« Chapter Seventeen | Main | Chapter Nineteen »

December 08, 2004

Chapter Eighteen

"Joshua," I hollered. "We have to stop."

Joshua poked his head over the ledge and looked down. "It's too late," he said. "We're already off."

"Can we throw him out anyway?" I asked.

"Now, there's a thought," Joshua said. "But the answer is no."

"Pity," I said.

"It's the problem with being a civilized species," Joshua agreed. "No convenient falls from a great height."

"Hey," Van Doren said. "That dog is talking."

Joshua laughed. "You think that's weird, wait about a half hour. It's going to be a long night, pal." He stepped back out of sight.

Van Doren turned back to me. "What's going on?"

"I'm interested in hearing what you think is going on," I said. "And as long as you're talking, how you managed to follow us here."

"I got word that you were moving Michelle today," Van Doren said. "I considered staking out the hospital, but I decided to stake you out instead. I figured that no matter where Michelle was going, you'd have to go there, too, sooner or later. You weren't in the office this morning, so I went to your house, where I saw your car. And waited. At about four, you and Miranda left your house in your car. What's up with that, by the way?"

By this time Miranda had made it over to where we were. "None of your business, creep," she said.

"Sorry," Van Doren said, mildly. "Professional curiosity."

"I doubt the 'professional' part," Miranda said.

"Yow. Feisty," Van Doren said.

"Tom," Miranda said. "Don't worry about kicking him out of this thing. I'm going to rip his teeny little heart out myself."

"Works for me," I said.

Van Doren looked at us both uncertainly and then continued. "You two went to Lupo Associates from there, and then spent about an hour there before heading to Pomona Valley. A couple more hours passed before you guys had the parade of ambulances."

"Why didn't you fall for it?"

"Because I was following you," Van Doren said to me. "None of those people rushing out with stretchers looked like you. Or like her, for that matter. As it was, I just barely saw you when you did sneak out. That was a pretty tricky operation."

"Not tricky enough, obviously," Miranda said.

"Well, I'm more motivated than most," Van Doren said. "I followed your ambulance to that parking lot and then waited to see what you did next. A couple minutes later you guys got back on the freeway, and from there it was just a matter of not calling your attention to me. I've gotten a little better at that since the last time I tailed you, Tom."

"I still don't see how you followed us out when we went on the dirt roads," I said. "There was no one else out there with us. I'd have seen your car."

"I followed you quite a ways back," Van Doren said. "And I killed my lights."

He pointed to his car. His parking lights and brake lights were shattered and broken. His headlights were fine, but then he could just turn those off.

"Nice," I admitted.

"Yeah, well, it'll probably be the last time they let me use a company car, anyway," Van Doren said. "I just about wrecked it on these dirt roads. Between that and having this car towed from when you kidnapped me, Tom, they're not going to give me the keys again."

"You're breaking my heart," I said.

"That's how I followed you here. As to where here is, and what's going on, I have no clue. I assumed this building was some sort of weird clinic."

"Building?" Miranda said.

"Didn't you feel the thump, Van Doren?" I said. "You didn't see this thing before you got to it?"

"I felt a tremor, sure," Van Doren said, slightly confused. "So? This is southern California. We have tremors all the time. It didn't feel like it was close by. And no, I didn't see this place. It's black. I saw your tail lights disappear and I just followed you in."

"It didn't strike you as odd, the way you came in?" I said.

"I came in the same way you did," Van Doren said.

"Wow," Miranda said. "You're just totally clueless, Van Doren."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Van Doren said.

"She doesn't it mean it as an insult," I said. "She means it literally."

"I'm not following you," Van Doren said.

"Joshua," I called.

"Yo." He poked his head over again.

"I'd like to show our friend here exactly where we are," I said.

"No problem," Joshua said.

The cube disappeared. The Earth hovered below us, the moon off to one side.

Jim Van Doren screamed higher than I had ever heard a grown man scream before.

"I think we have some sedatives back in the ambulance," Miranda said, after we had Joshua re-tint the cube.

"Nah," I said. "He maintained bladder control. He'll be fine."

Van Doren leaned on the side of his Escort. For some reason he had a death grip on his radio antenna. "Holy shit," he said.

"I remember having that very same reaction once," I said.

"Are we really in space?" he asked.

"Oh, yes," I said.

"What the hell is going on?" Van Doren asked.

