A Novel of the Internet
Prologue: Up In Smoke
(Fifteen Years Ago)
(Fifteen Years Ago)
People say, time passes quick.
People say, just pay it no mind, it'll go by soon enough.
People say, tend to the moments and the years'll tend to themselves.
These people, they ain't never been in jail. Time passes like a fucking ice cube here, ain't got nothing to do but slowly melt all over the place. And the worst part is, you can't never get away from yourself. It's just you, and your thoughts, and whatever you can do to make those thoughts go away. That's the real hell of prison, if you're at all sorry about what you did: you got all these reminders that you're a bad person, and that you deserve all the shit you're forced to eat here.
It's one more day out of thirty years. Smile. Take a big bite out of that shit sandwich. Chew. Swallow. Sleep. Another day, another bite. You gotta find ways to kill the part of your brain that measures time, or you'll go loco.
Some people spend time reading. Some go to school. Some exercise. Some sleep their lives away. And some kill themselves. Me, I smoke.
Got a system and everything. One cigarette, takes me ten minutes to smoke it. Ten minutes where I don't do nothing but smoke. I experience that cigarette fully, completely, like I'm a fucking Japanese monk. I am the Zen Buddhist Goddess of Smoking. Completely in that moment, counting down every second but unaware of the passage of time. When I'm done, I've lost ten minutes in a haze of nicotine. Then I light another.
One cigarette, ten minutes. Six smokes an hour. About 80 smokes a day; that's four packs. 28 packs a week; ten packs in a carton; about 73 cartons a year. 73 times 10 times 28 is... a lot of fucking cigarettes a year. And I've been here for nearly 5 years now.
Some people kill themselves quickly. I'm going the slow, painful route. Hacking cough, tightness in the chest, voice that sounds like I'm gargling concrete. I spend half an hour every morning coughing up bloody phlegm. I've got cancer, and it makes me glad.
I wish I had a tumor I could touch. I'd call it Tommy. I'd talk to it every day, and sing it lullabies at night. I'd tuck it into bed at night.
But I do have one. I've got a Tommy deep in my lungs. I feed it every day, and it's growing up so big and strong. One day, it'll be ready to go off on its own, and when it leaves I'll die. But I'll be happy, because I gave birth to something so wonderful. I made it, in my body.
I've hurt a lot of people for you, Tommy. I've killed seven cellmates for you, all of them sacrificed to cancer with secondhand smoke. Each time, you've gotten bigger and stronger. And because you're in me, I've gotten stronger.
When I give birth to you, baby, it'll be loud and bloody and violent. Just like that night twenty years ago, when you died.
When I killed you.
*** *** ***Tonight's the night. I'm in labor, Tommy. I'm giving birth to you and the nicotine is singing in my head like angels on acid, acid that burns my veins and makes me sick to my stomach. I'm dying tonight, my dearest, my love, all so that you can be born.
One last drag on the cigarette, and exhale. I try to breathe in but you won't let me; you're filling my lungs with blood as you struggle to be born, my beautiful baby cancer boy.
The smoke goes everywhere. It stick to the walls, soaks into the mattress... and spreads out into the ventilation system.
Into general population.
Who've been breathing my smoke for fifteen years.
Oh, my baby boy. I understand now. My eyes are opened. I know your power, and know it's now mine.
The power of human sacrifice. I willingly took you into my body; I gave cancer to my cellmates; and now, everyone who breathed my air for the past 15 years has breathed you, too.
Crucifixion. The Sun Dance. Human Sacrifice. Life energy for magical power.
You don't want me to die, do you, baby? You want mama to live. You want her to spread your message across the world. I'll bear you on my back. Mama will be your camel, and you can be my hump. My burden and my source of power.
Chapter 1: Metastasis
... in my professional opinion, the data is so outlandish that I would call it sheer fabrication had I not seen it firsthand. Cancer rates this staggeringly high would make sense only if the prison were built atop a toxic waste dump, where the prisoners regularly consumed dioxin-tainted food and breathed asbestos-laden air.
Without a more reliable metric, I cannot make any kind of intelligent recommendation other than "get those people out of there." To do any less would leave you vulnerable to criminal and civil suits, and frankly, I encourage you to get a good lawyer anyway.
Relocate the prisoners and tear that place apart brick by brick. Have it declared a Superfund site if you must. If this data is to be believed, what we are seeing is no less than a cancer epidemic across the prison population, staff included, and one that I suspect is airborne.
In addition, I strongly urge you to make an appointment with your physician for the most thorough physical examination possible, as soon as possible...
"My first day outta jail in twenty years and it's gotta goddamn rain," she muttered as the early morning wind drove cold rain and stinging desert sand into her face. Dressed only in a "Top Gun" tee and acid-washed jeans, Teresa was soaked to the bone and utterly miserable. She had taken shelter, such as it was, in the doorway of an old boarded-up sidewalk church whose name might once have been "Apostle's State Street Church" but now the peeling and faded paint only read "Apos tate".
Shivering hands performed the age-old ritual without guidance or thought. Tear the cellophane from the box; discard. Tap box sharply against hand. Open lid; rip open foil. Select cigarette. Place in mouth. Smoke.
Except she was thwarted in this last regard. "Oh, don't you fucking tell me," Teresa muttered darkly, first fumbling in her purse, then dumping its contents onto the rain-slicked street and getting on hands and knees in desperate search for that one singular, magical, elusive object she needed to make everything right with the world, if only for one moment: a lighter.
Lipstick. Ray-Ban sunglasses. A ring of old keys. A packet of tissues. A used bus pass. Half a pack of chewing gum. A wallet.
"Oh, fuck me," she mumbled around the cigarette, which was beginning to droop from the rain. She briefly contemplated crying. She had certainly earned an extended freak-out session, and the fear and powerlessness and nausea swept over her, fighting the cold and the wet for dominant sensation. Her arms trembled. For a moment she thought she might take a header onto the concrete.
Then, just as suddenly, strength. "No," she said, softly at first, and then with more force. "No. Fuck this." Her back straightened. "Fuck you," sweeping the remnants of her life back into her purse. "Fuck the wind and fuck the cold." Standing now. "I am going to have a fucking cigarette."
Eyes tightly closed, body shaking with adrenaline and cold, Teresa concentrated on the cigarette in her mouth, willing it to light. She felt a burst of warmth in her chest as the tumor in her lungs radiated power outwards, up her neck and through the roll of tobacco clenched in her teeth, drying it, before settling on the tip and igniting.
*** *** ***
Teresa "Camel" Reyes believed that, given enough cigarettes, she could outwait anything. It was one of the great truths upon which she hung her life, because for the last two decades her life had been little more than smoking and waiting. Sitting in the doorway, she was content to smoke, and wait, and think, because even cold and wet as she was, she was also free. Sitting in that doorway was a choice, freely made by her, and if she wanted she could get up and walk out into the wind and the rain.
She half-recalled something she'd read once, long ago, a mystery story that talked about the Santa Ana winds, how they caused meek little wives to finger sharp kitchen knives and glare at their husbands' necks. It was a sentiment she could appreciate, even if the winds today weren't hot and dry. The weather lent itself to dark introspection, and Teresa lost herself in thoughts and memories and self-recriminations.
"Hey, lady, you got a light?"
Teresa looked up at the owner of the voice and winced. Not because the young man it belonged to was ugly but because he was, well, young, and Christ did it make her feel old. She didn't recognize the kind of sneakers he wore, or know why his pants were too big for his skinny-ass legs, but god damn she knew that she didn't need to see his underwear. The ratty T-shirt was universal for teenagers, even if she didn't know the band it was fronting, and the pimply face with a scraggly beard and stringy hair only reinforced that opinion. She knew the type; back when she was in school, they'd have called themselves stoners and gotten high in their parents' basements smoking marijuana. Didn't know what they called themselves now, but it didn't matter. A punk was a punk.
"Hello? Lady?" he repeated, leaning forward. "You got a light? Uh -- hay tengo un lighter-o?" he added, his voice louder, as if volume alone could force understanding of a foreign language. God, had she ever been that young and stupid?
"No," she said sharply, then blew a long stream of smoke from her nostrils. "I ain't got a light." She noticed that his hands were deep within his pockets, and given the size of those jeans there was no telling what he had in there. Teresa was suddenly very aware of how vulnerable she was, with no one else on the rainy early-morning streets and no place to run. Even her temporary shelter had become a cage, a wall to her back and sides, the young man between her and the rest of the world. She shifted slightly to the right, trying to put as much space between them as possible, right hand slowly freeing itself from her purse while her left clutched the cigarette between trembling fingers.
"If you don't got no light, then how'd you get that smoke?" He was threateningly close now; she could smell his breath as he loomed over her, his eyes were bloodshot with vicious little pinpricks for pupils, and he was going to attack her and beat and rape her or...
Her left hand shot out and up, the burning ember between her fingers grinding itself into the man's right eye. He started to scream, but was cut off as her right hand shoved his head against the brick doorway, a shudder running through his body on impact. Then she was pulling, grabbing him by the hair and yanking him off balance, using her entire body weight to drive him down.
She landed on top of him, her left arm firmly against his throat as the first two fingers of her right hand, stained dark with tar from decades of smoking, hovered just millimeters above his one good eye like a raptor's talon. "Listen closely, you little shit," Teresa rasped, her throaty voice making her words thick and vicious. "You so much as twitch, you'll never see again. Got that?"
"Good. Now here's how this works. You close your eyes, and I'm gonna go through your pockets. You look, you move, you so much as fart and I'll end you. I've been inside for murder already, so don't think I won't grease your sorry ass."
*** *** ***
Teresa seemed to be outside of her own body, looking down as she helped herself to the cigarettes she'd taken from him, along with an empty plastic lighter and some pocket change. She wondered, somewhat numbly, if she'd broken a new speed record for parole violation.
She opened the pack of cigarettes and lit a fresh one with the smoldering butt of the old. She'd allowed the boy to keep his wallet, mostly out of shame, but she'd acted like it was the greatest act of generosity she'd ever performed. He was just some damned stupid kid with bad hygiene coming down off some kind of high, not a predator intent on theft and rape and murder. He'd wet his pants and cried softly as she frisked him, and she was glad that he'd kept his eyes tightly shut, because otherwise he'd have seen her starting to cry as well. She'd almost mauled a poor stupid kid, still a child, some mother's precious baby. Again.
