IV. Free Love.

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           He was standing on a flat desert plain under white clouds and blue sky. There was a mesa in the distance, but aside from that there was nothing for miles around besides a few cactus and several freestanding white doors, scattered about haphazardly. Blake went up to one. Printed in the center of the door, in small gold letters, was a single word; politics. He wasn't interested, so he moved on. The next door said religion, and again he passed by. There were doors marked knowledge, art, commerce---eros. He stopped at that one. If he opened it, would he get back to Mink? Instead, he moved on to a door with no lettering. A mystery door? What did it represent, a grab bag of possibilities the other doors didn't quite cover? He opened it; there was nothing but desert on the other side. He stepped through-

           "Ready?" Weldon asked. It was the older, heavier Weldon, not as much hair or beard. They were standing in front of the house, by the porch steps. Freek, back in regular clothes, was standing under the tree with the tire swing, looking up as if he was remembering something, or trying to.

           "Ready for what?"

           "To go back to your parents. Ah, you have regained the power of speech. That should make things simpler. I knew you wouldn't stay mute forever."

           Blake looked around. "Where's...?"

           "Mink? She couldn't stand to say goodbye. You must have made quite an impression on her, you dog." Weldon playfully punched Blake on the shoulder, rocking him back. "Well, I guess we should be going. We don't want to be late, otherwise your parents will think you really have joined a cult. Can't have that, can we?"

           "No, I guess not," Blake said, moving towards the van, feeling like he was forgetting something.

           "It's been real," said Freek, coming over, holding out his hand. "Take care."

           Blake shook his hand. "I will. You too."

           "Don't worry about me. I just keep on truckin'. Come out and see us in California, if we ever make it there. I'm sure you'll find us somehow."

           "I will. Thanks."

           "No problem."

           Blake got in the van with Weldon, waving goodbye to Freek when they took off, Freek waving back.

           "I suppose I should take this moment to apologize for kidnapping you, if I haven't already," said Weldon as they drove along. "Though if I hadn't, maybe you wouldn't have gotten better. Maybe you needed the shock treatment, though I wasn't trying to help you. I just had a feeling that you were in a trance because there's really nothing to believe in, nothing that gives any meaning or purpose to our lives. Of course, things just don't happen that way. There has to be some other explanation for your condition. People don't fall into trances because we're living in a fast-paced, meaningless world that's going nowhere fast, otherwise we'd all be comatose. We generally seem pretty impervious to the many soul-killing aspects of our modern civilization, if you don't count all the destructive or dysfunctional behavior we engage in from time to time. We just keep going, whether it matters or not. Maybe there doesn't have to be any point; you've got me!"

           They rolled into town, but Weldon stopped before they got to the restaurant. "I'd better let you out here," Weldon said. I don't want to upset your parents anymore than they already are, especially your mother. You can tell them anything you want about me and what happened, but if you could hold off a day or two, I would appreciate it. Give me a chance to get out of town, if you know what I mean. But, you know, do whatever you think is right." Weldon smiled and held out a massive hand. "It was nice meeting you, Blake. Maybe we'll see each other again sometime."

           "Maybe." Blake shook Weldon's hand and got out of the van. He started walking and heard it drive away. He wondered what was going to happen now. He was going to meet his parents? Who the hell were his parents? Maybe he would remember them when he met them. If not...

           He reached the restaurant where he had called from yesterday, the Cove. It was closed and from the outside looked like a Dew Drop Inn kind of place. There was no one at the pay phone and didn't seem to be anyone around waiting for him. There was a van parked in the space overlooking the lake, but the driver paid him no attention. He was walking past it when suddenly the side door slid open, a muscular young man in a black t-shirt and black pants jumped out, grabbed him and threw him inside. He landed on his stomach on a blanket, then he was pinned down, the van started, backed out with a screech of tires, and sped away.

           "What's going on back there?" the driver yelled.

           "Nothing!" the man on top of him yelled back.



           "He isn't fighting or struggling?"


           "Screaming or swearing, trying to bite or kick you?"


           "Then what the hell is he doing?"


           "Did you hurt him?"

           "I don't know!"

           "Well take a look, for Chrissake!"

           Blake felt some of the weight go off him. "I dunno, he's just not doing anything," the man on top of him said uncertainly.

           "Is he conscious? Is he breathing?"

           "Yeah, I guess so."

           "Jesus Christ." The van slowed down and came to a stop. The motor was shut off and the driver came back. "Okay, get off him. Be ready for anything."

           Blake was turned over. Two worried faces stared down at him. He felt tired and in no mood to deal with this insanity. He closed his eyes, feeling as if he could go into a deep sleep, then his shoulders were grabbed. He was pulled up into a sitting position and shaken.

           "Wake up, wake up!"

           Blake opened his eyes. It was the driver, an older, bald man, also outfitted in a black t-shirt, who wore a look of concern. The behemoth who had thrown him in looked over the bald man's shoulder as if afraid he'd done something wrong.

           "Are you okay?" the bald man asked.

           Blake thought for a moment. "I'm fine."

           "Is this some kind of trick they teach you, non-resistance?"


           "Your friends, the people you were with."

           Blake had no idea what this man was talking about. "I don't know what you mean."

           "Sure you do, but it doesn't matter. Are you all right now, are you going to give us any trouble?"

           "What kind of trouble?"

           "None, I hope. We're your friends. We just want to help."

           Blake felt an indescribable confusion for a moment, then it dawned on him. "You think I belong to a cult, don't you? My parents hired you."

           "Right the first time," the bald man said. "We just want to talk to you a little about things. Compare notes, so to speak."

           "Compare notes about what?"

           "Oh, I don't know. Whatever you'd like to talk about. Your deepest held beliefs, for instance."

           "I don't belong to any cult."

           "That's what they all say. What do you call yourselves? I wasn't aware of any group that operated in this area. You must be new."

           "I don't belong to any group."

           "What are you doing here, then?"

           Blake didn't know how to answer that. He had a feeling that if he started talking about Weldon, it would only make things worse. "Where are my parents?"

           "At another location. You'll be able to see them in a week or so. After we've deprogrammed you, to coin a phrase."

           "You don't have the right to hold me."

           "Probably not, but we're going to anyway. Already I feel we're making progress."

           Blake looked at the side door, then at the bald man. "I'm leaving."

           "I wouldn't," the bald man said.

           "Why not?"

           "It would be a mistake. You don't want to make any more of those, do you?"

           "What do you mean?" Blake asked, looking at the bald man sharply.

           "Oh, nothing. Just that running off to join a cult doesn't seem like a wise decision to me."

           Blake slowly opened the side door and got out, the bald man and his young, muscle-bound associate getting out too. They were on a country road somewhere; there were no houses around, just woods and a stone fence. Blake started walking, the bald man joining him.

