22 April 2017

Home Again

The kids in my local bat-house breathe heavy metals, and their gelatinous bodies
quiver nauseously during our counseling sessions, and for all that, they reacted
just like I had when I told them I was going away for a while -- with hurt and
betrayal, and they aroused palpable guilt in me.

It goes in circles. When I was sixteen, and The Amazing Robotron told me he
needed to go away for a while, but he'd be back, I did everything I could to
make him guilty. Now it's me, on a world far from home, and a pack of snot-nosed
jellyfish kids have so twisted my psyche that they're all I can think of when I
debark the shuttle at Aristide Interplanetary, just outside my dirty ole
Toronto.

The customs officer isn't even human, so it feels like just another R&R, another
halting conversation carried on in ugly trade-speak, another bewilderment of
queues and luggage carousels. Outside: another spaceport, surrounded by the
variegated hostels for the variegated tourists, and bipeds are in bare majority.

I can think of it like that.

I can think of it as another spaceport.

I can think of it like another trip.

The thing he can't think of it is, is a homecoming. That's too hard for this
weak vessel.

He's very weak.

#

Look at him. He's eleven, and it's the tencennial of the Ascension of his
homeworld -- dirty blue ball, so unworthy, yet -- inducted into the Galactic
fraternity and the infinite compassion of the bugouts.

The foam, which had been confined to just the newer, Process-enclaves before the
Ascension, has spread, as has the cult of the Process For Lasting Happiness.
Process is, after all, why the dirty blue ball was judged and found barely
adequate for membership. Toronto, which had seen half its inhabitants emigrate
on open-ended tours of the wondrous worlds of the bugout domain, is full again.
Bursting. The whole damn planet is accreting a layer of off-world tourists.

It's a time of plenty. Plenty of cheap food and plenty of cheap foam structures,
built as needed, then dissolved and washed away when the need disappears. Plenty
of healthcare and education. Plenty of toys and distractions and beautiful,
haunting bugout art. Plenty, in fact, of everything, except space.

He lived in a building that is so tall, its top floors are perpetually damp with
clouds. There's a nice name for this building, inscribed on a much-abused foam
sculpture in the central courtyard. No one uses the nice name. They call it by
the name that the tabloids use, that the inhabitants use, that everyone but the
off-world counselors use. They call it the bat-house.

Bats in the belfry. Batty. Batshit.

I hated it when they moved us into the bat-house. My parents gamely tried to
explain why we were going, but they never understood, no more than any human
could. The bugouts had a test, a scifi helmet you wore, and it told you whether
you were normal, or batty. Some of our neighbors were clearly batshit: the woman
who screamed all the time, about the bugs and the little niggers crawling over
her flesh; the couple who ate dogturds off the foam sidewalk with lip-smacking
relish; the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla.

I don't want to talk about him right now.

His parents' flaw -- whatever it was -- was too subtle to detect without the
scifi helmet. They never knew for sure what it was. Many of the bats were in the
same belfry: part of the bugouts' arrogant compassion held that a couple never
knew which one of them was defective, so his family never knew if it was his
nervous, shy mother, or his loud, opinionated father who had doomed them to the
quarantine.

His father told him, in an impromptu ceremony before he slid his keycard into
the lock on their new apt in the belfry: "Chet, whatever they say, there's
nothing wrong with us. They have no right to put us here." He knelt to look the
skinny ten-year-old right in the eye. "Don't worry, kiddo. It's not for long --
we'll get this thing sorted out yet." Then, in a rare moment of tenderness, one
that stood out in Chet's memory as the last of such, his father gathered him in
his arms, lifted him off his feet in a fierce hug. After a moment, his mother
joined the hug, and Chet's face was buried in the spot where both of their
shoulders met, smelling their smells. They still smelled like his parents then,
like his old house on the Beaches, and for a moment, he knew his father was
right, that this couldn't possibly last.

A tear rolled down his mother's cheek and dripped in his ear. He shook his
shaggy hair like a dog and his parents laughed, and his father wiped away his
mother's tear and they went into the apt, grinning and holding hands.

Of course, they never left the belfry after that.

#

I can't remember what the last thing my mother said to me was. Do I remember her
tucking me in and saying, "Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite,"
or was that something I saw on a vid? Was it a nervous command to wipe my shoes
on the way in the door? Was her voice soft and sad, as it sometimes is in my
memories, or was it brittle and angry, the way she often seemed after she
stopped talking, as she banged around the tiny, two-room apt?

I can't remember.

My mother fell away from speech like a half-converted parishioner falling away
from the faith: she stopped visiting the temple of verbiage in dribs and drabs,
first missing the regular sermons -- the daily niceties of Good morning and Good
night and Be careful, Chet -- then neglecting the major holidays, the Watch
out!s and the Ouch!s and the answers to direct questions.

My father and I never spoke of it, and I didn't mention it to the other wild
kids in the vertical city with whom I spent my days getting in what passed for
trouble around the bat-house.

I did mention it to my counselor, The Amazing Robotron, so-called for the metal
exoskeleton he wore to support his fragile body in Earth's hard gravity. But he
didn't count, then.

#

The reason that Chet can't pinpoint the moment his mother sealed her lips is
because he was a self-absorbed little rodent in those days.

Not a cute freckled hellion. A miserable little shit who played hide-and-seek
with the other miserable little shits in the bat-house, but played it violently,
hide-and-seek-and-break-and-enter, hide-and-seek-and-smash-and-grab. The lot of
them are amorphous, indistinguishable from each other in his memory, all that
remains of all those clever little brats is the lingering impression of loud,
boasting voices and sharp little teeth.

The Amazing Robotron was a fool in little Chet's eyes, an easy-to-bullshit,
ineffectual lump whose company Chet had to endure for a mandatory hour every
other day.

"Chet, you seem distr-acted to-day," The Amazing Robotron said in his artificial
voice.

"Yah. You know. Worried about, uh, the future." Distracted by Debbie Carr's
purse, filched while she sat in the sixty-eighth floor courtyard, talking with
her stupid girlie friends. Debbie was the first girl from the gang to get tits,
and now she didn't want to hang out with them anymore, and her purse was stashed
underneath the base of a hollow planter outside The Amazing Robotron's apt, and
maybe he could sneak it out under his shirt and find a place to dump it and sort
through its contents after the session.

"What is it about the fu-ture that wo-rries you?" The Amazing Robotron was as
unreadable as a pinball machine, something he resembled. Underneath, he was a
collection of whip-like tentacles with a knot of sensory organs in the middle.

"You know, like, the whole fricken thing. Like if I leave here when I'm
eighteen, will my folks be okay without me, and like that."

"Your pa-rents are able to take care of them-selves, Chet. You must con-cern
your-self with you, Chet. You should do something con-struct-tive with your
wo-rry, such as de-ciding on a ca-reer that will ful-fill you when you leave the
Cen-ter." The Center was the short form for the long, nice name that no one ever
used to describe the bat-house.

"I thought, like, maybe I could be, you know, a spaceship pilot or something."

"Then you must stu-dy math-e-mat-ics and phy-sics. If you like, Chet, I can
re-quest ad-vanced in-struct-tion-al mat-e-rials for you."

"Sure, that'd be great. Thanks, Robotron."

"You are wel-come, Chet. I am glad to help. My own par-ent was in a Cen-ter on
my world, you know. I un-der-stand how you feel. There is still time re-main-ing
in your ses-sion. What else would you like to dis-cuss?"

"My mother doesn't talk anymore. Nothing. Why is that?"

"Your mo-ther is. . . ." The Amazing Robotron fumbled for a word, buried
somewhere deep in the hypnotic English lexicon baked into its brain. "Your
mo-ther has a prob-lem, and she needs your aff-ec-tion now more than e-ver.
What-ev-er rea-son she has for her si-lence, it is not you. Your mo-ther and
fa-ther love you, and dream of the day when you leave here and make your own way
through the gal-ax-y."

Of course his parents loved him, he supposed, in an abstract kind of way. His
mother, who hadn't worn anything but a bathrobe in months, whose face he
couldn't picture behind his eyes but whose bathrobe he could visualize in its
every rip and stain and fray. His father, who seemed to have forgotten how to
groom himself, who spent his loud days in one of the bat-house's workshops,
drinking beer with his buddies while they played with the arc welders. His
parents loved him, he knew that.

"OK, right, thanks. I've gotta blow, 'K?"

"All-right. I will see you on Thurs-day, then?"

But Chet was already out the door, digging Debbie Carr's purse from under the
planter, then running, doubled over the bulge it made in his shirt, hunting for
a private space in the anthill.

#

The entire north face of the bat-house was eyeless, a blind, windowless expanse
of foam that seemed to curve as it approached infinity.

Some said it was an architectural error, others said it was part of the
bat-house's heating scheme. Up in nosebleed country, on the 120th level, it was
almost empty: sparsely populated by the very battiest bats, though as more and
more humans were found batty, they pushed inexorably upwards.

Chet rode the lift to the 125th floor and walked casually to the end of the
hallway. At this height, the hallways were bare foam, without the long-wear
carpet and fake plants that adorned the low-altitude territories. He walked as
calmly as he could to the very end of the northern hall, then hunkered down in
the corner and spilled the purse.

Shit, but Debbie Carr was going girlie. The pile was all tampons and makeup and,
ugh, a spare bra. A spare bra! I chuckled, and kept sorting. There were three
pennies, enough to buy six chocolate bars in the black-market tuck-shop on the
75th floor. A clever little pair of folding scissors, their blades razor-sharp.
I was using them to slit the lining of the purse when the door to 12525 opened,
and the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla emerged.