"Jim, remember that time in my car, when you asked me to tell you what I was up to?"

"Sort of," Van Doren said. "I'm not thinking too well at the moment."

"Try," I said. "It'll help."

Van Doren closed his eyes to concentrate. "You told me that you were doing something with space aliens," he said.

"Right," I said.

"I thought you were just being an asshole," he said.

"Just goes to show," I said.

He pointed over to Joshua's ledge. "And the dog is an alien."

"Mostly. It's sort of a long story," I said.

Van Doren's mind was working furiously now. "Is....," he began, looked towards the ambulance, and then back at Miranda and me. "Michelle Beck's an alien, isn't she? Something's happened to her and now you have to take her back to the mothership?"

Miranda giggled. Van Doren scowled. "I'm sorry," Miranda said. "I think the word 'mothership' did it to me."

"Well?" he said, to me. "Is Michelle Beck an alien?"

"No," I said. "At least, not yet."

"Not yet?" Van Doren said. "What does that mean? Are they going to assimilate her into their collective?"

Miranda burst out laughing.

"What?" Van Doren was shouting now.

It was a second before Miranda could catch herself. Then she gently touched Van Doren's arm.

"Jim, you've got to stop watching so much science fiction," she said. "It's making you talk funny."

"Ha ha ha," Van Doren said, peevishly, and pulled away. "Look, I'm just trying to figure out what's going on."

I considered Van Doren for a moment, trying to decide what I was going to do with him. Joking aside, murdering him wasn't an option. But he now knew more about the existence of the Yherajk than anyone outside of me, Miranda and Carl, and that could be dangerous to us. I was loyal to Carl and Joshua, and Miranda was loyal to me, but Van Doren wasn't loyal to any of us. Certainly not to me. Quite the opposite, in fact, since he in the last few weeks he'd been doing his damnedest to cut my career out from under me.

Well, I thought. Time to change all of that.

"Jim, why do you work for The Biz?" I asked.

"What?" he said. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"I'm just wondering," I said. "You make no bones that it's a shitty little magazine, and that you're doing shitty little jobs on it. But you're still there. Why?"

"I don't know if you've noticed this, but journalism is not exactly a rapidly expanding profession," Van Doren said. "Particularly in Los Angeles, where you basically have to put a gun to peoples' heads to make them read."

"You could always move," I said.

"What, and miss all this?"

"I'm serious," I said.

"So am I," Van Doren said. "Would you want to be an agent in Omaha, Tom?"

"No, but that's not where my business is," I said.

"Well, neither is mine," Van Doren said. "I write about the entertainment world. Have to be here to do that. I'm writing for a magazine that's near the ass-end of that world, I admit that. But you have to start somewhere. Think of it as the journalism equivalent of working on a straight-to-video flick."

"Why write about entertainment?" I asked. "Really, who gives a shit about it? It's not really important. It's not real news. You're just wasting your time and talent, such as it is."

"Nice cheap shot," Van Doren said.

"I try," I said.

"And you're wrong," Van Doren said. "It's not a waste. You're so stuck in the belly of the beast that you don't notice it, but our entertainment is the single most successful export America has."

"Shucks," I said. "And all this time I thought our most successful export was democracy. Guess that was just another lie I learned in school. I hear evolution's kind of a crock, too."

"Look," Van Doren said. "Other countries pass laws requiring that their movie theaters, television networks and radio stations have to play a certain percentage of home-grown entertainment. Because if they didn't, Hollywood would wipe it all out. We're not a world leader because we have nuclear missiles and submarines. We are because we have Bugs Bunny and the Dukes of Hazzard. Our planet is what Hollywood has made it."

"Planet Hollywood," I said. "Catchy."

"I thought you might like it," Van Doren said.

"But that's a stupid argument," I said. "The only people who believe that Hollywood sets political agendas are nuts on the left who are scared of action figures, and nuts on the right who are scared of nipples."

"Who's talking politics?" Van Doren said. "We're talking about how people around our world want their world to be. And the world they want it to be like is the one they see in our films, and in our TV shows and hear in our music. That's power. Hollywood that's where the world culture starts. If someone wanted to address the world today, he wouldn't do it from Washington, or Moscow, or London. He'd do it from Hollywood. That's why I work in LA, Tom."

"Sure," I said. "And as a bonus, you get to meet stars."

