Exam was nervous. He never said it, but the cigarette trembling between his fingers gave him away.
Just the sight of him smoking cigarettes at all made Molly Green nervous. Over the two years she’d used him as an informant, she’d never once seen him abuse his body. Exam always lived as clean as anyone Molly had ever seen. He didn’t drink. Didn’t smoke cigarettes or even weed. He was as devoted a Black Lion as she’d ever met. He’d given his entire being over to the Revolution.
“What’s up, Good Golly?”
12:07 PM, January 1, 1967.
Los Angeles, California.
The white people were protesting again.
Most the time Jerome Jackson had no problem with all that, but today he just wanted to get to work, so he punched the dashboard of his Chevy Chevelle and blared his horn at the tie-dyed, Day-Glo-colored parade of longhairs flowing past.
This lanky cat with flowers threaded through his beard and a buckskin coat turned around and flipped him off.
“Fuck you, pig,” the hippie said and spit towards Jerome’s car. Without realizing it the hippie saved himself from an ass whooping by coming up short of actually hitting the vehicle.
Jerome could only shake his head and laugh at the irony of a white-boy protester spitting at a black man who was just trying to get to work. That, right there, was just goddamn funny, folks, and if you can’t appreciate the humor than you’ve let the politics get too deep into your head.
12:05 AM, January 1, 1967.
Lower Haight neighborhood, San Francisco, California.
The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” emanates from a dilapidated house on an otherwise quiet street. The house’s windows glow with soft orange light. Darkness bathes the front porch. A match flame pops into life and illuminates the face of a prostitute named Sunshine as she lights a cigarette while standing on the porch steps.
I'm not even sure if anyone's following this blog anymore. I've been terribly negligent with it for far too long as I've focused on my freelance gigs. A recent invitation to read my writing at Central Washington University, however, has woken me up to the fact that I've gotten far too sidetracked by those quick-paying gigs.
So, I've gotten back to work on my novels and am going to spruce up this primitive-ass website.
I'm writing this post more as a way to commit myself to this course of action than anything else. Taking things to the next level and all that shit. Maybe I'll get blog readers back, too. We'll see.
Clayton bolted for the wood-line. He made it halfway there when the compound’s floodlights flicked and exposed his escape.
He kept running. No other option was left. Capture would mean only one thing for him now.
He crashed headlong through a wall of evergreen branches. Inside the woods, the forest canopy blocked out all moonlight and engulfed him in darkness. He ran on blind.
A voice spoke calmly but sternly over loudspeaker behind him.
“Flash red,” the voice on the loudspeaker said. “Flash red.”
Clayton knew that at that very moment the others would be pouring out of the compound and flooding into the woods to find him. He knew because he’d been on the other side before — too many times.
“Clayton,” the loudspeaker voice said, “we’re coming for you, son. Don’t be scared. Just hold where you are and we’ll find you.”
Clayton hesitated. For two months he’d obeyed every word uttered by that voice, and the impulse remained ingrained strongly within him.
That’s why you have to escape, a dim internal voice reminded him. That dim voice was all that was left of his actual self, he realized.
Trees blurred by him. Braches and brambles cut his face and tore open his grey gown. Many times he fell, got up, and ran some more.
Flashlights cut through the forest behind him. Voices called his name.
He’d started with a particular direction in mind, but soon he was lost in the woods, simply running in the direction away from the forces following him.
After half an hour of frantic flight, he miraculously found himself breaking out of the woods and into the back lot of an abandoned gas station. Moonlight glinted faintly off a phone booth situated on the far side of the parking lot, near a winding road.
Clayton took off his shoe and dumped out the change he’d been secreting there under the sole of his foot for four days.
From off in the distance came the roaring of a pickup truck driving closer to his position. The flashlights hunting him in the woods brightened.
He didn’t know if the phone in the booth was functioning, and he’d have minutes at most to make a call, even if it did.
Probably only seconds.
No choice left, he reminded himself. There’d been no choice left from the moment he’d made his break for the woods.
Clayton gripped the change in his hand and sprinted for the phone booth.
Jim was just taking the redhead’s bra off when his cell phone rang on the nightstand. The next morning he wouldn’t even be able to remember the woman’s name. That was the thing that would come to haunt him the most — he betrayed his little brother for a Tinder hookup whose name he couldn’t even remember less than twenty four hours later.
She was a nice person. Truth be told, Jim liked her a lot. Her name was Carrie, even if he couldn’t remember it. She gave him one of the best nights he ever had.
Recently divorced, Carrie had a sweet smile and a playful innocence about her — the sort of innocence that a woman wills into herself after enduring hard experience. Jim had met a few women with that brand of defiant innocence, and they always left a long impression on him.
Carrie didn’t say much about the details of her marriage, but there were enough hints for Jim to put the story together. He’d hit her at least a couple times and just generally not spoken well of her.
She also liked poetry and ice cream, he’d recall. Strange the things that stick in our memory.
With her bra tossed on the bed Carrie jokingly apologized for the imagined sagging in her breasts.
Jim just laughed. “Are you kidding me? They’re beautiful.”
Carrie laughed. She knew they were beautiful the whole time.