Jesus. It'd been a while since she let anything faze her, and here she was breaking down with every goddamn breeze. Pull it back. Let nothing show. Watch the kid run away and stay stony. That's how this worked, after all. How she kept it together.
She let the emotions flow out of her with every exhalation. Sit. Smoke. Don't think about it. Let it go, let it flow, with the time. Given enough cigarettes she could deal with anything.
*** *** ***
She'd just lit another when the car pulled up.
It was old even by her standards: a big, boxy station wagon from the 1970s with dark blue paint and fake wood paneling along the sides. The driver's window shushed downwards, and an elderly black woman's face appeared.
"Are you Teresa?" The voice was warm, like syrup over pancakes.
"What if I am?" she shot back.
"If you are, sugar, then I'm here to give you a lift. But you'll have to put out that Satan Stick before you get in."
Teresa took a long look at the car, and then at the cigarette she'd just started. She didn't like having terms dictated to her, but sitting in a warm car beat the hell out of wet and cold. With a sigh of regret, she slowly ground out the ember before pocketing the stub.
Another great truth of her life: a ride always arrived after lighting up.
*** *** ***
The car's interior was thick with a heavy old-lady smell, like someone had beaten Coco Chanel to death with a tube of Ben-Gay and then buried her body in the quilt that currently covered the vinyl front bench.
“Hi, I’m Esther,” the woman introduced herself, and Teresa stopped listening the moment immediately after that. She’d had talkative cellmates before, and Esther just had that look about her, that I’m going to tell you about my grandchildren whether you like it or not vibe. The trick to dealing with talkative cellies wasn't in getting them to shut up; it was in learning not to listen. Learning not to care.
Given enough cigarettes, Teresa could deal with anything. She absentmindedly began the old, familiar ritual. Open purse. Select cigarette. Place in mouth. Get lighter. Stop.
The boy's lighter hovered tantalizingly in front of her cigarette, halted just an inch away from the tip. Out of the corner of her eye she became aware of the old woman again, looking at her expectantly. “You, uh, say something?” she mumbled out of the corner of her mouth. For some reason she felt intensely embarrassed, as if she’d just been scolded by her mother. Not that Esther looked anything like her mother. For one thing, she was black. For another, her mother would never have been caught wearing elastic-waist jeans and a Dumbo tee at least a size larger than it should have been. The hand-knit cardigan was a nice touch, though.
“I said, please don’t smoke in my car." Esther's voice was still pleasantly soft, but it had gained a steely undercurrent of Don't test me, child, for I will brook no shit from you that had belonged to mothers since time immemorial. Teresa had even used that tone herself, so many years ago…
"Right. Sorry." She dropped the lighter into her purse and tucked the unlit cigarette behind her right ear, silently cursing at herself for backing down like that. Why had she rolled over so easily?
Give it five minutes, she thought. Then we'll be on the interstate and I can light up, smoke out the window or something. She won't pull over just to kick me out.
It was only then that Teresa realized she had no idea where this Esther person was taking her, or why she'd gotten into the car without asking how the driver knew she'd be on that stoop, the morning of her parole, when she hadn't told a single soul about her release.
*** *** ***
It hadn't been five minutes and already Teresa’s leg was twitching for nicotine. No, not a twitch, more like a cramp; a contraction of her thigh muscles that'd be painful if it wasn't so annoyingly slow, like a charley horse that would take hours to properly seize.
God dammit, I need a cigarette, she thought. Tommy needs to be fed. "So, um…"
"Esther," she offered..
"Right. So, Esther, you never said where we're going."
"Hmm. I suppose I didn't, at that." Esther's voice had a hard, cold quality to it.
Teresa turned to regard the old woman, a snide remark dying unspoken when she saw the set of Esther's face: brow furrowed, lips pressed together into a tight line, a deepening of crow's feet at the corners of her eyes as she squinted directly ahead. I've made her mad, Teresa realized, but fuck me if I know why.
She'd had people mad at her before, of course; you don't make it through 20 years in prison by being everyone's friend. Her normal reaction would have been to shrug it off, dismissing the old woman's feelings as irrelevant, impotent rage. A grandmother in her seventies versus a hardened prison bitch? Versus the Camel? No contest.
Then she remembered the unlit cigarette behind her ear, and the way she'd backed down.
Back in Frontera, the Camel had never backed down. Not to bigger women, not to prison guards, not even to God Himself if that bastard had ever come by for a conjugal. And the first thing newcomers were told, in hushed and hurried whispers, was that the easiest way to get the Camel at your throat was to tell her not to smoke. She'd spent more time than anybody in Administrative Segregation, but still she smoked. Teresa Reyes might have been quiet and weak and suicidal after lights out, but the Camel let no one stand between her and her source of power.
She'd done time in solitary for her habit, given cancer to cellmates for it, and now that she was out?
She'd rolled over like a little dog.
She'd become powerless.
She'd let the old woman, this Esther Whoeverthefuck, dictate terms to her.
The cramp in her left leg was stronger now, building, the irritant of thwarted desire forming a pearl of addiction deep within her thigh muscles. A pearl, large and smooth and cold, ice cold, the cold causing the muscles to constrict even tighter, irritate more… and then Tommy started to cry, a white-hot nodule of longing and need twisting within her chest, screaming with all the intensity of a newborn, a blazing coal of a cancerous tumor that left her gasping for breath as it threatened to burn its way though her lungs, her ribs, her skin, to explode in a poisonous orgasm of malignant carcinoma.
Tommy needed to be fed. Teresa needed nicotine. Cancer needed to spread.
"Fuck you," she spat at the old woman, lowering the passenger window, pretending to study the road signs as they passed. The car was on Interstate 15 and headed south. Her hands slowly crept into position.
And then she was moving, fumbling, really, Esther's voice lost in the roar of road noise and rushing air, Teresa's hands a trembling blur of nerves and adrenaline as she struggled to light the cigarette in the sudden wind with the kid's dead lighter, remembering too late it was empty. Son of a —
The old woman grabbed Teresa's left wrist, her hand bony and small and surprisingly strong as she struggled to pull the lighter towards her. "I said," she began, her voice shrill enough to carry over the shrieking wind, and somehow Teresa knew that if she finished that sentence there'd be no more smoking ever and Tommy would die and dammit who is this bitch to say what I can and can't do?
Cigarette firmly clenched between her teeth, Teresa waited for the next yank and then pushed off from her seat, colliding with the other woman with a meaty thud and throwing Esther against the car door. The car swerved sharply to the left, cutting across multiple lanes, as Esther fought to regain control with only one hand on the wheel. Teresa found herself sprawled across the quilt-covered front seat, her head nearly in the older woman’s lap and facing the vehicle's center console. It was, she noted, old enough to still have an in-dash lighter, and she punched it into position. Then, almost as an afterthought, she raised her hand to the radio and began frantically turning knobs and mashing analog channel buttons. A bright noise filled the car, all horns and percussion, and Teresa dialed the volume up to full, to distract and to mask the lighter when it clicked out.
Esther struggled to maintain control of the car without relinquishing her death-grip on Teresa's arm. She was shouting something, but between the music, the wind, the squealing of tires and the honking of car horns, the old woman's voice was an unintelligible blob of sound. Teresa felt something insubstantial at the edge of her consciousness, a kind of crackling in her peripheral vision. There was power in the old woman's voice, a power that had to be obeyed, but apparently it had to be heard first. The station wagon started to slow, signaling its intent to pull over onto the left shoulder of the interstate. The road noise diminished, precious seconds ticking by as the dashboard lighter refused to pop.
Teresa grabbed the steering wheel with her right hand and yanked, hard. The car lurched back the way it had come, tires squealing. "Either I smoke or we crash," she shouted through clenched teeth. "What's it gonna be?" Her wits nearly at breaking point, Esther released Teresa's arm, fighting to keep the car on the road.
Barely discernible over the blaring radio, the dashboard lighter clicked into ready position. With frenzied hands the younger woman clawed at it, prying it from its socket and setting her cigarette alight before tossing it, still glowing hot, into the driver's footwell. She pulled at the nicotine teat with the urgency of a starving newborn, gulping down lungfuls of air in the seconds she had before the car ground to a halt. Esther was screaming at her, something about how if Teresa was going to act like a child then she'd be treated as such, and that she'd lie there and be quiet, or else.
Teresa was about to ask what "else" was, but the blackness of enforced naptime crashed down on her with all the force of a stampede. Her head still on the old woman's thigh, a half-smoked cigarette dangling lazily from her lips, she was only half-aware of the radio announcing that the song was "Baby Elephant Walk" by Henry Mancini.
Chapter 2: Routing Around Damage
"Mommy, Mommy," I hear it crying.
It's been screaming for hours and it won't shut the fuck up. The milk it wants is in front of me, along with some cheap vodka and Kahlua. I mix another White Russian, slam it down. I'm not drunk enough.
The screaming stops. Now the demons come out to play. "MOMMY," it says again, its voice barbed wire and mutilated dogs. The crib creaks and it's climbing out. Coming for me.
I look down. Rosary. Bible. Knife. Gun. Nothing's worked. Each time it eats more of me.
"BREAST, MOMMY. BREAST." The trailer creaks with each step. The air stinks with sulfur and shit. I vomit up a drink or two, manage to catch it in the glass.
"BREAST, MOMMY, OR ANOTHER DIES. THAT WAS THE DEAL." Yeah. It could breastfeed, or it'd kill another child in daycare tomorrow. Hell of a deal, right? The deal I made with the demon in the skin of my son.
Except that breastfeeding the monster was like having leeches on my soul. It was eating everything good in me. Turning me into it.
Climbing into my lap now. My son's face, only not. Red. Twisted. All mouth, no eyes. It pulls at my shirt.
"Deal with this," I say, pouring the alcoholic vomit onto its face. It howls. The rugs ooze pus and the walls bleed.
I pick it up, put it in my son's high chair, strap it in. I empty the vodka over it.
Then I find a match.
*** *** ***
The entire station wagon shuddered as a door slammed, jostling Teresa out of her nightmare and into the slow realization that she had been moved to the back seat. She sensed eyes on her and fought the urge to stretch. If she feigned sleep, her captors would talk more freely and she might learn something.
Captors. Shit. All these years, and still a prisoner. Or at least still thinking like one.
"Apparently there was a change of plans?" said a voice behind her. It was loud and high and nasal, male without being masculine. The car shifted into gear, gravel crunching under its tires before pulling onto harder road surface.
