honor, but I knew about that part. I had read it many times.

“He spoke of the book of Ezekiel,” I thought.

Beforehand, however, that particular book had provided the text I had been given to speak to an area near where I lived at that time. I overcame the fear I felt, and within seconds after beginning, I was alone, with the book in my hand reading the thing, and once done with the chapter and the strange feeling dissipated, I stood, limp, in clothing that was damp with sweat – and the person who had come with me spoke of echoes and people leaving the area in terror. I had neither heard nor seen anything beyond what I had been given to do.

“How?” I thought. “That big of an area, and that far?”

There was but one answer that I knew of, and it wasn't a pagan myth.

And finally, that peculiar book that spoke of people having animal traits. I had been told what mine were, and that seemed unusual, even as to the breed: much-maligned, yet faithful unto death, even death amid flames.

Like with Sabrina and her shoes.

The myth ignored such loyalty, and I could not ignore the past if I tried, especially the comments.

“You smell like gasoline,” said the nurse of my recollection.

I had not been burned, for some reason, even with my unprotected face being all but brushed with the flames.

My revery was interrupted by the blazing blinking light of the telephone in my peripheral vision, and I went toward it. I gingerly picked up the receiver, and before I could speak a word, a snarled burst of profanity seemed to turn the air a sulfurous blue. I thought to wait until the cigar-sucking fiend ceased his maledictions, but as I held the receiver inches away from my head, I heard a few bits of useful information. The swearing continued, with no pauses save the obvious sucking on a thick and evil-smelling stogie. I had learned a modest amount thus far.

I had a day less than what I had asked for. The figure I had given was that of an “egg-sucking pervert who needs to quit wasting my valuable time.”

The prospectus was acceptable as given. “Move your execrable hide, and get on with it, you lazy good-for-nothing wretch.”

The cursing finally ceased, and the click in the receiver spoke of my time of 'grace' being at an end. Now would come the time of wrath and of retribution, just as the deity who had usurped the phone had augustly commanded.

I had recognized the voice, for I had heard it before, and as I looked at the recording's data – I had switched the recorder on when I heard him begin speaking, as I would need to carefully check over all he said for further clues as to what was wanted – I recalled what he was like.

He was one of the back-room mafiosi, one of those who whose lunches tended toward the liquid, whose language was more profanity than all else, and whose whims were punitive and headstrong. He commonly fired people for no 'good' reason. And then, there were the rumors, which I had heard but mere scraps of on-site and more solid information elsewhere, rumors of his murderous ways toward those he disliked.

Three people had been discharged in the last eight months that I knew of, and all three of them had died within weeks of their leaving the embrace of the firm.

One had had a suspicious vehicle accident. The bullet-holes in both vehicle and person were described as being the work of 'gangsters', while he had been described as being one of the gangsters in question. “Good riddance to bad rubbish” was his fitting obituary in the local paper.

Another had drowned in his bathtub after taking an overdose of prescription drugs – drugs that the person had no prescriptions for. He was described as being a drug addict. Again, 'good riddance to bad rubbish' was the fitting end in the paper's description of his death.

The third had been shot by a burglar, with two rounds fired into the head at powder-burn range. The black marks, one for each eye, looked like unearthly eyeshadow that foretold of a sojourn in hell. She had been written up of as 'being involved with organized crime', and had 'received her just reward' from a rival gang family. Again, the paper spoke of the precise and absolute truth, and had tarred her thickly with the brush labeled 'evil'.

All three killings were listed as 'unsolved' by the local paper but days after the demise of each person; none of them had received attention beyond writing them up and then burying them where the police kept their files. The files would never be opened again in this world.

How I was so certain of this last portion was a question I had no good answer for, and as I pondered other, more substantial rumors – rumors of a circulating blacklist of people that were not to be hired – I thought on the likely odds of truth. It seemed important.

“The murders aren't the easiest to prove, and seem possible but unlikely,” I thought, “while the blacklist seems more likely. I've heard of that being done.”

I had prepared for both the likely outburst and also the 'command' to 'quit wasting my valuable time,' and closed down the now-cleared up mailing list. I turned to the main computer, turned on the display, and began working. The notes began steadily piling up as I printed them out. I would put in the notecards later.

I looked at the mounded stack of packages, each one speaking of a hundred such cards, and I counted twelve such packages. I sincerely doubted I would need so many, but when Mrs. Ulyanov bought them, she bought them in that amount. There was a price-break at ten packages, and the number twelve seemed to have special significance to her. I was glad I had enough, and did not quibble.

“Da, there were twelve disciples,” she had once told me. “That is an important number.”

I also knew another reason for notecards being especially helpful: adding further notes tended to be easier when there was a big stack of the things. There was only so much space on the monitor, and only so much memory in the computer, and only so much time on my hands.