Tinder hookups had become even more common than usual for Jim over the past couple of months. He’d never had trouble attracting women, being tall and well-built with dark features and olive eyes. Ever since he’d appeared in an episode of Danger Hunters two months prior, however, the women had been crazy for him.
Carrie had been unapologetic in her quest to sleep with a TV star, and Jim had taken absolutely no offense to her using him like a “piece of celebrity meat,” as she put it.
Jim ignored his ringing cell phone. It was Carrie who kept looking over at it.
“That’s not your wife, is it?”
Jim pulled her pants the rest of the way off as he looked over the phone. Clayton’s name was illuminated on the screen.
“No, it’s just my screw-up brother. He probably smoked too much weed again or something.”
Carrie laughed. Jim laughed, too.
He forgot all about the call until the next morning as he was driving to the airport to pick up Rus Grossman, CEO of Ralph Marketing Associates and Jim’s biggest client yet. Even then he held off to listening to it until hearing that Grossman’s flight had been delayed.
Sitting in his truck in the airport parking lot, Jim sighed and started the message, eyeing the sky for the incoming Alaska Airlines flight with his very wealth client sitting aboard.
Jimmy, I’m in trouble, man, his brother’s voice said. Pick up the phone, man. Please.
Jim’s face went slack and pale and the hand holding the phone slumped down so that it was no longer against his ear. Clayton had called him dozens of times for this or that problem, but the raw fear in his brother’s voice was apparent from the start.
Jimmy, I’m scared. His brother sobbed. I’m in trouble, man. The sobs turned into a light cry.
“Clayton, what’s wrong?” Jim shouted in his truck as though the message wasn’t from the night before — as if it wasn’t too late to do a damn thing.
A loud engine became audible on the phone, followed by the sound of truck tires skidding to a hard stop in gravel. Then the sound of two doors being flung open and boots running over the ground.
Clayton sobbed again, a sad, haunting sob of resignation.
I’m sorry, Jimmy. I’m sorry, man.
With that, the phone fell and clattered against something hard, as though dropped the ground.
“Clayton!” Jim yelled pointlessly at the phone.
Moment of silence on the other line. Jim couldn’t hear or anything, or at least couldn’t consciously identify what he heard, but he sensed the presence of someone picking up the phone.
It was a very light breathing — not his brother’s breathing, but someone else’s. He didn’t know he knew that, but he did. Someone else was on the phone, listening.
The call clicked off.
Copyright 2018 Jeff Suwak
So, I often ask people who want to write, what are you an expert at? That’s the most important thing, because that’s the thing you’re going to have the most fun writing about.
— Martin Popoff
IntroductionEvery single day I feel grateful for having a paying side hustle in music journalism. Writing is never an easy dollar, and writing about music is an even harder dollar that most. So, after years of doing this, I still get a kick at every cent I earn. Martin Popoff, however, takes the whole thing to an entirely different level. He’s forged a path many would (and many probably do) envy. You wouldn’t know that from talking to him, though.
For nearly two decades, Toronto, Canada’s Martin Popoff hasn’t just made a full-time living with music journalism. He’s managed to do it almost entirely his way. He’s not out there scrapping for paid freelance gigs or staff jobs. Instead, he’s built a business foundation that allows him to make his daily bread writing about the music he wants to write about, in the way that he wants to write it.
Along the way, he’s met his heroes, seen his books in print, and collected a whole lot of autographs. He’s won those coveted publishing deals so many of us writers hear legends about, and he’s constructed a viable self-publishing platform that provides the majority of his earnings.
Millions of wage slaves would kill for a life writing about music, but Popoff doesn’t come across as arrogant or entitled whatsoever in conversation. He’s honest and straightforward about how hard he has to work to make it happen, and about how art often has to be sacrificed for efficiency. He doesn’t talk about his craft like some hoity toity artiste, as you might expect. He talks more like a mechanic — practical, no-nonsense, and humble.
I’m probably something of an anomaly in that I didn’t get into music journalism because of musicians or even music, necessarily. I got into music journalism because of music journalists. Namely, the great crawdaddy himself Paul Williams showed me the kind of quality writing that could be done in this field.
I’m a writer at heart, not a musician, so I’ve always looked up to writers first and foremost. That may be why I actually got a bit nervous for this interview. I stopped getting nervous talking to musicians a long time ago. This one, though, zapped me a little bit. It caught me off guard, and I felt like I flubbed a golden opportunity.
Luckily, Popoff was easy going and happy to share his wisdom. I actually interviewed him once before, for his release of Rush: Album by Album. That one was a written interview, though. This time, I scheduled our talk entirely too early in an attempt to accommodate the time difference (one more reason things didn’t go exactly as planned) and chatted with him one-on-one on the phone.
Luckily, Popoff picked up the slack and dropped some useful wisdom for all those looking to make their way with music journalism.
Continued at https://medium.com/p/c6c5e1e5d577/edit
Listen, you’re in really bad danger right now. I mean, like, pretty much the worst danger ever. And it’s not the kind of danger you think it is, either. You need to come outside. Right now.
This is Dougie Evers writing. Remember me? I grew up next door to you. You used to make me peanut jelly and butter sandwiches.
