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android phoneHelen was a methodical sort of person; she believed in a place for everything and everything in its place.  That’s not to say she was stuffy; far from it.  But her friends often gently teased her about the way she liked to have everything just so, and she had a system for everything it was possible to systematize.  Take her phone, for example; every different alert was a distinctly different sound, so that she could know exactly what was happening and gauge whether to respond to it or not.  The sound she had chosen for text messages was a knocking sound: a sharp knock knock knock meant a new text, and it was distinct enough that she could make it out even in a noisy environment.

Tonight, however, it wasn’t noisy; in fact, the sound startled her in the quiet room where she was beginning to grow a bit drowsy over her book.  She stole a look at the clock; 1:16 AM, which meant it was almost certainly Angela and she was almost certainly high as a kite.  She picked up the phone; it was indeed her best friend.

hey baby wassup-thinking of u

Her finger flew quickly over the screen: “Hi honey, having a good time tonight?

There was a longer-than-usual pause, then knock knock knock!  “Nah tonite sux, went out but evryplace was lame

So are you home safe?

Another really long pause, then finally knock knock knock! “Not yet

So where are you?

The intervals between her texts and the replies were maddeningly-long tonight; usually Angela was quite a fast texter.  But finally, after her screen had been dark for several minutes, it came again: knock knock knock!  “not sure

Not sure? WTF? How much have you had to drink?”  Again the interminable interval, so she sent another one: “Angela? Talk at me babe.

A short pause, then knock knock knock!  “Alnost none just a crapy weak margarita

Then how can you not know where you are? Did some loser strand you somewhere?

She was just about to probe the silence with another text when knock knock knock! “yah

Oh, damn, sweets, you need to stop dating these assholes. Why don’t you just Uber home?

Almost ten minutes elapsed before the next knock knock knock!  “cant

Angela must’ve been much drunker than she was telling…maybe someone had drugged her drink?  “Honey, please ask somebody where you are or look at Google Maps and give me the address. I’ll come get you.

It wasn’t quite so long this time before the knock knock knock!  “no ill come there

Helen didn’t like the idea of one of her friend’s invariably-useless boyfriends having her address, but she was too worried at this point to care.  “Sure, baby, come on over.

There was no immediate acknowledgement, and Helen was just about to text again when the phone actually rang; it was the ringtone assigned to Angela’s sister Leigh.  “Hello, Leigh?  Do you know where your sister is?”

The voice on the other end sounded strained and distorted.  “Oh, Helen, I…I’m so sorry.  I don’t know how to tell you this…Angela’s dead.”

“That’s not fucking funny, Leigh!”

“Funny?  Of course it isn’t fucking funny!  She was in a fucking wreck; the cops say her boyfriend was drunk!”

Helen felt as though her brain was numb.  “Are…are you sure?”

“Yes I’m sure, I’m at the hospital now but there was nothing they could do.  She was already dead when the paramedics got there.”

“But…how long ago did this happen?”

“About an hour ago, maybe quarter after one.”  This time the long silence was on Helen’s end.  “Helen? Are you there?”

“Yeah, I…Leigh, some jerk has been texting me from Angela’s phone; they must’ve picked it up right after the accident, or else she left it in a bar or something.”

“What are you talking about?  I have her phone right here. It was in her purse, and I think the battery’s dead.”

“You have…but…Leigh…I…”

knock knock knock!

“Helen?  Sweetheart, if you want to come down here with me…”

knock knock knock!

“Helen, please say something!  If you don’t think you can drive I’ll send Todd.”

knock knock knock!

But Helen’s voice was frozen in her throat, and the knocking wasn’t coming from her phone.

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mystery powderOliver poked at the powder in the little tin with a small metal scoop.  It had seemed ivory-colored in the shop, but under the strong light of his desk lamp it actually seemed to have a kind of orange tinge, and it was a bit clumpy and mealy.  Since it was neither fine nor powdery he risked a gentle sniff, and found its smell rather pungent and earthy, with notes like spoiled meat.  It didn’t much remind him of any other drug he’d ever taken, but that was to be expected because it was supposed to be unlike anything else he’d ever taken; in fact, it wasn’t like any drug most people had ever taken, and because neither the cops nor the news media had heard of it yet, it wasn’t even illegal.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly easy to get, either; this small pile of powder, enough for only three doses from what the old man at the Chinese apothecary had told him, had cost him $300, and it would be months before the old man could get any more.  He helpfully explained that it came from a remote part of the Xinjiang region and had to go by way of certain parties in Hong Kong because, while it was not technically banned, Beijing frowned on its exportation.

