I woke up with a start. I had been dreaming. In the dream, I could see and feel them, Lulu, Leon, Phil, Garbageman Mike and the others, even some of the grounds crew. Lulu and Leon were clearer and brighter than the others, but behind and above them all was a malevolent pain and rage, the power of it throbbed behind my eyes. Instinctively I pushed it away and blocked it out. I did the same to the others and woke up.
The first thing I did was check for my wallet, cell phone, and keys. It was an automatic reaction to waking up confused in a strange dark place. I should have thrown the wallet, phone, and keys into the gutter 20 years ago. I stood up and started fumbling for a light switch when it all came back to me. I laughed because there was nothing else I could do and it was never ending. Maybe my soul or spirit just didn’t have the sense to ever leave my body. Maybe I would live forever in darkness and confusion and other torments I couldn’t yet even begin to imagine. As long as you’re alive, there is no bottom, and already something new seemed off. I was reminded of Mike and his porta-potties.
I grabbed at my left hand and felt it. It was there, whole and solid. I rubbed my left eye. Whatever had plunged into it was gone. I couldn’t feel any blood or damage. I realized the same was true of my ankle, it seemed to be working fine. I won’t deny it, mixed with my confusion was some genuine happiness. I knew that it was fleeting, that my appreciation of being whole again would last all of 10 seconds. I was still blind and trapped. In a fit of dying optimism I pulled my phone from my pocket and touched the screen and the light was blinding. That’s three times, chief engineer Scott, three times that you’ve blinded yourself in the last five minutes you’ve been conscious. I tilted the screen away from myself and shaded my eyes. The light from the phone was much brighter than it should have been and my vision had a definite blue gray tinge to it, like looking through a pair of high resolution night vision goggles. I noticed the windows were covered by a layer of ash, enough to block out any moonlight. I felt that it was night because the air had that dewy night taste to it and it was cold inside the locomotive, which was puzzling because it would have taken days for all that metal and the surrounding rubble to cool off, even if the fire had been extinguished the second I passed out. According to the phone, it was still the same day we left Albany. It wasn’t even 11 p.m. yet. I looked back at the ash and felt a sudden, dizzying hunger. The ash had made me hungry but what I really craved was charcoal, wood, or diesel fuel. And how had my phone survived? I’d gone through at least three or four similar phones in the past couple years, I’d sat on one, dropped another one that must have landed funny, and the other one just gave up. Still, it wasn’t uncommon for random relatively fragile objects to survive man level industrial disasters, the whole oak and the willow thing. Still, I hardly thought of my phone as bending like a willow. Maybe I was just losing my mind. Another pang of hunger jolted me and a voice in my head told me to get the hell out of the locomotive and eat now, coal, wood, mud, anything, or I would die. We’d already tried dying once and we didn’t like it, so we climbed out of the damn hatch and started eating.
Even with the canopy of conifers and cloud cover the light of the waning crescent moon was almost unbearable to me at first. From the roof of the train I could see a dark gray circle of death about 50 feet in diameter. An edge of that circle overlapped the locomotive at right about the spot I had passed out. Nothing was alive within that circle. The blades of grass, small trees and shrubs were all still whole, but even with my limited vision I could see that all of the color and life had been washed out of them. When I looked at that circle, the voice in my head told me “no nutritional value” so I climbed down and walked into the woods, away from the pile up of wrecked cars and incinerated trees, and started eating fresh pine cones by the handful. Once I had gorged myself my thoughts turned to Lulu and like in the dream, I could feel her in my mind. My eyes were pulled toward the hills in the distance, toward Lulu, and I started running. As I ran I could feel my body contorting, I picked up speed and noticed I was running on all fours, that my hands were no longer hands but massive clawed paws. A part of me was very skeptical about my apparent willingness to take all of this for granted as being real. I imagine this is how it feels to dream. The part of your mind that balks at the dream is easily pushed aside because while you’re dreaming the dream is reality. There can be no question when the answer is so obvious. Question the dream or anything loudly enough and it all falls apart.