My palms slicked with guilty sweat, and the pile of Debbie's crap, set against
the featureless foam corridor, seemed to scream its presence. I spun around,
working my body into the corner, and held the little scissors like a dagger in
my fist.

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla was clearly batty. He was wearing
boxer-shorts and a tailcoat and had a halo of wild, greasy hair and a long,
tangled beard, but even if he'd been wearing a suit and tie and had a trip to
the barber's, I'd have known he was batty the minute I laid eyes on him. He
didn't walk, he shambled, like he'd spent a long, long time on meds. His eyes,
set in deep black pits of sleeplessness, were ferociously crazy.

He turned to stare at me.

"Hello, sonny. Do you like to swim?"

I stood in my corner, mute, trapped.

"I have an ocean in my apt. Maybe you'd like to try it? I used to love to swim
in the ocean when I was a boy."

My feet moved without my willing them. An ocean in his apt? My feet wanted to
know about this.

I entered his apt, and even my feet were too surprised to go on.

He had the biggest apt I'd ever seen. It spanned three quarters of the length of
the bat-house, and was five storeys high. The spots where he'd dissolved the
foam walls away with solvent were rough and uneven, and rings of foam encircled
each of the missing storeys above. I couldn't imagine getting that much solvent:
it was more tightly controlled than plutonium, the subject of countless
action-adventure vids.

At one end of the apt stood a collection of tall, spiny apparatus, humming with
electricity and sparking. They were remarkable, but their impact was lost in
what lay at the other end.

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla had an ocean in his apt. It was a clear
aquarium tank, fifteen meters long and nearly seventeen high, and eight meters
deep. It was dominated by a massive, baroque coral reef, like a melting castle
with misshapen brains growing out of it.

Schools of fish -- bright as jellybeans -- darted through the ocean's depths,
swimming in and out of the softly waving plants. A thousand neon tetra, a flock
of living quicksilver sewing needles, turned 90 degrees in perfect unison, then
did it again, and again, and again, describing a neat, angular box in the water.

"Isn't it beautiful? I'm using it in one of my experiments, but I also find it
very _calming_."

#

I hail a pedicab and the kids back on my adopted homeworld, with their accusing,
angry words and stares vanish from my mind. The cabbie is about nineteen and
muscular as hell, legs like treetrunks, clipped into the pedals. A flywheel
spins between him and me, and his brakes store his momentum up in it every time
he slows. On the two-hour ride into downtown Toronto, he never once comes to a
full stop.

I've booked a room at the Royal York. I can afford it -- the stipend I receive
for the counseling work has been slowly accumulating in my bank account.

Downtown is all foam now, and "historical" shops selling authentic Earth
crapola: reproductions of old newspapers, reproductions of old electronics,
reproductions of old clothes and old food and other discarded cultural detritus.
I see tall, clacking insect-creatures with walkman headphones across their
stomachs. I see squat, rocky creatures smearing pizza slices onto their
digestive membranes. I see soft, slithering creatures with Toronto Blue Jays
baseball hats suspended in their jelly.

The humans I see are dressed in unisex coveralls, with discreet comms on their
wrists or collars, and they don't seem to notice that their city is become a
bestiary.

The cabby isn't even out of breath when we pull up at the Royal York, which,
thankfully, is still clothed in its ancient dressed stone. We point our comms at
each other and I squirt some money at him, adding a generous tip. His face,
which had been wildly animated while he dodged the traffic on the long ride is a
stony mask now, as though when at rest he entered a semiconscious sleep mode.

The doorman is dressed in what may or may not be historically accurate costume,
though what period it is meant to represent is anyone's guess. He carries my bag
to the check-in and I squirt more money at him. He wishes that I have a nice
stay in Toronto, and I wish it, too.

At the check-in, I squirt my ID and still more money at the efficient young
woman in a smart blazer, and another babu in period costume -- those shoes look
painful -- carries my bag to the lift and presses the button.

We wait in strained silence and the lift makes its achingly slow progress
towards us. There are no elevators on the planet I live on now -- the wild
gravity and wilder windstorms don't permit buildings of more than one story --
but even if there were, they wouldn't be like this lift, like a human lift, like
one of the fifty that ran the vertical length of the bat-house.

I nearly choke as we enter that lift. It has the smell of a million transient
guests, aftershaves and perfumes and pheromones, and the stale recirc air I
remember so well. I stifle the choke into my fist, fake a cough, and feel a
self-consciousness I didn't know I had.

I'm worried that the babu knows that I grew up in the bat-house.

Now I can't make eye-contact with him. Now I can't seem to stand naturally,
can't figure out where a not-crazy puts his hands and where a not-crazy puts his
eyes. Little Chet and his mates liked to terrorize people in the lifts, play
"who farted" and "I'm gonna puke" and "I have to pee" in loud sing-songs, just
to watch the other bats squirm.

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla thought that these games were unfunny,
unsophisticated and unappetizing and little Chet stopped playing them.

I squirt extra money at the babu, after he opens my windows and shows me the
shitter and the vid's remote.

I unpack mechanically, my meager bag yielding more-meager clothes. I'd thought
I'd buy more after earthfall, since the spaceports' version of human apparel
wasn't, very. I realize that I'm wearing the same clothes I left Earth in, lo
those years before. They're hardly the worse for wear -- when I'm in my
exoskeleton on my new planet, I don't bother with clothes.

#

The ocean seemed too fragile to be real. All that caged water, held behind a
flimsy-seeming sheet of clear foam, the corners joined with strips of thick
gasket-rubber. Standing there at its base, Chet was terrified that it would
burst and drown him -- he actually felt the push of water, the horrid, dying
wriggles of the fish as they were washed over his body.

"Say there, son. Hello?"

Chet looked up. Nicola Tesla's hair was standing on end, comically. He realized
that his own long, shaggy hair was doing the same. The whole room felt electric.

"Are you all right?" He had a trace of an accent, like the hint of garlic in a
salad dressing, an odd way of stepping on his vowels.

"Yeh, yeh, fine. I'm fine," Chet said.

"I am pleased to hear that. What is your name, son?"

"Chet. Affeltranger."

"I'm pleased to meet you. My name is Gaylord Ballozos, though that's not who I
am. You see, I'm the channel for Nicola Tesla. Would you like to see a magic
trick?"

Chet nodded. He wondered who Nicola Tesla was, and filed away the name Gaylord
for making fun of, later. In doing so, he began to normalize the experience, to
structure it as a story he could tell the other kids, after. The guy, the ocean,
the hair. Gaylord.

A ball of lightning leapt from Tesla/Ballozos's fingertips and danced over their
heads. It bounced around the room furiously, then stopped to hover in front of
Chet. His clothes stood away from his body, snapping as though caught in a
windstorm. Seen up close, the ball was an infinite pool of shifting electricity,
like an ocean of energy. Tentatively, he reached out to touch it, and Tesla
shouted "Don't!" and the ball whipped up and away, spearing itself on the point
of one of the towers on the opposite side of the room.

It vanished, leaving a tangy, sharp smell behind.

The story Chet had been telling in his mind disappeared with it. He stood,
shocked speechless.

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla chuckled a little, then started to
laugh, actually doubling over and slapping his thighs.

"You can't _imagine_ how long I've waited to show that trick to someone! Thank
you, young Mr. Affeltranger! A million thanks to you, for your obvious
appreciation."

Chet felt a giggle welling up in him, and he did laugh, and when his lips came
together, a spark of static electricity leapt from their seam to his nose and
made him jump, and laugh all the harder.

The guy came forward and pumped his arm in a dry handshake. "I can see that you
and I are kindred spirits. You will have to come and visit again, very soon, and
I will let you see more of my ocean, and maybe let you see 'Old Sparky,' too.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, for dropping in."

And he ushered Chet out of his apt and closed the door, leaving him in the
featureless hallway of the 125th storey.

#

I had never been as nervous as I was the following Thursday, when my regular
appointment with The Amazing Robotron rolled around again. I hadn't spoken of
the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla to any of my gang, and of course not to
my parents, but somehow, I felt like I might end up spilling to The Amazing
Robotron.

I don't know why I was worried. The guy hadn't asked me to keep it a secret,
after all, and I had never had any problem holding my tongue around The Amazing
Robotron before.

"Hel-lo, Chet. How have you been?"

"I've been OK."

"Have you been stud-y-ing math-e-mat-ics and phys-ics? I had the supp-le-ment-al
mat-e-rials de-liv-er-ed to your apt yes-ter-day."

"No, I haven't. I don't think I wanna be a pilot no more. One of my buds tole me
that you end up all fugged up with time an' that, that you come home an' it's
the next century an' everyone you know is dead."

"That is one thing that hap-pens to some ex-plor-a-tor-y pilots, Chet. Have you
thought a-bout any o-ther poss-i-bil-i-ties?"

"Kinda. I guess." I tried not to think about the 125th story and the ocean. I
was thinking so hard, I stopped thinking about what I was saying to The Amazing
Robotron. "Maybe I could be a counselor, like, and help kids."

The Amazing Robotron turned into a pinball machine again, an unreadable and
motionless block. Silent for so long I thought he was gone, dead as a sardine
inside his tin can. Then, he twitched both of his arms, like he was shivering.
Then his robot-voice came out of the grille on his face. "I think that you would
be a ve-ry good coun-sel-or, Chet."

