If you don’t know someone personally, I’ve always found it hard to get broken up about their death. I saw people weeping in the streets when Diana died in that car crash–in Chicago! Never mind that our country had fought a revolution to boot her family out of power; people clearly felt enough of a kinship to weep as if they were close blood relatives. That’s a key piece of background information right there.

The thing is, I normally feel as devastated as anyone else when someone I actually know dies. I went through boxes of tissues after sweet old Nana Cummings passed on. That’s another pretty important piece of information, especially as it makes clear that I’m not some emotionless psychopath unable to feel empathy or pain.

When Cara died though…there was a mismatch. Like two wires got crossed somewhere upstairs or something. I felt detached, sad in a general way but not to the point of tears–as if I’d hardly known her, which was as far from the truth as one could get. Cara had been closer to me than even dear old Nana Cummings, but I couldn’t feel much of anything at all.


My generation was immersed in lovey-dovey sentiments about “being ourselves” and “doing what makes us happy.” Our parents probably thought they were doing us a favor–the Woodstock and Summer of Love generation, they felt like they had to struggle with their parents to go off and do what they wanted. Hell, even today there are scads of movies and TV shows lionizing the 60’s radicals who bucked what their parents wanted in order to Live the Dream.

The problem was, much of my generation decided that being themselves and doing what makes them happy was being slackers and mooching. I think that a lot of what made our parents such go-getters was the fact that–at least as they saw it–people were always telling them they couldn’t or shouldn’t do things. Who wouldn’t want to go out and get busy confronted with that, especially if there were millions in the same boat? But if from the start you’re told that you’re special and mollycoddled, you get kids working at a 7-11 with a Masters degree, just content to scrape by. Say what you will about the unshaven pot-smoking hippies of yesteryear, but they got shit done.

I was determined to avoid what was, to me, the ultimate badge of shame: moving back in with Mom and Dad and gradually abandoning all pretense of an independent life. Which led me, straight-arrow, to my current predicament.

Why would Dad have bothered to keep any of this crap? I knew he’d been a pack rat, but…man!

“It can’t be that bad,” said Meagan over the speakerphone.

“Can’t be that bad?” I said. “If you were here you wouldn’t be saying that.”

“Cut him some slack,” Meagan said. “Speak no ill of the dead, and really speak no ill of the dead father.”

I felt a little ashamed at that, but kvetching has always been a coping mechanism for me–clearing out Dad’s old desk was no different. It was either complain or sob incoherently, which wouldn’t have sat any better with Meagan.

And, in my defense, there was a lot of strange old crap in that desk. A pile of promotional notepads from businesses that no longer existed, for example. Everyone in town knew that Detmore’s Lumber Yard had gone under ten years ago–would sending a note on their stationary really have sent the right message, especially if you were writing a friend or business partner?

Then there were the matchbooks. Dad had only smoked one or two cigars a year, usually around Christmas, yet the drawers housed a bewildering array of old-style matchbooks from places as far away as Hong Kong or Danang. All had been roughly handled–it wasn’t a matchbook collection–and I was reminded of seeing a thousand matches lit at once in the science channel as I looked at them.

I knew from experience that, while Halie had no formal martial-arts training, she’d been able to perfect a dangerous number of combat moves in the crucible of John J. Crittenden Elementary School. She called it “Halie-Fu”–it was the 90’s, remember–and luckily for me she used it to defend me almost as often as she used it to subdue me.

The thing that distinguished Halie-Fu from more conventional martial arts was the fact that it used psychological attacks as much as physical ones. Halie could whip up moans and crocodile tears in a heartbeat, for example, that were so convincing that even opponents who had fallen for her tricks before would be fooled. The opponent would let their guard down, and then the physical aspect of Halie-Fu would make itself felt: swift, paralyzing blows to the stomach or legs to bring the offender into the mud, followed by expert pins that left the victim completely at Halie’s mercy.

When she busted out her Halie-Fu that day, it was a textbook example. She pushed Harry away from me; when he pushed back, she pretended to be violently thrown aside and out for the count. when Harry turned his doleful gaze back to me, she pounced. An Olympic-worthy sprint closed the distance; a kick to the back of the knee brought Harry to earth, and a quick flip-pin left him facedown, arm curled painfully behind him as Halie’s knees dug into his back.

The chain had been founded in Lost Angeles, according to the brochure we all had to read (and were tested on!) during employee training, by one Jonathan Patort. Judging by his name he was about as Mexican as Mother Theresa, but apparently he’d hung in as CEO or stockholder for the company until they were popular enough that changing the name would have represented an unacceptable reduction in brand awareness.

In many ways, though, it was a fitting moniker, since the food we served was also about as Mexican as Mother Theresa’s Albanian gjellë. The key dish, and the one with which Señor Patort’s had made its bones, was a quesadilla grilled in such a way that none of its innards would leak out until the first bite was taken, making it perfect to-go food. Never mind that the grilling process took a $5,000 custom machine that your average Mexican was unlikely to own, or that the primary cheese in the mixture was Swiss, or that the thick slabs of bacon floating in said Swiss were unlikely to be found anywhere south of Canada.

