Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Yes, the one plot point no one expected: Rachel gets pregnant! Gasp! And it actually has a major impact on the story, it wasn't just thrown in because! Double gasp!!

The way this scene was originally written, Rachel and Reggie come off much better at the end, and she actually continues to live with him. But then the book got suddenly cynical... Hey, I'm just as surprised about some of this stuff as you guys are! I didn't know what was going to happen at the end until it happened! This draft has taken on a life of its own!

As for the picture: This was a digital painting over a photographic background, taken by myself in downtown Tulsa, part of my "Tulsa: The City of Perpetual Construction" post car series! Order your prints today!

And as always, leave comments! Please!!!
P.S. Another Trippy Dream Sequence! Get ready, they come pretty hot and heavy from now on!
Chapter 16

John sat slumped in his seat, staring past the steering wheel at the line of cars stretching into the distance before him. Off to one side, he could see Sky Crest rising into the air, maybe a quarter of a mile away. Based on the way traffic was moving, however, it looked like it could take up to an hour to get into the parking lot. He reached out and flipped through stations on the radio, but soon grew bored and turned the radio off. He looked back at the cars. What had possessed Julius Cohen to design a high-rise, luxury apartment building that was attached to a mall? There were precedents, of course. John knew of at least one other apartment/mall, in Tel Aviv. And having the mall there was convenient during most of the year, but once the Christmas season started, all the roads jammed for miles around, leaving residents with nothing to do but sit in their cars and hope for the best. The traffic light at the end of the block went through two cycles of green and red before John was able to inch forward a few feet. And so he sat, silently praising the virtues of on-line shopping.
His phone rang. John glanced briefly at the hands-free answering station on the dash board, and then at his speedometer. He liked the old-fashioned telephones better, and since the car wasn’t moving, and probably wouldn’t be moving for quite some time, John fished his phone out of his pocket and answered it. “John Donalson.”
“Mr. Donalson?”
John sighed and stared again at the cars. “I just said that.”
“Mr. Donalson, this is Steve.”
John tried to place the name. It was familiar, but he knew a few Steves. “Who?”
“From Sky Crest.”
The superintendent of floor twenty-seven. John stifled a groan. He didn’t particularly like this Steve. “Oh, yes, I’d almost forgotten. Do you still work there?”
“Yes. Actually, you walk past me every day on your way to the elevators.” Steve sounded sullen.
“Oh, sorry about that…” John wasn’t really paying attention to Steve; the next lane over had suddenly opened up, and he was carefully maneuvering into the gap.
“Anyway, the reason I called is that a young woman just showed up asking for your apartment number.”
“Oh?” This certainly piqued John’s interest. “Did she say who she was?”
“No, sir, but she seemed quite distressed.”
“Distressed how—oh, ****!” A car swerved in front of him, nearly ripping off his front bumper. John mashed angrily on his horn, and the other driver gestured emphatically with one finger.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m just-“ John grunted as he spun the steering wheel and straightened the car- “I’m just in the middle of traffic.”
“Yeah, the mall’s horrible this time of year. I’d see about telecommuting, if I where you.”
“Uh-huh. So, you said she was distressed?”
“Oh, yeah, her face was puffy, and she looked on the verge of tears. She also kept looking around, like she expected someone to pop up and attack her.”
John thought for a moment. “Young or old?”
“Definitely younger.”
“Why are you telling me this, instead of just leaving a message on my computer?”
There was a brief pause. “Well, she said she really needed to talk to you, and that she could wait, so… so I gave her a temporary pass and now she’s waiting outside your apartment.”
“You let her in?!” Steve had always seemed a bit intrusive, but this was a bit too much.
“Not into your apartment, just outside it. You have to let her in yourself.”
John sighed and ground his teeth together.
“If you don’t mind my asking, roughly how much longer will you be out and about?”
“I’m within easy walking distance of the building.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from Steve’s end of the line. “That long, huh?”
“How long have you been working at Sky Crest.”
“Three years.”
“Is it always this bad?”
“No, its usually worse. Hardly anyone’s wasting money with the E.H.U.D.s on the loose. Consumer confidence is down around zero. Of course, the traffic’s still bad. Nothing really you can do about it. Well, except get a job in the mall, and—“
“I’m hanging up, Steve.” And without waiting for any response, John did.
He sighed and leaned back in his seat. He was an hour from home and there was some young woman waiting outside his door. And who was she? John distracted himself for a few minutes by trying to figure out who his visitor might be. It couldn’t be mom; Steve had specifically said the woman was young. Lucy? Maybe Shaun had done something to her, and she desperately had to see him. But she had his cell number, so there was no reason for her to go to his apartment without telling her. Rachel? John couldn’t remember if she had his cell number or not. But it really shouldn’t matter; Allan automatically forwarded house calls to his cell phone if he wasn’t there.
John secretly hoped it might be Vanessa. They had spent a lot of time talking over the past week, and John had even taken Vanessa to one of the nicer restaurants in the so-called ‘Grand Archway Tunnel; that connected Sky Crest to the mall. He had to admit, his life seemed better now that Vanessa was in it. And she genuinely seemed to like him, just as he liked her. Best of all, she hadn’t taken their conversations anywhere near his car accident, so he didn’t have to tall yet another person about his coma.
But it couldn’t be her at his apartment. Steve probably would’ve recognized her, and he had had to issue a pass to whoever it was; definitely a visitor. As John thought more about what Steve had actually said, he was slightly relieved that his visitor couldn’t have been Vanessa; he didn’t even want to think of her being ‘distressed.’