"Yeh?" I said. It was the first time that The Amazing Robotron had told me he
thought I'd be good at anything. Hell, it was the first time he'd expressed
_any_ opinion about anything I'd said.

"Yes, Chet. Be-ing a coun-sel-or is a ve-ry good way to help your-self
un-der-stand what we have done to you by put-ting you in the Cen-ter."

I couldn't speak. My Mom, before she fell silent, had often spoken about how
unfair it was for me to be stuck here, because of something that she or my
father had done. But my father never seemed to notice me, and the teachers on
the vid made a point of not mentioning the bat-house -- like someone trying hard
not to notice a stutter or a wart, and you _knew_ that the best you could hope
for from them was pity.

"Be-ing a coun-sel-or is ve-ry hard, Chet. But coun-sel-ors sometimes get a
spec-ial re-ward. Some-times, we get to help. Do you re-ally want to do this?"

"Yeh. Yes. I mean, it sounds good. You get to travel, right?"

The Amazing Robotron's idiot-lights rippled, something I came to recognize as a
chuckle, later. "Yes. Tra-vel is part of the job. I sug-gest that you start by
ex-am-in-ing your friends. See if you can fi-gure out why they do what they do."

I've used this trick on my kids. What do I know about their psychology? But you
get one, you convince it to explain the rest to you. It helps. Counselors are
always from another world -- by the time the first generation raised in a
bat-house has grown old enough, there aren't any bats' children left to counsel
on their homeworld.

#

I take room-service, pizza and beer in an ice-bucket: pretentious, but better
than sharing a dining-room with the menagerie. Am I becoming a racist?

No, no. I just need to focus on things human, during this vacation.

The food is disappointing. It's been years since I lay awake at night, craving a
slice and a brew and a normal gravity and a life away from the bats.
Nevertheless, the craving remained, buried, and resurfaced when I went over the
room-service menu. By the time the dumbwaiter in my room chimed, I was
practically drooling.

But by the time I take my second bite, it's just pizza and a brew.

I wonder if I will ever get to sleep, but when the time comes, my eyes close and
if I dream, I don't remember it.

I get up and dress and send up for eggs and real Atlantic salmon and brown toast
and a pitcher of coffee, then find myself unable to eat any of it. I make a
sandwich out of it and wrap it in napkins and stuff it into my day-pack along
with a water-bottle and some sun-block.

It's a long walk up to the bat-house, but I should make it by nightfall.

#

Chet was up at 6h the next morning. His mom was already up, but she never slept
that he could tell. She was clattering around the kitchen in her housecoat,
emptying the cupboards and then re-stacking their contents for the thousandth
time. She shot him a look of something between fear and affection as he pulled
on his shorts and a t-shirt, and he found himself hugging her waist. For a
second, it felt like she softened into his embrace, like she was going to say
something, like it was normal, and then she picked up a plate and rubbed it with
a towel and put it back into the cupboard.

Chet left without saying a word.

The bat-house breathed around him, a million farts and snores and whispered
words. A lift was available almost before he took his finger off the summon
button. "125," he said.

Chet walked to the door of the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla and started
to knock, then put his hands down and sank down into a squat, with his back
against it.

He must have dozed, because the next thing he knew, he was tipping over
backwards into the apt, and the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla was standing
over him, concerned.

"Are you all right, son?"

Chet stood, dusted himself off and looked at the floor. "Sorry, I didn't want to
disturb you. . ."

"But you wanted to come back and see more. Marvelous! I applaud your curiosity,
young sir. I have just taken the waters -- perhaps you would like to try?" He
gestured at the ocean.

"You mean, swim in it?"

"If you like. Myself, I find a snorkel and mask far superior. My set is up on
the rim, you're welcome to them, but I would ask you to chew a stick of this
before you get in." He tossed Chet a pack of gum. "It's an invention of my own
-- chew a stick of that, and you can_not_ transmit any nasty bugs in your saliva
for forty-eight hours. I hold a patent for it, of course, but my agents report
that it has been met with crashing indifference in the Great Beyond."

Chet had been swimming before, in the urinary communal pools on the tenth and
fifteenth levels, horsing around naked with his mates. Nudity was not a big deal
for the kids of the bat-house -- the kind of adult who you wouldn't trust in
such circumstances didn't end up in bat-houses -- the bugouts had a different
place for them.

"Go on, lad, give it a try. It's simply marvelous, I tell you!"

Unsteadily, Chet climbed the spiral stairs leading up to the tank, clutching the
handrail, chewing the gum, which fizzed and sparked in his mouth. At the top,
there was a small platform. Self-consciously, he stripped, then pulled on the
mask and snorkel that hung from a peg.

"Tighten the straps, boy!" the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla shouted, from
far, far below. "If water gets into the mask, just push at the top and blow out
through your nose!"

Chet awkwardly lowered himself into the water. It was warm -- blood temperature
-- and salty, and it fizzled a little on his skin, as though it, too, were
electric.

He kept one hand on the snorkel, afraid that it would tip and fill with water,
and then, slowly, slowly, relaxed on his belly, mask in the water, arms by his
side.

My god! It was like I was flying! It was like all the dreams I'd ever had, of
flying, of hovering over an alien world, of my consciousness taking flight from
my body and sailing through the galaxy.

My hands were by my sides, out of view of the mask, and my legs were behind me.
I couldn't see any of my body. My view stretched 8m down, an impossible,
dizzying height. A narrow, elegant angelfish swam directly beneath me, and
tickled my belly with one of its fins as it passed under.

I smiled, a huge grin, and it broke the seal on my mask, filling it with water.
Calmly, as though I'd been doing it all my life, I pressed the top of my mask to
my forehead and blew out through my nose. My mask cleared of water.

I floated.

The only sound was my breathing, and distant, metallic _pink!_s from the ocean's
depths. A school of iridescent purple fish swam past me, and I lazily kicked out
after them, following them to the edge of the coral reef that climbed the far
wall of the ocean. When I reached it, I was overwhelmed by its complexity,
millions upon millions of tiny little suckers depending from weird branches and
misshapen brains and stone roses.

I held my breath.

And I heard nothing. Not a sound, for the first time in all the time I had been
in the bat-house -- no distant shouts and mutters. I was alone, in a vast,
personal silence, in a private ocean. My pulse beat under my skin. Tiny fish
wriggled in the coral, tearing at the green fuzz that grew over it.

Slowly, I turned around and around. The ocean-wall that faced into the apt was
silvered on this side, reflecting back my little pale body to me. My head
pounded, and I finally inhaled, and the sound of my breathing, harsh through the
snorkel, rang in my ears.

I spent an age in the water, holding my breath, chasing the fish, disembodied, a
consciousness on tour on an alien world.

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla brought me back. He waited on the rim of
the tank until I swam near enough for him to touch, then he tapped me on the
shoulder. I stuck my head up, and he said, "Time to get out, boy, I need to use
the ocean."

Reluctantly, I climbed out. He handed me a towel.

I felt like I was still flying, atop the staircase on the ocean's edge. I felt
like I could trip slowly down the stairs, never quite touching them. I pulled on
my clothes, and they felt odd to me.

Carefully, forcing myself to grip the railing, I descended. The guy who thought
he was Nicola Tesla stood at my side, not speaking, allowing me my reverie.

My hair was drying out, and starting to raise skywards, and the guy who thought
he was Nicola Tesla went over to his apparatus and flipped a giant knife switch.
The ocean stirred, a puff of sand rose from its bottom, and then, the coral on
the ocean's edge _moved_.

It squirmed and danced and writhed, startling the fish away from it, shedding
layers of algae in a green cloud.

"It's my latest idea. I've found the electromagnetic frequencies that the
various coral resonate on, and by using those as a carrier wave, I can stimulate
them into tremendously accelerated growth. Moreover, I can alter their
electromagnetic valences, so that, instead of calcium salts, they use other
minerals as their building-blocks."

He grinned hugely, and seemed to want Chet to say something. Chet didn't
understand any of it.

"Well, don't you see?"

"Nuh."

"I can use coral to concentrate trace gold and platinum and any other
heavy-metal you care to name out of the seas. I can prospect in the very water
itself!" He killed the switch. The coral stopped their dance abruptly, and the
new appendages they'd grown dropped away, tumbling gracefully to the ocean's
floor. "You see? Gold, platinum, lead. I dissolved a kilo of each into the water
last night, microscopic flakes. In five minutes, my coral has concentrated it
all."

The stumps where the minerals had dropped away were jagged and sharp, and
painful looking.

"It doesn't even harm the fish!"

#

Chet's playmates seemed as strange as fish to him. They met up on the 87th
level, where there was an abandoned apt with a faulty lock. Some of them seemed
batty themselves, standing in corners, staring at the walls, tracing patterns
that they alone could see. Others seemed too confident ever to be bats -- they
shouted and boasted to each other, got into shoving matches that escalated into
knock-out brawls and then dissolved into giggles. Chet found himself on the
sidelines, an observer.

One boy, whose father hung around the workshops with Chet's father, was
industriously pulling apart the warp of the carpet, rolling it into a ball. When
the ball reached a certain size, he snapped the loose end, tucked it in and
started another.

A girl whose family had been taken to the bat-house all the way from a
reservation near Sioux Lookout was telling loud lies about home, about
tremendous gun-battles fought out with the Ontario Provincial Police and huge,
glamorous casinos where her mother had dealt blackjack to millionaire
high-rollers, who tucked thousand dollar tips into her palm. About her bow and
arrow and her rifle and her horses. Nobody believed her stories, and they made
fun of her behind her back, but they listened when she told them, spellbound.