           "Where are you going?" the bald man asked.


           "Where's that?"

           "Not here."

           "You're just going back to rejoin your fellow true believers, aren't you? Tell me about them, I'm curious. What's the program? Maybe you can get me to join."

           Blake stopped. "I told you, I don't belong to any cult."

           "What do you belong to, then? What do you believe in? Like they used to say back in the Sixties, if you're not part of the solution, then you're part of the problem."

           "I don't know."

           "Sounds like a cop-out to me. Everyone believes in something, even if it's nothing."

           Blake looked at the bald man, who was starting to look familiar somehow. "Do I know you? Have we met before?"

           "I don't think so. Probably just some other bald guy you met or saw somewhere. We all look alike. We could discuss this further, if you care to come back to the van."

           Blake thought about it. "No, thanks," he said, and started walking away again, but the bald man grabbed him by a wrist in an iron grip.

           "I think it would be better if you came with us," the bald man said. "After all, we don't want you to hurt yourself, do we?"

           "I'm not going to hurt myself, you're the one who's hurting me. Let go!"

           "I'm afraid I can't do that." The bald man started dragging Blake back to the van, where his muscle-bound friend was waiting with arms folded, leaning against the vehicle and grinning. Then a battered blue Camaro roared up from behind Blake and the bald man and stopped beside them. The driver, a woman with punky blonde hair, got out and looked at them over the car's roof.

           "What's going on here?" the woman demanded to know.

           "Mind your own business, sister," the bald man replied. "It's not your concern."

           "Ho-ho!" the woman said, coming around the front of the car with a lead pipe. "And what sort of garden variety thug do we have here, throwing his weight around? Someone who needs to be taught a lesson, I think."

           The woman stood in front of them. She was very muscular, with a bronze tan, a tattoo of a mushroom cloud on her belly, and a tattoo of a lightning bolt on her right forearm. She was wearing cut-off jeans and a white tank-top that accommodated an impossibly large pair of breasts.

           "Get lost, or I'll break your head," she calmly informed the bald man, who had let go of Blake's wrist.

           "No, I don't think so. You're the one---" Before the bald man could finish his sentence, he was knocked flat on his back from an open-palmed punch right on the nose.

           "You broke my nose," the bald man said, sitting up and feeling it. "You broke my goddamned nose."

           "That's not all I can break. You want some, tiny? I'll jam this pipe up your ass, if you'd like." The bald man's junior partner had taken a step forward, then stopped. The woman helped the bald man up by grabbing an ear and twisting it, then shoved him towards his partner. "Get lost, you creeps."

           "This isn't over yet," the bald man said, rubbing his ear. "We'll meet again."

           "And I'll kick your ass then too, baldy. Now, beat it!"

           The bald man and his partner got back in their van and took off.

           "Remember me?" the woman asked Blake.

           Blake shook his head no.

           "How soon they forget. Of course, it was dark, and we were interrupted before we had a chance to get down to business. But how could you forget Rose and Marie?" The woman cupped her breasts and jiggled them at him.

           "You're the nurse? The nurse at the hospital?"

           "Who else? Did you miss me? Well, it hasn't been that long. I couldn't believe it when I saw that it was Weldon who was taking you. I followed him to the parking lot, then I had a feeling that he'd bring you back here, because this is where we used to live in a commune. I didn't find you there yesterday, but I've been hanging around. Why did those two goons grab you?"

           "They were deprogrammers."

           "Deprogrammers? Weldon's got his own cult?"

           "Not really."

           "Why did he take you, then? What's he up to?"

           "I don't know."

           The woman smiled. "You know, you just don't want to tell me. Loyalty, I like that. Well, what would you like to do now? Go to the police?"


           "To tell them about those two apes who just tried to kidnap you, for one thing. What would you like to do?"

           Blake thought for a moment. "I'd like to go home. I'd like to find my parents."

           "Let me give you a ride back to town. I'm sure we'll find someone there who will be able to help you."

           "All right." Blake got in his rescuer's car. She turned around and they drove off.

           "I'm Free Love," the woman said. "Weldon must have told you about me."

           "A little."

           "Hmmm...closemouthed, aren't you? What's your secret? What are you hiding?"


           "I bet. What's your name?"


           "Blake what? Is that a first or a last name?"

           "I don't remember."

           "You don't want to tell me anything, do you? Boy, that must be some secret you're hiding. Even from yourself, perhaps."

           They drove the rest of the way back to town in silence. They turned off the country road onto a paved street with houses that turned into a main street with a post office, a couple stores, and a bank. Free Love parked in front of a one-story brick building with a big American flag out front, and a sign over the front door that said Town Hall. There was another, smaller sign over an entrance on the right side of the building that said Police.

           "Doesn't look like they get much crime here, does it?" commented Free Love, turning the motor off. "You'll probably make their day."

           "Whose?" Blake asked.

           "The police, of course. Who else can help you with your problem? You don't have to tell them anything about Weldon, if you don't want, or even about those two goons, either. Just tell them what you told me."

           "What did I tell you?"

           "That you want to go home, find your parents. Do you know who or where they are?"


           "Then just tell the cops that. They'll help you, it's their job to help people, supposedly. Everybody needs an occupation of some kind. We're all volunteers for America! I'd go in with you, but they might still be looking for me because of some youthful, high-spirited, revolutionary indiscretions, so you'll have to do this alone. Good luck. Power to the people!"

           Blake looked at Free Love, then got out of the car and headed for the door with the police sign. He had a feeling that he was making a mistake, but not strong enough to stop him from opening the door and entering a small office with a desk, a file cabinet, an air conditioner in the one window, and a bench. Seated on the bench, handcuffed to it, was the madman he had run into the day before in the woods outside the farmhouse, the phony Vietnam vet, who recognized him as well.

           "Hey, man, good to see you again. Could you tell this nice police officer that I meant no harm, that I was just fooling around?"

           "You know this guy?" Sitting behind the desk, leaning forward on his elbows was an older man in a tan uniform, stocky build, white hair, whom Blake assumed had to be the local police chief, Chief Able, if the brass name plate on the desk was any clue. He shook his head no in response to the police chief's query.

           "He's shy," the phony Vietnam vet said. "Give him a little time, maybe he'll warm up."

           "Umm." The police chief rested his chin on the palm of his left hand, and with his right forefinger began idly twirling a handgun that was laying in the middle of his desk. The fake Vietnam vet crooked a finger at Blake. Blake went over, the police chief not seeming to notice.