“And only so much speed in the connection,” I muttered, as I 'grabbed' more documents from various sources. The lightweight information available that way would suffice for this document. I would need to dig in deeper and thicker for the manual, and much of that stuff was either well-hid or lay printed upon paper. This search gave me an idea as to where such information would be found in addition to what I needed to write the document.

It also gave intimations as to what I would need to do otherwise, and I was glad I had already updated the local system such that I could do the needed work: roughly fifty pages, with descriptions of graphics, chapters, and content. It wasn't just an outline any more. It was much closer to a serious 'rough draft', and would need my spending potentially the whole of the three days working without sleep. It would indeed be 'life in the fast lane' as I understood it.

I hoped I had sufficient supplies to last until Mrs. Ulyanov arrived. I knew she would come 'soon', even as I continued 'grabbing' documentation.

By the time I had opened the fifth package of cards for printing, I had gone to the bathroom more times than I could count, and as I came out of the bathroom one time – when, it was a good question, I hadn't looked at the clock in what seemed eons – I heard a soft knock at the door. I staggered down the hall, turned the corner to cross the main room, and opened the door.

It was her, standing silhouetted by moonlight. I was about gone.

I staggered to my bed as she came in behind me, and as I stumbled and fell to sprawl on the bed, I could tell in some fashion that she was concerned. It became more obvious as she tucked me in, and within seconds, I had 'fainted'. I was glad I had saved my work when I had gone to the bathroom the last time.

I awoke to a darkened room, and a brief flick of the curtains spoke of why it was so. It was still dark outside, and as I staggered back to work, I thought, “I'd best not tell them where I'm at, as they will demand I 'hurry' and quit wasting their valuable time with my sleeping.”

Yet even as I resumed, I still wondered why I merited such treatment and no one else seemed to, even those people who were fired and then murdered. For some reason, that seemed far more plausible. I shook my head, then tried to concentrate.

I soon came to the end of my notes that I needed to put on the cards, and I put the sixth batch in the printer. As the thing printed, I began 'shuffling' the cards so as to get them in order. I had marked each card with its 'main' topic in the corner, and as I ordered them, I paused now and then to sip from my mug of soda. I would begin typing soon – as soon as the printer finished its distracting noises.

It finished fifteen minutes later. I gathered its cards, stacked them like an old-time gambler, and began typing.

For some reason, my fingers elected to not 'knot' themselves, and within moments, I saw that I was typing faster and better than was 'normal' for me. I needed to lay down three cards at a time, instead of the usual two, and each minute, I paused to flip over another set and stack the 'used' cards. I was keeping track of the card 'numbers', and when an idea intruded, I entered it in parentheses. I would give them the sanitized document. My copy, the one with my notes, I would keep. I would need the ideas later.

The 'standard' page-template was working well, thankfully, and it saved a minute or more per page. I had the list of hot-key combinations on an index card to my left, the soda to my right, the keyboard under my hands, and the monitor owning my eyes and attention.

The lines continued to march across the page, and with each further page, the 'done' pile grew and the 'fresh' pile shrunk. I periodically backtracked, for I had not gotten the sequence perfect, and added details as I found better places for them. I knew that once I had gotten the material into the desired format, then the real work would start.

“Why aren't these interruptions causing more trouble?” I thought. “They usually take a while to get my mind back on the work at hand.”

Finally, the cards ended, and I went to the bathroom. Upon my return, I began to revise the document. I had to get the tone right, and make sure the spelling and grammatical errors were no longer present. I was glad there weren't many, even as I had to check some of them with the dictionary.

Completeness and accuracy were requisites here, for I knew I needed to do them to the highest possible standard so as to be thought 'good enough'. I'd seen the work of others before, as a formatting sample courtesy of my contact in the building – and my eyes and his comments agreed.

It wasn't nearly as good.

I turned in what I did, and I received no comment, neither good nor bad.

Based on what I had heard, that told me ample. Those 'less-good' examples were commonly good for bonuses and favorable comments, while my ears heard nothing beyond silence.

'Twice the effort for half the results' might have been a 'joke' while I was in school, but it was the truth here; I was getting a 'deal', and they were 'doing me a favor' by employing me. I wondered if that blacklist had multiple levels now: 'exploit', 'exploit heavily and ruthlessly, if hired', 'do not hire', and finally, 'hunt down and kill without mercy'.

Clarifying the document took nearly as long as actually writing it, for more ideas had occurred to me in the process of doing so, and 'my copy' had grown mightily. I began 'removing' the various inserts from 'their' copy – I had saved mine – and then finally, I converted the thing to the format they needed. I then had to read it with multiple programs, and check it for errors. Thankfully, none showed. I then began printing the thing with the 'expensive' paper, even as I 'mailed' the thing electronically.

