V. Party.

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           "We need something to believe in," Weldon was saying on a big screen tv. "Something religious, that would give a point to our lives. Something more than God, or money, or science, or even love. Something simple yet true, that everyone can understand. Something like the idea of a world where there's no violence or poverty, a better world than one we have ever known. Is that too much to ask?"

           Weldon shrugged and lit a ten dollar bill, holding it up in front of his face. "Money is nice, but it can't buy everything. Everything we need? I don't know about that. As for science, even if we knew everything about the universe and had complete control over our physical environment, we still wouldn't know the reason for our existence, why we are here. A minor point, perhaps, but maybe not. God?" Weldon paused to light another bill, a twenty this time. "If there's no afterlife, there doesn't seem to be much reason in believing in Him or Her, does there? If when you're dead, you're just dead, what's the point? I don't care about surviving throughout eternity anyway, it almost seems like a kind of blackmail. I'd rather have something to believe in that deals with the here and now, because it's all I know for sure, or think I know. Death can take care of itself."

           Weldon lit a hundred dollar bill, and was about to say something more when there was a shotgun blast and the television screen exploded into smithereens, showering Blake with the fragments.

           "Do we really need all this crap?" asked Free Love, standing next to Blake, holding a shotgun. "I mean, look around you."

           Blake looked around. He was in the electronics section of some store, surrounded by tvs of every make and model, flat screens, big screens, plasma, high definition, some turned on, most not.

           "First there were the black and white sets," Free Love said, "I still have one of those, then color tvs, and if they had stopped there it might have been all right, but we never know when to quit, it always has to be bigger and better, with more options that we don't really need, like remote control. Same thing with compact discs; weren't records or cassettes enough? Do we really need that so-called improvement, or digital video discs? Do we really need all those lousy cable channels either? Give me a break. That's not progress, it's rampant mindlessness, a trend that must be crushed before it's too late for the good of the people, whether they know it or not. Reversism!"

           A salesman came over, a young man dressed in slacks and an apple red golf shirt with the name Bong stitched on the front. "May I help you?"

           "Shock troops, a footsoldier of the conspiracy," Free Love whispered to Blake in an aside. She turned to the salesman. "What's the meaning of this?"

           "Meaning of what?"

           "All these tvs. Look at this selection."

           "Don't you see something you like?"

           "No. I'm not Henry Ford, but why do you need so many different kinds? Why all the innovations? It's absurd."

           "It's what people want."

           "Nonsense. People don't know what's good for them, and you don't care about that anyway, you're just trying to get them to buy new tvs! You have sold your soul to the devil of progress, to the false god of technological advancement, in things, not people. Do you deny this?"

           The salesman looked perplexed. "I, uh, don't know. I do have a nice flat screen on sale, you might be interested in, though. Right over---"

           Free Love blasted another tv, sending shards of glass everywhere. "I demand that this be stopped. I demand that technologically everything be pushed back to the late 1960's, or at least the early 70's, except for improvements in safety, energy consumption, or medical technology. No more big screen tvs, flat screens, dvds, pcs, cell phones, anything of that nature. Things have to be slowed down, we're moving too fast. My demands are non-negotiable. Do you understand?"

           The salesman scratched his jaw. "Yeah, I guess so."

           "Good. You can be my first convert. What's your name?"

           "Greg."

           "Greg? Okay, Greg, do you want to have sex?"

           Greg looked around the showroom. "Where? Here and now?"

           "Yeah."

           "Okay," Greg shrugged.

           "Hold this, and keep an eye out," Free Love said, handing Blake the shotgun, and she and the salesman fell to the floor and began groping each other in earnest. Blake wondered what he was supposed to keep an eye out for, other customers coming along who might want to horn in? Then he started to hear strange noises coming from the tvs that Free Love hadn't shot up, peculiar hissing, buzzing sounds that grew until they had almost drowned out Free Love and the salesman. The tvs also started vibrating, shaking, one big screen tv in particular, which suddenly reached out for Blake, long black board-like arms stretching out from its sides to grab him and he fired the shotgun, blowing a hole right in the middle of its screen and a big, grey, snake-like creature spilled out, writhing and screeching in its death agony.

