Occult Forces

OCCULT FORCES


a Novel of the true Magick
by
A.J. Rose

The following novel excerpt is ©1994, 1998 The Consciousness Institute; All Rights Reserved; it is reprinted electronically here by permission, for inclusion in the cyberzine Paradigm Shift only; any other use is prohibited. In particular, no commercial use may be made of this material; unauthorized sale of reprints will be prosecuted under the relevant U.S. copyright statutes. For further information, please address the copyright holder: The Consciousness Institute / 253A-26th Street, No. 291 / Santa Monica, CA 90402 USA.

Before the Revels: a Divination
mysterious doings, with a vaguely sexual undertone

OPEN, THEN, on a pool of light: discrete at first, a spot, which swiftly grows. Something moves in that light, a pattern of dark motion, rich with shadow. Two pairs of hands, clasping.

But, no. Not clasping each other, but holding something; balancing a thing between them, held by the stiff fingers. The planchette, the pointer of a Ouija board.

A long squeak, as the planchette moves: a letter from the circle. Another.

Another.

Tom, says the soft, breathy voice of a woman.

Another woman s voice, neither soft nor breathy. Tom! A boyfriend at last, for our little Nina?

Not nice, the breathy reply.

Tom who. The hands wait. No, nothing; not the right question, apparently.

What do I need to know?

Everything, Nina. Just about everything.

Shhhhh.

Another long squeak, letters again. F. I. R...

Firm.

Looks promising, Nina. You know what they say, A hard man is good to find.

The Firm, encouragingly, ignoring her. Yes, of course. We are The Firm.

Like it didn t know that, Neen.

We three. The Firm. What else?

Is this boring you, Neen? Such a hurry to finish.

Nina continues to ignore her. A crystal laugh, then, with a shudder in it. Jillycat, you startled me!

A cat, a very small though adult tabby, gray on gray with a touch of white at breast and under tail, jumps into the light. As so often, she fairly screams to be petted. Nina s hand starts to reach for her.

No. Don t break the connection, pet the damned cat later. The other s elbow brushes the cat unceremoniously away. Jillycat lands with a soft thump and a squeak, out of sight. Anything else? Our Neen seems to be in a hurry. Then: Hey, not so fast, dammit!, you re pushing it.

I m not, a breathy voice demurs.

But the planchette flies, letter to letter, too quickly at first for them to read. Even Nina is troubled. Slow down, she murmurs. Please.

I m not getting a thing out of this, I m not getting this at all.

But Nina apparently has. It s French, she breathes. I know only a little, un petit peu. It said, it looked like -- le troisieme extremite.

Which means?, exasperated.

Well...I m not sure. Do the French use extremite like we use extremities ?

You re asking me?

Qabalah, perhaps? -- Kether the first extremity, Tiphareth the second, the third Yesod, the astral --

Nina, cut it out. You re reading everything in. You force it to what you say are French words I can t read, then invent meanings. Oh!, satisfied at last, Yes, now I get it!

Nina, the breathiness somewhat less in her expectation of a crude joke: Yes?

Well, it s all right there, don t you see it? This Tom it mentioned, his right leg the first of his extremities, the second his left leg, leaving only --

You re disgusting.

-- the best of three, le trwasiewhats extremeetay, get it?

You re disgusting, Nina says again.

Meeewww! Jillycat cries, her vigor renewed. Meeeeeewwww!!

Pet the fucking cat, as warm fingers release the planchette.


PROLOGUE: IN THE FOOTHILLS OF ABIEGNUS

Chapter One
The Highway into Dream
in which a kindly fat kid is introduced, and quickly loses his way

THOMAS PHILIP KELBER, Tom to all who knew him, reflected sagely that summer always had a way of finally returning, but that in this as in many gifts, there was an element of letdown: for with the return of summer came the inevitable and concurrent return of his mother s demand that he seek summer employment. Lying in bed in their Bentley condo, he put his pillow over his head, shutting out nice warm L.A. nightbreeze with a sharp linen smell, but not shutting out the ugly memory. Tom had turned sixteen on June 6th, some two weeks past, and that meant the problem had worsened: occasional babysitting for the Baumgartens and some light typing at the travel agency his mom managed would no longer suffice. He was legal, now; it was expected that he d get a real job, at last. His long fantasy that working for one s mother was the worst situation imaginable had been instantaneously disproved: sure enough, Tom could now imagine worse, rather easily in fact. Working for someone to whom you weren t related, for example.

And I don t mean the donut shop, either, Tom. (Shit, now that hurt, that was really mean.) Or that comic book store you waste your time --

Mommm -- ! (It figured she d bring Hi De Ho into it sooner or later.)

-- and our money in. Your brother has been working all this year, you know.

(His brother, Randy, was a nasty little feeb of eleven, infinitely younger than the practically-adult Tom, yet somehow uniquely provided with a fitness for commerce; he had usurped Tom s babysitting jobs for some months now. He was skinny, too, the bastard -- she d never keep Randy from slinging long-johns and jellies at Winchell s. Had Randy been present for this discussion, Tom would have made a mental note to hit him later, if possible. Well, no, he wouldn t really, but it felt good to think so.)

He babysits, Mom. That s not exactly working.

Oh, I see. It was when you did it, as I recall.

There had been, of course, no answer for this, and none for his employment trap, either -- at least, not until a teacher at school had unexpectedly provided one. Tom had been moping over his lunch, the last week of the tenth grade, when the teacher in question had done that which alienated kids hope for, but seldom experience: asked him what was the matter. When a startled Tom told him, feeling more than a little ashamed, the teacher said: Simplicity itself, my boy. This week is last call for summer school. Take a full schedule, two or three classes, it meets every weekday, y know. If you emphasize the increased homework, and you re lucky, maybe you get off with no job at all; if not, well, at least you ll be working only part-time. See? Tell her you need it for college, that usually helps. Believe me, I know.

Summer school. Hardly an inviting prospect, but....

The teacher, who d bopped away on his last word, hesitated; cocked his head in an elaborately dramatic gesture, and returned. Tom, he said quietly, this may sound...well. Look, don t ever forget: just when you think --

Oh, great. A pep-talk. These Sixties types, Jesus, all of em social workers or something.

-- the magic has gone out of life...well, believe me, really now. You d be surprised, you d be fuckin amazed, just how magical life can get. Okay?

Did he say fuckin? He couldn t...! Okay, Tom stammered. Sure. You bet. He watched the teacher s back recede again, noticed for the first time the unusual bounce in this particular teacher s step, another not very teacherly detail. Umm, hey!

Yessss...?

Thanks, Mr. Jonas. Really, thanks.

De nada, kiddo, the teacher replied, fishing in his pocket for a little cigar, even before he got into the teacher s lounge.

Magical or otherwise, the plan had worked beyond Tom s most fevered hopes. At the appeal to college, and buckling down, and a full schedule, and applying himself at last, and making something of his life, and similar lines of reasoning that rang rather hollow in Tom s ears, his mother s face had relaxed a bit. Well, she d said at last, if that means a full-time, real job after summer school s over --

Oh, sure, of course. Summer school would be over the end of July, a mere six weeks later, but that was forever, that was a really long time away, or, shit, anyhow, that was another problem to be faced at another time, the basic story of one s high school years, it seemed to Tom.

All right. Summer school it is.

And summer school it was. This had meant a few giddy days of what felt almost like freedom, broken only by report cards (It s not so much a C average as a sort of low B, really, and anyhow, that s why I wanted summer school, see?); until now, Father s Day 1990 (hope the cards got there -- wish he d call), the Sunday night before the summer session began. Until the worry returned, at once: about school, about the eventual job...

Tom had signed up for two solids, and one elective, hoping the former would conceal the vapidity of the latter. Miracle of miracles, he d got all three: Algebra (arghh), French 1 (ohhhh, ghod), and, uh...

Channeling? What the hell is that? I never heard of a class like that, his mother had said, her customary note of suspicion returning.

Randy, who was present this time, had whooped at that one. Channeling?! he d shrieked in happy disbelief.

Frantically (and not without a dart of guilt), Tom had stammered, It s, I think it s like a computer class or something.

Channeling?! Randy repeated, glowing with delight.

Yes, Tom told him, carefully.

Oh, Randy said. Channeling. Sure. Computer stuff, yeah. He nodded once, seriously. I remember now.

Leah Kelber had looked at her sons. Well. Computers. Like a programming class, or something? That could help you, Tom, maybe you could get a real job with the travel agency after all, at some point. All right, she had declared at last, initialing his course list. Good work, Tom. Just see that you do better than a low B average this time, capiche?

Yes, Ma am, Tom had said, his eyes never leaving Randy s head.

Sort of like programming, Randy had added by way of explanation, a strange, humorless grin etching his smooth face.

Outside Tom s room, on Bentley, a lone car pulled into the cul-de-sac; idled; turned, and drove off again. There s never any parking, butthole, Tom whispered to it in the near-darkness left after its headlights faded from the ceiling. He wrenched himself over on his stomach, buried his face in his pillow again. Get some sleep, gnarlhead, he told himself.

Yes, agreed some nameless voice from his rich lore of fantasy reading. Get some sleep.

Just a-glide on down the highway into dream.

AND WHEN THE DREAM CAME, Tom felt he had been waiting a very long time for it. There had been the prophetic-feeling dream before the 1988 presidential election: the one with the flag-draped casket and the muffled drums, and the Democratic candidate sitting in his shirtsleeves, head down and elbows on knees, all by himself in a deserted seating area much like the box seats at the Hollywood Bowl, even to the detail of the bits of trash and styrofoam strewn on the dirty concrete floor at the candidate s feet. Though too young to recognize the eerie funerary imagery (he had of course missed the murder and interment of President John F. Kennedy in 63), Tom had nonetheless awakened with the overpowering feeling that he must, somehow, protect the candidate; that this was mysteriously, almost cosmically, his job. This he had endeavored to do, through strictly interior means: call it prayer, meditation, or wishful thinking as you choose. It was, of course, impossible to assess his effectiveness, except to note that the candidate, though defeated, had at least survived the campaign. Politics being what it has always been, perhaps that defeat was itself a measure of Tom s success, had in fact saved the candidate s life; who could say? Tom preferred not to think about it.

But in the years since then, there had been no more such dreams.

Not that he hadn t dreamed often, indeed constantly, during that time. But the dreams he had were of the commoner sort: images of a rather more casual strangeness, pointless conversations, achievements both erotic and otherwise, defeats quickly forgotten. Dreams, only dreams. He had painfully completed junior high, entered high school, and mainly waited, like so many, for Something to Happen. And then, and in fact now, the dream came, bringing with it a feeling as though he had been holding his breath all his life, and could expel it at last. And the dream was this:

He was (in the dream) walking down by the Santa Monica pier, not that far from Hi De Ho Comics and the Change of Hobbit SF bookstore, and chanced across a brittle but attractive, fortyish brunette woman who apparently hosted a talk show on public access cable. She was wry, driven, and sweating from her run in her gray and lavender workout clothes. This part got muddy, but the upshot of it was that he left the high esplanade overlooking the beach with his job question settled at last: he was no longer to protect presidential candidates, but now to assist the woman in research for her show. He would be working with another man to do this, a slender, curly-haired, spectacled fellow in his mid-thirties, with a name which wasn t quite Norton. Up to this point, the dream was unremarkable. But when he arrived at not-quite-Norton s apartment to start work, that began to change rather quickly.

As a fan of stories of the fantastic, Tom recognized an H.P. Lovecraft set-up when he saw one, even in a dream. Norman? Norbitt? was just the sort of dissipated initiate (wow, good phrase, where had Tom read that one?) of whom Lovecraft was so fond, and when Tom joined him at the awful, huge, Gothic-feeling black stone apartment building, the sky lowring dramatically above it, Norfolk?, affecting boredom, launched into what became an increasingly nervous attempt to get Tom to dump the new job.

As he spoke, Norbert? kept folding and refolding his arms in the mottled gray-black sportcoat and uncomfortably white shirt, shooting the starched cuffs; at length, he settled on putting his hands in the pockets of his gray slacks. Look, he said, becoming exasperated. You don t know what you re getting yourself into, here. I ve half a mind to show you.

Tom shrugged, in as adult a manner as he could manage, as if to say, Go ahead. He noticed, with that vivid attention to detail which characterized such dreams, that his shirt, too, was almost blindingly white, and that he wore besides it a deeply black suit (neither item an actual part of his wardrobe, which ran to Wolverine sweatshirts and baggy jeans). I can sure use the money, he said, and frankly, I m not too scared of anything I m likely to find researching for cable.

Not too scared. Mmm. Perhaps you should be. Nordic? (say, that was almost...) shrugged one bony, ascetic shoulder, and waved a long-fingered hand airily toward the curtained window beside them. Look out there, he said. Tom obliged him.

Outside the window in the parking lot just below them was a man in a tan, wool-lined hunting jacket, engaged in loading a small, frightened seeming woman -- familiar, somehow, though Tom couldn t see her face -- into a battered old green station wagon with a dented metal bumper. I see him, Tom said. So?

So he keeps a close eye on that poor woman, keeps an eye on me, and he ll be keeping an eye on you, too, now, if you don t wise up.

That s three eyes, Tom thought, but kept his peace. So? he asked again.

Norform? sighed, evidently overwhelmed by the obtuseness of the uninitiated. So you don t want this kind of trouble, now do you. Tom probably didn t, but he was aced if he was going to let this pale flitter decide that for him. Stubborn, aren t you, Norwalk? added, with another elaborate sigh. I may just have to take you there. I can, I only wish I didn t have to. He waved in the general direction of the window again. He has rather a nasty dog, he added hopefully.

Woof woof, Tom commented (thinking geez, I really feel grown-up here, how old am I?). The comment prompted yet a third contribution from his new colleague s apparently bottomless Well of Sighs. Take me where?

Norby? looked at him. Down there, he replied vaguely. When Tom just kept looking back, he finally added, Down to seven eighths.

Seventy-eight? Another apartment in the building?

Seven eighths.

Seven eighths what?

Seven eighths dead, Norgil? patiently explained.

OKAY, NOW THAT S a different matter. Never mind, Tom said. No way, seven eighths of the way into death. Not for me. This is where I came in. I mean, look --

But by then, they were already on their way. They were riding in the car of a rollercoaster, car and track silhouettes against a deepening blue sky, roiling with liquid clouds. Norbonne? was in the front seat, Tom in the back; there were no others. Ahead in the distance, Tom could see a white double-door, etched into a black wall of rock, itself stark against the azure void. And into the very middle of the entirely reasonable thought that he wanted nothing to do with this weirdness, intruded another, strangely welcome thought, as though released after being pent up for years in his lungs, with his held breath.

Oh, why not, Tom corrected himself. Okay, let s go, let s do it. At the very thought, the car sped up, the white doors fairly sailing toward them. The car hit the doors with a bang, tossing them wide, and sloped gradually on down the dark track (Tom thinking, Disneyland, that s what this is like, Mr. Toad s Wild Ride. Wheeeeee).

Remember you asked for it, Norrin? said lugubriously, in the voice of another person.

Wheeeeee, Tom mildly replied.

The effect began almost at once. Tom could feel it quite well before Nordine? even mentioned it. You may fine -- find -- esss, it s beginning already. Tom ceased listening, his whole attention on the strange process itelf. For they were changing, Norpick? -- again, that was almost it -- and Tom, as they descended to (that unusual term for it, as though identifying a depth to which they were scuba diving, not perhaps an inappropriate simile) seven eighths.

Changing? They were dying, in fact. It made sense, after all: like divers changing pressure to reach some wine-dark level, the living must reach seven eighths by, what was the old Thomas Disch title?, oh yes, Getting Into Death.

Dying. Tom felt, with a curious fascination, his physical sensations ebbing, his body cooling and entering paralysis, his flesh stiffening, his tongue thick and logey as though pricked with a needle of novocaine. ow, he said, the initial W lost around the numbing, increasingly unfamiliar object in his mouth.

I am dying, Egypt, dying, he thought (he had been in Mr. Jonas s class in B-10, and vaguely recalled the lines as being from a speech of someone or other to Cleopatra), ebbs the crimson life-tide fast; and the dark, Plutonian shadows gather on the evening blast....

They rode by a curious stone effigy of the dead comedian Oliver Hardy, of Laurel and Hardy fame. The great stone head, complete with bowler hat, was missing several chunks, and the face was twisted into a mask of pain. Poor guy, Tom thought, paradoxically exhilarated as his circulation slowed.

But Hardy was not alone in his torment. The darkening hills they wound through on the car s little track were a sort of sparkling gray-black sandstone, worn smooth into almost wave formations; and along them, visible only in glimpses, trudged lines of dark, doleful figures, chained one to another, moaning soundlessly as they went. This is a bit much, Tom thought (speech having become all but impossible; even consciousness was becoming problematic, his eyes closing, his mind fading ever further into black). Damned souls or something. Silly. He remembered a line from one of his mom s old Steve Martin comedy records, about the guy waking up astonished in Hell -- hadn t college said all this was bullshit?

In some respects, this was not the orthodox Hell, at least not as represented in cartoons or comics (Tom s primary religious training); for one thing, it was dark, and bitterly cold (before his sensations finally numbed to a pleasurable warm unthinking buzz), not bright and flaming. But still....

In the dream, once speech failed him, a sort of telepathy somehow remained; communication with Norvick (almost, that s almost it), anyway. Why do they do this?, Tom asked in this undefined way. Who makes it so that death is like this, all this torment and stuff?

This isn t death, exactly, Norvick (we ll call him) replied by the same method. This isn t even seven eighths. These are the living, or what we call the living, if you could really see them, the way they are inside. Most of them. There are exceptions. You could be an exception, if you live long enough. Norvick, with effort, looked back from the front seat, his head overlarge (but perhaps it had been that way right along?), the curly hair strangely grotesque on his skull, his eyes empty behind his glasses.