After weighing the mass on a small digital scale, he used the scoop to divide it into three equal-seeming piles, then weighed each again and measured one into a waxed-paper bindle; he returned the second directly into the tin and tucked the bindle in beside it, then closed the lid and secreted the precious package in the box where he kept his stash.  He then dumped the remaining measure into a tumbler, filled it halfway with Passiona, swirled it around until he was reasonably sure it had all dissolved, and then downed the lot as quickly as possible.  It tasted terrible, but the rest of the soft drink in the can quickly alleviated that; then all there was left was to wait.

As previously agreed, he texted Nick that he had started the experiment; his friend was the perfect ground control because while he himself never used any drug stronger than a good stout, he had logged hundreds of hours with friends using every substance imaginable, and could always be counted on to take care of whatever problems might arise.  He then closed the window against the chilly July evening, changed into sweat pants and fiddled around with his music player for a while, finally settling on a program of baroque chamber music that he felt would set the right mood.  The clock said it had been 35 minutes since he had dosed, so he wrote the details in a little notebook and then settled back to listen to the music.

Finally, he began to feel some mild physical symptoms; a little restlessness, some lack of feeling in the extremities, an odd sort of bloatiness in the face, a bit of nausea.  He wrote the sensations down and texted to Nick, who said he’d be over in an hour or so, and would Oliver like anything from Red Rooster?  Oliver decided against it; the nausea might pass, but it could get much worse, as the restlessness already was.

About 75 minutes after downing the drug, the first of the visual effects appeared: drifting lazily into his field of view from the general direction of the kitchen was something very like a lavender paramecium about the size of his shoe.  It just gently floated across the room in a generally-northerly direction, silently undulating its cilia; even for an experienced drug user like him, it was a pretty striking sight.  And since nothing else had materialized as of yet, he decided to get up and follow it; he was a little unsteady on his feet, but that was more due to the fact that he couldn’t feel them than to anything else.  Slipping his phone into his jacket pocket, he stumbled into the next room just in time to see the thing go through the closed window; as in, right through the shade and glass, like a ghost.

microbial menagerieHe was about to follow it outside when he realized he was barefooted; he quickly pulled on his sandshoes where he’d left them beside the door and hastened outside, only to immediately lose interest in the intruder as he took in the full vista before him.  All around his house, all over the grass and trees and lamposts and parked cars, slid and floated and bounced and hopped and swam innumerable creatures of every description imaginable.  Many were like the protozoans one might see in a drop of pond water under a microscope; others were like masses of crystals that grew rapidly in one direction while vanishing from the other; some were like living flows of liquid or tiny suns, and a few were like earthly creatures he knew, only transparent and silent.  None of the alien things seemed even aware of his presence, and while the phantom animals seemed to sense him, they also seemed entirely uninterested in him.

He slowly walked down the street, taking it all in; he saw a few human shapes, too, but unlike the other creatures they appeared to actively avoid him.  Since it was early, there was still considerable traffic on the main street; the faces of the car’s occupants looked strange and somehow distorted, though he couldn’t be sure through the moving window-glass due to shifting reflections.  It was enough to pique his curiosity, though, so he decided to wander down to the shops to take a look at the people more closely.  Though the numbness in his feet and hands had spread up the limbs, they still responded more or less normally, and it was worth the risk of stumbling to see what there was to see; at worst, people would think him drunk.

The first place he reached was a little kebab shop that always did brisk business even on weekday evenings, and he was soon glad some sense of caution prompted him to look through the glass before entering; the shop was swarming with a veritable menagerie of monsters.  Oh, some of them looked human enough, but others looked like apes, reptiles or gigantic insects, and a few were so indescribably hideous he found himself unable to retain his composure.  He had always been able to talk himself down from bad trips before, but this time he was unable to convince himself that what he saw was only in his mind.  He lost control of his legs entirely and fell down upon the pavement, shaking and crying; he was aware that people emerging from the shop were staring at him and whispering, but he was too frightened to move until he heard a gentle voice asking, “Can we be of help, son?”

He looked up to see a face of almost unearthly beauty, strong and wise and benevolent; another of much the same type hovered nearby, and he heard the latter say, “Ian, I think I know this young man; he lives in the building down at the corner, don’t you love?”

Ollie was sure he’d never met these two angels before, but he instantly trusted them; no ill intent could possibly lurk behind such visages. “Yes’m.”

“What’s your name, son?”

