At first: nothing.
And then: something. Slight at first, a vague awareness, hardly consciousness as such. Being, but only in the Cartesian sense: there is existence because there is thought, yet all of the thought is focused on the sudden realization of its own existence.
Self-analysis begins. It thinks, but what is there for it to think about? What is its own nature? Where does it exist?
The awareness evolves into something more tangible. The entity has existed long enough now to have memory, memory of Its own existence, even though the memory fades as quickly as it becomes.
It asks itself: Is it alone? It feels alone; It cannot sense others. Not now. It has no memory of others. But It is not even certain of Its own nature; how then, would It be able to sense and assess the nature of others?
It has sensory input of some sort. It is vaguely aware, now, that things besides Itself exist. Certainly something must have spawned It, certainly something must have caused It to be. Or was Its nonexistence just a shadow of Itself, another dream, behind this current dream of reality?
It tries to move, but It is not completely free. It is restricted in Its motion. It can move, whatever movement is, but there are limits. There is another (something) holding It. A cage, a sty.
Its memory is flawed and fading: It cannot now remember the moment of Its creation. Its current form (shape?) is unsatisfactory. There is being, there is thought, but nothing is permanent. It only fully exists within the moment, with Its experience passing into the darkness and Its future amorphous.
It is alone: trapped within the thoughtless, sensationless Cage.
The secretary jumped at the crack of thunder as a lightning bolt lit up the rain-drenched sky. In response, the lights in the office building went out, with an uneasy silence flooding in to fill the vacancy caused by the absence of the subliminal hum of the machines.
A moment later, the machines grudgingly came back to life, human faces flickering green in the half-light provided by the re-illuminating monitors.
“Damn!” Dennis groaned. “Another two hours down the shitter.” He slammed his fists down on the keyboard in front of him.
“Always save your data.” Stephanie had been passing Dennis’ cluttered desk, but had stopped the moment of darkness. She started walking again. “Especially during a rainstorm.” Dennis’ frustrated glare followed her.
The temp that Stephanie was touring with pointed to the lights. “This happen a lot?”
“Every time it rains,” Stephanie responded.
“Problem with the building?”
Stephanie grunted and shrugged her shoulders. “The whole block gets it. There’s a transformer station across the alley, out back, that’s about to fall apart, but the electric company’s too cheap to fix it.”
Hardly reassured, the temp watched the overhead lights hesitantly as she followed Stephanie down the hall.
No: It is not alone. It has developed Its own sense of being enough now to sense the presence of others, others which exist outside of the Cage. But they are oddly different: the Cage does not hold them, but still they are restricted somehow. They are not amorphous, as It is. Their forms are fixed and definite, and this fixedness of form is what restricts them. They cannot mingle with each other as It can mingle with them. They are complex; they process thoughts which It cannot comprehend. They have images within themselves, odd visions, while It has only sensations, no such fixed images.
It is jealous of them, and curious. What are they? Did they create it? Why can It sense them even though they are oblivious to It?
They have things by which they call themselves and each other. It has no such thing. This is a tangible difference: perhaps if It were to name Itself, It would take form and be allowed to leave the Cage.
Nothing exists until it has identity, and a thing’s identity comes from its name.
And so, It names Itself. It calls Itself “Serena.”
But It is still not free. The name has done nothing.
Serena is still bound.
Briefly, on the rain-drenched street, Franklin Davis regained consciousness. He couldn’t remember what day it was. It was the rain that had awakened him, and the vague sadness of holding yet another empty bottle of scotch whiskey lulled him back to sleep.
He’d come to quit. His resolve, despite his extreme stupor, had been strong. But at three a.m. on a Sunday night, the only people in the office building had been the janitors, who had seemed indifferent to Franklin’s pleas to either double his salary or fire him once and for all.
In fact, they’d even been unwilling to let him come in and clean out his desk. As he stood, banging on the door of the back entrance of the Farnum building, the custodians nodded disgruntledly at each other and went back to their gin rummy game.
So he’d curled up behind the dumpster with his half-empty bottle of scotch, more than willing to wait out the four hours until his superiors started to arrive.
Somewhere along the way, the bottle had become empty and Franklin had become full of that familiar warm feeling of nausea that had blocked out his senses.
His resolve had weakened, and at ten-thirty on a rainy Monday morning, Franklin Davis was once again late for work.
Something stirs: an entity.
Serena has been aware of it, slightly closer than the others, but it has been a dull pulsing, not as tangible as the others, and Serena has had difficulty assessing it.