What was her name, anyway?

There were two boys, one followed the other everywhere. The followee was
tormenting the follower, as usual, smacking him in the back of the head, then
calling him a baby, goading him into hitting back, dodging easily, and
retaliating viciously.

Chet thought that he understood some of what was going on. Maybe he'd be able to
explain it to The Amazing Robotron.

#

I never thought I'd say this, but I miss my exoskeleton. My feet ache, my legs
ache, my ass aches, and I'm hot and thirsty and my waterbottle is empty. I'm not
even past Bloor Street, not even a tenth of the way to the bat-house.

#

The Amazing Robotron seemed thoughtful as I ratted out my chums. "So, I think
they need each other. The big one needs the little one, to feel important. The
little one needs the big one, so that he can feel useful. Is that right?"

"It is ve-ry per-cep-tive, Chet. When I was young, I had a sim-i-lar friend-ship
with an-other. It -- no, _she_ -- was the lit-tle one, and I was the big one.
Her pa-rent died be-fore we came of age, and she left the Cen-ter, and when she
came back to visit, a long time la-ter, we were re-ver-sed -- I felt smal-ler
but good, and spec-ial be-cause she told me all a-bout the out-side."

Something clicked inside me then. I saw myself inside The Amazing Robotron's
exoskeleton, and he in my skin, our roles reversed. It lasted no longer than a
lightning flash, but in that flash, I suddenly knew that I could talk to The
Amazing Robotron, and that he would understand.

I felt so smart all of a sudden. I felt like The Amazing Robotron and I were
standing outside the bat-house, _in_ it but not _of_ it, and we shared a secret
insight into the poor, crazy bastards we were cooped up with.

"I don't really like anyone here. I don't like my Dad -- he's always shouting,
and I think he's the reason we ended up here. He's batshit -- he gets angry too
easy. And my Mom is batshit now, even if she wasn't batshit before, because of
him. I don't feel like their son. I feel like I just share an apt with these two
crazy people I don't like very much. And none of my mates are any good, either.
They're all either like my Dad -- loud and crazy, or like my Mom, quiet and
crazy. Everyone's crazy."

"That may be true, Chet. But you can still like cra-zy peo-ple."

"Do _you_ like 'em?"

The Amazing Robotron's idiot lights rippled. _Gotcha_, I thought.

"I do not like them, Chet. They are loud and cra-zy and they on-ly think of
them-selves."

I laughed. It was so refreshing not to be lied to. My skin was all tight from
the dried saltwater, and that felt good, too.

"My Dad, the other day? He came home and was all, 'This is a conspiracy to drive
us out of our house. It's because we bought a house with damn high ceilings.
Some big damn alien wanted to live there, so they put us here. It's because I
did such a good job on the ceilings!' Which is so stupid, 'cause the ceilings in
our old house weren't no higher than the ceilings here, and besides, Dad screwed
up all the plaster when he was trying to fix it up, and it was always cracking.

"And then he starts talking about what's really bugging him, which is that some
guy at the workshop took his favorite drill and he couldn't finish his big
project without it. So he got into a fight with the guy, and got the drill and
then he finished his big, big project, and brought it home, and you know what it
was? A _pencil-holder_! We don't even _have_ any pencils! He is so screwed up."

And The Amazing Robotron's lights rippled again, and a huge weight lifted from
my shoulders. I didn't feel ashamed of the maniacs that gave me life -- I saw
them as pitiful subjects for my observations. I laughed again, and that must
have been the most I'd laughed since they put us in the bat-house.

#

I'm getting my sea-legs. I hope. My mouth is pasty, and salty, and sweat keeps
running down into my eyes. I never even began to realize how much support the
exoskeleton's jelly-suspension lent me.

But I've made it to Eglinton, and that's nearly a third of the way, and to
celebrate, I stop in at a coffee-shop and drink a whole pitcher of lemonade
while sitting by the air-conditioner.

I got the word that they were tearing down the bat-house only two weeks ago. The
message came by priority email from The Amazing Robotron: all the bats were
dead, or enough of them anyway that the rest could be relocated to less
expensive quarters. It was barely enough notice to get my emergency leave
application in, to book a ticket back to Earth, and to finally become a murderer
all the way.

Damn, I hope I know what I'm doing.

#

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla told me all kinds of stories, and I was
sure he was lying to me, but when I checked out the parts of his story that I
could, they all turned out to be true.

"I don't actually _need_ to be here. I've come here to get away from all the
treachery, the deceit, the filthy pursuit of the dollar. As though I need more
money! I invented foam! Oh, sure, the Process likes to take credit for it, but
if you look up the patent, guess who owns it?

"Master Affeltranger, you may not realize it to look at me, but I have some
_very_ important friends, out there in the Great Beyond. With important friends,
you can make a whole block of apts simply disappear from the record-books. You
can make tremendous energy consumption vanish, likewise."

He spoke as he tinkered with his apparatus, which hummed alarmingly and
occasionally sent a tortured arc of electricity into the guy who thought he was
Nicola Tesla's chest.

It happened three times in a row, and he stamped his foot in frustration, and
said, "Oh, _do_ cut it out," apparently to one of his machines.

I'd been jumping every time he got zapped, but this time, I had to giggle. He
whirled on me. "I am not trying to be _amusing_. One thing you people never
realize is that the current has a _will_, it has a _mind_, and you have to keep
it in check with a firm hand."

I shook my head a little, not understanding. He waved a hand at me, frustrated,
and said, "Oh, go have a swim. I don't have time to argue with a child."

I climbed into the ocean, and the silence embraced me, and the water tingled
with electricity, and my consciousness floated away from my body and soared over
an alien world. Like a broken circuit, I disconnected from the world around me.

#

Chet's father came home with a can of beer in his hand and the rest of the
six-pack in his gut. He walked over to the vid, where Chet was researching the
life of Nicola Tesla, which took forever, since he had to keep linking back to
simple tutorials on physics, history, and electrical engineering.

Chet's father stooped and took the remote out of Chet's hands and opened up a
bookmarked docu-drama about the coming of the bugouts. Chet opened his mouth to
protest, and his father shouted him down before he could speak. "Not one word,
you hear me? Not! One! Word! I've had a shithole day and I wanna relax."

Chet's mother dropped a plastic tumbler, which bounced twice, and rolled to
Chet's toe. He stepped over it, walked out the door, and took the elevator to
the 125th floor.

Chet burst into the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla's apt and screamed.
Nicola Tesla was strapped into a heavy wooden chair, with a metal hood over his
head. Arcs of electricity danced over his body, and he jerked and thrashed
against the leather straps that bound his limbs. Unthinking, Chet ran forward
and grabbed the buckle that bound his wrist, and a giant's fist smashed into
him, hurling him across the room.

When he came to, the electric arcs were gone, but the guy who thought he was
Nicola Tesla was motionless in his straps, under his hood.

Carefully, Chet came to his feet, and saw that the toe of his right sneaker had
been blown out, leaving behind charred canvas. His foot hurt -- burned.

He hobbled to the chair and gingerly prodded it, then jerked his hand back,
though he hadn't been shocked. He bit his lip and stared. The wood was quite
weathered and elderly, though it had been oiled and had a rich, well-cared-for
finish. The leather straps were nightmarishly thick, gripping the guy who
thought he was Nicola Tesla at the bicep and wrist, at the thigh and calf and
ankle. Livid bruises were already spreading at their edges.

Chet was struck by a sudden urge to climb into the ocean and _stay_ there. Just
_stay_ there.

Under the hood, the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla groaned. Chet gave an
involuntary squeak and jumped a little. The guy who thought he was Nicola
Tesla's body snapped tense. "Who's there?" he said, his voice muffled by the
hood.

"It's me, Chet."

"Chet? Damn. Damn, damn, damn." His right hand bent nearly double at the wrist
and teased the buckle of the strap free. With one hand free, the guy who thought
he was Nicola Tesla quickly undid the straps on his upper body, then lifted away
the hood. He pointedly did not look at Chet as he doubled over and undid the
straps on his legs and ankles.

Gingerly, he stood and stretched, then sighed tremendously.

"Chet, Chet, Chet. I hope I didn't frighten you too badly. This is Old Sparky,
an exact replica of the electric chair at Sing-Sing Prison in New York. Edison,
thief and charlatan that he was, insisted that his DC current was safer than my
AC, and they built a chair that used my beautiful current to execute criminals,
by the hundreds.

"Nicola Tesla and I became one when I was eight years old, and I received a
tremendous shock from an electrified fence. I was stuck to it, glued by the
current, and after a few moments, I just relaxed into the current -- befriended
it, if you will. That's when the spirit of Nicola Tesla, a-wandering through the
wires for all the years since his death, infused my body.

"So now I use Old Sparky here to recharge -- please forgive the expression -- my
connection with the current. I once spent eight years in the chair, when I
needed to disappear for a while. When I woke, I hadn't aged at all -- I didn't
even need to shave! What do you think of that?"

Chet was staring in horror at him. "You electrocute yourself? On purpose?"

"Why, yes! Think of it as a trick I do, if it makes you feel better. I could
show you how to do it. . ." he trailed off, but a look of hunger had passed over
his face.

#

I get all kinds of access to bat-house records from the vid in my apt on my new
world. No one named Gaylord Ballozos ever lived in any bat-house. Apt 12525, and
the five above it, were never occupied. The records say that the locks have
never been used, the doors never opened. It won't be searched when they evacuate
the bat-house.

That's what the records say, anyway.

