BOOK REVIEW: The Neil Gaiman Library, Vol. 2 by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 2The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 2 by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

Out: November 24, 2020


This is a graphic novelization of several pieces of Neil Gaiman’s short fiction. The component works are all speculative fiction (i.e. taking place where the fantastical is possible,) and – more specifically – most would be classed urban fantasy — though there is a touch of horror.

The book contains four parts, and could be thought of as four stories. However, the first chapter, “Likely Stories,” is actually a collection of tales connected by being told in the same private after-hours club. So, the connective tissue is bar patrons trying to one-up each other with more intriguing stories. The pieces included are: “Feeders and Eaters” (the entry most likely to be classified as horror,) “Looking for a Girl,” and “Closing Time.”

The second story is “Troll Bridge,” and it shows a man’s repeated encounters with a troll who exists in the pedestrian tunnel under an abandoned rail line. These meetings begin when the protagonist is a young boy and continue until he’s middle-aged.

The penultimate story is entitled “Harlequin Valentine,” and it’s about an amorous Harlequin who develops an infatuation with a young woman and begins to stalk her. When he gives her his heart, it doesn’t go as expected.

The final story is “The Facts in the Case of the Disappearance of Miss Finch.” When a writer is roped into a double date in which his date is a dowdy and humorless scholar, the night that had been a train of misery ends in a mind-blowing (if disconcerting) fashion.

This was an excellent read. While it’s a second volume, because it’s short fiction, the book is completely self-contained. One doesn’t need to read the first volume beforehand to follow these tales. Each of the stories is satisfying in itself. I’d read at least one of these stories previously (possibly more) but it didn’t feel redundant because the conversion of the textual stories to graphic ones gives each an entirely different feel. The art is clear and the various styles match the tone of the respective stories nicely. If you like Neil Gaiman’s work, you should definitely check this one out. [And if you’re unfamiliar with Gaiman, I’d recommend you get familiar.]

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BOOK REVIEW: Dream Machine by Su-Yee Lin

Dream Machine (A Short Story) (Kindle Single)Dream Machine (A Short Story) by Su-Yee Lin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This surreal short story is a reprint from “Day One” magazine that is available as a Kindle Single. The story is about a factory in an industrial part of Shanghai that seems to make metal objects / shapes, the purpose of which no one seems to understand. The protagonist is – at the start of the the story – the newest of the half-dozen employees who work at the plant. The story has a sparse feeling that ranges from the fact that the characters are designated only with a single letter to the fact that we really don’t get much indication of the broad and bustling city of Shanghai in which the story is supposedly set.

It isn’t easy to convey a world that isn’t quite right – seemingly like the world we are familiar with, but just a little off. I thought the author did a good job of this.

I enjoyed this story immensely. I thought the author used strategic ambiguity nicely. There are a few ways I believe one could reasonably interpret this story. If you are the kind that needs to have iron-clad clarity, that might be a bit aggravating. [If you’ve seen the Christopher Nolan movie “Inception,” and you liked that it left an open ending, this story is for you. If you insist that there is no ambiguity to the ending and that the top definitely toppled or didn’t, you might not enjoy it as much.]

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BOOK REVIEW: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

The Illustrated ManThe Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This is a collection of 18 science fiction short stories by Ray Bradbury, featuring: space travel, androids, time travel, and alien invasions. However, many of the stories use science-fiction – space travel most extensively — to investigate down-to-earth subjects such as: religion, marital relationships, war, and race relations. The fact that the collection deals in everyday subject matter allows it to retain its relevancy. The sci-fi is definitely dated, from the fact that “Martian” is used as a synonym for alien to the Cold War themes, but the stories are still worth reading because they are well-crafted and continue to be thought-provoking.

The stories of this collection are integrated by the titular story. The Illustrated Man is a character who had his body covered in tattoos to continue his employment with the carnival, but the witch who tattooed him made shape-shifting images that told stories. The story of “The Illustrated Man” is the last in the collection, but there’s a prologue that sets it up. It’s not a novel-in-stories, however, as the stories aren’t connected — other than being collected into a universe of this character’s flesh. The end of several stories feature a quick reference to the Illustrated Man narrative arc, but generally there’s no other connective tissue to the stories.

Here is a brief overview of the stories:

“The Veldt”: spoiled kids are given access to a technology that goes one step beyond virtual reality to what might be called mentally constructed reality. They create an African savanna, and things go awry.

“Kaleidoscope”: An accident causes astronauts to be scattered into space, not dying immediately, but knowing the limited resources of their spacesuits will not last long. This is among the more popular stories in the collection.

“The Other Foot”: A white man is forced to take refuge on a planet that minorities had long-ago been relocated to, because now a war has made the Earth uninhabitable. The story deals with the tension between those who are willing to welcome him and those who think he should be treated as they once were.

“The Highway”: A man living and working near a desolate stretch of highway meets a rare visitor who tells him that war is upon them. One of the Cold War end-of-the-world scenario stories.

“The Man”: The Captain of a spaceship is disappointed to find that none of the locals come to see them when they land. Little does he know, they were just visited by a Messianic figure the day before. The tension is between the non-believing, skeptical Captain and one of his men who is a true believer. A commentary on faith and belief.

“The Long Rain”: Space explorers are demoralized by the unceasing rain on a planet they are exploring, a rain that threatens to send them into madness.

“The Rocket Man”: The son of a space traveler wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, but doesn’t know how hazardous a life it is.

“The Last Night of the World”: This story asks one to contemplate what if one knew it was the last night before doomsday. Another Cold War-era sci-fi piece that hinges on atomic apocalypse.

“The Exiles”: A crew of space explorers is falling to inexplicable illness. This story has a great deal of literary allusion with Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles Dickens each playing a part. Like Bradbury’s most famous novel, the story considers the issue of censorship.

“No Particular Night or Morning”: This story considers the question of how one knows anything is true. It does so through the lens of a spaceship crewman afflicted with solipsistic delusions – or so his crew-mates assume.

“The Fox and the Forest”: In this time travel story, a couple has escaped a dystopian future into Mexico, circa 1938, but the authorities of their time don’t intend to let them get away.

“The Visitor”: The story of a man with powerful psychic abilities who is coveted by competing factions.