Live long enough, Tom, came the wordless whisper. That s important. Live long enough, or you don t get anyplace at all.

You come here a lot, Norvocaine?, Tom asked him, as a sort of lame joke; no answer, maybe even the telepathy was fading now. I like it here, Tom thought, with a sudden, excited rush.

I wanna go even further.

Dimly, Tom sensed Norvick s sudden concern at this -- could feel (no longer seeing anything) an almost-panic from the other man. He seemed to be saying something about flashbacks, about crashing unintentionally into this stuff in the living world, if they didn t pull out right away. So?, Tom thought. Sounds exciting. Beats the shit out of ol Micron High and the Get-Away Travel Company. And just then...

Just then, another kind of light rose inside him, a greenish inward haze. And inside it was a big doggy.

Make your travel plans now, the doggy said. It s easy as pie, just use your major credit card. The doggy presented, with a flourish, an example of same, a shiny silver plastic credit card, but with a difference: holes cut in it, in an oddly familiar pattern --

Yes. Yes, gleaming with green highlights from the misty luminescence around them, it was a big, shiny razor blade.

Just present two forms of ID, and your right wrist, if you please, the doggy said politely, almost apologetically. I hate to require it, it s just routine, you know. Your credit is always good with Get-Away Travel.

Tom wasn t absolutely sure he wanted to; but it was too late, far too late to demur. Sometimes you buy things you didn t really intend to. Credit cards make that especially easy. With an inward shrug, Tom presented his right wrist willingly to the doggy s blade.

AND WITH THAT, JUST THEN, there was a burst of cold blue-white light. An enormously powerful hand on a bony wrist seized Tom s own wrist; wrenched him away, just out of the doggy s reach.

Child! a man s voice challenged, scolded, him. Child, what on earth do you think you re doing?!

You hurt me, Tom said (thinking two things at once: that he was speaking again, and feeling again, even though what he felt was pain; the numbness was receding, in waves of painful pinpricks, as when one s limbs have been asleep and sensation returns). Norvick, I don t think you had any right --

But it wasn t Norvick at all. Good God, who was this? Tom had a sudden sick feeling in the pit of his stomach: a sense of his own smallness, his own insignificance. He wanted to say, I m sorry, I m sorry I m young and fat and scared, I m sorry I did what I...whatever I almost did. The doggy was gone, the greenish luminescence, all of it. The entire universe was a halo of blue-white light, and the man before him.

The man seemed old, yet somehow ageless, and unbelievably strong and alive. He was the virtual antithesis of the rest of this experience, almost an icon of life itself. He was big, tanned, muscular, with a mane of white hair, and he was dressed all in white: business suit, tie, even the shoes. Against the white, his tanned skin fairly shone with -- what?, humanness?, with life, anyway.

God! Tom said.

The man shot him a wry grin. Sorry, he said, not even close. I hope that doesn t disappoint you -- religion can be, for so many, a fairly disappointing business. I will state who I am, precisely three ways, then I will ask you three questions. He cleared his throat, then said, with a sort of ritual exactness: One: I am a juggler. Two: I am a guardian; and Three, I am a free human being. You may call me David, if you like. Then: Now it s my turn. The three questions. Question the first, the easy one: Who are you?

I am Thomas Philip Kelber, Tom replied, feeling the air vibrate around them in this blue-white column of safety and warmth, rising from the odd circle which enclosed them.

Indeed! Merciful Isis!, that explains it. Well! Question the second, more difficult: Tom Kelber, Who are you?

Tom thought. I -- am a traveler, a stranger here.

The man smiled, a dazzling thing. Very good. You remind me of...someone I met many years ago, when he was about your age... An oddly pained look crossed that leonine face, then vanished. Finally, then, Question the third, most difficult of all: Tom Kelber, traveler, answer me truthfully, make your choice. Who are you?

Tom almost wept. Casting about for an answer, he finally heard himself say, from some bottomless well within him, something older than his sixteen years, older perhaps than time:

If...if I ever knew the answer to that, I ve forgotten. But I would very much like to find out.

The universe was a blinding smile beneath a mane of swirling white hair. Well spoken, Tom Kelber. Nurture that desire, young traveler, and find out you will. Now go, and take care you do not pass this particular way again!

And with that, Tom woke up.

HE WOKE TO FIND that a pounding had been going on for some while, somewhere behind him. His hands were gripping something cool and white, and he was staring at a slack, haggard, frightened looking face. He started, disoriented -- why wasn t he in bed, what...?

Tommy! came the scream again, through the door, accompanied by pounding. Tommy, my God, answer me!, please!

Mom! Tom replied, feeling stupid.

Oh, Tom, thank God -- what are you doing in there, is this some kind of joke?!

Mom, no, I -- He was in the bathroom, leaning with each hand on either side of the sink. Hot water swirled down the basin, steam rising from it; it had evidently been running for some time, that faucet took forever to heat. The face was, of course, his own, in the steamed-over mirror.

Ahead of him, on the basin, a small thing gleamed in the bathroom light.

It was a single razor blade.

Jesus! he screamed.

What is it? Dammit, Tom, open this door immediately, are you on drugs or something?, open the damn door! Leah Kelber screamed back at him.

Shit, Mom, Randy s voice came from somewhere behind her in the hall. What is it?

It s nothing! Tom yelled out to them, his attempted tone of confidence undermined by the fact that he was shaking uncontrollably now, as he frantically tried, failed, then succeeded in stuffing the blade back into its little holder. His mother hadn t used blades to shave her legs in years, he was frankly astonished to find there were any left in the house. Hurriedly putting the packet of blades away, he opened the door.

Water s running, Randy noted, pointing (though Tom was slightly pleased to see real fear in Randy s eyes, whatever his tone of studied unconcern).

Oh, yeah. Tom turned the scalding tap off.

Thomas Kelber -- !

It s nothing, Mom. Really. I m sorry. I just...I just had a bad dream. Real motherbanger, too, if you ll forgive the image, Mom. It s okay now. Hey, seven-thirty, I m gonna be late for the damn summer school!

Tommmmm -- !

But school was (after all) school, and parents maybe more than most people look for easy explanations for weird events; so the rest of that morning went pretty uneventfully, through Algebra (argh) and French (ohh, ghod). Right up til the third and last period of the day.


Chapter Two
Invocation of the Moose
in which ms. pfeiss makes a discovery, and things begin to look up for our chubby hero -- for a bit

THOMAS, MY GOOD man.

Yo, Darryl! So you re in this turkey, too! Tom was delighted. There was something about having Darryl Johnson in a class that made it seem to go a bit easier -- not that Channeling 1 was likely to present much of a challenge, but still.

Ahhhh, yesss, Darryl sighed, easing himself into the seat next to Tom s and gliding his books to rest. The lure of the occult forces, dear boy. The hope of contact with the world beyond, the power of the mysterious. The ever-attractive chance to commune with Mickey. Mouse, that is -- the apparently permanent nickname for a class presumed to be comically simple. Pardon me a moment, Thomas. Muse, Connie.

What? replied a startled young lady several seats over.

Muse. Invocation of the muse, not moose. If you ll forgive the interruption.

Jesus, Darryl. You black guys all think you re the coolest things on the globe or something, you know?

Jesus, what a bitch, Connie s friend Anne put in, obviously much taken with Darryl.

Jesus, thanks, Annie, Connie replied with a pout.

Tom reflected, not for the first time, that the kids in his school probably invoked the name of the Christian Lord more often than television preachers. He thought it prudent, however, not to mention this at the moment; nor, indeed, to say much of anything at all when good looking women were involved. He felt a brief stab of envy at Darryl s ease in the presence of the babes, but let it pass. So, uhh, anyway, he said, when Connie had resumed her griping about her English class, and Darryl s attention had returned to Tom, you know anything about the teacher in this class? The list just said Staff, like they always do, but somehow I kinda doubt that Jenkins ll be handling it, y know?

Darryl laughed politely at the image of the school s relentlessly materialist biology teacher taking on the channeling class. A good point, Mister Kelber. I suspect you re right. No, I presume they re importing outside talent for this one, although I suppose witchcraft might be in Ms. Hadley s line -- I took her for Geometry, and believe me, she s a witch all right.

Geometry. Darryl had already taken Geometry, probably aced it, too, and here Tom was just starting to sweat Algebra. Disgusting. Oh, well, Darryl was going to be a senior next fall, so --

Oh, my, Darryl whispered to Tom as a hush descended on the crowded (for summer school, anyway) classroom. The lady in question, with a slight nod to the front of the room.

Good morning! chirped a short, slender blonde woman as she breezed to the table before them. She tossed her severely-ribboned ponytail, placed a black leather satchel carefully onto the table, then selfconsciously smoothed her flower print polyester dress (!) with both hands.

Geek alert, Connie whispered, not quite softly enough.

If the woman heard it, she gave no sign. My, quite a turnout, she cooed. Good, good. She went to the blackboard, began a search for chalk.

There was always a squirmy moment at the beginning of a class, even a Mickey Mouser like this one. Students and teacher performed a rapid mutual assessment, in a way that you could almost feel. Tom sensed that the males in the class had already largely dismissed this lady -- true, she was a woman, and about the right age (mid-thirties, Tom guessed), but too skinny and much too cheerful -- a weakster. The females had rendered an even harsher judgment, if anything, except for the sudden light in the eyes of some of the gentler (Connie would no doubt say wimpier ) ones, who saw the promise of an ally. Tom risked a glance at Darryl, but he was making the Great Stone Face and drawing a wicked monster in his notebook.

Tom was himself a bit disappointed; not because he d expected a sex goddess to be teaching school (get real), but because he d expected someone teaching a channeling class to be a little more -- what, imposing, impressive? Magnetic, sort of? Yeah, he thought, that s about right: somebody seven feet tall, with a purple cloak, and tall black hair. Sure.

Well, whatever he d expected, it wasn t...

Ms. Pfeiss, the woman said, finishing the laborious printing of her name on the blackboard, in a child s hand, all rounded curliques, with a circle for the dot over the i . Tom suppressed a groan. I think we ll wait another moment, to let the others get here. Unless anyone has any questions while we wait?

Nope. Ms. Pfeiss, seemingly undaunted, sat herself primly down and began to shuffle papers out of her satchel, with an air of hazy benevolence Tom supposed they d come to know well.

Shit, what had he expected? This was Micron High, not Castle fuckin Dracula. Morgaine le Fey just wasn t available, man, so we got miz physsss-suh-suh instead, okay? If you re lucky, it ll be an easy B, anyhow. He amused himself with a little rhyme:

Ms. Pfeiss, rhymes with mice,

nice n clean, she got no lice

-- then humiliated himself by snorting aloud at his own joke. Ms. Pfeiss herself looked up, and Tom could feel his face do a flameout; but she just smiled pleasantly and went back to her papers.

Good goin, Ace, Tom thought, grateful that Darryl (unlike the others around him) was pretending not to have noticed.

Ten o clock came and went. Clearing her throat, The Pfeisser (as Tom quickly and inevitably labeled her) launched into her spiel:

Good morning, she said again. This is, as you know, Channeling 1, and I am Ms. Pfeiss --

...rhymes with mice...

-- question. How many of you remember your dreams?

...got no lice...

Good. Excellent. Now -- pardon me, is someone singing?

Tom froze. The others just looked at her.

No...no, it s stopped now. Thank you. Anyway, as you may know, each of us dreams, on average some six times a night, whether we remember them or not. In this class, there will be only one form of actual homework -- Massive groan from class, as Mickey proves a tough little rodent after all.

I wasn t making a sound, Tom thought. I swear to God I wasn t. Oh come on, man. Obviously she didn t mean you, somebody you didn t hear was doing some rap under his breath or something. Grow up.

Yes? , acknowledging, at last, a question.

This dream diary -- are we gonna be graded on this, or what?, cause that doesn t seem fair. Who says somebody s dreams are better than somebody else s?

You afraid you dreams aint measure up? came a suggestion from the back. Amid general laughter, Ms. Pfeiss reassured Connie:

Of course not. You won t be graded on content, just on participation -- after all, we have to have some way to compare you, the school system requires it. Frankly, I m sorry, but it was a condition of holding the class in the first place -- some way to grade you. If you attend regularly --

Uh-ohh...

-- keep up on your dream diary, and participate, you ll do well. Now, I realize you won t always remember your dreams, but I do require that you try to. If you can t over a period of time, I ll ask at least that you write that down, and do some controlled daydreaming, keep a record of that instead. Fair enough?

That s embarrassing, one guy moaned from behind Tom. Sometimes you dream embarrassing stuff.

You don t have to share it with the class, if you d prefer not to -- although I suspect you ll enjoy it once we begin. And I should say, this isn t a psychology class, we won t be judging each other.

Cept for the grades, natch.

Ms. Pfeiss frowned pleasantly. Unfortunately, yes.

Yeah, the moaner replied, but you don t understand -- I mean, so, okay, the class doesn t read it, but you do, right? An that s embarrassing, like I said.

Fraid he get a boner on for Ms. Pfeiss, she find out.

Oh, thanks, buttface. Ms. Pfeiss looked shocked, then suppressed it. Tom grinned at the thought of this fastidious lady reading some of the dreams from this class -- yow! He began to invent some interesting dreams to record

an one of em was in your mouth, Ms. Pfeiss, an another one was up your

but gave it up. I have a possible solution, Connie offered politely, foregoing as usual the formality of raising her hand. How about if you were to share your dreams with the class, to kind of encourage us?

Some quiet giggles. Tom felt sort of bad about this -- after all, she d be reading their dreams, but she d have to talk out loud about her own. Surprisingly, though, she was up to it: All right, she said softly, fair enough. I ll do that, if the class likes. Nobody said a word, weirdly enough; it was something in her tone, all of a sudden. Had they misjudged her? I don t happen to recall any from last night --

Oh, easy out.

-- so let me just daydream some right now. She took a breath, released it, closed her eyes. I dream that you, she said, pointing at Cheryl in the back (without opening her eyes! -- strange, man), possess strengths you don t realize yet. And you, now pointing at Darryl, are a slayer of dragons. His teeth gleamed in response.

You, pointing at Connie, are unused to insecurity -- publicly, at least -- and may well drop the class. If you stay, though, you will learn much.

A snort from Connie. Big surprise. Tom yawned, already tiring of this -- he d expected a wizard of sorts, not a carnival fortuneteller --

You. The finger pointed right at him, and the room suddenly swam in his peripheral vision; he felt warm all over, and a -- almost a power, as though flowing from her to him. You...have already met a wizard, and... With this, she frowned; grimaced; her eyes shot back open. Who are you? she whispered, in a way that frankly scared the shit out of him.

The question echoed for him (why?). Tom just looked at her, and felt cool sweat on his forehead. Nobody, he heard himself say, then flushed as the class laughed at him.

Stop that, Ms. Pfeiss snapped at them, effortlessly, and with immediate effect. Silence was total. You greatly underestimate yourself, my friend. You are very much someone. Please see me after class.

For the first time in his life, Tom gulped audibly, just like in cartoons -- but nobody laughed this time.

Anyway. Tomorrow, I ll have a real dream or two for you, if you like, Ms. Pfeiss said breezily, as though she hadn t weirded everybody completely out for the day.

NOT THAT CLASS ended then. The discussion turned to dreams themselves: how to remember them (apparently, just telling yourself at bedtime that you would recall them would do the trick in most cases, so long as you kept a pad and pen by the bed and began writing them down as soon as you woke -- preferably every time you woke, all night, good news for Mr. Pfeiss, if any); why they mattered for a class in channeling.

Good question, Ms. Pfeiss said to this one. I have no intention of arguing about whether we re actually channeling other beings, or just speaking from our own unconscious. I realize the issue is controversial.

Which do you think it is?

She smiled strangely. Very well. I think we channel actual beings. Come to that, I think, I am convinced, that we visit with other beings in what we call dreams -- that we go to actual places, at least sometimes. We ll get into guides later. The class obviously thought the lady had a loose screw someplace; this had confirmed it. But I won t argue the point. Whatever we re doing, it clearly involves using unconscious thought, and that s what the dream diaries are for: to develop our conscious connection with our unconscious thought, you see?

A slayer of dragons, Tom thought, looking over at the imperturbable Darryl and wishing he d gotten that description -- though he supposed underestimating himself was okay, too. Darryl was adding shading to his wicked monster with a black BIC pen. Watch out, monster, Tom thought. Darryl gonna slay your ass.

Ms. Pfeiss, do you channel anyone in particular?

There, it was out, the question Tom supposed they d all been asking themselves. He was grateful one of the aforementioned gentle (wimpy?) girls had asked it.

I do. His name is Raoul. He is my own astral guide.

Ohhh, yeah. Well, now, this sorta undercut her earlier assessment of him, Tom thought. The lady was a lunatic, right enough. Well, you took the channeling class, what did you expect?

Can you channel this Raoul just anytime, Ms. Pfeiss? Connie asked with transparently phony sweetness.

Ms. Pfeiss smiled a curiously untroubled smile. I can.

Oh, good. Will you do it now, for us?

Something extremely disconcerting danced briefly in the teacher s eyes. Tom s mouth went dry, and he found himself with one of those unpredictable hard-ons they warn you about in Welcome To Puberty lectures. Embarrassed, he shifted in his seat, and noticed that Darryl was doing the same (for the same reason?, Hey, I ain t gonna look, you know?). For the briefest of instants, the air around Ms. Pfeiss s blonde head seemed almost to -- shimmer? -- like an aurora borealis had risen from her ponytail to sheathe her in a corona of warm, bluish light. This class, Tom thought, is a real mindfucker, dude. This is not even slightly what I expected.

This, he thought suddenly, in a way that reminded him of an acceptance he d felt in that forgotten dream last night -- this will do.