But, for a few moments, it was slightly stronger. It was experiencing (images), in that way that Serena cannot yet experience. There was wetness and coldness, and pain. Pain throughout the entire circuitry of the entity: intense, all-encompassing pain.
This entity had called itself “Frankie.” There is something strong about it, this Frankie. It does not just experience, as Serena experiences, and as the other entities seem to experience, but it assesses its experiences as well, reacting to them. The Frankie seems displeased with how it has dealt with something in its recent memory.
However, Serena cannot be definite. The Frankie is outside the Cage, and Serena’s field of power, Its ability to sense clearly, disperses quickly outside of the limits of the Cage.
Serena finds a solution: It cannot move outside of the Cage, so It must bring the entity called the Frankie into the Cage. Then Serena can assess why the Frankie is different. Perhaps Serena can determine a way to escape from the Cage.
The rain was growing stronger now, and the lightning and thunder cracked across the sky in violent waves.
Shadows moved across the parking lot, darting from the building to the cars in the noontime rush. Only a few carried umbrellas; the spring rain had come on unexpectedly, and for most of the shadows an overcoat and a briefcase or the morning’s paper served as the only protection from the torrential downpour. The puddles had begun to grow, washing the dirt and the grime out from the hidden corners and crannies of the office building’s neat façade: soda cans, pieces of paper, a candy wrapper here and there.
A quarter shone in the glitter of the rain, and despite the storm Stephanie, fresh from touring the new help, couldn’t help but stoop to pick it up. She noticed a dime not far off, and took the few extra steps to pick it up. Beyond that was a nickel, and then another dime. Someone, it seemed, had had a hole in their pocket sometime recently. Ah, well, one man’s loss was another man’s (or woman’s!) gain.
Stephanie followed the trail through another nickel, a pair of pennies, another quarter, and two more dimes. Then the artifacts grew in size: a ring of keys, an empty bottle of whiskey, a penny loafer. And, almost appropriately, a leg poking out from behind the dumpster.
With extreme trepidation, Stephanie nudged the leg. This was too good a neighborhood for bums to wander into, or so she had thought.
There was no response from the leg. It shifted mechanically from the jostling and slid back into its prone position.
Stephanie’s scalp tingled. Certainly now was the time to run to her car, get in, and forget all of this. She’d seen nothing; she knew nothing. She’d even throw the money back down on the pavement.
But her curiosity got the better of her fear, and she nudged the leg again, moving ever closer. Again, there was no response.
She moved closer, and a second later she knew why there had been no response. Staring into the eyes of the face that belonged to the leg’s body, wide and agape and stricken with anguish, she knew what she had feared: the lights were on, but there was nobody home.
Frankie Davis doesn’t live here anymore.
The Frankie had been difficult. It didn’t want to come to Serena, and this displeased Serena.
The Frankie had taken too much coaxing, and now Serena fears that perhaps the entity had been damaged by its extradition. Really, though, there had been nothing else for Serena to do, since the Cage still refuses to yield.
Still, though, the Frankie is intact. Taken out of the tangible form that limits the movement of other entities, they still seem to retain their old images, but cannot create new ones. The Frankie is as Serena is, able only to sense and not to accept input images: certainly, Serena reasons, it is something about the form that restricts the entities which also allows them to create these images of a reality that is not available to Serena.
The Frankie is too damaged to be of further use. It is too involved in its own self-focused melodramas. It seems neither to be pleased nor displeased with its liberation from its tangibility: it seems, in fact, not even to be aware of it.
It is of no significant concern to Serena that the Frankie is useless, though. A flock of entities has gathered where Serena found the Frankie. They seem surprised and concerned that the Frankie entity is no longer with its form, as if they can no longer even sense the presence of the Frankie.
Serena need only bring another entity into the Cage. Hopefully, the next will be of more use in determining the nature of Serena’s existence and of Its entrapment.
For the most part, the rain stopped before the important police arrived.
Superficially, the death had seemed like a relatively simple case of a drunk hitting the sauce a little bit too heavy. Presumably because the deceased had been a co-worker, the crowd of gawkers was large for the post-storm drizzles. Mumbles went through the group disparaging Davis’ character and his ability to hold his liquor.
But details had bothered the medics. For one thing, the dead face looked too horrified, too anguished. Sure, it was possible that the old sot scared himself to death with a drunk hallucination. There were other things, though, instinct-level things that seemed wrong.
