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November 27, 2023
"Mes de los Muertos"

The Lake Erie Lights 21

By Hawkelson Rainier

Chapter 21: Real Reality

"Hey, how'd it go, Champ?" Franky wanted to know as Clarence emerged from the dark hallway into the noise and smoke of the Friday crowd.

"Fine, fine," Clarence said. "How 'bout I get a round for everyone?" he said casually.

"Geez, what are you? Mister J.D. Rockefeller all of a sudden?"

"Naw, Franky, I just want to get everyone a drink before I call it a night."

"A night? The sun's still up, Clarence, and you wanna call it a night already? I guess May took the starch right out of your knickers, huh Champ?"

"Sure did, Franky. Now how 'bout them drinks?"

"Hey, listen up!" Franky shouted over the murmur. "Next round's on Clarence here!"

Two dozen or so patrons let out a boisterous cheer, and they all toasted to Clarence, and the band struck up a lively number. May watched from the shadows of the dark hallway as Clarence finished his drink, squared up the tab, and slipped away from the crowd into the sun of the mid-summer afternoon.

He unhitched his old mare, Bessa, and stroked her nose and scratched behind her ears the way she liked. Instead of hopping into the saddle, he just led her down the winding path, walking slowly, and when he got to the rickety old bridge he stopped. Clarence held out his hand flat, presenting a sugar cube to Bessa. She took it gently from his palm and nuzzled her nose against his neck. He gave her a little push to get her going again, and she crossed the bridge alone, then stopped and looked back.

"Go on now, Bessa. I'll be along shortly," he said as he shooed her on her way. Clarence knew she would find her way back home. How many times had she carried him home when he was passed out from too much booze? More times than I could count, he answered himself, and he wiped his runny nose with his sleeve. His uncle would take care of Bessa.

She was his uncle's horse in the first place, but he gave her to Clarence as a present when he got home from the war. Felt mighty sorry for me, I suppose, Clarence thought. Guess folks can't help but feel sorry when they see a doughboy come home missin' pieces like that. Maybe they'd be singin' a different tune if they knowed all the things I'd done over there. But God knows what I done ... so what you gonna tell God when you show up at those pearly gates?

Clarence climbed up onto the railing of the wooden bridge and looked down. I'll just tell him the truth. I was followin' orders like a good soldier. Clarence leaned forward ever so slightly, and gravity reached up and snatched him, and the hungry rocks fifty feet below finally got their supper.

Roy knew Clarence was dead even before the rats and the coyotes had sniffed him out. He had seen Clarence's etheric energy hovering in the sky, stuck in that strange limbo. Roy went to him and told him, telepathically, that everything would be okay. His signal would begin to fade, like a radio that gets too far from the broadcast tower, and eternal rest would be waiting for him.

It was a closed casket funeral, and that was for the best. It scared Roy just how easily he could get tangled up in a person's psyche. He wondered what might have happened if he had been inside Clarence's mind at the moment of impact fifty feet below that rickety bridge. The rules were unclear -- he didn't quite understand how this strange game worked.

While it was true he had eluded the U.S. Justice system, outfoxed an ancient Colony of aliens, leaped headlong into a black hole and came out the other side no worse for wear, it seemed very dangerous inside the head of another human. All those mixed up emotions blindsided him, shook him up, and spun him around. When he was synced with a human brain, he was subjected to reality. Real reality, as he had come to think of it. Physics packed a punch. Time ticked away a little piece of him at every moment.

Roy was there at the funeral, his etheric substance resonating inconspicuously in a dark corner between the gaps in the loose floorboards. The choir stood and led everybody in a rendition of Amazing Grace. It wasn't perfect. Some people were a little flat, some were a bit early, or a bit late. But they all stood and sung best they could as the pallbearers carried the casket down the narrow aisle, outside to a horse-drawn cart that would carry Clarence to his resting place in the cemetery on the hill behind the little white church.

A little over a month had passed before Roy felt compelled to visit Clarence's grave. Maybe I should have stayed with you, he thought. Maybe I should have stayed with you as you jumped, and I would be resting, too.

It was an idea that deserved some thought. Roy had known from the beginning that immortality was an abomination. He stared good and hard at that sunken, sun-baked dirt on Clarence's grave. There wasn't a hint of grass on it yet. It had been a dry, mean summer.

