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Sustainable Development

Part 1 of 3

They were twins. Boy and girl twins. Yin and Yang, Little Brother and Little Sister, Moon Princess and Sun God. Those were their code names. But their true names were Harper and Bradford. Sometimes Twinkle and Monk. She was Twinkle, the little star. Twink. Twin. He was Ala Kazam, the Monkey King.

Kids at school sometimes asked if they were identical. Yes, they told everyone, we are. Which of course was not true, they were boy and girl twins, fraternal twins. But they looked so much alike. They had the same lanky limbs, freckled noses, and hazel eyes, the kind of green-golden-brown hazel that resembled wet oak leaves in the fall. That was what she said his eyes were like, when she wrote a poem about him in the sixth grade. The other girls had giggled, whispered to one another. Eww. Harper is like, into her brother or something. Gross.

Brad was the smart one. He was also the goofy one, the one who didn't always know what to keep secret. He was going to be an artist when they grew up. He was the best artist in the entire school.

He was drawing a time machine so that they could go back in time. Brad wanted to go back to the Old West. He would be a cowboy and Harper could be just like Laura Ingalls Wilder. They'd live out on the Prairie. Harper could see it the way Brad did, with beautiful ponies and long blades of golden grass. No cars, no telephones, no concrete. Lots of big blue sky. Even the light would be different. It would be the color of wildflower honey.

But then he was foolish. He showed his drawings to some guys at recess. There he was, bragging about the machine that was supposed to be their secret. Showing them the blueprints, even how it was going to be powered. It wouldn’t need fuel. It would run on starlight and moonlight. It would have to fly on either a crisp starry night, or a full moonlit night.

Of course they laughed at him. And seeing those plans, scuffed with the dirty bottoms of the boys’ sneakers, they seemed ridiculous to Harper, too. Stupid and babyish. And embarrassing.

She’d wanted to think it was possible. And now, at thirty-two years old, driving back from a visit to her crazy brother, Yang to her Yin, she found her mind drifting back to the day the boys’ had trampled those blueprints. What if he had kept it from them? What if the plans had worked, and they had flown away together, up into the stars, through the rip in the fabric of time and into the old old West?

This was Brad’s fifth psychiatric hospitalization. He had expressed a self injurious plan and had been “retained involuntarily.” He’d been committed. When her mother had called her to come in and talk to the doctors, she'd had to wake her daughter, Lily, from a sound sleep and traipse out there at four in the morning. Lily was used to these late night emergencies. She asked the nurse for a lollipop and sat in front of the vending machine with a monster sized chocolate bar. Harper bought herself a small cup of black coffee from the vending machine, and thought about vending machines in hospitals. They were the same machines she remembered from the 1970s, the same machines she found in the Greyhound bus stations that Brad frequented. They gave you shitty coffee, and now you didn’t even get a Styrofoam cup. You got a thin cardboard cup that burned your hands. It came with flimsy paper handles that never worked.

Brad could have been an engineer or something if his brain hadn’t shattered. He could have designed coffee cups.

“Do what you think is necessary,” she told the ER staff.

So he’d ended up committed for a week at the short-stay hospital, and then sent to the state hospital for further treatment. He’d appealed for a release, and now he'd gone and blown it again.

She was running on empty. She was missing so many days at work that the children knew the substitute as well as they knew her. Her parents watched Lily out of guilt, because they couldn't bring themselves to visit Brad when he got this schizy. “It’s better that you go, Pumpkin,” her mother told her, “You know he responds better to you than anyone else. It shouldn’t take more than a few weeks for him to stabilize.”

Harper didn’t make enough money to cover the mortgage, Lily’s day care, cable, cell phone, car payments. The list went on and on. She didn’t want to ask her parents for more money. And to top it all off, she could feel herself falling frantically in love with the brother of Brad’s arch nemesis.

