Frank and Gordon in: The Wrong Boy Scout

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—You’re late, you know.

The boy was confused at this remark, so he stood on the doorstep of the old man’s dilapidated one-story house, holding a black garbage bag full of empty soda cans and plastic bottles, and said nothing. As far as he knew he was not late for anything. An hour and a half ago he changed into his uniform, grabbed a garbage bag, kissed his mother goodbye and walked around his neighborhood to collect recyclables for his troop, as he did almost every Saturday morning. He knew most of the people in his neighborhood, and all of them were happy to donate whatever recyclable materials they could. Indeed, his bag was almost full, so when he happened to pass by this house, with its broken, boarded up windows, its yellow paint peeling off the outer walls, its front lawn with three-foot high uncut grass and littered with junk, its haphazardly-hung signs which read PRIVATE PROPERTY and KEEP OUT, he debated to himself as to whether or not he should bother inquiring. Maybe, he thought to himself with a chuckle, he should just search through the debris on the front lawn, as it was probably chock-full of bottles, bottles which had most likely once contained alcohol. He banished this cruel thought from his mind as rapidly as he allowed it to enter his mind, and, making a promise to himself to be less judgmental of others less than fortunate than himself in the future, decided to approach the front door, ring the doorbell, and wait for the resident to answer before inquiring about whether or not he would like to donate any recyclable drink containers that could be redeemed for a five cent rebate each, politely explaining that any little bit could greatly help his troop, and ever careful to only ask for bottles, and not mention “whiskey bottles.”

Upon hearing this request, however, the man who answered the ring of his doorbell never revealed to the boy whether or not he had anything to offer. Instead, after informing the boy of his alleged tardiness he stood in his doorway and said nothing, fixing a glare of suspicion on him at all times. He had been chewing on a chili dog before he opened his door, and the boy could not help but stare as a bit of errant chili dripped onto his white (or, as white as it could be considering its current grungy state) undershirt. Ignoring the pesky chili, the man sized up the boy with his suspicious glare and let out a disappointed sigh, which gave the boy cause for equal amounts of disappointment, as the stench of whiskey was unmistakably present on the man’s breath.

—You were supposed to meet me at nine thirty. It’s eleven.

He was about to explain to the unkempt man that he was surely mistaken, that since he had planned, as both his troop leaders and his parents could corroborate, to commence the collection of recyclable drink receptacles at nine thirty in the ante meridiem sharp, and since he had no previous knowledge of either the man in front of him or the meeting that he spoke of, he must obviously have him confused with another person, when the man stepped aside and opened the door further to let the boy inside.

—Better late than never. Come on in, we don’t have much time.

The boy knew this was a bad idea. Both his parents and the troop leaders expressly forbade entering the residence of any stranger, no matter how friendly they seemed to be. He was about to explain to the man that he would much prefer not to disobey his parents and troop leaders, and so he would have to regrettably and respectfully decline his generous offer, when the man grabbed the boy by the elbow, pulled him inside and shut the door behind him with a loud slam.

The first thing the boy noticed upon entering the strange old man’s house was that the interior was as tidily-kept as the front of his house. Empty pizza boxes and Cantonese take-out containers littered the floor, covered with shabby brown wall-to-wall carpeting. A dim light shined through dusty Venetian blinds hung crookedly in front of shattered windows, at least the ones that were not outright boarded up and nailed shut. Most striking of all, however, were the hundreds of photographs, newspaper clippings, and maps which covered almost every inch of wall space, marked with hastily-scribbled, nonsensically rambling notes, supposedly important words highlighted in bright green, and complicated geometric diagrams. The more the boy tried to comprehend the sheer chaos posted on the walls, the more it made his head reel. Before the boy could attempt to decipher any more of it, however, the man lifted up his dingy undershirt, pulled out a small revolver and pointed the weapon point-blank at the boy’s face.

—Take off your left shoe!

The sudden assault combined with the oddity of the man’s request made the boy freeze up; he stammered and stared at the barrel of the man’s revolver, unable to comply or take evasive action. The man cocked the hammer of his weapon and held it closer to the boy’s face.

—I don’t have time to dick around!

Without another thought he kicked off the shoe. He soon realized, however, that in his panicked state he had mistaken his left foot for the other, and so, quickly realizing his mistake and hoping his assailant had not caught on to it, discreetly slipped his right shoe back on and removed the correct one. The man grabbed the shoe, threw it into the middle of his living room and shot it five times.

—I had to make sure you weren’t bugged. Normally I’d use all six, but this last bullet is meant for someone else.

The man took the shoe, full of bullet holes and at this point quite unwearable, and brought it to his kitchen, dangling it between his middle finger and thumb as if he were handling the carcass of some long-dead vermin. He threw the shoe into his sink and turned on his garbage disposal system.

The boy regretted the loss of this shoe, as the pair was only recently purchased and he had grown very fond of them; however, ever wary that the last bullet inside the crazed man’s revolver may very well be for him, he chose to keep silent and hear him out. The man left the room for a moment and returned, carrying a can of red paint in one hand and a brush in the other. He brought them to a wall in the room, covered with a map of the entire neighborhood.

—The happenings at Derby Square and Kaufman Library. The mysterious disappearance at Carter Street. And of course, the unexplained fire at the old Sterne place. Everyone thought these were just coincidences, but when you know as much as I do about this sort of thing, you stop believing in coincidences.

He took the brush and dabbed the tip of it into the can of paint. He flung a spot of red onto Derby Square, and another on Kaufman Library. After dipping the brush a second time, he painted a spot onto Carter Street where the disappearance occurred, and then, following Carter Street, painted a curve that led all the way to the location of the former Sterne place. The boy could see that the paint took the shape of a red, dripping-wet smiley face.

—You see? Look at that! The clowns are after me! For the love of God, they’ve sent in the clowns!

He threw down the brush and paced back and forth across the room.

—I don’t have much time, they’ll be coming for me any minute now! If they thought I knew then what I know now, believe me, they would have done much worse! But now, I know what they know! And what’s more, they know that I know what they know! They know that I know what I knew before and what I know now and they know that what I know now that was different from what I knew before is something that can’t be known by anyone, whether they know about the thing I knew before or not, and when they know that someone knows about the thing that they know about that’s different from the other thing that may or may not be known, they know that they don’t know what only they know, and the only way to know that no one knows what they know is to make sure that they don’t know what only they can know!

The boy, nervous for his life, tried to listen to what the man was saying, but, like the notes on the walls, his ravings were beyond his comprehension. He was just about to faint when the man thankfully silenced himself and ran over to a spot in his living room. Shoving away piles of discarded boxes, he revealed a trap door in the wooden floor fastened shut with a small padlock. The man pulled a ring of what appeared to be at least twenty different keys and tried the lock one key after another. After a minute or so of trying he gave up, angrily throwing the ring of keys on the floor.

—GODDAMN IT! THERE’S NO TIME!

He screamed and shot the padlock off with the last bullet in his revolver. He then opened the trap door and pulled out a cardboard box, about a foot and a half in length, width and height, wrapped in gold paper and tied with pink ribbons, an elaborate bowtie on top.