I’ve seen you looking out your window a few times and I waved, but you never waved back. I tried your door a few times last night, too. You probably heard. What the heck is that thing made of, anyway? None of the other doors in the neighborhood have given me so much trouble. That door is ridiculously strong!
So, listen, you’ve got everything all wrong. I bet you heard that crazy story about how a meteor landed outside town and released a bunch of gas, right? I bet you heard that the gas was full of tiny eggs that turned into worms inside people’s lungs, right? And I bet you heard that the worms took control of people’s brains and turned them into monsters that eat people and are really stupid (which is totally ridiculous), right?
Well, listen, I’m telling you right now that all of that is WRONG!
There was gas in the meteorite, but no worms.
What the gas actually did was to make some people start seeing things that weren’t there. That’s what happened to you, and that’s why we’re writing this letter to you. We’re trying to save you from yourself. The people in your yard are NOT monsters. We are your friends.
You’re the last one left in the whole neighborhood. We got everyone else out of their houses already. Their doors were easy, not like yours. What is that thing made of, anyway? It’s seriously the strongest door ever.
So, come on outside with us. It’s safe. There aren’t any monsters out here. This is Doug Evers from next door. You used to make me butter jelly and peanut sandwiches, remember?
Oh! And you know what else? That gas that’s making you see things is also going to make you and your husband go crazy and totally start killing each other. That’s why you have to come out here with us! Right now!
I’m going to slip this note under your door (seriously, I have no idea what that thing can be made of). Of course, if you’re reading this, then you already know that I slipped it under your door, so there’s no reason for me to say it. Duh!
Come on outside. It’s totally safe out here. We are NOT monsters. We’re your friends. We want to help. I promise. I’ll even make you a peanut jelly and butter sandwich if you come out, just like you used to do for Doug Evers.
Think about it. Seriously. Come on, brain worms? You’d have to be a total idiot to believe that!
©Jeff Suwak 2018. All rights reserved. (This was originally published in Jersey Devil Press)
I didn’t know much of anything about the Appalachian Trail when I decided to hike it. This was the late 90s and I was vagabonding around the United States, so information wasn’t nearly as accessible at it is today. Someone had mentioned the Trail, it sounded like what I was looking for, so I did it. At 20 years old, my primary aim in life was to experience the sort of transcendent experiences that Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman, and Thomas Wolfe wrote about. I was a writer, and I wanted to be a Writer, and the first step, far as I could see it, was to see things worth writing about, whatever the hell that meant. I wanted starry mountaintops, unnamed lakes, and green-eyed vagabond girls. I wanted wildness and freedom and spiritual air. So it was that I hitched a ride with a trucker and headed to Amicolola Falls, Georgia, to begin my journey. I never did find any of the things I was looking for.
What I discovered instead was a patchwork footpath pieced together through east coast sprawl, a ragged trail populated by a part-time nomads armed with guidebooks that outlined in detail exactly what was to be found on every mile ahead. Few days passed where I didn’t cross at least one paved road. There were even fewer where I went more than a couple hours without crossing paths with another person.
At the time, the whole experience was one monstrous disappointment. I quit after a thousand miles because I got tired of hearing highway traffic in the distance. I went West, which was a mythical sort of place to a small town Pennsylvanian such as myself, to find real wilderness. Many more adventures ensued, but the funny thing is, as I look back on those early years now, the big adventures are foggy and distant and a bit cold. What sticks out much more brightly to me are all the people I met along the way to everywhere, and during quiet nights when I think back and reflect, the characters I met on the Trail are some of the most vibrant in my memory.
Ultimately–for me, anyway–the Trail is really about the people that hike it, while the Trail itself is just the stage upon which the hikers act out their parts. Every one of them has a story. Every one of them is a story. Each year, from early spring through autumn, you can find them strung out like some Dickensian procession of wayward characters, people with stories that can only be properly told within the context of a winding, two thousand mile long footpath.
I have no stories of defying deadly, hungry things in the Appalachian wilderness, no stories of powerful insight attained after weeks of literary solitude. What I do have are memories of great, funny, fascinating people, all met at a very special moment in their lives, when they elected to shed their old skin and step forward with blisters, aching backs, and persistent, pervasively bad odor into new ones.
It wasn’t exactly what I’d bargained for. When all is said and done, though, it was something better, and I aim to use this here little piece of wordsmithery to celebrate some of those beautiful souls and, by doing so, maybe celebrate the entire goofy-ass parade of itinerant humanity. What the hell…it beats ranting about politics.
Anne of Green Gables
My third night on the Trail I sat by a campfire near a lean-to shelter with a dozen or so other hikers, talking excitedly about the miles ahead. After the scotch ran dry, everyone got very quiet and stared into the flames in secret contemplations, watching ghosts of the old unwind and dissipate in the smoke as the fatigue of those first few days of hiking settled into our bones. Out of this silence, a woman began to cry.
Before I go, I’d better explain that one of the most cherished Appalachian Trail traditions is the adoption of a trail name. At some point early in their journey, all those who will hike any considerable length of the trail, will take on a new name. Ideally, this moniker is assigned by other hikers. Sometimes, a person simply invents one for themselves.
