1 Incarnation Seizures
A gap . . .
I must’ve blacked out or had a very gentle incarnation seizure.
I was just hovering in a forest that lay past the industrial area of Cat City. Now I’m lying down and warm, and everything is dark.
It’s dark because my eyes are closed.
I open my eyes and find the Prince, Jeremiah, gently shaking me.
His face is close to mine and slowly coming into focus.
It feels like I’ve been out for a while.
My body is weirdly hot and flexible and smaller than it should be.
The Prince’s green eyes study me with concern.
The campfire is still here, but we’re no longer in the forest.
Instead, I see orange firelight reflecting off crenulated rock formations pitched high above us.
“Andrew,” the Prince says.
The name is strangely familiar. Perhaps it means Snowman in another tongue.
He says it again, nudging my shoulder.
My body feels so different—warmer, smaller—as if it were more meat than snowmeat—
Jeremiah puts both his hands on my shoulders, and sends warm, calming energy into me.
My body isn’t shaped right.
I try lifting my arm just to see if I can. But when I do, someone else’s hand comes into my field of vision instead of my own snowhand. It looks like the well-formed hand of a young upright.
This young, upright guy must be reading my mind. He’s putting his hand wherever I think my hand should be.
It’s quite a trick. Anytime I think to move my hand, he moves his in its place.
But the trick is too good. I can almost feel his hand when he moves it.
Then I realize how the trick is being done. Someone has put another hand, like a glove, on top of my hand to fool me.
Furiously, I try to shake the fake hand off, but it won’t budge.
There’s no other hand but this one.
It’s—I shudder with horror as I realize what’s happened.
It’s—a hand transplant—
I am the victim of a hand transplant done without my consent.
Some horrendous criminal has mutilated me!
They put me down with general anesthesia—that’s why I blacked out!
And while I was out, this horrible criminal amputated my snowhands and attached upright hands.
Why would they do this to me?
“Andrew, you’re safe now,” says Prince Jeremiah.
I’m hyperventilating, on the verge of a panic attack, but he tightens his hands on my shoulders, and their radiant warmth slowly pacifies me.
Maybe this is all just a hallucination caused by the neuro-pharmaceuticals I got at that More Real than Real place—
No—DUH—I’m still in the goddamned TSW!
Why did I surrender control to such a sleazy, commercial simulacrum?
Never, ever, again.
The TSW’s weird and arbitrary rules keep disorienting the snowshit out of me.
Now it’s forced me into an upright avatar for some damn reason!
Just get it together, Snowman. You’ve been shoved into a new body. Deal with it.
Wait—this is exactly what Oliver Twister was trying to tell me—the TSW doesn’t allow for a Snowman avatar!
No, that’s wrong. That’s not what he said.
The TSW doesn’t allow you to come across as yourself—that’s what he actually said.
So, if I’m still in the TSW, and it’s converting me from my snowbody because of that rule, that proves I’m a snow mutant, or it wouldn’t have to do that!
Thank God. I’ve got my reality grounding back.
Go ahead TSW, hit me with your digital illusions. I know exactly what’s going on!
“Take some deep breaths, Andrew,” the Prince says, in his soothing voice. “I’m sorry I had to pull you out so suddenly.”
I like him, but this “Prince” is obviously a non-player character, an NPC, trying to convince me that I’m this new game-generated avatar, “Andrew.”
I’ve never been in such a corrupt and totally unprofessional simulacrum before.
It’s performed an illegal operation. Double emphasis on illegal. It just arbitrarily shoved me into a new avatar without my consent. That’s got to be actionable.
I’m going to sue these motherfuckers! I don’t give a fuck how big the TSW is, I’m going to lawyer the fuck up and make them pay for this shit.
But first, I’ve got to get through their goddamn virtual experience.
“Just breathe,” says Jeremiah.
I like him, this Jeremiah.
It’s not his fault he’s a game-generated character, he’s just as much a victim of the TSW as I am.
No, actually, he’s infinitely more of a victim than I am because I get to wake up from this shit and he’s stuck in it forever!
Poor guy—I feel for him, I do.
Jeremiah—the digital prince with a heart of gold.
He’s just trying to do his job—calm me from the shock of illegal avatar switching. How many other players has he done this for?
Obviously, the TSW is waking up to its liability and sent this appealing NPC to calm me down.
Yeah, right, nice try.
Of course you want to schmooze me into believing this is OK.
But, no, it’s not fucking OK, assholes!
I’ll lawyer up on these fuckers later, but for now, I’ll play dumb.
I’ll just go along to get along.
This whole situation is so fucking obvious!
Just take a chill pill, Snowman. You’re going to come out of this with a huge settlement.
Their toxic brew of neuro-pharmaceuticals intentionally suppressed key cognitive functions, and that’s why it took me so long to recognize the obvious.
Of course, that’s not the illegal part—that’s how any simulacrum works.
But your neuros weren’t good enough to sheeple me into an illegal avatar switch, were they? Did you think you had me under so well I wouldn’t even notice that shit?
Think again, motherfuckers.
“Just keep taking deep breaths,” says Jeremiah. His eyes seem so sympathetic, like he’s actually aware of what I’m going through. Game-generated character or not, I like the guy. He’s helping me get through this.
But what exactly am I going through?
Oh, right, the shock of unauthorized avatar substitution.
The neuro-pharmaceuticals are still messing with my thinking.
They’re designed to anesthetize your reality testing to go with what the simulacrum is presenting, so it seems more real than real. And More Real than Real is the literal name of the business establishment that took my forty credit units and sucked me into the TSW. Duh.
But something doesn’t make sense. The TSW’s neuro-pharmaceuticals are mostly designed to suppress one cognitive function—the tendency to question reality. But I am questioning reality, so they must not be working properly.
Wait, of course they’re not! They were designed for uprights and felines, not Snow Mutants. The TSW is trying to correct the problem by switching me to an upright avatar.
So fucking obvious!
Thank God I still have my mutant IQ and command of logic to sift through the cognitive dissonance! Imagine how confused some simpleton would be by all this?
But—knowing what’s actually going on really isn’t helping me that much at the moment. It’s not making this new reality any less disturbing.
But—what if the disorientation is because what I think is going on is . . . not what’s actually happening? What if there’s another reality behind the curtain?
What if the whole TSW-misfiring-snowbrain-chemistry scenario—my interpretation of what’s happening to me—is just a mental construct—a flimsy narrative I’ve invented to explain what I’m experiencing?
What if the TSW itself is a hallucination!
What if everything I can remember is merely the hallucination of this Andrew? What if he’s the real player, and I’m just his mixed-up avatar?
Is he my hallucination, or am I his?
There’s no way for me to know what’s actually going on—the possibilities are infinite.
All I can do is focus on what seems to be happening right now.
I need to work with this new reality on its own terms.
“Andrew,” says the Prince as he gently shakes my shoulders.
“I’m sorry, I know you’re disoriented. I didn’t want to pull you out, but I sense a danger is approaching your camper van, and we need to return to where you left it.”
Danger is approaching, and the Prince needs my help.
He helps me stand up. My body feels so small and different and—
This is not my body!
The Prince offers me a bottle of water. He wants me to drink water–
Of course! That’s why I feel small—I’m dehydrated. I must have crossed the Beckstein Limit and—that’s why I blacked out.
Crossing the Beckstein Limit causes irreversible brain damage.
All I can do is rehydrate, and hopefully, I’ll regain at least some of the lost cognitive function.
But… I’ll never be who I was. And I’ll never become who I could have been. There’s no coming back from being on the wrong side of the Beckstein Limit.
The Prince holds the bottle to my lips, and I take a few swallows.
I feel the water replenishing me, but my snowbody isn’t swelling like it should because—it’s never coming back to normal. There’s been too much structural deterioration of my ice crystals, and now they lack the capillary action they need to rehydrate. My diminishment—it’s—
Why do I still exist at this level of deterioration?
Why doesn’t entropy just take its course?
I can’t live like this.
I need the general anesthesia of everlasting non-existence.
“Andrew—Andrew—we need to get to your camper van.”
Yes, yes—the camper van—there is a point to my existence—a mission.
I can help the Prince save the camper van!
He helps me up and beckons me to follow. I struggle to disregard the weirdness of this body so I can focus on walking.
I understand the theory of how uprights walk, and the avatar knows how to do it. I just need to get my doubts out of the way and let it happen.
We’re approaching a vortex. We enter it together—a whirlwind of color and light—and then—
We’re in the same mesa, but everything feels different.
I can see it, the silver camper van that must be saved. It looks strangely familiar and beautiful.
It has a name, the Mothership. It’s valuable, and it must be saved!
As we draw closer, the Prince takes off one of his two shoulder bags and passes it to me.
Is it a gift?
“You must have keys in there,” Jeremiah says.
Now I understand—there must be keys in there.
My transplanted, upright hands seem to know what to do. They reach into the bag, find the keys, and press a button on a plastic thing. I hear a beeping, the lights come on, and the camper van’s doors unlock.
All that happened with the touch of a button.
Whatever reality this is, the technology is incredibly advanced.
“Can you drive?” Jeremiah asks.
Can I drive?
It’s such a pertinent question. This Prince has an uncanny ability to cut through to the essential.
And somehow, I know the answer is yes, I can drive. If I think the answer is yes, it will be yes. When the moment comes, I will know how. Somehow—perhaps because my snowbody is at the very edge of death—I am creating my own reality.
“Yes, I can drive.”
I hear myself answer in someone else’s voice, someone who speaks quietly and in an elegantly well-modulated tone.
This voice sounds so diplomatic and intelligent. It has that silken quality of a young upright. Not a trace of my raspy, old snowvoice. It’s—Andrew’s voice, I suppose.
Fuck—I’ll take it!
It’s so much more mellifluous. Definitely an upgrade. If it was up to me, though, I’d add an upper-crust British accent, an Oxbridge one. That would make the voice even cooler.
Wait a minute! Of course it’s up to me! I’m in a zone where I’m creating my own reality. I need only assume I have such an accent, and it will be so!
“Where do you want to go?” I ask.
Damn, no British accent. There must be limits to my ability to create my own reality after all.
Well, whatever. This upright body knows exactly what to do and say. So I’ll just go along for the ride.
“Anywhere. Away from here,” Jeremiah says, “But why don’t you take a couple of deep breaths first.”
As I do, he places one hand on my chest and the other against my back. Warm vitality flows into my heart.
As the upright hand turns the key in the ignition, I almost feel meat and bone press against the metal. It locks into a final position, and suddenly a surge of power flows through the vehicle as the engine ignites and all these systems come online. Intricate red and amber icons blink on and off again on the dashboard.
My strange, new body fits this seat easily and seems familiar with all the controls and glowing icons. I’m amazed by the upright body’s mastery of the camper van than must be saved as it switches on the headlights and shifts the transmission into drive.
My self-esteem glows as I realize how impressed the Prince must be with my mastery of this complex vehicle, The Mothership.
We bounce and rattle down a rutted dirt road until we reach smooth black asphalt. The road is less bumpy now, and the upright’s foot—my foot? —presses down harder on the gas pedal.
Moments later, we pass by a motorcade of emergency vehicles going in the opposite direction. I watch in the rear-view mirror as they race down the road we just came from, with blaring sirens and flashing lights.
Somehow, I know they’ve been called because someone died in their vehicle, an “RV”—which means recreational vehicle. It’s such a weird idea, recreational vehicle—and it’s even weirder to think of someone being dead inside one. And yet, there’s a weird feeling of inevitability about that, like déjà vu.
Is it me that’s dead inside this RV?
I pull into a supermarket parking lot.
The Mothership is saved.
I could drive more if necessary, but I don’t want to push my luck, so I turn off the ignition.
Suddenly, everything becomes quiet, and the whole save-the-Mothership adrenaline rush fizzles out. Now I feel extremely disoriented and weak.
“You need to drink more water,” Jeremiah says, looking at me with his concerned, green eyes. As soon as he says that, I feel my feverish thirst. He leads me toward the back of the van.
I notice how clean and orderly the coach is—everything in its place. The most striking aspect is the cabinet doors. They’re all decoupaged with intricate collages protected by heavy varnish. Jeremiah waits patiently while I study them.
And then it’s like knowing things in a dream.
This Andrew avatar is pretty cool. He studies subcultures, and each collage is made of photos he’s taken of them, plus some other found papers and small objects. Each collage seems to tell a story, and each story radiates this déjà vu-like feeling that I was part of those stories somehow.
I’m shocked to see how much I’ve underestimated the TSW. Every collage is rendered with such detail and artistry. They have such a human quality. They’re so—expressive.
Could a commercial simulacrum really come up with something like this?
Maybe something even stranger is going on.
When I’m done studying the collages, Jeremiah has me sit on the sleeping platform. He pours water into a glass and hands it to me.
“Drink slowly,” he tells me.
As the replenishing water courses through me, I soak in the atmosphere of Andrew’s camper van. Scattered memories of his life flow into me.
This will go easier if I just allow a degree of avatar switching.
So I let the Andrew info upload. He’s a young upright, and very clever and talented in his way. He’s not a snow mutant, but I must admit, he is some sort of mutant.
A scene of Andrew and Jeremiah plays out in my mind—they’re talking about a metamorphosis, an initiation involving a Shadow Elixir that can cause extreme identity disorders, and whole other lifetimes. I see Jeremiah put a drop of this elixir on Andrew’s hand and watch as it disappears beneath his skin.
I had a vision of that when I looked into the pool in Weedland, and I also saw it on the television in the Mutant Motel!
This whole avatar storyline rendered on the fly by the TSW has a great logical consistency. Cute. If I go with the story, this whole situation will synch up—so smoothly.
Pretty slick guys. You really know your sheepling.
Too bad you pushed your luck and tried it on the wrong mutant.
But for now, fine, I’ll go with the show. I’ll keep my cards close to my vest and catch more actionable mistakes.
I’ll just be the silent snowman taking notes behind the digital curtain of your little camper-van scenario.
I may come out of this owning the fucking TSW.
“Andrew, Andrew—” the Prince is shaking me.
Oh shit, I passed out again. Is this simulacrum trying to kill me?
“Drink some more water.”
I do, and holy fuck—body, body, body, movin’. This is fucking real, so fucking physical.
Jesus, this experience is state-of-the-art. My whole reality ground, my very snowbeing, feels like a Vaseline-slicked linoleum floor being slipped out from under me.
This TSW may be sketchy, but they’ve definitely got some valuable intellectual property.
Yeah, well, good, I’m glad you’re rich—you’ve got deep pockets, bitch.
I can’t wait to own you.
But besides the illegality, something else is creeping me out about this unauthorized avatar switch-a-roo.
I’ve got this weird feeling Andrew isn’t just an avatar. He’s an actual, physical person as real as me. Somehow or another, I’ve been shoved into his actual, physical body.
Really? Really TSW? You shoved me into an organic body that could flatline at any moment? Talk about reckless endangerment! Can you even comprehend your legal exposure here? Anything goes wrong with this meat body and—
INFINITE LIABILITY, motherfuckers!
But wait a minute— if I’m in Andrew’s body—where the fuck is Andrew?
I hope he’s alright. Who knows what the fuck the TSW is doing to the guy.
Jesus! This is turning into a class action suit. What a mother fucking cluster-fuck! How many other victims are caught up in this?
Oh my God, what if they shoved Andrew into my snowbody?
Holy epic mindfuck, Batman.
I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.
No wonder this poor guy’s memories feel so real. They are real for him.
“Andrew, Andrew—wake up!”
What the—did I just pass out again? Where the fuck? What is this shit?
Oh right—the Prince—the camper-van scenario—scen-ario—the sin—are—are-I-O—are—I? I? I?—
—OH, OH, OH, FUCK! FUCKING FUCK! WHAT IF I ACTUALLY AM ANDREW?
NO, NO, NO! THAT’S CRAZY TALK. I AM I! I AM THE SNOWMAN!
What if I’m Andrew, and I was the Snowman in the TSW?
Which real is real?
“Andrew, Andrew, calm down, take a breath. That’s it, just keep breathing, breathe with me,” says Jeremiah.
What if I’m just a lost, disincarnated soul going through a bardo?
What if all these realities I’m experiencing are just hypothetical incarnations I’m trying on like costumes?
I ‘ve heard rumors of new reincarnation theories. One says that your Higher Self is like the body of a transtemporal jellyfish. Your individual incarnations are like tentacles it uses to reach down into dense time-and-space-bound realms to experience individual lifetimes. And those individual personalities are oblivious to the larger, transtemporal, multiply-incarnate organism of which they are merely a part.
I’m just a slippery, transtemporal jellyfish jerking myself off into absurd incarnations.
How do I stop myself from doing that?
But what if there is no transtemporal jellyfish? What if this is just what it seems to be—a snowbrain fucked up on neuro-pharmaceuticals being way, way, way too credulous?
This whole simulacrum is like one of those optical illusions that is one thing viewed from one angle but something totally different from another.
But which angle shows the truth?
Every optical illusion is like that. Each view is equally valid, but I have to slide toward one, or I’ll remain trapped in this nauseating limbo, fluctuating between them.
“Go with where your body is,” says Jeremiah.
He seems to be aware of my thoughts, which should make me feel paranoid, but it doesn’t. Jeremiah feels intrinsically good, and there’s a familiarity with his mind-reading.
I can trust him. He means me well.
He pours me another glass of water, and I drink it in silence. My grip on the glass feels so kinesthetically actualized. Andrew has such well-formed upright hands. And yet, beneath the optical illusion—I feel my snowfingers squirming.
The hand transplant is the most disorienting part of this.
Snowhand shame is intrinsic to who I am. It’s been an engrained instinct since early childhood—
I must hide my hands and avoid eating or drinking in front of other people.
But here I am, holding this glass of water with Jeremiah patiently watching me, and yet—I feel no shame because these are beautiful, graceful, upright hands.
He’s so patient and kind this Jeremiah. Now that the camper van has been saved, he’s content just to watch over me while I have my own thoughts.
True, these upright hands are not the cat paws I’ve always wanted, but they’re model hands. Of course, I would never say this in front of a feline, but hands are actually much more dexterous than paws.
These hands are so physically convincing as I move them.
But they’re—not me, not me, not me!
Where the fuck are my snowhands?
Wait, what if my chronic snowbody dysphoria has finally caused me to go totally batshit crazy? This could all be a wish-fulfillment hallucination!
But why upright hands? Why not the cat paws I always wanted?
Only now that I think about it, that lifelong desire seems grotesque—a snowbody with cat paws?
My hands are perfect like Jeremiah’s, and he’s an elf.
Does that mean I’m an elf?
Holy shit! Why didn’t I notice this before—Jeremiah has scars—can elves have scars? Somehow he’s more deformed than me.
My form isn’t deformed at all now—but how can that be? I am the deformed one . . .
Maybe my deformity is that I’m two and not one. I am Snowman/Andrew, and these two bodies and identities chaotically fluctuate. Of course, to anyone else, I’m just batshit crazy but—
What if past the Beckstein limit, entropy caused a massive incarnation seizure that split me into two incompatible identities? No amount of therapy will overcome such a schizoid condition!
But… it is what it is… I just have to accept this permanent disability as my new normal.
Jeremiah pours more water into my empty glass as I struggle to accept the disability. This moment of him filling my glass feels symbolic—like it’s showing me that Jeremiah can fill in all my blank spots. He’s the one who can fill me up with sanity.
Jeremiah is so calm, stable, and consistently himself. Which is so much more than I can say for myself. He must know who I really am.
“Who am I, Jeremiah?”
“Trust who your body says you are,” he replies. “Right now, you’re Andrew, and you’ll remain Andrew until you die or take more Shadow Elixir. But you also contain other identities, other people you’ve lived as. We all contain multitudes, but you’re Andrew now, and you’re in your rightful body. All your former identities need to step back as you restore your primary identity as Andrew. In this reality, you will remain Andrew.”
It’s a skillful answer that gives me a stable ground I can step on. I might as well go with it.
If I can’t trust Jeremiah, who can I trust?
“You’re Andrew,” he reassures me.
I feel like I’m coming down from something. Like I’ve been tripping really hard, but now I’m starting to stabilize.
“You’re Andrew,” Jeremiah says soothingly.
The way he says “Andrew” conveys a particular feeling, like he cherishes the name and the person attached to it. Andrew is someone unique and worthy, a person whose presence he needs.
Well then, why not be this Andrew? Jeremiah seems to like him. And it’s not like being the Snowman was any picnic. Being snowbodied created social problems a thousand layers deep in every incarnation.
“You’re Andrew,” Jeremiah whispers.
My body relaxes into acceptance. Yeah, I realize Jeremiah is putting me under a spell of some sort, but it feels good. So I just let it wash over me.
“Close your eyes,” he says, “lie back and allow every muscle to relax.”
Jeremiah places a pillow behind my head and carefully drapes a blanket over me as I lie back. The bed in the back of this camper is so comfortable and familiar.
My eyes close, and tension drains from my muscles.
“You’re Andrew. Let me show you what you look like.”
My breathing deepens as Jeremiah shares his perspective, allowing me to see through his eyes.
I see—Andrew. Finally, I’m getting to see the new avatar from the outside.
He’s lying in the back of the camper van. He’s quite good-looking for an upright—slightly androgynous, young, with high cheekbones and long, dark hair. He has no deformities of any kind.
There are shadows under his eyes, framed by long, dark eyelashes. His smooth skin has a flushed quality, like someone with a slight fever. Although his body appears young, even with his eyes closed, the traces of worry on his face convey a sense of someone older.
I examine him closely and see no trace of a snowbody, not even the usual dandruff of snowflakes. But a blanket covers most of his body as though something is being hidden.
Perceiving my doubt, Jeremiah slowly draws back the blanket. His gesture is almost like that of an artist unveiling a painting, so for a moment, it seems like this body might be an exquisite illusion he’s creating.
I decide to raise my arm, and the body responds. I can move and feel this body even as see it from Jeremiah’s perspective. I pass my new hands over its contours, mapping out its smooth topography.
This new body seems to work, but I feel disloyal, detaching from my Snowman identity. Whatever else I am, I’ll always be the Snowman inside, but the only practical thing is to anchor myself in the identity corresponding to my present body, which is—Andrew.
I have his body, I might as well have his personality too.
“That’s a good way to think about it,” says Jeremiah. “It’s perfectly OK to have more than one identity. No need to fight it. Each has their time. And right now, it’s Andrew’s time. You can shift your center of identification without disowning or dishonoring the other selves you contain.”
I take a few more deep breaths and slowly relax into the Andrew identity.
“That’s it, just keep breathing,” Jeremiah says.
And then—light as a feather—a memory settles over me—the Shadow Journey.
The Shadow Journey is what’s real. And it’s changed me.
The metamorphosis is real.
“Yes, it is real, Andrew,” Jeremiah whispers. “It’s in a heightened state right now, so just go with it.”
OK, I can do that, I can go with it.
“What’s next?” I ask.
“The recapitulation. I’m going to give you a micro-microdose, and then I’m going to leave you alone in your Mothership, and you’re going to write about the life you lived as someone else. You have a slight tolerance to the elixir now, and it’s a micro-microdose, so you won’t feel the full effect for a few minutes, but once it kicks in, it will allow you to revisit your Shadow Journey while giving you enough distance to write about it.”
Jeremiah holds out the glass stopper with a tiny drop of black liquid—a micro-microdose of Shadow Eixir.
It looks like I can write, or type at least, but I—I keep saying “I” but I don’t really know what that means. I’m not sure which “I” is me. I’m more like an unstable chimera of different identities shuffling like playing cards. There’s the Andrew that supposedly was, an unstable new Andrew whose existence is tentative, almost hypothetical, and the shadow self—the snowself—I became between and betwixt.
But none of these selves can claim enough center of gravity to create a stable “I.” We’re like the subatomic particles needed to form an atomic nucleus, but we can’t adhere to each other.
Who am I most?
My shadow self feels the most massive, and I sense him about to take over again. My older and newer selves, the two “Andrews,” are merely witnesses, unable to merge into a core.
The one writing now is a fragile, untethered intellect, hastily summoned into existence to bridge these selves and compose this journal entry. But unfortunately, this provisional self is already running out of energy, winding down, and losing coherence.
The shadow self—the snowself—must be the one to continue the journal and tell his story, however grotesque, bizarre, and unpleasant it may seem to the Andrews and to anyone reading this.
I can feel the micro-microdose Jeremiah just gave me bringing him back to life. He cares nothing for the earlier Andrew’s reputation as a thoughtful journalist. Instead, he wants to take over the journal and express himself with his neurotic insecurities and complaints.
The massive bulk of his body is pushing me away from the keyboard so he can tell his story, his way . . .
I awake within a sweaty cocoon of gray blankets adhering me to my bare mattress. The mattress is held up by a layer of steel springs squeaking their annoyance that I have reanimated.
My body feels bulgy and weird, a mass of aches and pains.
There are a series of dreary steps necessary to get out of bed and wake my snowy brain from its uneasy slumber—tiresome, counter-enthusiastic, mechanical steps.
I want to escape the moldering sweaty cocoon of blankets. But my enthusiasm to wake up is roughly comparable to that of a ninety-year-old arthritic coal miner about to begin a one-hundred-hour shift after a breakfast of cold gruel.
I waver unsteadily between two undesirable realities. I dislike the one I’m currently in—the sweaty cocoon of blankets. But even more unattractive are all the irritating steps involved in reanimating myself to get ready for the day.
Instead of getting up, I think about my dreams. They were hectic fragments of outrageously annoying mundane circumstances. My last dream before I woke up involved ordering a sandwich at a deli.
I was told flatly that it will take at least three hours and forty-five minutes before they’ll be ready to prepare the sandwich, if, and only if, all the ingredients are still available by then. And if I’m not there when it’s done, they’ll just throw the sandwich away with no refund.
I boil with rage at these policies.
I’m about to tell them off, but before I can protest, my rage wakes me up. So I didn’t even get to eat the sandwich anyway.
But as irritating as these dream fragments are, the alternative—the life I must wake up to— seems even more stale, flat, and unprofitable.
Somehow, the wake-up procedures must have happened, though I can’t recall the steps. I suppose my morning autopilot must have switched on to carry my reanimated snowcorpse of a body through its mundane necessities.
I’m standing in an empty parking lot outside my apartment building.
It’s a bleak winter morning. A pale sun casts my shadow before me, and I see the grossness of my body and how big and round and heavy my head is.
I’m wearing an old black overcoat, a coat so familiar in odor and texture that it has become like the matted fur covering a mangy old dog. It has fused to my inner skin and become the outer layer of my body.
The pockets of my overcoat bulge with a messy collection of essential items—candy bars, coupons, plastic pens, dog-eared envelopes, and folded-up bits of paperwork. These bulging pockets reassure me. From the inside pocket of the overcoat, I feel my trusty, fat leather wallet, like a swollen animal corpse with a well-worn hide.
The presence of such familiar things is comforting, but I also feel a strange blankness in my head. It’s the sort of blankness you can get on a groggy winter morning when you’ve just woken up and are not yet sure of where you are, or maybe even who you are.
But it could also be, I suddenly realize with a cold spike of anxiety, the kind of blankness you feel after waking up from a series of ministrokes.
Ministrokes often happen while you sleep.
Clearly, that’s it. I slept, oblivious to the unfolding neurological catastrophe. Parts of my brain died off in the night, and with them, vast regions of my memory.
My brain feels like dirty dishwater sloshing around in the kitchen sink of my skull.
I close my eyes, trying to clear the dishwater, but it’s thick like the sooty snow sludge in a city gutter cratered with bits of dog shit and cigarette butts. The blankness in my head has such little islands of specificity.
I focus on one of them. A memory from childhood.
I see Dr. Beckstein, the renowned mutantologist, in vivid detail. His portentous head is framed by a disturbing series of backlit X-Rays. He looks at me through the thick magnifying lenses of his heavy, tortoise-shell glasses as he discusses my condition in his Old-World, German-Jewish accent.
“Ven you ghett older—and you vill get older— it is inevitable zat arteries in your brain vill deteriorate and become narrower. At zat point, if even a zingle ice crystal zhould break loose, it can cause a stroke. Zere could be a whole zeries of ministrokes at first, some of vich you may barely notice.”
Now, it’s happened. Ministrokes. I am a victim of ministrokes.
But as I realize this, I perceive certain advantages. I have a verifiable new medical condition.
I AM a victim of ministrokes!
This medical status will entitle me to special considerations and a significant number of additional benefits.
I see myself proudly reporting this new condition at the Sloane-Kettering mutantology clinic. The intake nurse immediately summons an orderly to bring a wheelchair, and I receive a whole series of new treatments and recategorizations, entitling me to numerous additional benefits.
I will be kept for observation in a room with an adjustable hospital bed and a TV with a remote control to keep me stimulated. I will be served Jello and ever-so-sweet artificially flavored drinks in great abundance while attentive nurses check on me throughout the day.
But where is the clinic?
Large areas of my memory are still fuzzy and inaccessible.
