Girl's Night

The beat of the subway was so pervading that Daphne turned off her i-pod and listened to the train rattle like an appreciative music critic. They were above ground, going over the river from Manhattan into Brooklyn and the train car was swaying with wind and movement and keeping such excellent time that the image of James Brown crept into Daphne's mind. He used to cut five dollars off of his band's salary every time they went off rhythm. There would be no deductions on this N train. Get up off that thing, she thought. Dance till you feel better.

Outside the subway Daphne pulled the jacket around her neck. It was cold, the kind of cold that she liked. It energized her, as if she needed energy. There was a buzz in the back of her brain that she new would require a sacrifice of dancing, drinks, drugs, loud music, and she was feeling particularly fervent. The whole night felt holy. She wasn't religious, but she believed in the confluence of forces, the invisible movements of the world, the rivulets and streams of energy that occasionally found each other and turned into a river, a rapids, a forceful flow that was undeniable. Maybe it was rhythm, aligning ones internal movements with the beat of the world. Whatever it was, it was there, then, in the moment, and when Stacy came down when Daphne rang her apartment bell she could see in Stacy's eyes that she felt it too.

The two walked down the small street, their feet in step, their asses shaking in that way that they knew drew stares. They didn't talk because they didn't have to. Stacy pulled out a packet of cigarettes and Daphne bummed one. They lit the tobacco sticks without their pace faltering. Daphne had quite three months ago, but Stacy didn't question this indiscretion. It was one of those nights, and more likely than not they'd be doing a lot of things tonight they'd previously swore would never happen again.

In the bodega the two prowled the aisles, stocking up on ammunition. Sugar, caffeine, cigarettes, gum. They shared a pizza bagel to fuel their stomachs. Onward.

Their heels clicked staccato on the sidewalk. Janice was waiting outside the club. Now the trio was complete. Inside they went, giving the bouncer a nod and slinking past the line. They put their coats in coat check, the small fee well worth the not having to think about their possessions. Tonight wasn't for thinking. Tonight was for instinct.

The music was loud, its bass line vibrating Daphne from within like a second heartbeat. She pulled her shoulders in, collapsing her chest, causing her back to pop. She rolled her shoulders back, posturing herself for the hunt. She caught the eye of a man near the bar. His hair was styled, but not overly so, not in so obnoxious or typical a way as most of the men here. He wore a suit whose purple color was so dark it almost looked black, with a bright red interior lining that shone in the instances it caught light. His eyes were dark and his smile was cold but inviting. Walking towards him she shamelessly adjusted her bra from the front of her low-cut shirt, further accenting her already displayed cleavage. The man had the bartender waiting by the time she arrived. She didn't make him wait, telling him her order before he even asked. He tried asking her name, but she shook her head. She took his hand and held it flat and level with his collar bone. Find the rhythm of the music, she told him. When he didn't understand, she took his hand in hers and bounced it up and down in the air to the rhythm of the music. She let go and the man continued keeping the rhythm. The girl nodded along with the bouncing hand and the pulsing music. When her drink came the man reached into his pocket with one hand and fished out a credit card and kept the other in time. Daphne raised the glass to him, then emptied it in one smooth go, never breaking eye contact. When she finished she placed the glass back on the bar. The man had watched her intently and his hand was now off time. Daphne reached up and took his hand again, reestablishing the beat. Then she took his hand and lowered it slowly onto her hip, which was now pulsing in time as well. The man's hands slid down over Daphne's ass and she moved in closer, her mouth now just below the man's ear at the joint of his jaw, her favorite place on a man's body. She got close enough that her breasts touched his chest, her hips moved against his, her lips grazed his stubble. She wanted to grab him, pull him onto her, lick him, suck on his ear lobe, whisper dirty, demanding orders into his ear. She calmed herself down. There was an order to this, there was a musicality to be obeyed, a crescendo to build to. A cheap denouement would leave her strung out the next morning, itchy, raw and unsatisfied as a glutton after an appetizer.

Instead she snaked two fingers into two belt loops and pulled herself close, feeling the weight of herself against him, feeling him push back, feeling her face nuzzling all the way up his in a provocative, unearned intimacy, and then she was away, out onto the dance floor.

This was the reason they came here, the three women. It was one of the few places left where you could actually get out on the floor and dance, free and easy. The boys knew here, they were informed somehow. Wherever else they went they were constantly accosted, men easing up to them, unwanted and yet assurance of a written invitation. They were despised, they were rejected, and yet they also seemed omnipresent. Here, however, they were respected. They were assessed correctly, viewed to be women apart, the three of them gathering in the center of the dance floor, together in a triangle of unabashed feminine unity. It was never cheapened with insincere displays of bisexuality-chic. They never danced on each other, for each other, or for anyone else. They danced with each other, truly with each other. They were a trinity, simple and pure. The only interruptions allowed were offerings to the slinky, swerving demigods in the form of alcohol and, on occasion, recreational chemicals.

The union was only broken by one of its own members. Stacy was the first to go, gliding over to a stocky businessman in a nice suit who looked five years beyond the expiration date for a place like this. Daphne watched and laughed, constantly amused by Stacy's fascination for such men. She said it was their desperation she loved, their wild clawing, grabbing veracity as they tried to retain the slightest hold on youth. You will never find a more eager and attentive lover, Stacy had told Daphne. Be that as it may, thought Daphne, rolling her eyes and her attention turning away from Stacy and the businessman and back to the music. She didn't even notice Janice grab a young hipster with tight jeans and a laughable haircut and begin working him over, moving a leg between his, rubbing her thigh against his crotch so hard that he visibly shuddered. Daphne kept moving, kept striving for that moment where her mind would divorce itself from her body, her natural prowess taking over. It was close, it was so close and it was all she wanted. Drink after drink came and went, her body warm with alcohol and movement, a glistening layer of sweat making her entire form shine under the flashing lights. She was on her own now, but never without a partner. She moved around the floor, taking on whoever was available; man, woman, older, younger, she took them all on. She didn't touch them, she barely looked at them, but she connected with them, and for a moment the room was just the two of them, then it was off to another partner. A trail of electric sensuality followed her, making a circuit around the dance floor. In her wake was a frenzied mass of clustering partnerships, men and women reaching out in headless desire to fill the void created when she'd gone.

Abruptly she stopped. In front of her stood the man with the cold smile. Though no longer a storm of movement Daphne's body still gyrated in small little eddies along with the music. The man saw, and with his hand flat at the level of his collarbone he matched Daphne's movements. She gave a broad smile that poked out from behind her damp strands of hair that hung unruly and primal around her face. She moved her head so that the man's hand ran a long trail down her face, her neck, her shoulder. Standing straight in her high heels she was a strikingly tall woman. Eye to eye with the man she breathed in his breath, followed his eyes with hers, moved her body with his, waiting to see where he would go, what liberties he might try and take. His hand hovered at her shoulder, unsure of where to go. Daphne snaked her hands underneath his arms, between his shirt and his jacket. She ran her hands up his back, feeling the sweat sticking to his shirt, noting his muscles and broad shoulders. Her hands climbed out of the neck of jacket, weaving their fingers into the man's hair. She held him close with her arms, keeping his head at a distance from hers. She knew he wanted to kiss her, but no. She moved with him in slow, simple movements. She put her head on his shoulder, like she was slow dancing at a high school prom. Her mind was still present, unrelenting in its insistence to shadow every moment with thought and analysis. She imagined that she held the man almost like a ventriloquist dummy, her arm up his back, her hand controlling her head. She thought of asking him a question, asking if she was the most beautiful girl in the room. She gave his hair a couple of tugs, causing his head to nod up and down, which made her giggle into the lapel of his jacket.

A hand pulled her away from her embrace by the shoulder strap of her shirt. Daphne didn't even need to turn around to know it was Stacy. She moved backwards, keeping her eyes on the man, giving him a parting smile and a wave as he watched her go, his cold smile growing a little colder.

Stacy dragged Daphne into the bathroom and through the door to the third stall in. Janice was already there, bouncing up and down in quick little movements, grinning from ear to ear.

"Wayne has coke," Stacy said.

"What? Wayne?"

"The business guy. Wayne. Has coke," Stacy repeated.

