Starting the New Year Cold

First night this winter it actually got below freezing here and my furnace went out at 10 p.m. last night. I didn’t get to sleep until the dog got under the covers with me about 2 a.m. because SHE was cold.

Got the repairman outside looking at it now, if it’s an electrical problem, he should have it fixed soon. If it’s the heat exchanger, well, that furnace is old enough to have run for president against John McCain. Third party ticket though, so no hope of winning.

Got to take Cuddles to her eye checkup in an hour, looking forward to the heater in the Nissan.

Shave the World

The Story MachineTM was working overtime last night.

This one was about a billionaire genius philanthropist utopianist who was also a bit of a goofball. Let’s call him George because in the dream he was played by George Clooney. Okay, it was a dream.

George invented things, cellphone-sized 3D TV (JCoaPS! this is real now!) for instance. He made a lot of money. He gave himself superpowers. He built a utopian city and he ran his companies like a benevolent dictator.

This was all very visual, colorful and intense and told from the viewpoint of the sister of a young boy who was also a genius inventor and idolized George. Call the boy Tony and the young woman Bree.

Tony invents something that attracts George’s attention and George showers the kid with money and gifts and even power, giving him his own company to run. George even hires other children and has a whole company devoted to employing disabled children because Tony said something about his best friend, who’s in a wheelchair, having even better ideas.

George also seems to fall in love with Bree and she with him. Bree thinks he’s funny, handsome, charming and way too much of a control freak. He scares her and her feelings for him scare her even more.

In one scene, she complains that her sweater has picked up lint while walking through one of his offices and why does anyone need to wear a sweater when the office is so warm. George has everyone in the office take off their sweaters. They all do, making joke complaints about it but humoring the boss.

One of them observes that George is so PC that he never mentions anyone’s gender and that he’s so smart he can do this without sounding stilted or phony. But when he’s talking about Bree, his speech is filled with she and her. The office workers and some of the disabled children laugh about George’s foibles and go back to whatever they do in their high-tech individualized cubicles that would never be called cubicles by George.

George and Bree have a fight about his micromanagement and controlling attitude and Bree takes Tony away on a visit to their parents.

George gets drunk. He decides that he doesn’t have enough empathy to understand women. In the last scene in the dream before I woke up, he’s disguised himself as a woman and is using his superpowers to sweep and clean up the set of a movie one of his companies is making. He moves in superspeed blurs from one little job to another.

“Bree thinksh I’m crazy,” he says to himself. “She thinks I’m trying to shave the world. It can’t be done, it’s just too damn hairy.” He stops and glares at the dirty floor where someone drove a muddy vehicle across the set. “How do women put up with high heelsh and shmiling all the time? I don’t know what hurtsh more, my feet or my mouth.”

Then he stares off into the distance, genius inspiration has obviously struck. “Shay, you know, you probably could shave the world if your razor had enough blades.”

This is why I wake up laughing so often.

The Ugly Truth

I had a dream last night and I remember much of it this morning. Like a lot of my dreams, it had a title and seemed to have been constructed by the Writing MachineTM I keep in my head. This one was called, The Ugly Truth.

It was both a movie and a card game, a la Steve Jackson’s Munchkin; dreams can be like that. And like Munchkin, there were several different versions. The Ugly Truth about Life, The Ugly Truth about Marriage, The Ugly Truth about High School, The Ugly Truth about Cats and Dogs, The Ugly Truth about Politics and The Super Ugly Truth which was an expansion set that could be added to one of the others.

So this dream was The Super Ugly Truth about High School. We all know that one.

It was a game and a story at the same time. In the story, a group of friends and acquaintances in high school battle with the usual zits, proms, swots and finks while also dealing with super powers and the occasional monster. And also in the story, the kids were playing the card game. Very meta.

The deck is shuffled in a hand of The Ugly Truth and each player is dealt a number of cards, five or six, I think. There are personality cards in the deck and there’s a list of precedence for them, whoever has got the highest precedent personality card in their hand goes first, playing the card and becoming that personality for the hand until replaced. That player draws a replacement card and play begins.