—I spent my whole life guarding this, but my time’s up now! Take this and hide it somewhere only you know about! Don’t let anyone else take it, understand?! Guard it with your life! When the time comes, you’re gonna have to blow this whole thing wide open, so the whole world will know the truth!

His attention suddenly broken, the man scrambled to one of the windows not yet boarded shut and peered through the Venetian blind.

—Shit! They’re here! They’ve completely surrounded my house! Get out of here, I’ll hold them off so you can escape!

He took cover underneath his window and dug into his front pocket for extra bullets. After loading his gun, he rose to his feet and shot outside of his window five times, shattering what little glass there was. After the fifth shot he stuck his head out of the now open window and let out a maniacal howl.

—You’re too late, you sons of bitches! YOU’LL NEVER TAKE ME ALIVE!

The man stuck the barrel of the revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger. After mere moments there was nothing but silence, and the boy himself, standing in a stranger’s filthy house and holding a birthday present, with one shoe missing, torn to shreds in a garbage disposal machine, and the other covered in blood, brain matter and skull fragments.

*

            Bringing the present with him, and leaving the blood-drenched shoe behind so as not to arouse the suspicions of his parents, troop leaders, or local authorities, the boy hurried home to his house as fast as the many hours he spent preparing for his merit badge for excellence in fitness would allow him.

It was not until he was two blocks away from the crazed man’s house that he realized that in his haste he had left behind his precious garbage bag of discarded bottles and cans. Even if he had at all desired to return to that terrible house, he was too far away and too out of breath to recover the bag, and in his frustration he punched himself in the thigh. He had easily twenty dollars worth of bottles and cans in that bag, and in the hour or so that he had planned on continuing his bottle drive he could have even more easily reached one hundred. All that money he could have raised for the upcoming camping trip, gone. So much for that good turn.

He did not stay angry with himself for too long, because when he reached the second to last block before his house he noticed that the street he lived on was much noisier than usual. He looked around the houses, and saw that just about everyone was outside. It seemed as though everyone, every single upstanding resident in his neighborhood, was mowing their lawn, or watering their rose garden, or washing and waxing their cars, or up on their rooftops installing satellite dishes, or grilling steaks for a family picnic. What was even more puzzling to the boy was that, despite the fact that it was a balmy eighty-five degrees in the middle of July, each of them were all wearing black suits and ties, dark sunglasses, and thick overcoats. And what puzzled the boy even further was that while every upstanding member of the neighborhood did these various activities, they were all watching him at the same time. He could have sworn that Mr. Lambert, his neighbor who lived four doors down from where the boy lived, was at least seventy-five pounds heavier than what he appeared to be today, and when he touched the tip of his ear and mumbled something to himself, the boy saw Mrs. Gunderson from across the street, inexplicably also wearing a suit and tie, performing the same curious action.

*

            Upon reaching his home, the boy slammed the door shut and let out a sigh of relief. He instinctively tried to kick off his shoes before realizing that he had none on. Still clutching the present tightly in his hands, he headed toward his living room, where he expected to find his father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking his pipe and watching reruns of his favorite sitcom that had been canceled long before the boy was born. Who he found sitting in his father’s favorite chair, smoking his pipe and watching reruns of his favorite sitcom which had been canceled long before the boy was born was not his father, but a man dressed in a black suit and tie, dark sunglasses and a thick overcoat.

—ah hello son back so soon i thought you’d be out collecting bottles for your troop for much longer so i guess you must have already gotten a killing

Something was wrong, thought the boy. It seemed like his father, he did what his father normally did and he said what his father usually said. But his face was different, and so was his voice. His voice reminded him of the time when he first took up playing the trombone, and for his first lesson he had to practice holding a low B flat as long as he could for a consistent tone. His voice was a consistent B flat.

—well your mother is in the kitchen making your favorite cookies so why dont you go on in and say hello ah here she is

Yet another man in a black suit and overcoat walked into the living room, wearing his mother’s favorite cooking apron and holding a tray of cookies, fresh out of the oven.

—hello i baked your favorite peanut butter cookies why dont you have one they are your favorite after all

Now the boy was sure something was extremely amiss. His mother indeed knew that peanut butter cookies were his favorite treat. However, his mother also knew that he was deathly allergic to peanuts, and so, no matter how much he begged his mother for his favorite variety of cookie, she would usually refuse. Not to mention his mother was usually a woman.

—why son whatever is the matter you look like something is wrong

—yes it looks like you dont even recognize your own two parents which we definitely are

—of course we are definitely your parents it would be unreasonable to think otherwise

—yes of course it would be very unreasonable so why dont you have a cookie they are your favorite after all

The boy politely, or as politely as he could, given his currently excited state of mind, shook his head no and took a step toward his bedroom.

—and what do you have there it looks like some kind of present

—yes it must be a birthday present of some sort it must be a late birthday present because we know it is not your birthday today

—yes of course we know when your birthday is parents know that sort of thing and we are most definitely your parents

—yes we definitely are i remember the day when i impregnated your mother

—yes and i remember that as well and i also remember nine months later when you came out of my uterus on your birthday since we remember such things we must be your parents

Logically their arguments made sense. However, his instincts told him, as the old saying goes, that while their flesh was there the spirit was missing. The boy clutched the box tighter to his chest and took another step toward his room. The two bogus parents advanced toward him, tray of cookies and pipe in hand.

—yes i see you want to go up to your room to open your new present

—yes we certainly would not want to stop you from doing such a thing because that would be unreasonable of us

—yes it would be very unreasonable to stop you and detain you and interrogate you about the contents of the present and where and from who you received the present such a thing would be very unreasonable and unfair

—yes and we are kind caring parents and we are certainly not unreasonable parents it would be very unreasonable to think anything otherwise

—yes very unreasonable so by all means go and open your new present and bring this cookie with you

The boy’s alleged father took a hot cookie from the tray and shoved it into his hand. The boy, feeling a tremendous burning in his hand, shoved the cookie in his pocket and tried to stifle a painful yelp. He gave the parents a nervous nod, and then ran as fast as he could up to his room.

*

            He slammed his bedroom door shut, let out a sigh of relief, and set the present in the middle of his bedroom floor.

The only other pair of shoes he had left were his black penny loafers, which he usually only wore at church on Sundays and at other formal events. He would look ridiculous wearing them casually, but he had no choice. After putting on the absurd shoes, he sat down on his bedroom floor and inspected the curious present.

His first instinct was to open the present and see what was inside. However, as he grasped the elaborate bow to unite it, he saw a small inscription which read DO NOT OPEN, EVER. Perhaps, he rationalized, the inscription meant that only certain people should not open it, ever. The present was, after all, entrusted to him for safekeeping, surely it would not be unreasonable to take a look inside and see what all the fuss was about. He started to untie the bow once again when he, to his amazement, found another inscription, which this time read YES, THAT MEANS YOU TOO.