I pull out my trusty old wallet and open it up. I am immediately reassured when I see the familiar scuffed-up plastic card. My all-important government photo ID is still here—Thank God!
I study my image in the corner of the card—my big round head and the heavy bags under my worried, coal-black eyes. As terrible as I look in that photo, I have to remind myself that this was how I looked six years ago, and I’ve aged horribly since then.
I recognize my name:
“Hey, Morrron Snooowwmannn.”
Whenever I see my name in print like that, I hear a chorus of school kids pronouncing it their way, their falsetto voices rising and falling like a doppler-shifting echo from the past.
Embossed holographically across my face is that familiar person-in-a-wheelchair icon but with an “M” where the head should be.
Thank God I haven’t lost my government ID!
So much more than just an ID—it’s my all-important, official mutant disability certification entitling me to government services, relief checks, and many other crucial benefits worth thousands, if not tens of thousands, of credit units.
Next to the wheelchair icon is something that even ministrokes could never cause me to forget. My disabled mutant registration code—
There’s no fuzziness about my nine-digit DMR. I know this number backwards and forwards and can recite it in a snap anytime I’m asked. Hell, I could recite it in my sleep!
Damn. I was probably reciting my DMR last night while my brain was being destroyed by ministrokes.
Ministrokes or not, I’ve got a mission. Twice a week, I take the subway downtown to the Office of Disabled Mutant Services or ODMS (pronounced “Odd-ems”) to fill out endless paperwork. Thanks to the new Mutantcare legislation, my DMR must be written out two to three times on every page in blue or black ballpoint pen ink.
Every Monday and Thursday, I have to go down there to ODMS and fill out the same papers over and over and over and over again. Florescent lights flicker and whine above me while I sit on tiny circa-1970 plastic benches with bucket seats that don’t fit my bulk.
I have to sit there for hours, the crack of my snowy ass stuck between two of the plastic buckets.
The repetitive paperwork is annoying and tedious. But I get it. It’s my job. It’s what I’ve got to do to keep those monthly disability checks coming.
There’s another reason besides the ministrokes that my head feels so blank. A self-anesthetizing defense mechanism has taken over.
When I was a snowboy, I was diagnosed with DSD (Dissociative Snowdentity Disorder), as well as Snowbody Dysphoria, which also causes disassociation.
On top of those disorders, and now the new neurological catastrophe of ministrokes, I also have PTSD from the accumulated stress of thousands of hours spent at ODMS, waiting for my number to get called by contemptuous clerks who always assume that mutation is synonymous with developmentally disabled. And they treat me like I’m being special needs just to inconvenience them.
Assholes. If there were no deformed mutants, you wouldn’t have jobs. It’s in your fucking job title!
Meanwhile, I’m forced to be exquisitely polite to these contemptuous clerks, because every one of them ranks my CCI (Courtesy and Cooperation Index) on a scale of 1-5. Anytime my CCI falls below 3.8, I’ve got to start the same paperwork cycle all over again.
Nevertheless, the general public resents us because they think we have it so easy!
My caseworker, Mrs. Sternberger, always tells me I shouldn’t call myself a mutant, but an RCS (Reality Challenged Survivor). And yet she treats me like I’m the world’s most annoying special-needs mutant of all time if I forget to get a paper stamped, especially if it’s my DSM-4 voucher, because she can’t get paid on time if my DSM-4 isn’t notarized. She still gives me attitude because I forgot to get a DSM-4 notarized seven months ago.
I feel sick to my stomach just thinking about having to talk to Mrs. Sternberger. But if I get diagnosed with ministrokes at the intake clinic, they might temporarily waive the need for me to report to ODMS.
But no, I can’t risk that!
If they dismiss me at the clinic because they’re overbooked and won’t see me today, or say my symptoms are psychosomatic, I’ll be late for ODMS without a clinic waiver. Then there will be holy hell to pay.
4 Ra, Lightbringer
Now I’m standing on the subway platform waiting for the F train, feeling hungry and nervous. My overcoat pockets bulge with cellophane-packaged snacks that I’ve stowed there for just such a snack emergency.
So I tear into them, stuffing my snowface with square orange crackers sandwiched with a layer of dry, industrial-grade peanut butter. I scarf down four whole packages of them. I don’t even realize what I’ve done until I’m sitting in a screeching subway car with a huge lump in my stomach. The lump feels like it’s composed of greasy sawdust, salt, and chemicals. I let out a belch that reeks of artificial cheese flavoring and rancid peanut butter.
Great, now I have school-cafeteria breath and nothing to drink.
I search my pockets in vain for a mint or hard candy that might relieve the industrial cheesy-peanut taste burning my mouth.
A terrible dryness is forming in my throat. It’s stealing moisture from every ice crystal of my upper GI tract, and I feel dizzy and weak.
For years I’ve suffered from the snow metabolism equivalents of hypoglycemia, candida, Epstein-Barr, and chronic high blood pressure. And yes, of course I realize I’m supposed to be drinking lots of fluids to replenish my ice crystals. (Thanks for that unnecessary reminder.) But instead, like a total snowtard, I just went ahead and ate all these dry and salty industrial cellophane snacks without bothering to bring even a single warm drink box of Hawaiian Punch with me! And then that voice starts to speak in my head—the one who sounds like a cross between a hypercritical AM-radio-talk-show psychologist and my caseworker, Mrs. Sternberger:
“Hey Mr. Softyballs, can’t you remember about avoiding dehydration?—DUH?—Is somebody else supposed to take responsibility for your health?—DUH?—Is it gonna be our fault if you get metastasizing snowcancer, Mr. DUH-head? How many times do we have to send you the message before somebody inside your big DUH-head picks up the phone?”
The voice goes on and on, its harsh criticism merging with the metallic screech of the subway car. I’m in one of those dingy, older cars where the lights always flicker. There’s the continual screech of metal parts brought into unhappy contact with other, equally unfulfilled metal parts. Lost in a malaise of screeching metal and negative thought loops, I stare down into the world of subway-car linoleum.
As the subway screeches around a curve, something slides across the floor and into my field of view. It’s a New Age magazine of the sort that’s mostly ads. I’ve seen it before, but I’ve never really seen it, never considered how transformational it could be.
On the cover is a glossy image of an upright woman wearing a blue tie-dyed leotard. She has smiling eyes and sunlight all around her. Underneath her are the words,
Goosebumps form on the surface of my snowskin as I pick the magazine off the floor. This is no coincidence. The magazine slid right toward me, and flipping through it, I see an article headlined:
The upright people in this magazine are backlit and clear-eyed. They smile right into my soul with their beaming confidence and offers of healing. Mrs. Sternberger couldn’t smile like that if a sexy movie star showed up in her office to tell her that the lottery ticket in her purse was worth thirty million credits.
These smiling faces understand my troubles. They just want to heal me, if only I’ll let them. The lonely boredom of my subway ride disappears, and I blink back tears of joy and gratitude.
I flip through the pages and come to a picture of an upright man in white robes with arms outstretched, the dawning light of morning streaming all around him. A deep inner knowing tells me that he is the leader, the highest of all the healers in the entire magazine.
As soon as I read about him, I see how prescient my first impression is. His name is “Ra, Light Bringer.”
Know then, that after vanquishing his ego and shedding the last vestiges of his human identity. The being once known as Matt Wexler is now revealed as Ra, Light Bringer.
Ra, Light Bringer, became one with divine essence at the precise moment of the galactic harmonic convergence. Freed from human bondage, the being once known as Matt Wexler, recalled his former lives and recovered his true identity as Ra, Light Bringer, Master of Osiris and Jah, Secret Origin of the Goddess, Bearer of the Seven Seals of Solomon, Writer of the Akashic Record upon the Emerald Tablets of Eternity, Rider of the White Buffalo as foretold in Native Prophecy, Thrice Certified Reiki Master, Tantric Initiator of all Younger Sisters of the New Age, Conqueror of the Serpent Ego in all its Many Guises, Blameless One, Wearer of the Many-Colored Cloak of Great Radiance, Soul Guide, Grandfather Leader, Past Life Regressor and Sacred Prophet of all Peoples.
Having come back to the mortal plane only to serve as the single true source of divine light, Ra, Light Bringer challenges you to cast aside the pathetic rag of your human identity and follow him with the joy of perfect submission onto the only true path of freedom.
Brothers and sisters, render unto Babylon what is Babylon’s!
Let the Living Light Foundation Trust take from you the heavy and unclean burden of Babylon money and worldly possession and fill you up with the Living Light of Ra, Light Bringer’s video series, “Stepping Onto the Path of Living Light and Freedom.” This exclusive, three-disc series is all you will ever need to cast aside the pathetic rag of your human identity and enter the Realm of Divine Living Light that Ra, Light Bringer has brought forth for your Eternal Freedom Dance.
Do not be deceived by the serpent-tongued enslavements of so-called “friends” and “family” who want to cling and ensnare you, to bind you to their fear and shackle you to the realm of outer darkness where lost souls dwindle and perish. Ra, Light Bringer, as your Divine Prophet, foresees this danger for you! Be steadfast or you will forever lose your one and only opportunity to find the living light path to freedom. This freedom path opens to you only through the divine illumination of the one and only true video series, “Stepping Onto the Path of Living Light and Freedom.”
This exclusive, three-disc series is so much better than free. It’s available in exchange for being freed from the heavy, enslaving burden of your Babylon attachments. Please complete the following Power-of-Attorney form and have it signed and witnessed by a notary so you can step onto your freedom path today!
Act before midnight tonight, and you will receive Ra, Light Bringer’s Medallion of Freedom Pendant wrought of Genuine Polymer Crystal and set on a scintillating chain of Authentic Gold Tone from the Crystal Forge of the Living Light Foundation Trust, which has been authorized and blessed by Ra, Light Bringer himself!
Send notarized documents to:
The Living Light Foundation Trust
care of Fly-by-Nite Enterprises
PO Box 110017
Newark, New Jersey
Become a Freedom Dancer in Ra, Light Bringer’s way of Divine Living Light Today!
Just as I finish reading, the subway pulls into a stop near the central post office.
OK, timeout, because I know what you’re thinking—What a snowy fool I must be to fall for such an invitation! Like dark ripples flowing backward in time, I can feel your negative judgments trashing my self-esteem. Try to keep in mind that everything you “assume” about me just makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me,” because things are not always what they appear to be.
So, if you’ll kindly hit the mute button on your trash-talking judgments that keep sabotaging my self-esteem and just let my narrative unfold, I think you’ll discover just how wrong your negative assumptions about me and Ra, Light Bringer really are. For example, it may surprise you to learn as my story continues that Ra, Light Bringer is exactly who he says he is, if not more, and that the absurd nature of the ad was actually an alchemical blind, a clever ruse to deceive the uninitiated who could be expected to make naïve judgments.
Being misjudged is exactly what I expect from people who think they know what’s going on with me but have zero actual experience being labeled a deformed mutant by society. These smug know-it-alls are ignorant of what it’s like to suffer through chronic incarnation seizures (generically categorized as MIDS or Multiple Incarnation Disorder Syndrome) or any of the staggering number of mental and physical health challenges I face.
Let me be upfront with you right from the start. The life of a mutant suffering from MIDS (among numerous other health challenges) is not always a pretty picture, and I’ve never claimed to be the perfect poster child for any of my numerous disabilities.
If you can’t deal with that, if you’re the type that can only view a mutant’s life through rose-tinted glasses, if you need the harsh edges of an actual mutant case history sugarcoated with the glib inspirational tone of an after-school special, then maybe you ought to back out now before things get a little too real for you.
But if you are going to keep reading, kindly stop looking over my shoulder and second-guessing my every decision like a passive-aggressive backseat driver.
Now, if you’ll kindly permit me to get back to my story without further unqualified judgments, I’ll remind you that when I read Ra, Light Bringer’s ad in Healing Nexus Magazine, I was righteously—and correctly as it will turn out—filled with the deep certainty of true inner knowing.
I might’ve been deceived by any number of the false prophets in Healing Nexus Magazine, but thanks to my prescient mutant intuition, I recognized an invitation from the one true prophet.
I didn’t have a doubt the size of an organic mustard seed that I would soon receive the three-disc video series and Ra, Light Bringer’s Medallion of Freedom Pendant wrought of Genuine Polymer Crystal set on a scintillating chain of Authentic Gold Tone from the Crystal Workshop and Forge of the Living Light Foundation Trust, and that Ra, Light bringer would authorize and bless it all himself. It felt like I was already marching forth on my freedom path, proudly wearing that medallion for all the enslaved world to see.
With the decisiveness you might expect of someone imbued with absolute inner knowing, I shift from my usual lethargy into a Spiritual Warrior and Man of Action.
As the subway pulls into the station, I make an instant command decision to blow off the ODMS appointment. Then—without going into all the mechanical details—in a manic, but highly efficient, blur of activity, I get all the Living Light Foundation Trust paperwork, including the power-of-attorney form, done, notarized, and sent to their headquarters by express mail . . .
Well, you probably think you can guess many of the events that followed. Since you’re so sure of yourself, I’ll skip over the finer details of what happened next and give you a brief summary:
No, I never did receive the video series or Medallion of Freedom Pendant I was promised.
Yes, I was evicted from my apartment.
And yes, my tiny checking account and other resources became the proverbial black hole at the center of the cosmic doughnut.
Great, go ahead and congratulate yourself on your premature negative judgments.
Since you’ve already prejudged me, I’m not going to help you feel better by glamorizing what came next.
Not to put too fine a point on it, I became a homeless mutant or “undomiciled reality-challenged survivor.” Thrown out, penniless, luckless, without health insurance or a friend in the world, onto the cold hard streets of urban poverty.
I know you’d like to hear that I descended into an underworld labyrinth as if I were on a classic hero’s journey with a cool, gritty, urban slummin’-it flair.
Sorry, but since you can’t seem to stop trashing me with your negative judgments, I’m not going to sugarcoat the harsh reality of what followed.
No, I did not get any spiritual epiphanies from being homeless.
No, there were no heartfelt bonding moments with other street people.
And no, they do not offer seconds at the Homeless Mutant Soup Kitchen.
Whenever I roused myself from almost inanimate depression, I fed off self-pity like a starving subway rat on three-day-old extra-cheese pizza. And even when I got tired of self-pity, I had exactly zero spiritual epiphanies or transcendent experiences.
The high point of my day usually came after three or four cups of Salvation Army coffee (with a lot of extra packets of sugar and non-dairy creamer) which gave me a good thirty-minute caffeine-sugar buzz. I used this heightened zone to curse Ra, Light Bringer, this so-called being formerly known as Matt Wexler—or Sucker Boy, as I called him.
I had endless caffeinated Kung-Fu fantasies where Sucker Boy would happen to walk down the street. I’d just saunter up to him real casual like and say stuff like, “Hey, there he is, Matt, the Wexmeister, Matty W, the Wexrod, the Being formerly known as Ra, Light Bringer. Go ahead, Mattie-Boy, why don’t you make my day with a little Freedom Dance.” Then I’d headbutt him like twelve times a second till stars were spinning around him. Then I’d launch off the ground in a flying scissor-kick that would send Sucker Boy somersaulting upward, only I’d spin around so fast that I’d be in position to do another flying scissor kick to Sucker Boy’s jaw before he could land. I’d keep him somersaulting back and forth like that thirty or forty times in a row.
I’d walk down streets angrily gesticulating and saying things like, “Oh yeah, Sucker Boy, enlighten this.” And people would get out of my way.
But eventually, my blood sugar would collapse. And with it, my Kung Fu identity would plummet from its caffeinated precipice of rage, fall through the low-blood-sugar trampoline of self-pity, and land in the gutter of clinical depression.
Of course, now I can see the immaturity of how I reacted at the time. But this is what my life as a homeless mutant was like. At least, until one particularly freezing and windy night.
I’m aimlessly wandering down street after street. The Kung Fu rage part of the day has long since dissipated, and I’m now little more than a homeless snow zombie, my mind nearly blank. Then suddenly, from behind a dumpster in a trash-strewn alley, the true Ra, Light Bringer, reveals himself. A rainbow-hued aura of light glows around him illuminating his flowing white robes. And when he speaks, his voice is powerful with both subwoofer and echo-reverb effects.
“SNOW CHILD, HEAR ME-E-E-E! IT IS I-I-I-I! RA-A, LIGHT BRINGER-INGER-INGER!”
Instantly, the whole demeaning “Sucker Boy” ego concept I had formed of Ra, Light Bringer, vanishes. Instead, I feel the radiance of his inner strength, clarity, and all-encompassing, unconditional love. It’s the power of Ra’s presence more than any specific thing he says that dissolves my doubts.
With a feeling of profound eternal recurrence, I recognize Ra, Light Bringer, as the ONE. The ONE who has always guided me. For lifetimes I had struggled to rediscover Ra, Light Bringer, to take him into my heart, and let the radiant light of his inner truth heal the severely damaged remnants of my self-esteem. Somehow, the twisting illusions of Maya caused me to forget, doubt, and dishonor him. But now my eyes are open to his true nature.
“Snow Child, listen to me, for I have not forsaken your pathetic and miserable existence. I see what you have suffered. The suffering I created with my deceptive ad in Healing Nexus Magazine was not an act of cruelty but one of love. As you grow toward the light, you will understand that it was the only way to awaken you. Many other worlds than these await. Look about you for a key—a key that will unlock the vast deception of your existence.”
The powerful voice of Ra, Light Bringer, grows silent, and his presence withdraws gracefully as he slowly backsteps into the alley and vanishes.
Carefully, I look around. It appears to be just another slummy street with nothing out of the ordinary to take note of. But I’m filled with the inspiration of Ra, Light Bringer’s presence.
By his grace, I’ve transcended my depression, anxiety disorders, chronic snowbody dysphoria, and PTSD-related dissociative symptoms.
The ordinariness of my surroundings does not dismay me. Instead, my senses heighten to a state of dazzling acuity as I look for the sign, the key, to unlock the vast deception of my existence.
As I walk down the street, my mutant senses scan my surroundings panoramically. I become aware of every shard of broken glass, every rusty bottle top, and pigeon dropping. I study the surface texture variations of the galvanized steel of streetlamps and perceive even the most faded and obscured graffiti marks on peeling walls of ancient, over-painted cement.
I search ever so skillfully and meticulously for an off detail, the promised key that no matter how minute and hidden must be found to unlock the great deception and open other worlds than these.
And then, I see her.
A gaunt, elderly woman in a shabby overcoat, carrying two lumpy plastic shopping bags, walking out of the dingy fluorescent gloom of a small, inner-city supermarket.
I know her.
I used to see this very same supermarket lady when I was but a small snowboy. The style of clothing she wears is updated slightly—darker and more modern-looking than the flower-print dress she’d worn then. And yet her apparent age and every detail of her face and physiognomy are identical to how she appeared decades earlier, when I’d first seen her.
There’s a harsh ringing in my ears. Adrenaline pumps into the veins of ice water deep in my body, and I finally see the truth.
Every particle of my seeming world is a simulation, holding me like an insect caught in amber. But now the amber resin of Maya is melting.
This is not a solid world. It’s more like a flimsy shroud loosely woven with threads of nitrous oxide, ketamine, and nothingness.
This is what Ra, Light Bringer told me to look for—a key—a single but shocking flaw in the deception.
I’ve found it. A careless moment of recycling an extra, a pseudo-person meant to be a background detail. Some careless simulacrum coder has underestimated me, neglecting to account for my acute perceptivity and memory. It’s a tiny slip, but I’ve caught it, and now, I know, I KNOW . . .
Ra, Light Bringer’s voice erupts inside of me.
“Snow Child, now you understand. You have seen through the great veil of deception. Look about you once more, and you will behold a portal into other worlds than these.”
I stagger down the street, the ringing tones in my ears heightening in intensity.
I pass into the dark shadows under a highway overpass and see a large, immaculate, empty refrigerator box lying before me on my path. Its open-ended side is aimed toward me, and its interior is shadowy and vague.
The box glows with the uncanny aura of anomaly. This is the homeless part of town, and to find an unoccupied box so perfect and in such a convenient place, is as unlikely and fortuitous as finding a roll of hundred-credit bills lying on the sidewalk. I walk around the box, examining its unblemished walls of cardboard and the four reinforcing bands of white plastic that provide extra structural integrity. And then I find the message.
PORTAL Tech Unlimited? Thank you!
The world divides, but Ra provides.
I get down on my hands and knees and crawl into the shadowed opening of the box.
5 The Impossibility of Eternal Damnation
It’d be conventional to say I “fell into” dark, empty space. But that implies gravity and spatial direction. It’d be a shade closer to the truth to say I crawled for several feet until I “swam out” into space. But it was more like I just found myself in a dark, empty space. There was no up or down or any frame of reference to define it.
I floated in this undifferentiated dark space for many long eternities. Having no context to think in anymore, my mind regressed and curled in on itself like a fetus sleeping through an eternity of self-forgetting. Eons and eons and eons passed, but no one was there to be aware of them.
Without an observer, the eons themselves got sluggish and sleepy. They passed slower and slower. And slower. I had yet to complete even a fraction of the first eternity, and time itself curled inward and went to sleep. But because of how sensory deprivation affected my perception, this incredibly long amount of time passed in an infinitesimal moment, like the twinkling of a star, and I barely noticed it . . .
I can feel you judging what I just wrote as nonsensical because you haven’t experienced Extreme Time Anomaly Trauma (ETAT) like I have.
OK, I’ll explain it in other words. But please try to pay attention this time—it’s not rocket science.
I didn’t notice the passing of the eons because, after a few hours of total sensory deprivation at the start of the first eternity, my ego collapsed and there ceased to be a coherent observer.
My awareness slumbered deep within me, and gradually, almost imperceptibly, my self-identity and self-esteem dissolved. With no observer present, there was no perception of the passing of time, regardless of its duration.
No observer, no time perception. And this has a really positive implication you should be glad to know.
It means that an eternal damnation of burning in hell is impossible!
Think about it.
They say insects don’t have complex enough nervous systems to feel pain. For there to be an experiencer (in this case someone to experience an eternity of burning in hell) there must be a complex psyche, right? And what is a psyche? It’s a complex organism—a process or system with inflows and outflows. A psyche is an example of what’s called a “far-from-equilibrium dissipative structure”—in other words, a structure that requires energy to flow in and flow out, like a vortex of water spinning down a drain.
Psyches arise in social beings—beings that require social interactions. But if you’re burning in hell all the time, you’d be too preoccupied with the sensation of pain to have social interactions, right? What would you have to say to anyone?
“It’s not the heat, it’s the eternity.”
You can’t talk about the weather because there is no weather, just continual fire. The system would have no new information flowing in or out, so the most you’d experience is, I’m burning in hell. I’m still burning in hell, I’m still burning in hell, I’m still burning in hell, etc. If there’s no change, there’s no life, because life is change.
Even a damned and dead person’s psyche is still a life form, a complex ever-changing process. But if there’s simply an unending continuity of burning in hell, there is no experience, therefore such a state can’t sustain an experiencer.
For me, this isn’t just a theory because I actually experienced it. A few hours of sensory deprivation and my psyche, your psyche, anybody’s psyche, will quickly unravel and blank out.
I know what you’re thinking.
“But burning in hell would be an intense sensation, so it can’t be sensory deprivation, Mister Snowypants.”
I’ll bet you think you really got me, huh?
Yeah, sure, if you’re not accustomed to being burned alive, it’s an intense sensation. But burning for eternity is actually the ultimate sensory deprivation.
Think about it. With classic sensory deprivation like what I experienced, there are no physical sensations. You’re in a sensory-free blank space, but at least that allows you to hallucinate sensations and have surreal visions for a while.
But if you’re burning alive, what you have is one and only one overwhelming sensation which blocks you from even imagining any other. Therefore, you don’t have enough space from your one overwhelming sensation to hallucinate. You just have an unvarying intensity of absolute pain. An eternal, unvarying experience is a nonexperience, therefore it cannot be the state of an experiencer.
It’s a logical contradiction. No change, no experience, no experiencer. Get it?
I know being stuck in a featureless eternity like I was sounds like a hellish experience. But I quickly ceased to be an experiencer, so in my perception, it only lasted for a relatively short time.
I floated in this atemporal, nonexperiential space until eventually I fell out of eternity and back into linear time, experience time, which caused the dormant kernel of my psyche to reanimate.
6 I’m Anxious, Therefore I Am
Awareness resumes, and there is once more an observer, me, able to notice that I’m slowly tumbling through the distant outskirts of a shoddy, nearly empty universe. That may not sound like a great situation, but any sort of experience, even in a dismal universe, is a major improvement compared to the nonexperience of eternity in featureless darkness.
My first conscious thought is: I’m anxious, therefore I AM.
While this is a great relief from an existential point of view, the novelty of merely existing soon wears off, especially as I realize I actually have a lot to be anxious about. For one thing, I can’t tell whether I’m tumbling up or down. If I am tumbling upward, I will inevitably rise above the universe, but if I’m tumbling downward, I will inevitably fall below the universe. And then where will I be? Another eternity of featureless darkness?
Perhaps you’re imagining tumbling through outer space must be relieved by stars and comets and so forth lighting up the darkness everywhere. But as I’ve already mentioned, this is the distant outskirts of a shoddy, threadbare universe, a spatial backwater where stars are few and far between.
In fact, I can see exactly five distant stars. There are two yellowish stars in binary orbit and a triangular constellation consisting of one blue-white star and two yellow ones. As I tumble, the binary yellow stars are ahead of me until they rotate out of view, placing the triangular constellation ahead of me. This process repeats itself over and over and over and over and over again.
Because of this endless repetition, I can’t keep myself from having negative judgments about this universe and my position in it. Plus, the weightless tumbling is making me nauseous.
I feel oppressed by the extreme monotony of what’s happening to me, as well as stressed and anxious by the total loss of control I’m experiencing.
Time passes with agonizing slowness.
I feel more and more irritated and experientially impoverished by the lack of celestial bodies. Ever since I was a snowboy, I’d always dreamed of going to space, but the fulfillment of this wish proves to be a curse. Any sense of hope is being overtaken by self-pity and despair. What chance do I have of a meaningful relationship or a worthwhile existence in the distant outskirts of such a thin, disappointing universe?
But then a realization brings me up short and shocks me out of my depression:
What a fool I am to wish for more stars! What if I should come too close to one and be pulled into its gravitational field? I would be burnt to a tiny snowcinder. Stars may be nice to look at, but in reality—they’re my enemies!
That’s when I notice something that makes my whole being pulsate with anxiety. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the triangular constellation of stars is getting larger.
I must be falling toward them!
Frantically, I twist and contort my snowbody, trying to change the direction of my flight away from the triangle. But it’s futile. My trajectory has a slow but inevitable momentum, and I can do nothing to shift it.
Try as hard as I might, I will keep going in exactly the same direction. Despite the distance, the immense gravitational pull of the triangular constellation draws me toward it like a giant tractor beam. The cold mechanism of sidereal gravity is in control of my trajectory.
I’ve completely lost my free will.
I grind my icy teeth in frustration. But gradually, I realize that the triangular constellation is not actually getting closer. It was just my anxiety that made it seem that way. As far as I can tell, my only movement is tumbling. I have rotational inertia but no trajectory, no forward, backward, up or down movement.
An object slides into my field of view that does have a strong and speedy trajectory. It’s a smallish, gray, pitted asteroid speeding by at a distance of what I estimate to be a few hundred meters. Without even considering the extreme unlikelihood of there being any sentient being on the asteroid that would want to interact with me, I frantically wave my arms as it hurtles past. There’s no response, so I attempt to shout at it, but absolutely no sound comes out.
I’m intensely annoyed by this unexpected dysfunction.
What is wrong with this inferior universe? It can’t even conduct a goddamn sound!
But then my anger turns to self-mortification.
Duh. There’s nothing wrong with the perfect vacuum of space I’m shouting into—the problem is with me. I’m a mute. I’ve developed a new and profoundly limiting disorder that will severely handicap me socially and practically—the awful disability of muteness.
Realizing I’m a mute devastates what little is left of my self-esteem.
How did I develop this condition? I can’t remember.
For that matter, who am I? I can’t remember that either!
I stare at my skinny twig-like fingers of pale, snowy tissue.
Wait . . .This body structure is not normal! It’s a horrifying deformity, a mutation. I’m a mutant, a highly deformed mutant. . .
The realization stirs somnambulant memories. A lifetime of vague recollections crowds around me darkly, refusing to take on specific forms. I’m lost in the center of an obscure cloud of painful feelings and shame. The cloud envelops me, and my personality spirals downward into an utterly black event horizon as my core self-esteem plummets toward absolute zero . . .
And then, the impossible happens—my self-esteem crosses the absolute-zero threshold and keeps plummeting. At this point, if my self-esteem had fingers that could touch anything, liquid nitrogen would have felt like white-hot metal. Dark hallucinations take advantage of my weakened state to torment me, but I’ve deteriorated to the point where I lack coherence as an observer and am no longer capable of forming consistent memories.