On your turn, if you have any Ugly cards in your hand, you play those first and they take effect. For instance the Massive Zit on your Forehead card prevents you from scoring until it is replaced. You have to have a Beauty or Brawn card to replace an Ugly one, Brains cards can’t do it but Brains cards let you play Ugly cards in front of someone else. Details of how this worked were not clear in the dream.

The Super Ugly Truth added superpowers to this. One Super Ugly card was Bulk Out – you go on a super-eating binge and devour the snack bar, lose two turns.

Oh, the art on the cards was by Brad Guigar of Evil, Inc.

I wonder if this is an actual commercial idea. I know there would probably be a novelty market for the Super Ugly Truth about Politics every four years, what with cards for RepUglycans and DeMonstercrats, but could it ever become a perennial like Munchkin?

Probably not because the Ugly Truth about the game is that nobody wins.

Peanut Butter Fog

There’s something surreal about traveling at night on the freeway. A bubble of greenish dashlight around you, outside the white lights come toward you and red lights convoy alongside. The multicolor lights of cities and towns pass quickly with the hot yellow roadlights of exits and overpasses standing like sentries.

Away from the city it is only more intense. The desert night can be very black and the small hours of morning can bring fog so dense you’re tempted to drive by Braille, hitting the raised-dot lane markers you can’t see anymore with a satisfying tunk-tunk-tunk.

Turn off the radio, you need to concentrate. Dial down the inside lights to cut the glare. Peer into the darkness. Somewhere, you see a white glow in the blanket of fog, a big rig approaching on the otherside of the median strip?

Pea soup fog in the Bay Area, tule fog in the Central Valley — peanut butter fog in the Mojave, thick as a Dagwood sandwich; why are you driving in it? If you pull over and turn off your lights, you’ll be alone in a darkness so complete you’ll feel like a cave fish. Pull over and leave the lights on and you take the risk of someone rear-ending you, thinking you’re moving. Even leaving your emergency blinkers on won’t be safe; you’ve passed two cars doing that already and you didn’t see them till the very last moment.

So you keep driving, slowing down, trying not to overdrive your lights. Then someone blows by you in a quad-cab dualie, doing at least sixty, seventy, maybe one hundred ten, you can’t tell. How fast are you going? You can’t tell that, either, you’ve got the dashlights turned off. Speed up a bit. If you hit the right speed, you won’t see anyone at all because you’ll all be going the same speed.

The fog is so thick, you don’t even see the cotton candy lights of traffic on the other half of the road. You roll down the windows. The fog is cold, blowing in the window like frigid steam but it keeps you awake and you can hear the traffic on the other side of the road, when there is any. You can hear the dots on the pavement better, too.

Tunk-tunk-tunk.

You turn the dashlights back on to check your speed. At forty-five miles an hour, it will take you three hours to reach the towns along the Colorado. Three hours of cold desert wind coming in the window, wet with fog. Three hours of peering into the darkness, wondering if there’s a car stopped in the road with its lights off, or a deer crossing the highway or someone trying to wave you down ’cause they have car trouble.

Going slower would be intolerable, going faster would be insane. You memorize the sound of your current speed, the rhythm of the dots, and turn the dashlights back off. You drive.

That was an exit. What did it say? Eagle Mountain? You’ve never heard of Eagle Mountain. You’ve driven this road in daylight and don’t remember that name. Are you still on the right freeway? There are no mountains here, just flat desert. Is Eagle Mountain a town? Would they have coffee? Too late now, you’ve passed the exit. You make a mental list of who you would kill for a cup of coffee. The list gets longer.

Tumbleweeds appear out of the fog, like golden chandelier-spiders in your headlights, scuttling across the road. Alien-looking, it’s a Steven Spielberg sort of thought.

Tunk-tunk. Tunk. One of the dots must have been missing.