"It's really good," added Janice, still bouncing.

"I got him to give us some."

"You know he's going to want something for this," said Daphne, looking at the little white lines cordoned out on Stacy's compact mirror.

"Maybe he'll get it," said Stacy, winking.

"Well then..." Daphne took a rolled up dollar bill from Janice, bobbed her head down, took in two lines, then came back up.

"It's good," said Stacy, her eyes adjusting to the new chemical view.

"It's really good," said Janice.

"I fucking love businessmen," said Stacy, reappearing after taking a couple hits herself.

Back on the floor Daphne danced like a woman possessed. She positioned herself in the middle of the room because she wanted to take it all in. She wanted so much. She wanted someone to fall in love with her, she wanted more coke, she wanted a hostile take-over of the DJ booth, she wanted to fuck, she wanted to scream through the streets while shedding her clothes, she wanted two beers, one for each hand, and she told a boy as much. Moments later she stared down at the two beers in her hands. "These are the least of my concerns," she heard herself say out loud. She tipped her head back and held her arms above her, pouring both beers at the same time. The stream came steady into her mouth, sometimes splashing over the side, running down her neck and chest, dampening her shirt and cooling her skin. When she was done she simply held her arms out until someone took the bottles away. Her head remained staring at the ceiling, hypnotized by the lights, their movements and the patterns of their blinking, almost like a code, almost as though they were trying to tell her something.

She wasn't sure how long she'd been staring at the ceiling, long enough for someone to tap her on the shoulder and ask if she was all right. She assured him that she was fine, then worked her way over to a booth on the edge of the club. Beside her sat a boy, young, probably too young to be in here. He was looking at her, but clumsily trying to hide it. She wasn't sure what it was, the drugs in her system, the feel of the music, the hypnosis of the lights, but for some reason in that moment the sexiest, most arousing thing she could imagine was a shy wallflower guiltily attempting to look down her shirt. She feigned an interest in something on the other side of the club, giving him plenty of room to look, then turned her head quickly, catching him in full stare. The boy turned away, but Daphne held her gaze. After a moment the boy's eyes darted over, feeling Daphne's stare, finding her eyes still holding strong onto his. This time he didn't look away. Daphne brought a hand up to her neck, then casually flicked one of her shirt straps off her shoulder. It fell, and took some of her shirt front with it, exposing a generous portion of her breast. The boy tried to keep his focus on her eyes, but Daphne could see them being pulled towards her exposure. She moved a hand across the boy to touch the side of his face, then grabbed his neck and pulled herself over on top of him. She took one of his hands and pulled it up to her breast, placing it underneath the shirt. His hand felt cool and thrilling on her warm body. She was worried that he would remain tentative, but the hand gripped her firmly, kneading her breast, playing with her nipple, pawing at her in a way that turned her on, like a man in need. Daphne kissed the boy, a slow, languid kiss. At first the boy brought up his other hand to handle the remaining breast, but quickly placed his arms around her, wrapping her in an embrace. Suddenly she felt trapped, pulled in, too enclosed. She backed away slightly and looked down at the boy. His eyes plead with her, his body moved underneath her, his hands pulled at her. Then her hands were pulling at him to, pulling at his belt, pulling down his zipper, reaching inside his pants and grabbing hold of his cock. The boy's movements stopped and he froze. He already felt out of his league, this was entirely beyond him. Daphne took his cock out of his pants and began stroking it slowly, secretly, not letting any of the people around them see the game she was playing. She admired the boy's penis in her hand. She liked penises, and this one was surprisingly nice. She held it in position with one hand, then turned around on his lap so that she faced outward. She reached another hand underneath her skirt, pulled her g-string over to the side, then put the boy inside her.

It felt incredible. It felt right. She stared out at the crowd, probably two hundred people or so dancing, moving, forgetting their lives for a few hours and letting go. She felt the boy's cock move inside her as she worked her pelvis, angling him just right so that he hit her spot exactly. Regardless of its utility in this particular instance, this was one of her favorite positions. The warm, flushed feeling of a good fuck began to overcome her, putting her squarely in her own body, and yet she also felt apart from herself, a part of the mass, the whole, the organism of the moment. She looked around the room and felt that it wasn't just her. The music had risen and taken everyone with it. They were moving as one now, the crowd had found the rhythm, the rhythm she'd been looking for all night. She turned back to the boy. "On the count of three, we're standing up," she said.

"What?!" the boy asked, knocked out of his foggy head of sex.

"On the count of three I'm standing up, and if you still want to have your cock inside me, you'd better stand up right along with me, got it? One… two… three."

The boy caught her drift and pushed himself up crotch first, keeping himself inside her. Thank god she'd worn heels, she thought. Her hips were at the right height to keep the boy inside her, and now they were standing, his cock still deep inside her. She put his hands on her hips and had him follow her closely out a few paces so they were at the edge of the dance floor. Then she began to move her hips, side to side, back to front, what would appear to the casual observer as simple grind, unless they looked closer. Unless they saw the back of her skirt hiked up a little too far. Unless they saw the distinct lack of space or movement between them. Unless they took their eyes off the girl's mesmerizing movements and noticed that the boy looked as though he was working extraordinarily hard to hold something back. And someone did notice. In the midst of her sexual throes Daphne caught eyes with the man with the cold smile. He was staring at her, a look of hurt mixed with disgust had taken over his previously cool exterior. Daphne smiled at him. Did he think that she was his? Did he think he was irresistible, that there was only one logical choice for a girl like her in a place like this? Did he think that she wouldn't take exactly what she wanted, or had he just assumed that she could only want him? Whatever he had thought, he had been wrong. If he could only see what she saw, if he could only feel the desire to become caught up in the moment, to give over to the unpredictability, the wild tide of the music. But he couldn't, and now he was livid with cheap emotions that he'd purchased on credit and been unable to cover, no matter how big his bank statement. She leaned back, nuzzling her face in the space right below the boy's ear, her space, and whispered an order to him to look at the man to his left, the man who was watching them, the man who was red with jealousy and thought he should be the one to fuck her. When the boy saw the man with the cold smile Daphne felt his cock get even harder inside her. "I chose you," she whispered to him. "Show him why."

The boy throbbed within her. She knew he would come soon, and looked out to the crowd. Perhaps it was her own body building to climax, but as the boy made his final thrusts into her she felt the whole room come together, felt them all reach out to each other, felt the lights brighten and the music become pure until it was no longer coming out of speakers but of themselves, out of the desire to give over to the rhythm, until finally, with his arms wrapped around her from behind, one across her chest and one across her waist, the boy pushed himself deep inside her and came. Feeling his semen coat her insides pushed her over the edge and Daphne's last thought was a thankful prayer that the boy had been holding onto her so tightly as the lights blurred into soft hues and her knees buckled beneath her in consciousness-shattering orgasm.

When it was over, when she had finally come down, the boy had already withdrawn himself and redone his pants. He was trying to say something but Daphne couldn't hear it, didn't want to hear it, and simply leaned over to kiss him on the cheek and then walked away. She stumbled into the bathroom and walked into the stall, the same stall that had previously been their little drug den. She pulled out a bit of toilet paper and pulled up her skirt, staring down at the trail of cum that had started to dribble down her leg. She smiled to herself, wishing she could hug the inventor of the pill. Hopefully she'd be feeling the same about the inventor of the STD screening she'd have to schedule soon, but that was for another day. For the moment she felt beautiful, ethereal. She wished the people at her job could see her now, fucked and filthy in a bathroom stall wiping the semen of a man whose name she didn't know off of her leg. This was how she felt all day, wanting to ask her boss if he had any idea how far his head had worked its way up his own ass, wanting to punch that bitch in accounting in the face, wanting to pull delivery men into utility closets and go down on them, wanting to take that bullshit muzac off the office speakers, throw on The Clash and break some shit, wanting to set fire to the photocopier and make it an altar to a pagan god where they would sacrifice their five year plans and phone etiquette manuals.

