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untitled short story, pt. 2

September 5, 2015

Ammonia Saccas had worked at Video Mania a bit over two months. It stood between two walled in, sunken parking lots near the Westport neighborhood and had been in pre-digital years the area’s premier adult entertainment sales and rental location. Trade was still brisk owing to an expansion into novelty playthings of sundry caliber and wattage. Ammonia, 20, wandered in off of Darlington Ave. only a few hours after also joining up with nearby Sumac-Burns Community College. Hired on the spot by the entirely gay management in no small part for her more than passing resemblance to a clammily naïf young Bridget Bardot, as well as her pronouncement while tendering her paper application that living in the United States of How-much-does-that-cost? in the early 21st century, this wouldn’t be the first time she brushed up against the sex industry. Ammonia took the job in stride.

Handled a lot of title requests without tittering both over the phone and, more valiantly, in person. Chased cruisers of all shapes and sizes out of the wire-rack shelving with discretion and vigilance. Checked stacks of discs for purported skips and stalls amidst hours and hours of rough trade, gag reels, cuckold scenarios and foot worship. Tidied the shelves. Sliced open cardboard boxes on delivery days full of rubber cocks, glass cocks, silicone cocks and vaginas and buttocks and mouths, all in both non- and bearded versions.

the not insurpassable emburdenment of curiosity

the not insurpassable emburdenment of curiosity

 

Most of her downtime was spent examining some of the more massive lifetime-of-account balances in the customer database, all of them racked up over time, most all in one flavor, but some an admixture of various subgenres of straight porn, gay porn of either persuasion, bi, furry and specialty porn branches, many of them starting decades ago; Video Mania had bins full of slippery video cassette tapes for sale, and the price stickers were always falling off. Reapplication could be an all-day task. Ammonia knew all the regulars by name, outstanding fines, and whether they loudly, occasionally or did not ever discuss their proclivities at the register.

Plenty of ladies came through the store, a few of them very regularly – one was Tonya, né Antonio, who liked to collect bi feature films, esp. ones with semi-emerged soap opera stars moonlighting in what constitute in most cases that actor’s best performance and last decent paycheck. Tonya couldn’t get enough. Was in three nights out of four.

She had been born a younger son in an autobody repair empire, had been a favorite to follow the same path as every other chingon in his family before him. He didn’t like cars, thought they were dirty. Preferred showing off his moves at the clubs. Then at 27, and she must’a learned something about being careful what you pray for, reluctant Antonio of Concepcion Repairs got hit with the cancer. Right in the dick.

“Who’d have thunk it,” she had asked her doctor earnestly, bewildered, blind-sided. “What luck, huh, Doc?” Figured it was as good excuse as any. It was time for everything to come out. Fashionista, artista, bitch Batista. Lover of nature and day spas alike. Tonya let the fullness of her creativity finally speak through her body – after all the locus of her transformation. Body spoke by thumping her feet. Popping and jumping with those legs, twisting in the air. Tonya was a liberated dancer. Hoofed her way through a bootstrapped performance degree. Taught step and tap to children, gave classes in canning, pickling and computer literacy to adults, and practiced yoga, lived a peaceful life. Bought buckets of old porn.

Tonya – a porn purchaser, not renter – eschewed what she called “the lifeless contemporary stuff,” and she was always hectoring Dan, the store manager, with her special orders. As soon as a classic re-release was announced on disc, it was Tonya on the telephone. Relied on Video Mania for her weekly lube run, too, buying in weight from the area’s only bulk tribocopæa. And she made a point on lube visits to helpfully recommend the better toys out on the market to Ammonia, who had been replying with polite little, beet red ‘thank you’s and extra heaps of rental coupons in the black plastic bag until she did get a little toy – one Tonya on several occasions identified as “the best for syrup-stitches stimulation, you know, when you gotta have it; girls your age need lots of play all day” – as a promo from a vendor and it worked and she was pleased to have gotten all the free consumer reports advice, and she then began answering with questions.

But most of the shoppers and all of the highest grossing renters were guys. The most regular-looking dudes always had the weirdest tastes, but Ammonia could see from their accounts they came in sporadically, bought in quantity. The accounts that showed the most serious regimentation were invariably the most deranged-looking of the clientele.

Take that old trucker, Bill “pick ‘em up a title at eight and return it by nine-thirty” Turnbull. Every Monday through Thursday and then again on Saturday, going on forever now, just check his account, you could set an atomic clock by it. Came in. Browsed a minute. Paid. Came back wearing his roughneck’s uniform, but you barely saw him longer than it took to drop the box in the return slot at one end of the front desk. Had this scar like an older francophone’s little wrinkled moue above his lip that made Ammonia think of the character actor on PBS. His eyes twinkled when he said thank you, and that made Ammonia think of him as a kindly but misunderstood storybook monster.