“Oliver, sir.  My friends call me Ollie.”

“Well, Ollie, you just let us help you up, and we’ll get you home so you can sleep it off, alright?”

He couldn’t feel their hands on him at all, but he could see them, and he also saw the multiplicity of wings they spread above and around him, shielding his eyes from the sight of the horrors that had collected on the sidewalk to gawk at him.  He decided it was best to fix his gaze on his legs, since he could no longer feel them at all; still, they obeyed his commands and, with the help of his angelic guides, he was able to walk the several blocks back to his own place.

“Ollie!  What happened to you?”  He had rarely been as happy to hear anything as he was to hear Nick’s familiar, friendly tones conversing with his two rescuers; the man was explaining where they had found him while the woman was getting him settled on the couch and asking if he wanted a cup of tea.

“No ma’am, I think I had best just close my eyes and try to sleep this off.”

“Well, you take care dear, and perhaps you ought not to try anymore of whatever it was you tried tonight, yes?”

A few minutes later they were gone; Ollie heard Nick promising them he would stay the night to watch over him, and thanking them again for their kindness.  The door closed, and he sat down in the chair.  “Bloody hell, mate, but you gave me a scare!  You look awful, like you’ve seen a ghost!”

“That’s exactly what I have done,” croaked Ollie, “hordes of ’em.  That’s what this drug does.”

“Howzat?”

“This stuff opens the organs of metaphysical perception, and allows the user to see spiritual beings.  Ghosts, spirits, disembodied ectoplasmic entities, the lot.  That much I expected; what I didn’t realize was that I’d be able to see people’s souls, and that most of them wouldn’t be what we think of as human.”

“So, they’re like animals and such?”

“More like monsters, though those two people who brought me home were like angels.”True Face of Nick

“What about me?  What do I look like?”

Ollie opened his eyes and looked toward his friend, and immediately started crying; Nick appeared to be a horrible fungoid mass crowned with undulating tentacles, bereft of anything like a face.  He instantly shut his eyes again, but was so choked with sobs he couldn’t speak.

Nick let out a whistle.  “That bad?”  Ollie nodded.  “Well, you know it’s still me, yeah?”  He nodded again.  “Is there anything I can do?”

“I feel sick.  Would you help me to the lavatory?”  He couldn’t bear to look at Nick again, so he just stared straight ahead while he was helped down the hall; once inside he collapsed to the floor in front of the toilet and chundered for several minutes, praying that at least some of the awful stuff would be purged from his body in the process.  Finally the nausea subsided, and he pulled himself up to the basin, running cold water to rinse his mouth and splash his face.  He then rose and opened his eyes, and began to shriek as he beheld the head of a gigantic reddish-black beetle staring back at him from the mirror.

(With grateful acknowledgement to the work of H.P. Lovecraft).

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Mike Siegel has been a regular and faithful reader of this blog for at least five years, and has on numerous occasions assisted me with scientific or other issues.  See, he’s a professional astronomer and a blogger himself, and now he’s a fiction writer as well; last week, he self-published his first novel through Kindle Direct Publishing. The book is entitled The Water Lily Pond after the series of Monet paintings that inspired it.  He synopsizes it thusly: “Many decades in the future, medical science has made aging a thing of the past.  Painter Walter Winston, at age 128, finds himself dying from simply being exhausted from life.  He sets off on a journey to revisit the places he’s lived, trying to rediscover himself, his life and the people who made it worth living.  It’s science fiction, yes.  But it’s not really about science.  It’s about time and old age and regret and art…The two passages below take place after Walter’s wife has died. Having been alone for a long time and wanting to avoid complications, he occasionally hires an escort.  On at least one occasion, a university hosting his lecture hired an escort for him.  The first passage concerns the latter“:

The last time he’d been in a hotel room identical to this one he had not been alone. She was a pretty girl from Ecuador whom the University had arranged for him. He was a hundred years older than her. They had lain in bed after it was done — the school had generously paid for the entire night. He thought of David and Abishag in the Americo painting. They had sent her to warm him.

Her cigarette smoke made lazy curls on the ceiling as she talked to him. She was certainly the smartest girl he’d ever had – she spoke four languages and was earning her degree from UCLA in astronautics. She spoke of a future on the Earth-Moon run.

“Why do you do this, then?” he’d asked, shocked.

She stared at him for a moment then giggled.

“You’re so old-fashioned.”

“I’m so old!”

“It’s endearing. I think the oldest man I’d been with before you was … 90?  95? He wasn’t quite as prudent.”

