For the first time, I find myself questioning whether I can actually stand to live here. Liveability had a very literal meaning in the Area of Operations.
Any place that had a fifty one percent chance of not immediately liquifying or incinerating you was, by definition, a region of high livability.
After my platoon was slaughtered and I insinuated myself into civilian society the level of livability shot up to dizzying heights, but as I grew more and more accustomed to idea of not facing death on a daily basis, I became increasingly aware that livability wasn’t commensurate with tolerability.
War may be nasty, brutish, and short, but the cloying, moronic longevity of civilization is not, by any standard, an alternative.
I really hated these people.
Their unalloyed support of any and all military endeavor functioned to retroactively contaminate my experience, turning something that had been repugnant and hateful and stupid but at least mine into a shadow play for the benefit of self-aggrandizing morons.
The Scarebuddhist was the only person I could stand being around. She may have been a caricature, an existential piñata stuffed with affectations, but as far as I could tell she was the only one who could even bring herself to acknowledge that something was wrong.
Thus I found myself tying her to a chair.
“Tighter. How’s that guy I got for your lawn working out?” The Scarebuddhist asked.
“I don’t know.” I admitted, tightening the restraints a little. “He’s been buried in it for three days, and the novelty’s starting to wear off. I just want him to fix a yellow spot that’s two or three feet wide. How much communing with nature does that take? I think he might be dead.”
“Maybe that’s the point. A little fertilizer might be just what your lawn needs. Tighter.” She insisted.
“It looks damn tight already.” I stood up to better regard my work. “The tensile strength of these carbon nanotube ropes you gave me has never been reached, they’re theoretically unbreakable. Are you sure it’s safe to tie you any tighter?”
“Did I say the safe word?” She demanded.
“I don’t know. You won’t tell me what it is.”
“It’s no fun if it’s completely safe.” She insisted. “My bionic arms can tear apart an engine block, you’re going to have to tie them damn securely.”
“Wouldn’t they tear you apart before they tore the metal apart?” I theorized. “Or at least come off your shoulders?”
“You fail to account for my Adamantium skeleton. Tighter.”
“Would you please tell me if this is sexual or not?” I persisted, keeling down to return attention to her bonds. “All this knot tying is bringing back memories from the Boy Scouts that I’d just as soon not associate with foreplay.”
“I don’t know. Isn’t everything sexual if you dig deep enough?”
“That seems like an exaggeration. Can you feel me tightening the rope around your bionic wrists?”
“Damn it, will you stop asking if I feel something and fucking make me feel something? TIGHTER!” She roared, bucking in the chair.
If she was trying to provoke me, she succeeded.
I laid into my task with gusto, an adjective I usually don’t even use, let alone exemplify.
I enfold her in a coiled embrace, layering knots upon knots that wound around her legs and crisscrossed her torso, firmly securing parts to the chair she didn’t even know she had. Bowline for the legs.
|“TIGHTER!”||Clove hitch for the arms.|
|↵||Two half hitches for the head.|
|↵||Sailor’s knot for the thighs.|
|↵||Miller’s knot for the biceps.|
|↵||Stevedore’s knot for the wrists.|
|↵||Square knot to secure the two ends to one another.|
I straightened, belatedly realizing that I was gasping for breath.
“That’s as tight as it gets!”
“Now break free!”
“But I don’t want to.”
“I’m comfortable right here.” The Scarebuddhist said, settling into her bonds as if she were lowering herself into a warm bath.
“But you’re desire personified! How can you not want to get away?” I protested.
Her golden shoulders managed a tiny shrug within their indestructible restraints.
“You’re not supposed to be comfortable, you’re supposed to be…”
“I don’t know, but not comfortable. By keeping you here I’m taking away everything you have.”
I planted my hands on the chair’s armrests and leaned down until we were face to face.
“I’ve removed your capacity to choose. Doesn’t that bother you?”