In the club the music had changed. It wasn't doing it for her anymore, her rhythm had altered. One demon had been appeased, there were more to go. Stacy wanted to stay with her businessman, so the trio became a duo as Daphne and Janice left the club. On the street Daphne pulled a cigarette from her bag and lit up with her cheap Bic lighter, breathing the smoke deep inside her. She held it for a minute before exhaling. Time to change the rhythm, she thought. Time to get that new beat, something darker, something smokier.

As she began to walk away she heard a voice calling out from behind her. She and Janice turned and saw the man with the cold smile coming after them.

"Thought you could get away?" said the man, jogging to them. Daphne smiled with the cigarette loose between her lips.

"Other songs to sing, my friend," she smiled, then turned and continued to walk. The man reached out and grabbed her arm. Daphne pulled but he held tighter. She turned to face him, her smile fading.

"I've got a nice record collection back at my place, we could go there, do some of that dancing you like so much," he said, his eyes barely hiding the menace that crept out underneath the tone of his voice. "You could even bring your friend along." The man looked at Janice. "She like to dance too?" Janice shot him a look of contempt. The man kept his smile.

"Look, buddy, we're heading out, so why don't you just let go of my arm, go back inside and find some other nice lady to creep out."

Daphne tried to walk away but the man pulled her back. "Hey, asshole," said Janice. "You don't stop this bullshit we'll get some cops involved."

"You try anything like that and neither of you are going to be this pretty for long." Daphne saw Janice grow more confused and scared by the second. She saw the man leer at her in a way she had never been leered at before. Only moments ago everything had been so good, had aligned so well, and now she felt frightened and alone. There was danger here, she felt it in her stomach. It was a sickness she'd felt before, a familiar nausea that she couldn't quite place.

"I don't like being played around with," the man was saying. "It makes my blood just fucking boil. And when my blood boils, I need someone to cool it down, ease that pressure, you understand me?"

"Sure, I understand you," said Daphne, talking through clenched lips to keep the cigarette from falling to the ground. The man noticed and grabbed the cigarette from her lips.

"So what's it going to be?" asked the man. Daphne stared at the cigarette in his hand. She placed the nausea. It was the same pain she felt when she was talked down to at work, when she was belittled by her boss or condescended to by the men in her office or when she was the particular focus of the ever-circulating gossip pool at work. It was that feeling of helplessness she carried with her all through the week. It was the feeling that drove her here in the first place. She felt the rhythm return to her head. A new rhythm. A dark rhythm.

"Why not?" she said.

Janice balked. "What, are you crazy?" she yelled. "This guy's a psycho!"

"I'm always up for a little fun," said Daphne, giving the man a sly smile. "Of course I am, a girl like me." She mover her free arm to his hip, grabbing his ass. "Fuck going all the way to your place, why don't we just do it in the alley down the block?"

"Dirty little slut," the man smiled. "Why not?" The man began leading her down towards the alley. "See you soon," the man said as he passed Janice, giving her a wink. Daphne caught Janice's eye and mouthed the words "get a cab," putting up her hands to signal "wait." Janice nodded, still somewhat dazed.

In the alley the man pulled Daphne behind a dumpster. Daphne reached her hands down and grabbed the man's cock through his pants. The man moaned, then undid himself and pulled out his cock. Daphne began stroking it hard.

"Oh yeah," said the man. "Let's do it. Come on, let's fuck."

"Uh uh, baby," said Daphne, increasing her speed. "You know I like to tease, don't you? You know why I do it?" The man shook his head, not really paying attention. "I do it cause I like getting you riled up. I want you to get all hot and bothered so that you fuck me as hard as you can. That's what a tease is all about, right?"

"I knew it," said the man, his head tilted back in pleasure. "I knew you wanted it, you little whore."

"Oh I do," she said, getting down on her knees. She put her face right next to his cock, continuing to jerk him off. Her other hand reached into her purse and pulled out her lighter. "I don't just want your blood to boil, baby." She reached her hand up behind him, positioning the lighter at the bottom of the man's untucked silk shirt. "I want you to burn." Her thumb flicked the lighter twice, and then the shirt caught fire. It spread up and out, setting the jacket on fire as well. Daphne crouched beneath the flames, pulling the still-lit Bic around front to quickly set the man's pubic hair on fire, then backed away.

The man was screaming, attempting to pat himself out. That failing he struggled to take off the jacket, but the shirt itself was still on fire, melting into the man's skin. He started to run to the street but Daphne stuck her leg out, causing the man to trip and collapse against the dumpster. On her feet now Daphne watched as the man scrambled to find footing in the slick alleyway. Daphne raised her leg and brought it down hard, driving her heel deep into the man's calf. His scream grew louder as he writhed on the ground, caught between trying to put out the remains of the flames and attending to the puncture wound on his calf that now bled profusely. Daphne took the man's leg and dragged him into a large puddle of stagnant rainwater, putting out the fire. The man lay there, his upper body severely burnt, his calf bleeding. He curled into a ball, his body shaking with shock.

"Don't get up," Daphne said. "Someone'll come get you. And when they do I want you to remember what little girls like me are capable of. I want you to tell all your asshole friends. Because I'm going to start carrying around a can of lighter fluid, and then next one of you that gets lit up, I ain't putting out, you hear me?"

Back out on the street Daphne took out a cigarette and lit it. She saw Janice waiting in a cab down the block. As she made her way there she passed two college kids walking out of the club. "Hey, I think I heard some guy getting mugged or something in the alley over there, could you guys check it out or call the cops or something?" The guys said sure and went to check it out. Daphne got in the cab.

"I was about to call the cops!?" said Janice. "What the hell happened?"

"No smoking in the cab, please!" yelled the driver.

"I've got a permit," said Daphne, pulling down her shirt and showing the driver her tits.

"Do as you like," said the driver, putting the car in gear.

"Did you actually fuck that guy?" asked Janice.

"Just put out his fire," said Daphne. Janice wanted to ask more questions, but didn't. Daphne cracked the window open and let her smoke waft out into night. She leaned her head against the glass and shut her eyes, listening to the thumping of the tires on the pavement, heading through a straight shot of green lights, pounding out a rhythm, dark and expectant.

She's So Lucky

"Don't you see!" said the guru, jumping up and down like a ninny, pantsless and covered in vinegar. "Enlightenment is not intelligence, but perception! You must realize that matter is meaningless, time is an illusion and all that we are are energies moving through space, transferring themselves from body to body, evolving shape yet staying constant in essence!"

"I just want to get some smokes," said Britney Spears. The pop star was staring at the pantsless man behind the counter of the convenience store thirty miles out of Los Angeles.

"No. You have come here for enlightenment."

"Nope," said Britney, her head hanging down in exhaustion. "Just smokes."

"You were compelled to come here through the ever-flowing energies of the universe!" proclaimed the guru as he jumped up onto the counter and stretched his arms out to the heavens, putting his pantsless crotch in the area of Britney's face. Britney turned away slightly.

"I came out here to avoid the press. Now Camels, please."

"But, but…" stammered the guru. "I took of my pants. I covered myself in vinegar."

"I know."

"I thought…" The guru climbed back down behind the counter and slowly put his pants back on. "I thought, you know, here I am, a guru working in a convenience store out in the boonies, and here comes a mega-celebrity in need of spiritual guidance. I thought it was destiny, the universe aligning paths of energy and…"

"Well, it wasn't," Britney said, grabbing a Diet Coke from a small refrigerator unit to the side of the counter. "Cigarettes or I'm leaving, and just taking the Coke."

The guru took down a pack of Camels and set them on the counter and rang up the items. Britney put down her money, opened the pack of cigarettes and put one in her mouth as she headed towards the exit.

"You know, as a singer you really shouldn't be smoking," said the guru after her.

"Like anyone thinks I'm a singer," said Britney, pushing open the door and walking out to her car.

It was a beautiful morning in California, so Britney decided to drive with the windows rolled down. Maybe she'd listen to some music, she thought. Really enjoy herself for a minute, a nice moment alone with herself. She had the new CD by Justin Timberlake in the car's stereo, and decided to turn it on. Britney looked at the city and listened to the music. It was good. Really good. It made her want to go dancing, get away from herself, just listen and move. But where would she go where there wouldn't be eyes on her, where people wouldn't swarm her? Britney felt her mouth go dry. "Fuck," she muttered, then turned the music off. Maybe some silence would be good.