It wasn’t just that Bill was heavily into the 408-volume-and-growing “Petite Penny’s Plumbers School Presents: Pliable Pipe-happy Coeds” series, although it was widely recognized as one of the finest examples of artistic reclamation of the schoolgirl genre, wresting the idiom as it did from the coarse smut peddlers’ reductionism of female educational aspirations to an image of nothing more than a sexual possession. The premise of the Petite … Coeds series, on the other hand, was equitable access to vocational degrees and the tiny amount of scripted dialogue breathlessly praised both the female orgasm and birth control. It was a beacon of sophistication and taste in the porn consumer that for Ammonia marked her opinion of Bill from the first.

There was something else about Bill that spoke to Ammonia. She had gone out on her own for a bit after high school, scratching at the itch of destiny – first there was the scheme her slightly schizophrenic friend cooked up to run some diamond mines in South Africa, which involved some months of half-informed waiting, a binder of semi-stolen information and a big downtown bank where Ammonia and the friend sat staring down an investment toad with hangover stubble and a smug smile but who also couldn’t stop asking to look in the binder one more time. Then there had been a year-long, extra dramatic relationship with a drunk who had been either a rodeo clown or a roadie, she never could figure out which, the aftermath of which was a meandering trip to New Orleans where she passed out handbills for bars and light spankings to drunks. This led to a brief stay in a cam-house operation in Miami, but she was back home before getting too deep in the webshows-for-tips scene. It was there she learned about the virtues of Bitcoin. Ammonia came around to facing the feeling that, although she might not know what she wanted to do, she had gotten a glimpse of some of what was wrong out in the world and she wasn’t going to fix any of it with an undistinguishing high school education and feet gone a’roaming. So she checked herself into the system – and into a job down the street at the same time, for good measure.

So it was because of this spirit in her that Ammonia first picked up on Bill’s similarly restrained restlessness. Bill “oh, they must’a made a typo; what’s ‘Guano-Tanamo’?” Turnbull. His regularly offered commentary reflected equal parts pith and powerlessness, sometimes landing squarely on the newspapers and magazines she brought with her, accoutrements of life at Sumac-Burns where she was enrolled in a number of introductory accounting, psychology and journalism classes with fuzzy older winos and determined-looking women with patchy hair. On one evening, a cover story described a new bid from a suburban police force for some kind of amped-up surveillance gear. Up to the front desk stepped old Bill “pays with a twenty every single time, n’ drops a penny in the change tray, too” Turnbull.

“Last thing we need is more federal bucks to cops. Better to starve ‘em and see which precincts are crafty enough to make it.” Re-sheathed his membership card. “Or at least get a trade-in going, one piece of RadioShack equipment for one piece of that military-grade hardware…” produced the bank note always folded in quarters, “.. wouldn’t be so bad I guess, them having a listen, I mean if it keeps ‘em from ‘knocking on the roof’ like those IDF boys with Unca’ Sam’s imperial toy box…” Snorted, dropped his penny. Ammonia was startled at how incorrect he was on so many levels, and how little that seemed to matter to the force of his manifold and  contradictory convictions. Found it downright humorous, she did.

Ammonia couldn’t resist it and baited him. “Is that what you think,” the stingy half of a question mark in there reprovingly.

He stared back for two seconds. Replied, “No, you’re right. They’re playing a valuable role thinning the herd.”

Ammonia laughed like a horse and Bill’s face cracked into a big, sharp smile that said, oh, you’re alright, old soul.

Then there was the customer appreciation potluck. Ammonia wore a t-shirt that day with a bit of  anti-Peron propaganda from 1946, a poster featuring a motor parade with throngs of admirers on the streetside, hanging from balconies, clustered on stairwells, wishing El Presidente well with ticker tape, massive floral pediments, signs inscribed with laudations in Spanish for Juan – who is unfortunately caught in what looks to be a sieg heil salute, and above this image a marquee slogan, “The Argentine Hitler is Hated by his People.”

Bill had a bowl of chili balanced on the top of his evening’s porn selection. Looked down and saw the shirt, must have been the chili made him punchy, he sang right to the shirt, “Don’t cry for Heeet-ler,chen-TEEE-NAAAH!”

‘Ah-ha, thanks. Just my sister’s idea of a tradition: gifting each other images of South American political folk-heroes co-opted by the North’s consumerist tat peddlars. Last year I gave her a Tickle-Me Che Gueverra.’

