Monday, August 24, 2009
First, the news. I've officially started college! Woot!
Second, the news. The Tulsa mayoral election is coming up. Don't forget to vote! And I'd like to take this opportunity to officially endorse Nathaniel Booth for mayor. Vote!
Okay, now we get to book updates. Today marks the start of Part II: E.H.U.D.
Part II originally started much later in the book, containing roughly 1/5 of the books content. However, I wanted to make the two parts more equal in length so, finding a natural gap between chapters 14 & 15, I moved the termination line their. Hope you enjoy! And as always, leave comments!
Part II: E.H.U.D.
Sky Crest Towers had an extensive fitness center, with treadmills, elliptical machines, weight training equipment, a large yoga room, and even a full day spa. There was also a staff of at least fifteen personal trainers on hand every day from six in the morning to midnight. And all of this was free to residents.
For his first several months since moving into Sky Crest, John had ignored the fitness center, proffering solitude in his apartment. But in early fall he began to notice that his body was becoming smooth, edging towards the spherical, and he thought it would be a good idea to maintain a healthy life style. So since the start of October, he had come in every day for an hour before work and two afterwards to work out. Today he was on a treadmill, swinging in an easy jog, and trying to listen to the news that was on the large television in front of him. The anchor- the same one who had been on when Maria Tumpuelo blew herself up- was beginning a story that had been shamelessly promoted for the past half-hour. “Several senators today have taken a most unorthodox action in an attempt to fix up the nation’s E.H.U.D. problem. Led by Gerald Terstein, a Democrat Senator from California, they have written a new constitution, signed by over two million citizens, and have threatened to topple the government and replace it with their own, unless the president, and all the members of his cabinet, as well as the two supreme court justices confirmed by former president Isaac Latterndale, are removed from office. Terstein claims that his coalition has, in addition to civilian support, several governors and a portion of the military on their side.”
The anchor disappeared and was replaced by a nearly bald man in his late fifties, who stood in the foyer of the United States Capitol. A caption at the bottom of the screen identified him as Gerald Terstein. “We just want a better country for our youth,” Terstein said. “President Latterndale claims to be doing all he can to remove the corruption from Washington, but he himself was part of the former President Latterndale’s cabinet, and is open to suspicion.” He shifted slightly, seeming to fade from one position to another. This was edited. “We are not afraid of bringing war to Washington. Our founding fathers believed that it was the people’s duty to overthrow corrupt governments, ones that oppress people’s basic rights. This government has shown repeatedly that it is not afraid to be the oppressor; just ask the E.H.U.D.s. Merv Lemlin and Maria Tumpuelo were not terrorists; they were serving their country, just as we intend to.” Again, an edit. “The ball is in Latterndale’s court; war and peace are in his hands.”
The scene shifted to a room which looked like it was in the White House, but John had seen enough news in the last two months to know that it was nearly a mile away from the presidential mansion. Eli Rosencrantz, identified by his own caption, stood behind the podium. In a voice over, the anchor said: “After Terstein submitted his ultimatum in congress this morning, the president offered a quick response.”
Rosencrantz began speaking. “The president is cautious in his use of the word ‘treason,’ but he is firmly of the belief that threatening to overthrow the elected government of this nation certainly qualifies as treason. He would also like to remind Senator Terstein that he himself was elected into his seat during the first Latterndale Administration, and that he is not above suspicion in the E.H.U.D. affair. The president would also like to remind the American public that anyone who collaborates with Senator Terstein in his treason will be treated as an enemy of this nation, and that any non-sanctioned military action will be dealt with harshly.”
The anchor returned and stared melodramatically into the camera. “Upon hearing the president’s response, Senator Terstein has stated that he will not back down, and that the president has only until the end of the year to comply with his demands before he makes good on his threats. We must now ask ourselves, ‘Could this be the start of a new civil war?’ To try to answer that, we have in the studio with us…”
John let his attention wander and his eyes dropped down to the controls of the treadmill. He sped it up slightly, and shifted into a light run. He laughed to himself. Civil War. John new that he should probably be worried, but he was of the belief that America was essentially stable, and that no matter what happened, it was only small, subtle changes that had any effect in the long run. He had missed out on fifteen years of history, and this new world was almost exactly like the one he had left. So what if Terstein wanted civil war? It wouldn’t happen. America would be exactly the same in a hundred years as it was now. People would just dress differently.
John altered the speed again and went into a flat out run. He kept going, minute after minute, half a mile, a mile… John slowed the treadmill down to a slow walk, and stood gasping over the controls, occasionally moving his legs so he wouldn’t be pulled down. As he regained his breath, John looked around the room. It was filled from wall to wall with treadmills, all facing outwards towards large picture windows that gave a beautiful view of the building’s front landscape and the small park across the street. It was late in the evening, so there weren’t too many people working out, just a few older business and some young women off in one corner. John thought about going over and talking with the women when he noticed a new man entering the room.
The new man was older than John, probably in his mid sixties with a short, military haircut. As he watched the man weave his way through the treadmills, John had the uncomfortable feeling that he had seen this man somewhere before. The man walked past John and got onto a treadmill nearby. As John got a better look at the man, he became more certain that he had not only seen him before, but had actually met him.
The man poked at the treadmill’s control panel and fell into a brisk jog. He seemed entirely focused on his run, but he apparently noticed John staring at him. He turned, saw John and waved. “Mr. Donalson!” he called cheerfully. “How are you doing?” The man stopped his treadmill and walked towards John.
John suddenly recognized the man. It was the general who had been there when he woke up at the military hospital. And now that he thought about it, John remembered seeing him on television recently, but hadn’t made the connection at the time. What was his name? John smiled dumbly as he tried to remember the name… Missile-something… Mistlethwakey, that was it!
“Oh, yes, General Mistlethwakey!” John said as Mistlethwakey reached him. “I’m fine, how are you?”
Mistlethwakey leaned on John’s treadmill and smiled at him. “It’s good to see you! You know, I was just thinking about you the other day, wondered how you’d been getting on. I haven’t gotten updates for a few months now. So how’s the job, the apartment?”
John didn’t miss the reference to ‘updates.’ Was the military spying on him? John thought back to what Albert and Reggie had said back in September…
He shook his head and returned back to the present. “Sorry, I just thought of something. But, uh, yeah, I’m good. The job is great, lots of good challenges, interesting assignments, it’s good. The apartment is also good, great place. Thanks again for getting that all set up.”
Mistlethwakey waved his hand dismissively. “Think nothing of it; it’s the least we could do.”
John rubbed at his chin briefly. “Um, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what exactly are you doing here?”
Mistlethwakey looked down at what he was wearing; a sleeveless grey t-shirt and a pair of black shorts. He looked back up at John and raised an eyebrow. “I’m getting exercise.”
“I mean, at Sky Crest in general. Do you live here?”
Mistlethwakey snorted. “Live here? I own place.”
Now it was John’s turn to raise an eyebrow.
“How do you think you got an apartment here?” He chuckled and shook his head. “I was rather wealthy as a young man; grew up good friends with Julius Cohen. We got together and built this,” he gestured expansively at the room around him, “and now I live on the top two floors. Well, when I’m not in Washington, that is.”
“I guess you’re stationed at the Pentagon?”
“Have you been watching the news recently?”
“A little. I cut down after Maria…” He trailed off.
Mistlethwakey nodded solemnly. “I knew her a little before—well before… Did you know here?”
The randomness of the question caused John to stop before responding. Mistlethwakey was looking at him expectantly. “No,” John said slowly. “I’ve never been to Washington before.”
“Well, you spent a good fifteen years there, but that’s beside the point.” His eyes darkened and he stared piercingly at John. “Are you sure didn’t know her?”
“Yes, I’m sure.” This line of questioning was slightly disturbing. Why would Mistlethwakey think that John had known an E.H.U.D.? Unless Mistlethwakey knew… No, Mistlethwakey wasn’t involved in the E.H.U.D. program, he wouldn’t know. But he could certainly suspect…
John felt a presence enter the back of his mind. It oozed in, stopping thoughts, confusing synapses, twisting brain cells—
John blinked and looked at Mistlethwakey. “I’m sorry, what were we talking about?”
“I asked if you watched much news.”
“A little. I cut down after Maria…” He trailed off.
Mistlethwakey nodded solemnly. “Yes, that was rather tragic.” He cleared his throat. “But shortly after that I was named Secretary of Defense. I was officially confirmed just last week. I don’t think there’s been much coverage of it, so it’s no surprise that you missed it.”
“Wow. I know a presidential cabinet member.”