“The Concrete Mixer”: A Martian pacifist is forced to participate in an invasion of Earth, only to find that it is an ill-advised endeavor for reasons entirely different from he’d thought. The story revolves around the centrality of materialism and consumerism in American culture.

“Marionettes, Inc.”: One man gets a look-alike android to cope with a wife who hates him, and another gets one to contend with a wife who is smotheringly needy.

“The City”: Explorers find that the abandoned city they’ve been sent to explore isn’t as free of sentience as they’d thought.

“Zero Hour”: Alien invaders find an unexpected ally in the impressionable youth.

“The Rocket”: A man wants his family to see the stars, but lacks the resources to make the dream come true. So, he gets creative.

“The Illustrated Man”: As referenced above, this story tells the tale of carnival tattoo’d man whose body-art mysteriously tells stories through its images, with special focus on two special designs.

I’ve never found a Bradbury work I didn’t like, and this one is no exception. The writing is beautiful. The story-telling is skillful, and, even when the sci-fi details are dated, there are themes that remain relevant. I’d highly recommend this collection for readers of sci-fi, particularly those who like classic sci-fi.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow WallpaperThe Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This short story, written in the last decade of the 19th century, tells the story of a sad woman’s descent into madness. The lead is an upper-class lady, wife of a doctor, and is staying in a rented mansion with her husband and her husband’s sister (who acts as their housekeeper) through the summer. The protagonist has been diagnosed with a depressive disorder with hysterical tendencies, and the story serves as an indictment of the way in which mental illness was treated.

It’s not clear what the true nature of the protagonist’s mental or emotional infirmity was at the beginning of her move to the summer-house, but it’s clear that the treatment makes her state of mind much worse. That treatment was a so-called “rest-cure,” and it prohibited her from working, writing (which is now known to be quite therapeutic), or doing much else, save for staring at the walls – hence the title. As happens when the mind is shut-off from external stimuli, it starts to form its own stories that become projected into the individual’s world in the form of hallucinations. In the protagonist’s case, these hallucinations play out in (and behind) the irregular wallpaper pattern.

The fact that the woman’s husband is a doctor, ironically, contributes to her worsening condition because she accepts his “treatment” as being formulated by a great authority. As much as it is an indictment of the specific treatment offered (i.e. “rest-cures”), it may be even more of an indictment of the belief that there exists an infallible authority on the mind. A humbler doctor might have listened to his patient, and adjusted course when it became clear the patient was getting worse under the existing treatment.

This is a very quick read. It may be slow in places, as one might expect of a story that involves a substantial amount of staring at, and contemplation of, wallpaper, but as her condition becomes more serious the story becomes gripping and the nature of reality more in question. The edition that I read contained drawings.

I found this story both intriguing and thought-provoking, and would recommend it for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Understories by Tim Horvath

UnderstoriesUnderstories by Tim Horvath

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Two traits of Tim Horvath are rapidly revealed in reading the collection of stories entitled, Understories. First, he’s an academic to the core. Second, he loves words and the way they can be jigged around to create not only meaning but feeling. Combined, these characteristics yield both positive and negative outcomes.

On the positive side, Horvath writes what he knows, and this can be seen in tales like: The Understory, The Discipline of Shadows, Tilkez, and even Circulation. Horvath paints a vivid picture of life in academia with The Understory and The Discipline of Shadows in particular, replete with scholarly rivalry and interdepartmental politics. While that may make the book sound stunningly boring, those two stories are among the strongest–in part because the author knows how to build tension and character in this domain. His bookish characters are constructed with wit and depth.

On the other hand, this book is for the ones who love language more than they love story. The readability isn’t high. Horvath peppers the text with words that many of us memorized to take our GRE test but never used after receipt of our acceptance letter. Many avid readers never learned such words in the first place. This is where the Kindle edition, and its capability for instantaneous word lookup, comes in handy. (Though, the author does manage to stymie Kindle’s internal dictionary on a number of cases.) The shorter pieces tended to leave me wondering if Horvath had a point other than to dazzle with verbiage. To be fair, it’s not just monosyllabic and pretentious words that Horvath loves. He has a taste for all sorts of words that are evocative and powerful, be they whimsical, sexual, or emotional.

Understories consists of 21 short stories, but I use the term “story” loosely. Some of the chapters are stories in a conventional sense. That is, they have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and a character who takes some sort of personal journey. Other pieces are the literary equivalent of the masturbatory orgasm; they’re pleasant to experience but beg the question of what the objective is. The contents of the book are below. I’ll restrict my commentary to the more substantial pieces, and leave the reader to figure out what Horvath was trying to get at with the others.

1. The Lobby: This is really an artistic introduction and rules for reading the book.

2. Urban Planning: Case Study #1: This is the first of 8 such “case studies.” With the exception of one, they’re all flash pieces.

3. Circulation: If I had to pick a best story of the anthology, it would be this one. It’s about a man whose eccentric father is in the hospital with mind and body that aren’t what they used to be. The man is Director of Circulation for his hometown library, and the father has one published book and spent much of his life working on an unfinished Atlas of the Voyages of Things. The sub-story about the books as a reflection of the man is what gives this something extra beyond the usual “Cats in the Cradle” (Harry Chapin reference) narrative.

4. Urban Planning: Case Study #2: Another brief piece.

5. The Understory: This is one of the full length stories, and is one of the best pieces. It’s about the bringing together and falling apart of a platonic relationship between two scholars. Set in pre-war Germany, the story opens with a scholarly rivalry between two professors who become good friends. However, one of the men is a Jew and the other is promoted to a Deanship because he has appeal with the Nazis.

6. Urban Planning: Case Study #3

7. The Discipline of Shadows: This is the story of a professor in the Department of Umbrology. What’s Umbrology? It’s the study of shadows. An interdisciplinary department with a unifying theme of shadows provides and intriguing background for a story that’s not so out of the ordinary. The story delves into scholastic politics and a sordid intradepartmental love triangle.

8. Urban Planning: Case Study #4

9. Planetarium: This is story proper. It’s about the reunion of two high school buddies, and their differing recollections of a seminal event of their youth involving shenanigans at a planetarium. The story is an odd sort of confession.

10. The Gendarmes: This story will appeal to lovers of the surreal. It’s about a man who discovers that a team of scientists are playing baseball on his roof.