All I can remember is a feverishly looping image of an upright kid taking a poison that looks like black ink.
After the hallucinations are spent, my mind finally clears, and I notice a black, late middle-aged duck with a heavy abdomen, and over-sized rubbery webbed feet standing before me. It’s rotating with me, always in front of my snowface, like a cheap satellite. It has a protuberant gut covered with thick, dull black feathers and an enormous flesh-colored beak that looks like worn, grimy plastic. The aging duck’s wide, staring eyes are full of fear and rage, and its breathing is rapid and agitated. Suddenly it begins quacking something at me that sounds like,
“Nhagwheel! Nhagwheel! Nhagwheel!”
I can’t understand what the hell it’s trying to say, and every time it quacks, it sprays saliva that crystallizes in the cold vacuum of space and floats away like smoke signals. Impatiently, it stamps its heavy, webbed rubbery right foot in time with the quacking.
“Nhagwheel! Nhagwheel! Nhagwheel!”
It quacks, quacks, quacks—fifteen, sixteen, seventeen times in a row. Suddenly, I comprehend what it’s trying to say in the garbled, speech-impediment voice of duck-speak.
“Not real! Not real! Not real!”
I gaze into the dark black pools of the duck’s staring eyes.
“Not real! Not real! Not real! Not real! Not real!”
He keeps quacking and stamping his webbed foot furiously. He’s asserting that I’m not real, and he’s intensely annoyed with me for pretending that I am. From the duck’s point of view, I’m a disturbing hallucination he’s angrily refusing to accept.
In a sudden nervous gesture, the duck jerks its wings up and covers its eyes, and that causes me to feel compelled to cover my eyes. But as my hands move through space to where I assume my head is, I discover I have no solidity to stop them. The duck is at least half right—I’m not fully real—my body is more of a placeholder image. I have no physical eyes I can cover, and therefore there’s no darkness behind them to go to, no other real besides this one.
The duck brings his dusty black wings down and stares at me with furious irritation. The dark, enraged pools of the duck’s staring eyes appear to grow larger and larger. Or perhaps they’re getting nearer and nearer or . . . a third and far more disturbing possibility occurs to me.
Perhaps I am getting smaller.
Intuitively, I sense all three factors are in play. The duck’s eyes are getting larger and closer, and at the same time, my size is rapidly dwindling. There’s an uncanny suction in the duck’s stare, and to my horror, I discover I’m being pulled into the dark, spinning vortices of its eyes! Desperately, I try to resist this suction, but I’ve nothing to resist with. There’s a sense of being torn in two, and I black out momentarily.
When my consciousness resumes, I find myself spiraling around in another featureless, dark space. Only this space is permeated by the duck’s quirky personality. I feel the intense fear bordering on hysterical panic in the duck’s psyche as it interprets what’s happening as possession by an alien spirit.
As annoying as this duck is, I feel intensely guilty for being the unintentional cause of its terror. However, I also sadly realize I can do nothing to comfort it.
From inside the duck’s mind, I can, of course, communicate with him telepathically. But if I should do so, the duck will inevitably interpret such telepathic communication as further evidence of possession, severely adding to his distress.
My profound, but impotent empathy for the duck is suddenly interrupted by a shocking telepathic communication from another source.
It’s an alternate version of me calling out from the other hemisphere of the duck’s mind!
The reason for this is both obvious and highly disturbing.
I was torn in two when I crossed the twin event horizons of the duck’s two eyes. My soul was sundered into two parts, and I’m only half of what I was before—a split-off half in one hemisphere of the duck’s mind, while my other half is in the other hemisphere. We’ve crossed a fork in the path of reality and been divided and diminished.
“Our plight lines are diverging!” shouts my other half. “Each of the duck’s eyes is a portal into a different reality, but while we remain in different sides of its mind, we can still communicate!”
“Yes!” I reply. “Our telepathic link is like the corpus callosum, the dense bundle of nerves that allows the two hemispheres of a brain to communicate.”
“But once we leave the duck’s mind,” my other self points out, “our paths will irretrievably split into two different universes where communication will almost certainly be impossible! We’ll be fucked apart forever!”
“And even if we could communicate,” I add, “our experiences will become ever more divergent as time unfolds in these separate realities! Therefore, we’ll become increasingly different, and the possibility of our reuniting as the same being will become more and more remote until it . . .”
“Until it dwindles to zero! And we’re fucked dry!” adds my other self, completing the thought I did not want to admit aloud. “But . . .” he adds, “it is what it is.”
The telepathic tone of my other self is sad but also reflects a grace of stoic resignation that I’m not feeling at all. I realize he is the better and more worthy of us, and I’m the lesser half.
“Faaarewelllll foooooooorrrreeeeeeevvvvvvveeeer!” cries my other self, his voice elongating and doppler-shifting as he plummets from the other hemisphere of the duck’s mind.
I feel a crushing sense of loss and abandonment. We’re like twin fetuses being pulled into different birth canals to be born into different realities, where no reunion is possible. His heart-rending telepathic cry of farewell happens just before he’s ejected into the birth canal of his new reality. Our experiences are already diverging as I spiral in my side of the duck’s mind, where I linger in the realm of the unborn because, unlike my better half, I lack the courage to be reborn.
Moments later, I discover that I’m not in control of the timing of my rebirth at all.
I spiral and wind downward into the quirky darkness of the duck’s mind. As I descend, the speed of my rotation accelerates like water spinning down a drain. As soon as I fall beneath the bottom of the duck’s subconscious mind, I plummet like a snowball tossed into an elevator shaft. But instead of hitting the bottom of anything, I cross the threshold into an alternate reality, where I find myself shooting upward like a rocket in the star-dappled heavens of a new cosmos.
Unlike the skimpy universe I’d tumbled in previously, this is a proper universe, with a rich array of stars and nebulae.
And I’m not just tumbling. My self-esteem reanimates as I observe that I have a powerful upward trajectory. And in the vacuum of outer space, there’s nothing to slow it down. Up ahead of me, I see a pale and luminous planet. It glows softly, like a giant pearl set amidst a vast jewelry of stars. My trajectory is aimed directly at it. A sense of fateful inevitability intensifies as the separating kilometers dwindle. My intuition tells me this is a world I’m destined to encounter.
Contributing to the rebirth of my self-esteem, I’m aware that in this new reality, I have solidly regained my corporeal snowbody. I’m clothed again in the dark overcoat and other familiar garments and accessories I wore as I crawled into the refrigerator box portal so many eons ago.
My overcoat flaps and parachutes around me like the cape of a heroic, interplanetary superhero as I encounter the thin atmosphere of this alien world.
Fortunately, gravity is weaker than usual on this smallish planet. However, it still seems that I’m heading toward it at a dangerous, if not flattening, speed.
A silvery-gray landscape rushes into view threatening to crush me, but I impact a surface far softer than I could have dreamed possible. I submerge into an almost-gaseous, liquid layer of grayish dust.
Because of the weak gravity, I swim easily to the surface, but I have to keep swimming to stay above it.
The arid dust crackles with static electricity that sparks painfully on my snowskin, especially when I move. My snowtissues are much more electro-conductive than ordinary snow due to their abnormally high sodium content, which also causes my chronic high blood pressure. And in case you don’t know, sodium is a metal. Don’t believe me? Look it up in the Periodic Table of Elements.
Dr. Beckstein showed me what pure sodium looked like in his lab. At first, it looked like a lump of cheese at the bottom of a specimen jar filled with oil. “Vhe have to keep it in zhe oil,” Dr. Beckstein informed me, “because if it’s exposed to zhe air, zhe oxidation will cause it to catch fire.” He cut into the cheesy lump with a scalpel to show me that it was silvery inside.
Now, all the excess sodium content I was born with is not only contributing to my high blood pressure, I’m also being electrocuted by the high static charge of all this dust. Also, the density of the dust is not sufficient to support my weight. Otherwise, I could stand on the surface, and the rubber soles of my shoes would insulate me from the static electricity.
Yes, damn you, I have shoes, feet, legs, and snowgenitals!
Did you really think I was like an upright’s emoji-concept of a snow person with an undifferentiated snowsphere for a lower body? Do you see the degrading stereotypes I have to put up with from you people? That’s how you like to see us, isn’t it—hobbled, castrated, bulbous, stuck in place, and then quickly melting into oblivion.
I’m unable to stand, but because gravity here is so weak, if I balance myself just right, I can lie on top of the dust supported by precarious surface tension.
So that’s what I do.
I roll over to lie on my back. But it’s not much of a solution, as I have to endure painful sparking on the back of my head. It’s like lying on a flimsy, dusty sheet with crackling electricity as the box spring below. I can fold my hands across my chest to protect them, but my brain, already weakened by ministrokes, is now getting the equivalent of a continuous low-voltage electro-shock treatment—which, in case you don’t know, causes progressive brain damage.
I make a tiny, unbalanced movement, and it’s enough to break the surface tension, submerging me into the dust. I doggy paddle my way back onto the surface while static electricity stings my exposed snowskin like a cloud of hornets.
Panting, I lay carefully on my back. I turn my head, only slightly and slowly, using the wide angle of my mutant-enhanced peripheral vision to scan the landscape. Great dunes and starlit desert plains of silvery-gray dust stretch out to the horizon’s vanishing point. It’s a vast dustscape—a monochromatic desert with pale shadows and windswept topography.
Some surface dust drifts into my nostrils, causing me to sneeze violently. This, of course, breaks the surface tension, and I have to doggy paddle through the hornet cloud of stinging static electricity again. I’m splashing about in chaotic dust waves of my own making as I struggle to regain surface tension.
I accidentally dry swallow some of the dust and become instantly nauseated. The dust has the faint, radioactive aftertaste of ancient nuclear fallout. I’m seized by a fit of sneezing. Dust clouds spray into my eyes, and I also struggle to restabilize my position in the panic of severe dust-allergy symptoms. I can’t seem to stop squirming long enough to allow surface tension to support my weight.
Meanwhile, the hornet swarms of sparks burn painful, itchy sores on my snowskin. My eyes are red and irritated, and my breathing is constricted to an asthmatic wheeze.
As I desperately doggy paddle, wheezing and sneezing and gasping for air, I become painfully aware that I’m highly allergic to the principal ingredient of this new world—dust.
Finally, I force myself to slow my frantic movements, and the dust regains enough surface tension for me to lie on top of it. I remember learning how to float on my back in the swimming pool when I was a snowboy.
I stop hyperventilating and slowly spread out my legs to gain stability. Once the overwhelming panic of electrical dust drowning eases, I feel the dark undertow of despair.
It’s only a matter of time before my allergy becomes fatal in such a disastrously inhospitable and hyper-allergenic dust world.
I’m also worried about its radioactive odor and taste. Even a small amount of radioactivity will eventually cause metastasizing snowcancer.
Intuition tells me this planet must have once supported higher life forms who must have ended their evolution in a massive thermonuclear war, rendering the whole planet into a vast dustscape.
I wonder about my other half, and whether he’s faring better or worse in his new universe. I call out to him telepathically, but there’s no response, only a reverberating silence. But my futile attempt at telepathic contact causes me to make a serendipitous and lifesaving discovery.
As I strain to communicate psionically, I observe a strange pulsing of colored light coming from deep inside my snowbody, radiating out from my thin rayon shirt. Slowly and carefully, so as not to tip over again, I undo the buttons of my overcoat to see more of it. Pulses of different colors come from various parts of my body.
I notice they correspond perfectly to the placement of the chakra system.
If my subtle energy is visible, it must mean that my mutant psionic powers are heightened in this reality too.
I test this by focusing my will on rising above the dust.
I discover my telekinetic power is just enough to resist the planet’s weak gravitational field, and I can hover a meter or so above the surface.
I put my mind to it and ascend two or three additional meters. As I practice, I discover I can also glide forward at a modest pace. I don’t know where I’m going, but in this way, I’m able to navigate over the windswept contours of the desert topography, my chakras pulsing with color. The lifeforce glowing within the icy crystalline structure of my body reflects off the silvery dust beneath me as a living corona of psionic energy, an aura of concentric bands of flickering spectral color.
Since I no longer need to touch the surface, I stir up little dust, and my allergic symptoms begin to abate.
I wonder what time it is, but there’s no dawn or daylight in this twilight world and, therefore, no conventional way to measure the passing of hours. Then I remember my digital watch in my overcoat pocket. I put it there when the wristband broke.
I reach for it and am pleased to find it’s still exactly where I left it. The LCD display is too dim to read in the twilight, but when I press the backlight button, I see the time:
It’s a reassuringly definite bit of information. But then I press the backlight button again:
This affront to linear time expectation is both stomach-turning and infuriating. Resentful and angry, I press the backlight button continuously and see the time is counting backwards, but even that, it’s doing inconsistently. It stays at the same time for quite a while before hurriedly losing about a minute a second, as if trying to catch up with backwards time.
I toss the digital watch away in disgust and see it slowly descend toward the dustscape. The instant the watch disappears into the dust, I regret what I’ve done to it. I just impulsively cast it into dusty, eternal oblivion. My regret is deep and full of nameless grief. It’s not the watch’s fault that it’s in a cosmos where linear time is dysfunctional.
As a snowchild, I dreamed of owning an expensive watch, but now, even the shoddy watch I did have is gone. Despite its broken wristband, this watch was a little part of me, and who I once was. And now I am lessened by its loss.
Regret over the watch causes me to stop gliding forward. My movement ceases, and my self-esteem plummets as health anxieties plague my mind.
The arid atmosphere dehydrates me moment by moment. With each backward-ticking second, I am drying out, my ice crystals are shriveling, and my old overcoat hangs loosely on my diminishing snowbody. I’m shrinking toward the Beckstein Limit.
Perhaps I should stop and explain how dehydration affects a snowbody since few people have the interest, let alone the caring, to know even the basics of how life works for those of us with the rare and permanently disabling condition of being snowbodied.
As a natural defense mechanism, my snow tissues dehydrate in a specific way. No crystals are lost. Each diminishes in size, but proportionally, to preserve the complex crystalline structure.
But once dehydration passes The Beckstein Limit, there begins structural deterioration. As this happens, bodily tissues become coarsened and reduced to the most rudimentary level of functioning. Since this tissue deterioration obviously includes the brain, going past the Beckstein Limit results in permanent brain damage and severe cognitive impairment. Irreversible memory loss, dementia, as well as loss of motor function result. And then comes coma, a cascade of organ collapses leading to respiratory failure, cardiac arrest, death, and ultimately total snowtissue evaporation.
When the last trace of my deteriorated ice crystals vaporizes into the infinite dryness of the dustscape, I will be gone. There will not even be a snowskeleton left behind, as my bones are not mineral, but cryptocrystalline ice.
I will become absolutely nothing at all.
I picture it all with horrifying vividness—my helpless body deteriorating into nothingness. For a moment, an empty overcoat lies on the surface tension of a desolate dune of gray dust before it slowly submerges into oblivion.
Now that I’m giving my dehydration more attention, I can feel every ice crystal aflame with thirst. Existential anxieties sting at my mind like a slow swarm of pale hornets.
I have to move. Movement is life.
I summon my will to go forward, but my psionic gliding is not what it was before. It has a slumped, dejected aspect—a trajectory that feels pointless—like a bit of space trash drifting past the outer reaches of a solar system.
Beneath my overcoat, my body is shrinking. My bedraggled snow tissues have a thinness and unearthly sallowness like the ghost of someone who has long since died of anorexia nervosa. In short, I look like a very tired version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
Thank God there’s no one to see my pathetic appearance, I think, grasping at the one straw of positivity in this desperate situation.
Slowly, I drift above the dustscape, trancing out in the sub-liquid-nitrogen etherverse of less-than-zero self-esteem, scarcely paying attention to my surroundings.
But then, a strong ammonia smell brings me out of my trance, and I notice my flickering, psionic corona reflecting off something moving in a dune shadow below. I lower myself and use my will to intensify the light I’m projecting. This allows me to see the first living organism I’ve observed in this otherwise sterile dust desert.
It’s a pale, faintly luminous scorpion about a meter in length, with a densely coiled tail, like a giant clock spring. But unlike a normal scorpion, each of its eight legs terminates in a large, webbed pad. This allows it to move over the dust without breaking the surface tension. Although the pads look like floppy clown feet, it comes scurrying toward me with surprising speed.
I glide back swiftly and just in time. The scorpion flicks its tail at me so fast it makes a sound like a ricocheting bullet.
After missing its strike, it scurries toward me with even greater speed. Fear intensifies my psionic power, and I quickly glide out of range.
The scorpion’s gleaming, bulb-like eyes stare at me with furious hatred as it hisses a bubbling froth of ammonia from the corners of its mouth.
I glide further out of range but soon catch another whiff of the caustic fumes. I turn just in time to see a second scorpion rapidly scurrying toward me from my blindside. Again, I evade, and it hisses bubbling ammonia.
It seems I’ve drifted into an area of the dustscape that’s heavily infested with these ammonia-breathing scorpions, and I soon discover they are even more dangerous than they look.
It becomes evident that these mutant scorpions have a telepathic hive mind. After the first attack, they’re all keyed up and waiting for my approach. They’re collectively aware of my evasive abilities, and quickly adopt counterstrategies. Groups of three or more work cooperatively, trying various ambush tactics. Fortunately, their ammonia scent gives me warning, and I easily evade them. Their frustrated hatred of me intensifies. I smell their ammoniac hissing and hear the bullet-ricochet sound of tails being snapped with hypersonic speed echoing across the dustscape.
Just as I pause for a moment’s rest, a group of three of these dust scorpions tries an unsuccessful ambush technique—each of them rushes me from a different direction. I ascend a couple of meters, and their tails flick out into empty space.
The scorpions are so enraged by this simple evasion that, in their fury, they attack each other—tails whipping out and slicing off body parts until they’re all in pieces.
Soon enough, all that remains below me is a twitching mass of infuriated scorpion parts, stirring up dust and sparks of static electricity. As amputated scorpion tails ricochet about wildly, the ammonia vapors from their dismembered bodies nearly blind me.
I continue gliding forward until I eventually cross out of the scorpion-infested part of the dust desert. When the last trace of ammonia scent disappears, I stop and hover for a few moments to assess my situation.
Every ice crystal burns with feverish dehydration and ravenous hunger, and I’m rapidly losing the will I need to keep moving. The excessive psionic energy I must output to travel like this consumes vast amounts of my body’s caloric energy, and it’s been eons since I’ve had anything to eat. My tongue is coated with that acetic-acid taste of snowprotein digesting itself. To survive, I must suppress my panic and focus on gliding. Even if it’s only mutant scorpions, there’s life here. Somewhere there has to be something to eat and drink.
I keep gliding across the endless dustscape until I’m at the limit of my endurance. My gliding is slowing to a crawl when I see a strange object up ahead of me.
It’s roughly cylindrical but bent like a giant hook or umbrella handle about ten meters high. It throws an enormous, hook-shaped shadow across a large dust dune. I draw near it cautiously and see it has a faded stripe of red that twines around it from top to bottom. Its surface is pitted and abraded by eons of dust storms, but here and there are patches of its original glazed surface.
It appears to be a gigantic, geologically ancient candy cane. I’m so desperate for nourishment that I try biting into it and find that it is mostly air—like dried-out Styrofoam under the brittle surface and patches of glaze. I eat a couple of big mouthfuls anyway. It tastes like a mixture of peppermint-flavored saccharine pills, lysergic acid and dust. It leaves my ice crystals with a chemotherapy aftertaste and sucks precious moisture out of my body. But there must be some residual sugar calories because I feel a surge of chemical energy. Perhaps this is what allows me to detect a high-speed incoming trajectory at the edge of my peripheral vision—two beings hurtling toward me as fast as fighter jets.
The energies of their psionic auras are focused like afterburners as they shoot across the dustscape. One entity is a flaming violet streak, the other yellowish green. They’re bobbing and whipping over dust dunes, closing the distance between us too fast to even consider evasion. Then suddenly, they’re hovering before me like a pair of harrier jets. Their eyes are telepathically penetrating, and their auras hiss with power.
One entity is shaped like a giant skull. Its violet glow throws a purplish shadow onto the dust below as it hovers a couple of meters above the desert. It’s lifelike, with the porous surface texture of a real skull. Yet it seems like a self-operating puppet with a fierce and deadly will within its exoskeleton. Occasionally there are flickers of movement visible behind its dark, skull-shadowed eyes.
The other entity glows yellowish-green and appears to be a giant, highly evolved grasshopper. Its expression and eyes are as flat and unreadable as those of a card-hustling android, but intuition tells me it’s actually benign and more of a neutral observer. In contrast to the potent malevolence emanating from the skull, I feel no trace of ill will from the grasshopper entity. But I also perceive that it will not intervene on my behalf. It’s there just to observe what transpires as a neutral witness.
They bob up and down before me.
Slowly, almost too late, I realize their asynchronous bobbing movements are intentionally hypnotic. It takes a great effort of will to keep my gaze from automatically following their mesmerizing motion. Mercilessly, they probe me with their eyes. The weak psionic shields I put up are like thin films of oleomargarine against the surgical steel of their telepathic scrutiny.
Suddenly, as if a switch were thrown, the skull begins speaking in my head. His telepathic voice is contrived to sound like a scratchy, worn-out phonograph record, and his delivery has an exaggerated, singsong quality like a perverse and sadistic department-store Santa.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! And how’de do! My name is Captain Skull, and this is my good friend and sycophant, Mr. Grasshopper.”
“My name is Snowman,” I reply with as much defiant telepathic tone as I can muster.
“Yes, and quite a fine figure of a snowman,” Captain Skull laughs spitefully. “Quite a fine figure indeed, eh Mr. Grasshopper?”
The grasshopper cackles briefly with a horrible, thin, high-pitched insectile laugh. But I can tell there’s no malice behind it. He’s just playing out the role indicated for him by Captain Skull.
“Yes, quite a fine figure of a snowman, yes indeed,” Captain Skull continues. “Though perhaps a bit dried up, perhaps a bit on the deteriorated and generally diminished side. But one can see he once had the potential to be a perfectly ordinary snowman, yes indeedy. Ho! Ho! Ho!”
The cruelty of Captain Skull’s words cuts through my flimsy psionic shields like shrapnel. As he speaks, my self-esteem becomes like a tattered plastic bag, tangled in a barbed-wire fence, blowing this way and that in the cold, indifferent winds of a nuclear winter storm.
“So just what on Pluntith do you think you’re doing here?” asks Captain Skull.
“I guess I’m on a quest,” I reply weakly.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! On a quest! The snowman guesses he’s on a quest! That’s rich! That’s fabulously rich, such an entertaining delusion! Imagine a snowman on a quest! Imagine that Dr. Beckstein—I mean, Mr. Grasshopper. Why you’re quite an amusing little jokester, Mr. Snowman!”
“What’s so fucking funny?” I ask, some deeply defiant part of me arousing itself from my self-esteem coma. “What’s wrong with me being on a quest?”
“Ho! Ho! Ho! What’s wrong with him imagining himself on a quest, he asks! Ho! Ho! Ho! That’s so rich. What a comic treat for us, eh Mr. Grasshopper?”
The grasshopper cackles right on cue, but it seems purely mechanical.
“What a comic treat for us! Thanks, Snowman! You have me absolutely in stitches, in sutures, in long rows of black sutures, you really do! What a funny delusion you have rattling around in your empty snowhead!”
Whenever Captain Skull speaks, I’m disoriented by the phonograph record static behind his words. I have no memory of his responses, yet they sound scratchy as if they’ve been replayed endlessly. I start to fear I’m caught in an endlessly recursive time loop with these two entities. Perhaps I’m already past the Beckstein Limit and have suffered massive brain damage, resulting in the appalling disability of amnesia . . .
Unable to create new memories, I may have played out this interaction tens of thousands of times without remembering it.
The possibility fills me with numbing horror until I realize the only way out of such a recursive loop—I must do something new and unpredictable.
“I still don’t get it. What’s my delusion, and why is it so fucking funny?” I ask in a challenging tone.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! He doesn’t get it! My, my, but this little stinker of a snowman can really play his part to a T, eh Mr. Grasshopper? What a funny little snowman you are!”
The skull’s response is instantaneous and as scratchy with wear as ever.
Apparently, becoming aware of my amnesia and trying to say something new is just another part of the loop I can’t escape.
Captain Skull imitates me with a squeaky, falsetto voice:
“I’m a snowman. I guess I’m going on a quest—” he taunts before dropping a couple of octaves to his normal skullvoice.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! My, my, my that’s funny! And the way you keep saying it with such earnest sincerity makes it even funnier! It’s just such a slapsticky, sight-gaggy comic punchline to hear you talk about being on a quest when anyone can see you’re a mere ornamental entity of the most limited sort, with crude features wrought by careless children on a whim.
“You’re just so hilariously clueless about your lifespan! Ho! Ho! Ho! Seasonal at best, n’est pas? And your body! Ho! Ho! Ho! Your body! Ho! Ho! Ho! Why little Mr. Snowman, to say that your body is weak, to say it’s flaccid and sallow, to say it’s soft and mushy to the extent that bullets and knives pass through it with pleasurable ease, to say it’s utterly lacking in the cardio-vascular capacity and muscular definition needed for the rigorous exertions of an actual quest, why—Ho! Ho! Ho! little Mr. Snowman, to say your body—Ho! Ho! Ho! Your alleged body—Ho! Ho! Ho!—what’s a laughably comic over-the-top exaggeration to even call a body—Ho! Ho! Ho! Just look at yourself! Your ludicrously pathetic little snowbody that so quickly gets soggy and melty is just so contemptibly weak and sickeningly repulsive. The ten-day-old corpse of a slug is a tower of physical charisma compared to you! You’re woefully inadequate for any imaginable purpose, let alone a quest!
“What a funny jest you made for us, little Mr. Snowman. Actually thinking yourself—You! —of all shoddy counterfeit entities, of all tawdry, worthless pinchbecks, you—thinking yourself adequate for a quest! Ho! Ho! Ho! What a melty Swiss cheese of a snowbrain!
“Surely you must’ve noticed that the serious players on quests have abdominal six-packs, high muscle definition, suntans, long flowing hair, and noble foreheads. And Ho! Ho! Ho! I can’t say I remember anyone on a quest with spindly stick-shaped arms, pale twig-like fingers, and a flabby snow belly! Ho! Ho! Ho!
“Why, even if there were handicapped parking spaces on quests, I doubt they’d be refrigerated too! And even so, could you imagine what would happen if you butted in? Why my goodness, everyone would laugh so hysterically at your looks, not to mention your weakness and incompetence, there’d be such nonstop hysterics at your expense that—”
Captain Skull is on a roll, hammering my self-esteem into oblivion. If I don’t do something soon, I’ll lose my ability to resist. I must break the loop. I can’t let my existence end in such a horrible, eternally recursive way.
I’ve got to do something new.
The only way to do that will be to say something unpredictable, without forethought. Something wildly new. Something revolutionarily and shockingly new! I’ll slap the fucking loop right out of them!
“Why don’t you go skullfuck yourself!” I say, slashing into Captain Skull’s monologue.
“Why don’t you go snowskullfuck yourself?” replies Captain Skull and the Grasshopper in instantaneous unison. Their words and cackling sound as worn and scratchy as ever.
Goddamn it! It’s all still part of the loop—I’ve got to say something spontaneously impulsive to break it.
“Make me!” I shoot back.
“EVERY TIME WE GO TO THE BATHROOM!!!!!!” they cackle uproariously.
It’s the punchline of the whole loop, and I walked right into it right on cue, like a cartoon snowman stepping on a rake.
This is how the cartoon loop always ends—the dumb, banged-in-the-head snowman dazedly cross-eyed and slack-jawed, with stars spinning around his bulbous DUH head, while Captain Skull and Mr. Grasshopper cackle uproariously at his expense, till the loop recycles.
I’m paralyzed with nauseating horror as I recognize the impotent stupidity with which I fell into this loop again. Captain Skull and Mr. Grasshopper are cackling and bobbing rhythmically, hypnotizing me back into the loop. I find myself compelled to stare into the dark shadows of Captain Skull’s eyes.
My self-esteem is a tiny, unnoticed snowcinder being washed down into the sewer system of a long-abandoned city of night.
The shattering of my self-esteem halves me into two selves again, each part shrinking and spiraling away into the enfolding shadows of one of Captain Skull’s eyes. This time I’m not even able to have parting communication with my better half. The separate eye cavities are like a blade of eternal disconnection.
Spinning into the cavernous skull eye, I, the remaining lesser part, fall into a gyrating violet spiral of forgetfulness and descend into another incarnation-seizure blackout.
9 The Dreamy White Powder
I’m leaning heavily on a bathroom sink.
I pull a cigarette from a pack emblazoned with the brand
and light it with a grimy plastic lighter. There are razor blades on the white porcelain and bottles of sleeping pills. The water in the sink is a dull, scummy white, like heavily used bathwater. It’s slowly turning in a vortex, centered on a steel drain that makes a loud slurping sound as the water is sucked into it. The spiraling of the water is weirdly fascinating, and my gaze fixates on the counterclockwise rotation of the vortex.