Bill smiled. Lapsed into a pantomime of a government mouthpiece: “Foreign policy, policy? There’s been no intergenerational collusion of business interests here … why don’choo look back at the birdy…”

“Yeah , right,” Ammonia gamely burst in, “‘not been arming anti-democratic guerrillas in the name of an extractive coups against Blind Justice Herself. Certainly not.’ Funny stuff, Bill.”

“You think so, huh?” Bill wised-off as he swatted around for his wallet. It was the first time she had called him by his given, and he was a bit embarrassed by it. Also, her pinned-on nametag identified her, and Bill was fairly sure erroneously, as Birdgit BarDough. He remembered that name for some reason, out in the periphery of his aging memory. “How many fascists we gonna’ teach to project instant, machine-driven, horizon-leveling violence,” Slapped the quartered twenty on the counter, “it’s like we’re turning the barbarians into franchisees … this time it’s not the gates of the city with battering rams – they gonna’ be bringing down golden arches.”

“Couldn’t be any worse for our health than glazed ribs on buns made of sugar and lies. See you next week.” Ammonia Saccas was on Bill’s wavelength, alright.

 

 

Needless to say when Bill “ten minutes lecturing with a discrete black plastic bag in hand” Turnbull hadn’t shown up for their usual Monday evening bullshit session covering the Sunday  morning talk-show circuit, Ammonia Saccas was on the case by early the following Tuesday. Spent a couple hours between morning classes and her Video Mania shifts sniffing around his place on the third floor, writing down addresses, names from membership cards, postcards tacked on the fridge, pieces of mail… a regular Jessica What’s-her-name.

Hanging back near a rear stairwell of Bill’s apartment block, a baby-poop gray building roughly the shape and smell of an old bread box set on one side so all the yeasty crumbs collected as gravity saw fit, Ammonia got a chance to size up a few of the other tenants. A few single mothers mixed in with some unsavories, uniformed laborers of all shifts with name tags, sewn-on name patches, toolbelts slung at their shoulders, and of course an elderly couple or two crocheting their knees into a noontime stroll. A drunk swinging a six-ring of ale propped the door. She was in like a lightning bolt and upstairs pushing a marker under his door with a wooden ruler in no time – if the strip of card was moved later, she’d know the door had gone so she wouldn’t inadvertently barge in or get caught picking her way – when as she knelt there cracked forth a hale tumbling, shaking the floor from the far end of the hall – a few bookcases falling down on each other?; a wall of improperly stacked logs?; a summer lightning storm consisting mostly of bowling pins?; someone large jollily rolling a sofa along for sport?

Ammonia started at the sound. As she rose she banged her head into Bill’s apartment door, then fell back on her duff before finally shooting upright. Her head throbbed momentarily. The Banging clamor was joined by strangled, gurgling laughter, weird, transfixing Ammonia for just a moment longer than her flight response was comfortable indulging …  the tall door to opposite the stairwell kicked open and clapped into the wall spilling an avalanche of horsehair plaster, and a figure – sour, greasy, filling the frame and squat, breathing chaos and a fume of liquor – ejected itself out into the hall. The laughter boiled over into rolling, wet coughs and gags. Phlegm was suddenly everywhere, and the bubbling mass seethed all manner of unhygienic fecundity.

Ammonia found the wall and pressed her back into it, putting her faith in the shadow as some kind of catch-all protection. It didn’t work.

The troll figure swiveled a slab of a head  and looked right at Ammoina. An instant of regard struck Ammonia sick to her stomach with dread, and the mass advanced in a lurch it seemed right for her. It was down the hall in an instant. The gurgling gave way to a voice, the jingling of keys.

“Get away from That Door. Jabba yabba dab DOOR!” Troll Thing shook a cane menacingly in Ammonia’s direction for one moment, two. Sweat and phlegm was raining off of the figure in giant droplets … the figure seemed to move about in the manner of a few sacks of something viscous and heavy. But astonishingly quick. Ammonia had only a second to take in bits of the scene, which she was certain with a kind of cool, detached disappointment would be one of her last. The thing was knocking more plaster off in a gritty hail as parts of it dragged along the walls. There appeared to be two little feet padding along under the mass. On the other side from the cane-wielding arm, another oddly angled appendage held a black plastic sack of wine bottles.