"Well," Van Doren admitted, "There is that too."

"Joshua," I said. "You wouldn't happen to have been listening to this little diatribe, would you?"

"As it happens," Joshua said, from his perch. "I've been hanging on every word."

"Does it sound familiar to you?"

"A little," Joshua said. "Of course, I said it better."

"Jim," I said, turning back to Van Doren. "I have a proposition for you."

"Do you, now," Van Doren said, and leaned back on his car. "This is going to be good."

"I don't suppose you can guess why I, of all people, am the one that knows about these aliens."

"It's a stumper, yes," Van Doren said.

"It's because I'm their agent."

"Their what?" Van Doren said.

"I'm their agent," I said. "In one of those bizarre and strange coincidences, Jim, their outlook on things is remarkably similar to yours: if you want to get the attention of the world, you have to go through Hollywood. So they decided to hire an agent. I'm him. As such, I'm authorized to make deals for them."

"Wow," Van Doren said. "How do you collect your fee?"

"After this is all done, I get New Zealand," I said. "Now, are you going to shut up and let me tell you what I have in mind?"

"By all means," Van Doren said.

"This offer stands for the next ten minutes. After that, you're out. No second chances or second thoughts. Are we clear?"

"Sure," Van Doren said.

"Here's the deal," I said. "You get the story. Exclusive."

"What story?" Van Doren said. "Your story? I have that already."

"This story," I said. "The first contact between humanity and an intelligence from another world. It's the single most important story in the history of the planet, Jim. And you'll be the only one who's in on it from the start. The only one who knows the whole story. Everyone else will have the reaction story. You'll be the one who gets to tell the world how it happened and what it all means."

"Jesus," Van Doren said, after a minute. "You don't screw around, do you?"

"Not when it's business, Jim."

"What's the catch?"

"The catch is this: Drop your stories on me and Michelle. Quit The Biz. And keep your silence until we're ready to make our debut."

"When is that going to be?"

"I don't know yet," I said. "We're still working it out. It could be tomorrow, or it could be years. But whatever it is, not a peep out of you until then. Not even a hint of a peep."

"What happens if I refuse?" Van Doren asked.

"Nothing," I said. "Except that you won't be able to get off this ship while we're off doing what we're doing. In fact, you'll be sent back as soon as we get there."

"Without your car," Joshua said. "Have fun hiking back to the 15."

"What's to stop me from filing a story when I get back?" Van Doren said.

"Nothing at all," I said. "You can tell anyone you like. In fact, I encourage you to, since there's probably not a quicker and easier way for your credibility to get squashed than for you to run around, saying that Michelle Beck is an alien."

"So she is an alien," Van Doren said.

"Jim," I said. "Stay focused, here."

"I am focused," he said. "I'm just trying to make sure I have the story right."

"Then you're in?"

"Are you kidding?" Van Doren said. "You're offering me the biggest story ever in the universe, and you're asking me if I want it? Are you that dumb?"

"It's not actually the biggest story ever in the universe," Joshua said. "Just in this little corner of it."

"Close enough for me," Van Doren said, and turned back to me. "You've got a deal, Tom."

We shook on it. Chalk one up for our side.

"You all right with this, Joshua?" I asked.

"Well, the only thing I've seen of his is that piece he wrote about you," Joshua said. "It was kind of lousy."

"I can do better," Van Doren said.

"Lord, I hope so," Joshua said.

"I don't suppose you could tell me now how much this gig pays," Van Doren said, to me.

"Don't worry about it," Miranda said. "Tom's easy to score a raise off of."


One of the Yherajk meeting us in the hangar pointed at Van Doren as the cube melted away. "Who is that?" it asked.

Van Doren pointed back. "What is that?"

"That's what my people normally look like," Joshua said.

"Yeeeg," Van Doren said. "I like the dog suit better."

"This is Jim Van Doren," Joshua said. "He was a stowaway."

"A stowaway? Arrrgh," The Yherajk said. "Ye'll be walking the plank come morning, laddie. Arrrgh."

"This is really not what I expected out of an alien race," Van Doren said to me.

"You get used to it," I said.

The Yherajk slimed his way over to me and extended a tentacle. "You must be Tom. I am Gwedif."

I took the tentacle. "It's nice to finally meet you, Gwedif. I've heard a lot about you. I'm sorry we have to meet in these extreme circumstances."