She had just been with the interloper a couple of hours ago. She could feel herself slipping, but the fall hadn’t come yet. She hadn’t been sucked into the black hole of love, and she wouldn’t, she knew how to steel herself from it. Long ago, Brad had taught her. Just close your eyes and imagine your arms and legs getting colder, he'd said. Until the cold creeps up your legs and into your stomach and into your heart. Then, nothing anyone says will matter.  She’d been using that trick since they were about seven years old.

Until now, that is.

She’d met David a few weeks ago, when Brad’s fixation on his nemesis, Charlotte Helprin, was at its zenith. She’d only seen Charlotte once, but as soon as she’d caught the woman’s eye, Harper knew this was the one Brad had been rambling about. She saw the short cropped silvery blonde hair, the Joan of Arc eyes, the shaved eyebrows, and knew immediately. She was beautiful, really, just Brad’s type, at least his type before he’d gone under. Charlotte Helprin had turned her head around as she was exiting the hallway and stuck her little pink tongue out at them. Even her tongue was pretty: It was a kittenish tongue, lapping out at them as if she was lapping up a bowl of milk. Goading him. Brad had flinched.

“Shield your eyes,” he’d instructed. And on impulse, Harper had obeyed him.

There had been an altercation. Nothing too violent. Brad had turned over a table, and threatened Charlotte Helprin. He would tunnel under the hospital and remove her tongue, if necessary, to preserve what honor and dignity this country had left. That’s what he’d announced in front of a room full of people in the lobby. It had scared the administration enough to call a meeting.

It probably added a little excitement to everyone’s day. From what Brad told her, most of the patients sat in front of the television in the rec room with a wasted look on their faces. Harper had met the people he’d described at day treatment centers, at hospitals, at the psychiatrists’ offices. They were usually people a generation ahead of Brad. Their faces had grown slack, and the contours of their bodies had been lost years ago. She was glad that Brad hadn’t joined their ranks. She’d rather see his scary monkey-face, carved with intense anger and suspicion, than something as lost and listless as those faces. Wasted faces, that was what he was faced with, day in, day out, day in, day out.

He was ready to leave. Being on the streets was better than being in this absolute limbo. “You want to know what I see every day? I see dead people. All around me. Blinking at the television with their tongues hanging out of their mouths. They can’t even stick their protruding tongues back into their heads.” He could hear the florescent lights, he told her, humming all the time, a washed-out white noise ringing in his ears twenty-four/seven.

“You have to understand,” the social worker told her, “your brother is still delusional. He’s doing better, but as long as he is a potential threat to himself or to others, we cannot recommend that he be released.” This social worker had kind, tired eyes framed in dark circles that she'd unsuccessfully tried to erase with concealer.

It was right after the meeting that she’d met David.

She’d seen the man’s resemblance to Charlotte right away. He was sitting in the hallway, shoulders slumped. He had his sister’s jewel-bright hair, pulled back into a long ponytail. He was shaggy, bedraggled. He was probably a shaggy man anyway, but at that moment he looked especially unkempt. He looked exhausted.

“Hello,” she said.

He looked up at her from over his cardboard cup of black coffee. His eyes were a true emerald green.

She smiled at him.

“You must be David Helprin. I hear that your sister is part of a vast lesbian conspiracy bent on destroying the existing culture of America. These radical women are tunneling underneath our most sacred buildings, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Alamo. A city of Lesbians wilder and more lascivious than the citizens of Babylon probably exists under your very feet.”

Maybe she’d gone too far. But he’d laughed.

“That’s nothing. If you are who I think you are, than you are related to a man who rapes my sister on a regular basis. Forces her to lie down in a coffin draped with the Confederate flag.”

“Does he make her whistle Dixie?”

“Not yet.”

“Well, that’s nothing. According to my sources, your sister has millions of tiny implants on her tongue. Wired to send signals to anyone within a ten foot radius of her person.”

“Only to protect her from the maniacal society your brother is a key member of. A secret fascist and racist society that is guilty of, among other atrocities, kidnapping the young pop star Britney Spears. The pop star is part robot, created by these same racist fascists to encourage little girls to be their sex slaves. They took her apart and victimized her in order to hypnotize unsuspecting children. And she's not the only one.”