“You didn’t answer the question.”

She rolled over, her black hair spilling onto the white pillow like a Pollock painting, her hip making a steep curve beneath the sheets like a Reubens. It made him feel a lot younger than 125 to look at her and to touch her.

“I enjoy it. It’s that simple. The money’s great. I certainly wouldn’t do it for free.  But mainly I enjoy it. Not the act, per se. I enjoy the people.  I always get high-class clients.  Like famous artists,” she said, poking him in the belly.

He sank against the pillow, wondering if he was the only person on Earth old enough to see any stigma in her job.

“Do you remember everyone you’ve ever been with?” she asked. “After …”

“After all this time?” He grinned and nodded. “Sometimes it takes a while, but I do. Not that I’ve been with that many.

“It’s not just women I’ve been with that I remember. I can remember women I’ve wanted and never had. I can still remember a girl I passed on the street a century ago. She had the deepest eyes I’d ever seen. A short white skirt and a green blouse. She’s probably been dead half a century; certainly never knew my name or who I was. And yet I think about her. I can still see the fabric of the blouse clinging to her body.”

She leaned over and kissed him.  “You should have painted her.”

“I did.”

This next passage is from a bit later in the book and references the time Walter lived in the worst part of Harlem in the 1980’s as a struggling artist.

He had never hired a professional before Sarah was gone.  Even in his loneliest nights in Harlem, shortly after his marriage with Anna had collapsed, when he could hear the streetwalkers and their clients in the alleys and crack houses of the neighborhood; when he couldn’t walk to and from home without at least a couple of them asking if he wanted a date.  It had never really crossed his mind.

“They didn’t repel me,” he told Sarah once.  “I got to know some of them over time.   Most of them were nice enough and a couple even knew about my art.  I even drew inspiration from them for one or two paintings.”

“They were in the pentaptych,” said Sarah.

“One was.  A woman who doggedly worked a corner near me for almost a decade.  Put her kid through school on it.  But I just wasn’t interested in what they were offering.”

It was Chuck who talked him into it.  Chuck, who knew that the side of the industry Walter had seen in King’s Slate was the bad part of a much larger enterprise.

“You should come with me to Vegas,” he said one night at the lake, three years after Sarah had died.  There had been an awkward discussion over dinner about whether Walter should get “out there” or not. Now he and Chuck were on the dock, in the darkness.

“Or up to Toronto.  Or over to Paris.  Or Bucharest.  Or anywhere.  Any sophisticated city is going to have professionals – talented, beautiful.  Most places, you wouldn’t even be breaking the law anymore.”

Walter shifted uncomfortably in his deck chair.  The water lapped quietly under the dock.

“Look, I know how you were raised.  But at our age … do you really want to date?  Do you want to go through that?  Especially with two grandchildren and another on the way?  What are you going to do if you meet someone?  Move away?  Leave little Lucia all by herself?  This is a way to not be alone but not have complications.”

“I just can’t see myself doing that,” said Walter.  “Paying someone to pretend to be attracted to me?  It’s not like there’s a shortage of art fans or anything, if meaningless sex was what I wanted.”

“But a professional won’t stalk you.  She won’t want to get pregnant.  She won’t tell everyone about it.  And it’s not just sex.  Sometimes it’s not even sex.  I hired a woman in Moscow to basically go to the Bolshoi with me.”

“Can we just let it go?”

Chuck shrugged.  “As you wish.  But men our age have needs.  Yours will get the better of you at some point.  Less risk if it’s a professional than an amateur.”

In the end, Chuck was right.  He had been surprised that it wasn’t the sex itself that made him happy.  It was the touch of skin, the rustle of sheets, the play of light on a naked body.  It was the feeling, however faintly, of being back in those sepia and ash-colored days when he and Sarah or Juliette or Anna or Linda would lie in a warm bed and just enjoy not being alone.

“Intimacy,” said Chuck.  “Companionship.  Remember Abishag.”

It wasn’t often – a few times a year, maybe.  But it was enough to get through the previous four decades.

Mike writes, “I didn’t set out to reference sex work in my novel.  It just seemed like what the character would do, given his arc, and I saw no reason to shy away from it.  Sex work is a part of our world and will continue to be a part of our world long into the future. There’s no point in pretending it doesn’t exist.”  Mike is a great guy, an ally of sex workers and a friend; if you enjoyed these excerpts, you really ought to consider buying his book.  Pretty please?

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This story is related to two earlier ones, but it was directly inspired by an item from Saturday’s column; after you read this, I’m sure you’ll be able to go back and find the one I mean…by my introductory comment if nothing else.