Roy tried to remember what Hamlet had said as he languished on the stage with his package practically bulging out of his pantyhose. To be or not to be, that is the question. Something something, slings and arrows, blah blah blah, something else, blah blah, to die, to sleep, to sleep, perchance to dream. There's the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we shuffle off our mortal coil.

Roy thought about that, and it was the first time he had ever thought about Shakespeare aside from a school-related assignment. What dreams may come? There are no dreams, right? You just lose the signal and become part of the big static in the sky. I'm tired, Roy thought. I just want to sleep. Like Clarence is doing right now.

Besides the ache of despair that throbbed in Roy like a rotten tooth, he was just plain bored out of his mind. Since Clarence's death, he had been occasionally floating into the general store, or the local diner to catch up on some small-town gossip. There was a whispered debate going on in the shadows regarding the circumstances of Clarence's death. Was it just a stupid drunken accident, or a suicide?

And the Nosey Nancys always had new information regarding the handful of working girls that made the majority of their money after dark and on their backs. May was the prettiest and the youngest of these pariahs, and therefore, suffered the most ridicule from these fat housewives and prudish, blue-haired old maids. It made Roy sick to listen to it. If he had vocal chords and a set of lungs, he would have said his piece.

The truth was, he had developed quite a crush on May, and he didn't like people talking bad about her. Roy got into the habit of following May's customers back into the tiny room at the end of the dark hallway where he would embed himself in the John's psyche. He thought he might be able to develop a closeness to her through the various men who frequented Franky's place, but none of them cared for her the way he did. They were in there to use her like a blow-up doll. It was just a dirty business transaction to be completed quickly and without kindness. Some of them roughed her up a little, but those were few and far between. Franky and his associates always handled those guys out back with brass knuckles and a Louisville Slugger.

Roy tried going back inside May's head, but whenever a fat John would climb on top of her, her self-loathing would spike and nearly boil him alive. It was like being in Hell, except May would sometimes find sanctuary somewhere deep inside herself. She would kind of tune everything out, at least until the act was over. During those times it seemed like May was dead. That beautiful, kind, vibrant part of her mind would just go dormant, and she would be reduced to little more than a breathing slab of meat for some slob to have his way with. Roy hated that the most. He would rather burn alive than feel the coldness of that horrible void.

One morning, May came strolling through the cemetery in a long, drab-colored dress. She was carrying a single red rose, and she clutched it close to her breast when she stopped and spoke over Clarence's grave.

"Sorry I didn't go to the service they had for you," she said, delicately wiping a tear. "I heard it was real nice. But you know what the God-fearing folks around here think about me. Anyway, I'm gonna miss you, Clarence. I wish things had turned out different for us. But I guess you gotta play the cards you get dealt the best you know how." May knelt down and placed the rose at the base of the headstone. She stood, fought back another wave of tears, and pressed her hand flat against her belly. It was a subtle gesture, but it piqued Roy's curiosity.

Is she pregnant? Roy wondered. Maybe she didn't even know. Maybe the gesture was something she did subconsciously because only the instinctive, animal part of her knew. Roy went to her, melted into her, and he could hear the sorrowful waters of her mind spilling over the banks, flooding her conscious thoughts: I should have held on to you that day, Clarence. I should have held on and never let go. We could have made it work. It was so stupid of me to let you leave that day. I almost didn't let you go. Now look at what's happened.

Roy listened very closely, and beneath all the woulda-coulda-shouldas that were haunting poor May, he heard her heart beating ... and another one, too. It was a tiny sound, just barely detectable, but he was sure it was there.

He went to the unborn child, and it looked sort of like a popcorn shrimp. Geez, it must take a while before these things get cute, he reasoned.

"Well, here I go," he said as his energy passed into the embryo. Its mind was still very primitive -- primarily dark. Once in a while, the darkness was interrupted by a few quick pulses of light, followed by another long stretch of blissful darkness. Roy found that the baby did not seem to be bothered by his presence. It was as if the embryo had a west-coast, mi-casa-es-tu-casa attitude.

What a cool little dude, Roy thought pleasantly. It's nice in here. Not all that much noise. Little Dude doesn't have to worry about a mortgage, a midterm exam, who unfriended him on what social network, how many fuckin' bars his cell phone has, toned abs, global warming, disappointing his parents, pancreatic cancer, I.R.S. audits, faltering stock portfolios, jilted lovers, divorce settlements, custody battles, canceled flights, counting calories ... none of that.