11. A Box of One’s Own: An eloquent tale of the curiosity inspired by boxes.

12. Internodium: This is another short piece.

13. Urban Planning: Case Study #5: This one probably ties for my favorite flash piece. It’s about a city that evolves into all restaurants.

14. Runaroundandscreamalot!: There’s a lot of humor sprinkled throughout this book, but this is the one story one might put in the humor genre. It’s funny from the title onward, which is the protagonist’s pet name for a generic Chuck-E-Cheese-esque place called “Playalot”—which is a medieval-themed kid’s play palace. The protagonist, a divorced man, takes his daughter there and meets a woman that he proceeds to try to get to know better despite only knowing her as “Hanh’s Mom” for most of the story.

15. Urban Planning: Case Study #6: This is the other tie-holder for best flash piece. It’s about a city in denial.

16. Pocket: A flash piece on, well… pockets.

17. Altered Narrative: A short and experimental piece.

18. Urban Planning: Case Study #7: This is the only one of these “Urban Planning Case Studies” that is a short story in the usual sense. It’s about a [grown man] film projectionist who abandons his post after seeing his wife with another man.

19. The Conversations: There’s a fair amount of surrealism sown throughout this book, but this is one of the more speculative pieces. That said, it’s really just about the death and resurrection of the conversation—along with “mint.” The sci-fi component revolves around speculation about precisely caused it and what the difference is between a “Conversation” and a “conversation.” The latter being what we normally think of (i.e. and informal discussion), and the former being the subject of the story.

20. Tilkez: The protagonist is a creepy little man who writes down everything and the story is about his relationship with both a female and language (I think. The female might be symbolic.)

21. Urban Planning: Case Study #8: One last flash piece.

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BOOK REVIEW: Rashōmon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Rashomon and Other Stories (Tuttle Classics)Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Six stories make up this brief collection. All six are intriguing, well-written, and shine a light onto the dark side of mankind. The works of Akutagawa collected herein are all morality tales, but aren’t written in a moralistic tone. In fact, it’s not clear that the author wishes to convey lessons on virtue and vice as he’s intrigued with the instant at which an ordinary person turns bad. That instant, and the inflamed passions that often inspire it, is a prevailing theme throughout most of this small anthology. Akutagawa beats AMC by the better part of a century in showing us how bad breaks.

The first story is entitled In a Grove. This is a murder mystery in which we are given conflicting accounts of a man’s murder through the process of the investigation of the act. The final account that we are offered is that of the victim himself–as presented by a psychic medium. [Only two of these stories contain supernatural elements–this one and the last. Most of the collection involves realist premises. One must remember that Akutagawa was writing in the early part of the 20th century, and scientific rationality hadn’t yet gotten as strong a hold as it does today.] In this case, the use of a psychic is really just a plot device to give the reader insight into a truth which couldn’t otherwise be revealed. Having heard the perspectives of the murder and the dead man’s wife, one is left with questions owing to the self-serving nature of those statements. Of course, the final section reveals a twist–that I won’t spoil.

The second story is the title story, Rashōmon. The title is the name of a gate in Kyōto, the largest gate of Kyōto, in fact. However, Kyōto has fallen on hard times, and our protagonist is a newly masterless samurai who has sought the gate’s shelter from the rain. There, he contemplates whether he should take up a life of crime, which seems to be his only means of survival in the current economy given his skill set. The gate has become a repository for the corpses that are amassing as victims of the hard times accumulate. Within the gate, he finds an old hag who loots bodies for a living. His interaction with the old woman helps him to decide his own destiny.

The third story is called Yam Gruel. While “yam gruel” (or anything with the word gruel in it) might not sound appealing given today’s usage, a fact one must know is that during the time of the story it was a highly-prized and rare dish. The story follows a milquetoast administrator who leads a rather pathetic life in which he has but one ambition, to eat his fill of yam gruel. As a member of the samurai class, he’s invited to an Imperial banquet each year. However, because of his low status and the high-value of yam gruel, he never gets more than a taste. One year he openly bemoans the fact that he never gets his fill. A powerful samurai overhears this complaint, and it puts a seed of mischief in his mind. While this tale isn’t about breaking bad, it is about inflamed passions.

The fourth story sticks out as different from the others. While the bulk of the stories center on that moment at which a more-or-less good person goes bad, The Martyr tells us about a protagonist that never goes bad, despite having every right to. This might seem like a sea change in theme, but in reality it’s just another way of shining a light on the dark seed that resides in people. Only this time it does it by way of contrast. All of the other characters are deeply flawed, and we see that most vividly when contrasted against the one who always behaves virtuously. In this case, that virtuous character is Lorenzo, a novice monk who is accused of a severe breach of good conduct. Lorenzo becomes an outcast and a vagrant due to these allegations. Yet, despite all this, he acts heroically–even to assist those who’ve betrayed him.

In the fifth story we revisit the theme of breaking bad. In Kesa and Morito we are presented with two regret-filled accounts of the instant at which an adulterous couple decides to kill the husband of the woman involved in the affair. Each member of the cheating couple thinks that the other desperately wants the killing to go forward. In reality, both consider it a foolish decision driven by a brief moment of passion. This is another tale about letting one’s passions get out of control.

The final work is a retelling of the story of a monk named Hanazō who decides to prank his fellow monks because they chide him about his huge nose. Hanazō sets up a sign that says a dragon will appear from the local lake at a certain time and day to fly up into the heavens. The joke doesn’t turn out at all as the monk intended. I won’t go into the moral of the story to avoid giving too much away, but suffice it to say there is a moral.

I highly recommend this collection. As I’ve suggested, the collection isn’t just a disparate collection of tales, but has an integrating theme. Akutagawa was truly one of the masters of the short story. He wrote 150 stories before dying at the age of 35 in a suicidal drug overdose.

For those who like to see how literature is portrayed in, below one can watch the film version of Rashōmon.

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MICRO-FICTION: Julia Doesn’t Know How Lucky She Is

IMG_2555“Have you completed your mission? The Council grows impatient,” The thought occurred in Safrom’s mind as if he had a split personality rather than an angry disembodied consciousness in his head.