She looked at me impassively.
I struggled to force down a rising torrent of frustration.
“Your choices are what you are! By taking away your choice, I’m denying your very existence!”
“Maybe I don’t exist.” She said in a tone of someone saying maybe it’ll rain.
“Doesn’t that bother you?!”
I gazed into her eyes. I kissed her.
Did she resist? Did she want to? Did I like her this way?
This was the first time either of us seemed to have come close to anything resembling intimacy.
Was this why the bad guys tied up superheros – I’ll give you one chance to connect with me, then I’ll shoot you out of a cannon, lower you into a shark tank, throw you in a volcano?
I broke the kiss, our lips making a sound like melting ice shifting in a glass.
“Well, it’s clearly not sexual.”
I groaned and stepped back.
“Why did you ask me to do this?”
“I don’t know.” She said thoughtfully. “I don’t know why I want the things I want.”
“Don’t you think you should?” I demanded.
“I don’t know. Should I?”
I turned away, rubbing my forehead wearily.
“You’re not a whole person.”
“That’s not fair.” She said, sounding surprisingly wounded. “Nobody is.”
“Somebody must be.” I persisted. “Otherwise…” My sentence trailed off, leaving me behind. I turned back to face her. “How can I make you feel what you want to feel?”
She smiled with understated radiance.
“If I knew that I wouldn’t need you.”
I tried to weigh that with my standard units of measurement.
“You’re very hard to read.” I told her.
“You could try to interrogate me. I’m in no position to resist.”
“That which is not freely given has no value.”
“What about lives?”
“Any value we attribute to life is a societal construct. Look at nature, which is essentially an assembly line of killing. Not that civilization is much of an improvement.”
“Kiss me some more.”
“It’s more tolerable than listening to you talk when you’re like this.”
I took a step back.
“What if I say no?”
Her smile turned cold.
“You’d be the first.”
I found myself hoping those ropes really were unbreakable.
“But let’s be honest, Sam. You can’t say no, not to me. No one can. It’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just the way things are.”
“Why would you? I’m everything you could ever possibly want.”
“I could.” I repeated. “Just to prove that I could.”
“What would that accomplish?”
She had me there. She rocked in her seat.
“I don’t know. I’m just not feeling it. Maybe if I was in real peril it would be different.”
“You have to want to feel it.”
She made an effort to struggle, but couldn’t get into it, and soon gave up.
“I don’t want what I want, that’s the problem.”
I plowed a hand through my hair, evicting several strands in the process.
“You have no idea how frustrating this is.” I growled, more to myself than to her.
“I don’t know what to be to you!” I yelled.
“Just be yourself.”
I laughed, a little more crazily than I would have liked.
“That isn’t an option.”
“What?” I suddenly realized that her right leg had grown hideously discolored and bloated where the rope bit into her thigh.
My heart sank.
“Please tell me ‘tighter’ wasn’t the safeword.”
She grinned sheepishly.
Other creatures adapt to the night or hide from it. Man is the only animal who exploits fire to chip away at it, beating the darkness back to a respectable distance.
I rake my lawn, gathering leaves from my holy copse into discrete piles; one of Norse leaves, one of Christian leaves, one of Jewish leaves, one of Buddhist leaves.
Usually it’s poetic license when people say the leaves are whispering, but on my lawn it’s quite literal.
The leaves hum like tiny theremins as they flutter down through the air, then chant quietly as they skitter across the grass, whispering fragments of Latin and Pali that blend into choral harmony as my rake brings them together.
I take a match and set each of the four piles on fire.
We can’t separate fire from human evolution. Those who were fascinated by it, who enjoyed its presence and endeavored to sustain its glow, survived to pass their genes down to us. Now what was an instrumental survival trait is an embarrassing peccadillo, and we tell our children to play not with fire.
Of course, the kids who didn’t play with fire in the first place all died, weeded out by the very natural selection fire kept at bay.