Britney heard the voice, but ignored it.

"HEY! HEY!!!"

Britney turned her head and saw in the lane to her left and saw a middle-aged woman with her window rolled down yelling at her. Britney gave a little smile and waved.


Britney rolled up the window and kept driving.

"Great, you made it back," said her court-appointed parenting coach, coming out to the car with a folder of papers and a phone. "You're not drunk are you?"

"No," said Britney.

"Any accidents?"


"You wouldn't happen to have picked up a newspaper while you were out, did you?" asked the parenting coach, with more than a hint of snideness. Britney looked at the coach from under lowered eyes.

"Well, you're in it."

"I'm always in it," said Britney. "Which paper?"

"All of them."

"Jesus. What did I do now?"

The coach handed Britney a newspaper. On the front page was the grinning face of a handsome young man in the passenger's seat of a sports car. The headline screamed in all caps, "MAN TELLS ALL: MY WILD NIGHT WITH BRITNEY!"

"You know this guy?" asked the coach.

"Yeah," said Britney.

"You remember him?"

Oh yeah. She remembered him.

"Look, is this going to be bad?" asked the coach. "Are these things true?"

"Yep," said Britney, taking out a cigarette and putting it in her mouth as she walked into her mansion. Of course this would happen, she thought. He'd been so nice. He'd told her everything she'd wanted to hear. He'd let her just have fun and be young again. It had been the best night she'd had in a long, long time. What a little piece of shit.

"We can deal with this." The parenting coach was flipping through her phone. "I'll call your press agent, we'll send out an official statement. This guy says this all happened just before your coaching started, so that's good. The damage should be minimal."

"Good," said Britney. "I'd hate for my reputation to be tarnished."

Britney entered her house and began climbing the stairs to her bedroom. "Britney!" the coach yelled after her. "Britney, we've got a drug test today. You can't miss this one."

"I just took one!" moaned Britney loudly, dragging her body with exaggerated exhaustion.

"Well, it's time for another one."

"Honestly, what have I done? These past few days, what have I done? I've sat around this fucking house, listening to you tell me what an idiot I am, reading a library's worth of shit about me, most of it true, going out to millions of people. I've got a million people on my back just dying to tell someone whenever I fuck up. Trust me, if I was doing drugs, you'd be reading about it."

"I am reading about it!" said the publicist, holding up the paper. "He says you snorted coke off a girl's tits!"

Britney huffed and rolled her eyes. "Sure, yes, but that was before the court ordered me to do drug testing."

"This is not heartening news," said the coach, shaking the paper. "This isn't really helping us get your kids back."

"Maybe I shouldn't get my kids back," said Britney. She walked down two steps to get closer to the parenting coach. "You think I haven't noticed how everyone was hemming and hawing about how I should have my children taken away, and now that they have been taken away everyone's hemming and hawing at how much I should be working to try and get my kids back. Maybe they're better off with Kevin. Isn't that what everyone's saying? I notice he doesn't have any court-appointed parenting coach. Let him keep the kids. I'll see them once a week, with my court-appointed child supervisor, you can go back to doing whatever the hell it is you do when you're not riding my ass, and we can all be happy."

"You don't want your kids back?" asked the coach.

"I don't know what I want," said Britney, going up the rest of the stairs and into her bedroom.

"The drug testing!" yelled the coach as Britney slammed the door to her bedroom.

Britney's cigarette was nearly burnt up to her lips. She ashed what remained and put in a fresh one. As she lit the new cigarette she took a bottle of whiskey out of her dresser and poured herself a glass. She wondered if alcohol showed up on a drug test, and if it did, would it count against her? Fuck it, she thought, like I'm actually going to take that drug test. She crawled into her bed and turned the TV on. "It's time to play everyone's favorite drinking game," Britney said to herself, holding the full glass of whiskey in one hand and the remote in the other. "Train Wreck." She flipped through the channels, CNN, FoxNews, E!. She flipped past the morning shows, the news hours, the cooking shows. Every time someone mentioned her name, she took a drink. By the end of the hour she was hammered.

She felt restless and angsty. A head full of whiskey made her punchy, so Britney hopped out of bed and went to her closet. Her clothes felt heavy and wrong on her skin. She took them off and changed into her red silk pajamas. With the bottle of whiskey in hand she walked out onto the staircase and looked down into the foyer. "This is my house," she said. "MY HOUSE!" She walked slowly down the staircase, her hand clutching the railing to steady her.

"Ms. Spears?" Britney's housekeeper poked her head around the corner.

"You there!" shouted Britney, pointing to the old woman. "Tell me, what day is it?"

"June 12th," said the housekeeper.

"Christmas morning!" shouted Britney. "Then there's still time! I want you to go buy a goose, my lad. The biggest goose in all of London!"


Britney hustled shakily down the staircase and put an arm around the housekeeper's neck. "Whose house is this?"

"Yours," said the housekeeper.

"Do you like it?" asked Britney. "Do you think it's a nice house?"

"Yes, ma'am," the housekeeper's voice wavered uncertainly. "Very nice house."

"I'm going to tell you a secret." Britney pulled the woman closer to her. "It's not a house."


"Nope," Britney said. "It's a palace. I'm royalty. I'm a pop princess. A PRINCESS! A princess of pop, of popularity, of the populous. This is a palace built on the adoration of a nation! And do you know what you do with a palace built on the adoration of a nation, old woman?"

"No, ma'am," said the housekeeper.

"What every self-respecting American would do with a palace this big. Run through it bare-ass naked." And with that Britney shimmied out of her pajamas and ran through the house stark naked, waving her whiskey bottle as she hollered through the hallways of her Xanadu.

When the parenting coach found her she was in the media room, blaring Madonna's Erotica album and jumping up and down on her couch while drinking whiskey straight from the bottle.

"So I'm guessing you're not planning on doing the drug testing then," the parenting coach said through pursed lips.

Britney stopped jumping and stood with wobbly legs on the couch. "That depends. Do you think they'd hold this against me?" she said, bending over and vomiting a stream of clear liquid onto the floor.

"I'll make some phone calls." The coach turned and walked away. Britney lay down on the couch and poked her stomach. "Tummy doesn't think she can handle any more boozy-booze." Britney reached out to the coffee table and grabbed the whiskey bottle. "Tummy is a fool."

By the time Erotica ended the bottle was empty and Britney was stumbling through the house in the search for more booze, or possibly food, or even more possibly both. In the kitchen Britney filled a bowl with Lucky Charms and then poured a quarter of a bottle of Jameson in as well. As she neared the bottom of the bowl Britney heard the parental coach come in.

"You know what's funny?" Britney asked. "You'd think Lucky Charms and Irish whiskey would go together really well. Well, you know what? You'd be absolutely fucking right." Britney picked up the bowl and slurped down the multi-colored contents. "Hell yeah. Now, I've only got one thing to ask you. Are you a fucking retard, or is it time to go driving?"

"Uh, neither?"

"You are so wrong."

Minutes later Britney and the court-appointed parental coach were weaving their way through downtown Los Angeles with Britney at the wheel.

"You know what I hate?" Britney yelled to the parental coach.

"Personal responsibility?" replied the coach.

"I hate the double standard. There's a double standard at work here, court-appointed parental coach. If I was a man, people would be loving me for my crazy antics. They'd say 'Aww, that Britney, he's a big ole rock star, just like the old days!' It's only cause I'm a woman that everybody's all pissed."

"Well, that and you have kids."

"Rock stars have kids! They have them all the time! Mick Jagger's probably having another kid right now! Or rap stars! What about rap stars? Rap stars get to do anything! Nobody expects a rapper to act responsibly."

"Maybe that says more about the subtle racism of society where we expect or encourage less of certain individuals than…"

"Who told you that? Did you learn that in college? I learned my shit on the streets."

"What streets?"

"Oh shit, we're on the wrong street."

Britney made a hard left across five lanes of traffic.

"All I'm saying is, if Common was acting like me he'd have his own reality show."

"You had your own reality show."

"Yeah, but I had to do it all by myself. My camerawork sucks!"

The parental coach clutched her handbag and turned her head down to the side so she couldn't see Britney's driving.

"Where are we going?" she asked.

