Chapter 11: How the Luddites Get Things Done

The studio, Glassamazoo, was in a former factory that had been renovated to accommodate artist spaces. It was a featureless white slab of a building with small windows and the look of a prison. Squat, squinting and cynical. It was on Kalamazoo Avenue, midway between Billy’s apartment and Geoff’s condo on the mall. It took Billy five minutes to sprint there and he arrived, panting, and leaned against the side of the building. He looked down the street and it didn’t see anyone had following but the sensation that he was being watched lingered. And the stone still tingled, pulling him slightly towards that space down the street and up one flight of stairs.

His throat was raw from the run and he was breathing heavy. Despite the cool weather he was sweating through his jeans and t-shirt. He leaned forward with his hands on his knees until he caught his breath. Dimly he was aware that that his chest should be hurting from the exertion but he felt normal. He was out of breath and wobbly from the run but the pain from the stone was barely there. Adrenalin, he thought.

With a final look over his shoulder he walked around the corner and along the sidewalk flanking the building on Church Street. He took a left into the parking lot behind the building and entered through an unlocked service door, walked down a dim corridor to the back entrance of the Glassamazoo studio, pounded on the door then stood in the hallway facing the direction he had come. He waited there, hands loose at his sides, breathing deep into his lungs until he heard locks opening on the door, metal sliding against metal. As the door swung open he slid through the gap then quickly pushed it shut and slapped the locks back into place.

“Billy,” said Angela Cruz, stepping back from the door. She looked surprised and amused. “You okay?”

“Huh? Oh yeah, I just saw someone outside that I wanted to avoid.” he offered.

“Right,” she crossed her thick, tattooed arms and looked him up and down. “And I suppose you’re all sweaty and out of breath because you ran up and down the back hallway a few times to lose them?” She was dark, with a pretty face and body of a running back. Her short hair had been dyed blond but it was growing out so her roots showed, black as night. Dark as her eyes.

“Yeah,” said Billy. “I think it worked.” He managed a smile and scanned the room. “Anyone else around today?”

“Nah, there’s a class in a couple hours but it's just me right now. Hanging out doing some of my own work.”

She had spread her lunch on one of three large work tables flanking a furnace which ran around the clock so the room was always pleasantly warm. Beside the furnace was the glory hole, a white hot secondary furnace with a glowing open maw for reheating glass after it cools. There was a pair of flat metal tables with clamped wheels, two gaffers benches for working and shaping glass, and an assortment of pincers, paddles, files and shears. A dozen glassblowing pipes and punty rods lay horizontally on a rack, their ends warming in an oven. The annealer, a big green oven for slowly cooling glass to prevent internal stress, was on the far side of the room. The walls were painted a pale gray, the floor was a dark concrete and under Angela’s management the hot shop was kept spotlessly clean.

Six years previously the museum curated an exhibit by an artist who made enormous works of suspended, glass anemone. Billy had enrolled in a glassblowing clinic the following week. The one-day clinic led to a series of courses which led to an apprenticeship, cleaning the studio and doing grunt work for Angela. Now he helped with contract orders, sold some his own work and taught part-time at the studio.

Working with glass required patience, strength and flexibility in equal measures. He loved the inherent contradiction of physical labor - stinging heat, aching muscles, and sweat - to produce a delicate, nuanced output. Leaning into the furnace, feeling the heat sear his face and arms, was punishment and reward, a cleansing meditation that burned away his doubts and fears. It was just him and the glass, both of them struggling against external forces and internal nature to find the beauty within.

Billy shrugged out of his jacket, dumped it on a chair and dug the slab of vedge out of a pocket. It had been poorly wrapped in a sheath of paper towels and was falling apart. He took a bite, licked his fingers then walked to the water cooler and filled his a glass stein that was sitting by the sink. It was rare for him to drop by unexpected on the weekend so Angela watched him and waited to hear what was on this mind. Despite the heat he kept his hoodie on and zipped up.

“You got a few minutes to talk?” he asked then took another large bite of savory pie.

“For you, sweet pea, I’ve got all day. What’s up?”  She sat on a table, leaned back on her hands and let her legs swing.

“Thanks.” he said through a mouthful of food. He was unsure how to begin so he decided to warm to the topic. “You’ve done some jewelry work in the past. What do you know about quartz? ” He resisted the urge to touch his chest.

“Quartz? Jeez, man, you know as much as me. Its a super common naturally occurring crystal. Used in everything from abrasives to electronics. Hippies absolutely adore the shit because it’s highly conductive and can hold a charge. Supposed to be good for healing, refreshing energy fields and stuff. Energy can be passed through and stored by it. The same reason it's used in things like circuit boards. Why the sudden interest?” she asked.

“Kind of a personal project that I’m working on,” he said. “I’ll tell you more about it later but, for the moment, I’m keeping it quiet.”

“Hmmm...jewelry and gemstones. Does this have something to do with Beth?” She grinned and leaned forward.

“Yeah, but...”

“Say no more.” She clapped her hands. “I totally understand and won’t ask for details. Sometimes its best that you play these things close to the chest.” She misread his expression as embarrassment and moved along. “Now that we’re on the same page, what do you need to know?”

“Um...I’ve seen crystals in tons of different colors but have you ever seen black quartz?” he asked.

“There’s smoky quartz and some amethysts are so purple they’re almost black and you only really see the purple when they’re lit. How black are we talking?” she asked.

“We’re talking black black.”

“Gotcha. Seems a little goth for your purpose but I don’t judge.” She raised opened her hands to reinforce the lack of judgement. “Some smoky quartz can be pretty dark but I think you’re looking for something that’s been irradiated. Jewelers do this to change the color of stones and crystals. When a stone is irradiated the color will either intensify or change altogether. Jewelers will take common crystals, irradiate them to change the color to something more rare and they markup the price. The whole industry is corrupt, in my opinion, screwing with scarcity and feeding on people’s stupid notions of value. Topaz gets the treatment pretty commonly to produce stones that are extra blue and pearls sometimes turn black when irradiated. The fabled black pearl...ooooh” She wiggled her fingers and opened her eyes wide. “People are pretty much idiots.”

“I hear that.” said Billy. “Do you know anything about the ceremonial use of quartz and crystals?”

“The hippy stuff?” she asked.

“No.” Billy said. “Well, maybe. I’m interested in the real deal. I know they’ve have been used by cultures around the world for healing and focusing energy but I don’t know much about it. All I really know is that there’s a connection to shamanic rituals and ceremonies that goes beyond birthstones and mojo bags. Its easy to dismiss crystals as hippy paraphernalia but traditions don’t linger for centuries unless there’s a deeper value and I want to know what they represent and how they’re used.”

Angela slid off the table. “If you’re going to get all academic I’m not the person to talk to. I poke fun. That’s my limit. But I know a guy who would love nothing more than to talk about crystals, math and the spiritual planes. Come with me.”

She led Billy across the studio to the main entrance where there was a desk with a computer set up for welcoming and signing in students. She pulled up a chair and tapped the mouse to activate the screen then leaned back and with her hands behind her head. “I’m going to offer a heavy disclaimer about this guy. He’s one of the smartest people I know and he’s kind of a freak. Have you heard about transhumanists?”

Billy nodded, “People who believe the next step of evolution involves the integration of technology into their bodies.”

Angela raised her eyebrows and smiled, “I’m impressed.”

“What can I say? I like science fiction.”

“Good. So you’ve got a head start,” she said. “He’s practical fella and focuses on research projects and product development that’ll get funding, nothing too esoteric, but he’s definitely a believer.

“Whats the connection to crystals?” Billy asked. “It seems like that goes in the opposite direction from transhumanism.”

“Good question. His domain is the overlap between spirituality and technology. How we can use technology to get closer to the universe, God, ourselves. Whatever. It’s tough to get funding for that kind of work so, last I heard, he’s developing wearable technology that manages hormone levels and emotions. I think he’s in one of those new research parks off I-31. Supposedly getting crazy funding from the government because his tech has military applications. Managing fear on the battlefield, coping with PTSD and stuff. Personally I think he made this thing so he can stay high all day.”

“Anyway, if there’s anyone in this town who will be able to describe the spiritual value and function of crystals it's going to be him. You could probably find a baker's dozen of crystal healers out in Saugatauk but, pound for pound, he’ll be the best person for an articulate conversation. He’s overbearing but clear.”

“And how do you know this guy?” Billy asked then finished off his sandwich.

“Similar circles,” she waved her hands in little loops.

She spun in her chair to face the computer and began typing. “I just got an email account. I’ll send you his contact info.”

“Actually, could you write it down?” he said dusting crumbs off his hoodie. “I lost my phone.”

“Bummer.” Angela looked at him and frowned. She peeled a piece of paper off a brick of neon post-its wrote, down a name and number and handed it to him. “One more thing, Billy. Don’t overthink the stone. Beth’s a practical girl and she’ll love whatever you give her.”

“Thanks. Yeah, I’ll keep that in mind.”

She was right. Beth was practical, a natural problem solver with a gift for breaking problems down into action. If their roles had been reversed what would she be doing? Even if it meant putting herself at risk she’d find a way to inform the police. She’d either go herself or mobilize them through a connection. Then she’d have a plan of her own, gathering the support of her friends and family to do track Billy down. She would move heaven and earth and use any tool at her disposal to find him and Billy felt a small degree of satisfaction that he was following a similar path. Maybe she would’ve have thought of something else but he’d used Geoff as a sounding board and it was time to take the next step and he needed more help.

For Billy, faith was a finite resource that he viewed conservatively. Extending trust had led to pain too often for the pattern to be ignored. The logic chain was a simplification of the facts but over the years it had solidified into a script, a rigid documentation of his scars.

As a child he loved traveling, moving to different cities and countries, but when the bullying began he was in the third grade he quickly learned that his father's decision to move the family was selfishly motivated. Billy’s pain was a small thing compared to his father's ambition.

His mother encouraged him to forgive his playground tormentors and the bullies loved this new sign of weakness, the acceptance of his fate, and the abuse worsened. Desperate, he ignored his mother’s advice and began standing up for himself. He stopped running and stood his ground. He learned to throw the first punch, moving hard and fast towards the things that scared him. Initially the bruises multiplied but over the years he developed a reputation and the violence began to taper off. Only the most committed bullies, the ones with nothing to lose, confronted him. His transition from victim to aggressive defender disappointed his mother and his difficulties in school led to talks with counselors and his father's embarrassment led to more emotional abuse at home. Then, at the age of sixteen, his mother died.

Beth told him that he needed to forgive his father, the driver of the the SUV and everyone else that had caused him harm or got in his way. “All those people had helped shape the man I love,” she said. “No matter how cruel, stupid or ignorant they were, they helped raise you and I’m thankful for that.” She loved him, flaws and all, and it was hard to accept. If she could forgive his imperfections he should be strong enough to forgive, well, everyone. It would feel so good, he thought, to truly trust.

Asking for help didn’t come easy.

He closed his eyes and, through the stone, he still felt connected to that unseen space in the living room of the house almost a mile away. It no longer pulled at him but the connection was there, a thread of energy linking him to the space. It was becoming clear the stone had an agenda but was that a function of the stone’s innate properties or was it a focus for something else?

Billy glanced at the post-it Angela gave him. Next to a phone number and email address she had written a single word in block letters. It said PUFF and she had doodled little stars around his name. He slipped the note into his back pocket, dusted crumbs off his shirt and cleared his throat.

“There’s something else,” he said. The heat from the furnace prickled his skin and he felt the presence in the back of his mind stirring and the stone grew slightly warmer.

“Yeah,” Angela smiled, “I figured you didn’t come down here just to make a mess and ask about crystals. You know as much or more about them than me.” She sat back in her chair, laced her fingers behind her head and put her feet on the desk. “What are we really talking about?”

Billy grabbed a chair from one of the work tables and slid it over. As his resolve took shape he wasn’t surprised to feel the first needle of white hot of pain behind his eyes. In the face of the oncoming aura he had a realization. The stone wasn’t just trying to avoid the police, it was trying to protect itself. And it was learning. It knew the police represented a threat but it let him talk to Geoff because it didn’t anticipate where that conversation was going. It was a part of him but it didn’t fully understand how ideas were connected so it’s map of his motivations was incomplete and that was the purpose of the deeper intrusion earlier. It was digging for more information, more control. Billy didn’t know what would happen if the presence completed its map but he doubted the result would help him.

When the stone recognized threats it was applying negative reinforcement, punishment, training him to avoid behaviors that put it at risk. Which meant there was a flip side to the training. If there was a negative behavior there must be a corresponding positive behavior. The stone needed him alive to perform some duty. He just needed to figure out what that was.

“I’m going to make this fast.” The pain was escalating and Billy pushed it back, throwing his emotional weight against the mounting pressure. “Two things: first, I need to ask a favor.”

“Easy. Whatever you need. What’s the second thing?”

Billy took a deep breathe and in that space he could feel the shadow vibrating with alarm. “I need to show you something.”

Chapter 10: You Put Your Right Foot In

On Day One of his onboarding process Colin watched videos about spiritual possession. He sat at the end of a long table in a wood paneled conference room and cued up videos on an enormous flat screen TV that was recessed into the wall. The videos were spare, informative, and intended for a very small, very select audience. The commentator was disembodied, a faceless, bassy voice over that was warm and parental.