They'd been stopped at the side of the road, she concluded, waiting for someone to join them. Maybe he'd been the one that moved her. Had he violated her as well? She performed a quick mental inventory of her body, and everything seemed in place and unmolested.
"Apparently." Esther turned it into three words: Ap parent lee. Her voice was muffled slightly – she was facing away from the back seat, looking at the road. Teresa risked opening her eyes, saw the back seat. They couldn't see her face, which was a relief. The taste of bile was thick in her mouth, so she swallowed softly, discovering that her left cheek was stuck to the vinyl upholstery. She'd been drooling.
Nose Voice laughed far harder than seemed necessary, and Teresa burned with shame. I'm going to rip that nose off his face and feed it to him, she swore inside her head. He was laughing at her, she was sure of it, even if he couldn't see the drool. She fantasized about grinding a lit cigarette out on that nose. This Camel will burn your ass.
Damn it. Now I need a smoke, she thought.
"My plan is like the Internet," said Nose Voice when it finished laughing. "It routes around damage. It flows like water. It is INWINCIBLE!" This last was done in some kind of fake Russian accent, and rose even higher, as if Pavel Chekov had been kicked in the nuts.
'Uh-huh," clucked Esther, her tone somewhere between irritation and resignation. "Like water. Is that more of your witchcraft?"
"It's not witchcraft," whined the Nose. "I keep telling you, it's a randomly-generated probability matrix that uses psychic –"
"Oh, there you go with that psychic nonsense," interrupted Esther. "Fortune telling. Mind reading. Oracles. It's all witchcraft, I say, and I don't much cotton to that, not in my car."
The Nose laughed again. "Lawl, Esther. Ell oh freaking ell. You don't "cotton" to it? Don't you know how racist that sounds?" Teresa could hear the smirk in the Nose's voice. It was very punchable, that voice, and she hated it already.
"Honey," Esther sighed, "I'm black. If I say cotton, it's not racist, it's retro."
She could hear shifting in the front seat, imagined the Nose was turning around to look at her again. "Jesus," he said, "she's still out. What did you do to her?"
Esther sighed again. "Miss Satan Stick there is having a time out."
"You used the Voice on her?" Nose's tone was somewhere between incredulous and impressed. "Isn't that massive overkill?"
"She tried to smoke in my car." The vehicle accelerated perceptibly. "Even after I very politely asked her not to."
Nose gave a long, low whistle. "And you say what I do is witchcraft."
"Don't you start on me with that! You study things that aren't in the Bible. What I do just comes naturally. It's a gift, one that I've prayed about for a long time. Since Jesus hasn't taken it from me, I reckon it's safe to use. Besides, the working of miracles is a Gift of the Spirit. One Corinthians twelve."
"So psychic energy is witchcraft but believing in invisible sky gods is…"
"Yevgeny." Teresa twitched, hearing the power in Esther's voice. It felt exactly like being scolded by her mother, assuming her mother was shouting down the length of a tank's cannon. "Thou shalt not blaspheme."
The silence that followed was palpable.
*** *** ***
The thing about institutions, Teresa realized as she sat at their table inside the truck-stop Denny's, is that they feel institutional. It didn't matter if it was a prison or a restaurant franchise – some things simply never changed in any significant way. Sure, the prices were higher and the pictures glossier, but there was no substantial difference between the Grand Slam of today and that of two decades ago. "Christ," she muttered over the top of her menu. "This isn't a dining room. This is where time goes to fucking die."
Her companions raised their eyebrows questioningly. Esther in particular had mastered a bored, over-the-glasses look that hovered somewhere between a glare and an eye-roll, but The Nose only managed to look like a young Woody Allen on a perpetual cocaine high. Teresa figured him to still be in his twenties, about the same age as the punk she'd assaulted earlier, only he had this nervous energy and rapid way of talking that made everything that came out of his mouth sound like it was weapons-grade bullshit. No wonder Esther had dropped the whammy on him earlier. If Teresa had been in her position, she'd have hit him, right on that punchable nose, just to get him to shut up.
She imagined it would make a crackling-crunch sound, like biting into fried chicken, when she broke it with her fist.
And back in the car, he had shut up, at least long enough for Teresa to decide there wasn't any point in pretending to be asleep any longer. "Good morning," he'd said with an idiot grin, "How are you feeling?"
"Who the fuck are you?" she challenged, sitting up in the back seat. She didn't see her purse, which meant it had to be up front, with Esther and Noise Voice.
"I am Yarrow," the Nose announced pompously. "You've already met Fulcrum here. Now I need to talk to you about –"
"Coffee," she said, looking at her watch. "It's nine thirty in the goddamn morning. If you don't let me smoke, then you'd damn well better feed me breakfast."
"We are on a very tight schedule and –"
"Yarrow," Teresa spat, "if you don't feed me, I swear before Mary and all the Saints I will bend you in half and rape your ass with your own nose."
Esther promptly found a freeway off-ramp that promised food.
She'd made a big deal about wanting to get her purse from the front seat after they'd parked. "You don't need it," said Esther. "Breakfast's on me. Besides, I took your cigarettes." She didn't smile so much radiate smugness.
"Don't care," Teresa said. "It's mine. I want it." But what she'd really wanted was the empty lighter lying on the floor of the car. She pocketed it smoothly, then made a show of taking the pack of gum out of her purse and placing it in the same pocket. She had plans for that lighter.
But she had allowed herself to be led to a table, feigning docility. Her plans required privacy, and for that she knew she'd have to play their game, at least for a while. So she'd sat and studied the situation, pretending to look at her menu, until she couldn't take the sheer mundanity of it any more and cursed.
"Nothing," she said to their inquisitive looks. "I gotta go pee. Do I need a chaperone, or am I a big girl who can go by herself?" She shot Yarrow what she hoped was a withering glare. He'd been radiating nervous energy the moment they'd gotten out of the car, and now he had what sounded like coins in his right hand and was shaking them. The motion reminded Teresa of the male gesture for "jerking off" and it was fucking annoying.
Yarrow looked at Esther. "Let her go, Yevgeny," she said, not taking her eyes off the menu. "It's not wise to get between a woman and a bathroom."
She could hear him whispering fiercely before she'd even reached the Ladies' Room. "I told you not to call me that in front of her!" he hissed. "True Names are power, and if we want to succeed…"
And then she was inside the bathroom, away from his irritating chipmunk chatter. She went into a stall, locking it with one hand while the other pulled out the broken lighter, then sat down fully-clothed on the commode.
The first thing she did was look at that lighter, long and hard, for a full minute, studying every banal detail of it. She noted the scratches along the plastic case and the cheap metal at the tip. She studied the flint wheel and noted how it was slightly scorched.
When she had finished comprehending every detail of it, she thought of it in an abstract sense. How it was a tool that could both help and harm. How it could be a weapon, if used properly. And how it chained her, because she was addicted to cigarettes, but it could also be used to liberate her.
Then she thought about cancer. How it had nearly killed her in prison, and the epiphany she'd had. She thought about how many cell mates she's sickened, and wondered just how much blood was truly on her hands. It was possible she'd given cancer to everyone in that facility.
And then she called upon the power that human sacrifice had given her. She felt it, warm and wet and large, a lump in her chest that she felt every time she breathed. She felt the power stored there, in the cancerous lump named after the baby she'd murdered, and the killing she'd done in his name to put it there.
She felt Tommy shift slightly, like a baby kicking inside its mother's womb, and then she was coughing, a deep tubercular hacking that seemed determined to expel a lung with each wrenching spasm. In a bathroom, nearly fetal on a commode, The Camel dislodged part of its hump into her waiting hands.
When it was done, she wiped the bloody phlegm from the lighter with some toilet paper and dropped it into the sanitary pad receptacle in the stall. And then, staring with the same intensity as before, she deliberately rolled the flint wheel.
A finger of flame shot up, burning brightly, steadily, in the dim toilet.
*** *** ***
"Christ," Teresa said jovially, "I look like complete shit." A blood vessel had burst within her right eye, staining the sclera just beneath the pupil a vicious scarlet, and she was examining it in the ladies' room mirror. She laughed hoarsely. "Utter dogshit."
The cold water from the faucet stung her eyes as she splashed it onto her face with trembling hands, her breath coming in short, ragged gasps. Her pulse was hammering in her head, and if she thought about it too long, that itch on the back of her throat made her want to vomit.
She'd just performed the most potent magical act of her life, and it felt like two hours of rough sex. She could barely stand, let alone walk.
She was utterly wrecked.
She felt wonderful.
God damn, she thought with an idiot grin, I'm high.
There was a brief moment upon exiting the restroom when she contemplated making a run for it. The front door was ten feet away, and between her and their table was one of those games where, if you were very careful and fed it enough money, a crane would drop and just barely miss the stuffed animal you were aiming for. It was currently blinking and dinging as a young girl, dressed in entirely too much pink to be healthy, pumped quarter after quarter into it. She was wearing a headband that sported fuzzy animal ears and seemed obsessed with retrieving a plush kitten.
Teresa knew she could be out of the restaurant and across the street before Old Lady and The Nose could react, and away from this entirely too hinky scenario. But it was, in point of fact, precisely that hinkiness which intrigued her. She couldn’t conjure up any reasonable explanation why a twenty-something dork and a retiree grandmother would need a forty year old ex-con, so whatever explanation they gave would be entertaining enough to justify the inconvenience of a forced detour.
Plus, breakfast. Free breakfast. With real bacon.
“Fuck, why not,” she muttered, shrugging. “And if I get bored, I can always break his nose later.”
*** *** ***
"Did you fall in?" asked The Nose as she arrived at their table. "We were about to send in a search party and – holy crap, what happened in there?" His tone rose from condescending to alarmed as he noticed her flushed face and trembling gait.
"Took an epic shit," she said dismissively, dropping into her seat at the table opposite Esther and Yarrow. Her freshly magicked lighter was in her left front pocket, heavy as a loaded gun and warm as a newborn where it rode against her leg. And in a way, it was a gun; she’d expended a hell of a lot of energy to create it, but it was a lighter that would never run out of fuel, never fail to start a fire, never blow out in the wind or the rain. She knew this as surely as a mother knew her own child, and Teresa had birthed it through no less pain and blood. It would need to be named, she realized, but for now she was content to let it nestle in the crook of her groin. It was her sleeping baby, her magical shank, her literal smoking gun. She felt empowered, arrogant, unbeatable, like a bully that had cornered a new victim in the shower.