“Their equipment cannot do that,” I thought. “It still has trouble doing more than one thing at a time without a lot of tweaking.”

I paused, then thought, “I hope I get some time off before I start working on the big mess.”

My thinking had been motivated by the reality of the full-blown manual taking close to three months, for it promised to have four to five hundred pages, a fair number of pictures and drawings, and a lot of research. Even where I worked – a place that was known for 'being competitive', outsourcing vigorously, and crushing competition ruthlessly – the time-frame wasn't much less, unless one of a handful of people was given the job.

I was one of those people.

Again, I knew this more by rumor and other less-than-reliable sources. Company propaganda sheets hinted at such things, and my normally garrulous contact-person hemmed and hawed about the matter. He normally dealt with 'independent contractors' on one side, and 'full employees' on the other, and balanced precariously on a tightrope of sorts so as to avoid being devoured by both parties.

The company held independent contractors at arm's length, but unlike 'full employees', they had certain rights: they could leave without fear of blacklisting, and they could implement their own work outside of the company's grasp. As far as I knew, they commonly did so.

Independent contractors could readily find out information and not worry about causing themselves trouble, as they were expected to do so. The secretive nature of that company almost demanded a prying nature to learn the information needed to do one's job.

In contrast, 'full employees' were more or less owned by the company, with all they did belonging to the company for exploitation purposes. There was no such thing as 'on-job' and 'off-job' in the eyes of that firm: if the person lived, and existed in their files, they were 'on-job'. A commonly overheard phrase was 'twenty-four-seven-three-sixty-five', and in that place, it wasn't merely a slogan. It was the reality, bolstered by extensive surveillance on the premises, and if rumor was correct, off the premises as well.

In all cases – independent contractor, full employee, and 'pariah' – my status was unnamed, at least officially – compensation was negotiated independently, and when I came for the last meeting, I was numb, flustered, and said little. I had a good reason to not negotiate.

I needed the job.

“You ain't worth half of even the dumbest cluck out there,” said the back-room mafioso with the paperwork, “but idiots who can write are scarce right now.”

The true meaning of this statement was thus: “I'm making you an offer you can't refuse. Sign your life over, take what we give you, and do what you're told, and you might live for a while. Do otherwise, and you'll swim in a deep pond with three bullets in your head and cement on your feet.”

This was born out by the single offer. I had signed, and in turn received a folder listing the rules and regulations – about ten pages, printed on each side; he insisted I check to ensure they were all there before leaving – and a printout of what compensation I had coming. The fact that this last sheet was printed indicated the company stance: it had been decided prior to the meeting, and there were but two 'ostensible' choices possible on my part. I had made the one choice permitted, and I left when I was dismissed.

Once home, I looked through the material carefully, and saw that my 'unnamed' status had all of the duties of a 'full employee', all of the labor of an 'independent contractor', and neither the pay nor the privileges of either. I had done enough looking beforehand to know that the former commonly received both more money and a 'decent' benefit package, while the latter received nothing beyond a paycheck – a much larger paycheck, easily three times what I was to get.

I was glad the house was paid for, and gladder yet I had no debts of consequence.

I had forgotten to eat beyond an occasional protein drink, and while I waited for a response, I tested my blood sugar. I needed to dose myself, and after doing so, I thought to wait for the reply. If it was the wrong 'time' of day, I might have a long wait, as 'review' – at least, review of what I did – tended to only happen during certain times of the day during the week. My deadlines, however, were fixed, immutable, and too often, arbitrary-seeming.

The computer 'chimed' but ten minutes later, and when I read the message, I wondered what it meant. It read, “review will take two to three days. Bring paper copy by in the morning.”

“Good enough,” I thought, as I went to the bathroom, and after taking a sleeping pill, I thought to look at the time outside from the main room's window. It was late in the afternoon. Darkness would fall shortly.

“How did they get a chance to look at it, then?” I thought. There was no answer.

I left with the printed copy an hour before dawn the next morning, and once I'd 'delivered' the thing – packaged, marked appropriately, and then taken back by a mousy-looking fifth-tier secretary – I was able to leave. The guard had frisked me, checked my ID badge, taken my fingerprints, and showed his gun 'by accident' in the process of 'shaking me down', then had all but ejected me once I had delivered up my paperwork.

It had happened many times before, so I wasn't surprised. It was one of the many unwritten rules that actually governed life at the firm. The written rules were a smokescreen concocted to trip up those stupid enough to actually believe them.

As I drove home, I thought about why 'two or three days' had been spoken of. I surmised that the paper copy would need review, then duplication, then one or more copies flown back east to be dealt with at the uppermost levels. The 'high-brass' didn't trust their underlings with much, save as a form of entrapment, or so I suspected.