Harper said, “I’m afraid I can’t top that.”

He drank a swig of coffee, and stood up.

“Harper Lee,” she’d said, and extended her hand to him as if they were about to begin some kind of formal meeting.

“Are you serious? Was that intentional?”

“Everything my mother does is intentional. My brother’s name is Bradford Lee. Get it? Brad Lee? Cute, isn’t it?”

“Harper Lee, huh? She was one of my sister’s favorite writers.” He shook his head. Harper knew what he was thinking. He was chiding himself for talking about his sister that way. She did it, too, all the time. She talked about Brad in the past tense, as if he were dead. As if this current incarnation of her brother was just a nightmarish projection of his former self.

She trusted David immediately. She wasn’t sure what it was about him that inspired this trust. They took off together in his busted-up Chevette. He took her out for pizza and beer. It was there, over a pitcher and several slices of soggy pepperoni, that they traded battle stories about their siblings.

“She wasn’t always like this.”

“I know. That’s what I tell Brad’s therapists. He could have been an artist. An architect. A political analyst. I was thinking, just a week and a half ago, what a good engineer he would have been. Who knows? Maybe he would have just been some ordinary schmuck, with a nine to five job and big cubicle and a family to come home to. I’d settle for that for him.”

“When did he have his first break?”

“We were sophomores in college. He’d been thinking about architecture. You should have seen what he’d come up with. His teachers said he had an intuitive understanding of it, you know? But then he decided he was going to be an economics major. He got an internship at this conservative think tank in D.C. My father was so proud. Brad had finally joined the Republican party. Now all they had to worry about was his atheism. He wore a suit to work and everything.”

“Were you in D.C. with him?”

“No. It was our first summer apart. I’ve thought about that a lot.”

She took a big bite of pizza, and sipped her beer delicately. She felt a little drunk.

“Were you the first to notice?” he asked. He must be a little drunk, too, she thought, because his beard was stained orange from the pizza sauce. Maybe he was just a sloppy eater. She had the urge to wipe the sauce from his beard with the corner of her napkin. Why did she always turn into such a schoolmarm around men she liked? She knew from afternoon talk shows that this was not the way to court someone. The beer was making her feel giddy and confessional. She took another sip from her pint before she answered him.

“How did you know?” she said.

“A hunch.”

“He was doing really well at this place. They thought he was just great, articulate, all gung-ho about life, ready to tackle any topic they threw his way. Anyway, they wanted him to work on this article about Sustainable Development. To take on the big bad Environmentalists who were attacking our individual liberties. At first he was so excited about it. But then…well, I’m sure you know. It just got weird. He’d call me up in the middle of the night, ranting. Screaming, really. I wasn’t interested in all that rhetoric, anyway. I told him he sounded grandiloquent.”

She’d been surprised at how worked up Brad had been over what he called the new hysterical tactics of an irrational leftist media. Her brother, the nature lover, who hiked in New Mexico every summer, who’d gone all the way to Eagle Scout when most kids his age in the neighborhood were playing video games or ogling girls at the mall, seemed to believe that environmentalism was the greatest threat to humanity.

All Brad would talk about was this article he hadn’t even begun to write. She wasn’t even sure if these think-tank policy wonks were going to publish it anyway. Wasn’t he an intern? Wasn’t he just there to do research and bring them coffees?

He wouldn’t shut up. Didn’t she understand that this was just another guise, a way for the socialists to take away our liberty, our private property? Did Harper know what the Nazis had been? Socialists. Did she know what Hitler had been? An environmentalist.

“I’ve read about it, too,” she ventured to say.

“What have you read?” Brad had asked.

“Not much, I have to admit. But from what I’ve read I don’t understand why you are so against it. What is wrong with taking account of the environmental impact of our decisions, you know, over the long term.”

He’d hung up on her. And when she’d called back, he’d picked up the phone on the first ring.

“What did you do that for?” she’d asked him.

“Did you hear that?”

“Hear what, Brad?”

“Don’t call me Brad. Too dangerous. You know what to call me.”

“Monk?”