“For centuries,” the narration began, “spirits have been making the jump from their plane of origin to ours.” Images related to world's major religions cross-faded into a montage of illustrations depicting demons and monsters. “This phenomenon transcends cultures and religions. It appears in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Voodoo, Shamanism and across smaller, but no less devout beliefs.”

“Some spirits can maintain a presence in this plane, and even assume temporal control, possession, but it's extremely rare for them to have a physical presence of their own. For that to happen two things are needed: a pliant host and a sacrifice to fuel the creation of a channel that could connect the spirits plane to their destination.”

A diagram illustrated the concept: a series of blue circles labeled Host, Channel and Visitor appeared onscreen. The Channel circle flattened and connected the remaining two circles like a dumbbell. “Through this channel,” explained the commentator, “an entity could both possess its host and draw energy from its plane of origin.” When they connected a series of arrows animated down the pipeline from the Visitor to the Host. The narrator warned, “Visitors who successfully navigate the channel and occupy a host possess unearthly abilities related to their occupying spirits predilections and they can live almost indefinitely.”

“This new entity, the unification of the Host, the Channel and Visitor,” the narrator explained, “is called a Triune.” A larger red circle animated onto the screen and encompassed the blue dumbbell diagram with the blue Host and Visitor circles connected by the Channel. The word ‘Triune’ appeared above the illustration.

Colin learned that all Triunes could read major disruptions in energy patterns and, to some extent, track these patterns back to their point of origin. This was essential for identifying new breaches and tracking down the Visitor before it could manifest into a Triune ‘Greeting’ was the term used to describe identifying and capturing a Visitor.

Almost a decade before Colin arrived a host who’d been breached but wasn’t yet fully possessed walked through the doors of the main chapel on the ministry campus and presented herself. She was immediately contained and medicated.

“Rose Chen had been a member of the local tantra community,” said the narrator over a photo of an early twenties Asian woman dressed in colorful steampunk clothes, “a curious dabbler in the spiritual, arcane and hallucinogenically assisted exploration of the universe. With chemical assistance she and her partner dipped their toes deeply into pool of the unknown without a guide. Under the surface of normality they discovered a world where the rules no longer applied and, like tourists everywhere, they drew unwanted attention to themselves.”

There was some trace of her remaining when she dragged herself into the chapel but the Visitor was visible in her eyes. The video showed stills of her restraining in a gurney. She looked wild and insane, her lips were peeled back like a dog, pupils like pinpricks. She was restrained until the full possession occurred.

The unwelcome visitor assumed control of Rose Chen but, Colin thought, it escaped a plane of relative freedom and stepped into a hollow shell, a prison, and fed a diet of sedatives, benzodiazepines and barbiturates to keep it off balance and cooperative. It lived in the twilight between worlds and, on some level, Colin felt bad for thing that wasn’t quite a human.

Eventually the ministry handlers and the Triune made deals. In exchange for moments of lucidity the spirit would provide them with information. Since then identifying and tracking new Visitors had been much easier.

No one in the lab could pronounce the spirit’s name, so they continued calling it Rose Chen. The narrator concluded the first of several introductory videos, “It was a small memorial to the woman who gave them their greatest weapon in the pursuit of the Devil’s spawn.”

 

Chapter 9: Through Glass, Connections

Billy was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan but it had never been home. His father, LTC Stephen Weathers, was a military analyst and his family moved regularly, whenever he had an extended non-combat post. They lived in Germany, the Philippines, China, and throughout the United States. Each location had its challenges: a new language, a new school, a new collection of bullies who loved to hate him because he was small, artistic and an only child.

In every school there was an established hierarchies of bullies and victims but whomever had been at the bottom of the pecking order received a promotion when Billy’s family arrived. It amazed Billy how quickly the former victim made the transition to bully. Eventually the Weathers family would move and that kid would be back where he started but for a short time he would enjoy his tenure as part of the pack. He was usually the first one to crack a joke or throw a kick at Billy when he was down.

Billy’s father was second generation Army officer and he saw his son’s harassment as something to solidify his character and push him towards more sensible interests than art. Even musicians had a place in the military, but artists? The closest a man should come to an artist was to get a tattoo. Billy’s desire to draw and paint was a defect, a rough edge, to be filed down so his son could function normally. The Army had given Stephen the focus he needed when his life was at a pivotal point and he believed exposure to the military should similarly inspire his son.

Billy’s mother, Linda, did what she could to ease his pain, but his father was clear that some issues Billy would need to solve for himself. So Linda iced her son’s bruises, hugged him when he cried and did her best to be a mother while giving him room to become a man. For his part Billy did what he could. He stopped running away. He started moving towards trouble as it brewed. He began surprising his bullies, moving faster than they expected, stepping into their faces and swinging first. He cheated. He pulled hair, he elbowed, he headbutted, and he kicked nuts like a punter. He discovered most bullies has a threshold for pain that, when reached, made them reconsider their actions so Billy caused pain quickly. He tested their commitment. In playgrounds, alleys, parking lots and school hallways he learned how to take care of himself. That first encounter he only had to knock one person down but sometimes they came back with friends. Even when he was overwhelmed he went down swinging.

He would a develop a reputation, on and around the base where they were staying, and the other kids would leave him alone. Then the family would move and it would begin again. By the time he was fifteen he wasn’t the skinny kid anymore. He was still an artist but he had a weary confidence that bullies correctly read as trouble and they learned to give him space.

The family was living in Jacksonville, North Carolina, when his mother died.

Billy was sixteen and he had gone to a wholesale shopping club with her to stock up for the month. Humidity hung in the air, thick and prickly, fouling moods and repressing activity. Lawns went unmowed. Dogs lay panting under porches. Desultory flags hung limp on peeling, white poles.

It had rained in the afternoon and the shopping center parking lot was wet, shiny and black. When they left the store the sun was emerging from the clouds and reflected brightly on the pavement. The driver of the SUV that killed her would claim in the police report that the sun’s glare had blinded him.

Linda was pushing a cart packed with groceries and Billy’s arms were loaded with bags when they stepped onto the pedestrian crosswalk. He never saw the SUV but witnesses reported she only had a moment to react and in that second she let go of the cart and pushed Billy out of the way. The SUV hit her then veered and crushed her against a parked car. She died instantly.

Billy was sure he must have seen her there, twisted and lying across the hood of the SUV but the memory was blank, a redacted moment too painful to recall. Years later, hiking in the desert of western Texas the image would finally come to him. Until then his only was memento was a small scar on his chin where he had hit the pavement.


As a child and teen his life spanned the globe. As an adult his life happened within a two-mile radius of the apartment in Kalamazoo.

There were excursions to friends apartment, restaurants, bars or south on Westnedge to the big box malls but his daily routine was within easy walking distance down the wide neighborhood streets and across the train tracks into downtown. Beth needed the car and he could easily walk to work at the glass studio or his part time job giving tours at the art museum. His routine took him on a loop from home to the museum if a tour was scheduled, then to the studio, the hot shop, for the afternoon where he’d work with glass until Beth came home.

In the two years he and Beth lived together he walked all of the side streets lined with blue plastic trash bins, past all the homes separated by dirt driveways, and poked his head down every alley and dead end street between work and back. He enjoyed the steady rhythm of his life and small deviations from the pattern gave him joy - unexpected conversations with neighbors, the remains from parties the previous night, accidents and gray-green leaves turning gold as the weather cooled. He taught at the hot shop three days a week and gave ad hoc tours at the art museum. Sometimes he offered workshops at the museum or consulted when they added a glass piece to their collection. It wasn’t lucrative but money didn’t bring him peace of mind.

Geoff left the apartment a few minutes earlier and Billy was lost in thought, walking to the glass studio. His brain was buzzing with questions, doubt and paranoia. He took the left onto Kalamazoo Avenue when he realized he’d walk right past the purple Victorian on the opposite side of the street.

The home was unchanged but today the two great pines in the front lawn threw darker shadows than it was possible on a sunny mid-afternoon. He felt a sense of vertigo like the shadows were a void and he was leaning forward, tipping into a hole. The stone in his chest tingled, like a foot waking from sleep, and he imagined a physical connection to the home, a gravitational pull tugging at his chest. No, he thought, he felt a connection to the space. Not the wood, plaster and walls of the house but the space within the building and from the second floor he could feeling something pulling him across the street.

He took several steps, veering off the sidewalk to cross the road, when a warmth washed over him from head to toe. Fever sweat chilled on his skin the in Autumn air. An internal heat wave that he felt emanate from his chest, flowed through his limbs and out his fingertips. The home was still exerting its pull but he was aware of something else. There was still a low-level buzz in the back of his mind, the presence of the stone but he felt like someone was watching him. He paused and slowly spun to examine the neighborhood. Nothing seemed out of place, traffic was normal and there was no one sitting in any parked cars and the windows of the surrounding homes were empty. The only other person on the sidewalk was a neighbor walking his dog. Still, the feeling persisted and, from the events of the past day, he learned there were some things he would never see coming.

So he ran.

 

Chapter 8: Weed and Email

Billy dug through his pockets and muttered under his breath. “Ah crap, I think my keys were in the bag they took.” He stood at the door to his basement apartment.

“That figures,” said Geoff, “up until now things were looking too easy.”

Billy looked at him then back at the door. Geoff was shifting from foot to foot at the top of the stairs and rubbing his hands together to keep them warm. He was looking across the backyard beyond the scrub of the dried garden and through the trees whose golden foliage was just beginning to turn brown. Wind shook dry leaves from the trees and they fell, whispering in the breeze. The house shared a border with the playground of an elementary school and they could hear children playing on the other side of the fence that divided the properties.

“Geoff.” Billy said.

“Huh, uh what?” Geoff looked from the playground to Billy, at the base of the stairs.

Billy gestured towards the door. “I’m going to kick it down, you keep a lookout.”

“Why?” asked Geoff.

“Why, what?”

“Why kick the door down?”

There were three cars crowding the driveway, Geoff’s black Trans Am with the Smokey and Bandit paint job, Beth’s hatchback and a third car he didn’t recognize.

Geoff points at the final car. “I think your landlords are home, they probably have a spare key.”

“Oh.” Billy walked up a couple steps and looked at the car. “Yeah, that’s them. One of them, anyway.” He glanced back at the door. “Good thinking.”

Billy joined Geoff at the top of the steps and they walked down the driveway and followed a paving stone path that cut across the front lawn. They walked up the front stairs onto a wide veranda that was painted mauve and adorned with heavy wooden patio furniture. The house was a massive tan and mauve-trimmed Victorian. It’d been a personal restoration project for Billy’s landlords, an early thirty-something married couple named Seth and Jenni DeJong. They lived on the main floor and split the basement and upstairs into rental units.

The house was in the heart of the historic district where the blocks were lined with oaks, elms and asymmetrical Victorian homes with trim painted in a spectrum of candy pastels. Therewas  an implicit understanding between homeowners that no two homes could share a color scheme. Most of the homes are painted in muted, complimentary hues but these are punctuated by the occasional lime or purple house that was a diabetic assault on the visual cortex. The mid century homes are ornate, with complicated, decorative trims, and in varying states of repair.

The district was wedged between a student ghetto to the south and  low-income, single story homes to the north. Pedestrians were sparse collection of yuppies, bohemians, students, and blue collar workers with the occasional street dealer.

Geoff didn't deal downtown or in the ghetto. His territory was relative safety of the campus dorms, bars, fraternities and sororities.

Billy knocked on the front door while Geoff stood back a polite distance and lit a cigarette. Within moments they heard footsteps, creaking floorboards and someone fussing with the lock. Jenni DeJong, Billy’s landlord, opened the door. Her long blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she was wearing denim overalls with a pink singlet. She was barefoot and her toes were painted in alternating colors - blue, green, blue, green, blue.

“Well, hey there, Billy.” She wiped her hands on a towel that looked like it’d been used for everything from shining shoes to cleaning up paint spills. She glanced at Geoff’s cigarette and frowned but didn’t say anything. He got the message and wandered down the steps, back towards his car to finish his smoke. Looking back at Billy she asked, “What’s going on?”

Billy paused, “Uh, hey Jenni, I’m locked out of the apartment and was wondering if you had a spare key.”

She smiled, “Yeah, no problem. Give me a sec and I’ll be right back.” She closed the door, leaving him alone on the veranda.  He looked back at Geoff who lifts his hands, palms up and looked a question at him. Billy gave him a thumbs up and gestured for Geoff to wait. A moment later, the front door opened and Jenni stepped out wearing flip flops and a sweater, a set of keys jingling in her hand. Billy followed her back the way they came, listening to the soft slap of her flip flops against her heels. Geoff ground out his cigarette in the driveway and tagged along, a few paces behind.

“Jeez, it's cold today. So what’s up, Billy?” she asks, “Beth lost her keys as well or is she working today?”

“Sorry?” Billy hesitated. “She’s, uh, gone. And I left this morning without my keys.” Out of the corner of his eye Billy could see Geoff wince.

“Oh, sorry to hear that.” Jenni looked sideways at him. “You made a good couple.” They walked a few paces and she added, “Maybe you’ll work it out. ”

Billy slowed down and looked at her. He starting thinking coming home wasn’t such a great idea.