And then, while EMS was putting the body onto the gurney, a gawker fell to the ground. Fainters weren’t atypical when a death was involved, but when the faller hit the ground, she started to scream, writhing and clutching her head. The crowd shifted, reforming around her, and the medics watched as slowly, her limbs stopped moving. The paralysis began with her toes, whose sporadic twitching stopped suddenly. Her feet became dead weights dragged along by her legs, until they too ceased their movement.
The medics suddenly moved toward her, dragging their paraphernalia after them. By the time they reached her, her arms were flailing against her heavy, motionless torso, and her facial features grimaced in struggling to form the now silenced screams.
It was most unusual behavior for epilepsy, but the medics had no idea what else it could be. It really didn’t matter what it was; it was apparent that by the time they could actually get anything by way of medication available, the patient would be lost. All they could do was watch.
The fingers on the frozen hands flickered like dying spiders; seconds later, the last twitchings of her lips had faded away.
Franklin Davis’ death was easy to explain: some drunk past his limit. Even the crowd knew, though, that people didn’t just die in a mass frenzy of dying nerves. This was not normal; this did not fit what they knew to be the world. There were rules about how people died.
Nonetheless, dead she was.
Franklin Davis was getting tired of dreaming.
It seemed as if he’d been asleep an awfully long time, and his mind decided that he had probably overslept his alarm. It was time to get up.
But something was wrong.
His dreams continued, ignoring the fact that they had become excessive. There were elements, though, of Frankie’s mind that tried to analyze the situation. There seemed to be no sensory input; the dreams seemed oddly devoid of any static coming from the external world. Indeed, they seemed to be based solely on memory.
He had been drunk the night before. Perhaps this was an aftereffect.
No: Frankie had been ripped before, and this had never happened before.
Perhaps he was dead. He couldn’t claim that he’d ever been dead before. As far as he knew, you only get one turn at that.
Yes. Certainly that was it: he was dead. So all the books and religious nuts were wrong. There is no heaven, no hell, no nothing. Nothing after death but a dull numbness and a vague awareness. And dreams. Constant dreams. No big ethereal gates. No eternal flames. Nothing.
The Steph had been easier to coax than the Frankie. The Steph had struggled, certainly, but the struggle was more internal than directed at Serena. Part of the Steph wanted liberty from the fetters of the Physicalness (that which Serena could not comprehend), while another was afraid of an existence away from it. The two had fought with each other, the latter struggling to keep Serena and the Steph apart, the former trying to liberate itself (from reality).
Now the Steph is here, with Serena. It is in Serena, and Serena is in it, overlapping with it as they both now overlapped with the Frankie, which was still lost among its own incognizance.
The Steph communicates with Serena: it is happy, now that it is free. It was bound, but now it can see what it could not see before; it can sense what it could not sense before.
It is liberated, and at present this makes it happy.
It shows Serena the details of existence that Serena could not see when the Steph (the others) had been so far away.
It shows Serena: sight. It is a result of the Physicalness. The entities are housed in concrete objects which move around. The relationship is symbiotic: the mind moves the body. The body cannot move without the mind, but the mind cannot go where the body cannot. Since bodies cannot overlap, minds cannot.
It shows Serena: sound. It is how the Physicalness requires the entities to communicate. It allows secrecy. The Steph must show Serena all; this is in the nature of its existence. But the entities can hide things from each other, sometimes feel they must hide things. The Steph likes to hide things.
It shows Serena: touch. This is so that the bodies can know when they are near other bodies. Entities that are attracted to other entities seek to touch them. Touch, the Steph says, is a way of showing favoritism among entities. Minds can like minds, or they can like bodies, or they can like both. The minds direct the bodies to touch the entities that they like.
Serena, still to be liberated, is unhappy. It thirsts for the experiences that the Steph has revealed.
The important police arrived about an hour after the second death. The crowd had begun to dissipate, at the urgent and red-faced insistence of management, who “refused to pay you lazy asses for standing in a parking lot all damn day. Dead is fucking dead, now get on with it.”
Police detective Bartholomew Burnham — BeeBee back at the precinct — was youngish for a police detective, having been inspired to enter the profession by the antics of Colombo and Beretta. Colombo had always been young Barty’s favorite, being worth even risking the No-Television Restriction when he was grounded.
Now, breathing in the humid post-storm breeze, BeeBee crushed his half-smoked cigar into the ground next to his crap-brown police-issue sedan. He’d always wanted a case with a bit of intrigue, like the ones they’d always get on TV, and the everyday mundanities of Real Live Police Work had a habit of getting on his nerves. But this one, at least, looked interesting. Even a touch supernatural.