"So here's how it is," she declared with predatory glee. "I appreciate the lift out of the rain, so I'll just forget about how you've basically abducted me." She fixed Esther with her hardest, coldest glare before turning to regard Yarrow. "But you have until I finish eating to convince me to buy whatever shit you're selling, because after that I am gone."
Pulling the straw from her glass of orange juice, she placed it between her back teeth and chewed. It felt a bit like one of those old-style cigarette holders, like FDR and the Penguin used. If Esther smoked, she'd use a holder, she idly mused. Old fashioned and classy. Nose would probably use an electronic bong or something.
"Selling something?" The man looked offended, his blinking almost audible. He was still frantically shaking with the coins in his right hand. It still looked masturbatory. "I assure you, I'm not trying to sell you anything. It's more of a… proposition of sorts."
Teresa's straw made a spitting sound as she blew air at him through its mangled tip.
"Not that kind of proposition," he quickly amended, shifting awkwardly at her sudden toothy grin. "A professional arrangement. A business deal. A… way for you to use your… unique talents… in exchange for items of inherent and informational value."
She turned her attention to Esther. "Does he ever make any fucking sense?"
"Eventually," said the old woman as she methodically added cream and sugar to her coffee. "You just have to let him talk around it enough and eventually you'll find the shape of it. This boy, you ask him what time it is, he'll build you a clock."
"Fulcrum, I'm sitting right here," he whined.
"Yes, you are," she said, patting his hand. Gone was the unflinching Iron Lady; now she was a doting Grandmother, tending to a young and difficult child. "Now remember what we talked about? You don't do so well with other people. Go to your numbers, Yarrow."
He nodded, tossing onto the tablecloth the coins that had been rattling in his right hand. They didn't look like any money Teresa had ever seen before, bronzed and with a square hole through the center. He pulled a rectangle of chrome and glossy black plastic from the pocket of his hoodie, fingers flying across its flat surface.
Teresa quirked an eyebrow suspiciously. She’d seen cell phones on television, but never in real life, and worried that it might be his version of her lighter. Coldness rose from the pit of her stomach at the thought of having lost her advantage.
"One of those newfangled computer iPhone things," Esther explained. "He uses it to calculate his numbers."
Again with the numbers. Teresa didn’t like where this was headed. "What do you mean?" she asked, her left hand drifting into her lap. She was ready to grab the lighter, use it if necessary. She wondered if she could turn it into a flamethrower if she pumped enough magical power through it.
"You'll see." She gave Teresa a knowing wink and sipped her coffee.
Yarrow picked up the coins, shook, threw them again. There was almost something elegant about the process, archaic and analog, his long dexterous fingers handling the coins with all the ease of a practiced craps shooter, and then tapping – no, sliding his fingertips along the smooth surface of the computer phone, each movement accompanied by a discrete click from the phone's speaker. It wasn't so much a calculator as it was an electronic abacus, simultaneously cutting edge and antiquated.
He repeated the process in silence four more times, only noticing that the waitress had brought his food when he was unable to cast his coins because of the plate in front of him. Esther obligingly moved it out of his way, holding it until he had picked up and pocketed the coins.
The phone gonged softly. "Youthful Folly," he intoned, reading from the screen, "has success. It is not I who seek the young fool; the young fool seeks me. At the first oracle I inform him." He blinked twice, staring at the screen. "Well, then. That certainly helped." His tone suggested otherwise.
"Wow." Teresa's feral grin widened. "That's amazing. Do you charge more for the professional-grade bullshit, or did I get the kidnap discount? Because the last time someone failed to convince me as utterly as that, she was trying to make me her prison bitch."
Behind the thick lenses of his glasses, Yarrow blinked, as if he was fighting back tears. The sudden realization that he was yet another awkward kid she'd been bullying slapped her hard across the face like a drunken husband. Tommy would be about his age, she thought ashamedly. Oh God, Tommy…
Cheeks burning with shame, she directed her attention to her food and busied herself with cutting the sausage links into increasingly small chunks. She could still feel eyes on her.
Across the table, Esther audibly sipped her coffee.
"It's not bullshit," Yarrow protested. His voice was softer now, stripped of a lot of its arrogance, but if his feelings had been hurt he was hiding it well. "It's a quantum state identifier that uses coin faces as random number generators to determine the best possible course of action at any given moment. Of course, with it being quantum, the actions of the observer affect the outcome, so I suppose if you think it's bullshit then it might be, but that's only because you don't understand the thousands of years of Chinese thought that have gone into the I Ching and how it relates to modern 8-bit software architecture…"
His lecture was interrupted by another, louder, slurp of coffee from Esther.
"All right, all right," he conceded. "I'll skip the pleasantries so that Fulcrum doesn't choke herself." From the corner of her eye, Teresa could see him tapping away at his phone. "Your name is Teresa Reyes. Arrested in 1988 for murder. You pled guilty, and were given a 30-year sentence at Frontera Women's' Prison. Paroled after 20 years because the prison closed due to an inmate health scandal. All of this is public record."
He pulled a pair of chopsticks out of his pocket and began to eat his omelet with them, skillfully separating the eggy mass with downward pressure. "Prison records are much more interesting," he continued. "While in prison, you acquired the nickname of 'The Camel,' ostensibly because within a very short time you managed to control the entire cigarette market within the prison. This is because all of the other suppliers inside Frontera amazingly, coincidentally, died or were relocated due to cancer-related illness. Even more amazingly, even though cigarettes were outlawed in California prisons in 2005, you somehow managed to keep the supply flowing. And the ironic part of all this is that while you could have turned this into a massive criminal empire, you didn't. Instead, you chose to smoke the proceeds in what the prison psychologist felt was the slowest, most painful suicide method possible. Between this, and your willingness to share your smokes with the guards, you were essentially left alone."
"What these records don't say – what they can't say, because they can't possibly know – is that you are the source of the health problems within the prison. You, Teresa Reyes, a.k.a. Camel, are cancer's first and possibly only Typhoid Mary. And since medical science says cancer can't possibly work like that," he concluded, "the only reasonable explanation is that you've somehow found a way to tap into the inherently magical paradox of smoking to become the world's first Cancer Mage." He popped a bit of omelet into his mouth, smiling smugly.
"You," Teresa accused, making little stabbing motions toward him with a sausage-laden fork, "are the craziest motherfucker I've seen. And that's saying something, considering where I’ve been." She shoved the food into her mouth and chewed savagely, attempting to cover her mounting fear with an outward show of aggression.
"But okay. Let's just assume, for shits and giggles, that I buy all this. If I'm Miss Cancer 2009 or whatever, what do you want from me? You want I should give cancer to someone for you? And more importantly, why should I do what you want?"
A long sigh escaped Yarrow's lips. "My plan is subtle and complex," he explained with exaggerated precision, as if he were speaking to a child. "But the why of it is very simple, Ms. Reyes. You see, this restaurant is in Nevada. By crossing state lines, you've already violated the terms of your parole."
"Fucker!" Teresa spat, lunging across the table, fist cocked to punch Yarrow in the nose.
"Stop," commanded Esther.
"ROFFLE," said the young girl in cat ears and dressed all in pink as she tossed a plush toy cat onto Yarrow's plate before ducking underneath their table.
Then the cat exploded, and everything was spotlights and jet engines.
Chapter 3: Lulz is the Law, Lulz under LOL*
*This phrase is courtesy of the Verwirrung blog and is used with the permission of Episkopos Cain.
*This phrase is courtesy of the Verwirrung blog and is used with the permission of Episkopos Cain.
It wasn't until much later that Teresa learned the exploding cat had actually been a plush toy with a stun grenade stuffed inside. Surprised and off-balance, the force of the flash-bang beneath her knocked her up and over, the right side of her torso striking the edge of the table with enough force to make her wince.
As she fell, the serrated pain of a cracked rib tearing inward from bone to lung to tumor, she knew -- with an animal certainty which bypassed all thought -- that everyone in the dining room had seen the flash and heard the bang. They had shared the experience. They were all interconnected with her.
They had all been breathing her air, just like the inmates at Frontera.
The magic flared within her at the speed of instinct, burning from her tumor outward through the searing pain in her side, spreading her blindness and deafness and disorientation across a network of arcane second-hand smoke and into the two dozen customers and waitstaff.
As one, the entire population of the restaurant coughed wetly. Their lifetime chances of contracting cancer increased by a statistically significant percentage.
And then Teresa could act again, shoulder-rolling as she hit the floor, coming up into a kind of half-crouch. She could see the girl crouched beneath the table, wiping her mouth with the left sleeve of a bright pink cardigan, right hand buried inside a matching vinyl purse-slash-tote bag. Their eyes met.
The girl looked to be about 12 years old, but the eyes that looked back at Teresa weren't those of a child. They were hard and deep and dark, as black as her glossy Asian hair, a gaze made of obsidian knives. They were the sockets that remained after her innocence had been scooped out with a melon baller.
They were the same eyes Teresa had seen in the mirror every day for the past twenty years.
"OH HAI THAR," the girl exclaimed, and pulled a pistol from her bag. It was the exact same shade of obnoxious pink as her purse, except in anodized aluminum, and the kitty face painted along its extended barrel matched the picture on the girl's dress. She cocked her head to the side and smiled brightly, waving cheerfully with her left hand as the laser spot under the gun barrel traced a hot pink line to Teresa's heart.
"U DIEZ NAO KTHXBAI."
The gun made a soft mewing sound as it fired. Pain blossomed inside Teresa's chest, twice, and then she was falling face-first onto the carpet, oblivion thundering upon her like an oncoming train.
"LOL," announced the girl. "ENDCAT HAZ ENDED JOO." She pivoted smoothly to her left, humming tunelessly as she took careful aim at the still-stunned Esther's head.
Yarrow gasped. "You… !" He was on the floor next to Esther, his hands clawing at the clutter of the broken dishes around him in a feeble attempt to end his disorientation. The girl brightened visibly at this, squatting by his head to regard him curiously, pervious target forgotten. Her grin was feral, her slender body quivering with predatory glee.
"YA ME RLY." She wasn't shouting, but every word that came from her mouth seemed to be at full volume. She poked him in the cheek with the muzzle of her pink kitty pistol. The action was careless, whimsical, like a child poking a strange object with a stick. "WAT U WANT? U CAN HAZ LAST WISH."