Not right now, Ms. Pfeiss said quietly, to what seemed almost everybody s relief.

THE HOUR HAD FLOWN by. Ms. Pfeiss (commenting she d instruct them in it more fully later) had them all meditate for the final two minutes, then dismissed them. Most of the class lit out at once, of course; a few of them, including some of the gentle girls -- but also Darryl -- went up to talk with her. Tom stayed in his seat.

When a serious-faced Darryl had finished talking with Ms. Pfeiss some twenty minutes later, the room was finally empty. Tom had missed his bus, but found he didn t care. Deferentially, he gathered his books and walked over to the front desk.

Hi, he said, with a little wave.

Hello, hello, Ms. Pfeiss said breezily, motioning for him to bring over a chair. She seemed almost as uncomfortable as Tom himself, if that were possible (which no way it was, folks). Sit down, she added as he did just that. I hope I didn t embarrass you, she said.

No, no, he lied. No problem. I mean -- this was interesting, this was a lot more interesting than I expected. I mean, uhh --

She laughed, relaxing a bit. Quite all right, she said. One never knows what to expect. Are you friends with that Darryl? Tom shrugged. A nice young man -- intense, bright. Talented. Do you draw, too?

A little. Actually, I m kind of surprised you could see him drawing from here.

Ms. Pfeiss shrugged back at him. The way his pen moved -- that was drawing, not writing, that rhythmic, repeated motion. Nothing telepathic about it, this with a rather ambiguous smile. I don t remember, did you put your hand up?, I mean, do you recall your dreams? You remember I asked --

Sure, I remember. Yes, sometimes. They aren t much, usually.

No, she agreed. Not usually. But now and then. Do you have...significant dreams, now and then?

Significant? I guess, he said, thinking of the presidential candidate, and of last night s dream...lost, now, but it sure seemed significant at the time. In fact, when he woke this morning, there d been...what? Something. At once, a chill passed over him -- it seemed scary, somehow, that he d forgotten what there was about last night s dream, about this morning...waking up...?

She nodded. Do you recall one now, offhand? When he didn t answer, she added, just write it in your dream diary, if you prefer.

Amazed, Tom heard himself tell her about the presidential candidate dream. Part of his head expected her to be amused, but she seemed to take it quite seriously. She d called Darryl intense, but this, wow, this was intense okay. When he finished, she asked, And did you?

What?

Did you. Try to protect the candidate.

Disconcerted, Tom squeaked yeah, then cleared his throat loudly and said, Yeah, yes, I guess so.

You re very unusual, she said after a moment. He suppressed the urge to say It takes one to know one, and she grinned as though he d said it aloud.

They sat together primly for a moment, hands folded before them on the desk. The air warmed and shimmered again, in that feeling he d had earlier, when Connie asked her to channel; that feeling of raw power returned, along with (oh, geez) the buoyant feeling along his thigh. Her face swam again for a moment. Why aren t I embarrassed?, he thought. She s staring at me, and she s not saying anything.

He wasn t, though. In fact, he felt pretty wonderful. Just then, though, she frowned. Breaking the contact between them, whatever it had been, she looked down and began to gather her papers back into her satchel. There s something I m not getting, she said, almost to herself, something else I ought to -- oh, forgive my impoliteness, what s your name?

Tom, he said.

She dropped her satchel, then, as though he d answered, Beelzebub, Lucifer, Lord of Flies and Fallen Angel. Tom, she repeated, breathily.

Uhhh, yes. Right. Tom Kelber.

Tom Kelber, she said, holding out a slender, suddenly shaky hand, when class isn t in session, you can please call me Nina. Whop whop whop, echo echo echo, like in a movie.

Nina, he said, shaking her dry white hand. Pleased to meet you.

The pleasure, Tom Kelber, she said, leaning to pick up the satchel, is, as they say, all mine. See you tomorrow.

Oh. Yes, sure, right! Umm, tomorrow, then.

ON THE BUSRIDE HOME, in the pleasant chugging and whine and the sharp monoxide smell, Tom thought of a zillion things he should have asked: What did you mean about a wizard?, and Why did you say I underestimated myself?, and How do you go about channeling, anyway?, and...!

Me for the tissue box, he thought (fighting the unprecedented urge to do it right here into his jeans, on the frigging blue bus). And then a nap.

Gotta start that dream diary right away, man.

YOU ARE THE ONE, Darryl s monster was telling Tom.

Yup. That s me. Knew it all along. I am the one. It seemed so clear, now. Where had he been all his life? Asleep?

Yes, Tom thought wisely. That s just where he d been.

The monster heaved its great bulk in a curiously graceful dance (in three dimensions it was almost lovely, really: huge, its red, green, orange scales iridescent in the dreamlight, almost cancelling the horror of its shape, not to mention its breath -- wow, Darryl had done this one up, okay). Yooooo, it said seriously, yoooo are the wunnn-unn-unn. It nodded its enormous, shaggy head. Yooooo are the wunnn we dooooo it for.

Tom? Jesus, man. Tom, c mon.

Fuck off, Randy, I m busy.

Tom, you loonytoon, wake up. You gonna get nutsoid again?

And with that, it was unavoidable: Tom woke up. ...we doooo, it forrrr, he heard again, only this time it registered that it was the clock radio by his bed, which he d left on as a possible aid to odd dreams -- a plan which, he reflected, had apparently worked.

Thanks, assbite, he snapped groggily at his brother. Thanks a lot for waking me, I was doing my homework.

Randy stared at him, searching for proof he was joking. Oh, that s a new one, that s a real good one, Tommy. Doing your homework, straight news.

I was! Tom moaned, keying off the radio. The dream was receding already; Ms. Pfeiss was right, if you didn t note them immediately they just faded clean away. He explained crankily to Randy about the dream diary, trying to emphasize the meaningful, scientific character of the assignment, though not quite succeeding.

Randy, however, was a close judge of how far his older brother could be pushed, and under what circumstances -- he tried, anyway, to put a serious face on the topic, doubtless fighting the temptation to engage in further channeling class humor. Anyway, Mom s due home any minute, and I figured you d wanna be out of bed when she got home. Left unspoken was their mutual awareness of just how Leah Kelber would react to her pudgy son taking an afternoon nap, for whatever reason, particularly since the dream diary homework wouldn t exactly harmonize with claims about a computer programming class.

Okay, I m sorry, Tom said, forcing graciousness. Jesus, I can t believe I slept for -- (checking), -- four hours!, holy momma. He shook his head, actually shook it like bad TV actors do to show they re groggy, but the grogginess was unfeigned: ever since the dream last night, whatever

(seven eighths)

it had been, he d felt this heavy, hangoverish feeling, this sorta dull buzz. Maybe he was coming down with something, Tom thought hopefully, never one to pass up an excuse to cut school. But then he remembered Ms. Pfeiss, her strange encouragement of him...and he thought, Maybe this time school isn t quite so bad. That class, anyway. And, what with getting out of working --

The front door latch skreeked, down the hallway from them. Oh, dammit, hold her off, Tom whispered fiercely, diving out of bed toward his clothes.

Uhhh, man, you got some, uhhh, tissue stuck to -- Randy pointed helpfully, with obvious embarrassment.

Hold her the fuck off! Tom hissed again, trying to conceal his blush. He pushed Randy bodily into the hall, pulled his door to, dressed frantically, heart hammering in his chest.

Yo, Mom, came Randy's hearty call. Was he being suspicious on fucking purpose, or what?

Hello. Where s your brother? You left out useless, Mom. You rocketed out of there, buddy boy. What s up?

Really trusting, wasn t she?, Tom thought. God created mothers so kids would never rest, that was it. Something he did in a former life, no doubt, the universe had chosen her for Tom as his jailer.

Just working on my homework, Tom said casually, strolling out, hands in pockets.

He was, Mom, Randy agreed. That s what I found him doing in there.

Oh. Well, good, great. Glad to hear it. She d dropped her stuff on the big green vinyl rocker and was skimming through the mail, not really paying attention. Oh, she said again, frowning at an envelope.

Dad, it s from Dad, Tom thought with a little inward jump, recognizing not the envelope (it was typed) but her reaction to it. He didn t let on, though, nor did Randy. Anything interesting? he asked, as offhandedly as he could manage.

Nothing for you, she said, putting the mail off limits in her purse. How was school today?

Yup. Realllly trusting. Fine, he said.

Glad to hear it. Come help me in the kitchen, gentlemen, soon as I get changed. In fact, Tom, how about you whip us up some macaroni and Little Smokies?

Sure. Casting a last glance at the forbidden envelope, Tom headed off to prepare one of the maybe four dinners he could manage on his own.


Chapter Three
Sympathetic Vibrations
in which raoul goes unconsulted, nina and tom get nosy, and a contact is
rather distressingly made

HE IS THE ONE! Nina Pfeiss cooes, as the pointer comes to rest on YES. I knew it.

Not a lot of Toms in the world any more.

Ohhhh, Vanessa, really. You re always saying things like that, making the most outrageous statements with no more support for them than --

Easy, Neen. I was just f r godssakes agreeing with you. Don t bite me. Can we close the session now?

Nina s eyes flicker to the other s, in the pool of light above the board. I -- but I was hoping to --

Ahhhh, the warm reply, heavy with insinuation. Perhaps our Neen has a boyfriend after all! A child, Nina, I mean really now. Chaste so long, and now a cradle robber. Still, might be a good start for you, him without experience and all, no way to judge.

Vanessa! That s, that s just appalling. Stop it.

An insouciant, black-suited figure swims into view, in the edge of the pool of light. You people almost finished in here? I m next, okay?, I gotta use it next.

Honestly, you sound like we re hogging the bathroom. And stop shuddering like that, Neen, I can t tell if you re disgusted or getting off when you do that. You look like Jillycat, when --

Oh, God, Vanessa, not again, the third puts in. No more about her cat, all right? Their lives are their own. Let s try to have some sort of normal existence here sooner or later, all right?

The two women are sort of shaken by this: showing emotion? Him? There s a change! Finally, Vanessa corrects him: Some sort of paranormal existence would seem more appropriate, she notes primly, evoking a brief frown. Anyway, we re about done. Unless Neen wants to rob herself of all surprises about her new, ahhh, relationship. Seems wasteful, Nina, you ask me.

Nobody did, Vee, he says, contriving an elaborate yawn behind one manicured fist.

No, it s all right. The board is yours. I m going to get some dreamtime in, Nina says, rising, breaking the connection on the planchette.

Wait, Nina! Vanessa cries, as the object skitters suddenly across the board under her fingertips. It has an answer for you after all! I asked what you could expect from your Tommy-boy, and -- let s see, it says, ummmmm -- F...U...

You, too, Vanessa, Nina says, striding purposefully away.

The others, startled, share a shrill laugh, loud in the tiny room. Oh, my, Vanessa, he says to her, for Nina, that was rather funny!

Fast, too. But then, so am I, fortunately for you.

Fortunately for many, I fear.

Meeee-yowwwww, Vanessa says, lacing her slender hands languidly behind her neck, in a way that casts large, dark ellipses across the board.

THE TAROT DECK. NO, no, that wouldn t do.

Nina Pfeiss, safely back in her room, discarded the idea. While the secret tarot -- one precious to her, for its designs came not from tradition but from the symbology of her own dreams, its vividly colored cards painted with care by herself -- while the deck could reveal much, she hungered for more than it was capable of providing. Something more was needed, but what? She considered, then likewise discarded, both simple meditation, and consultation with Raoul (the latter prompting a ripple of guilt -- what had she to conceal from her astral guide? -- but Nina quickly suppressed this thought). Very well. If these options were rejected, what remained?

Well, she knew that, now didn t she?

The power, she thought. The real power, her unique ability. Psychomimesis, she murmured, enjoying the sound of the term she d coined for it.

Quickly, and ignoring the slight tremble in her fingers and dryness in her throat, Nina pulled the print dress off over her head; then the slip. Clad only in bra and panties, Nina thought for a moment, then with a sound of impatience located and lit one of her incense burners: apple, that was nice. Now off with the lights, on with the candles. Fine, fine.

She rummaged intently through the great trunk at the foot of her single bed. The blue jeans were easy, but as for a -- yes!, there it was, forgotten in the jumble of clothing. With a little shiver of anticipation, Nina dressed herself.

This could draw attention, she thought, as always when she prepared to use the power. Shut up, shut up!, she thought fiercely at herself (not at Raoul, not at Raoul). It s worth it. It s time.

I m ready now, she breathed to her quiet, empty room.

Sitting in a half-lotus on the floor and letting her belly and face go appropriately loose, she began.

LEAH KELBER DIDN T GET TO bed until almost one-thirty in the morning, much to Tom s annoyance; but at last she did, and a few minutes later her regular breathing told him it was time. I m ready now, he thought and almost whispered aloud (Jeez, Tom, you re losing it, calm down!). Tom s breathing unconsciously matching his mother s, he slipped from his bedroom and into the darkened living room, its walls lit with a few angular stripes from the building across the way. Feeling like a thief, he made his way to the black purse, still resting in the green chair.

Maybe she took the letter. What then? Nothing then, bedtime then, butthead. Or if she didn t open it, what -- ?

But it was there, and she had opened it; and now Tom did the same, taking it into the kitchen to hold it under the dim fluorescent that stayed on all the time, so he could see it.

Dear Lee, it began -- not Dearest, natch, but still Dear, classy man, my father, always affectionate. How did he ever get with her in the first place?, Tom wondered again.

Summertime already. Hard to believe! (Dad was always generous with exclamation points, and wrote in a roundabout style, never coming right to the point, which Tom at the moment wished the fuck he would.) ...cold nights here in the desert... (Hmmm. Not looking to make up with her again, I hope. But, no, skimming further down:)

...publisher there in L.A.... (Pitiful, Dad. She knows you never sold anything, that babe with the monster honkers is supporting you -- or failing to, as you confided in me already, dammit, Mr. The Credit Cards Will See Me Through.) ...visiting, in a couple of months...

Visiting? Dad, visiting, here?! And she didn t tell me, Tom did mutter aloud, this time, then bit his lip. But no, nobody stirred, everyone was still asleep. Visiting when, exactly? His eyes danced eagerly down the page.

As he did so, Tom felt his understandable apprehension, his nervousness at snooping, grow into something -- else -- something both larger, and more strange. Sure, Dad was coming out, in August as it developed (in about two million years, that is), but this was more than that. This was a sort of weird...well, vibration, almost. Like something was, someone was, shit, was what?

Fanning a hand swiftly over his face, in a vain effort to lose the cloying apple scent which pervaded the kitchen, Tom began literally to shiver. She wasn t cold, though her feet were bare, but the vibration was filling her now, in the little bedroom, and she didn t much like that, because he -- that is, she -- Tom. Tom, anyway. Tom was really shivering now, a really strong vibration, sort of sickish feeling, but powerful, too, and she had an enormous hard-on (well, it felt enormous, he wasn t very big but Six Inches At Attention Would Certainly Do The Job, she could, someday, given the chance -- I mean, I m big enough, okay?, she thought, read the damned letter). But the shivering, the vibration, had them now. Why did she have such a boner?, why every time she used the power did she -- did, that is, he --

Holy crappalolley, Tom muttered, angrily putting his father s letter back, feeling distracted. Let s get subject, verb, and gender in agreement here. If it weren t for that damned incense -- !

Uhhh, Thomas? Yes, Thomas. Which fucking incense, exactly, are we talking about here?

The question, if anything, made him angrier still. He scratched his pubic hair through his jeans, no, his underpants, of course, his jeans were in the other room!, and was momentarily surprised to find something stiff there. Big surprise! What did you expect to find in your pubic hair, stupid?, maybe a --

Why, yes, Thomas, that s exactly what you expected to find down there. What he had always found in his panties, these thirty-four years. His -- !!

It s the incense, he reassured himself. It s just the incense and the candlelight, they just confused me. Sure felt like an aroused manhood for a moment there, though.

A what? An aroused manhood, Jesus, he was talking like a friggin romance book or something. Calling it that, instead of her -- that is, instead of his --

Well, he demurred politely, through Nina Pfeiss s soft pink lips, in Nina Pfeiss s soft, breathy voice, we needn t be vulgar, Thomas.

Holy shit! they immediately contradicted themself, and sat with a heavy thunk on the kitchen floor.

OKAY. OKAY. CALM down, shut up, you ll wake your mother and -- brother, is it? Yes, of course it is, I know that I have a brother!, what -- I am, he said softly through her lips, in his/her voice, I have gone about seven-eighths insane, here.

And that was important, my God, that was important: unthinking, he reached for it:

Seven eighths. Seven eighths. Seven...

All around him, the room/s began to decay.

THE STOREBOUGHT ANGEL S food cake on the counter began to mold, then burble with putrefaction. Behind him in the refrigerator he could somehow feel the vegetables in the crisper go spongy, liquify into black puddles in their plastic bags. The meat he didn t even like to think about.

And he needn t have worried, really, because thinking was getting harder and harder, as though the effort were more than he could manage. Realizing she was inside him, he forced his mouth onto hers with the last of his consciousness

(thinking: Ms. Pfeiss, rhymes with mice
nice n clean, she got no lice --
hey, sexuality ain t no vice!)

and kissed her savagely, there inside him where she could not pull away, as he had always dreamed of kissing a woman, only not this way!, not mean, loving, he didn t want to hurt her, he really wanted to hurt her, like the videos!, why not?!, and he kissed her very hard and bit her lips and her tongue, and her tongue turned white as she rotted, too, and a pulpy piece of it came off in his mouth, and he was so deadened by then that he could barely spit the stringy white thing out.

But through that deadened feeling, that novocained sensation he realized dimly he d known before, not that long ago -- through it all, Tom realized with a chill inspiration that there was one thing in the apartment which was not decaying, which years of this encroaching rot could not decay. It was cool, and sure, and clean -- and very sharp.