“Yes, the mere brilliance of my presence is blinding.”
“Wow. I just—Wow. Can, I, um can I ask you a question?”
“Ask away.” Mistlethwakey got onto the treadmill next to John and started back into his run.
For his part, John was able to match Mistlethwakey’s pace. “I was just wandering if you could give me kind of an inside perspective on this whole E.H.U.D. thing.”
“How do you mean?”
John was reluctant to answer. Ever since Albert had first pointed out the possibility of John being an E.H.U.D., John had vehemently refused to believe it. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that the facts did seem to add up to an E.H.U.D. But John knew that admitting that to Mistlethwakey would be tantamount to defeat. SO instead he asked the first thing that came to his mind. “Do you know if there was a ‘hud named Allen Fendleton?”
Mistlethwakey’s stride pace didn’t change. “Nope, the only ones we know about are the ones we already managed to get into protective custody. You can read about those on the website. But Allen Fendleton… I seem to remember there being a contractor by that name who died on the construction of Sky Crest.”
“Oh, I knew that.”
“Then you must know that he died long before the first victims were abducted.”
“Yeah, I know, but…” It was stupid but John knew it had to be said. “I’ve been having weird dreams about him. Him and the Gaza war.”
Mistlethwakey chuckled. “Maybe we should have kept you under observation for a while longer.”
“I—I think I may be an E.H.U.D.”
Mistlethwakey slowed in his pace and had to stumble a few times to regain his balance. He didn’t say anything for a few moments. “Well, I guess that would be a logical conclusion, based on the facts at hand. But you’re forgetting one very important detail.”
“Me.” Mistlethwakey smiled broadly. “You see, I knew where you were at all times. You were in room seventeen of the long-term ward. We have nurses reports, surveillance footage, and visits from your—well, Udarian’s—wife.”
“Oh, have you met her?”
“I saw her once. I had the weirdest feeling that I knew her from somewhere, and I found out who she was later.”
“Yeah, she would come in and see you about once a month. She took it pretty hard when she found out that her husband was really dead. We offered to let her meet you, but she didn’t want to. Can’t say I blame her. It was quite a shock.”
John didn’t respond. He didn’t know what to say. It was good to have the Secretary of Defense dismiss his fears, but that still didn’t explain the dreams of Allen. Maybe that was a mystery meant to never be solved…
The two men jogged on in silence for a few minutes. Mistlethwakey slowed down to a light jog. “So,” he said, “have you seen any good movies lately?”
“I saw Gigawatt when it came out.”
“I heard about that. It sounded pretty good, but I never got around to it. How was it?”
“I was a little disappointed. I thought it would be just a stupid action movie, but it got really philosophical. The first half was good super-hero action, but the second half was just Gigawatt talking to Jesus.”
“No, actually talking. They had Jesus as a character. It was pretty weird.”
Mistlethwakey took a long drink from his water bottle and continued the conversation. “How’d they get that into an action movie?”
“Is it okay if I ruin the plot?”
“Sure; I probably won’t have time to see it anytime soon.”
“The ‘hud investigation?”
“Okay, so half-way through his best friend dies, and Gigawatt gets depressed, starts doing drugs, beating his wife, pretty well screws his life up. Then Jesus shows up and starts having long conversations about Gigawatt’s destiny and that he has a chance to redeem himself for the stuff he did. I have to admit, I didn’t see the end. It was just too boring.”
John waited for Mistlethwakey to respond, but he remained silent. John turned and saw Mistlethwakey staring morosely down at his feet. John almost felt angry; Mistlethwakey had asked about the movie, he should have the decency to listen. But John fought back his initial response. He could tell from Mistlethwakey’s body language that he was distressed.
Mistlethwakey looked up and smiled weakly. “Oh, yeah, I’m fine.” He returned to looking down at his feet, but after a few moments he looked back at John. “Do you believe in destiny?”
“That there are certain forces guiding our lives or that there are certain inescapable things that have to happen?”
“The second one.”
John shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess not. We have free will. If I know that something is going to happen, I have millions of ways to stop it, or to make sure it happens differently. The past has happened, the present is happening, and the future is always in motion.”
Mistlethwakey didn’t seem to like John’s answer. “Let’s assume, just for argument’s sake, that the future is set. Do you think that if, I don’t know, if someone was inescapably destined to do something horrible, something completely and undescribably evil, do you think that that person could find redemption?” His voice quavered slightly. It sounded as if he were pleading with John.
“I don’t know. I didn’t think about it too much.” John fell silent, And Mistlethwakey stared morosely down at his feet. John chuckled weakly, trying to sound confident. “Boy, you take your movies seriously.”
“Hmm?” Mistlethwakey looked confused for just a moment, but then his usual self-assured smile returned. “Oh, yes, Gigawatt. Yeah… Sounds like a good movie. I’ll have to see it.”
John didn’t know what to make of Mistlethwakey’s response to his review of Gigawatt. When John saw the movie, he didn’t think much about the message it was presenting. He had just wanted two hours of mind-numbing entertainment. But Mistlethwakey was taking it seriously. He obviously felt convinced that something bad was going to happen, and that it would be his fault.
But if John thought he would get any further information from Mistlethwakey, he was disappointed. Mistlethwakey continued his jog, but didn’t restart the conversation. After about half an hour, he slowed the treadmill and got off. He walked over to John, stuck out his hand and said, “It was good talking to you. See you in here tomorrow?”
“Sure,” John answered, shaking Mistlethwakey’s hand. “See you tomorrow.”
The next day, when John went down to the fitness center, there was Mistlethwakey. John got on the treadmill and the two talked. The conversation went in many directions, touching on sports, movies, occasionally politics, and of course architecture. John was surprised at how much Mistlethwakey knew on the subject; he was able to keep his own in a debate on the practical qualities of Frank Lloyd Wright’s bizarre designs, for instance. But the conversation never touched on religious or metaphysical subjects. Even though John tried to steer the conversation towards a discussion of predestination, Mistlethwakey was always able to divert it back into more mundane territory. After two exercise sessions spent fruitlessly trying to get Mistlethwakey to expound on his cryptic question, John gave up, and after two more days forgot about the question entirely.
For his part, Mistlethwakey kept trying to get John to talk about his family. At first, John was a bit reluctant to discuss something so personal. He would rather discuss more public subjects, things he could discuss with any stranger on the street. He tried to explain this to Mistlethwakey; he had never liked to talk about personal matters. “Besides,” he pointed out, “I haven’t really had a family for the past fifteen years.”
Mistlethwakey understood perfectly; he himself usually kept home matters at home. “But,” he told John, “I haven’t really had a family for about fifteen years either. My first wife died about twenty years ago, and the second Mrs. Mistlethwakey left me right after you came into the hospital. I have a son, but we haven’t talked in years. The only family I felt I had was Mr. and Mrs. Udarian, and Mr. Udarian never talked.”
“John forced a smile and nodded. He hated it when Mistlethwakey reminded him that he had been in charge of the hospital John had been in.
“I’m just looking for someone to tell me stories about everyday life, not superficial small talk. And truth to tell, I feel like I already have a connection to you. You’re exactly like a great uncle I had.”
In the end John relented, and every day he would tell Mistlethwakey tales of his family. Sometimes they would be memories of his childhood, friends barely remembered, strange teachers, memorable school events; sometimes older stories, stories that John’s family had told to him. Occasionally, he would tell of more recent events; earlier that week, Rachel had called to let him know that she had written an unassigned essay discussing the flaws in the government assignment that John had pointed out, and giving ideas on how her Social Units could overcome these and other difficulties. Her teacher had been impressed, and had not only given her a good deal of extra credit; he also re-graded her original paper, and brought it up to a C.
Mistlethwakey smiled while John explained the details of Rachel’s theoretical government. “I think we’re seeing history made here,” he said, running faster than John could ever hope to go. “From what you’ve said, I think we can expect great things from this girl.”
John also told Mistlethwakey about Rachel’s call the next day, when she had vented her frustration at Wayne for an hour and a half, and then abruptly hung up. At first, John wasn’t going to talk about it, but he had come to trust Mistlethwakey; and besides, he was the Secretary of Defense, trusted with some of the nation’s darkest secrets, and he could certainly be trusted with Rachel’s relationship troubles.
As soon as he had thought of this rationalization, John chuckled to himself. The new President Latterndale had kept his promise of complete honesty, and yet John still automatically thought of the government having secrets. Old habits die hard, apparently.