“Did you hear that? A distinct click. We can’t talk now, Twinkle. It isn’t safe.”

She’d thought he was too carried away. As usual. But when she visited him two weeks later, he was housebound. His roommate said he hadn’t come out in the sunlight for days. He’d stayed in his basement room, reading Will and Ariel Durant, searching, he said, for a key to what was happening in the world. The only way to learn about the future was to study the past, he told her. He was going to switch his major to History when he went back next semester.

Of course he’d lost the internship by that time.

“That bad, huh,” David said.

She sat, staring off into space, just remembering. But David didn’t seem to mind.

“Sorry,” she said. “I haven’t talked about this in a long time.”

“Hey, I understand. I was thinking about what you said. That’s a good word for it,” David said. “Grandiloquent. I can see where this is heading. Go on.”

“When I finally got over there to see him, he was in shambles. Shuffling around the basement. One of his roommates was a lesbian. He was collecting her hair from the drain, he kept her nail clippings in this special little safe box. He wouldn’t speak to me until I went into the laundry room with him, and even then he whispered. The woman upstairs was Hillary Clinton’s lover. That’s what he told me. He’d heard them upstairs, whispering about him. They were planning something awful, something big.”

She’d hated the look in his eyes that day. They were alight with excitement. He was scared, but he was also so smug. She could still see the tangled wad of red hair as he held it away from his body. She thought it resembled a giant blood clot.

She shook her head, as if to shake the memory away, and looked into David’s eyes. They were the same color as his sister’s eyes, and yet they were so different. They were gentler, sadder.

“What time is it anyway?” she asked.

“Eight thirty. Do you have to be somewhere?”

“No. I already called my daughter and told her goodnight She’s with my folks for the night.”

“You have a daughter?”

“Yes.”

“How old is she?”

“Four and a half.”

She showed him her wallet full of Lily pictures.

“My parents watch her when I come out here to see him.”

“Does her father help out at all?”

“He’s got his own problems,” she said, “but Brad is there for her. Things were great, when Brad was in a group home, doing really well, he had a job in a stock room and everything. She loves her Uncle Brad. He painted a castle on her bedroom wall for her. She kisses it before I tuck her in at night. I’m grateful to my mom and dad. They adore Lily. But...Brad is too much for them.”

“Charlotte was definitely too much for our mother. She won’t have anything to do with her. She says there’s something evil inside her.”

“That’s awful.”

“She’s a Holy Roller now. She’s married, she lives in Buda. I’ve had the same conversation with her countless times. I’ve told her, Charlie can’t help it. Her mind isn’t wired the right way. Everyone has bad thoughts, I don’t care if you’re Mother Theresa. But Charlotte, she can’t control the bad voice anymore than a child can control her nightmares.”

“Have you ever wondered what it’s like?” Harper asked.

“All the time. I think I had a taste of it, once. One time, when I dropped acid. I was a kid, and my girlfriend was mad at me. So she thought she’d teach me a lesson. She took me to the movies, took me to see Hellbound: HellRaiser 11. Scariest night of my life. I thought she’d peeled the skin off the doors of hell and left me there to be tortured forever.”

“I’ve seen that movie. They peel off their skins, right? My brother illustrates body parts all the time. The first time he drew the cross section of a tongue I didn't know what it was. It was so strange. Like something out of an anatomy book, but horrid. When I looked closely, I could see it was crawling with tiny, wriggling creatures. The implants, he called them.” He’d said that lesbians had created the organic implants by studying germs, and the microscopic creatures swam with the germs inside his taste buds. That explained his obsession with oral hygiene. He’d bought an electric toothbrush, a tongue scraper, and about five different brands of mouthwash. She knew he’d fallen under again the day he’d come home with medical masks for himself and Lily.

David nodded. “You know, she had this dippy boyfriend. He was so into her insanity. He was this skinny asinine poser, he thought he was some kind of poet. He romanticized it, he thought that having schizophrenia was some kind of lightning bolt sent from Lord Byron, some kind of higher calling. He got her to go off her meds.”