Well, thought the boy, this certainly changes things. He could not stay home his whole life, even if his parents had not transformed into spooks, and he certainly could not venture outside with the present for long, as, being relatively inexperienced in clandestine operations as most adolescent boys such as himself tended to be, it would be a matter time before one shady organization or another would capture him and seize the gift for themselves. He grappled with this conundrum for a few moments, and then noticed yet another inscription on the side of the box, which read THERE’S AN ADDRESS TAPED TO THE BOTTOM OF THIS BOX. MEET THE MAN WHO LIVES THERE AT EXACTLY TWO THIRTY IN THE POST MERIDIEM.

The boy found no reason not to trust the sentient present, and was fresh out of any better ideas anyway, so he looked underneath the box, copied the address down on a scrap sheet of paper, and walked out his bedroom. On the way to the front door of his house, he realized how very helpful the present was, and wished there was a way he could thank the deceptively inanimate object, when in the corner of his eye he noticed one more inscription, which read YOU’RE WELCOME.

*

            The boy, now holding, instead of a garbage bag full of empty bottles and cans, the mysterious present, walked up to the front door of 72 Shacksbush Drive and rang the doorbell. While he waited, he was happy to at least be visiting a residence in which the owner took a bit of pride of ownership, and noted the remarkable lack of garbage littered throughout the front lawn. It took several minutes for whoever lived in the house to respond to the boy’s ring of his doorbell, and while the boy waited he could hear the sound of someone knocking over several objects. Finally, a man opened the door.

Though the open door the boy could see that, what the outside lacked in clutter, the interior more than made up for it. The rooms were packed full of computers, monitors and other equipment with blinking lights, bright screens and whirring noises. What immediately struck the boy, however, was the man’s appearance. He was holding a thermos of coffee, pouring it into a miniature coffee cup and gulping each small cupful down one after the other. He also wore a hooded sweatshirt, a black beret, mirrored sunglasses, a pair of cowboy boots, and nothing else.

—Ah hello there, you must be the one with the present, good, very good, I’ve been expecting you, you’re right on time, but then again what is time but an illusion to help us comprehend the sequencing of events from one to the next, and after all if you show up somewhere on time there’s someone else in the world who is showing up late, anywhere between a few minutes to five hours to an entire day late, which of course begs the question is time like a river or an ocean, I wish I knew the answer but who has time to think about such things anyway, oh, I see you noticed I’m not wearing any pants, well, here’s what I have to say about that, I work at home and I don’t wear pants on Thursday, so deal with it, society, heh heh heh, well, come on in, you’re never going to learn the truth standing in front of my door all day, are you now, well here it is, I know it’s not much and I hope to get a bigger place so I can store all of my equipment, but what can you do in this kind of frigid market nowadays, now, before we begin I’m going to have to ask for your right shoe now, oh, please, I insist, I think they may have bugged you, and we can never be too sure these days, can we, all right that’s a boy, now, most people like to fix the old bug-in-the-shoe trick with a few bullets, but over the years I’ve actually grown accustomed to burning them myself, here, watch me, I’ll show you, I just put it in the sink, put some lighter fluid on it, and presto change-o no, more bugs, ah, come on, don’t look so glum, now you can be sure that no one’s going to follow you here, anyway, make yourself at home, go on, sit down here, have some potato chips, I’m sure you’ll like these, they’re kettle cooked, nice and crispy, oh, wait, maybe you shouldn’t after all, I think those were the chips that I spiked with arsenic, you know, in case they come looking for me, I can kill myself before they can interrogate me, here, take some from the bowl right next to it, they’re sour cream and onion, not as good as the others, but all things considered still a perfectly decent snack, oh, wait, on second thought you probably just shouldn’t have any chips, I actually forgot which one I spiked, which is too bad, I really wish you could try some, they’re really the best chips you’ll ever have,  but oh well, you know what they say, no sense crying over unspiked potato chips, here have some espresso, I love espresso, don’t you, I just drank a whole pot this morning and I just got done brewing another when you arrived, so go ahead, there’s plenty to spare, now then, let’s get down to business, shall we, as you can see, my stock and trade is in technology, computer hardware and software, and it’s treated me pretty well throughout the years, you know, I may look like a complete geek to you, being so devoted to computer technology as I am, but did you know that software technology can be one of the most deeply philosophical, spiritual, and mystical institutions in the universe, you don’t believe me, I can tell, but hear me out, for example, there is usually a program built into most computers whose only job is to start up the operating system, which of course begs the question what program starts the program that starts the operating system, of course it would be grossly inefficient to have a infinite chain of programs in a computer that are all responsible for starting it, but on the other hand, the action of starting up has to start somewhere, most technologically-minded philosophers who have thought about this have often attributed this as a computer’s soul, if you will, or even God itself, can you imagine, a literal God in the machine, yes sir, with a computer and a little bit of intuition there’s an infinite amount of secrets to the universe that one can unlock, I’ve unlocked a few myself, of course, I could never hope in my lifetime to unlock them all, but during my studies I happened to stumble on that very present you have in your hands, and also why they sent in the clowns, but it was actually by chance when I happened to be watching a historical documentary on television that I finally pieced it all together, you know, if you pay attention to history there’s a lot of secrets to the universe that one can unlock, for example, did you that some philosophers believe that there will be three Antichrists in this world’s lifetime, there have already been two, Napoleon and Hitler, and the third will emerge sometime in this century, they know this because both have tried to conquer the entire world and bring it under one rule starting from Europe, and both had unsuccessfully tried to invade England, and both of their armies starved to death while trying to invade Russia, but now that I mention it I’ve been trying to decipher the identity of the third one on my computer, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got it narrowed down to either Paul Newman or my uncle Lou, which one do you think it is, oh, right, I don’t think you know my uncle Lou very well so I’d imagine you’d lean toward the Paul Newman persuasion yourself, which reminds me, I’ve got a lot of mystical secrets to unlock via my computer system, so before you go there’s something pretty important you need to know, but hold on a second and let me check to make sure no one’s spying on us, oh, bother, would you look at that, ah geez, it looks like they’ve completely surrounded my house, well, you know what I have to do now, sorry kid, but I’ve gotta have these here chips, and you know I wish I didn’t have to, you know, I value my life as much as anyone else but you know how it is, if I get captured and they start interrogating me I have no idea what kind of methods they’ll use to get me to talk, you know, they might castrate me and feed my testicles to rabid dogs or something, and then I’d have to ask myself, is what I know more important than my testicles, and I don’t want to be forced to ask myself that question, you know, I mean, and who would, right, so you understand when I say, oh, you know what, I guess I poisoned the sour cream and onion chips after all, how about that, oh, well, you live and learn, by the way make sure you try some of the kettle cooked ones before you go, I mean, now that you know they’re safe and all, you might as well, anyway, you know, I feel for you kid, I really do, I’ve been in this situation a hundred times, you know, when someone has some bit of absolutely vital bit of information that’ll instantly solve all of your problems and right before he can tell you there’s some pressing circumstance that prevents him from, oh my gosh, how embarrassing, I forgot to poison both of them, I can’t believe it, how stupid of me thank goodness I figured it out before it was too late, I mean, could you imagine them interrogating me in some dark room and little old me with a mouthful of potato chips waiting for the poison to take effect, it would have been absolutely mortifying, well, thank goodness I put enough arsenic in that batch of espresso I just got done making, actually if you don’t mind could I just trouble you for your cup, thanks, ah yes, that sure hit the spot, alright, so before they get me there was, oh there was something very important absolutely vital I had to tell you but I completely forgot, gosh I hate it when I just totally lose my train of thought like that, oh well, hey, that reminds me, I guess I could tell you this really funny joke I just heard about, oh, it’s a fantastic joke, trust me, you’ll think it’s the funniest thing you ever heard, you’ll be telling it to all your friends, so here goes, an octopus, a nun, and an anthropomorphic can of refried beans walk into a bar, oh, and the bar is on a train, that’s how it reminded me of the joke, you see, get it, train of thought, and it’s on a train, so anyway