Electricity gives me the willies. The zaps of static from the dry air of the FTL
I took home to Earth made me scream, little-boy squeaks that made the other
passengers jump.

I don't remember that it was ever this hot in Toronto, even in the summer. The
sky is all overcast, so maybe it's a temperature inversion. Up here at Steeles
Avenue, I'm so dehydrated that I spend a whole dime on a magnum of still water
and power-chug it, though you're not supposed to drink that way. Almost there.

#

The other kids in the abandoned apt on the 87th floor ignored me. They'd been
paying less and less attention to me, ever since I started spending my
afternoons up on 125, and I was getting a reputation as a keener for all the
time I spent with The Amazing Robotron.

That suited me fine; the corner of the gutted kitchen was as private a space as
I was going to find in the bat-house. I had the apparatus that Nicola Tesla had
given me plugged into the AC outlet under the sink. I closed my eyes and
breathed deeply, concentrating on the moments after my breath left my chest,
that calm like the ocean's silence. Smoothly, I reached out and grasped the
handle of the apparatus and squeezed.

The first time I tried this, under Nicola Tesla's supervision, I'd jerked my
hand away and squeezed it between my legs as soon as the current shot through
me. Now, though, I could keep squeezing, slowly increasing the voltage and
amperage, relaxing into the involuntary tension in my muscles.

I'd gotten so good at it that I'd started using the timer -- I could lean into
the current forever without it. I had it set for three hours, but when the
current died, it felt like no time at all had passed. I probed around my
consciousness for any revelation, but no spirit had come into my body during the
exercise. The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla didn't know if there were any
other spirits in the wire, but it stood to reason that if there was one, there
had to be more.

I stood, and felt incredibly calm and balanced and centered and I floated past
the other kids. It was time for my session with The Amazing Robotron.

"Chet, how are you fee-ling?"

"I'm well, thank you." Nicola Tesla spoke well and carefully, and I'd started to
ape him.

"And what would you like to dis-cuss to-day?"

"I don't really have anything to talk about, honestly. Everything is fine."

"That is good. Do you have any new ob-ser-va-tions about your friends?"

"I'm sorry, no. I haven't been paying much attention lately."

"Why hav-en't you?"

"It just doesn't interest me, sorry."

"Why does-n't it in-ter-est you?"

"I just don't care about them, to be frank."

The Amazing Robotron was absolutely still for a moment. "Are things well with
your par-ents, too?"

"The same as always. I think they've found their niches." _Find your niche_ was
an expression I'd pirated from the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla. I was
very proud of it.

"In that case, why don't we end this mee-ting?"

I was surprised. The Amazing Robotron always demanded his full hour. "I'll see
you on Wednesday, then?"

"I'm af-raid not, Chet. I will be gone for a few months -- I have to re-turn
home. There will be a sub-sti-tute coun-sel-or arri-ving next Monday."

My calm center shattered. Sweat sprang out on my palms. "What? You're leaving?
How can you be leaving?"

"I'm so-rry, Chet. There is an em-er-gen-cy at home. I'll be back as soon as I
can."

"Frick that! How can you go? What'll I do if you don't come back? You're the
only one I can talk to!"

"I'm so-rry, Chet. I have to go."

"If you gave a shit, you'd stay. You can't just leave me here!" I knew as I said
it that it didn't make any sense, but a picture sprang into my mind, one that
I'd been carrying without knowing it for a long time: The Amazing Robotron and
me as an adult, walking away from the bat-house, with suitcases, leaving
together, forever. I felt a sob hiccough in my throat.

"I will re-turn, Chet. I did-n't wish to up-set you."

"Frick that! I don't give a shit if you come back, asshole."

#

Chet went straight to 87 and plugged in to the apparatus. He didn't set the
timer, and he stayed plugged in for nearly two days, when two fighting boys
tumbled into him and knocked his hand away. He was centered and numb again, and
didn't have any sense of the intervening time. He didn't even have to pee. He
wondered if he was trying to commit suicide.

He checked his comm and got the date, noticed with distant surprise that it was
two days later, and wandered up to 125.

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla shouted a distant "Come in" when Chet
tapped on the door. He was playing with his ocean again. Chet felt his hair
float up off his shoulders. He stopped and watched the coral squirm and dance.

"I spent nearly two days on the apparatus," Chet said.

"Eh? Very good, very good. You're progressing nicely."

"My counselor has left. He had to go home."

"Yes? Well, there you are."

"What were your parents like?"

"Nicola Tesla's father was a bishop, and his mother was an illiterate, though
she was a gifted memnist and taught me much about visualization."

"No, I mean _your_ parents. Mister and Missus Ballozos. What were _they_ like?"

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla shut down the ocean and watched the
lumps of ore tumble to the sand. "Why do you want to know about _them_? Are you
having some sort of trouble at home?" he asked impatiently, not looking away
from the ocean.

"No reason," Chet said. "I have to go home now."

"Yes, fine."

#

"The hell have you been, boy?" Chet's father said, when he came through door.
His father was in front of the vid, wearing shorts and a filthy t-shirt, holding
the remote in one hand. Chet's mother was sitting at the window, staring out
into the clouds.

"Out. Around. I'm okay, okay?"

"It's not okay. You can't just run around like some kind of animal. Sit the hell
down and tell me where you've been. Your counselor was here looking for you."

"Robotron? He was here?"

"Yes he was here! And I had to tell him I didn't know where my damn kid was! How
do you think that makes me look? You know how worried your mother was?"

Chet's mother didn't stir from her post by the window, but she flinched when
Chet's father spoke. Chet swallowed hard.

"What did he want?"

"Never mind that! Sit the hell down and tell me where you've been and what the
hell you thought you were doing!"

Chet sat beside his father and stared at his hands. He knew he could outwait his
father. After half an hour, Chet's father turned the vid on. Four long hours
later, he switched it off, and went to bed.

Chet's mother finally turned away from the now-dark window. She reached into the
pocket of her grimy bathrobe and withdrew an envelope and handed it to Chet,
then turned and went to the apt's other room to sleep.

My name was on the outside of the envelope, in rough script, written with
awkward exoskeleton manipulators. I broke its seal, and it folded out into a
single flat sheet of paper.

DEAR CHET, it began. At the bottom of it was a complex scrawl that I recognized
from the front of The Amazing Robotron's exoskeleton. It must be some kind of
signature.

DEAR CHET,

I AM SORRY TO HAVE TO LEAVE YOU SO SUDDENLY, AND WITHOUT ANYONE ELSE TO TALK TO.
THERE IS AN EMERGENCY AT MY HOME, BUT I WOULDN'T GO IF I DIDN'T BELIEVE THAT YOU
WERE ABLE TO HANDLE MY ABSENCE. YOU ARE A VERY PERCEPTIVE AND STRONG YOUNG MAN,
AND YOU WILL BE ABLE TO MANAGE IN MY ABSENCE. I WILL BE BACK, YOU KNOW.

YOU WILL BE ALL RIGHT. I PROMISE.

THIS ISN'T EASY FOR ME TO DO, EITHER. IT MAY BE THAT I AM THE ONLY ONE YOU CAN
TALK TO HERE AT THE CENTER. IT IS LIKEWISE TRUE THAT YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE I CAN
TALK TO.

I WILL MISS YOU, MY FRIEND CHET.

The writing was childish, with many line-outs and corrections. Reading it, I
heard it not in The Amazing Robotron's halting mechanical speech, but in my own
voice.

I didn't cry. I held the letter tight in my hand, as tight as I ever held the
apparatus, and leaned into it, like it was a source of strength.

#

They haven't even started work on the bat-house. There are bugout saucers
hovering all around it, with giant foam-solvent tanks mounted under their
bellies. A small crowd has gathered.

I take off my jacket and lay it on the strip of grass by the sidewalk across the
street from the bat-house. I pull off my soaked t-shirt and feel a rare breeze
across my chest, as soothing as a kiss on a fevered forehead. I ball up the
shirt, then lay down on my jacket, using the shirt as a pillow.

The bat-house is empty, its eyes staring blind, vertical to infinity. The grotty
sculpture out front is gone already, and with it, the sign with the polite,
never-used name. It is now just the bat-house.

I check my comm. The dissolving of the bat-house is scheduled for less than an
hour from now.

#

The new counselor was no damn good. It wore a different exoskeleton, a motorized
gurney on wheels with three buzzing antigrav manipulators that floated
constantly around the apt, tasting the air. It called itself "Tom." I didn't
call it anything, and I limited my answers to it to monosyllables.

The next time I came on the guy who was Nicola Tesla in his chair, the letter
was in my pocket. I took a long swim in the ocean, and then I stripped off my
mask and spit out the snorkel, took a deep breath and dove until my ears felt
like they were going to burst. I stared at my reflection in the silvered wall of
the tank. Through the distortion of the water and the sting of the salt, my body
was indistinct and clothed in quicksilver, surrounded by schools of alien,
darting fish. I didn't recognize myself, but I didn't take my eyes away until my
lungs were ready to burst and I resurfaced.

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla was still thrashing away at his straps
when I climbed down from the ocean's top. At one side of Old Sparky, there was a
timer, like the one on my apparatus, and a knife-switch for timed and untimed
sessions.

I stared at him. My life unrolled before me, a life distanced and remote from
the world around me, a life trapped in my own deepening battiness. Before I
could think about what I was doing, I flipped the switch from "timed" to
"untimed." I took one last look at the ocean, looked again at Nicola Tesla, my
friend and seducer, stuck to his chair until someone switched it off again, and
left the 125th floor.

