{ Dreamer - III . The Mall

III. The Mall.

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           He was still in the room, but now it was day and he was alone, standing on his own two feet, as it were.

           He surveyed his surroundings; there were three sleeping bags scattered around on the floor, a green duffel bag next to one of them, some rubbish collected in a corner, and behind him the wheelchair, which he touched to see if it was real. Otherwise, the room was bare, with sunlight streaming in through two windows that had been boarded up, most of the boards now missing.

           He left the room, going into a hallway, for some reason not surprised that he could move. Down the hallway to his left were more rooms, in front of him was a stairway that led upstairs, while to his right was a doorway without a door that led outside to a porch. Sitting on the porch steps was a diminutive man in a light blue windbreaker and a baseball cap, smoking a cigarette. Blake saw no reason not to join him.

           "Well, look who just woke up," said Freek, turning around, a pixieish grin on his face. "How are you?"

           Blake opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out. He wasn't sure if it was because he had nothing to say or just couldn't talk.

           "Mute?" Freek inquired. "Don't worry, I have a feeling that's going to wear off pretty soon too. Have a seat, relax. Weldon and Mink went to get some takeout, they should be back soon." Freek chuckled. "That's one thing about Weldon, he might not be playing with a full deck, but he doesn't miss any meals."

           Blake sat down beside Freek. In front of them was a tree with a tire swing, and a yard of weeds and long, uncut grass. A dirt road went past the house, and beyond that were some woods.

           "You're not mad or anything, are you?" asked Freek. "I mean, at Weldon for kidnaping you?"

           Blake shook his head no.

           "He means well," said Freek, "he's just a little crazy. Well, maybe more than a little, but who's counting? Do you know why he kidnaped you?"

           Blake shrugged.

           "Yeah, it is a little hard to understand," sighed Freek. "He just wants to change the world, that's all, even after all these years. He thought he could get us to help him, maybe he still does. Weldon doesn't give up easy, he's stubborn. Maybe if he had something more to offer besides his warmed-over hippie ideas, he'd have something, but he doesn't." Freek looked at Blake and smiled. "You don't want to be one of his disciples, do you?"

           Blake shook his head no again.

           "I didn't think so. It's hard to buy into the peace and love trip unless you're whacked out of your head on acid. Ah, the good old days. I'm not sure, it's kind of hazy now, but I think there was a short period during the Sixties where it all sort of worked. Flower power! But it wasn't enough, it didn't last. Maybe some day we'll evolve enough so we're not at each others' throats, or just being stupid in general, but I can't imagine things ever changing that much. At heart we're always going to be barbarians, animals, how can you change that? I'm not saying things can't change, look how much they have in my lifetime, but the way Weldon wants? There's always going to be drunks, losers, assholes of every stripe, people you just can't stand with different ideas, different this, different that who rub you the wrong way. What can you do? Weldon wants to smooth all that out somehow, like those talk shows who have people come on and talk about their problems, as if by giving everyone a forum to air their complaints will lead to a world where there is no cause for complaint. Hah! We're never going to be that civilized, it's probably a miracle that we all get along as well as we do now and it's never going to get any better than this. Think about that."

           Blake pushed himself off from the porch steps and tried to indicate that he was going to take a walk.

           "Want to stretch your legs? Good idea. I'll be right here. Don't get lost!"

           Blake started walking around the house, taking a better look at it. Its siding was grey, weatherbeaten, and part of the roof had fallen in, pretty much the way he had imagined it would look. How had he known that? He wandered to the rear of the structure past a collapsed back porch and came upon a small, overgrown field, but instead of continuing around or going back, he started following a path to his left that went into some woods. The path quickly ended, but that did not discourage him. He kept walking, weaving his way through tall pine trees, until he came to a brook, wide and deep enough in one spot to make a pool. He stared at the slowly running water for awhile. He had another odd feeling that there was something familiar about this place, but again could not remember what it was.

           "Hands up!"

           Blake turned around. A man wearing a camouflage jacket, unshaven, a red bandana tied around his forehead, was pointing a rifle at him. Blake raised his hands just enough to comply with the order.

           "Who are you? What are you doing here? Have you come for me?" In answer to the last question, Blake shook his head no. The man thrust the rifle at him. "Don't want to talk, eh? We'll see about that. Get going."

           The man waved his rifle, indicating a direction. Blake meekly complied, keeping his hands up. For whatever reason, he did not feel unduly alarmed, as if he should have known something like this was going to happen. He and his captor walked through the woods until they came to a pup tent. Blake almost stumbled over a circle of blackened stones that had been used for a camp fire. "Have a seat," the man said, friendly all of a sudden. "Make yourself comfortable."

           Blake sat on the ground in front of the tent, putting his hands down. His captor sat too, crossing his legs and laying his rifle by his side. They looked at each other for a couple of seconds.

           "How are things in the world?" the man asked.

           Blake shrugged.

           "Ain't that the truth," the man said, with a shake of his head. "Who knows how things really are. Things just seem to get crazier all the time, but no one seems to notice or care, unless you're old enough to know better." The man looked at Blake suddenly. "Do you think I'm old?"

           Blake shook his head no.

           "Ah, you're just being kind. I'm as old as dirt. Don't trust anyone over thirty, isn't that what you guys believe in?" Blake gave the man a look of bewilderment. "You're not with those people in the house? My mistake; I thought you were. Damn hippies, wouldn't have lasted ten seconds in 'Nam. They were right about some things, though, like dope. You've got to stay mellow."

           The man began staring into the circle of blackened stones as if there was a fire and he was looking into the flames. "Ever see your good buddy die right in front of you, after his legs were blowed off by a mine? Of course you haven't. Might have seen something like it in the movies, but it's not the same. It's not something you ever forget, never ever."

           The man chuckled and smiled wearily, staring into the imaginary fire. "First we were villains, then we were heroes, and neither one was true. The pendulum swung back because people, the American public, wanted to forget us, it was time. I suppose it's the same for every war. Maybe we should have all been draft dodgers. It's amazing, though, how people go along with things like war. You have to create some kind of bogeyman, play on peoples' fears. In my case it was the international Communist menace, a Red tide that was going to sweep right over our borders unless we stopped 'em in Southeast Asia first. As it turned out that theory was bullshit, but for the longest time everybody believed in it, or almost everybody. Is there ever a just war? Was it worth all the millions who died in WW II to bring down the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan? Or the thousands upon thousands who died in our Civil War that brought an end to slavery? If there ever is a good reason to kill, that kind of opens the door, doesn't it? You can justify anything in the name of the fatherland. So we should never go to war, not for God or country or states' rights or any other reason?"

           The man pursed his lips and picked up a stick. Blake wondered if the man was going to start poking at the imaginary fire, but he didn't. "It's like we're always trying to protect something, isn't it? As if we're afraid of losing something. Maybe that's what it always comes down to, all violence, that's how the big lie can work. Or maybe violence is just a completely natural, healthy form of expression, a necessary blowing out of the pipes, if you will. Perhaps it's just something we have to do from time to time to feel alive, otherwise our lives would be too dull. Maybe it doesn't even matter what the war is about, as long as there is one. Take nuclear war, for example; who can deny that we've all secretly fantasized about the possibility as an escape from the mundanity of our lives? It's a common fantasy, they've made movies about it, entertainment. In other words, maybe we need war, because otherwise our lives would just be too damn boring. If not, wouldn't we have found some peaceful way to settle all our differences by now?" The man snickered.

           The man noticed Blake looking at his rifle. "Wanna hold it?" The man picked up the rifle and gave it to Blake. "Now that's a weapon. It's only a semi-automatic, but it still has a lot of firepower. Who said violence is the last refuge of the incompetent? You have to be a genius to design something like this. It's a work of art, just as much as any painting or piece of sculpture, even if it is mass produced. Put it to your shoulder, see how it feels."

           Blake did, taking aim at a couple trees. He was tempted to pull the trigger, but didn't, and just handed the weapon back.

           "It's a beauty, isn't it? Picked it up at a mall near here, it was a bargain. Not sure why, probably just get me into trouble, but I feel safer with it than without it. I feel like I can hold off a whole damn army if I have to! Not that I could, really, but I bet I've got more firepower than anybody else in this neck of the woods, so if anybody does give me a hard time, they'll soon regret it. Hungry?"

           Blake shrugged again, and the man ducked into his tent, coming back out with several items, including a battered skillet, a can of lighter fluid, a couple tin plates, plastic forks, a can of hash, a can opener, and matches. The man put down his things, grabbed up some sticks that were nearby, put them on the stones, squirted them with the lighter fluid, then lit a match and tossed it in.

           "Maybe there are other reasons for war besides sheer boredom, or ennui, as the French would say," the man said as he worked in earnest on opening the can of hash. "There's always the traditional reason of wanting someone else's property and just deciding to take it, that's how this country got started, probably how every country got started, for that matter, but perhaps the real reason for all war and violence is just that life is cheap, that's why it's so easy to kill and always has been. Has to be some reason, doesn't there? Life is cheap, that's why having thousands of nuclear missiles that could kill hundreds of millions, even billions of people, doesn't seem to worry us that much. We accept it, like there's nothing we can do. Maybe human life just isn't worth that much, yours, mine, and everybody else's, and there's nothing we can do to change that."

           By this time the man had opened the can of hash, dumped it into the skillet, and was heating it over the fire. "I suppose it's hopeful we haven't used nuclear weapons since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but there's certainly been plenty of other wars and violence since then. I don't know, maybe it doesn't matter who gets killed or how many because we're all just gonna die anyway. Maybe nothing matters, maybe we should all just kill ourselves and get it over with, end the illusion. For some reason, it's really hard to think of anything to live for these days. I mean, what is there? Tv? Money? God? Most people seem happy enough with their pointless existences, though, so maybe we don't need any special reason to live."