But before the man could finish his sentence a sudden choking spasm interrupted him. He dropped to the floor and twitched and choked and gagged like a fish out of water, or perhaps even a land animal in water. Soon after the man gave up his ghost, a bit of his blood, and a few assorted undigested pieces of food, in that order. After this there was silence, and the boy found himself standing in yet another stranger’s house, cluttered with technological junk and holding a birthday present, with one shoe missing, quite unwearable due to third degree burns all over, and the other covered in blood and projectile-vomited undigested food intermingled with arsenic.

The boy began to smell smoke emanating from his still-burning penny loafer. The smoke detectors installed throughout the house also smelled the smoke, and consequently activated the sprinkler system, which, albeit extinguishing the original conflagration, sprinkled water onto the circuitry inside the hundreds of pieces of equipment, and so caused a wild blaze of electrical fire that eventually engulfed the entire house. The boy left the house all at once fearful for his safety, bemoaning his unlucky circumstances, discouraged by the uselessness of the man’s information, angry over the loss of yet another shoe, and appreciative of the fact that a fire extinguishing system could have a sense of irony.

*

Present in hand, the boy stepped out of the burning abode of the loquacious, recently deceased informant and found a piece of paper lying on the doorstep. Having set down the present momentarily to inspect the mysterious sheet, he saw that it was formerly a page out of a book. Much of the text had been blackened out with a marker, and the remaining words spelled out a message which read: HEED NOT THE WORLDLY WISEMAN, BUT HEAD TOWARD THE STRAIGHT AND NARROW TO THE WICKER GATE, WHERE THE INTERPRETER WILL REMOVE YOUR BURDEN. The boy immediately understood the reference: the burning house was located very close to an intersection, and so rather than take a left at this crossroads down Wiseman Ave., he understood that he should instead head straight down Narrow St. and keep going until he reached the local park, Wicker Gate Parks and Recreation, where, he surmised, he would surely meet an “interpreter” who would relieve him of his troublesome present. Having no good reason not to follow the torn page’s advice, and also having no better ideas of his own, the boy took leave of the house of destruction and went his way down Narrow St.

Upon reaching the Wicker Gate, the boy was astonished to find the park completely deserted. Despite being a balmy mid-afternoon in the month of July, there was nary a sign of the bicyclers, rollerbladers, picnickers, or other recreationalists that commonly frequented the park, but only a mysterious man, about ten years too young to be correctly classified as “elderly” while in full compliance of AARP regulations, but nonetheless, topographically speaking, well beyond “the hill” men such as him are known to surpass, fairly short and stout with not a few of the preliminary lines about his face and thinning, scattered gray hairs that showed the true age of a man, wearing, despite being a balmy mid-afternoon in the month of July, a wide-brimmed fedora, a black suit and tie and a beige overcoat, sitting on a bench and feeding the ducks who commonly frequented the gurgling stream near where he was sitting. The boy surmised that this avian-gregarious man was the interpreter in question, noting the palpable dearth of anyone else in the park, let alone anyone who could have been interpreted by him as the interpreter in question. The stranger, noticing the boy’s arrival, disbursed the remainder of his provisions to his waterfowl friends, rose from his seat and shook the boy’s hand.

—So, you must have received my message. My name’s Rytek. I make things happen.

Having completed his formal greeting, Rytek motioned for the boy to join him on his bench, and the boy obliged him.

—I hope the encryption wasn’t too difficult for you to decipher. Nowadays we live in such turbulent times that one can never be too sure when it comes to the security of information. Nonetheless I’m sure that for an agent with a pedigree such as yours it was no trouble at all. Wait a minute. I think your shoe has a bug.

The boy instinctively backed away from the strange man, strongly considering the possibility of giving up the present if it meant his shoe could be spared. The stranger insisted, however, and with a heavy heart the boy relinquished the very last shoe he had left. He was relieved to find, however, that the stranger appeared to have no hostile intentions toward his precious footwear, but instead happened to notice a stray insect crawling about the heel. Rytek pointed to the errant bug for the boy to see and smiled at his find.

—See? You’ve got a ladybug crawling on it.

Rytek threw the shoe on the ground, produced a handgun from his coat pocket and shot eleven rounds into it, one for each of the ladybug’s eleven black spots, which he carefully counted before commencing his brutal attack.

—That’ll teach it to crawl around on things that don’t belong to it.

The boy’s heart, already heavy from relinquishing the shoe earlier, had plummeted to uncharted depths of regret. If by some prodigious miracle or freak accident Rytek had failed to slay his insectoid quarry, and the ladybug had indeed learned the great lesson Rytek had attempted to teach it with his own brand of tough love, there was at this point hardly any of the forbidden crawling surface left for it to crawl upon.

—Now then, there is the matter of this mysterious gift you hold in your possession. I must say, you’ve done very well safeguarding it up to this point, but quite frankly this present does not belong to you, it is in fact government property. You see, on January 5th, 1952, in a remote corner of the Arizona desert, an unidentified aircraft, and by that of course I mean an aircraft of unknown design, not something like an airplane that someone had just neglected to name, because then it wouldn’t be a matter of national security, so anyway to make a long story short

Before Rytek could attempt the reduction of size of the story in question, he was interrupted with a gunshot. Rytek sprung to his feet and instantly pulled out his handgun, ready for combat and scanning his surroundings for hostile elements with a spry alertness that belied his elderly appearance. The boy clutched his present and dove under the bench.

While the boy enjoyed the advantage of safety to his immediate person while hiding underneath the bench, it gave him the disadvantage of being unable to discern the events happening around him. From what he could tell, two different sets of shins wearing two pairs of pants and shoes, drastically different in stylishness and quality, were on either side of the bench locked in a ballistic struggle of life and death. A few moments time afforded the boy the conclusion that, due to the close proximity of the combatants, juxtaposed with their mutual lack of ammunition (as indicated by the incessant clicking noises which came from their weapons), both combatants were either sorely inept at this ballistic struggle or were simply unaware of the high stakes involved, namely, the aforementioned stakes of life and death. At this the boy relinquished the aforementioned former advantage of his position and decided to bring himself to a position which would grant him the aforementioned latter.