           "He's been doing that since he brought me in yesterday," the pretend Vietnam vet whispered. "It's pretty much all he does. Sometimes he picks the gun up, tosses it from hand to hand, sights down the barrel, or just stares at it and sighs. I think he wants to eat his gun, which is a term his profession has for when one of their own sticks their gun in their mouth and pulls the trigger, ironic considering the fact that I almost shot him yesterday. I was pretending that I was having a flashback to my days as a grunt doing time in the steamy jungles of 'Nam locked in mortal combat with Sir Charles, when the sheriff here surprised me and I fired a round at him. I didn't mean anything by it, I don't even know what he was doing up there. Maybe he was looking for you."

           "I was checking out a report that there was someone with a weapon in the woods near the abandoned farmhouse," the police chief said, not looking up from his pistol twirling. "I figured it was just someone playing paintball wars, if anything. So I go up, look around, and see this guy. He looks like he's playing some kind of game, so I yell at him, and he whirls around and takes a shot at me. I was not happy. Not happy at all."

           "Give me a break," the phony Vietnam vet whined. "I was having a flashback, I thought you were Charlie. I didn't know that you were the long arm of the law. I've got problems. Maybe you too."

           The police chief stopped spinning his gun and looked at the fake Vietnam vet. "I've got news for you, buddy. You're on my list. Know what that means?"

           "No. What?"

           "It means if I'm dying, or feel like I'm about to die, then I'm going to take you with me. You're not going to enjoy life on this earth after I'm gone. I bet everybody has a list like that, or we're all on someone's list, perhaps more than one, including me. Jesus, what a world. Probably the only way we can be safe from each other is to lock everybody up, but who would do the locking? Maybe aliens. Maybe someday aliens from outer space will swoop down and put us all under lock and key for our own protection. That's something I can believe in. That gives me hope for the future. Maybe I'll become a ufo chaser."

           "Sounds good to me," the fake Vietnam vet said. "Better than what I've been trying to do. Unlock these handcuffs, and I'll join you in your quest."

           "It's not that simple."

           "Sure it is. Are you worried about your responsibilities? What about the responsibility to yourself? It'll be fun. Ufology is like a religion and we need that excitement in our lives, or we've got nothing."

           "I suppose."

           "I'm telling you, you're on to something. We could go to Egypt, Cairo, I think that's the current hot spot for sightings, mysterious lights in the sky. There's a whole community of believers we can tie into if we want, for support. It really is like some kind of religion."

           "Maybe you're right," the police chief said, picking up his gun and putting it away in a drawer, after giving it one final look. He stared at Blake as if seeing him for the first time. "Can I help you?"

           Blake shook his head no and started walking for the door.

           "Hey, why don't you join us?" the phony Vietnam vet asked. "You look like you need something to hold on to, like a drowning man. Come on, it'll be fun. An adventure."

           Blake smiled, shook his head no again, then stepped outside. Free Love was still there, sitting in her car. When Blake got in, he saw that she was examining a body-building magazine.

           "I used to be cut like this," Free Love said, showing the magazine to Blake. "Well, maybe not quite like this, these guys and gals are professionals, but I had some definition. I didn't look too bad when I was oiled up. Then I lost interest, this type of narcissism simply wasn't for me." Free Love tossed the magazine in the back seat. "How'd things go with the cops?"

           "They couldn't help me."

           "Oh? We're back to square one, then. Let's go see Weldon. You don't mind, do you? I haven't seen the old boy in about twenty years. Seems like only yesterday."

           "I don't mind. I don't think he'll still be at the farmhouse, though."

           "Why not?"

           "He's going to California, with Freek and a girl called Mink."

           "Really? Why California, aside from the fact that everyone wants to go there?"

           "I don't know."

           "Just when I thought we were making progress. What are you holding back? What aren't you telling me? As for Weldon not still being at the farmhouse, don't worry. Somehow I don't think he can leave here without seeing me first. Call it a feeling."

           Free Love started her car and they roared away. Soon they were going by the lake and the restaurant, then they were at the farmhouse and Free Love was pulling in beside Weldon's van.

           "What did I tell you?" Free Love said as they got out of her car. "Did I lie?"

           Weldon came out of the house, followed by Freek and Mink. "Holy crap," Weldon said. "If it isn't Free Love. What are you, lost?"

           "Not me, baby, I'm found."

           Weldon and Free Love hugged and kissed. "Hmmm. Don't know if I remember those," said Weldon, looking at Free Love's chest.

           "These little things?" Free Love said, thrusting her breasts out like weapons. "I had them enlarged when I was working as an exotic dancer. That was after my body-building period. I was also a pro wrestler for awhile, called myself the Avenger. Got a couple new holds I can show you."

           "Bet you do."

           "But enough about me, Weldon. What are you doing back here? And why did you kidnap this poor kid? I saw you take him from the hospital."

           "I was hoping he would help me start a new religion."

           "Oh Jeez, let me guess. Is it something that believes in a hippie, utopian world where somehow everyone gets along like we should and everything is free, money and war are both things of the past?"

           "You read my mind," said Weldon.

           "That was always easy to do, since usually you only had one or two things on it. And these are your followers? Wait a minute, I remember you. You're Freek, you were up here too, back in the old days."

           "Indeed I was," said Freek. "High times."

           "So you're part of this nostalgia trip too?"

           "Not me, I'm just along for the ride. I keep telling Weldon he's crazy, but he doesn't believe me."

           "He always was stubborn. And you're...?"

           "Mink," introduced Weldon, as Mink hung back. "She doesn't care about my ideas either. She just wants me to take her to California, so she can get into showbiz."

           "I see. So you don't have any converts yet, eh, Weldon? Peace and love is a hard sell these days. No one believes in that kind of utopia anymore, because no one's that stoned. Maybe you should find another idea for your religion."

           "I can't think of anything better. What about you, what's your cause these days?"

           "I'm working on it. I should probably just follow my instincts and go around blowing things up. Unfortunately, I don't have a reason to go around blowing things up anymore, overthrowing the Establishment has become passe'. I need a new program. It would be easier if I had a partner."

           "Can't help you," said Weldon. "I'm a lover, not a fighter."

           "Chickenshit. That always was your problem." Free Love looked up at the sky, shielding her eyes from the sun. "Damn, is it hot. Feels like the middle of summer. Remember what we used to do on days like these, Weldon?"

           "We used to go skinny-dipping in a brook not far from here through the woods. There was a place where it widened out enough to form a swimming hole."

           "Well, what are we standing here for?"

           Blake found himself staring at the tattoo on Free Love's stomach of a mushroom cloud. He wondered why anyone would have something like that tattooed on their body, then suddenly the tatoo was no longer a tattoo, it was the real thing, a boiling, exploding column of smoke, ash, and fire, towering over him and engulfing him. He was blasted and incinerated in the blink of an eye.

           "You all right? You cried out."