Geoff stepped in, “They’re trying. Beth just went to stay with her folks to get some space.”

They were at the apartment door and Jenni stared at Geoff, who smiled and help out his hand, “I’m Geoff...their friend.” He nodded at her feet, “I like your pedicure.”

Jenni ignored the offered hand and looked at Billy and Geoff, then turned to the door and began fishing through her keys. She tried several before one settled into the tumbler with a click and the door swung open. Billy watched her survey the living room. It’s walls were covered in dark wood paneling, the only windows were up near the ceiling so the afternoon sun spilled in at an angle, high and dusty. The futon, the green hand-me-down reclining chair, the stacks of books, the yard sale furniture and the plants, potted and hanging, creeping and prickly. The clothes on a coat hanger, dangling on the bathroom door. The shelves of glassworks, the failed experiments and glowing successes, virtually indistinguishable from one another. It was an alchemist's cabin on an old pirate schooner. It was home and Billy was quick to scoot her out of the door.

“Thanks for the help, Jenni.” He guided her up the stairs. “Sorry to bother you.”

She nodded and smiled, “No problem.” For a moment it looked like she was going to leave then she turned back and touched his arm. “Billy, if you guys need anything just let us know. You’ve been good tenants and, well, you’re good people. Remember, whatever happens, it's not the end of the world.”

Billy watched her walk up the stairs and listened to the slap of her flip flops as she turned the corner and walked back down the driveway. At the school next door recess had ended and the playground is silent. There was a light breeze, cool and refreshing pushing leaves around the backyard. When he heard her footsteps creaking in the apartment above he slowly closed the door.  

“Okay Billy, what’re we doing here?” Geoff was sitting on the futon, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. There’s already a bag of weed on the cushion beside him and he peeled out a rolling paper.

“I’m going to check Beth’s email to see if I can get Don Raul’s full name,” Billy hung his jacket on a hook next to the door. “I figure that’s the first step. Then we call around to see where they rented their car. That shouldn’t take too long, there are only what, five or six big rental companies and all their offices are connected, right?”

“I don’t think just share that kind of info,” said Geoff. He places a large book across his lap, lays the paper on the book and begins crumbling weed onto the paper, picking out seeds and broken bits of stem. The rich, marshy smell of marijuana creeps into the room.

“Yeah, I know,” Billy said, “I was thinking we could call and report the car stolen. Most rental cars have an internal GPS so the company can track them down, right?”

Geoff laughed, “I like that. If Beth is with them in the car the police might even find her.” He paused the preparation of his joint. “But if she’s not with them the police won’t even know to ask about her. The cops’ll figure out pretty quickly they didn’t steal the car and let them go.”

“Yeah,” Billy frowned. “We could use his name to track down his hotel. Same deal, we’ll just call around and see if we can get the front desk to confirm that someone with that name is staying there.” He walked across the living room to a small dining table set against the wall. There was a slim, silver laptop sitting closed on the table. He pulled out a chair, say down and flipped the computer open.  

Geoff sat back and considers the suggestion. “How you do know they’re staying in a hotel?”

Billy pecked at the laptop keyboard with two fingers. “Beth said something about it. They booked a few ceremonies in the area and were doing a little tour. Apparently Don Raul only does these things in pairs.”

“Like, couples?” asked Geoff.

“Yeah,” Billy answered, “I think so.”

“Huh,” Geoff was smoothly rolling the joint between his thumbs and forefingers, “that  would make it easier to pull something like this. As opposed to groups, I mean. One person is used as leverage against the other.”

“Right.” And, Billy thought, if I’d had my act together we wouldn’t have been there in the first place. “But one thing still doesn’t make sense.”

“Only one thing?”

He shot Geoff a dirty look.

“Right. What’s that?”

“What the hell is this?” Billy tapped the stone. “There weren’t instructions and there was no word of Beth being held as leverage.”

Geoff licked the paper edge of his joint and smoothed it with his thumbs. It was a perfect, white missile with tapered ends. “In the movies this kind of shit just clicks into place but I don’t think we’ll figure out what’s going on until we have a talk with this guy, Don Raul. So, where do we start? There’s probably a hundred hotels around here. Any idea how to narrow down the list?”

“Give me a minute, I’m checking her email,” said Billy.

“Cool,” Geoff held up the joint, “do you mind?”

Billy’s face was scrunched up in concentration as a scrolled through Beth’s emails. He looked up briefly at Geoff, shook his head, and looked back down at the computer.

The living room and the kitchen were separated by a counter and Geoff got up, walked into the kitchen and pulled a coffee cup from the sink. He rinsed the mug, set it on the counter, lit the joint and took a slow, steady drag. The joint burned bright, a sniper's red dot in the gloom of the apartment. He leaned with his elbows on the counter and exhaled slowly.

On the counter was a box from a local printer. Someone had written “Beth Dwyer, Vedge” on the box lid with a fat, black Sharpie. Geoff slid the box over and opened it. Inside were menus for the restaurant she had just opened with her business partner. Beth was the acting General Manager and her partner, Hope, handled the kitchen cooking vegetarian pies that were served in wedges. The name, Vedge, was Billy’s idea. They sold savory pies, sweet pies, shepherd's pies, and pot pies filled with vegetables, fruits, tofu, soy and meat substitutes. The grand opening had been two months previous, in mid-August so they could be running smoothly by the time the students arrived for Fall semester and they were already on their sixth iteration of the menu. He picked one up. The seasonal pies were featuring squash and pumpkin with Autumn spices and they had a special for a pumpkin beer from a local brewery. He had taken three hits, tapping ash in the mug, when Billy leaned back, slapped the table and said, “Bingo!”

“Yeah?” Geoff folded the menu and placed it back in the box.

“Yeah.” Billy grinned. He did a little drum roll on the table edge, pushed back from the table and walked into the kitchen, squeezing past Geoff and opening the refrigerator. “Beth was emailing with Cesar, the shaman’s assistant, and his full name is Cesar Domingo. The shaman’s name is Don Raul Vega,”

He stood and was holding a plate of leftovers from Vedge. The slices of pie were covered in cling wrap. “I found some links in her browser history. He’s from Peru, someplace called Shipibo-Conibo, and he’s been based in Santa Fe for the past few years.” He used his heel to swing the refrigerator door closed and shooed Geoff to the other side of the counter to make space for the plate. He peeled off the cling wrap, picked up a slice and began eating, using his other hand as a plate.

“Help yourself,” he said using his slice of pie to gesture towards the plate. “It’s soy chorizo and egg.”

Geoff helped himself.

Billy continued, “I don’t know what hotel they’re staying at but I found an email from Cesar saying they’re staying on Portage Road, near I-94. There’s what, four or five hotels right there by the highway? That narrows it down.”

Billy stuffed some pie into his mouth and spoke around the mouthful of food, “Holy crap, I am hungry.” He wiped his chin with his hand. “They took my phone so I’m hoping you can give me a hand by calling hotels and car rental, uh, places.”

“Agencies. Yeah, I’m on it, “ said Geoff.

“Thanks.” Billy waved at the fog of pot smoke that had solidified and hung at eye level in the room.

He was light-headed from secondhand smoke and he felt the tickle of shadows unfolding in the back of his mind. Touching him with oily, black fingers. He was back in the cave from his hallucination but his apartment was just beyond the cave walls, seen through a thin black haze. Distantly Billy was aware of Geoff speaking. The shadows had wrapped around his limbs, pulling him tight against the wall. In the middle of the room a black obelisk rose from the mist, low and flat like a table. Billy strained against the shadow’s grip and screamed until his throat was raw but the shadows were steady and their pull was inhumanly strong. They held him, helpless, as something on the far side of the room shifted in the darkness. There were no eyes but he was aware that the thing was watching him, calculating his mass and his will to live. The thing settled, low to the floor, and began rolling towards him, a heavy black bubble of shining stone and gristle.

“Are you okay?” asked Geoff.

“Huh?” Billy opened his eyes, he hadn’t realised they’d been shut, and Geoff was staring at him. “Uh, yeah, I was just remembering something from my hallucination last night and it was...dark.” He shivered and shook out his hands.

Geoff was frowning. “You looked pretty far out. Why don’t you come to my place and take it easy while I make those calls?”

“No, thanks. I’ll be fine. I’m gonna head to the studio.” He looked under the counter for sandwich bags but didn’t see any so he wrapped a large chunk of chorizo vedge in paper towel.

“Okay,” Geoff looked doubtful. He placed the remains of his joint in the small plastic box he used to stash his weed.

Billy leaned over the sink, turned on the faucet, and splashed water onto his face. He grabbed a hand towel from where it hung on the oven handle and dried himself. As he hung the towel he looked at Geoff and grabbed his packed lunch.

“It’s time to go to work.”

 

Chapter 7: Ministries and Missions

It was early morning and Colin Harris had been blessed with sparse traffic on the Tom Landry Freeway. The sun was a soft white smear in a cloudless, pale sky and the neutral landscape of Fort Worth slid past the bubble of his grey Chevy Malibu. He was dictating notes into his phone and keeping an eye on his speed and his gaze hovered between the mirrors, blind spots and the road. His hands were light on the wheel and he kept to the center of the five lane highway.

He had a round everyman face, thinning blond hair, pouchy blue eyes, and a softly athletic build. Meeting people for the first time he was often told he reminded them of someone. He was average, forgettable, and it suited him fine to be forgotten. Being underestimated often gave him an advantage and one of his greatest assets was the extreme degree to which he is highly unremarkable.

Within two hours he’d board a flight to Detroit where he’d pick up a rental car and call his handler for directions. Their asset in Texas would guide him to the intrusion site and from there he’d pick up the trail of the new Visitor and bring him back to Texas for study and potential indoctrination. His work would be done and he could retreat back to his cabin in Alaska until the next job came along. It could be months, it could be years. He was paid to wait.

He liked working alone. Before the ministry he was in the Army Rangers and he often worked solo, with little direction or oversight from his government.

It was in Afghanistan that he learned a single individual with proper motivation and moderate financial support could be remarkably effective. Too often, he thought, terrorists missed the point of causing terror. Epic events might capture mindshare but the point of terror was to create a state of immobilization. Governments could absorb damage but a government people had a much lower threshold for discomfort. Action follows fear. In his experience it didn’t take much to push people towards action and a change in leadership. Small acts that fed a accumulating sense of doubt and insecurity didn’t require months of planning: small bombs under park benches, adding arsenic to drinks at a cafe or bar, killing pets, and discreet injections in crowded public places. These, and more, were the ingredients of fear.

Create doubt in small ways, everywhere, and whittle away a people’s confidence. It didn’t even matter if someone was hurt, its the fear that mattered. Cause a community to doubt their security and they will question their leaders and change will follow. One small act every day for a week was far more effective than a singular event. A dozen individuals causing one small act of terror every day was devastating.

The military had quickly recognized his talents and dismantled the filters that helped him repress his urges. They gave him order, they gave him focus and then they gave him permission to do things he’d always dreamed about but couldn’t do in the real world.

It took him four tours to realize sometimes we’re not meant to do the things we’re good at. Lying was easy but did that mean deceit should become the norm? Killing was effortless but what part of himself was dying every time he did the things that came so naturally to him. He loved the focus, the system, of military life but he realized they were the wrong set of rules.

He retired from the Rangers and moved back to his hometown of Badger, Alaska where his father helped him build a small cabin on his parents property. The Army offered assistance for former soldiers re-entering society but Colin had enough of their guidance. He craved structure and missed the sense of purpose but his time he’d work work for a higher order. He applied for a position managing a Fairbanks donation center for Mason Ministries which led to a similar position in Texas, near the ministry headquarters in Texas. He worked for Mason three years before the depth of his skills came to the attention of a curious Human Resources staffer.

Charity Garbowsky liked to kill time playing games and reading personal files during her lunch break. In Colin’s file she discovered a periods of unaccountability in his timeline, gaps in his Marine career where his location was missing. Weeks later he’d resurface with a new station. He appeared in Kandahar, Baghdad, Beirut, Xinjiang, Chile and Canada. There were no patterns and, as a lover of puzzles, she wanted answers.

She called her cousin, Paul, who was a Marine in Kandahar at the time Colin was serving in Afghanistan. Over drinks and pulled pork sandwiches she picked Paul’s brain about operations during that window of time. There were hints of stories that led to redacted files, more conversations and, eventually, a dead end. Stumped by a bureaucracy that exceeded her pay grade she bumped the file to her director, Peter Stathos, who took a similar interest in Colin Harris. Who was the mystery Marine coordinating their donation drives? Peter was limited to the same government databases as his subordinates but he had something that Charity didn’t. Relationships.

At backyard barbeques and golf courses he started asking questions. He bought drinks for low level government officials and shared a pitcher of beer with a Senator who was a former roommate and fellow Aggie from Texas A&M. Slowly the details of the Colin Harris’ past came together. Not all of the details, but enough that Peter knew he’d found a candidate for a very specific job.

Colin’s office was a satellite removed from the main ministry campus, a warehouse on the southeast edge of the city, just south of Lake Arlington. It was a clean, renovated space but lacked the in-house kitchen of the other ministry facilities. To compensate, the breakroom at his facility was catered every day. It was Thai Tuesday and he was enjoying a green curry when Peter Stathos walked through the door, sipping an iced coffee, and said there was a position available in the Ministry for which Colin was uniquely qualified. Would he be interested?