It was in the bathroom.

Who are you?, he weakly asked. What are you? Why the fuck are you trying to kill me?

Yoooooo, yooo are the wunnnn. Yooooo are the wunnnn we dooo it toooo, crooned a distant voice that was not either of her/him. Do unto you before you do unto us, you fat little bastard. You re trying to kill us, after all. Turnabout is fair play.

Why? Tom whispered. Why are you so scared?

And with that, they felt a vast internal explosion, and sat up with a start.

RAOUUUULLL! NINA SCREAMED in her room, but could not find him! Oh, God, Raoul, I m so sorry, I should have known! She tasted rich copper in her mouth, and realized that her lips and her tongue were bleeding, he had BIT her! He had bit the end of her tongue off, oh, Lord!!

But no, no -- she had chewed her lips and tongue, that was all, that had to be all. And indeed, the tip of her tongue was right where it should be, bloody though it was.

You should be ashamed, she said to herself through bruised and bleeding lips, as she got a tissue and dabbed at the blood. Because we had a cli -- No!, I mean, because you had no right no right! to --

Her bedroom door flew open. Vanessa was standing in the doorway, long red hair disheveled

(as though she d been)(no! no!).

Jesus Christ, Neen! You screamed -- you re bleeding! What in the hell -- ?

Vanessa, Nina said after several hawking breaths. Vanessa, heavens, I m sorry to have disturbed you. I m fine, really I am. I, I had a bad dream, that s all.

Sitting on the floor? Nina, face clouding with suspicion, you aren t using your -- ?

I m fine, she repeated. Really. Both of you, this last because he had joined them. Go back to, uhh.

Vanessa looked at her. Ooooo-kay, she said at last. We ll go back to uhh. Glad you re all right. By the way, that wouldn t be a costume, would it?, because I don t remember seeing you in jeans and a sweatshirt before.

Come back to uhh, Vanessa, he drawled lazily from the hallway.

NOW THIS, TOM Kelber thought, is some kinda weird stuff, all right.

He eased his chunky body off the kitchen floor (checking his crotch briefly with one hand, with a vague sense that he d like splorked in his shorts or something!, but of course he hadn t -- and God only knew why, but he also felt reassured at what he found there, like what else would it have been?!), and breathed for a moment in the clean smell and pale fluorescent glow.

Man, he thought. Have I got a dream for Ms. Mice, rhymes with Nice! Then, distractedly: So Dad s coming out. End of August. Great, good deal. Hope the cards arrived in time.

He knew he should stop and write up the dream right now, but he was too damned tired to -- small wonder, after two in the morning. The sound amused him: too, to, two. Toot-Tooooo! Yawning until his jaw ached, Tom made his way to bed, where he slept without any dreams he remembered at all.


Chapter Four
Meeting Raoul
in which the junior channelers finally encounter the object of their study

CONNIE WAS IN LIKE this unbelievable killer-snot mood today, and it pretty much had the entire class on edge by the middle of this, their second session. Ms. Pfeiss (amid amusedly edgy whisperings of What happened to her mouth?, and appropriately obscene speculation in reply) had taken them over some basic meditative skills, then listened closely as several brave students, though not strictly required to, shared their first dreams of the term with the class. Everybody sort of expected Connie to challenge Pfeiss to tell her own dreams -- she d said she would, hadn t she? -- but Connie just sat there, alternately seething and looking bored. Seething apparently won at last, though. After a particularly explosive sigh, Connie just plain interrupted Pfeiss s comments on (it must be admitted) an unusually monotonous student dream:

Ms. Pfeiss, I don t get it. Here we are on our second day of a channeling class, and we have had no discussion of channeling at all. This isn t exactly what I signed up for. If I wanted to get into dream therapy, my mother could like send me to a professional, you know? Class stops breathing, as Connie has pretty clearly done it this time.

But Ms. Pfeiss just looked pained for a moment, then put her teacher face back on. That s what we re doing, Connie, she explained patiently. These are the fundamentals of channeling -- without them, you d have nothing to build on. It s like in sports, when the teacher --

Yes, but a smart teacher demonstrates the skills first, before teaching the fundamentals. Sorta inspires the troops or something, right? Connie s sweet smile didn t dilute this very much. The wimpy types who were Pfeiss s main support squirmed, but said nothing, naturally.

A long silence ensued.

Tom had about thought of a question, in a chivalrous attempt to extricate the unaccountably cowed Ms. Pfeiss, when Connie (though everyone knew what she d meant) explained further: You see, I think you ought to channel for us, yourself. So we can sort of see how it s done, how the expert does it, you know? Go ahead, Ms. Pfeese, deliberately pronouncing it to rhyme with police, rather than mice. Channel your friend Ramon for us.

Raoul, Ms. Pfeiss said, not looking at anybody. His name is Raoul.

Back off, Connicula, Tom was stunned to hear himself say to the Status Queen of Micron High.

But she noticed him about like the hydrogen bomb notices a flea (in fact, about like she always did, which was not at all). Come on, Ms. Pfeiss -- pretty please? Hey, how many of you want to see her channel Roberto for us, whattaya say?

There was some desultory clapping, from kids too dumb to get the nasty dynamics of the situation, or too scared not to back Connie up. Tom himself was now pretty much dying to see her try to channel this Raoul guy, but not this way. It pained him horribly, in a fashion hard to understand, to see Ms. Pfeiss looking so swamped, so defeated. Come on, he thought. Fight it, Nina!, he willed her.

And at that moment, strangely enough, she glanced up at him (for the first time that day, in fact -- she d been oddly distant all day, though Tom had put that down to their special talk yesterday, and her desire not to seem unusually receptive to him); but then she looked immediately away again. All right, she said, finally (answering Connie...or Tom?). I m afraid I have to admit today isn t a good day for that. I had intended to, she insisted, almost begged them, but I -- I had a bad night last night, and boy, now she really wasn t looking at Tom, in a way he found sorta ominous or something. What had he done? I had a bad night, she said again.

Connie did, too, her nominal best friend Anne put in.

Fuck you, Annie, came a quick whisper.

No thanks, you got enough without me.

Well it just seems pretty damned -- Everyone could feel Connie s next word, and almost winced from it: phony to say you re gonna teach us something when you can t -- oh, pardon me, I mean won t, do it yourself. There, it was out. Curious and a bit apprehensive, the class, as though watching a tennis match, turned all eyes back to Ms. Pfeiss.

Think what you like, the teacher breathed in reply. After that, there was another silence. The class shifted in its collective seat -- should they all go home now, or what?

I ll do it, came a voice.

For a moment, Tom thought, irrationally, that he himself had spoken; but no. The source, however, was not much likelier than that.

I ll do it, Darryl said again. I ll channel this Raoul for you, Connie.

IT MUST FIRST BE UNDERSTOOD that it was not a dark and stormy night. It was late morning, the third week in June, a sunny, warm Tuesday -- summer just arriving. The sky did not, in fact, lowr dramatically, nor did this place bear any other obvious resemblance to the awful, huge, Gothic-feeling black stone apartment building in Tom s recent -- what had Nina called it? -- significant dream. No, this was a regulation, hospital-green, dingy classroom at Micron High, and while Nina Pfeiss had a way of stepping up the weirdness quotient here, Darryl Johnson was certainly not known for such a facility. He was an articulate, funny, thoughtful guy with a penchant for drawing particularly impressive (if somewhat similar) shaggy monsters; that was the extent of his own weirdness.

Until now.

Because, as Tom knew at once, even as the others looked uncertainly to see: Darryl wasn t kidding. He intended to channel, and he intended to channel the mysterious Raoul, and damned if he didn t intend to do it right motherin now.

Not a dark and stormy night; no. But for Tom Kelber, this was the next best (worst?) thing to that dream -- the closest thing he could remember, for the moment at least, to dreaming while wide awake.

Oh, right, Connie said uncertainly, as students looked back and forth between her, Ms. Pfeiss, and Darryl. Like you re really gonna channel her spirit guide, Johnson, I really believe that in a hurry.

Shut up, Connie, Anne said, hands on her knees, back taut. Let s see what happens.

Darryl had elegantly slid his books onto one arm, and thence to the floor, clearing his desktop. Now he bowed his head in concentration: dark brow furrowed, and misted lightly with sweat.

Easier, Ms. Pfeiss said, surprise and excitement barely controlled in her voice. Nice and easy. Relax into it.

You re hypnotizing him or something, Connie snapped, only to be shushed by two thirds of the class at once. (The other third, including Tom, seemed too transfixed to move, even to quiet Connie.)

Let it happen, don t make it happen. That s right. You re going into a dissociative state, Connie isn t that far wrong; you re letting the unconscious make contact. That s right, that s good. I won t speak any more, you re doing just fine. Ms. Pfeiss closed her eyes, now -- breathed slowly and heavily, in, out, evenly, like the tides. Tom had the sense that she was...almost helping Darryl to make contact.

After a long silence, in which only Ms. Pfeiss s breathing could be heard, somebody whispered, Yo, Raoul, mah man, but nobody even bothered to shush him. All eyes were on Darryl s slack, warm, peaceful face. Tom had just begun to realize something scary, indeed terrifying, when suddenly Darryl s face contorted, taking on an amused, acerbic, almost sneering quality.

Darryl opened his eyes, and looked right at Ms. Pfeiss. Why, hello, Kellen, Darryl said to her -- in a voice utterly, unmistakably unlike his own. At once a gasp, and a wave of genuine fear, shot through the classroom: this was not fun, or even intriguing. A member of their class had quite convincingly been possessed. This was a genuine horror.

And it was nothing compared to what Tom was going through.

It s rather refreshing to be able to speak to you directly, Kellen, Darryl said, in the voice that wasn t his -- wasn t African-American in inflection, wasn t for that matter much like any they d heard before. It was higher than Darryl s voice, more nasal, and had an odd accent, something with a faint o-e sound recurring within it, in unexpected places. You don t make contact as often as you should, nor have I had the pleasure of seeing you from outside of your body -- not since we knew one another in previous lives, of course.

Hello, Raoul, Ms. Pfeiss said, her voice quavering. Her face was so pale it seemed almost translucent; if any of them had suspected Darryl was kidding, Ms. Pfeiss s reaction would have ended that suspicion. I am very pleased to be able to speak with you directly. Normally, class, she added, trying to regain her teacherly demeanor, I channel Raoul, and hear his words only by means of tape recordings.

Or in dreams, Darryl/Raoul said, nodding and smiling, a foreign, unhuman gleam in his eye.

Or in dreams, yes.

Nobody said anything for a bit. Connie, far from continuing her role as resident skeptic, seemed to be trying to look everyplace but at the...newcomer. Darryl -- hell, Raoul -- was looking right at her, though, an easy task since today they sat beside each other in the class. Well?! Raoul boomed, his grin spreading. You wanted me called forth, kind sir. What did you wish to know? How, this last almost sarcastic, may I be of service to you?

Connie s mouth appeared to shape out the word Darryl, without her looking over, but no sound came out.

Kind sir ? Annie repeated.

Raoul turned pleasantly to her, and she sat back just perceptibly in her chair. He was -- is -- male in his previous, his actual existence. He is female here, perhaps elsewhere as well, but I speak to the older part of him. The same is true of Kellen, pointing at Ms. Pfeiss, who is apparently known as Nina to you. Do you see?

Yes, sir, Annie said, smiling unconvincingly. Thank you very much, sir.

You re entirely welcome. Well, come, come! If he, Connie, has no questions, surely some of you must.

Goddamnit, I m scared, this is so fucking frightening, I want to stop this, please, Tom thought, enmeshed in his own private hell. But no one noticed him, or his predicament.

My, Raoul said, inspecting his/Darryl s hand happily, this is also refreshing -- an unusual color! This one is a fine specimen. Oh, great, Tom thought crazily even through his fear, A Nazi demon, good going. Not that your physical manifestation is somehow deficient, Kellen. And as for you, Hanin, speaking suddenly to Tom with a hint of a frown, I am no demon, as you should well know. We were, after all, lovers once.

I think I d remember, Tom thought crazily, but speech was quite impossible to him now. When a few shrill laughs greeted Raoul s last comment, he added, Well, I should say that Hanin was female, then. There is no cause for embarrassment.

Embarrassment, Tom mouthed -- or would have, had he not kept his lips tightly pressed together, as he had since this awful experience began. His lower face still tried to sound the word out, though. His jaw was beginning to hurt, but there was no help for that.

So, like, all of us reverse our sexes when we get reincarnated or something? Annie asked, apparently rather taken with the idea.

Oh, no, nothing so crude or automatic. It is different for different entities. Kellen is almost always a man -- it has led to some difficulty for him here. Raoul glanced over at her, his smile taking on a bit of an edge again. His partner Tinnuck, on the other hand -- whom he knows as Vanessa -- is a constant female. You see?

Wait a minute, Connie said, working out the confusion of pronouns, and putting Kellen s difficulty together with the reference to a female partner. A grin crawled slowly across her face as she enjoyed the answer she thought she was getting. You said Ms. Pfeiss -- Kellen -- had some problem getting used to being a woman, uhh, here, and, ahhh, that this Vanessa you mentioned is her, did you say partner ...?

Tom got where she was headed and didn t like it a bit, but was in no position to do anything about it. As it turned out, though, Raoul himself jumped on Connie: Don t be perverse, son, he said to her. By partner, I meant in her work, nothing...improper. His eyes glittered into Connie s dangerously. Her throat worked, but she couldn t seem to answer him. Raoul sighed, and added, Entities at your level seem to be so trapped in the physical, so drawn to the corporeal sense of things. Pity.

At this, Annie seemed to experience a tug of loyalty to her friend. That s sort of funny, she ventured. If you re so above the corporeal, how come you insist on seeing people in sexes they don t currently have? And hey, hey, as Raoul strove to interrupt her, if you re so like cosmic, where do you get the idea that some kinds of relationships are perverse ?

At this, instead of answering, Raoul -- evidently offended beyond words -- let out a bellow, and this time he was not alone. Tom could no longer stop himself: he bellowed right along with Raoul, in precise emulation; or, rather, simultaneously, and in the exact same way. As, for that matter, did Nina Pfeiss. The effect was, to put it mildly, electrifying in the small classroom: Darryl/Raoul, Tom, and Ms. Pfeiss all shouting at once, as if with one voice.

Such a disappointment you are, all of you! the three of them screamed, in Raoul s voice. Tom, who had been fighting his jaws not to speak along with Raoul during the entire manifestation, had to give up, ride along with it. He felt his facial muscles duplicating the Raoul face, and words torn from inside his chest as though vomited from him against his will -- a sort of extrusion, rather than intrusion, an assault against him from within.

Raoul! Ms. Pfeiss managed in her own voice, as though speaking around the edges of his control (and Tom had to admire her, because he sure as hell couldn t have pulled off that little trick). Please! Whomever they are to you, they are children here! Then she carried on, in his voice, only a little quieter now: Yes. Yes, forgive me. Children. Ms. Pfeiss s and Darryl s -- though not Tom s -- eyes fluttered in sync, and Darryl slowly leaned forward until his body rested, as though asleep, on his desk. As he did so, Ms. Pfeiss lost all control of herself, all identity, as it were -- as though Raoul had simply moved to her body, leaving Darryl behind to rest. I am sorry, he said, in a voice only slightly higher since now carried through the physical medium of Ms. Pfeiss s, rather than Darryl s, vocal cords; his expression clearly settled into Ms. Pfeiss s face. Tom was amazed, but enormously relieved, to find that for the first time since the manifestation began, he was back in complete control of himself, without even a pull to match Raoul s movements or speech. Tom used this control to resist the temptation to run out of the classroom and away from this entire nightmare.

Class, I am very sorry. I am afraid that I have let my -- shall we say irritation? -- at a little misunderstanding with Kellen, here, get in the way of our visit together. He took some unpleasant chances last night, in fact; a minor matter, though it was not so for our friend Hanin, here, now was it?

Oh, goddamn it to hell, now the bastard is talking to me again. What did this creature want, blood?, wasn t it enough that it had practically taken Tom over?!

Ahhh, but you see, Raoul answered him as though he d spoken aloud, that is not my fault; that was Kellen s doing. Or have you forgotten that he did the same to you, or almost the same, just last night? Tom stared, not answering. Well, Hanin, think now. You were reading your father s letter, and then -- what?, what happened then?

I -- oh, God. I don t know. I guess I did forget, I didn t want to think... Tom looked away, swallowing.

But he did intrude on you, didn t he, Hanin? Kellen broke into your mind, without permission, and simply read what he found there. I must say, I should have advised against that. Kellen can be frightfully unconcerned for the rights of others when he wants something -- believe me, I know. Ms. Pfeiss/Raoul shrugged. As a result, the leftover, well, connection, led to some bleed when I first manifested. I am sorry. On the other hand, you are capable of much self-defense. Remember? Raoul pulled his/Ms. Pfeiss s lower lip down, and the class gasped to see that the visible bruising and cut on her lips was matched, indeed exceeded, by a graphic black-red line of split flesh inside. You did this, Hanin. A rather sensual punishment, but effective. Raoul smiled again. I imagine he found it rather exciting, to be honest with you, in his present corrupted state.

Jesus fucking SHIT!! Connie suddenly shrieked, jumping from her seat, shaking uncontrollably. She looked wildly at the class, wide eyes sweeping crazily back and forth. How long are you assholes going to listen to this lunatic bitch, anyway?! I don t know how she got him to go along with this bullshit, indicating the now waking, and convincingly groggy-looking, Darryl, but I do know a major fucking nutcase when I see her. This isn t a summer school class, this is a goddamned loonybin! You can stay if you like, but I m getting the fucking principal, if not the fucking police!!

Connie, Annie began, reaching for her.