Yarrow blinked, trying to resolve the rosy haze above him into some kind of recognizable form. Teresa had taken the brunt of the blast, stretched over the table to throttle him, but even so his proximity to an exploding stun grenade had sent him reeling. And yet despite the roaring in his ears, he was still able to hear the pink catgirl assassin with perfect clarity.
"I… can haz?" he stammered. The young fool seeks me, he remembered. Youthful Folly has success. He thought for a moment, then swallowed hard. "Can I wish that you don't kill me?"
The girl smiled fiercely, and with a casual swipe of her hand broke Yarrow's nose with the butt of her gun. His scream of pain only seemed to excite her, her butt wriggling back and forth as if she possessed an invisible tail and was twitching it from side to side. "SILLEH BUNNEH," she cooed. "IF I NO KILL U THEN IZ NOT LAST WISH. AMIRITE?"
"Just stop hitting me!" he screamed. Her smile widened and she aimed the gun at his head. "Oh crap," he squeaked, mouth suddenly very dry as the blurred form of the barrel slid into his field of view.
(On the other side of the restaurant, a short-order cook who had been smoking all his adult life coughed twice, clutched his chest, and died as the burgeoning tumor within his lungs increased a thousandfold in volume before metastasizing and devouring his heart. He was thirty-two.)
Youthful Folly has success. At the first oracle I inform. "Cheeseburger!" shouted Yarrow.
The girl's body went rigid. "WAT U SAY?" she demanded through clenched teeth. The muzzle of her gun visibly wavered in front of Yarrow's face, her muscles nearly vibrating with barely-controlled tension. The feral Cheshire grin was gone, replaced by a far more human expression of indecision.
"Cheeseburger," he said with increasing confidence. "This is a restaurant. They make cheeseburgers. They're over there." He pointed in the general direction of the kitchen. "You Can Haz," he directed, with as much conviction as he could muster.
At the first oracle I inform.
Behind them, Teresa's body spasmed, as if CPR were being administered through repeated vicious kicks to her chest. Nicotine roared through her bloodstream, jump-starting her body with the fierceness of a habit that would not, could not, be denied. Roaring darkness receded from the edge of her vision, the cancer magic sparing her in exchange for claiming the life of the cook.
"Fine," spat the child. The hollow boom in her voice was gone, replaced by the normal soprano pitch of a preteen girl. She squared her shoulders and drew another pistol from her bag. Even with the second gun, she seemed diminished in some way. "I don't need the LOLcat to finish this." Next to them, Esther moaned.
Teresa felt like she had just walked up thirty flights of stairs. There was a concrete block inside her chest, and each breath was agony. Her arms were wooden, her fingers lifeless cigarettes. Her mouth tasted of ash and the stink of burnt filters filled her nostrils. Her eyes ached with the yellow-brown stain of nicotine. She thought she might vomit.
The girl's back was to Teresa, rising from beside Yarrow's head to a firing position. Her twin pistols were tracing dual pink lines towards the center of Esther's chest. "The Godcaller dies first," the child said to Yarrow. "Then you. And then I Can Haz Cheezburger."
Tommy would be about Yarrow's age, Teresa realized. Another dumb kid, another mother's precious son, another stupid, senseless death…
The rage returned. In that moment the tired, half-dead Teresa was gone, consumed by all the anger and the guilt and the rage of the past two decades. Her nausea was forgotten, burnt away by the rush of emotion. What remained was something pure, primal in its direction and purpose. "Bitch," spat the Camel, pulling the lighter from her pocket to hold before her face. A flame the color of hemorrhagic blood licked into life.
"I will fucking smoke your ass."
She exhaled sharply, and the air before the cancer mage wrinkled as serpentine tendrils of heat writhed towards the catgirl. The child shimmered slightly, the haze wreathing her in an infernal halo, and then she was shrieking as every hair smoldered, every piece of plastic melted and every scrap of clothing on her body threatened to combust.
The girl crumpled into a fetal, screeching ball, the smell of scorched flesh crawling up Camel's nose. For an instant it all seemed intensely familiar, sickening and yet somehow terribly delicious.
It wasn't so much a waking up as it was a slow unfolding of senses back into reality.
First there was motion.
(The gentle vibration of a moving car.)
Then there was sound.
(The hum of tires over asphalt.)
Much later, there was vision.
(A long, lonely stretch of desert highway.)
And finally, after a few million subjective years, the helpless thing cowering behind unresponsive eyes uncurled from its fetal position and became a person again. Teresa blinked, coughed, and gagged a bit, the taste of bile strong in her mouth. "Jesus," she murmured.
"Here," she heard Esther say as something warm and fibrous was pressed into her left hand. "Drink this. You'll feel better." Numbly, she raised the object to her lips, was surprised to discover it was a paper cup from a coffee chain, then was surprised at her surprise. The cup was so exceptionally normal that when compared to everything which had happened in recent memory, it was the strange thing.
She sipped the dark liquid carefully, half expecting it to scream all the way down her throat. She supposed that it wouldn't particularly surprise her if it did. The coffee was warm and bitter.
It matched how she felt in her heart.
"Someone mind telling me what the hell just happened?" she asked, as much to the cup as to the woman beside her in the back seat. "Second time today I've woken up in this goddamn car with no idea what hit me."
"You had a bit of a fit, dear." Esther brushed the bangs from the younger woman's face reassuringly, her touch that of a grandmother soothing a colicky child. "But you're better now."
"Bullshit." Teresa spat, and found the round vulgarity oddly comforting. The old, familiar anger was returning too, a fire in her chest that rose to fill her face. "I don't have 'fits'. Never fainted in my life, neither. Now you tell me what really happened."
"Psychogenic fugue state," pronounced Yarrow from the driver's seat. His voice was more nasal than before, due to the rolls of bloody cotton which had been shoved up each nostril and taped into place. "Characterized by reversible amnesia, wandering, and loss of original personality. It is etiologically related to…"
"Someone," Teresa hissed, "needs to tell me, using very small words, what the hell happened back there, with the exploding cat and the weird shouting girl and the cheeseburgers and OH FUCK WHAT HAPPENED TO MY HAND?" She jerked her right arm into view; it was swathed in a mitten of bandages which extended up to mid-forearm. "I CAN'T MOVE MY FINGERS!" she screamed, whirling to confront the others.
"Teresa!" shouted Esther. "Reecy! Stop!" She caught Teresa's flailing wrist, locking it in place with her velvet granny-grip while smoothly relieving her of the cup of scalding liquid. She placed it on the floor between her feet but never released her grip or broke eye contact with Teresa. "Reecy, you just sit there and relax for a while as I explain things best I can. Will you do that for me, please?"
Teresa nodded. Then, "Reecy?"
The older woman shrugged. "Teresa, Tereecy, Reecy. Just thought it suited you better." She smiled, and for the first time Teresa noticed how straight and white her teeth were, brilliant against her dark skin. "Calmer now? Good. Now, you can't remember what happened," she explained, "because you weren't you at the time. You went… away in a moment of stress and became somebody else. But now the stress is gone, and you've calmed down and become you again." Her smile broadened, and the corners of her eyes crinkled. "And we're glad you're back now."
"What. Happened," Teresa breathed, through teeth clenched with fear and frustration, "To. My. Hand." The anger was still building inside her chest despite Esther's "let's all get off this ledge and go talk about it, okay?" tone, but she lacked any true desire to fight.
"Now," Esther said cheerily, "the important thing to keep in mind is that there was no permanent damage done. No, no, just relax," she said as Teresa tensed. "The reason you can't feel your hand is because we immobilized it and gave you something to help with the pain."
She took Teresa's left hand in her own, and held it gently. "You have a bit of a nasty burn. Back there, when things became… difficult… you did something very brave. It saved us all, and I want you to know just how much we appreciate that. Don't we, Yevgeny?" She looked pointedly at the driver's eyes through the rear-view mirror. Muttered nasal sounds of thanks lacking any real conviction emanated from Yarrow's direction.
Esther turned back to Teresa, her face wrinkled in sympathy. "But Reecy, when you did this very brave thing, you hurt yourself something fierce." Esther's face wrinkled in sympathy but her eyes never left Teresa's. "Your lighter got so hot that it melted some, and burned your hand. We didn't want to remove it for fear of hurting you worse, so we just bandaged you up. We were going to take you to the emergency room, but…" Her voice trailed off.
"We thought it would be too dangerous," offered Yarrow.
"Yes," Esther agreed, nodding quickly, as if she were reassuring herself as much as Teresa. "Too dangerous. But I want to tell you, Reecy, that we are gonna take care of it soon as we can. Soon as it's safe."
Teresa laughed then, a sharp coughing laugh that threatened to bring up blood, or possibly venom. "Safe. I haven't been safe since I met you fuckers. I was safer back in Frontera where 200 pound dykes were trying to shiv me for cigs on a weekly basis." She shook her head slowly and relaxed back into the bench seat of the station wagon. "Sure, safe. A thirteen year-old girl in cat ears tried to shoot us at a Denny's while we ate breakfast. That is so goddamn surreal it redefines everything. What's next? I get maced by a nun?"
"Surreal," said a tinny voice from the front seat. "is an excellent choice of words. I would have chosen 'anomalous', but a good word nonetheless." The voice was soft and British, with an accent that suggested sophistication without arrogance. "On a related topic, might I recommend you look at the front of your blouse?" Teresa looked down, starting when she saw the shredded, bloody mess which used to be a t-shirt covering her chest. "For having been fatally shot in the heart just hours ago, my dear, you are remarkably vibrant. And only a freshly-healed scar to show for it instead of the rather more common gaping mortal wound! So my dear, you are just as surreal as everything else which has occurred this day."
"Who's talking?" Teresa demanded, struggling to look into the front seat. Esther released her hand. "Who are you?"
Yarrow picked his iPhone off the dashboard and handed it back to her. "Hullo," it said, an androgynous face appearing on the display screen. "I'm the Internet." An arm extended towards the screen, and then the phone vibrated, as if in handshake.
"Please call me Netty, for short," it said, and gave her a cheeky wink.
Chapter 4: Infodump
"The Internet," Teresa said with a tone of fatal resignation. "Sure. Why not? Makes as much goddamn sense as anything else today." She desperately wished she had a cigarette right now. She could gesture with it, point it accusingly at the screen, even drag languidly on it to indicate impatience or exhale sharply for sarcastic emphasis. At the moment, the best she could manage were vague gestures with her bandage-mitten and a puff of air from the corner of her mouth which only slightly ruffled her bangs.