“No, we were very close to planting it last night, but the cat came in squawking and making racket. It woke her up just before we could get it set. Those damn cats will be the death of me.  The preceding night we managed to keep one out all night, but the other slept on the subject maintaining constant vigilance,”  Safrom said aloud as he paced around the sterile white space of his station.

“The subject travels, why don’t you just do it then?” The thought formed.

“Believe me, I would love to, and we make great efforts to do so. But it is not as easy to track a person through thought-space as it is in the physical world. If we can ever get the damn implant installed, that will, of course, change immediately. Most of the time she is not gone long enough for us to find her, and on the few occasions she has been, or we’ve been lucky, she hasn’t slept deeply.”

“RRRrrrarr-eeeow …  RRRARRrrr-eeeow… RRArrra-eeeow,” the noise came from floor level.

Julia pushed herself upright groggily and swept a shock of black hair out of her face. She stared at the gray cat illuminated by a shaft of streetlamp glow that slanted in through her bedroom window, and said, “Really! You’re really waking me up from a sound sleep in the middle of the night?”

The cat stopped its bellowing and sat back on its haunches, looking at Julia indifferently. Then the shorthair trotted out of the room and down the hall.

Julia lay back down melting into a down pillow and drifted back to sleep while wondering what made her cat do that. What makes a cat that has been fed and is never let out at night, repetitively caterwaul until its owner wakes up, and then it just goes back to its indifferent self?

Julia yawned aloud. “Excuse me. My cat woke me up in the middle of the night three times for no apparent reason.”

“Does it do that a lot?” Erma asked.

“It comes in waves, but, it seems to have it down to a science. It always seems to do it when I’m in the deepest sleep, usually in the middle of a weird dream.” Julia elaborated.

“What was your dream about?” Erma asked.

“Ah, you know, it was a dream. It didn’t make much sense. I was being chased?

“Being chased by whom?”

“I don’t know. I never see them, but it always feels as though they are just about to catch me.”

“Maybe the cat is doing you a favor.”  Erma said in a completely somber tone.

“Yeah, right, maybe.” Julia replied with a grin. She assumed Erma was joking, although there was nothing in the older woman’s expression to indicate that she might be.

Erma changed the subject, “So how is your research coming?”

Julia shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed as of late. I keep pulling up new material, but, as I do analysis, I don’t seem to be converging on an explanation.”

“It’ll come, you’ve just got to keep at it, and never up. If you never give up, a solution will always present itself.” Erma said with a smile.

“I suppose.”

“You know the thing about cats is…” Erma began.

“What’s that?” Julia inquired.

“Aww, never mind.” Erma said.

Sharing Stories of the Plaguepocalypse

[I’m recycling this from a Figment competition that I once entered–and lost.]

Day 100, Post-Apocalypse

Day 100, Post-Apocalypse

JB and I worked tediously to find and repair damaged insulation on the main from the solar farm down to our bunker. Breaks or cracks in the insulation meant lost energy that we could not afford, but we had to bury the cheap cable available to us because the Mojave sun degraded it too rapidly otherwise. Burying the line invited a whole new problem because burrowing critters then began to gnaw on it. Whenever there was a power drop, two of our trio had to come out and do line maintenance.  Output should have been at its maximum given it was mid-day during the hottest time of year, but, instead, we were experiencing a sixty percent drop in power.

We wore white from head to toe except for a slit in our ninja-like masks where sunglasses covered the unclothed region and protected our eyes from the harsh rays and glints.  This had always been a harsh land, but changes experienced in recent decades made it far hotter.  I sucked a mouthful of water from the bladder that lay next to my body under my baggy white clothes. The water was hot, like a freshly brewed cup of tea—sans the tea.

“Son-of-a…, sweat is stinging my eyes,”  JB said as he removed his sunglasses, and blotted his eyes with his sleeve.

“Put the shades back on. We can’t have you getting burned retinas,” I said.

“Yeah, yeah, if I go blind who’ll come out here with you to dig up line?” JB’s reply dripped sarcasm.

“Exactly, now you’re getting it,” I said.

JB wiped his eyes once more, and then put the glasses back on. Without the shades, the surroundings looked like the Mars of old movies – cast in a reddish hue.

“I think I’ve got it,” JB called out.

“Looks like it,” I replied, leaning over to look in JB’s newly-excavated hole.

A mole rat skeleton had its teeth buried in the insulation.

After removing the rodent, patching the insulation, and putting the sand back, JB and I walked back to the hatch of our bunker.

JB crouched over the opening. He touched the metal lip of the hatch and immediately yanked his hand away while screaming an expletive. The gloves were not thick; they were for keeping the sun off the skin while holding in as little heat as possible.

JB called down the shaft, “Brit!”

“What ‘cha want,”  Brittany replied.

“How’s our power level, we pulled a fried mole rat off the line,” I asked.

“Yum!…,  The power is back to normal,”  She called back.

I followed JB down the long ladder into the bunker. I pulled the hot hatch closed behind me and secured it against some unlikely foe.

“We need to protect that line somehow,” I said

“I’m just glad we didn’t have to hump out to the transmitter. The last time it broke down I was loopy with dehydration by the time I got back. You sure this is the only place for us to live?” JB said.

Brit came in with two cups of water and handed them to JB and myself.  She said, “I’ve got the loop broadcasting again and the receivers are turned up loud.”

“If you can come up with someplace else where we can tap into the energy necessary to keep broadcasting, I’m all ears,” I responded.

“That’s just it. We’ve been broadcasting all this time, and we’re not getting any reply,”  JB said.

“We also don’t know whether this climate is responsible for our good fortune,” I said.

JB had no response.

“Good fortune? Oh, my, I feel like such a princess.” Brit said curtseying with her fingertips bunched up and wrists kinked as if she were holding up a skirt.

“I mean being alive,” I clarified.

There was a silence.

Brit spoke up, “Remember people?… I love you guys, but I’d give anything to meet a stranger. Remember the last time you saw a crowd of strangers.”


I did, indeed, remember.