After John and Mistlethwakey had spent a week and a half meeting every evening to exercise and talk, Mistlethwakey disappeared. John was a little disappointed on the first day; he had nothing to do but watch whatever dull comedy was on television. On the second day, he realized just how much he had come to depend on Mistlethwakey’s presence. He was actually having real conversations with the old man, interacting with another human being. Sure, he interacted with Rachel whenever she called, but no matter how mature she was, she was still young and lacked experience with the world. When John talked with Mistlethwakey, he felt like he was talking with his father. Before John’s accident, he and his father would sometimes just sit around and talk about life for hour upon hour. After the accident, Phil was disconnected from his son. Maybe that would have happened anyway as John grew older, but John still missed talking with him. And now he had a father-figure, a mentor, in the person of Robert Mistlethwakey.
Later that night, as John finished up on the treadmill and headed to the locker room, it occurred to him where Mistlethwakey must be. When he got back to his room he checked AmeriSearch and, sure enough, there was an article about an important conference that President Latterndale attended with several members of his cabinet, including Secretary of Defense Mistlethwakey.
That eased John’s mind somewhat. He wasn’t suffering paternal abandonment; his mentor was merely out performing a duty. John smiled wryly at this thought; that semester of psychology he had taken was once more rearing its ugly head.
After a few more days of absence, Mistlethwakey returned, explaining that he had indeed been in Washington, D.C. for an important conference. “It was rather short notice,” he said. “Half of the members of the U.N. showed up demanding that we disband our military and allow outside forces to occupy the country.”
“What? Why? That’s—that’s not right!”
Mistlethwakey shrugged and sped up his treadmill. “That’s what we’ve always done to countries that acquire weapons of mass destruction. And nothing is more destructive than the E.H.U.D.s. Most people don’t understand exactly how powerful they are; they think of them just as well trained commandos that can distort physics to assassinate people. Imagine, if you will, a lone man walking into a packed convention center and then, with just the power of his mind, causing every person in the building, maybe fifty thousand people, to have debilitating strokes. We've just had the equivalent of a precision bombing, with no costs but research. And the bomb is reusable. As much as I hate the program, and whoever thought it up, I have to admire the results they got. With just a hundred E.H.U.D.s, we could force the world into peace, without having thousands of nuclear warheads sitting around for some crackpot to steal and use.”
“Yes, but what if the E.H.U.D.s turned against their controllers?”
“That would be even better. Have you ever seen The Mouse That Roared?”
“Is that the one with Peter Sellers?”
Mistlethwakey nodded. “And Peter Sellers.”
John stifled a laugh. “And with a special appearance by Peter Sellers. Yeah, I’ve… Oh. The Q bomb?”
“If the E.H.U.D.s could govern themselves, we’d have a Q bomb situation. The world would never face war again.”
John pondered that. “At the peace banquet, and later at the White House, they were able to just walk past security. Can they psychically manipulate people?”
“By all accounts, yes, and they can read minds, too.”
“Then it wouldn’t be the Q bomb. It would be Big Brother.”
“Yes, but instead of torturing and killing social deviants, the E.H.U.D.s would be able to divert or change violent thoughts. There could literally be no war. It would become a literally unthinkable process. The people would be exactly the same in any other sense, but they would be incapable of conceiving of war or violence.”
“Sounds like utopia.”
They continued jogging. Over the past week, John had continued to push himself, and was now able to keep up with Mistlethwakey’s pace for several minutes at a time.
After putting on a sudden burst of speed and then slowing down to a leisurely jog, Mistlethwakey changed the subject. “You got any plans for Thanksgiving?”
“My family’s not too big on it, but we’ll probably get together and have a big meal. The usual stuff. You?”
Mistlethwakey smiled. “I’ve been invited to eat Thanksgiving dinner with the President.”
“I was wondering if you might like to join me.”
John stumbled and almost fell off of his treadmill. He had to grip onto the side bars and flail his feet for several agonizing seconds before regaining his footing. “The White House?” For some inexplicable reason, this proposition felt wrong to John, like Mistlethwakey was leading him into a trap, and that the White House would be where it was sprung. “You want me to go to the White House?”
“I’m allowed to bring one guest, and I figured we’re pretty good friends. Besides, the president wants to meet you.”
“Sure; he used to be the Secretary of Defense, and I mentioned you to him a few times. In fact, I think he was involved with your case near the beginning. I can’t remember the specifics, but he was on his way out of active duty, and was stationed at Walter Reed.” Mistlethwakey rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I’ll have to ask him about that…”
The White House. John had always wanted to go there, to take the tour, but he had never gotten around to it. And now he had the chance not only to go there, but to get a behind the scenes look at it, and have dinner with the President. It was almost perfect. And everything in him screamed out against it. It was dangerous. He didn’t know how, but he instinctively distrusted Mistlethwakey. He was a good enough companion, but he was planning something, and John knew that it wouldn’t end well for him. But it was such an intriguing invitation…
“I’m sorry,” John said, “but I don’t have any way to get down there; my car’s been acting weird.” He hoped Mistlethwakey would accept that answer, and he’d be able to resist the temptation to go.
“That’s okay. We’ll fly.”
“I don’t think I’ll be able to get tickets—
Mistlethwakey smirked. “Charter flight.”
“Oh.” One part of John’s mind desperately looked for a polite way to rebuff the invitation, but another part wanted desperately to go and see the grand old building up close, and meet the powerful, see if they were really like they seemed on television, get a story that would impress everyone at work… One part yelled out to him ‘Family Commitment!’ The other part moved his mouth. “I’m sure I can talk my family into getting together one day early, so they won’t be too disappointed if I miss Thanksgiving.”
Mistlethwakey smiled broadly and clapped John on the back. “Good, good! The plane leaves at noon this Thursday. I’ll have a limo waiting out front of the building; it’ll get you to the airport. I won’t be here tomorrow; I have to go to the U.N. But I’ll see you on Thursday.” With that, Mistlethwakey turned off his treadmill, picked up his water bottle and towel, and headed off to the locker room.
John continued on the treadmill, feeling a dread deep in his chest, a feeling that he had done something that would have terrible consequences for him.
Just as he was getting off the treadmill to go and shower, he saw a woman, dressed in a camouflage uniform, standing on a heap of rubble that had suddenly appeared in the fitness center. It was Naomi, Udarian’s wife. “I don’t trust him,” she whispered. Even though John was about twenty feet away from her, he could hear her clearly.
A man walked up to her, dressed as she was in a military uniform. It was John. John gasped and stumbled against the treadmill. The other John walked to Naomi and put his arm on her shoulder. “We have to trust him; he’s our leader. He’s the one who will save us.”
“I know but… lately he’s been different.”
“He’s Allen. He’s always different.”
Another voice, a woman’s, spoke up. “Are you okay?”
John stood and waited for the woman to walk onto the pile of rubble, but she merely repeated her question. Suddenly she appeared before him, wearing a tight, neon-pink tank top and tight shorts. “Are you okay?”
John blinked and Naomi and the other John disappeared. John looked up at the new woman and realized he was sprawled over a treadmill. “I-I’m fine,” he muttered as he crawled to his feet.
“Are you sure?” The woman was beautiful, with dark, wavy hair, and large, sparkling eyes.
“Yeah…” John said, noticing her feminineness for the first time.
“Do you want me to get some help?”
John shook his head. “No, I’m fine.”
The woman stuck out her hand. “I’m Vanessa.”
“John.” He shook her hand, and felt his stomach muscles clench.
“I’ve seen you around here very much. Did you just move in?”
John tried to mumble an answer, but he felt too nervous. Wow, she looked good. Attractive women always made John feel nervous. Except for, Naomi, but that was different. “I’m sorry,” John said, “but I have to go.”
He turned and headed directly for the nearest elevator. He didn’t fee well, and he needed to lie down for a while. It wasn’t until he was getting off at his own floor that he realized he probably should have asked for Vanessa’s phone number.
John sighed and went into his apartment. He couldn’t support a relationship right now, anyway…
Edgar stood leaning over a sink in one of the White House’s bathrooms, staring intently into the mirror and hurriedly yanking out all the grey hairs he could find. Guests for the Thanksgiving dinner would be arriving soon, and he wanted to make a good impression.
Frank Lertenz, head of presidential security, had protested against having a semi-public dinner. It was unsafe, especially with all of the radicals and self-professed E.H.U.D.s who had been sending threats to the president and his staff. It was not a good idea to let outsiders in, he had said.
But Edgar had no choice but to go forward with the small gathering of friends. He had promised the people that he wasn’t afraid, and he was going to show them that on this Thanksgiving. Besides, he wasn’t afraid of anything tonight. Mistlethwakey assured him that nothing bad would happen. While this reassured Edgar immensely, it also reinforced his suspicion about Mistlethwakey’s role in the death of his uncle.