The universe must have flipped over and begun turning backwards.
As the last of the spiraling water begins winding down the center of the drain, I see a little rubbery thing riding the current of water. It’s a tiny, black rubber duck with a squeaky voice.
“Sorry folks, no afterlife,” it says before disappearing down the drain.
A wave of intense nausea comes over me, and I clutch both sides of the sink for support. A violent spasm shoots through me, and I barely manage to drop to my knees in time to throw up into the toilet. There are black, rubbery flakes and shards in my vomit.
Shakily, I wobble to my feet and look at myself in the medicine cabinet mirror. For a moment, there’s a kind of optical illusion where I see a young, upright guy, with eyes as wide as saucers staring back at me, until my vision stabilizes, and the florescent light mercilessly reveals the flabby white features of my souring snowbody. I look down at the twisting network of veins visible on my pale arms and the complex tangle of track marks, each mark a tiny needle-hole mouth, each mouth hole puckering with rabid hunger for more stuff, more of the dreamy white powder.
My head feels heavy, and I can barely keep my balance.
I open the medicine cabinet and find a tiny Ziplock bag of beautiful, snowy powder. Reverently, I pour the powder into my trusty tablespoon and add measured drops of tap water before caressing the bowl of the spoon with the flickering orange tongue of my plastic lighter.
The sound of the bubbles roiling on the spoon is like a chorus of tiny angels heralding the approach of paradise.
I pick up the hypodermic and notice it’s greasy with perspiration from many weeks of use. Its plastic cylinder is so hollow and hungry. But as I draw back the plunger and suck up the precious fluid, it glows with warm power in my fingers.
And now the gruesome part of the ritual, trying to find a live tube in all the tangled snowmeat that can suck up the warm liquid paradise. My needle has to make many new hungry red mouths before it finds a working tube and comes inside of me. Once it does, I feel divine anesthesia filtering through all my snowtissues.
My hands feel numb and swollen.
I let the spoon and hypodermic fall, clanking into the sink, and wobble may way to the old sofa bed that had once been tan but is now gray with dust and grime.
Living in mother’s basement isn’t so bad anymore now that she has stopped coming out of her room.
My slumping snowbody falls—heavy, but relaxed—onto the sofa bed. I’m comforted by the familiar smells of stale cigarette and pot smoke, spilt beer, and old urine. It’s like I’m floating on a heated waterbed in a beautiful, dark motel room.
I close my eyes and let myself merge with the warm, velvety darkness for a while. But my lovely oblivion is soon invaded by the wailing sirens of alley cats surrounding the house.
Like microwaving popcorn kernels, little pygmy heads of paranoid thoughts start popping open in my mind.
Alley cats again—wailing alley cats around the house—they must smell my mother upstairs—they’ll let everyone know—they’re going to bring the heat down on me! I’ll lose my dreamy white powder!
I struggle with my rubbery limbs until I’m standing. I grab the taped hockey stick handle by the sofa bed and walk out of the house to confront the alley cats.
The backyard is empty, and there’s no sign of a cat anywhere. I look around carefully. All the backyards are dark and empty. Low howling winds shake the old aluminum wheels of the laundry lines and rattle ancient TV antennas on rooftops.
How long have all the yards been empty?
There’s a terrifying feeling of ancient abandonment. Alley cats are nowhere to be found. The thoughtform alley cat has not whispered its sinuous feline phrases for centuries. There isn’t even the dark stain of an alley cat crumbled to dust in the old cement driveway.
Slowly, I remember the world ending such a long, long time ago. . .
It’s not so bad being the only one left, so long as I have the dreamy white powder. The dreamy white powder has all the answers. The dreamy white powder is a winner. And the reason the dreamy white powder is a winner is because it always makes all the right moves . . .
Winds howl through the empty yards. Underneath the howling wind, I hear a strange wailing again. But this time I’m unsure if it is coming from outside or just happening inside my head. I can’t tell what the wailing is saying, but it’s definitely about me. It’s tormenting me like the kids who used to whisper about me in the schoolyard.
Out of my peripheral vision, I see a white bulbous thing, blurred with speed. It whips around the back of the garage.
I wasn’t supposed to see that—it’s Captain Skull again!
The wailing sirens shift their pitch and resolve into a melodious voice, which speaks softly inside me.
“Please don’t be alarmed. It’s only another incarnation seizure, and we’re here to guide you.”
To help me calm down, the voice sings me a little lullaby:
“We’re the ones with great big eyes,
We’re the ones who help you when you dies.
We’re the ones that watch and wait,
We’re the ones that guide the Snowman’s fate.”
A change is happening. The winds have quieted, and there’s a benevolent presence in the yard. They’re behind me and then all around me. They’re encircling me, but I can’t see them. I can only feel their dark eyes at the edges of my vision.
The guide floats toward me and into visibility. He’s wearing old, blue jean coveralls and a sun-faded, red-and-white-checkered shirt. His head is long, gray and elastic. He’s like a stretched-out version of a gray alien, perhaps seven feet tall. His enormous, black, almond-shaped eyes study me compassionately. Above, in the deep darkness of the sky, a luminous disk hovers, waiting.
“What do you need, Snowman?”
The guide’s loving presence waits patiently for my answer. I look down at myself, at my bloated snowgut, and the network of track marks dotting snowmeat soured by endless years of alcohol, cigarettes, and needles. Then I look out at the emptiness of the backyard, the stained and broken cement, and think of the dark porous husk of a mother in the upstairs bedroom.
“I need a new body. A new incarnation.”
My request lingers in my mind as the guide gently coaxes me to close my eyes. I feel his long, tapering fingers project rapid pulses of energy into my body, generating a cascading chain reaction in my snowcrystals. The vibration intensifies until it feels like my very snowmolecules are being split apart.
I’m having another incarnation seizure!
Electrocuting fear as I feel myself destabilizing on a nuclear level. Shockwaves of entropy disintegrate my snowbody as the surrounding reality of empty cement yards and abandoned apartment buildings deteriorate with horrible rapidity.
The world warps and thins and inflates like a blister. The flimsiness of it all is horribly nauseating.
Then it pops, and I black out . . .
10 Proteinacious Spikes
An old woman is tugging on my arm, desperately trying to get my attention. She wears a white lab jacket, her face is haggard, and there are enormous bags under her eyes. She’s in a terrible state of nervous exhaustion.
She wants me to follow her, so I do, and while we hurry along, she speaks in a voice that is edged with barely suppressed hysteria.
“We’ve tried everything. I haven’t slept in eleven days. No one will do anything. Look!”
The woman gestures with a pale, blue-veined hand.
There are scientific and medical-looking devices everywhere, but she’s directing my attention to the binocular eyepiece of an enormous black microscope. It looks like it’s the most advanced piece of optical equipment in the world, but of an earlier era, probably the nineteen-forties. It’s composed of massive, black enameled components labeled “Zeiss Ikon.”
On the microscope’s illuminated, circular stage is mounted a single glass slide with a drop of yellow oil in the center. The woman’s blue-veined hands tremble violently. She ties an old piece of surgical tubing around one arm, takes a glass and steel syringe from her lab coat pocket, and injects herself with a yellowish liquid.
She then looks up at me with a stare that radiates infinite despair. I see her yellowed eyes and hair ravished by chemotherapy, with only a few thinning tufts left on her barren scalp.
“I’ve lost all my natural beauty,” she says to me with a terrible sadness.
I’m unsure how to respond, so I turn from her and look through the binocular eyepiece of the microscope.
There’s a blurry yellowness with something bulbous at the center, a cell or a tiny organ or organelle suspended out of focus. Knobs on the microscope’s stage allow me to alter the position of the slide. I readjust the fine focus knob, and the object clarifies.
It’s a tiny snowman with dark, empty eye sockets.
I increase the magnification and see that swirling around him is a cloud of reddish-orange viral particles. Their icosahedral cores are fringed with proteinaceous spikes.
Horrified, I look away from the microscope to find the old woman is gone. The hospital room is dark and dusty. It’s filled with equipment, but there are no people around.
I got swarmed by a deadly virus. That’s why the old woman wanted me to look into the microscope. She wanted to show me that I’m dead. Sometimes people are dead, but don’t know it.
It occurs to me that a lot of movies have come out recently about someone who died but didn’t know it.
What if they were all trying to tell me something?
I decide to look back into the microscope to be sure of what I’d seen. I adjust the fine focus knob. Suddenly there’s a crack, followed by a loud beeping sound, and I get a terrible twinge of anxiety.
I assume the beeping is coming from the microscope, because I’ve shattered the glass and permanently damaged the valuable optics. I look up anxiously to see if anyone has observed my costly blunder.
11 Upright World
As soon as my eyes shift focus from the optics, I realize that the beeping is not coming from the microscope—it’s a battered garbage truck backing up into an alley.
BEEP. BEEP. BEEEEP.
The sound is amplified by the narrowness of the alley, and it’s giving me a pounding headache, which throbs in sync with the idiotic beeping.
The beeping continues as sanitation workers bang metal garbage cans full of glass bottles rattling into the back of the truck.
I’m lying on the ground, trying not to vomit from the waves of severe nausea brought on by another incarnation seizure. My head is pounding, and my bloodshot eyes struggle to focus on the cement surface of this world.
A yellow Taco-Supremo wrapper smeared with fried cow grease is stuck to my face. I peel it off. The smell of rancid, artificial-cheese flavoring is sickening. I’m ill and exhausted. There are black, tarry stains and broken glass all around me. On the other side of the alley are the rust-colored stains of fossilized dog shit. I must’ve had night sweats because pieces of debris are stuck to my exposed snowskin.
I’m intensely uncomfortable, and yet I realize that I’ve come back—back to the world where I started from after being tormented by incarnation seizures. For better or worse—mostly worse of course—I’m finally restored to my native reality.
I pull a newspaper advertisement off the back of my hand. Parts of the newspaper do not peel off, and bits of its fuzz stick to my snowskin. The headline of the newspaper ad reads:
Fragments of memory flash in my mind—Lying in the alley the night before, sharing needles with other deformed mutants. They had open sores on their faces, yet I repeatedly shot up with their needles, knowing I would be infected by incurable diseases.
But . . . it is what it is. What’s done is done, and I just need to get on.
Sluggishly, I tousle with that old but still brutal tyrant, gravity.
I bring myself to a sitting position. Back and neck pain stab me like a series of white-hot knitting needles. My snowspine has deteriorated, and nerve-impingement pain shoots through me.
By my side, I notice a worn plastic shopping bag that looks vaguely familiar. The bag is decorated with a familiar logo— the stylized image of a cat in a tapdancing pose, dressed in a top hat and tuxedo. Beneath are the words:
The most complex and fully formed thought of the morning coalesces in my mind: This is my shopping bag.
I’m greatly heartened by the realization that I still have possessions.
My shopping bag.
I repeat the thought with satisfaction and feel my self-esteem beginning to recover.
In the center of the worn, plastic folds of what is indisputably my shopping bag is a little pool of amber liquid. When I pick up the bag, the amber fluid streams down the tapdancing cat and drips onto the bone-dry cement. I open the bag and find a large flask of colorless glass containing a dark liquid.
I sense the bottle is highly significant.
Its contours are familiar to my hand, and it resonates with vague memories. It’s more than half empty but contains about three ounces of an oily, reddish-brown liquid. It’s exactly the color and viscosity of cockroach oil decanted as an industrial lubricant.
Identifying the flask is a sloppily applied white paper label with convoluted glue wrinkles. On the label is a cartoon drawing of a snowman with black Xs for eyes, lying unconscious in a puddle.
Stenciled on top of the label is:
Underneath my dark overcoat, I’m wearing a rayon shirt with an upholstery-like pattern of brown and orange flowers. Dark snowmelt stains under my armpits go right through the shirt and into the quilted overcoat lining.
Pain emanates from my snowbody near my shirt pocket, which holds a large, white, plastic pocket pen protector. I reach in to retrieve it.
On the flap of the protector is a decorative seal—a red-and-gold heraldic crest design featuring a white eagle clutching a vanquished black serpent. The serpent is pierced by tiny black arrows and drips vermillion drops of blood.
Beneath the crest, in ominous Gothic font, is a Latin motto. I try to decode it, but the font is too small, and I don’t have my reading glasses.
The protector contains a single ballpoint pen with a splintered plastic barrel jammed into it diagonally. The pen has punctured the plastic of the protector.
I look down.
The pen has leaked greasy black ink through my thin rayon shirt and onto my snowskin, where it has seeped into my snowtissues.
Carefully, I unbutton my shirt.
A black nucleus of ink on my snowskin extends long, wavy, black fingers through my translucent snowtissues that thin into near invisibility at their dendrite-like extremities. The creeping rivulets of ink are like the insidious tendrils of a rapidly metastasizing snowcancer.
Desperately, I try wiping off the main nucleus of stain with sheets of newspaper, but most of it has already penetrated beneath the surface. My whole being quivers with the dreadful recognition of my extreme medical jeopardy.
Besides the spreading cancer, I’m perilously dehydrated, either at or beyond the Beckstein Limit. So I grab the bottle of Snow Comfort.
The dark, oily liquid tastes deliciously of instant coffee, cocoa powder, rum, and non-dairy creamer. It immediately soothes my nausea and glows inside of me. I take the last gulp of Snow Comfort in one long swallow, and as the rich, creamy fluid goes down into me, my mood goes up and up and up.
I reach into the shopping bag and find a battered transistor radio. I switch it on, and by fortuitous coincidence, find my favorite song is playing—”My Ex-girlfriend’s New Boyfriend” by The Depressives. Thanks to the Snow Comfort, I feel perky enough to sing along with it for a minute, until the goddamn radio station cuts off the last few seconds of the song—I hate it when they do that! —and an annoying commercial jingle comes on.
A chorus of toddlers with irritating falsetto voices are singing endlessly repetitive lyrics,
“Turbo-Sugar Skin-Popper Snacks. Buy and Eat. Buy and Eat. Turbo-Sugar Skin-Popper Snacks. Buy and Eat. Buy and Eat….”
This maddening jingle goes on and on and on for several minutes.
I try changing the station, but the jingle has already beat me there. The only difference is that each time I change to another station, the children sing with greater speed and ferocity, until the radio begins beeping loudly and a red LED display blinks:
The relentless beeping and blinking leave me no choice but to smash the radio repeatedly on the concrete to shut it up.
I search further into the shopping bag and find a narrow box. It looks chewed through on one end, and the thin white cardboard is gummy with saliva. On the box are alternately neon yellow-green and hot-pink letters:
Beneath the lettering is a glossy picture showing blond-haired, blue-eyed teenagers with golden suntans playing volleyball on the beach. They wear skintight nylon bathing suits revealing the Olympian muscle definition of their bodies. Their faces are frozen in the orgiastic excitement of youthful, summery euphoria. In the foreground of the scene is a powerfully built boy wearing a black-and-red football jersey. Bent over in front of the boy is a skinny, young girl who is naked, handcuffed, and blindfolded. The boy is in the act of taking her from the rear and he has this leering and all-confident grin on his face. The boy’s football jersey has sparkly red letters that read:
There are open boxes of Turbo-Sugar Skin-Popper Snacks lying on the beach all around them.
Following an irresistible impulse, I put the chewed-through part of the box to my mouth and pour the contents into me.
Industrial-strength flavorings of turbo-charged pink lemonade and sour-green apple explode into me, setting off a massive sugarquake in my brain. My mouth is so full of gummy sugar and chemical flavoring that sugar bubbles shoot out of my nose and pop loudly. One of the pops causes me to open my mouth too wide, and a gooey satellite of the main wad of mouth candy falls to the concrete, followed by a long, thin comet of sugary spittle.
Without hesitation, I tongue the pink, yellow and green sugar mash right off the cement. I chew and suck avariciously until the entire sugary chew, the satellite, and the main wad, are completely gone. Desperately, I inhale the sweet candy vapors hanging moistly in the air about me.
The sugar vapors dissipate, and I become nervous and shaky. Nausea returns and my stomach feels like an over-heated drying machine, tumbling ruptured bleach bottles of old grease and the charred carcasses of scorpions and insect antennas burned in a chemical waste fire.
Suddenly, a policeman in a yellow uniform appears at the end of the alley. He barks into a gigantic black-rubber bullhorn:
“Attention! Unauthorized consumer! Your presence in this private retail corridor is illegal! Step to the sidewalk immediately for identity code scanning!”
At that moment, an enormous tabby alley cat with brilliant yellow-green eyes comes racing toward me.
“C’mon Snowman! We’ve got to blow this alley!”
Excitement jolts me as I realize that I know this feline!
It’s my old friend, Eddie Cat!
His sleekness in form and moving is highlighted by the oppressive ugliness of the alley, and his expression is so characteristic—everything about him is just so classically—
“Snap out of it, Snowman! We’ve got to blow this alley right now!”
I’m about to move when there’s a loud stapling sound and an intensely painful impact on my shoulder. Some type of metal dart is stapled into my arm and attached is a yellow photocopied form.
“Quick!” urges Eddie Cat, “they’re serving papers on you!”
I look up and see the policeman in the yellow uniform holding a big horn-shaped gun. Another stapling sound and I duck just in time to avoid a paper dart nearly catching me in my left eye.
“C’mon!” shouts Eddie Cat.
Adrenaline pumps through my snowbody as I run with Eddie Cat, pulled along by his wake of feline acceleration. As we skirt between stores and garbage cans, the alley rushes away from us. We dash up an apartment building staircase, race over rooftops, down a fire escape, and through a maze of narrow alleys. Finally, one of those alleys spills us into a garbage-filled, vacant lot behind a row of abandoned stores.
“Ah, we can slow down now, matey,” says Eddie Cat.
I’m wheezing horribly, trying to catch my breath. Eddie Cat gently removes the paper dart from my shoulder. A little clump of snowtissue comes off with it, and I clench my icy teeth to keep from crying out.
“Where are we?” I ask breathlessly.
“Why, Upright City, of course. The land of the flesh-covered masters,” replies Eddie Cat, surprised by my question.
“I’m getting too old for this, Eddie Cat,” I gasp, still trying to catch my breath.
“You’re only as old as you feel,” he replies with a hugely encouraging smile.
“But I feel old,” I reply.
Eddie Cat pauses and thinks about this for a moment.
“Then I guess that means you are old, Snowman. Do you think you’ll be put to sleep soon?”
There’s a dark sense of inevitability about Eddie Cat’s question.
“I don’t know. It might be for the best.”
“Hmmm, I’m not so sure about that Snowman,” says Eddie Cat. “Did I ever tell you about what happened to my cousin, Debbie Cat?
I shake my head.
“She was put to sleep too soon,” Eddie Cat’s voice lowers to an ominous whisper. “And we’ve heard there were problems in the afterlife because of it.”
“What sort of problems?” I ask nervously.
“Y’know. Problems. Papers to fill out. Remediation courses. Arbitration. Corrective Surgeries. Complications. Audits. Chemotherapy . . . In fact,” Eddie Cat motions me to bend down so he can whisper in my ear, “There’s a rumor Debbie Cat might get sent back down to Upright World to do the whole nine lives all over again!”
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry to hear that,” I whisper back.
“Best to go the distance, kiddo,” says Eddie Cat with a friendly wink.
Right after Eddie Cat winks at me, I get a distinct impression that he just made up or highly exaggerated the whole Debbie Cat episode. I’m suddenly filled with doubts about Eddie Cat’s credibility in general. I sense an unexpressed agenda motivating everything he says. Then I realize I’ve known his agenda for years, but my memory is fuzzed out, and I can’t quite bring it into focus.
We walk across the cracked asphalt of the vacant lot toward an area thickly grown with giant weeds and vines. The tangle rises to a height of two stories before us and looks too dense to pass through without machetes. Thankfully, we avoid the overgrowth as Eddie Cat leads us through the shadows of the brush and into a claustrophobically narrow lane winding through the weed field.
The weeds become larger and more densely entangled the further in we go. Deformed-looking plants loom over my head, forming thick canopies across the narrow lane blocking out the sky.
The variety of weed species is endless. Some bristle with tiny hair-like thorns, while others have bulbous growths that look like small albino eggplants. At first, I thought we had merely entered an overgrown weed lot and expected we’d soon get to the end of it. But as we keep walking, I see there’s no end to the weeds in any direction. Every so often, we reach an intersection where another curved and twisty lane intersects the one we’re on. Eddie Cat stops and sniffs at each crossing before decisively choosing a direction.
“These damn weeds are such a twisty maze,” I remark to Eddie Cat. “How can you find your way?”
Eddie Cat turns and looks back at me as if I’ve asked the stupidest question imaginable.
“By instinct, of course,” Eddie Cat replies, grinning at me with the smile of a friendly social worker handing a balloon to a developmentally disabled child.
By instinct, of course.
The phrase replays in my mind as we resume walking.
By instinct, of course. What is this instinct that makes Eddie Cat so powerfully confident and able to know his way? It’s obviously a magic power of the highest order.
I don’t have any of this instinct. But how can I survive in this world without such a power? My instinct deficiency would cause me to perish before I’d ever find my way out of these weeds. By entering this maze, I’ve become totally dependent on Eddie Cat and his instinct.
The morning wears away as we traverse the long and twisting weed lanes. It’s hazy and humid, and the white-hot sun is directly above us. We’ve entered a section of the weed forest that looks burned out, and there’s no longer any ribbon of shade to walk along. I can feel the heat beating down on me, making my body sag.
I carry my overcoat draped over one shoulder until I begin sweating where it rests on my body and reposition myself to carry it on one arm. It’s heavy, like a woolen corpse. The steamy humidity is causing the overcoat to emanate an embarrassingly musky odor like an old dog that hasn’t been bathed in a year.
If I can smell it, then Eddie Cat must really smell it. Having instinct heightens your sense of smell.
I’m increasingly ashamed of the odor emanating from my overcoat, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Beyond the stench it’s causing, my profuse sweating makes me increasingly nervous about exceeding the Beckstein Limit. I look at Eddie Cat and see him thriving in the heat, which causes me to feel even more ashamed of my disabilities.
Why this unending curse of being snowbodied when I could so easily have been born feline?
I dab at my forehead with an old pocket handkerchief.
After anxious consideration, I decide not to tell Eddie Cat about the Beckstein Limit.
I notice the lane gradually sloping downward. We seem to be walking toward the center of a giant crater. As we travel inward and downward, it’s getting hotter, and the weeds look more deformed. Before they were heavy and dusty, with thick cable-like branches, but now they look spindly and sickly. Some are covered with a dull fuzzing of white fungus, while others have a waxy, translucent skin speckled with blister-like growths. The increasing deformity of the weeds makes me nervous, and I decide to venture a question.
“By the way, where are we going?” I ask, trying to sound casual and nonchalant.
“Cat City of course,” replies Eddie Cat. “Why? Don’t you want to hang out with us?”
My face flushes with embarrassment. Eddie Cat always has a way of throwing me off balance socially.
“Oh, of course, I want to hang out with you,” I reply awkwardly. “I’m honored that you were nice enough to invite me. I only asked because I’m having this slight memory problem—” Eddie cat flashes me a critical look. “But I’m sure it’s only temporary. And it’s not everything—I just blank on certain stuff—like people, places, things, events, and ideas.”
“Oh. OK. I’m glad you shared with me, Snowman. It’s important that we communicate openly.”
“Well, it’s very nice of you to be so considerate,” I reply. “I really appreciate your help.”
I’ve traveled such a long way without companionship and feel genuinely touched by Eddie Cat’s close attention. But I also fear my emotional dependency on him, which I sense has a painful history, though I can’t recall any details.
“Don’t mention it,” replies Eddie Cat. “I’ve always enjoyed being your social worker. And even if I didn’t, I’m well paid for it.”
“You are?” I’m shocked by this unexpected disclosure.
“What, paid?” replies Eddie Cat looking extremely insulted. His reaction throws me into an agony of embarrassment and regret for my disastrous faux pas.
“Oh, no, no, I didn’t mean—I didn’t mean about being paid, of course, you’re being paid, why shouldn’t you be paid for being with me—see it’s just a misunderstanding. I said, ‘You are—’ because I was trying to say, ‘You are my social worker.’ I was just agreeing with what you said. But when I said, ‘are,’ my voice broke, and it inadvertently sounded like a question.
“And, of course, you were perfectly right to misinterpret it as a question, because it was my voice that cracked and made it sound like a question. I—”
“It’s OK,” interrupts Eddie Cat. “It’s cool. Don’t worry about it. What’s done is done. It’s over. Let’s just forget about it.”
“OK,” I reply quickly.
We resume walking silently, but the silence is now charged and awkward. By the side of a long row of weeds we come upon two large lava boulders in a tiny clearing under the hot sun.
“We’ll rest here,” announces Eddie Cat gruffly.
We sit across from each other on boulders made of pitted volcanic pumice. Basically, they’re very hot and scratchy sponges made of volcanic glass, but it’s better than sitting on the ground.
Eddie Cat is studiously avoiding eye contact. It’s painfully obvious that he’s still highly irritated with me.
From the time he found me in the alley until I committed my faux pas was a kind of brief honeymoon period of forgetfulness. Because of his gloriously feline looks and manner, I tend to idealize Eddie Cat and forget the messy complexities and difficulties of relating to him. But now I’m feeling the all-too-familiar boundary tensions, resentments and codependency issues, charging the uneasy atmosphere between us.
Silently, I curse myself for my lapse in remembering feline hypersensitivity about professional credentials and the degrees of status they convey.
I’d inadvertently stepped into a cultural and racial minefield of multi-generational feline resentment of upright attitudes and institutions. I contemplate making some sort of reparative statement but realize anything I say is going to be viewed as condescending, and only make the situation worse.
How can Eddie Cat even imagine that I have a racist bone in my snowbody when he knows I basically worship felines?
How can he lump me in with uprights when I resemble them only in vaguest outline?
Why isn’t it obvious to him that I’m a uniquely deformed mutant which no normal upstanding upright would see as kith or kin?
Eddie Cat’s complete misunderstanding of me is just crazy-making. I’ve never self-identified as an upright, and I’ve always been willing to do anything, anything! to be more feline.
But cats never see me as one of them. Instead, they project onto me every negative thought, attitude or experience they associate with uprights as if I’d been born into one of their privileged lives.
Why do felines have to be so goddamn ignorant and parochial? Why can’t they see that I’m far more discriminated against than they could ever be? They have each other, and I don’t have anybody!
So what exactly is your problem with me, Mr. High-and-Mighty Eddie Cat?
My thoughts get increasingly agitated and defensive until I look across at Eddie Cat and see he’s not occupied with racial issues at all. Instead, he’s completely absorbed with licking himself. He’s purring loudly with perfect contentment, obviously enjoying his grooming ritual.
How can Eddie Cat lick himself in public like this? He’s just licking away at himself right here in broad daylight and—
And not only is he unembarrassed—he’s enjoying it with unreflecting pleasure, as if he hasn’t got a worry in the world.
I’d be mortified to lick myself in front of someone else. What looks good when felines do it—licking, stretching, jumping—look monstrous when a snowman does them.
How I envy your feline coolness, Eddie Cat.
After a while, Eddie Cat finishes grooming himself and turns toward me as if he’s noticing me for the first time and was never irritated with me.
He yawns, does those two classic cat stretches, and leaps gracefully from his boulder. With stiff, snowperson-awkwardness, I get down from mine.
Then Eddie Cat does something utterly disarming and unexpected. He lightly brushes his furry cheek by the side of my head in a gesture of feline affection.
“Don’t worry about any little thing, Snowman,” says Eddie Cat in a purry, singsong voice.
He can purr even as he speaks, which is so cool I almost hate him for it.
“Don’t forget I’m not just your social worker, I’m also your good friend.”
Eddie Cat’s apparent sincerity and warmth encourage me to ask a question.
“Eddie Cat, I know you’re taking me to Cat City, but because of the memory problem I shared—”
“And thank you again for sharing,” says Eddie Cat, with his most magnanimous social-worker benevolence.
“No, thank you for being patient with my disabilities. Anyway, I remember parts of Cat City, but I can’t recall anything about the place we’re in right now.”
“This is Weedland,” says Eddie Cat. “And a wilder and more desolate place is not to be found anywhere in the whole outskirts of Upright City.”
“You mean we’re no longer in Upright City?”
“Of course. That’s why you don’t see any uprights. You do remember who uprights are—Skinjobs? The furless masters who twisted up this whole reality?
“Upright City is where most of the uprights live. And since this is the Age of Uprights, we refer to this whole plane of existence as Upright World.”
“And how did Weedland get this way?” I ask.
“Because of the uprights,” replies Eddie Cat.
“Oh, OK. But can you remind me exactly how Weedland got this way because of the uprights?”
Eddie Cat is starting to get impatient with my questions, but I have to know.