No wonder Little Dude can sleep so soundly. I'm a little tired, too. Jesus, when's the last time I slept? I don't even know for sure if I can sleep anymore. Feels like I could. It's nice and quiet in here, nice and still. I'll just let my mind go and see if maybe I can rest for a minute. Just relax and ...

Sleep finally came to Roy, and it was a power nap for the ages. When he finally woke, the quiet serenity of Little Dude's pea-sized brain had given way to a vast, mostly barren landscape composed of fine dust -- presumably the particulates of the kid's developing mind. Confused winds wailed without rest, continuously sculpting, obliterating, and then re-sculpting the dunes that swept throughout the entirety of this strange realm. The sky was veiled with swirling dust that blotting out much of the light from a pale disc that was suspended high above.

The ground convulsed with a powerful tremor, opening a vast sinkhole that swallowed Roy. He fell for what seemed like a long time, falling toward a thing that looked like a colossal sea creature. It had a multitude of arms that branched from its fleshy body, and a long tail that trailed behind it.

Then he recognized the thing for what it was: it was a neuron inside of Little Dude's brain. Roy had seen pictures of neurons in his overpriced biology textbook from one of his college courses. The branching arms were dendrites, and the tail was actually an axon.

Damn these things freak me out, he thought to himself. It wasn't at all like looking at the neat little illustrations in the textbook that clearly labeled the important anatomical features. This thing seemed to breathe, like a slumbering Kraken that might wake and attack New York City or something.

It occurred to Roy that the neuron wasn't really big at all, but rather, he was very small. Roy continued his freefall descent and he passed through the membrane of the neuron.

He was suddenly in the midst of a sea that was teeming with life. Creatures that looked like bundled strands of steel cable corkscrewed through this saline world. Globules, torpedoes, and disk-like things moved in schools, the way you would expect fish to move. Roy thought back to his overpriced biology textbook so he could figure out what he was seeing, but nothing rang a bell. That's because he was at the molecular level now, and that's the kind of stuff freshman-level biology courses gloss over.

Any med student worth their salt would have recognized these things as neurotransmitters, peptides, polypeptides, and amino acids. Roy continued to diminish in scale, passing into one of the corkscrew things and emerging into what appeared to be a solar system. He wondered how he ended up in space again as he watched several planets dart around their mother star in frenzied orbits.

After a moment, it occurred to him that he wasn't witnessing the clockwork mechanics of Newtonian Physics; instead, he was in the quantum world. The planets weren't planets; they were electrons. The star wasn't a star; it was the nucleus of an atom. Probably a carbon atom, Roy guessed.

Surrounding this quantum structure was a vast, inky void that was speckled with pinpoints of light, which Roy surmised were other nuclei that belonged to other far-flung atoms. The scale of this tiny world was eerily similar to the scale of the cosmos. It was mostly empty, just as space is mostly empty. Everything was separated by mind-boggling distances, just as everything in the macro universe is separated by mind-boggling distances.

"Shit," Roy muttered. "What the hell, Little Dude? Little Dude, can you hear me?" Roy called out. "Little Dude, let me out of here!"

It wasn't that Little Dude was making a conscious decision to let Roy languish in the depths of his unborn brain. It was more like Little Dude had an autoimmune response to Roy's presence, sort of like how a bunch of white blood cells will rush in to seal a pesky splinter inside a sarcophagus of puss. The baby's rapidly developing nervous system interpreted the presence of Roy's consciousness as a threat -- an entity that would compete with the native psyche for dominance over the organism. Consequently, it banished Roy to the sub-atomic nether regions.

Roy had not encountered this defense behavior in adult humans, and he could only speculate as to why Little Dude's brain was booby trapped. He recalled watching one of those extreme survival documentary shows that featured a lot of dramatic reenactments and voice-over commentary.

In one particularly compelling episode, there was a couple stranded in a blizzard somewhere high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. As if the situation wasn't harrowing enough, the couple had their infant son in tow. Roy remembered watching this with Sarah, and how she had petitioned him to change the channel. "I don't want to watch a baby freeze to death," she had complained.

"Sarah, there's no way the producers would air this show if the baby didn't make it," Roy had reasoned. "Let's just watch a little more, and if it gets too morbid, we'll switch it toi> ."

So, Sarah and Roy sat through the nail-biting ordeal from beginning to end. After five days of exposure to single digit temperatures, and no food, the family was rescued and immediately transported to an intensive care unit. The parents were emaciated, disoriented, and near death. They had also lost a significant number of toes to frostbite. Their baby, on the other hand, was fine.