Amanda’s arm snaked past Edgar and picked up a brush lying in front of him. “I can’t believe you wouldn’t let Ethan come,” she grumbled.
Edgar turned and glared at the back of Amanda’s head. Ever since that day in September when he had woken up in the lobby, she had been acting strangely, vacillating between oppressive, overt fondness and support for him and bouts of anger and fear. Edgar couldn’t explain it, but he didn’t really like the change. Another change was that she now supported his decisions unquestioningly, except when it came to Ethan. With Ethan, she was rabidly dedicated to having her own way.
“You were the one,” Edgar said as he resumed his plucking, “who felt he was too young to be out and getting political experience.”
Amanda turned around and glared at him. Her cheeks were red and puffy, and her forehead was a pinched mass of wrinkles. She took several deep breaths and her face relaxed. “Don’t you dare to blame me for anything! You wanted to drag him out to that U.N. rally, to make you look good in front of the protestors! I want him to enjoy family time with us! This is thanksgiving, for God’s sake!”
“It sounds to me like you’re trying to skew his outlook on his parents. If he can’t spend quality time with me, I don’t think it’s fair for you to monopolize him.”
“I’m not monopolizing him! I’m trying to make sure he grows up to be normal and well adjusted!”
Amanda bit off any response she was going to make and just glared at Edgar.
“Don’t think I haven’t noticed how you’ve been acting the past two months. You seem almost bi-polar. Maybe you should have a meeting with the presidential psychologist.”
Amanda swung around to her own mirror and adjusted her hair. Edgar let the conversation drop, and continued to pluck his moustache. He was considering just shaving it off when he heard Amanda speaking softly.
“Ed?” Her voice quavered slightly.
“You’ve never loved me.”
Edgar heard what she said, but it took him a few moments to fully comprehend the statement. What confused him was that it was a statement, not a question; she already knew, she didn’t need him for conformation. “And?”
Edgar chewed on his lower lip. Amanda had guessed his secret. Well, it wasn’t that much of a secret, but he had never said it to her directly. And now she wanted to know why. Edgar figured she deserved a true answer. She already knew he didn’t love her; how much more could he hurt her? But as he looked into himself, Edgar realized that he didn’t even know the answer. “I’ll tell you tonight,” he finally said. He could see her in the mirror, nodding.
Edgar leaned into the mirror once more and, certain he had gotten all of the grey and that his moustache didn’t look mangy, rubbed his face on a nearby towel. He stood up snorted a few times, cleared his throat, and walked out into the hall. He could distantly hear a few early guests, probably including Julia Telk and her husband, moving around in the lobby.
With a large sigh, Edgar leaned against the wall. Amanda knew he didn’t love her. She would probably be harder to live with now, moping around, refusing to interact with him in any way. Of course, he might like that. Amanda had always gotten on his nerves, and if she purposely stayed away from him, he wouldn’t have to deal with her.
On the other hand, everyone around him seemed to be giving marriage advice. Well, only Mistlethwakey so far, but if it came out that they were having problems, every half-baked semi-psychologist they knew would come crawling out of the woodwork to bombard him with advice. And that would make life unlivable.
How best to deal with this situation? Lie tonight, telling Amanda that he had thought it over and realized he did love her? Shift the blame onto her? No, that would be even worse; she would try to improve herself and would be constantly bothering him, seeing if he loved her now, now , now.
No, the only way out of this would be honesty, and then a quiet divorce. Get her out and away, so she couldn’t bother him. He was in the White House and had Mistlethwakey’s Plan; what did he need with an election-winning trophy-wife?
Even as this thought passed through his mind, Edgar knew that a divorce would be impossible. The personal life was always how a president was judged. Bill Clinton would’ve had a wonderful career if it hadn’t been for Monica. The founding fathers would be venerable heroes of old if it wasn’t for their predilection for unwilling slave women. And if Edgar Latterndale failed with his marriage, then why should he be trusted with the country? A man was only as good as his home life, some said. ‘How well can Edgar rule Mistlethwakey’s promised world if he can’t hold onto his wife?’ the people would ask.
And even if he managed to hold his marriage together, there were still other things that could damage his reputation. What if someone found out the secret he had been keeping since college? No, that would be impossible; only one other person knew the truth, and she wouldn’t tell. And no one could figure it out, either. All of the evidence had burned—
“Are you ready?”
Edgar looked up and saw Amanda staring down at him. He glanced around and realized he had slid down the wall to the floor. He dragged himself to his feet and wound his arm around Amanda’s waist. She stiffened and started to pull back, but then relaxed into his semi-embrace. Her eyes swung briefly towards his, and the barest hints of a smile played around her mouth. She obviously thought that Edgar was showing a sign of affection. Edgar stared blankly back at her. “We have to make a good impression when we go in there.”
Amanda’s face fell, and for a moment Edgar was concerned that she was going to try to hit him, but she was able to quickly fake a smile and look like she was happy to be there.
Again Edgar thought back to the way she had been acting since his ascension. She fully supported him in public…
Edgar led Amanda through the hall, aware at every step of the shadow of guards that surrounded them. They soon left the hall and walked across the landing that led to the grand stairwell. Edgar looked out over the banister and through the large, curving glass wall beyond it and into the night beyond. He personally enjoyed the new lobby and ball-room structure that had been added to the White House in the early days of his uncle’s administration, but he new it was a nightmare for Secret Service: any sniper for miles around had a clear shot at the president as he stood on the landing. Edgar didn’t care; it was worth the risk to make such a grand entrance. He and Amanda strode to the top of the stairwell and looked down at the guests gathered down in the lobby.
“Ladies and gentlemen; The President and First Lady of the United States,” a voice boomed out.
Edgar smiled. An excellent entrance. He and Amanda walked down the steps amidst polite applause from the guests. Behind them, guards swept down the stairs and fanned out to cover the wall behind the staircase.
Almost as soon as his feet touched the lobby floor, Edgar was surrounded by a swarm of guests eager to greet him. There were most of the members of Edgar’s cabinet and their spouses; the speaker of the house and her husband; two justices of the Supreme Court, neither of whom were currently married; and five members of the U.N. Edgar smiled and tried to disengage himself from them; if he was lucky, Amanda would be able to absorb their attention, and he’d be able to nod and smile. It worked for Reagan, and it could work for him.
When he had a spare moment with no guests vying for his attention, he looked around and noticed Mistlethwakey wasn’t there. That was a good—Edgar’s shoulders slumped as he noticed the secretary of defense off to one side, talking with Lertenz and a man that Edgar didn’t recognize. Edgar cursed under his breath.
Sooner than he would have proffered, Mistlethwakey left Lertenz’ side and led the other man towards the president. When they reached him, Mistlethwakey extended his hand and quickly shook Edgar’s hand. “Mr. President, I’d like to introduce to you my good friend John Donalson.”
Edgar looked at Donalson. He was average height, balding, with short, spiky brown hair, glasses, and the faintest traces of a beard. Edgar didn’t like him. “Hello, Mr. Donalson,” he said coolly, quickly shaking his hand. Who was this person? Edgar was more than a bit concerned for his own safety. The last time Mistlethwakey had brought a stranger to an event like this, his guest had tried to kill everybody.
“You remember John,” Mistlethwakey said cheerfully.
Edgar shook his head.
“I told you about him. He was the man that we thought was Sergeant Udarian.”
Edgar had no clue what Mistlethwakey was talking about. He was about to tell him so, when he felt a presence enter the back of his mind, pushing things, changing things… He suddenly remembered the coma case, and all of the talks he had had with Mistlethwakey about its outcome.
“Oh, yes, Mr. Donalson. Sorry, I’m terrible with names. Yes, yes I remember now.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” Donalson said sincerely. “I saw your first address; it was very interesting.”
“Yes,” Mistlethwakey said, laughing quietly, “Some of his coworkers saw it and assumed he was an E.H.U.D.”
Donalson smiled sheepishly, and Edgar laughed politely. Mistlethwakey’s statement didn’t make him feel any safer.
“Oh, who’s this?” Amanda said, sliding in smoothly next to her husband. Edgar never would have admitted it, but her presence actually comforted him; Donalson’s presence profoundly disturbed him for some reason.
“I don’t believe we’ve met.” Amanda extended her right hand toward Donalson. “Amanda Latterndale.”
“Uh, John Donalson,” the man mumbled.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. Are you a friend of Bob’s?”