#

I took the apparatus apart in the kiddy workshop, stripped it to a collection of
screws and wires and circuit boards, then carefully smashed each component with
a hammer until it was in thousands of tiny pieces.

It took me two days to do it right, and not a moment passed when I didn't nearly
run upstairs and switch off Tesla's chair.

And not a moment passed when I didn't visualize Tesla's wrath, his betrayal, his
anger, when I unbuckled him.

And not a moment passed when I didn't wish I could plug in the apparatus, swim
in the ocean, take myself away from the world and the world away from me.

The Amazing Robotron returned at the end of the second day.

"Chet, I am glad to see you a-gain."

I bit my lip and choked on tears of relief. "I need to leave here, Robotron. I
can't stay another minute. Please, get me out of here. I'll do anything. I'll
run away. Get me out, get me out, get me out!" I was babbling, sniveling and
crying, and I begged all the harder.

"Why do you want to leave right now?"

"I -- I can't take it anymore. I can't _stand_ being here. I'd rather be in
prison than in here anymore."

"When I was young, I left the Cen-ter I was rais-ed in to attend coun-sel-ing
school. You are near-ly old e-nough to go now. May-be your pa-rents would let
you go?"

I knew he had found the only way out.

I started work on my father. I wheedled and begged and demanded, and he just
laughed. For three whole days, I used begging as a way to avoid thinking of
Tesla. For three days, my father shook his head.

I cried myself to sleep and wallowed in my guilt every night, and when I woke, I
cried more. I stopped leaving the apt. I stopped eating. My mother and I sat all
day, staring out the window. I stopped talking.

One morning, after my father had left, I dragged a stool to the window and
pressed my face against it. My mother clattered around behind me.

"Go," my mother said.

I gave a squeak and turned around. My mother had folded my clothes in a neat
pile and had laid a canvas bag beside it. She had the vid remote in her hand,
and on the screen was a waiver for me to go to school. We locked eyes for a
moment, and I moved to go to her, but she turned and stormed into the kitchen
and started to clean the cupboards, silent again.

I left that day.

#

The saucers lift off to-the-second on-time. The crowd, which has grown, sighs
collectively as the saucers disappear over the haze, then a fine mist of solvent
rains down on our heads. It's as salty as sea-water, and the bat-house trembles
as it begins to melt. Streams of salty water course down its sides.

The top of the building comes into view, the saucers chasing it down as it
dissolves, spraying a steady blast of solvent.

I tense as the building's top reaches what I estimate to be 150. My calves bunch
and my breath catches in my chest. I feel like I'm drowning, and the building's
top crawls downwards, and my feet are sloshing to the ankles in dissolved foam,
that runs off into the sewers.

I stay tense until the building's top is far beneath what _must_ be 125, then I
exhale in a whoof of air. My head spins, and I brace my hands against my thighs.
I'm not looking up when it happens, as a result.

The first sign is when the great tide of green, scummy, plant-stinking water
courses down over us, soaking us to the skin, blinding me and sending me reeling
in reverie. Did I see hunks of dead, petrified coral crashing around me, or did
I imagine it?

A brief second later the building's top emits a bolt of lightning that broke
even Tesla's record for man-made lightning, recorded at nearly a kilometer in
length. A clap of thunder accompanies it, louder than any sound I have ever
heard, and it its wake I am perfectly deaf, submerged in silence.

The finger of lightning crawls through space like a broken-back rattler, and my
hair rises from my shoulders. In the presence of so much current, I should be
petrified, but it is magnificent. The finger seeks and seeks, then contacts one
of the saucers and literally blasts it out of the sky. It plummets in
slow-motion, and as it does, the building's top descends even further, and I
_swear_ I see the chair falling from the building's edge, and the man strapped
inside it had not aged a day in all the lifetimes gone by.

#

Chet's comm died somewhere in the lightning strike, but the emergency crews that
took him away and looked in his ears and poked him in the chest and gave him
pills take him back to the Royal York in a saucer, bridging the distance in a
few minutes, touching down on Front Street. The Royal York's doorman doesn't bat
an eye as he gets the door for him.

The elevator ride is fine. He is still wrapped in the silence of his deafness,
but it's a comforting, _centering_ silence.

Once Chet is back in his room, he fires up the vid and starts writing a letter
to The Amazing Robotron.

15 April 2017

SPEAKING A PIECE

Two children, brother and sister, were on their way to school. Both were very small. The boy was only four years old, and the girl was not yet six. "Come, Edward, we must hurry," said the sister. "We must not be late." With one hand the little boy clung to his sister's arm, and with the other he held his primer. This primer was his only book, and he loved it. It had a bright blue cover, which he was careful not to soil. And in it were some odd little pictures, which he never grew tired of looking at. Edward could spell nearly all the words in his primer, and he could read quite well. The school was more than a mile from their home, and the children trotted along as fast as their short legs could carry them. At a place where two roads crossed, they saw a tall gentleman coming to meet them. He was dressed in black, and had a very pleasant face. "Oh, Edward, there is Mr. Harris!" whispered the little girl. "Don't forget your manners." They were glad to see Mr. Harris, for he was the minister. They stopped by the side of the road and made their manners. Edward bowed very gracefully, and his sister curtsied.

"Good morning, children!" said the minister; and he kindly shook hands with both. "I have something here for little Edward," he said. Then he took from his pocket a sheet of paper on which some verses were written. "See! It is a little speech that I have written for him. The teacher will soon ask him to speak a piece at school, and I am sure that he can learn this easily and speak it well" Edward took the paper and thanked the kind minister. "Mother will help him learn it," said his sister. "Yes, I will try to learn it," said Edward. "Do so, my child," said the Minister; "and I hope that when you grow up you will become a wise man and a great orator." Then the two children hurried on to school. The speech was not hard to learn, and Edward soon knew every word of it. When the time came for him to speak, his mother and the minister were both there to hear him. He spoke so well that everybody was pleased. He pronounced every word plainly, as though he were talking to his schoolmates. Would you like to read his speech? Here it is:— Pray, how shall I, a little lad, In speaking make a figure? You're only joking, I'm afraid— Just wait till I am bigger.

But since you wish to hear my part, And urge me to begin it, I'll strive for praise with all my heart, Though small the hope to win it. I'll tell a tale how Farmer John A little roan colt bred, sir, Which every night and every morn He watered and he fed, sir. Said Neighbor Joe to Farmer John, "You surely are a dolt, sir, To spend such time and care upon A little useless colt, sir." Said Farmer John to Neighbor Joe, "I bring my little roan up Not for the good he now can do, But will do when he's grown up." The moral you can plainly see, To keep the tale from spoiling, The little colt you think is me— I know it by your smiling. And now, my friends, please to excuse My lisping and my stammers; I, for this once, have done my best, And so—I'll make my manners. The little boy's name was Edward Everett. He grew up to become a famous man and one of our greatest orators.

4 April 2017

Another Bird Story

A great battle had begun. Cannon were booming, some far away, some near at hand. Soldiers were marching through the fields. Men on horseback were riding in haste toward the front. "Whiz!" A cannon ball struck the ground quite near to a company of soldiers. But they marched straight onward. The drums were beating, the fifes were playing. "Whiz!" Another cannon ball flew through the air and struck a tree near by. A brave general was riding across the field. One ball after another came whizzing near him. "General, you are in danger here," said an officer who was riding with him. "You had better fall back to a place of safety." But the general rode on. Suddenly he stopped at the foot of a tree. "Halt!" he cried to the men who were with him. He leaped from his horse. He stooped and picked up a bird's nest that had fallen upon the ground. In the nest were some tiny, half-fledged birds. Their mouths were open for the food they were expecting their mother to give them. "I cannot think of leaving these little things here to be trampled upon," said the general. He lifted the nest gently and put it in a safe place in the forks of the tree.

"Whiz!" Another cannon ball. He leaped into the saddle, and away he dashed with his officers close behind him. "Whiz! whiz! whiz!" He had done one good deed. He would do many more before the war was over. "Boom! boom! boom!" The cannon were roaring, the balls were flying, the battle was raging. But amid all the turmoil and danger, the little birds chirped happily in the safe shelter where the great general, Robert E. Lee, had placed them. "He prayeth best, who loveth best All things both great and small; For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all."


2 April 2017

A Bird's Story

One day in spring four men were riding on horseback along a country road. These men were lawyers, and they were going to the next town to attend court. There had been a rain, and the ground was very soft. Water was dripping from the trees, and the grass was wet. The four lawyers rode along, one behind another; for the pathway was narrow, and the mud on each side of it was deep. They rode slowly, and talked and laughed and were very jolly. As they were passing through a grove of small trees, they heard a great fluttering over their heads and a feeble chirping in the grass by the roadside. "Stith! stith! stith!" came from the leafy branches above them. "Cheep! cheep! cheep!" came from the wet grass. "What is the matter here?" asked the first lawyer, whose name was Speed. "Oh, it's only some old robins!" said the second lawyer, whose name was Hardin. "The storm has blown two of the little ones out of the nest. They are too young to fly, and the mother bird is making a great fuss about it." "What a pity! They'll die down there in the grass," said the third lawyer, whose name I forget.