Once the 'high brass' had scribbled all over the document in their various color-coded shades of ink, it would be flown back, and I would need to get it from my contact person. Then, the dread season would start, with periodic harassment and progress reports as I tried to meet the unrealistic and arbitrary deadlines.

I needed to drive somewhere and get away from people and their evil ways, and as I drove home in the still darkness – it was earlier than I thought, and the sun had not yet rose – I wanted to see trees, flowers, water, and animals.

“At least instinct in animals makes sense,” I thought. What people did usually didn't.

Once home, I changed into old comfortable clothing taken from the clothes receptacle standing between the two large bookcases in the main room. The clothing was faded, patched, and somewhat worn; Mrs. Ulyanov kept her sewing machine busy. It had been one of the first things I'd given her, and as her 'practice' had grown – I wasn't the only person she looked after; she cleaned several houses – I had made room for her cleaning supplies and equipment. She had a key to my house, her name was on my checking account, and she had power of attorney in my will. I trusted her, unlike few others.

I put on ankle-length socks and hiking boots, then began loading the small military-surplus pack I commonly took for such trips: a dark-blue anodized aluminum water bottle wrapped in foam rubber, a small Sierra cup, two plastic containers of beef jerky, the refilled vial of corn syrup, a half-used roll of toilet paper, and that green military satchel I kept the drugs in. I thought to leave the 'dope' box home, as I wasn't going to be gone very long.

I drove toward a 'wilderness' park, and as I climbed steadily, I felt better. I briefly recalled the handful of street races I had run on this winding mountain road in years past, especially the last one: it had concluded with a controlled spin at high speed – a bootlegger's turn – that had me passing the person I was racing twice: once on the way up, and once on the way down in the other direction. There had been no further challenges.

There was a price to pay for a car that performed, however: three engines, with one being gone through, one 'ready', and one in the car; substantial modifications to the entire vehicle; a heavily modified non-stock transmission to handle the engine's power, wide rear tires, and a need to buy fuel in sizable steel drums. I was glad I didn't drive the car much, and gladder yet of its age.

As I neared the park, I could feel a stirring in my guts, and I hoped I would not have cramps. As I parked the car, I noted but two other vehicles, both of them old and nondescript, and after keying the alarm, I followed my nose to an old-style stench-pit next to a grove of trees. I'd been here more than once in recent memory, and knew about the rudimentary facilities.

The concrete block building was small, somewhat dirty, and had two doors. I went in the one marked men, being careful to check that it was indeed properly marked. This wasn't a 'neurotic compulsion', but a recognition of my tendency toward tunnel vision. I'd been lucky in the past.

The steady faint crackle of UV bug-zappers and graffiti-scrawled stalls was much as I recalled, and the otherwise silence of the place spoke of solitude. I made the nearest toilet just in time, and was glad I wasn't in pain. After cleaning up at the trough, I felt better, and went outside to find a trail.

This park had many, most of which I had been down before, and as I went down one of the less-familiar examples, I could faintly hear the trickle of a stream somewhere to my right. The dirt path was smooth, somewhat narrow, and bordered by thick leafy undergrowth, with trees but ten to twelve feet apart on either side. The trail wound its way through them.

As I walked, I felt strangely stimulated and yet worn, and while I could explain the fatigue, I could not comprehend the other. The greenery grew steadily thicker, and I felt as if I was being hidden from the evil lair of the encroaching beast without. Here, there was something other than the concrete nightmare-jungle: reality, the handiwork – I almost said in my thoughts 'handwriting' – of the one who made it.

I felt more accepted here, as I was not expected to be someone other than who and what I was, for the expectations were achievable, and the effort within my grasp, unlike the world of men with its vast unwritten collection of rules that I scarcely knew.

This place had its rules also. They were the same for all, however, and they did not change to suit the ways of evil; unlike that outer world of concrete, social 'mores', and curses, the forest did not hide its malevolence – and finally, it wasn't particularly malevolent. It was what it was: dense greenery, animals, birds, fish, plants, water, seeds, rocks, dirt, and dense fleecy clouds partly hidden by the greenery overhead. As if to remind me of this truth, a squirrel jumped from tree to tree, then chattered at me as was the way of squirrels.

The chatter of the squirrel seemed to usher in a period of musing, and as I walked, I recalled how seldom it was for people to tolerate me as I was, and more, to accept me to some extent. The last time I recalled that happening was in one particular church nearly a thousand miles south of where I currently lived. I wondered if the strange happenings there had made my difference easier to accept. It had not been fully accepted there, I now knew.