The sound of screeching breaks and crunching metal pulled John out of his thoughts. He looked out onto the road and saw a two cars jammed irreversibly together, about two hundred yards away, just past a turn-off into the Sky Crest parking lot. Cars in the right-hand lane began merging back into the stagnant flow of other lanes, and John couldn’t help but guiltily smile as he saw a way open for him to get home. In just a few minutes, the right-hand lane was completely clear up to the wreckage of the two cars. John sped along the open road and turned into the parking lot. He felt sorry for those people, truly he did, but an hour of waiting had just turned into ten minutes, and he had to admit, he liked that.
John drove down the long entry drive outside of the tower and pulled off into a residents-only street that led him down into the parking garage underneath Sky Crest. As he always did, John leaned forward to stare up at the immense structure as it passed over his head. In the semi-darkness, he drove around until he found his designated space, and then headed towards the elevator cluster that would take him into the lobby. He got into one elevator, waited a few moments and then got out.
Walking quickly, hoping to avoid Steve’s notice, John crossed the lobby and got into an elevator, and was soon at floor twenty-seven.
John walked around the central core of the building until he was facing his door. Too his surprise, no one was there. John blinked and looked around, but found no trace of anyone having been there. He walked once more around the core, but no one was in the hall. One he got back to his apartment, John shrugged and went inside. Whoever had come to see him had obviously gotten bored and given up.
Inside his apartment, John went directly to his bedroom, changed into a pair of sweat pants and a tee shirt and then went into the kitchen. He was just about to microwave a bowl of leftover pasta when he heard a sound coming from the living room. After cautiously peering around the wall into the living room and seeing that no one was there, John went into the room and looked over the back of one of the couches.
Laying on the couch, curled into the fetal position and crying softly, was Rachel.
John reached out and gingerly touched her shoulder. “Um, hello?”
Rachel stifled a scream and curled up tighter, but quickly relaxed when she recognized her uncle. “Oh, i-it’s y-you.” She sniffled and wiped her nose with a rumpled shirt-sleeve.
Well, at least the identity of the visitor was no longer a mystery. But what bothered John now was how she had gotten into his apartment. He secretly suspected that Steve had messed up and given her a full access card, but as Rachel sniffled again, John pushed his questions aside.
She was staring up at him with wide, bloodshot eyes, and John remembered that when he had last seen her in September, he had told Rachel that he would be there for her if she ever needed help. And so here she was.
John glanced quickly at a clock on the far wall, and saw that it was almost seven-thirty. He was tired; it had been a busy day at work and he didn’t think he could deal with this teary eyed girl sitting in front of him. But he had promised….
With a small sigh of acceptance, John came around the couch and sat down next to Rachel. John was hoping she would start the conversation, tell him what was wrong. Instead, she blew her nose on her sleeve and hiccupped a few times. After a while, John rested his elbows on his legs and breached the silence. “Is, ah, is everything okay?”
Rachel took a deep breath, sobbed for a moment and then choked out, “I’m pr-pr-pregnant.”
John didn’t move. Since awakening from his coma earlier that year, he had continued to feel roughly the same as he did before his accident. He was a vibrant young twenty-something with his whole life ahead of him. But with her last sentence, Rachel had turned her uncle into an old man. John remembered Rachel getting her first haircut less than a year ago, and now she was suddenly giving life to the next generation. Fifteen years, form infant to adult, in the blink of an eye.
John idly wondered what the world would be like for Rachel’s child. The mere presence of the E.H.U.D.s seemed to have a destabilizing effect on society. John remembered what Rachel had told him about her school during the last big family get-together; everyone was dropping out. And, just as Walter had predicted, there were fewer clients looking for innovative building designs. And every time he happened to catch the news, John heard about yet another group that was trying to overhaul or abolish the government. The world was on the verge of collapse; what kind of environment was that for a new child?
Another sniffle from Rachel pulled John back to the present. He lifted his glasses and rubbed his eyes, then took a deep breath and asked the inevitable question: “Was it Wayne?”
John hadn’t liked Wayne when he first met him at his homecoming picnic, and everything he had heard about the man since then had only reinforced John’s opinion. Even without a response from Rachel, John knew that it would be Wayne who had done this to his niece.
John waited, but there was no response from Rachel. He turned and looked at her. Rachel’s eyes were puffy and her nose was fairly glowing red. John cocked an eyebrow and Rachel nodded.
“Have you, uh, told your parents yet?”
She shook her head.
“Does Wayne know?”
She nodded.
“Does anyone else know?”
She shook her head.
“When did you find out?”
“I haven’t b-been feeling good for the last couple of months, a-and my friend Tisha got me a pregnancy tester thing as a joke, and when I got home from school today I tried it, an-an-“ She pulled her knees up to her chest and buried her head in her arms.
Rachel cried quietly for several minutes, occasionally muttering, “I’m sorry, I just—I’m sorry.” John reached out and awkwardly patted her on her shoulder. Eventually Rachel recovered her composure and continued her story. “I called Wayne and t-told him, and he told me to g-get an abortion, or else he wouldn’t see me again, but I want t-to keep it, and—I don’t know what to do…”
John didn’t think that Wayne was worth staying with if he couldn’t handle the consequences of his indiscretions, but now probably wouldn’t be a good time to say that. Rachel was in a delicate state, do John needed to steer this conversation slowly to avoid distressing her anymore than she already was. “Maybe you should talk this over with your parents—“
“No!” Rachel’s head popped up and she stared wide-eyed at John. “No! I can’t tell them! Mom drinks all the time and she already worries too much; she’d freak out, and have guilt trips all the time! A-and dad—Dad would kill me! I-I can’t—“ She started crying again, and leaned forward, curling up under John’s arm. He held her and patted her shoulder reassuringly for a while. Eventually, Rachel fell into a fitful sleep, and John got up to pace around the living room.