"Oh, well! They're nothing but birds," said Mr. Hardin. "Why should we bother?" "Yes, why should we?" said Mr. Speed. The three men, as they passed, looked down and saw the little birds fluttering in the cold, wet grass. They saw the mother robin flying about, and crying to her mate. Then they rode on, talking and laughing as before. In a few minutes they had forgotten about the birds. But the fourth lawyer, whose name was Abraham Lincoln, stopped. He got down from his horse and very gently took the little ones up in his big warm hands. They did not seem frightened, but chirped softly, as if they knew they were safe. "Never mind, my little fellows," said Mr. Lincoln "I will put you in your own cozy little bed." Then he looked up to find the nest from which they had fallen. It was high, much higher than he could reach. But Mr. Lincoln could climb. He had climbed many a tree when he was a boy. He put the birds softly, one by one, into their warm little home. Two other baby birds were there, that had not fallen out. All cuddled down together and were very happy. Soon the three lawyers who had ridden ahead stopped at a spring to give their horses water. "Where is Lincoln?" asked one.

All were surprised to find that he was not with them. "Do you remember those birds?" said Mr. Speed. "Very likely he has stopped to take care of them." In a few minutes Mr. Lincoln joined them. His shoes were covered with mud; he had torn his coat on the thorny tree. "Hello, Abraham!" said Mr. Hardin. "Where have you been?" "I stopped a minute to give those birds to their mother," he answered. "Well, we always thought you were a hero," said Mr. Speed. "Now we know it." Then all three of them laughed heartily. They thought it so foolish that a strong man should take so much trouble just for some worthless young birds. "Gentlemen," said Mr. Lincoln, "I could not have slept to-night, if I had left those helpless little robins to perish in the wet grass." Abraham Lincoln afterwards became very famous as a lawyer and statesman. He was elected president. Next to Washington he was the greatest American.

1 April 2017

The Yellow Wallpaper

It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer. A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity—but that would be asking too much of fate! Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it. Else, why should it be let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted? John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage. John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures. John is a physician, and PERHAPS—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—PERHAPS that is one reason I do not get well faster. You see he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do? If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do? My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing. So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to "work" until I am well again. Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.

But what is one to do? I did write for a while in spite of them; but it DOES exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition. I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad. So I will let it alone and talk about the house. The most beautiful place! It is quite alone, standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village. It makes me think of English places that you read about, for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people. There is a DELICIOUS garden! I never saw such a garden—large and shady, full of box-bordered paths, and lined with long grapecovered arbors with seats under them. There were greenhouses, too, but they are all broken now. There was some legal trouble, I believe, something about the heirs and coheirs; anyhow, the place has been empty for years. That spoils my ghostliness, I am afraid, but I don't care—there is something strange about the house—I can feel it. I even said so to John one moonlight evening, but he said what I felt was a DRAUGHT, and shut the window. I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I'm sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition. But John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself—before him, at least, and that makes me very tired.

I don't like our room a bit. I wanted one downstairs that opened on the piazza and had roses all over the window, and such pretty old-fashioned chintz hangings! but John would not hear of it. He said there was only one window and not room for two beds, and no near room for him if he took another. He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction. I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more. He said we came here solely on my account, that I was to have perfect rest and all the air I could get. "Your exercise depends on your strength, my dear," said he, "and your food somewhat on your appetite; but air you can absorb all the time." So we took the nursery at the top of the house. It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls. The paint and paper look as if a boys' school had used it. It is stripped off—the paper—in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others. No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long. There comes John, and I must put this away,—he hates to have me write a word. We have been here two weeks, and I haven't felt like writing before, since that first day. I am sitting by the window now, up in this atrocious nursery, and there is nothing to hinder my writing as much as I please, save lack of strength. John is away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious. I am glad my case is not serious! But these nervous troubles are dreadfully depressing. John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no REASON to suffer, and that satisfies him. Of course it is only nervousness. It does weigh on me so not to do my duty in any way! I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already! Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able,—to dress and entertain, and order things. It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby! 7 And yet I can not be with him, it makes me so nervous. I suppose John never was nervous in his life. He laughs at me so about this wall-paper! At first he meant to repaper the room, but afterwards he said that I was letting it get the better of me, and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies. He said that after the wall-paper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on. "You know the place is doing you good," he said, "and really, dear, I don't care to renovate the house just for a three months' rental." "Then do let us go downstairs," I said, "there are such pretty rooms there." Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the cellar, if I wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain. But he is right enough about the beds and windows and things. It is an airy and comfortable room as any one need wish, and, of course, I would not be so silly as to make him uncomfortable just for a whim. I'm really getting quite fond of the big room, all but that horrid paper. Out of one window I can see the garden, those mysterious deepshaded arbors, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees. Out of another I get a lovely view of the bay and a little private wharf belonging to the estate. There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house. I always fancy I see people 8 walking in these numerous walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try. I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me. But I find I get pretty tired when I try. It is so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship about my work. When I get really well, John says we will ask Cousin Henry and Julia down for a long visit; but he says he would as soon put fireworks in my pillow-case as to let me have those stimulating people about now. I wish I could get well faster. But I must not think about that. This paper looks to me as if it KNEW what a vicious influence it had! There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down. I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere. There is one place where two breadths didn't match, and the eyes go all up and down the line, one a little higher than the other. I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have! I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy store.

I remember what a kindly wink the knobs of our big, old bureau used to have, and there was one chair that always seemed like a strong friend. I used to feel that if any of the other things looked too fierce I could always hop into that chair and be safe. The furniture in this room is no worse than inharmonious, however, for we had to bring it all from downstairs. I suppose when this was used as a playroom they had to take the nursery things out, and no wonder! I never saw such ravages as the children have made here. The wall-paper, as I said before, is torn off in spots, and it sticketh closer than a brother—they must have had perseverance as well as hatred. Then the floor is scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster itself is dug out here and there, and this great heavy bed which is all we found in the room, looks as if it had been through the wars. But I don't mind it a bit—only the paper. There comes John's sister. Such a dear girl as she is, and so careful of me! I must not let her find me writing. She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick! But I can write when she is out, and see her a long way off from these windows. There is one that commands the road, a lovely shaded winding road, and one that just looks off over the country. A lovely country, too, full of great elms and velvet meadows.

This wall-paper has a kind of sub-pattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then. But in the places where it isn't faded and where the sun is just so—I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design. There's sister on the stairs! Well, the Fourth of July is over! The people are gone and I am tired out. John thought it might do me good to see a little company, so we just had mother and Nellie and the children down for a week. Of course I didn't do a thing. Jennie sees to everything now. But it tired me all the same. John says if I don't pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall. But I don't want to go there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so! Besides, it is such an undertaking to go so far. I don't feel as if it was worth while to turn my hand over for anything, and I'm getting dreadfully fretful and querulous. I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time. Of course I don't when John is here, or anybody else, but when I am alone. And I am alone a good deal just now. John is kept in town very often by serious cases, and Jennie is good and lets me alone when I want her to.

So I walk a little in the garden or down that lovely lane, sit on the porch under the roses, and lie down up here a good deal. I'm getting really fond of the room in spite of the wall-paper. Perhaps BECAUSE of the wall-paper. It dwells in my mind so! I lie here on this great immovable bed—it is nailed down, I believe—and follow that pattern about by the hour. It is as good as gymnastics, I assure you. I start, we'll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I WILL follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion. I know a little of the principle of design, and I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of. It is repeated, of course, by the breadths, but not otherwise. Looked at in one way each breadth stands alone, the bloated curves and flourishes—a kind of "debased Romanesque" with delirium tremens—go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity. But, on the other hand, they connect diagonally, and the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase. The whole thing goes horizontally, too, at least it seems so, and I exhaust myself in trying to distinguish the order of its going in that direction. They have used a horizontal breadth for a frieze, and that adds wonderfully to the confusion. There is one end of the room where it is almost intact, and there, when the crosslights fade and the low sun shines directly upon it, I can almost fancy radiation after all,—the interminable grotesques seem to form around a common centre and rush off in headlong plunges of equal distraction. It makes me tired to follow it. I will take a nap I guess. I don't know why I should write this. I don't want to. I don't feel able. And I know John would think it absurd. But I MUST say what I feel and think in some way—it is such a relief! But the effort is getting to be greater than the relief. Half the time now I am awfully lazy, and lie down ever so much. John says I musn't lose my strength, and has me take cod liver oil and lots of tonics and things, to say nothing of ale and wine and rare meat. Dear John! He loves me very dearly, and hates to have me sick. I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day, and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia. But he said I wasn't able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there; and I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished. It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight. Just this nervous weakness I suppose. And dear John gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid me on the bed, and sat by me and read to me till it tired my head. He said I was his darling and his comfort and all he had, and that I must take care of myself for his sake, and keep well.

He says no one but myself can help me out of it, that I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me. There's one comfort, the baby is well and happy, and does not have to occupy this nursery with the horrid wall-paper. If we had not used it, that blessed child would have! What a fortunate escape! Why, I wouldn't have a child of mine, an impressionable little thing, live in such a room for worlds. I never thought of it before, but it is lucky that John kept me here after all, I can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see. Of course I never mention it to them any more—I am too wise,— but I keep watch of it all the same. There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don't like it a bit. I wonder—I begin to think—I wish John would take me away from here! It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so. But I tried it last night. It was moonlight. The moon shines in all around just as the sun does. I hate to see it sometimes, it creeps so slowly, and always comes in by one window or another.