The tradition might seem silly for some, but it’s actually a pretty powerful little psychological tool. I took my name grudgingly, and only because some of the hikers I met insisted on calling me Notion for so long that I got sick of denying it. Yet, it did have affect me, all the same. A new name cuts you off from your old identity and allows you to inhabit a new myth.
Where some scoff at the trail name, others grasp its impact and potential intuitively. The woman crying in our midst was one of this sort.
Through her tears, she explained that throughout her childhood she’d suffered vicious belittling and mockery from her father. After she married at 18 she moved out of the house, and her husband quickly took over her father’s old self-esteem-crushing duties. She’d lived like this right into her early thirties, when she finally decided to leave the man and start a new life. The Trail was supposed to be the gateway into this existence.
The problem was that, after less than a week, she was ready to quit. Her backpack was too heavy, her feet were torn up, and she couldn’t figure out how to use her camp stove. Worst of all, in her mind, was the fact that she’d been given the trail name of “Nellie,” as in a “nervous Nellie,” thrusting her right back into the familiar role of unconfident incompetence. She hadn’t left the area of the lean-to since receiving the name, and had decided that she was going to get off the Trail in the morning and go home. Though she didn’t say it, we all got the impression that that mean returning to her asshole husband, too.
One of the other women by the fire put her hand on Annie’s shoulder and said, "There aren’t any laws that say you have to accept that trail name, you know."
Annie looked up like a death row inmate that had just been informed that a loophole had been discovered in the law. “Really?”
We all broke up laughing and asked what she would rather be called, instead.
She was quiet for a moment, as though summoning her courage, before meekly piping, "Anne of Green Gables."
“Anne of Green Gables it is.”
She wiped tears away and laughed.
We went to her pack and separated the unnecessary items from the necessities, dropping more than half the weight of her load. We showed her how to use her stove. A couple of the women donated pairs of high quality hiking socks to preserve her feet.
The next morning, I set out with a small group of early risers, Anne of Green Gables among them. We each quickly settled into our individual paces and began to separate.
I turned back to see Anne of Green Gables at the bottom of a steep rise, smiling brilliantly in her slow-but-steady stride. She flashed a smile at me that was both haggard and ecstatic. She looked very much like she was ready to hike about another two thousand miles.
I hope that she was.
I found Cowboy sitting in a shelter with his bare legs dangling over the side and the sun shining on his bare chest. Wearing a straw cowboy hat, boxer shorts, and nothing else, he cupped his hands around his mouth and boomed, "Welcome to paradise!"
The natural state of Cowboy’s face was a smile. He laughed madly throughout our conversation, even when nothing seemed particularly funny at all. He laughed at everything, and in those rare moments when he wasn't laughing, he looked like he was just a moment away from exploding all over again.
Cowboy made sure I knew that he wasn't in any hurry. Partway through our conversation he grabbed his wallet from his wadded up shorts and showed me a picture of himself, sans cowboy hat, dressed in slacks and a collared shirt as he stood grinning before an enormous house. "That used to be me," he said, breaking into wild, rolling laughter.
He’d been a highly successful salesman of some corporate sort. He lived in one of the wealthiest areas of Atlanta, ate at all the best restaurants, and all that sort of thing. But, more and more, he found that he was just bored. "Stone bored," he said, shaking his head with a smirk. So he decided to use up all his stored up leave time and hit the Appalachian Trail. That was the summer previous to the one I’d met him.
He returned to his old life after finishing the trail that first time, but nothing felt the same. After a few months of trying to get back into his old routine, he quit his job, sold his cars, and put his house up on the market. His friends, of course, told him he'd lost his mind.
"They don't know, man. They just don't know. They spend all their time thinking they got it made 'cause they live inside these giant boxes. They don't realize the real banquet's out here, and they're missing it!" He laughed wildly for a moment before shaking his head in befuddlement. "I'll tell you what, man, people are crazy."
We sat there for a while in silence, legs dangling over the side of the shelter in the sunshine. Funny how such a simple moment can be branded so deep in my mind that I can feel that warmth on my skin as I think of it.
A sign pinned to the wall of a general store offered home cooking and beer to any hikers that would help move furniture. The beer offer seemed mighty intriguing, so Puck, Brother Jones, and I called the number. The next day a woman named Sarah picked us up and drove us out to the country to help them move things across town to her mother’s house.
Four people lived in the house, including Mom, who was recovering from cancer, and her three children ranging in age early twenties to early forties. All that we ever learned of Mom’s husband was that he was a rotten son of a bitch who didn’t live there anymore.
As the day progressed, Mom shuttled in whole carloads of campers from the general store. The furniture was all moved by mid-afternoon, so we moved onto yard work. As we worked, we drank. Rob, Mom's oldest son, made rounds among the huge and growing workforce, taking beer orders.
By nighttime, everyone was very drunk and doing a lot of work that didn’t need to be done. Mom's backyard looked like a refugee camp full of tents, dirty folks in drum circles, and laundry lines strung from the trees. At some point, the party had ceased to serve a distinct a purpose and evolved into a self-sustaining organism. Over the following days, the family drove in shifts, shuttling hikers back and forth. They ran it on a strict schedule.