           The hash was sizzling and the man dumped some of it from the skillet into a tin plate and handed it to Blake along with a plastic fork. "World just keeps getting crazier every day, far as I'm concerned," the man said, eating out of the skillet. "Can you imagine all the changes that are going to take place in the next century or two? Hoo boy, you won't want to be alive then, if you think things are too strange, fast-paced, and out of balance now! No wonder I'm living here in the woods pretending to be a Vietnam vet---whoops! Did I say pretending?" The man covered his mouth in mock horror. "Damn, let the cat out of the bag, didn't I? I'm not really crazy, I just think I am. Happiness is a warm gun, bang bang, shoot shoot. I was going to tell you that I was a tunnel rat and cast it as a general metaphor for the human condition, you know, that we're all tunnel rats in a way, each of us with our own tunnel to crawl into to face our fears and kill the enemy before he kills us, in our dog eat dog world, but I won't bother with that now. I'm just trying to create my own little world, as we probably all try all our hopeless, fucked-up lives. How's your hash?"

           Blake nodded that it was okay.

           "Yeah, it's good stuff. I never get tired of it. That's a lie. I miss my parents. I wish I had a radio so I could turn a station on and listen to some music, though I hate those talky djs in love with the sound of their voices. So; you're not with those people in the house? You didn't come from there?"

           Blake nodded yes, that he did.

           "What's a matter, can't talk? I know I don't need any help, but you can get a word in edgewise if you want. You're not a deaf-mute, are you, by any chance, reading my lips?"

           Blake shook his head no.

           "Just mute by choice? That's an idea. If everybody would shut up, the world would be a much better place, though I should talk. Maybe we should start a religion based on the idea that silence is golden. Wanna?"

           Blake just smiled.

           "Yeah, you're right. Back to the people in the house; they your family?"

           Blake thought for a moment before nodding yes.

           "Oh, that's interesting, though family can have more than one definition. They didn't cut your tongue out, did they?"

           Blake shook his head no, strongly.

           "Just wondered. Wait a minute, I've had enough of this, I must have a pen and something you can write on around here somewhere."

           The man went in his tent and after rummaging around for a short while came back out with a pen and a pad, which he gave to Blake. "All right," the man said, settling back down. "Now, what's your name?"

           Blake thought for a moment, then wrote Blake on the pad so the man could see.

           "Blake, okay. Ahh...where do you come from, besides the house?"

           Blake knew what the man meant, but couldn't think of any answer, so he just wrote I don't know on the pad.

           "You don't have amnesia, do you? Maybe from a bump on the head?"

           Blake thought about that for awhile. Could that be the explanation for why he couldn't remember anything before waking up in the hospital? He felt his head but couldn't feel any injury to his skull. Maybe, he wrote on the pad, underlining it.

           "So, you were in an accident," the man said, nodding thoughtfully, taking another bite of hash. "You look all right now, but I'm no doctor. Maybe those people in the house, your family, should take you to see one."

           Blake ate a forkful of hash. It tasted like paper, or something even more tasteless. He put his plate down, and got up to leave.

           "Eat and run, eh? I understand. I'll be around if you need me. Have a good one!"

           Blake walked away, hearing the man laugh. He made his way through the woods, his mind empty of all thoughts, then suddenly he was back at the house.

           "How was your walk?" Freek asked, still sitting on the porch steps. Blake tried to indicate that it had gone all right. "Yeah, good ol' Mother Nature," Freek said, nodding. "That's why we came here originally, we wanted to get back to the land, set our souls free, to plagiarize someone. We wanted to be Indians, I think. Live a simple, primitive lifestyle, in harmony with the earth. Can you imagine anyone taking that philosophy seriously today, especially anyone young? Hah! We're never going to give up our toys, our cars, computers, cell phones, we've worked too hard to get them. Think how empty our lives would be without such things, such luxuries and conveniences, no irony intended. We'd be back in the Dark Ages, and who wants that? Today it's almost like everybody is a millionaire in some way, the standard of living is so high, at least in this country. It's amazing, if you think about it, and it looks like the whole world wants to go that way, everyone wants to be like us no matter what the cost. I can see that writing on the wall, and there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it. We've got to make everybody rich and then everybody will be happy, there will finally be peace on earth. Money for everyone, that's all we need, and if you get left behind too bad, survival of the fittest, or luckiest, however you want to look at it. Now that's a religion I can believe in, die rich and die happy. Wait'll I tell Weldon, though I probably already have."

           Freek smiled. "I bet you think I'm being cynical just for the sake of being cynical. I admit there are other important things in life, but it always seems to come back to money, doesn't it? Everything seems to be based on it; show me one institution that can run without it. It's everywhere, its fingers in every nook and cranny of our lives. It's almost like it's this abstract, living thing watching over us from above, this power, this presence, permeating every aspect of our lives, like God is supposed to be. The only thing it doesn't do is promise us eternal life---yet. Maybe some day that secret will be discovered by medical science thanks to a generous research grant and will be made available to the public at a fair price, whatever the traffic will bear, all thanks to Money, Money, our true Holy Grail, the one thing we are all constantly searching for and hoping to find even more than love, as if finding or securing some great or even modest treasure would validate our lives, make our existences worthwhile, oh yeah! I have seen the light, brother, and it's such fun to preach to the choir. Can I get an Amen?"

           Blake just looked at Freek.

           "Got a little inspired there, didn't I? Oh well. I hope Weldon gets back soon with the food. I'm hungry, for a change. Ha, speak of the devil."

           A white van drove up, coming into the yard and stopping near Blake. A pretty girl with long, light brown hair got out of the passenger side and a red bearded giant got out of the driver's side, wearing a big grin.

           "Hallelujah!" said Weldon, extending a hand. "Look what the new day has brung. All is right with the world. I apologize for leaving you alone with Freek. He has a somewhat negative outlook on life, which I hope did not alarm you."

           Blake shook Weldon's hand, his own getting lost in Weldon's grip.

           "He can't talk," said Freek. "Perhaps he is just being coy, but I think there is more to it than that."

           "No matter," said Weldon. "I'm sure he will soon regain that faculty as well."

           "Hi," said Mink, shyly holding out her hand. "I'm Mink."

           Blake shook her hand, which felt as delicate as Weldon's had felt massive. He couldn't help drinking Mink in with his eyes, which didn't seem to embarrass her.

           "I'm Weldon," said Weldon, "though you already seem to know that and perhaps everything else. Is there anything I can do for you? Consider me at your service. What would you like to do?"

           Blake thought for a moment. Oddly, there was something he wanted to do. He raised a hand to an ear, sticking out his thumb and little finger, as if he was talking on a phone.

           "You want to make a phone call?" guessed Weldon. "No problem. Well, maybe a little problem if you can't talk, but I suppose I can speak for you. I remember seeing a pay phone in town. Let's go."

           They all climbed into the van, Blake getting in back with Mink, and they took off. Blake couldn't help staring at Mink, not just because of her beauty, but almost as if she was someone he hadn't seen in a long time, though he couldn't remember where he had ever seen her before. Mink didn't seem to mind his attention, a smile playing on her lips she looked down.

           After going a short distance, they began passing houses, cabins, trailers, and a lake. Weldon pulled into a parking space overlooking the lake, next to a building whose sign announced it as the Cove, and there was the pay phone. Everyone got out and Blake went to the phone. Weldon gave him some change, he put it in and dialed a number, though he didn't know whose number it was or how he knew it. After several rings, the phone was picked up.

           "Blake, is that you? Blake? Blake?" It was a woman. "I know it's you, Blake, talk to me, tell me where you are. It's that cult, isn't it, that cult that was trying to recruit you at college. Don't let them brainwash you, son, remember your values, your upbringing, though I have to admit we didn't bring you up that strictly, we let you find your own way. We sent you to public schools, didn't make you go to church, I don't know, maybe we should have beat you or something. Spare the rod, spoil the child? But your father and I were never like that, Blake, we were too soft, not that you were a bad child, far from it, but maybe we should have been harder on you anyway. Maybe we should have forced you to do things, join more group activities, you were always too much of a loner, you read too much, maybe that was our fault, though your father was never that big on joining things, either. You played on a couple little league teams, but that's not enough, we should have made you do more, we should have challenged you. I don't know, Blake, what could we have done? What did we do wrong? We should have pushed you more, I suppose, but you seemed happy enough. Should we have expected more out of you, sent you to special schools, made you take piano, ballet? That's not our background, Blake, your father's or mine, maybe that's where we let you down, we should have known, been more disciplined and aggressive with you. Still, that's no reason to go and join a cult, is it, Blake? You've got to think for yourself, though yes, I admit, if I'm telling you not to do something how is that thinking for yourself, and yes I was just telling you that maybe we should have forced you into more group activities as a child and a cult is a group activity, but Blake, oh Blake, I don't know what I'm saying anymore. Just tell me where you are, son, and we'll come and get you. Where are you, Blake?"

           Blake looked at Weldon, who was standing nearby and listening in. "Dana," Weldon said into the receiver. "It's a small town in western Massachusetts."

           "Who's this?" the woman asked sharply.

           "Just a friend of your son's, ma'am. He's all right, he's right here, he just can't talk for some reason."

           "You must be the cult leader. Don't think you can get away with this, you bastard. We're going to break your hold on our son no matter how long it takes or whatever we have to do. Understand?"

           "Yes ma'am, perfectly. I'm sure Blake is anxious to see you. Right now we're in the middle of town at a pay phone, next to a restaurant called the Cove overlooking a lake. How about meeting him here tomorrow morning around ten, if that's convenient?"

           "Make sure he's there," the woman snarled, "or my husband and I will hunt you down like a dog and make you wish that you were never born."

           The phone clicked sharply. Blake hung up the receiver.

           "I though that went well, didn't you?" Weldon asked.

           "Who was that?" asked Freek, standing there with Mink.

           "His mother. She's going to pick him up here tomorrow morning around ten. It's all been arranged. That leaves us some time to kill. Anybody have any ideas?"

           "We could go to the mall," Mink suggested.

           "What mall? Around here?" asked Freek.

           "It's about a forty minute drive."