Fuck you! Leave me alone! Listen, Raoul, you crazy bitch Pfeiss, you re gonna be in a goddamn padded cell if you don t knock off this crap right now, okay? Just drop the fucking act, it isn t funny any more! Channeling, my ass, this is just a nutbag circle-jerk!

Something happened, Connie, a shaken Darryl put in. I don t know exactly what it was, but I felt it -- you all saw it. It was no game, no trick. I just...knew somehow that I could do it if I tried. And whatever it was, I did.

You always were jealous, Raoul said softly from the distorted face which had been Nina Pfeiss s. You are especially jealous because the dark-skinned one does not want you, is it not so?

Oh, wonderful, Darryl said, closing his eyes.

Fuck you! Connie screamed again, starting to cry. Hands shaking, she began clumsily to gather her books and Walkman from her desk.

Tell the truth, Raoul invited, in the same soft, yet wounding, tone. That is why you went out with the other boy last night. It was a punishment of sorts. Yet you are the one who ended up punished, is it not so? No answer, but Connie s red face began to go white, and she stopped moving for a moment. Need I say more, to prove myself to you? Need I tell them what he did to you, though you did not want it, indeed begged him not to? How he, nevertheless --

How did you know that?, you re lying, it s a lie! Are you spying on me now, too, you crazy bitch? It's a lie, she assured the class.

Fine, it s okay, Con, calm down -- Annie ventured.

Leave me alone! This class, Connie said from the doorway, pausing dramatically to face them, is OVER! And with that, she flounced from the room into the sunlight beyond.

There was a long stillness in the class, in which heavy breathing, and some unamused giggling could be heard.

Well, Raoul finally said, if there are no further questions...

OH, YOU CAN T MEAN it, a shaken Nina Pfeiss was saying to Tom and Darryl, some fifteen minutes later, after the class had in fact been dismissed. He didn t say that!, not in front of the class? Oh, good heavens, I feel terrible. What can I do? I wish I could speak with her myself.

Ms. Pfeiss, came the quiet voice of the principal from the doorway, I believe that can be arranged. Please come to my office. Now, if you don t mind.

BY A SORT OF UNSPOKEN mutual assent, Tom and Darryl walked over to the Admin building, and waited on one of the long, uncomfortable benches a discreet distance down the hall from the principal s office. Tom briefly considered getting a pack of Doritos from the hall machine, but decided the gravity of the moment precluded this; so he just sat next to Darryl, waiting to see what would happen.

I feel like it s somehow rather my fault, Darryl said after a while. I mean -- she didn t want to channel the guide, and I offered to do it. If I hadn t... He shook his head, not looking at Tom. I just kept thinking of her saying I was a slayer of dragons --

-- and Connie seemed to qualify, good point, Tom said with a little grin. Then: Thing I don t get is -- have you ever done anything like this before?

Not remotely.

Well, then -- I mean, how come...?

That, Thomas, is the damnedest thing. I couldn t tell you. It was just...that dragon-slayer thing, and Connie making fun of her...I don t know, I really don t know. It s very strange, he added lamely.

Think they call that understatement, dude.

They laughed quietly together, then waited some more.

Suppose they ll let her keep the class going?

Darryl shook his head, slowly, reluctantly. She -- well, Raoul, but it ll be her doing to the school, of course -- she humiliated a rich, popular girl --

Can t be too rich if she s going here, man.

Darryl looked down. Such judgments are relative, Thomas.

Ouch.

Mmmm. Anyway. No, I don t think -- He broke off as the principal s inner door was heard to open, and a quietly-grinning Connie emerged. The grin faltered when she saw them, but she just walked on by without speaking. That answer your question, Tom? Darryl asked.

...terribly sorry, again, Mr. Wessel, they could hear Ms. Pfeiss saying from the office. Honestly, I ve never known him to be so utterly -- The inner door closed in the middle of her sentence, and after a moment she came out, back stiff, her face fixed in a smile but puffy from recent tears. Oh, hello, she said when she saw them. You waited. They nodded at her. After a moment, she said, I ll see each of you alone, briefly. You first, Darryl.

Look, that s all right. I must be going anyway. I just wanted to thank you for the two most interesting days I ever had in a school. For a moment, her stiff smile softened, took on a more honest cast. And, ahhh, best of luck in your next job, he added.

Thank you, Darryl. She gave him a swift, sisterly hug. As he walked away, not looking back, she called after him: Slay all your dragons, my friend! He waved without looking, and was gone.

She sighed, closed her eyes for a moment, as though sending him some silent benediction; then opened them again. She seemed almost surprised to see Tom still there. Suddenly, he felt fat, and stupid, and very young. Quickly composing his goodbyes, he thought, Well, thanks so much for the class, like he said -- sorry it worked out this way. It was really amazing, it was --

She was still watching him, waiting, looking a little puzzled now. Shit, he d been thinking his goodbyes, not saying them. What d he think, she could read his mind or something?

Read his mind.

Read...his mind.

oh my god oh god yes i remember i

Fighting the strange surge of warmth mingled with fear, he smiled, and opened his mouth to say the goodbyes he d composed. And he said, Nina, please don t go. Nina, I love you.

Startled, she bit her injured lip, then winced. Let s talk outside, at my car, she said.

WHAT IN THE LEAPING Jesus are you saying to her?!, Tom demanded of himself, almost frantically, as they walked to the teachers parking area. His whole body was shaking. Are you out of your mind?, now you ve really done it. Breathing deeply, trying to be casual after his utterly assholic remark, he tried again to toss off his goodbyes. I do, you know, he said. I love you.

Fuck, and now I m crying, too!

Ms. Pfeiss fumbled in her purse, located her keyring, then stood with it in her long fingers by her little Toyota, not looking at him. That s very sweet, Tom, she said evenly, every inch the teacher. Thank you. I m flattered.

Desperately, he heard himself add, I m really sorry I bit you, I never meant to, honest to God. Is it all right? , this last while reaching for her lips with one pudgy hand!

Kelber, you shithead! Wake up, for God ssakes!

Tom! She took a step back against the car, almost losing her balance. The sunlight heliographed off chrome in the hot parking area, drawing a lasting green pattern on his eyes. Was he going insane?, was this what insanity felt like? He took a ragged breath, still crying, fighting against serious sobs, and she said again, but softer this time: Tom. Really now.

God, I m sorry, Jesus, Nina. Ms. Pfeiss. I don t know what I was thinking. Bit her? Bit her, right. Sure I did. I never laid a damn hand on her. I am crazy, that s it, okay. Fat kid goes dingo at school, film at eleven. I was just, like, imagining things. But, uhhh, somehow frantic not to let her leave, ummm, what will you do?

She hugged him -- a hug as quick as Darryl s, or maybe a little longer? -- then popped the carlock and got in, arranging the polyester dress to keep the hot vinyl from her legs as best she could. Whew, she said, slamming the door and cranking a window down. Hot.

Do you have like a job?, where will you go?

I work with -- She turned on the car, and he lost a phrase -- something like a firm, he thought, -- in Santa Monica. Look me up sometime.

Yes, but where?

It s in the book! she called back, driving past him. Thanks again, Tom! See you later.

In the book under what, Nina?! he screamed, prompting a wave from her, as though she couldn t hear him, which maybe she couldn t, in fact.

He pictured himself running like The Flash in the comic books, flying past her, and asking again. Or even just chasing after her down the street -- maybe she d stop. But instead he just stood there: a sad, teary fat kid in a parking lot. And then shuffled to the bus stop. And went home.

AT HOME, THEN, after a tunafish sandwich, he had a sudden inspiration. He got his little cassette tape recorder out, sat cross-legged on the floor of the bedroom in his underpants, and set the machine to record. When he was sure it was running, he relaxed, cleared his mind so far as he could...and, trying to remember everything Darryl had done, he called out for a spirit guide.

Specifically, he reached out, trying to repeat one of the scariest experiences of his life. He set out to channel Raoul.

AFTER ABOUT FORTY MINUTES, he had succeeded in achieving that buzzy kind of dissociated feeling; but nothing else. It occurred to him that maybe Darryl had been unaware of the actual channeling, had forgotten it, and he ran the tape back expectantly, waiting for the arch voice to emerge from it.

Listen; fast-forward; listen again. Pretty clearly, he had taped about forty minutes of the sound of his own breathing.

Swearing fervently, he turned off the machine, peeled off his briefs and got into bed. The sheets felt cool against his hot, sweaty skin, a welcome relief. He lay on his back, with a sudden feeling that astral travel and weird junk like that might be easier in that unfamiliar position (he always slept on his stomach, in a fetal ball), but soon found that this only kept him awake. At last, then, practically screaming with frustration, ready to strangle that damn Connie -- now he d never know how to channel, or go out of body, or any of the rest of that shit he hadn t believed in two days ago! -- he rolled over, buried his face in the pillow, and drifted gently through the pillow and mattress and his room...

...and back on down the highway into dream...


Chapter Five
Into The Labyrinth
in which the channeling class resumes,
and Tom Kelber goes on a field trip

THE DISSOCIATED FEELING CONTINUED, deepened, as he dropped off to sleep. Tom felt as though he were vibrating ever so slightly -- a sensation not unlike that he d felt when Ms. Pfeiss had first turned the full force of her personality on him. He was in darkness, but the darkness was warm; rather pleasant, in fact. He knew (this was weird!) that he was dropping off to sleep, and yet he was almost...awake, anyway. He drifted like this for a bit, half-waking, half-dreaming, encountering webs of strange imagery, then realizing it was just dreamstuff, and losing it in the moment of realization. Then, after a while, Tom became conscious that he could see a pinprick of light ahead, and knew somehow that, if he could just stay asleep, but open that pinprick...but how was one to -- ?

Yes! Remaining asleep, Tom Kelber opened his eyes.

He knew as he did this that he wasn t actually doing anything of the kind. The eyes of his body remained closed, as that body slept, back in the bedroom on Bentley in West Los Angeles. Instead, it was his -- for want of a better term -- inner eyes that he opened. He let the dream ahead open before him, like watching the lens iris open in an old silent film, the picture blossoming on the screen. But unlike in a theater, this screen was what appeared to be the entire area around him, full-color, indeed heightened color, and sound, smells, all the sensations of life, as intense as he imagined they would be under psychedelics. Yes, it was as if (Tom thought) his body were fully asleep, but his mind almost awake, an altogether amazing sensation. He breathed in this waking dream; realized he could control it, if he chose; pondered what to do.

To test the control hypothesis, Tom willed an object into existence: an apple, in his outstretched hand. At once, it appeared. It was a vital, shining red, smelled headily of the genuine fruit. Checking again, he willed it to change to a bird, and at that the apple obediently unfolded itself into a beautiful, gleaming hummingbird, and buzzed from his hand into the electric blue sky now stretching above him.

Okay. He was dreaming, though awake. He was awake in his dreams. What to do now?

Somehow, Tom sensed that staying at the level of simply controlling the dream, he would miss actual significance, fail to take full advantage of his time here (and therefore, not without regret, he passed up the chance to create a woman and test the realism of the dream sensations in more intriguing ways). Instead, he tried to remain conscious, if you could call it that, yet let the dream, or his unconscious, or whatever internal magician actually created this rich imagery, work with him as it were: guide him where he needed to go. At once, as though approving of his choice, the image factory made him a hallway; not unlike those at school. Bored with walking, Tom let himself float up a few feet, and drifted evenly down the hallway, looking into the closed doors through their little windows.

Inside, not surprisingly, he found classrooms. Most were empty, but several had classes in session. He passed seven or eight of them, he wasn t sure which, and then that number made him think seven eighths, and sure enough, that was the gold number etched on the next door, a door whose little window was blackened, but cut in the shape of a razor blade. Stronger than before, Tom happily passed that one up. The very next one seemed brighter inside, an orangey-yellow, sort of sunny color. Pausing in mid-air he looked in, and saw Nina Pfeiss teaching the class.

Bingo. Tom drifted to the door; thought about it; then willed himself to enter the room by passing through the wall. It was a strange feeling -- at first he was just pushing against a very real wall; then he was sliding into it, as though into a sort of plaster and wood molasses, with a strong texture and some resistance, but not enough to stop him. Then he was through. He drifted to his seat next to Darryl, and floated into it. Sorry I m late, he told Ms. Pfeiss.

She smiled. Quite all right, Tom. Now then, where were we? Oh, yes....

It was just here, Tom realized later, that he lost the tenuous balance he d been maintaining between waking and sleep, accepted the classroom situation as reality and thus fully entered an ordinary dream state. Consequently, he would be unable to recall this portion of the dream later. At some point, however, as Ms. Pfeiss continued to lecture them on some phase of channeling, Tom suddenly noticed that Annie s left breast had fallen, unnoticed, out of her sweater. With Connie out of the class now, Tom had an unobstructed view; embarrassed, yet intensely aroused, he kept peeking covertly at it. It was white, with a large pink nipple, soft, almost without a point. As Tom watched, Annie kept toying absently with it, with her left middle finger: flick, flick, jiggle, jiggle. Jesus, that was weird! Then it hit him. It wasn t weird at all. No.

With a sudden, deep sharpening of his mind, he realized it was something else entirely: it was, in his waking experience, impossible. That was very important: this was impossible, this could not be happening. And with that -- still asleep, still within the dream -- he became awake again. At once the colors in the classroom tripled, quadrupled in vividness. He cleared his throat, interrupting Ms. Pfeiss. Ummm, Nina, he ventured, scuse me, but -- this isn t happening. I m dreaming this.

Curiously, Ms. Pfeiss seemed troubled by this suggestion. Tom, that s silly. Look around you. This is the channeling class, you re right here. We re here with you -- are we dreaming, too?

Tom felt the vibration again -- he mustn t wake up, not now! Taking a calming breath or two, he said, Nina, take off your panties, all right?

Looking at him strangely, Ms. Pfeiss shrugged, then, hiking up her flower print polyester dress, snapped her panties off in a businesslike manner. Tom caught just a glimpse of ginger-colored pubic hair, but tried not to stare. All right, she said, handing the undergarment to Darryl, who glanced left and right, then gave it a surreptitious sniff. So?

So you d never -- It hit him then, of course. He wasn t arguing with Nina, this was a dream, his own creation. He could argue endlessly with this phantom and never get anyplace at all. With a surge of lust, Tom realized that she would happily make love with him right on her desk, if he wanted her to; but somehow, that seemed wrong, unfair. If he wanted sexual experiments in this waking/dreaming state, better perhaps to invent someone else to have them with. Oh, well, another time, maybe.

Sorry, Nina. I m going to have to wake up soon, I think. If I m going to learn anything, I d better do it now. He rose from his desk, and folded his hands to make a little rectangle out of thumbs and fingers; then pointed this at the far wall of the classroom. Immediately, a crystalline substance jetted from hands to wall, all purple and white and red crystal, with a sort of hissing sound. On the wall it gathered, and made a portal, a crystal-rimed hole in the wall. Seeya later, Tom said, and hurry-floated through the wall. The portal closed behind him at once, sealing him off from the classroom.

Ahead of him was a man at a big, mahogany desk, reading in a warm lamplight. The man was engrossed in what he read; didn t see Tom come in. Finally, Tom cleared his throat.

The man looked up, startled, almost shocked -- looked around, puzzled -- then, frowning, went back to his book. He had not seen Tom at all, apparently.

What was his name again?, Tom thought. I knew it, he said it, what was -- Yes!

David, Tom said, smiling, and settling down across from the man in one of his big, dark leather chairs. The name seemed to make the room vibrate, and the man s eyes shot up again; narrowed; finally settled directly on the chair.

Well, the man said, lifting one shaggy dark eyebrow. If it isn t my friend the traveler! Hello, Tom Kelber, he said, gesturing with one big hand. You are most welcome here.

YOU, FRIEND THOMAS, are full of surprises, the man -- the white-clad wizard of his seven eighths experience -- said. Just yesterday morning, you were so steeped in darkness that I had to pull you out. Now here you are, mastering directed travel! I take it you ve been studying with an adept.

This startled Tom. I don t know -- I -- maybe I have...

Tom. Tom, c mon, man! Wake up, you re scaring me!

Oh, shit. Fucking Randy.

I beg your pardon?

I gotta go soon, dammit, my brother is waking me up. Can you find me? I mean, when I m awake?

Tom, I -- well, there are...rules of a sort. You have to find me, as it were, and you have. I see you re new to this business. Speak fast, perhaps I can answer a question --

I m awake, but asleep -- what is this? How -- ?

Lucid dreaming; in this case, to full astral projection.

Oh, Jesus, Tommy, don t die or something! Wake up!

Oh... Tom fought the temptation to wake; felt the anger and frustration waking him; breathed deeply, trying to calm himself, and asked, What am I supposed to do?, I know there s something, but I don t --

Thomas, I m sorry, I truly don t, can t, know that.

David, I -- He could feel Randy shaking him now, and the room began to dim. Frantically, he said, I was studying with Ms. Pfeiss!, do you know where -- ?

Nina Pfeiss?, guardedly. Isn t she still with the firm? How else could you know of -- ?

Which firm?! Please!

Almost reluctantly: The firm, in Santa Monica. It s...

Oh, shit, thank God, you creep, Randy said above him.

Tom opened his eyes, letting out an involuntary sob. Thanks, you little bastard! he said, hitting Randy with his pillow. The dream, the wizard -- it was all gone. He was trapped back in his body, his bedroom, his life.

Man, I m sorry, honest to God. It s seven o clock, and Mom isn t home! Please, Tommy --

In the distance, they heard the door latch skreek, and Leah Kelber coming in; talking with somebody. A male somebody...! Company, boys! she called happily, amazing them. When had she last sounded that happy?

Randy, as so often, jumped to conclusions. Dad! he yelled, racing into the living room.

Hurriedly throwing clothes on, Tom heard his mother say, Whoa, sonny, don t go rushing things! What the living hell was wrong with her, why did she sound that way? Then: Great, she s brought some guy home again. Well, fuck it, be reasonable. The woman has to live, after all.