           It was Mink. They were naked, standing together in a deep, slow-moving pool of water that went up to Blake's chest. They were on one side, while on the other were Free Love and Weldon, with Freek dog-paddling in between, still wearing his Red Sox cap. The water was cold, but the air was so warm that it felt good. The trees bent and curved up around them on both sides, forming a natural cathedral. Blake imagined that he could still feel the heat from the atomic blast, which only a moment ago had incinerated him.

           "What's wrong with the world today is that everybody wants to be a freak," Freek said, paddling away. "That's what your rebelling against, Weldon, that there's nothing to rebel against anymore. People can do or say just about anything they want today, without fear of censure or punishment, as long as they don't advocate or practice murder or pedophila, something like that. That's why you're so desperate to find something to believe in."

           "I'm desperate to find something to believe in because there's nothing out there, not for me," Weldon answered, trying to float and having limited success. "I don't care about God or nirvana or aliens or psychic energy. As far as I'm concerned, it's all a load of crap. Doesn't mean a thing to me. There's got to be something more, something else, like the idea of a world where there's no longer any war or violence, poverty or misery. We're the only higher power there is, and one of these days we've got to start doing things right."

           "You should be writing all this down," Freek suggested, taking a break from his swimming and hanging onto a rock. "You could put it in a book and sell it, the wisdom of Weldon. A slim volume it would be."

           "More free advice, Freek?"

           "Least I can do for you. Here's some more; you want an ideal world, you have to create a state of euphoria. You have to make people realize how beautiful life is, too precious to waste on any sort of arguments, disagreements, or fighting. That means everybody either has to be high or on the point of death, because then you realize how beautiful life is when you're about to lose it. Otherwise, we take life for granted, as if our existences are supposed to be drudgery, something to be endured, not enjoyed, so it doesn't matter if we bicker and slaughter each other. What we need is a happy gas."

           "A happy gas?" Weldon looked puzzled, or maybe doubtful, then went under for a moment, before bobbing back up.

           "Why not? Surely our scientists can design something, they've made everything else. Some nerve gas to sedate the entire population, keep us all mellow, hell, keep the whole world mellow. Obviously such an agent would be quite a weapon and could be used for nefarious purposes by unscrupulous individuals or leaders, but wouldn't it be worth the risk? Let's put our trust in the religion of science to find a way out of the morass of violence and war that has afflicted our kind ever since we crawled out of the swamps. Maybe science can succeed where the other religions haven't, providing us a shortcut to sanity."

           "He's crazier than you are," Free Love told Weldon, splashing herself with water. "Except he almost makes sense."

           "I have high hopes for him. Can I ask you something?"

           "Sure, go ahead."

           "How did you hook up with Blake? Last I knew, I had dropped him off in town to be picked up by his parents."

           "He was picked up all right, by a couple deprogrammers who thought he belonged to a cult. I stepped in and ruined their day."

           Weldon groaned. "I knew I should have hung around to make sure things went all right, I just had a feeling. Now I suppose I'll have to go to the police."

           "We already tried that. It didn't work. I don't know what Blake told them, but whatever it was, they weren't interested. Been getting much lately?"

           Weldon laughed. "I've lost interest. I'm a holy man."

           Free Love snorted derisively. "You guys are the horniest of all. I'm telling you, Weldon, you should give up your hippie fantasies and travel around the country blowing things up with me. We'd make a helluva team."

           "It's not my scene."

           "You need a new one. The peace and love trip is over. Violence is something that never gets old, it will always be understood and appreciated. You just need some kind of rationale behind it, whether it makes any sense or not. Something, oh, Luddite."

           "Luddite?" said Weldon, leaning back against the bank, having given up his attempts to float.

           "Hasn't modern life become too fast-paced, too complicated? We've got to slow things down, give our spiritual natures time to catch up with all our technological advancements. We've got to cut back, create a balance. We'd be happier if we had less options. Maybe we should pick a time, like 1965, bring everything back to the way it was then technologically, except for the medical sciences. Do away with our pcs, suvs, dvds, big screen tvs, who needs them? We could call our movement Reversism, and start by blowing up a cell phone tower."

           "Sign me up," said Freek, raising a hand and falling off his rock.

           Blake smiled, then looked around for Mink. She was no longer beside him, then he found her, at the far end of the pool, except somehow it had expanded and was now more of a pond than a pool. Blake started swimming and had almost reached Mink when for some reason he stopped and looked back. Freek, Weldon, and Free Love were no longer anywhere to be seen. He looked around at Mink and she smiled, a smile he found astonishing because it almost made him remember something, then she was gone too.

           He climbed out of the pool and looked for his clothes, any clothes to put on, but there were none. He started walking back to where he remembered the farmhouse to be, but the way seemed different this time, the trees were different, smaller, closer together, there were vines, bushes. He kept walking anyway not knowing what else to do until he came out into a clearing. It seemed to be somebody's backyard, and a meeting was taking place. A lot of people were sitting in rows of folding chairs before a long table covered by a yellow tablecloth behind which were seated several others, except, when Blake got closer, he could see that the people weren't people, exactly, but instead beasts of some sort, half-man, half-animals, like something out of a Jules Verne\Dr. Moreau fantasy. A lion man stood and banged a gavel down on the table, calling for order.

           "All right," the lion man began. "There is no such thing as evolution, let's get that straight. I don't care how many billions of years pass, you can't get a man out of a centipede, or a sea slug, or an ape or whatever else you care to use as an example. God has made us in his image and we've always been the way we are now, men, anything else is unthinkable, unimaginable. I mean, is there anyone here who can see himself as something originally non-human?"

           A zebra man gaily waved his hand up front, mugging for the crowd and everyone had a good laugh. "All right, except for Clyde, here, none of us has any animal blood in him, or came out of the sea uncounted ages ago as fishes and then hundreds of millions of years later started walking upright," the lion man said, amused as anyone. "But the problem is, the bastards keep wanting to teach that doctrine in the schools as gospel. What are we going to do about it?"

           "Hang 'em high!" a giraffe man yelled, standing up in the middle of the crowd with a coiled rope. "Let's stretch their necks!"

           There were several roars of approval. "Now, now," the lion man chided, "that's a good idea, Amos, a noble suggestion, but then the problem becomes, who are we going to get to teach our kids? Oh sure, there'd still be enough teachers left to do the job, but we already have a shortage so it would cause problems, much as it would be a pleasure to string up a few of those independent, know-it-all, free-thinking sons of bitches. We need another alternative."

           No one said anything at first. "Fine 'em?" a gazelle man piped up weakly. "Jail time?"

           "Already tried that," a rhino man seated up next to the lion man harrumphed. "Didn't work. Anyone else?"

           "Bribery," an alligator man croaked. "Pay the teachers who don't teach evolution more."

           There were several murmurs of approval. "I like it," the lion man said. "The teachers union would complain, but if we presented it as a performance incentive, they might not have a leg to stand on. Money talks, b.s. walks, as they say. Let's put it to a vote. All those in favor of Ralph's suggestion, roar, hoot, or bellow in your usual manner."