The Troll Thing hovered over her, belching out “AN gedda WAY from MY WAaaaay, too! …”, before it mercifully stank away further along the hall, now mumbling “ya’ foreigner … !”, stooping to steal newspapers and poke at refuse bags here and there. Ammonia half lobster-crawled backwards with both claws covering at her mouth and nostrils. Clambered, life or death, for the egress. Opened the firedoor only to face the gusting aromas harbored in the stairwell, and taking one last gulp of semi-fresh hallway, she tried to run for it. Made it nearly two flights before the noxious clouds of vermin-loving metallic green flies no longer bothered her, prostrate and supine on a crud-tacky landing as she was.

She awoke in the dawn’s pale light of the outer courtyard. Cane Troll had rescued her, dragged her down the stairs to the exit and then on to outside air, more safely laced with mere smog. “Omigod, I am so sorry I had misapprehended you; I really thought the worst of you at first!”

“I’m a human being, too.”

“I’m so grateful…” Ammonia exchanged names and pleasantries with Bill’s titanic neighbor, John Dribblepiss. John would let her in the building on subsequent visits.

On all subsequent visits, she would wear a well-perfumed bandana.

She eventually did pick the lock. Bill hadn’t come in or gone out in a few nights, and Ammonia “beginning to get a little too invested in surveilling the elderly porn consumer” Saccas felt this gave her justification to check for an autoerotic asphyxiation victim. She did this four or five times in the following days. Each time inside Bill’s place, she could hear a kind of chanting next door, or one of the neighbors above or below – it was definitely through a wall, Ammonia thought. One of these walls…

It sounded like an asthmatic repeating: “We must hum. Commanding clay, the stone, from terra; her pulsing fields, magnetic rays; she’s dust, she hums, we speak.” She listened out in the halls, glasses up against doors and walls, and while she heard all manner of weird and disturbingly fascinating things, she could not detect the sound from anywhere else in the building.

This seemed to match the tenor of the search for Bill. Ammonia would get a good break and no juicy trail to follow. The first such move was tracking his cell signal. Gained access to his webmail – piles of account data lie around most people’s homes – which gave her access to corporate services that led her right to a GPS coordinate. Learned the trick ages ago. Great for locating sulking boyfriends during her teen years – she had been fond of the cute, sensitive types back then, and while she never could commit to any particular one, she nonetheless contrived the right to pick among them at will. Ammonia had tended to a flock of so many broken hearted artists.

The phone in this case was of course not attached to Bill’s person. It was however located in a wooded grotto near a rocky outcrop far, far from the woods where his Dodge had been recovered empty earlier in the week, as she had learned from a local wrecking service. They couldn’t tell her anything about who came to collect Bill’s old truck other than they seemed very irritated about everything. Examining Bill’s phone yielded an unsurprisingly small amount of information about the preceding 96 hours, nor did it have any record of the path it took to the comely spot where it rested. In the end, Ammonia left the phone after programming her number into the nearly empty phone book – the only other entries being various County Departments and auto shops. Seemed easiest, best, just to let it lie where it was.

One afternoon at his apartment, Ammonia was struck by the realization that, as a committed observer of the female form, Bill would likely be missed in other places as well. Checked in on them all as surreptitiously as she could manage. All-night theaters near the industrial areas on oily roads out of town. Greasy gentleman’s bars up and down alcoholic’s row. Ammonia even put in an “all-points” with the Old Park Lechers Network, the ones that spent their days behind sunglasses not reading on benches, neglecting shabby mutts, driving over-slow and swerving into and out of the runners lanes, trying to drink in every single jogger’s butt. The Network knew Bill, alright, and provided heaps of information on some of his other usual haunts. But Bill was at none of them.

Ammonia gleaned from his mail that he was also an amateur observer of celestial forms, and she smacked her head when she saw the telescope, packed away in its little traveling case in a closet. She dashed out of the baby poop beige building and down to the observatory on Simmons Ave. at the big hill. Bill failed to materialize.

Two weeks passed. Patience and the joy of playing detective soon ran into distraction at work and class. Taken together, Ammonia ought to have had all the information she would need to zero-in on Bill Turnbull. But no dice – not on this planet’s possibility wave. She began to imagine that he had slipped off into some other reality, that Bill must be no longer in the same universe.

 

 

Bill woke up with dirt in his nostrils, his mouth. Little dirt pads damped the sound of the world. Finally made worm’s meat, certain that whatever had happened had been his own doing.

He began excavating his mouth, his eyes with his finally-freed arm. Couldn’t remember anything at first. Felt like a lawn-mower blade was embedded in his temple.

Lifted himself out of the rut he was in. Aware then it was not the same rut he had been in… here was where the memories poured back over him. The wreck … the dead kids … the extra-dimensional talking alien fungus … ?! … and this followed by the angry question, where was his fucking Dodge?