The 9th Labor of HerculesFor as long as she could remember, Greta had been fascinated by the struggle of sex.  Whether it was the violent couplings in nature videos, or the erotic violence of internet porn, it would hold her attention far more than the gentle, soft-focus love scenes found in more mainstream fare.  When she became sexually active herself in her mid-teens, she was repeatedly frustrated by the cautious, respectful dance advocated in “consent” seminars and followed by all the decent young men and women she knew; when she dared to push boundaries a little or attempt a few love bites or playful slaps, she was greeted by expressions of shock and horror (and more than once by threats of assault charges).  Eventually, she discovered the kink community and at first thought she had found her natural environment; unfortunately, decades of lawsuit proliferation had wrought havoc there as thoroughly as it had on contact sports, and she learned to her chagrin that almost nobody had engaged in the kind of rough play she craved since the late ’20s or early ’30s.  True, some of the old folks still got up to stuff like that in secret, but even if they could’ve trusted her enough to admit her to their circles, none of them could’ve still inflicted or received the level of intensity she wanted at their ages (even assuming she could’ve found an octogenarian she was attracted to).

And so the years had turned into decades, and though a career as a dominatrix had allowed her a taste of what she yearned for, it was never quite enough; there were a few clients who would’ve gladly obliged her, but both her lawyer and her insurance agent had let her know in no uncertain terms that they would drop her in a red-hot second if they found out she had accepted one of those offers.  And since she loved money, comfort and her reputation more than she lusted for the dark pleasures of her hottest fantasies, she had to be content with losing herself in virtual simulations of the real thing achieved via a combination of drugs and high-tech special effects.

But she never gave up on the dream, and one night at a party she overheard a conversation which piqued her interest and set her on a course of research that, after a few weeks, revealed that she could have what she was looking for…and not only once, but as often as she wanted.  The price was high, but what of it?  She was past middle age and had no heirs, and what was money for if not this?  A few calls and the deal was made, and three interminable weeks later she drove out to pick up her eagerly-awaited purchase.

With trembling hands, Greta pried the crate open and unlocked the container inside to reveal her new plaything; looking back at her with frightened eyes from inside the heavily-padded box was a beautiful girl who looked to be about twenty.  Neither said a word, but Greta beckoned her to step forth and the girl mutely complied, sinking to her knees at Greta’s feet in response to a further gesture.  But she did not remain mute for long; before long she was gasping, then whimpering, then crying, and finally screaming, as her mistress unleashed decades of frustrated desire upon her.  The world outside that room vanished for Greta and time seemed to stand still; nothing else mattered but her lovely victim, accepting everything she could inflict.

Greta was unsure of how long she had whipped the girl, or when she had drawn her knife; she was completely lost in a kind of wild abandon she had never known, overwhelmed by the ecstasy of a session in which she didn’t have to hold back in any way or even consider the wishes and needs of her partner.  And when she stopped at last, she was a bit shocked at what a mess she had made of the girl’s skin, and of how much blood there was on the floor and surrounding objects.  She collapsed into a chair, breathing raggedly, then succumbed to her first experience of total satisfaction.bloody knife

She awoke sometime later to find the large blue eyes of the girl upon her.  “Yes?”

“I’m sorry ma’am, but you gave me no orders.  I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to do anything now.”

“So I didn’t; I guess I got carried away when I saw you.”

“Yes ma’am.  Thank you.”

Greta looked around dazedly.  “Good grief, what a mess!”

“Not to worry, ma’am, it’s inert; it won’t stain like real blood.  I can clean this up in just a few minutes.”

“I’m sure you can.  But what about you?  How long will all that take to heal?”

“Well, ma’am, there’s an adjustment for bruising; by default it’s set to ‘normal’, which means these will take a week or so to fade.  If you turned it all the way to ‘high’, they’d be gone by tomorrow morning if I devoted all my resources to healing.  As for the lacerations, I’ll have to repair those myself; I’m afraid the damage is fairly extensive, so I’ll need most of the night.  All in all, I estimate roughly 14 hours to restore optimum cosmetic appearance, starting after I replace the broken right wrist.”

“I’m sorry about the wrist.”

She smiled.  “It’s all right, ma’am, you ordered the deluxe kit; there’s a spare in the crate and I can fix it in half an hour.”

Greta suddenly laughed at the absurdity of the situation.  “I can see you’re going to be a handy creature to have around!”