"Extreme? You have no idea," Gwedif said. "No one around here has been able to talk about anything else. The air stinks of shouting. That reminds me." A smell like a wet, mildewed rug erupted from Gwedif; one of the other Yherajk immediately set off towards the door. "Now that we have an extra human, we need another set of nose plugs."

Gwedif moved the tendril to Miranda. "This is Miranda, I assume," he said.

"Hi," Miranda said. She didn't make an attempt to shake the proffered tendril. "You'll have to excuse me," she said. "This is the first time I've seen one of you in your natural state."

"Of course," Gwedif said. "I look pretty ooky. But I'm a really nice guy once you get to know me."

"I'm sure you are," Miranda said.

Gwedif next considered Van Doren. "How did you happen?" he said.

"I'm a journalist," Van Doren said. "I was following a story."

"I'd say you caught it," Gwedif remarked. "What do you think of us aliens so far?"

"You remind me of the headcheese at a smorgasbord," Van Doren said.

"Is he always like this?" Gwedif said to Joshua.

"We don't know. He was sort of a last minute addition," Joshua said.

"Usually he's worse," I said.

"Hmmmmm," Gwedif said. "You know, headcheese man, you and I are sort of in the same line of work."

"Nuts," Van Doren said, smiling. "And they promised me I'd have an exclusive on the story."

"I'm sure we can collaborate," Gwedif said.

The noseplug Yherajk had returned with three pairs of noseplugs. We each fitted them in. Then he joined the other Yherajk at the ambulance and lowered Michelle's stretcher onto the floor. I went over to her stretcher and checked the battery on the portable respirator. It was three-quarters drained.

"We'd better get moving on this thing," I said.

"What are we doing now, anyway?" Van Doren wanted to know.

"Nobody tell him anything yet," I said. I looked at Van Doren. "Sorry, Jim. Hold your horses a couple more minutes." I looked over to Gwedif. "Jim doesn't know exactly why we're here. I think that's something that could be useful for what we need to do."

"Yes, you're right." Gwedif said. "How about that, headcheese man. You might come in useful after all. We won't install the plank until tomorrow."

"How long are you going to call me 'headcheese man'?" Van Doren said.

"Oh, I don't know," Gwedif said. "It just has such a nice ring to it. Now, follow me, please, all of you. We're going to the meeting chamber."

The corridors were as low as Carl promised. Van Doren, the tallest of us, suffered the greatest from the low ceilings and lower gravity, bumping his head and cursing. Here and there Yherajk crossed our path, but mostly stayed out of our way as we headed towards the meeting chamber.

Gwedif pulled up to me as we walked. "I wish we had more time," he said. "This happened with Carl, too. Barely time for introductions, and then off to decide the fate of our peoples. If nothing else, we've learned that you humans thrive on crisis."

"Anything worth doing is worth doing at a fevered pitch," I said.

"I don't know about that," Gwedif said. "I think the first place I'll go when I visit your planet -- really visit your planet, I mean, not that little trip I took earlier -- I think I'll go visit a monastery. Those people seem to have the right idea. Slow, meditative spiritual contemplation."

"I think most of the monasteries these days are either making chant CDs or boutique wines," I said.

"Really?" Gwedif said. "Well, hell. What is it with you people, anyway?"

Before I could answer, we got to the meeting chamber. Gwedif touched the door, and we went inside.

Inside, a double-tiered low riser had been constructed, on which lay several Yherajk. I suspected the tier was for our benefit, not the Yherajk's, so that we could see who we were speaking to. The Yherajk who brought Michelle's stretcher in set the wheel locks and left. I went and stood next to Michelle. Miranda joined me; Joshua walked over to one side and sat, his eyes closed. Van Doren stood between Joshua and the stretcher, looking lost.

"Will you be speaking for your group?" Gwedif asked me.

"I will," I said.

"Very well. Today's meeting is a little smaller than the one Carl endured, for which your nostrils will no doubt be thankful for," Gwedif said to us all. "Rather than a shipwide meeting, we have convened the ship's senior officers. Tom, you may be familiar with our ientcio --" The Yherajk on the far left raised a tendril -- "who, of all Yherajk, is our leader."

"I have indeed heard him spoken of, in the highest terms," I said. "I hope he is well at this moment in the journey."