They put him through a battery of psychological evaluations, paperwork and background checks before an official interview was officially scheduled. He was given the greenlight and he was subjected to a paid week of behavioral interviews with ministry staff from across disciplines. He was grilled on accounting, scripture, crisis management, technology, world politics, and even the proper way to field dress a deer. He was required to defend spiritual views he didn’t share and he was asked whether he seasoned his food before tasting it. His former colleagues from the Corps, those that were still alive, were called. He was subtly deprived food, water and toilet breaks then offered indulgent meals and drinks, a night out on the town. He politely refused all excess. He sipped Diet Coke and ate packed lunches. He addressed questions, and the questions within questions, directly and with humility. He was smart, personable, flawed and eager. He had a quiet passion and a gift for on-the-fly prioritization. He was an independent thinker and willing to be molded. He was exactly what they were looking for.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon he found himself sitting on a park bench in the shady corner of the ministry’s main campus. Behind him loomed a great, red mulberry tree. Beside him on the bench sat a tall, lean man in a tailored suit. Shadows pooled in the deep lines and creases of the man’s face and his silver hair flashed in the dappled sunlight. The Reverend Mason Phillips. His smile was wide and genuine, revealing big, square teeth that were unnaturally white. They spoke briefly and the reverend stared into his eyes, holding his gaze uncomfortably long before they shook hands and Phillips welcomed him aboard. Then he stood, dusted his pants and walked off, taking long, easy strides across the green.

Colin was hired and, a week later, he learned what it was he was expected to do. It took him another week to figure out it wasn’t a joke.


Colin’s headset beeped and he routed the incoming signal through the car speakers. “Harris.”

“Colin,” his handlers baritone was edged with a note of urgency that was out of character, “you got the message?”

“Yes, Sir. I’m en route to DFW as we speak. I should arrive in Detroit by 3:45pm where I’ll pick up supplies and proceed to greet the Visitor.”

“Good. Will you need assistance?”

“Unclear, Sir, but I know some people in the area.” Colin wanted very badly to collect the Visitor without assistance but if the need arose he’d swallow his pride and make the call. The last Visitor arrived two years previously and it took Colin months to track her down. In that time she became quite gifted and he underestimated her resourcefulness. Their ultimate encounter was untidy and there was little left of her to take home. The opportunities to prove himself were too few to allow for mistakes. He wouldn’t let another black mark mar his record.

“And are they clean?” asked the handler. The note of doubt irritated Colin. Years of impeccable service and his record had been reset by single mistake. No one was perfect. His entire career was built on standards of excellence but you couldn’t put someone in the field with so many variables without something going south eventually.

“Yes, very clean, Sir.”

“Good. Keep me posted.” The connection was cut.

Colin hung up, reviewed the conversation in his head then nodded with satisfaction that nothing incriminating had been said. A sign announced the exit for the Dallas/Fort worth airport so he checked his mirrors and blind spots then slid slowly into the right-most lane. He touched the cross hanging around his neck and whispered a little prayer for his own success. Normally he’d never pray for personal gain but this prayer isn’t entirely selfishly motivated. The work he does will help everyone, whether they know it or not.

 

Chapter 6: How a Ball Starts Rolling

“I hate to say this Billy but I think you should consider going to the police.”

 

Billy looked up, “Um…”

A wave of nausea hit him so hard that he grunted and sat down heavily into the sofa. His vision wobbled and jagged lines strobed in his peripheral vision. The pressure mounted, pushing his thoughts into the periphery and his vision grew cloudy as the pain grew into a fractal, animated aura. A small soft dot of white appeared in the center of his vision and expanded, the room flooded with saturation and light, bleaching his vision until he was blind. He lost his sense of up and down. He was aloft, floating in a brilliant white cloud of pain and his breath was cold and sharp, whistling through his teeth. Curling forward into a fetal position his closed his eyes and covered his ears with his hands. Dimly he was aware of Geoff shouting but the sound was muted and warped, a stretched tape cassette left too long in the sun.  

Behind the bubble of pressure there was a presence, a malignant intelligence applying its will against his. Billy felt the shadow maneuvering, testing the resolution of this will and probing for weakness, tender places in the barrier of his psyche that could be penetrated and exploited. The attack came so suddenly there’s no time to consider what was happening. Billy’s reaction was instinctive, the product of years of abuse. He did what he had always done when he was pushed. He resisted.

Dormant anger surfaced and he used it to fill the gaps in his emotional wall. The nerves and emotions that wove around those memories were well worn paths so his response was immediate and stronger than the presence anticipated. Billy fought the intruder the same way he confronted a physical opponent. He was slippery and wild, unpredictable and on the offensive. He slashed and battered, luring the intruder into gaps then viciously assaulting the presence after it commited to the a path. Their wills clashed, the shadow a half beat behind Billy and probing for weakness but unable to commit its resources to an attack. Billy pushed it steadily backwards to the outside edges of his mind and he could sense the intruders frustration, a thin sheet of seething, quivering fury.

He focused on breathing slowly, steadily, to regain his composure then he visualized a police officer. The intensity of the shadow’s vibrations increased and the headache flared but Billy had thwarted the deeper attacks. He pushed the officer away. A lone cop in blue fading into the horizon and as the image receded Billy injected into his thoughts a resolve to avoid the police. As he anticipated, the pain begins to ease. The attacks came on two fronts: the migraines and the emotional attack. While he successfully defended himself against the emotional attack he was still vulnerable to the physical symptoms. Thankfully, the intruder was only reacting to thoughts that viewed the police favorably. His life would become difficult, indeed, if the shadow broadened its interests.

The migraine aura receded into the periphery of his mind, a momentary detente, but his head rang like a bell from the assault. He gently uncurled and lay back on the sofa, letting his heart rate normalize and his breathing soften. Slowly he opened his eyes and the light was full of sharp angles and hard planes. Geoff resolved into a messy wash of color. Billy placed his feet on the floor and eased forward, leaning with his head hanging down, shielding his eyes from the light pouring through the windows.

Geoff handed him a glass of cold water and Billy drank it tentatively. He felt brittle. He knew where the headache was coming from and what triggered it but he didn’t know why. What  other surprises were waiting for him? His body no longer belonged to him. And neither, it appeared, did his mind.

“Are you okay?” asked Geoff. He was sitting opposite the sofa on giant, reclining chair covered in red velvet.

“No. I’m not.” Billy rested his head in his hands. The pain was fading but present, waiting to see what he would say so he chose spoke carefully, weighing the risk of every word. “Beth’s in trouble and the...police,” he waits for the migraine but they don’t come, “will slow things down. They’ll fixate on the drugs which means trouble and questions for me. If I go to them they’ll find out about the stone. They’ll either see it or frisk me or...something. I don’t know the legal precedents but I’m pretty sure they’ll hold me until they figure out what the hell is going on.”

He can’t tell how much of this represents his actual beliefs or what he thinks the shadow wants to hear but the pain was slipping away. For the moment the stone was appeased. He looked at Geoff, nervous about the potential consequences of sharing his thoughts.

“And honestly,” Billy said, “every time I think of going to them I’m hit so hard by a headache that I can barely move. It’s like something is sending me a really clear message not to go there. I’m not sure I’d survive the trip.”

“What do you mean, something?”

“At first I thought it was just stress but it only happens when I think about going to the...cops.” Billy waited and when the pain doesn’t return he continued. “I know. It sounds crazy, but I think it’s listening and trying to...control me.”

“What’s trying to control you?

“The stone.” Billy explained. “I think it’s aware.”

“Aware?”

Billy couldn’t pinpoint how he knew the headaches came from the stone but he was certain it was the source. During the attacks he felt something...shift...in the stone. “Yeah, like it knows what’s happening around it.”

“I know what aware means.” Geoff sites back in his recliner. “But it’s just a stone.”

“Just a stone?” Billy’s laugh was dry and humorless. “You believe in all of this...we’re living on multiple planes, we can be healed through ayahuasca and we have spirit guides. That a plant, for crissakes, gives a rip about us and wants to be our guide to better understand ourselves. But you don’t believe a rock that appears in my chest while taking ayahuasca couldn’t be anything but a stone?”

“Okay, point taken. We all pick and choose what we want to believe in.” Geoff gives a little bow. “I’m just saying...don’t take this the wrong way...you might be confusing signals. The ayahuasca is probably still in your system and your interpretation of reality may not be the most reliable. There’s a chance you’ve had a psychotic break triggered by the ayahuasca and some of what you’re experiencing could be delusional. I’m not saying it is, I’m saying it might be. That doesn’t explain the stone, but the stone could be the reason for the break. If someone...implanted...that in you while you’re hallucinating it would be enough to create a reaction.”

Billy’s realized his fists were balled and he relaxed his hands, shaking them out. The pressure was still there, pushing him towards anger but he was aware of it now, and pushing back.  “Sorry. You’re probably right. All this stuff is bouncing around in my head and none of it makes sense.”

It’s been years since he lost his temper and he felt unhinged. He wondered if this was the work of the stone but Geoff was right that he isn’t functioning at a normal capacity. Perhaps he’d been pushed to the breaking point, just beyond his control. Darkness was welling within him and he worried what he would say or do if he relaxed. He’d have to suppress the impulses, even if it meant throttling down his other emotions.

Billy realized he was starving. Thankfully there was no reason he could see to resist that urge. “Do you have anything to eat? I’m starving and maybe that’s got me a little extra on edge.”

“Yeah, it must be the hunger. It couldn't have anything to everything else,” said Geoff. “C’mon, I’ve got something in the fridge.”

“Awesome.”

Minutes later Billy was wiping a bowl with a wedge of artisanal bread, sopping up the remains of Geoff’s mom’s maple chili. Geoff seldom spoke with his mother but she communicated her love and support by sending him seasonal foods. Among their friends her chili was famous. When the weather chills she mailed her son gallons of the stuff and throughout the fall and winter Geoff hosted potlucks featuring his mom’s concoction. It was sweet, savory and served with salty tortilla chips. the flavor trifecta for the hungry stoner.

“I’ve been thinking,” Geoff said. “I don’t know what the Peruvian extradition laws are like but if I was Don Raul I’d probably head straight for the Amazon.”

“Yeah,” Billy agreed. “I think they’re going to skip town. My money says they’re going to straight to Detroit or O’hare so they can catch a flight and save their own skins.”

“You don’t have any money.”

Billy ignored him. “They could be halfway to an airport by now and I’ll never find them if they leave. That doesn’t give us much time to figure out where Beth is. I doubt they’ll be taking her with them.”

Geoff pulled out his phone, held up a finger to Billy then pressed a button. The phone beeped and Geoff said, “Find me flights from Detroit to Lima, Peru.” There was a pause before the phone replied that it found flights and it prompted him to visit a website. He ignored the prompt, pressed the button a second time and told the device to find him flights from Chicago to Lima. Again the pause and confirmation.

Geoff put his phone back in his pocket. “If they’re going to an airport we’re equidistant from both Chicago and Detroit and both airports offer flights to Lima. if only one of them offered flights I thought maybe we could either meet them there or find out from the airline which flight they were on. Seems like a longshot.”

“Agreed,” said Billy.

“Listen, it sounds like the…boys in blue...aren’t an option for you,” Geoff began. “How do I say this,” he looks at Billy’s chest and raises his eyebrows, “maybe someone else could go to them on your behalf? Do you know anyone else who could drop them a line?”

“I....don’t know.” Billy answered slowly. The shadow in his mind wavered, undecided. Perhaps, Billy thought, this was a workaround. Maybe it only react to thoughts when he was the point of origin. He took the gamble and forged ahead. “You mean an anonymous tip?”

“I’m not sure those are truly anonymous,” Geoff answered, “but yeah. Either that or someone walks down to a station and reports a missing person. I’d do it but, for obvious reasons I may not be the best person to contact the police.”

“Right. I don’t want to put you at risk.” Billy paused to think, “I know someone, my boss at Glassamazoo. You’re off hook.” He glanced at a clock hanging in the kitchen. It was an old Lite-Brite that’d been hacked to display the time in animating numerals. “It’s 10am now and she’s usually at the studio by eleven on Saturday.”

“The tattooed chick? Angela? Why don’t you just call her?” Geoff asked.

“She doesn’t have a phone.”

“What?” Geoff looked annoyed. “That’s crazy.”

“It’s a lifestyle choice.”

“Okay, whatever.” Geoff shook his head. “So you have an hour before she gets to the studio. What’s next?”

“Well,” Billy said, “I was thinking we need to figure out what’s going on.”

Geoff stared at Billy. “Easy as that?”

“I’m not saying it’ll be easy but I want some answers.”

Geoff clucked his tongue and ran his hands through his hair. “Man. I’m trying to figure out whether you know what you’re doing, and I just don’t know. You’re a freaking glass-blower, for cryin’ out loud.”

Billy stood, “And an art historian.”

Geoff drank the remains of his beer in a series of long swallows then tossed the bottle in a chrome recycling bin. “Not really inspiring but I’d rather beat my head against a wall then try talking you out of something.” he sighed, “Got a plan?”

“Of course I have a plan.”

“So, maybe you can share it while I get my coat?”

“Sure,” Billy grabbed his worn, brown leather jacket from the bar stool where it was draped. “We’re going to find Don Raul.”