Unlike that time and place, acceptance – even by a few, and to a modest degree – didn't happen inside or outside of church in this area, and the rules for the two 'worlds' were very much the same. I did not – or rather, could not – conform to the unwritten rules of social interaction, the ones that said, essentially, 'dress for success, be like everyone else, and brown-nose'. The assumption by all was that failure to conform fully was a deliberate choice on the part of such non-conforming morally-deficient wretches, and that the sole reason for not conforming was the espousal of evil.

While 'dressing for success' required little beyond money and practice – at least, in theory – the other two were utterly impossible for me. I had tried to conform, and failed miserably. 'Being like everyone else' and 'brown-nosing' – I had gotten this three-topic 'mantra of success' from a photocopy of a newspaper clipping – demanded qualities that I did not have.

One of these qualities was the capacity to lie successfully without a troubled conscience. Not only could I not lie successfully – I could not 'make secrecy my weapon' if I tried – but my conscience would cause great trouble if I made the attempt.

Manipulation – that keystone of socialization – was beyond my capacity. I could not cheat without getting caught, even if my goal was helping others. I could not 'self-advocate' without frightening people. All of these things – the very limbs and backbone of all groupings of people – were in some way 'wrong', and to do them meant anguish of soul and a feeling of great sorrow and remorse. Others gloried in these things, and for me, they were the very bars of that prison called hell.

No matter what I did, I could not be emotionally 'controlled' the way society demanded it, with some emotions volatile and easily expressed in a superficial fashion, and others made permanently hidden – at least, as emotions. Those feelings tended to be expressed in other ways, with socially-sanctioned hatred and violence the chief outlets for such well-fostered raging.

In years past, I had recognized society's demands for an ice-chilled heart, and trying to conform had made for trips into the Bin. There, I had acquired – by my 'choice', and as per 'my' desire – the worst triggers for flashbacks I had.

The blond nurse threat, with her demands for silence and unconditional obedience, and her threats of permanent assignment to a state mental hospital.

The long hot sleepless nights, for unlike prison, the Bin did not house normal people who made mistakes. The Bin held non-human 'objects' that needed erasure.

The chemical straitjacket, with its endless mixing and matching of drugs. Stiffness, stupidity, and the inability to function were the desired goals of those prescribing, and their motives were personal profit and the socially-mandated punishment of those who had deliberately chosen to partake of evil. It wasn't for nothing that the mantra 'change is possible if sufficiently desired' was spoken with such fervor, for it fully justified the heavy use of such tormenting drugs.

The death-camp to the south, where the worthless went to die unmissed and unmourned. The blond nurse had spoken its dread name, and its threat was a brimming and cogent reality, one that could not be dismissed.

My stays in the Bin – none longer than a few days – opened my eyes to the objectification of those who were hated because they existed, and ten years after enduring the horrors of the worst psychiatric drugs, I still had trouble with certain words.

One of the worst was the word 'medication'. That meant but one thing: those drugs. I was still not comfortable with such terms, and hence did not use them.

It was not easy trying to endure society's hatred of the way I was, which drove me back into the arms of the poisoners again, even as I understood better why I was 'bad'. I had more or less 'given up' on the idea of 'changed behavior through chemistry', until I was coerced into trying a pair of drugs normally used for treating epilepsy.

The effects of these evil pills were staggering; and while I did not stagger, I was uncommonly sleepy. I fell asleep without warning on a regular basis, and felt as if 'drunk' all of my waking hours.

Unfortunately, one of the drugs in question was frightfully costly, due to its newness. As time wore on, the effects steadily diminished, and then, I learned the price of its consumption: potential brain damage, pancreatic damage – my insulin dose tripled when I started using it – and a great deal else, some of which I learned after enduring a year of hellish drug withdrawal.

It made the pancreatitis a great deal worse.

Still, while that drug combination worked well, I noticed something most edifying: to be 'acceptable' to most people, I needed to be in a stupor and on the verge of falling asleep every waking minute.

My thoughts now returned to the trail. My senses seemed to have become more acute, and when I saw movement in my peripheral vision, I froze in mid-stride. I slowly put my right foot down, then slowly scanned to my right and left without moving my head. Part-hidden beneath a bush I saw a forlorn-looking wolf that looked half-starved. I crouched down without thinking, and as the fear and fatigue left me, I thought, “duh, it never fails. Can't understand people no matter how hard I try, but I can understand animals. She looks hungry.” I shucked my pack.

As I laid out the water and food, I moved slowly, and when I filled the cup, I could tell she was interested.

“Over here,” I whispered. “You look hungry. I have water, and I will not hurt you.”

Tentatively, she came. No children, lost, alone in a foreign land, an alien in the wilderness, and hunger her closest friend. She came, ate the jerky hungrily, and drained the cup. I continued pouring out my water, until there was no more.