           There was an immediate cacophony of hoots, bellows, screams, shrieks and roars. "The motion's passed," the lion man said, banging down his gavel. "Now, let's eat."

           Half of the assembled group began hungrily eyeing the other half, then it was a stampede, with everyone either trying to flee or grab one of their fellow beast men. Blake ducked his head and covered up, expecting to be run over and devoured, but instead the commotion passed and suddenly he was in a television studio, facing an audience that was applauding him wildly.

           "Welcome to Body Parts!" a man in a grey suit holding a microphone announced to the audience and the cameras, standing beside Blake. "America's newest game show sensation. I'm the King, and this is our first contestant, who obviously needs to win himself some clothes!"

           The audience howled with laughter. Blake looked down and saw that he was still naked. "What's your name, son?" the King asked.


           "Well, Blake, if that's your real name---" the King paused to wink at the audience, who responded with titters "---what would you like to wager? I'd suggest that you start with something small. Leave the big stuff until later, when you get more into the game."

           Blake looked around. Standing a few feet behind him, in front of a curtain, was a large, big-bellied man in an executioner's costume, black hood, pants, gloves, no shirt, holding an ax. To Blake's right was a band, sitting with their instruments disinterestedly, while to the left were two models in gold lamé dresses flanking a spinning wheel whose surface was Da Vinci's anatomical drawing of a naked man, seen from the front. There was also a table with knives and surgical instruments, a dentist's chair, and several white smocks hanging up on a wall.

           The audience, a widely diverse group, all races, ages, classes, both sexes, were screaming things that Blake couldn't make out, as if they were trying to be helpful, pointing at various parts of their bodies, arms, legs, noses, hands, as if suggesting that's what he wager.

           "Come on, champ, we don't have all day," the King said. "Make your choice, unless you want me to make it for you. Is that your desire?"

           Blake nodded, almost imperceptibly.

           "Potluck it is then!" the King said, raising an arm in triumph to the audience, who clapped and cheered in approval. "I knew he was a player the minute he walked out here. He's probably not wearing any clothes to show he's willing to gamble anything, and pay up immediately if he loses! Now that's the kind of contestant I like. Step right this way."

           Blake followed the King a short distance to a black line painted on the floor, about twenty feet away from the spinning wheel and facing it.

           "Now Blake has another decision," the King told his audience, turning to them and picking up a knife from the table. "He gets one throw. He can try his own hand, or have me do it. What do you think he should do?"

           The audience began screaming wildly again, most shouting King, King! "How about it, tiger?" the King asked Blake. "Me or you?" Blake pointed at the King and once more the audience clapped and cheered, satisfied by his choice.

           "Another wise decision," the King said. "A lot of contestants think they can out-knife-throw the King, but their confidence is usually not justified, especially under pressure. I won't let you down. Would you like me to aim for the edges or somewhere near the center?"

           Blake shrugged, wondering how this was going to play out.

           "As you wish," said the King. "Could you hold my microphone, please?" Blake took the microphone and the King took off his jacket, which Blake was going to take too, but instead the King threw it aside with a flourish, getting a laugh from the audience.

           "Ready, Michelle?" the King called out to one of the models. "Give her a spin!" The blonde model, the other was a brunette, tried to comply, but somehow she lost her grip and the wheel only went a quarter turn.

           "Oh, you little minx!" laughed the King. "Does Michelle know how to whet an audience's anticipation, or doesn't she? A first class tease, that's why we hired her. Okay, Michelle, one more time!"

           This time Michelle succeeded in giving the wheel a full spin, and around and round it went, very fast. The King positioned himself behind the line, taking aim, getting ready, then---thwack! The knife hit the wheel just about dead center, and the King stepped to the front of the stage raising his arms to the thunderous cheers of his fans, who shouted "Long live the King! Long live the King!"

           The King came back to Blake just as the wheel stopped spinning. "Ho-ho!" exclaimed the King, reclaiming his microphone. "Am I good or what? Remember that classic episode of the Tonight show, with Johnny Carson? Ed Ames has nothing on me!"

           The knife was lodged in the groin area of the figure, causing much audience laughter. The executioner came over with the King's jacket and handed it to him. "Thanks, Hugo," said the King, putting his jacket back on and taking a short stack of index cards out of an inside breast pocket, rifling through them until he found one he liked. "Okay, Blake, here's your question. Answer it correctly and you win a brand new cherry red Mustang convertible!"

           The King swung an arm toward the curtain, which rose revealing the very car he had just described, with two models, clones of the ones at the spinning wheel, draping themselves over the vehicle and rubbing it lovingly. "If you answer incorrectly, you will of course lose your cojones, your balls, because that's Body Parts! America's newest quiz show sensation. Ready?" The King looked at Blake intently over the index card. "Who... invented the wheel? You've got ten seconds."

           Somewhere a clock started ticking loudly. The audience seemed to be holding its collective breath, there wasn't a sound. The King looked at Blake encouragingly, then a buzzer went off and the audience groaned. "You lose," said the King. "Too bad. The correct answer was Henry Ford, though the judges would also have accepted Charles Goodyear. Neither answer is correct, of course, but since the judges would have accepted either response and their decision is final, you would have won a car. Instead, you will now become a eunuch. You will still receive a thousand dollars for appearing on the show and playing the game."

           The models were putting on smocks, and Hugo the executioner was examining the surgical instruments on the table with a practiced eye. Blake started backing up, looking for an exit.

           "You're not getting cold feet, are you?" the King asked, taking a roll of bills out of a pant's pocket. "Here's your grand. Would you like a couple more? How about ten thousand? That's a deal, isn't it? Let's face it, for a man, aren't they really more trouble than they're worth? Think of all the frustration, aggravation, and disappointment we'd be saving you, we'd be doing you a favor. Hey, come back here! I'm the King! Nobody runs out on the King!"

           Blake bolted off the stage and ran up an aisle between the studio audience, who booed and laughed but did not try to stop him. He reached an exit and pushed his way outside into a lobby, which was empty. He headed for the front doors but never reached them. Instead, he suddenly found himself in a long corridor. In front of him was a door with an exit sign, and he started to push it open.

           "You're not going out like that, are you, sir?"

           Blake stopped and turned around. It was a United States army officer, a captain. Blake realized that he was also wearing an army officer's uniform, and his rank seemed to be higher than that of captain. "Going out like what?" he asked.

           "Without your space suit." The captain chuckled. "I know it takes some getting used to, sir. It's hard to believe."

           "What's hard to believe?"

           "That we're on the moon. It took me at least two tours before I got it into my head that I just couldn't walk outside. Who knew those damn hippies had that much power, with their silly chanting and meditation. Were you there when it happened, sir?"