           "We could make a pilgrimage," said Weldon. "It would be appropriate. We could worship at the shrine of commerce. Join the other worshippers trying to propitiate their gods."

           "Jesus Christ," Mink said. "I just want to do some shopping. Is that all right with you?"

           "Everything's all right with me." Weldon looked at Blake. "How about it? Want to go to the mall?"

           Blake thought about it. He couldn't think of any reason not to, but before he could make any response, or thought he had made any response, they were in the van barreling down a four-lane highway with a horde of other vehicles, Weldon driving.

           "We've got to get back to the gaaaaaahahahdannnnn," Weldon sang, to a song on the radio.

           "Don't give up your day job," said Freek, sitting up front. "Oh, I forgot; you already have."

           "Classic rock," said Weldon. "Sounds better than ever."

           "Yup, somebody's still making money off it."

           "Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar."

           "What's that supposed to mean?"

           "I don't know, it just sounded good."

           "Turn right here," Mink said, and Weldon went down an off-ramp, stopping at a set of lights.

           "Holy crap," said Weldon, looking straight ahead at what appeared to be a high-walled fortress, surrounded by an ocean of vehicles whose roofs glinted blindingly in the sun. "What's that?"

           "The mall," said Mink, in back with Blake. "Big, isn't it?"

           "That's no mall, that's a city, an independent principality," said Weldon, driving forward after the light changed. "I can imagine people getting lost in here and never being seen again."

           "Only a few," said Mink. Blake looked to see if she was kidding, but she seemed to be serious. Weldon circled around until he found a space and parked.

           "Could you have found a spot any further away?" complained Freek, after they got out.

           "You need the exercise," answered Weldon, unperturbed. "Besides, you're supposed to make a little effort on a pilgrimage, or it doesn't count as much. To do things right, we should have walked here, telling each other stories along the way, but that would have taken too long."

           "Aren't you carrying this metaphor a little too far?"

           "I don't think so. Nothing exceeds like excess, remember? The motto of our generation. I think that's one of our main problems today, though, that we've made things too easy on ourselves, so when we do accomplish something, it's too easy, we can't appreciate it. It's the classic trade-off, the materialistic for the spiritual. I don't think it can be reversed, which, of course, is one reason why we are here."

           "So you can make speeches?"

           "Humph. Ye of little faith."

           They started towards the mall's main entrance. The sun shimmered off the roofs of cars, making them look like a mirage. Weldon spread his arms out, as if trying to encompass the sea of vehicles. "On the other hand, if you believe in God, you would have to believe that all this wealth and prosperity is a sign of his favor. Surely it is no accident, we are being rewarded for our virtue and goodness, except we don't seem that virtuous, do we? So perhaps it is merely the temptation of the devil, Satan, to which we can't succumb fast enough. Ah, the perils of keeping an open mind."

           They reached the entrance. "Hey, look," said Mink. Overhead a small plane was flying, pulling a banner that said ABANDON HOPE, ALL WHO ENTER.

           "There's always some crank with an ax to grind," said Freek. "Unless it's a clever advertisement using reverse psychology. Hey, look! The pilot's leaning out the window, waving to us, wearing a red devil's suit. Cute."

           "I can't go in," said Weldon, stopping and looking fearful all of a sudden.

           "Why not?"

           "Can't you see?" Weldon jerked his head at the entrance, a huge arch over a pair of double glass doors. Freek gave him a questioning look. "It's like a mouth waiting to eat us."

           "Oh, for Christ's sake. What are you, nuts? Wait a minute, let me rephrase that. Ahhh...dammit, Weldon, what do you want to do?"

           "I can't go in," said Weldon, looking even more fearful.

           "But I want to go shopping," pleaded Mink. "That five grand you gave me is burning a hole in my pocket."

           "Come on, big guy," said Freek, taking Weldon by an arm. "I won't let anyone hurt you. Let's go."

           Weldon shuddered, then closed his eyes and shuffled forward, head down, hands clasped together as if he was a manacled prisoner being led to his doom. His lips were moving as if he was saying the same word over and over again. Moloch, Blake thought he heard. Moloch, Moloch, Moloch.

           They went inside and entered a long, wide corridor with shops on both sides. Blake was surprised at how few people seemed to be walking around, compared with the number of cars in the parking lot, unless they were in the shops or spread out somehow. The corridor seemed practically deserted, with only a handful of other people in view, window-shopping.

           "They've got everything in here," Mink said, skipping ahead. "If they don't have it, you don't need it. It's like heaven, or what heaven should be like."

           "So that explains the music," said Freek, keeping a hand on Weldon's arm, Weldon still shuffling ahead like a prisoner, eyes closed, mumbling to himself. "I like your analogy, though. Maybe this is what heaven will be like, a place where we can walk and talk and see other people and do the things we used to do when we were alive. Maybe we won't even know that we're dead."

           "Geez, you're as batty as Weldon."

           "I try."

           They came to the end of the corridor, which emptied into a huge courtyard with a fountain. Sunlight streamed down from a skylight. Other corridors extended from the courtyard like spokes, and there was a second level of stores that went around the courtyard and on each of the corridors. More people seemed to be milling around now, as if they had come out from wherever they had been hiding.

           Freek whistled in appreciation. "Some place. Bet it must be hard for all these stores to make enough money to stay in business."

           "Sometimes they don't," said Mink, looking around as if unable to make up her mind. "There's lots of closed stores, maybe as many as there are open ones. I haven't been to half of them yet, probably never will. You could spend your entire life in here looking for stuff."

           "Is that your ambition?"

           "Nah, I told you what my ambition is, I'm gonna be a star." Mink took a deep breath. "Well, here I go. You guys can stay here and sit on the benches and wait for me, right? Unless you want to come with me."

           "No, that's okay," said Freek. "Good hunting."

           Mink darted into the crowd and was soon lost from view. Freek guided Weldon over to the bench that went around the fountain and they both sat down. Blake followed them but remained standing.

           "You okay, big fellow?" Freek asked. Weldon nodded in the affirmative, keeping his head down, hunched over, hands clasped between his knees, then a very familiar sounding song started playing over the mall sound system.

Money get away
get a good job with full pay
and yer okay

           "They're playing our song," cackled Freek. "I always knew that music was good for something!"

           Weldon barely seemed to notice, or maybe he didn't notice at all. Blake turned away. He saw a ramp that led down to a lower level, a subterranean level. Curious, he went over. No one else seemed to notice it, or at any rate was using it. He went down the ramp and found another level of shops that on first glance seemed the same variety as on the first floor. He walked past several game arcades, electronic and clothing stores, and then began noticing a difference. Now he was passing by package stores, adult video parlors, head shops, bars, strip clubs, and other establishments one normally didn't find in a mall, such as a store that judging from its window display specialized in selling coffins. Blake looked for awhile, and then went in.

           Inside spread about in a big, warehouse-like storeroom was a wide assortment of caskets that went far beyond the usual grey and black models. There were fiery red coffins, bright orange, shimmering blue, some splashed in a rainbow of colors. There were boxes with murals painted on them depicting scenes from the pastoral to the heroic, coffins that had been designed in the shapes of cars, missiles, bathtubs, boats, slippers, or with those and other designs carved on or ornamented to them, coffins with mini-bars, solar-powered tvs and radios guaranteed to last forever, half of the inventory stacked on top of one another in unbalanced-looking columns that went to the ceiling and seemed to defy the laws of gravity. Blake stopped to admire a simple black model, unremarkable except for the fact that it was plastered with smiley face stickers and, on closer inspection, reverse smiley face stickers, ones with x's for eyes instead of dots and an upturned smile.

           "See something you like?"

           Blake turned around. It was a young man, glasses, short, blonde hair, a pale, almost albino complexion, wearing a black coat and tie and sitting behind him in a purple coffin stacked on a couple of others. The young man got out of the coffin and climbed down from his perch.

           "So hard to choose, isn't it? People like to make a statement. They say you can't take it with you, but I'm not so sure about that, considering the price of some of these babies. The one I was trying out is our Deep Purple model, a lovely hue if I do say so myself. Let me show you some others."

           Blake followed the man down an aisle. "Our vampire model," the young man said, indicating a black coffin propped up against a wall, its sides tapered down so it was narrower at the bottom. "I'm not sure where the style started, probably in Hollywood. Everything starts out west, then makes it way here, right? And speaking of Hollywood, here's our James Dean model, sculpted in the very shape of the sports car in which he lost his life. He's got to see us, doesn't he? I guess not, Jimmy. And this also is our James Dean model; remember that famous photograph that was taken of him sitting in a coffin? This is the very make that he was trying out, little did he know. Or maybe he did, who knows. And we have coffins in the Wild West motif, with bronze or zinc saddles on the lid in case you want to get out ride your way up to heaven or down to hell, and yeah, we've got some with cattle horns attached up front like you're driving a car, a combination of styles, I suppose, and we have the ever popular Egyptian sarcophagi series, you can be buried like King Tut if you want, though we don't supply the pyramid or treasure. Ah, and here's our Shepherd's model, the Jesus Christ line, built with plain, genuine wood from the Holy Land, for those of a more ascetic or mystical bent who can ignore the fact that our Lord was not actually planted in a coffin, but instead was wrapped in a sheet and placed in a tomb before his ascension, as far as we know. A small detail."

           The young man stopped, leaned against a coal black coffin built in the shape of a locomotive, and looked over his merchandise, admiringly if not lovingly. "Everything you see is five grand or under, most of it under. If you have some special design in mind that we don't have, we can custom make it for a reasonable price, guaranteed. Business is booming. We've started a new trend, created a desire for flashier, more individualistic coffins, designer coffins, a whole new frontier. I'm proud to have discovered it. A lot of people, or our clients, are buying more than one and using them for decorations around their home. Why not? We all know that we're going to die, right? Besides, they're conversation pieces, investments, both in terms of how much they might be worth later as works of art and also because down the road who knows how much a good casket might cost, eh? You're killing two birds with one stone. I admit the old-fashioned type of coffin wouldn't work as a decoration or coffee table, unless you're Dracula or something, but these are so much brighter, livelier, imaginative, avant-garde, even. It's like they're not really coffins, which is the idea. You can see the difference, can't you? They're irresistible, which is also the idea. Of course, in certain situations, it's still pretty tricky. If you're buying something for yourself and you don't expect to die any time soon, or if you're ready to go and have accepted the situation, then it's all right, you can make death fun, but otherwise, you have to be careful. See, I'm not as insensitive as you thought."