I was planning on going to Union Station to get out the Los Angeles. Before I left my apartment, I saw a news story showing the train station among all the other avenues of disembarkation that were thronged with people.  The streets outside the station were flooded with a throbbing, undulating mass of humanity. As in the mosh-pit of a rock concert, there were two primary classes of people: those who were screaming and those who were suffocating. Mixed in among these were glassy-eyed souls who had the good sense to realize they were the walking dead, and to behave accordingly.  There were images from packed train-less platforms, and the grandiose cavernous waiting area.

I packed my gear and donned boots so as to be prepared to hike out of town if necessary. It proved to be a wise move, because I when I arrived at the train station the wall of humanity was impenetrable.

I hated crowds. Crowds were noisy, hot, and chaotic.  My hatred of crowds saved my life. Nature has its weird ways. I had once read about ants that could take down a fully grown cow. They did this by covering the animal benignly, and then, upon a release of a pheromone from the ants on the creature’s head, they all stung at once. This malady, a hemorrhagic fever of some sort, was similarly impossibly intelligent and geared toward wiping out the entire species. It seemed to know when its victims were within a crowd, by what mechanism I cannot imagine, and it would then send them into sneezing and coughing fits that propelled droplets of virulent blood in a fine mist to those all around.

Now I missed crowds, because they were a sign that one’s species wouldn’t die with oneself.

JB and Brit had taken to telling each other their own last crowd stories, which we’d heard before. We’d heard all of each other’s stories.

Well there was one story that I kept for myself. It was the story of the day before I met up with Brit and JB. It was my nadir.

I had been hiking east from the city. My path merged with the I-40 corridor, and it was the most horrific day of my life. I’d always been an avid hiker and had spent long periods on my own before, but these times of solitude were without signs of humanity. As I came upon I-40, there were people all around -in cars and on the ground, but they were all stiff and had rivulets of brown or red running from their noses, mouths, ears, eyes, and presumably the unseen orifices.

When I saw a monastery on a hillside, I thought I was saved.  Surely the isolated monks or nuns were safe and would help out a weary uninfected traveler? I found an old stone church that was post and beam on the inside. Anyway, my hope faded when I found the pews had been used as hospital beds, and all, patient and caretaker alike, were bled out. The only signs of life were rats on the floor, weeds in the mortar joints, and birds in the rafters. That was my moment of greatest loneliness, for if God had abandoned his own house, what hope was there for me.

How to Kill a Rogue Yard Gnome, Part 3 of 4

Part I can be read here.

Part II can be read here.

[Notes: a.) Sorry, I meant to do this in three installments, but this one was getting long.  

b.) For the best reading experience, assume all of the continuity gaffes in the dream sequence are on purpose and intended to convey the capricious and surreal nature of a dream—most of them are ; ) .]

Attribution: Colibri1968

Attribution: Colibri1968

I cringed when I heard my voice on tape. I always thought I sounded sexier, less like Ferris Bueller’s teacher. But what brought on the nausea was hearing me describing events of which I had no recollection. It was difficult to fathom that such drama could unfold in my dreams without me having any memory of it.

I should take a step back to say that I’d sought therapy immediately after returning home to find the scowling gnome. It was a decision made after a sleepless night. I didn’t dare destroy the scowling gnome for fear I’d end up with a glowering golem in my front yard when I next came home.

Logically, I recognized two possibilities. The first was that someone was playing an elaborate hoax upon me. I couldn’t figure out how, but this was what I wanted to be true. But watching the tape repetitively had given me no clue about how the trick could be perpetrated. The vanishing gnome and the self-propelled gnome were tricks worthy of David Copperfield. The second possibility was that I was out of my mind— but in a manner that was localized to my front yard. That was equally hard to explain. The therapist was my attempt to explore all options, but I didn’t tell her the details.

My therapist said hypnosis would be a good idea, presumably because she’d just gotten her hypnotherapy license and needed the registration fee to pay for itself. As you might suspect, I was skeptical. Lying on a brown leather divan, fingering the brass upholstering rivets along its edge, I listened to fantastic words spew from my own voice as she played the tape back for me.

I’m standing in front of a mammoth mansion made of rough, gray stones. It looks like a castle—like something out of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s dark out, but yet I can see. It’s as if the moon is shining bright, but yet it’s dismally overcast. So much so that I feel like I could jump up and touch the thick, gray clouds. I’m staring at an ornate carving on the door. It’s an elaborate mountain scene. How can I see it? There’s no porch light. Something is wrong here.

I don’t want to go inside, but inexplicably I know I have to. I hear bleating and cowbells. Turning around, I see a herd of goats strolling up the drive. I’m curious about the goats for a moment before a T-rex-like monster darts its head out of the tree line and clenches one of the goats in its jaws. The T-rex’s teeth puncture the goat like a bite into a wonton, and the beast shakes its head from side to side until the goat stops thrashing. I want to save the other goats, but even more so I don’t want to be eaten.

I watch the T-rex; he doesn’t seem to notice me; his chin is covered in crimson. The T-rex looks at the flock of goats like one might look at a box of sampler chocolates, searching out the most desirable morsel. He raises his head, sniffing the air, twisting his thick neck to point his face toward me, and then he begins to run at breakneck speed towards me. I realize that I am the last solid milk chocolate in a field of dark chocolate-covered marzipan.

I spin around and, losing all sight of politeness, begin to twist frantically at the doorknob. The cold, metal knob cuts into my palm, but doesn’t budge. I pound on the door with my fists.

“One moment, Sir.” A voice replies dully from inside. How he knows I am a sir, I don’t know.

“Help me. Please hurry.” I’m too scared to turn and look at the lurching beast, but I hear its footsteps getting closer as the tremors they create run together. I shake the door knob frantically, but the door doesn’t so much as rattle— it’s like a solid piece of wall.

I shut my eyes. I’m sure that the T-rex is now within lunging distance, and in a nanosecond I will feel agony followed by whatever lies beyond agony. I tense up, awaiting my demise. The tremor of a loud thud reverberates up through my feet. I stand there a minute in shock before realizing that all is silent.

I turn around to see the T-rex lying on its side, a gash torn through its throat. There’s a man, a knight, cleaning a large broadsword with a piece of cloth. He discards to cloth and it disappears into thin air. The knight wears chainmail armor under a tunic that has a red and green crest on the chest. I can’t make out the detail in the crest, though I’m looking right at it. It’s as if it has been pixilated, like news stations do to faces when they are talking to an endangered witness or basic cable does with boobies in movies.