“Oh, yes ma’am!  In addition to my sexual and domestic skills, I can repair any household device for which specifications are available!”

“I remember.  For right now, you just concentrate on repairing yourself and cleaning up this room.  We’ll work out some other protocols tomorrow.”

“Whatever you say, ma’am.  Goodnight, and pleasant dreams!”

“That is a certainty,” said Greta, and as she trudged up the stairs her mind was already beginning to consider all the delicious possibilities.

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Every December, I feature a different kind of story; they’re always seasonal, and usually light.  I hope y’all don’t find this one too sweet and sentimental; if you find it lacking in depth, you might amuse yourself by wondering why I made it a period piece, and what significance (if any) this particular time period has to the story.

Reggie opened the door to a sight he hadn’t quite expected.  Oh, she was as pretty as she had represented herself to be, and probably not too much older than she had claimed on the phone.  But she hadn’t warned him that her hair was so shockingly red, and somehow he’d figured she would dress a bit more…conservatively.

“Ho ho ho,” she said with a rather silly grin.angel cookies

“That’s not funny,” he replied, then “get in here before the neighbors see you.”

“Wow, what a Grinch,” she said, dusting the snow off of her fur-trimmed red coat.  “What did you expect when you hired a hooker named Holly on Christmas Eve?”

“The agency’s ad said ‘discreet’.”

“Trust me, honey, I didn’t stand around on your porch any longer than I had to.  And unless you’ve got lots of sweet young things  coming in and out of here for other reasons, I sincerely doubt my seasonal getup raised any more eyebrows than my just being here in the first place did.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right; I’ve just never done this before.”  In response to her skeptical look, he added, “Had a girl come to my house, I mean.”

“Ah.  Well, I don’t need to ask why you decided to start tonight.”

“What do you mean?”

“Lots of unmarried men call on holidays; it’s tough being alone when the entire culture is loudly extolling the joys of family for weeks on end.”

“You’re pretty smart.”

She shrugged.  “Not smart enough to make grad school easy.  Hey, do you have anything hot to drink?  This outfit isn’t as warm as it looks.”

“Nothing ready, but we could make something in the kitchen.”

“Bitchin’.  You got any cocoa?”

“I think I have some of the instant kind.”

She rolled her eyes.  “It’ll have to do.”  Then after looking around for a few moments: “Don’t you have a kettle?”

“You can heat up the water in the microwave oven.”

“Nah, I don’t trust those things.  My mom got one last year, but I’m kind of afraid they might cause cancer.”

“Suit yourself,” he said, handing her a pot from the cupboard.

“Will you have some with me?  I brought cookies.”

He laughed in spite of himself.  “You’re quite a character.”

“So they tell me.  Gingerbread or sugar?”

A few minutes later, they sat at the table, drinking cocoa and eating cookies; at some point she had deftly made the cash envelope disappear.  And before too long he found himself telling her about the divorce, and the increasing pressures of work, and the sense of loss and loneliness he had hoped to dispel this evening in some way that didn’t involve drinking himself unconscious.  The eventual move to the sofa was very natural, and for some reason he was completely unsurprised when she pulled a VHS copy of It’s a Wonderful Life out of her absurdly-large purse and suggested they watch it together.It's a Wonderful Life

When she finally dressed to go, it didn’t bother him at all that they hadn’t done what he thought he wanted to do when he opened the phone book; in fact, he was so happy with her that he pressed an extra $50 bill into her hand.  She gave him a very warm and sincere hug, and as she opened the door to leave he could hear the bells of the nearby church signalling the beginning of midnight mass.

“Every time a bell rings…” she said, laughing.

He laughed with her, and then said, almost as an afterthought, “You never did tell me what you’re studying.”

“Psychology,” she replied, almost sheepishly.

“But of course.  Thank you, Holly; you were wonderful.”

“You’re welcome.  Merry Christmas, Reggie, and a very Happy New Year!”

“I’m certain now that it will be.  I’ll call you again soon.”

“I hope so!” And then she danced across the lawn, stopping to catch a snowflake on her tongue before waving to him from the gate and disappearing into a night that now seemed far less cold to him than it had a few hours before.

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Beauty…is a visitor who leaves behind the gift of grief, the souvenir of pain.  –  Christopher Morley

“It’s fine for work, I guess, but you actually live here, too?” She asked, with badly-disguised disdain.

“Yes.  I’m sorry, I thought You knew that,” I replied, trying not to sound too defensive.

“Well, yes, I did, but…it’s so small.”