I spotted a friendly pulsating glow just over the hills in a small valley below. As I got closer it resembled a galaxy. There were innumerable points of light punctuating the soft illumination they gave to all around them as they moved together in orbit around their brilliant heart. As I got closer still I could see that the stars were actually millions and millions of bees. Lulu was standing at their center radiating light and power. She was waiting for me. I slowed as I approached her and felt myself turning back into a man. Her light was too much for my eyes to look at so I looked down toward the ground and noticed I was naked except for my belt and pants pockets and a few other stray rags. My clothes must have already been shredded by the calamities of the day. Turning into a giant fucking wolf had been the last straw. For the first time I noticed my naked arms and legs. My right foot up to the knee and my left arm up to the elbow were robotic, they were made of iron and stainless steel and other metals and composites I recognized from the locomotive. I knew without knowing that the same was true of most of my skeleton, that my internal organs, including my heart and parts of my brain, had been repaired in a similar fashion. I shaded my eyes and looked at Lulu. She winked at me. It was probably the only thing that kept me from fainting. On top of everything else I was famished.
“So what have you been up to Mr. Scott?”
“You mean before I turned into a giant fucking wolf and then back into a naked man, or cyborg? Between that and the train exploding?”
“Well it’s a long story. The part that stands out right now is eating pine cones. I must have ate about 10 pounds of pine cones less than an hour ago and I’m starving. I think I’d better go eat some more pine cones or a chunk of wood. Anything. Excuse me, I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Oh Scotty. Oh no. Are you insane now?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
She had seen me change from a wolf into a man. What did she think was so crazy? The pine cones?
“It isn’t the pine cones, Scotty, and I understand that you’re hungry. Maybe you’ll be better once you’ve eaten. No don’t go off into the woods, I have honey. The honey will do you good.”
And why the hell was she talking to me like I was a goddamn child? So what if I was acting funny or talking funny? Get blown half to hell, knocked unconscious twice, stabbed in the eye, even without all the rest and spread over time any one of those things might make a guy a bit loopy.
“You’re right Mr. Scott. And you’re still you, at least where it counts.” She winked at me.
“Wait a second. Are you reading my fucking mind?”
“Either that or I’m insane now, too.”
“You were always insane you crazy bitch.” I figured I might as well say it out loud if that crazy bitch could read my mind anyway.
Lulu rolled her eyes and waved for me to follow her. Within her constellations of semi-mechanical glowing bees was a hive the size of a small two story house. The light of her bees outside glowed through the thin walls and illuminated her inner chamber. Or perhaps it was the light of the larvae still in repose.
“Come eat your honey. I think I have some sunglasses for you in my purse. And stop searching for me. You’ve found me, get it? Block me out like you did before and I won’t be able to read your mind. And keep the others blocked out, too.”
“I don’t care if you can read my mind.”
“Sure you do. And maybe I’m sick of reading it. Pervert.”
After I’d slurped up a few gallons of honey I bombarded Lulu with all the obvious questions. Eating had become a serious business for me, all the mysteries and fortunes of the earth and everyone on it could go to hell while I was eating.
“Scotty, you have to get a grip on yourself. And you have to block me. You are driving me crazy. Rule number one, we talk. It may be easier for me to read minds one day but it’s still overwhelming for me, especially in your case, so please, stop asking questions and listen to me. Listen to me.”
Lulu took a deep breath. I was about to start asking questions again with my mouth but Lulu shushed me with her hands.
“I don’t know what’s going on either. I have some ideas, but it’s important for me to talk with you first and find out exactly what happened to you. I don’t want you to be influenced by what I think until I hear what you think. Okay?”
I nodded my head but was already lost in new speculations.
“I can tell you want to ask a question. You don’t have to be a mind reader. One question.”
“Don’t you already know what happened to me, what I was thinking while it happened, how I remember it, everything?”
“Yes and no. There are limits for me, limits of distance, sight, touch. The closer someone is, the better I can read them. The more I read a person, the better I can read that person. Strong thoughts and emotions are easier to read. So yes, I know some of your thoughts and feelings and I know that whatever you went through, it must have been excruciating. But I don’t know exactly what happened to you, no. And that was at least four questions.”