           The salesman smiled, pleased with himself. "So, are you looking for something for yourself, or someone else? Or perhaps you're just looking? Nothing wrong with that either, I'm more than happy to show you around my showroom, that's what it's for." The salesman adopted a thoughtful pose, crossing his arms and rubbing his chin. "You know, call me crazy, but I see a kind of water theme for you, maybe---a surfboard? That's it, it doesn't even matter if you're a surfer or not, as long as you have that feeling in your heart. I think I've got something around here that would fit you perfectly, a little number that has a lid designed in the shape of a board, tilted on a blue polyurethane body so it's like you're riding the waves. You can hang ten into eternity! It's a steal, one of a kind, a collector's item, and I'm willing to give it to you for almost nothing compared to what it's really worth, because I like you and want to please my customers. That's what I live for, that's what I believe in, because we've all got to believe in something, don't we? Now where is it, it's around here somewhere...ah, there it is, up there. Hold on and I'll pull it out for you. Thank God they're not as heavy as the old ones, but they're still just as durable!"

           The salesman left his side and began climbing one of the stacks of caskets as carefully as a rock climber. Blake watched as the stack began swaying dangerously.

           "For some reason this reminds me of the rich woman who had herself buried in her favorite Caddilac on her ranch in Texas," the salesman said, gasping. "I think because it was that incident that gave me the brainstorm to start this business, but its been a long, hard climb to success, still is. Ah, nuts."

           The salesman was more than halfway up when, slow-motion, the stack tipped over. Blake took cover behind a coffin designed in the shape of a canoe, being paddled by the figure of an American Indian sticking up out of the lid, and heard a mighty crash that went on for some time. When he looked up, there was a great pile of coffins in the middle of the floor. The salesman was nowhere to be seen. Blake crept out, wondering if there was anything he could do, and then one of the coffins was pushed aside and the salesman poked his head out.

           "Don't worry, I'm okay," the salesman said, climbing out of the pile and brushing himself off. "I should probably leave things like this, it would be easier to get to the merchandise. You wouldn't believe how often this happens. Anyway, a young man such as yourself shouldn't be so concerned with his final sleeping arrangements, not that death, the big D, can't come to any of us at any time, sometimes when we least expect it. But right now, you should be concentrating on enjoying yourself as much as you can, while you can, which for a man, or most men, means only one thing. Follow me."

           Blake followed the salesman out of the store. They went directly across the corridor to another store, Angel's, that seemed to be a confectionery shop. A bell tinkled when they went through the front door, and the salesman marched up to a glass counter, behind which sat a dark-haired older woman in a dark blue dress, smoking a cigarette and reading a magazine. Blake noticed that the trays under the glass were almost bare of any candies.

           "Angel," the salesman said with a grin, leaning on the counter. "How's business?"

           "Sucks. Yours?"

           "Same. How about a freebie?"

           The woman cackled delightedly, almost dropping her cigarette. "For you? What a comedian. And we don't need any caskets."

           "Not for me, for my friend," the salesman said, indicating Blake. "A treat for the girls?"

           "First time?"

           "I don't know."

           "Who is he, your son?"

           "No, just someone who came into my place."

           The woman looked at Blake. "He is cute. Why are you doing this?"

           "I just like to keep my customers, and potential customers, happy. That's what were all in, isn't it, the happiness business? You of all people should know that."

           "I'd like to give you the business, you bum."

           The salesman laughed, then turned to Blake and shook his hand. "Good luck, pal, don't bother to thank me. Just keep me in mind when you're a little older and closer to needing my product. Funny, isn't it? You would think that our transient existences would make us more serious about life, but maybe it works the other way around. Perhaps if we lived longer, two, three, four hundred years, we wouldn't be such assholes, but I doubt it. There's probably nothing we can do to change the way we are. We're just too touchy, ready to fight and kill each other at the drop of a hat. I know I am! Oh well; have a good time. I hope you find what you're looking for."

           The salesman left the shop, the bell tinkling once more. "This way," the woman said, and Blake followed her through a doorway behind the counter. They started down a long, narrow passageway with a high ceiling. "If the girls like you, you might get lucky," Angel told him over her shoulder. "We've been pretty slow, so they're restless and bored. Someone like you gives them a chance to reclaim their lost innocence. Or maybe it's the opportunity to corrupt someone who's still innocent that turns them on, I'm not sure. Your guess is as good as mine."

           They entered a small, carpeted room where four scantily clad women sat in chairs or on a sofa. "Ooh, who's this?" a tall, skinny redhead asked.

           "A treat, not a trick," Angel said. "The coffin salesman brought him over. He thought you girls might be in a charitable mood."

           "He is cute," a black woman in a blonde wig said. "Does this mean we're off duty?"

           "Sure, why not. Nothing's happening anyway. Have a ball."

           Angel left. "See anything you like?" the redhead asked. Blake shrugged, not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings. "Have a seat." The redhead patted an empty spot on the sofa between her and a big-busted brunette wearing glasses. Blake went over and sat down.

           "Do you have any fantasies?" the brunette asked. "Like making love on a grave like the Shelleys? I wonder if anyone has ever made love on their graves, that would be cool."

           "That's your fantasy, Gloria," said the black woman in the blonde wig. "You're always talking about it."

           "Just because I've read a little is no reason to get snooty."

           "I'm not getting snooty. I'll show you snooty, if you want, girl."

           "Ladies, please," said an older, slightly plump, but still attractive woman in a white negligee. "This young man needs our help. He's obviously lost, that's why he came here. We have to instruct him. Tell him what we know about the most."

           "Men?" asked Gloria, sounding surprised.

           "No. No. What makes the world go round?"

           "Money?" the redhead suggested.

           "Well, love of money certainly makes it spin a little, but I was thinking of another kind of love. Romantic love, sexual love, mad, passionate, and ridiculous. We need that kind of love, or life isn't worth living. Somehow, most of us go on anyway, always looking for it. You believe in love, don't you, John?"

           After a moment, Blake nodded yes, almost imperceptibly.

           "Do you see anyone here that you can love?"

           Blake looked at the redhead for a moment, then looked away, as if he had just betrayed himself.

           "I guess I'm his type," said the redhead. "Come on, let's find a room."

           The redhead took his hand. They got up and left the others, going down a corridor. "I guess we are always looking for that special someone," the redhead sighed as they slowly walked along, holding hands. "You know, like Romeo and Juliet; Bonnie and Clyde; Paul and Joanne. Love is all there is, everything else is a poor substitute, but we take what we can get."

           There was a doorway on the right with a sign over it that said The Petrified Forest. Blake stopped and looked at the redhead questioningly.

           "Curious? Sure, let's go in. I'll give you the tour."

           It was a room full of grey, pitted statues. They were all figures of men, with almost no distinguishing features or marks, besides noses, crude, usually open mouths and sightlessly staring hollows for eyes. Blake reached out to touch one.

           "Look, but don't touch," cautioned his escort, and Blake withdrew his hand. They walked among the statues as if through a forest of stunted stone trees. Even though the statues had almost no detail, from their body language, bowed or askew heads, slumped postures, hanging arms, Blake couldn't help but get a feeling of loneliness and despair.

           "The adult bookstores drop them off," the redhead said. "It's sort of like spontaneous combustion I guess, whoosh!, people just going up in flames, except these guys turned to stone. Poor bastards. Anyway, the porn shops don't know what to do with them, they don't know who these guys are and can't just leave them standing there 'cause it freaks out the other customers, so they pay us to store them. They're no trouble, as you can see. We leave a few tvs on playing porn to keep them company."

           The tvs were mounted high on the walls, their screens showing a montage of furious, piston-like sexual activity that somehow seemed both comical and forlorn.

           "You guys like to watch, don't you," the redhead said, standing face to face with him. "Beats having to deal with a real woman, I suppose. We get fat, pregnant. We have moods, we're demanding. You poor boys just can't take it, you want the fantasy. Can't blame you, I suppose. Who doesn't? Why are we women are supposed to be the responsible ones, because of our biology? All I can say is that proves God can't be a woman, otherwise men would get pregnant too."

           The black woman in the blonde wig rushed into the room. "Red, it's a gold rush! We've got business."

           "Customers?" Red said doubtfully. "Real customers?"

           "It's the mother lode. More than I can handle, more than any of us can handle, they just started pouring in. All hands on deck!"

           "Who are they, a football team? Has the fleet arrived? Wait a minute, we're landlocked."

           "I don't know who they are. I just know that they're all drunk and they've got money to burn. Can't you hear them?" There were sounds of yelling, screaming, and breaking glass down the hall. "Wrap up your business here, girl, because time's a'wastin'."

           The black woman left. "Duty calls," said Red. "Business before pleasure. Too bad."

           Red kissed him on the lips, brushing up against him, then left. Blake was amazed at how aroused that fleeting contact had left him, and stumbled into one of the statues. He backed away, but not before the statue grabbed him by his left wrist. Horrified, he tried to pull away, but it was a grip of stone. He kept pulling and tugging until he knocked the statue over into another statue, and was released. He ran out of the room, avoiding other statues that now blindly tried to grab him, their arms jerking fitfully, clawlike hands spasmodically clenching and unclenching, but thankfully they were otherwise still unable to move. He ran from this nightmare, going down the hall opposite the way he had come, away from the sounds of noisy celebration, or debauchery, hoping to find another way out and he did, an exit that opened into a mall corridor.