He saw that the duel had evolved; due to the lack of ammunition it was now necessary for the combatants to use the weapons themselves as projectiles. They were unlocked from the struggle of life and death and had instead locked themselves into a desperate struggle to render the other unconscious by propelling their weapons with as much momentum as possible from each of their hands to each of their enemy’s foreheads. At one point in the struggle the unknown attacker, while missing the intended target, gained an unexpected advantage by striking Rytek on his throwing hand. Rytek clutched his hand and screamed, and, knowing the battle was not his to win, threw his gun at his assailant with his usually weaker, albeit at this point considerably stronger, non-throwing hand, and retreated into the verdant surroundings of Wicker Gate Park. The mysterious assailant, upon realizing his victory over the deceptively-feeble, yet nonetheless old-enough-to-still-lose-once-in-a-while Rytek, turned his attention to the boy and his present.

—You’re lucky I came when I did. If he had said anymore he would have had to kill you.

Now that there were relatively few threats to his person, the boy took a closer look as his rescuer. He wore a vest and pants, each with colors no one would ever in their right mind allow to mingle together, unless such a person was either compelled to by an employer who had no such abominations of color juxtaposition to concern himself with, or was, of course, not in his right mind. As it turned out, the unusual attire was a consequence of the former possibility, which the boy discovered as the mysterious man presented his credentials, a laminated nametag bearing his name next to the logo of a supermarket, which the boy recognized as the very same supermarket his mother often frequented in order to buy baking supplies as well as refuse to buy peanut butter. Reloading his handgun with an additional clip of ammunition, the mysterious man, whose name his credentials had revealed to be Barry Pahn, continued.

—Ever since you came across the present I’ve been instructed to keep an eye on you, make sure you don’t get into trouble.

Barry Pahn engaged the safety device on his firearm and jammed it inside a holster strapped inside his repellently-colored vest.

—You’re lucky to be alive you know. That was Rytek you were dealing with. The director of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Yeah, that’s right. The Make-A-Wish Foundation. You may think I’m just joking around with you, but what you don’t realize is that this foundation is one of the most dangerous shadow organizations in the world. They make things happen.

Of course, Rytek had already told the boy much of what Barry Pahn was telling him now. However, Mr. Pahn seemed to be so perceptive he could not only tell what the boy was thinking but could also interrupt omniscient narration to do so, and so, if the boy did not consciously try

—Listen to me! From the dawn of civilization the Foundation has existed with the authorization and the ability to grant the final wish of anyone with a terminal illness, whatever it may be! They have no government ties and unlimited resources! If you see a dying person getting what they want, they are the cause! Every corner of the world is under their surveillance! If you do it, they see it! Always! How do I know all this?

Barry Pahn then produced a small locket from a pocket on the opposite side of the abhorrently-hued vest where his firearm is kept. He opened the locket and gazed at the picture inside it. He placed the locket back inside his vest pocket, looked off into the sky and let out a dejected sigh.

—Well, I just know a thing or two about loss, that’s all.

Breaking out of his sad reverie, he transfixed all of his attention back onto the boy.

—Now listen, I believe that any kid with seven inoperable tumors in their brain deserves a last trip to Disneyland as much as any other Tom, Dick, or Harry does. But in the wrong hands, think about how dangerous the Make-A-Wish Foundation could be! Maybe there’s a Vice-President somewhere in the White House, sick of being second fiddle to the Chief Executive Office of the United States of America, wants to be the real McCoy, bona-fide President! So he buys five boxes of cigars a day, smokes them all, every day, in about a year or so he gets a case of terminal lung cancer, the black lung. The Vice-President’s got three months to live, the Make-A-Wish Foundation pays a visit to his three-months-deathbed, asks him if there’s any last wish he’d like the Foundation to grant him. He tells them, I want to be President! The Foundation sets up an assassination conspiracy, they kill the President, and for three months the dying Vice-President has the highest office in the land. They, make it, happen! Do you understand?!

The boy did not understand, as he had only recently learned about the workings of the three branches of the United States government, and was always confused when it came to the matter of emergency succession of presidents. However, the boy thought it would be polite to feign understanding and let the benevolent supermarket employee continue.

—Now, listen very carefully. All anyone has to do is smoke as many cigars as they can, get lung cancer and ask the Foundation for that present. For all I know, it’s already happened. I don’t know what the Foundation wants with you or the present, but for now you can’t trust anyone who’s about to die. You got any rich, old relatives? Stay away from them! You’ll just have to figure out the status of your inheritance another time, it’s too dangerous now! You can take advantage of cemeteries or morgues if you have to. One of the disadvantages the Foundation has is they can’t grant anyone’s wish if they’re already dead. But avoid at all costs any hospitals, churches, VFW posts, Bingo halls, flea markets, Republican conventions, retirement condominiums, in case you happen to be in Florida for any reason…

The boy decided to avoid these locations at all costs. However, if anymore at-risk locations were to be warned of by Barry Pahn, the boy would never know, since he suddenly fell to the ground dead. A man dressed in the curious fashion he found his mother and father that day was standing behind Barry Pahn’s dead, limp body, holding a smoking ballistic lethal instrument, fitted with a long, narrow apparatus on the barrel which stifled the loud blast. Before the boy had any chance to express any feelings of shock or outrage, he felt another similarly-dressed man, possibly his mother (although he was not wearing the kitchen apron), grab him from behind, lift him off the ground, and press a cloth against his mouth, blocking his necessary respiratory functions. The boy was slowly blacking out, losing consciousness, and yet he could make out the following conversation, typed by his real father in some unknown location and relayed back in a consistent B flat:

—what do you think you are doing with the boy agent

—im trying to render him unconscious agent its how they do it in movies after all isnt it

—no its not agent in the movies they usually put chloroform on the cloth first

—well I dont have any chloroform so i thought if i just pressed hard enough

—well it could work as long as you dont want the boy to ever wake up again

—hm well in that case agent could i go ahead and borrow your blackjack

—as i am not using my own at the moment i see no reason why you should not borrow it

—ah yes much better now thank you agent

*

            The boy awoke to find himself tied to a chair in a dark empty room, located in a building the boy did not know of. Rytek, flanked by five blank men in black suits and ties, stood over the boy, joined by a man in a wheelchair, whose oldness and feebility far surpassed that of the deceptively old and feeble Rytek, with a network of tubing attached to both nostrils and a half-consumed cigar protruding from his mouth. In fact, unless he was mistaken, the boy pondered to himself while bound to the chair, the feeble, wheelchair-bound, cigar smoke-reeking man bore a striking resemblance to…

—The President of the United States of America? Yes, it’s true.

Before any further explanations could be made by Rytek, with, it should be noted, a remarkable insight into the boy’s thoughts and concerns, he was interrupted by the ailing public servant’s violent, cancer-induced coughs. Rytek left the boy for a moment and tended to the President, increasing the dosage of morphine pumped into the wheelchair-ridden politician to alleviate his cancer pains.