"There's some thing for Christina Aguilera's new perfume, I'm gonna show up and trash that bitch."

The coach began crying quietly. "Why are you doing this?"

"What's my job?" Britney yelled to the parental coach. "WHAT'S MY JOB?"

"An entertainer?" the coach choked out through small sobs.

"Damn straight. And let me ask you, in all honesty, how entertaining was my last album? Or my last live shows? Or anything I've put out in the last three years?"

"Not very."

"No. But I'm a professional," said Britney, looking at herself in the mirror and licking her finger, then futzing with her eye shadow. "I'm going to entertain people, and I'll do it any way I can. You know why?"


"Because I care," said Britney, pushing her foot down on the gas pedal. "I care SO. DAMN. MUCH."

The parenting coach put an arm out to brace herself against the dashboard. "Why are you speeding up?"

"You think Christina Aguilera would invite me to an opening?" said Britney. "No ma'am. We're crashing."

As they approached the red carpet entrance for the unveiling of Christina Aguilera's new fragrance 'Debutantes,' Britney twisted the steering wheel hard and careened into a row of parked cars. All the reporters and photographers turned and began taking pictures. Kelis, who was in the middle of an interview, screamed. The court-appointed parenting coach was slumped in the passenger's seat, unconscious, with a gash across her forehead. Britney opened the door and stumbled out of the car. She was bleeding from her left shoulder and was walking with a limp. She crawled onto the hood of her car and stood above the crowd.

"I come with a message!" yelled Britney. "Enlightenment is perception! Matter is meaningless, time is an illusion and we are energies moving through space, transferring ourselves from body to body! For the past three years I have taken in your negative energies, and I have stored them, stored them within my very heart! And now I bring you the great day of transference!" And with that Britney pulled her leg back and kicked Katherine Heigl square in the face.

"Oh shit!" yelled Ne-Yo. "Bitch just kicked Grey's Anatomy in the face!"

Britney let out a roar and jumped from the hood of her car onto John Mayer. She then went on to KITBASH Hilary Duff, throat-punch Heidi Montag and bloody Shia LaBeouf's face. As she was chasing Perez Hilton inside, threatening to strangle him with a camera strap, America watched all of the action live on CNN, CNBC, FoxNews, MSNBC, E!, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, The CW, TNT, TBS, The Home Shopping Network, Telemundo, The History Channel, Nick GAS, G4, Cartoon Network, USA, PBS, ABC Family, A&E, CourtTV, The Discovery Channel, Hallmark, Mtv, VH1, VH1 Classics, Fuse, Oh!, Spike, The Sci-Fi Channel and The Learning Channel, and they all sighed, shook their heads and smiled.

"That Britney!"

Who Keeps the Beekeepers?

It was a beautiful day, which made Vernon Wordsworth's depression all the worse. He sat on the back porch of his rented house in Washington state, staring out over acres of land and his Langstroth beehives, set to pollinate that year's apple orchards. It was March, and Vernon was well into the brooding of his colonies. However, this year, like the past few years, things had not gone well.

His numbers were down. Everyone's numbers were down. No one knew why. People had theories. They always do. It didn't help that the media had picked up on it, getting everyone into a big fuss over the impending "Bee Crisis." There had been an unending parade of talking heads giving their theories. It's cell phones, it's chemicals, it's evolving parasites, it's noise pollution, regular pollution, climate change, tectonic shifts, whatever. It all just made Vernon tired. The long and short of it was that his numbers were down, and there didn't seem to be a damn thing he could do about it.

He was supposed to be out right now, checking the hives, recording the numbers, assessing his progress. However, he had decided to stretch out his lunch, sipping on his fourth glass of lemonade while putting his feet up on the porch's guardrail and stretching out his legs. The results would only depress him further, why not spend a few more minutes leaning back in his rocking chair and relaxing?

At that moment a sparrow made a harried landing right on the arm of Vernon's chair. Vernon cast a bemused look at the bird, then saw a note attached to the bird's leg with a piece of string all tied in a bow. Vernon carefully undid the string and took out the note, which looked more like a business card now that he saw it. It read:

"Sometimes, when the mundanity of life becomes overwhelming, when the sheer blandness of life stretches before you like a desert, you need the assistance of Gerald Pesterak, Professional Crazy Person."

There was no phone number, no address, no email. Just the quote and a picture of a straight jacket embossed on the card. Vernon tucked the card into the upper pocket of his overalls and went back to his lemonade.


The next morning Vernon awoke with the sun. He'd stopped setting his alarm, as he no longer saw the point in rushing out to begin a day destined for failure and disappointment. He took a shower, ate his breakfast, brushed his teeth, and then decided it was time to go check on the bees.

As he walked out to the small storage shed that held his beekeeper's suit Vernon felt a rumbling from the ground. It didn't seem like an earthquake, but then Vernon had never been in an earthquake, so maybe he wasn't one to say. Vernon was debating whether to go back inside and call the weather service to see if they had any information about the commotion or just ignore the whole thing and put on his suit when he noticed a giant cloud of dust coming from the back road to the house. As the cloud came closer the shaking in the ground became harder. Something was coming. Something big.

He saw the top of the man's head first. It stared out at a cocksure angle, somehow making sure to keep itself constantly in profile. Atop the head was a hat a bit like an old buccaneer's, with a large feather protruding from the back. Vernon noticed that the man didn't appear to be moving right. He wasn't swaying with a normal gait, he was... bouncing.

The body that came next followed the same general stylishness as the head. The man was wearing a well-tailored, form fitting suit which had a very high, feminine frilled collar and appeared to be made of crushed velvet. He had a large belt around his waste which had two holsters resting on each hip, filled not with pistols, but with bananas. He also wore a codpiece. His legs were spread at a severe angle.

As the man rose above the hill the mystery of both his strange movement and the trembling ground was resolved. The man was riding perilously atop two elephants, one foot resting on each. He held two reins in his left hand and was guiding the stomping creatures directly towards Vernon's rented cottage. Not wanting to bring too much worry to the bees, Vernon began walking out to meet the man. Not wanting to bring too much worry to himself, he made sure to grab his shotgun.

"Hello there," said Vernon, approaching the man with caution. "Nice elephants."

"They're rentals," said the man in the cavalierly bored voice of a dandy. "I'm borrowing them from the San Diego zoo, and by borrow I mean stole, and by stole I mean absconded. That will be your vocabulary word for the day. 'Absconded.' Do you know what it means?"

"Stole," said Vernon, crossing his arms so as to also cradle the shotgun.

"You're far more clever than I thought," said the man, jumping down from his perch atop the two elephants. "It will make breaking you all the more harder."

"Breaking me?"

"Run away, pachyderms!" exclaimed the man while shooing away the elephants. "It is time for you to return to the wild, to nature! Might I recommend Seattle? The music scene is dead but their coffee remains delicious!" With that the elephants turned around and began traipsing away. The man turned to Vernon. "You and I have some work to do."

"Who are you?" asked Vernon.

"Gerald Pesterak. Professional Crazy Person? Didn't you get my card?" replied the man.

"Of course, sure. With the bird and all."

"He's good people, that bird. Good bird people. I killed his entire family, and one day he will kill me, but until then I am tutoring him. Where are your meats and cheeses?"

Inside the house Gerald Pesterak made a tower of roast beef and goat cheese and had set about eating it by the handful.

"You're probably wondering why I called you here," said Gerald between bites.

"This is my house," said Vernon.

Gerald stopped eating and stared at Vernon. "Do not lie to me, Vernon. If you lie, I cannot save you. Liars are not welcome into the kingdom. This is a rental, is it not?"

"Yes," said Vernon. "It's a rental, but I'm renting it, so for the moment..."

"Ownership is what this is all about, Vernon, so let's make no quibbles about to whom things actually belong. I am here because I am interested in what is solely yours. What truly belongs to Vernon Wordsworth. Confuse the issue again and I will tear off a fingernail."

"The hell you will!" yelled Vernon. "I'm not letting you anywhere near me."

"Not one of your fingernails," said Gerald. "One of mine. But I will make you watch, and I have a terribly low pain threshold. It will not be pretty."

"I want you to leave," said Vernon.