           "Need some help here," Blake cried, but Free Love was busy so he pumped the shotgun and started firing at will as the noises and shaking of the tvs increased. More screens exploded and more horrible snake-like creatures spilled out of them, trying to grab at Blake in their death throes and he backed up, almost falling over Free Love who tried to grab him and pull him down on top of her and Greg, but he broke free, dropping the shotgun and running for a double glass door that led outside to a small town street, a street that looked awfully familiar for a moment, then he was outdoors somewhere standing by a big swimming pool with a lot of other people who were talking to each other and holding drinks. The sun was shining at him from a bright blue sky and Mink came towards him out of the crowd, wearing a big floppy pink hat, sunglasses, long glittering earrings, a bikini and high heels. She looked taller, more full-bodied than he remembered, a woman instead of a girl. She handed him one of the two drinks that she was holding.

           "It's about time you got here," she said. "What took you so long? Where have you been?"

           "Where am I?"

           "At my house in Beverly Hills. I'm a movie star, just like I dreamed of being. I'm a recording artist too. It's a lot of work! Now that I've got you, everything will be perfect."

           "It's that simple?"

           "Nothing succeeds like success. Hey! I just realized something. This is the second time you've been able to talk to me. I guess that means it's almost over, isn't it?"

           "What is?"

           "Your story, or quest, whatever you want to call it."

           "Originally I thought it was some kind of unusual therapy, being kidnaped from the hospital, or that maybe I had been given some kind of drugs and was hallucinating, but neither one is the case, is it?"

           "I'm afraid not."

           "What is the explanation, then?"

           "You still don't know?"

           "No."

           Mink smiled behind her sunglasses. "Are you happy to see me again?"

           "Yes."

           "Do you love me?"

           "Yes."

           Mink started sniffing. "You weren't with that bitch, were you?"

           "What bitch?"

           "You know who I mean, Weldon's old whore, Free Love. I can smell her scent, gunpowder. Were you just with her?"

           Blake looked behind him, to where he thought he had come from, but there was only lawn, trees, and a big white wall. "I was and I wasn't."

           "She's nuts, you know. Even crazier than Weldon. What's your fascination with her?"

           "I don't know. Is Weldon around somewhere?"

           "Yeah, Freek too. Hey, I see somebody I gotta talk to, a director I want for my next movie. You're not going to slip away, are you, like you did the last time?"

           "I didn't slip away."

           "That's what you think. Stay here, I'll be right back."

           Mink gave him a kiss on the lips, then darted away, going over to a small group of men and women centered around an older, bearded man wearing glasses who was holding court. Blake started walking around and noticed that he was wearing a hospital gown. No one else was, but it didn't seem to make any difference. He made his way through the crowd, who seemed to be in good spirits, good-looking, well-dressed young men and women, drinking, laughing, chatting as if they were extras doing some pool-side party scene for a movie or tv show, then he saw a familiar face behind a mini-bar, protected from the sun by a white and red striped umbrella, mixing and pouring drinks. It was the bald man, the deprogrammer who had tried to kidnap him earlier. Blake went over.

           "Long time no see," the bald man said, shaking and pouring a drink. "Glad you could make the party. How have you been?"

           "Fine. Yourself?"

           "Can't complain. I'm not a deprogrammer anymore, in case you're worried. I'm a private security consultant. Mixing drinks is just my cover, though I have to say I'm pretty good at it, if I do say so myself."

           "You're a bodyguard?"

           "Yep, quite a call for it out here in Hollywoodland. All kinds of kooks running around, and rich people who want to be protected from them. I'm making a killing, no pun intended."

           "Who are you protecting, Mink?"

           "No, a friend of hers, and yours too, I believe, Weldon. Seems an old girlfriend wants to put his lights out or send him to Valhalla, something like that. I think it's the same broad who took you away from me that time. I have a hunch she's going to try and crash this party too. I'd love to run into her again. Things will be different this time."

           Blake looked at the bald man closely. "Where do I know you from? I still can't remember."