The songs climax, then die away in time with the fire’s crackling as its fuel is exhausted. Smoke curls upward, each tongue forming a distinct chain of shapes as it drifts into the blue. Sanskrit. Hebrew. Runes. Latin.
Fire was the the rock that society was built on. People had no reason to eat together until they were huddled around a fire for warmth, light, and cooking.
If you put a person in front of a fire their neurons will begin to fire in tune with the flames’ flickering, the relationship is that ingrained. Fire lit the darkness inside us.
The gods didn’t punish Prometheus for stealing fire. They punished him because he’d made them redundant. With fire man no longer needed the gods, could light the dark corners they hid in.
Fire made us what we are. The good and the bad.
Its origins are Greek. A combination of Whole, as in Entire, and Caustic, as in Burning.
Holocaust literally means “burnt offering.”
I woke up to find a silhouette poised at the foot of my bed like an incubus.
“So.” A certain weightlessness came over me, as if my fear of discovery was the only thing tethering me to the earth, and with it realized I had become lighter than air. “You found me.”
The figure stepped forward so the moonlight cut across its features, and I was faced with the sheer, narrow countenance of Grassman.
The lunar glow splashing across his face made him look even more like a classical bust than before, his sightless gray eyes floating in their sockets like twin moons.
“I’m sorry.” I said, rubbing the sleep out of my blessedly still functioning eyes. I sat up, careful not to disturb the half dozen soldiers who were sharing my bed.
“Have you started on my lawn?”
He opened his mouth to display the neatly severed stump of a tongue. “The war?”
“Give me a minute.”
Outside my house the world slumbered in spite of itself, the fires on the horizon enduring at a deliberate simmer that murdered the stars with its sickly glow.
My four trees stood as sentries against the tenebrous eyes of my neighbors’ windows, deflecting the steady barrage of judgment radiating toward my tainted lawn.
I drew my coat tighter as I followed Grassman’s hobbling steps toward my copse.
He stopped and pointed, holding a single withered finger parallel to the ground.
He shook his head.
It was hard to see anything clearly out here. The streetlights were out, as mandated by our Air Raid warden, but as soon as your eyes got used to the darkness you’d catch a glimpse of the fires on the horizon, your pupils would stretch, and you’d be back where you started.
He kept pointing.
The inferior man sees the finger pointing to the moon and takes it to be the moon itself. The superior man looks beyond the pointing finger, and beyond the moon.
He pointed beyond the trees, indicating their darkened interior, indicating the dead spot.
“No!” I cried, my exclamation punctuated by the screams of my neighbor as he thrashed in the clutches of his nightmares.
“Damn it, I didn’t engage the services of a professional just to have him tell me to do it myself! Don’t you think I tried? After the Mexicans wouldn’t do it?”
“You know, don’t you? Would you go back if you could? If only to be certain there was nothing you could have done?”
“What the fuck do you know?!” I raged.
“You spend three days in my lawn and presume to tell me what to do? I’m a homeowner, goddammit! Property is sacred in our society, it’s nine tenths of the law! What are we without the law?! Who the fuck are you? No wonder somebody cut your tongue out! How dare you! What gives you the goddamn right?! Watch everyone you know get butchered, then question my decisions! Leave! Go! Get the fuck off my lawn!”
Tracers cut glowing incisions above the distant fires, kamikaze faeries lacerating the blighted firmament.
The leaves of Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil whispered psalms as I pushed its branches aside.
And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoeverhe doeth shall prosper.
My copse was much deeper and darker than I remembered.
The branches of my four trees had grown together, intertwining to form a living wall that smothered the outside world.
The moon hung bright above me to form the light at the end of an arboreal tunnel, a stone spotlight that fell on a large, dim shape hunched in the middle of what should have been a clearing.
My pulse quickened.
My breath came in harsh, foreshortened gasps.