A medical expert chimed in at this point and explained that infants have a reserve of something called brown fat that had been instrumental in the baby's survival. Apparently, the infant went into a hibernation-like state, and this special fat reserve provided enough nutrients and insulation to keep the kid kosher throughout the entire ordeal.

"See, I told you so," Roy gloated at the conclusion of the show.

"Wow, that's really amazing," Sarah had said, and tears welled in her eyes. "Have you ever thought about having a baby?" she had asked.

"Uh, sure. Like way down the road, maybe," Roy muttered.

Would it have been so bad? Roy posed the question to himself while he was trapped somewhere deep inside the mind of an unborn child. Marriage, kids, Christmas with the in-laws, first communions, parent-teacher conferences, college funds, graduation ceremonies, walking your daughter down the aisle, grandchildren, retirement, somebody to grow old with, people to visit your grave on your birthday ... why did all of it sound so bad back then? Why does all of it sound so good now? I've wasted so much time. I've wasted everything.

While Roy languished in a subatomic world of whirling electrons, wondering about what might have been, Little Dude was born and christened Donald Jacob Harris. His mother, May, did the best she could for him. The roaring twenties gave way to the Great Depression of the 30's, and by the end of that desperate decade, Donny was more than happy to sign any damn form the Marine recruiter had in his filing cabinet. He wanted out of that Podunk town, he wanted to earn a living, and most of all, he wanted adventure. The shit was hitting the fan in Asia and Europe, and Uncle Sam was gearing up to join the fight even before Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Donny signed on the dotted line early in 1939, and by June of 1943, he was promoted to sergeant. Two days before Christmas of that same year, his platoon was surrounded and captured by a Japanese battalion.

They were beaten and starved, riddled with lice and dysentery, and reduced to defeated skeletons that mindlessly slogged through the days and nights, digging tunnels into the mountains of that wretched south-Pacific island with nothing more than picks and shovels. Donny lived through the ordeal, but most of his mind was gone by the time American reinforcements drove the Japanese into that twisted, subterranean labyrinth. Donny's severely weakened psyche could no longer suppress Roy's etheric energy that, even after twenty-some years, still lingered in the subatomic labyrinths of his brain. Roy began to surface again, like a cold sore that had been dormant for ages but decided to show up on the day of the prom.

"Medic, we got another one over here," an excited soldier shouted when he discovered a barely-conscious Don Harris sprawled out on an outcropping of volcanic rock.

"It's all right, we're Americans. We're gonna take care of you," the medic said as he shined a flashlight into Donny's eyes. His pupils did something marginal, and the medic barked out orders: "Let's get him to triage and start an I.V.!"

After a regimen of antibiotics and some good old-fashioned rest in a soft bed at a U.S. base in California, Donald Harris was declared fit to return for service. Roy, who was now firmly in the pilot's seat of old Donny's flesh and bones, took the news pretty hard. He peeked under his hospital gown and wondered if he was going to get his frank and beans blown off before he even got a chance to take 'em out for a test drive.

But, after what seemed like an eternity, Roy finally caught a good hand. Donald Harris was to be reassigned as a supply clerk on Leyte Island in the Philippines. Most of the fighting there had already been done months earlier in a fierce naval battle that pitted Admiral Bull Halsey against Admiral Soemu Toyoda. The great chess match played out on the rolling sea, and when the big guns were finally quiet, the battered Japanese fleet limped away in retreat.

Now, Leyte was merely a staging area for MacArthur to supply his troops and make a push for Japanese-occupied Manila, which was about 550 miles to the northwest. The fighting there, by all accounts, was horrific. The Japanese forces were dug in good and deep, and MacArthur had to use every damned weapon in his arsenal to get the job done: tanks, artillery, flamethrowers, bayonets, assholes and elbows. Of course, pinned between the two raging armies, was a significant population of Pilipino civilians whose death toll is believed to have reached 100,000.

Manila had been decimated to the point where it took on the tragically appropriate moniker The Crushed Pearl. Not long after the carnage in Manila, a mushroom cloud blossomed over Hiroshima, followed soon after by another one over Nagasaki. And finally, the second Great War had burned itself out, and the battle-scarred planet cycled into an uneasy peace for the next five years or so.

Article © Hawkelson Rainier. All rights reserved.
Published on 2022-01-17
Image(s) are public domain.
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