“Thank you.” I say, adding, “Who are you?”

“I… I am your protector.” The knight says, looking himself over as though he were surprised to see that he is dressed thusly.

“Do I still need protection?”

“Probably. That remains to be seen.”

The door opens, and I find myself loomed over by a man who is tall, gaunt, and sallow. His black coat has tails like maestros, but there’s a small towel draped over one arm. I conclude that he’s a butler. I turn around to look for my protector, the knight, but he’s not there. Neither is the T-rex.

I turn back, almost surprised to see that the butler hasn’t abandoned me. He speaks, “Right this way, they are waiting for you.” He makes an ushering gesture with his hand as he steps aside inside the foyer.

I eagerly enter, still afraid the wounded T-rex might be around the corner. I start to ask a question, but pause when I realize that the servant’s unusual gait is due to the fact that he is stepping over vipers that are slithering across the rough stone floor. I can hear their hissing, but it doesn’t seem I should be able to.  

I stop, petrified, but the butler turns and waves me forward with what I recognize as uncharacteristic urgency. I walk onward slowly and with great care. I step over the black, shiny snakes, and they seem to take no notice of me. When I finally reach a snake-free patch of floor, I look around. The ceilings are high, and the windows are about two stories up. The moonlight breaking through the windows illuminates a row of gargoyles. I stare at them. I’ve never seen gargoyles on the inside of a building.

As I walk, looking upward, I suddenly feel a panic attack as it occurs to me that I might step on an errant snake. Just as I level my gaze, I run straight into the butler, who has come to a stop. Dust flies off his coat, which had earlier seemed impeccably clean.

“Pardon.” I say.

He glowers at me.

I ask, “Who’s waiting for me?”

He turns and walks silently onward. I can’t tell whether he is hostile or indifferent.

We walk past rusty suits of armor, each with a halberd, pike, or battle-axe positioned beside it as if it were being held upright. It occurs to me that there might be men in those suits, men who could swing those implements of death at will.  I moved closer to the giant butler.

Soon we are at the head of a stone staircase that spirals downward. It’s lit with flickering gas lamps. As we descend, it gets darker and the mustiness becomes more pungent. At the bottom of the staircase, I’m ushered through a large oaken door that is shaped like an inverted heraldic shield, which is to say flat on the bottom and coming to a point at the top. The butler leads me up onto a stage.

I look out into the auditorium and see the room is packed, but every audience member is wearing a goat’s head mask. It’s only then that I feel the cold air on my skin and notice that I’m completely naked. As if that weren’t bad enough, I realize that I have no idea what I’m supposed to speak to the creepy goat-man audience about. It’s like showing up to a test and realizing you forgot to crack the book. There’s no podium to hide behind, just a skinny mike stand center stage and a barstool that’s near the far wing of the stage. I approach the stool and notice that there’s a small remote on it. Turning around, I discover the bright white screen, and notice a harsh light is shining on to it. I consider doing shadow puppets to amuse the audience. They are now grumbling.

Instead I snatch up the remote and advance the slide, figuring that maybe I can wing the talk. Maybe it’s a topic that I know about, such as shadow puppetry. The audience is now laughing, and that doesn’t feel good when one is standing naked at the front of the room.

The first slide reads, “HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER.”

I don’t have any particular expertise on this subject, and am a little dismayed that someone would choose me to deliver such a lecture. I figured there must be a mistake.

The knight strides across the stage, but he is no longer dressed as a knight, now he wears the same tux and tails as the gaunt butler. He extends a large overcoat out in front of him as a gentleman would hold a coat for a lady to slip into. I awkwardly wriggle into the coat and button a few strategic buttons. Now I just look like a flasher, which is—oddly enough— vastly preferable.

I whisper to the knight, “Do you know what I’m doing here? What am I supposed to talk about?”

“Furk wants to plant a murderous seed in your mind, but you should not let him.” The knight-butler says.

The audience stops laughing and grumbling, and makes a bleating sound like “mehhehhehhe!” I assume that this is the sound a goat makes. I consider whether the angry goat sound is preferable to laughter or not.

I turn back to my self-proclaimed protector, but he has once again vanished into thin air. A bell rings and it gets quiet as a grave and I know that I am supposed to start talking.

Keeping in mind the words of the knight-butler, I begin, “Obviously, this is not to be taken literally.” I gesture to the projected slide. “You shouldn’t commit murder, and you can never count on getting away with it.”

The stuttered goat cries become louder and louder. I don’t know how I’ve inherited knowledge of the emotional lives of goats, but somehow I know they’re getting angrier.

I continue, “I mean, imagine that I shoot a person,…”

A chorus of goaty cheers rises up.

“I’ll always be caught and punished.”

The audience turns on me.

Stalling, I advance the slide. In big block letters, it reads, “HOW TO DECIDE WHO YOU SHOULD KILL!” and then a subtitle in smaller letters, “sometimes it’s harder than you think.”

I couldn’t help myself, my notoriously ill-timed sense of humor came through, “Some key questions that you might consider are: Is your potential victim a lawyer, a bureaucrat, or a teenager? Does your victim contribute to society, or is he or she a politician? Would killing that one person lead to the need to kill again, as in the murder of a member of a boy band?” I notice that while I am amusing myself, I am whipping the crowd into a frenzy. The fun dissolves as I see myself as a warmongering dictator, stirring up hatred among a frothy-mouthed constituency.

I say, “I’m kidding, of course, one shouldn’t murder anyone.”

They turn on me once again. This time they’re really raging, as if I had led them on with my little joke. There’s a moment of stillness before the crowd charges the stage. I turn to run, but don’t know where to go. I look over my shoulder, and– as the first few of the audience members leap onto the stage— I can see that they have actual goat heads, not goat masks.

I freeze, but then I’m yanked by the arm. I turn to see the knight-butler, but now he’s dressed in a police uniform. He says, “Come with me; you are in grave danger.”

I’m pulled behind a curtain that skirts the back of the stage, and I see there is another door shaped like an inverted heraldic crest. I move through it. The police officer shoves it closed. A couple hooved appendages get caught in the door, but he slams his body into them and then lets up just enough for the wounded goat-men to retract their injured forelimbs. As they do, he closes and bars the door. There’s clawing, scratching, and knocking from the other side of the door.