Lights up ahead. Is the fog lifting? You can’t be coming to a town yet, there are no towns on this freeway for another fifty miles. Someone with road flares? An accident or just a breakdown. You slow down and steer off the dots, not wanting anyone to see you doing that.

The fog lifts suddenly, the immense desert opens up around you under hard bright diamonds in a jeweler’s showcase black velvet sky. The tension flows out of your neck and wrists and the open window is suddenly much too cold. You roll it back up.

A road sign says, Blythe 70 miles. Less than an hour away and you won’t have to kill anyone for coffee, there’s a Denny’s there. Talk about surreal.

But the lights in the road ahead of you — maybe you shouldn’t have been thinking of Steven Spielberg?

John Cash

Sentient toilets had a vogue for a while in the capital city of the Bergenalter Empire. Actually, they were a sessile flupe of the warrior caste of the dominant species from Emkaron 6.

Cameron Nguyen Fishbeck hated the things. It creeped him out to think of sitting and doing his business on what amounted to the oral orifice of an alien organism. And the sound it made as an equivalent of flushing was just gross.

But what really annoyed him was payday. His job as the bookkeeper for the Municipal Nujjball Arena meant he had personal contact with the flupes since their religion forbade them taking checks. They had to be paid in cash.

“What do they do with it?” he wondered not for the first time as he made his rounds dropping Impervine-wrapped bundles of coins and the specially notched antique pool cue handles used as money in the Bergenalter capital. “They’re stuck to the floor, they’ll live out the rest of their lives sitting there, eating, well, I don’t like to think about what they usually eat. But every payday they get bundles of money. Is it like an after-dinner mint?”

He didn’t know and didn’t care to find out that the flupes were essentially their race’s incubators and the money they got paid would ensure that no Emkaronian warrior was born without a coin in its pustules and a pool cue on its carapace.

Cameron made his way through all the toilet facilities of the complex, dropping his little bundles and cringing at the lip-smacking sounds the flupes made. He did his job quickly and tried not to think about it at all. “It’s exactly like throwing money down the toilet,” he complained silently.

Since nujjball is played with seven to twenty-three teams, each with as many as 1942 members, the city found it more profitable to charge the players and hire the spectators whose jobs consisted of rooting, jeering and doing the wave at the appropriate times. Usually there were more people on the field than in the bleachers and accordingly the toilet facilities in the stands were smaller and generally cleaner and better maintained. In fact, only one of the Emkaronians was employed as living porcelain in the rooting section.

Not that this made much difference to Cameron Fishbeck who just wanted to get the unpleasant task over. Finishing up quickly he hurried back to his office just before the belching started. Luckily, there were no games on so the arena had a minimum of workmen’s compensation claims to pay since the only one injured was the flupe who merely had a bad case of indigestion. If some of the cheering employees had been there, well, it’s always nasty when the excrement hits the enthusiast.

But when the near disaster was over, and blue hockey-puck-size antacids had been given to the gassy flupe the real source of the problem was discovered. Too much wood for the Emkaronian diet. Fishbeck had figured the paycheck wrong and delivered more than twice the correct number of pool cue handles to the lonely flupe.

His boss called him into the main office and told him the bad news. “Cam, you paid the fans’ loo wrong.” *

Konk!

The odd shell looked as if it might have washed ashore on some alien ocean. At first, Jodie Millbrae thought it might be a conch shell, but it was larger than any conch he had ever seen and differently colored, a tawny yellow with blue-black rosettes outside that faded to ivory pink inside with moss green spots.

The whole shell, more than a foot long with a sharply pointed spire, weighed several pounds Jodie realized after picking it up. It occurred to him that it might have an inhabitant and he cautiously peered into the creamy opening.

“Take me to your leader,” said the cartoonish-looking head that peered back at him from the shadowy inside.

“You mean my dad?” asked Jodie.

“Is your father Dr. Jonas Millbrae, the renowned cosmologist?” asked the head in the conch, coming out just a bit farther where Jodie could see it better. It looked like Jiminy Cricket wearing glasses and sounded like Woody Allen, complete to New York accent.