The opaque outline of a bomber wing drifted across the sky and seemed to take any strength I possessed with it, transforming my limbs into a sick alloy of rubber and lead.
Those shapes. I recognized those shapes. In the arms of my fellow soldiers. In the arms of the enemy.
My lawn is supposed to be safe. A sanctuary. A buffer. A crumple zone.
The flashback doesn’t even notice.
The world that I’ve inhabited all my life betrays me, failing to offer even token resistance.
Reality buckles and vanishes.
When your mind turns against you, what it does isn’t nearly as terrifying as the practiced ease with which it slips its yoke and the accompanying realization of just how little of your own mind is under your control, how small a part of you your conscious Self is.
It’s an ocean. You just float on the surface in your tiny boat, and when the weather turns you’re cast away with embarrassing ease, not even noticed by that commanding, resolute voice, the voice that God spoke with when it willed the world into existence.
“YOU ARE HERE.” Your meek, insubstantial protest.
“no, i’m there” The voice rumbles back, speaking with thunder that threatens to shake you apart.
“YOU ARE HERE.” And why deny your senses, why deny the indefatigable reality of PAIN, a planet of cold gray iron rolled slowly but steadily onto your back, and if it’s real enough to hurt by god it’s real enough, after all, a painful illusion is more immediately pressing than a neutral reality, and gosh that’s a lot of pain, feels like someone’s making Jiffy Pop in my brain, stars exploding like fireworks, yes it is remarkably like a living hell, a volcano from the ninth circle erupting directly into the deepest part of me, thank you for asking, do you live around here, oh, you’re going to burrow inside me and lay your eggs in my soul, while we’re on the subject i’d really rather you didn’t oh, well, there you go, yes, infact I can feel them hatching, unfolding a hundred tiny sharp legs as they crawl into every corner of me and shit out their own offspring, gotta say things don’t look so bright for our hero at the moment, no-siree-bob.
I crashed through Yggdrasil’s branches and tumbled across my lawn to an accompanying avalanche of black metal riffs, coming to rest in a quivering gelatinous heap.
“Well, what have we here?” My real estate agent poked at me with the toe of her pump. “It would seem we’re finally beginning to comprehend the vast consequences of violating municipal ordinances, aren’t we? Yes. Yes we are.”
She squatted down and stroked my hair as I sobbed into the grass. “The perils of home ownership are not for the meek. Or the damaged.”
I tried to ask a question but couldn’t manage to articulate anything, sounds emerged from me in an incoherent, half digested slurry.
Somehow she nonetheless seemed to comprehend.
“Your lawn care specialist is being well cared for. I’d worry about myself if I were you.”
I tried to ask her what she wanted.
“I think I’ve made myself very clear in that regard. Come on. Get up.” She lifted me and half dragged, half walked me back inside.
“please… please… god… i didn’t know…”
“Everybody thinks they’re so tormented these days, but as a race, we’ve never been more prosperous. What’s a little assembly line carnage weighed against the magnificence of, say, a satellite? A little climate change compared to a Ferrari 250 GTO? A tiny village clinging to the world’s asshole compared to a world-spanning empire of wisdom, culture and prosperity? Progress doesn’t just happen. Everybody wants omelets, nobody wants to break eggs.”
She led me up the stairs, stepping daintily over a pair of sleeping Hussars.
“People don’t know how to get their hands dirty anymore. The only reason anyone has anything is because someone, at some point in the past, took it from someone else. Everyone disparages the cruelty of the past, but the only reason they can sit in their ivory towers and judge history is because their barbaric ancestors built that tower, block by bloody block.”
She walked me into into my room and lay me face up on my bed next to a pair of sleeping privates.
“Who do you think had this house before you, Sam? Do you think the war didn’t chew them up just as it was spitting you out? There is always a winner. And always a loser.”
She went to the window and shut the blinds, sealing out the smoldering glow of the moon and the war.