“By dropping the N-Bomb on it, of course,” replies Eddie Cat.
I feel the temperature of my snowblood drop ten degrees as N-Bomb resonates in the depths of my memory.
“And—can you remind me again what exactly the N-Bomb is?” I ask in a shaky whisper.
“Seriously? You can’t remember the N-Bomb?”
I shake my head.
“Well, it’s only the most advanced bomb ever made. Its capabilities are mind-blowing. Why it’s over five hundred times more powerful than the M Bomb! I mean, we’re talking about a little piece of hardware that can release ten thousand separate, almost microscopic, warheads, each one of which is thirty times more powerful than the early L Bombs.”
“You don’t even remember the L Bomb? Just what sorts of bombs do you remember?” asks Eddie cat, impatiently.
I search my memory before answering.
“Well, I think I remember hearing something about the A-Bomb and the H-Bomb,” I reply defensively.
“What? You mean those ancient mushroom bombs? Kittens throw them off rooftops on Parade Day! Next, you’ll be telling me you’re from the Atomic Age. Time to wake up and smell the mutations, Snowman!
“Haven’t you noticed something abnormal about eight-foot weeds and talking cats? How do you suppose you became a conscious snowman? You’re more mutated than any of us. You only exist because of the N-Bomb’s irreversible damage to the reality waves.”
These all-too-familiar grim realities, which I had somehow repressed in my memory, fall on me like a load of lead bricks. Reality-wave distortion is the story of my life, the most basic fact of my existence. And yet, I never quite get over the sickness of the upright mind—what other species would invent a bomb that damages the quantum mechanical level, burning cancerous pinholes into the black fibers of space-time?
“And now,” Eddie cat continues, “damage to space-time is spreading. Reality wave distortion is diffusing into the past, distorting earlier times.”
“Wait, earlier times are getting distorted?” The news feels like it’s caving in my chest. “Are you sure about all this?”
I sense both truth and misinformation in what Eddie Cat is telling me. But I can’t discern which parts to take seriously and which to ignore as exaggerations. He gives me a shrewd look as if he’s reading my doubts.
“Even with memory problems, you must be aware that it’s not normal to be a conscious snowman. Right?” asks Eddie Cat.
“Right,” I reply automatically.
His train of thought is stirring up existential anxiety. I want him to drop the subject, but he’s persistent.
“Look, haven’t you been experiencing weird blackouts and out-of-body experiences where you flash through multiple incarnations?”
“You know about that?” I ask, feeling suddenly elated.
Incarnation seizures had always been my deepest, darkest secret. Through many long lifetimes, I’d borne this shame alone. Never before had I been able to talk to another sentient being about my condition. Relief washes over me. I look up at Eddie Cat with newfound love and gratitude.
“Of course, I know about it,” he responds with an edge of irritation. “I’m your social worker, remember?”
I’m about to stutter out an apology before Eddie Cat impatiently waves me off.
“I see that your memory handicap means I’ll have to review the most basic aspects of your existence,” Eddie Cat sighs with exasperation. “In earlier, more pristine times, before the N Bombs caused irreversible distortion of the reality waves, something like you would never have happened.”
I freeze up, sensing the direct assault on my self-esteem.
I have to defend myself.
“It’s not true!” I shoot back reflexively.
“OK, I can see you’ve regressed to the denial stage. Let’s back up and start from the beginning. Just look around you, Snowman. What sort of mutations do you see? Do you see how everything is a variation of the original reality?
“Before the N-Bomb, cats couldn’t talk, and they didn’t have as much structured thought as we do now. They couldn’t hold objects in their paws very well and were only a tenth our present size. As a result, our ancient ancestors were discriminated against and called by that accursed, demeaning name, alley cats.”
Eddie Cat saying the A-Word aloud causes me to shudder involuntarily.
Of course, he’s allowed to say it—he’s a cat. But even to hear it aloud like that—I try not to even think that word!
“They lived in the margins of upright society and were treated as third-class citizens,” Eddie Cat continues. “But despite these differences, we’re still much like earlier feline species.
“Similarly, although these weeds have gigantism and a few other deformities, they’re still just variations of ordinary weeds. But—” Eddie Cat lowers his voice ominously, “You’re something that cannot even be named . . . a forbidden mutation. You are the Inanimate Become Animate One, the IBAO. A snowman was never before a living thing. There’s no other like you. In a sense, you’re the N Bomb’s only son.”
I look into Eddie Cat’s yellow-green eyes.
“I feel the truth of it,” I say in a trance-like voice. “I’m a mutation, a highly deformed, grotesque mutation.”
“Yes, you are,” replies Eddie Cat. “You are the most reality-deteriorated mutant in all of Upright World.”
My self-esteem shoots skyward like a Roman Candle. Nobody had ever told me that I was the most at anything.
“Isn’t it obvious? Everybody else’s body has a definite structure, while you’re amorphously composed of ice crystals. I’ve read your entire medical evaluation.”
“What medical evaluation?”
“My God, Snowman, don’t you remember anything of the early days when we first found you? Your medical evaluation was recorded on a tiny computer chip, which you wore around your neck. The uprights ran a whole series of phased reality scans on you. They discovered that you’re formed out of an unstable field of nuclear magnetic resonance, which generates a uniquely mutated hybrid of organic and representational reality waves.”
Eddie Cat sounds like he’s reading from a book, and I wonder if he knows what he’s talking about. Once again, I sense I’m being fed misinformation.
“Well, does this medical evaluation say how I got so mutated?” I ask in a challenging tone.
“Why, yes, it does, Snowman. The evaluation says that your biological mother abused—or, shall we say, challenged herself, with an army-surplus, reality-wave-distortion field generator which exacerbated the instability created by the N-bomb. And then, without having sex with anyone except her female partner, she became pregnant. Amniocentesis revealed an animate fetus made of inanimate substances.”
“But why would she abuse herself like that?”
“According to the evaluation, your mother used reality-wave-distortion fields to get high. She didn’t care how much it mutated her DNA and that of her unplanned fetus, so long as she got a quick buzz.”
I put my twig-like hands over my ears.
“It’s not true! I don’t believe it! Not a word of it!”
“I’m sorry, Snowman,” says Eddie Cat. He brushes against my leg in a friendly, reparative gesture, which calms me. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Let’s forget about the evaluation. Everything will be just fine once we get to Cat City.”
I feel better even though I realize Eddie Cat is schmoozing me. Quite possibly, everything he said is a lie. But another part of me wants to go along with it because I need to believe I’m getting definite answers, even if they’re not what I want to hear.
At my current level of self-esteem, I’m willing to go along with anything. Anything besides the terrible loneliness I felt when tumbling through space for multiple lifetimes. I’m clinging dependently to Eddie Cat, desperately wanting to believe him.
“Can you remember where you’ve been, these many suns you’ve been gone?” asks Eddie Cat.
“No,” I reply truthfully. “I recall falling through space, and I know there were many incarnations. But the awful disability of amnesia obscures all the specifics.”
“You must have had more of those incarnation seizures,” says Eddie Cat gently. “Can you remember being in any other lifetimes or dimensions?”
“I know I was, but I just can’t remember details right now. The truth is, I can’t remember much of this lifetime either. All I can remember is a dreadful headache. It was like a Turbo-Sugar Skin-Popper hangover headache, only a thousand times worse.”
“You mean all you can remember of your incarnations, including this one, is a headache?”
Eddie Cat is incredulous, and I suddenly feel nervous and defensive.
“Oh no, I can remember some stuff, of course,” I reply evasively. “It’s just that—I mean, what causes these incarnation seizures? Can’t anything be done about this sickness? Aren’t there any pills or injections I can take for it?”
“Whoa, one question at a time, Snowman,” replies Eddie Cat. “Let’s talk about the cause first because that part is straightforward.
“Remember, you’re formed by unstable fields of distorted nuclear magnetic resonance. When those unstable fields get a little too unstable, perhaps because of an emotional upset, your reality waves shift to a parallel universe. When the system restabilizes, you return to Upright World.
“It’s an unusual condition, but it still falls under the umbrella category of Multiple Incarnation Disorder Syndrome or MIDS, so coverage isn’t an issue. At least, there’s no gap in coverage while you incarnate in Upright World, but in other realities, you’re obviously out of network and have to fend for yourself.
“Recently, your system has lost a critical level of cohesion, which is why you’re now destabilizing more often. In your case, MIDS presents as a progressive disability.”
“And what about treatment?” I ask gloomily.
“Treatment? Well,” Eddie Cat gives me a patronizing smile, “you have to realize the underlying cause of your distortion and instability problems is the overall deterioration of space-time and its inevitable descent into entropy. Whenever there’s a seasonal flare-up of reality-wave distortion, most of us ordinary mutants get a little nauseated or a slight headache. You get incarnation seizures. Remember, treatment is only one aspect of the healing process. The first step is to think of this massive disability as more of a challenge than a handicap.”
Eddie Cat’s words sound sweet and well-meant, but they only make me feel more depressed and hopeless about my condition.
We walk down another weed lane in silence. There’s a sour smell of green sap boiling in wilted stems and leaves. I’m exhausted, and my posture is wilting like the weeds hanging down around me. The sun is white-hot and directly overhead, and the Beckstein Limit hovers above me like the blade of a guillotine.
“We must continue the healing process,” says Eddie Cat after a long silence. “Tell me what you remember of your unhappy childhood.” His voice has taken on a hypnotic cadence. I shake my head.
“I can’t remember.”
“You mean you don’t remember your foster mother, Betty Cat?”
I shake my head silently while a deep indefinable sadness comes over me. The name “Betty Cat” stirs feelings of guilt and shame I don’t want to face.
“It’s a pity you’ve lost the memory,” says Eddie Cat sadly.
“Your blessed foster mother, Betty Cat, may she rest in peace, was a wonderful guardian for you. She was the one who found you floating down the Pluntif Industries River in an old plastic laundry basket.”
Slowly, a memory begins to form, but it quickly evaporates like a splotch of snow on a hot pan.
“Ahhh,” says Eddie Cat, his eyes lighting up, “I see what your problem is— you’re suffering from Post-Traumatic Repressed Memory Syndrome! Quick! Kneel down on the ground.”
Obediently, I kneel on the ground. I feel moisture from my kneecaps seeping into the baking-hot dirt beneath me.
From a hidden pocket, Eddie Cat pulls out an oversized gold pocket-watch on a chain. Under its domed crystal is a black spiral on a white background. Eddie Cat begins swinging the watch in a slow pendulum arc. My eyes move back and forth rhythmically as Eddie Cat chants in an ever-so-soft hypnotic voice.
Nice and sleeeeepy,
Isn’t it niiiiiice to get nice and sleeeeeepy,
Nice and sleeeeeepy,
Nice and sleeeeeepy,
Isn’t it niiiiiice to get nice and sleeeeeepy,
Nice and sleeeeeepy,
Nice and sleeeeeepy . . .”
My eyelids grow heavy and droop closed. My breathing slows to a somnambulant rhythm. Somewhere inside, down a long dark corridor, a door creeks open, and memory floods in. I blurt out what I’m experiencing to Eddie Cat.
“I remember mother. I remember the laundry basket. I remember how she licked my face when I was little. But the other chil-dren—” my hands become shaky, and my voice stammers— “I never got along with the chil-chil-chil-dren. They were always so cruel to me. And they had a name for me. A name, a name I—hay—hay—hated.”
“What was the name?” asks Eddie Cat.
“I’d rather not say,” I reply.
“Remember what I said before about open communication?” says Eddie Cat in a soft but very insistent voice. “I’ve read every upright book written on social working, and they all agree you can only help those who open themselves to help. And open communication is the key to opening yourself to being open to help. So, as part of open communication, I want you to tell me the name they called you.”
I feel a powerful reluctance but my desire to please Eddie Cat overcomes it.
“Well, if you really have to know, what they called me was—snowfag.” I nearly choke on this name I hoped was forever in my past.
Eddie Cat covers his mouth with his paw and coughs, but I swear the corners of his mouth turn up into a grin.
“What’s so funny?” I ask.
“Nothing at all. That was very cruel. I can see why it upset you to be called such a name.”
“It did upset me. It still upsets me.”
“Well, go on—what else did the children do to you?”
“I’m not sure . . . I . . .”
“Do you remember that night in the schoolyard?” asks Eddie Cat.
His words send tremors of fear through my snowbody.
“The night in the schoolyard?”
I know what he’s talking about but can’t bear it being brought up.
“Yes, what occurred that night in the schoolyard? Can you remember what happened when those children abused you?”
A wave of nausea shudders through me, and I vomit onto the dusty soil. Eddie Cat watches me, patient and alert, as I spit out frothy snowvomit and struggle to clear my throat.
If I can’t tell Eddie Cat, the terrible secret will keep burning inside me. I’ve got to face it.
The memory begins to play in my mind, and in a trance-like voice, I narrate the experience.
“I sneak into the schoolyard to shoot some baskets. If I can teach myself to play a sport really well, maybe the other kids will accept me.
“It’s a summer night, and I haven’t seen most of my seventh-grade classmates for weeks. I’m shooting baskets when Kevin Cat and his friends suddenly appear around me. It scares me, and I gasp. You know how cats can creep up real stealthy when they’re after you? It’s the scariest thing in the world. They’re staring at me, all ten of them. They’re only a year older than me, but they’re full-sized toms.”
“And then they started saying stuff like, ‘Hey snowfag. What are you doing at our basketball court, snowfag? You’re too spazzy for basketball, snowfag.’
“They knock my basketball out of my hands. Then Kevin Cat’s cousin, Jerry Cat, starts saying I’m soft, and I made their school look gay when I sit in the bleachers at football team pep rallies.
“Kevin Cat joins in,‘Yeah snowpussy, you make us look stupid.’ ‘Yeah, you fucking SNOWFAG!’’ adds Jerry Cat. All the others join in with a chorus of ‘snowpussy!’ and ‘snowfag!’ Then, with sudden cat speed, they grab me and pin my skinny arms against the schoolyard fence. ‘Let’s show him how soft he is,’ says Kevin Cat. And then . . .”
I begin wheezing asthmatically, almost hyperventilating, but I must get the words out.
“They start putting things . . . they started putting things in my snow. Pens and combs and pieces of sharp glass. They said they wanted to show me how soft I was.”
I begin sobbing uncontrollably as the remembered pain pierces my body. Eddie Cat’s glittering yellow-green eyes peer into me.
“Stop crying!” commands Eddie Cat. “You’re losing moisture.”
“You mean—you know about my condition?”
“Of course, I know about your condition. I mean, it’s pretty damn obvious, isn’t it? Tell what came after, what happened after they put the things in your snow?”
“I can’t!” I reply, nearly screaming, “I promised never to say.”
“You must say it, or you’ll never learn to live with the trauma. It’s essential to the whole healing process,” says Eddie Cat vehemently, looking at me with weirdly fascinated eyes.
I’m hyperventilating with anxiety, but I have to say it.
“I made them go away,” I blurt out. “Something happened inside my head, and I just looked at them, and their bodies deteriorated, and then they just went away. They were gone.”
There’s a long, tense silence before Eddie Cat speaks.
“Those young toms should never have done what they did to you.”
Eddie Cat’s voice is smoothly professional and consoling.
“No, they shouldn’t have,” I reply bitterly, “but what I did was so much worse. I couldn’t help it—it just happened.”
“You must learn to let go of it,” says Eddie Cat, “That’s step number one in the healing process.”
I take a shuddering breath and feel the peace of profound catharsis.
“Come on,” says Eddie Cat. “We’ve stayed here long enough. Let’s make it to Cat City before nightfall. Weedland is no place to be when the sun sets.”
Walking beside Eddie Cat, I sense we’ve crossed significant barriers. Still, I’m exhausted by the emotional stress of the process, and my worsening dehydration is causing me to become ever more cognitively impaired. The dry cottony taste in my mouth is turning into the vinegary, acetic acid smell of snowtissues self-metabolizing, a sure sign that I’ve crossed the Beckstein Limit.
12 Jamie Cat
“I must say I’m getting very tired and thirsty, Eddie Cat.”
“Me too, but we’re only a few turns away from Puddletown. I’ll treat you to some food and drink when we get there. I can put it on my social worker’s expense account. We may even run into my cousin, Jamie Cat,” adds Eddie Cat, giving me a curious sidelong glance.
The name Jamie Cat reverberates strangely in my mind.
“What kind of place is Puddletown?” I ask, unable to remember anything about it.
“Hmmm,” says Eddie Cat, “you usually beg me to take you to Puddletown. Well, if you really can’t remember, I should remind you that it’s more of a port than a town—a pleasant alternative to the bustling crowds of Cat City. And the cost of quality food, spirits, and lodging is more reasonable than anywhere in the city. I suggest we call it a day and put up at the Admiral Black Paw Inn. It’s their slow season, so we might be able to get rooms with a view of the water.”
“Sounds inviting,” I say, feeling attracted to the offer. “It also sounds very nautical. Is the Admiral Black Paw Inn frequented by seagoing folk?”
“Why, yes, it is,” says Eddie Cat. “You know how their jingle goes:
The Admiral Black Paw Inn—
A valued harbor if you’ve traveled far.
A relaxing refuge with a well-stocked bar.
The best of Inns to get your rest.
Drink and slumber to resume your quest!
“And as for seagoing folk—why, The Admiral Black Paw Inn has its own dock and slips for up to a dozen boats. Even during the slow season, there’ll be three or four weathered schooners docked there.
“But look about yourself if you linger in the common room. Some felines hold their spirits better than others. Never arouse the ire of a pirate cat once he has taken to his cups, I always say.”
“There are pirate cats there?”
Ayyyyye,” says Eddie Cat with a salty drawl. “But don’t tell me you can’t remember pirate cats!”
His tiresome affectation of an archaic nautical dialect is really starting to annoy the snowshit out of me. We walk silently, while I begin to recollect Puddletown and pirate cats.
The narrow lane between weeds has widened into a well-kept road surfaced with gravel. We pass by the familiar pools of stagnant water which give Puddletown its name. A wooden, gilt-lettered sign hangs by the side of the path to greet us.
Distantly, I smell the salty wetness of an ocean breeze. Still, the path twists and turns, and any glimpse of central Puddletown is obscured by the tall, thick weeds.
The path leads up a hill. As we come over the top, I see a very deep puddle below us, with a crude pier of old, weathered boards. On the dock sleeps a magnificent cat with glossy, black fur and orange stripes.
“Ah, Jamie Cat,” says Eddie Cat, giving me a sly look. “But she’s catnapping.”
Staring at Jamie Cat, I feel a surge of unfocused memories and powerful emotions. As I behold her sculpted glossy form, time slows, and I feel the sun’s heat burning through the pores of my snowskin.
Things deep inside my snowbody swell with excitement and want to reach out to the musk-scented, black, and orange of her sleek, smooth fur. Ah, to caress the infinite fineness of her taut and supple feline body.
I’ve always known and desired Jamie Cat. I can remember nothing specific about her, but I perceive the gentle rising and falling of her breathing as the rhythm of the dark ocean of my eternal voyage.
Now is the long winter of my discontent made glorious summer by this sudden apparition of Jamie Cat.
Now I understand the purpose of my long and tortuous path. I know why I’ve suffered the blinding fury of the sun’s glare. I’m always drawn back from every incarnation displacement, drawn back to—Jamie Cat.
Jamie Cat . . .
I’ve run down alleys and across rooftops, over deserts, tumbled through universes and lifetimes to find my way back to her. Now I see, revealed before me, the source of the life force that animates my existence, and propels my every movement.
Every ice crystal in my snowbody urges me toward her. Here is the magic Eddie Cat calls instinct. It’s a surety beyond reason, beckoning me to Jamie Cat through every twist and turn of my travels and travails. Somehow, I’d forgotten my destiny, but now she lies before me, sleeping in the sun on a weathered dock.
Always Jamie Cat waiting for me at the end of my long journey.
Many heartbeats of rippling eternity pass before I realize Eddie Cat is staring at me, his shrewd eyes two smugly knowing yellow-green slits.
“I see some things never change,” says Eddie Cat.
I find his tone extremely annoying and superficial. And how can Eddie Cat stand to look at me when beauty incarnate lies before us?
“It’d be rude to disturb her rest, but I can see you’re keen to visit with her,” adds Eddie Cat.
“Oh no, don’t disturb her!” I reply hastily. “Can we just stay a few more moments and gaze upon her? Please, as my social worker, I beg of you, cross to the other side of these weeds with me. Let us hide amidst their dusty foliage, so I can look upon my beloved.”
I notice the presence of Jamie Cat is making my speech, and even my thoughts sound literary, even poetic.
What a muse Jamie Cat is!
With a patronizing shrug, Eddie Cat follows me into the weeds, and once again—I gaze upon Jamie Cat, the pulse beating in my stick-like arms as I inhale the hot, ocean-scented air. The same air Jamie Cat breathes.
In the ocean of atmosphere, our breaths commingle.
Now is the dusty, weedy world made a lush jungle of rich colors and radiant life.
Now is the white glare of the sun made beautiful that it has this living jewel, Jamie Cat, reflecting its rays.
And to what dark, dreary, empty night would the whole universe fall were it not for Jamie Cat, the focal point of all beauty, color, and delight?
A sudden change in Jamie Cat’s breathing. The life force is stirring in her, her head rises, and Jamie Cat opens her green eyes upon the world.
“Oh, beauty of all beauties!” I gasp. “Was there ever green before her eyes? The finest emeralds are like gray dust compared to the green magic of her wondrous gaze.”
“Hmmm,” says Eddie Cat, “That’s starting to sound like quite a codependent attitude, Snowman. All the social working books talk about this, and it’s not very healthy. Step one in the healing process . . .”
But I’m only dimly aware of Eddie Cat speaking and can’t follow his words long enough to derive any meaning from his psychobabble. Who can follow such nonsense before the green magic of Jamie Cat’s eyes?
Jamie Cat yawns, and I behold her beautiful pink gums, the polished white feline ivory of fangs and teeth. Then—with sultry, luxuriant elegance, Jamie Cat licks the side of her front paw and uses its moistened fur to wipe her face, until her face fur nearly sparkles.
Ahh . . . the inviting, rasping wetness of her long tongue, its tiny barbs glistening with saliva. It drives me nearly mad with desire.
Jamie Cat arises and stretches her miraculously flexible spine —first convex and then concave, as the gloss of her fur glimmers in the sunlight. She sits in an elegant pose and scans about with her alert green eyes.
She’s luxuriantly serene but also aware of something unseen. Her moist, delicate, pink nostrils pulse as they sniff the air and interpret the subtle variations of scent about her.
It’s as if she senses a presence, a presence the sensing of which makes her animated, even—dare I think it? — excited.
Could it be that my snowscent has wafted down to her and is evoking her alert attention?
Suddenly, there’s an intruder. A huge, shiny black tomcat saunters onto the dock without the slightest hesitation or introduction. Jamie Cat regards him with turned head and steadfast green eyes. And then this crude, oversized tomcat casually invades her personal space and licks Jamie Cat’s forehead! Instantly, my snowbody stiffens in furious outrage.
“Who is this vile beast that dares lay his slimy tongue on my Jamie Cat’s noble forehead? I’ll gut him with my bare hands.”
“Not so fast,” cautions Eddie Cat. “It’s only Tony Cat. Jamie Cat’s new boyfriend.”
“Her new boyfriend!” I nearly choke on the poisonous words.
“I guess you don’t remember anything do you?” sighs Eddie Cat. “Jamie Cat’s been going out with Tony Cat ever since Joey Cat, her ex, dumped her after he found her fooling around with a young pirate tom, Sinbad Cat.”
“What?!! This is madness and lies. I don’t believe a word of it!!”
But at that moment, Jamie Cat and Tony Cat circle each other in a peculiar way. Tony Cat gets his nose near Jamie Cat’s hindquarters and sniffs her there.
“I will kill that vile beast!”
My icy blood is up, and every crystal of my snowbody glows with white-hot rage. With smooth, feline speed Eddie Cat locks powerful cat arms around me, restraining me with great efficiency.
Jamie Cat turns to look at Tony Cat as if only now aware of what he’s doing.
“She’ll scratch out his wicked eyes in a moment!” I gasp, struggling under Eddie Cat’s powerful grip.
But the moment passes, and Jamie Cat doesn’t scratch Tony Cat’s eyes. Instead, she does the unthinkable, she turns and sniffs Tony Cat’s hindquarters, and then licks him there and then . . . she keeps licking him there . . .
I turn away in horrifed revulsion and throw up onto the weedy dust. My mind reels, and I collapse onto my snowvomit, sobbing inconsolably.
“Oh, I am fortune’s fool!” I cry out between spasmodic dry heaves. “Cheated of looks by horrifying mutation—deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this cruel breathing world, scarcely half made up and that so lame and unfashionable that even mutant dogs bark at the very sight of my deformity! Why was I put here, except to be stabbed and mocked by fate? Let me die that I may be free of this torture!”
I writhe on the dusty vomitus ground in agony. Snowfoam drools from my mouth, and my writhing becomes convulsive, almost electrical.
I’m on the verge of a grand mal incarnation seizure, and my rage is creating dangerous mutant psionic effects! Eddie Cat’s eyes dilate with alarm as steam ruptures the stems of weeds that pop and hiss around us.
“Snowman, get a grip on yourself!” hisses Eddie Cat. “This is your codependency speaking. It’s not you! You’re complete in yourself. You have to start feeling good about yourself. Let go of the voices of low self-esteem that make you choose such dysfunctional attractions!
“What is Jamie Cat to you, or you to Jamie Cat? It’s just an overblown adolescent infatuation! Letting go of this unhealthy obsession with Jamie Cat is the first step in the healing process!”
“You don’t understand,” I sob inconsolably. “There’s only Jamie Cat.”
“But didn’t you say the same thing about one of my other cousins, Fiona Cat? And remember your Jasmine Cat phase? Don’t you see the pattern?”
My head is spinning with rage and confusion. My whole snowmass feels like it’s about to go critical and implode in a reality-warping suction that could take down whole universes.
I don’t remember any of the she-cats Eddie Cat is referring to. It could all be lies, but there are too many holes in my memory to be sure of anything. I look toward the dock.
Tony Cat pulls a weed cigarette from a small leather pouch, and he and Jamie Cat start smoking it together, as they saunter off the deck, tails entwined.
“They’re gone,” says Eddie Cat, reaching out with a paw to help me up. “Let’s get out of here. We can talk more about this when we get to the Admiral Black Paw Inn.”
I pick myself up slowly. My gut feels stabbed by the ten thousand white-hot knives of a spiteful universe.
Why does Jamie Cat degrade herself like that? Why does she forsake me? Why, Jamie Cat, why, why?
I stagger down the path in agony. In my desperation, I appeal to Eddie Cat for help.
“Eddie Cat, you’re my social worker—is there nothing I can do to win Jamie Cat’s love?”
My voice is pleading, and I’m trembling on the brink of another crying jag.
“It’d be an unkindness to you if I gave you false hope, Snowman,” says Eddie Cat gently. “I don’t believe there is anything you can do. You’ve tried everything already. She appreciates that you’re an interesting and unique mutation, but that’s as far as it’s going to go.”
“But how can there be no hope, Eddie Cat?”
“Well, you know these things are always a mystery, but, in your case . . . I wish there was a more delicate way to put this, but the truth is you’re a snowman, and Jamie Cat is, well, a cat. That’s a tough barrier to cross.
“This has always been a problem for you. You’re always attracted to athletic, young she-cats, and they’re mostly attracted to young tomcats. It’s their instinct. You may be the first snowperson, but have you ever thought that one day you might find a snowwoman?”
“NO!” I reply with enraged vehemence, sickened by the suggestion. All that bulging white snow—it’s a nauseating image.
“I don’t like how snowpeople look, even if there were any besides me, which there aren’t, as you very well know! Cats have always been the best-looking animals around. You wouldn’t settle for anything other than a she-cat, so why should I?”
“But there are other aspects of relationships besides all that mad, sexy stuff,” replies Eddie Cat with an exasperating, social-working tone of patient reasonableness. “What about companionship, and spiritual love and all that? Don’t you want someone nice you can grow old with?”
“NO! I want cats just like you do!” I shoot back. “In my body, heart, and soul— I know I was meant to be with cats. You said I was found in a plastic laundry basket as a snowbaby by a cat, my foster mother Betty Cat, who always wanted another kitten. I’ve always self-identified as a cat! I was meant to be a cat!”
“But,” says Eddie Cat gently, “you know it’s a common practice among the uprights to abandon mutant babies. And your medical disk—”
“Fuck my medical disk! It’s a bunch of lies! I’m a snowman! I am not born of upright flesh! And no, I may not be entirely a cat, either. But I am myself, and I’m the one who can make the weeds hiss and pop when the rage rises within me.
“I will conquer this disability. I will transform myself so that Jamie Cat can love me. Why should Jamie Cat be with me when I cannot bear the sight of my own deformity? Why should she want me, when even a glance at my snowy self in the looking glass sickens me? Even my shadow throws a dark blemish on the dust. Oh, why am I so cheated of feature by dissembling nature?