Jodie nodded. “Yes, he is. He’s really smart.”

“We know,” agreed the head. “We’ve come all the way from the Spiral Galaxy Next Door to consult with him.”

“You’re Andromedans?” shrieked Jodie in delight.

“You could say that,” agreed the head of the alien delegation.

Jodie tucked the ungainly object under his arm like the world’s ugliest football and ran to find his father.

Dr. Millbrae had dozed off on the sand and been buried under an enormous sand castle by his daughter, Miranda. The castle had eleven turrets, seven portcullises and a moat that Miranda had filled with seawater and as many unwary beach denizens that she could indenture, inveigle, and as last resort, indemnify into taking up residence.

Miranda had named the castle, calling it, “The Structure of Western Thought, Solid but Ephemeral,” and thought it entirely appropriate that she had used her father for its foundation.

Coming up from the rocky part of the shore, Jodie could not see his father’s head and neck protruding across the drawbridge on the back side of Miranda’s recondite, rococo, re-creation.

With the alien-inhabited conch still under his arm Jodie asked his sister, “Have you seen Dad?”

“Not for a while,” said Miranda, telling the truth in her own deceptive way.

Jodie danced from one foot to the other. “Somebody wants to talk to him about something important.”

“Uh huh,” said Miranda in that voice she used when Jodie said he wanted to watch Sponge Bob Squarepants and she had already changed the channel. “Well, they can just wait. He’s busy doing something important already.”

“I’m back here,” said Dr. Millbrae waking up. “What is it, Jodie?”

Jodie ran around the wing of the castle that represented the interesting failures and fallacies of natural theology. He held out the conch at the end of his pudgy arms and announced, “The Andromedans want to ask you something.”

“Hello, Pocillovy,” Dr. Millbrae’s head protruding across the sandy drawbridge over the moat greeted the cartoon insect head. “You’ve come a long way. What’s your question?”

An immature elasmobranch in the briny ditch perked up; it wasn’t often a baby dogshark got the chance to listen in on such a momentous conversation.

“Dr. Millbrae,” said the crickety head in its New York voice. “We’ve calculated the sum of all the radiation released in the universe since the big bang and it appears to be concentrated in a particular part of the spectrum visible to humans as blue-green light. This surprises us and we thought to ask you for confirmation of our findings.”

Dr. Millbrae’s head looked thoughtful. “You want to know if the universe is really turquoise?”

“Exactly,” said the Andromedan.

“It’s not any shade of aqua or cyan,” said Dr. Millbrae. “It’s beige.” And he closed his eyes and went back to sleep, still serving as the foundation for his daughter’s representation of “The Structure of Western Thought, Solid and Ephemeral.”

My Christmas Present from Daniel Ford

Daniel is the artist on the webcomics I work on, Quillian and Sam Valentine. He’s also a sculptor of some skill. He did these beautiful little figurines of the characters Alistair and Zook from the strip I write and draw myself, Alistair2Zook. Click on the image to go to the online archive of the strip.

A2Z

Thank you, Daniel. I can’t think about when I’ve been more excited about a Christmas present. 🙂

‘poH

I had a weird dream about working on a series of kid’s books. They were illustrated and I wish I could draw like that. Some of it looked a lot like Brad Guigar’s art on Evil, Inc.

One of the books was about a young owl discovering things. It was called, “Nobody Really Likes Liver.”

The back cover had an illustration of the owl holding one wing over his stomach and making a face. Along the end of the branch are two other owls doing the same thing. It was like a poster and the title of the book was the caption.

Another part of the book was about the negative emotions adults never tell you about. The little owl says, “They always want you to understand and believe about things like Love and Hope and Faith. But, they don’t talk about the negative emotions like ‘poH which is that feeling you get when you realize that not only is Mom serving liver again tonight, she’s going to go on doing that every Thursday and nothing you can say or do will stop her.