He didn’t know what to do. When he had offered to help Rachel, he had only expected her to tell him about her problems, and that he would be able to spout off some quasi-wisdom and feel that he had made a difference, that he had acted as a mentor for someone. But this—She came to him with a life-altering problem, and wanted him to come up with a solution. He had no more idea what to do than she did. All he knew is that he would recommend she not get the abortion, but he didn’t know if that was motivated by an honest concern for Rachel or out of spite for Wayne and his desires. But ultimately, it wasn’t for John to decide; he wasn’t one of her parents.
But Rachel’s parents would have to be told. She was still living with Reggie, and she still had almost a year of school to go through. Until she was eighteen, she was Reggie’s responsibility, and he had a right to know about Rachel’s pregnancy. But wasn’t the age of sexual consent only sixteen? John couldn’t remember, but he did know that Rachel would need her parent’s help in making the decisions that now faced her. Once she woke up, John would try to convince Rachel that letting her parents know about her condition was for the best. After that, he could drive her home, help her talk with Reggie, try to get everything sorted out…
But what if it was best to talk with her mother? She wasn’t Rachel’s primary guardian, but maybe Rachel needed a woman to talk to about this. John thought about calling Vanessa to see if she had any advice for him, but she obviously hadn’t had any children, so she wouldn’t be the right person to help. Maybe his mother? No, it would probably be best to go outside of the family on this. John racked his mind, trying to figure out who could help him. He snorted incredulously as one person floated to the surface; Amanda Latterndale, the first lady. No, she definitely wouldn’t help on this. Although, if he could get past the first few operators and screeners… No, he wouldn’t even try.
John continued pacing for almost an hour, his mind swirling with questions. Several important ones kept surfacing in his mind and wouldn’t be sunk. Which parent should they talk to first? What else could he do to help Rachel? Should he contact Wayne, and try to force him to participate in the upcoming confrontation with Rachel’s parents? And just how had let Rachel into his apartment?
Eventually, John settled on temporary answers for these questions. They would talk to Reggie. John would help Rachel in any way he could after seeing the results of the conversation with Reggie. No, he would not bother with Wayne. If he could impregnate Rachel and then expect her to flush away his responsibility, he wasn’t worth involving with the child. And as for the final question: John would ask Rachel after she woke up.
With these questions answered, John stumbled drowsily into the living room and sat down in a large chair across from his niece. She lay curled in a ball and twitching slightly.
John smiled weakly. He hadn’t expected to be thrown into her personal life like this, and truthfully didn’t want to be involved in it, but here he was, being forced to be a surrogate parent. And he wasn’t doing a half-bad job, he thought, as his eyes slowly closed and he fell asleep…

John woke up, feeling tired, yet comfortable. He didn’t open his eyes immediately, hoping that he might fall back asleep in the warm breeze that surrounded him… a sudden sharp pain stabbed into his cheek. John’s eyes flew open and then immediately closed as a barrage of sand and dust particles, born on a scorching wind, dug into his eyes and face. He held his arm in front of his face and slowly cracked his eyelids.
This time, John was able to stand and look around without being stung by the dust. What he saw though… What he saw was incomprehensible. The air around him was chocked with flying dust, yet it also seemed to glow bright orange, like a freshly breaking dawn. Beyond the dust and the light were the walls of the apartment, which had been stripped of everything except the great skeletal girders which held the tower aloft, letting light in from all sides. John turned and looked out of the window on the outside of the building, barely noticing the absence of glass in it, or plaster around it, or carpet beneath it.
All he could see was the flame.
Like a great flower perched atop a stem of flame and ash, a great nuclear blossom hung in the air, spewing flame in all directions, melting the city below, melting the building around—John felt fire wrapping around him, peeling him layer by layer: clothes, skin, muscle, organs, taking everything until just the skeleton remained, falling to the ground.
John could feel the last vestiges of his awareness caught in that skeleton, felt as that awareness, that life spread, growing larger, splitting, larger, splitting, larger… splitting… larger…
Cells started to grow, blood vessels and organs crawling along the bone, John reclaiming his own body. He could feel, in painful detail, as each organ, each square inch of skin reclaimed its place on his body. He could feel skin crawling around and covering his skull, and then a pressure as organs grew in his head, grew larger, split the skin, and then he could see, his new eyes staring out at the new world around him.
He was in a large empty space, seeming to go on forever, with columns descending from the darkness above every twenty feet or so. Gathered around the columns were, seemingly chained to them, were thousands of nude, desiccated corpses, their eyes sunken and their ribs jutting painfully from their torsos. As John watched, he saw some of the corpses moving, and looking down at himself, also naked and chained to a column, he realized that these people were alive.
There was a sobbing cough somewhere to his right, and John slowly rolled his head in its direction. Chained up next to John was Allen Fendleton, covered in blood and crying softly. “I didn’t want to…” he sobbed. “I didn’t want to, but he said I had to, because that’s what happened…”
For some reason, this seemed humorous to John. He snorted once or twice, not sure what was going on, and then rolled his head to the left. There was Naomi Udarian. Unlike Allen, she wasn’t bloody, but she seemed almost lifeless. With great effort, she pulled her head up to John’s level, and then dropped it.