One night as I gagged on apple moonshine from a mason jar, I noticed the words ‘Heathen’s Haven’ written into a large, concrete slab that had once been the foundation of an old barn or shed that no longer stood. I asked about these words and Rob, drawing seriously on his cigarette, imparted the legend of the place to me.
Outlaws had been using the land as a hideout and shelter since the first days of the state’s founding. By the time Prohibition came, the spot had already long been known as Heathen's Haven, and when moonshiners built their facilities on that land, they scrawled the name into the very foundation upon which it stood.
Ray related the legend solemnly to a small crowd. The locals, who knew the story well already, listened intently, the way people do when any sacred rite is being performed. The other hikers and I sat in rapt attention, shaking our heads in pleasant wonder to find ourselves camped upon such hallowed ground.
What was supposed to be a single day of work turned into six days of festivities. Mom hugged me before I headed back to the Trail and told me that the house was visible from the first outlook that I’d come to. When I got there, the valley below looked like a patchwork quilt, with squares of cultivated and forested land and the thin, grey lines of stone fences stitched between them like thread. I scanned the scene until I found Heathen’s Haven.
I hoped that Mom made a full recovery. I hoped that that spontaneous gathering of hikers became an annual tradition. Most of all, I hoped that the outlaws, wanderers, and adventurers of the world would find sanctuary at Heathen’s Haven for a long, long time.
I heard about him long before I ever saw him: the Traveler, a globetrotting New Zealander with a mile-long resume of international adventures. He sometimes hiked thirty miles in a day, they said. He carried candles and exotic foods so that when he made a lady's acquaintance (which he often did) he could treat her to a candlelight dinner. He was on the Appalachian Trail only because he had already done everything else in the world, and was running out of adventures.
I finally met him one day hiking a steep climb in bad heat. I always hiked fast because I didn't have enough money to take my time, so it was very rare that somebody passed me on the trail. Yet, as I climbed, I heard footsteps gaining behind me.
I turned to see him, not much taller than my five foot eight, bounding up the trail in a slouch hat with a relaxed, unhurried stride.
"Would you like a fruit?" He stopped and produced a bag, as though from thin air, and dumped some fruits into my hand. They were somewhat like figs, only smaller and lighter-colored. He told me that he had a friend mail them from Africa. Everything about his disposition hinted at the easy confidence of great success.
He’d stopped in town for three days to hang out with a woman. This woman, he said, had invited him to her house all three nights, but each time, he’d refused. Now he was hiking twenty odd miles to the next town crossing to pick up a package containing a bottle of fifty year old Spanish wine. The woman was going to drive ahead to pick him up and take him back to her house, where he’d cook dinner and drink the wine.
I asked him why he had waited four days to go home with her when he could have done it on the first.
"My young friend," the Traveler said seriously, "a good woman is like a good wine. You don't just pop the cork and chug, you have to let it breathe to fully appreciate."
I laughed. "And is she a good woman?”
The Traveler didn't answer. He just rolled his eyes, as if to say she was so far beyond good that to even attempt to put it into words would be nothing but an exercise in the futility of language. He bid me goodbye and galloped up the trail.
I’d be willing to bet that by the time the Traveler finished the Trail, a long line of sad-hearted women waited behind, and not one of them ever regretted a minute of it.
On the Path Looking Back
Strange feeling, evoking these characters from my memory on this summer night, so many years later and looking back. My life has far more routine now. Chance encounters with remarkable strangers are far fewer and far longer between. I didn’t write this article to be a metaphor for anything but it’s a lie to deny the obvious metaphor buried here. For the Trail is life, and the hikers are the people met along the path, all the people of my life passing between worlds.
I think back to these strangers and I feel grateful to have met them, to have lived a life, to have wandered a world full of such characters. Not only Mom and the Traveler, not only Cowboy and Anne of Green Gables, but all the others, too, both on the Trail and off, those scattered beings who’ve popped into my life momentarily like firefly lights to remind me that, far outside the coloring book lines, weird miracles can still occur.
Thank you all for being so completely and defiantly YOU, you crazy bastards. It was one hell of a trip and I hope that your own destinations have found you well. Somewhere between Tennessee and Virginia there is a shelter log with the scribblings of a hopelessly enthusiastic young man named Notion. The words were scrawled one night by the light of a full moon in a fever rush of passion. It was a hot night and the world croaked with insect songs. If you are ever in that area and you find that log, please open it and tell me what it says, because I no longer remember the words…only the writing of them.
Thank you, with all sincerity, anyone who has read all the way to the end of this sentimental letter. I started out with only a vague direction in mind, and have no idea where I’ve landed. I hope, at least, that you smiled at least once meeting the people along the path. If we ever happen upon each other’s, give me a wave. We can buy each other beers and toast to all the good ones out there. They make the walk a worthwhile one.
Good night from Tacoma, Washington, United States of America,
Your friend, Notion.
The voices in the woman’s head were so loud that Jakob couldn’t hear himself think. Three of them, maybe four, badgered her with an endless stream of insults. Dumb cow. Ugly. Useless. Oh so fat, fat, fat!