"Believe you me, I want to leave," said Gerald. "But my work here is not finished. Let's go see about those bees."

In the work shed Vernon tried to convince Gerald to put on one of his extra beekeeper suits. "No thank you," Gerald had said. "I refuse to wear anything that disguises the shape of my calf. Now take me to the honeymakers."

"These bees aren't really for making honey, they're for pollination," said Vernon.

"I see their true face," said Gerald. "They live as I do. They live for honey."

Out in the field Vernon told Gerald to wait at the edge of the colonies for him and if he had to move, move very slowly so as to avoid getting stung. Gerald nodded.

Vernon was about half way through his inspections when he heard a noise. He turned and saw Gerald prancing between the colonies, doing some strange sort of dance. The bees had surrounded him in thick, buzzing cloud. Gerald appeared to be in the throes of some sort of ecstasy. "Can you hear their song, Vernon? They are singing! They are singing just of us!!"

"They're not singing, they're stinging," said Vernon.

"And every sting a melody!" shouted Gerald.

"Please stop. You're scaring my bees, and you're scaring me," said Vernon. Gerald didn't stop. Vernon sighed and continued with his work.

That night Vernon prepared a small meal of chicken, corn bread and green beans. Vernon ate his meal quietly while Gerald sat across the table, unmoving. He had not touched his plate, had not, in fact, moved hardly an inch. He had, however, begun to swell all over with bee stings. His face was huge and puffy, with red and white splotches. He had been forced to loosen his collar and undo the cuffs of his shirt. His voice came out in a slow wheeze. His face was covered in a thin paste of sweat and the combination of pus and poison that would occasionally ooze forth from one of the wounds. His eyes, although swollen half shut, glistened and shone with a frightening intensity.

"You sure you don't want to go to the doctor?" asked Vernon.

"I have never felt more alive," said Gerald with the zeal of a religious convert.

"I'm amazed you haven't gone into anaphylactic shock," said Vernon, unimpressed.

"I have a surprise for you!" said Gerald, who then stared at Vernon with his same unsettling intensity for a silent minute, then vomited quickly and violently all over the table. "IT'S A GIFT FROM THE BEES!!!"

"It's toxic shock," said Vernon.

"I would like to be carried to bed now," said Gerald. Water was pouring from his eyes, and Vernon was unable to tell if it was tears or simply more escaping fluids. Regardless, the pouring liquid did nothing to quell the strange energy beaming out of Gerald's eyes. Vernon stood up from the table, walked over to Gerald's chair and picked him up in his arms. As Vernon carried him up the stairs Gerald pulled himself up to Vernon's left ear.

"I love you, pappa!" whispered Gerald.

"You scare the shit out of me," replied Vernon.

The next day when Gerald came down to breakfast his swelling had gone down considerably. His face was also covered in small band-aids used to cover shaving nicks.

"Your face looks better," said Vernon. "Looks like you had a hard time shaving, though."

"Oh no, I did a letting!" said Gerald. "I used one of your razors to make many small, deep cuts to drain out the poison."

"Does that really work?" asked Vernon.

"I don't know!" said Gerald.

"Doesn't that seem kind of dangerous?" pushed Vernon.

"I don't know!" said Gerald.

That day Vernon worked with the bees while Gerald began a secret project out behind the unused barn. He made Vernon swear not to look at it until it was time, which was fine by Vernon, as it also would have been fine by Vernon if he never saw this surprise nor its creator again.

Yet that evening there he was, just in time for supper. He sat at the table with a giant lobster bib on, giddy and eager.

"What will we be dining on tonight? How I do so love victuals!"

"A little bit of the same, with a slight change. Chicken, but this time we'll be having collard greens instead of green beans."

"It's a carnival for the senses! Better than Olive Garden! Yes, I said it, better even than beloved Olive Garden!"


Vernon put the food down on the table and watched as his houseguest began to eat.

"Say, Gerald, let me ask you something," said Vernon. "It's not that I don't like welcoming houseguests or anything but what exactly are you doing here?"

"You need help," said Gerald in between bites. "I am helping you."

"How do you figure?" asked Vernon.

"Do you not feel listless and weary? I am here to make you realize the beauty and sanctity of life! I am here to give you your groove back, Stella!"

"I think my groove is just fine."

"No it isn't. It's in the pits, the very pits! But I'm here to help you get them out. Don't you want to get out of the pits? Don't you want to know why your bees are dying?"

Vernon stopped eating. He looked hard at Gerald. "What do you know about my bees dying?"

"Probably nothing. Possibly everything! This is a journey we take together, starting tomorrow. Eat. Rest. Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of our lives!"

The first day of the rest of their lives started innocuously enough. Vernon went down for breakfast. He waited a moment for Gerald, and when he didn't come Vernon fixed himself some eggs and bacon and ate them in silence. Then he went out to the shed. As he was about to put his beekeeper's suit on Gerald ran up to him.

"It's finished! It's finished! Come take a look!" Gerald was jumping up and down with excitement. He took off running back towards the old barn. Vernon followed.

Behind the barn was a large tarp placed over an object that stood about five and a half feet high and seven feet long.

"Do you love your bees, Vernon?" Gerald asked. "Do you really and truly love your bees?"

"I suppose so?" replied Vernon.

"Then I hope you're ready for excitement, because boy are you about to get some!" said Gerald. With the flourish of an impresario he pulled the tarp away to reveal a large sculpture of a bee made out of chicken wire, discarded machine parts, paper mache, wax and rubber. The inside of the sculpture hummed with the sound of a couple hundred contained bees. The whole thing was painted to look as realistically like a bee as possible except for an area about the size of a man's fist at the back of the sculpture that was unmistakably meant to be a human vagina very realistically rendered out of rubber hose and pink satin drapes.

"Make love to your bees, Vernon!" screamed Gerald. "Make sweet, passionate love to your bees! I hope you don't mind sloppy seconds. Or thirds. Or eighths. It's been a very busy morning!" he said, nudging Vernon with his elbow.

"This is disgusting!" yelled Vernon.

"This is what you were meant for!" replied Gerald. "Feel it! Live it! Experience it in all its swelling-inducing glory! Become engorged with life!" Gerald dropped his pants and began to approach the sculpture. Vernon ran back to the house.

Vernon began gathering Gerald's things into the steamer trunk he came with. After a few minutes Gerald returned to the house, his clothes akimbo and his hair sweaty. "She's a fighter, but it's just to show how much she wants you," said Gerald, painfully adjusting his crotch. Vernon came down stairs dragging Gerald's trunk behind him.

"I want you out," said Vernon. "I want you out right now."

"I'm afraid I can't do that, Vernon," said Gerald. "I haven't completed my contract yet."

"You've got no contract with me, I don't give a damn what you have to complete, I want you out of my house!"

"I thought we talked about this," said Gerald, reaching into his coat and pulling out a pair of pliers. "I thought we talked about what would happen if you kept confusing what actually belongs to you." Gerald attached the pliers to one of his fingernails and slowly began to pull.

"What are you doing?" asked Vernon, turning pale.

"Fulfilling part of my contract," said Gerald as he grunted and pulled and twisted the pliers, tearing out the fingernail of his right ring finger. Vernon turned away and ran up the staircase. Gerald followed, screaming and waving his bloody finger. Vernon went into his bedroom and put his back against the door. Then, with a force Vernon could never have predicted, Gerald burst through the doorway, flinging Vernon onto his bed. Vernon curled into a ball, but Gerald pounced on top of him and straddled his chest, pinning Vernon's arms beneath his legs.

"What do you want from me?!?!" yelled Vernon.

"I am here to teach you! You must learn!" Gerald yelled back.

"What is this, am I supposed to be inspired?" asked Vernon. "Is this some kind of 'live life to the fullest' lesson?"

"Quite the opposite!" said Gerald. "This is an un-lesson! You've learned the secret, Vernon. You've learned that life is a pitiable exercise in meaninglessness and then we die and no one cares and no one misses us. You've learned that the only thing we truly own are our sad, sorry little lives. But that's bad for business, Vernon. That's bad for the bees. So what I'm here to do is to put the vivacity of ignorance back into you!"