"Oooh, nice," Gwedif said. "You must have paid attention to whatever Carl told you. The ientcio returns your respects and welcomes you to the ship." Gwedif then introduced the rest of the officer complement, about twenty in all. I didn't bother trying to remember them all; I concentrated on Gwedif and the ientcio.

"Joshua has already given us his version of your request, and his issues with it." Gwedif said.

"When did he do that?" I said.

"Just now," Joshua said, and turned to me. "I used High Speech, Tom. One nicely pungent fart gets it all across."

"I'm glad my noseplugs were in," I said.

"You don't know how true that is," Joshua said.

"Now that Joshua has given his report, the ientcio would like to hear your request from you, and hopes you will be willing to answer some questions as well," Gwedif said.

"Of course." I said.

"Please begin whenever you are ready."

"All right," I said. I closed my eyes, said a little prayer to whomever might be listening, and opened my eyes. Then I began.


"The human you see in this stretcher is named Michelle Beck," I said, motioning to Michelle. "I was her agent, and also her friend. We were probably each other's best friends, though I don't think either of us realized it. As her agent, I helped to make her one of the most well-known actresses in Hollywood -- people everywhere recognize her face.

"A few days ago, Michelle suffered severe and irreversible brain damage due to lack of oxygen to her brain. My friend is now for all purposes dead. Her body is being kept alive through the use of this respirator, but it will not sustain her body for much longer. Soon her body will be as dead as her mind already is.

"I mourn the passing of my friend, more than I can express. As I said, I don't think I appreciated what she meant to me when she was alive. Michelle was a good person -- good in heart and in intention, which I think counts for something. I could be wrong. But I think it does.

"As much as I mourn Michelle, I see an opportunity in her passing, and opportunity that I think gives her death, which was as banal and meaningless as any death could be, some resonance. I have been asked by Carl Lupo to find a way to introduce the Yherajk to humanity, so that humanity can accept you as the friendly race you are, rather than for the terrifying creatures you appear to be.

"It occurs to me that one way to this -- perhaps the best way -- is to have Joshua inhabit Michelle's body. To be Michelle. Michelle is already known around the world. That much of the battle is already fought. What we can do now is to raise Michelle's profile even further, and give her a worldwide platform to be the spokesperson for the Yherajk. She can be the most effective bridge between our two peoples -- someone that humans know and who is not only non-threatening, but the focus of admiration. She can be the human face of an inhuman race -- the Trojan horse, if you will, that gets the Yherajk through the gate of humanity's fears.

"Joshua has several issues with inhabiting the body. The most objectionable of these has to do with her manner of death -- not the actual moment itself, but the events leading up to it. Before any other issues can be raised, this one must be dealt with. We have to have a clear accounting of her death. That being the case, I'm asking that a Yherajk other than Joshua connect to Michelle's mind, and acting as a conduit, send the memory into the brain of a human. This would allow us to see more perfectly what Michelle was thinking in those last moments.

"Without this information, this opportunity for our peoples could be gone forever. And, as importantly for me, my friend, who I did not value as I should have in life, will be gone as well."

I bowed my head, and put my hand over my eyes. I didn't mean to choke myself up as much as I did. But saying how much someone means to you jackhammers into your head the fact of whether you mean it or not. I had meant it. I didn't realize how much.

"That was a very noble speech," Gwedif said, after a minute. "But we must hurry. Are you ready to answer questions?"

"Yes," I said, clearing my throat. "I'm ready."

"Very well. The ientcio will speak for the officers, and I of course will speak for him."

"All right."

"The ientcio wants to know what you think happened in those last minutes of your friend's life."

"If the ientcio will allow it," I said, "I'd rather hold off on that question, for reasons that I'll get into in just a minute. But I can say that, being a human, I suspect that the situation was not as clear-cut as Joshua saw it. Joshua was looking at Michelle's actions, but perhaps not her state of mind."

"What gives you the right to make this decision for your friend?"

"She gave me the right, if she were incapacitated such as she is, to make medical decisions for her. I believe this qualifies me to take this action."

"What will you do if we refuse your request, or if the results are such that Joshua is not able to inhabit your friend's body?"

"I don't know," I said. "I don't really have a backup plan."

"That's not very wise," Gwedif said.

"No, it's not," I agreed. "But giving her a chance here is better than her having no chance back on Earth."

"You realize that if Joshua inhabits your friend's body, your friend will still be dead."