“You’re going to have to eat liver for dinner on Thursdays for the rest of your life. That’s ‘poH. It’s Hope spelled backwards but with an apostrophe because you don’t pronounce the e.”

Part of the book was about superheroes. One of them wore a costume that was sort a cross between Fighting American and Nova. It had FG on the chest plate in sort of squishy letters. He was called “Fightin’ Guy” by the other heroes but he should have been called “Whingeing Guy”.

All he did was complain. He complained that he had to keep fighting the same villains over and over. “What’s the matter with the court system? Can’t they keep these guys locked up for more than two issues? Are there no prisons, no concentration camps built inside of hollow mountains? Why can’t we send these guys to the Negative Phantom Zone? Nobody ever escapes from there.”

He complained about his costume. “I used to have a costume, it had little shorts over the leggings. It was really comfortable, man. This new costume is tights all the way up and I’m a T-14 hero so when they say tights, they mean really tight, man.” He makes a face and tries to pull his pants out of the crack of his ass. “Some of those guys in the Max and Piranha titles, they’re rated M and they get to wear some cool stuff. And some of the girls don’t hardly wear no costumes at all!”

He complained about the superhero games and how he could never seem to get ahead. “I thought I had enough points to upgrade my punch so I could knock Cockroach Man over a building instead of just through a wall, that would be cool. But it’s just like Green Stamps, you always need another 1000 points.

“I’ve got 40,021 points and an upgrade from Atomic Punch to Thermo-Nookyular Punch costs 50,000!”

And this girl dressed like Miss Match from Evil Inc says, “That’s almost 10,000 points, not 1000 points.”

“It’s the principle of the thing I’m talking about,” says FG. “Not the math.”

“Well, let’s look in the catalog and see what you can get for 40,000 points. Hey,” she says, “You could get flight, you can’t fly now, you could get a level of flight and then you could fly twice as fast as you can run. Wouldn’t that be cool?”

And FG holds his stomach with the same expression as the owls who don’t like liver and says, “No thanks, I get airsick.”

He looks over her shoulder. “How much does it cost to upgrade to Cosmic Punch?”

“150,000 points.”

“That would be cool, I could knock Cockroach Man into orbit if I had Cosmic Punch. And you know what I’d say to him before I hit him?”

“What?”

“I’d say, ‘To the moon, Alex! To the moon!'” He thumps one fist into the other glove. “To the moon, Alex!”

“Is his real name Alex?”

FG shakes his head. “No, it’s Manfred. He always ruins my best lines.”

She turns a page. “But that’s not Cosmic Punch, that’s Satellite Punch. Cosmic Punch is the one where you knock the guy into next Thursday.”

“I wouldn’t want to do that to him!” says Fightin’ Guy. “The have liver for dinner on Thursday in prison.” He makes the same expression as the owls. “Nobody Likes Liver.”

Then the scene shifted to a sewer and this guy in a black and brown set of tights with padded shoulders and epaulettes is pushing two kids in front of him. The boy looks about 12 and the girl looks about 8, little blonde thing with pigtails. Both kids have their wrists tied together in front of them with red and blue bandannas and the girl is wearing another one like a gag.

The evil guy has a cockroach in a white circle for an emblem on his chest and he’s carrying his helmet with the big antennas on it under his arm. “Where is that Guy? He’s always late,” he says.

“W-what guy?” asks the boy.

“Fightin’ Guy. Who were we talking about? He’s supposed to come rescue you but he’s always late to these things. We used to be on the same bowling team and sometimes we had to forfeit the first game ’cause he’d be late. It’s hard to win the league trophy if you can’t win two out of three games ’cause you always have to forfeit the first one.”

“D-do you think he’s coming? To rescue us?”

Cockroach Man laughs his evil laugh which sounds sort of like a fat dog choking on a biscuit bone it tried to eat all at once. “No, he’s not going to come. Why should he rescue you guys? He doesn’t even know you exist!”

“But you said…” starts the boy.

“I expect you’re feeling a lot of ‘poH right now,” sneers CM. “I’m going to feed you to the alligators in the sewer, you know.” He looks at his watch. “Where the heck is he?”