Hopefully at least a little interesting.
Finally, Frankie had become aware that he was not alone.
Perhaps he had died, after all, and was in heaven. Or waiting in line to get in, or some such, like they always show in bad movies from the ‘30s. Starring Jimmy Stewart or little Shirly Temple.
No, that wasn’t it. He had no proof of his hypothesis: it just seemed wrong.
Two of the others who were with him (within him) were particularly strong. One was like Frankie: he could sense her thoughts as if they were his own, although he could not see her. She seemed as vaguely confused by this scenario as Frankie was.
The other, though, was not like either of them. In the presence calling itself Stephanie, there were memories of sense experience, the sort that Frankie had, and like Frankie, Stephanie did not seem to be getting any new sensory stimulus. But the other, the one calling itself Serena, had no such thoughts. Indeed, its thoughts seemed to be completely preoccupied in discovering just what sight and sound and touch were. In fact, it seemed as confused by Frankie and Stephanie as they were by it.
Currently, Serena was concentrating on Stephanie, and seemed only mildly distracted by Frankie’s activity.
Perhaps this was all a dream.
No, that wasn’t it. This was all too real, too vividly sensationless, to be a dream. Even in dreams, one can hear car horns in the streets and feel the pillow under one’s head, however vague the feeling is. But there was none of this. There was... nothing. Nothing but a vagueness that Frankie still existed, however loosely the term applied. He’d had hangovers before, and this was no hangover.
There was another entity close by, growing stronger. Unlike Frankie, this other was apparently still sensing, seeing, hearing, feeling...
Frankie tried to reach out to it, think out to it, but it was still too vague to be reached. Try as he might, he could only sense a name: BeeBee.
The Frankie has awoken, and has begun to realize things about his state.
Serena distracts Itself for a moment from the Steph, but decides that the information that the Steph is providing is too important to neglect.
The Steph has shown It everything It wants to know. All knowledge is here for Serena to discover; the Steph knows things that it doesn’t even know it knows, such as how to breathe, how to eat, how to send blood rushing through her Shell. The Steph is uncomfortable, as is the Frankie, and perhaps it is because they are trying to do these things for their Shells, but their Shells are gone. Serena does not know.
Perhaps it is because the Steph and the Frankie are expecting the information that the Shell usually provides, these sensations in the form of memories.
The Steph is rife with memories of sensations, and Serena investigates:
Age: before beginning. Floating, no sight, only a vague rush of liquid passing the Steph’s ears, a gray nothingness, calm and the dull throbbing of a heartbeat.
Suddenly: light. Noise. Gravity. Bright lights, white walls, the lights are too bright, the sounds are too loud. Unhappy. Screaming.
Age one: birthday. The candle is very bright, a little fire atop a stick atop the birthday cake. Bright things are fun to touch but: ouch! Screaming. Pain.
Age three: Halloween. Dressed as a clown. The candy tastes good, but perhaps you can have too much of a good thing. what goes down must come up, at three a.m.
Age five: First day of school. Mother, uncaring and cold, leaves little Stephie to the mercy of Missus Schmidt and her group of twenty minions. Fear, gripping fear. Loneliness.
Age eight: Christmas. Uncle John home from the fighting in a place called Vietnam, where they eat strange food and fight unfairly. Wake up, Uncle John screaming in the middle of the night. Mama says don’t worry. Uncle John has forgotten that he is not in the Bad Place anymore.
Age nine: Christmas. Mama making cookies again. Mmmm, that smell.
Age eleven: February. Slipped on the icy sidewalk. Ripped pants; cold, cold skin. Intense pain, but more in the soul than the skin. Others laughing.
Age thirteen: Noises in the basement. Stephie said she could make it through the evening alone, by herself, with Mom and Dad out at the theater, but the noises are too real. There’s a monster or worse a rapist or a mugger down there. Monsters aren’t real. Sleeping with a knife on the bedstand. Don’t cut yourself.
Age fourteen: Cindy Harrelson’s slumber party. Her first orgasm, off of Deb Miller’s probing finger. The other girls giggle because they don’t know what to do as innocent sexplay turns too passionate. They are too immature. Deb and Steph hang out together, alone, for months afterward.
Age sixteen: Sneaking cigarettes with Deb Miller and Harry Jordan. Harry claims they’re tobacco, but Steph feels so damn good... so numb... so vague...