           The bald man shrugged. "Probably just some generic bald villian you saw once on a tv show. That's my theory, anyway, for what it's worth."

           "Why am I imagining this?"

           The bald man snickered. "You're asking me? How would I know?"

           "Because you do, don't you? I can feel it. You're the key. You know everything."

           "No more than you."

           "You can't tell me anything, then?"

           "I can tell you a few things."

           "Such as?"

           "Are you sure you want to know?"

           "Yes."

           The bald man sighed before answering. "You're having a near-death experience. You're right on the border."

           "What happened?" Blake asked in a whisper.

           "You jumped off the roof of a building, trying to kill yourself."

           Blake doubled over as if in pain. It was a long time before he straightened up. "I don't believe it. It's not true. Why would I do something like that?"

           "Life seemed completely pointless to you, absolutely meaningless. Sometimes that realization hits the young more strongly than it does others. So you did a stupid, impulsive, selfish thing. Haven't you had any sensations of falling?"

           Blake dropped his head. "I can't believe it. I just can't believe it. So I'm on the border between life and death, and I'm imagining everything?"

           "Maybe."

           "What do you mean, maybe?"

           "Who knows what death, or being this close to death, is really like? Maybe you're not imagining everything. Maybe some of this is real, in some way."

           Blake held his head in his hands, leaning on the bar with both elbows. If he was imagining things, even a little, and it certainly seemed like a lot more than that, how could he trust anything the bald man was telling him? He didn't know what to believe, then he felt someone putting something behind his right ear.

           "Hey!"

           "Sorry, man, didn't mean to startle you," said a tall, skinny youth with long hair and a scraggly beard, no shirt, jeans, sneakers, a cousin to the early hippie version of Weldon, standing there holding a dandelion. "You looked like you needed a flower."

           Blake looked around. He was back at the farmhouse, out in front, except this time it didn't look dilapidated at all, much less burnt to the ground. It looked like a regular house, a place people could actually live in, and also the vegetation and trees around it looked much greener, lush, as if it was the middle of a long-lost summer of love.

           "You lookin' for Dick?" the hippie kid asked.

           "Dick?"

           "Yeah, you know, man, the President. What a goof."

           "What are you talking about?"

           "You know, man, Weldon and Free Love, they did it! They went to Washington for the war protests and ran into Tricky at the Washington monument early one morning talking to a bunch of tourists without any security; like fate, you know? So they hustled him into their VW microbus before anyone was the wiser and brought him back here. Now he's a head, man, it's cool! He's totally mellowed out, it's a beautiful thing to see. Everything's going to be all right now. The war is over, man, the war is over! Want to see him? He's up in the treehouse."

           Blake followed the young hippie over to the tree, tire swing hanging from a limb. "Go on up, man, looks like you could use some good sex and drugs yourself," the kid said, then wandered away, joining others of his kind who were also wandering or just standing around in small groups, talking, enjoying the warm summer's day, some naked and painting their bodies. Blake grabbed a low branch and started climbing the tree, which was easy enough especially with the boards nailed for footholds, and pulled himself up onto a flat platform. In a corner several naked sleeping bodies were entwined, of both sexes, and it was hard to tell whose limbs belonged to who until someone in the middle of the pile stirred, an older man whose ski nose and jowls, despite the longer hair, sideburns, and several days growth of beard, were still unmistakable.

           "General Atlantis," the man said, noticing Blake, in a voice that was also equally unmistakable. "Back from the moon so soon? What was it like up there? Did you have fun?"

           "Yes sir."

           "Relax, General. Unbend, it will do you a world of good. It did me. How are my doubles doing?"

           "Your doubles?"

           "There were six of them, as I remember, in case something happened to me. The CIA provided them. They must be doing a pretty good job, because as far as I know, no one's missed me yet."

           Tricky Dick Nixon, the President of the United States, a man famous for re-inventing himself and perhaps even coining the term, got up from the pile of sleepers, gently disentangling himself, and joined Blake. They stood together on the edge of the platform and looked out over the green summer day. "I've gotten laid more in these last few days than in my entire life," the President confided to Blake. "I didn't know what I was missing. Well, maybe I did, but I didn't think about it, I was busy with other things. I still love Pat, but damn, these hippie chicks are sweet, and the dope isn't bad, either, though I'm still a drinking man at heart." The President looked at Blake. "I know why they sent you."