"I understand that. At the same time, Joshua has told me that he has retained the memories and some of the personality traits of Ralph, the dog whose body he inhabited, and those traits are still with him even now. My hope would be that some of who Michelle was might still remain after Joshua inhabits her body. However, even if doesn't work out that way, from the practical purposes of having Joshua inhabit Michelle's body, it won't matter."

"It occurs to the ientcio that you might be proposing having Joshua inhabit your friend's body merely out of convenience."

I blinked. "I'm not sure I follow that," I said.

"You said that this course of action may be the best way to introduce the Yherajk to humanity."

"Right," I said.

"What are some other courses of action?"

"I didn't come up with any others that were as good as this one, I'm afraid," I said.

"That's what the ientcio means," Gwedif said. "This is, you'll admit, a rather extreme course, and your pressing for it may simply be a way to keep you from admitting that you couldn't figure out a more conventional or at least sane way of introducing the Yherajk to your people. How is the memory of your friend served well by what might be your instinct to save your own skin?"

I flushed. "I wouldn't deny that having Joshua in Michelle's body would keep me from having to admit total defeat," I said. "But with all due respect to the ientcio, if he or the rest of you had wanted to do this conventionally, you should have just dropped a cube down on the steps of the White House and gone in for the tour. This is an extreme course, yes. But it will give a Yherajk a chance to live as a human, to be a human. Joshua has human memories, but that's not enough. It's like watching a documentary of a war. You can watch it a thousand times, but you still can't say you've fought. If you want to understand humans, you have to be one. Here's a chance."

"Wouldn't her family know that your friend has changed?"

"She has no family," I said. "The only person who would have been close enough to note the change would have been me. And maybe her hairdresser. I don't know."

"You say that a Yherajk could send the memory to another human being, so they might see it. Which Yherajk? Which human?"

"The Yherajk would be Gwedif," I said. "He's worked with humans before, and he's the only Yherajk on the ship who didn't parent Joshua, so that makes him more impartial than any other Yherajk might be. As for the human, I had originally thought I could do it, but I'm biased towards my argument. So it would have to have been Miranda. Miranda is morally opposed to the idea of Joshua inhabiting Michelle's body, but I trust her not to let her own opinion color what she would experience in the memory. But now, as it turns out, we've happened to pick up someone who is totally unbiased, since he doesn't know the specifics of Michelle's event. So the human who sees the memory should be Jim Van Doren."

"What?" Van Doren said.

"You're the man," I said, "Who gets to read Michelle Beck's mind."

"How do I do that?" Van Doren said.

"I'm going to stick tendrils into your skull," Gwedif said.

"Is it going to hurt?"

"Not if you're nice to me from now on," Gwedif said, sweetly.

"Tom, you never told me that I was going to get probed," Van Doren said.

"It's not really a probe," I said. "Come on, Jim. You wanted to get the story straight, anyway."

"Is this seriously necessary?" Van Doren said.

"Yes, it is," I said. "Honestly. What you experience now could change the course of the world."

"It sounds so hackneyed when you put it that way," Van Doren said.

"It's hackneyed, but it's true," I said.

Van Doren turned to Gwedif. "Promise me my brain isn't going to end up in a jar," he said.

"It will stay safe and snug in your chubby little skull," Gwedif said. "I promise. You'll be fine."

"God, what have I gotten myself into," Van Doren said. "All right. Fine. Whatever."

"The ientcio has a question for Jim Van Doren," Gwedif said.

"Okay," Van Doren said. "What?"

"Tom feels it would be appropriate for Joshua to inhabit Michelle Beck's body. Miranda does not. The ientcio wishes to know what you think about Joshua inhabiting this human body."

"Well, it would take her off my list of people to date," Van Doren said. "Other than that, I don't know."

"The senior officers will now debate the issue and render a decision," Gwedif said. "You may notice the room getting smellier for a few minutes."

It did. By the time they were finished, my eyes were watering. Miranda had to sit down. Van Doren was standing his ground, but just barely.

"The senior officers have decided to allow me to probe Michelle and transmit the memories to Jim Van Doren," Gwedif said.

"Good," I said. "Another minute of discussion and my sinus cavities would have imploded."

"It was not a unanimous vote," Gwedif said. "There was a lot of shouting."

"What do I do now?" Van Doren wanted to know.