           "When what happened?"

           "When they levitated the Pentagon during one of the Vietnam war protests in the Sixties. All the way into outer space, until the moon's gravity caught it and pulled it down, activating emergency rocket boosters for a controlled landing that no one knew the building had until then, not to mention the extra oxygen, food, and fuel on board that were also a pleasant surprise, as if someone had anticipated the Pentagon might be taking a trip into outer space someday. Probably the CIA. Anyway, who knew those lousy peaceniks had that much power? Even they didn't know what they had done. A few of the smarter ones realized that they had lifted the Pentagon an inch or two, but then they were all dispersed, tear-gassed, chased off or arrested, so no one was around a couple hours later when the entire damn building took off like a balloon, as if they had loosened it from its foundations. Fortunately no one saw it so the government was able to cover it up by erecting a false front for the entire complex until a new one could be built, all the contractors and laborers sworn to secrecy, anyone asking about all the apparent construction activity being told it was remodeling, so now we have two Pentagons, one here on the moon, and the other down in Washington. Sweet, as the kids say."

           "We're on the moon?" Blake asked.

           "Yes sir, General Atlantis. Would you care to make an outside inspection?"

           "I'm not General Atlantis."

           "Of course not, sir. Your presence here is top secret, hush-hush, as is all our presences, not to mention the regular moon launches that bring and retrieve personnel. Follow me, sir, and I'll get you a suit."

           The next thing Blake knew, he was outside on the grey, rocky, barren surface of the moon, bounding around with a bunch of other people in bulky white space suits, who were either saluting each other or picking up rocks. He stopped and looked at the earth, a ball of crazy blue and white swirls that loomed over the field of bounding spacemen like a jewel. Despite the beautiful sight, or perhaps because of it, he felt an immense sadness. There was so much unnecessary strife, and there was nothing he could do about any of it. He found a rock to sit on, and decided he would just sit there looking at the earth until he ran out of oxygen.

           While he was waiting to die, he wondered what there was to believe in. There had to be something. God? Love? Money, greed? It wasn't greed when you were cold and hungry, was it? Maybe there really was nothing to believe in as long as the world was in turmoil, maybe that's why nothing seemed to make that much sense. As long as most of the world found it easy or permissible to kill for various reasons, what difference did any religion or philosophy make? It was ridiculous, absurd beyond endurance. Blake closed his eyes and waited for the merciful end--

           "Men are such babies," Free Love said, spinning him around on the tire swing back at the farmhouse, waking him up. "You love to be catered to, that's what really makes your toes curl. I think you should come with me and forget about Weldon."


           "Because he's a dead end. He's going nowhere. With me, things might be different."


           Free Love spun Blake around again. "For one thing, I'll make a man out of you. For another, it'll give you a chance to make a stand against the creeping corruption of our soulless technological society. Destroy the machines! This time not to save jobs, but what is left of our tender humanity, our spiritual centers. Not bad, huh? I just made that up."


           "Exactly. Technologically, we've got to bring this country back to at least 1965 until our morality catches up with us. We've got to slow things down at all costs, by whatever means. I figure we can start by blowing up a cell phone tower or a Radio Shack. The details aren't important yet, there are plenty of targets." Free Love grabbed Blake by the shoulders, stopping the swing and looking him in the face. "We'll become revolutionary outlaws, heroes to a new counter-culture spawned by our example. It'll be nothing but sex and violence all the way, how does that sound?"


           "You'll join me, then? Become my partner in crime?"

           "I can't."

           "Why not?"

           "I don't know."

           Free Love sighed, and let go of Blake. "It's that goddamn Weldon, he's got to you. I probably never had a chance." Free Love started walking away, to her car. "It was nice meeting you, Blake. Maybe we'll meet again sometime, down the road."

           Free Love got in her car and roared off. Blake noticed Freek sitting on the porch steps, writing something in a notebook. He got off the tire swing and went over to Freek, sitting down beside him.

           "Writing something?"

           "Yup, it's an addiction, a monkey on my back," said Freek. "I can't help myself. I'll be doing this until the day I die, whether I have any success or not. What do you think of Free Love?"

           "Not my type."

           "Little too Amazon, eh? Prefer them more petite, like Mink?"

           "Yes." Blake looked at Freek. "Do I know you?"

           "I don't know, do you? Who do you think I am?"

           Blake thought very hard for a moment. "Al? Alzey?"

           "What about the others? Weldon, or Mink?"

           Blake shook his head. "It's hard to remember."

           Freek smiled. "What about yourself? Do you know who you are?"


           "Maybe you're just an invention, then, a character in someone's story. But whose story? Maybe yours."

           "I don't know what you're saying."

           "Doesn't matter, you've still got time. So I'm Al, huh? Who is he, some short guy you knew once? And who's Weldon, some big guy you bumped into along the way, or a composite of the same, while Mink...I get the feeling that Mink is someone more special."

           "She is."

           "Who is she, then?"

           "I don't know."

           "Maybe you don't, or maybe you just don't want to tell me. I bet she's a first love, those are always the hardest to forget. We all need something to hold on to, whether it's real or not, to try and make it real. Life is full of traps like that, hell, it's just one big trap, isn't it? We're always looking for something we can't find, some kind of happiness to hold on to for as long as we can. What else is life but an endless search to find something that will never let us down, be it God, pleasure, money, the past, writing, whatever. That's why we're always grasping at straws, trying to escape our dull little lives, no matter what tortuous or foolish paths it may lead us down. We need something to believe in, false as that security may be."

           "You sound like Weldon now."

           "We are somewhat interchangeable, aren't we? I think I sounded like him at times before, but you didn't notice."

           "Who am I? Tell me."

           "I can't do that. You know I can't."

           "Where's Weldon?"

           "I think he's out back, dreaming of a world where everything makes sense and no one has to be afraid anymore, the poor sap."

           Blake went out behind the farmhouse and found Weldon sitting in a field, contentedly lighting hundred dollar bills from his duffel bag and watching them burn.

           "Know who I am yet?" Weldon asked.

           "Well...not really."

           "You just want me to tell you. I met you on a golf course, with a couple buddies of mine. You were a single, we joined up for the last two holes. We were smoking a joint and offered you a toke, but you declined."

           "I don't remember that."

           "Sure you do. Obviously I made quite an impression, the sterotype of the friendly giant, I suppose."

           "So, you're not Weldon?"

           "No, I'm still Weldon. That hasn't changed. Want some money?"

           Weldon gave Blake a hundred dollar bill. "What are you going to do with all this money?" asked Blake. "Just burn it?"