For some reason, she came closer and then gently licked my face, much as if she were kissing a relative. She knew I wasn't normal, the same as most animals seemed to know. I slowly placed my hand on her head, then said quietly, “where is your family?”

It was obvious she didn't know.

“I want to find them for you, if I can,” I said quietly. “If I must, I will take you there.”

As if to reward my willingness, I 'saw' – not with eyes, but some other means that I didn't understand well beyond the likely source – a small family group of wolves slowly trotting down a forest trail. The distance wasn't trivial. I guessed it to easily be ten to twelve miles. I was still willing to go with her, and as the vague pictures became sharper, I saw that I might well need to do so.

The shortest route – indeed, the only practical one in this area – involved skirting boundaries of three-strand barbed wire, watching for 'posted' signs, staying clear of roads, and staying more or less hidden from the predatory eyes of man.

As I saw the various points in this trip – I was traveling rapidly, in some strange fashion, almost as if I were flying a few feet above the ground – I noted the danger signs. They seemed uncommonly numerous, and while I might be able to steer around most of them, some areas would be fully as dangerous for me as for her.

The route led past the homes of people who worked at the firm, and I suspected gunfire to be a distinct possibility, with 'trespass' an easy excuse for my murder. They needed no such excuse for hers.

“Yes, you must stay clear of those places, dear,” I whispered. “I would try that after dark, if I were you, as those people tend to stay indoors then. Otherwise, stay as hidden as you can, and move as fast as possible.”

I finally saw the end of the route needed, and I understood she could take it from there. The scent of her family would be fresh then. For some reason, she howled, the sound strange, lonely, poignant, and echoing, and in my mind, even as what I saw faded, I heard an echo.

“They heard you,” I said. “Good hunting, and a safe trip.”

While I wondered as to the last, it made sense for a hunter-gatherer that didn't fit in – and as if to replace the previous vague 'movie', another burst into my mind. This time, I saw not only wolves, but a number of strange and unusually large dogs of a type I had never seen before. The two ran together, much as if they were relatives, along the banks of a deep and slow-running stream in the middle of a dark and mysterious forest. It seemed untainted by the despoiling hand of mankind.

It wasn't, however: some buckskin-wearing fool with more powder and lead than intelligence shot at the group. Thankfully, he missed. I saw that he made no distinction between the two; none of them were part of his world. Both groups were treated the same, and that because of who they were.

The next 'movie' showed one of the dogs being swept over a tall waterfall, then swimming to shore – to there be dried out by a brushfire. The flames drove him back into the water, where he swam to safety some distance further. He had a great deal of traveling yet to do, and he didn't stop for long.

I could see he was carrying something of importance in his mouth, even if I could not discern the thing itself, and as he went along dark forest tracks, inside hollow logs, underground through foul-smelling sewers, down city streets – he was nearly run-over there – and across wide fields that rang with gunfire, he did not cease with his duty until he arrived at the front of a house. There, he dropped his burden – a flint arrowhead – and the door opened. He was let inside, and there, he rested.

I came to myself to find myself alone in the forest, still kneeling along the forest trail. I felt wobbly, dizzy, and feeling strange, and as I collected up my things to put in my pack, I noted my reflection in the mirror-like bottom of the Sierra cup. My eyes were blazing blue-white, and this time, it wasn't a glimpse. It remained for several seconds, even as my skin began to 'crawl' with squirming energy. I had felt this way before several times, but not in many years, and as I tentatively raised my hands, the sensation seemed to grow more and more intense – until a thundering roar seemed to crackle into the sky from where I was.

As I put my hands down, I said, “what was that?” There was no answer beyond a feeling that the sky was 'lowering'. I wondered briefly if it would rain, even as I staggered to my feet and wobbled the way I had come out of the forest. I needed to get home.

The cloudy sky overhead was familiar to me, but the darkness of the clouds seemed to foretell of rain. I got in the car, and drove slowly home in the lower gears. I felt as if I was not all the way here, and I knew about praying and driving. The two didn't mix at all well, and accidents could happen, even with eyes open.

The rain started as I neared home, and I arrived without incident.

The steady dripping sound seemed calming, and as I went to one of the smaller bookcases in the main room – I had two big bookcases and three smaller ones in there, and several more bookcases in the quiet room – I wondered what next I would find. I knew Greek translated poorly into English, and Hebrew was said to be worse. At least I remembered some Greek.

There was another reason, however, and I felt reminded of a paper I had done in college. Rabelais wasn't the most preferential source of inspiration, but I had learned a fair amount about both that old French doctor, and more, his two enduring literary creations. Amid discourses said to be coarse and vulgar, I had learned the truth.

Francois had started out as a monk, and like Friar John Chopper, got tired of sitting while the world around him went to hell. He gave up the then-indolent life of the cloister, and got his hands dirty saving lives as a doctor.