The little girl pulls down her gag and says, “He’ll come. Fightin’ Guy is a hero, he’s not late. He always arrives just in time!”

“Tell that to the other two guys on the bowling team,” snorts Cockroach Man. “You kids are going to be Alligator Brunch in less than two minutes!”

FG is suddenly there. “Those alligators are just going to have to eat liver, like everyone else on Thursday,” he says.

The kids scream for the hero and CM recoils and says, “Fightin’ Guy!”

FG poses and says, “Cockroach Man!”

“Wait, wait,” says Cockroach man as he tries to put on his helmet. “Last time you punched me through a wall I got a neck injury. The prison chiropractor said it was the worst case of neck torsion he’d ever seen in someone who could still wiggle his toes!”

FG waits while sewer workers take the kids up through a manhole cover.

“You still bowl?” FG asks CM.

“Nah, those cocksuckers in the prison league are all cheaters,” says CM.

“This is a T-14 comic book!” says FG. “You can’t say cocksuckers!”

CM has the helmet on but it’s sitting crooked. “Can you–?” he says. “I can never reach that last dog on the right side.”

FG snaps the last fastening which straightens CM’s helmet. “You need to upgrade your costume to an autofit helmet.”

“That costs like, 20,000 points. You know how many liquor stores and ice cream parlors I’d have to knockover to get 20,000 points just for a helmet that I don’t need anyone else to help me put it on?”

“How come you never rob banks? Aren’t they worth a lot more points?”

“They’re never going to let me into a bank wearing this costume!” He waves at himself. “I look like a cockroach! Did you get that upgrade to Thermonuclear Punch?”

FG shakes his head as they get into position. “Nah, didn’t have enough points. And you’re only worth 500 points this week. I’d have to catch you like 100 times for that upgrade, Cocksucker Man.”

CM points at his chest. “Cockroach Man.”

“What did I say?”

CM shakes his head. “I think this issue is going to be rated M for Mature.”

They pose. “Let’s get it on, Cockroach Manfred,” says FG. He punches one fist into the other hand. “You’ve got a date with the prison cafeteria. They’re serving creamed liver tonight just in your honor.”

CM makes the same face as the owl. Which is hard to see since his helmet covers most of his face. “Even supervillains don’t like liver.”

“You should have thought of that before you took up a life of crime,” says FG. “I’m going to make the world safe for ice cream parlors and convenience stores run by guys named Pavel by knocking you through that wall!”

“This wall?”

“That wall.”

“Oh, man. That’s going to hurt. This wall is three feet of steel-reinforced concrete and we’re under the East River here. I could drown, you know.”

“Don’t kid me, CM,” says FG. “I know your helmet has an oxygen supply built-in.”

“Okay, okay. Look, I already let the kids go, can’t I just give up and let you take me in?” He holds out his wrists like they’re tied together.

“Are you trying to get us canceled? You’re my arch-nemesis, the leader of my Rogues’ Gallery. You can’t just surrender without a fight.”

“I guess I just don’t feel like fighting. I’m feeling a lot of ‘poH here and now, Alex.”

“Aw, Manfred. Don’t be like that. Look, I’ll just punch you down the hallway like fifty feet instead of through the wall. And you can threaten me with a death ray.”

CM looks around. “I don’t have a death ray. I’m just a guy wearing a suit of cockroach-themed armor.”

“I can lend you a death ray. I took it off of Liver-Eatin’ Lady.” He rummages in his utility backpack while reaching behind himself and making a funny face.

“Horrible,” says CM. “Does she really eat liver? Like right in front of you?”

FG hands the death ray gun over. “Nah,” he says. “She uses this here death ray. Nobody Really Likes Liver.”

Cure for a Loser

Joel Dowd looked out from between the bars of the Death Row cage he had lived in for seventeen long years. “Somebody has to do something,” he told Carlson, the guard.