“Why am I in such a reality-deteriorated shape—this hideous and nauseatingly repulsive snowbody? What form is as awkward and grotesque as mine? To gaze upon me is to be nauseated by the uncanny valley of a body that seems more crudely representational than real. Why am I this inanimate-become-animate freak with stick-like arms and twiggy fingers? I must have a new body. I will have a new body! If there are cats, how can I stand it to be no cat!
“If I cannot transform myself into a cat, then I will use artifice and make myself appear to be a cat, so none can tell the difference! I will dye my crystals black, exercise to tighten my muscles, eat cat food and drink, inject myself with cat hormones, and have the fur of cats who died in accidents transplanted onto the whole surface of my snowskin!”
I stand up to my full height and shout with triumphant fervor,
“I’ll just do it. I’ll go for it, and it shall be done!”
A psionic aura—golden, with a flaring corona of violet—appears around my ecstatic snowbody.
“Snowman, don’t you see this is just the manic side of you talking? You’re fine just the way you are. It’s only your low self-esteem making you think you need to look like a cat. Self-acceptance is the first step in the healing process.
“Your reality challenges are part of what makes you special and unique. And you know transforming yourself doesn’t work. Don’t you remember all those things those shyster cats sold you, the pills, the potions, the special foods? None of it worked.
“Remember when you gave that shyster cat six-hundred-and-eighty-five credit units for an upright exercise machine? They told you it was called the ‘Snow Flex’ and was specially made for snowmen who wanted to look more feline and impress she-cats. The shyster cats said it would turn you into a ‘Nordic snowcat,’ and you believed them.
“But it was just an old upright exercise machine, and those shyster cats were laughing and laughing and laughing at you behind your back. All that exercise made you healthier, but you only looked like a healthier snowman. Those shyster cats are nothing but a bunch of greedy swindlers. They’ll only take your money again to sell you on false hopes. You must learn to accept yourself just as you are.”
“No, NO, NEVER!” I cry adamantly. “It’s easy for you to tell me to accept myself because you’re a cat!”
I level an accusing stare at Eddie Cat, and the aura of energy around me burns fiercely.
“Of course, if I were a cat, I could accept myself too! Try being born into a world of cats as a freakish and deformed non-cat before you lecture me on self-acceptance.”
I glare at Eddie Cat.
“And who are you to give me advice anyway? You’re a cat. You can just skate through your life navigating, by your damn instinct. But if my instinct tells me to go over a cliff, and that’s where the universe fates me to go, then I’ll go there! And all your social-working psychobabble is no more use to me than the white-hot sun withering my ice crystals. I want to be a cat, I need to be a cat, I will be a cat, and Jamie Cat will be mine! And Tony Cat will pay, yes, he will! He’ll pay dearly, you hear me!”
“Good, good,” says Eddie Cat encouragingly. “Let the anger out. It’s the first step of the healing process.”
I turn on him savagely.
“What healing process? What healing process do you have for me, an entity of ice crystals that withers before the sun? Can your words heal me of that? Can your healing steps tell me where I’ll go when my last ice crystal has turned to vapor? Can you make a she-cat love me? Can you make life worth it to me without that love? Can you save my eternal soul? You have no healing process! Your words are a sham, and you social-working cats are nothing but shyster-cat tricksters in fuzzy, sheep-cat clothing.”
The raw power of my mutant psionic rage has Eddie Cat cowering.
“Well, you needn’t be so husky with a fellow,” replies Eddie Cat as he backs away from me with his tail between his legs. “I told you it’s all just stuff written by upright experts in social-working books. Being a social worker is a good job for a feline these days. I never said the books were true or anything. How is a cat supposed to know how to do a job if he doesn’t follow instructions in a book? We’re not born knowing how to do these jobs!”
“What about your instincts?” I ask, my voice dripping with sarcasm.
“Oh, well, instincts can’t do everything you know. Try operating heavy machinery by instinct. That’s a good way to lose a paw in a hurry. Besides, we mutant cats have been trying to get away from instinct. Instinct is what drives the lower animals. Do you want to be a pair of ragged claws scuttling along the slimy floors of silent seas? How are we to rise above instinct if we don’t follow the instructions the experts write in books?”
My rage has run out of steam and Eddie Cat, falsely interpreting my quiescence as a sign that he’s getting through to me, keeps going.
“Remember, this is the N190s. It’s almost two centuries since the N-bomb was dropped. We social-working cats believe this is the New Age all the upright books talk about.
“We believe the day is approaching when the spirits of everybody and everything—uprights, felines, weeds, dung, and even a snowperson like yourself, will harmonize and converge into a new aeon.
“This is a great secret,” Eddie Cat’s voice lowers to a confidential whisper, “don’t tell anyone, but in a cave near the Old Sea, we found an ancient magazine from the olden times of the mushroom bomb era. This magazine says it’s a journal of this New Age. Experts have restored the gloss of its aged pages and interpreted its strange words.
“It talks of a ‘Harmonic Convergence’ that will happen in our lifetime and change everything. The Harmonic Convergence will reverse all the reality-wave deterioration. In the New Age, everyone will have a sacred place and a sacred value so long as they agree to respect everyone else’s sacred place and sacred values.”
“Oh?” I reply sneeringly. “And what of the mutant spider wasp with its fangs that inject fluoride-based, radioactive neurotoxins into its prey? Will you respect its sacred values? Tell these tales of a New Age to your grandkittens to ease their little kitty minds but forsake to trouble my ears with these childish things, and delusory trifles.
“Save your book instructions and social-working clichés for some other gullible sap, for I will seek my own answers and search for healing in my own way. If reality’s rules say Jamie Cat is not for me, and I am not for Jamie Cat, I will seek out the rule maker and challenge him with my woe. My body violates this reality and displaces from it with incarnation seizures. So, I will follow its rebellion and retreat from this dusty vale of tears. My quest will be to seek out a better reality than Upright World, where I will be welcomed by my beloved!”
The intensity of my passion makes Eddie Cat nervous, and there’s a charged silence between us.
“Well,” Eddie Cat mumbles at last, “If that’s how you feel, then let’s stay on our path to the Admiral Black Paw Inn, the launching place of many a great quest.”
He turns away from me and walks towards the inn. I follow silently, resentment still burning inside me.
13 Delicate Snowfingers Above the Rippling Water
We walk down a long row of weeds until we reach another puddle. This puddle is smaller than the murky pond-sized puddle where I’d seen Jamie Cat hook up with Tony Cat, but its water is clear and deep with smooth pebbles at the bottom.
“I want to wash here,” I tell Eddie Cat.
I’m ashamed of my disheveled appearance. We’re getting closer to central Puddletown, and we could stumble upon a whole group of cats at any moment. They could probably tell I’d been crying, and this is not something I’d want to get back to Jamie Cat.
I’ve got to radically transform my image if I’m to have any chance with her.
“You’ve picked a good spot for washing, Snowman,” says Eddie Cat.
“And that’s another thing—” I say, casting a dark stare at Eddie Cat. “I’m sick and tired of you calling me Snowman. How would you like it if I called you Feline all the time?”
I do a mocking imitation of Eddie Cat’s often singsong cadence,
“Good morning, Feline. You’ve got to accept yourself, Feline. You’ve got to feel good about yourself, Feline! Not having a name is the first step of the healing process, Feline! Feline! Feline! Twenty-four hours a day—Feline!
“I’d like to know who decided to refer to me in this coldly generic way when everyone else has an actual name! Like they all have individual personalities, and I don’t! It’s demeaning!”
I take a deep breath and speak with impressive resolve, “Hereafter, I’m no longer to be referred to, by you or by anyone else, as Snowman. Hereafter, I am to be referred to by my new name.” . . . I pause to think for a couple of seconds, “. . . By my new name . . . Jake. Yes! I am now Jake.”
“Well, you’ve picked a good spot for washing up, Jake,” says Eddie Cat with a sarcastic emphasis on the new name.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask.
“Oh, and by the way, Jake, I hereafter no longer wish to be referred to as Eddie Cat. My new name is . . . The Great Imperial Dragon Slayer and Sorcerer King of Upper Elthamador and the Northern Lands. And don’t even think about abbreviating my full name because that will be an insult to my personal dignity.”
I regard Eddie Cat with a highly unamused glare.
“What has all that bullshit you just said got to do with my desire to have a simple, commonplace, one-syllable name? I—oh, just forget it—I don’t have to justify myself to you. Why am I even bothering with this conversation when Jamie Cat is off doing God only knows what with Tony Cat!”
Dismissively, I shoo Eddie Cat with my spindly hands, and he backs away.
I kneel down at the puddle’s edge to wash my hands of dust and grime. I hold them above the water’s rippling surface and gaze at the weird asymmetries of my long twig-like snowfingers. For a moment, the shimmering puddle creates an optical illusion. My hands look like upright hands, with a drop of black ink dissolving into them. Then the illusion gives way, and once again, I behold my delicate snowfingers above the rippling water. Time slows, and I feel myself being pulled inward.
I’ve always considered my pale, elongated hands the most freakish and hideous feature of my snowbody. And I can’t always hide them inside my overcoat pockets. Hands need to be out there. Hands have to be used whether you like them or not.
I hate and abhor my hands, but also depend on them for performing so many manual tasks. If not for their utilitarian value, I would have had these hideous hands surgically amputated. The velvety, supple paws of cats have always been a source of fetishistic obsession and envy. I dread the repressed gasps of horror and surprise when stranger cats see my hands for the first time. Forever embedded painfully in my mind is the little she-kitten on the Cat City trolley who remarked to her mother,
“Look, mommy, that man has insect hands!”
Because of my hands, I’ve always dreaded any social event involving eating. If it’s something I can’t get out of, I usually sit there with my hands at my sides, neither eating nor drinking.
Slowly, I move my long, skinny fingers above the shimmering ripples of the deep puddle. Despite their spindly shape, they feel heavy and swollen with the painful and portentous weight of my whole existence. A memory arises as if from the watery depths of the puddle—a shameful episode from when I was a young snowboy.
14 Bird Feast Day
For the first seven years of my life, my foster mother, Betty Cat insisted I eat with her whole family during holiday gatherings. Betty Cat did this out of pride for her adopted snowboy, but it ruined the meal for everyone else.
The practice finally ended one day when I was seven, and Betty Cat was invited to spend Bird Feast Day with her family.
The invitation pointedly does not include me, but that only redoubles Betty Cat’s righteous determination to bring me along anyway. Even as a young snowboy, I was conscious of the controversy in the family about my inclusion at these events. The atmosphere of disapproval was thick enough to cut with a knife, and I dreaded family gatherings like the plague.
I remember crying alone in my room because I don’t want to go to the Bird Feast Day gathering. So, I mope under the covers speaking in whispers to Joey, the large, fuzzy, stuffed red mouse who was a constant companion of my early years.
“They don’t like us over there, Joey. We’re going to run away together.”
I hug Joey tighter, and large tears of melted snow drip onto his fuzzy red fur. Betty Cat yells from the kitchen of our small house by the river.
“What you be doin’in dhere all day, snowboy?”
Betty Cat had the heavy accent of the southern River-Cat culture she came from.
“Now you can go sulk yourself all day in dhere, snowboy, but you will be goin’ to Bird Feast Day just like any normal chiell. And you best not be cryin’ in dhere snowboy. I done told you bout dhat too many times. You know you gonna dry yourself up with all dhat girlie-cat cryin’ till dhere ain’t nothin’ left of you ‘cept one little snowflake dryin’ itself up in the dust under dhat dhere radiator. You hear me, snowboy?”
“Now, you put up Joey, and get yourself in your Sunday best. I wanna be proud a my snowboy when we go to Aunt Bertha Cat’s house.”
Betty Cat opens the door to my room and walks in with a steaming washcloth. She rubs my face so vigorously that it feels like she’s going to rub my snowskin clean off and turn me into a living snowskull boy. So different from when I was young enough to get my face licked.
Sulkily, I get out of bed and slug around my room. With glacier-like slowness, I dress myself in my brown corduroy Junior Fat Boy trousers, starchy white button-down shirt, and narrow red and yellow tie. Betty Cat had spent half a pension check on this outfit at The Bulging Boy—a shop selling garments for obese upright children.
I hate these clothes! They’re made for uprights. Every time I button this starchy white shirt, it feels like I’m putting on a straitjacket. And these ugly, black-rubber suspenders hike my pants up practically to my armpits. I feel like the ugliest mutation in all of Upright World.
Finally, I put on the most humiliating part of my outfit, the special deformity shoes Betty Cat got for me at Henry Cat and Sons Surgical Supply Store, where her cousin Sugar Cat worked. They had been specially made for a kitten with splayed-paw syndrome.
Unfortunately, the kitten had died of complications before he grew into the deformity shoes. Henry Cat and Sons had to take a loss on them, so they put them, perhaps as a curiosity, in the dusty, black-velvet display case behind the large plate glass window of their River Avenue storefront, right next to the cervical collars and aluminum walkers. Cat children from my elementary school would sometimes go to Henry Cat and Sons just to stare at the shoes and laugh at them.
The large, brown, deformity shoes look like a frightening hybrid of orthopedic shoes and clown feet. They were custom-made to accommodate the specific splayed-paw deformities of the deceased kitten. Besides flaring out in the front, they have all sorts of weird curves and protuberances. Along the sides of the deformity shoes were a whole grid of air holes, each reinforced by a tiny brass grommet to provide the proper ventilation crucial to the treatment of splayed-paw syndrome. In addition to laughing at the shoes, the cat children would join hands in a circle and dance around the front of the store singing,
“Monster shoes! Monster shoes! Ten times uglier than Doggy-doo-doos!”
Henry Cat, or one of his sons, would chase them away. But eventually, they got tired of the disruptions and decided to discount the deformity shoes to almost nothing. As soon as the shoes were discounted, Sugar Cat called Betty Cat on the phone.
“Betty Cat honey, you better get on down here in a lickety-split hurry, cause old Mr. Henry done just put a pair of Cat City-made shoes on sale for half dha price of a bottle of flea pills! And I know dhey’re gonna fit your snowboy as if dhey was made for him special.”
Sugar Cat always had a particular dislike for me and was never remiss when it came to stirring up trouble. She knew Betty Cat was poor and couldn’t resist anything she took to be a bargain. She also knew those damn shoes would embarrass me and cause me to get picked on even more.
Later that day, Betty Cat brought home the deformity shoes in a large cardboard box but didn’t say anything about their origin, afraid that I wouldn’t wear them if she did. And I hadn’t walked by Henry Cat and Sons Surgical Supply Store in months because it was in a shopping area where cat children from my school hung out. I knew I’d be mercilessly teased and scratched by their sharp young claws if I showed my snowy face there.
Betty Cat took the shoes out of the box and had me put them on. She pressed and pinched my snowfeet from the outside of the shoes before pronouncing,
“Dhese shoes be near a perfect fit for ya, son. And look at how expensive Cat City-made dhey are too!”
“But they look kind of strange, ma. And what are all these little holes for?”
“Oh now hush up with all your worry-talk. You worry more dhan any ol’ scaredy cat I ever met. You’ll be worryin’ us both to death one a dhese days. Ain’t you dha one always complainin’ about wearing upright clothes? Here you got yourself a brand-new pair of Cat City-made shoes you can be proud to wear to dha first day a school tomorrow, and all you gonna do is worry yourself sick about dhem.”
Those shoes haunted me for the remainder of my life with Betty Cat.
In my heart, I know Betty Cat does things because she loves me, and sometimes all I can do is go along with her well-meaning plans even when I know no good will come of them. After all, she’s an old woman cat, and it’s not her fault I’m a freak.
One day I’m going to do something great and become rich, and then I’ll buy Betty Cat a beautiful big house with a lovely garden and all her favorite things.
I’m finally dressed, and Betty Cat takes my hand as we walk on the path beside the long, dark river. It’s evening, and a sharp crescent moon hangs above the bare branches of the trees.
I carry an old wicker basket that holds the freshly baked sardine pie Betty Cat made for the feast. As we walk in silence, I listen to the river flowing and the wind breathing through the tree branches. Intense déjà vu ripples around me.
I realize I’m on a destined path, a long journey into darkness.
When we arrive at Aunt Bertha Cat’s house. I try to hide amidst the noise of cat chatter, and the chaos of lady cats bustling in and out of the kitchen. Kittens race up and down the stairs and through the hallways. Meanwhile, tomcats sit around the living room, discussing sports and money, smoking smelly catnip cigars.
I stand in a shadowy corner, trying not to be noticed. But when the feast is served, I’m told to sit at the table between Ellie Cat, a young she-kitten around my age, and Sammy Cat, a tom-kitten a year or two older.
The table looks like it’s going to collapse with food. There are large turkey, pigeon, and sardine pies, squirrel-blood pudding, a roast duck stuffed with mouse meat, and Aunt Bertha’s specialty—young sparrow breasts tartar sautéed in a catnip-vinaigrette dressing.
I’m highly allergic to all animal foods and feel sickened by the sight of all these gruesome holiday dishes everyone else is making such a fuss about. . .
The feast looks and smells like platters of steaming dead birds and rodents. And even if I wasn’t allergic, eating dead animals is gross.
“You’re gonna stunt your growth dha way you been eatin’ all vaygan-like, Babypaw,” says Betty Cat, noticing my grossed-out look.
“I don’t care,” I say gloomily.
Better to be stunted than have a body made of dead animal parts. And besides, if I grow, it will only mean a greater mass of disgraceful and embarrassing snowflesh.
The only thing at the whole feast I can eat is the one platter of summer grasses. It’s an out-of-season vegetable, so Aunt Bertha Cat must be serving it either frozen or from a can.
It’s soggy and looks like old seaweed. It’s a traditional dish, expected to be there, but in practice, no one but me actually eats it.
Betty Cat passes me a big plate of summer grasses that looks frozen and canned. I can’t even make out the individual blades of grass. It’s a soggy mess, emitting greenish steam that smells putrid, and looks like a cloud of poisonous gas. Sammy Cat makes a face, and I sit there with my hands at my sides, hungry but unmotivated to eat the steaming green mush.
Everyone else is scarfing down tons of bird flesh. The tomcats cats guzzle mugs of sardine wine, which makes their breath stink of dead fish and catnip smoke.
They talk with food in their mouths, chewing with their mouths wide open, eating with the noisy gusto of a pack of starving hyenas wolfing down an especially tough carcass of raw zebra meat.
The entire spectacle nauseates me, but I have to sit there until the torture is over. I cast my dark eyes down at the tangled clumps of boiled grass on my plate, imagining it’s a steamy swampy jungle on another world. And that’s when it happens.
It takes a couple of repetitions of my name for Betty Cat to get my attention.
“Be a good Snowboy, and pass Ellie Cat a chicken-liver pot pie.”
I look up and see a platter of small livery-smelling pies in front of me, next to a big bowl of tarry-looking squirrel-blood pudding. I reach out to pass the platter of liver pies as Betty Cat asked.
As I do, Ellie Cat, who was quite a nervous little she-kitten, got a close look at my hands. To her, they look like white, wormy tentacles. She emits a piercing shriek and throws up on her new pink chiffon dress.
Suddenly, all the chewing stops as the vertical eye slits of every feline in the room focus on me.
“What’d you do to her, Snowboy?” demands Ray Cat, Ellie Cat’s father.
All around me are cat eyes glaring death rays of hatred and accusation. Suddenly, the whole family looks at me like a pack of vicious predators.
I let out a scream of pure terror, a scream of shattering psionic intensity that breaks glass in houses half a block away. Glowing catnip cigars burst into flames singeing whiskers and then igniting sardine wine spilling across the table from pitchers turned into glass shrapnel. Fire spreads from the dining room to the whole house, and it takes every engine in the Cat City fire department to bring the conflagration under control.
Bird Feast Day is ruined, and Betty Cat is blamed and ostracized for bringing me.
Something died in Betty Cat that night.
She’d always love her Snowboy and think of me as the child God gave her when she was too old to have a litter. But now, any hope she had that I’d be accepted by the family was put to sleep.
There were many hysterical phone calls in the ensuing weeks. When Ellie Cat stops eating and is later hospitalized, Ray Cat and Missy Cat blame me and Betty Cat for bringing me. For a time, no one in the family will speak to Betty Cat.
Ellie Cat eventually gets better, but I’m never taken to another family gathering.
I begin to have panic attacks if I have to eat in front of anyone, even Betty Cat. I take my meals alone in my room, where I’d push my school papers aside and use my desk as a dining table. Sometimes I’d put Joey on a chair next to me and talk to him during meals.
Later in life, I always ate alone in my room at the boarding house. Mostly, I warmed up canned goods on a hotplate and ate out of the battered tin saucepan that belonged to Betty Cat before she passed away.
Betty Cat, the only cat to ever truly love me.
15 The Admiral Black Paw Inn
The memories of Bird Feast Day and my earlier life dissipate.
I find myself back in the present, still staring at my hands, hovering over the silvery ripples of the deep puddle. Yet, somehow, I survived my painful past, and am still here.
I see my hands now, as if for the first time. The weird asymmetries look purposefully complex, like the elegant brushstrokes of Chinese ideograms or the intricate wards of a pair of uncanny, living skeleton keys.
My hands may be freakish, but they are also strange and powerful. These hands were designed for a great and unknown purpose.
If these hands are not meant to caress Jamie Cat’s lustrous black and orange fur, then I will find the interdimensional keyhole they’re meant to unlock.
I kneel before the pool and dip my hands into the cool, clear water. Deep within me, I hear the luscious inner tinkling of dry ice crystals as capillary osmosis sends streams of replenishing moisture throughout my whole body. I scoop up double handfuls of water and douse my head.
The cooling liquid passes through my brain and bloodshot eyes, leaving them clear and refreshed. The water flows to my extremities, filling out my snowmuscles and renewing every living crystal.
I stand up feeling newly made. I’ve grown and filled out so much that I now tower over Eddie Cat. Fully rehydrated, my body welcomes the heat of the white-hot sun.
We resume walking down the road until we come upon a bay, whose waters stretch out to the horizon. As we approach the shore, I see the waters rippling with dark green algae and strangely colored and shaped seaweed. We draw closer, and I see bioluminescent jellyfish glowing beneath the water’s surface.
“Ah, Puddle Bay,” says Eddie cat. “We’re only a few minutes from the Admiral Black Paw Inn.”
We’re still on a gravel road, but it’s become better tended as we progress, the sides now bordered with cobblestones.
The path leads us along the edge of Puddle Bay until we come upon the inn, a two-story structure of weathered stone and wood.
The windows are made with thick diamond-shaped panes of colored glass fused with lead solder. Surrounding the Admiral Black Paw are well-tended vegetable gardens, where many fine varieties of catnip and grasses are growing amidst tall sunflowers.
The air is filled with the minty smell of thriving catnip plants. The rear of the inn overlooks the dark waters of Puddle Bay, and a stone path leads down to a wooden dock, where a single schooner is tied in.
Eddie Cat gestures toward the singular boat.
“Looks like we’re arriving at a slow time for the inn. All the better for us.”
Eddie Cat knocks on the door, and we’re greeted by Jimmy Cat, a handsome, young tomcat with alert and respectful green eyes and neat tabby-striped fur.
“Good evening, Sir Snowman and Sir Eddie Cat. Welcome to the Admiral Black Paw Inn.”
Jimmy Cat’s manners are impeccable. He’s obviously been brought up to speak formally and with the greatest respect to any guest.
“Actually, the Snowman is now to be referred to as The Jake,” says Eddie Cat.
“That’s Jake, not The Jake,” I correct.
Jimmy Cat looks confused.
“Oh, forget it,” I say. “I’ll keep my original name. You can call me the Snowman.”
“Yes, Sir Snowman,” says Jimmy Cat, bowing formally.
He gestures for us to enter the establishment, and we step into the common room.
The interior is pleasantly illuminated by diamond pane windows radiating the warm glow of late afternoon sunlight reflecting off the dark mahogany paneling and heavy wooden tables and chairs polished to a fine luster.
“Would you gentlemen care for any refreshment?”
“Yes, we would,” says Eddie Cat.
Jimmy Cat shows us to a table beside a window with a view of the bay. He gives each of us a menu printed on old parchment paper and tells us about the daily specials. As we study the menu, he glides off with his cat-like grace and returns to bring us a large pitcher of complimentary iced catnip tea.
Jimmy Cat takes our order and disappears into the kitchen. Then, in a surprisingly short time, he returns with another large pitcher of iced catnip tea, followed by chilled cream soup and fresh red snapper for Eddie Cat, and for me, a plate of steamed seasoned summer grasses, as well as squash and potatoes, all fresh from the garden.
After we finish this excellent meal, Jimmy Cat offers us handmade, catnip cigars from a polished wooden box, along with pastel-colored, after-dinner mints shaped like anchors. Eddie Cat takes a catnip cigar, and Jimmy Cat lights it for him. I politely refuse the cigar but eventually eat all the after-dinner mints.
Now that I’m here, memories of the Inn begin to resurface. There’s a Puddle Town ordinance against verbally offering guests intoxicating spirits, but it’s permissible to have written advertisements and to serve anything guests ask for. The Admiral Black Paw Inn is especially known for its fine variety of homemade elderberry wine and their spiced Quest Rum.
Eddie Cat orders a flagon of wine for himself and a mug of Quest Rum for me. We sip our drinks as the setting sun casts roseate rays through the diamond-shaped panes of glass. Jimmy Cat lights candles and starts a fire in the fireplace.
“Jimmy Cat, that was a surpassingly fine meal,” says Eddie Cat.
“And your spiced Quest Rum is a most excellent beverage,” I add, raising my second mug.
“Quite true,” says Eddie Cat, “but no finer than your elderberry wine, which is a vintage of great distinction.”
I notice Eddie Cat is affecting a version of the local dialect, and unconsciously till now, I have as well.
“I’m wondering, young Jimmy Cat,” Eddie Cat continues, “if you have a moment to spare from your evening chores, what news you may give us of comings and goings at the inn.”
Eddie Cat pats the seat beside him.
“Thank you, sir,” says Jimmy Cat, seating himself on the indicated chair.
“And, by the way, how is your respected father, Stanley Cat?”
“He’s taken to his sickbed, sir.”
“It’s nothing serious, I hope?” asks Eddie Cat.
“I’m afraid it is, sir. Doctor Lindsay Cat says he fears the end is near,” replies Jimmy Cat, with tears in his young, green eyes.
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” says Eddie Cat.
“I’m so sorry to hear that too,” I add awkwardly but with real sympathy. Jimmy Cat impresses me with his respectful manner, so unusual in a tomcat his age.
We’re all silent for a few moments.
“There have been some strange occurrences here,” says Jimmy Cat, remembering his duty to report on the news. “A fortnight ago, we were visited by the Old Cat Woman of the Cards.”
“The Old Cat Woman of the Cards!” exclaims Eddie Cat. “She lives? I heard of her as a kitten, and even then, I thought her to be nothing more than an old legend.”
“Aye, she lives, sir. But she be very, very old indeed. She knocked on our door these fourteen days past,” says Jimmy Cat in a hushed tone. “I was the only one awake. At first, I took her to be a gnome mutant, so shrunken she was and hidden within her red-hooded cloak. I invited her inside and saw she was covered with the dust of many leagues of travel. She was extremely tired, so I brought her biscuits and rum coffee.
“She spoke in so creaky a voice I had to struggle to make out her words. It was as if she were in a trance, and she spoke as one who walks in their sleep.
‘Young boy,’ she says, ‘honest and steadfast young boy. Your heart be true, so I come to tell you of strange events drawing near your inn. The cards have spoken to me—you must expect strange guests who arrive for an unknown purpose of great importance.’
“From a worn, leather pouch, she draws out a card and lays it flat on the table beside the plate of biscuits. The card shows what looks like an upright boy standing on a dark hill, holding a silvery dagger up to the moonlight.
‘A Prince travels here from afar, another world, another time.’
“She draws a second card that shows an unformed, upright man hanging upside down from a rope attached to a doorframe.
‘A mutation, powerful and in conflict within himself, will follow. As unlike as they two seem, before one moon has passed over your roof, they’ll embark on a quest together.’
“My body trembles as she gazes into me.
‘Give all possible aid to this endeavor, young Jimmy Cat, for you’re fated to be a servant to strange forces at work in the cosmos. The cards have spoken . . . ‘
“And with that, the Old Cat Woman of the Cards stood up, drained her cup of rum coffee in one swallow, and wrapped her cloak about her. I begged her to let me make up a bed for her so she could rest herself before she set out on the long and wearisome road, but she didn’t even look in my direction as she headed out. The door closed behind her, and that be the last I’ve seen of the old woman.
“But three days later, on a windy evening, there came another unusual guest . . .
“I heard a knock on the door and opened it to see standing there a—a mutation I suppose he was, but of a sort I’ve never heard of. In form, he was like an upright youth, yet he was not an upright, least not like any upright I’ve ever seen, and for some reason, I didn’t reckon him a youth either, even though he looked like one.