—Of course we already granted a wish for him once before. However, his lifelong habit of chewing tobacco recently gave him a debilitating case of mouth cancer. He was initially told he had three months to live, but with the extra cancer he has closer to about a week left. And since there is a surprising lack of rich, powerful, dying clients to be had lately, we figured, what the hey. No harm in one more job, is there?

The morphine took a few moments to course through his circulatory system, and soon after the President slumped in his chair and went off on a vacation to the magical kingdom of pleasant dreams, arranged, of course, by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Having adequately tended to the dying Commander-in-Chief, Rytek focused his attention on the bound boy.

—And guess what he asked for this time? That’s right, your present. We’ve been down here for almost five hours, but try as we might the present refuses to allow itself to be opened.

Rytek turned to three of his men who were hard at work trying to open the mysterious gift, standing around it and scratching their heads in confusion.

—How do you open the present?

Even if the boy knew of a means to open the calamitous gift, he certainly had no wish to divulge this information to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Benevolent as they might be, they did murder Barry Pahn in cold blood. And since the boy doubted that anyone hated Mr. Pahn enough to wish for his demise upon their cancer-ridden deathbed, this, along with his maltreatment at their hands, gave him ample cause for lowering his sympathies for the Foundation. And so the boy both could not and did not say anything in reply. At this silence Rytek sighed and headed toward the dying President, feigning tears and placing a comforting arm around his shoulders.

—Why, just look at this poor, dying old man. Surely your heart isn’t so hardened to deny this unfortunate billionaire leader of the free world his last, or rather, his second last wish?

One of the blank men, frustrated by both the boy’s silence and the present’s resilience, gave up his task of tending to the latter as hopeless and approached Rytek.

—sir weve been down here for close to five hours if the boy hasnt said anything now hes not going to say anything at all

—Hm. Maybe you’re right. Or perhaps he just needs his tongue loosened a bit. Bring him to the Barbershop Quartet.

For the first time in his experience with the blank men, he could finally detect a palpable human emotion from them, and the fact that this newfound emotion was a sudden terror only served to further unnerve the boy.

—the barbershop quartet sir

—are you sure i mean do you really want us to

—What’s the matter? Should I just send him over myself? Are you afraid of the Barbershop Quartet?

—no sir that is certainly not the case in any way whatsoever

—certainly not in any way such a fear would be wholly unreasonable in every way

—absolutely very unreasonable to think such a thing and so of course we will send the boy right away to the barbershop quarter sir

*

The boy was being dragged down a dark hallway. On the way to wherever the blank men were taking him, where they, the boy could tell, did not want to be bringing him as much as the boy did not want to be brought, he noticed several people in hospital gowns, milling about the hallway and bumping into walls and other people. He could hear anguished moans coming from the wayward patients, the faint tortured cry of my eyes, I can’t see, what have they done to them, jeepers, creepers, where’d you put my peepers, gosh all, git up, where did you put my eyes. The blank men stopped at a door, opened it and threw the boy inside. The boy quickly rose to his feet and tried to escape from the fearful room, but the door was locked. He could see from a glass panel in the door the two blank men running as fast as they could, stumbling over themselves to get away.

Hello!

Hello!

Hello!

Heeeeellooooooo!

The interruption itself did not startle the boy so much as the fact that this interruption was a perfectly tuned B-flat dominant seventh chord. He turned around and saw four men with blood-stained rubber gloves and surgical masks covering their mouths, despite the nigh-angelic harmonies emanating from them. They wore pants and vests, each with colors which no one would ever in their right mind allow to mingle together, unless such a person was either compelled to by an employer who had no such abominations of color juxtaposition to concern himself with, or was, of course, not in his right mind. As it turned out, their unusual attire was a consequence of the latter. The two basses grabbed the boy, set him up on his feet and dragged him over to an operating chair, while the interlocutor blew upon a handy tuning whistle and gave his companions an F natural.

Ooooooh, I don’t care what the weatherman says, sang the interlocutor.

When the weatherman says it’s raining, replied one of his bass companions.

You’ll never hear me complaining, I’m certain the sun will shine, they sang, all in, as they strapped the boy tight into the operating chair. If this statement was meant as an attempt to assuage the boy’s ever-growing concerns, it all but failed in this task.

The interlocutor pointed to the second bass and instructed him to I don’t care how the weather vane points

The second bass nodded and understood the command, and, replying with when the weather vane points to gloomy, went to a table and fetched for the interlocutor a strange-looking apparatus, a head brace of some sort with a drill fastened to it.

It’s gotta be sunny to me, when your eyes look into miiiiiiiine

The fermata seemed to last for an eternity. The tension generated to the melody of their song was surpassed only by the terrible suspense the boy felt regarding the plans this perverse vocal quartet had for him. When they had finally finished both the act of strapping the strange apparatus onto the boy’s head and the resolution of their current vocal line, the boy realized to his horror the purpose of the insidious a capella group’s designs: They, and the poor patients he encountered outside the terrible room, were not merely singing their favorite Louis-Armstrong-sung-Johnny-Mercer-composed tune, but actually had need to make inquiries similar to those of the lyrics. They were actually missing their peepers! Peepers that had been stolen by the grotesque quartet!

Oooooooooh, jeepers, creepers! Where did you get those peepers?

Oh, the horror! As if this wasn’t enough for them, thought the boy as the second tenor cranked the lever which brought the drill closer to his left eye, they’re trying to taunt me as well! Let them, the boy vowed to himself, I’ll never tell them anything! Sure enough, the singers repeated their threat:

Jeepers, creepers! Where did you get those

Eyes!

Eyes!

Eyeeeeeees!

The drill came closer and closer. The boy began seeing past events of his life flash before him. Either the monstrous singers were inept at this procedure and this vision meant that the boy did not have much longer to live, or his eyes, sensing that their time was just about almost up, decided at the last minute to see as much as they could. Neither outcome appealed much to the boy.

Gosh all git up! How’d they get so lit up?

Gosh all

The drill was a half an inch away from his eye. The interlocutor stopped and glared at his companions with an impatient look. The boy hoped in vain that the terrible group would not follow through with the procedure after all, but this hope was promptly trounced with a single F-natural blown by the interlocutor toward the first bass, who had apparently deviated from the correct key a half step or so. Having adequately calibrated the pitches of each of his companions, the interlocutor continued.

Gosh aaaaaall

Gosh all git up!

How do they get that siiiiiiiiiize!

A quarter of an inch away from his eye.

Woe is me! Got to get my cheaters oooooon

Oh no, thought the boy, they modulated to C Major! Any moment now…

Jeepers

Closer. The boy was mere seconds, a mere couple of measures, a half a crank of the torturous apparatus, away from complete partial blindness.

Creepers

Closer.

Where’d ya

Closer.

Get those

Closer.

Peepers

No!

The song stopped. A silenced gunshot rang out, or, considering the nature of silenced gunshots, made an honest attempt to ring out. The interlocutor fell to the floor dead. The quartet scattered, all at once fearful for their lives and bemoaning the lack of a stable pitch to sustain the rest of the song. Conducting duties having been transferred to the second tenor upon the interlocutor’s demise, he ducked for cover, scrambled toward his fallen companion’s tuning whistle, and armed his surviving friends with an F natural for what was appearing to be their last ensemble performance.