           He had no idea where he was. He just started walking, hoping to find a ramp or a stairway or an escalator that led back up to the first floor, but there was nothing, as if all exits to any higher levels had been closed off, removed, and he was stuck on this one. He kept walking anyway, past various stores and shops, until he came to one huge store at the end of the corridor, anchor stores, he remembered the term was. There was a big banner hanging over the front that said Grand Opening!, and an older man in a white suit who was standing under it and seemed to be waiting for him, a man who looked exactly like the actor Rip Torn.

           "Son, it's good to see you," the man said, taking his hand and shaking it heartily. "Welcome to Hiram's. I'm not Hiram, by the way. I knew you'd make it here sooner or later, because at some point in their lives everybody needs a little security, a little self-protection, and if Hiram's isn't the place to find it, I don't know where you can."

           The man walked him into the store, putting an avuncular arm around his shoulder, and Blake found himself faced with an endless display of weaponry. There were rifles and pistols everywhere, lined up on wall shelves, set on tables under glass counter tops, a veritable orgy of firepower that Blake could not take in completely.

           "Self-defense," the man said firmly. "We here at Hiram's believe that every man or woman should have the ability to defend themselves. They should have an equalizer, like this little peacemaker." The man handed Blake a pistol. "That's a .32. Deadly accurate, and more than enough firepower. What say we try it out?"

           The man took Blake into a back room that turned out to be a firing range. He gave Blake some earmuffs and turned a light on that illuminated a target. The man put his own earmuffs on. "Go ahead, squeeze off a few. See how it feels. Try it, you'll like it."

           Blake raised the pistol, not really sure why he was doing this, took aim at the target, the black silhouette of a man, then stopped. He lowered his gun and stared at the Rip Torn look-alike in disbelief.

           "What?" the man asked. "Oh, I forgot. I should have introduced you two. Where's my manners?" The man pushed a button, bringing up the target, except it wasn't the silhouette of a man, it was a real man, dressed in black, hanging on a couple of hooks under his armpits, to which he was also lashed.

           "Hey, Socko, how's it going?" the man asked.

           "It's going," the target replied, his voice muffled by the hood he was wearing that covered his entire face, except for small holes for his eyes. "When does the fun begin?"

           "Soon, soon. Your shooter's a little reluctant. I don't think he's ever had a live target before. Don't worry, kid. See that outfit he's wearing? It's bulletproof, Kevlar. You can't hurt him with that little popgun you've got. Remember those two robbers in L.A. who held off the entire L.A.P.D. a few years back, with their automatic rifles and bulletproof suits? It's the same deal. You can't hurt him, unless you get a real lucky shot. He'll feel it, but he likes the pain, don't you, Socko?"

           "I love it," said Socko. "It's a rush, like skydiving, or bungee jumping. It's the only thing that makes me feel alive. Shoot me. Shoot me!"

           "Good," said the Rip Torn look-alike approvingly. "Not that getting shot is my cup o' java, but different strokes for different folks, as they say. Go ahead, son, pop him. He's asking for it, you can't miss from this distance. Give him your best shot!"

           Blake looked at Socko, the human target. He felt no desire whatsoever to shoot him and put the gun down on a counter. The Rip Torn double shook his head in disappointment.

           "Son, you've got to learn to be a man. That's the key." The Rip Torn double snatched up the pistol and fired several quick shots, all of which hit their target, making Socko jerk back on his hooks. "You okay, Socko?"

           "Oh God," Socko moaned in reply. "That was great. Shoot me some more."

           "Later. Come on, kid, let me show you something."

           The man led Blake out of the firing range back to the front of the store. "Son, do you see what I see?"

           Blake looked. All he saw was shops lining both sides of a wide corridor, with shoppers going in and out and walking past.

           "What I see is a lot of defenseless people. It would serve them right if I popped a couple of them. You hear about it in the news all the time, some mad gunman knocking off a few score unarmed, defenseless citizens for no reason at all. If those people had had guns, they'd be alive today. Everyone should carry a gun. Self-defense, do unto others before they do unto you. It's that simple. Like restraining orders, they're not worth the paper they're printed on, but you give those poor women a gun, they'd at least have a fighting chance. I don't see how anyone can disagree with that."

           "Happiness is a warm gun?" offered Blake.

           "Yeah, exactly. Hey, you've found your voice! 'Bout time you got into the spirit of things. And speaking of spirits, how about a drink? I sell that too. Guns and liquor, somehow they just go together."

           They went back into the store, went down an aisle filled with firearm accessories, then came into an area where the inventory was alcoholic; cartons of beer, bottles of wine, whiskey, vodka, all brands, out on shelves or in refrigerated compartments.

           "I should have known this is what you needed, we should have come here first," the man said, shaking his head sadly at his own foolishness. "You're too uptight. We've got to loosen you up, pour some liquid courage into you."

           There was a counter with a cash register and the man reached behind the it and came out with a liquor bottle and two shot glasses, which he placed on the counter and filled with a dark liquid. "Bottoms up!" the man said, downing his drink, then refilling it, not seeming to notice that Blake hadn't touched his.

           "I'm a happy drunk, a very happy drunk," the man said. "Some people get mean, I don't, I go the opposite way. Funny, isn't it? Just another mystery of life. Sometimes I wish I could crawl into a bottle, but I just don't like to drink that much. You need a real talent for it. So, I mostly stay sober, which is boring, but you can't be what you're not." The man raised the glass to his lips, then stopped and gave Blake a curious look. "I get the feeling that there's something you want to ask me."

           "There is. How do I get back?"

           "Get back where?"

           "To the first floor."

           The Rip Torn knock-off affected a look of confusion. "I thought this was the first floor. Didn't know there were any others. Sorry."

           Blake turned and walked away.

           "Come back soon," the man called after him gaily. "Sorry I couldn't be of more help to you. Maybe next time!"

           Blake left the store and started walking down the corridor again. He promised himself that no matter what happened, he wasn't going into any more stores or shops. He was going to find the ramp he had walked down or some other exit and get out.

           He had been walking along for some time when he noticed that he was suddenly alone. There was no one else around, either in the shops or the corridor. Also, it had gotten quite dark, gloomy. Then he heard noises, gibbering noises, and it sounded like someone or something was rushing up behind him. He looked and in the darkness thought he saw strange, malformed creatures hopping after him and started running. He ran and turned a corner and came to a dead end, but there was a ladder leaning up against a wall and he began climbing. The terrifying noises got louder and louder, whatever it was almost on top of him, and he pulled himself up through an opening, then slammed a hatch down and bolted it shut on a boiling mass of maniacal, demonic things, reaching for him with inhuman, crab-like limbs, before they could follow him through.

           Blake stood up, shaken. He was in a small chamber, an alcove. The sounds of muzak and a fountain reached his ears. He stepped back into the huge courtyard where he had left Weldon and Freek, if it was the same one. People were milling about, looking at the fountain, the skylight, most with some type of food in their hands, as well as shopping bags. Blake joined the parade and began wandering around the fountain wondering if Weldon and Freek were still there when he spotted them, sitting in the same spot on the bench. Weldon looked more relaxed, resigned, perhaps, frowning as he studied his surroundings. Blake went over and joined them. Neither Freek or Weldon gave any indication that they knew he hadn't been there all along

           "I feel like I should get up and say something," said Weldon, as the people walked by. "Make a speech."

           "About what?" asked Freek. "Where do you think we are, Hyde park? You'd just get arrested, if anyone paid that much attention to you. You'd have to draw a crowd by doing something objectionable, which doesn't seem to be your style. What would you talk about, the same stuff you bored me with back at the farmhouse? No one cares, Weldon. Trust me, it's over. We're just not made for peace, love, and understanding. We're simply not like that, even the best and kindest of us. We're animals with pretensions, that's all we really are. Nothing you can do about it."

           Weldon chuckled mirthlessly. "Trying to cheer me up, Freek?"

           "Well, you did ask for my advice, remember? Or help, anyway. Same thing."

           "I don't know. Maybe you're right. I'd just like something to believe in, something simple, sane, without any mumbo-jumbo. Something that doesn't need Christ or Buddha or God or any kind of psychic or supernatural nonsense, because I just don't need that. And you know what my alternative is."

           "Yeah, a utopian world where money is no longer a factor and we're no longer killing each other. The Church of SomeDay." Freek laughed heartily. "Hey, I've got another idea for you. How about calling it the Church of a Million Years, because that's about how long it will take for the world to become anything like that, if we're all still here. The Church of a Million Years; doesn't sound half bad, does it? Maybe you can use both names, then pick the one that works the best. Am I earning my keep, brother Weldon?"

           "You're earning your keep, brother Freek."

           "Thank you, brother Weldon. Praise from you is like manna from heaven."

           "We don't believe in that, remember?"

           "Oh, sorry. I forgot. That's sort of the problem though, isn't it?"

           "What problem?"

           "We need something more than this world to believe in, something out of this world, like aliens from outer space. That's why alien abduction theories are so popular these days, it's like another religion. But that's what we need to believe in, something strange, unusual, fantastic like that, like---Valhalla!"

           Weldon looked askance at Freek. "Valhalla?"

           "Ever see the 13th Warrior, Antonio Banderas? Great movie. Those Vikings were crazy bastards, but that's the kind of thing you need to believe in if you're going to believe in something. Fighting heroically and dying a warrior's death, then going to heaven. Odin's hall."

           "Is that what you believe in?"

           "Hell no, that's just an example. I'm just saying that if you want to give people something to believe in, it has to be something crazy like that. Something really different, out of the ordinary, special. Otherwise, who cares. You know?"

           "I don't have anything like that."

           "That's your problem. The promise of a utopian future where everyone gets along just isn't exciting enough, otherwise we would have made it a reality a long time ago. We'd rather fight and kill each other over nothing, there are no shortcuts to a perfect world. God knows how much more anger and hate we're going to have to work through before we become truly civilized. A couple nuclear wars, the complete destruction of our planet as we know it?" Freek shrugged. "Just go with the flow, baby. It's all you can do."