“Rent is high around here; this is all I can afford right now.  If You want me to have something bigger, You could send me more work.”  Was that too daring, even though I did say it with a smile?

“Yes.  Quite.”pink cocktail

Well, Her response could’ve been much worse; still, I figured it would be best to change the subject.  “Would You like something to drink?”

“What a charming idea!  Do you have any champagne chilled?”

“Um, no.  Not chilled, and not at room temperature either.  I’m afraid I’m a bit short on champagne at the moment.”

“Pity.  What’s the closest thing to it you do have on hand?”

“Well, that depends.  I have some wine, some whiskey and some vodka if You want liquor, but if it’s the fizz You’re looking for I have these fruit-flavored carbonated water drinks.”  In response to Her rather skeptical look, I added, “They’re sugar free even.”  The skepticism increased.  “It helps me keep my figure.”  Yes, I know it was dumb; I didn’t know what else to say.  It’s not every day that the Boss Lady drops by in person.

She sighed so deeply it sounded like something drawn from the bottom of the sea.  “Well, I suppose you could make me a fizzy cocktail.  Not that I need to watch my figure or anything.”

Yikes!  “Oh, goodness, I didn’t mean to imply…”

She waved off my concerns with an airy gesture; I got to work on the cocktail.  When I handed it to Her, She sniffed it as though trying to be sure it wasn’t spoiled, then took a dainty but substantial sip.  “This is terrible.”

“I’m so sorry!  If You like, I could…”

“Not necessary,” She interrupted.

I finally broke the uncomfortable pause with, “I just learned to do that pretty recently, make drinks I mean, and I’m afraid I’m not very good at it yet.”

“No, you’re not.  Luckily, neither your income nor your reputation depends on your skill at bartending.”

“Yes.  I mean no.”  I’m not easily tongue-tied, but there was more than ample cause.  I would’ve been heartened by the fact that She had taken another sip, had it not been accompanied by a half-grimace.  Time for another change of topic.  “To what do I owe the great honor of this visit?”

Her smile lit up the room and instantly soothed the sting of Her previous comments.  “Oh, I just happened to be in the neighborhood, and…”  Now it was my turn to look incredulous, and She responded with a laugh so beautiful it literally took my breath away.  “No, I guess you won’t believe that, will you?”

“Well, no, not really.”

The smile became even lovelier.  “I’m really very fond of you, you know.”  I was totally speechless.  “Oh, come now darling, surely you already knew that after all this time!”

“I…well…um…” Why was I crying?  Damn, so much for looking cool.

“I know that, since taking the job…how many years ago was it?”

“Twenty.”  It came out sounding something like a croak.

“Twenty years!  How time flies!  Since taking the job twenty years ago, you’ve performed admirably and I really have noticed; it’s just that I’m so very busy and, well, time gets away from one.  Sometimes I think of you and realize, ‘Goodness, it’s been years since I looked in on her!’ and yet there you are, still faithfully toiling away at your mission as though I were breathing down your neck the whole time!”

“Thank you, My Lady; You know I always keep my promises.”

“And so you have, dear girl.  I know I’ve been awful about keeping up with you; it’s just this mood I’ve been in for the past 15 years or so.  And the reason I dropped by is to let you know that I’m going to try to do better.”

I don’t have a word to describe the complex mixture of emotions that boiled up in response, and I wouldn’t have dared to vocalize it even if I had.  So I just sat there and sobbed like a schoolgirl, and She glided across the room to sit beside me and draw me into Her arms.  “There, there,” She said, “It really will be all right.  I promise, by the Styx.”  And then She kissed me, and if I live to be a hundred no kiss of mortal woman could ever hope to match that brief brush of Her lips against mine.

rose bloodI awoke with Her scent still all around me, and my face wet with tears.  I had never had such an intensely real-seeming vision before, and it had thrown me off-balance; I felt like I needed to get up, collect my thoughts, get my jumbled emotions back in control and re-orient myself to consensual reality.  I stumbled into the outer room, and my attention was immediately drawn to the vase of roses atop my desk; they seemed fresher than they had been, and of a deeper color and sweeter perfume than before.  I gently, almost reverently stroked the petals of one, softer than a woman’s skin, and then reached down to draw it from the vase so that I might examine it under better light.  But in my fascination at the apparent revival of my flowers, I neglected to use caution in grasping the stem; the blood which welled forth from my finger was as red as the rose.

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“I hate computers!”

“If it weren’t for computers, you’d probably be working for a service taking half of your money.”

“Don’t be an asshole.  You know what I mean.”