Donalson nodded eagerly. “Yes, I live in his building, and—“
“Mr. Donalson was a former resident of Walter Reed,” Edgar said, trying to end the discussion. He wanted so badly to get away from Donalson, although he didn’t know why.
Mistlethwakey was just opening his mouth to say something when a ringing tone echoed through the room. “Dinner is now served,” a voice boomed out. Edgar sighed with relief and led Amanda into the state dining room and to the head of the table. He deposited her into the seat to the right of his, and then waited until the rest of the guests found their seats and sat down.
He alone stood, staring down the table at the few guests that were able to come. Fewer than forty people, all of them fairly ‘inner circle.’ There would be no press covering this event, no way to shape his public image through it.
Except for Donalson. Edgar glanced quickly at him and then away. He had a sense, something he could almost tangibly feel, that there was something else to this Donalson, an electric power surging just below the surface. Yet every time the power came to close to the surface, something, another presence, pushed it back down. Experimentally, Edgar focused his mind on this power, focused all of his energy on Donalson, and pushed. He felt a sudden tiredness, a shortness of breath, like he had exerted himself. He pushed again, harder this time, and found himself looking at… himself. Standing at the head of the table, glaring at… who ever he was seeing himself out of. Yet he was also seeing… Donalson. He was in Donalson, looking at himself—
A darkness descended on his mind, and suddenly, he was himself again, feeling immensely tired, and staring at Donalson, who was fidgeting slightly and blinking rapidly.
Edgar blinked, and looked out at the other guests. They were all staring at him with concern.
“Ed?” Amanda whispered. “Are you okay?”
Edgar blinked and glanced around the room again. “Yeah,” he said hoarsely, “I’m fine…” He waited another moment and then cleared his throat, trying to put a smile on his face. “Well, um, I’d like to welcome al of our guests here this evening… As you know, it’s the traditional time of Thanksgiving and…” He trailed off and tried to think of something to say. Not that it mattered; there was no way to recover after the strange episode he just went through. “I’m not very religious, so let’s eat.” He quickly sat down, and as he scooted his chair up to the table, he could here the guests murmuring. He looked up, and saw several of them staring at him. They quickly looked away.
“Ed,” Amanda whispered again, touching his shoulder.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he answered, roughly pulling away.
Immediately after the president sat down, members of the Secret Service, dressed as banquet waiters, walked quickly into the room and circled the table, dropping off plates tastefully arranged with thin cuts of turkey, steamed vegetables, small rolls, dollops of cranberry sauce, and anything else that the chef had prepared. The murmuring of the guests faded and disappeared as they took interest in what was being placed before them, and they all started eating. The final person to be served was Edgar, who was trying desperately to be the gracious host. Frank Lertenz himself placed the dish in front of Edgar, who looked down at it non-commitaly. After what had happened when he stared at Donalson, he wasn’t sure if he could eat. Next to him, Amanda was taking small, polite bites, obviously not hungry either, but she kept looking up at Edgar, almost willing him to try something.
Just as Edgar finally gave in and was raising a fork-full of turkey to his mouth, he heard a kind of wheezing gasp off to his left. He lowered the fork and turned his head in the direction of the sound. The sound repeated. Edgar saw several people to his left all turning to look towards one person: Donalson.
Donalson sat perfectly still, his fork hovering over the plate and his eyes growing wide. As the assembled guests watched, his skin turned blotchy and red, and he gasped again. Sweat beaded on his forehead and he thrust his body convulsively forward. The people around him jumped up and quickly backed away, afraid he would vomit. Instead, he gasped again and started to claw at his neck.
“Quick!” someone yelled, “Get a doctor!”
Donalson half stood and stumbled for a few steps, still clutching at his neck, before collapsing to his knees and whimpering slightly.
One of the U.N. delegates ran around the table towards Donalson and pointed at Julia Telk’s husband. “You,” he said in heavily accented English, “call ambulance. I will C.P.R.”
The man grabbed Donalson around the middle and was about to go into the Heimlich maneuver when Mistlethwakey pulled him away. “No! Look at the throat and his skin! He’s not choking; he’s having an allergic reaction!”
The delegate apparently didn’t understand what Mistlethwakey was saying and tried again to dislodge whatever it was he thought Donalson was choking on. Again, Mistlethwakey pulled him away, but just then a staff paramedic ran in through a service door and crouched down next to Donalson, who had fallen to the floor, while some of the presidential guards formed a cordon around doctor and patient.
“Well,” Edgar muttered as he watched the excitement, “this sure makes the evening more interesting.” He didn’t add that he secretly hoped Donalson wouldn’t survive… whatever this was.
Several of the guests who were gathered around Donalson gasped and turned away in disgust. Edgar moved forward and saw one of the guards, under order from the paramedic, drawing a needle full of blood from Donalson’s arm. For his part, the paramedic was injecting something into Donalson’s neck. “Looks like the chef used peanut oil in his cooking.”
Donalson’s face flushed, and his throat relaxed somewhat. His breathing, which had been intermittent gasps before, turned into steady wheezes.
The paramedic noticed the president watching him, so he gestured down to his patient. “Looks like he’ll be okay, sir. Severe peanut allergy, and he’s unconscious, but he should be around soon.”
Edgar felt someone touching his arm, and turned to see Mistlethwakey leaning on him. “I think it might be best to have your other guests retire to the Red Room for the next twenty minutes or so.”
Edgar nodded and loudly restated Mistlethwakey’s idea. The guests stirred around for a few more moments, staring down at Donalson and muttering, but they soon gathered together and left the room. Edgar was just about to follow them when he noticed Mistlethwakey crouching down next to Donalson’s left wrist, which had been exposed to allow the paramedic access to the vein. Edgar watched in silent fascination as Mistlethwakey, completely ignored by the guards and the paramedic, picked up a needle and took a large sample of Donalson’s blood. Then he stood, removed a rubber-stopped vial from his pocket, thrust the needle through the stopper, and transferred the blood.
“Well,” he said, smiling widely, “at least that’s done with.”
“What’s done with?”
“Oh, nothing. I just needed this blood.”
“You needed his blood?!” Edgar yelled.
Mistlethwakey held up his hands. “Please, not so loud, you might disturb the others.”
“YOU—“ Edgar stopped, took a deep breath, and continued in a hoarse whisper. “You brought him here so you could get a blood sample from him?!”
“Yes, and wasn’t easy, especially faking that reaction.”
“He- he isn’t allergic to peanuts?”
“Nope, they’re one of his favorite foods.”
“Then what was all that for?” Edgar gestured down to the paramedic, who was propping up Donalson’s head on a rolled-up towel. “If you needed a blood sample, you could have gotten it anywhere! You didn’t need to ruin a state dinner for this!”
“This is the way he’ll remember it.”
Edgar was struck momentarily dumb by this nonsequiter. “What?”
“Don’t worry,” Mistlethwakey said as he patted Edgar reassuringly on the arm. “Just go out there, tell them dinner is ready, and when you come back, we’ll be gone and no one will remember this.”
“How can you expect no one to—“
“Trust me.” Mistlethwakey smiled.
Edgar spun around and stalked angrily towards the Red Room. What was Mistlethwakey doing? First he brings this suspicious person into one of the most delicate places on earth, mere months after its last resident was killed, and he stages this elaborate charade, and for what? For a few squirts of blood. Edgar thought, not for the first time, that Mistlethwakey was turning against him. Well, he could do that, too. Maybe it was time to publish a few papers implicating Mistlethwakey in the E.H.U.D. fiasco. Not that he actually had any papers like that, but they could easily be faked.
He reached the doors to the Red Room and pushed the doors open. “Dinner’s ready.
“Oh, good,” one man said cheerily. “I thought maybe you’d forgotten us.”
“Yes, I’m positively starved,” said Julia Telk. She got to her feet, bringing her husband with her, and walked towards the dining room.
The rest of the guests quickly stood and also made their way to were Thanksgiving dinner would be held. The last to leave was Amanda, who grasped Edgar’s hand and squeezed it. “I’m glad to see you’re handling this so well.”
Amanda looked at him strangely. “The delay in the kitchen, of course.”
“Delay? What about Donalson?”
Edgar shook his head, completely flabbergasted. No one seemed to remember what they had just witnessed. They didn’t even remember Donalson’s being there. What was Mistlethwakey doing?
Edgar sighed. It was no use trying to discover Mistlethwakey’s secrets. And if he could remove forty people’s memories of a dramatic event, what good what it do to black mail him?
“Go ahead,” he told Amanda. “Tell everyone I’ll be there in just a minute.”