 

Chapter 5: A Discussion of Mules

Billy watched as Geoff Schenk read the notes on the crumpled legal pad. Geoff held them between the tips of his fingers as if they were coated with toxin. He gently flipped the legal pad around then turned it upside down, flipped it again and read it for a second time. Placing the notes on the table and sitting back he ran both hands through his hair then wiped them on this shirt. He sat on a highboy barstool at the head of tall, narrow dining room table, a thin slab of poured concrete framed in dusky metal and mounted on iron, riveted legs. If there was anyone Billy knew who could make sense of an incident involving drugs it will be Geoff.

In a fog of paranoia and dread Billy had collected his sleeping bag and his discarded t-shirt. Operating on instinct he removed any traces of having been in the apartment. There was an email thread and credit card payments tracking him and Beth back to the apartment but he’d deal with that later. He left and walked home hoping, for some reason, that Beth had gone back to their apartment. Their car was in the driveway, the door was locked and she wasn’t there. He dug in his pockets and realized his keys were in the bag that was stolen. Frustrated, he stood shivering outside the door of their basement apartment.

Scenarios multiplied in his mind: she was in a hospital, she was kidnapped, she was picking up coffee, she had to deal with an emergency at work, she had been raped, beaten senseless and left bleeding in an alley. She was dead, a broken lifeless thing covered in frost and dew.

Was it possible that he had done something horrible in the depths of his hallucination? His thoughts lingered on the worst scenarios and a rich sweetness filled his mouth. It was the taste of decay and rot. His body tingled with warmth and he felt something inside of him delight in the pain. Sickened, he flipped the lid of a trash can behind their apartment and dry-heaved over black plastic bags of garbage. Holding himself upright, his hands on the rim of the can, he felt weak and unsure of himself. Bile burned in the back of his throat. The impulsive sense of joy that he felt at the thought of Beth’s suffering had come from nowhere. Shaken, he put the lid back on the trash can and began walking to clear his mind.

He needed a destination and, as a reflex, he visualized going to the police. Again pressure flared behind his eyes. The pain came so suddenly, a sharp, blinding migraine aura, that he stumbled into the side of his house. It came faster every time, as if the migraine worked out the kinks and switchbacks of his brain. The pain eased as he recoiled from the thoughts. A dull ache remained as he considered his options but the pain was manageable when he avoided thinking about the police. Something was actively pushing him away from that option but he couldn’t tell if it was stress, the natural by-product of everything that was happening, or a darker impulse. Physically he had been altered by the ceremony but how else had he been changed?

It was a twenty minutes walk to Geoff’s apartment downtown. Twenty minutes to think about what happened, what he should do and what he had become.

He rang the buzzer, waking Geoff, and chose the stairs over the elevator after he was buzzed into the building. The apartment door was ajar and Geoff was already brewing coffee when Billy walked through the door. He caught his breath and started explaining what happened from the moment he woke up.

Geoff listened, nodding and asking questions, refilling both of the cups when needed. With some trepidation Billy showed Geoff the stone. As he unzipped his hoodie he felt an invasive, tremulous buzz run through his body. Up until now he had entertained the thought that he was still hallucinating but a witness to the stone would place it firmly in reality. Gently Billy lifted his stolen t-shirt to expose the stone. Disgust flickered across Geoff’s face, followed by curiosity and, as he stepped closer, a look of fascination. He examined it from every angle then stepped back with his hands on his hips.

“How deep does it go?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Billy answered. “I hadn’t even thought of that.” He gave it a small poke and was surprised that it didn’t hurt as much as he anticipated. “It doesn’t really move, like it’s attached to my sternum.”

Geoff frowned.

“Yeah, I know, it’s fucked up on a bunch of levels,” Billy said, “but I’ll deal with it later.” He pulled his t-shirt down. “The bigger issue is finding Beth. Can I borrow your phone?”

“What happened to yours?”

Billy shrugged, “When I woke up it was gone.”

“Why’d they take your phone?” Geoff asked. “That’s kind of peanuts compared to kidnapping and whatever the hell they did to you. Are they that hard up that they need to steal phones on top of all this other shit?”

“Maybe they just wanted to slow me down to buy themselves some time?”

“What,” Geoff scratched at his chest, “you couldn’t just pick call the cops using the landline at the apartment?”

“I don’t know, man, none of this makes sense to me.” Billy held out his hand and made a grabbing motion.

Geoff frowned but handed over his phone and watched while Billy dialed Beth’s mobile. The call went straight to voicemail and he left a message. Using the phone he tracked down the number for Vedge, the restaurant Beth managed. After several rings an employee answered the phone and verified that she wasn’t at work. Billy hung up and handed the phone back to Geoff. “That didn’t go so well.”

“Dude,” Geoff began, “we don’t know what happened to Beth. There might be a dozen reasons she isn’t picking up her phone.”

Annoyance flickered across Billy’s face. “You seriously don’t think there’s a reason to be nervous?”

“I’m not saying that.” Geoff said waving his hands. “I’m just saying we shouldn’t panic. Where she is, whatever happened, we can’t help her if we panic.”

Billy grunted in agreement. Pacified, he handed over the phone and began walking a circuit of the apartment, looping from the kitchen through the living room and back into the kitchen while Geoff sipped coffee and flipped through the pages of Billy’s notes. The stone ached in his chest but the pain was distant, the glow of a stubbed toe or jammed thumb. Gently he probed the facets of the stone through his t-shirt, pushing it gently and he feeling the pull in his sternum. It wasn’t attached superficially to the skin and muscle. Somehow the stone had taken root in the bones and cartilage of his chest.

When he was eight he and his neighbors were racing bikes. Billy looked over his shoulder when a car backed out of the driveway ahead of him. He spotted the movement ahead, a flash of sunlight off the windshield and he threw his heel backward to break and he cranked the handlebars. The bike flipped perpendicular to this forward movement and sent him sprawling headlong into the car. His head and shoulders hit the hood, cracking his collarbone. He hit the ground in a loose pile and pavement ate the exposed meat of his hands, knees and elbows like it was a carnivore. He had his appendix removed in the 8th grade. When he was 19 he was knocked out by a drunk with half-cast on his arm. He broke a rib playing rugby. He’d been punched, kicked, bitten and choked. But nothing compared to the invasive nature of the stone. A crystal welded into his body, half exposed, with no bandages, no pain-killer and no memory of the event. He should be paralyzed by the pain.

“Okay,” Geoff sighed and tapped the paper, “so you think there’s a connection between your vision and this...stone...in your chest.”

“Yeah. I’m certain. In the vision she melted down and became the stone.”

“So...you think that’s her?” Geoff pointed at Billy’s chest.

“I don’t know.” Billy shook his head. His eyes were red and he was breathing heavy, close to hyperventilating. “Yeah, the stone and the vision are connected. No, I don’t know if she’s...the stone. For all I know I flipped out and did something while I was hallucinating.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know.” Billy admitted. “I just have this feeling that...that somehow it’s my fault.”

“The ceremony?”

“No. We made that decision together. I’m talking about whatever happened while I was out. I either did something horrible or I didn’t prevent something horrible.”

Geoff raised his hands. Stop it. You’re beating yourself up. Yes, something happened but you don’t know what. I’m no doctor but I’m pretty sure you couldn’t surgically embed a stone in your own chest while you’re passed out and hallucinating. I agree there’s a connection between the stone and that vision but you’re assuming the stone in the vision and the one in your chest are the same thing. That the events happened at the same time. But you don’t know which event happened first. Ayahuasca, it’s not that literal. It’ll show you something but it’s up to you to figure out what it's telling you. ”

Billy considered this. “No idea what you’re talking about.”

“I’m saying it’s possible something happened in the real world,” Geoff explained, “and the vision happened later. The vision is trying to tell you something about what happened and the drug, the vine, is feeding you images to be interpreted but not taken literally.”

Billy jerked a thumb at the stone. “This thing is pretty literal.”

Geoff leaned forward with his elbows on the table. “Fair enough. I’m just saying the explanation for how it got there might not be literal. The burn on the floor could have been there already and her sleeping bag was covering it. The redness on your stomach could be a rash. An allergic reaction to something. The stone? I don’t know what the hell that is. People have bad trips on ayahuasca but their hallucinations don’t usually manifest in the real world.”

“Usually?”

“Right.” Geoff acknowledged. “There’re stories about shamans who use darts in the other planes to poison other each other. It’s mostly one guy against another guy, local politics and petty bullshit. But more relevantly, I’ve also read about shaman’s coming back from visions with stones, or glass, embedded in their bodies. But, to my knowledge, no one has ever verified it.”

“What?!” Billy looked hopeful. “This has happened before?”

“There are stories, anyway.”

“What are they? The stones, I mean.”

“I don’t know.” Geoff admitted. “Crystallized energy from the other Plane or something. I’m trying to remember where I read it.” Geoff stood and walks to a bookshelf that lined one wall, filling the space between the front windows and another window by the dining area. Billy sat in silence, watching Geoff skim shelves, pulling out titles, flipping through pages and reshelving books. Geoff mumbled to himself, shaking his head. The only other sound came from a neighbor down the hall, slamming their door.

“No dice. I can’t remember where I read it.” Geoff walked back to the table. “Either we find more info online or you’ll have to ask a shaman. Speaking of which, what do you think happened to the Don Raul and his boytoy, Cesar?”

Billy exhaled. “No clue. If this thing is valuable, they didn’t stick around for the drop off.”

“The drop off?”

“Yeah,” Billy explained. “Let’s say you’re right. The vision was telling me something about the stone and the whole thing with Beth and the shadows was just a metaphor for her disappearing or something. So what’s the point of the stone? Why bother with this eff’d up surgery? That couldn’t be easy so it must be important that’s it's there specifically. The only thing I can think of is that I’m being used as a mule. You can’t swallow a stone this big so maybe this is the next best thing. It sure doesn’t give me an option. There’s no backing out without going to a hospital.”

Geoff thought about it, stroking the stubble on his chin. “And Beth is held as insurance?”

Billy nodded. “That’s what I’m wondering. Except there weren’t any instructions. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do or where I’m supposed to go.”

“Maybe you left too early.” Geoff offered. “Could be the buyer was supposed to meet you where the ceremony was held. But who would come to Kalamazoo, Michigan to buy a rock that size? In this way? I mean, why even bother with the whole ceremony thing?”

“No idea.” Billy admitted. He stared out the windows. “That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out.”

“Jeez, man,” Geoff said, “could you maybe step away from the windows? Now I’m a little freaked out you came here. I mean, someone could have followed you and now you’re, like, here. In my living room.”

Billy stopped pacing and looked through the floor to ceiling windows at the Kalamazoo Mall two stories below them. It was the country's oldest pedestrian mall and the recipient of multiple renovations and facelifts since its creation in 1959. Across the street was a row of boutique shops and condos, products of the mall’s most recent upgrade. The current incarnation of the mall featured a single, one-way lane for cars flanked by wide sidewalks. Nothing could be seen through the glare of the morning sun against the windows across the street. He imagined people in the opposite condos watching him, obscured by the glare, and he stepped away from the windows, deeper into the hipster chic of Geoff’s living room with its deliberately mismatched high end furnishings and concert posters. An expensive gypsy enclave with throw cushions, candles, hookas, a flat screen TV the size of bed and voice activated lighting. It was a living space, a museum, a gallery, a gathering spot and and escape from the conservatism that still ran deep in the local psyche.

“Sorry.” Billy apologized. “I didn’t even think of that."

Geoff arched an eyebrow. He stood, walked to the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of beer. He waggled it at Billy who shook his head.

Geoff popped the top and walked back to his position at the head of his dining table. “What happens if you meet the buyer? Retrieving that thing,” he gestured at the stone with the beer bottle, “won’t be pretty.”

Billy frowned.

“Right,” Geoff said, “let’s not talk about that. Anyway, you said the mule thing doesn’t make any sense.”

“Well,” Billy said, “it doesn’t. But the only thing I know about...muling...is what I’ve seen in movies.”

“And what’s that?” asked Geoff.

“That it doesn’t make sense to hide something on the outside of the mule’s body. Whatever they carry is either small enough to be swallowed or hidden and carried. And like you said, if the thing is too valuable to be broken down it’s probably too recognizable to be sold in southwest Michigan.”

“Fenced,” corrected Geoff.

“What?”

“Selling stolen goods is called fencing. If you’re a mule we can assume that thing is stolen, otherwise they’d sell it legitimately. Aside from that I think you’re spot on.” Geoff sipped his beer. “Can I see it again?”

“Sure.” Billy walked into the kitchen where there was more light and lifted his t-shirt. In this light the edges of his skin were less pink and raw where they met the stone.

Geoff leaned towards the stone. He poked Billy’s chest. “You’ve been working out.”

He held his pointed finger over the stone. Billy nodded and said, “Yeah, go ahead. It hurt pretty bad when I woke up but the pain is kind of fading. Maybe they gave me some heavy duty painkiller before they split.”

Geoff tapped the stone and looked up at Billy. He tapped it harder and presses his hand against the stone. “It’s warmer than I expected. Are you sure this is quartz?”

“There are a millions variations of quartz. I can’t be positive but, yeah, I think so.” Billy answered.