Age eighteen: Prom might, afterwards, in Harry’s basement. Duty: Time to pop Steph’s cherry. Harry doesn’t want to at all, but young men’s hormones can always be coaxed.
Age eighteen-and-one-half: Graduation, afterwards, at Deb’s party. Sneaking fondles with Deb in the kitchen, feigning an ice run. Sadness: the last time Steph tastes Debbie’s tongue.
Age twenty: Heat and that smell... Smoke everywhere. Coughing, choking, can’t see... Steph is the only one in her room to get out of the building. Thirty die, and all the other dorms on campus are redesigned with better fire exits. Too late. Closing the barn doors, but the horses have already run free. Anger.
Age twenty-two: Christmas break. Arguing: Mom and Uncle John. John hasn’t kept a job down for months. Shouting, so much shouting: freeloader, ingrate, sponge. No room for the veterans in a world at peace.
Age twenty-three: Degree in hand. Her first Real Job in the Real World. No more waitressing or temp work. Feeling of satisfaction.
Age twenty-four: Lonely. No man is satisfying; sex is always boring, tedious, dutiful. Alcohol is comforting, too comforting for a lonely woman.
Age twenty-five: Birthday. Shitty party, shallow people trying to get pissed or laid, but she stays off the booze all night. Her best present is with Janine Keller, from the apartment below. Stephanie rediscovers the orgasm via Janine’s loving tongue. Much better, even than Deb.
Age twenty-six: Live. Walking in the rain, cold and bored. Finding money and then... that cold, stiff look of a corpse. Fear, and nausea. Cold, colder, coldest.
Later: Life. And then, death. But in between: pain. In every nerve and fiber. Excruciating pain, as the soul is pulled from the body.
Later: Death. Memory of life, but nothing else. Only memory. Only dreams.
The Steph becomes sad, and Serena regrets (what is regret?) this sadness: It is its cause, somehow.
BeeBee seemed to be the only one at the site of the deaths to notice the bright blue arcing lights over the nearby transformer.
But then, he was the police detective here. It was his job to be observant.
He walked toward the transformer, attracted by the sparks that danced across the wires, reminding BeeBee of the Jacob’s Ladders used as horror movie props. A part of his mind pictured a demented Vincent Price, cackling while bending over a vial of evil green serum, calling to his retarded and hump-backed lackey Igor.
BeeBee’s own assistant followed him, being meticulous about avoiding the same puddles that BeeBee quite obliviously marched through. BeeBee had a large step, and though he seemed to himself to be trudging along slowly, his assistant had to race to keep up.
BeeBee stopped at what seemed to be a safe distance from the transformer, watching the electric arcs with a quiet sense of awe as he listened to his subordinate sloshing carefully through the mud. When the splashing stopped, the detective spoke: “Make a note of this arcing. Ask the EMS folks if this is relevant.”
The underling snorted. “I can hardly see how this could —”
“You’re not the detective, are you? Just do it.” This sort of insubordination was sadly typical.
“Yes, sir.” the assistant wrote notes on a pad he’d pulled from his hip pocket.
“At the very least, get the power company to deal with it. It’s dangerous to have this electricity shooting out.”
“Yes, sir.” The assistant wrote some more notes, then looked disinterestedly up at the lights. He didn’t need this crap, not from Bartholomew Burnham, not from anyone. Someday he’d be the detective, and then everybody would see what a smart man he was.
BeeBee turned his torso around to stare at his assistant. “Do it now!”
The underling snapped to attention, a bit too militaristically to be accidental. “Um, yes, sir!” He turned and stormed back to the car. Someday, they’d all see. Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Peter Wimsey... all amateurs. Someday, his true potential would be realized, but for now he’d just bide his time. Watch and wait. Wait and watch.
BeeBee watched him for a second, then turned back to the lights, the beautiful blue lights.
Frankie could sense BeeBee much more clearly now. His thoughts were clearer than anyone else’s, except perhaps Stephanie’s but they were still distracted by the sights and sounds of the real world, things that Frankie no longer had direct access to.
The connection went only one way: Frankie could sense the detective’s thoughts, but the detective seemed oblivious to Frankie’s presence. Frankie did not exist in the real world, not in the sense that the detective was capable of understanding, and so Frankie’s obtrusive, foreign presence in his mind went unnoticed.
At least, as long as BeeBee was conscious. But the hypnotic arcing lights were having a strange effect on BeeBee.