Another noise caught John’s attention. It was like the sound of boots crunching through dry, dead terrain. Ahead of John, walking slowly out of the darkness beyond the columns, was Robert Mistlethwakey, smiling reassuringly, a cool pity flowing from his eyes. To Mistlethwakey’s right was President Isaac Latterndale, sneering with contempt at the shriveled people he passed. To Mistlethwakey’s left was Shaun Wendelferce, who ignored the sea of humanity around him, glaring with pure hatred at John. And behind Mistlethwakey, staring blankly at John was… John. John bald and without his glasses, wearing the thick E.H.U.D. armor, and a richly embroidered red robe. And behind this John, looking the same, except wearing green robes, was a multitude of John’s, stretching out and disappearing into the distance, a vast army, the most powerful force the world had ever seen.
The group in front of the infinite army continued forward, passing through columns and bodies as if they weren’t there. Soon enough Mistlethwakey stopped in front of John and looked down at him with compassion. “Hello, John. I’m glad to see you here.”
Beside John, Allen tried to scoot away from Mistlethwakey. “No! No don’t—don’t trust him! No! Look what he did to me!”
Mistlethwakey shifted his gaze to Allen, and with a final shriek of fear, Allen shriveled, smoked, crumbled, and disappeared in a puff of ash. President Latterndale laughed at the sight.
“I’m sorry you had to see that, John,” Mistlethwakey said. “I don’t want to frighten you. I just want to let you know that you’re doing a good job. Just fine. And, it’s almost time. Just a couple of weeks, in fact. Be ready.
“Now, if you don’t mind, I have others to check on.” Mistlethwakey started walking away, but then stopped and turned back to John. “I just remembered; there’s someone here to see you. I think you’ve met before.” Mistlethwakey gestured to Shaun, who stood aside, revealing a young boy standing in front of the army of Johns.
John recognized the boy from a dream he once had. The boy was maybe ten years old, wearing dirty clothes and smeared with blood. Mistlethwakey and his retinue marched away, leaving the boy, who walked shakily toward John.
The boy smiled, crinkling the flesh that hung from his skull, nearly obscuring his sunken eyes behind folds of skin. “Hello, John. You have seen your fate. You do not like it, but you cannot escape it.”
Despite the child’s age, the voice was ancient sounding, thick and rasping, sending vibrations through John.
“You had the chance, once,” the boy continued. “You know what choice I wanted you to take. But you listened to HIM… and now, you will always listen to HIM…” the boy stepped forward and crouched before John. John stared at the ghoulish face and noticed that the streams of blood, which he had initially thought to be dribbling from the eyes, were in fact issuing forth from a ragged hole in the center of the boy’s forehead. “But I know you didn’t want to do it, so I will forgive you, and give you a chance to make up for your sin… the chance to save an innocent.”
The boy extended a bony arm to John’s left. John followed the boy’s finger, looking past Naomi and several others until he saw, chained to a column some fifty feet away, Rachel. Like all of the others in the vast space, she was naked, but unlike the others, she appeared well fed, and the bulging of her stomach told John that her baby was also all right.
As if he could read John’s thoughts, the boy laughed. “Of course he’s all right. She’s by no means innocent. And she still has things to do, a fate nearly as damaging as yours. But the boy…”
The boy smiled again and swept his arm around the space. “They will all die…” There was a bright flash, another nuclear blast. But this one didn’t seem to affect John. It merely burned through everyone else, evaporating them in a puff of flame and steam. John watched in terror as Rachel was eaten away, her hair burned off, her skin melting, then drifting away in flakes of ash, and then the rest, until her skeleton was silhouetted against the inferno. John could just make out a second, smaller skeleton lodged in Rachel’s abdomen before both mother and son disappeared. John screamed in rage; at his powerlessness to stop prevent another innocent from disappearing in the flames of hell. The boy swung his arm again, and the room, the people, but not Rachel, reappeared just as they had been.
“Save them. Send them somewhere the flames cannot reach, send them to the center of the country, to Oklahoma. She has here fate there, and the boy has…” The boy trailed off, staring blankly at the column behind John. Then he blinked, and continued. “Only in Oklahoma. Send her, or all is wasted. It will be broken, and it will turn upon itself and it will be the end of all things. So send her.” He shot out a hand and held up a finger under John’s nose. “But you cannot send anyone else. And most importantly, you cannot send yourself.”
The boy stood up and started to walk away. John tried to get up to follow the boy, but he was too weak and he collapsed back to the ground. “Wait,” he called hoarsely. The boy turned around and studied him coolly. “Why? Why all this? Who are you?”
“Even I cannot answer the first two.”
The boy smiled enigmatically. “Because you don’t know the answer.”
That seemed to answer another question. “Are-are you me?”
“Of course not.”
“Then who the **** are you!?” John raged.
“You already know. You just have to remember.” The boy continued away from John, but John was not finished. He was tired of people being cryptic, not telling him anything—Mistlethwakey, Allen, Naomi—Why hadn’t she just talked to him? Why the dreams, why the madness, why, why, why?
With a final, throat-rending howl, John faded into the blackness, loosing himself into the void…

John woke up again, breathing heavily and drenched in sweat. He looked around wildly, trying to discover where he was. The first thing he saw was Rachel, curled up and asleep on his couch. Working backwards from this one stable point of sanity, John found himself slumped in a chair in his living room. A brilliant light began o fill the room, along with the smell of burning flesh—John blinked repeatedly and sat up straighter, trying to fully wake up. The dream had been so real…
After standing and stretching, John looked at his watch and was shocked to see it was nearly midnight. He went into the mostly empty dining room and paced for a few minutes, trying to circulate blood and stimulate his mind. He tried desperately to remember every detail of his dream. It was so real, so real… Who was that little boy? John didn’t know why, but he decided to believe, for the time being, that the dream had some effect on reality. Did he already know who the boy was? He tried to do what the boy had said, to ‘remember,’ but all John could think of were Rhonda’s two boys. Think, think…
The boy had been Arabic, or Palestinian, or something. A memory, something that his father had said months ago, jumped to the forefront of John’s mind. American commandos had committed war crimes in Gaza. John ran into the kitchen and stopped in front of the refrigerator. He turned on the screen in the door, and went straight to AmeriSearch. “Gaza War American Child Murder.” Nothing. “America Gaza ‘War Crimes’.” Several results on that one, but a cursory examination showed unrelated articles. “America Gaza War ‘Baby Killers’.” Again, nothing.