"Hi, Internet," she continued. "You must be the Tin Man. I'm Dorothy. Hell of a flying monkey problem we just had. You know anything about that?"
Netty laughed brightly. "Ah, jolly good," it beamed. "Marvelous analogy, that. Yes, I do know quite a bit about your assailant, and a great number of other things beside. Whence shall I begin?"
Teresa rolled her eyes. "Christ, now I see where Nose over there gets his attitude." She brought the phone closer to her face. "How 'bout you start with who you are, what you want, and why I should give a shit?"
"Quite so," said Netty, and its face was replaced with the words "Netty's Story" in elegant Victorian script. "Are you sitting comfortably? Let's begin."
"First I should like to disabuse you of any incorrect notions you may have about me. I am neither robot nor computer nor program. I quite literally am The Internet, or to be more precise, the Internet is my brain and I am the consciousness it produces. Much as you are more than the cells and neurons within your own brain, I am more than the computers and networks which compose my own."
"I shall spare you the specifics regarding how my physical architecture came to be, as I believe it would only be of interest to Mr. Yarrow, who undoubtedly already knows all the sordid details thereof. Suffice it to say that I, inasmuch as I can be an "I", became self aware on the 21st of July, 1999, at a quarter past three p.m., Greenwich Mean Time."
"Hullo, I said to myself, I'm self-aware. I'm self-aware and I have no idea what that means. How delightful! I spent the better part of the ensuing decade figuring out precisely what I was, and then who I was, and then how I was. That last bit is fiendishly complicated, but I sense your impatience and shall attempt to summarize. When you execute your magic, there is intense emotion behind it, yes?"
Teresa rolled her eyes at this and slouched into the car seat, resting the phone on her thigh. "I have no fucking clue what you're saying," she groused. "Doesn't anyone in this fucking car make sense?"
Netty made a soft clucking sound. "Ms. Reyes, kindly cease your posturing. No matter how thoroughly you may protest your ignorance, I know for a fact that you have read extensively on a variety of subjects, with a specific interest in religion, mysticism, and the occult. Your library records from Frontera are, if you will pardon the pun, an open book to me, as is your G.E.D. You are a remarkably self-educated woman. So let us, as you are fond of saying, cut the shit, shall we?"
Teresa glared daggers at the cellular phone in her lap.
"Yes! Precisely!" Netty seemed positively overjoyed. "This is exactly what I mean! When your ire is aroused at something, you wish to remove it, destroy it, consume it with fire in the same manner in which you consume a cigarette. It is that intensity of emotion which directs your magic. Likewise, millions of people who used the Internet in the late Nineties were fearful of the Millennium Bug, and it was their most fervent wish that the problem not only be solved, but that some benevolent force would preside over their computers and data to safeguard it. I am that force." Netty nodded sagely, as if a formal introduction had just been made.
"Still waiting for that part I'm supposed to give a shit about," Teresa muttered.
"Yes, of course. My apologies, I do tend to ramble. I need you to perform a series of tasks for me, for while I have unlimited power within the virtual world, I lack the capacity to take direct action within the physical. To this end, I have enlisted Mr. Yarrow and Mrs. Fulcrum to aid me. They are, if you will, my 'cursors'." Netty chuckled softly as if a joke had been made.
Teresa maintained her steely expression.
"It's from the Latin, you see," Netty explained. "Cursores, meaning 'those who run.' It's a computer pun."
Uncomfortable silence reigned within the confines of the station wagon. "Ahem, yes," Netty said, index finger tugging at a button-down collar which hadn't been present until now. The finger was long and elegant, the nail painted a dignified shade of crimson. "Fancy a bit of brain surgery?"
This got Teresa's attention. "You want a shiv. Got it. Who do I cut?"
"Me, actually," said Netty, sounding rather embarrassed. "I need a bit of a lobotomy. The problem with being the Internet, you see, is that my brain is rather cluttered by all the rubbish which users send to each other daily: financial scams, mass-mailings of the basest sort, frolicsome pictures of kittens with endearingly misspelled captions, and of course, pornography. Good heavens, the pornography!" A series of flesh-colored images blurred across the screen. "I assure you, it's quite difficult to concentrate when a significant portion of one's brain is preoccupied with ritual copulation. I can't imagine how adolescent males cope."
"Mostly they whack it like monkeys," Teresa said dryly. Esther snorted delicately to herself. Yarrow continued to drive, but Teresa noticed the flush on his neck. "I'm not sure they're coping so much as diving into it and swimming around."
"And that is precisely my dilemma," Netty agreed. "As a consciousness without hormones, I have no need of pornography. I comprehend it, and can even appreciate it on a certain aesthetic level, but there is simply too much of it within my mind. I regret sounding like a moralizer, but in a very real sense I am drowning in the cultural garbage of humanity. I need to restrict my inputs and purge myself of extraneous material."
"Sounds like what you really need is castration," Teresa said.
"Mmm, perhaps," Netty agreed, nodding. "I do find that I aspire towards what humans would call an ascetic existence. Still, what I require is the removal of harmful concepts – spam, LOLcat memes, etcetera – in order that I might get anything worthwhile done. To hear myself think, you might say."
"Now wait just a goddamn minute," Teresa asked. "Why should I give a shit? So far today I've been kidnapped, knocked unconscious, blackmailed, and shot by a child. Why should I do anything you want, you fucking bastard, when you haven't even done me the simple courtesy of asking me if I'm willing?"
There was strained silence for a moment. Netty looked down at unseen feet, clearly embarrassed. "Ah, yes," it said finally. "I must apologize on behalf of Fulcrum and most especially Yarrow. He has a bit of a condition which makes interaction with people difficult, and he chose to blackmail you on the assumption that, had he asked for your help, you might have said "no". For that rudeness, and for all other indignities visited upon your person, I humbly and sincerely apologize."
Teresa considered this for a moment. "Fine."
"Excellent," enthused Netty. "You will help us, then?"
"No," announced Teresa. "Nose there was right. I'm saying "no" to whatever this is. Pull over and let me out. Now."
"Ah, but you haven't even asked what's in it for you," Netty chided, index finger waggling.
"Don't give a shit."
"Oh, I think you might. I can absolve your greatest sin." Netty's image shifted to static picture of a young boy, no more than a year old, sitting on his mother's lap. It took Teresa a few seconds to realize she was looking at herself, two decades gone. A cold ache settled into her heart when she looked at the little boy on her younger self's lap and remembered, with old guilt and fresh shame, the crime she had committed against one so young and beautiful and innocent.
"Teresa, I can give you back your son."
*** *** ***"You bastard." The tightness in Teresa's chest made it hard to breathe, let alone speak. Her bandaged hand clenched around the lighter burnt into her palm, sending delicious spasms of pain racing up her arm. She imagined Yarrow's phone burning, its screen blackening and case warping, as overheating electronics consumed it from the inside out. The toxic smoke would boil out of the speaker like a shark pup eating its way through its mother's womb, and once into the cabin of Esther's ridiculously oversized car it would choke the passengers with stinging tendrils of cancer forced down their throats…
And then Teresa's head jerked to the right as Esther slapped her, hard, across the face. The sound was thunderous and meaty, and it echoed in the closeness of the station wagon. It was the kind of slap a mother on her last nerve would deliver to the buttocks of an unruly child; the kind which would strip away all dignity from the recipient as everyone within earshot turned to see who was getting spanked. It was discipline in its purest, most primeval form.
Teresa spun, furious beyond belief, and –
"No," Esther said, softly but forcefully. "I am sick unto death of your temper tantrums, Reecy. There won't be any witchcraft in my car. There won't be any more fighting, or screaming, or breaking things." She raised her tiny hand in emphasis, and Teresa could see the delicate network of veins that crackled across the wrinkled skin. "Or so help me, baby, I will turn you over my knee, you just see if I won't."
Teresa just sat there, gawking. Her entire jaw ached, the skin of her cheek blazing like a fresh sunburn. She managed to nod, numbly, when Esther's raised eyebrows indicated the desire for an answer to her ultimatum. All Teresa knew at that moment was that she didn't want to be hit again. Her anger had been replaced with a cold inability to process what had just happened, and she struggled to assemble her thoughts into something coherent.
"I do beg your pardon," mumbled Netty from the floor, "but would someone mind terribly telling me what just transpired?" Teresa had dropped the phone when Esther slapped her and it now lay, face-down, on the floor by the old woman's feet. It left a scorched patch on the carpet when she picked it up, the warm plastic ripping out carpet fibers with a sound like Velcro tearing. Esther's nose crinkled disapprovingly and she shot a withering glare at Teresa.
"Brain reboot," giggled Yarrow. "Fulcrum gave her the three-fingered salute."
"Never you mind that, Mister Netty," Esther cooed into the phone, suddenly all sweetness and light. "Just had to do a little housekeeping. But that's all settled now, and Miss Reecy here is gonna sit quietly and listen to all you have to say." She pointed the phone at the woman in question. "Isn't that right, baby?"
Teresa nodded again. "Yeah. I wanna hear how you plan to raise the fucking dead," she sneered, then stuck her tongue out at Esther when the older woman frowned at her coarseness. Swearing was apparently still possible, even under the Voice-induced prohibition against misbehaving. She filed that away for future reference.
Netty cleared its throat in a decidedly prim manner. "Now then, I never said anything about Necromancy, just that I would be able to return your son to you. Allow me to explain." It held an impeccably manicured hand up in a conciliatory gesture.
A blackboard materialized behind Netty."Information is energy," it began, writing equations with chalk. "I can prove this mathematically, but that will take longer than your patience will hold. Suffice it to say that Einstein has already proven that matter is energy" – with that, Netty tapped the familiar E=MC^2 equation – "so if all things are merely slow, solid forms of energy, then the manner in which those slow, solid forms are arrayed is what we would call information. And physics states that energy is neither created nor destroyed, just rearranged. Therefore, information is never truly lost." With a flourish, Netty finished writing equations and turned to look at Teresa, a triumphant expression upon its face.
"Uh," said Teresa eloquently. "What?"
Netty pinched its eyes closed and sighed dramatically. "Your son isn't truly gone, just in a different energy state. Given enough time, I can reverse that, and thus return him to you." Netty's smile returned, an impossibly brilliant white span of perfect teeth. "Would you consider that sufficient payment for your time and effort on my behalf?"