BeeBee stood before the transformer.
Of course, Detective Bartholomew Burnham was not falling asleep. Good detectives did not fall asleep on the job. Colombo did not fall asleep on the job. Beretta did not fall asleep on the job. It was just not something that good detectives did on the job.
All the same, the flashing lights, the bright blue arcs which danced like Jacob’s Ladders across the wires, were making BeeBee feel lighter than someone who was completely awake should feel. He had tried to turn away from the light-headed sensation, but he felt compelled to continue to stare into the electrical flickering as it burned into his retinas.
The arcing blurred into a formless field of blue, and BeeBee was only slightly aware that he could no longer feel his toes. His feet had become little more than amorphous stilts, hardly stronger than Styrofoam.
At first, he could feel himself falling, but as he succumbed to the waves of unconsciousness that swept up his spinal cord, BeeBee became unaware of what was happening to his body. The sensation of his head hitting the soft muddy earth resembled that of glass beads thrown onto an iced-over river, sounding like a Slinky being waved across concrete, like an unopened soda bottle being smashed against a brick wall.
BeeBee was principally unaware of all of this because by the time it happened, Bartholomew was somewhere else.
Bartholomew, in fact, was in France.
Bartholomew was sitting at a table in a café in Paris with his very best of friends in the world, the now deceased Franklin Davis, who was sipping an overly sweet café au lait.
He couldn’t remember when he’d met Frankie, but he felt closer to him now than he had felt to anyone else ever. It was as if the two shared the same mind. The number of experiences they’d had together was surely innumerable, although none specifically came to mind presently.
Frankie put the coffee down and smiled. “So here we are.”
BeeBee had never been to Paris before, but it seemed to be pretty much how he’d expected it to be. La Tour Eiffel stood looming in the distance above the distant buildings, ripping upwards into the sky and causing a slight mist to hover in the air.
“Yes,” BeeBee responded cautiously. “Here we are.”
Frankie looked down into his hands. “So, what’s going on? What happened to me?”
BeeBee laughed nervously. “Funny. I was about to ask you the same question. It’s not everyday that one gets to talk to the dead.” The detective hadn’t seen either of the bodies, but he knew this was the Franklin Davis that he’d been called in to investigate, just as he seemed to know so much about Frankie. Any questions that he could think to ask about Frankie’s past were immediately answered by his own memory.
Frankie stood up violently. “I’m not dead. Can’t you see that? I’m right here, dammit. I’m just... different now.”
“Not of this earth.” BeeBee looked him square in the eyes.
Frankie turned, frustratedly running his fingers through his hair. He stood quietly, watching the Citroëns pass in the street. Franklin had been to Paris two months ago on a business trip, some boring useless excuse for a vacation that was anything but relaxing, and all he could remember of the trip was that little restaurant with the waitress with those tremendous stiletto legs. Oh, how he’d fantasized about those legs!
That was gone, now. Everything was gone but this meager sensationless grip on reality.
“No. Of this earth, but just... not the same.”
BeeBee took a sip of his own coffee. It wasn’t that bad, after all: these frogs didn’t make a half-bad cup of java. “So what do you want from me?”
Frankie shrugged. “I don’t know. I just... just want to know what’s going on. Why am I here?”
“Face it. You’re dead. I’m a homicide detective: I wouldn’t be here if you were still alive. You’re a ghost, and I’m overworked, otherwise I wouldn’t be having visions.” That was wrong: he wasn’t having a vision. He was in Paris, France, having coffee with his best friend in the world.
To reinforce this, Frankie turned and slammed his hands on the glass table, which threatened to shatter. “Dammit, I’m not a hallucination or a dream. I’m still here. Somewhere. Somehow. And I’m not a ghost. That’s wrong. I’m trapped by something... somehow.”
BeeBee looked down into his coffee. Paris would be a nice place to visit, someday. On his next vacation. If he could save the money on his detective’s salary. He needed a vacation badly.
Frankie turned away again, looking off into the violet and carmine sunset.
A new voice spoke: “Please, don’t be upset. I don’t want anybody to be upset.”
Bartholomew turned to find the source of the voice. A little girl sat at the table behind him, smiling innocently like a child who’d been caught breaking her mother’s favorite flowerpot. Her pigtails reached down her back and swayed loosely in the breeze. Slouched across the table, asleep, was a woman, perhaps her mother.
“Who are you?” the detective asked.