“His ears were slightly pointed, his hair golden, and his eyes green and farseeing. He carried with him an uncanny feeling of magic and strangeness. It was like he glowed with an inner light, not of this world.
“He wore a dark, hooded cloak, and about his waist was a belt glimmering with green gems. I remembered the card of the prince the Old Lady had drawn. I saw her prophecy coming true, for here was surely the prince from afar, ‘another time, another world,’ as she had said.
“This prince spoke to me, sirs, with a voice that flowed almost like a song. Time slowed when he looked into my eyes, and I saw his heart was true and good.
‘My name is Jeremiah,’ he said, ‘I need lodging, and I can pay with these.’
“From a small bag, he removed three beautiful gold coins and handed them to me. I’ve never seen such a coin before or since. On one side was a tree with many branches before the crescent of an old moon. On the other was a symbol of a sort I’ve never seen.”
Jimmy Cat reaches into his breast pocket, pulls out a shimmering gold disc, and places it carefully on the table before us. My eyes widen at the uncanny beauty of the coin. The engraving on its surface shows every texture of the tree’s bark, detailed beyond what ordinary eyesight could discern.
“May I pick it up?” I ask.
“Of course, sir,” replies Jimmy Cat.
Feeling the heft of this gold coin in my hand, I sense unequaled quality. There’s also something familiar about the complex shape of the tree. On the other side of the coin is an engraved rune. Its spindly shape hangs in my mind even as my eyes look away from it. It feels like I should know its meaning, but I can’t catch hold of it.
“These are strange tidings, indeed,” I say, slipping further into the local dialect. I return the beautiful coin to Jimmy Cat, and he puts it back in his breast pocket. “Can you tell us more about this Prince, Jeremiah?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know much more, sir. He has a corner room facing the water. He comes and goes, but we scarcely catch a glimpse of him. He has the gift of stealth, says my mother. Stealth beyond even feline stealth.”
“Hmm,” I say. “I sense a powerful inevitability to these occurrences, Jimmy Cat.”
My mind focuses uneasily on the second card which had an image of a young upright man hanging upside down from a doorframe.
The old woman interpreted it as meaning that a mutation, powerful and in conflict within himself, would follow. The Hangman in the Tarot means being suspended in time, sacred ordeal poisons, surrendering to being a martyr and undergoing a trial, and gaining wisdom thereby. Is that what’s happening to me? And she also prophesied that the mutant and the prince would soon embark on a quest. Is that my destiny?
“Jimmy Cat,” I say solemnly, “There is much I need to contemplate in these cards. Can you show me to my room, please?”
I look at Eddie Cat.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I must be alone for a while.”
He nods absently as he sips his third glass of wine.
Jimmy Cat leads me upstairs to my room, unlocks the door, and hands me the key. The room is simple but very well-tended, with a window of clear, diamond-shaped panes that catch moonlight reflecting on the rippling water of Puddle Bay. Jimmy Cat pulls back the bedcovers and fluffs the feather pillows.
A middle-aged she-cat, obviously Jimmy cat’s mother, appears in the doorway. She’s wearing a shabby housedress with an apron and has a worn face with a cross expression.
“Jimmy Cat, would you come here, please,” she hisses, glaring suspiciously in my direction.
Jimmy Cat goes to where she’s standing in the hallway. Then, in a hissing whisper perfectly audible to my mutant hearing, she scolds Jimmy Cat.
“What’s the matter with you letting such a horrible mutation into the inn? Do you think we’re running a flophouse for freaks? And you served him food and drink! What will our customers say? How many times have I told you that mutations belong with their own kind and not in a respectable business? What are you thinking, boy? Do you want to bring disgrace and ruin down on us? Do you want us to be penniless on the street? It’d be bad enough if this were an ordinary mutation, but this, this thing, you let in . . . Just you wait till I tell your poor, sick father. God only knows what mutated diseases or parasites it’s harboring. We’ll have to pay hundreds of credits to have the place fumigated. Have you taken leave of your senses? Are you utterly determined to see us ruined? Send it away at once, and throw out whatever plates, cups, and silverware it touched while I talk to your father about your punishment. And don’t you dare to ever even think of letting something like that in here again, or I’ll box your ears into bloody stumps.”
How I wished I had the cat claws to scratch out her eyes. In my mind, I called her every degrading name I could think of—alleycatbitch, old dishrag, lice pussy, dung cat, and the like—but I kept silent because I didn’t want to embarrass young Jimmy Cat who had been so nice to me.
My rage stirs up memories of Cat City, and I realize I can break free of Eddie Cat and travel there on my own. I check my wallet and find a few plastic credit wafers that’ll be accepted there. When his mother withdraws, Jimmy Cat turns to me and sees from my enraged eyes that I have overheard everything. He approaches me with a mortified expression on his innocent, young face.
“Sir, please don’t be offended by my mother’s harsh words. She’s not been herself since my poor father has taken ill. We—”
But I wave away Jimmy Cat’s apologies.
“None of this is your fault, Jimmy Cat. I’m well aware of common prejudices against mutants. I’m sorry to make trouble for you, and I can easily find lodging elsewhere. I’ll be off momentarily, but you can do one great service for me if you’re willing.”
“Please, sir,” replies Jimmy Cat with sincerity, “I’d like to help in any way I can.”
“The next time you see this strange prince, Jeremiah,” I whisper confidentially, “please tell him you’ve seen a living snowman and that I’ve gone on to Cat City. He can find me there if he wishes. Perhaps you should tell him about the Old Woman of the Cards and her prophecy. Also, please don’t mention my departure to Sir Eddie Cat until tomorrow morning.”
“Certainly, Sir Snowman,” says Jimmy Cat.
He leads me down a back staircase so I can make my departure anonymously. At the back door, Jimmy Cat asks me to wait for a moment.
He comes back with a large paper cup of the excellent spiced Quest Rum, and a small, brown paper sack filled with the anchor-shaped, pastel mints to “lighten my spirits for the long evening walk,” as he puts it. I thank him profusely for his kindness and set off on the long walk to Cat City.
16 The Mutant Motel
I walk a long way down the road in darkness. But then, coming around a turn, I see the outline of Cat City ahead of me as a jewelry of lights. I stop for a moment to admire the view as I take a sip of Quest Rum and eat a few anchor-shaped mints.
Despite my isolation, my heart is lightened by Jimmy Cat’s kind treatment of me. I ponder the strange prophecies of the Old Cat Woman of the Cards, the beautiful golden coin, and the mysterious Prince, Jeremiah. And I feel liberated from my codependent relationship with Eddie Cat.
I resume walking and after a while I see a blinking red neon sign that says
It’s a squalid little establishment on the outskirts of Cat City. It’s a depressing contrast to the rustic charm of the Admiral Black Paw Inn. A grimy placard says
A half-peeled-up diversity sticker adheres to the glass door.
The night shift motel clerk is a grizzled, old tomcat wearing a sleeveless white T-shirt. He’s watching a pair of highly mesomorphic sumocats wrestling on a cheap television set. I stand there for several seconds before the clerk bothers to look up and glare at me with open suspicion.
He has a foul-smelling catnip cigar in his mouth. It’s slimy with saliva and looks like a tube of dog shit. He doesn’t even take it out of his slobbery mouth when he speaks.
“Can I help you?” he asks in a surly tone.
“I want a room,” I tell him with cold terseness.
“Credit wafer,” replies the clerk, his mouth still slobbering the cigar.
He taps impatiently on the counter to indicate where to put my credit wafer. I slap it down and look about the dingy motel office while he runs the wafer and shuffles papers. Meanwhile, the two sumocats continue grunting and cursing.
There are wire racks in the motel office offering a limited selection of Turbo-Sugar Skin-Popper Snacks. I find a jumbo, twenty-eight-ounce cellophane bag of
It’s not my favorite flavor, but this gives me nearly twice as much for my money compared to buying the little eight-ounce boxes.
Collecting dust on another shelf are mutant specialty drinks, including a liter bottle labeled
I put the bottle and the cellophane bag on the counter next to my credit wafer.
The clerk looks at me resentfully as if I’m buying these items just to make more work for him. While he rings me up, a slimy thread of catnip-stained saliva descends from his mouth and onto my credit wafer.
I want to wrap my twig-like, but ever-so-strong, mutant hands around his throat and squeeze him until his yellow, slitted eyes pop out.
No fuck that, I don’t want to touch his throat or deal with loose eyeballs. I want to use psionic mind pressure to disrupt his nervous system and give him epileptic seizures!
He swipes my credit wafer through a slot. Several seconds later, the credit machine emits an obnoxiously loud buzzing sound.
“Declined!” says the clerk triumphantly.
I slap down another credit wafer and am pleased to see his annoyance when it goes through. He hands it back to me, along with a greasy plastic access card.
“Room 101,” says the clerk absentmindedly as he resumes watching the wrestling sumocats.
Alone in my room, I lay on the uncomfortable bed and watch the neon ghost of
throbbing on and off and on and off and on and off across ceiling.
Compulsively, I begin eating my way through the bag of Turbo-Sugar Skin-Popper Snacks. The sweetened, artificial barbecue flavor mixes unpleasantly with gulps of Snow Comfort.
I don’t feel buzzed by the Turbo-Sugar or the Snow Comfort, only fatigued but unable to sleep.
Bitter thoughts about Jamie Cat, which had escaped my mind during the day’s turbulence, come back with a vengeance.
Jamie Cat. Jamie Cat. Jamie Cat.
Against my will, the pulsating beacon of my telepathic cries of Jamie Cat synch up with the neon blink of
It completely ruins the effect, so I stop.
It’s actually more powerful and intentional if I just do one telepathic cry of Jamie Cat and wait.
Somewhere she’s feeding all her life energy and all the moist treasures of her body to Tony Cat, who is lapping them up with smug satisfaction.
To her, I’m just an annoying mutant. Any overture from me would be a loathsome and nauseating irritant. At best, she would find dark humor in such a freakish occurrence. It would give her something to roll her eyes at as she and her cool tomcat boyfriend Tony Cat walk down the street together.
I toss and turn on the springy motel mattress, trying to find a comfortable position.
I imagine Jamie Cat seeing my ugly snowbody sagging on the plastic, urine-smelling mattress. The thought of that invites a grotesque parade of dark fantasies that tramp through my mind.
I long to break the motel mirror and slash my wrists with its glass shards. I long to do it because I see a tearful Jamie Cat watching me being carried out on a stretcher. Only, I’m dead before they get me to the ambulance. My melting snowbody shriveled to nothing. All that’s left is an embarrassing, wet stain on a blanket. Disgustedly, the EMTs wring the blanket out in the street. The watery remains of my snowbody drip into a sewer grating . . .
Maybe then you’ll be sorry.
Maybe then you’ll realize who really loved you.
I eat more Turbo-Sugar capsules and drink more Snow Comfort, as my snowbrain becomes feverish with Turbo-Sugar and alcohol. Then, attempting to escape my inner chaos, I turn on the motel television.
It’s a cheap, antiquated cathode-ray TV sitting across from my bed. The glass screen is permanently stained with an amber-colored organic residue that I disgustedly realize is porn-vid-induced tomcat cum. It’s baked on by the heat and radiation of the cathode-ray tube.
Beneath the amber stains, I see a luscious, hottie shecat and her tomcat boyfriend rubbing against each other. The tom mounts her and begins thrusting into her as their tails entwine in ecstasy. After their copulation, their excited purring is amplified as they take drags from
Surrounded by puffs of catnip smoke, the young hottie purrs her boyfriend’s name, “Ace,” and he calls her “my sweet fur thing.”
I change the channel in disgust.
The Playcat channel is on, and I see a big studcat aggressively mount a svelte shecat with big staring eyes and a wet, pink tongue.
I turn the channel and see a music video featuring the insinuating voice and pelvic gyrations of ElectroStar Tomcat. All the young shecats, like Jamie Cat, are mad for him. With resentful fury, I recall Jamie Cat’s ElectroStar Tomcat phase. At one point, she had all his vinyls and a giant poster of him hanging above her bed.
Fuck ElectroStar Tomcat, that selfish fucking fuck.
His music video is an epileptic-seizure-inducing series of rapid-fire cuts done to the beat of his staccato rapping style.
ElectroStar Tomcat speeding on his motorcycle in spiked, tiger-striped leather. FLASH! ElectroStar Tomcat being mobbed by hot, young groupiecats! FLASH ! ElectroStar Tomcat hooking up with CelebStarCat in the back of his gold-plated convertible. FLASH!
I change the channel.
My hopes of getting another sugar high have faded into a law-of-diminishing-returns hypoglycemic slump. Nevertheless, I grab another handful of
which I follow with a chaser slug of Snow Comfort. From the tube, the seductive eyes of a luscious shecat stare right at me.
“Hey you,” she PURRS, looking right at me. “Yeah, yooou.”
I glance nervously around to see if there’s anyone else in the room.
“No, I mean YOU.”
Seductively, she beckons with her paw.
“You BIG BOYCAT,” she says coquettishly, licking her lips.
“Oh, oh, you’re such a BIG, BIG BOYCAT, you’re getting me sooo excited. You make my nose so wet. Mmhmmm, you know who I’m talking to. I’m talking to you, you BIG studley tommuffin. It’s me, Honey Cat, and I know who I’m talking to.
“So, you come on down and see me, see me tonight, I’m waiting for YOU, YOU BIG BOYCAT! Come on down to Adventure Cat City. I’ll be waiting for you at 900 Pussy Plaza.
“Mmmm, OH, YOU BIG BOYCAT don’t make me wait for you—ohh, ohhhh . . . “
I realize it’s all an illusion. But I’ve got to admit, I’m really turned on by Honey Cat appearing to accept me as a tomcat. If only Jamie Cat could see the inner tomcat in me the way Honey Cat does.
Every time Honey Cat calls me her BIG, BIG BOYCAT, my shrunken self-esteem emerges as an enlarging Phoenix pulsing with fire energy. No one has ever affirmed me as a tomcat with the seductive confidence of Honey Cat. The way she calls me a BIG BOYCAT while looking me right in the eyes—I’ve got to admit, she’s just such a SMOKIN’ HOT BADDIE.
Then, just when I’m starting to really get off on Honey Cat, she fades out like a mirage, and a slick announcer’s voice comes on:
“Are you just lying around in front of the TV, stuffing your face?
You could be getting down at Adventure Cat City and winning the race!
Don’t put up with a reality that’s shitty.
You could be hanging with the girliecats at Adventure Cat City!”
“Adventure Cat City” flashes stroboscopically in bright yellow against a hot-pink background.
Then there’s a flash of
then the ACCBT logo—a silhouette of Cat City’s romantic skyline.
The city-sponsored ad is followed by one for Adventure Cat City Casino, which is shaped like a giant mouse, with red neon eyes. It adjoins the Adventure Cat City Lounge, which looks like a huge pie-shaped slice of Swiss cheese next to the mouse.
Blinks the TV.
It blinks again.
I watch the ads with cynical disgust. No sleazy shystercats are going to make money off my misery.
I eat another handful of the Hungry Tomcat Mesquite-Fiesta-Barbecue Flavored Turbo-Sugar Skin-Popper Snack Capsules. The capsules were made for the older tomcat market and have a nasty burnt-animal-flesh aftertaste.
I feel myself getting older and weaker. All the refined sugar throughout the years has permanently dried out my snowcrystals to a degree, vital moisture being replaced by an artificially barbeque-flavored syrup of chemicals.
I breathe into my hand and sniff it. Now I’ve got putrid Mesquite-Fiesta-Barbecue breath that will likely stay with me for several days until the toxic residue metabolizes out of my snowsystem.
But that’s the least of my concerns.
At this very moment, Jamie Cat is probably sexing it up with Tony Cat. My whole being writhes with the agony of this possibility. Heartbeat by heartbeat, I feel the betrayal happening.
Every moment I’m away from Jamie Cat, Tony Cat preys on her luscious body, taking her from behind again and again and again, whenever and wherever he feels like it.
With feline agility, he’s taking Jamie Cat in every humiliating and degrading position he can think of. And during all these coked-up sexual acrobatics, I do nothing but gnaw on these cheap sugar capsules, alone on my urine-smelling motel mattress.
Once again, I think of shattering the mirror into razor-sharp glass fragments and cutting myself with them in a frenzy of compulsive self-mutilation. Cutting myself again and again and again—but not to make Jamie Cat sorry—no, no I’m past all that now— I’d cut myself again and again and again just to let all the moisture out of my body as the only remaining act of self-mercy. I would cut away the pain and deliver myself into the eternal numbing agent of everlasting oblivion.
Oblivion is the only way out of the time-dilating agony that stretches out every moment of suffering so that each neon blink of
punctuates an Eternity of Darkness.
But then, like a lighthouse beacon of hope, the television throbs with alternate possibilities
Like a slowly intensifying tractor beam, I feel these possibilities pulling me out of the darkest depths of despair. Then an even more hopeful message scrolls across the screen:
Next, is a video clip showing a middle-aged, out-of-shape tom in shabby clothes playing a slot. The cylinders of the slot spin and then CHA-CHING! —they stop to reveal a row of six red mice. The slot proceeds to vomit an impossible torrent of gold coins.
Smash cut to a shot of the same tom, but now he’s at the wheel of a huge yacht, his gut bulging beneath a colorful Bermuda shirt. He has a cocktail glass in one hand, is smoking a big fat catnip cigar in the other, and he’s wearing one of those cheesy, fake yachtsman’s caps. Luscious young shecats in bikini bathing suits surround him. One of them unzips his fly and winks at the camera with a big mouse-eating grin.
The TV blinks
Half-heartedly, I fantasize about winning big at the casino. I could roll up to Jamie Cat in a stretch limousine and give her a diamond bracelet.
I could buy her anything.
But that will never buy her love. At best, it’ll make her a prostitute.
I see Jamie Cat bringing the diamond bracelet and a bunch of loot home to Tony Cat, and them laughing and laughing and laughing. Jamie Cat goes into the bathroom and disgustedly spits out a few snowcrystals and gargles with antiseptic mouthwash. Then she comes out and parties with Tony Cat, doing lines of coke with him, and then, of course, they’d do their coked-up sexual acrobatics all night long.
Their sexual frenzy makes me nauseous, and I take another shot of Snow Comfort to calm myself.
Somehow, this particular dose of alcohol ignites a flash of survival instinct, a fight-back response. I realize I’m wallowing in potentially suicidal self-pity and must take some sort of action.
I sit up on the motel bed, and resolve to check out of the Mutant Motel and travel to Adventure Cat City this very evening.
Just before I leave the room, I turn back to see if I’ve left anything behind, and I have a brief hallucination, most likely due to all the Snow Comfort and Turbo-Sugar swirling around in my snowbrain.
I witness a scene, through the television screen, that shouldn’t have been there. The TV should still have been on ACC—the Adventure Cat City channel—but it’s not anything they would show. It’s some upright, live-action drama, with no CGI, and more serious than what I expect from motel cable.
I see two young, upright males by a desert campfire. One is keeping watch over the other one, who is lying down with his eyes closed, as if he’s asleep, or ill. There’s no soundtrack except for the crackling fire. And nothing’s happening—they just remain in exactly the same positions.
The scene appears more three-dimensional than it should, coming from such a cheap television. Even weirder, I feel the heat from the campfire playing at the edges of my snowskin.
I shut my eyes tight, and when I open them again, ACC is back on, blaring an ad for a tomcat erectile dysfunction cure—a dangerous-looking gadget with a vacuum pump and rubber hoses.
I turn around and exit the room and then the building. The neon blink of
disappears behind me as I’m swallowed up by the night.
17 Adventure Cat City
Adventure Cat City is not a real city, of course. It’s merely the red-light district of Cat City, a garish nighttime world of pornography, prostitution, and every vice you can think of.
The streets are lined with massage parlors, catnip bars, and even the so-called “guaranteed hunt shops,” where fattened mice are drugged to slow their reflexes so that aging tomcats can prey on them.
I pass by
a gigantic adult-cat video store. They claim the world’s most extensive collection of cat-erotica videos, depicting cats doing just about anything with other cats. Then I pass
a gay bar and dance club, where dangerous-looking toms in leather outfits stand out front looking for trouble.
Next to Rhodeo is
a transvestite nightclub where gigantic, statuesque drag queen toms in high heels, gaudy costume jewelry, and sequined outfits pass out flyers advertising their variety shows.
Sleaze and decadence call from every angle of Adventure Cat City, but I feel strangely comfortable here. It’s the anything-goes part of town, where no one will pass judgment on me for being such a deformed and deviant mutant. I’ve already seen several highly deformed mutants on the streets, and nobody is raising an eyebrow, even at me.
The most striking of the other mutants is a she or trans mutant who looks like a giant, anthropomorphized three-headed ostrich. Each of her three heads bears a striking resemblance to a jowly-faced Eleanor Roosevelt in her seventies.
Her eyes are kindly, world-weary, and old, but she’s tricked out incongruously in heavily spiked black leather and chains, and her lacey blouse sports a large
But there are some feminine touches to her outfit as well. She wears a strand of pearls and a cameo brooch pinned to one of the lapels of her leather jacket. Attached to the other lapel is a corsage of pink and white carnations as if she were dressed up for prom night. The back of her leather jacket has hand-embroidered letters:
The whole outfit seems a little pathetic since it’s hard to imagine who’d want her to be naughty, but nice. Nevertheless, I feel a strong affinity with this creature. I can tell we share a loneliness known only to the most reality-distorted of mutants. So, impulsively, I decide to approach her and ask for advice.
“Excuse me, madam, but I’m unfamiliar with this part of town and was wondering if you could recommend an establishment appropriate to a mutant in my situation?”
This is obviously a poor question since it isn’t necessarily apparent what my situation is. But her faces seem so kind and understanding, it feels comfortable asking her anything. Also, now that I’m standing close to her, I notice she has an old-lady-talcum-powdery smell, which I find reassuring.
“Hmmm, let’s see now, an appropriate establishment . . .”
The creature has a pleasing, if affectedly falsetto, motherly voice. She sounds feminine, but also like she’s trying very hard to sound feminine, but I better go with what she or they is trying to present as.
Still, despite the ambiguous gender, the chains, black leather, and affected voice, she conveys an inner dignity and benevolence that contrasts the sleazy hustlers and decadent types abounding in Adventure Cat City.
She also has a peculiar way of speaking. The middle head, which is apparently dominant, does the real speaking, while the side heads fill up the pauses with a chorus of repetitive phrases such as “Oh my-oh-my-oh-my, yes- yes- yes” and “I see-I see-I see.”
“An appropriate establishment—oh my-oh my-oh my, yes-yes-yes, I see-I see-I see—well I suppose that depends on what diversion or service you might be looking for. Are there any particulars you require?”
I think for a moment.
“Well, let’s see, I’ve been feeling poorly about an unrequited love affair, and I’d like a diversion or adventure that would take my mind off it. But I need to stay in Cat City, as I’m expecting another party to find me here eventually.”
“Oh-my-oh-my-oh my— yes-yes-yes—I see-I see-I see. You might find just what you’re looking for at the Adventure Realities Store, which is another two blocks down this side of Broadway.”
I thank her profusely and bow slightly. She’d been so courteous and considerate. Despite her deformities, I admire the way she carries herself with an almost-regal bearing.
I wonder if one day I’ll be able to bear my deformity with such grace and dignity.
I walk a short distance down Broadway and find myself before a rundown-looking storefront. I stand there, transfixed, as I take in the flashing aura of a partly broken red neon sign.
Two of the letters are unlit, but from a bullhorn above the door, a pre-recorded huckster loops the same message,
“—MORE REAL THAN REAL, MORE REAL THAN REAL, MORE REAL THAN REAL—”
The store seems depressingly mundane, yet I have another of those strange, déjà vu moments, like someone walking over the grave of long-buried memories. Somehow, I’ve arrived exactly where I’m supposed to be. I enter purposefully.
Sitting behind the counter is a young, thin upright man with a pale complexion and spiked magenta hair. He wears wrap-around mirrored sunglasses, a shirt brilliant with colors, and earbuds. Behind him is a sign:
His head is bobbing and weaving to music from the earbuds as he sucks on a Turbo-Sugar Speedo-Rush Ultra Max drink box. He doesn’t seem to notice me.
His colorful shirt is glossy and has detailed comic book scenes printed on it. The scenes depict a part-upright, part-machine cyborg built to a heroic scale— bulging muscles, a breath mask, and integrated body armor bristling with weapons. In each of the scenes, the cyborg is having sex in a different position with a helpless-looking, pale, thin, upright girl, barely pubescent, with huge, terrified eyes.
It’s beyond offensive, and horrifying to my eyes, but a lot of Turbo-Sugar packaging and accessories have these sorts of images now, so it’s starting to seem commonplace. A huge advertising button on the upright guy’s shirt pocket reads:
I stand right in front of him, but he still gives no hint that he notices me through the pounding techno music bleeding from his earbuds. I take out a credit wafer. With no break in his rhythm, he takes it from me, passes it through a credit reader, and announces in a thin voice, “Bed Seven.”
I glance behind him and see a hallway with numbered doors.
I walk down the hallway and see plasterboard walls interspersed with faded posters of tropical islands. Now I finally get it—
It’s a goddamn tanning salon.
Perhaps this is how the three-headed ostrich interpreted “an establishment appropriate to a mutant in my situation.”
The warm feelings about her fade as I catch the insulting implications.
A memory resurfaces of a time years ago when I’d bought a tanning package at another shoddy, tropical-themed salon that looked just like this dump. I had stupidly thought I might get somewhere with Jamie Cat by improving my pale complexion. Unfortunately, I overdid it, and the artificial tanning made me look like marshmallows poorly roasted over a campfire—swollen with carbonized blistering.
I open door number seven and step inside. It’s a cramped plasterboard room with a single light bulb dangling from a wire. Most of the space is filled by a large, sarcophagus-like tanning bed. The air is stuffy and rank with the acrid, musky smell of tomcat perspiration.
What would tomcats want with tanning?
A torn paper sign reads:
I’m not sure what to make of these rules but suppose they’re local tanning regulations. My history with tanning left much to be desired, but seeing as there are no refunds, I’m determined to get my 29.95 credit units’ worth.
I turn the little lock on the doorknob and test it to ensure it’s locked.
I certainly don’t want anyone seeing me in my bare snow.
I disrobe and lay down on the bed. The smell of old tomcat perspiration is nauseating.
Something in the machine whirs into action, and there’s a loud pneumatic hiss as the lid closes down on me.
Not a glimmer of ultraviolet, just a power-substation humming sound coming from the machine. My snowskin feels prickly all over, and I become alarmed.
The device is clearly malfunctioning! It’s about to electrocute me!
I’ve got to push open the lid of the sarcophagus, but my body is completely paralyzed! I can’t even blink my eyes.
There’s a feeling of something like warm, wet fur touching every part of my body. It’s like I’m inside the womb of some enormous animal. Then mild electricity begins flowing into me, and I realize that what feels like wet fur is actually electro-conductive filaments, and the wetness is apparently an electro-conductive gel. There’s another pneumatic sound, and I sense chemical fluids being pumped into my snowtissues. Then I panic as liquid engulfs every orifice and snowpore.
18 The TSW
When I regain consciousness, I float weightlessly in a universe of undifferentiated neon pink. The perspiration smell is gone, replaced by a distinct Turbo-Sugar-Power-Wad Pink Bubble-Gum smell. I’m in a highly pleasurable state, like I’m soaking in a bath of pink Turbo-Sugar. My breathing slows as my body relaxes and my mind blanks as I’m infused with pink, sugary pleasure.
Suddenly, a flash of lightning, powerful beyond imagining, shatters this pink cosmos into tiny globules. They trail away like comets and leave me hovering in outer space surrounded by stars and nebulae.
A powerfully amplified version of Wagner’s Thus Spake Zarathustra comes on and increases in volume until my whole being trembles with the crescendos.
At the same time, a rectangular monolith-like object hurtles toward me. It comes to a stop, towering over me as starlight flares around its rectilinear silhouette. The monolith rotates one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, and its newly exposed side illuminates in the starlight, revealing itself to be a humongous box of Turbo-Sugar Pink Bubble-Gum and Hawaiian-Pineapple-flavored breakfast cereal:
There’s another devastating flash of lightning, and the cereal box explodes into bright pink and yellow puffs. The moment those dissipate, an enormous, gray stone tablet hurtles toward me from the void. Just when it seems about to crush me, it halts right before my face. The tablet is ringed with fire and has glowing, chiseled letters on it:
Then comes another burst of lightning, and the tablet shatters into chromatically scintillating dust. Wagner’s The Flight of the Valkyries replaces the Zarathustra recording, and a super-amplified voice of power, with a massive subwoofer reverb effect, starts booming at me like the voice of God, shaking me to my very snowcrystals.
There’s a loud ripping sound, space tears open, and I’m freefalling toward a city of staggering complexity.