Amanda left, and Edgar sank into a large chair. This was all too much for him. He wandered if it was too late to get out of Mistlethwakey’s plan…
After two hours of eating, discussing politics, and having a few drinks, all of the president’s guest left the White House. All things considered, the night had gone fairly well; no one seemed to remember anything about either Donalson or Mistlethwakey being there. In fact, Eli Rosencrantz once commented on Mistlethwakey’s conspicuous absence.
While Edgar was pleased that the weirder events of the evening had apparently been stricken from reality, he was more than a bit disturbed by Mistlethwakey’s ability to perform this removal. So once the building was empty and given a thorough security sweep, Edgar ordered a second and then a third before he was willing to go to bed. He also ordered a surveillance team to Philadelphia to monitor Mistlethwakey at all times. He didn’t trust his secretary of defense, and was not going to give him the chance to do anything else. If Mistlethwakey was observed doing anything slightly suspicious, the country’s best sniper would be there to make sure the action wouldn’t be defeated.
Edgar smiled to himself. Mistlethwakey believed he was fully on board with the Plan, and wouldn’t be expecting this kind of thing from Edgar.
At around ten o’ clock, Edgar was exhausted and ready for sleep. He changed into a pair of pajamas and came out of his bathroom to find Amanda already in sitting in bed, reading a novel. Edgar slowly shook his head; she was always reading in bed. She hadn’t done that when they were first married, but as the years went on, she started reading more and more, and now she read every night. Edgar noticed that the tops of the pages on this one were still crisp and sharply edged; it was new. Edgar sat down next to Amanda and tilted his head so he could read the title: The Realms of Neldak. Below the title was the picture of a bizarre horned skull.
Edgar snorted derisively. “What is this? Another fantasy book? Let me guess: a young orphan is told he is the only one who can save the kingdom from a great evil, and the only was to do that is to retrieve a mystical artifact.” When Amanda didn’t answer, Edgar laughed. “I’m right, aren’t I?”
Amanda slipped a bookmark between the pages and silently closed the book. “That was a good meal tonight.”
Edgar just grunted.
“I thought it went well. Everyone got along. I was a bit surprised that Mistlethwakey wasn’t there.”
“Oh, he was there, but he had to leave early.” With that, Edgar scooted towards the end of the bed and, when he had enough room, lay down and rolled away from Amanda.
“Before dinner, we were talking about how you didn’t love me.” Edgar didn’t respond. “I’m not hurt, you know. I’ve suspected that for a long time. And I know you’re not the kind of person who really ever loves anyone. But I’m worried about Ethan. I think you’re a bad influence on him, and personally I want to leave you.” She paused again, clearly waiting for Edgar to say something, to say he loved her, needed her, didn’t want her to ever leave. When he didn’t respond, Amanda continued. “But, even if you won’t admit it, you need me, at least for now. So I’ll stay, at least until this term is up. But I need to know. I need to know why you don’t love me.”
Edgar rolled over to look at his wife. She sat up, her blond hair floating cloud-like around her face, staring blankly at the other side of the room. As Edgar thought back over the last three or four hours, he realized that they had indeed been talking about this very subject, and that he had secretly feared that she would want a divorce. And now that she had made her statement on the divorce matter, his mind was put slightly to ease. But he hadn’t though of a good reason for his distance from her. Maybe she would change her mind about the divorce if his answer failed to please her…
“There are two types of people in the world,” he began, not sure where he would go with this. He tried to think of what the main differences were between Amanda and himself. A different taste in novels, for one thing; Edgar enjoyed civil war epics. “There are two types of people in the world,” he said again. His mind flashed to what Mistlethwakey had promised him of the future, and what he would have to do to realize that promise, and then to Amanda and what she was trying to do to protect Ethan. She was staying in a place she didn’t want to be. She was miserable. “The first type of person, you, will see a goal, a purpose, and is willing to die for that purpose. You’d give anything-- already give anything-- to protect Ethan. Me, I’m the second type. When I see my purpose, I will do anything to achieve it. You would die for your goal; I would kill.” That sounded good. And it certainly seemed true. “As I kill, I expect others to stand up and try to kill me. But you don’t; you die. And I can’t handle that. Can’t love that.”
Amanda blinked, nodded, and said simply, “Thank you.” She accepted it, took what he said at face value, and saw herself in his world.
Apparently, his analysis of their relationship was true. She wouldn’t argue; she would bear this, dying a little inside in order to achieve her goal of… whatever it was she was trying to achieve. And in line with his analysis, Edgar couldn’t handle that. “That’s it?” He pulled himself into a sitting position. “You’re not going to argue? I called you a passive coward, and you’re not going to respond?”
“You said I would die for my cause. And I can accept that.”
“And just what is your cause? What are you dying for? I know what I’m killing for, but do you know what you’re dying for?”
“Ed, please, tonight was so good, don’t ruin it—“
“Why are you dying?” Edgar couldn’t take her quiet acceptance of all of this. He had to get her fired up, had to change her, make her a killer, too. He didn’t know why; it was like what had happened with Donalson. He instinctively hated the man, with no reason for it. And he had no reason for—No, he did have a reason for this. He was why she was dying. Not what she was dying for, but what was killing her. She was his prey. And a predator doesn’t love his prey. But to prey, the predator is god… “I’m the one killing you. Now tell me why you’re dying!”
A muscle along Amanda’s jaw pulsed, and her face was starting to turn red. “Ethan,” she whispered through clenched teeth.
Of course, that kid that he hadn’t wanted. His mistake was her life’s work. “Ethan, the one that you didn’t want spending time with his family at Thanksgiving.”
Amanda swung around and flung her book at Edgar’s head. He dodged and it clattered away on the floor. “You were the one who didn’t want him there! You were the one who never showed him one ********* scrap of affection in his entire life! What has he ever done to you? Okay, you can’t accept the type of person I am! But what about him? Why do you hate him?”
Edgar leaned back against the headboard, wary of another barrage of books. “I don’t hate him; I raise him the best I know how. And he won’t care that he missed Thanksgiving; he’s getting to be that age when he doesn’t even want to be with us, anyway.”
Amanda’s eyes were beginning to tear up, and Edgar could hear the thickening of mucus in her voice when she talked. “Bull****! He’s only ten! And he won’t need that phase, because you never loved him before! You didn’t spend any time with him when he was a baby, or a toddler, or when he started school!”
“I’m his father! What am I supposed to do at that age?! I can’t milk him!” Edgar yelled. “And let me remind you that wasted plenty of good time on him: I attend all of his recitals, games- whatever, and the only one I missed was when the president was assassinated!”
Amanda wiped at the tears that were trickling down her cheek. “Yeah, sitting thirty feet away from him, looking completely disinterested, that’s the way to show him you love him.”
“Fine then, I just won’t show up next time!” Edgar rolled over and pulled the blanket over his head, determined to ignore whatever else she had to say. F she wanted to waste her life looking out for Ethan, that was fine with him; he had a future to look forward to.
“He’s just an impediment to your ambition, isn’t he?” It was almost as if she could read his mind…
John jogged slowly on a treadmill, looking out of the fitness center and over streets and parking lots that were jammed with people trying to get to the Philadelphia Metro Mall for the busiest shopping day of the year. As he watched, two cars, both fighting for entry into a turn lane leading towards the mall, crashed into each other, causing the traffic to back up even further. He was glad he didn’t celebrate Christmas.
And now, he almost wished he didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving either. Well, he didn’t really, but like most Americans, he took it for an extra Sabbath, a time with friends and family… and last night’s Thanksgiving dinner had almost killed him. He had apologized profusely to Mistlethwakey when he awoken and found out what had happened at the dinner. By that time, they were already on the plane back to Philadelphia. Mistlethwakey took it all in stride, saying that he knew how serious food allergies were, and that he was sorry for not taking precautions. After the flight, he dropped John off with a driver at the airport, and had immediately headed back to Washington where, he said, he had business in the morning. John, exhausted, was driven back to Sky Crest, and had promptly gone to sleep.
The strange thing was, however, that he clearly remembered eating peanuts all throughout his life, with no ill effects. Yet he also remembered trips to the emergency rooms, bullying as a child, special food products purchased just for him, and not for anyone else in the family…
When he awoke on Friday, he went to the kitchen and found it filled with foods that contained everything from whole peanuts to peanut oil. He quickly grabbed a jar of peanut butter, dug a little out with his finger, and licked off just a tiny bit of the cream. His tongue tingled, and when he touched it with a clean finger, he found the skin rough and bumpy where it had touched the peanut butter. Well, that confirmed which set of memories were true. He spent the rest of the morning cleaning out the kitchen, removing all trace of the deadly legume. But as he cleaned, the question still nagged at him: why had he bought all of this stuff.