John sighed and tapped his fingers on the refrigerator. AmeriSearch had served him so well in the past; he had half expected it to have a picture of the boy on the first result.
Putting aside the search for the boy, moved on to the next part of the dream. The boy had said that Rachel would be safe if she went to Oklahoma. Safe from what? It seemed to be nuclear war, but that was so unlikely to happen that John didn’t even consider it. Maybe the great civil war that all of the commentators and pundits said were coming? Senator Terstein had not backed off on his threats of removing the current government. Would Rachel be safe from that in Oklahoma?
Back to AmeriSearch. Most of the information on the first article John already knew: it was located in the center of the country; the capitol was Oklahoma City; it was geographically composed mostly of grasslands and some hill country. He skimmed the article and found that the largest city was Tulsa. That would probably be the place to send her, at least at first. Se would probably need to move to a more rural location later.
Except, of course, that it was all a dream, and John wasn’t even going to mention it to Rachel.
With his mind firmly made up to just ignore the dream, John pushed away from the refrigerator and went back into the living room. He stopped by the couch and looked down at Rachel, who was still sleeping soundly. His eyes drifted down to her stomach, and John sighed loudly. What were they going to tell Reggie? And, more importantly, should John even be their? Maybe he should just drop Rachel off at home and let her fend for herself. But of course, it wasn’t about Rachel so much as it was about her unborn child. Reggie might be able to accept his daughter’s pregnancy, but he might make her give it up for adoption, or send her off to some home for teenage mothers. Did they even have those? No, it would be better for John to be with Rachel. The child needed a father figure to stand up for it, and Wayne certainly wouldn’t do.
Rachel stirred slightly, and John walked away. He wandered around the apartment, wondering about Rachel, and the child, and the future, and, and, and… John looked up from his feet and found himself in the bathroom. The face staring out of the mirror at him was familiar enough: spiky brown hair, a thin beard, glasses. He hated it. There was really no reason for that hate, but somehow, since his life restarted in May, his self-image had shifted to the bald head and clean face that he had had coming out of the hospital. Hair just didn’t seem like him. John ran his hands through his hair, and made a mental note to get it shaved after work the next day. And speaking of work, he would have to get to sleep—
John stopped as he was leaving the room. Next to the mirror was a small rack holding his toothbrush and a small water cup. And, even though it hadn’t been their earlier that day, a razor. John went back into the room and picked up the razor. It looked expensive, with a thick, gel-filled grip wrapped around it, and an articulated head with six blades. But it wasn’t John’s. He knew that he would recognize buying something like this; it must have cost at least five dollars. And besides that, he hadn’t bought any razors; he was planning on just letting his hair grow for a while. The only way that this could have gotten here was if…
Turning swiftly to the door, John thrust out the blade and yelled. There was no one there. Holding the razor in front of him like a weapon, John moved cautiously into the hall and carefully scanned it for intruders. It was strange enough that Rachel had gotten into his apartment; it was stranger yet that a product he knew he hadn’t bought had simply shown up in his bathroom. And strangest of all, he had just been thinking of shaving… That dream had seemed remarkably real… maybe he should convince Rachel to move…
No. Something inside him, maybe the part that was secretly resentful of Sergeant Udarian taking fifteen years of his life without consent or even a warning, wouldn’t let him manipulate Rachel. If she wanted to uproot herself and go somewhere where she had no friends or family, that was between her and her parents. And if she didn’t want to bring her parents into it, she was old enough to make these kinds of decisions on her own. And she certainly wouldn’t want to go to Oklahoma. Maybe Hawaii; have a nice vacation. Or California; the economy there was doing well, and it was far enough away from the troubles brewing in Washington to—
The boy was standing behind him. John stared in horror at the bleeding apparition, and then turned to look at it. The boy was standing there, in his bathroom, in the real world. He didn’t speak, but his gaze seemed to speak to John. I don’t ask much, and you owe me at least this much; send her as I ask.
John blinked, and the boy was gone. He then spent the next ten minutes searching frantically for any trace of the boy, but in the end, there was none. The boy hadn’t been there. He was merely a hallucination, stemming from an over-stressed mind and a strange dream.
John returned to the mirror and, with just the briefest of hesitations, began to shave his head. When he was done, he threw the razor away; it was still sharp, but something in John told him he wouldn’t need it anymore.
He looked at himself, the room’s dim light reflecting dully off his head. He ran his hand over the new smoothness, feeling occasional cuts and scrapes where his hand hadn’t been quite steady enough. His hand moved down onto his face, under his glasses and across his chin. His face was back to the way it had been when his second life began. And somehow, that was right.
With no more reason to stay in the bathroom, John wandered back into the living room. Once more, he stood behind the couch and stared down at Rachel. A few seconds later, she stirred and abruptly woke up, gasping and moving away from John. Then she appeared to recognize him, and relaxed. “You changed since I went to sleep,” she said quietly. “Was that sort of how it was like for you?”
“A little less extreme, but essentially, yes. It takes a while to get used to.”
Rachel yawned and shifted position on the couch. “What time is it?”
“Twelve seventeen.”
Rachel buried her head in her hands and groaned. “****. Dad’s going to kill me.”