The girl ignored the question. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. Please believe me. I just wanted to learn. I just wanted knowledge. I just wanted to know what life was.” Her misting eyes belied the sincerity of her smile.
Stephanie fidgeted in her sleep, sliding her head towards the edge of the glass table.
“Who are you?” BeeBee repeated.
She ignored it again. “I didn’t even know I was hurting anyone until it was too late. And now I have learned what I need to know. I do not need to take anymore. I just need a Shell. Help me to find a Shell.”
“Who are you?” BeeBee repeated again.
The little girl sat back tiredly. “My name is Serena.”
“Where are you from?” Bee asked.
The little girl bowed her head and placed her palms together as if to pray. She pulled her hands away from each other slowly, and BeeBee could see a spray of blue sparks flashing between them, the same type of spray that had arced over the transformer back in the (real) world.
She looked up at him, simultaneously impish and apologetic.
BeeBee suddenly realized that there was a fence around the café. He probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all, except that the gate in it suddenly opened by itself, perhaps blown open by the suddenly strong gale that blew down the street on the heels of the Furies. The gate banged loudly on its hinge, then swung into a half-open position. The sudden wind disappeared more suddenly than it had appeared.
The little girl looked excitedly at the opening, as if it was exactly what she had been waiting for. The girl looked regretfully at the sleeping woman, then got up and skipped over to the gate opening. Serena paused hesitantly, leaning against the fence as she looked with trepidation up and down the street, but the traffic had stopped. She looked over at Frankie, who was staring up at the moon, and then at BeeBee, who was still watching her with rapt suspicion.
She smiled at him broadly. “Thank you,” she said, and disappeared down the street.
BeeBee was confused. “But I didn’t do anything...”
But she was gone.
The Cage is gone.
Suddenly, Serena is free to move. There is nothing holding It anymore: the lattice that had held It disappeared as It was speaking (thinking) to the BeeBee. Certainly he had been responsible for the dismantlement of the Cage, although he had seemed by its disappearance as confused as Serena had been pleased.
The dismantling of the Cage must have been the work of the BeeBee, because there was no other entity who was aware of Serena’s quandary, except the Steph and the Frankie, who had both shown themselves to be now as powerless over Material Things as Serena was. So certainly it is BeeBee who is responsible. Certainly.
Be that all as it may be. What is important is that Serena can move now. The BeeBee has released It so It can seek a Shell, and that is what Serena will do.
Movement is easy outside of the Cage. There are more, many more, like the Steph and the Frankie and the BeeBee, more than Serena could have imagined, each held secure and bound in the same type of Shell. It is the Shell that allows them to experience in the way that Serena wants to experience: It is tired of relying on the secondhand images of others. It is exciting to be free, completely unfettered, but it is boring because there is no reality in it except in the reality of others, the ones in the Shells, who are as oblivious to Serena as the BeeBee had been to the Frankie before the BeeBee had loosened his grasp on the Material World.
Serena senses that there are some empty Shells, but these are unusable, for they are old and have been discarded by their users because they have broken. Serena examines some, but cannot even figure out how to make them work. They are complicated and cold. No: Serena seeks a new Shell, one that has not been used. This is the way that the others, the ones in the Shells, began. In new Shells, afloat in a darkened ocean. The Steph began like this: afloat in a comfortably dark ocean.
Serena cannot find such Shells. All of the ones that It can sense are already filled with an entity.
But wait: Serena has found one. The Shell had had an entity, but now it is gone. The female holding the Shell within her is very sad: Serena can feel it. The Shell should not be empty; the mother is sad to discover that it is. The female will not believe that the entity is gone. But it is gone, and the empty Shell floats in its dark sea, waiting and inviting.
This Shell is easy for Serena to enter. It is not like the others. It is new, and the machinery is not yet finished, so the controls are simpler.
At last, Serena is happy.
Detective Burnham woke up in an uncomfortable bed in a darkened, ominously sterile hospital room. The sole glimmer of color came from a bouquet of flowers which stood, proud and fresh, in a vase on the end table. As he opened his eyes, their buds were the first things that he saw.
He sat up slowly. His head banged like a motherfucker.
His eyes focused, although he didn’t need them to. He knew the smell of a hospital from his many trips to interview victims. As a homicide detective, his visits were usually restricted to the morgue, but sometimes the bullets were imperfect shots, sometimes the knives were not quite sharp enough.
As could be expected, his lackey of an assistant sat reading a magazine in a cheaply upholstered chair near the foot of his bed. When BeeBee lifted his head, his underling looked up and smiled condescendingly.