Gwedif had him sit next to the stretcher and explained Van Doren's options -- Gwedif could go through his nose, which was the most efficient way, but the most uncomfortable, or through the ears, which was less efficient but least uncomfortable. Van Doren chose the ears.

"What am I going to be looking at?" Van Doren asked me, as Gwedif was preparing Michelle.

"You're going to be looking at the last moments of her life," I said. "The ones just before she goes into the coma."

"What am I looking for?"

"Don't look for anything," I said. "That's the whole point of you doing this: you don't know what to look for. Just let us know what you're experiencing."

"Will I be able to tell you as it happens?"

"How should I know?" I said. "I've never done this before, either."

"Man, your alien dog was right," Van Doren said. "This is the weirdest night of my life."

Gwedif slopped onto his ears before he could say another word.


"What are you seeing?" I asked Van Doren.

"I'm seeing your ugly face, Tom," Van Doren said.

"Try closing your eyes," I suggested.

Van Doren did. "This is so very odd," he said, finally. "I'm seeing some woman pouring goop over my face. I'm feeling the goop. What is this stuff?"

"Try sensing it for yourself," Gwedif suggested. "Just like you would your own memory."

Silence for a moment.

"It's latex," Van Doren said. "I'm getting a latex mask done for this stupid movie I'm doing. The woman who's putting the mask on me is a real bitch. A minute ago she tried to make Miranda leave. Miranda stood up to her, and she's talking to her now about something else."

Silence for another moment.

"Now the woman is sticking straws up my nose," Van Doren said. "It hurts, the way she's doing it, but I don't say anything because I just want to get this over with. I'm more depressed than I've ever been in my life. Hmmm. That's odd."

"What's odd?" I say.

"The way Michelle is experiencing that," Van Doren said. "She is depressed. Really, really depressed. But she's trying to make herself more depressed than she is."

"Why?" I ask.

"I don't know....." Van Doren trailed off for a minute. Then he said, "I think it's because she feels stupid. The audition earlier in the day went incredibly badly because she had prepared the wrong scene and because she fainted because of her treatment, whatever that means. She knows these things are her fault, and they were stupid little things. I think she'd rather be depressed than feel stupid. Yes, that's exactly what it is."

Silence again.

"My face is completely covered now. Miranda is telling me she has to go. I don't want her to go, because I don't want to be left alone. But I can hear the pain in her voice. I think she ate a bad burrito. I feel sorry for her; my lunch was fine. I let her go.

"Now I'm just lying here, thinking, trying to make myself more depressed. But it's not working. I'm replaying the earlier audition in my head and I'm looking stupider each time I replay the memory. And now, to top it all off, I'm sitting in Pomona with straws sticking out of my nose, for a part that I got because someone wanted to fuck me a couple years back. I'm disgusted with myself. I yank out the straws, and fling them away. I'll just sit here and die with goo on my face."

There it was.

I looked at Joshua, who was sitting there, a sad doggie look on his face. He was right. He wasn't happy about it, but he was. I bit the inside of my cheek until it bled. I was in a jumble of emotions. Sad for Michelle, who chose a stupid, stupid way to end her life. Angry at myself for believing that Michelle couldn't, wouldn't try to kill herself, and for taking her body so far away from where it should be. Fearful, because now I didn't know what I was going to about Michelle. Or myself. Where could I take her to die? To finally die?

Miranda was sobbing quietly next to me. I reached over to her and held her. All she had to deal with was simple grief. I almost envied her. Which made me feel worse.

"Oh, this is stupid," Van Doren said.

"What?" I said.

"This is stupid," Van Doren repeated. "Now I can't breathe. I try exhaling really hard to blow the latex out of my nose but the goo keeps dripping down. I need those stupid straws. Now I'm going to have to get up and crawl around to find those damned things. Without messing up my mask, if possible, so I don't have to do this ever again. I try to get up out of my chair while keeping my face in the same position. I get up and start walking around, feeling for things. I bump into the side of something. I trip. Now I'm trying to keep my balance. It's not working. I crash into something backwards. I can hear and feel stuff falling behind me. Now nothing's making sense -- there's a flash of brightness and a ringing in my ears. I fall down. I realize I'm bleeding from the back of my head. Something must have dropped on my head. I'm dizzy. I can't get up. I feel sleepy. I guess I really am going to die. This really sucks."

Posted by john at December 8, 2004 11:49 PM