           "Not here, California. I still want to go there with Freek and Mink, it just seems more appropriate somehow. I'll give them each some money so they won't starve, then I'll buy a camcorder and tape myself burning the rest of it. I'll talk about my ideas, explain who I am...I'll have to save some money out so I can buy some air time on a local cable channel or two, then I'll run the program for as long as I can, until the law catches up with me. That's the plan. Won't do any good, but I don't care. I just want to make a point. I'm going to burn this damn money, and hopefully a lot of people will see me do it. I'd burn everybody's money if I could, but, of course, then they would just print more. Until we have an alternative economic system that doesn't require any form of currency in order to run, things will always be as screwed up as they are now. That's one of the things that I'm going to say. Freek has already tried to talk me out of burning the money, he thinks I should make a deal, turn myself and the money in in return for leniency, maybe even get a reward for my honesty, as he put it, but I turned him down. I don't believe in that sort of world; I have no interest in it. I suppose I should mention that too, on the tape."

           Blake shook his head, not sure what to think, then he saw Mink standing at the other end of the field as if she was waiting for him. He gave Weldon back his hundred and headed for her. Mink turned away and they started walking together.

           "Do you remember who I am?" she asked.


           "Why do you want to see me?"

           "I don't know."

           "It wouldn't have worked, you know. We were too different. You should have moved on."

           "I know."

           "Poor Blake. What am I going to do with you? What do you want from me?"

           "Nothing. Nothing at all."

           There was a discarded kitchen chair and Blake sat down tiredly. He dropped his head and Mink began rubbing the back of his neck. Her touch was electric, something he would never forget, then day became night except for the light of torches. He was no longer sitting, he was standing, looking at a man in a KKK outfit hanging from a tree with a rope around his neck, which was bent at a most unnatural angle.

           "I don't know, Sammy, are you sure we're doing the right thing?" asked an attractive white woman with dark, curly hair. "What about your image? Will this play in Vegas?"

           "Screw Vegas, man," said a short, skinny black man in a black suit, gold neck chains, and big black framed glasses. "I'm tired of being Mr. Bojangles. It's about time we showed these peckerwoods some justice, and I'm just the nigger to do it. Here comes da judge, as I used to say on Laugh-In. Here comes da judge!"

           A group of twenty to thirty black men holding guns and torches laughed appreciatively. "I don't know, Sammy. Do you think Dr. King would approve?" the woman asked.

           "No, Linda, he most definitely would not approve. But he was a great man, a minister of the Lord, and I'm just an entertainer. If you would like to go back to the car and wait, that's fine. I'll send Levon with you."

           "No, Sammy, I'd like to stay with you."

           Sammy put his arm around Linda and gave her a kiss on the lips. "Beautiful, baby, beautiful. You're my kind of gal."

           "Oh, Sammy, I bet you say that to all the ladies."

           "I do, baby, I do. But that doesn't mean I don't mean it when I say it to you."

           Sammy and Linda began necking and a bald, muscular black man in army fatigues came over, clearing his throat and holding a piece of paper. "Ah, Mr. Davis? We've finished with this county. The next one over is Fairfax."

           "Anything you say, Cleon," Sammy said reluctantly, breaking his clinch with Linda. "But I need a drink first. This lynching is a thirsty business. Is there a bar anywhere around here?"


           "Gawd's? That's a bar?"

           "A strip bar. A tittie joint."

           "Oh, that sounds all right. Maybe we'll find a few of these crackers that we missed. You know how much they love their booze and poontang. Here comes da judge!"

           They started marching through the woods, passing other Klan members hanging from trees like fruit, until they came to a dirt road and a ramshackle dump with a sign over the front door that said Gawd's. They streamed inside, Sammy and Linda going to a side bar and Blake staying with them, the others finding seats around a runway on which two strippers were performing.

           "Can we get served here, man?" Sammy asked the bartender.

           "Sure," the bartender replied, a tall, well-built man with a grey receding hairline. "Why not?"

           "Are you Gawd?" asked Linda. "You don't look like him."

           "What am I supposed to look like, Miss Lovelace?"

           "I don't know. Older, and a beard."

           "I get tired of looking the same all the time. Change is good."

           "Hey, man, if you're Gawd, isn't it supposed to be impossible to see or look directly at you?" asked Sammy.

           "Which tells you what, Mr. Davis?"

           "That you're not Gawd, or we're not really seeing you."

           "Bingo. What would you like to drink?"

           "I'll take a Chivas on the rocks. Linda?"

           "A beer, I guess. Whatever you have on tap."

           Though Blake hadn't asked for anything, he also found himself getting served a foaming beer in a big glass. Sammy reached for his wallet.

           "That's all right, Mr. Davis, your money is no good here," said the bartender, holding up a hand.

           "Why is that?"

           "In honor of Miss Lovelace."

           "Because of that movie I did?" said Linda, screwing up her face.

           "I'm afraid so. You gave a lot of lonely men and boys a certain amount of relief."

           "Jeez. If I had known it was going to be such a big deal, I never would have done it."

           "Hey, man, I've got another question," said Sammy. "How come you didn't make it so that people would feel the same pain they inflicted on others? If you're Gawd, that should have been simple enough. You must have thought of it."

           "It would have been too easy," said the bartender, wiping down his bar. "You have to learn right and wrong without being coerced, every one of you. Only then will you be worthy of being my creation, and have what you seek. Also, I tried that and you stupid bastards still killed and tortured each other."

           There was a mighty scream, the sounds of a commotion at the back of the place, then a young white man in a KKK costume was led out, a rope around his neck and his arms pinned behind his back.

           "We found him in the bathroom, Sammy," said Cleon, one of those holding the young KKKer. "I think he's already crapped his drawers. What should we do with him?"

           "Kill 'em all, and let Gawd decide!" shouted a thin white man in bib overalls and a straw hat, sitting alone at a small table. "Kill 'em all and let Gawd decide!"

           "I thought I told you about coming in here, Luke," the bartender said sternly. "You're not allowed. Get out."

           "Oh, man, it's been a long time. I thought you would have forgiven me by now. You know, forgive and forget? Besides, I was just trying to help you out."

           "I don't need your kind of help. You're banned for life. Get out."

           "Sheesh," the man said, getting up and removing his hat, revealing a pair of small, glowing red horns which he scratched. "Talk about sore winners."

           Luke stomped out of the bar, leaving behind a trail of sparks. "What about this guy, Sammy?" Cleon asked again. "What should we do, hang him? Or if he hollers, let him go?"

           Sammy smiled. "Let him go. Run on home, boy, you'll be all right."

           "Thank you, Mr.Davis, thank you," the young man said, coming over and getting on his knees, kissing a big diamond ring on Sammy's left hand. "I don't know why I'm wearing this stupid costume, I must have thought it was Halloween or something. I don't know!"

           "It's okay, boy, just don't make the same mistake twice. Run on home now."

           "I will. Thank you, Mr. Davis, thank you!"