Eyes bruised with sleeplessness, hair frayed and face pallid, the woman sagged into her commuter-train seat like a marionette with no one at the strings. Her red coat and black pants were designer-made, expensive, but also badly wrinkled and speckled with discoloration, simultaneously hinting at money and a fall from grace.
Jakob resisted the impulse to cross the aisle and hug her. She was worse off than anyone he’d ever encountered. One voice was common, sometimes two, but three or four? He’d never heard anything like it. It was too early to make his approach, though. If he frightened her off, he’d never be able to help her, and he’d certainly been scaring people away rather quickly ever since he’d run out of money. The inability to shower or wash his clothes had done a number on his appearance and aroma. One look at the empty seats surrounding him on an otherwise crowded train said all that needed to be said about the matter.
Still, he couldn’t resist psychically projecting a warning to the creatures berating the woman. “Enjoy your fun now, worms,” he thought. “Your fun is about to come to a very definitive end.”
The voices went silent. Jakob smirked to himself as he imagined the Shadows conferring amongst themselves fearfully in the dark, trans-dimensional space that they occupied.
The woman blinked and looked around in relief, left alone for probably the first time in months, maybe years. Out of the silence, the name “Megan” entered Jakob’s mind. It was fitting, he decided. She looked like a Megan.
The train stopped in downtown Seattle. Megan picked up her purse, weakened body bending to the side with its weight, and shuffled off the train into the drizzling city.
Jakob followed from a distance. It was always best to wait for a heavily traveled area before approaching potential clients. People usually feel safer conversing with strangers in public places.
He made his move as they reached a section of Pioneer Square brimming with tourists and shoppers. At the corner gathered a crowd of people listening intently to a tour guide talk about the underground city beneath their feet.
Jakob saw his opportunity and walked up alongside her. “Excuse me, ma’am?” His Czech accent often intrigued Americans, so he laid it on thick.
Megan turned to him, looking too exhausted to be afraid, as if she wouldn’t even care if he did try to rob her.
“My name is Jakob Rezek.”
“Okay.” She kept walking.
“There’s really no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to come out with it. What would you say if I told you I can get rid of the voices in your head?”
Megan stopped. Pedestrians flowed around them as they faced each other. “Was I talking to myself again?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Then why do you think I hear voices?”
“Because I hear them, too.”
Megan widened her eyes and laughed wildly, though not unkindly. The bizarre conversation seemed to have brought her personality to the fore for a moment, revealing the strong, confident woman hiding underneath all the fatigue and misery. It must have taken the Shadows one hell of a long time to beat someone like her down, Jakob thought.
She looked up and down his dirty trench coat, slacks, and sooty sneakers. Her humor changed to a look of pity. “Good luck with whatever issues you’re dealing with, Jakob. I have to go.” She continued on her way.
Jakob knew he was about to lose her, and desperation forced boldness. “I can hear them because they aren’t your thoughts. They just pretend to be.”
She quickened her pace.
The name stopped her in her tracks. She turned, looking a little frightened. The Shadows sensed their opportunity to undermine the situation and dove in. He wants to hurt you. Why else would a good-looking young man talk to an ugly old cow like you, forty-five and jiggling with cellulite?
“She doesn’t look like a cow to me,” Jakob said, “and I am talking to her because it is my job to help people get rid of worms like you.”
The Shadows fell silent. Megan still seemed frightened, a heartbeat away from fleeing. Normally Jakob wouldn’t show his hand so quickly, but he had no choice. The situation was slipping out of control.
“Megan, I have helped people like you many times before. I was once in the same situation myself, in fact. I’m the only chance you’ve got. Walk away now and you will live with those things eating at you for the rest of your life.”
Megan stared at him through her bleary eyes before shrugging in surrender. “You know what? At this point I’ll try anything.” She flashed a debonair smile. “Do you take plastic?”
The rain became heavier as they walked through the city. Jakob offered Megan his coat to cover her head. She just laughed.
“I’m a Seattleite, sweetie. Rain is our version of sunshine.”
She offered to buy him a sandwich from a deli. He waved her off. “I’ll take a coffee, though,” he said, counting change in his hand and sliding it over the counter. “A small one.”
“You look hungry,” Megan said, “and I really don’t mind giving you an advance on services rendered.”
“Well, I mind taking it.” He smiled to take the edge out of the anger in his voice. There was no reason to talk that way, of course, but the bitterness of those born into poverty does not die easy.
Megan ordered a latte and they continued on their way, ducking a short while later into Pike’s Market where a crowd applauded longshoremen flinging enormous fish at each other and catching them theatrically in white paper.
Megan watched Jakob’s dirty fingernails as he raised his cup to his mouth, apparently thinking he wouldn’t notice her doing so. “Are you a psychologist?”
Jakob shook his head. “I don’t know what to call what I am.”
She looked up and down his ragged clothes. “Does it pay well?”
“It pays whatever clients are willing to donate, which isn’t much sometimes. Sometimes it isn’t anything.”
“You’re like a starving artist, then. All talent and no business sense.”
“No, not like that. I just have a code.”
They walked down stairs to the lower levels of the market.
“Well, what’s the code?”
Jakob sipped. “Never take anything I haven’t earned.”