 

Bill was not very pleased with the state of things. He was certain that everyone at County, and the County’s bosses, and whoever worked for daddy warbucks, well they were all going to have a nice, tall piss all over Bill’s life. Real soon. And he lost his truck.

Bill figured, well, if this is just a matter of time, he was either going to wait here in the dark with nothing going on except maybe a mushroom monster or get on to somewhere else where inevitability might seem not so close at hand. He chose somewhere else. As soon as he started walking – on ahead, not back the way he had come, he started to feel better. Noticed the waving in the canopy of the trees above the road. Heard the crickets. Smelt the night. Bill walked.

Soon dawn broke and he came to a town. Walked to one end, didn’t see a soul; went back to the other with the same results. Came up to a nice white house, went right up the front steps to the door. Knocked. Bill knew no one would answer. Planned a good couple lies though, just in case someone did.

After a few knocks, Bill tried the knob. No one inside, alright. Bill decided he would wait in the parlor, left the front door open for the breeze.

He sat in a white wicker chair. Sat and waited for the house’s owner or caretaker to come home. For the phone to ring. A knock at the window from the milkman, a postie. The backdoor to yield to shoulders, boots, shouting men to wrestle his bought-and-sold sack of shit self to an end on the meagre pile of the corded rug, the colonial parlor’s only carpeting.

No one came. Nothing happened. Sun rose, set. The trees outside the window changed season four hundred times, non-oaks died and were replaced, and Bill saw nobody. Waited. paralyzed with the certainty that someone was going to come.

Bill eventually registered one day just how remarkable this would all sound if someone else were describing it to him before he was here, living in it. It felt like last week to look back at that before, like four centuries of last weeks, which made enjoying now a strange and elusive thing. The sunlight began to cross the floor and walls with an exaggerated quickness, and the night’s constellations came out and flew past the window with a similarly growing momentum; the next intervals seemed even shorter, and before too long things got wound so fast that there was an effect like a flashing on and off of lights happening. Bill willed his finger out at the end of an extended arm and pointed out the window, and he could feel himself riding atop of this wobbly ball that was rolling forward on one side as it whipped through space around the sun he had long only inferred would give his skin a burn if he were to invest a half hour’s exposure at the right time in the journey. Bill considered it only momentarily – going outside – and this he weighed against the prospect of remaining sat in the dust of his rocking chair, caught in a cosmic loop, and he suddenly found inaction disgusting and unbearable.

Bill started from his chair. It creaked and splintered into a heap as he made his way across the parlor floor and through the front door, which fell out of the jamb as the hinges crumbled into oxidized powder. He walked down the street with resolve as the wind picked up and things got cold. Approached the corner store, now badly dilapidated by time’s rigors. Leaves blew off the trees in shocks. The mostly steel doors were mostly intact, over the floor grown through with vines and lush piles of moss. Bill went inside as a sheet of snow fell and ice grew on all the features of the land. He apprehended the register, and stopped. His brain snapped audibly as he took in the scene. There he stood, looking at himself – another Bill – standing, wearing a name badge, a fresh uniform, this big dumb welcoming smile on his face.

“Hey, buddy! You got up – great.” Bill – our Bill – felt heavy with a profound sense of dumbness.

Not our Bill went on: “It’s time to stop putzing around over in this here, Bill. There’s something we … you need to go and face up to already. For us.”

The realization that nobody had spoken for a long time cut through the dumb. Our Bill felt his throat splitting apart a dry log over its knee. Playing a violin with a bow whose rosin long ago lost its worth. Nonetheless emitted the major thrust of what he needed to know in that moment of eternal expanse, “For who? Like … who’s us?”

“Well, us, Bill. I mean, you. You are me, here, and you are me five minutes from now. And that Bill – me in five minutes, well he is you just as much as I am. We are the ‘Us’es everywhere. But you, Bill; you have to finish the circle. So we came to direct you to your hero’s task.”

Bill blinked.  None of it especially astonished him. He had, after all, read a little Terrence McKenna, had taken all manner of psychotropic drugs in his youth, his early adulthood… and on through his middle age, as recently as last month; so he was, he felt, rather too open minded to be dazed by some hypothetical situation like this. He kenned on that he was in a radically new reality matrix than the one to which he was used, but it was proving hard to wade too deeply in any one direction. Bill let the tumbler stop on the most essential query.

“Will I know what to do?”

“Oh, you have already done it, Bill, yeah, you’ll get it when you see it.”

Our Bill turned around. Dazed as all else, he had to go out for some air just to process for a moment.