“Lie back and think of England, Sam. That’s more warning than I ever got.”
“I need to tell you something.”
“No, I need to tell you something, Sam. I’m fucking sick of rescuing your lawn care professionals from the evil clutches of the government.”
“We shouldn’t talk about this over the phone.”
“They were ready for me this time. It was a lot harder to find Grassman, and by the time I got there there wasn’t much left of him. They didn’t care who he was. They put him through his paces. I can’t imagine what they got out of him, but whatever it was wasn’t enough to make them stop. It was all I could do to snuff out what little of him was left. I never would’ve made the extraction if not for the new leg. This is why I have accessories, not boyfriends. I’ve got my own shit to deal with.”
“You killed Grassman?” I asked.
“Enhanced interrogation killed Grassman. I just disposed of the remains.”
“I never knew his name.” I said.
“And now you never will. Come clean with me right now. What the fuck does the government want with your lawn?”
“I can’t tell you over the phone.” I said, my voice embodying the strained tenor of a rope moments from snapping. “Meet me somewhere.”
“You just want to see me again.” She said knowingly.
“Not everything is about you!”
“Fine. If I’m so unimportant, take your shit to somebody else.”
“I don’t know anyone else!”
Silence on the phone is very different from silence face to face.
It means demurring to the whispering chorus of fiber optics and cell towers, a tacit acknowledgment of the millions of other conversations simultaneously taking place, the galaxy of information and emotions completely indifferent to your private tragedy.
Then someone speaks, and life snaps back into focus.
“You’re all I have.”
“Then you have nothing.”
Two interfering tones of 350 Hz and 440 Hz = A dial tone.
A commanding knock sounded on the door, making me start.
The phone jumped from my hands and landed in the toilet with a merry splash.
“Are you in there, Sam?”
“Go away!” I cried.
“Come on. I made coffee. Not from what you have, I brought my own. It’s fair trade from a co-op. You like that shit, right?”
“Please go away.” I begged.
“I’ve had people walk out on me before, but not when I was being so charming. C’mon, I’ll give you a smooch if you can name the movie that’s from.”
“Please go away.” I begged.
“Not a fan of film trivia, eh? How about reenactment? How about I come right through this fucking door and beat the living shit out of you, Raging Bull style? How’s that grab you?”
“Please go away.” I begged.
“Remember when I told you this place had solid oak doors? I lied, Sam. Fucking particle board. A toddler could kick this down. Not that I need one. I’ve got a cadre of warrior monks out here who desperately need to shave their heads and would be more than happy to reduce this thing to splinters. They’re not the patient type. That would be the snipers, and they were up five hours ago.”
“All right, I’m coming out.” I opened the door.
Of course she was alone.
“Thank you for being reasonable. I hope you realize I would never actually do anything to purposefully devalue your home. Meet me in the breakfast nook.”
“I have a breakfast nook?”
“It’s where the marines have been keeping their MREs, but I’ve moved some stuff around.”
Indeed, she had.
I sat on a half ton crate of Beef Enchilada while she busied herself with a huge stainless steel coffee maker that I’d taken for a piece of industrial sculpture.
Oblivious sunlight poured in through the sliding glass doors, transmitting images of daily suburban life into my home with pastoral radiance; a man mounting a large hood ornament on his van in the shape of a dragon, a woman in a gardening hat turning a prayer wheel, a child drawing an illuminated manuscript on the sidewalk with chalk, a jogger running by with tefillin entangled with the cord of their MP3 player.
“I wish I could say my mornings after were usually more cordial.” She said with merry self-deprecation, clearly a morning person.
“You got what you want. Why are you still here?”
“It’s not just about what you want or what I want, Sam. There’s what our employer wants.”
“Who do you work for?”
“The same people you work for.” She sat down across from me and sipped coffee from a mug that read WORLD’S #1 CLANDESTINE OPERATIVE.
That was it.
I was found out.