Trying to look as though he d been studying trigonometry or some shit, Tom strolled into the living room, displaying his hearty-male type smile, reserved for the occasional snakes his Mom brought home. He took two steps into the room, then stopped, feeling the smile crack and fall from his face.

You must be Tom, the guy said gruffly. I m Bob Hardesty. Pleasedtameetcha.

The guy was imposing -- kinda short, but big, stocky. His smile was oddly knowing, sorta like Dad s, self-contradictory as that was. More to the point, he looked, except for his clothes, just about exactly like the last time Tom had seen him: even without the hunting jacket, Tom knew him at once. Pleased to meet you, too, sir, Tom lied, shaking the warm hand of the man with the battered station wagon and the scared companion, the man from outside the gothic apartment building. The man from the significant dream; from seven eighths.


Chapter Six
Checking Out Some Books
in which tom and randy take a bus ride,
trying to delay the inevitable

OH, LOOK, TOM WAS thinking, some twenty minutes later: one stocky guy looks like another -- and after all, you had the dream days ago, and you keep forgetting parts as it is. And you didn t see his face real well, and you don t really remember it even now, and if you d seen this guy on the street you wouldn t have looked at him twice. Don t be stupid. It s just a regular guy, and the Pfeisser s merry-go-round has just weirded you out a bit, my friend.

Right. And astral projecting to see that David guy was just an ordinary dream, too. Mmm-hmm.

Curious, Tom tried to rekindle his earlier state of heightened (or was it diminished -- sort of both, really) awareness. Leaving poor Randy to fend, however distrustfully, for himself, Tom took refuge in the bathroom and tried to resume what Ms. Pfeiss had called the dissociative state. He sat on the edge of the dinky tub (its cool porcelain welcome against the hot, sweaty backs of his legs), nodded his head slightly, let his hands rest on his pudgy thighs. Relaxing some, he thought briefly of saying ohm, like some TV New Ager, but decided against it; compromised by breathing heavily, in a sort of hum: in, out, in, out. After a few moments, he began to feel that slightly vibratory feeling again, almost like a mild electrical current. It was happening: his awareness diminishing outwardly, but heightening inwardly, that was it. But having done that, now what? Tom rejected the temptation to make the rectangle shape with his hands and try to manifest another astral portal, in a spray of red-lavender crystal; because, One, he was sure that wouldn t work when he was awake, and, Two, if it did, he would doubtless ruin a perfectly good pair of briefs.

Tom, came a soft whisper through the bathroom door. Tommy, man, it s me. Please.

Hey, it s okay. What is it? Tom hissed back.

Open up.

Tom grunted as a matter of older brother duty, but complied. What is it? he asked again, when Randy had slid into the room past the door.

Please let s get out of here. Please? I -- I don t trust that guy, he s hiding something. We gotta leave.

And leave him with Mom?

She ll be fine -- Randy cast an uneasy glance at the doorway, through which they could hear Mom laughing heartily with their unexpected guest, as the two communed deeply with Ernest and Julio, in this case a bottle of what their mother called reese-ling. At least for now, she will, Randy added with apparent reluctance.

The normal big brother reaction, especially at the unusual circumstance of ever competent Randy being vulnerable, was to make the kid squirm; but somehow, Tom couldn t do it. It wasn t just that Randy s fears mirrored his own, but a sudden wave of compassion for Randy himself -- sheez, poor kid, thought it was Dad and in walks frigging Bigfoot. Okay, Tom said simply. Listen, library s open til nine --

Fine, great. Just anyplace but here.

Amen. Blue bus, here we come.

THE STRANGEST SORT OF RELIEF descended on them as soon as they managed to escape the apartment. Strange because it was mingled with a sort of growing horror, and yet still felt better than staying at home. This is dumb, Tom thought. He s a guy, Mom s a woman, no wonder kids feel out of place. Especially boy kids, right? No big thing.

Tommy, you gotta promise not to laugh at me, Randy said, hands in pockets, eyes downcast, bouncing alongside his older brother as they hiked nervously to the bus stop.

Again, Tom felt sort of protective of the little geek. You got it, dude.

Tommy -- I seen that fucker before.

Yeah?

Yeah. The night of -- before -- well, yesterday when you were like weird city in the bathroom that morning, I -- Randy gave a fierce little shrug, a combination of anger and helplessness. I don t know, it s stupid.

Tom looked at him. You dreamed you saw him, he breathed.

No, dammit!, I really did! The anger was winning; Randy looked like Tom had slapped him.

Wait, wait, I m sorry. I wasn t joustin ya, I -- Tom couldn t very well tell him, now, that he himself had dreamed of seeing the creep. Go on. When did you see him?

Momwa seenemout. When Tom looked confused, Randy repeated it, louder this time: Mom was seeing the bastard out, okay?, like out of the house.

Oh. Wasn t much to say to that. Well, uhh, Randy, Mom is a grown woman, and, ummm, grown women --

Don t give me the got needs speech again, okay?, I m not a woosie or something. I know that stuff, Jesus, you think I don t watch TV?, that old thirtysomething shit of hers and all. Yes, Ferdinand, but what about my needs?, he parodied in a good falsetto. Jesus. They reached the bus stop, staying just back from where an older kid was waiting, and stood in shadow in the warm evening, talking quietly. But it -- it didn t seem that way, I don t know.

So how did it seem?

Never mind. Fuck it, Randy said, again with the unusually severe oath for him. I ll tell you later, bus is here.

Okay, Tom said, unable to lose the chill on the back of his neck.

THE LIBRARY TRIP had begun as a pretext, and not a particularly clever one: by the time they got there, they had something under an hour to closing. Randy went to check out the photos of boobs in the Breastfeeding section, and Tom tried to think what to do -- somehow, the Science Fiction section (which was old, and weighted towards Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov, and whose interesting titles he d long since devoured anyway) seemed, after the events of the last couple of days, sort of mild. He flipped thoughtfully through a couple of Bradbury books he already had copies of at home; then, on a sudden impulse, sought out one of the librarians. He was a little bit embarrassed to ask, but she seemed delighted to help (probably thrilled to see a kid reading, these days, Tom thought).

Here you are, she said, indicating three shelves worth of titles. Take your pick. Telekinesis, astral travel, ESP -- and dreams are over here. She looked at him sort of conspiratorially and added, If anything seems a little...adult to you, just be sure you bring it to me at the desk, I ll let you check it out. Good hunting!

Promising though this seemed, the books indicated were devoid of anything remotely pornographic (dammit). However, he found several of interest: Patricia Garfield s Creative Dreaming, an astral travel book by Robert Monroe -- and then his eyes lit, with absolute shock, on a book by one Steven LaBerge, Ph.D., the title of which resonated for him, since he had so recently heard it for the first time -- in a dream. Lucid Dreaming. It was about...being awake...in your dreams...

Noooo, he thought slowly, I don t believe I ever heard of that stuff before. I just -- dreamed it. Not even Pfeisser...

Hauling the books over to one of the long tables, he began to read.

ATTENTION, PLEASE, HIS FRIEND the librarian announced. The library will be closing in approximately ten minutes. Please take anything you want to check out to the front desk.

Randy, could you -- No, that wouldn t work. As it turned out, the Garfield and LaBerge books did have some kind-of hot stuff in them, and the lady seemed to think it was a sort of favor to let Tom get em, Randy might not get that chance. He was lucky as it was they hadn t noticed him leafing through Reproduction And You or some crap like that. Frustrated, Tom hurried over to the desk, Randy trailing behind.

Find everything you wanted? the librarian asked, still his co-conspirator, as she stamped the books.

Yes, thank you. Well, almost. I wanted to check -- you have the Santa Monica telephone book, don t you? Actually, Tom was sure his own West L.A. directory would contain the same listings, but he felt so full of sudden inspiration that he couldn t wait until he got home to find out.

She smiled again. I think we can trust your friend with these. If you hurry.

Great, you bet, thanks, Tom called back, heading to the bank of telephone books she was pointing to.

Tom s hands were trembling slightly, and wet; he felt an almost exquisite pain, as he simultaneously couldn t wait to see, and feared he was wrong. He d thought of it out of nowhere, but it felt so right, it would explain so much -- !

Pf, Pf, he began methodically, feeling as though the librarian s eyes were burning his neck. Hurry, hurry! Okay, the Santa Monica directory was the same as his book at home: lotta Pfeiffers, no Pfeiss (or Pfiess, either, come to that). Now for the big one, the Big Enchilada. Uttering a sort of wordless prayer, he flipped hurriedly to the F s. It would explain so much, it would...oh, please, please...!

Firestone, Firestone, zillion Firestones -- ahh. Firill, Firkut --

Expected or not, he gasped. A coincidence? No, it couldn t be! -- well it could be, but it wasn t likely. Somehow, he knew it wasn t; this was it.

In the nice, neat, tiny General Telephone print, there it was, discreet but unmistakable:

Firm, The 22 Strangeways St SM........853-1212

CAR, CAR, WHO HAD a -- no, dammit. Not tonight, no way.

Whadja find? Randy asked him, as they made their way back to the bus stop.

Tom thought for a moment. Look, he said, how good are you at keeping a major, no-shit secret?

Like you need to ask, Randy breathed, with pardonable scorn.

Okay. Okay, now this is gonna sound a little weird...

TOMMY, YOU PROMISE you re not gonna yell, Gotcha again, Boze-head, if I believe you? Well, hey, c mon, don t get mad. I mean, it s a serious question.

Tom bared teeth at him.

Okay, fine, I m sorry. You just sort of don t seem like the ESP type, somehow. And this being awake in your dreams stuff...!

It s called lucid dreaming, and here s a couple of scientific type books about it right here, and I swear to God I dreamed it before I saw them. So don t be a smart ass more than you have to, all right?

Half a block from their apartment, they paused; loitered a bit on Bentley, enjoying the cool night breeze that was finally cutting through the day s heat. Their street being a dead end, not many cars came up here, and they pretty much had the sidewalk to themselves, except for a distant black cat that froze, checked them out, then resumed its rummaging through a neighbor s trash can.

Well, Randy finally said, what are you gonna do? I mean I guess you re gonna call this place and try to reach that teacher again, hunh?

Tom shrugged. I guess.

And then?

The cat was spooked by something they didn t see or hear, and bolted off, back toward the cross street at the mouth of Bentley. Tom shrugged again. Guess that depends on what she says when I reach her. He felt sort of serious and grown up, a feeling intensified by his brother s thoughtful stare.

Man, Randy said. Wish I could learn ESP and that happy horse. You feel like teaching me?

Oh, look, hey, Randy, I would, but --

Yeah. Thanks.

No, I mean it. I m not sure I know myself.

Randy shot him a sullen look. You had ESP with that Ms. Pfeiss, right in our kitchen, hunh? And that Raoul was like speaking through you, or trying to, anyway. And how about that David the Wizard stuff?!, like that wasn t ESP. If you say so.

But I don t -- Tom searched for the words, searched for some certainty in the jumble of madness he d recently undergone. Randy, honestly. I m not sure that, any of that, was me. Ms. Pfeiss...well, if that was real, she was doing it, man, not me. The Raoul thing I can t exactly figure out, not yet. But again, I sure wasn t doing anything, not anything I can teach. If there s anything I m good at so far, it s weird dreams -- that started even before I hit the class, right? I ll be happy to teach you what I know about that, Tom added, though a trifle unsure he really should, particularly since the one ESP-type experience he could not explain away had to do with seeing their mother s visitor of tonight in a dream -- if he had. But it had been the same guy, hadn t it? Was that even possible? In any case, he still didn t mention it to Randy, though he felt a little guilty withholding it from him.

What about that wizard dude? Randy ventured, unconvinced.

Gotta be another dream, come on.

But you said he told you about that lucent dreaming, and you never heard of it, and then there it is at the library.

Well, but...I don t know. I could have, maybe -- anyway -- I mean, I was asleep, dreaming, both times I saw the guy. It could just be some kind of unconscious symbol, like a father figure or something, this last with an unexpected little pain running through him. I could have heard of it before, someplace. But even if I didn t, he hurried to add, as Randy seemed to turn off again, even if it was real -- well, it s got a lot more to do with that David guy than with me. The cat, emboldened again, started coming back toward them. Tom watched it absently, waiting for Randy to answer him.

After thinking a bit, Randy finally did. Show me how you held your hands, he said. You know what I mean. That rectangle thing.

Tom sighed, feeling sort of stupid. Okay, here. He demonstrated, clumsily; made a face; finally grabbed his brother s hands and tried to get them into the position he d had his in when he created the astral doorway or whatever it was supposed to be. After several tries, he frowned again. Well, that s about it. That s the best I can do. It was so easy in the dream, but now -- hands don t quite seem to go that way.

Randy held his contorted fingers out for Tom to inspect. This about it?

Pretty much, yeah. Best I can do.

Solemn faced, Randy extended his arms before him, squinting a bit as though to avoid any backwash from the expected spray of crystal. He stood that way for a few moments. The black cat up the street let out a long, mournful yowl. Randy jumped at the sound, then sagged, expelling his held breath. It felt like it might work, he said, his tone equal parts explanation and complaint.

I m sorry, man, really I am. It was just a dream.

Maybe, Randy said without conviction. Anyway, shall we see if porkface has left for the night?

They looked at each other. Tell you what, Tom said. Let s go in the lobby, latch the security door, and I ll show you what I know about the quote dissociative state unquote.

Cool, Randy said, with evident relief.

WHEN THEY FINALLY WOUND UP what Randy insisted on calling their ESP lesson, it was after eleven. Tom found that he was strangely exhausted by the experience, and he didn t quite like the distracted, glassy look in his little brother s eyes. Apparently Randy found the dissociative state pretty easy going, and fun besides, but Tom wasn t entirely proud to have got his kid brother looking like he was doped to the hairline, for God s sakes. Come on, man. We d better --

Wait, Randy said, raising a hand, not looking at Tom. Yeah -- Bozo s coming, watch n see.

Well, somebody was coming, okay, but that didn t mean...

Oh, hi, fellas, Bob Hardesty said, favoring them with his strange grin. Glad you made it back. I was beginning to worry. He did a mild double-take at Randy. Hey, little buddy, you okay?

Yeah, Randy said, looking slowly over at him, with a spooky sort of penetrating stare. Yeah, we re fine.

Oh. Well, ahh, great. Pleasedtameetcha, he said again, walking on past them. When he was out the security door and down the stairs, Randy turned slowly to Tom.

See? Told you. ESP, man.

Guess so, Tom said with a touch of older-brotherly condescension. It sounded a little hollow, though. Even to himself.


Chapter Seven
Strangeways
in which tom is reunited with more old friends
than he bargained for

WEDNESDAY MORNING, THEN. THE CLOCK radio went off, rousing Tom from sleep, but no remembered dreams. For a moment he simply lay in bed, with the deflating awareness that, while summer school was still out there waiting for him, it no longer included the channeling class. After a moment, he sensed something odd, and glanced to his left.

A figure stood there, not speaking, just staring balefully at him from under serious brows. Gaaahhhh! Tom yelled, jumping up in bed, striking his head a good thump against the wall. Owww, Goddammnit! he added.

Tom, what on earth are you doing in there? Leah Kelber called in cheerily from the hallway. Randy, you little shit! Tom hissed, ignoring her for the moment. Jesus Christ you scared me.

It s today, Tommy, Randy intoned, unrepentant, his seriousness unchanged. Today is the day.

Today is what motherfucking day, you little --

What did I hear?

Nothing, Mom, I m sorry. Randy startled me. You little bastard, what day, the last in a whisper.

The day. Today. I just want you to promise you ll let me in on it, once you know what s going on. It s important, Tommy -- I really mean that. It s the most important thing ever happened to you -- He stopped a moment, as though consulting some inner voice, then nodded. To all of us. Do you promise?

Promise the fuck what? Yes, yes, okay. If something real important happens, you ll be the first to know, all right? Now let a guy get up and take a whizz, for crying out loud.

Today, Randy said again, holding one finger portentously in the air, then sweeping grandly out the door like some miniature L.A. shaman. Be ready, he exhorted over his shoulder without turning around.

God, I m glad I m alive, Tom informed his bedroom.

JUST BEFORE SHE LEFT FOR work, Leah motioned Tom over. Okay, she said evenly, out with it. What s with Randy?

Who knows?

You do. And I m gonna, soon as you tell me.

For just an instant, Tom had a cruel impulse: Gee, Mom, I guess Randy s just upset about that barrel you re dating, he almost said, but didn t. Instead: He seems fine to me, he lied.

Despite her breezy mood this morning, Leah Kelber s face was drawn, looked tired. Be straight with me, kiddo. We both know better. He s pacing around the house, and saying stuff like, The time is coming. Be careful, Mom. And I heard him whispering to you, though I couldn t hear what.

Tom fought down a spasm of wild giggles. Well, let s see, Mom, there was Be ready, and It s almost here, I m sure of it. And a lot of Today s the day. That help you, Mom? That answer every little question you had? I dunno. Kids his age just get weird, you know that.

Oh, Mr. Experience, glad to have your insights. Talk to him. Get him to stop playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, would you?

After she d left, Tom tried. Say, Obi-Wan, he said (never one to pass up somebody else s joke), you wanna knock off the melodrama, some? I give you one lesson, already you re tuned in to the cosmic wheel.

Randy, nothing daunted, surveyed him. Be ready, he said again. I gotta go. Outside, obligingly, came Mom s impatient beep-beep, calling Randy for his ride to the babysitting job. Today s the day, he called again as he left.

Yea, verily, I have foreseen it, Tom muttered into his English muffin. Yowza, yowza. Then the vibrations set in.