He walked back outside. The trees were rich with foliage again. Under the strobing sunlight, there was another person moving onto the scene. Bill Turnbull squinted; it was another him again. Walking right up the other end of town towards the little intersection where he stood by the corner store.

“Don’t worry, Bill. I can also tell you, you get through this.” Bill could tell this iteration of himself was nowhere near the truck driving beer-addicted porn consumer that was his own cast in life. Bill could also tell straight away this other him was pregnant with smugness. He thought he knew something Bill didn’t – and Bill “knows fucking everything” Turnbull thought quite differently. He immediately dubbed this Bill “Smug Bill.”

“I saw you do it.” A little pause then while Smug Bill pulled out a sachet of some kind of massive cheroots. Lights one up ostensibly using only the back of his thumbnail. Little puffs of artillery smoke burst around his head, narrow misses. Our Bill, dumbstruck with fascinated skepticism and a growing hatred of one his better, could just watched.

“Care for one?” Smug Bill holds out and our Bill accepts a dirty red cigar.

“Oh but that’s right…” our Bill starts to hear Smug Bill say and then disorientingly finds his mouth is making the sounds.

And suddenly he was staring at himself, but like, the Bill that he had just been – our Bill suddenly was the stuck-up, quietly arrogant version of himself that he had just been ridiculing out of insecurity and repressed homoerotic impulses. Now here he was inhabiting the total perspective and point of view of this other, whose thoughts he caught up to in media res judging his erstwhile own’s sodden coveralls, thinning hair and desperate, gargoyle-like appearance. Esrtwhile-now-smug-him then addressed our Bill in his place.

“Have a puff, I forgot you can’t light yours without tools and you don’t seem to be carrying any of the necessary accoutrements.” Fall turned to winter again as smoke wafted up in coils, caught on the breeze.

Our Bill the roughneck held Smug Bill’s cheroot in Smug Bill’s hand, gazed at it with Smug Bill’s smugly keen, glittering eyes. Roughneck Bill marked all the thoughts, feelings and impulses that were floating through Smug Bill’s nervous system. There were the patterns of being that had worn grooves in to the electrochemical guck in Smug Bill’s head and spinal column by repetition and usefulness. Roughneck Bill beheld everything through an experience so familiar and completely foreign.

He managed this arm up to this face, used some lungs to inhale through the tube of dried-smoldering-something, had a moment where he could sense every fibre of Smug Bill’s meat thrill to the introduction of the smoke at the same instant that his own judgment of the effects were neutral to disgusted – what an impression of being both caught in the middle of and also the agent producing such perfect interference! – and found himself unable to stop Smug Bill’s body from blowing the smoke dismissively right at Roughneck Bill’s person. That body spoke suddenly: “There you go.” It was every time he had looked in the mirror and imagined his reflected body moving on its own. Roughneck Bill was beginning to shift from feeling disoriented, depersonalized, to feeling just plain imprisoned.  He could not quite summon a feeling of ire or a single frustrated impulse, and at this awareness the ultimate sense of disempowerment washed over our Bill.

And then he was back in his own roughneck’s head. Felt his old congested arteries, his old porn- and substance-polluted mind and instincts. Smug Bill was again in front of him, smiling.

“Ah, Bill. You will sort it out once you get started… keep that cheroot, old buddy.”

The sun stopped, dead center of noon. Sprouts had barely appeared from the ground. Buds stood just a few trembles away from bursting. And Bill Turnbull, retainer to the county no more, was again alone in a deserted backwater town with two intersections. He tucked the cigar in his pants pocket. He considered which direction he would take out of town; how momentous his next step felt to him then – like nothing he had ever done before in his fifty-odd years.

 

 

Getting from one universe through the infinite possible universes of infinite possible combinations of dimensions to your home universe is not as difficult as the uninitiated might think it could be. It is, as Bill Turnbill found out, simply a matter of pushing through layers of possible situations until you breach the next, like wading through bubbles. They aren’t on top of each other, more like hidden both behind and inside of each other, but they are prismatic and slippery looking, which is great for fans of bad ‘60’s art. Bill did a good deal of heaving and shoving through all manner of permutations on the world he had come to expect as his day to day reality.

He would look around himself at situations that were sometimes just mostly but mostly all of them nearly the same as his origin reality. As soon as he noticed something off kilter – where he felt too heavy, too warm, or where there seemed to be no color orange, or more noticeable differences like he was tiny and other people were almost giants or vice-versa; every misstep sent Bill grunting along again. But in every here-and-now he stopped to sound out for home, he always noticed the same kind of mushroom growing in a corner somewhere. On a few occasions it was the only recognizable thing about a situation, every other feature alien to his senses, ungraspable. Remarkably persistent species, Bill extrapolated from its appearance in yet another permutation of the here-and-now. On to the next possible universe. There had been a television show when he was young where the opening sequence was a pulsating tunnel that was supposed to be what traveling through space-time looked like. Now Bill knew it was not anything that flowed, that instead dimensional configurations just kind of unfolded each one out of the others.