Gerald leaned close to Vernon's face, putting his knees at the side of Vernon's head so that he couldn't look away. Gerald then raised a hand to his face, the hand with the missing fingernail.

"I want you to believe that you actually own your happiness." Gerald took the fingernail of his index finger in his teeth and then yanked his head, ripping it out. Vernon screamed. "I want you to believe that you own your own success." Middle finger. "Thoughts." Pinky finger. "Love." Thumb. "I want you to be so afraid of losing all of these beautiful things that you think you own that you will keep fighting, keep looking after those bees, keep pulling your weight."

Vernon was trying to close his eyes, but Gerald wouldn't let him. He placed two bloody fingers above Vernon's eyes, keeping them open. "Do you feel it?" he asked. "Do you feel that fear?"

"You're crazy!" screamed Vernon.

"That's the point!" said Gerald, who then took a large bite out of his own shoulder, spitting up meat and bone on Vernon. "Where's that fear?" he said, taking another bite out of himself, biting away at his body before Vernon's eyes. "Show me that fear, Vernon!" Another chunk gone.

"I'm afraid!" Vernon shrieked. "God help me, I'm afraid!"

Gerald began eating himself more and more vigorously until Vernon passed out amid a torrent of teeth, spit, blood and meat.

The next day Vernon awoke in a puddle of sweat. He went out into his work that day with a renewed sense of purpose. He worked harder than he had in a long, long time. The bees never reached the numbers they had, but the decline had stopped. Vernon kept working, kept moving, kept trying to keep ahead of that fear.

There were days, though, where he couldn't do it. There were days where it all came back to him, that weariness, that sense of purposelessness. When those days occurred, wherever they occurred, there would be a visit by a small sparrow with a note attached to its feet which read:

"Sometimes, when the mundanity of life becomes overwhelming, when the sheer blandness of life stretches before you like a desert, you need the assistance of Gerald Pesterak, Professional Crazy Person."

And scrawled on the back, written in jet black ink with droplets of blood, as though from a hand ripped of its fingernails, was the following message: "My dearest Vernon, Remember that fear. –G. Pesterak"

When The Man Comes Around

Harmony Molloy sat in the back of her 8th grade class. She stared down at a torn piece of notebook paper. Drawn on the paper was a picture of Mr. Erland, her teacher, being disemboweled by ninjas. She was adding cross-shading to the puddle of blood spreading underneath his body when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She quickly covered the drawing with her Math book. Mr. Erland coughed quietly and pointed his head towards the front of the classroom. Harmony rolled her eyes and looked forward.

At the front of the classroom a troupe of high school students Improv for Improvement! was performing a series of skits about healthy living and staying away from bad influences. Harmony was bored. She wondered what these high school students were like outside of doing stupid skits for elementary school students. Did they buy any of this crap they were selling? Or did they drink, or smoke pot, or have sex in the pool while their parents were away like her sister did? The whole thing was so dumb and hypocritical. She wanted to draw more.

At the front of the classroom one of the high schoolers, a perky blond with a well-endowed chest, was talking about respecting herself and respecting others. Harmony studied her. The way she moved, the way she was talking to them, it was like she was talking to babies, or maybe a pet. She was speaking as though she had some sort of authority. What gave her the right, thought Harmony. What did she know that Harmony didn't? She wondered. The girl was certainly pretty, prettier than Harmony's sister. She probably had a boyfriend, and he'd probably tried to have sex with her. Maybe she'd said no and was speaking with the authority of someone who stands behind their convictions. Or maybe she'd said yes and was speaking as someone who had made the "wrong" decisions. Maybe she just needed extra credit. Whatever was happening, Harmony didn't like it. She didn't like being told what to do, especially by people only a few years older than her. It bothered her even more as she knew that she wasn't the type of girls that guys wanted to have sex with or give alcohol to, so this was pointless anyway. The type of girls this would be useful to, the type of girls who guys were interested in like that, were girls like Vicky Trembley, and everyone knew Vicky Trembley had given Eric Stewart a blowjob while they were working on their science fair project at Eric's house, so it was probably a little late for that, then, wasn't it? Harmony wondered if her sister had ever had to sit through something like this. She probably had, and it obviously hadn't worked out too well for her either.

"You're all going to be going to high school next year," said the bubbly blond, wrapping up the performance. "And you can take it from me, someone who has been there, that you're going to face a lot of these tough decisions. We hope you had some fun and maybe thought about things a bit here today. If anyone has any questions about anything they've heard, or what high school is like, we'd love to answer them!"

The room was silent. "Ok then!" said the blond. "Thanks so much for having us! Remember, we're Improv for Improveme…"

Harmony had her hand raised.

"Um, yes? Girl in the back, do you have a question?"

"Yeah," said Harmony. "Have any of you ever French kissed?"

The other students began giggling. Mr. Erland coughed and stuttered out, "Well, Harmony, I don't know if that question is appropriate…"

"No, that's okay, Mr. Erland," said the blond. She pulled one of the boys in the troupe over to her and held his hand. "This is Stephen, he's my boyfriend. And yes, we've kissed!" The blond leaned up and gave Stephen a peck on the side of his mouth. Some of the students in the class groaned. "We're not here to stop you from having fun or to tell you what to do and how to live. We can do all sorts of things like hold hands, kiss, cuddle up on the couch and watch a movie, we can be very close while still respecting ourselves, our bodies, and without being sexually active."

"My dad says French kissing is a dirty sin," said Harmony. Suddenly the room went silent. "He says your lips should never touch another person's until you are married."

"Well," said the blond, hooking her index fingers into the belt loops on her low-cut jeans. "It sounds like your dad has his own ideas about sex and personal responsibility…"

"They're not just his," interrupted Harmony. "Hasidic Jews aren't allowed to touch anyone of the opposite sex except for close family at all until they're married. Many Muslims also believe similarly." Harmony sat back in her chair and crossed her arms.

"What's your name?" asked the blond girl.


"Harmony, those people have a different set of values than we do."

"So they respect themselves and their bodies more than you do," Harmony asked.

"No, I don't think that's true," said the blond. "I think they're just from a different culture, they have different beliefs."

"So if I was from a culture or a belief system that said it was ok to have sex with whoever I wanted or do drugs, that would be ok as well," Harmony questioned further.

"Well, I don't really think you're from that kind of culture," replied the blond.

"I think you're being a little presumptuous," said Harmony. "I watch Sex and the City."

The blond folded her arms and squinted her eyes at Harmony. "See, everyone. This is the kind of counter-culture media pressure we've been talking about. Every day you are subjected to countless temptations and unnatural urges…"

"I'm going to have to stop you there," Harmony interrupted. "The average female body reaches sexual maturity at nine to fourteen, boys ten to seventeen, so it's actually very natural for us to want to have sex. This is why in ancient times, like the Bible, most people got married well before they were twenty. So what's NOT natural is for us to wait until we're thirty and in a position to be married or teasing our boyfriends with some heavy kissing when it's perfectly natural for them to want a blowjob."

"Harmony!" yelled Mr. Erland.

"I'm sorry," said Harmony. "Now I'm being the presumptuous one. Tell us, Blondie, do you give Steve head?"

The eyes of all the students in the class became round as hubcaps. Tommy Ferland said "Oh shit," but no one heard. Mr. Erland was bright red, so outraged he was unable to speak. Then, rushing from his mouth like hornets from a broken nest, he screamed "OUT OF MY CLASS RIGHT NOW, MISS MOLLOY!" Harmony got up slowly and gathered her books. Mr. Erland grabbed her backpack and the back of her shirt and ushered her out the door, pushing her into the hallway and tossing her bag to the ground.

"You know where to go," he said, and closed the door.

Harmony sighed and headed to the principle's office.

She was left waiting in the waiting area for thirty minutes. Finally she was called into the office and sat down across from Mr. Lawson, the principal. Mr. Lawson sat behind a large wooden desk, his chair tilted back at a slight angle as he studied the young woman sitting in front of him. After a moment he picked up her file and looked through it.

"Harmony Malloy," he said, thumbing through the pages in the folder. "Here we are again."

"It appears so, Mr. Lawson," Harmony said.

"I talked to Mr. Erland," said the principal, tossing the folder down on the desk. "Looks like you're getting another page added to an already fairly interesting record."