Gargantua and his son Pantagruel, for all their size, had their heads where they belonged. They knew what was important, and they lived as they believed.

Finally, Francois had some very strange advice: 'Hic Bibitur'. I was quite ignorant of Latin, but I did recall what the various translations said that phrase meant, and there was some most peculiar drink in the refrigerator.

With aching slowness, I retrieved the package, untied the bag, and withdrew the bottle. Francois had written at length in his preface about Bottles. This was indeed a Bottle, and its iridescent purple contents was flashing like a purple neon sign. I set the bottle down, removed its long and somewhat twisted cork, and then smelled its contents.

The first odor was that of a rose, then mingled with it were the rich smells of plowed fields and untainted rivers. The smells spoke of another place, another time, and another world.

In the days of Francois, the difference between a doctor and a monk was very small, and while I was neither, I had prayed for the sick before. I decided to try his advice, and put my lips to the mouth of the bottle so as to drink.

To my shocked surprise, I did not taste the contents. Instead, my head began to compress and elongate, while some mighty force caused the bottle to set itself on the floor. My feet hung in the air as if I was to be butchered for meat, and as my head continued to compress and elongate, the intense pain steadily grew. I was beginning to slide into the bottle.

As my eyes came to the neck of the bottle, my glasses fell off and clattered on the floor, and then the liquid met my eyes. My nose and mouth were covered seconds later. The depths of the bottle's murky liquid cut off all light and sound.

I felt simultaneously frightened and calm. I was dead, and holding my breath was impossible. Once my head had gone under, I was no longer here, but elsewhere; elsewhere was a black pit of swirling darkness, and it wrapped me in a ghostly manner as it hid my passage from this world.

For some reason, I was not concerned as about where I would end up. I knew I was dead.

As I began slipping into 'the great sleep', however, a familiar voice spoke.

“No, you are not dying. You are needed in another place and time, and this is the doorway to that location.”

As if to convey this message, I heard from behind me the cork clanging shut behind me like the bank vault at the end of time. It was too late for panic; there was no way out, and I was thankful for small favors as my mind joined the enveloping blackness as I stayed unconscious for time beyond time.

I began dreaming of sewers I had been in as a child, and when I opened my eyes again, I wondered why I had dreamed of those huge concrete tunnels. I seemed to be in one, and even though I was buried deeply in darkness, I saw – with crystal clarity, and perfect focus – as if it were bright day.

Within what seemed seconds, I knew I wasn't in a sewer. Those had joints.

Not only did this tube not have those, but it wasn't made of concrete. Its walls were of a darkly igneous crystalline stone polished to a near-mirror finish, with marbling and striations of white streaks. They vaguely resembled lightning for shape, if not much else. I then tried moving.

I was still in my clothing, but for some unusual reason, I felt slightly stiff, as if my clothing had shrunk horribly by the action of dampness. Old clothing didn't do that. I knew that much, even if my recollection of what had happened beforehand was swiftly fading. I wondered why I could scarce recall the horror of the bottle, even as it continued fading, and when I thought to rub my face, I jolted.

“I just shaved hours ago,” I thought, “and now I have some really dense stubble on my face.” I then looked at my hand, and nearly fainted.

My hands were covered thickly with soft dense hair, and as I turned first the one over, and then the other, I found that my palms were bare. I tried finding my fingernails, and could not.

“W-why is my left hand normal-looking?” I thought. I was becoming more fearful by the second.

I twitched it in some way, as if to try to recall how it once was stiff, and then I shrieked. I had found my fingernails, all right.

They had turned into claws nearly an inch and a half long.

“What has happened to me?” I thought in horror. “Have I become a, a, creature? Where am I?”

An eerie sound seemed to coalesce in my mind, and with horror, I recalled words speaking of werewolves, London, a vile concoction called a Piña Colonic, and a location called 'Trader Vic's.”

“Lon Chaney?” I gasped. “But I'm not him, and this isn't London, and I... Where am I?” I paused, then thought, “why do I feel as if I need a bath?”

I then noticed the 'claws' had retracted. I twitched my hand again, and they came out.

“Why, I can control those, just like a cat,” I thought. “Good, I had best keep them retracted. Smoky was awful when he didn't keep his sheathed.”

I then felt the right side of my head. Again, I felt dense 'stubble', then what felt like my normal hair, save much denser. It too was quite oily, and I gently continued feeling with my fingers. They were very sensitive, much more so than I could recall them being, and when I felt unfamiliar contours, I nearly shrieked again.

“My, my ear,” I squeaked. “It, it works. It feels s-strange, like it was f-f-fixed.”