The policeman lights one torch off another, and hands one to me. I don’t know how either of the torches materializes. The corridor extends into the distance farther than the torches illuminate. It looks like a sewer tunnel, but the stone floor is only damp, as are the walls. Beyond the torch light lies an inky shadowland that is only held at bay by the precarious, flickering light. We march into that claustrophobic unknown.

“Who is Furk?” I say, remembering the man’s earlier words.

“Furk is the one bringing you this nightmare. He is one of your yard gnomes,” the policeman says.

“Who are you?”

“I’m another gnome.”

“Why is one gnome trying to kill me and another to save me?”

“That’s a long story.”

“Was Furk the gnome by my driveway?”

“No that was me.”

 “Should I wake myself?” It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that I’m dreaming. Maybe I knew it all along.

“Unless you intend to never sleep again, that won’t solve your problem.”

“What if I get rid of the bad gnome?” I ask.

As we quicken our pace, he answers, “You won’t remember to do that when you wake up. We are in the deepest recesses of your subconscious mind. It is a part of your mind that you are not aware of on a conscious level at all.”

I stop. “Wait a minute, if this is a dream, it doesn’t matter what happens—particularly if I’m not even going to remember it.”

“Unfortunately, that’s not so. Future behavior and moods often originate in the subconscious. Haven’t you ever been in a bad mood for no apparent reason, or, alternatively, been happy for no good reason?” he says, stopping for just a moment.

We resume walking, and I say, “I guess I have.”

From behind me, I hear a series of loud thuds. It sounds like they have a battering ram. I turn to look over my shoulder but can’t see the door anymore. We quicken our pace again. Soon I hear splintering. The policeman breaks into a sprint. I follow suit. I soon get winded and can’t figure out why I need air in a dream. More than burning lungs, it feels as if there is a belt tightening around my chest.

The imagined belt tightens further as I hear the echoed clack of hooves on the cobblestones down the corridor.

“You need to try to thin the herd.” The policeman says.


“Only one of those goat-men is Furk, the rest are all projections of your mind. Furk may have conjured them, but they are dependent on your mind.” He says without breathing hard in the least.

“Oh, cool.” I say, and I stop and turn toward the onslaught of goatmen pursuing down the pitch black corridor. I concentrate. I will them to disappear. The hooves keep coming, unabated.

When the first faces break into the torch light, I turn and run, screaming, “It didn’t work. It didn’t work.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think it would.” The policeman says, his voice well ahead in the inky distance; he never stopped – some protector.

“What do you mean… you… didn’t think… it would?” I said, gasping as I ran hard to close the gap.

“This part of your mind is like a river that runs underground below your property, just because you own it doesn’t necessarily mean you can stop, or divert, it at will.” The protector says. He is not winded at all.

A door lies ahead. If we can just get through it, I can catch my breath. It occurs to me that I have no idea what will confront us on the other side of the door. Maybe there’s something worse than a flock of goatmen. The hoof clomps sound as though they are closing on us.

The two of us shoot through the door, slamming it shut, putting our backs up to it. Wherever we are, it’s bright. The sunlight assaults my eyes. I squint, trying to glean something about our new environs. The nameless police impersonator produces a heavy wooden beam that fits into metal hardware on the doorframe to form a bar. How he conjures such items, I don’t know. We are supposedly in my mind, and yet I seem impotent.  

“So why did you tell me to try to eliminate them if you didn’t think I could?”

“It was worth a try.”

We are at the base of a hill in grassy prairie lands, the knee high grass is tousled by a breeze. At the top of the hill is a big oak tree, it’s perfectly shaped and stands strong, the iconic tree of life. I turn around and the door from whence we emerged is nowhere to be seen.

“Are we safe here?” I ask.

“It’s your mind.” He responds.

We instinctively walk toward the tree. The ground shakes. The earth splits open. I am falling.

TO BE CONCLUDED (this time for real)

How to Kill a Rogue Yard Gnome, Part 2

[Don't overthink the symbolism]Attribution: loannes.baptista

[Don’t overthink the symbolism]
Attribution: loannes.baptista

[Part I can be read here.]

Five nights ago, as the sun sank below the horizon and the glow of vibrant colors faded, we three were visited by a fourth from our world. It was the Hargo Chetti. Like us, he had a long flowing beard and a pointy hat, but, unlike us, his face was twisted into a menacing glower. His shell was monotone brown, it was just a temporary husk pulled together from the earth for our meeting. There was no point in a permanent shell; Master Hargo couldn’t stay in the world of humans for long. (Humans thought of the gnome’s shell as the gnome, but to us it was just a container for our noncorporeal selves.)  It’s the scowl. The shell must reflect the gnome’s nature, and no one wants a scowling gnome in their garden. Well, there may be demented people who would like such a gnome, but those people are already beyond our assistance.

In gnomish, a language that doesn’t register in human hearing organs, Hargo said, “I come bearing orders from the Council. They want you to be more active in your man’s dream state.”

I was impressed by Hargo’s ability to project his voice to us, given our wide spacing. We three can only communicate in close proximity, or in the man’s dream state. I was less pleased with the content of his message. I bristled in my response, “I assure you that we are intervening when necessary to keep the man’s dream world from falling into darkness.”

Hargo huffed, “The Council’s orders go beyond maintaining the status quo.”

I said, “We’ve seen nothing suggesting the man needs an injection of cheer into his dream state. Surely, you’ve read our reports.”

Hargo replied, “The Council, which I needn’t remind you has more vision and wisdom than a mere worker gnome, isn’t requesting an injection of good cheer. They desire shadow-mares.” Shadowmares were like nightmares but the ones that cannot be remembered in the waking state. Humans imagine that a nightmare that they can’t remember is inconsequential and has no impact on their waking lives. They are wrong.

Furk, one of my peers, just said, “Yes.” Furk was bored. He thought three gnomes for one man was excessive, particularly when that one man wasn’t important. I suspect because one of the neighborhood cats liked to wee on his shell, Furk had soured on our assignment. Though correlation not being causation, I couldn’t eliminate the possibility that the cats peed on him because he was such a jerk.

I was momentarily speechless. Hookl was also speechless, but that was his usual state.