“So you don’t really know anything.”
“Scotty, tell me what happened. Spill it.”
I waited for a moment. I wondered if she could just grab me and drag it out of me, I was almost sure that she could. I wanted to see if she would.
“You’re probably also wondering if you can really block me. The answer is yes. It isn’t difficult for me to guess what you’re thinking from your face. Sometimes, I wish you could block that, too. We’ve known each other for almost 10 years Scotty. We’ve always been friends. And what I saw in you when you arrived here, what I felt from you while whatever was happening to you was happening, that helps me to guess, too.”
I had a flash. If I was close enough, if anyone was close enough, she couldn’t block it. I wondered what would happen if I grabbed her.
“I know this is the least trustworthy thing to say, but we have to trust each other and be honest with each other. You’re at a very dangerous point right now. You didn’t have time to mentally recover from your injuries, and now you’re more powerful than ever but you still feel weak and victimized. Traumatized. You’re searching for enemies because you want revenge. I can’t help you in that way, Scotty. I’m not your enemy and I don’t want to be. So I’ll start.”
Lulu held her hand out to me. I looked into her eyes. They were no longer brown. They were a dead metallic gray. Or maybe that was due to my new vision. Maybe that was the way I’d see the entire world for the rest of my life. Whatever I thought I knew about her, she was far more powerful than I was. I knew that in my bones, like a rat cornered by a cat. Maybe she could just take what she wanted and destroy me, or maybe she needed me around to use for something. I was sick of myself for not trusting people and then going ahead and trusting them anyway, for never learning a goddamn thing. I couldn’t go on this way. I’d rather go back to being a blind asshole. I’d rather die.
“Whatever happened, it seems to have changed you for the better.”
“It hasn’t, Scotty. But I have to pretend.”
People who are deeply psychotic, truly insane from the ground up, often come across as normal or even super-normal at first. They can be witty, charming, intelligent, the charade might go on for decades. Until you come to the crux of a matter, or touch upon one particular topic. It usually happens by accident. Maybe you’ve known someone for a decade but you’ve never gone out with him on Wednesday, you or he always had some obligation on Wednesday until this one special Wednesday comes along when it’s the fourth of July or a lunar eclipse and you end up going out together. You’re on the way to the bar or the game or whatever when this regular guy tells you you have to make a short detour. You ask why and he or she tells you that he or she has to sacrifice a goat, he or she says it so casually you think it’s a joke but it’s not a joke. You ask why again and he or she explains that his or her wife is pregnant again, that the first child was stillborn, but ever since he or she started sacrificing goats every Wednesday all the subsequent kids have hatched out fine. Maybe if you’d found this out when you first met this person it’d be no big deal. Fuck it, it’s really none of your business and who the hell gives a shit about goats anyway? But you’ve already known this asshole for years, he or she is already Backgammon Mary or Cat Dude Paul or Irrational Love of Tennis Sandy. It’s too late for them to become Goat Sacrificing Baby Saver, it’s too much of a change to cope with. If Irrational Love of Tennis Sandy went out and stabbed Monica Seles again you could make sense of it or maybe even justify it. Maybe Irrational Love of Tennis Sandy and the other guy who stabbed Monica Seles know something that I don’t. But if she suddenly goes out and joins the Ku Klux Klan, and just joining isn’t as bad as stabbing somebody, you just wouldn’t be able to talk with her anymore unless you were a pretty diehard racist.