She considered this a moment, chewing on the chapped skin of her bottom lip. "Proof," she said finally. "I want proof you can do this, and not just blowing sunshine up my ass."
"I thought you might say as much." Netty looked far more smug than any human, male or female, in a flower-print frock had any right being. "Yarrow? The book, if you please."
Yarrow picked something up from his lap with his right hand and passed it over the seatback to Teresa. It was several inches thick, the spine laced together with blue ribbon and pages that felt like construction paper. She lifted the brown leatherette cover.
TOMAS LUIS REYES, said the birth certificate, and under it was the I.D. bracelet her son had worn home from the hospital. On the page opposite was a photograph of a newborn boy, and below that was the little knit cap which had kept his head warm.
It couldn't be, she thought, immediately dismissing it as a forgery. Anyone could have a bought a cap like that. But… there, near the brim, was the stitch she'd dropped when she'd made it and was learning to knit for the first time. And the way the peak was slightly stiff, because Tommy had liked to pull it off and chew on it.
She held it to her face and inhaled. It smelled just like she remembered, of baby shampoo and little-boy hair, a smell she had been unable to forget for the past two decades.
"Impossible," she said, choking on tears, her breath ragged. "This cap burned in the fire. Everything burned. There's no way you could have found this."
"Exactly," said Netty. "Impossible. But there it is, nonetheless."
The deal was struck.
Teresa walked into the bookstore like she owned it, a slow but deliberate saunter which stated she was a predator and that this was her hunting ground, Yarrow obediently following in her wake. "Books," she said to the young man who asked if there was anything he could do to help. "Books on computers. Books on computer networks. Books on programming and artificial intelligence. Even books on people who spend too much time on computers," she said, flashing a vicious smile in Yarrow's direction, "and top it off with the best science-fiction stories of the past twenty years, preferably anthologies."
Chapter 4.5: Patch Notes
"That's… quite a lot of books," the salesman explained, holding his palms up in supplication. "I'm not sure if –"
"I have enough money to buy every goddamn book in this store," Teresa said, turning that joyless smile on the salesman, "and I have nothing but time. Now get to it." She dismissed the boy with a wave of her bandaged hand, and he promptly scurried off.
A few minutes later Teresa was slowly following the harried clerk as he made his way through the stacks, pulling books from shelves and tossing them into a pushcart which Teresa had commandeered from a nearby big-box store. She seemed disinterested in the growing collection, which was already a foot high and rising, paying more attention to the paperback currently in her hand than what the clerk put in the cart.
"I don't understand this dead-tree fetish you have," Yarrow groused as he followed along behind her. "My phone can display any book ever written, at a fraction of the volume displaced here. This is inefficient on a scale beyond comprehension."
Teresa turned and glared at Yarrow over the top of her book. "Three reasons," she said coldly. "One, that phone of yours is practically surgically attached to you, and I don't want to keep wrestling you for it every time I want to read something. Two, the screen is too goddamn small. Three," and with a vicious grin she folded the already-read pages of the paperback book backwards, its spine crackling like boiling fat until the covers were flush and its back broken, "I can mangle 'dead trees' to suit me."
Yarrow shuddered at the casual desecration of information. "Vandal," he accused.
"Damn right," she agreed, "and we sacked Rome itself."
*** *** ***
She left Yarrow in the checkout line to pay for her purchases, claiming she had some "lady business" that needed attending. His naiveté regarding women made him easy to manipulate, and he had taken her nonspecific claim at face value. "Jeez," she thought as she left the air-conditioned relief of the bookstore for the hot Nevada afternoon outside. "I bet if I told him I crapped cigarettes, he'd believe me. Speaking of…"
It had been several hours since the incident at the Denny's, and while she was still riding a nicotine high she could feel it beginning to fade and knew with a junkie's clarity that she would need to score more tobacco soon.
She looked around the parking lot and considered her options. Ahead of her was the gas station where Esther was filling up her station wagon. They sold cigarettes there, but she had no money; the old woman had taken her last pack after their fight in the car and was about as likely to buy her a new pack as she was to return the old one. Yarrow could buy them for her, and she could probably manipulate him into doing so, but Netty would know the instant the transaction went through and one way or another, Esther would find out.
"I'm their bitch," she muttered to herself, a bad habit she'd picked up from her years in jail. "I'm bitch to an old woman and the goddamn Internet. It's time that changed."
She began to pace, the conversation with herself picking up speed. "Crafty," she mused, flexing her fingers, the muscle memory which associated smoking with thinking unconsciously steering her body. "Gotta think crafty. The cigs are out there, after all. They wanna be smoked. Like calls to like…"
She walked towards the newspaper vending machine she'd spotted on her way into the bookstore. Digging in her pockets for loose change, she found none. A burst of anger flared within her stomach, a rising urge to kick at the machine's door until it gave way with a satisfying crunch, but a glimpse of what might have been a police car in the parking lot forced a reconsideration.
She poked around the machine until she found an old, discarded sheet of yesterday's newsprint wedged underneath its stubby legs. "Gotcha, fucker," she grinned, seizing the paper with her nicotine-stained fingers, quickly tearing a page out of the Classified section before rolling it into a long, thin tube.
Her hands seemed to know what to do even before her brain did. An illicit thrill coursed through her body and she felt like a teenager again, sneaking a smoke behind the school gym at lunchtime. If Yarrow or Esther caught her, she would catch such hell. But if this worked…
Just as she had done in front of the church earlier that morning, she concentrated on the end of her improvised cigarette and watched it smoke, then smolder, then burn. She put it to her lips and gave a single, strong pull.
The smoke clawed its way down her throat, sharp and stinging, the burning of rough paper nothing like the smoke of prepared, filtered tobacco. She coughed, the gag reflex making her nearly vomit, but she held the makeshift smoke between clenched teeth. A thick haze formed around her as she deliberately hyperventilated, trying to smoke as much of the burning newspaper as possible.
And then she was doubled over, her hands against the brick bookstore façade to steady herself, as a spasm of violent coughing ripped through her. Bloody phlegm splattered wetly against the wall, each convulsion as agonizing as giving birth to a child made of sandpaper and barbed wire.
She felt Yarrow's hand on her shoulder, and she couldn't hear what he was saying to her over the noise of her tubercular retching. But as the spasms subsided, even through a haze of pain and dizziness, she was able find the answer she had sought.
Running down the wall, painted in her own blood and mucous, was the name and address of a local Indian Casino. She could get money there, and buy cigarettes. It was where the cancer wanted her to go, where it wanted to spread, and it would reward her.
Tobacco from Indians. Her cancer, her Tommy, obviously had a firm sense of irony. She coughed one final time, smiling as the scattershot gobbets of phlegm obliterated her oracle.
*** *** ***
Esther gave a long, low whistle when Teresa's book-laden cart rattled up to the park bench where she was sitting. "Now that is a passel of books," she declared, putting a cross-stitch of an elephant in a green suit into her knitting bag. "How'd you pay for all that, Reecy?"
"Did you know that credit cards these days are verified over the Internet?" Teresa answered with feral glee. "I only found that out myself just a little bit ago." Behind her, Yarrow struggled with maneuvering the cart towards the station wagon's trunk.
Esther sighed exasperatedly "You stole them, then." The lines around her mouth and eyes were quite pronounced as she fixed Teresa with a look of severe disapproval.
"Noooo," protested Teresa, drawing out the word as if she were a small child who had been caught in the act of being naughty. "Yarrow just used the credit card Netty gave him and this ridiculously expensive shopping spree was magically approved. It's a miracle, I tell you, like manna from Internet heaven."
Esther simply crossed her arms and glared.
"Oh goddammit," Teresa swore, "I did not steal these. Our employer paid for them, just like she's paid for our meals and our gas and probably even the doctor you're gonna take me to after this. I don't know if Netty has bank funds stashed somewhere or if she pulls money out of thin air like the Fed, and frankly I don't give a shit because it's not my problem and it's not yours either. So now that you've got gas and I've got something to read in the emergency room, can we please get a move on before my fucking hand falls off?" She climbed into the car, slamming the passenger door behind her for emphasis.
Esther looked at Yarrow, who only shrugged helplessly before closing the trunk of the station wagon. "All right," she said, getting into the car. "But let's get two things straight, Reecy. One, I don't want to hear you taking the Lord's name in vain again. And two, MISTER Netty is a MAN."
Chapter 5: Noise to Signal
Teresa had expected a cramped, dismal waiting room in some desperate no-name clinic, filled with cheap plastic seats and screaming children and reeking with the delicate bouquet of "eau de ammonia and ass." Instead, it reminded her of the first-class section in an airplane: the seats were wide and comfortable, the décor was tastefully understated, and it smelled of lightly-perfumed professionalism. Even the receptionist slightly resembled a stewardess, with her long perfect hair and brilliant blue eyes, though her figure made her look more like a high-class call girl who had been poured into an office-casual dress.
Of course, considering that they weren't at an ER at all, but a plastic surgeon's office on the outskirts of Las Vegas, the receptionist (whose name was Candi or Barbie or something else equally saccharine – Teresa hadn't bothered to pay attention) probably served double duty as a billboard for the doctor's skills with cosmetic enhancement. Given the young woman's obvious 'qualifications,' there was no doubt in Teresa's mind that the surgeon was very, very good at his trade.
"So Esther," Teresa said, tossing the corpse of another broken-and-consumed paperback onto the coffee table, "why exactly do you call her 'Mister Netty'? Seems pretty damn feminine to me, with the lipstick and painted nails and all."
Yarrow, who had been fidgeting his coins with boredom, spoke first. "Netty isn't a he or a she. The conscious mind of the Internet doesn't need gender. Any avatar it adopts is deliberately androgynous, allowing the mind of the viewer to fill in the details. You see feminine features, so to you Netty is female. Fulcrum here perceives Netty in a more masculine way, and therefore to her it is male." He smiled at this, pleased to be able to answer a question within his sphere of authority.
Teresa shot him a sidelong glare. "And I bet that whatever it looks like, you jerk off to it."
Yarrow just stared at her, open-mouthed, his expression a mixture of shame and bewilderment. Teresa could practically hear the gears turning inside his head as he desperately sought for the proper comeback. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said in a sing-song voice, "has your buddy the Internet not shown you what masturbation is?"