           "That's what you believe in?" Weldon asked. "Going with the flow?"

           "Yep, survival. Can't have anything without that. Let all the big stuff, the big movements in human history, take care of themselves. Just go with the flow, ride those waves." Freek jumped up and balanced on the edge of the bench for a moment like he was riding a surfboard, then sat back down.

           "I guess it's something to believe in," said Weldon. "Seems a little vague, though."

           "Flexible, ya gotta be flexible, bend, but don't break. Doesn't mean you have to go along with everything or be a Nazi, it means trying to avoid that kind of nonsense, any kind of rigidity or absolutism like the plague. It means running or fighting, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes, you don't have much choice. If you do have to oppose something, so be it, but don't be a hero unless you can't help it. A poor man's situational ethics, a micro-philosophy in a nutshell."

           Weldon folded his arms on his chest and regarded Freek curiously. "Sounds like you should have your own religion."

           "Not me, babe, that's your bag, your thing. Starting your own religion is definitely not going with the flow."

           "Not even if you're compelled to?"

           "Well---"

           "Hey; will one of you guys stop talking long enough to give me a hand?"

           It was Mink, standing there laden down with assorted shopping bags. They each took one, then another, then another, until the burden was more or less equally distributed.

           "Does this mean we're married?" Freek asked, struggling with his new load.

           "Very funny," Mink replied. "There were a lot of good buys, what can I say?"

           "Are you happy now?" Weldon asked, sitting back and looking pleased.

           "Hell yeah. I can't wait to try all this stuff on, again."

           "It is fun to buy things," sighed Weldon. "Maybe that is all we really need. Seems a little lonely, but maybe all we really need to be happy is to be able to buy anything we want. So why can't I believe that?"

           "Because you're nuts," offered Freek.

           "You guys just been sitting here talking like this since I've been gone?" Mink asked.

           "Weldon wanted to jump up and make a speech to the masses, but I talked him out of it," said Freek. "So you almost missed that, except it never happened."

           "Uh-huh."

           "Let's go see a movie," said Weldon suddenly, decisively. "I feel like watching a movie. Anyone else?"

           "Fine with me," said Freek.

           "I think there's a theater complex down that way," Mink said, pointing.

           They started down a corridor and Weldon chuckled. "Can you imagine what the Puritans would think of this mall? Jonathan Edwards? They'd have to be locked up. It's amazing."

           "Fire and brimstone, that's what we need?" Freek asked.

           "No, I just mean I don't know how we got from there to here. It's only been about three hundred years or so; how could things have changed that much? Have we changed that much? Where's the fear of God that ruled us for so long, or maybe it never really did, not even from the beginning? It was always just lip service, we've always done whatever we wanted and just used religion as an excuse or justification sometimes. Maybe we've never really believed in God, we just thought we did. If we did really believe in the Almighty, we'd probably do nothing except sit on a mountain top and meditate all the time. We'd all be monks, or ascetics. What's that?"

           They stopped by a large triangular doorway with illuminated sides and no door, set back between a book store and a discount shoe shop. There was no sign over it, just the doorway, which, as far as could be seen from the outside, led into a passageway.

           "Wonder what they're selling," said Weldon. "Wanna find out?"

           "Why not," Freek said agreeably. "Adventure is my middle name."

           They entered the passageway, which was also triangular in shape. It went straight ahead until they went down some steps and entered a large, sunken, windowless, empty white room with a circular floor and walls that curved upward and met at a light in the middle of the ceiling.

           "There's nothing here," Freek said, looking around.

           "Doesn't seem to be," agreed Weldon. "Not even a place to sit, except the floor. Good place to do some thinking, I suppose. Anyone feel like meditating?"

           "I thought we were going to see a movie," Mink said.

           "We are," said Weldon. "You think too much about things, you become paralyzed, you can't act. You can't even move. Why do anything? Why go to school, go to work, fall in love, get married, have kids, when you lose everything in the end? If you don't think at all, though, just act, that doesn't work either. They get you coming and going, don't they?"

           "Who's they?" asked Freek.

           "Beats me. Whoever's in charge, I suppose, if anyone is."

           "Are we going to see a movie?" Mink asked impatiently.

           "Sure. Let's go."

           They left the room, continued down the corridor and came to the cineplex. On a glittering, false marquee, two dozen movies and their playing times were listed.

           "Hmmm," said Weldon, surveying the selection. "Seems to be a choice between sex or violence, or various combinations thereof. Are we feeling bloodthirsty or mellow?"

           "What's the one playing in theater 12?" asked Freek. "Is that just a question mark, or the movie's title?"

           "Let's find out," said Weldon, marching up to a ticket seller. "What's the movie in theater 12? What's it about?"

           The ticket seller, a young man with blonde bangs, shrugged and blinked a couple times. "I don't know. It's just a movie."

           "Like the Bible is just a book?"

           "What?"

           "Never mind. Will we get our money back if we don't like it, Jim?"

           "I don't know. I just work here."

           "You mean you're only following orders?"

           "What?"

           "Never mind." Weldon looked back. "What about it, gang, want to take a chance?"

           "I don't care," Freek said. "It's all the same to me."

           "Do you want to see it?" Mink asked Weldon.

           "Yeah, I do. I bet it's some kind of weird art film. I'm curious."

           "It's okay by me, then."

           Weldon smiled at Blake. "What about it, champ? Is it all right with you?" Blake nodded yes, almost as if he had no choice. "Cat still got your tongue, eh? That's okay, I'm a patient man. Boy, I bet when you do start talking, you'll never stop!"

           Weldon bought the tickets, then they went to the concession stand and loaded up, served by a dour old man even shorter than Freek who looked as if he had been working there all his life and didn't much appreciate it. They left the concession stand, walking down a carpeted corridor, found their theater and went in. There was only a handful of other people sprinkled about in the seats, and they took a row in the middle, somehow finding room for all of Mink's shopping bags.

           "Movies are still a trip," Weldon said, digging into his mammoth tub of popcorn. "A fairly harmless one, compared to some others. I guess everything's an escape in some way. Sex, drugs, money, religion, food, even sleep, everything we enjoy or think is important. It's obvious, but I'm not sure I've thought of it that way before. If so, what are we constantly trying to escape from? Our minds, bodies, consciousness? Just being alive? What?"

            "I sure hope this movie starts soon," Freek said, munching on his popcorn. "Oh, crap."

           "What?" asked Weldon.

           "I see some people wearing costumes. At least, I think they're costumes. It looks like it's going to be one of those cult audience participation movies, where everyone's going to shout out the lines but us. Damn."

           "Relax, Freek. Just go with the flow, remember?"

           "Yeah, right. The tyrannny of the majority. Maybe I should flow right on out of here."

           "I hope they have previews," said Mink, taking some of Freek's popcorn. "Sometimes the previews are better than the movie."

           The lights dimmed, and to an audible sigh of disappointment from Mink, the movie started without any previews of coming attractions. The opening scene showed flat, scrubby desert, with distant mountains in the background. The camera was moving forward, as if showing the perspective of someone walking towards the mountains. Blake waited for something to happen, then realized it was him who was doing the walking. Somehow, he was in the movie. He stopped and looked back. Sitting comfortably in their seats, munching popcorn and drinking soda, were Weldon, Freek, and Mink, gazing up at the screen. Feeling an obligation not to disappoint his audience, Blake turned back and resumed his journey through the trackless waste.

           The sun was high in the sky and shining down brightly. Blake didn't feel warm or thirsty, but then he hadn't been walking that long. He had a feeling something was supposed to happen, but didn't know what, and then he came to a road, a thin ribbon of blacktop. He started following it and soon a car came up behind him and pulled alongside.

           "Need a lift?" It was a young man wearing sunglasses, black, slicked-back hair, bright red shirt, tan slacks, behind the wheel of a convertible sports car, the top down.

           "Sure," said Blake. He got in and they took off.

           "Car break down?" the young man asked.

           "Nope."

           "Just out for a walk?"

           "Yup."

           The young man nodded. "I see. Well, it takes all kinds. You just get out of a camp?" Blake shook his head no. "Nothing to be ashamed of, I've been in one or two myself. So far I haven't been able to get with the program, probably because I don't want to. I am getting a little afraid, though, that the next time I wind up in one of those places they'll do a McMurtry on me. Ever read that book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? The hero winds up in a lunatic asylum because he's trying to get out of doing jail time, and in the end they lobotomize him because he won't conform. So far I haven't heard of anything like that actually happening, but it wouldn't surprise me. I shouldn't press my luck, but, screw it." The man looked him over doubtfully. "Do you have a card?"

           "What card?"

           "Your consumer card, of course. I just asked because it doesn't look like you've got much of anything, seeing as how you're only dressed in your underwear."

           Blake looked down and noticed that he was only wearing a white undershirt and white underpants. "No, I don't have a card."

           "Here, take one of mine," the man said, taking a small white plastic card out of his shirt pocket and handing it to Blake. "It should get you the bare necessities, which is the idea. I don't make too many of those because everyone wants the rainbow card or the royal blue card, which gets you access to all the primo consumer items, but there's nothing wrong with the white card, or the starving artists' card, as it's sometimes called. It can get you what you need. Just don't use that one for more than a week, or they'll catch up to you."

           "Who's they?"

           "The government, of course, the do-gooders who put this whole no-money system in. It seemed to happen overnight. One day you could get everything you wanted as long as you had the cold hard cash, then the next day all that was gone and you had to have one of those silly cards, and the only way you could get those was if you had a job of some kind, or some kind of exemption. Unless, of course, you're a rugged individualist like me. I make my own." The man looked at Blake strangely. "Don't you know all this? Where have you been, asleep somewhere? You don't look like Rip Van Winkle."

           Blake shook his head. "I don't know. I just don't know."