Help me!

Pew! Down went the second tenor.

Help me!

Pew! Thus ended the life of the first bass. Now the battle was truly lost, for the first bass had been singing the third of the chord, and now it was impossible to discern whether it was major or minor. The second bass backed away from his unknown attackers and, sadly resigning himself to his fate, uttered the most woeful minor seventh interval in the history of novelty vocal ensembles.

Heeeeeeelp meeeeeeeee!

Pew! And that was the way the music died, not with a whimper, but a semi-muted bang. The strange attackers removed the barbaric apparatus from the boy’s head, careful to uncrank the drill to an adequately safe distance away from his eye, and, not before placing a black burlap sack on his head and admonishing him to be silent, led him away forever from the machinations of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the most insidiously evil of all the shadow benevolent-charity-organizations in the world.

*

—Welcome, child. I, and my Brothers you see before you, refer to myself as Maximillian the Magnificent. You now find yourself in the inner sanctum of the Clowns, or the Brotherhood of Pleasantry. I can see you are greatly bewildered by your current situation, so allow me to explain. We exist, and have existed for centuries since the near beginnings of civilization, as an order dedicated to bringing balance to the world. The smiles painted on our faces remind each and every one of us that we are a pleasant people, and it is our charge to enforce pleasantness wherever it is needed. When a person or a group of people upsets the delicate balance of pleasantness and nastiness, when an innocent is beset by nastiness, and in their desperation cries out “send in the Clowns,” the Clowns are indeed sent for, and once sent it is up to us to restore the balance. This is what we do, and we do it, now and forever, with a smile on our faces.

Maximillian the Magnificent grasped his bright red nose and squeezed. It let loose a pleasant squeak which elicited a giddy laugh from all his brothers present, who repeated the strange act until the room was filled with the sounds of noses. After a few moments Maximillain the Magnificent raised his hand and the clamorous din of noses ceased.

—As I am sure you could attest to, the Barbershop Quartet was, in life, not very pleasant. What disturbs us however was the involvement of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. As powerful as we have been throughout the eras, and continue to be, it nonetheless continually astonishes us how resourceful the Foundation can be. We had even at several junctures considered enlisting the Foundation for our own purposes. Alas, we were too late, as our Brother Tobias contracted the black lung a mere day after the former Vice-President of the United States was diagnosed.

He was interrupted by a loud hacking cough. Maximillian the Magnificent diverted his attention to a feeble Clown who sat upon a wheelchair, a cigar dangling in his mouth and tubing protruding from his nostrils.

—Are you quite well, Brother Tobias?

Brother Tobias responded with a guttural grunt and a violent cough, which could have been interpreted as any kind of response. Maximillian the Magnificent decided to interpret this response as an affirmation to his query regarding the well-being of his brother and continued.

—And now, the matter of the present. This present was the cause of much nastiness throughout the world, it was naturally a top priority of my Order to restore pleasantness. Rytek and the President desperately wanted the present opened. What they did not realize is that it was not theirs to open, just as you were bidden not to open it. Neither of you could open it, because it is not your birthday. I, on the other hand, will become twenty-five hundred years old today.

Maximillian slowly opened the present and carefully raised the contents of the package.

—Just as I thought, my Brothers in Pleasantry! The Birthday Cake of Gethsemane! You see, most people misinterpret the birthday of Jesus Christ as December the twenty-fifth. This fallacy arises from the early church’s tendency to celebrate major holidays during the festivals of Roman and druid civilizations. Thus, Christmas was observed around the time of the Winter Solstice festival, while Easter was celebrated during the Vernal Equinox. The event most know as the Last Supper was not merely the last meal of Jesus Christ, but in fact, his Last Birthday.

With much deliberation Maximillian the Magnificent placed the precious slice of birthday cake on a golden platter before him. He nodded to one of his brothers, who rose from his seat and began to place conical party hats on the boy and everyone present.

—Fourteen slices of cake were prepared. One for Jesus Christ, twelve for the disciples, and an extra slice for Jesus Christ, because it was his birthday. Alas, he was betrayed and crucified before he could savor a reprisal of his delicious birthday cake. I remember the party well. As a clown I was summoned for entertainment purposes. I remember the balloon animals I made for Peter and John, I remember taking the photograph which Da Vinci later used as a reference. I remember dimming the lights, and lighting the thirty three candles. And I remember his words well: “Take, eat, this is the cake enjoyed on my birthday for you and for many, for the remission of sins and everlasting life.”

The Clown, after distributing conical hats to all present, dimmed the lights and, in lieu of twenty five hundred candles on a small slice of cake, lit a single candle in the shape of the number 2500. The Clown counted off and-a-one, and-a-two, and the Brotherhood of Pleasantry sang a harmonious rendition of the birthday song.

—Happy birthday to you.

—gghhaarghgrghacghk.

—Happy Birthday dear Maximillian the Magnificent.

—Haaaaapy Biiiiiiirthdaaaaaay, tooooooo, yoooooou!

—Are you one?

Maximillian the Magnificent shook his head no. Another brother further inquired about his age in this way:

—Are you two?

Again, Maximillian the Magnificent’s age was not correctly guessed, and so, many subsequent attempts were made by each Clown. A few hours later, when the correct age of twenty five hundred was finally guessed, by Brother Tobias of all people, and the corresponding candle had melted down to a wick atop a slice of birthday cake, Maximillian the Magnificent finally nodded in the affirmative and blew out the small flame on the wick. A ceremonial knife was handed to him, and he closed his eyes and partitioned the slice in half.

—I wish…

Before Maximillian the Magnificent could reveal his wish, Brother Tobias urged his brother to keep it a secret, the alternative being of course that said wish would not come true, and consequently he would have to smoke three boxes of cigars a day if he ever had hope of it being granted. Having firsthand experience of this outcome, he assured his Brother that such a course of action was not to be recommended, and so Maximillian the Magnificent took his brother’s advice and silently finished slicing the cake. After the Brotherhood of Pleasantry took a few moments to applaud the grandeur of the ceremony with a tumult of nose-squeaks, he lifted his hand in the air to bid his brothers silence, ran the partition of cake through with a fork, and slowly brought the dessert to his opened mouth.

Suddenly, the bullet-ridden, staggering body of Rytek burst in through the sacred doors of the inner sanctum.

—At last, I found you sons of bitches! By hook or by crook, goddamn it I’ll have that cake for myself!

At this the Brotherhood surrounded Maximillian the Magnificent as a standard protective procedure.

—And what makes you so sure, friend Rytek?

—Because I’m not actually Rytek at all! I’m actually…

Rytek grasped his nostrils and pulled them up. This caused his face, apparently a mask, to slowly peel away, which revealed a grotesque skull-like visage in its place.