People may think that they want to know the secret but when it comes right down to it they don’t. Think of the biggest lunatic in history, any mass murdering gibberish spouting monster, or better yet, think of Jared Fogle the Subway Guy. He parades his fat carcass around, nearly kills himself by eating nothing but Subway sandwiches for years, and then he’s caught with child pornography, which is extremely taboo, but not really that bad on its own. People say he has no shame because maybe, when he was first caught, he pretended to have a little shame. That was fake shame and everybody knew it. Or at the most, the shame of being caught. But I guarantee you, he has real shame inside of him. You might force it out of him under torture and it’ll probably be something that seems completely innocuous to you. You’ll be happily driving a stake through his foot when he finally says something like “Fine, I admit it! I once said the Lord’s name in vain!” and you’ll be stunned for a moment, then keep hammering. Unless you’re a diehard religious zealot it just won’t make any sense to you, and you’ll hate him even more for changing yet again from Fat Guy to Subway Guy to Pedophile to Religious Nut. But the real reason you’ll hate him is because he is you. Even if you don’t consciously realize it, he’s watering the seeds of doubt in all of us. Maybe, probably, my secret shame is just a joke, but some other thing about myself I consider to be perfectly reasonable is actually abominable. You don’t even have to care about other people at all, all you need is fear, a fear of consequences, which we all have, and to care about yourself just a little bit.
Leon knew some of our secrets and he could tolerate us, and those secrets were at least bad enough to get us all fired and shunned from society and stuck roaming around with a circus, but he had known them from the start. But Lulu, poor Lulu. Turning into a wolf is confusing to say the least but it’s nothing compared to the constant onslaught of garbage and madness that must assault her every time anyone comes near her and this made me fear her even more. No one can take that, not for long. And here she is with her hand out asking for more, the crazy bitch. What she might see in me, I couldn’t care less. I was already finished anyway. I had been for a long time. The train wreck was just an exclamation point. But Leon was right. I did love Lulu, or at least I did now, and I had no intention of sullying it or her with the madness I would doubtless see whirling within her skull.
“Scotty. It’ll be okay.”
She batted her gray eyes at me and I took her hand. I brought her back with me through all the tribulations of my last few hours. Her sympathy for me was tinged with disgust at my ambivalence towards life, my fear, selfishness, and pettiness. All of my negative contradictions, all for nothing.
Afterward she shared her view of the situation from outside the train. I was given to understand that she had sent several swarms of bees to monitor the wreck and search the general area, that she could see through them but not read through them. She brought me to Roger. Roger was half crushed and pinned by a section of rail car suspension. Several of the broken bars from his cage had impaled his torso and his jaw was shattered. His entire body was severely burned and his hind legs were mangled. He was little more than a trapped open wound, and already flies and rats were gnawing away at him, eating him alive.
Roger roared plaintively once but had clearly resigned himself to his fate. Looking at him, trying to see life from his perspective, I saw an existence full of pain and confusion almost utterly bereft of any joy. He had been bullied and alienated his entire life and now, to end like this, it was just too much. Beneath his resignation I saw bitterness, miserable bewilderment, and rage.
A heavy mist gravitated toward him, engulfing him and scattering the rats and the flies. As Roger breathed it in, vigor returned to his body. The suspension pinning him began to lose substance and shrink. His jaw and upper body were quickly repaired, but it was already too late for him. The life flickered out of his eyes and his head slumped.
The mist within him and surrounding him formed tendrils that stretched outward from his eyes, mouth, and the pores of his paws. It glowed a pulsating white that grew in intensity as the tendrils continued to extend and branch off. As the light pulsed forward and contracted, all of the color and life was drained from whatever it touched. It crept toward the locomotive, then blazed into supernova and overlapped it.
My heart began to palpitate. Half of it had been touched and ruined and the other half warped and contorted to pick up the slack. To me, this explained the essence of my transformation, of my ability to transform. It was rooted within my heart.
The light and all of its energy returned to Roger in a flash. The vacuum it left in its wake put out the several large fires surrounding the locomotive. Lulu’s eyes, the eyes of her bees, quickly readjusted and I could see Roger resurrected. He was now the size of a minivan and made almost entirely out of stainless steel and iron. He inspected the surrounding area and found Rhonda, who was crippled but still alive and nearly repaired. Roger looked down at her and let out a deep growl. His eyes were the same dead metallic gray as Lulu’s. He roared and tore her head off with one paw swipe and then devoured her in much the same way as I had devoured the pine cones. From tusks to tail, he ate all of her. He looked up at the moon and roared at it with crazed malice, stretched, squatted, and exploded upward into the sky.