           "Don't let it get you. Just roll with the punches, that's my motto. It is amazing, though, how fast everything changed, and how well everything seems to be working. You can't satisfy everyone's greed all the time, if you want to live in a mansion it's like winning a lottery, in fact, it is winning a lottery, but most people seem happy enough with the way things have changed. I just can't go along with it myself, I'd rather live by my wits, be a hustler, which still doesn't count as an occupation, liberal as the authorities are about what one does for a living. I doubt it will ever be on the approved list of jobs. Oh well, maybe I'll grow up one of these days---not!"

           The man laughed as they sped along through the desert. The sky was pale blue and cloudless. Blake looked out his side and saw Mink and Freek and Weldon watching him from the comfortable darkness of the movie theater.

           "Is that Blake?" asked Mink. "What's he doing in the movie?"

           "Who knows?" said Freek, slapping her hand as she tried to steal some of his popcorn. "Maybe that will become obvious. I like things that are obvious."

           There was the wail of a siren and the flashing blue lights of a police car. "Damn," the man said, and pulled over. After awhile, the police officer got out and came up to them.

           "Morning," the officer said, his expression stolid behind a pair of sunglasses. "Might I see your driver's license and consumer card?"

           "Certainly, officer," the man said, taking out his wallet and giving two cards to the policeman. "I wasn't going too fast, was I?"

           "Not at all. We're pretty tolerant of that in these parts." The officer studied the two cards, one of which was iridescent. "New car, Mr. Heinz?"

           "Yes, it is, officer. I was just taking it out for a spin."

           "I see. Wait here, will you?"

           The officer went back to his car. "I've got a bad feeling about this," said Heinz. "I thought that card was good, but if the dealership's contacted them already, maybe not. Well, win some, lose some. Maybe I can talk my way out of this."

           The police officer came back. "I'm afraid you and your accomplice will have to come with me, Mr. Heinz. Your consumer card is invalid. It is a forgery. Not the first time you've been caught in this sort of activity. Crime doesn't pay, Mr. Heinz. Not anymore."

           "Why, officer, I have no idea what you're talking about."

           "You will, Mr. Heinz. Now, if you would just follow me back to the police station, I would appreciate it. Or, if you want, we can do things the hard way."

           "Please, officer, this is all a misunderstanding. I can't understand what happened. I thought my card was good."

           "I'm sure you did."

           "Did I max out my consumer eligibility? I thought I had plenty of room. Did the limits change?"

           "No, Mr. Heinz, nothing has changed. You've just been caught red-handed, is all."

           "I see. Do you have any idea where that expression came from, by the way?"

           "No, none at all. Enlighten me."

           "I'm afraid I can't. I was hoping you could tell me. Well. With your permission, then, officer, I will be on my way."

           "No, Mr. Heinz, you will not be on your way. You are coming with me, one way, or the other."

           "I see, I see. Well, officer, you are certainly a fine fellow, a credit to your profession, a regular bulldog, I imagine. You are also quite an imposing physical specimen, strapping, I believe the term would be. You ever play football?"

           "Mr. Heinz..."

           "I know, deputy. Perhaps we could come to some sort of agreement. I know how under-compensated you fine gentlemen of the law still are, by an ungrateful populace. Perhaps I could rectify that."

           Heinz whipped out a royal blue card from his shirt pocket, and offered it to the policeman with a smile. The officer sighed and took it.

           "Mr. Heinz, even though money is a thing of the past, an anachronism, bribery is still against the law. You are just digging a bigger hole for yourself."

           "But I was just trying to express my appreciation for the fine job you are doing, out here in the desert. Is that a crime?"

           "I'm afraid it is, Mr. Heinz. Now, are you going to follow me into town, or do I have to handcuff you and throw you in my trunk?"

           "Is that normal procedure?"

           "I decide what the normal procedure is around here, Mr. Heinz. You should have figured that out by now."

           "Indeed. You know, officer, I think you've stolen my heart."

           "Heinz..."

           "All right, I'm sorry. Lead on, constable, and I will follow. Perhaps we can clear this mess up at the station house. Will your face be red."

           "Not likely." The officer started to go back to his car, then stopped and looked in at Blake. "I'll take that white card, if you don't mind, son."

           "How do you know it's not his?" said Heinz. "He's just a hitchhiker I picked up."

           "That true, son?"

           Blake nodded yes, but gave the card to the officer. "That's not my card. I don't have one."

           "He give it to you?" Blake shrugged.

           "I'll take that as a yes," said the officer. "You'll have to come in too."

           The officer got back in his car, drove off, and Heinz followed him. "Sorry about that, kid, I was just trying to help you out. You should have lied to him about the card, but maybe it's just as well you didn't. You don't look like a very good liar, it's something you need a lot of practice at, unless you're a natural like me. Anyway, you shouldn't get in any trouble. They'll probably just give you a lecture and send you back to your parents."

           "But I'm innocent!" cried Blake, not sure why or what he was protesting so loudly that he was innocent of, except everything.

           "Sure you are, kid, we all are. It's not our fault we're screwed up, we're just made that way. Any one of us are capable of doing terrible, monstrous things, most of us just don't, because while we're screwed up, we're not that screwed up. Sometimes, I think it's all a matter of luck. I don't know how else to explain it. Maybe there will always be certain individuals capable of committing the most unimaginable crimes, maybe the human race will never be able to completely get rid of the mean streak it has, the enjoyment of or indifference to the pain and suffering of others. We all seem to have a little of it, I can feel it in me right now. We're all sick, but is that our fault? Who made us? I don't know, kid. Frankly, I think you've got a point, if you'll excuse the sermon."

           They followed the police car into a small, spread-out desert town, none of the buildings over one story high. They drove in behind an official looking building that Blake assumed was the police station, parked and got out.

           "I should have raced you here," Heinz said to the cop. "You drive like an old lady. A constipated old dear."

           "Keep talking, wiseguy. You're asking for it."

           "I can't help it, officer. I'm in love---with life!"

           The policeman opened a door and they entered an air-conditioned foyer. The officer directed them down a hallway and into a room with two desks, behind one of which sat a young female police officer, blonde and shapely.

           "Wanna take the kid, Dorothy? Consumer card fraud investigation. His buddy here says he picked him up hitchhiking, but it sounds like a story to me."

           "It's the truth, and I'd swear it on a stack of bibles," said Heinz, with a wink at Blake.

           "Shut up, and sit down," said the policeman.

           Everyone sat, Blake taking the chair in front of Dorothy's desk. "What's your name?" she asked.

           "Blake."

           "Blake what?"

           Blake wondered if he should just make up another name, but couldn't think of anything he liked. Then, he had an idea. "Blake Blake," he said.

           "Blake Blake? What kind of name is that?"

           "It's my name."

           "I knew a Major Major once," said Heinz, sitting at the policeman's desk, "but that was in a book. Are you two kids hitting it off? Makes the world go round, but true love is so hard to find."

           "Who are you calling a kid?" the policeman asked. "You're just a punk yourself. If you want to talk, tell me about these cards. They're good fakes. Did you make them yourself, or are you working with someone on the inside?"

           "My lips are sealed, sweetie. You know, you are such a hunk. I almost wish I was gay."

           "Oh, Jesus Christ."

           "What's your name?"

           "It's Butch," volunteered Dorothy, who seemed eager to be of assistance.

           "Oooh, Officer Butch," said Heinz, delighted. "This just keeps getting better and better."

           "Keep it up, Heinz, and I'm going to shoot you while you're trying to escape."

           "Wild horses couldn't drag me away now, Officer Butch. Wild horses," Heinz said, batting his eyes.

           "Why are you in your underwear?" Dorothy asked Blake. "Don't you have any clothes?"

           "He's just marching to a different drummer," Heinz said. "You're trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. What do you care how he's dressed?"

           "Well, everyone qualifies for a certain allotment of clothing per year, no matter what your circumstances are. It's the law."

           "The law," grumbled Heinz. "That's your religion, the law. Well, I'm a free spirit, what does your law say about that?"

           "You don't have to work if you don't want to, Heinz," said Officer Butch. "You can be a bum, if you want. Just don't expect the same rewards the rest of us get."

           "What nonsense. You are persecuting me. I demand my rights."

           "What rights?"

           "The right to make money. I consider that my God-given, inalienable right, just as much as free speech, or anything else. I demand the right to have a chance be rich, to be able to buy anything I want when I want with cold, hard cash, or credit, without having to present some damn card that restricts what and how much I can buy, depending on what job I have, or if I'm a student or retired or disabled, what have you. How did we ever get trapped in such a system; did I miss a referendum? Down with the new, bring back the old!"

           "Tell it to the judge," Officer Butch said tiredly, typing something into his computer.

           "I will. That, and more."

           "Are you a student?" Dorothy asked Blake.

           Blake looked around, but couldn't see Weldon and the others watching from the theater anymore. "I don't know. I might be."

           "Don't you know?"

           "I can't remember."

           "Were you in an accident? Do you have amnesia?"

           "It's possible."

           "You don't have to be afraid, I know you're not like him," Dorothy said, indicating Heinz. "For the no-money system to work, we all have to make sacrifices. We all have to find some kind of productive occupation, unless you're too young, old, or sick or something, and do it without pay, in return for the consumer heaven we now have. Is that too much to ask?"

           Blake could see that she was waiting for some kind of answer. "No," he said.

           "Of course not. It means you can't become a millionaire or a billionaire, but how many of us would ever see that kind of money anyway? Right, Mr. Heinz?"

           "I'd still like the opportunity. I think it used to be called freedom. You do-gooders just want to make everything nice and tidy so no one gets hurt. That's what makes life interesting."

           "You don't want to be a loser, do you?" Dorothy asked Blake. "There's all kinds of jobs out there, not to mention agencies and career counselors to help you find something, if you need the help. You can always try something and then, if you don't like it, try something else. I did, I was a teacher, and then I became a cop. There's all kinds of options, you don't have to turn to a life of crime."

           "If it weren't for criminals, or outlaws, you'd be out of a job," Heinz said triumphantly. "I know that's obvious, but I had to say it."

           "I doubt that there will ever be a shortage of law breakers, Mr. Heinz," said Dorothy. "No offense."