It was really strange to hear in full stereo without playing games with headphones or using an expensive and fragile hearing aid. The hearing aid had never worked that well and was long-dead. I didn't miss it much.

I looked down below and saw a faint pinprick of light. It was growing larger, but taking its time doing so, and as I continued 'falling', I sensed that there was something really strange about how I was moving. There was no sense of speed, nor wind, and only by watching the walls could I tell I was moving. An odd purplish halo that gathered about the pinprick of light brought a recollection back to me.

“Why does that look like an ultraviolet light?” I thought. I then noted the deep purple aspect with what looked like 'added' dimensional information.

The sense of time was an elastic thing that I had trouble keeping track of, and as the pinprick grew steadily more clear and distinct, I noticed the purple cast to the light became more distinct as well. I also saw what might have been a subtle reddish glow ringing the dot of light, and by some strange means, I suspected I was also seeing infrared.

“How is it I know that?” I thought. There was no answer.

The dot of light now seemed to have a faint mesh covering it, and for a moment, I wondered if I was to be pureed by my passage through a sieve. I then noticed the walls were no longer mirror-smooth. They were not merely no longer mirror-smooth, but they seemed to be closing in. Flakes of dried dusty material flew off as I passed, and the growing dust became steadily thicker. It smelled like well-aged cattle dung, and my sneezing became a steady blasting. That had not changed in the slightest.

I had always sneezed uncommonly hard.

The mesh was now obviously too irregular to be man-made. They were vines of some kind, and as I curled up into a ball, I seemed to hear a faint rumble, then with a scratchy-sounding ripping noise, I shot through a mound of brambles, then through the branches of a tree going up, then falling like a rock through more branches. I remained curled up, until with a titanic splash, I fell into chill cold water.

I opened my eyes as I uncurled, and was astonished by what I saw in this strange underwater realm. Multitudes of trout, each of them two or more feet long, seemed uncommonly curious, for they were gently nudging me with their noses. I wondered if they thought me edible, but when they mostly left to go about their business, I surmised my first intimation was correct: they weren't used to seeing people underwater.

I removed my boots and socks with rapidity, and as I looked up, my face broke the surface of the water. I put my socks in my boots, and began swimming to shore. I was glad it wasn't far.

As I swam, however, I wondered about the fish. I had heard of huge trout before – they were called steelhead, if I recalled correctly – and for some reason, a joke about testing their heads with a magnet came back to my mind clear as crystal.

My swimming seemed to be a passable substitute for a bath, for when my arms struck bottom on the river's bank, I noted I felt a good deal less oily. I then crawled up on the bank, and then knew why I felt as if I'd bathed. My clothing had been badly torn.

“I hope I don't have trouble with zits again,” I thought. “Those things were awful.”

Awful, when it came to whole-body zits, was a grossly inadequate word. During the years that I had continually itched, scratched and burst those things, I had developed a keen appreciation for what Job had endured, and while I had no one in my life named Bildad, Zophar, Eliphaz, or Elihu, I had encountered ample numbers of people who imitated their actions. I didn't appreciate it much.

The warmth of the afternoon – it felt vaguely like 'fall', for some reason, seemed to dry my clothing with tolerable speed, and as I began walking across the muddy bank of the river toward some uncommonly fluffy-looking grass, I could 'hear' some people coming. They sounded like children, and I suspected being seen how I was would be misconstrued. I began moving toward what looked a possible source of shelter.

“That looks like bamboo,” I thought, as I made the grass of the river's shore.

I then turned around, and looked. I had left obvious footprints in the soft dark dirt, and each of them showed obvious 'claws'. A strange thought occurred to me.

“Can those be, uh, erased?” I thought.

As I watched, the footprints seemed to weather and fade before my eyes, and I resumed walking seconds later. I stopped and looked behind me every minute or so, and again each time I asked that they be erased.

By the fifth time I had done so, I was much of the distance to the 'bamboo', and when I resumed walking, I felt reminded of an old song, one where the singer spoke of wiping out his tracks. I knew it wasn't my doing, however.

The bamboo proved to be both thinner than I had thought it was, and also much leafier than it had first seemed, for each joint had a thick green fluff of feathery-looking leaves. I was surprised at my silence upon entering the stuff, and after heading inside, I found a vantage point to watch the river. I lay my boots and socks by my side, and then thought to remove my ripped clothing. The ground was covered thickly with fallen canes, and I suspected a 'blanket' would help greatly. I was tired, and needed rest.

I lay on my stomach with my clothing as a blanket so as to watch for the children, and soon, four boys and two girls arrived. All of them had canes, and I suspected they were after the river's teeming fish. Their quiet speech and stealthy tread was a marvel, and once they sat down and put their lines in the water, I thought to wait to see what their luck would be.

I didn't wait long, for within less than a minute, I fell asleep.