Carlson shrugged. He’d heard the complaints of convicts for even longer than Joel had been in prison. He’d heard Joel’s for the last six years since he took over as night guard down in the Pit as they called Death Row in this state lockup.

“They tricked me,” complained Joel. “I’m going to die and they tricked me.”

“Hmm,” said the guard. The state had a mercy clause in their death penalty statute. No one could be executed unless they actually confessed to the capital crime they had been convicted of. Carlson thought it seemed like a good law.

No more worrying about the state sending an innocent to be legally killed. Only a small class of criminals ended up in the Pit and only those who confessed to their crimes made the final trip to the Glass Room where they would be tied down on a gurney and injected with a lethal combination of pain relievers, sedatives, paralytics and heart-stopping poison.

“I’m going to die,” said Joel. “Somebody help me because I’m going to die.”

“You confessed. They can’t kill you unless you do.”

“They tricked me,” whined Joel. “They said they had a treatment that would cure me of why….” He stopped to swallow bile. “Why I killed those people. I’m going to be sick again.”

“Keep it off the floor,” said Carlson.

Joel threw up into the rimless stainless steel bowl of the jailhouse toilet. The same bowl he had used everyday of his seventeen year stay in the Pit. Piss, shit and vomit went into the bowl and were flushed away.

Joel Dowd had led a takeover robbery of a large suburban bank. He or one of his men had shot a security guard. The police arrived before the robbers could escape. Fourteen customers and bank staff were trapped inside. Joel threatened to start shooting hostages if he and his men did not receive a million dollars and safe passage to a country that promised not to prosecute or extradite them.

To demonstrate the seriousness of his demands, Joel shot the bank manager in the thigh with the intent that the man should bleed out if the police did not concede quickly. Hostage cellphone and bank security cameras caught the shooting on video.

The governor made an immediate appeal to the international community on CNN. Belize promised to feed the bank robbers to alligators without waiting for a trial if they would only visit the warm tropical country. Joel cursed Belize. Libya offered crocodiles. Mongolia suggested that they could be trampled to death by rare Przewalski’s wild horses. It would be the hit of YouTube for months. Joel damned Libya, Mongolia and YouTube to hell, too.

The SWAT team came in shooting and Joel killed five hostages before being wounded. Almost a miracle, he alone survived of the robbers and after a lengthy hospital stay and a trial, he had come to live in the Pit. No one doubted his guilt, most of his killing spree had been seen on the internet by millions. Finding twelve people who were not virtual witnesses proved the hardest part of getting him convicted.

But state law said he could not be executed unless he confessed after he had lost his automatic state appeal. He’d held out through five more appeals, three at the federal level. The Supreme Court had refused to review his case.

“Why did you do it?” asked Carlson.

“I don’t know,” muttered Joel. He stood to rinse his mouth out at the stainless steel sink. “They were all losers. People who believed in the rules. Thou shall not kill. Thou shall not steal. Though shalt not lie or covet or dishonor God.”

“No,” said Carlson. “I meant why did you confess.” Carlson knew why but he wanted to hear Joel’s explanation.”

“I told you!” Joel wailed. “They tricked me!”

Carlson turned away. “It can’t be more than another hour before they come for you. Sure you don’t want something to eat?”

“I couldn’t,” said Joel. “I haven’t eaten all day. I’m going to die and my last meal will be that slop you served me last night.” He sat down on his bunk and stared at the one picture the guards allowed him in his cell, a woman in an old-fashioned swimsuit posed against the background of a waterfall.

The guard turned back to Joel and found a comfortable seat himself. No other prisoners lived in the Pit currently. Joel and Carlson were alone.

“Anything else you want to say?” Carlson asked, pouring himself a cup of coffee from the two liter thermos his wife sent with him every night.

“They tricked me,” said Joel.

“How did that work?” asked Carlson.

“They told me,” Joel had to stand up and pace. “They told me that if I took the treatment, I could leave the Pit. That I could go into a regular cell. Go outside for exercise. And in another year, apply to have my sentence reduced to life which would make me eligible for parole.” He grabbed the bars and stared at Carlson drinking coffee.