—Jar-Ok Norgaal, the top ranking general of the Emperor of Doom’s horde! I have been merely posing as Rytek, manipulating events as I saw fit all along. I led you all here, and you have delivered the Cake of Gethsemane into my hands! I will now return this cake to my master, and with it he will complete his conquest of the Seven Galaxies!

—Ah, but you are mistaken, friend Jar-Ok Norgaal, for you did not take into account that I am not Maximillian the Magnificent, and we are not the Brotherhood of Pleasantry.

—But, but… you aren’t?

Each member of the as-yet-to-be-determined Brotherhood grasped their nostrils and pulled off their clown masks. They revealed themselves as a bizarre alien race of lizards with two cloven-hoofed legs where the necks should be and cuttlefish-heads for hands.

—We are the Great Race of Erklaatho! We have dominion of the Twelve Outer Galaxies, and mock the pitiful attempts of the Emperor of Doom to conquer the Seven Galaxies! We have been manipulating events as we see fit all along, posing as the Brotherhood of Pleasantry, so that the cake of Gethsemane would fall into our hands! Now, foolish Jar-Ok, with your utter demise the Emperor will see firsthand what happens when one crosses the Erklaatho! Or did you think we did not notice the Emperor, hiding among us, waiting for the opportune moment to strike?!

—I am here as you have spoken, loathsome Erklaatho!

As the Emperor of Doom slithered out of his hiding place, all animal wildlife within a half a mile radiance of his putrescent presence scampered away in terror, and his terrible voice caused the sun to shriek, which made it rain in every part of the world at the same time.

—Do not misinterpret my concealing myself from your sight as my being afraid of you in any way! I have been hiding among the shadows, manipulating events as I see fit all along, and now that I have brought you, Jar-Ok Norgaal, and the cake all together, I shall destroy you all, take the cake for myself, and rule the Seven Galaxies and the Twelve Outer Galaxies. And you, traitorous general of mine, did you think I would not discover your treacherous plot to usurp my dominion with the Cake of Gethsemane in your possession?

Brother Tobias rose from his wheelchair.

—Ggghagthck, he said. Grghack, ghuurghlgleghack. Ghrrr…

Brother Tobias tore off his mask.

—I AM THE UNDER-BEAST. THE UNDER-BEAST LIVES UNDER THE WORLDS AND DEVOURS ALL. THE UNDER-BEAST HAS BEEN MANIPULATING EVENTS AS HE SAW FIT ALL ALONG AND THE UNDER-BEAST WILL GORGE UPON THE CAKE AND WITH EVERLASTING LIFE THE UNDER-BEAST WILL HAVE DOMINION OVER ALL EXISTENCE. ALL PEOPLE, ALL WORLDS WILL LIVE IN THE BELLY OF DREAD UNDER-BEAST…

—Not if I have anything to say about it!

A swarm of S.W.A.T. personnel flooded the room and surrounded the Under-Beast. Before the beast could make a move a sharply-dressed man approached the dread thing and flashed a badge in front of his seven million all-piercing eyes.

—Marcus Kennedy, Director of the Federal Bureau of Anti-Under-Beast Activities. We knew there was quite a bit of illegal Under-Beast activity about to go down here, so we’ve been manipulating events as we saw fit all along, trying to draw him out of his hiding place. Well, we’ve got you now, you son of a bitch. Cuff him and take him away.

—WAIT! THE UNDER-BEAST CANNOT BE TREATED IN THIS MANNER BY MERE MORTALS! THE UNDER-BEAST KNOWS HIS RIGHTS!

—Save it for the courts, Under-Menace! Now, as for this cake

—Oh, for Christ’s sake, yelled Frank. What is even going on anymore?!

—Sh, said Gordon. It’s not polite to interrupt stories while other people are reading them.

—Story? What story? It’s just a lot of bullshit conspiracy-theory exposition and a whole bunch of twists! And we’re not even in the damn thing!

You should listen to your friend you know.

—Shut up, you self-important gasbag! Just say what we do!

Oh, all right. Frank, having adequately berated the omniscient narration, continued his tirade to his friend Gordon.

—I swear, Gordon, I can’t take much more of this.

—Maybe we should just wait out this story a little longer. It might get better, and if not it’ll probably end soon.

—Now, as for this cake, I’m going to have to have it impounded as evidence…

Before Marcus Kennedy, director of FBAUBA, could finish relaying his instructions, he was suddenly interrupted by

—Who is it going to be this time, Abraham Lincoln?

—Not so fast, said the still-decaying, reanimated corpse of Abraham Lincoln

—Goddamn it.

—Not so fast, said the still-decaying, reanimated corpse of Abraham Lincoln to the bureau. —Yes, it’s me, Abraham Lincoln, back from the dead! I created FBAUBA during my administration, as a way to safeguard the American people against the dangers of the Under-Beast. But since the end of the Civil War the bureau has been plotting behind my back to take over the world. I found out about their scheme and paid with my life. Oh, you didn’t know? Yes, indeed, John Wilkes Booth was, in fact, the man I appointed as the first director of Anti-Under-Beast Activities! And so, I utilized dark incantations to rise again from the grave, and I’ve been

—Let me guess, manipulating events as you saw fit all along?

—Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I’ve been manipulating

—Gosh, imagine my surprise.

—I’ve been manipulating events as I saw fit all along, to draw out FBAUBA so I could put a stop to their insidious plot to steal the cake of Gethsemane, and

—Hey, said Frank. Hey, kid.

The boy thought he heard some kind of mysterious voice, and, scanning his surroundings, looking for the source of the voice and wondering if perhaps the voice was even meant for him to

—Of course I’m talking to you, moron! You’re the only kid in the room, aren’t you?

An interesting point, the boy thought to himself, and to be on the safe side he inspected the Emperors of Doom and his thralls, members of the Great Race of Erklaatho, Under-Beasts, directors and members of FBAUBA, and still-decaying reanimated corpses of Abraham Lincoln, before finally concluding with a fair amount of certitude that he was indeed

—I know, I just said you were! Would you pay attention? Listen, go over to the cake and get rid of it. I don’t know, stomp on it or throw it away or something.

The boy took a good look at the cake. The magical enchantments bestowed upon the Cake of Gethsemane began to take hold of the boy, and he recoiled in horror at the thought of desecrating an exquisite dessert such as the one he saw before him. He imagined the cake inside his own mouth, imagined the sublime flavor of

—Fine, eat it yourself for all I care! Just get rid of the damn thing!

A certain apprehension took hold of the boy. He wanted the cake more than anything, but began to wonder if he was indeed worthy of such a prodigious

—Listen! That piece of cake is the only reason why everybody’s here in the first place. You want this thing to be over with, don’t you?

The boy admitted he had experienced more than his share of hardships in the service of safeguarding the precious

—Then eat the cake already! Eat it, and presto-change-o! Instant resolution of conflict! Christ, do you want to just be a passive character your whole life? When are you ever going to do anything useful for the narrative? Eat the damn cake! Eat it!

The boy, not wanting to be a passive character his whole life, and wanting to do something useful to the narrative, finally ate the damn cake already, and, presto-change-o, instantly resolved all conflicts.

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