With the patience of a Rubik’s cube solver, Bill Turnbill found his way back to the here and now where we first met him. Once he was in it, it was just a matter of sticking to now.

Later, over a plate of bad stripmall hoisin duck, he would describe it to Ammonia like this: “The first few hours here, I was rather unsettled. Suddenly it would happen that I was falling through the tiny spaces in the middle of things. I look at my watch, note the time, and I’m Zeno wading through eternity in a hall of mirrors, in between some fraction of a second in between another half of that, and half again, and I’m also back here, in now, and in my restroom reaching for a hank of toilet paper squares, then slipping in between the fibres and finding nothing but vast tracts of nothing in between each nucleus of each constituent atom in a complex wood sugar hydrocarbon chain or two. Then I used the toilet paper to wipe off the slightly spattered rim, lidded the bowl, and flushed.”

When Bill finally felt firm enough in the right now – where he’d been thoroughly used to loathing and hating being a roughneck for the county, before an intelligence from beyond time turned him into a dimension-hopping explorer – he appeared in a clearing. This would have been the same spot where Ammonia had tracked Bill’s phone, and he found it a little while after exploring the area.

Bill contemplated what to do. He was still kind of afraid of someone trying to get rid of  him due to his involvement in the kerfuffle with the politician’s son. He might have needed to worry, were there anyone out looking for him other than Ammonia. But, in fact, the politician, who had initially made such a ruckus with the bureaucrats, when he heard of Bill’s disappearance, having had only intended to disappear him anyway, decided the cheapest option had been achieved and had turned to other matters, and hence all persons and groups intending Bill harm found the situation already optimal so long as Bill remained absent presumed fled. But Bill didn’t know this, indeed he had just been told he was going to face a great adversary, so he was nervous. His phone at hand, out of habit he thumbed through the call log. Saw dozens of calls from a number matched to Ammonia’s new entry in his contacts list. Strangely, he knew she had been searching for him and had programmed it in so he would know she was looking. Bill gestured to his phone to dial Ammonia’s number.

She picked up, ecstatic and more than a little curious. They agreed to meet at the stripmall foodcourt in case either or both of them were being tracked. There, over bad Chinese, Bill told Ammonia the story about the wreck, the mushrooms, being unstuck in extradimensional possibility. She was pretty sure there was a real chance that Bill might be putting her on. He did kind of look like a trucker whose medication had run out, but she was eager to squash the tiny doubts she could sense developing in her. Ammonia brought out a few comic books from a rucksack, rolled her eyes.

“Look, that’s basically the plot of this here,” thrusting them into Bill’s hands. “There’s even a YA trilogy out last year that has the same thing about the talking fungus. Probably you fell asleep with the movie version playing on Nickelodeon or something?”

But Bill insisted. Blabbered as evidence that he has, if not mastered, at least figured out how to travel between universes. The boundless, pandimensional set of possible universes surrounding each other, linked to all. The spores activated his Gold Card, coated him in time-Teflon, whatever, he became a free agent. Some cosmic wind must have pushed him across universes before he was able to control things, and he “came to” and “got stuck” in the same place, where he had been immortal, blissful, ignorant. Ammonia stared, arms crossed, one foot tapping.

To this taste of Ammonia’s sharp, peevish incredulity Bill didn’t respond well, saying she looked as though she wanted him to bring her back some proof. Bring her an impossible shape, or something. But that he would do better. “Alright then … Birgetta Bar$$$ – I know you know what I know.”

He told her her life’s story. Nutshell-sized recap. Explained that when he bumbled back into this here of his origin universe, he first poked his head in about two decades prior to the right now.

“It’s not a science, this dimension travelling, it’s tough to fine-tune the whole time.” While the now he appeared in matured to the now he had broken away from, he found himself aware of how all things were developing. Out of all of which things he found himself focused on the people he had been connected to, and that tellingly included pretty much only Ammonia. Bill didn’t have a lot of relationships with people who liked him, either, so naturally he was drawn to consider her life especially. Her story he held in his mind as the memory of an engrossing novel or, more fitting to Bill, a film franchise. The litany of major character shaping events made her jaw drop.