Lulu’s swarm pursued him, he must have jumped over a mile, they had almost caught up with him when he leaped again. After some more bumbling around in the dark they found him, and Roger was ready for them. He let out an earsplitting roar as he again sucked the life from all around him and Lulu’s vision crackled and fizzed into darkness.
Lulu released my hand and we were back in her luminescent chamber. It was difficult not to feel safe and warm in there, but I managed.
“You can’t block us out. And if Roger gets too close to you he’ll either kill you or drive you completely crazy. And you want him to be stopped, for his sake, your sake, the sake of living things in general. I felt that much from you, and I believe it.”
“Go on.” said Lulu.
“You want me and Leon to stop him. You think we’re all responsible, but that maybe Leon and I are the only ones who maybe have a shot.”
“You would’ve had a better shot at getting me to go along with this if you hadn’t shown me that. As far as I’m concerned, it’s live and let live anyway. Roger doesn’t seem to want to have anything to do with us. He’s doing the smart thing, getting the hell away, and maybe he’ll calm down in a few decades. Frankly, I empathize with him. What we should do now is start moving in the opposite direction as quickly as possible. I can move pretty fast, and I bet you and your bees can move even faster, so grab your purse and your bees and lets get the hell out of here.”
“Scotty, it isn’t that simple.”
People have been telling me that bullshit my entire life, they even had me telling it to myself. Actually, everything is exactly that simple. You want to quit your job or divorce your wife or move to Zimbabwe, you go ahead and do it. Other people do it everyday.
“Okay Scotty. Maybe. But there are still a few things we should figure out first.”
“We’ve figured out enough and we can deal with the rest on the way.”
“The way to where? Do you honestly think we’d be safe anywhere if Roger decided to come for us? You felt us when you first woke up, as we all felt you. We can protect ourselves while we’re awake and sleep seems to protect us naturally, but in those in between moments, between sleep and being awake, we’re exposed. So what’s the rush? Especially for someone as indifferent toward life as you are.”
“I may be indifferent toward life but I’m still a physical coward. But I get it. There’s no point in running.”
“Dammit Scotty of course there’s a point in running!”
She was trying, in her own mixed up way, to tell me that there was more to life than just avoiding pain.
“You, Roger, Leon, you’re all dead. All of you died in the train wreck. And since I felt you all when I woke up, I must have been the last to be repaired. But I didn’t die.”
Lulu was looking away. She was still upset with me but I could tell that she was listening.
“You and the bees, me and the pine cones, my cravings for wood, diesel, coal, that makes sense in a way. I came back in a locomotive and that’s what locomotives eat. Anything that burns. I know it’s not a perfect fit, I don’t know enough about you, but immediate environment seems to play a role. Roger, fuck if I can understand that, the mechanics of it, but you and Leon are probably doing something similar in a more controlled fashion, at least in your case.”
“Anything else? Even if it seems obvious, I want to hear it from you before I say anything.”
Lulu was more mad at herself now, for getting upset.
“If I want to find Leon or Garbageman Mike or anyone, I have to unblock them and hope they unblock me or come find me. We have to reveal each other to each other in order to call. Roger doesn’t bother blocking anyone. He’s too preoccupied with his rage and power. Which is why we instinctively block him. It hurts me when I don’t. I’m guessing this is true of the others and especially you. That we all have at least this much in common.”
I started to shake. I was hungry again and exhausted.
“You lie down and I’ll bring you more honey to eat while I scrounge around for some wood. Do you prefer pine cones? Okay, pine cones it is.”
We spent the next week discussing us, Roger, and the others in an abstract, intellectually curious way as opposed to a practical one. We were enjoying each other and our freedom from the mundane realities of working crap jobs, trying to get along with people we couldn’t stand, jumping through one hoop after another just to keep the dismal show on the road. Lulu didn’t quite agree with my views on life but she understood them, and there was no doubt that she was enjoying herself, too. We were willfully blind, dreaming together in her sheltered hive. Maybe you have to sleep and dream on the rare occasions when life gives you the chance, regardless of the other circumstances. After all, all of your problems, all of the consequences of your repose, will still be there waiting for you whenever you wake up.