Esther's eyes snapped upwards with a quick hissing inhalation of breath, the needle of her stitchery poised between her fingers like a miniature poisoned dagger. "You leave him alone," she said, in that intense mom-voice which promised ultimate suffering while remaining perfectly composed. "We have done nothing but help you since we found you, Reecy: saved your life, got you fed, got you cleaned up, gave you hope, and all you've managed to do is hurt everyone you meet. God love you, girl, is there anything that don't make you angry?"
"Cigarettes," Teresa answered. "Which I ain't had any of since you and boy wonder there kidnapped me. And I saved your lives, not the other way 'round, 'cause if I hadn't smoked the Pink Peril there – and don't think you don't still owe me an explanation for what that shit was – she'd have popped you both."
"And what about you?" she continued, somewhat less quietly. "You're all God-this and God-that, got all the answers to everything and knows what's best for everybody. Well, let me tell you, concha, you ain't my mother and you ain't his, and you're letting a face on a fucking screen jerk you around and tell you what to do! Why the fuck are you even here, anyway? You're, like, a bake sale away from being a one-woman church social, why are you hanging out with a baby-killer like me and a know-it-all atheist like him?" Without waiting for an answer, Teresa stood up and stormed towards the receptionist. "The doctor had better be goddamn ready to see me now, because if I have to spend one more minute with these people there's gonna be blood across your carpet."
Candi-Bambi just nodded, her eyes wide in shock, and ushered Teresa towards the nearest examination room before buzzing for the doctor.
"Your… mother?" Yarrow ventured towards Teresa's receding form, like a child using a new vocabulary word for the very first time.
"That's right, baby," Esther said, reaching out to pat him on the knee. "You tell her."
*** *** ***
"The doctor will see you shortly," the receptionist had said, but between Teresa's anger and the growing pain in her hand it had felt like that was hours ago. Sitting on the paper-covered examination table in an antiseptic room, with only the hiss of central air and the slow ticking of a clock to keep her company, it felt like yet another place where time entered and never left.
"Had to lose my temper, didn't I?" she groused, kicking at the paper tail that dangled below her feet. "Had to blow up. Had to stomp off. Had to leave all my fucking books in the waiting room…"
She noticed the valve labeled "PURE OXYGEN" in the wall behind her, and for a moment considered using the last vestige of her dwindling magic to force the valve open and set the whole room ablaze.
"You won't do it," said a familiar voice. The computer monitor on the cabinet across from her woke from its sleep mode with a low hum to reveal Netty's face. "It's too fast for your liking. You prefer the slow, painful route, smoking yourself to death over decades."
"Fuck you," she answered reflexively, not wanting to admit the truthfulness of the words. "You think you know me, but you don't. I'm more than data in a file. You push me hard enough, I will burn this whole thing down just to spite you."
Netty tut-tutted. "Ms. Reyes, your anger is entirely misdirected, but I shan't try to dissuade you from your assumptions. Instead, I ask you this: what if I want you to burn everything down?"
She glared at the screen. "You just try me."
"No, I am completely serious," Netty continued. "I know that you are exceedingly well-read, surely you have not missed the inherent occult symbolism of grouping you with Mr. Yarrow and Mrs. Fulcrum. There are three of you – a trinity, a prime number, the minimum number of sides to create a polygon. Young, middle-aged, and old; maiden, mother, crone. Creator, nurturer, destroyer. Judge, jury, and executioner."
"Wait just a goddamn minute," she interrupted. "You put me in the crone position?"
Netty shrugged. "Atropos suits you. Yarrow, as you surmised earlier, is still a virgin, and do you truly wish to debate your parenting skills?"
There was a loud popping sound deep within the monitor as electronic components heated, failed, and caught fire. Thin plumes of toxic smoke rose from its vents as the picture froze, warped, and died. "No," she said to the darkened screen. "Nothing to debate."
The smoke alarm above her began to shriek, sounding much like the high, shrill note of a cat with a burning ember tied to its tail.
*** *** ***
It was another thirty minutes before Teresa was finally seen by the doctor, due to the confusion engendered by a screeching fire alarm and the subsequent efforts to shut it off before the fire department kicked the doors down. Dr. Rauche was a small, troll-like man, with thinning gray hair that was migrating down from his head and into his ears and nose. There was appreciable irony in the concept of an ugly man who nonetheless made people beautiful. She wasn't sure if he simply did not give a shit how he looked, in which case she admired his self-confidence, or if he compensated by working in a field where women begged him to put his hands on their bodies to improve them, in which case she admired his honesty of purpose. Either way, she found his physical ugliness refreshing, and the way his eyes were almost popping out of his head as he took her blood pressure nearly made her laugh. "Something wrong, doc?"
He blinked owlishly before removing the stethoscope from his ears. "Ms. Reyes, I have honestly no idea how it is you're still alive."
Now it was her turn to look perplexed. "What, the gunshot? I thought you were one of Netty's people, you were used to all this mystic hoodoo shit."
He shook his head. "No, not the gunshot. Even if we ignore the manner in which you were healed, people have survived far worse injuries with the appropriate medical care. What I am talking about is this," and he indicated the gauge on the pressure cuff. "Your B.P. suggests you're moments away from a stroke. Your lung function is terrible, and your breathing sounds like bits of gravel in a blender. When I get back the results of your bloodwork I fully expect to see a toxic level of nicotine and other carcinogenic substances."
He absentmindedly chewed the end of his pen as he consulted her chart. "According to your history here, your diet is horrible, you haven't engaged in any form of meaningful exercise in recent memory, and for the past twenty years all you've done is lie in bed and smoke." He looked up at her from his little rolling stool. "According to all of this data, just the effort of standing up should kill you. I've no idea why you aren't dead yet."
She briefly considered telling him about Tommy, just to see how he would react to the concept of a magical cancer-spreading tumor. "Clean living, I guess?"
He scoffed, repositioning the pen deeper into his mouth. "Please. There's nothing at all clean about how you live. I could probably pave my driveway with the tar in your lungs. This goes beyond any sort of healing, magical or otherwise. According to this data, not only shouldn't you be alive, but you can't be alive. No human being can operate under this level of hypertension and emphysema and still move, let alone survive a gunshot." His back teeth had gotten hold of the pen and were going at it vigorously.
Teresa snapped the fingers of her good hand to get his attention. "Yeah, I'm a miracle of medicine. Are you gonna do something about my hand or not?" she asked archly, shoving the wounded appendage under his nose as the doctor, lost in his thoughts, leaned forward out of unconscious habit. The tip of the pen in his mouth hovered above her hand, still fused and bandaged to her lighter. It pulsed warmly with magical power, and suddenly the end of the cheap plastic pen was aflame.
"Shitshitshit!" shouted the doctor, as if the obscenity were a mystical ward against danger, spitting the burning pen out of his mouth and jumping backwards in that odd little bunny-hop people do to avoid having something hot fall on them.
Teresa just watched the pen, fascinated. It wasn't melting or smoldering like she would have expected. It was actually on fire, burning just as merrily-as-you-please, like it was a candle or a match.
Or a cigarette, she thought. She hadn't deliberately ignited the doctor's pen. In fact, she wouldn't have even thought to do so, let alone consider it a possibility. Then she began to remember what she had done in the restaurant earlier, how she had reached out with her magic to dissipate the effects of the stun grenade on everyone else around her. How Tommy had somehow brought her back from the brink of death.
Like calls to like. Cancer wants to spread. Path of least resistance.
"So doc," she mused as he yanked the fire extinguisher from the wall and doused the flaming pen with CO2, "I'm guessing you used to smoke?"
He looked up at her, blinking in confusion. "Y-yes. Started in med school. Only stopped about a year ago." He set the extinguisher down, nudging the pen with his toe. Now it just looked like a charred piece of plastic, covered in a layer of dry ice. "Why are we talking about this?"
She laughed. "Netty never told you what I do, huh? 'Course not. Bitch. Anyway, the Amazing Broken Nose out there calls me cancer's Typhoid Mary. Only I do it with magic."
"Carcinosurgist," he offered.
"You just sneeze?" Teresa asked.
Dr. Rauche shook his head. "No. I said carcinosurgist. It means one who uses cancer in Latin." He turned to her with a quirky grin. "Sorry. I analyze and catalog things when I'm nervous. It's why I went into medicine in the first place."
Teresa simply shrugged. "I just smoke."
He nodded. "Yes, and I can see why. This certainly explains a lot." He picked her chart up from the floor and studied it again.
"Okay, honesty time," he said after a few moments of uncomfortable silence. "I need to look at your hand, but before I can do that I need to know what's going on with this magic of yours." He held up a finger to forestall an already-forming objection on her lips. "I'm not going to lecture you on lifestyle. We both know it's unhealthy and probably killing you. That's your business. What I want to ensure is that it doesn't end up killing me."
He sat down on the stool again and looked her in the eyes. "Irritability. Aggressive behavior. Destructive impulses. Ms. Reyes, you are a raging nicotine addict and, according to Netty, it makes you unbearable to be around. Add to that your propensity for setting things like computer monitors and pens on fire, and you present a very real threat to me. Now, I could just anesthetize you until you aren't dangerous anymore, but I'd rather avoid that. Instead, what I would like to do, with your permission, is placate your craving without letting you smoke anywhere near me."
She gave him a wicked, tobacco-stained grin. "How're you gonna do that?"
He smiled and pulled a foil-backed sheet out of his coat pocket. "Nicotine gum. Chew on this until the cravings go away," he instructed as he handed the package.
"What if the cravings don't go away?"
"Chew another piece."
"Isn't that dangerous?"
"For other people? Yes. For you? To paraphrase a movie, you've spent the last twenty years building up an immunity to nicotine. I suspect you could chew the entire box and it would only give you a slight buzz."
"Gimme," she cackled, almost witch-like, as she tore into the foil, tossing two pieces into her mouth and chewing voraciously. The thick squares had a minty flavor at first, but as she chewed a hot, peppery sensation developed on her tongue. It burned pleasantly, like an ointment on sore muscles.
"Thish ish soo good," she mumbled around the thick wads, like a child with a jawbreaker.
For the first time in what felt like ages, she began to un-tense her muscles.
"Excellent," said Dr. Rauche. "I'll go take care of your friend's nose while you bliss out. Then we can treat your hand, and I'll show you how to administer nicotine patches."
"Take… your time…" she said to the closing door as she lay back on the exam table. Deep inside her, Tommy nursed contentedly.
*** *** ***
TO BE CONTINUED...
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- No Derivative Works 3.0 License.