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.
“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.”