John sat down next to her. “Don’t worry. He won’t be thinking about curfew for long.”
Rachel laughed weakly. “That’s not very reassuring.”
After this, the conversation floundered, and the two sat in silence.
Five minutes passed before John finally asked, “How did you get into my apartment?”
“I’m sorry, I never—“
“I’m not mad. I just wanted to know.”
Rachel’s eyes rolled towards the ceiling as she recalled what had happened. She still wasn’t fully awake yet, so the memory took a few moments to arrive. “I was in the lobby, and one of the guys at the front desk talked to me, and when I told him that I was here to see you, he gave me an elevator pass.”
“Who was it? Was it Steve?”
“I don’t know his name, but he was kinda creepy, and he kept hitting on me.”
“Then I was sitting out here in the hall, and some old guy walked by and we started talking, and I told him I was your niece. He nodded, like he knew me or something, and then he unlocked the door and let me in.” She paused and looked absently around the room. “He didn’t say who he was, but he looked kind of familiar, and he talked as if he knew you.”
It was easy for John to deduce the identity of the culprit. “Robert Mistlethwakey,” he said, a smile growing on his face. “Secretary of Defense, owner of Sky Crest Towers, and my jogging buddy.”
Rachel’s eyes widened. “Really? A cabinet member?”
John was a little thrown off that a teenager even knew, or cared, what the cabinet was, but then he remembered her academic interests. “Yeah. We talk a lot during our jogging sessions in the afternoon. I even told him about you, and your whole ‘alternate government’ assignment.”
“Really? What did he say about it?”
“He said it might come in handy if Senator Terstein has his way.”
“That’s… that’s the guy who’s trying to impeach Latterndale, right?”
“More than impeach. He thinks the whole system is corrupt, and has to be taken out.”
“Just because the last administration violated human rights and did illegal experimentation on its own citizens doesn’t mean that—
“Except it wasn’t just the last administration. They’ve only held power for eleven years. They said the practical phase of the ‘hud project has been going on for fifteen years. That means at least five years of initial project design and scientific work, as well as getting initial test results to justify something like the project. So it was probably more like ten years. The administration before the first Latterndale only lasted one term, so that gets us back to the fifteen year mark. So we have at least three administrations that oversaw and, most importantly, didn’t try to discontinue this project. If there weren’t corruption, someone along the way would’ve outed this thing. As it is, we only found out about it because something went catastrophically wrong.”
“Thus Terstein?”
“Well, I don’t agree with him completely. I think that we should just completely change out our current set of elected officials. I think the constitution is fundamentally sound.”
“But if Terstein pushes this, and we get civil war?”
“Then, depending on how bad the breakdown is, we may need your Social Units system.”
“The SUs are a worst case scenario system, based on total collapse. Any world that needs them is not the world I want to raise my baby in.” Rachel unconsciously rubbed her stomach.
Even though he now accepted the fact that it was just a stupid nocturnal hallucination, John found the perfect opening for the boy’s wishes for Rachel. “In a total collapse, it might not be everywhere. There might be hold outs of civilization in places. Like in Tulsa.”
“Yeah, Tulsa. Have you ever been there?” Rachel shook her head. “Would you like to?”
John leaned back and waved dismissively. “Nothing, just ignore it.”
Again, the conversation stopped. Just as John was beginning to fall asleep, Rachel said,” Um, do… do you think you could give me a ride home?”
Rachel swallowed nervously. “And could you, you know, maybe stay there and help me talk to dad about…you know…” John nodded. Rachel sighed and leaned back. “Maybe with you there, he won’t get so mad. And if he does, maybe I can leave. Go away somewhere. Maybe Tulsa…”
There, John thought, I did it. You don’t need to haunt me anymore, mystery boy. I did your work. The seed is planted. If she wants, she can go and be safe from whatever it is that’s going to happen. John sighed. He was trying to justify himself to a construct of his subconscious. That needed to stop.
He reached out and laid a hand on Rachel’s shoulder. “Are you ready to do this?”
Rachel nodded. “Let’s tell the world.”

At one thirty-three in the morning, John pulled up in front of Reggie’s house. He turned off the car and sat in silence as Rachel stared out of the window at the house. The lights were on in the living room, so Reggie was probably still up. Of course, there was no way to be certain; Rachel had insisted that they not call before hand.
“I don’t want him worrying,” Rachel said. “If I tell him I’m on my way, he’ll start worrying.”
So here they were, waiting…
The minutes ticked by, and still Rachel didn’t move. John cleared his throat noisily. “C’mon, we have to do this sooner or later.”
Rachel continued to stare out of the window. “I really don’t want to do this.”
John sighed. When they left his apartment, Rachel had been excited, almost eager to tell her father that she was pregnant. But as the drive wore on, she had become increasingly quiet and withdrawn. Now John would have to give her another pep talk. “You have to tell him. He’s going to figure it out in the next few months anyway, do you might as well head it off and take control of the situation before you lose the option.” John paused and scratched his now smooth chin. “Of course, you could delay for a few more days by calling him and tell him you’re spending the night at a friend’s house.”
Rachel didn’t turn, but she laughed bitterly. “That’s what Tisha said I should do. I thought you were supposed to be the responsible one.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve had to deal with this kind of situation before.” John smiled wistfully and stared off into the darkness. “I was nine, and I accidentally killed your dad’s gerbil. I took the phone and the gerbil and hid in the crawlspace under the house. I called and said I was over at a friend’s house, and had the gerbil with me.”
“How much time did that buy you?”
“About three hours. My mom found out about it from Reggie, so she called the friend’s house and found out that they hadn’t seen me in a couple of days.” John shook his head and leaned on the steering wheel. “I got in so much trouble. And, If I had just to ld the truth, things would have gone a lot easier for me.”