He paused. Harper noticed his jaw stiffen. His eyes gleamed the way her father’s did the moment he first saw Brad, hunched in a corner, staring at his fingernails as if they held mystical properties. She felt the way she’d felt all those years ago when she saw her father’s back stiffen at the sight of his only son losing his mind. She wanted to absorb his fury, swallow it into her own body.

She was about to reach out and touch David’s clenched jaw when he spoke.

“When I found her she was living in Houston, in some rat infested shack out by the port. With a toothless old geezer. At least he was a wino, he was more interested in his bottle of Ripple than he was in fucking her. He helped her, I suppose. He was a lot better for her than that college prick. That place. She had it papered with pictures of pop stars from Teen Beat magazine. She was trying to crack some kind of hidden code. She probably weighed about eighty pounds soaking wet. She was fucking anything that moved. I’ve had to have her tested for AIDS six times. I don’t know why she hasn’t contracted it yet. Maybe she’s right. Maybe the Voice of the Mother is protecting her.” David shook his head.

“The voice of the mother?”

“She always calls it that. Not Mother’s Voice. The Voice of the Mother. It’s supposedly a benevolent voice, a religious voice. And then there’s Uncle Frodo. He’s the bad voice. He’s this impish, evil little motherfucker. He’s hairy and filthy and lascivious. He has a beard full of saliva and old food droppings. His feet are crawling with fungus and toejam. He burrows under her skin at night. He crawls in from cracks in the walls and rapes her.”

“Jesus.” Harper reached across the table, over the greasy napkins, and grabbed David’s hand. “Don’t say any more.” His hands were shaking. As she steadied one hand, the other started to spasm. He knocked his pint of beer over. She didn’t move to wipe it up. Instead, she grabbed his other hand. She held it firmly, and looked straight into his eyes.

“Why don’t we pay the bill and get out of here? I’ll drive you home.”

“My car is still at the hospital.”

“I know. Don’t worry about it. Where do you live?”

***

He lived off of a dirt road, in a rambling old house outside of Bastrop. Her heels sank into the mud as soon as she stepped out of the car.

“Watch out,” he warned her. “There’s poison ivy out here.”

It wasn’t much from the outside. The house was badly in need of a paint job. A column that seemed to have a major role in holding the roof over the front porch was collapsed.

“I got this place dirt-cheap,” he said. “I’m still working on it.”

The living room was filled with pine furniture and lined with bookcases. The chairs and bookcases were carved with stars and longhorns.

“Is all of this furniture hand-carved?”

“Yeah. I made most of it. The books are mostly Charlotte’s. She was the first one in our family to make it to college.”

“Are you a carpenter?”

“That’s how I make the big bucks. I used to do it full time. Then I found a maintenance job at U.T. Now I do it on the side, when I have time. I needed the job, for the benefits. The health insurance is better for Charlotte. Without it, her meds would be almost five hundred dollars a month. Almost as much as rent. She had to go off her meds before I signed her on, though. That was hell.”

Harper noticed a great big bong on the coffee table. The room was heavy with the scent of patchouli.

“I was just thinking,” she said, “my mother’s Mah Jong buddies would go nuts over this furniture. And about Brad. He’d think this place looked like Central Headquarters for the Lesbian Underground.”

David laughed. “I know what you mean. Charlotte would be mad as hell at me for this. Consorting with the enemy.”

She picked a beautifully carved wooden box off of the shelves. The letter C climbed out of a briar of roses at its center.

”It’s a bible box. I made it for Charlotte. Briar Rose is one of her favorite fairy tales.”

“I’ve never seen a bible box.”

“Charlotte told me about them. They were used in Colonial homes. They held bibles, records, even seeds sometimes. She’s very religious.”

“Can I open it?”

“I promised her I never would. I keep it closed.”

“It’s strange. How alike Brad and Charlotte are. He has a box, too. A safety box. And, the way Uncle Frodo can shrink. That reminds me of the implants.”

“Do you want something to drink? You wanna sit down?”