After a long pause, I said, “I would like confirmation that this is the will of the Council.”

Hargo’s scowl seemed to tighten. Icily, he said, “Are you calling me a liar?”

I felt a shudder rise up through me, but still managed to reply, “No. I just think such a rare and unusual order demands great care.”

“You have your orders.” Hargo said, and then his shell collapsed into a pile of dirt, which was then caught up in the breeze and spread over the lawn. By morning there would be no trace of him.

I didn’t trust the Hargo Chetti. He looked like Santa, sans the jolly. What screams lie more than a scowling Santa. Yet, he is our only point of contact with gnome world while we are on assignment. I’ve always thought that was a weakness in our system.

As Furk began to plan and Hookl resumed being Hooklish (which is to say disinterested), I strained to propel my shell toward the driveway. I moved as swiftly as I could, but it was still a pace that would make a turtle proud by comparison.

A few hours later, I noticed lights stretching down the road toward the drive, the twin beams — with the car— decelerated. The car swung into the drive nearly crushing my shell. Had the shell been crushed, I would have been evicted back to our home world. Gnomes required a shell. I wasn’t powerful enough to summon a shell from the dirt, like Hargo had, not even for a short time. My plan had been to get onto the driveway and block access to the garage. In retrospect, it was not a well-thought plan, but it was the only warning I could give the man in his waking state. Once he went to sleep, it might be too late.

The man seemed to take note of my changed position, but he didn’t return my shell to its original position. He just shrugged and walked into the house.

I wanted to persuade Furk to hold off on obeying the order for now. Silently screaming gnomish across the lawn wouldn’t work, I didn’t have Hargo’s power of projection. The distance between us was too great.

I would have to subvert Furk in the man’s dream state. It would be difficult; Furk would have a plan by now, and I would have to improvise, injecting characters into the dream as needed to counter the shadowmare. In the dream state, I wouldn’t look dwarfish – unless that was called for. I could morph into any character that I could imagine. If you’ve ever had a dream and seen a face that looks totally unfamiliar, you’ve had a gnome dream. If you aren’t sure if you were the lead character in your dream, a gnome has probably been monkeying around in your noggin.


Four nights ago, I convened a meeting to the side yard. I wanted to be out of sight. Humans often won’t miss a gnome if it’s gone, but seeing three cavorting draws undue attention. I migrated across in front of the house, a two bedroom ranch, and nudged Hookl, who was positioned midway between my usual position and Furk’s. We then proceeded to meet up with Furk. This would put me at a disadvantage. Moving the gnome shell by force of consciousness is exhausting, and if I had to battle it out with Furk in the man’s dream state that night I would be weaker than usual.

For Furk, who was positioned near the corner of the house, the journey to the side yard and back would short. This was probably why he agreed.

I said, “As you well know, I want to hold off on initiating shadowmares.”

Furk said, “An order has been given by the Council. It may be unusual, but I’m sure they have a good reason, and it is not ours to challenge.”

Hookl said nothing.

I replied, “Maybe they do, and if they confirm their order I will comply. But this is serious, and if there is not an explicit order from the Council, then it is high crime against the Gnome Code of Conduct. You know what shadowmares can do to humans after a time. The humans might not consciously recognize the effects, but we know them well.”

Furk retorted, “If the Council didn’t give the order, then the Hargo Chetti is a liar. Are you prepared to make that accusation, because I’m not?”

Hookl said nothing.

I said, “I’m not calling anyone a liar. I’m just saying this is an extremely rare order and since there is only one gnome linking the Council to us, the possibility for miscommunication exists. If it were a less risky order it might not justify my concern. What if the man does something disastrous because of our mental mischief?” I was lying. I did think Hargo was a liar, but saying that would serve nothing.

Furk said, “It’s like Hargo said, you can’t see the whole picture.”

Before we could even begin our retreat back to our proper positions, we heard the car slow and turn into the drive. There was no use in moving now.

I said, “The man is home. Furk, it is clear that we will not be able to persuade each other. I want to hear where Hookl stands, and we will decide by majority.”

Hookl was not happy to be put in the role of tie-breaker. Making decisions was not his strong suit. “Gee, I’ll get back with you tomorrow.”

We three were well-attuned to the man’s brainwaves. We knew when he went into the house. We all knew that he noticed we were missing. We knew when he was about to come back outside with his flashlight. Soon he was shining the light on us. His forehead was crinkled and his lips pursed. It was an expression of puzzlement. He was trying to figure out how we had gotten into the side yard.


Three nights ago, one of us was ejected from this world. As darkness fell, in the feeble light, I approached Hookl to inquire about how he intended to vote. I had no intention of reconvening the group. Furk could come to us if he wanted. He did so.

Hookl said, “I mean, I don’t think we should be hasty. We should take our time, and figure things out. Rushing now won’t help any…” He just went on like that, noncommittally, for some time.

It must have sounded to Furk like Hookl was siding with me because Furk kept migrating, pushing into Hookl’s side. I don’t know if Furk just wanted to persuasively intimidate Hookl, or if his intentions were more nefarious. At any rate, there is a slope to the land in the front yard, and many loose rocks. This contributed to Hookl’s shell begining to tip; Furk did not let up. There was nothing I could do but watch as Hookl’s shell tipped.

There was a hole in the bottom of Hookl’s shell from the manufacturing process. It didn’t matter as long as the hole was sitting on the ground. If the shell tipped over, Hookl could maintain himself inside as long as there was only on hole in the container. It was the same principle as a bucket being inverted and pushed down into water. The bucket captures air inside. Add a second hole, and the water plunges in to push the air out. When Hookl’s shell tipped, its shoulder landed on a rock and the ceramic cracked. In a whoosh, Hookl was ejected and forced back to our world, to our dimension.

There would be at least one more night of battling it out with Furk


Two nights ago, my fight with Furk continued beyond the dream state and into the physical world. It ended with a gnome sumo match, and Furk was sent home much as Hookl had been.

I didn’t know how long it would be before someone showed up, Hargo or someone on the Council’s behalf. If I was right, and Hargo had gone rogue, it might be never. He might cut his losses.

I began to rest easy in the belief that I could protect this man’s dream state. And then the putz put a baseball bat through the side of my head.