Geoff examined the stone from the side. “I just associate quartz with hippies. Is it valuable?”

“It can be,” Billy said, “but it’s not so valuable that someone would go to all this trouble. Some pieces can be worth thousands but it isn’t nearly as valuable as diamonds or precious stones. Its supposed to be good for channeling energy so, yeah, the hippies like it.”

Geoff stood and crossing his arms, leaning against the kitchen island. “Speaking of energy, how are you feeling?”

Billy shook his head and made a so-so gesture with his hand. “I’m kinda fuzzy and a little weak but I think that’s the effect of the ayahuasca. Maybe it’s affecting the pain as well?” He pulled his shirt back down.

“No,” Geoff said, “I don’t think the ayahuasca is doing the pain management. You took that hours ago and its effect should be wearing off, not increasing, and you said you’re in less pain now than when you woke up. And if they gave you the kind of painkiller you’d need to deal with this kind of surgery you’d be on your ass right now.”

“What are you saying?”

Geoff said, “I’m saying I don’t know how the hell you’re standing right now. Either you deal with the side effects of monstrous painkillers like a champ or you’re you can handle physical trauma like nobody I’ve ever seen. I deal drugs for a living. I can spot someone under the influence a mile away and, aside from looking tired and stressed, you seem normal. Kind of freakishly normal.”

“You deal weed,” Billy said, “that’s barely a drug.”

“And shrooms and ecstasy. Why are we debating this? I’m saying that, aside from an ayahuasca hangover, a stone in your chest and missing girlfriend you seem pretty normal.”

Billy held up his hands, palms forward, in a sign of truce. “You’re right. It’s just too much right now, trying to figure out why I’m still standing after...this.” He glances down then back up and his friend. “One thing at a time.”

Silence. They looked away from one another, each taking a moment to process what’s happened. Outside a siren wails in the distance.

“Have you called your dad?” asked Geoff.

“No,” Billy sighed. “He’ll just blame me and contact the police or call in an airstrike. I don’t want to call him unless it's necessary.”

“Right,” Geoff nodded. “Just so I understand, by your definition, what does ‘necessary’ mean?”

“It means I’ll call him if we need an airstrike.”

Geoff was wearing jeans and a wrinkled gray vest over a faded black t-shirt that said Club Soda in an art deco font. The clothes looked like they’d been slept in. He smoothed the vest and picked a piece of lint off his shirt. “At least we know that’s an option.”

Billy pulled out a stool at the table and took a seat. He was frowning slightly and tracing the outline of the stone through his shirt. In the years they have been friends Geoff has never seen Billy flustered or upset and even now he seems strangely calm.

They met at a Renaissance Festival on a humid, August afternoon. It was the summer of Billy’s freshman year at the Western Michigan University. It was same year Geoff would drop out of school at the U of M. Heavy clouds hung low in the sky and promised rain. Visitors to the faire moved slowly, itchy from the August heat, arms and legs angled out to avoid friction. Their clothes were wet, stains spreading out from their armpits and sticking to their bodies. Even the turrets at the park entrance sagged in exhaustion.

Geoff and his friends had come to the festival for beer and easy laughs. The heat and pending rain had scared off most of the locals so the event was sparsely populated by dedicated medievalists and truly committed drunks. Both supplied plenty of entertainment. Geoff and his friends spent the afternoon drinking mead and harassing maidens at the taverns. By the time they staggered past Billy's glasswares booth, their laughter was souring in the heat.

The afternoon joust was in progress and the knights were tilting lazily for the favor of the Princess, Clara, who was seventeen and also served drinks at The Kings Pub between performances. She was sweet, smart and spent her free time sewing garb for herself and the other actors. Despite his drunkenness one of Geoff’s friends recognized Clara from the pub and began shouting for the table wench to fetch him some grog. He was a thick-necked jock in khaki shorts, a short-sleeved collared shirt and looked a model from the rugby edition of a J Crew catalog. If his friends were embarrassed they hid it behind taunts and swagger. The actors and the audience did their best to ignore him but the small knot of drunks was grating in their persistence.

Billy stepped out from behind the table where he was making and selling glass goblets, mugs and knick-knacks. He stepped into the circle of Geoff’s friends and laid a dirty hand on the loud drunk’s shoulder.

“Hey, why don’t you lay off and let them do their jobs,” he said. It was a statement, not a question and the oxen prep turned slowly, eyes slipping in and out of focus.

Billy was in period costume: a leather apron, a tunic with the sleeves rolled up and ridiculous, striped pants that looked like pajamas (they were, in fact, pajamas) and he was barefoot. His body shone with sweat and his face was red from the heat.

Recognizing things could become ugly Geoff stepped between them, facing Billy and with his back to his friend. Billy wasn’t big but Geoff seemed tiny and delicate sandwiched between Billy and the drunk. His shoulders were narrow and his skinny arms were pale and lifted with his palms forward. “Whoa, no need to make a scene. We were just about to head…”

The drunk pushed Geoff aside with one arm, sending him sprawling into the dirt, and he lurched forward, jabbing a meaty finger at Billy’s chest. He was mid-expletive when Billy swatted his hand down and stepped sideways with his other arm bent and held high. At the last second he snapped his hips and swung his far elbow in an arc that connected with the side of the drunk’s head. The giant grunted and took a staggered step backwards then his knees gave out and he slipped to the ground in an tumble.

The actors in the joust paused in their action while Billy stepped over to Geoff and offered him a hand. “You should choose better friends.” From the nobles and peasants alike there came a smattering of applause.

 

Chapter 4: The Importance of Taking Notes

“Beth!”

Billy kicked the sleeping bag off his legs and crawled to where she had been laying on the floor. Nothing. Her purse, sleeping bag and water bottle were missing. Looking towards the front door he saw her sneakers were gone. The hardwood floor where she had lain was dark, stained as if it had been burned. He stood on weak legs and padded across the room in socked feet. His chest bloomed with pain.

Billy entered the kitchen, propping himself in the doorway and half hoping to find them all sipping coffee and chatting in whispers but the kitchen is empty.

“Hello, anybody here?!” he croaked.

The apartment was empty.

Stumbling back into the living room he stood with the tangle of his sleeping bag at his feet. In daylight the room was innocent, filled with the impersonal knick-knacks of a furnished room for rent. Lived-in furniture, a large framed photograph of Lake Michigan at sunset, a small book shelf and a stack of DVDs. The owners had set aside towels and instructions for making coffee. The wifi password, GOSPARTANS, was written on a small, magnetic dry-erase board stuck to the refrigerator.

Okay, he thought, possible explanations. They all went out for food and coffee. No, he and Beth had made plans to discuss the experience over breakfast and she wouldn’t have left him alone.

Billy opened the blinds of a window overlooking the driveway and the rental car was missing. Next option: Beth was kidnapped and they’re holding her ransom. But why her? Why them? We can barely pay rent, why not go for someone with money?

He examined the hole in his t-shirt. It was irregularly shaped but roughly the size of the stone in his chest and the edges of the hole were blackened as if they’d been burned. A memory tickled at the back of his mind but refused to let it take shape. What had happened? It didn’t make sense that someone would take the time to...implant...a stone in his chest but they wouldn’t bother to remove his t-shirt. And why the burns? Despite the warmth of the room he felt a chill.

He went into the bedroom. In a dresser drawer he found a pile of t-shirts, neatly stacked and rolled into cylinders. He stripped off his shirt with the hole and pulled a black tee off the top of the pile, checked the size, instinctively smelled the shirt, then gingerly he slipped it on. The fit was tighter than he liked, the cotton catching on the facets of the stone, and did little to hide the dome of rock in his chest. In a closet he found a gray hoodie and shrugged it on.

Billy inhaled, a deep breath to help him remain calm and suppress the bubble of panic forming in his gut.

He knew he should to go to the police but had no idea what to tell them. We hired a Peruvian shaman to guide them us through ancient ceremony using illegal hallucinogens and I woke to discover my girlfriend missing and a massive crystal in my chest. He didn’t like the potential outcomes of that conversation.

As the police formed in his thoughts he felt the seeds of pressure swelling behind his eyes. He’d never had a migraine but his mother suffered from them when she was alive and he understood their characteristics well enough to know he was experiencing the initial stages.

Thoughtfully he considered the mounting pressure. Perhaps the cumulative effect of the stress was taking its toll. Maybe it was a reaction to the ayahuasca. As his mind poked at this new phenomenon the pain begins to recede. Billy observed the fading pain with a sense of relief. Tentatively he considered action he could take. The pain faded to a subtle, coarse buzz behind his eyes. He needed to find Beth and answer questions about the stone in his chest. What was it? How did it get there? Why would anyone take the time to do implant a stone into another person?

Again, he considered going to the police and and pain behind his eyes reacted, bloating sharply and triggering aura in his vision, floating white spots that clouded his sight. Instinctively he retreated from his line of thought, the police, and the pain slowly settled to a manageable state.

What the hell? Was the migraine connected to thoughts of the police? As an experiment he visualized a black and white police car with an officer sitting behind the wheel. Nothing. No pain. He imagined approaching the officer and there it was, the blossom of pain expanding behind his eyes. Gently he pushed away thoughts of the police, the black and white receded into the distance and the headache faded.

If something happens twice it could be coincidence, three times makes a pattern. The message was clear, he shouldn’t think about the police but he doesn’t know what impulse is sending the message. Why? How?

The migraine trigger was a mystery but it was low on his list of immediate concerns. For the moment he accepted the limitation the headache was imposing and let his mind wander in other directions, looking for clues and explanations.

Organ harvesting? As far as he knows he wasn’t missing anything. Hell, he’d been given something. Am I being used as a mule? It was the only explanation that fit his understanding of the world but the shapes didn’t fit exactly. If I needed a mule I’d make sure the thing he was transporting was hidden. He looked at himself in a standing mirror next to the sofa. His short, brown hair was its usual mess, his eyes were red and the shape of the stone could be seen clearly through his t-shirt. It was roughly the size of phone and at its apex it stuck an inch or so out from his chest. And if he was going to use a mule to transport something he’d make sure the mule knew where to go and what to do.

Walking back into the living room he stopped and slowly surveyed the scene. His bag was missing, the green army duffel with B. WEATHERS written along the side in chunky faded letters.

During the hallucination he had moments of lucidity and he remembered writing feverishly on a legal pad that he’d slipped into his sleeping bag. Before the ceremony Cesar had told them phones, cameras and video recording weren’t allowed and Billy assumed writing notes was also on the list of forbidden activities so he hadn’t asked for clarification. He didn’t give them the opportunity to tell him it was against the rules.

Billy picked up his sleeping bag and shook it out. A black sharpie clattered to the hardwood floor followed by some coins that had fallen out of his jeans pocket. Billy unzipped the bag, turned it inside out and found his socks with the legal pad pushed to the foot of the bag. The pad of yellow paper had been crushed and mangled at the foot of his sleeping bag. Cupping the dome of rock with one hand he reviewed his scrawled notes from the night before. The handwriting was large and messy, a note takers equivalent of a blind contour drawing. Lines overlapped one another and there was no punctuation or regard for aesthetics.

Billy remembered trying to write in the dark, fumbling with his marker, aware of Don Raul’s gaze and worried that the shaman would stop him. It was a struggle to read his own writing.

 

eyes snake eyes everywhere feel exposed

giant snake HUGE coiling around me squeezing suffocate

a mouth with rows of teeth Lamprey? swallowing me

 

He remembered the lamprey - pink gums, convulsing gray flesh and the needles of a thousand white teeth. The mouth consuming his vision and the magnetic pull of the creature’s throat drawing him inward.

 

forest jungle more eyes in the bark and roots

seeing everything like flashlight no shadows

laid bare small want this to end never again

jungle asking me who am I? who am I?

 

The eyes were spotlights baring every ugly facet of his character in a flood of inescapable light. He had seen his flaws, his gifts and his potential in stark relief. It was terrifying but empowering to see his scars illuminated so brightly they cast no shadow. In that brilliance they couldn’t lie, hide or manipulate. They were objects to be observed, broken down and cataloged. Without their mystery they had little power over him.

 

cave with black mist dark cold

man with antlers too big for cave where am i?

cave in man?

shadows holding me can’t move

beth naked

beetles grubs

killing her

helpless watching her too weak eyes are watching me she is watching

too much pain

the shadows are coming

 

Billy read the notes a second time. Then a third. He sat heavily on the sofa. The notes nudged his memory and things slid into place. The dream came back to him in a sickening rush. His memory was clear and the vision had the weight and details of reality - the cool moisture on his skin, the crunch of gravel under his boots.

He was struggling against shadows that wrapped around his limbs, pinning him against the wall and swallowing his screams so the sound was faint and impotent. A whisper buried in black waves of oily mist. His muscles ached from the strain and his throat was raw. He could barely see Beth through the blur of tears. He didn’t know how long he struggled, how long he watched the slow, artistic dissection of the one person he ever loved. The one person who ever forgave him when he screwed up and gave him the strength to be more than he thought he could be.

A thin blanket of the black mist pinned her to the flat surface of the obelisk and insectile things with fat, glistening bodies push shards of sharpened black rock into her yielding body. Her expression was slack and she stared at him with mute eyes. The insects seemed to mutilate her needlessly over the course of hours and, to his shame, he grew numb. He sagged against the shadows and the world went dark.