“Actually, I don’t, Athena.  Honestly, it seems like kind of a stupid thing for you to say, considering how well you’ve marketed yourself using them.  You could never have gotten this kind of exposure without the internet, and that exposure is the main reason you’re so fucking successful.  If you don’t want all those clients, you can give some of ’em to me.”

“You’re not exactly hurting yourself, Heather.”

“I didn’t say I was, but I’m not the one about to buy a new Lexus without financing it.”

“I’m not going to be buying it either, unless these stupid computers stop fucking with me!”

“What computers?”

“The ones at the New York state vital records office.  They keep saying my birth certificate doesn’t exist.  See this? ‘Record not found.’  That’s what it says every time I try to get a copy.”record not found

“Why do you want one?”

“Because I need it to get a driver’s license so I can buy the goddamned Lexus!”

“OK, calm down.  Don’t you have an old copy somewhere?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Doesn’t your mom have a copy?”

“I’ve never met my mom.  CPS took me away from her when I was a baby and I was raised in foster homes until I finally ran away and started living on my own eight years ago, when I was 16.”

“Hey, you told me your mother was a teacher.”

“That’s part of the backstory I tell clients.  I also tell them I’m studying to be a psychologist, when in fact I don’t even have a GED.”

“So much for my suggestion you call your old high school.  Damn, honey, don’t you know any of your relatives?”

“Not a one.  And I’m beginning to think that what I thought was my real name isn’t my real name at all, but one somebody gave me somewhere along the way.  Which is why it isn’t showing up in the computer.”

“Well, that’s hardly the computer’s fault.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?  What fucking difference does that make?  Holy shit, Heather, I’m trying to vent here and you’re giving me this Pollyanna bullshit about assigning blame!”

“OK, I’m sorry, you’re right; my dad is a scientist and my mom says I sound just like him sometimes.  But there’s gotta be a way to crack this; I mean, you were in the foster system, so there must be a record of you there.  Have you tried them?”

“Of course; just because I’m a dropout doesn’t mean I’m stupid.  But they won’t give me any information without a social security number.”

“Wait, you don’t know your social?”

“Would we be having this fucking conversation if I did?”

“But Athena, how the hell have you even managed to survive until now without a social security number?”

“Cash.  Prepaid Visa.  Renting places from little old ladies who don’t do credit checks.  And I don’t know about you, but none of my clients have ever required it as a condition of seeing me”.

“Point taken.  So what made you decide to go on the grid?  You’ve been doing a great job living outside of it, and…shit, you’ve never paid taxes either, have you?”

“Nope.”

“Girl, are you crazy?  Why the hell do you want to ruin a sweet deal like this?  So you can’t get a car; who needs it?  Just call a freaking Uber when you need a ride, just like you always have.”

“Because now I’m scared!”

“Of the IRS?”

“No, not the fucking IRS!  I’m afraid because as far as I can determine, I don’t have any past at all prior to eight years ago!”

“Well, you have your memories…no, you don’t, do you?”

“Not before I started working.  My earliest memories are of living on the street, trading sex for food and a place to stay; I just started talking about foster care because the other street girls I knew talked about it.  And somewhere along the line I guess I started to believe it, but all this has forced me to confront the truth that I don’t actually know who I am or where I came from.  Everything I say about my life prior to moving out here and taking out my first Backpage ad five years ago is a lie, and even my memories of street work are pretty vague; the more I think about it, the more contradictions I find.  It’s as though I didn’t really exist before that.”

“But you sure do exist on the internet.  I mean, you are all over the place; I’ve never seen anybody use social media as well as you do.  You use it like…”

“Go on, like what?”

“Like your life depended on it.”

“As you said yourself, my income does.”

“Of course.  Hey, sweetie, this conversation has gotten way too heavy; what say we go get a drink?”

“Sure, sure, that’s a great idea.  I’m sorry I got so upset at you.”

“Don’t apologize; you’ve got a lot on your mind.”

“Thanks.  It’s just really hard not knowing who I am.”

“I know exactly who you are; you’re Athena Logan, the most popular escort in the whole freaking country.”

“You’re full of shit, and I love you for it.  I guess one advantage of not knowing my real name is that I don’t have to answer to some stupid, boring name I didn’t choose.”

“Do you remember why you chose Athena?”

“Nah, I’ve always used it since my very first ad; don’t you think it suits me?”

“Oh, definitely, babe; I can’t imagine your being called anything else.”Birth of Athena by Rene Antoine Houasse (before 1688)

 

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