John was asleep and I hated to waken him, so I kept still and watched the moonlight on that undulating wall-paper till I felt creepy. The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out. I got up softly and went to feel and see if the paper DID move, and when I came back John was awake. "What is it, little girl?" he said. "Don't go walking about like that—you'll get cold." I though it was a good time to talk, so I told him that I really was not gaining here, and that I wished he would take me away. "Why darling!" said he, "our lease will be up in three weeks, and I can't see how to leave before. "The repairs are not done at home, and I cannot possibly leave town just now. Of course if you were in any danger, I could and would, but you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know. You are gaining flesh and color, your appetite is better, I feel really much easier about you." "I don't weigh a bit more," said I, "nor as much; and my appetite may be better in the evening when you are here, but it is worse in the morning when you are away!" "Bless her little heart!" said he with a big hug, "she shall be as sick as she pleases! But now let's improve the shining hours by going to sleep, and talk about it in the morning!" "And you won't go away?" I asked gloomily. "Why, how can I, dear? It is only three weeks more and then we will take a nice little trip of a few days while Jennie is getting the house ready. Really dear you are better!"

"Better in body perhaps—" I began, and stopped short, for he sat up straight and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word. "My darling," said he, "I beg of you, for my sake and for our child's sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind! There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is a false and foolish fancy. Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so?" So of course I said no more on that score, and we went to sleep before long. He thought I was asleep first, but I wasn't, and lay there for hours trying to decide whether that front pattern and the back pattern really did move together or separately. On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind. The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing. You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream. The outside pattern is a florid arabesque, reminding one of a fungus. If you can imagine a toadstool in joints, an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions—why, that is something like it. That is, sometimes! There is one marked peculiarity about this paper, a thing nobody seems to notice but myself, and that is that it changes as the light changes.

When the sun shoots in through the east window—I always watch for that first long, straight ray—it changes so quickly that I never can quite believe it. That is why I watch it always. By moonlight—the moon shines in all night when there is a moon—I wouldn't know it was the same paper. At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be. I didn't realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman. By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps me quiet by the hour. I lie down ever so much now. John says it is good for me, and to sleep all I can. Indeed he started the habit by making me lie down for an hour after each meal. It is a very bad habit I am convinced, for you see I don't sleep. And that cultivates deceit, for I don't tell them I'm awake—O no! The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John. He seems very queer sometimes, and even Jennie has an inexplicable look. It strikes me occasionally, just as a scientific hypothesis,—that perhaps it is the paper! I have watched John when he did not know I was looking, and come into the room suddenly on the most innocent excuses, and I've caught him several times LOOKING AT THE PAPER! And Jennie too. I caught Jennie with her hand on it once.

She didn't know I was in the room, and when I asked her in a quiet, a very quiet voice, with the most restrained manner possible, what she was doing with the paper—she turned around as if she had been caught stealing, and looked quite angry—asked me why I should frighten her so! Then she said that the paper stained everything it touched, that she had found yellow smooches on all my clothes and John's, and she wished we would be more careful! Did not that sound innocent? But I know she was studying that pattern, and I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself! Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be. You see I have something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch. I really do eat better, and am more quiet than I was. John is so pleased to see me improve! He laughed a little the other day, and said I seemed to be flourishing in spite of my wallpaper. I turned it off with a laugh. I had no intention of telling him it was BECAUSE of the wall-paper—he would make fun of me. He might even want to take me away. I don't want to leave now until I have found it out. There is a week more, and I think that will be enough. I'm feeling ever so much better! I don't sleep much at night, for it is so interesting to watch developments; but I sleep a good deal in the daytime. In the daytime it is tiresome and perplexing. There are always new shoots on the fungus, and new shades of yellow all over it. I cannot keep count of them, though I have tried conscientiously.

It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw—not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things. But there is something else about that paper—the smell! I noticed it the moment we came into the room, but with so much air and sun it was not bad. Now we have had a week of fog and rain, and whether the windows are open or not, the smell is here. It creeps all over the house. I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs. It gets into my hair. Even when I go to ride, if I turn my head suddenly and surprise it—there is that smell! Such a peculiar odor, too! I have spent hours in trying to analyze it, to find what it smelled like. It is not bad—at first, and very gentle, but quite the subtlest, most enduring odor I ever met. In this damp weather it is awful, I wake up in the night and find it hanging over me. It used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house—to reach the smell. But now I am used to it. The only thing I can think of that it is like is the COLOR of the paper! A yellow smell. There is a very funny mark on this wall, low down, near the mopboard. A streak that runs round the room. It goes behind every piece of furniture, except the bed, a long, straight, even SMOOCH, as if it had been rubbed over and over.

It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw—not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things. But there is something else about that paper—the smell! I noticed it the moment we came into the room, but with so much air and sun it was not bad. Now we have had a week of fog and rain, and whether the windows are open or not, the smell is here. It creeps all over the house. I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs. It gets into my hair. Even when I go to ride, if I turn my head suddenly and surprise it—there is that smell! Such a peculiar odor, too! I have spent hours in trying to analyze it, to find what it smelled like. It is not bad—at first, and very gentle, but quite the subtlest, most enduring odor I ever met. In this damp weather it is awful, I wake up in the night and find it hanging over me. It used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house—to reach the smell. But now I am used to it. The only thing I can think of that it is like is the COLOR of the paper! A yellow smell. There is a very funny mark on this wall, low down, near the mopboard. A streak that runs round the room. It goes behind every piece of furniture, except the bed, a long, straight, even SMOOCH, as if it had been rubbed over and over.

I wonder how it was done and who did it, and what they did it for. Round and round and round—round and round and round—it makes me dizzy! I really have discovered something at last. Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out. The front pattern DOES move—and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads. They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white! If those heads were covered or taken off it would not be half so bad. I think that woman gets out in the daytime! And I'll tell you why—privately—I've seen her! I can see her out of every one of my windows! It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight. I see her on that long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines. I don't blame her a bit. It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight!

I always lock the door when I creep by daylight. I can't do it at night, for I know John would suspect something at once. And John is so queer now, that I don't want to irritate him. I wish he would take another room! Besides, I don't want anybody to get that woman out at night but myself. I often wonder if I could see her out of all the windows at once. But, turn as fast as I can, I can only see out of one at one time. And though I always see her, she MAY be able to creep faster than I can turn! I have watched her sometimes away off in the open country, creeping as fast as a cloud shadow in a high wind. If only that top pattern could be gotten off from the under one! I mean to try it, little by little. I have found out another funny thing, but I shan't tell it this time! It does not do to trust people too much. There are only two more days to get this paper off, and I believe John is beginning to notice. I don't like the look in his eyes. And I heard him ask Jennie a lot of professional questions about me. She had a very good report to give. She said I slept a good deal in the daytime. John knows I don't sleep very well at night, for all I'm so quiet! He asked me all sorts of questions, too, and pretended to be very loving and kind. As if I couldn't see through him! Still, I don't wonder he acts so, sleeping under this paper for three months. It only interests me, but I feel sure John and Jennie are secretly affected by it.

Hurrah! This is the last day, but it is enough. John is to stay in town over night, and won't be out until this evening. Jennie wanted to sleep with me—the sly thing! but I told her I should undoubtedly rest better for a night all alone. That was clever, for really I wasn't alone a bit! As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her. I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper. A strip about as high as my head and half around the room. And then when the sun came and that awful pattern began to laugh at me, I declared I would finish it to-day! We go away to-morrow, and they are moving all my furniture down again to leave things as they were before. Jennie looked at the wall in amazement, but I told her merrily that I did it out of pure spite at the vicious thing. She laughed and said she wouldn't mind doing it herself, but I must not get tired. How she betrayed herself that time! But I am here, and no person touches this paper but me—not ALIVE! She tried to get me out of the room—it was too patent! But I said it was so quiet and empty and clean now that I believed I would lie down again and sleep all I could; and not to wake me even for dinner—I would call when I woke. So now she is gone, and the servants are gone, and the things are gone, and there is nothing left but that great bedstead nailed down, with the canvas mattress we found on it.

We shall sleep downstairs to-night, and take the boat home tomorrow. I quite enjoy the room, now it is bare again. How those children did tear about here! This bedstead is fairly gnawed! But I must get to work. I have locked the door and thrown the key down into the front path. I don't want to go out, and I don't want to have anybody come in, till John comes. I want to astonish him. I've got a rope up here that even Jennie did not find. If that woman does get out, and tries to get away, I can tie her! But I forgot I could not reach far without anything to stand on! This bed will NOT move! I tried to lift and push it until I was lame, and then I got so angry I bit off a little piece at one corner—but it hurt my teeth. Then I peeled off all the paper I could reach standing on the floor. It sticks horribly and the pattern just enjoys it! All those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths just shriek with derision! I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try. Besides I wouldn't do it. Of course not. I know well enough that a step like that is improper and might be misconstrued. I don't like to LOOK out of the windows even—there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast.

I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did? But I am securely fastened now by my well-hidden rope—you don't get ME out in the road there! I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard! It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please! I don't want to go outside. I won't, even if Jennie asks me to. For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow. But here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way. Why there's John at the door! It is no use, young man, you can't open it! How he does call and pound! Now he's crying for an axe. It would be a shame to break down that beautiful door! "John dear!" said I in the gentlest voice, "the key is down by the front steps, under a plantain leaf!" That silenced him for a few moments. Then he said—very quietly indeed, "Open the door, my darling!" "I can't," said I. "The key is down by the front door under a plantain leaf!" And then I said it again, several times, very gently and slowly, and said it so often that he had to go and see, and he got it of course, and came in. He stopped short by the door. "What is the matter?" he cried. "For God's sake, what are you doing!"

I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder. "I've got out at last," said I, "in spite of you and Jane. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!" Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!