There are giant buildings, superstructures, and ginormous, self-transforming machines. The planes of the city wheel and shift on interlocking axes like a giant Rubix cube. As I fall, my snowbrain is staggered by the impossible upload of visual information. Even my mutant panoramic vision can barely comprehend it.
Just as death seems imminent, my freefall slows into a gentle landing on an empty street.
The street is curiously still—a striking contrast to the complex movement and self-transforming machinery I’d seen from above. The buildings are tall but windowless and empty. They look irreparably damaged as if they’ve been hit by hundreds of mortar shells. Every intact surface is riddled with countless bullet holes.
The ground is strewn with chunks of concrete, shell casings, and metal fragments. Smoke rises from a smoldering pile of debris in front of me. I step closer and recoil in horror.
It’s a pile of charred upright limbs, shredded flesh, and clothing still visible as the mass of mostly organic material smolders next to a burnt-out artillery gun. A dark plume of acrid smoke from the flesh fire drifts down the avenue.
A sonic BOOM sounds overhead, followed by a jet engine roar, as two heavily armored avatars materialize from thin air, zooming toward each other. As they close distance, they fire high-caliber, anti-aircraft machine guns at each other. Tracer rounds light up the metallic surface of their exoskeletons as pieces of their armor are shot off and crash into the streets below.
I’m disoriented by the chaos and nauseous from the charred flesh smoke. Suddenly, a terrific crash knocks me over. As I slowly rise to my knees, I notice I’m clothed in plain gray coveralls. Before I can stand and get my bearings, there’s another terrific crash. It shakes the ground like an earthquake and knocks loose debris from buildings. A few seconds later there’s an even more violent impact. I cover my eyes with my twiggy fingers as the impacts get louder and more violent.
Looking out from between my fingers, I see a behemoth pair of fleshy mottled-pink legs nearly sixty stories high and tottering toward me.
It’s a giant diaper-clad infant boy towering over the high-rise buildings.
The titanic tyke wears a colorful Turbo-Sugar brand neon-colored diaper and a black eyepatch. His one eye glints with maniacal vengeance as his huge, chubby arms swing an enormous two-bladed battle-axe, with glittering, razor-sharp edges the length of a city bus.
The humongous baby is acting out fighting moves as he approaches, his battle-axe slicing the air with the speed and agility of a Samurai. Buildings fall to pieces from the impact of his footfalls, and chunks of concrete bristling with rusted rebar crash down all around me.
The giant’s pink foot craters into the pavement as he halts before me.
Trembling, I look up. Besides its enormous legs, all I can see of this infant titan is his massive, Turbo-Sugar brand diaper, filling the sky like a cloud above me.
A voice rings out from above the diaper cloud that makes the whole city reverberate with its power.
“PREPARE TO FIGHT NEW BOY!”
Then there’s a deep swooshing sound like a rush of wind as the battle-axe slices through the air, bringing its curved razor edge to within an inch of my face.
“But I don’t want to fight,” I gasp. My voice sounds tiny and weak compared to the infant, who speaks with the decibel force of a jet engine.
There’s a digital blip as the giant baby flickers and vanishes. Standing in its empty footprint crater is a pale, skinny boy in faded rags. His finely featured face is streaked with soot, and he has exceptionally large blue eyes.
“You really don’t want to fight?” he asks in a gentle, British accent.
The boy exudes the haunting innocence of a much-abused street urchin. But beneath the emotional scar tissue of a life of many hardships, he still has a heart of gold.
“No. Why would I want to fight?” I ask.
“Everybody else wants to fight,” says the boy. “Everybody wants to fight or do the sexy stuff or fight and do the sexy stuff at the same time. So boring. What powers do you have? Can’t say I’ve seen any snowmen in the TSW before. No offense, but seems a rather odd character choice in a world with so many first-person shooters.”
“I’m not a character. This is who I really am,” I reply.
“What?” the boy replies contemptuously, dropping his accent. “That’s ridiculous.”
He’s breaking character, and though he looks the same, the arrogant, tech-savvy teenaged boy behind this seemingly innocent 19th-Century-London, street-urchin avatar glares at me suspiciously.
“I hope you don’t expect me to believe you. Nobody comes to the TSW as who they really are. Even if you wanted to, the code won’t allow it. Besides, there’s no such thing as a living snowman. Is this an attempt at a trap or surprise attack? Try anything, and I’ll be Baby Blaster again in half a nanosecond.”
Though he’s giving me a hard time, I have to admit, I’m impressed by his streetwise simulacrum wariness. He’s got a no-bullshit-gets-past-me inner confidence that commands respect.
“Do you really think you can play me like this?” he asks. “Pretending not to be a character is like the oldest opening in the book. You can’t be serious.”
“I’m not playing you. I’m a mutant, and this is who I really am.”
“Wow, that’s funny—so funny, I forgot to laugh. I’d humor your silliness, but I don’t want to encourage such an outdated routine. Hang on, I’ll prove you’re a stock avatar.”
The boy detaches an object from a utility belt hidden beneath his rags. It’s a scuffed-up scanner, covered in a weatherproofing armor of yellow rubber. The scanner hums and beeps a few times as the boy moves it in a slow arc near my face. The pupils of his large blue eyes dilate as he looks at me with growing astonishment.
“Holy shit! I thought I’d seen everything down here,” he says, looking at me with awe and suspicion. “How did you pull this off?”
“I didn’t pull anything off. I was in a place—I thought it was a tanning salon and—”
“Enough with the storyline,” the boy cuts me off impatiently. “I get it. You’re not going to tell me your proprietary secrets. No doubt your story is that you were already such an extreme mutation that the TSW’s filters assumed you were already in character and let you through as such. If I knew a hack as cool as this, I wouldn’t tell just anyone either.”
The boy stares at me with a look of shrewd appraisal.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Oliver,” says the boy, “Oliver Twister.”
“Is that your real name?”
“Of course, it’s not my real name!” says Oliver. “So, your character is supposed to be a mentally-handicapped snowman? This is getting old really fast, but original, I’ll give you that. C’mon, let’s get out of here before someone wants to fight or do the sexy stuff to us.”
I get up and follow Oliver Twister across the street. It occurs to me to take more careful notice of my new outfit. The gray coveralls I’d found myself in seem almost featureless—no hems, buttons, or zippers—but there is a left breast pocket emblazoned with the TSW logo and in candy-striped font, the words,
“Wait a minute,” I say, thinking of something. “If I’m here as myself, how come I’m wearing these gray coveralls? I’ve never even owned a pair, plus I entered the machine naked!”
“Well, the TSW isn’t going to let you come through naked, you know,” says Oliver Twister, looking at me as if I might actually be mentally handicapped.
“Why not?” I ask.
“It’s against the FVC.”
I give Oliver a puzzled look.
“THE FAM-ILY VAL-UE CODE.”
He over-enunciates, giving me a look of extreme impatience as we walk past the still-smoldering pile of charred limbs.
“But then why do they allow the sexy stuff?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Why is the sky gray? It’s always been that way!” replies Oliver in a tone of such exasperation that I decide to stop asking questions.
We’re in a part of the city consisting of block after block of what looks like bleak, Soviet-era high-rise apartment buildings. They’re monoliths of gray concrete with narrow windows.
I follow Oliver into a long street, our footsteps echoing off the graffiti-marked walls. One street leads to another, and another, and another.
As I follow Oliver through the twists and turns of the inner cityscape, I realize I could never find my way out on my own.
Why am I trusting this Oliver Twister character? Guess I should have thought of that before I followed him into this concrete labyrinth.
I feel dirt being shoveled onto the decomposing corpse of my self-esteem, and I gnash my icy teeth with self-recrimination for my passive stupidity.
As we walk, the gray sky slowly turns black, and tall, sodium-vapor streetlights flicker on. There are chunks of concrete spiked with rusting rebar and the broken hulks of gargantuan war machines, but Oliver is very sure-footed. I follow close behind as he confidently navigates the post-apocalyptic maze.
Finally, Oliver stops.
“We’re here,” he whispers. He pulls out his scanner and uses it to sweep the area. “Just making sure no one followed us.”
At first, nothing seems to distinguish the place we’ve stopped from anything else. But as I turn around, I see we’re at an intersection, and the entrance to one of the streets is shadowy for a few feet before it disappears into total darkness. Oliver is staring into the same anomaly.
“This is going to lead us into No Man’s Land, a code-cloaked space unmapped by the TSW,” he whispers. “Their locator bots are unable to recognize this zone. It’s going to get pretty weird for the first couple of minutes. Once we enter, you may have trouble seeing me.”
Oliver produces a laser pointer from a pocket and switches it on. A bright red dot appears on the ground between us.
“No matter how disoriented you get, just follow this. Got it?”
“Got it,” I reply.
Oliver leads the way into the shadowy anomaly, which quickly shrouds us in inky blackness.
Intense vertigo kicks in as I sense spatial relations being violated. Up/down, left/right, forward/backward keep shuffling around. I can see the red dot but no longer experience it as on the ground. It’s just a point ahead of me, like a red star in a dark space that supports me, though I’ve no sense of footing or even of the direction of any ground on which I could place my feet. But somehow, as I walk, my every footstep finds a velvety platform underneath. These velvet steppingstones are being placed at precise intervals, algorithmically anticipating my footsteps. Otherwise, I’m crossing an unformed abyss.
Some of the steppingstones move under me as if I’m pressing my foot on a gas or brake pedal that arcs downward until I hit a pedal-to-the-metal stopping point. I can sense my whole spatial orientation shift with the pedal, creating a surge of vertigo. My snowlegs tremble beneath me, stressed by the lack of stable ground. The disorientation is sickening and demoralizing, like being made to sniff glue from a paper bag while being led blindfolded through a series of spatially distorted M.C. Escher etchings.
I try not to think about where I’m stepping so I don’t lose my nerve. I just keep walking, if you can call it that, toward the red dot. As horrible as the disorientation is, I sense Oliver leading me precisely through the distortions, which helps me fend off spatial panic.
I must be getting the hang of it because I manage to catch up to the red dot and hear Oliver breathing next to me.
We take a few steps together and emerge in an entirely new setting. It’s as if the spatially unstable darkness was merely a bubble enclosing us. Now we’re stepping out of the bubble and onto a rain-swept bridgeway made of chain and loose wooden planking.
There are powerful gusts of wind. My spindly snowfingers wrap around the slippery wetness of the chain handrail as I struggle to stabilize myself on the undulating bridgeway. Oliver looks back at me.
“Make sure you keep a tight grip on the handrail,” he shouts through the ferocious wind. “The bridge will hold, but it’s been known to whipsaw around in the wind. We’re almost there.”
Tightening my white-knuckled grip on the handrail, I try not to look at the featureless abyss below and focus on planting my feet on the next slippery plank.
The swaying bridge leads us into a rapidly swirling gray mist, and I can barely see Oliver ahead of me.
Even though I’ve got the chain handrail to hold onto, if I were to slip and fall between the planks, I’m not sure how long my twiggy fingers could support my snowweight above the spatially distorted abyss.
This is nerve-wracking.
The rotational velocity of the swirling gray mist intensifies until it becomes a cylindrical vortex surrounding the bridge like a spinning tubular wormhole. But the faster it spins, the calmer the air inside the tube becomes. I guess it’s an eye-of-the-storm effect. The bridge is barely swaying now, and I’m able to regain my footing.
Streaks of colored light appear in the spinning gray mist as we approach a massive iron door at the end of the bridgeway. The door has an oversized sliding latch. Oliver pulls on it with considerable effort until it clangs open.
We step across the threshold, and Oliver locks the iron door behind us. The sound of the spinning vortex vanishes into an eerie silence.
“Ah, we’ve finally made it,” says Oliver.
We’re on a street that looks like every other street we traveled through. The whole disorienting journey seems pointless.
Oliver turns toward me.
“We’re now in a stable area that’s completely hidden from the TSW system, even though we’re running off its processing power. Get it?”
“Got it,” I reply, even though I really don’t. His call-and-response question automatically triggered the expected answer, but I also sense Oliver won’t have the patience to answer any of my technically naive questions.
“OK,” says Oliver. “Just a little way further.”
I follow him through more alleys to an innocuous spot. Grimy concrete steps lead down to another metal door. We stop at what looks like the outside of a dingy basement apartment.
A glass spy hole in the door emits a beam of red light that scans Oliver’s eyes. Then, there’s a sound of bolts retracting, and the door opens into what appears to be a large sewer pipe.
Fortunately, the pipe is dry and smells only of rusted metal. We hunch our backs to walk down it till we reach a submarine-type hatch. Oliver turns the heavy mechanism and opens it allowing us to step inside an industrial-looking tank. A metal grating covers the floor, and we walk across it.
Every footfall echoes within the tank. It’s pitch black inside except for a few red lights I can see on an instrument panel, with knobs and analog meters up ahead. I hear the whine of what sounds like a giant machine, an old dynamo perhaps, powering up and beginning to spin.
“Reality distortion decontamination chamber,” explains Oliver. “Designed and built it myself. It will strip away any reality-distorting code, no matter how subtle, and reveal us in our true forms.
“Every layer of misrepresentation will be removed, so even if all you’ve got on is a bit of digitized eye shadow and a two-percent vertical stretch to look thinner, you can expect to lose that now. You go first.”
Oliver points toward the far end of the tank, where cage lights begin blinking on.
The whole room is suddenly lit up as a massive, standing ring array of brass electrodes generates a field of indigo-colored electrical plasma.
Oliver gestures me toward it.
Since snowmeat is super-conductive due to its high sodium content, I can only hope that I’m not about to be fatally electrocuted. Nevertheless, I approach the ring array with determination and manage not to break my step as I pass through the plasma field.
Despite the ominous industrial power surrounding me, I don’t feel much of anything besides a brief vibratory sensation near the surface of my snowskin.
There are only a couple of additional feet of metal grating, which leads to an ordinary-looking metal door. Next to the door is an amber-glowing LED display:
When I reach for the doorknob, I notice that my dark overcoat and usual clothing have replaced the generic gray TSW overalls.
I open the door and step into a room that looks like a furnished warehouse loft without windows. There’s a conference table surrounded by swivel chairs. On the walls are complex maps and diagrams and programming flow charts drawn on dry-erase boards. There are also racks of technical equipment, computer servers perhaps, with heavy cables running across the floor.
In the middle of the room is a kind of living area. There are two upholstered chairs, a small antique table with tea china, and an iron teapot resting atop an unlit charcoal brazier. Across from that, a Mcintosh turntable and tube amp sit on a cabinet filled with vinyl records.
I look back through the still-open door and see Oliver step through the field of indigo plasma. He emerges transformed. His face is still finely featured, but his eyes are now blue-gray, and he looks several years older. All vestiges of the child street-urchin character are gone, replaced by what appears to be a highly intelligent young man of about nineteen. He has curly blonde hair and glasses. His smooth, pale skin is slightly translucent, so traceries of blue veins are visible beneath the surface.
Oliver’s glasses reflect a purplish, iridescent sheen, and I sense they’re scrolling data before his eyes even as he stares at me. His face reflects intelligent amazement, the look of a brilliant mind rapidly analyzing a novel situation.
“OK. Now you’ve got my full attention,” he says. “This is an amazing, absolutely fundamental hack you’ve pulled off. I know you’re not an agent of the TSW, so who are you? What are you?”
Despite his youth, he has a commanding presence, and I can tell he won’t suffer fools gladly.
I look down at my pale, spindly fingers of snowtissue.
“As far as I know,” I reply, “I’m exactly who I seem to be.”
Oliver stares at me silently and then gestures toward the two chairs near the center of the room.
I sit down on one of them. It appears to be upholstered in old leather, but it reacts to my weight like advanced memory foam. It adjusts to my back and all the contours of my snowbody perfectly. I wonder if it is some miraculously elastic polymer or nanotechnology.
“Would you care for a cup of Shincha Houryoku jasmine green tea?” asks Oliver as he lights the charcoal brazier.
“Yes, please,” I reply.
Oliver busies himself with measuring out a precise amount of tea from a canister while he waits for the water to heat.
He prepares the tea like a meticulous scientist taking care to get every detail of a delicate experiment exactly right. He uses his scanner to check the water temperature in the iron tea kettle and removes it from the brazier when it’s at the precisely correct temperature. Then he carefully adds the leaves and sets the scanner to count down the steeping time.
Oliver removes a vinyl record from the cabinet and puts it on the turntable. I recognize it as a rendition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations played by Glenn Gould.
When the timer goes off, Oliver pours the tea from the iron teakettle into two china cups.
As I study his complexion, I get an impression that Oliver eats a highly refined diet, perhaps vegan raw foods with intermittent fasting and caloric restriction. This contributes to his unblemished skin and a certain glow that’s neither unhealthy nor robustly healthy, but rather pale and unearthly.
“We should let these cool for a minute.”
Oliver sits back in his chair, his blue-gray eyes intense and analytical beneath the iridescent lenses of his spectacles. He studies me silently for a moment. Then another beep sounds, and he reaches for a teacup, gesturing I do the same.
I see Oliver watch in fascination as my snowfingers wrap around my teacup before I take a sip.
It’s exquisite—ceremonial quality—and the precise brewing process has brought out the most subtle flavors.
“So, exactly what reality did you come from before you entered the TSW?” asks Oliver.
He sips his tea patiently as I compose my thoughts. It’s such an open-ended question, and given my life history, there’s no straightforward, easy answer.
I recount my experience with the More Real Than Real place, Cat City, and events that led up to leaving the Admiral Black Paw Inn. I leave out embarrassing details related to Jamie Cat and so forth. Oliver seems most interested in the incarnation seizures.
I describe as many of them as I can recall, working backward until I get to waking up from the ministrokes with a memory deficit.
I tell him that I can vividly remember incidents of my childhood—Betty Cat, being ostracized by the family, cruel cat children—but still suffer from vast discontinuities in my memory. These fuzzy, missing spaces stubbornly elude recall.
“Fascinating,” says Oliver. “It looks like an irregular but distinct horizon line in your memory. It suggests you may have another identity on the other side of that horizon line. Can you remember working with code, or being involved in source-code hacking?”
I shake my head.
“I think I actually believe you,” says Oliver in a tone of grand summation.
He seems surprised by his own words, his rigorous, scientific skepticism giving way to this mind-blowing experience. But he quickly gathers himself back into his intimidating scientist mode.
“So, you don’t know what you did, and none of my instruments—”Oliver gestures toward the racks of equipment in the room, “are telling me anything useful about how you got this way. But somehow, you’ve managed to pull off a fundamental hack, a total transformation of your baseline form, and despite what you call ‘incarnation seizures,’ what I might call a cascading series of matrices, this novel form appears to be stable. The tank out there stripped away any distorting code, and yet—” Oliver gestures toward my person. “This is an amazing achievement, but we need to know how it was accomplished.”
“Why do you need to know?” I ask.
Oliver takes a deep breath and seems to be struggling with a difficult decision.
“OK,” says Oliver uncertainly, “this is against all my security protocols, but—”
He takes off his glasses and folds them on the table. The purplish iridescence vanishes. I realize he’s not merely taken them off, but deactivated them as well, so that his words won’t be recorded. Without the spectacles, his blue-gray eyes are startlingly charismatic.
“I’m part of a group, a secret group,” says Oliver haltingly. “Let’s call it a guild of source-code hackers. We believe everything is ultimately hackable. Everything.
“If we can hack DNA and even sub-atomic particles in supercolliders, then everything is hackable. Our motto is: It exists, therefore, it can be hacked. We’ve learned to hack even the most secure digital matrices without detection. We’re able to use the processing power of some of the most complex, corporate and government matrices to create emergent—,” Oliver pauses to carefully consider his words, “emergent effects, and hidden submatrices, let’s say— I’m trying not to be too technical,” he adds in a condescending tone.
“Now we’ve moved on to hacking certain analog, organic matrices through lucid dreaming, artificially induced near-death experience, neuro-pharmaceuticals, and other means. But as far as we’ve gone into any of these matrices, there’s inevitably the organic tether—eventually, we return to our baseline physical forms. But you, you seem to have accomplished an absolutely fundamental hack—you’ve transformed—or something has transformed—your baseline form.” Oliver gestures toward my snowbody again.
“For source-code hackers, this is like the Philosopher’s Stone. You’ve broken what we call the mono-body rule, the deep source code determining that each psyche or agent is, this side of death, tethered to a particular organic body, with DNA and a carbon-based metabolism unfolding in linear time and so forth,” says Oliver with a sweeping away gesture, his lip curling with distaste of the descent into organic chemistry.
“That you can stabilize such an—improbable form—you must be a hack or two away from achieving full-on shapeshifter capability.”
Oliver’s words and his charismatic presence are mesmerizing. He’s obviously tapped into something fundamental about my whole being. But even more potently affecting is that he’s affirming my entire reality-challenged existence, and even my snowperson embodiment, as a great and unique accomplishment.
I’m so used to being judged, by myself and others, as a pathetic and freakish invalid. But Oliver doesn’t see me that way at all. For him, the curse and bane of my existence as a sentient snowman is a miraculous anomaly.
Deep within, I feel my self-esteem—a tattered, rag-like thing floating helplessly through sewer tunnels of despair—is beginning to swell and glow like a legendary sword about to be unsheathed.
But just as I’m beginning to embrace the ecstatic rebirth of a positive self-identity, a wave of nausea and vertigo comes over me. Several of Oliver’s instruments start beeping and flashing. Oliver grabs his glasses and puts them on.
“Goddammit!” Oliver exclaims, “Something is trying to yank you from the TSW!”
Oliver and his room blur, flatten into two dimensions and freeze. It’s like the world I was just in has been flash-frozen beneath a layer of wax paper. A glowing red font projects onto that waxy surface:
Right after I read the error message, I blackout.
I regain awareness in time to hear the pneumatic sound of the sarcophagus-like bed opening. I’m still ensconced in the wet, furry electrodes, which feel like they’ve merged with my snowtissues. But as soon as I move, they slip off fluidly without discomfort and vanish into the bed.
I sit up and focus my eyes on the plasterboard bareness of Room #7, struggling to reconcile myself with what’s happened.
Oliver was telling me secrets of the greatest significance about my identity before I was so rudely and abruptly yanked out of the TSW. I wonder what Oliver is doing and thinking right now, and what he experienced when I was yanked.
Did I just blink out and disappear? Or was all the information organizing my snowcrystals suddenly withdrawn? If the information was withdrawn, then the snowbody I inhabited in his room would have sagged into an undifferentiated mass of slush.
I feel heatwaves of shame and humiliation as I visualize what this must have looked like from Oliver’s perspective. I see him, so clean and fastidious, holding up my soggy, perspiration-stained clothing, dripping with gray slush as he examines it with horrified fascination.
Would he even touch it?
No, he’s too smart to touch such a biohazardous mess.
He’d probably back away from it, put on surgical gloves, and take small samples to analyze. Then he would be disappointed to find my bodily substance contains little more than disorganized water molecules, sodium, and traces of other contaminants.
The image of Oliver studying my messy remains causes my self-esteem to sag to the floor like an empty, soggy overcoat.
By the sarcophagus, I find my clothes still lying on the floor where I’d left them.
So maybe my clothing, as well as my snowbody, deteriorated into chemicals and organic contaminants when I was pulled.
Now I visualize Oliver filled with loathing and disgust as he stares at this odiferous puddle of gelatinous, toxic fluids I’ve left behind, permanently staining the upholstered chair I was sitting in. All these fluids would’ve seeped into the outer layer of memory foam. And the high sodium content would have left horrible white salt stains on the vintage leather.
The chair I ruined perfectly matched the chair he was sitting on, so both chairs will have to be thrown out.
Hot waves of shame flush my snowskin and raise my cortisol and other stress hormones. But it energizes me enough to stand up.
As soon as I stand, I feel dizzy from the neuro-pharmaceuticals still sloshing around in my snowbrain.
I put on my clothes and stagger down the hallway to where the young upright man is still bobbing rhythmically to his earbuds. He tears a poorly printed receipt from a machine and slides it along with my credit wafer across the counter in an absent and distracted gesture.
“You ran over, and there were some extra charges, plus an illegal operation fine,” he says in a bored voice.
After I pay him, I put the receipt and credit wafer back in my wallet as I walk out of the store and into the nocturnal streets of Adventure Cat City.
The garish neon and flashing lights of the endless avenue of sleazy storefronts stress my overwrought nervous system.
My head is spinning, and I feel horribly disoriented. The effect is like emerging from a gut-wrenchingly emotional movie only to find yourself in the same movie-theater parking lot as if nothing has happened. Only I’d been in the film, and it ended with me sagging into a stinky puddle, ruining two chairs, and embarrassing myself in front of this brilliant, young mind.
I wonder if I’ll ever see Oliver Twister again or if there’s any way to send him a wretched apology for the disgusting mess I’d left behind. Perhaps I could use a TSW interface to send him a message offering to pay for the ruined chairs.
Just as I imagine sending the message, I remember there’s nothing left on my credit wafer. Another hot flush of shame pinkens my snowskin as I realize I wouldn’t even be able to make good on my promise to reimburse him.
Now I’ll have to compose a second message, admitting to Oliver that I’m a homeless snowperson with no funds. Besides wasting more of his valuable time, this will make it seem like I’d sent the first text dishonestly. He’ll think I want his pity and perhaps to fraudulently extract charity from him, which will only compound his disgust at such an attempt to extort funds. I imagine Oliver’s reaction:
The soggy mess of contaminated slush you left behind disgusts me, but your passive-aggressive extortion texts are just contemptible, you sickening snowcreature.
He won’t even bother responding to my messages. Instead, he’ll just delete them, wishing he could delete his entire memory of me just as easily.
In a daze of shame and humiliation, neuro-pharmaceuticals still percolating in my brain, I walk down Broadway with no clear purpose or destination.
Time is moving sluggishly, and boisterous groups of party cats float by amidst pulses of colored light from storefronts, clubs, and bars. I feel weirdly detached from my surroundings, as if my snowtissues were infused with ketamine.
The bright lights leave ghostly trails in my visual perception, and sharp edges blur as if I’m under water.
Soon, I drift past the garish, neon colors of Adventure Cat City. The ACC red-light district is so packed with storefronts and activity that it’s easy to forget that it’s only six blocks long. It ends abruptly with an enormous power substation humming ominously with transformers and power lines.
I’ve drifted into the dark desolation of the industrial outskirts of Cat City. I pass the shuttered slaughterhouses of the meat packing area as an enormous tank farm comes into view. I walk by mazes of pipes and metal gangways strung with electric lights that bridge the giant cylinders of volatile liquids. Looming towers release fiery plumes into the night sky as my lungs burn from petrochemical toxins. It’s terrifying to be this close to so much dangerous industrial power, so I quicken my pace to get away as quickly as possible.
Past the tank farm are marshy sumps that exude miasmas of chemical vapors, followed by a stretch of poisoned wasteland with a few tufts of highly deformed weeds mutating at the edges. At the boundary of these barren wastes, I cross railroad tracks, and approach trash-filled woods which I enter through a neglected and unlit dirt road.
Suddenly, I realize that I’m drifting almost effortlessly. The neuro-pharmaceuticals, or perhaps the whole VR experience, have apparently enhanced my psionic powers, and I partly glide as I walk, my chakras pulsating with colored light from deep within my snowtissues.
I drift down the road with dark woods on either side of me. I’m being drawn toward a presence, a presence that unconsciously attracted me from Adventure Cat City. But now I’m well aware of it, and moment by moment, it’s becoming stronger and more magnetic.
It pulls me deeper and deeper into the dark woods. It’s as if my snowcrystals are made of iron and there’s a powerful lodestone hidden in the depths of the forest.
The logging road becomes an overgrown trail, and coniferous trees scent the darkness. The city lights are far away, and the faint illumination of a crescent moon barely penetrates tree branches thick with green needles. Effortless gliding overtakes any semblance of walking. The presence appears to increase my psionic power as I draw near.
I can hear a stream hidden by the dense coniferous trees in the dark woods. My snowtissues are soothed by the increased moisture in the air, and the relaxing rhythm of crickets blends with the sound of clear water flowing over smooth pebbles.
I come over a slight ridge and see flickering orange firelight off to my right. This is also the direction of the lodestone, and I allow its magnetism to draw me off the trail.
I glide silently around trees toward the campfire. I hear the crackling of sparks and smell the smoke of burning pine branches.
It’s burning in a small clearing, and as I glide closer, I see a cloaked figure sitting very still beside the small campfire. I stop gliding and hover silently.
The hood of his cloak is thrown back, and firelight glimmers off his long, golden hair. He has the countenance of a beautiful youth, but his ears are slightly pointed, and even from a distance, he has a depth of presence that seems to alter the flow of time.
This must be the strange Prince, Jeremiah. The old Cat Woman of the Cards prophesied he would embark on a quest with a strange mutant.
The Prince is aware of me and turns slowly to look in my direction . . .
>>>GO TO BOOK FOUR
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