“You just made that all up to shove a moral on me.”
There was no response for several seconds. “Okay, yes. Reggie never had a gerbil.”
“I know.”
Silence settled over the two of them for nearly a minute, and then Rachel sighed and opened her door. “All right, I’m ready.”
They got out of the car and walked up the steep driveway to the door of Reggie’s house. John was just reaching out to ring the doorbell when the door was suddenly flung open, revealing Reggie, haggard-looking and wearing jeans and a bathrobe. He looked past John and glared angrily at his daughter. “Rachel! Where the **** have you been?! Do you realize what time it is?! When your mother called I-” He suddenly noticed John and his whole demeanor changed, instantly becoming friendly and easy going. “Oh, has she been pestering you? Sorry about that. Teenagers, huh? I hope she wasn’t any trouble.”
John ignored what his brother said. At the sight of Reggie, John felt anger boiling up within him, leftover from the confrontation they had had after President Latterndale had been assassinated. When Reggie had accused him of being an E.H.U.D. John still occasionally heard people at work mutter about him being one of the super-soldiers, and it still bothered him. He didn’t like thinking about the years he lost while he was comatose, and the accusation that he had been awake and well during that time was more than he could bear. John fought down his anger and started in on his partially prepared speech. “Reggie, I’m here as moral support for Rachel. She has something very important to say to you, and has asked me to be here.”
Reggie’s stood motionless for a moment, his eyes darting back and forth between the two of them. “I’m sorry but… No. It’s late. I’m sorry you had to get dragged all the way out here, and thanks for driving Rachel, but I’ve had a long day, and need sleep. We can talk tomorrow.”
Reggie rounded on his daughter, jabbing an accusing finger at her. “No! This is the third time this month that you’ve violated curfew! You’re grounded! School and home, that’s it! If you want to talk, we can do it in the morning!” He rotated his arm and jabbed into the house. “Bed! Now!”
Rachel stood her ground and returned her father’s glare. Neither of them moved for several long seconds, and then Reggie sighed and looked imploringly at John. “Tomorrow? Please?”
John shook his head. “This is important.”
Reggie sighed again and retreated into the house. “What the ****. Come in.”
Rachel looked up at John, who just shrugged and gestured into the door. With her shoulders slumped in resignation, Rachel followed her father inside.
By the time Rachel and John caught up with Reggie, he was in the living room, shuffling nervously and cleaning up the remains of his dinner. While his brother hurriedly cleaned, John took the opportunity to discreetly look around. The living room was large, opening up to all the way to the roof, with a second floor balcony looking out over the side opposite the front door. John took in the stairway at the end of the hall, and the locations of the rooms that opened up off of the balcony. It was a nice house, and it looked well designed. John turned to his left to look along the wall that adjoined the door. He blinked, took a deep breath, and sadly shook his head.
Taking up the far corner of the living room was a large Christmas tree, decorated predominantly in store-bought spheres, with a few home-made crafts scattered around the lower half.
“Allright,” Reggie said gruffly, “What did you want to talk about?”
John pointed at the tree. “What’s this?”
Reggie looked where John was pointing. “That can’t be what you’re here about.”
“No, but—“
“Then forget it! It’s late! Let’s talk!”
John knew it probably wasn’t a good idea to aggravate his brother right now, but the tree disturbed him. It was bad enough that the family hadn’t celebrated all of the rituals associated with Rosh Hashanah, but after all, it was a modern world, and they couldn’t do everything in its traditional way. Still, at least they had at least acknowledged it. But this, this was… “Are you doing anything for Chanukah? Anything at all?”
Reggie snorted derisively. “Oh, please. It wasn’t a major holiday anyway; it was added well over a thousand years after the others.”
“I can understand ignoring Chanukah, but celebrating Christmas instead?”
“Look, Christmas is practically a secular holiday now anyway; why not celebrate it? Now please, drop it!”
John opened his mouth to respond, but managed to stop himself. He glared at the Christmas tree one last time, and then turned his attention to Reggie. “Allright. Rachel, tell him.”
Rachel stared at the floor. “Dad,” she began, her voice trembling, “I-I’m—“
There was a squeaking of springs as Reggie collapsed heavily into a chair. “Oh, God, you’re pregnant aren’t you?” When Rachel didn’t respond, Reggie broke into hysterical laughter. “You’re pregnant! You went off *****ing around with some hormonal son of a ***** and got yourself pregnant! Great! Wonderful! Joy, oh happy day!”
While Reggie continued to ramble on, Rachel leaned back to John. “He’s actually taking it,” she whispered. “I thought he’d get mad.”
The laughter abruptly stopped. “Mad?” Reggie repeated quietly. “Mad? Oh, you can bet I am PRETTY *******ED ****ING MAD!” Reggie somehow managed to literally jump out of the chair. He loomed over Rachel and bellowed down at her: “WHO WAS IT? WAS IT WAYNE?”
“Y-yes...” Rachel muttered, recoiling from her father.
Reggie turned away and began pacing the living room, his head held in his hands. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he muttered to himself. “He won’t get away with this… We can still get his for statutory rape…”
“No,” Rachel said, “age of consent is sixteen.”
“****!” Reggie stopped his pacing and stared up at the ceiling. “What about an abortion?”
“Dad, no!”
“Rachel, please, be reasonable,” Reggie said, his voice calm and reassuring. “Don’t let this ruin your life. You know Wayne can’t provide for you, and with that baby, how’re you going to get a job, hmm? Think about the kid, it wouldn’t want to grow up impoverished. Would you really do that to your child, give birth to him when he can’t be taken care of? Just send him off, save him the pains of life, go to college, get a good career, then have a kid, start a family. How does that sound?”