The bitterness had crept back into his voice. Seeming to sense it, Megan changed the subject. “So, how did you come to do this job that you have no name for?”
Jakob felt the eyes of the shoppers and tourists on him, their suspicion and disgust. The words homeless scum broke psychically through the background chatter.
“Five years ago,” he said, “I was worse off than you are. I walked right to the edge of a bridge and everything.”
“I’m sure the voices were very supportive of your decision.”
“Oh, yes. It was like having a demonic Tony Robbins in my head.”
Megan squealed with laughter at the success coach’s name.
Jakob smirked. “I’m glad you find humor in my suffering.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve been living alone with this for so long, it just feels good to joke about it.”
Jakob waved her off. “No need to apologize. Gallows humor is essential in this line of work.”
They walked into a magic shop. Jakob set his coffee on the floor, took three balls out of a bin, and juggled. His form was perfect, mastered through years of performing on street corners for pocket change.
“Right before jumping I decided that, if I was just going to commit suicide anyway, I might as well figure out what was wrong with me so I could help others in the same situation. I started with Western psychology, moved to Eastern, and then to things more esoteric. I pieced parts of it all together and realized what kind of world we’re living in. That’s when I found the Shadow.”
Megan pulled the lid off her coffee and drank from the open mouth. “What did you do you then?”
“I killed it.” He caught one ball in each hand and then one on his forehead. He balanced it there for a moment and then dumped them all back in the bin.
“So you’re going to kill my Shadow, too?” Megan asked.
“No.” Jakob picked up his coffee. “You are.”
Megan’s cup trembled in her hand. “I can’t do that.”
“You have to. Everyone has to kill their own, or else new ones will just come along to replace them.”
“Is it dangerous?”
Jakob put on a pair of glasses with enormous fish eyes painted on them. “Very.”
“I really wish you wouldn’t make light of all this.”
Jakob flashed his best coy smile. “It always helps to act like a bad ass before going into battle, Megan. Always.”
She lived in the top floor of the highest apartment building in the city. Jakob kept his back to the glass wall of the elevator as they rode, hoping Megan wouldn’t notice. It wouldn’t do much good for her to know that her supposed savior was terrified of heights.
“Are you surprised to find that I’m rich?” Megan asked without a tone of arrogance or false modesty. It was an honest question, perhaps even a bit self-conscious. “I made all the money myself.”
“Not too surprised, to be honest. Lots of people try to beat the voices that way.”
“It doesn’t work?”
“Did it work for you?”
Megan sighed with playful melodrama. “At least I had an amazing view while I toiled away in futility.”
Jakob laughed, but the talk of money made him feel self-conscious. He examined his unkempt himself in the metal elevator door’s reflection and smoothed back his hair. The greasy texture left on his hand only made him feel worse.
Megan hadn’t been exaggerating about her wealth. Her apartment wasn’t just situated on the top floor. Rather, it occupied the entire thing.
Jakob refused to show how impressed he was and immediately started moving the furniture away from the center of the living room and against the walls. “We need some space,” he said, keeping his eyes fixed on the task at hand and away from the windows.
Megan watched him suspiciously as they slid the couch over the floor. “Don’t like heights, do you?”
“You kidding?” Jakob chuckled. “I love them. Barely resisting the urge to hang off your balcony as we speak, in fact.”
That’s when it hit him—a clear blast of higher déjà vu. He’d experienced the sensation a few times since waking up to the real nature of the universe. Each one had turned out to be prophetic in some way, though he had not yet learned how to anticipate what they meant. He just had to wait and see.
Jakob sat cross-legged in the middle of the room and motioned for Megan to do the same. He kept his gaze fixed on hers, softly but continuously, and compelled her to relax.
“Our brains are like antennas that pick up consciousness,” he said. “The problem is that there are bad things floating around out in the ether, things that can hijack lines of psychic communication and terrorize us. That is what is happening to you.”
“Brains like antennas?” Megan squinted her eyes to see if he was joking.
“Words won’t convince you of anything. When it comes to this kind of knowledge, direct experience is the only way. Just relax.”
Megan did as he asked. As her breathing steadied, a golden light surrounded her, like a luminescent egg. After that, a blue, filamentous tube appeared, stretching from the heavens and entering the crown of her head. Within that tube, a red and green thread coiled around one another.
“Can you see the light around me?” Jakob asked.
Tears welled in Megan’s eyes. It was the only answer Jakob needed.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said.
“It is, and there will be time to explore all of this later. Right now, though, I need you to focus on expanding your light so that it touches mine.”
“Envision it. Gently. Don’t try to force it. Just softly visualize it being done.”
Jakob followed his own instructions and bent his spirit towards Megan’s. Gradually, Megan responded. An instant exchange of information occurred when the lights touched. Fragments of Megan’s life filtering through to him. She’d been born to wealthy but abusive parents, had wanted to be an astronomer, had started a business at seventeen and left her family forever.
The receipt of her past experiences was only a byproduct of the communication, not the intent. What mattered most was sharing the truth of reality with her in the only way that a person could truly comprehend.
The lesson unfolded in a mandala of fire and ice in the space between them. It expanded and morphed, a model of the universe and of themselves, fractal reflections of the same infinity. The lesson was only supposed to be an introduction to a much longer education, but just after they began, a sound like static electricity filled the air.