When he was done with cleaning, he grabbed a pair of sweat pants and a water bottle and headed down to the fitness center.
And there he was, jigging mile after mile, his mind floating free…
He heard the machine next to his start up, and he turned to see the slender figure of the woman who had talked to him earlier that week. Vanessa.
“Hi,” he said pleasantly.
She looked over her shoulder at him. “Oh, hi. John, right?”
Vanessa got onto her treadmill and matched her pace to John’s. “So,” she said, sounding only somewhat interested, “You’re friend’s not here today?”
“Oh, you mean Bob? No, he’s in Washington.”
Vanessa smiled. “City or state?”
“Oh. What’s he do there?”
It was John’s turn to smile. “He’s the secretary of defense.”
“No! Really?” John nodded. “Wow, that’s pretty interesting. And what about you, do you work for the government?”
“Wow. I have a cousin who’s an architect out in L.A. So, tell me more about yourself.”
“What do you want to know?”
Vanessa raised one side of her mouth in a lopsided grin. “Are you seeing anyone?”
John returned the smile, and the two jogged on for quite some time…
Note: So far, this is the longest chapter!
Saturday, August 15, 2009
First things first, another picture. This one is entirely digital, and rather small, so a print order would probably have two images on the page. I'll have more traditional work (including my Tulsa post card series!) up later in the week.
Second thing: just a little personal update. I spent all day at church today, and it was amazing. If you don't have a wild, wacky, utterly open church, I suggest you rush out and get one now.
Third thing: As I mentioned in my last post, I went and saw The Film Which Shall Not Be Named. It was bad. But a few days after seeing it, something hit me: The Accelerator Suits, with their integrated hydraulic systems, perform almost the exact same function as my E.H.U.D. armors! So, before anyone accuses me of plagiarism (it doesn't matter who thought of it first, only who got the first major publicity) I would like to point out that the armor, which serves to both protect and grant increased speed, acrobatic ability, and endurance to its wearer, existed in its current form as far back as Draft 1 of E.H.U.D., which was written in the summer of 2007. So the existence of such similar things in both my work and in The Film Which Shall Not Be Named are just pure coincidence, nothing more. And besides, mine are sexier (see new title picture at the top of the page.)
Fourth: I now have a title image! Yay! No longer do I have a generic little thing saying "The Realms of Neldak." Oh no, now I have my very own title card, complete with the latest version of the E.H.U.D. cover! Unfortunately, the letters had to be hand written, as my computer doesn't have Stencil STD and I can't afford to purchase it. Now all I need to do is figure out how to get my ads working... (HTML gurus, e-mail me!)
And finally, item D: Chapter fourteen! This little chunk is something that is new to Draft 3. It was originally thought up to be a short story, kind of explaining Edgar's background. However, it now serves not only its original purpose, but also gives some meaningful character development to both Amanda and Mistlethwakey. And don't worry, there will be even more character development ahead.
You see, I actually like Amanda. In the last two drafts, she was simply Edgar's wife, and served no purpose beyond that. She was even going to just die at the end (I can't give more details, as this would ruin the book.) But as I started rewriting the book, completely from scratch, I realized that she has quite a bit of potential, and is one of the more interesting characters in the book, much more so than Edgar is. So I've given her her own subplot, which in turn enriches Edgar and Mistlethwakey, and later the E.H.U.D.s, as characters. The new end not only has her surviving, but also playing a vital role in the background of the second book!
One final note: Chapter fourteen is the final chapter of Part One of the book. Look forward to Part Two sometime next week, and possibly a comic adaptation in the next couple of months. Woot!
So, without further ado (please comment, please comment, please comment...) I proudly present...
The car drove over a bridge in northern Virginia and hit a pothole, causing Amanda Latterndale to bounce and hit her head on the low ceiling. She grunted and rubbed her head.
“Are you all right ma’am?” asked the guard in the front seat.
“Yes, I just bumped my head, that’s all.” She looked out the window, watching houses and telephone poles zip past. “About how much longer until we get there?”
“Just a few more minutes, ma’am.”
Amanda sighed and leaned against the window. She didn’t think the drive would take this long. When she had woken up for the second time that day, Amanda had eaten breakfast, read a chapter of a book with Ethan, and then gotten to work, setting up the White House as a home for her family while Edgar went off to attend to official matters. Eventually, she had gotten bored with moving in personal items from the old house, especially since each item had to be taken apart and completely searched by secret service, and had turned to brooding about her relationship with Edgar.
When she had started thinking about divorce earlier that morning, she had thought that the idea had come suddenly, that she had had a fresh insight into her husband, but as she thought about it now, she remembered that she had actually had the insight back during the World Peace Banquet. It started even before Lemlin’s attack, when Edgar had so completely ignored her—no, not ignored her, treated her as if she was some annoying co-worker not a wife. He treated their marriage as a job, a burden. And she was tired of it.
Not for herself, of course. She might be unhappy with her life, but she could always start writing, or volunteer at a school, which was of course what first ladies traditionally did. No, she was tired of Edgar’s attitudes about the marriage because that attitude also applied towards their son. Edgar had never been particularly pleased to have Ethan, and now that he was president, he could use his increased workload as an excuse to avoid him. And if Edgar was going to just drop out of his son’s life, Amanda wanted to make it official, so she could raise Ethan as she saw fit.
But she couldn’t just run away. And, truth to tell, she wasn’t totally convinced it was the right thing to do. Like getting married in the first place, getting divorced was a big decision, and should not be taken lightly. She would research the options; see weather Ethan would truly be better off with just his mother.
On the other hand, Amanda couldn’t ignore her husband in all of this. Just because she saw him as cold and distant didn’t mean there wasn’t another side of him. Maybe he was only distant at home, and if all that was needed to improve were just a few minor improvements, the price would certainly be worth it. So now Amanda needed to find out more about her husband.
She couldn’t ask Edgar’s father, he was suffering from Alzheimer’s and didn’t even remember who Edgar was, and Edgar’s mother wasn’t doing much better, although for other reasons. Amanda couldn’t remember what was wrong with her mother-in-law; some sort of obscure disease. And of course, Amanda couldn’t talk to Edgar’s uncle… So, family was closed off to her. Besides, ‘family’ was just about the same thing as ‘home,’ and Amanda already knew about that.
The next group of people to talk to were Edgar’s business associates, the people he worked with. Old military friends, congressmen, the higher-ups at the Pentagon, the presidential cabinet. They would all certainly have a very different view of Edgar than the one Amanda had.
When she settled on the ‘co-workers’ category, the name of General Mistlethwakey had instantly come to mind. She remembered numerous times when Edgar had inadvertently mentioned him at home, and Amanda had met him several times. He was actually quite nice.
Amanda called the pentagon and asked to be put through to General Mistlethwakey, but the receptionist informed her that the General had asked not to be disturbed, as he was very busy completing paperwork to end his military service and accept his appointment as Secretary of Defense. Once Amanda reminded the receptionist that she was the first lady, she was immediately transferred to Mistlethwakey’s office.
Mistlethwakey sounded pleased to hear from her and made small talk for several minutes before Amanda was able to tell him the purpose of her call. Mistlethwakey listened, and when she was done, told her that this was something not discussed over the phone. She asked where they should meet, and he had said that that was something that shouldn’t be discussed over the phone, either. He said he would send over a currier with the location of the meeting, and that the Secret Service could drive her there.
And so here she was, driving mile after mile to get to her secret rendezvous with Mistlethwakey.
The car pulled up in front of a low office building and Amanda’s driver got out, led her into the building and through several hidden elevators and then into a large room separated from the last elevator by a wall of glass. Sitting at one end of the large table that filled the room was Robert Mistlethwakey, who stood up and walked to Amanda, enfolding her in a warm embrace. “Mrs. Latterndale, it’s always a pleasure seeing you.” He turned and nodded to Amanda’s driver. “Thank you for bringing her. Could you please wait outside?”
The driver nodded in acknowledgment and walked to the other side of the glass wall.
Mistlethwakey led Amanda to a chair and then sat down beside her. “So, what can I do for you?”
Amanda took a deep breath, and started. “You may have noticed… at various parties, picnics, whatever… Well, Edgar and I are having marital problems.” Mistlethwakey nodded, and Amanda continued. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, and like I mentioned on the phone, I’m thinking of getting a divorce… But I don’t want this to be a rash decision. I want to know what other people can tell me about my husband, so I can get a full picture of him before I decide.”