“Want some?” the guard offered, waving his cup.

“No, I’d just throw it up.” Joel paused. “Thanks, anyway,” he said. He sounded as if he really did want coffee.

Carlson poured a cup and put it into the serving trap, pushing the triangular hinged cage through the slot where Joel could retrieve the cup in his cell.

Joel did take the cup, holding it in his hands as if warming them with its heat. “Thanks,” he said again. He began to cry.

Carlson had seen a lot of prisoners cry. Some of them could turn it on and off like a faucet, complete with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Joel cried silently, letting the tears run down his face and drip from his cheeks onto his orange prison uniform.

He did not drink any of the coffee but raised the cup up to sniff of it twice before putting it back in the serving cage.

“You were telling me how they tricked you,” Carlson prompted.

“I took the treatment. Then I confessed and now they are going to kill me,” said Joel.

“Some kind of truth serum?” asked the guard.

Joel shook his head. “Drugs. Surgery. They implanted some stem cells in my brain, in just the right place. Made new connections there that I didn’t have. They said it would cure me. Make me like other people.”

“Yeah?” said Carlson. He knew he would enjoy hearing Joel say it. “So you had a get-out-of-the-Pit-free card. They couldn’t execute you unless you confessed. Did you confess? Did you tell them you did it?”

Joel stumbled away from the bars, going to the toilet bowl for more dry heaves, coughing and choking and tasting bile and ashes in his mouth. “I killed them. I killed them all,” he moaned. “I’m sorry, I wish it had never happened.”

Carlson laughed, a short, mean sound like a dog barking.

Joel looked up at him. “They cured me. I had to confess.”

“Only a couple more hours to wait,” said Carlson. “Feeling guilty?”

“It’s been a year,” said Joel. “How can anyone live like this?”

“Most of us don’t kill seven people in front of cameras,” said Carlson. “And the law says they have to wait a year after your confession to — you know.” He didn’t like to say it, that soon the warden and the technicians would come and strap Joel Dowd to a gurney and take him to the Glass Room where he would be executed in front of cameras.

“I know,” said Joel. “I know I’m going to die. They tricked me. They turned me into a loser like the rest of you. I’m guilty and I have to die. They gave me the soul I never had and now they’re going to take it away.”

He looked at the guard again, pleading. “Can’t they at least be on time?”

An Irish Tale

There once were two tall Irish brothers, each so tall that he was taller than the other. Sean, the older, taller brother, said one day, “We’ve a fine crop wool this year and lambs to sell as well. We’ll get a better price for them if we go to London and find a buyer ourselves.”

“Aye,” said Seamus, the younger, taller brother. “Besides, it’s a very good excuse.”

They’d neither of them been to London before so they visited with their old Da to get his advice before venturing into the big foreign city.

“Ye’ll do fine in London,” said their Da, who was looking up, not being tall himself. In fact, he were a short man, shorter than two other short men put together. “But there’s one thing to remember if you’re going to the City. If you want a good beer, find yourselves a Bass house.”

“We’ll do, Da,” promised the boys and they set out.

On reaching London, they had soon concluded their business and got a very good price for their wool and lambs as it had been a warm, mild winter in Scotland and the sheep there had not obliged by growing thick wooly coats at all. In fact, many a Scottish farmer had been forced to shear his pigs to get what wool he could, which is why, to this day, there are so many bald pigs in Scotland.

Feeling good about the price they had gotten for their fine Irish wool and lambs, the boys decided to celebrate with a beer and remembering their Da’s advice they set out to find a Bass house.

The first pub they ducked into denied them. “‘Tis Newcastle, boys,” said the publican.

And in the second inn they found, the innkeeper told them, “We’re pulling Watney’s here.”

But in the third tavern when Seamus asked politely, “Is this a Bass house?” the tapster merely nodded.

“Grand,” said Sean as the two tall brothers seated themselves. “Two Guinness, please.”