           The young man fled out the door, just before a crowd of white, middle-aged men and women with cameras came pouring in, taking up seats around the runway and the dancers, who were in the midst of their routines.

           "Tourists?" Sammy asked the bartender.

           "They're here to see the miracle," the bartender said, cleaning a glass.

           "What miracle?"

           "Betsy's bush looks like the face of Christ, some say. Don't see it myself, but who am I to argue if people want to see the divine in the most unlikely places? She's the tall blonde with the fake tiger tail, if you're curious. Also, there's a stain on the men's bathroom wall that's getting some attention, though no one's quite decided what that looks like yet."

           "I think I'll check out this miracle," said Sammy. "You don't mind, do you, Linda?"

           "Of course not. Go ahead, take a look."

           "Thanks, Linda. You're the best."

           Sammy gave Linda a kiss, then, taking his drink, headed over to where the crowd was, debating, examining, and taking pictures of Betsy's privates, whenever she deigned to show them.

           "Can I ask you something?" Linda asked the bartender.

           "Sure. That's what I'm here for."

           "Am I going to heaven?"

           "Yes. Most people do. You have a good heart. There aren't that many truly evil people in the world, otherwise you would have destroyed yourselves long ago."

           "Wouldn't you have stopped it?"


           "Why does there have to be so much pain in the world?"

           "It's the only way you learn anything, the hard way. Even then, it's a long, slow process. Without pain and death, I don't think you would appreciate life at all."

           "Is that the greatest sin, pride?"

           "Why? I made you proud."

           "Was that a mistake?"

           "I don't make mistakes. I'm Gawd, remember? Want another beer?"

           "No, thanks. But we're supposed to learn humility, right?"

           "That, and a lot of other things. Frankly, it would be an improvement if you didn't believe in me at all. It just seems to screw you up."

           "But we can't help it!"

           "Yeah, I know. I made you that way."


           "That's for me to know and you to find out, as the saying goes."

           "You're not real helpful."

           "I gave you life, what more do you want? The rest is up to you, sink or swim. Eventually, you'll figure out what's really important, I hope. Might be awhile, but time is one thing I have plenty of."

            "It's not fair. If you're Gawd, you should do something to sort things out. You're the one who's all-powerful, not us. Most of the time we're at the mercy of feelings we can't control. There's nothing you can do?"


           "That's not right. Can you at least tell me which religion is the best one?"

           "None of them. They're all crap, as far as I'm concerned. It's just a few of their ideas that make sense, like thou shalt not kill, and you can't even get that right. You don't need a religion to believe in that, do you?"

           "You make it sound like we don't even have to believe in you, if we don't want."

           "You don't. I'm not important. Figure out what is."

           "Aren't you supposed to tell us?"


           "All right, I give up," said Linda. "Give me another beer. Please."

           "Sure thing."

           Blake looked and observed that Sammy, the twenty or thirty armed black men, and the tourists seemed equally divided, judging from their puzzled expressions, on whether or not Betsy's bush was a miracle or not. A number of the audience had dollar bills out in evidence of their desire to make a closer and more thorough examination of the subject.

           "She shaves it," a towering black man with two bandoliers draped crisscross over his shoulders opined. "There's no doubt in my mind. Look at all the money she's making!"

           "It grows that way," a little old blue-haired lady with a rosary and a walker said. "Only an ignorant nigger would think otherwise."

           "Be careful what you're saying, Grandma, or you might find yourself strung up by a rope. Only people of the right color can use that word, and you're not it. Things have changed, finally, for the better."

           "You don't scare me, sonny. Try anything and I'll cut your nuts off faster than you can blink, and if you're like most men I've known, you're mighty fond of the foolish things."

           "Is Sammy going to heaven?" Linda asked the bartender.

           "Yes, he is," answered Gawd, pouring himself a shot. "I have a weakness for performers of all kinds, especially singers."

           "What's heaven like?"

           Gawd made a face. "It's heaven. You know, paradise. Clouds and stuff."

           "You're a lot of help, Gawd. A lot of help."

           "Thanks. Cheers."

           Gawd and Linda Lovelace clinked glasses, and Blake found himself back at the farmhouse. It was night and he was standing outside with Freek, Weldon, and Mink, watching it burn. They were standing in front of it, far enough back not to be in any danger.

           "There's goes a little piece of our past, eh, Freek?" said Weldon. "It was an eyesore, but I'm still sorry to see it go."

           "Good riddance," said Freek. "I see you didn't forget the money."

           "Not a chance," said Weldon, hefting the duffel bag over a shoulder. "You know my plans, I intend to carry them out."

           "For all the good it will do?"

           "For all the good it will do."

           "I'd just like to know what started this fire," Mink said, between coughs. "Were one of you guys smoking?"

           "I started it," said someone behind them. They turned around and saw Free Love, naked and holding a gas can, staring past them at the fire. "I was trying to send Weldon to Valhalla, Odin's hall. I am a Valkyrie, a collector of heroes."

           "She's flipped out," said Freek. "She must be high on something."

           "I'm not high on anything. I know better than you how much Weldon needs something to believe in. For this day and age, perhaps for any day or age, what better choice than a religion that glorifies fighting, death, and destruction? That's something you can believe in, isn't it, Weldon? I was just trying to end your suffering."

           "Not that I claim to be an expert in Norse mythology," said Weldon, "but I thought that you had to die in battle in order to go to Valhalla. I was just inside the house, asleep. If Blake hadn't woken us up, we'd probably all be dead."

           "There are all kinds of battles, Weldon, you know that. You're fighting one right now. I was just trying to help you out, do you a favor. Go back inside the house, the flames are your salvation."

           "I don't think so. Frankly, I think you're just a pyromaniac. Maybe that's your calling. Burn, baby, burn."

           "Weldon, Weldon, Weldon. None are so blind as those who will not see. You can't tell me that you've never felt that way. Destruction is an essential part of existence, perhaps the most important part."

           "Spare me the dime store Eastern philosophy. Or are you still talking about Vikings?"

           There was the sound of sirens, and in a few minutes there were fire engines, fire hoses, and firemen everywhere, rushing to and fro. Blake tried to get out of the way and was separated from Weldon and the others, then he saw Weldon's van taking off. They were leaving without him? Somehow, he was not surprised. Free Love was surrounded by a group of firemen, grinning broadly, who seemed to want to give her assistance, as the house burned down behind them. Chief Able and the fake Vietnam vet were also there, pointing at a mysterious moving light in the night sky. Blake looked at the moon and wondered why he wasn't back there as General Atlantis, visiting the original Pentagon levitated to the lunar surface by the hippie war protesters, he wanted to be but things didn't seem to work that way and instead he felt himself falling again, spinning round and round in darkness, blackness, as if he was being sucked down a drain, until there was nothing left.

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