Mistlethwakey leaned back, a pained expression on his face. “In my honest opinion, I would suggest that you get the divorce.”
“To be perfectly honest… Your husband is evil.”
Amanda raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean, evil?”
“I mean a complete monster, someone without remorse, who is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve a goal, no matter how much it hurts others.” Mistlethwakey laid his hands on the table and stared at them. “This is what I didn’t want to talk about over the phone. When you told me what you wanted to know about, I knew this was the time for me to tell you. Now, you have to understand that what I’m about to tell you is in the strictest confidence, and that even if you tried to find out more, there’s no real way to check my story, for reasons that you’ll see.” He sighed, and looked directly at Amanda. “I really don’t want to tell you this, but I think you have a chance to know.”
“I want to know.”
Mistlethwakey nodded solemnly. “About two years before Edgar met you, he was involved with a woman named Shandra Harris. Have you heard of her?”
“She’s on all of those talk shows, right?”
“Right. Anyway, she’s not important to the story right now, but I want to go ahead and introduce her. During this same time, Edgar was trying to get accepted in a very selective internship program at a very prestigious stock brokerage. Only one top-ranking student a year was accepted and Edgar was an obvious shoo-in for the slot. But at the last minute, another man, Leonard Shelby, was chosen for the slot. Your husband was furious, but there was nothing he could do about it.
“Well, about a week later, someone started a rumor around campus that the Shelby had only gotten into the program because he had provided certain… ‘services’… to the man in charge of the program. I don’t believe that Edgar started this rumor, but he certainly used it for his own purposes. He managed to scrounge up enough evidence to prove the rumor true, and got both Shelby and the program head fired. He did this anonymously, of course, but the intern took it into his mind that Edgar was behind his firing, which of course, he was.
“A few nights later, while Edgar was walking back from a party to his dorm, he was ambushed by Shelby and two of his friends. They shoved Edgar into the trunk of their car, and drove him out into the middle of the woods. Once they got there, they started beating him with a baseball bat.”
Mistlethwakey held up a hand. “You have to understand, this was a very important internship. Getting into the program guaranteed a person a good place in the field, or at least a resume that would get them hired just about anywhere. Shelby not only lost that, but he got publicly outed for committing acts that are questionably legal at best, and were at the time considered very immoral. Personally, they still disturb me, political correctness be ****ed. Not only that, but there was even talk of a legal case for bribery, solicitation, and fraud. Ruined the guy’s life.”
“But still,” Amanda protested, “that doesn’t excuse what they did!”
“No, nor does it excuse what your husband did. In a fit of self-preservation, he was able to overpower the one who was doing the actual beating, and turn the bat on him, knocking him unconscious. That was self defense; perfectly justifiable. But he didn’t stop. He started in on the other two, knocking out one and killing the other.”
Amanda gasped again. “He--- he never told me—“
“Afterwards, he killed the other two men.”
This time, Amanda didn’t say anything. Mistlethwakey remained silent, and let his last statement sink in.
Amanda remained silent for a few more moments. “How did he get away with it?” It was barely a whisper, but Amanda knew Mistlethwakey would be able to hear her.
“He loaded the bodies into their car, drove out of the forest back to the city, got fresh clothes at a Wal-Mart, bought with cash at a self-checkout, drove back out to the forest, and lit everything on fire. After that, he walked back to the college.” Mistlethwakey paused, and then leaned back in his chair. “Killing enemies who attacked you first, that’s one thing. But once he got back to the college, he forced Shandra Harris to lie for him, to be his alibi, saying that they had been together all evening. Two days, the police came to find him. It took them that long to identify the bodies in the car. Edgar was a prime suspect, being that he had the biggest motive to kill Shelby. But, he had an alibi from Ms. Harris, and there was no physical evidence linking him to the scene of the crime.”
“What about his clothes?”
“I assume they burned sufficiently that they couldn’t be used at all.”
“And so the police just left Edgar alone.”
Mistlethwakey nodded. “The case was never solved. Knowing about the persistent rumors surrounding Mr. Shelby, the police closed the case as being a hate-crime. End of story.”
For several minutes, no one spoke. Amanda couldn’t believe what Mistlethwakey had just told her. Edgar was not a very good person, she had known that for years, but she couldn’t believe that he would kill someone in cold blood. And she never suspected… “How did you know about this?”
“I have a surprising amount of friends in the world. One of them happens to be Shandra Harris, the only person besides Edgar to know what he did.”
The thought of Edgar sharing this with someone other than her caused a fierce twinge of jealousy inside Amanda. “And how do you know she was telling the truth?”
“I have… I have my own ways. Like I said before, you can’t check this. You either believe me, or you don’t.”
“If this is true, I—I never expected… He never let on that he even had a secret like this…”
Mistlethwakey reached out and covered Amanda’s hand with his own. “That’s what makes him evil. Not that he did those things; other men have done worse. It’s the fact that he doesn’t wake up screaming about what he’s done. That’s what post-traumatic stress syndrome is; your conscience screaming out against what it’s done.”
Even though Amanda believed what Mistlethwakey had told her, she still became defensive when he called her husband evil. “How do you know if he screams or not?!”
Mistlethwakey pulled his hand away and shrugged. “He doesn’t, does he?”
Amanda refused to answer that. She was angry at Mistlethwakey; he had told her terrible things about Edgar, and as much as she wished she didn’t believe him, she knew the story was true. She had seen it in the way that her husband could so casually turn away his son’s affections, and then seem offended that Ethan had dared to try to be with him. Ethan wasn’t a person to him. No one was… Amanda felt anger bubbling up inside of her. She wanted to lash out, to hurt someone, to do something that would distract her from the terrible truth. She looked at Mistlethwakey and sneered bitterly. “What about you? You must have done bad things in your life. Do you ever wake up screaming about what you’ve done?” As soon as she said it, Amanda knew she shouldn’t have.
Mistlethwakey’s face hardened, but his eyes became soft and filled with pain. “No, ma’am. Every breath I take is a scream.” With that, he stood up and walked towards the door.
Before he had moved more than a few steps, Amanda had jumped to her feet and was grabbing at his arm. “Wait, no, I-I’m sorry; please, don’t go—“
Mistlethwakey turned back to Amanda and held her hands. “I understand, its hard accepting what I just told you… I understand…” He sighed. If I were you in any other situation, I would divorce Edgar. But right now, you can’t.”
“But I don’t want him around my son or—“
“Right now, he’s in charge of the country, and he has a record of being an amoral *******. He’s not the kind of person we need in charge. But do you know who you are?”
Amanda didn’t even know what Mistlethwakey was talking about. She shook her head.
“You’re his conscience. You’re worried about how he is elsewhere, because he’s not a good person at home. The answer is no, he’s not. And you can’t change him. No one can. But you can hold him back, keep him in check. I know you want to leave him. I don’t blame you. But please, for the sake of the country, for the sake of your son’s future, stay with Edgar until his term is over. You’re the only redeeming thing about him.”
“But—but shouldn’t we tell someone? He’s killed people! He can’t lead us!”
Mistlethwakey released Amanda’s hands and gestured expansively. “Who would we tell? What would we tell? There’s no evidence! And what do you think would happen if we were believed?”
Amanda understood what he meant. In the last two days, the government had been essentially decapitated. If yet another president were removed from office because of the skeleton’s in his closet, where would the country be? There were already rioters demanding that the corrupt government be abolished. Another blow to the trust of the people could lead to anarchy. And even though America had no active enemies, a destabilized United States was a prize too good to pass up. If Amanda listened to her conscience, she could plunge the world into war. Edgar would have to stay.
While these thoughts passed through her mind, Amanda felt a tear roll down her cheek. She had come to this meeting to find out if it was worth it to remain with her husband, and was going to leave absolutely hating him, but with no choice but to stay with him. She wiped the tear away and looked up at Mistlethwakey. “All right, I’ll stick it out until his term is over. After that, I make no promises.”
Mistlethwakey smiled reassuringly. “That’s all anyone could ever ask for. And you never know; he could change over the next year and a half. Irredeemable people have been redeemed before.” Mistlethwakey leaned down and hugged Amanda briefly, then turned and headed for the elevator.
After Mistlethwakey left, Amanda sat down and rested her head on her arms. She heard her driver come into the room, but she ignored him. She had to have time to sort through her feelings about Edgar. Before, she had been wary of him, tired of seventeen years of unfulfilled marriage. Now, she hated him. And, deep down, she couldn’t fight off the feeling that he was going to end up being responsible for her death… and Ethan’s…