“You saw all that…” Ammonia was wilted over in her seat and blushing red. She knew that she might be one of the only people to ever come to the moment in life where one has no secrets. “You must have seen other things, too, then.” Like her stay in the camming house, strip-teasing for tips from overseas customers on encrypted websites. She always thought she would be insulated from the land where Away From Keyboard and Far in the Future overlapped. Here she was in it.

“It’s okay, Ammonia.” Bill sat with a level gaze. “I knew I had recognized the name before. It’s a nice bit of wordplay.” Ammonia’s mind raced. Had he been one of her tippers? How had he known to mask his IP address? For how long had their lives been intertwining? Bill was starting to look kind of like a balding, stained work shirt wearing Buddha to her. Suddenly remembered where she had intended for the conversation to go.

Ammonia’s embarrassment quickly transmuted itself into an opportunity for reproof, she said righteously, “If that’s all for real, you can do this crazy shit, then why don’t you use it to find out what happened? Why this happened to you?

Another one of his blank stares where he looks like he’s figuring out why someone is asking him questions, why it makes him feel so vulnerable… he answers her finally. Decides he’s going to test her a bit. “Let the CIA figure it out, let Mulder and Scully go at it. Let someone else go put their snouts out for the why’s and what’s.”

Ammonia’s face fell and then lifted, and she chimed in, “Of course, but people like us see that’s no way out. We are not content to live under the shadow of, if not truth… the shadow of knowledge. We always have to investigate – it’s our nature!”

Bill Turnbull was always a pretty smart person just with all kinds of sass and too many cynical vices corroding him. Here in front of him, chirping at him about the freedom of enlightenment; here was someone who was going to move herself towards really doing something, become an agent of change – Bill could see it clearly.

He considered the fullness of Ammonia’s youth radiating from her face, and let it wash over him, bringing him the full information on the young woman who had taken pains to seek him out, to check on his well-being, to care for his connection to this place and time. He knew he could trust her, fill her in on what lie in store for him. For her part, Ammonia was just getting to the part where she thought she was going to start offering to help.

“Listen, whatever happened, happened to you, Bill. You are allowed to feel things about that – you’re allowed to have an opinion and get inquisitive and wonder if you have been given a gift, you know, what way are you supposed to use it?”

“Ethically. You want me to consider my next steps … as a gratitude thing?”

“No, dummy! As a puzzle thing. As a game. Embrace the absurdity of it all… I think we should figure it out. I’ve been snooping for a few weeks, now. We could start snooping together.”

Bill couldn’t take it anymore. He would have to let her know. He leaned in over the strip mall food court table.

“I’ve got a pretty good bit of help in you, young lady. And thanks for looking for me.” Bill took a breath. “I can tell you the why, the parts I’ve been leaving out.”

Now Ammonia leaned in, her voice an aspirated squeaky whisper. “What parts? What did you already find out – was it something you saw while you were also … investigating me?”

Bill waited a beat for effect – he couldn’t help himself. It was all so dramatic suddenly. Then he let her have it as concisely as he could muster.

“It’s a fight of ages. Of a bygone age and one upcoming – a titanic struggle, Ammonia!” People in the food court turned to see who was so excited. “The end of the plant age – our species, a lens for consciousness, raised here by the Sun and our electro-magnetic dynamo; and we must now take our vessel into the next age partnered with space-travelling fungus …

“The visitors win this one. We have to make sure the human race sides with the fungus; we have to make sure the Sun God dies. And the God of the Void prevails.”

Ammonia’s eyes might fall out of their sockets. Little red capillaries are turning fat as the moisture dries from the whites. Bill finishes off his admission.

“I have seen the victory, the new age, and I came back to tell myself to, well, get involved.”

“That’s … way more fucked up than anything I was thinking of.” Ammonia straightens up in her seat. Now she is nearly screaming. “Holy smokes! I thought,” regains a bit of composure and quiets herself considerably, “I thought it was some kind of mystic cabal entrenched in the local government, you know, like mind control and hypnosis or some shit … holy smokes!” she repeats this a few more times.

“No, Ammonia, I’m afraid this has next to nothing to do with late-Corporate Capitalist Homo sapiens materialism. Our species has merely been enabling brewers yeast – a one hundred-eighty thousand year old organism taking care of a far older one, a fungus that is only another lens for consciousness – been enabling it in response to some deep knowledge that it will be able to shepherd us…”

“To where?!” then more self-shushing.

“More like ‘to whence,’ Ammonia. You said I should go and explore my part in this mystery, and you would help… well?” Bill Turnbill stands up at the table in the food court. Throws his napkin on the paper liner on his tray, slides his chair in and holds out his hand to Ammonia Saccas. “Are we doing this?”

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