Harmony shrugged. "My mother tells me if you can't be pretty, you should at least be interesting."

Mr. Lawson leaned forward on the desk, clasping his hands in front of him. "You need to talk to me here, Harmony. We've got to come to an understanding of what's exactly going on here. Is this some sort of phase you're going through? You've got some aggression you have to work out?"

"I just want to know what I did wrong," asked Harmony.

"You asked a girl, a guest in your class, if she committed lewd sexual acts on her boyfriend, Harmony."

"First of all, I think your use of the term 'lewd' in that sentence is highly subjective. Secondly, I wasn't the one who brought up the topic of sex in that classroom. If they don't want to talk about it, then they shouldn't have brought it up."

Principal Lawson sighed and stood up from his chair. He walked over to a wall decorated with numerous commendations and pictures of the principal shaking hands and smiling with various people. He turned back to face Harmony.

"You're very intelligent," he said.

"And look where it's gotten me," said Harmony, smiling and holding out her arms.

"You've got to learn how to play the game," said Mr. Lawson, sitting on the edge of his desk and rubbing his hands over his eyes. "You've got to learn how to deal with people." Mr. Lawson pointed at a picture of himself shaking hands with a large, big-smiling man in a fancy suit. "You know who that is in the picture with me there?" he asked.

"The governor," Harmony answered.

"The governor, yes indeed," said Mr. Lawson. "Let me tell you something about our governor, just between the two of us. He doesn't give two shits about education." Harmony started at the frankness of Mr. Lawson's words. The principal put a finger up to his lips and winked at Harmony. "I know this, anyone who pays any attention to his policies knows this, and yet when he comes into town to give his stump speeches and talk to the local community leaders I go up and I get my picture taken with a big ole smile, just like everyone. And then I ask very politely for more money, and very politely I'm told a load of political bullshit about times being tight and priorities being what they are and blah blah blah, and then after numerous written petitions and meetings with lackey after lackey this school gets a fourth of the money it needs to survive. Now, there's two things I can do as the leader of this school. The next time the governor of our great state comes down to visit I can stand up in the town hall meeting and mock his policies, call him an incompetent idiot with no foresight or appreciation of our children and denounce him then and there. Or, I can go and smile, and make another polite request and get politely shafted. The second option isn't as fun, and it isn't as flashy and awesome, but it keeps me here at this school that I love, with these students that I care about, and it allows me to keep trying to make this school better one inch at a time. If I threw a fit I'd get the satisfaction of the strength of my convictions, but I also wouldn't be a principal anymore. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Harmony looked up towards the ceiling, then back at the principal. "You're saying it's better to eat shit than not eat at all?"

"No," said the principal. "I'm saying life is balance, and that includes vices AND virtues. Strength of conviction is a great thing, but so is strength of character and the ability to compromise and the quality of the work you do. You understand?"

Harmony nodded.

"You're going into high school next year. You're going to have a lot of important decisions to make, you're going to truly shape the person that you're going to become. I want you to think long and hard about those decisions. You could go anywhere, Harmony. You're smart, you're driven, you're an exceptional young lady. However, you're also your own worst enemy. I want you to put some serious thought into where you want to go, what you want to do, and how best to get there. All right?"

"Fine," said Harmony.

"As for this little incident, you'll be suspended for the rest of the week."

"What?!?" said Harmony. "Come on!"

"What do you want me to do here, Harmony? You asked someone if they gave head in class. If I just let you off with a warning here I'm condoning that kind of behavior, the board will crucify me."

"That's some real strength of character, Mr. Lawson," said Harmony.

Mr. Lawson sat back down behind his desk. "Your parents have been called, they'll be here soon. You can wait for them in the outer office."

Harmony got up and snatched her backpack up, then exited the office with a slam of the door.

Dinner that night was tense. Harmony's father could barely make it through a bite of his pot roast without a pronouncement about the state of Harmony's future and her lack of moral fiber.

"You kids today have no respect."

Bite. Chew.

"I don't even want to know where you learned that type of language."

Bite. Chew.

"I knew we should have private-schooled you. I'd have sent you up to St. Andrew's in Brownsberg, but it's so expensive and we figured the money would be better placed into a college fund."

Bite. Chew. Roll eyes.

"If you even get into college."

"Dad, my grades are fine, that's all colleges care about. As long as I've got grades and you've got the money to pay them…"

"That's not the point!" her father yelled, slamming a fist down on the table. "What good is college going to do you if you spend all your classes talking about… filth!"

"I doubt college classes will have presentations with high school girls telling me what to do with my life."

"Don't get smart with me!"

"Should I get stupid then?"

Bite. Chew.

"I don't understand why you can't be more like your sister."

Harmony choked on her apple juice. Harmony's sister Kelly kicked her from under the table.

"I just don't know what to do with you any more, Harmony. What do you think, mother?"

Harmony's mother sat quiet and straight at the head of the table. She gave a forlorn look to Harmony, then stared down at the table. "I just pray to God that he shows you the error of your ways."

"Well, when I get a message from God that I'm screwing up then I'll make the necessary changes."

"That is it, young lady!" her father rose out of his seat. "I want you up to your room right this instant, and I don't want to see your face until you've thought about what you've done and are ready to apologize. Now march!"

In her room Harmony sat at her desk and drew symbols and markings all over her notebook. She tried doing homework, but could not concentrate. She tried listening to music, but got too antsy. She thought about going down the hall to talk to her sister, but then thought better of it. She lay down on her bed and stared at the ceiling. She thought about her father, her teachers, her fellow students. She thought about what Mr. Lawson had asked her to do, to think about her future and what she wanted to do and how she could achieve it. At one point she had wanted to be a teacher, or maybe a principal or a lobbyist for educational issues and reform. She had wanted to change things and make them better, but now there was only so much bitterness and all she wanted to do was show them that they were wrong, so very very wrong. She thought about how far her ideals had fallen, so far that she could no longer even sympathize with the girl she had once been.

Harmony reached over to her bedside table and reached into the top drawer, her hand crawling all the way to the back, pushing aside all the mess and effluvium that collected there, and pulled out an old, tattered leather-bound book. She knelt beside the bed and clasped the book to her chest.

"Please," she said, her eyes closed with the intensity of her wish. "Please, help me. Guide me. I'm ready to hear what you have to say, I'm ready to take you into my heart. Please, help me. I will be your humble servant."

Behind Harmony the walls of the house began to glow with a bright light. Suddenly a sharp beam pierced the wall near the floor and rose, cutting a line seven feet up, then three feet over, then four feet back down. The door slowly opened, flooding Harmony's room with light and smoke. Out of the door strode a man, tall and lean, dressed in a smart-looking apple red suit, his dark black hair slicked back along his scalp. In his right hand he held the tip of a long black cane, a bright red ring on his ring finger clacking against the brass knob at the top. As he walked the bottom of the cane kept time beside his patent leather shoes.

"Hello, Harmony," said the man.

"Hello," said Harmony, still on her knees.

"Heard you wanted to talk with me?" he said.

"You were right," said Harmony. "They're idiots, all of them, and they're not worth saving."

"So disillusioned for one so young," said the man, taking a seat in Harmony's desk chair.

"So where do we go from here?" asked Harmony. "What do I do?"

"You sure you don't want to try to solve some of these problems?" asked the man. "You never know. You could discover the bright, shining light to lead the people out of the darkness."

"To hell with the light," said Harmony. "I want to bring them fire."

The man smiled and picked up a picture of Harmony and her family from Harmony's desk.

"So come on," said Harmony. "What are we going to do?"

The man looked at the picture, the family all standing together in Washington, D.C., in front of the Lincoln Memorial. In the picture Harmony's father was smiling, standing behind his two girls with one hand on each daughter's shoulder. The man put his thumb over the face of Harmony's father and pressed hard, then twisted. When he pulled his thumb away the picture now showed Harmony's father with an expression of intense, horrific pain. The man threw the picture to Harmony, who looked at it and smiled.

"I've got a few ideas," said the man. He stood up and walked over to the door. He opened it and put out his hand to Harmony. "Please, step into my office."

Harmony got up from the floor and took the man's hand.