Indeed, it’s not often that two cars of similar power come together on the road, and less often still that both drivers are in an equal hurry and take equal affront to being passed.

So when that BMW passed my new Audi on the right, it was on.

Accelerating to pursue is one thing, but a true master of the automotive duel uses the terrain to their advantage. A long curve in the road can by a few seconds, but the real trick is to pin your nemesis behind an 80-year-old or, better still, a truck. Putting on steam to get just close enough that they can’t swing in front of you, and then watching gleefully as they have to break and fall behind…few rushes in the workaday world can equate. Better still if there are cars in the passing lane behind you to put up a buffer.

We dueled all the way, for the entire hour and a half, trading advantages several times. In the end we were neck and neck when I reached my exit; I saluted my worthy adversary by giving them a jaunty salute.

With a single finger.

Having a worrisome disposition and an introspective bent, my mind likes to keep itself busy by staging existential crises in moments of downtime when I ought to be relaxed or otherwise blase. I call these “Holy Shit” moments.

Standing in the express line at Metromart behind a pair of sorority girls with far more than ten items and a series of credit cards that kept being declined, without even a rack of tabloid magazines to glance over, my mind decided it would be a good time for a “Holy Shit” moment.

“Holy shit,” I said to myself. “This isn’t a game, or a movie, or anything else. It’s real. I’m here, right now, looking through my eyes.”

I reeled a bit as the sisters from Theta Theta Whatever pulled out their fourth card of the transaction. “I’ve never experienced anything outside of me; I’ve never even seen myself outside of a mirror,” I continued. “I really am Derek Ulster. I’ll never be anyone else, never see from anyone else’s point of view.”

A rising panic clutched at my heart. “My life is real, I’m living it right now, yet I’ve wasted so much of it. I’m wasting it right now! I could die tomorrow. What if this is all there is? I could be watching the sunset on a tropical beach, and instead I’m waiting in line at Metromart for the five-hundredth time in my life!”

“Next please,” the teller cried. The feeling rapidly vanished, and I felt the panic subsiding. Sheepishly, I added a bag of potato chips to my meager basket–a little starch to keep my mind sleepy and listless.

Miranda had an impressive interview, and her resume and references had been beyond reproach. So she’d been hired. But, as is so often the case, the glowing reviews and impressive accomplishments hid a simple truth: the good people at Iowa Northwestern had been trying desperately, hungrily, to rid themselves of her.

And it was easy to see why.

She was absolutely batshit insane crazy.

The warning signs had been there for anyone who cared to look, but it wasn’t until the deal was sealed that worrying things came to light. Miranda had assured Burroughs that Elvis and Lennon were alive and well over coffee one morning, for instance. When prodded, she’d said they were on the same spacecraft in the shadow of the moon. She had an utterly unnerving habit of cutting faces out of the paper and adding them to a collage–of obituary columns. Faces of Irish Lottery winners grinned cheerily from a bulletin board in Miranda’s cube; if pressed, she said they made her feel more alive.

But none of it was enough to terminate her five-year contract early, at least not in the eyes of anybody upstairs. So she was shuffled from project to project, contributing vociferously to derailing discussion and never assigned any deliverables for fear they’d arrive in lavender ink (as had once happened on an official memo to the mayor).

That was the state of her when I was assigned team as Miranda’s team leader.

The sheet was parchment-thin and brittle to the touch; my great-grandfather’s signature was barely visible at the bottom and half of the dedication to my great-grandmother had broken away.

Was that ever me?
The shining eyes, the boundless energy I see?
The playful spirit, wide-eyed innocence
I see in the little ones over the fence.
It could have been, long ago.
But is it now? I do not know.
Are we the same person as we grow?
Or do we change, and does it show?
If I were there now, over the gate
Would I play, or simply wait
Showing my age, and all that’s gone by
As the years between me and they did fly

Now, I’d never been much of a believer in Freud, or lucid dreaming, or any of that stuff. New age hippie crap, I thought, like energy crystals or pet rocks or George McGovern.

But that was before I got sick.

It’s the stress that did it, most likely. I worry too much; plus unemployment and barely $6k of padding between me and destitution sure didn’t help. There wasn’t any money for the doctor, but then again the last time I’d gone they’d given me antibiotics for what was clearly the flu and told me to rest and drink fluids. I could do all that on my own and–as a bonus–not contribute to the creation of superbugs.

So that’s how I found myself on the couch, feverish, and too sensitive to light and sound to so much as turn on the TV. Things started kind of subtle; I’d been talking to an old girlfriend from high school for twenty minutes before I realized that she wasn’t there. After that, I decided I’d go for a swim, and turned off the gravity to float about the apartment.