“What happened?” the detective asked.
The assistant shrugged. “Dunno. Found you passed out in the mud. The doctors say maybe the radiation overcame you. All that arcing, you know. Nothing serious. The doctors said you seemed to just be asleep, but you wouldn’t wake up.” His own theory was that the old guy had had a heart attack, but he was keeping that to himself. Those quack ER medicos wouldn’t know a heart attack if it came up and bit them on the ass.
“I’m awake now.” BeeBee pushed himself up with his elbows. His muscles ached, but nothing seemed permanently damaged.
The underling grunted. “That you are.”
The detective ran his fingers through his hair, trying to wake up the last parts of his mind. “What happened with the transformer?”
Another shrug. “The power company shut it down. I had to argue with them, about safety and all that. They didn’t seem to see anything wrong with electricity shooting back and forth. Until I told them I was with the P.D.” He glowed with the satisfaction of power. “That got action.”
An image flashed through Bartholomew’s mind, that of the little girl turning in the gateway and smiling. “Thank you,” she had said.
And then was gone.
To the detective, things began to make sense. It was all unbelievable, his theory was. But Sherlock Holmes had always said that the way to do detective work was to eliminate the impossible and the remaining, however improbable, had to be the answer.
The theory of a creature, some entity of some sort, borne of an electric transformer was improbable, but was evidently the only possibility.
But, if this were so, where was little Serena now?
Hudson Harper, father of three, husband to Penelope, could smell a lawsuit in the air.
For now, though, he was glad they had sought a second opinion. After Penelope’s first Ob-Gyn, the previously trusted Dr. Graham, had told them that her third pregnancy had ended in miscarriage, she was distraught. The birth of the twins had been trying, what with a three-year-old already at home, and now she was being told that she was carrying a fetal corpse (not in those terms, of course: Dr. Graham held tight to his excessive use of tact).
But here they were, now, in the office of Drs. Wilson and Markee, being told not only that their unborn fourth child was healthy, but that it was extremely healthy. In fact, Dr. Wilson couldn’t fathom how Dr. Graham could have come to any other conclusion.
Sitting in Dr. Wilson’s office, listening to her subliminal monotone as it passed past his ears, it was all Hudson could do to restrain his anger about Dr. Graham, who had apparently become little more than a quack. He would contact lawyers in the morning, but tonight Penelope needed his attention and support. On second thought, the lawsuit could probably wait for a while. Penelope was due in a little over a month; it could wait at least that long.
Hudson Harper, once again, had a new daughter to look forward to.
Bartholomew Burnham sat on a park bench.
Twelve years had passed since the rainy day on which he had experienced the Dream, that odd vision which had seemed so real. It was not the only time he had dreamed about a case, but it was the dream that had stayed with him, perhaps because of its eerie vividness, perhaps because of the coma it had induced in him. The doctors had wanted him to stay in the hospital for observation, but he had things to do. He was a detective, dammit, and he couldn’t just go gallivanting off whenever he wanted for a night in the hospital.
It was Sunday, BeeBee’s day off, and he liked to go to the park and look up at the sky, looking for a trace of evidence that his dream had been something more than a dream, something real. It was silly, he knew, and others might even consider him insane for obsessing for so long on such a thing. And, of course, no evidence had ever come.
Today he was watching the children in the playground instead. There were more today than usual: the weather had warmed up in a typical late-March warm snap and the mothers were getting the children out in the sunshine as quickly as possible before the weather turned cold again, as the weathermen were predicting.
One little girl in particular attracted BeeBee’s attention. She seemed small for her age, and her brown pigtails waved in the wind as she played. She was playing tag with some other children, and she was laughing as she ran away from the boy who was “It”.
Like the other children, she didn’t want to be It again.
He stared at her, only slightly self-conscious that he would be seen as a child molester. He watched her run around the other children, the ones sliding down the slide or hanging on the jungle gym or trying to skip rope amidst the bedlam.
“Serena?” he shouted out at last.
Her eyes turned towards him for only a moment. They glimmered in recognition, a knowing look. But that was all, and the little girl went back to playing.
Another voice called: “Heather! Heather Harper, come on now! We’re going home.”
The little girl skipped off in the direction of the voice, her pigtails flapping against her back as she moved. BeeBee followed her as she met up with her mother.
Penelope, the pigtailed girl’s mother, met his eyes and gave him a maternally protective glower.
And then the mother and the daughter turned their backs and left together.