FIRST PERIOD WAS DIFFICULT, SECOND period was damn near unbearable. By the time of what would have been third period, had Connie never been born, Tom felt like laughing and crying and screaming and peeing himself all at once. Okay, okay!, he cried silently -- at Randy, or the cosmos, or whatever. All right, I ll call, leave me alone! He made his way to the school s bank of phones...then discovered he d left the piece of paper with Firm, The s, number on it at home. Okay. No problem. Phone book, phone book --

But of course Micron High s enterprising vandals had long since broken the bolts holding the books in place, and made off with them. After several tries at replacement, the phone company had apparently wised up; at least, none was to be found today. Good. Good deal.

Tom buried his head in his hands on the little metal shelf under the phone, and let out a high keening sound. Everyone being either in class, on the play fields or outta here for the summer (best of all), nobody heard him. He had a sudden inspiration: Darryl! Darryl was so cool and self-possessed, he d know just what to do, and he didn t have a third period any more, either! Gratefully, Tom began wandering the campus, trying to use whatever ESP he might in fact have. Darrrr-ylll, he mentally called. Darryl, man, it s important (Be Ready!, ooga booga bwahhh-hahaha). Darrrr-ylll...

But Darrrrylll was indeed as cool and self-possessed as Tom thought, did in fact know just what to do, and what he d done, was, he d finished his godforsaken class and gone the hell HOME!

I m not gonna cry. Nineteen-Ninety already, and boys still ain t allowed to cry. Fat boys, especially. No, I ll just scream some more.

Tom sank to the grass, disconsolate, breathing hard, not quite crying. The vibrations were now constant, deep; he was visibly shaking. Looking down at his sweatshirt (worn to hide his bulk, even in this heat -- and today was gonna be a real scorcher, even this early it was hot-hot), he examined the fierce, confidently smiling figure on it, and wondered: What would Wolverine do?

Shit like this didn t happen to motherin Wolverine!

Tom was getting scared, now, for no visible reason at all. The campus was suddenly in the vivid hues of his lucid dream, the grass a luminous green, the sky that same electric blue. It occurred to him to try floating, but he was afraid to do that, as well. Finally, it hit him: he knew the address. 22 Strangeways Street. He had even looked it up last night in his mother s Thomas Street Guide; it was a little cul-de-sac, a deke off of San Vicente Boulevard in Santa Monica. If he walked to Vicente, there was a bus.

If he walked to frigging San Vicente?! From below Wilshire, on this motherin hill?! In eighty, ninety degrees, in a goddam sweatshirt?! It d be a sweat-shirt, then, okay, he d be sweating like a fountain before he got half way to the -- !

All RIGHT! he screamed, shaking now like a junkie in withdrawal. (Three girls looked over, then away at once. Tom couldn t have cared less.) All right, he said again. I ll do it, I m going, let me alone, dammit. He got up, knocked fresh-smelling cut grass from his jeans, got his twenty pounds of books, and began the Bataan Death March.

STRANGE...WAYS...has found us, Tom was singing quietly to himself, to an old Jim Morrison tune from the Classics Station. It was thirty-five minutes later, he was soaked, his legs hurt, and all he could think about was an air conditioned bus.

Plodding painfully down Vicente itself from Barrington -- he could feel blisters forming in his (misnamed, for him) running shoes -- Tom reflected, as though from a distance, on his mental state. Why, after all, was he doing this? Well, he wanted to see Ms. Pfeiss again. (That was a fucking laugh! To hell with the crazy babe, anyway! She s been nothing but trouble! I don t care if I never see her again!) Maybe he was curious what kind of place called itself The Firm, just that, nothing else. (Another lie! If it were a special massage parlor for fat kids only and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark was waiting there in that black-red lipstick, even then, I wouldn t...!)

Well, yes I would, he muttered, correcting himself. But only then. His internal monologue continued: Randy, maybe? It s cause Randy had a fuckin vision or something, and -- Randy! He laughed hysterically (frightening a pigeon away). Randy whooooo?! he bellowed, forcing one foot ahead of the other, toward the bus bench shimmering in the heat up ahead.

Then why was he doing this? Because I have to, he explained to a cheery yellow fire hydrant (hating it, particularly because its cool, cool water was locked inside it; why hadn t he walked to McDonalds instead?, they had big, cold Cokes, and he could use maybe five of them...). Because I just plain damn have to, he said again, in almost a whimper.

It s not such a stupid reason, he gasped in explanation to the bus bench. Look out below! he added, thumping his aching butt onto it, and -- at last -- spilling his fifty pounds of books beside him.

Watching the cars move by, Tom noticed suddenly that he was actually feeling better. The shaking had stopped, the trembling in his legs having a more prosaic cause than...than whatever caused the other thing. He took a deep breath, let it out, allowed himself a feeling of accomplishment. He was soaked, and in some pain, but he had done it: he was here. And, as though stage-managed, here came the RTD bus. Fumbling for change, rising uncomfortably to his aching feet, he thought:

I did it, El Pfeisso. You better Be Ready.

Cause ready or not, here I come....

THE TWENTY MINUTES ON THE air-conditioned bus had revived him. While his thighs protested impressively when he rose to leave, and almost staged a wildcat strike when he ordered them to resume their march down the hot sidewalk of Vicente, he had reached Strangeways at last, and the fact of actually being here acted like a hypo of adrenaline. He wasn t scared, now, not even nervous. He felt confident, and free, almost giddy, and he --

Seeing number 22 in the distance -- there was no mistaking it -- he took it all back. Never mind. I m scared, after all. I ll just be leaving now. But it beckoned him, the substantial, gothic-looking building so out of place in the shade of the cool green trees on this quiet street; and even the uncomfortable truth that he d seen it before, in a dream, could not stop him.

Well, he was right about one thing: if anyone was giving massages inside this place, it would have to be Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (on the whole, an exceedingly promising but unlikely possibility). Sighing resignedly, Tom mounted the stone steps, pausing only to admire the simple brass plate set into the stone next to the big, oaken door. Subdued, but direct, its staid lettering read, naturally enough:

The Firm

I m here, Pfeisser, Tom muttered, pushing the black button for the bell. Inside, he could hear a soft chime; then sturdy leather shoes moving deliberately toward him on what sounded like a hardwood floor.

The door opened. Hello, the man inside said politely.

Oh, shit! Tom observed, taking an involuntary step back.

One eyebrow shot up, but the guy was way too cool to drop his manners, at least from any cause Tom might provide. Emmm. May I help you? I m Norrick Remsen --

Yeah, goddamnit, I know, Tom said, elbowing past the worldly aesthete with whom he d visited seven eighths, and padding into the cool shadow inside.


Chapter Eight
Renewing Acquaintances
in which a circuit is completed, and energies
begin to flow

ONCE ACROSS THE THRESHOLD, Tom stopped in the hallway, suddenly unsure quite what to do. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the sudden dimness; but even more, for his mind to adjust to his having, at long last, actually arrived here. As the bright, watery red-green blanket left by the harsh June light receded from his vision, he was able to make out more of his surroundings. From what he could see, whatever The Firm did for a living, it must pay pretty well.

Slowly, he walked down the rich, though understated, white hallway (fighting the illusion that he could float down it, as in his more recent dream), and made his way into an enormous white living room. Despite the big, sectioned picture window at the far end, the room was dimmed by the trees outside, but he could make out the furnishings: fluffy-pile white carpeting, drapes to match, offset by some fine dark furniture including a huge grand piano which seemed nonetheless dwarfed in this room. Finding the silence of his footsteps on the carpet rather unnerving after the wooden hallway, Tom settled himself on a long white sofa, which swallowed him like some great marshmallow. He stared out the window at the biggest tree, the shadow of its leaves making delicate patterns on the green swath of manicured lawn. Wow, he said softly.

Well, Remsen drawled with a note of irony lost on Tom, do have a seat. When he received no answer, the slender man sighed elaborately, strolled over to lean against a black closet thing in Tom s range of vision -- an armoire, that s what it was called -- folded his arms, crossed his legs, wearily raised that eyebrow again (like the dream, just like the damn hell dream!, next ol Bob Hardesty will peer in the window and say pleasedtafuckinmeetcha again!), and asked: Have we met?

Jesus, you mean you dreamed it, too?!, that s just too bleeding weird, man, it really is.

Remsen closed his eyes. My friend, he said, let s review, shall we? The door chimes sound. I go to the door, and find a young, and I thought unfamiliar, visitor there. Hello, I say, I m Norrick Remsen. To which you rather colorfully reply that, in effect, you knew that already. Ergo, (that s really what he said, ergo -- amazing), I not unreasonably presume we ve met before. Am I in error, or was that what you said?

Oh, Tom replied, small-voiced. Umm, no. I mean, yes, that s sort of what I said, but, uhh, no. We haven t. Met, I mean. Tom closed his eyes, too. It s complicated.

I believe you. Excuse me a moment. Yes?

Sorry, Norry -- gee, that almost rhymes! A buxom, tanned woman with gleaming white teeth swept into Tom s view from the hallway behind him, momentarily stopping his breath. She had a waterfall of dark, wavy red hair, cascading to her broad shoulders; wore a satiny purple gown, cinched with a belt at tiny waist, and cut to reveal a deep cleavage (freckled, with just a line of white flesh visible where the sun didn t normally reach). Tom managed to close his mouth, but, though it embarrassed him, couldn t stop staring at her, so he shifted his gaze to her face: saw cat-emerald eyes, more freckles at her pointed nose and sprinkled across her cheeks. Her mouth, painted a slightly lighter red than her hair, formed just the suggestion of a smile -- she knew she was being watched, but didn t seem to mind. She was probably quite accustomed to that, he realized.

I can see her belly button, Tom reflected. Outlined under the dress. Remembering his earlier speculation about what sort of business The Firm did, Tom nevertheless resisted the temptation to ask her for a massage, but not by much.

Here re the billings on Lectner, Norry. I meant to get em to you before, but dongo started flipping a couple hours ago and had to consult with the board, the last in a breathy parody, at your earliest convenience. She laughed throatily. You know how she gets.

I do. Thank you, Vanessa. Oh, Vanessa, another thing -- you don t happen to have met our young visitor here, by any chance? We re having a spot of difficulty sorting it out.

The woman looked at him, her smile broadening. I don t believe so, she said slowly, with a quizzical pout. No, I m sure I d remember.

Tom, having just been anguished by the thought that he was the youngest, fattest, least pleasant creature on the earth, melted into the overstuffed sofa, his body suffused with warmth.

Hi, she said, reaching a long arm to shake hands with him. I m Vanessa. And you are -- ?

Tom, croaked Tom.

Very good, Remsen said. More than I managed to get.

But this Vanessa looked startled, then pleased, to hear his name. Tom! Tom!, you say. Well, wellll! The grin turned positively earthy, and Tom, despite himself, sighed.

Vanessa. Vanessa. I m afraid I m in the dark, here.

How unusual, she murmured, never looking away from Tom. Well, young Tom. This is a pleasure. She folded her arms, with fascinating results. So we meet at last.

Vanessa --

Excuse me, came a miserable voice from behind them. I m sorry, Norrick, I realize you have company, but, Vanessa, do you suppose you could spare another minute or two for another -- By then, the voice s owner was also in Tom s rather overwhelmed vision. Good heavens! she said, freezing.

Hi, Ms. Pfeiss, gargled Tom.

Why, hello, Tom, Nina Pfeiss gravely replied. She was wearing the same polyester dress he d seen before, or a close relative. Tom remembered he should rise, but couldn t, and he remained seated as she, too, shook his hand.

You know, I m beginning to feel rather left out, Remsen said, leaving the armoire and slumping into a chair. If Jillycat s met him, too, I may just weep.

LET ME GET THIS straight, Remsen was saying a few minutes later, when they were all seated. You re teaching a class?

Was, Vanessa said, eyes never leaving Tom. They bounced her out.

Sixteen, Tom said, answering Vanessa, to whom Norrick had not, in fact, been speaking.

Bounced her -- ?

Raoul.

Oh.

Vanessa, Nina moaned.

Well, I m sorry, Neen, but that was it, you know. She sighed (Tom thinking, there s a lot of that going around). Isn t it usually?

Must you always humiliate me?

Oh, Neen, geez, I m sorry --

Then he s not here on Firm business?

That depends, Vanessa purred.

No, he isn t.

Well, we ll just have to see that, won t we, Neen? The board might just be in disagreement with that. Sayyyy, sounding excited at the idea, you want to use the board, Tommy?

Tommy, Jesus he hated being called Tommy. The board? If she s inviting me to go swimming, I don t care how I look in trunks, by God I m going. No, wait. The board might be in disagreement -- ? Nope, made no sense at all. Good. Consistency is important.

Of course he doesn t.

Who said he didn t? The ol Pfeisser was getting downright annoying. I might, Tom ventured. If I knew what it --

Vanessa had turned away. Well he s here for something, Neen, f rgods sakes. If not for The Firm, then why? She looked back at him. You got another reason? Maybe you re here for loving, is that it? How bout it, Tommy, you wanna fuck?

Tom almost threw up then and there. He opened his mouth, but was spared answering.

Vanessa, that is an outrage! You know I just despise it when you speak filth like that! How dare you constantly refer to me in a sexual way, you have no right --

Jesus, Vanessa, Remsen said, unheard by anyone.

Who says I meant you, Neen? Vanessa inquired sweetly. There is, after all, another one of us here.

Two, to be precise, Remsen noted. Now cut it out, Vanessa, you re upsetting her.

How unusual, she repeated. But I ve got the right to ask him a question, don t I? Everything upsets her, she s always upset about something, don t blame me.

Tom Kelber seemed to be getting better at the dissociative state thing; at any rate, he had entered one quite spontaneously this time. He had a sudden insight: a trifle disappointing, but it explained a lot. He remembered his classroom dream, how he had seen Annie s bare breast, and realized that this wasn t odd, it was impossible. Ergo (Remsen, old man!), he had clearly been dreaming. Now, none of this shit could be happening, either, and the wanna fuck line was the absolute proof of that. Pleased at this deduction, he recalled that this meant he was in a lucid dream, could manipulate it if he chose to. Smiling slightly as the promising aspects of this occurred to him -- after all, no point in feeling guilty for using an imaginary woman for dream experiments -- Tom turned his energies to willing this so-called Vanessa to peel down the shoulders of that slinky purple dress so he could see what lay beyond that little white line...!

Vanessa tossed back her head, dark red hair swinging, and loosed an exhilarated laugh. Why, Tommy, you wicked child! Right here in front of everyone?, Neen will be jealous, I bet.

Gaaaah! Tom screamed, then stammered, Oh, God, Ma am, I m really sorry, I -- you wouldn t believe it. I thought I was dreaming, I swear to God I did.

Understandable, she said with a chuckle.

All right, now what s going on? Remsen demanded.

Tom glanced at Ms. Pfeiss, but she was looking out the window, apparently trying to regain her composure. His mouth was half open to speak to her when he suddenly realized that Vanessa had just reacted to something he had not said out loud. Despite himself, he shot her a glance.

Whatsa matter, Tommy? she cooed, green eyes sparkling. I warn you, if you embarrass easily you re in the wrong place, right, Neen? Mmmph. Pouting. Neen, look!, she added with an elaborate gasp and point, there it is! Le trwaseewhooze extrematee! Just as we thought! Ohhh, you re no fun, this last as Ms. Pfeiss rose, wordless and stiff-faced, and left the room.

Tom wasn t quite sure whether it was that last bit with the pointing (geez!), or the tragic face of Ms. Pfeiss as she left; whatever it was, he found himself on his feet, hurrying out after her. Scuse me, he mumbled, as he made his protesting legs operate.

Quite all right, Remsen said, grinning crookedly and waving him on with a slender hand.

Oh, poop. Nobody s any fun any more, Vanessa complained. Least of all you, this last as she whomped Remsen with a big white pillow.

Then Tom was in the hallway, on a curving staircase, and finally before a plain door, which had just slammed with an air of desolate finality.

MS. PFEISS, TOM SAID AGAIN, exasperated and worried. Please, open the door. Really. I m -- I m concerned, you won t answer or anything. Please.

Distantly, he heard a muffled voice: Go away.

Ms. Pfeiss -- Nina -- you told me to call you Nina, remember? Well, anyway, please. I came all this way to see you, you said I should look you up, right? What is it, what s wrong? Tom jumped as the door was yanked inward perhaps three inches, then held tightly in place. He could, in the darkness, just make out Ms. Pfeiss s left eye, which, though he couldn t be sure, appeared to have been crying.

Why are you here, why did you come here? she demanded.

How did he answer that? You know why. (What?)

A moment passed. Tom could hear the hollow tock-tocking of a loud clock somewhere inside, and smell some sharp, perfumed scent -- incense, that was it. In fact, the apple incense he had smelled during that extraordinary experience in his kitchen the other night. Somehow, the smell sparked a sharp poignance in him, a feeling of intimacy gained, and now perhaps lost. He thought if he d ever had a girlfriend, then lost her, that might feel about the same. His voice changed, more serious, as though deepened by the intensity of that feeling, he said again: Please, Nina. I came to see you. Please let me in. Inspired, he added: You knew I would.

The door fell slowly inward. Ms. Pfeiss walked away from it, from him, sniffing deeply, then plucking a tissue from a flowery designer box. Yes, she said at last, then produced an enormous honk into the tissue. Yes, I suppose I did. She gestured at the floor. Have a seat, if you like.

Tom did so, having hardly any other choice -- the frail, spindly white chair behind her antique desk looked unable to support his, maybe even her, weight. Ignoring the strain in his legs, he thunked himself into a more or less cross-legged heap on her floor. Casting about for what to say next, he had a sudden, giddy thought: Well, Neen, here I am. What say ya call me Tommy, an then ask me if I wanna fuck? He was still fighting back internal giggles when, horrified, he wondered whether she might not be reading his mind, too, and was certain that if so, he was gonna get a quick trip back downstairs.