It should have been devastating, but my heart had no lower to sink.
Instead it acted as an anchor, tethering me the sea floor to while a tempest raged above. At this point I was more anchor than oarsman, and I watched, detached as frantic shadows played across the water’s surface, unidentifiable things happening to a distant shape I vaguely recognized as myself.
“I’m going to cut to the chase. You have something we want.”
“And we have something you want.”
“I doubt that.”
“Oh, ye of little faith and genitals. Don’t underestimate your capacity for desire.” She spoke with the greatest of ease, inhabiting my home more comfortably and naturally than I ever had.
“I want nothing from you, least of all your cheap shots.”
“You want freedom. You want your freedom. We have it. We can give it to you.”
“How? Where are you keeping it? Is it on your person? In a storage locker somewhere?”
“You may not feel particularly attached to your freedom, but rest assured Sam, you will notice its absence.”
She sipped from her mug with an easy smile. If this were a commercial this would be the part where the logo appeared, the voice-over kicked in.
“When we take it away it will be more devastating than any of your silly girlfriend’s mishaps. It is a pain beyond amputation, beyond dismemberment.”
“You haven’t even given me my freedom and you’re threatening to take it away from me.”
“That’s how we roll.” She affirmed.
“Why don’t you just take the damned thing from my lawn, if you want it so much?”
My realtor’s smile vanished. She looked at me like I was an insect who was only revealing the full extent of my repulsive anatomy now that I had been stepped on.
“We can’t just take something from your lawn. Personal property is sacred to us as a people. Possession is nine tenths of the law.”
“What’s the other tenth?”
“I think the Indians got that part.”
“I won’t let you have it.”
“It will help us win the war.”
“Okay, say I give it to you. The war ends in, what? A month? Two?”
“You’re being childish.”
“And then another war won’t start up?”
“You’re making it very hard for me to like you right now.” She said evenly.
“I don’t care.”
“You will when you’re back at the front.”
That dragged me to the surface, brought me back coughing and sputtering into the world of light and noise.
Outside jousting knights collided in my backyard. One was knocked from his steed and went flying like a stainless steel clay pigeon before he crashed to the lawn, gouging clefts in the grass as he made his skipping impact across the earth.
“…can’t go back? I should think so. It’s only gotten worse since you left. Though nothing quite on the level of what you experienced. It took some pretty deranged minds to engineer that.”
“Lucky for you there’s something else we want.” She pulled a ballpoint pen out of her jacket pocket.
“One click extends the nub. One click retracts the nub. Two clicks in quick succession…”
A long, thin needle that looked capable of piercing bone snapped out of the pen’s point.
“Two more clicks will depress the plunger inside, producing an injection of C16, an artificially engineered poison strong enough to kill absolutely anything living. One click…” The needle shunted back inside the pen.
“You get the idea.”
“You want me to kill someone for you.”
“It’s not like it would be the first time you did it. I don’t believe a month or two in suburbia was enough to erase your expertise. We trained you better than that.”
Just silence this time.
After experiencing the infinite scope of digital contact, communicating face to face seemed brutally isolated, like two solitary arctic outposts sending smoke signals over the horizon.
My realtor grimaced at my expression.
“What?” She said.
“The way you keep saying ‘we,’ it’s like you think you’re part of some big happy family that considers you an equal. I would give anything to be around when you find out how things actually work.”
She solemnly shook her head.
“There are two kinds of people in the world, Sam. Outsiders, who are disposable, and insiders, who are not. You’ve been outside your entire life. Now you’re being invited in.”
“Who do you want dead?” I asked.
“The Scarebuddhist.” She answered.
“Is this what your superiors want, or what you want?”
“Don’t flatter yourself. Despite what you may feel after your extended vacation, we don’t make a kill order lightly.”
“Is that the answer I should take to my supervisor? Should I tell them to start drafting your deployment papers?”
“Give me the fucking pen.”