           "None taken, since I am only a political prisoner oppressed by your unjust rules, not that I admit any guilt by that statement." Heinz leaned over and whispered in Blake's ear. "Keep playing dumb, kid. They love it. Makes 'em feel smart."

           "Ho, ho!" said Officer Butch, looking at something on his computer screen. "Well, Mr. Heinz, if that's your real name since you use a number of aliases, this certainly isn't your first run-in with the law, is it? Looks like you're a ten-time loser, always pretty much the same offense, consumer card forgery, theft, or misappropriation. You just haven't learned. You won't be sent to an education camp this time; this time you'll get the max. You'll be sent to a real prison where you'll rot in your cell for awhile, then you'll be given the opportunity to do some kind of menial labor to see if you've learned your lesson, or if you're still incorrigible. If you're a hardcore slacker, they can keep you behind bars indefinitely, and if you don't straighen up and fly right, that's just the place for you, as far as I'm concerned."

           Heinz's expression became serious. "Is that the code word for it? The max?"

           Officer Butch looked puzzled. "Code word for what?"

           "Doing a McMurtry. You'll have to kill me first."

           Officer Butch's expression changed from one of puzzlement to exasperation. "Look, Heinz, they're just going to send you to prison, where, with your record, you will stay the rest of your life unless you change your attitude, go straight and learn an honest trade. Is that too much to ask? There's got to be something you can do that isn't crooked."

           Heinz nodded, as if he was thinking. "A likely story. You're not going to make a vegetable out of me."

           "What?"

           Heinz stood, picked up his chair and smashed it over the head of Officer Butch before the policeman had time to react. "Run for it, kid! Every man for himself!"

           Heinz took off, followed in quick succession by Dorothy, then Officer Butch, who stopped to give Blake a message, reinforced by a pointed finger. "Don't go anywhere."

           Blake looked at a wall clock that said five minutes to twelve. He felt remarkably tired, and in no mood to do anything except stay right where he was. He closed his eyes for a moment, and was awakened by a sharp jab to his ribs.

           "Hey! The movie's over, let's go." It was Mink, trying to push him up out of his seat. The lights were on and the movie screen was blank. He got up, grabbing his share of Mink's shopping bags, and led the others out of the theater, back into the mall.

           "I think I liked the pie fight the best," Freek said. "You don't see those too much anymore. We've gotten too sophisticated."

           "It was a food fight," corrected Weldon. "Cream pies were just one of the many weapons of choice. I think it was part of the metaphor that life is like a movie. Short, messy, and absurd. Probably also explains the dwarf hero."

           "We just saw a movie with a metaphor?"

           "I think so."

           "Damn. No wonder it was so strange. Not bad, though. Entertaining."

           They walked out of the mall into the oceanic parking lot. "I feel like a mule," Freek complained, struggling with his share of Mink's shopping expedition. "I didn't sign on for this."

           "What did you sign on for?" asked Weldon.

           "I don't know. The love of humanity, I guess. Don't ask, don't tell."

           "I wish I had some pot," Mink said. "I don't suppose you guys have any on you, do you?"

           "As a matter of fact, I do," said Freek. "I found a little baggie on the floor of the movie theater."

           "Someone leave it there for you?" asked Weldon.

           "No, it must have dropped out of someone's pocket somehow. Are you calling me a liar?"

           "It seems a little convenient. You find some rolling papers too?"

           "I already have some. I like to roll my own."

           "Ahh. A traditionalist."

           They got in the van, Blake sitting up front with Weldon, Mink in back with Freek, and they drove off. Freek started rolling a joint.

           "You think that was the title of the movie?" Freek asked Weldon.

           "What?" Weldon asked back.

           "It takes all kinds. Different characters kept repeating that line. Don't completely agree with that philosophy myself. It takes all kinds to make a world, including murderers, rapists, and child molesters? Maybe we should blow ourselves up, then, and get it over with."

           "Always looking on the bright side of things, eh, Freek?"

           "I try." Freek lit the joint, took a hit and passed to Mink, who did the same and held it out to Blake.

           "I don't know about that," said Weldon. "He might still be in a delicate condition."

           "Maybe it would help him," Mink said. "You know, loosen him up some more."

           "Kill or cure? All right, little mother. Whatever you think is best."

           Mink held the joint out again and Blake took it. He took a hit, as he had seen the others do, and handed the joint to Weldon. His throat felt scratchy, but he didn't feel anything else.

           "We're not going back to that mall again, are we?" asked Freek, rolling another joint. "That was a crazy place."

           "I don't know," answered Weldon. "That's up to Blakey. Right, Blakey?"

           "Where are we going now?"

           "Back to Freedom Farm, where else? Unless you've got a better idea, Freek."

           "Not me. I'm fresh out."

           They kept passing around the joints and Blake kept accepting, mainly to be polite. He didn't feel as if it was having any effect on him. Then he noticed that Weldon looked different, younger. Weldon's hair was longer, his beard was bushier, and he was much thinner, though still big. He was also wearing a purple tie-dyed t-shirt, cut-off shorts, and was barefoot now. Blake looked down and saw that he was wearing a t-shirt with a peace sign on the front, jeans and sneakers.

           "It's a new day," Freek said. "Peace and love will rule the world, everybody living together like brothers and sisters, like they should. Right, Weldon?"

           "Right on, brother. With an agenda like that, how can we fail?" Blake looked in back. Freek was almost unrecognizable; he was wearing a red, white, and blue Uncle Sam uniform, with the hat squashed down on a giant, curly halo of brown hair. Mink was sitting crosslegged beside him on the floor of the van contentedly blowing bubbles through a loop. Her hair was much longer, down to her waist, and she was wearing jeans, a frilly blouse, granny glasses, and was also barefoot.

           "We're going to lead by example, starting with Freedom Farm," continued Freek. "Show the people how it's done, and they'll follow. No rules, no inhibitions, just everybody getting along and doing what needs to be done. Why hasn't somebody thought of this before?"

           "It's too simple," Weldon said. "We can't see the proverbial forest for the trees, we make everything too complicated. It's our nature. What are we going to do if we need money, though? Lot of the kids get by by begging, but that's not my thing."

           "Mine neither," agreed Freek. "Bumming for nickels, dimes, quarters, depending on handouts from a system that's on its way out. Hey, man, maybe we could grow our own pot! It could be our cash crop, you know? The farm's kinda isolated, we might get away with it. What do you think?"

           "It might be worth a try as a last resort, if we can't make things work some other way. I still think we can learn to be farmers and grow our own food, and make everything else we need somehow."

           "I hope you're right, man, because we've got to make this work. I mean, what's the alternative, going back to the rat race and living like our parents? No way, man. Freedom Farm, or bust!"

           Weldon laughed, then somehow they were no longer in the van, they were at the farmhouse. Blake found himself under the tree in the front yard with Weldon and Freek, while inside the farmhouse, judging from the noise, a party seemed to be going on.

           "This is the way things should be all time," Freek said, Uncle Sam hat in hand. "Just one long party. People getting high, getting laid. Why can't it always be like this?"

           "That's what we're here to find out," responded Weldon, sitting on the ground. "Can we make this summer last, and abolish winter forever? Maybe we're ahead of our time, we're just not ready yet to live in a world of peace and harmony. Will that time ever come? Sometimes it seems so close, so painfully close...people aren't that bad, really. Some people are, but not most people. But if we aren't, then why is there so much violence and hate? Because we're that stupid?"

           "Eeeee-yahhh!" someone cried, and a skinny, practically naked, buttocks flashing long-haired youth fell out of the tree, landing on the ground near them. "Ooooh." The youth got to his feet, pulling up his pants, which had been around his ankles, and then staggered away, pausing only to grab a balled-up t-shirt that had been thrown down.

           "Do I have to take a number?" Weldon called up.

           "Hell no," said a tanned, naked, buxom woman with long black hair, looking down from the treehouse, which consisted of several long planks fastened together for a floor and a plywood roof. "Come on up. Just call me Free Love, because in the spirit of the revolution, I screw anyone, anywhere, anytime. Down with the establishment, down with middle class morality!"

           "Down indeed," said Weldon, getting to his feet and climbing the tree, using boards that had been nailed for footholds and branches, until he pulled himself up into the treehouse and disappeared from view with Free Love. Soon the whole treehouse began shaking, along with most of the tree, accompanied by the requisite sounds of passion.

           "Women are definitely superior," Freek said. "Crazy, but still, definitely superior. You think that's why most men are idiots and do so many stupid, destructive things, because we subconsciously know this and it drives us nuts? Or are we just trying to attract their attention?"

           Blake wondered where Mink was. Without answering Freek's question, he went into the house looking for her and found her in a room, sitting on the floor in a corner, still blowing bubbles. He sat down next to her. There were other people standing around, long-haired, scruffy boys and girls laughing, talking, music pounding from a record player, but no one paid them any attention, as if they were invisible.

           "I love you," he told Mink. She smiled and blew a bubble at him. "You're the one who can't talk now?" Another smile and another bubble wafted in his direction. "I love you. Maybe this isn't real, but it doesn't matter. Everyone needs something to hold on to, and for me, you're it. It's an illusion, because even the stars don't last forever, they burn out and die, but I don't care. Maybe there's nothing but short-term, temporary pleasure and love doesn't really exist, but looking at you, I can't believe that. I can't."

           Mink blew one last, big bubble, which broke on his face, then suddenly it was night. He was entwinned with Mink in a sleeping bag once more. They were alone in the room, the darkness partially dispersed by the light from a lantern.

           "Are you all right?" asked Mink. "I guess I shouldn't have given you that joint. You were out of it for awhile. Where did you go?"

           "I don't know. Nowhere."

            "That's okay. Hey, you can talk! It's about time. Weldon and Freek moved to another room to give us some privacy. Kiss me. Hard."

           He did and fell into Mink's soft body, her arms, lips, legs, wishing that this feeling would never end even though he now knew, if he hadn't known before, that happiness was the greatest illusion.


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