“Sure. I’ll have some water, thanks. I don’t usually drink as much as we did tonight.”

He gave her a tall glass of tap water. She didn’t sit down. She felt jittery. It had been two years since she’d slept with anyone. She wondered what it would be like. He was as big as a linebacker. She was eye level with most men she knew, and David was a good head taller than she was.

“What do you do?” he asked.

“What do I do?”

“For a living.”

“I teach. I’m a good teacher.” She liked her job. She liked her children’s fresh minds. There was something hopeful in all of them, something so resilient. Even the children with dark circles under their eyes, who skulked in corners and sniffed the Elmer’s glue, even those children still had a future. She could make them laugh if she read them the right story.

“What grade?”

“Fourth grade. It’s a great age. They are young enough to be playful, old enough to start to analyze the world around them. They soak up everything.”

Harper wandered over to one of the bookcases. She felt David’s eyes on her. She ran her fingers over the spines of the books, reading the titles. She recognized some of the names. There was a book about Emil Kraepalin, books by Eugen Bleuler, R.D. Laing. Charlotte had read about her illness. Harper tapped her finger on the spine of Understanding Schizophrenia.

“I’ve read this,” she said. “She’s read a lot about insanity. Most of the time my brother says that he isn’t crazy at all.”

“Charlotte loved to read. I used to think she’d be a teacher. She doesn’t read much anymore. She was an English major.”

“So was I,” Harper told him. “My mother thinks that Brad is sick because he’s a sensitive soul. You know, that he’s more vulnerable than most people.”

“Not my sister. She’s as tough as they come,” David said. He noticed Harper’s eyes darting about the room. “Do you want to sit down?”

“I’m tired. I’m afraid that if I sit down I won’t want to stand up again.”

“The sofa folds out. You could stay here tonight, if you want to.”

She sank into the sofa.

“You’re shaking,” he said.

She started to cry. What had happened to her today? She felt unhinged.

“Hey,” he said, “hey. It’s okay now.” He placed his big hands on her shoulders. She wanted to curl up against his chest. He smelled of soap and clean wood.

“I don’t know how long it will be before I get him out of that place. Now that he’s threatened your sister. Just when I think he’s getting better, stuff like this happens. He’s never hurt anyone. Even when kids would bully him, he was always so gentle. He wouldn’t hurt anyone, David. He wouldn’t even step on a cockroach. I swear. He would never hurt your sister.”

David held her. His arms felt better than she had imagined they would. She wanted to burrow inside him, to tuck herself away. She pressed her face against his chest, and fell asleep to the sound of his heart thumping against her ear.

***

Before Harper, David had never felt it. Charlotte had always been a true believer in love at first sight. “You know it,” she’d told him. “It’s like plugging a million Christmas lights into a socket. You see her, then BOOM! You just know.” It was what happened to her the first time she saw Bianca. That had ended years ago, but Bianca still wrote him every month to ask about his sister. And she called, too. The time he’d had to drag Charlie away from the shack at the ship channel was as bad as it had ever been. Bianca flew down from her great life in San Diego, her big house and sexy lawyer girlfriend, just to see that her first love was alright.

His sister was a fighter. She was as fierce as anyone he’d ever met. It took three people to hold her still while they sedated her. They gave her a Decanoid shot of Haldol. By the end of the week her thoughts became more organized and the fireworks in her eyes disappeared. Then she grew listless. She looked through him as if he were no more to her than the patterns on the drop ceiling in her room. She counted off the dots on the ceiling tiles as Bianca tried to engage her in conversation. Bianca said she couldn’t take it. She had to go back.

“I don’t know if I can do this again,” Bianca told him. “Even now, with her looking like some poor Holocaust victim in a death camp, I want to throw myself at her. And it makes me want to break up into a billion pieces, seeing her this way. There’s nothing in there anymore. Did they suck her brains out? How do you do it, Dave? How?”

How did he do it? He just did. And he was beginning to wonder if he could anymore.