But if Ms. Pfeiss could read minds (as his kitchen experience seemed to suggest), she didn t let on. Tom, Tom, she said, sitting cross-legged opposite him at a safe distance, hands on her bony knees. I am so sorry you had to be subjected to -- that. Please accept my apologies, for myself and for The Firm.

Oh, it s okay, he replied, trying to act like he was as shocked as she, just better at hiding it. People get in funny moods sometimes, it s all right.

She laughed raggedly. Well, if that s it, then Vanessa, the name pronounced to equate with spider, has been in a funny mood for at least five years that I m aware of. But, in any case, brightening, regaining her poise, how are you, Tom? How s school going?

Bout the same as yesterday, now that you mention it. Oh, fine. How are things with you? Say, what is this place, anyway?, The Firm I mean. What do you do here?

I m all right. The -- unpleasantness at the school was rather a blow, I fear. Raoul is apparently feeling quite guilty, she added, spreading her fingers toward a cassette player on the desk. Seems to feel it was all his fault.

Bright guy, Raoul. Tom suppressed a shiver at the thought that she might decide to channel her buddy again, here and now, but she went on: I suppose he s right, in a way. She shook her head. Tom, he s so far above the ordinary creatures around us here, he sometimes forgets what an impression he makes. You must understand, he s advanced even on his own plane. Here -- well, with a little shrug, you understand.

Oh, yes. Sure. See it all the time. Doesn t everybody? For the first time since arriving here, Tom began to wonder again why he had decided to come. Here, after his frantic searching, she was: Nina Pfeiss, cross-legged before him on her bedroom floor. So what did he want with her, anyway? Unsure of an answer, he just sat there a bit, waiting for her to break the silence -- maybe by answering who these people were...?

That was very sweet, Tom. What you said. In the parking lot, at school...? , prompting him, when he didn t get it at first. I want you to know that I understood what you meant, I m not Vanessa. I know that love can be very pure, especially from a child.

Curiously, Tom found this annoying. True, he d been amazed to hear himself declare love for this woman (the first time he d ever done such a thing, which made him a pretty late bloomer for L.A.); and whatever he d meant, it certainly hadn t been wanna fuck? But on the other hand, this Pure Love Of A Child bit wasn t quite it, either. Confused and irritated, Tom dared to challenge her, not an easy thing to do: Listen, I mean it. What exactly do you do here?, what is The Firm, anyway?

Nina exhaled, as though she d been holding her breath. I was hoping you wouldn t ask again. Hope s cheap, baby, he thought gruffly, sure now that she couldn t hear him. He didn t speak, just waited for an answer.

All right, she said finally. That is, after all, one of the rules, the last word spoken in a way that reminded him of something -- yes, hadn t that David said something about rules? I ve fallen down on my commission. Those who ask must be answered. She cleared her throat. What, then, is The Firm?

I asked you first, he thought; then, dropping the humor, sat back waiting to hear what she would say....


Chapter Nine
History Lesson
in which tom must make a decision
related to mountain-climbing

WHEN I WAS JUST A little girl, Ms. Pfeiss began, in the early Nineteen-Sixties, long before you were born --

Oh, right. Maybe like ten years before, O ancient Pfeisser.

-- my grandmother, who was born before this century began, in fact over a hundred years ago -- am I boring you?

Oh, no, no, please go on.

Well, then. My grandmother, as I say, warned me of something of which my great-grandmother had in turn warned her --

Okay, now you re boring me. Yes?

-- as to my destiny, the future I must needs conform to. Do you understand?, well, hardly. Anyway. It seemed that the women of our line, the Brabshires, Conways and Pfeisses --

who scatter their herbs an spices,
while riding gigantic devices
-- say, not half bad.

-- connection with other planes. In her day, her mother s, well, and hers too, this was called spiritism; or, ignorantly, spiritualism. Today, we call it channeling.

An some people claim there s no such thing as progress.

We understand today that there s nothing mystical about this process; it s quite natural, really. But that doesn t keep it from being...well, frightening, on occasion. My own first experience was rather devastating.

I shouldn t wonder, Vanessa called in, thumping by barefoot in the carpeted hallway.

Ignore her.

-- you ve had a first experience, that is, a fragment of Vanessa s chiding drifted back.

Your experience, Tom prompted, turning Ms. Pfeiss s anger aside. With channeling. Was it Raoul?

Oh, no, no. That came much later, I was just a little girl then, maybe seven, eight years old. It happened much as my grandmother suggested, though it still frightened me. She d predicted voices. Voices in my head.

Like telepathy.

Well, yes, and no. I wasn t just a passive receiver. I had to -- well, it happened while playing dress-up, the first time. I was dressing up as a woman down the street, using some clothing of my muh, mother s. She grinned without humor. Mother was not a sensitive, to say the least. When I dashed in to her in tears, wearing some of her clothes, and insisted I was bleeding -- down, umm, you know --

How did you refer to menstruation with a woman like Ms. Pfeiss? Like having a -- ?

My monthlies, yes, though of course this was long before puberty. Anyway, she huh, was very angry with me. (Hit you? Is that what you were going to say?) She said I was making it up, talking nonsense. She -- checked to be sure, then -- punished me, when it wasn t true. She thought I was lying. But I wasn t, of course.

No, of course not, Tom agreed, nodding wisely, not because he understood this shit, but because her intensity, her hot need to be believed, compelled him. Go on.

I had, in effect, channeled the woman up the street. She had been having her monthlies, and, dressing like her, and sinking into trance, I had...shared her body, as it were. With all its sensations. Until the unfamiliar sensation of, umm, bleeding frightened me away. I didn t know what it was, you understand that? Yes. And so I was sure that I was bleeding, which of course I wasn t, not really. Well, fortunately, I had the wit to call my grandmother, and she understood at once that it was just what she warned me about, what she called The Gift, though Norrick and I later gave it a scientific name. He believes this ability to be unique, actually, she said, with perhaps a touch of pride. We call it psychomimesis, something like a psychic connection achieved through imitation.

So, Remsen found out about this, and started The --

I ll get to The Firm, Thomas. Let s not rush the story.

Worth a try. Tom gave an attentive, if not entirely sincere, smile, and nodded for her to continue.

Now then. Sometime in the late Eighteen-Hundreds (Norrick knows the exact date, it s in the chronicles), a man named Eldon Brisbane Remsen, Norrick s -- what would that be, I can never get it straight, great-grandfather? -- founded a sort of detective agency in New England, not far from Miskatonic University, in Arkham, Massachusetts. It had three members: one a Theosophist, one of Blavatsky s students, that s old Mr. Remsen; one telepathic, a libertine called Emma Sullivan; and one spiritist, Gabrielle Arthur.

A relative of -- ?

Mine?, no.

Oh. Okay, sorry.

In those more enlightened days, neither telepathy nor channeling, spiritism, were so looked down upon as today. Many rationalist, scientific thinkers were quite open to what has stupidly been called the supernatural (as though anything could supersede nature!, obviously an ignorant word for something natural but not understood). The Remsen Psychical Consultations Firm enjoyed great popularity for a number of years, and built rather a fortune. In succeeding years, Mr. Remsen s male heirs -- the Remsen line has been blessed with continuous males in that time, she noted with just a touch of bitter irony, -- assumed the duty of overseeing what came to be called the Remsen Firm, then simply --

The Firm.

Yes. And chose successors, as needed, for the other two positions, always females (but for a brief fiasco in the Thirties when a male telepath ran off with a female spiritist, and Norrick s grandfather had to start over). Norrick s father chose me on my sixteenth birthday, that little glow of pride again, at my grandmother s urging. His father had decided after that decamping in the Thirties (not without opposition from the lawyers for the Remsen Trust) to move The Firm to California, but Grandmama tracked him down, and here I am. Until several years ago, the resident telepath was old Mrs. Turner, a wonderful woman, I wish you had known her. When she went West, though -- passed on, I mean -- he had to choose...someone else.

Vanessa.

Mmm, looking away as though the decision still pained her. So. To this day, then, The Firm has an unbroken history of helping those in a particular kind of trouble. Those for whom the standard means of aid have proven useless.

Gee. Despite himself, Tom found this pretty cool. However, he couldn t resist asking, Is there -- how can I put this -- I wouldn t think that there would necessarily have been a lot of demand for such a group, I mean in more recent years. Not, he hastened to say, that I m doubting your work, obviously, I ve seen it first hand -- Did she squirm just a bit at this indirect reference to her intrusion on him? But, as standard, ummm, methods became more effective -- ?

Yes, a good point. Actually, Grandmama always felt that was why the Remsens moved The Firm here, to Los Angeles. This area has always been a great deal more forward-looking than most. And as I say, The Firm had acquired quite a fortune over the years, in the millions of dollars. You re old enough to know that a fortune of several millions tends to reproduce and expand itself more or less automatically, particularly one begun before income was taxed. Then there was the brief psychic vogue of the Nineteen-Sixties and Seventies, which in some ways hasn t really ended in Los Angeles -- and of course had a resurgence in the mid-Eighties, with the New Age movement. Ms. Pfeiss sniffed, and Tom fought down a laugh. Mostly nonsense, of course. Dowsing and crystals and radionics and all. Many of the so-called channelers, even, are phonies, or at best well-intentioned dilettantes. And the UFO-people!, need I say more. She continued, evidently feeling she needn t. It s heartbreaking, really. I have written to the Attorney General about the proliferation of frauds, but...well, what can one do.

Tom nodded in what he hoped was a sympathetic way. A muscle in his thigh was beginning to protest again, but seeing no way to escape the cross-legged position without breaking her unusual chattiness, he tried to ignore it. So you ve been with The Firm for a long time, then. Mm-hmm. Hey, trying again, though pretending he only just remembered, what about Raoul?

She shook her head, looking down. I don t speak of it.

You speak of practically nothing else, Neen, came an amused voice from the hall.

You re spying on me! Ms. Pfeiss cried, as though this were the final indignity. I --

No, Nina, she isn t, Remsen called in swiftly. I asked Vanessa to collect you. It s been delightful having you here, Tom, but I m afraid we have work to do now. So, if you --

Well I mind, Vanessa snapped, anticipating him. If Tommy goes, I go, right, Tommy? Her eyes looked rather violet now, or was it the light? Tom gaped at her. Anyway, I promised him I d show him the board. Oh, come on, Norry, you old poop. It ll be a good chance to test him. Hey, you never can tell when we ll need a new channeler, maybe --

Don t listen to her, Nina, you know she loves you, it s just her way.

Oh, ick.

Vanessa. Just the one word.

I m sorry, Neen. I really am, I was just joking. It wasn t very funny, and I am sorry, I promise. Tom could suddenly see how the apparently wimpish Remsen was a real, maybe an indispensable, asset to this operation.

This time, however, he had spoken a bit too late. Nina Pfeiss whirled on Vanessa, tendons rigid in her neck, face red, but it was another voice who spoke through her lips: Scarlet Woman! it bellowed. Are you without shame, without decency?!

Norry, Vanessa murmured, eyes fearful. She pointed, not at Nina, but at Tom. Did you see...?

Ms. Pfeiss had shot to her feet, and stood trembling with rage. I know not why this frail child suffers you, but I shall certainly not.

Jesus Christ, Vanessa said, then added in a completely different tone, Yeah, right, Raoul. Thanks. Then, to Remsen again: You see?

Yes. Yes, I m afraid I do. Tom, listen carefully. Why are you doing that?

For once again, despite Tom s horrified effort to fight it, Raoul s manifestation was -- what had the word been? -- bleeding into Tom s own mind, assuming control of his facial muscles. His mouth struggled to move, and not to move, in accord with the harsh words Ms. Pfeiss spat at Vanessa. In the brief pause, Tom stammered, Why? Shit, how am I doing it? He stumbled to his numbed feet, thighs feeling like wood.

Nina? Remsen asked mildly, that elegant eyebrow raised.

She is indisposed, Raoul purred. You must deal with me. Perhaps that displeases you.

On occasion.

Nina Pfeiss s body was breathing roughly, her shaking increasing by the moment. I do what I like, Raoul announced through her, and Tom announced it with him. You cannot stop me, no one can stop me. You are very low souls, particularly you, Whore, the last accompanied by flying spittle. Tom wiped his mouth with a shaking hand, fighting waves of nausea. And you, Remsen. You believe you know so very much. I know more, and more deeply, than you can imagine. I have known Nina longer than any of you, and I --

Fine, but my father --

Your father! Your father! Your father is dead.

You don t know that, Remsen said, his eyes filling, just briefly, with an almost inconceivable sadness. My father recruited Nina, two decades ago. He knew her well.

I knew her first. I know her best. I knew her family, the family she has forgotten!, all that twaddle about her mother in Massachusetts. Why do you let her maintain these pathetic screen memories?

What s he tal-king about, Norry, Vanessa sing-songed, as though spelling words to conceal them from a child.

You are trifling with some very large things, Raoul, Remsen said quietly, ignoring her. I don t think you want to do that right now.

The fucking Remsens, Raoul, Nina, Tom hissed in unison. They always know. Your father knew so much, and he died. There was a boy, I forget him, he isn t important. He thought he knew so much, too, and now he s...also...dead... Raoul s voice became unsteady just here, his characteristic confidence suddenly shaken. You -- you, and he -- why can t I remember, why can t she, we -- damn you, Remsen! What happened to us, to her? What have you done to me? Weirdly, as Raoul s voice rose to a shriek through Nina, Tom felt it ebb from his own throat as suddenly as it had taken hold. Wouldn t your father be proud of his boy now, Remsen?, you awful little beast? But somehow Raoul s tone belied the defiant words, became shrill, fearful, lost. Why? he bellowed at last, hands gripping Nina s hair as though to tear it out at the roots. Why can t I remember?, you can t do this to me!

Remsen took a deep breath. Nina, he demanded sharply, as though speaking to her past Raoul. This is not the time. Come back, Nina. There is much at stake. Not now.

What happened?! the voice demanded, a high, keening wail, now impossible to identify as belonging either to Nina or Raoul. Tom shivered, prepared to swear that the room was achingly cold. Tell me! Please, please, I must know...?

Vanessa, as though moving despite herself, without conscious intention, reached a hand out to brush Nina s shoulder. Nina tore herself back from the tender gesture as though burned. God, Neen --

What happened?! Nina -- Nina? -- screamed again, as though lost in pain and frustration. Damn you and your father, damn you, Whore, damn you little fat Thomas Kelber! What happened to us?

What happened on -- yes!, in agony and triumph, what happened on LAYTON DRIVE?!

Noooooo! Nina Pfeiss screamed then. And fell dead to the floor at their feet.

BUT NO. NO, THANK GOD, not dead. She s fainted, Vanessa noted needlessly, voice shaking more now that the crisis had apparently passed. Should I get water or, or something?

Remsen was checking Nina s pulse, and didn t answer. Yes, Tom said quickly, in a tone of command. Get water.

Right, Vanessa called back, half way down the stairs.

When she was safely out of the way, Tom scuttled silently down those stairs himself. He almost succeeded, almost got away from this chamber of horrors, but he was stopped in the outer vestibule by a placid woman with an upraised hand. She had a soft smile, with just a touch of gentle irony, and appeared to give off a faint glow. Wait, Tom, she implored him politely.

Don t forget your schoolbooks.

It was Nina Pfeiss. Tom, quite sensibly, began to do a bit of screaming himself.

TOM FELT A HAND ON HIS SHOULDER. GAAHHH! he cried, twisting, trying to see behind and ahead of himself at once, finally settling on the owner of the hand, behind him.

Geez, Tommy, enough screaming already, Vanessa said, spilling a bit of water from the tumbler in her hand.

Fuck you, you crazy woman! Tommy yelled. Explain that!

Explain what? That s a doorway. It s wooden. It keeps the wall up, and is a good place to put the doors, right?

Reluctantly, Tom peeked back where she was looking. Sure enough. White wooden doorway. Rather pretty, really. No Nina Pfeiss. No nothing but the doorway.

You can mail me the books, Tom allowed. Or eat them. Or ask em if they wanna fuck!, I don t care, I m going home!

Suit yourself, Vanessa said, with a little pout. You don t haveta be mean about it.

There followed an odd moment, in which somehow it seemed as though everything -- simply everything in his life, everything he might become, or fail to become -- seemed to spin round and round, like a top on some impossibly steady hand. The thought seemed to sober him. Ahead of him lay the door, the outside world, the quiet sanity of a Santa Monica street. Behind him lay...what? The underside, the madness of the world; the, what had Darryl called them?: occult forces. He had the clear sense that he could choose either: was free to rejoin the normal world, the day to day life of a fat sixteen year old, or...or what? Impossible to know. He stared at Vanessa for a moment, but that wouldn t help him to decide. Her warmth, humor, her overpowering sensuality, these things would avail him nothing, at this moment. She could have stripped naked and grabbed his willie, and it would have made staying no more or less attractive. Tom sighed.

Then he grabbed the glass from her hand, and drained it down his tortured, Raoul-abraded throat. Get more water, he instructed her with a lopsided grin, handing the glass back. He turned to walk heavily back to the stairs.

You re weird, sir, she quoted to his retreating back.

He had no answer for that, so that s what he gave her.


BOOK ONE: DISKS
attributed to the element EARTH....

This concludes the Paradigm Shift excerpt from Occult Forces, by A.J. Rose. Copies of the complete novel are available by snail-mail from: The Consciousness Institute / 253A-26th Street, No. 291 / Santa Monica, CA 90402 USA. The novel normally retails at $35.00. However...!

Readers of Paradigm Shift may take a $5.00 discount off of the cover price of the book; totals follow below. Be aware that these are photocopies (from laser- printed originals), bound in cardboard report covers like you had in school; we re a sub- shoestring operation. Prices, after the discount, are as follows; please write Attn: Paradigm on the envelope in order to receive the discount:

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