He woke to the smell of sizzling fat and blinked at the crust in his eyes until Beth, or what remained of her, swam into focus. A faint blob that resolved itself into a pile of coal black, shimmering rocks, between which ran veins of flesh. Heat radiated from the pile in waves and the flesh bubbled, chunks of the rock growing soft and globular. The insects were gone but the shadows sensed that he was awake, tightened and drew him spread-eagle against the wall. The pull was smooth and irresistible but not unsympathetic, as if the darkness understood his grief and restrained him with a gentle, tidal force.

In a haze he watched her melt away and the rocks that had pierced her flesh drop to the floor and wobble like beads of mercury. They quivered in the heat and began moving, rolling tentatively towards one another, guided by some dark law of attraction. Wherever two blobs of molten rock met they deformed by pressure and surface tension until something gave way and they merge into a soft glassy ball. Again and again these beads fused until they formed a single, massive ball that shook like malevolent jello.

It had no eyes but Billy knew he had become the focus of the thing. It began rolling towards him and, as it advanced, he saw it’s surface growing harder. Inch by inch it shrank and grew more dense until it was the size of an eggplant and it stopped by his foot. Emotionally he was depleted and didn’t think he had any remaining strength until it rolled onto his foot, molded around his leg and began to climb. The shadows tightened their hold as he fought, kicking and thrashing, croaking in fear. The blob was hot and burned as it climbed, leaving his clothes smoking and his skin blistered. It stopped, settled into a position lying flat against his chest and began to dig.

Elements clicked into place: the stone, the blisters leading up his torso and the black burn marks on the floor.

Finally, he began to panic.

 

Chapter 3: The Vacation Litmus Test

The ceremony was her idea.

Two years previously they began saving money for a vacation. Countries were considered and crossed off the list. Individually they’d explored the typical destinations of Europe, Beth as a student and Billy as child in military family, and they dismissed the EFIGS nations as too predictable. Too easy. Too typical.

China, South Africa, Japan, Australia, India and Thailand were all considered - their pros and cons listed and their adventure DNA dissected. China and India were too risky for their first overseas adventure together, they wanted adventure but they also wanted to relax. South Africa and Australia were interesting but English speaking so they were crossed off the list. Japan was expensive and Billy had already lived there for a short period. They needed a destination that was new for both of them. Thailand was cheap, a cuisine country and offered everything from beaches to mountains. It was at the top of list until they hosted a dinner party and Billy told the group what they were planning.

Conversation erupted. An explosion of opinions, insider tips and advice. Billy and Beth listened. They asked questions and took notes. Beth wrote them on her phone Billy filled napkins with a drunken scrawl that wouldn’t be legible in the morning.

For a group of recent graduates they were surprisingly well traveled. Many of Beth’s friends studied abroad as a mandated component of their undergraduate programs and Billy’s friends were a collection of artists, crafters, and medievalists with an expansive, if quirky, worldview.

There were arguments for digging deeper into the European experience: exploring Turkey, the Eastern nations and the Balkans. A case was made that it was their duty to travel through Asia to learn firsthand that there’s more than Mao, the Vietnam War and Pearl Harbor. Brazil and Argentina were piled into bucket lists and it was agreed the Middle East would be overly challenging for their first international trip together.

When the conversation began its taper towards a change of topic their friend Geoff coughed to get attention then leaned forward. He acknowledged the other suggestions as wonderful and the conversation as stimulating but stated there was only one place to go for a truly transformative experience. Peru. Eyebrows were raised and more than a few heads bobbed. It was worth considering.

Geoff’s father was a urologist and in the early 80’s he designed an innovative penile implant that made achieving, then deflating, an erection as easy as cracking your knuckles. By the 90’s the technology had been rendered obsolete but the family still lived well off that initial flood of income. As a single child Geoff had traveled the world with his parents, then as an adult with a generous trust fund he had continued exploring on his own. He flew first class and he stayed exclusively at hotels with fours or more stars but he had a deep personal interest in vice that kept him close to the street. By his mid-twenties he had seen more of the world than most people twice his age.

“Besides Machu Picchu, what’s there to see?” Billy asked. “I’ve seen photos and it looks amazing but sites don’t usually live up to the hype. I’m not sure I want to haul all the way there just for a day hike around an old Incan city.”

“I hear you,” said Geoff, “but here’s thing,” He poked the table. “Machu Picchu is the real deal. It's the one of the only few sites in the world that will meet, and exceed, your expectations. If a walk through Machu Picchu doesn’t transport you to another age you’re some kind of sociopath. How the hell did the Incas build it? People talk about the pyramids in hushed, reverent tones, as if humans couldn’t have built them. It had to be aliens, right? Because humans weren’t advanced enough to engineer a pyramid. Guess what, the Incas built a city on the top of a mountain with sheer cliffs on all sides and they were moving stones the size of the slabs in the pyramids. And as if that wasn’t enough, the Incas conquered Western South America in the span of a hundred years.”

“You want more? How about incredible food, coffee and rainforest? You can be in the mountains one day and the next day you’re canoeing in the Amazon. The freaking Amazon. If there’s a more fertile environment for fueling the imagination I haven’t see it.”

Beth held up a hand. “What kind of food are we talking about? When I think good eating, Peru doesn’t leap to mind.”

“One word,” Geoff held up a finger, “ceviche. The best in the world.”

One of Beth’s friends, a bearded philosopher and dedicated couch surfer name Leonard, scoffed. “It can’t be that fresh if they have to fly in the fish.”

Billy looked at him, “What’re you talking about? Peru is on the coast. The ocean is right there.”

Leonard pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Really?”

“Yes, really.” said Geoff. “One more thing: if you’re ready for something to change your worldview you need to attend an ayahuasca ceremony. I know a place in Cusco where you can spend a day with a shaman and an interpreter and they’ll take you through the whole ceremony. They take you out to the jungle and everything. I did it there for my first time and it changed my life.”

Beth laughed, “Your first time?”

“Yeah,” Geoff answered. “It was so intense I told myself I’d never do it again but a year later I was in Santa Fe and met a guy, a totally legit Peruvian shaman named Don Raul, who conducts ceremonies here in the States. So, yeah, it was convenient. I did it again and now I figure it’s something I should do once a year. Like a self diagnostic .If you don’t do it in Peru I’m on Don Raul’s email list and he tours all around the States conducting ceremonies. I can let you know if he’s ever in the Michigan.”

“Your shaman has an email list?” Billy asked.

“Actually his assistant does all the emailing but, yeah, he has a newsletter. It’s all super discreet and the ceremonies are described as ‘events’ but it’s the real thing.”

Leonard raised his hand, “I’d like to attend a ceremony.”

Geoff raised an eyebrow. “You can’t afford it.”

He looked back at Billy and Beth. “I tell you what, if you go to Peru and it doesn’t live up the hype I’ll personally reimburse you for the airfare.” He brushed his hands through the thick, sculpted mop of his hair and crossed his skinny arms. “I’m that confident.”

Within days of the dinner party Billy and Beth agreed Peru was their destination. They set dates, months away, and booked their flights.

Upon arrival they spent several days exploring the sprawling, dusty bowl of Lima where they struggled with the language, wielding High School Spanish like a club and being told by locals where it was safe or unsafe to walk. When they were confident they could communicate their basic needs then made the trek to Cusco and acclimated to the altitude, relaxing into a lazy schedule of hiking, eating ceviche and sipping strong black coffee.

They considered Geoff’s suggestion of the ayahuasca ceremony and visited a small office above an herb shop to explore the details. It was an address Geoff had given them and Billy had researched the company from an internet cafe near their hostel. The group promised an authentic ayahuasca experience that could be done with a group or semi-privately. There were one-day events and longer, extended, explorations into the plant and culture around the ceremony that involved taking the medicine several times over a week, two weeks or a month. They operated a retreat outside of the city, in the verge where the spare, dirty, tumble of suburbs wrestled with the encroaching forest. Alternatively one could arrange a trip to the Amazon, to experience the ayahuasca in the grandeur of its natural setting, the jungle.

Billy didn’t know what to expect from their office but he was surprised by the clean, white-washed walls and spare decor. The room was empty except for a desk and two chairs. At the desk sat a middle-aged, caucasian woman in a crisp, white nurse’s uniform. Her hair was in a tight, gray bun and her lipstick was cherry red. The color of nightlife and desire. She spoke with a British accent and invited them to sit. Billy wondered if she was actually a nurse or whether she was an expat cast in the role of ‘reassuring medical officer’ to ease the minds of nervous first-timers.

They were slid photocopies of the medical waiver, costs, options and preparation list. Between the required fasting, the dietary adjustments - no alcohol, caffeine or meat - the ceremony and the recovery it was a three to four day event. They spent the next half hour asking questions then retreated to a local bar to discuss their plan. Over a pitcher of Sangria it was decided their time would be better spent exploring, eating and drinking.

After a week in Cusco they took the train to Aguas Calientes, an ugly backpackers mecca at the foot of Machu Picchu. The town abutted the Vinacota, a brown, rolling river that wound through the mountains. The train station was clean and well designed, an effort to make a positive first impression on tourists, but from there the city decayed into a sloppy jumble of cheap hostels, bars and markets that jostled on the banks of the river. Billy and Beth checked into a hostel and spent the night drinking Cusqueña beer, eating bad pizza and playing cards with a group of German backpackers.

They woke early the next morning for sweaty, breathless, two-hour hike up the mountain and when they finally walked through the ticket gate to Machu Picchu the sun was rising over the mountain, bathing the site in a golden, honey light. Tourists swarmed around them while they walked in silence through the passages. Billy traced the walls with his fingers, feeling the vibration that still breathed in the cold stone. He imagined farming the terraces clinging to the sides of the mountain, making love in the shadow of the mountain Huayna Picchu and succumbing to the Spanish. Their guns, smallpox and STDs. A beautiful thing corrupted by the intrusion of an unwelcome visitor.

As Geoff promised, it was transformative.

Billy felt small, a creature of simple motivations. He saw himself clearly for the first time, the wounded animal that he was. His ability to offer love hamstrung by his inability to accept love for himself. He drifted through the ruins and they seemed like a metaphor, a diagram, of his life. A thing of beauty and function worn down and content to observe and not engage. When Billy shared his revelation she had been silent and he felt a pang of dread deep in his belly.

Weeks crawled by until Beth shared the revelations that crystallized for her in the thin mountain air. Life was too short to spend it fighting for his love. She understood his issues but he needed to work through them if they were going to have a future. Anything broken could be fixed if you’re interested in spending the time and energy. She needed to know he was willing to spend the time making repairs.

She suggested therapy, solo or as a couple, and he resisted. There was so much packed away and compartmentalized that he was truly afraid of the shadows that might surface.

For a week they lived in a tense detente when Geoff contacted them to say Don Raul was coming to Michigan.

 

Chapter 2: A Little Peru in Kalamazoo

For the ceremony they’d rented an apartment in an old Victorian home on Kalamazoo Avenue. It was a house Billy walked past hundreds of times on his way to work for both of his jobs, the museum and the glasswork studio. The house was smaller, less grand, than the neighboring historic homes and it’d been painted a brilliant purple with two additional, jarring, shades of purple for the trim, window frames and doors. The house was set deeper into its lot than other homes on the block and was fronted by two towering, despondent pines. At night, after the owners had gone to sleep, the house was lost in shadow. The empty gap of a lost tooth.

In emails with the shaman’s assistant they were told a place was needed for the ceremony that wasn’t their own home. Every location has a bias and the shaman, Don Raul,  didn’t want their experience influenced by the patterns that had come to define their lives. So Billy found the apartment through a website specializing in short-stay rentals in people’s homes. It was cheap, the owners would be away for the weekend while they visited their son at Michigan State, and the rental was walking distance from their own apartment.

They spent the previous day fasting and purging to prepare their bodies for the ceremony. Cesar had sent them a recipe for a salt-water cleanse and encouraged them to keep drinking the briny concoction until their bowels were completely clean. It took Billy twelve glasses of salt-water and Beth took much longer. Billy, drained in all respects, had cheered her on while pouring her glass after glass of briny water and whispering support through the bathroom door. After twenty-two glasses she walked out of the bathroom, sighed, and said, “I’m done.” They collapsed into bed and slept for hours, waking to an evangelical discussion on the radio.

“....fear what we don’t understand and it's natural, necessary even, to question the impact that all of this new technology will have on our humanity and, yes, even our souls. You suffer in a small way every time you’re ignored because a friend prioritizes a text message over speaking directly with you. Every Like and Comment is time spent away from real relationships, giving real people real feedback. More and more we’re living for artificial moments and false gain and these moments are the cracks in our humanity through which the Devil slips. It may not seem like much, but neither does water and we all know its patient power. Given enough time a trickle of water will break the will of the strongest rock.”

“Listen, at Mason Ministries we love technology. At one point the Bible was the peak of communications technology, a book instead of a codex, but we should be looking for technologies that enhance our innate humanity and be suspicious of any idea that erodes our…”

Billy had slapped the Snooze button and they lay side by side until she rolled out of bed and padded barefoot down the hallway. Billy watched her until she stepped into the bathroom then he crawled out of bed and packed their sleeping bags and water bottles.