Rachel took a moment to consider her words. “No. This is my son, or my daughter, or something, and I’m not going to kill him, her—it… let’s go with him. He’s going to stay with me, and If you can’t accept that, then I can’t stay with you.”
“Let me reemphasize that you have no money, and I doubt that Wayne would support you.”
“I’ll think of something—“
“No! You have to have a plan on this, you can’t just go wandering off into the world—“
“Then you take care of me! You’re my dad!”
“Yes, and you decided to not be my daughter when you let Wayne get into your pants!”
“Mom’ll take me!”
“Oh, please, she can’t even handle herself!”
“I’ll- I’ll—“
“I’ll buy you a plane ticket to wherever you want to go and five thousand dollars.”
Rachel and Reggie stopped their argument and turned as one to look at John. He stood calmly a few feet away from them, his face devoid of emotion.
“She’s pregnant. Weather you like it or not, she’s a woman. You can’t really treat her as a kid anymore. She’s no longer the youngest generation. You obviously don’t want the responsibility of being her father, so let her be independent, and get set up wherever she wants to be.”
Reggie worked his jaws in silent consternation. “You can’t just give her all this money, where are you—“
“I have a high-paying job and virtually no expenses. Since I’ve started working, I’ve gotten nearly twenty thousand dollars in savings. I’ll support her until she’s on her feet and ready to get a job.”
“Uncle John, I can’t—”
“Wait, what did you say about me not wanting the responsibility of being her father?” Reggie interjected.
John turned and stared coolly at his brother. “This is probably the biggest event in Rachel’s life so far and she’s scared and alone. She came to you, hoping you could help her, give her some emotional support and maybe show a bit of compassion. And the first thing you do is condemn her and try to talk her into infanticide.”
Reggie gritted his teeth and pointed angrily at John. “First, it’s not infanticide, it’s a fetus, an outgrowth of Rachel’s cells. Second, don’t you dare lecture me about my parental responsibilities. Where were you all through her life? Were you there when she broke her leg in kindergarten? How about when her dog got hit by a bus when she was eight? Or when she got talked into shoplifting at age thirteen, and was caught by mall security? Where have you been while I’ve raised her to be smart and responsible, only for her to **** the first guy who comes along? I’ve had to raise her; I’ve had to look on while she’s made one mistake after another. Just me. Not you; not even her mother. While her mother was at work sexing up her boss, I was at home, changing diapers and brushing hair. While her mother was telling the judge that she couldn’t be bothered to give a **** about her only daughter, I had to hold little Rachel and blow her nose. I was the one who had to give her the big talks, to take her to school, to make sure she learned what it meant to be a proper person. And then this.” He gestured expansively at Rachel, who had begun to cry. “And now here you are, telling me why I’m a failure, and why I’ve abandoned my duties as a father. Well you know what? Fine! You can have her.” He turned to Rachel. “Pack your bags. You leave in the morning. Have fun living independently as a single mother.”
Rachel tried to protest, but Reggie ignored her and walked away up the stairs and disappeared beyond the second-floor balcony. Just as he passed beyond sight, he called down, “And Rachel, if I hear that you’re messing around with Wayne, be assured that that is the last thing I will ever hear about you.” A moment later, there was the sound of a door slamming, and then silence. John glanced at Rachel, who stood unmoving in the middle of the living room, her face contorted in anger and tears leaking from her eyes. “Oh, Rachel…” John began, but Rachel swung around and stalked towards the front door. “Wait, Rachel, where are you—“
Rachel stopped and rounded on John. “Great job in there!” she yelled past her tears. “You were really there for me, helping him understand! Everything’s better now!”
“Look, I’m sorry, I’m just trying to—“
“Yeah, and you did such a great job. Just leave me the **** alone.” She turned and headed towards the door.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to live with mom,” Rachel called over her shoulder as she disappeared into the night.
John ran after her, but he couldn’t find Rachel on the street. He turned and faced the front of the house, scanning the bushes that lined the front; she wasn’t their, either. She was gone. John hoped that she was serious about going to her mother’s house; it was better if she went somewhere familiar, instead of wandering the streets, or going back to Wayne.
With a sigh, John walked back to the front door, closed it, and went to sit in his car. He rested his head on the steering wheel and sighed again. The idea to give Rachel money and set her up on her own had seemed like a good idea when it had abruptly come to him, and it still sounded like a good idea, but he definitely should have phrased his proposal better. Impugning Reggie’s parenting skills had not been necessary, and there was really no one to blame for Reggie’s resultant outburst but John. If he hadn’t been there, things probably would have gone differently for Rachel. Reggie still would have gotten angry, but without John there to goad him on, he would have held it in, diverted it away from Rachel and maybe, just maybe, shown compassion for her. But over the past six months, Reggie and John had grown more distant, and it seemed that Reggie’s suspicions of John had fermented into a deep rage. So naturally, he used John’s unfortunate statement as an excuse to let all of his anger at Rachel to come out.
“You didn’t do a very good job, John.”
John looked into the rearview mirror and saw the little boy sitting in the back seat.
“You drove her away. Maybe she’ll run to where she’s safe, maybe not. Either way, steps will need to be taken, steps that exclude you.”
John gripped the steering wheel. “You’re not real,” he muttered through gritted teeth.
The boy smiled. “Not anymore.”
John blinked furiously, and soon the boy disappeared. He sighed in relief, jammed the car into gear, and sped away.
Two houses further down the street, Rachel stood up from behind a line of decorative shrubs. Chocking back angry tears, she began the long hike to Wayne’s apartment…

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