Megan looked around frantically. “I know that sound. I’ve heard it when I had really bad nightmares.”
“Those weren’t nightmares,” Jakob said, keeping his tone as calm as he could. “This is what happens when the Shadows manifest.”
Four creatures materialized around Megan. They were shaped like the three-dimensional shadows of human beings, no facial features, no clothes, just lightness silhouettes.
Jakob scrambled to his feet to protect Megan. Before he could take a full step, he realized that they weren’t after his client. Not this time.
We’ve heard a great deal about you, Jakob Rezek. The creatures hissed and rushed.
The whole thing caught Jakob off-guard. He’d seen them materialize into semi-physical states many times before, but this was different. They smashed into him and blasted him back through the air and crashing through the sliding glass door onto the patio.
In a daze, he pulled himself up by the railing and found himself looking down fifty stories to the city below. His head reeled with vertigo as the creatures dragged him back to the ground, biting and clawing.
The Shadows fed off of fear, and he desperately tried to contain the terror he felt at being so high, but couldn’t. They bit into his neck and he shrieked in pain.
He didn’t fear death. In a way, he welcomed it. His only concern was for Megan. He pulled himself up by the railing again and closed his eyes. If he jumped, perhaps he’d be able to take the Shadows with him.
Before he had the chance, blue light sent the Shadows scurrying to the corners of the patio and hissing in pain. Jakob looked up to see Megan standing just inside the doorway. She didn’t look tired or fearful anymore. Not at all. Instead, she looked wide awake wildly alive with energy.
One of the Shadows leapt over the railing and out of the light to cling to the building wall. It seemed to melt inside and disappear. A moment later it pounced on Megan from behind and tackled her to the floor.
The other Shadows immediately jockeyed for position. Megan’s attack had given Jakob time to recover his wits. He summoned the light within and focused it into three photons in his hand. He threw these, one by one, into the bodies of the Shadows. The illumination expanded within the darkness and vaporized the beasts.
The last Shadow left stood up from Megan’s back. The woman’s clothes were tattered and her back bloody.
Jakob stepped inside to confront the creature, but it leapt forward suddenly, knocking him aside, and squatted on the railing of the patio. This is only beginning, it said. You have no right to interfere in our way of life. We will return.
Megan got to her feet and pushed past Jakob, drawing her own light around herself. “Sounds marvelous,” she said. “Please do bring more friends.”
The creature hissed and leapt off the railing. It fell for a few yards before scattering into the wind with wisps of shadow and the sound of static.
Jakob pressed his hand over the wound in his neck and smiled at Megan. “Bring more friends, eh?”
Megan flipped her hair back dramatically. “It always helps to act like a bad ass before going into battle, right?”
Megan insisted that Jakob shower and dress his wounds. After a long protest, he finally acquiesced. The water felt good, and he turned it up just a shade lower than burning temperature. The dirt and sweat rolling off his body just kept coming, no matter how much soap he used or how hard he scrubbed.
He thought about what he’d seen just before the Shadows materialized. Strange as it seemed, he never actually believed that the rich could suffer, too. He’d always abhorred them because he’d never forgiven them for teasing him and his family when he was a child. It was strange to realize they could be haunted, too.
When he stepped out of the shower, he found that his clothes were gone from the top of the toilet where he’d left them. He wrapped a towel snugly around his waist and walked out into the hall to catch Megan on the phone. She thanked whoever was on the other line and hung up.
“You’ve got new clothes coming,” she said. “And my doctor will be here soon, too. I don’t know exactly what I’ll tell him yet, but we’ll figure something out.”
“I have to go,” Jakob said. A feeling like panic was beginning to settle in. She had his clothes. He was at the rich woman’s mercy.
Megan opened a bottle of spring water. For the first time, Jakob realized the smell of cooking food was in the air.
“I worked very hard for a long time building my business,” Megan said as she poured a glass. “But, some part of me always knew that the business was a means to some other end. I just didn’t know what it was.”
She handed him a glass. “I saw things about you while we were communicating. You were a poor kid. Very poor. You swore you’d never take handouts from anyone. Knowing this, I’m still going to offer you the resources to do your job properly. An office. A home.” She sipped her water. “A partner.”
Jakob wanted to slam his glass down and demand his clothes so he could leave. Yet, the fact was that he’d felt the higher déjà vu earlier. He also could not keep living as he’d been living. Now that he was clean, he realized how filthy he’d been before the shower.
“This is the work that my life was meant to build towards,” she said. “It isn’t about a rich bitch helping a slum kid, Jakob. It’s about two equals entering into a mutually beneficial partnership.”
Jakob drank. The water tasted good. Being clean felt good. A warm kitchen felt good. He drank again.
“You’ve got natural power,” he said. “More than me, even. That’s probably why so many of them attacked you. But you’ve still got a lot to learn.” He set his glass down and walked out to sit on the living room floor. He motioned for her to do the same. “We should meditate for a bit.”
Megan sat down. They smiled at each other across the illuminated space between them.
“Close your eyes and relax,” Jakob said. “This is the fun part.”