When she was done in the bathroom he brushed his teeth. Staring into the mirror at his own brown eyes he resented the intensity of his own gaze. For years he had fought for a normal life, free of conflict, and now that he had settled into a loving routine he felt something was missing. He missed having something to bang his head against. The things we know are not always the best things for us but, damn, they’re hard to let go.

Was it possible to fight for peace of mind?

He spat and dragged his hands down the sides of face, feeling the stubble pull at his palms. There was the soft blank of an old scar on his chin where no hair grew. He put on some deodorant then joined Beth in the living room where they watched TV in silence, a Three Stooges marathon, until it was time to meet the shaman.

Light-headed and nervous they arrived at the rented apartment after the sun had set as Don Raul had instructed. They walked down the driveway, past a rental car with Ohio plates, and up the exposed stairs on the side of the house to the second floor rental. The shaman’s assistant, Cesar, met them at the door. Billy was surprised, and a little disappointed, by Cesar’s normality. He was in his twenties, dressed comfortably in a dark sweatshirt and loose, baggy pants. He had the traces of a light goatee framing a strong, pointed chin. Feed him a high protein diet, give him some time with a personal trainer and put him in a white, unbuttoned shirt and he could grace the cover of a romance novel. His english was perfect, nondescript and lacking any traces of his Peruvian heritage.

The apartment was dimly lit by several chunky candles that cast just enough flickering light into the living room that Billy could identify the shapes of furniture. The window shades were half drawn and most of the remaining outside light was blocked by the pine trees in the front lawn. Shadows jumped in Billy’s peripheral vision and he felt the room was already occupied by spirits who wanted to remain unseen but couldn’t resist exploring.

Don Raul was sitting on the floor at the far side of the room when they entered and he rose unsteadily, one hand propped on a knee, and approached them as Cesar made introductions. A candle was positioned on the floor near where he had been sitting and there, in the twitching shadows, was a smart phone. The shaman had been checking his email.

Don Raul’s diminutive frame was swaddled in patterned fabric and as he stepped into the light Billy saw that he wore a tasseled, woven hat with ear flaps that framed the roughly hewn block of his face. He had a flat nose that looked as if it had been broken and poorly set. When they shook hands his grip was heavy and strong.

Beth spent the previous weeks consuming everything she could read about ayahuasca and Peruvian shamanic traditions. She even been listened to Spanish podcasts to get in the right frame of mind. If there was a Incan language podcast, Billy was sure she would’ve been listening to it every morning while doing yoga.

Beth gave Don Raul a tiny bow, and said, “Buenas noches, curandero.” An odd mashup of cultural cues and Billy made a mental note to tease her later. If the bow was out of place the shaman didn’t notice. His wide mouth split into a uneven grin and he replied in a language Billy didn’t recognize. The old shaman took Beth by the arm and after she had kicked off her sneakers he led her to the middle of the room where he gestured for her to sit. At least, Billy thought, he looks the part.

Billy looked at Cesar who gestured inwards, towards the living room. “You heard the man.”

Cesar laid a colorful red square of fabric on the floor. Sewn into the fabric was a typically indigenous pattern of geometric interlocking shapes. The recurring motif was a two-tiered teal ziggurat that was flipped and rotated so the base always faced the outside of the fabric.

Don Raul began placed the tools of his trade on the cloth. They were positioned in the cardinal directions: three cigarettes pointing outward in the North, East and West positions and an opened bible was placed in the South position, facing the shaman. Two colorful maracas flanked the bible and a painted wooden flute was laid down running parallel along the North edge of the cloth. Finally, a soda bottle half filled with thick, brown ayahuasca was placed in the center of the fabric and two glass bottles were placed on either side. The inside of the ayahuasca bottle was caked with chunky brown streaks. There was a discord between the processed plastic of the bottle, with its peeling Pepsi label, and the homemade brew within. The shaman could have used any bottle. He could have gone to the mall and picked up something more durable, more elegant, but he used an old 2-liter pop bottle that was cloudy with age. It looked like something that came from the Amazon and for the first time the experience started to feel real.

Cesar would help them with buckets when it was time to vomit and when the purging ceased they were told they should lay down and close their eyes. Vomiting would feel natural, a release of pressure, and it signaled the beginning of their visions. Sometimes, the shaman noted, the visions would become dark. Very dark, he said. But that was an essential part of the experience. They had to work through the difficulty. No journey worth taking was easy. He spoke at great length and Cesar translated simply, “When things become dark, ask the vine something you’d like to learn. Remember this and repeat it whenever you’re lost or afraid. It’ll help you back to a safer place.”

So many questions. Mentally Billy ticked them off.

Don Raul poured the thick brew into coffee mugs. He looked again at Beth and poured some of hers into Billy’s cup then gestured for them to drink.

“Don’t sip it,” advised Cesar, “just chug the whole thing. After that just sit and relax. No talking.”

Billy toasted Beth then drained his mug. It filled his mouth with the taste of coffee, dirt and citrus. The thick brown sludge coated his tongue. It had the grit of Turkish coffee, the taste of plant fiber and the deep, clean funk of freshly overturned earth. A hint of lemon. He gagged, swallowed again, and the ayahuasca released its grip, sliding downwards into his throat. He looked at Beth and she was grimacing but bouncing with excitement. After drinking she returned his gaze with a smile, leaned forward and set her cup on the floor.

Billy gave her a thumbs up.


The house ticked and he was struck, again, by the silence. Beneath the scent of burning leaves he smelled burnt plastic. He tried to sit up and the pain in his chest exploded, dropping him back to the floor. Instinctively he curled into a ball and his hands went to his chest where he felt something unexpected through a ragged hole in his t-shirt. Confused, he eased out of his sleeping bag, pushed it down and around his waist then peeled his t-shirt up. Emerging from his chest was the smooth, faceted dome of a black stone. The skin around the stone was raw and puckered but followed the contours of the object perfectly. The expanse of skin from his beltline to his abdomen was pink and sensitive. There was no open wound or blood, just a black stone rising from his chest and refracting the morning light. It looked like quartz crystal. He touched the stone and it was warm.

Images flickered through his mind: sharp blades pulling tools from a bag and blunt, brown fingers making incisions, carving away strips of flesh, moonlight flickering around the crystal like a moth as it’s settled into position, hidden sutures sealing the gaps between skin and stone.

Lightheaded, he laid down and took slow, measured breaths to a count of ten while he traced the irregular facets of the stone with his fingertips. A wasps nests of panic stirred in the back of his mind and he pushed it down by force of will. Panic wouldn’t help him understand what was happening, it would only get in the way and this was something he needed to understand. Emotions would only slow him down. Later there’d be time to fall apart.

He remembered looking at Beth and she seemed shrunken, her sleeping bag twitching as shudders ran the length of her body. He wanted to touch her but was too distant. Was the ayahuasca trying to tell him something, that there was a greater purpose behind separation, or was perspective bending simply because he was high? At one point he wanted to end the ceremony but it was much too late to back out. He shut his eyes and, with a momentary pang of guilt, fell backward into the hallucinations.

Potentially the stone was a continuation of his hallucinations. The images from the previous night seemed real enough, especially in the moment. He’d been in those places, the forest and the cave. The man with the head of a deer’s skull had felt real, had spoke to him and he had welcomed the connection. There were moments of fear so powerful that he fought his way back to consciousness and opened his eyes to see Don Raul and Cesar tending to him, blowing smoke over his body and spraying him with Agua Florida, a look concern in the shaman’s eyes.

Now, in the light of day, the dreams lacked the details of realness. They were broad-stroke impressions and powerful emotional dynamics but they didn’t appeal to all of his senses. There was always some sensory input missing, smell or feeling, or an occlusion of detail like not feeling the ground under his feet. Memories were like this, he realized. We’re selective about the details we retain but hallucinations have this quality while they were happening. We see just what we need to see. Laying on the floor, feeling the stone on his fingertips, the cool breeze on his skin and the hardwood floor under his back he wasn’t certain he was still dreaming.

Billy realized no one had reacted to his movement. Don Raul and Cesar had been ever-present throughout the night, tending to his and Beth’s needs but now that he was awake no one had said a thing.

He lifted his head and looked where the shaman and his assistant sat vigil throughout the night. They were gone. The entire spread from the ceremony: the bottles of ayahuasca, the cigarettes and Agua Florida for scaring away bad spirits, the rattles and the blanket where it all lay last night. Gone. Billy sat up, blood rushing from his head, and looked to his side where he watched Beth slip into her own hallucinations only hours before. The pain from his chest washed over him, a strain that made him gasp for breath, but there was something wrong. Something that made the pain seem inconsequential.

Beth was gone.

Chapter 1: Waking Up is Hard to Do

Day One

“You don't find light by avoiding the darkness.”

S. Kelley Harrell

 

Squatting in the shadows behind the Dunkin Donuts on Washington Boulevard sat a small, dirty man in ill-fitting, unmatched clothes. His hair was long and foul, a salt and pepper riot of matted roots that were thick and wild, knotted and curious. He stank. The sick, sweet tang of urine and the eggy rot of unwashed flesh. The smell diverted late night pedestrian traffic in a wide arc that repelled them out towards the boulevard, away from the thin alley separating the Dunkin Donuts from the adjacent gas station. He ignored them. His eyes sat deep in their sockets like cold, wet, stones. A rash of thin scars covered his arms, zigzagging between jagged, crimson stones that emerged from his forearms and flickered in the headlight glow of passing cars.

Half-lidded he watched the empty space where the sun had set hours before and the sky melted into the flat, black Sarasota Bay. In one brown hand he held a coffee that lost its warmth and in his other hand he flicked a dry, plastic lighter. On the side of his thumb was a callous, fat and hard, from decades of mindlessly worrying at Zippos, Bics and cheap gas station lighters.

Ichtaca was waiting. There was some part of him that is always stretching to get a better view, probing the energetic currents and eddies for the inevitable event that meant it was time to move.

When the pull came it was a hard tug he felt through the stones in his arms. It made him grunt and he almost dropped the coffee. Then a warm creeping sensation tickled his skin traveling upward through his shoulders then cascading down his torso, causing a spasm in his belly.

Excitement and panic boiled through him. He exhaled, closed his eyes to remove distractions, and pushed his will out into the air where he found a thick rope of energy vibrating like a guitar string. He focused on that thread, taking hold of it in his mind and memorized the vibration frequency. He felt it with all of his senses to deepen the recall, drinking it in and rolling the flavor across his tongue then swallowing to make the energy part of himself.

Another visitor had made the leap.

He rose from of his squat, poured his remaining coffee into the dirt and rolled his shoulders to loosen them. The source of the pull was distant but he could make the trip if he moved fast and fed as he traveled. He took a deep breath, shook out his legs and began slowly jogging north, looking for a car to steal.


Billy woke to a chill Autumn breeze on his face and an aching pain in his chest. He kept his eyes shut, sank deeper into his sleeping bag and concentrated on taking slow, shallow breaths to minimize the pain.

His body was stiff from laying overnight on the hardwood floor and the ache in his chest was a surprise. The only sounds came from traffic passing distantly at the head of the driveway. From the direction of the breeze and the sounds he could tell the window on the far side of the room was open. Otherwise the room was silent, which meant Beth was still asleep. If she was awake he’s sure she’d be chatting with the shaman and his assistant or prodding him awake, eager to discuss the experience. He was thankful that he woke first because it gave him time to process his thoughts, which were sluggish and dreamy.

He wondered if the pain in his chest was a side effect of the ceremony, some physical reaction, amplified by lingering hallucinations. Despite the breeze he could feel the warmth of the sun slowly baking the room. He survived the night and he’ll survive the day. He was calm and remained floating in a half-wakened state, disconnected from his body but settling into awareness.

Someone nearby was burning leaves and he inhaled, enjoying the traces of woody smoke as they filled his senses. He was pretty sure burning leaves was illegal and he smiled at the sign of rebellion. It was a minor tragedy that a municipality would make illegal something like burning leaves because a few people have allergies. Should we remove all trees and flowering plants because they induce sniffles? Perhaps dogs shouldn’t be allowed in public? The smell of burning leaves in Autumn was something that shouldn’t be denied a child growing in the Midwest.

A childhood memory surfaced of diving into piles of freshly raked leaves. The babble and laughter of neighborhood children as they ran through the piles, scattering leaves and infuriating his father. The feeling of lying deep in the piles looking up at a pale Autumn sky eviscerated by clouds.

His mouth was dry, his tongue caked and swollen from dehydration. He smacked his lips and yawned, feeling the strain across his chest.

The night was been interminably long and more profoundly challenging than he expected. He was glad it was over and hoped Beth had a better experience than his own. There were no great insights into his life, no deeper sense of connection to the world. He knew she’d be disappointed.

Images surfaced at random in his mind: a massive primordial tree with a tangle of branches that bled color and dissolved into a spinning kaleidoscope of geometry, a naked man with the head of deer, his antlers expanding and weaving into a jungle canopy that constricted and collapsed into a claustrophobic cave filled with enormous black grubs. He poked at the images, trying to connect them to something in his life and he comes up empty. Perhaps that was the connection to his life. An empty promise of unfulfilled potential.

He wanted a tall glass of water, a coffee and something to eat. A shower would wait. He eased his eyes open, letting them slowly acclimate to the light and stared at the ceiling where a fan hung silent and still.