He’d just come from seeing Charlotte. He’d found her planted in front of the television in the game room. Shoulders slumped, glassy-eyed, staring at a music video. There she was. Britney Spears, wearing some kind of vinyl get-up. A doe-eyed baby-girl-woman who looked remarkably like a twenty year old Charlotte. Shaking her moneymaker and singing “Oops I Did It Again.” Taunting his big sister. Stupid robot bitch he thought, and led Charlotte away.

She was looking better. Her eyebrows were beginning to grow back in patches. She was very twitchy that morning. But at least her eyes were alive. She was becoming what they called stabilized.

“What’s with those glasses? Where’d you get those?” he asked. She was wearing a huge pair of pink plastic frames. “You know they don’t have glass in them, don’t you?”

“Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses,” she said.

“Did Uncle Frodo tell you that?”

“No, you idiot. Dorothy Parker.”

Dorothy Parker? Another voice. Another voice had joined the chorus.

“Is this a new voice?”

Charlotte sighed. “Dave, she’s a writer. She died a long time ago. I was quoting her.”

“Oh.”

“Fine. You will only hear this from me on a need-to-know basis. This is part of it all. The Uglification Process.”

“The Uglification Process.”

“To get underneath their radar. You know what they do to pretty women? I told you.”

“You mean what they did to Britney Spears?”

“To millions of women. And girls. They are mutating the girls. It’s in the milk. They are pumping the milk with hormones now so that little girls will have milking mammories. Just read Newsweek. They did a story on it. Pretty soon infants are going to be having menses. And women will be producing milk without pregnancy. Just for those fascists’ sexual pleasure.”

“Did they do this to Pamela Lee? Did they pump her breasts full of hormone milk?”

“This is not a joke, David. At least I know you’re safe from them. You’re a man. The only worry is that they might try to recruit you.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not interested,” he reassured her. “You look good today.”

“That’s not the goal.”

“Well, you do. Do you like this new doctor? Dr. Martin?”

“Doc Martin? She’s okay, I guess. She wears eyeshadow. And lipstick.”

“So do a lot of women, Charlie.”

“I know. It’s getting more and more difficult to tell the difference. They don’t know what they do. Forgive them, Mother.”

“Tell the difference?”

“From the cyborgs. They can’t help it, Davey. They know not what they do.”

“Doctor Martin says you’re doing great. Have you been hearing the voices?”

“The Voice of the Mother hasn’t come to me, David. I pray to her but she won’t come.”

“That’s good. Remember what she told you to do? To poke those holes in your face?”

Charlotte scowled. “David. I told you already. That wasn’t her. It was another voice, pretending to be the Mother. To trick me. She would never hurt me. She’s the voice of God, for Mother’s sake.”

“Try and stay away from the T.V., okay? Why were you watching it?”

Charlotte stared off into space.

“Charlie?”

“I heard him again, David.”

“Who?” But he knew who’d spoken to her.

“Uncle Frodo,” she said. “Uncle Frodo.”

“Did you tell…did you tell Doctor Martin?”

She wouldn’t look up at him.

“Charlotte. What does…what does Uncle Frodo tell you to do?”

She whispered something nonsensical.

“I can’t understand that language, Charlotte. Remember? I can’t understand the language of the Mother.”

“I can’t tell you what he says.”

“Charlotte, what happened? What happened this time?”

When she looked up at him, her eyes were wet. Her nose was running.

“He rapes me, David. Every night. He crawls inside me and crawls outside of me. He’s going to do it. Soon. The transformation.”

“Do you see him? Can you see Uncle Frodo?”

“No. But I can feel him. At night. He’s inside of me. Inside.”

David tried to hug her but she moved away when he reached out to her. He’d forgotten the rule. Maintain a physical distance. Do not touch; it is too invasive and the person who is suffering a psychotic episode could be open to delusional interpretation.

She flinched. “You must not do that. Not ever again.”

End of Part 1. Read Part 2.

Claudia Smith’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Pig Iron Malt, Word Riot, hobart, Pindeldyboz, the Salt River Review, and Zacatecas: A Review of Contemporary Word. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Copyright © 2003 by Claudia Smith.