           "You do?"

           "I'm not going back. It's the dawn of a new day, for me, anyway. I'd be a fool to give this up, and whatever I am, it's no fool. Who knows, maybe I'll go to Canada and hook up with the draft dodgers. Anything's possible. You boys will just have to go on without me. Turn on, tune in, and drop out, as the kids say."

           "Beautiful," said a young boy with his arm around a girl's shoulders, both of them naked, sitting up and leaning back against a board. "That's beautiful, Moonstud. Power to the people!"

           "Power to the people, right on!" replied the President, raising his hand in a fist salute. "See?" he said to Blake. "That's their name for me, Moonstud. Isn't it great? They love me. Love, that's the answer, the secret."

           "Moonstud, I'm getting lonely," a young blonde whimpered plaintively.

           "Be right there, baby. General, if you don't mind the suggestion, I'd take that uniform off. Then you might see some real action, if you know what I mean. Coming, Honey Pie!"

           President Moonstud went back to his hippie chick, who lit a joint for him and soon they were both smoking contentedly, while other bodies in the pile started making love. Blake noticed that he was in his military uniform again, but felt no desire to take it off and join the fun. Instead, he climbed back down the tree, hoping to find Weldon, Freek, or Free Love, none of whom had been involved in the orgy in the treehouse, as far as he had been able to tell, but then he heard the sound of beating rotor blades. Several army helicopters swooped in and began disgorging soldiers in combat fatigues, faces blacked, rifles at the ready, who immediately began shooting down the hippies, causing a general panic.

           "Secure the house!" shouted a lieutenant waving a .45. "Check the grounds. Take some prisoners in case we need them for interrogation." The lieutenant strode up to Blake and saluted. "General Atlantis. Do you know where the President is, sir? We have information that he is being held in a treehouse."

           Blake shook his head no, but the lieutenant looked up and saw the treehouse. "Company One, take that tree. Rescue the President!"

           Several soldiers climbed up into the treehouse, given cover by comrades on the ground. "What are you doing this for?" Blake asked the lieutenant. "This is a massacre."

           "Orders, General. No one must know that the President was kidnaped. It would give aid and comfort to the enemy."

           "What enemy?"

           "Never mind. That's a very suspicious question, General, one that puts into question your loyalty."

           "What about these soldiers? Are you going to have them killed too, to keep your secret?"

           "They're handpicked men who can be trusted. Can you be trusted, General Atlantis?"

           "They're killing us!" screamed a woman. "They're shooting us down! Do something!" Blake turned around just in time to see a hippie woman, long black hair, naked, body-painted in brown zigs and zags, get grabbed from behind and have her throat cut by one of the soldiers.

           "Sargeant," the lieutenant said fiercely. "What did I tell you about taking prisoners?"

           "Sorry, sir, it slipped my mind," the sargeant said, letting the naked woman's dead body fall to the ground. "It won't happen again."

           "See that it doesn't. Carry on. Proceed with the mop-up."

           "Yessir."

           "Let me go!" cried President Nixon, trussed up like a pig hands and feet to a pole, which was carefully lowered to the soldiers on the ground. "I don't want to go back!"

           "We all have to do things we don't want to, sir," chided the lieutenant. "Especially Presidents. Don't worry, once you get back in the White House, and the doctors have worked on you, all this will seem like a dream, if you remember that much."

           "Honey Pie! Honey Pie!" the President cried forlornly, as he was borne to a waiting helicopter.

           "Coming, General Atlantis?" asked the lieutenant. "You don't want to see any more of this, do you?"

           Blake ran towards a couple soldiers who were still spraying gunfire. "Make 'em do the Funky Chicken!" one of the soldiers said, shooting a hippie who had tried to escape out the front door, the bullets making the body jerk spasmodically as if it was a puppet on strings. "Make 'em dance!"

           "Sure is a lot more fun than when they're shooting back at you," the other soldier said laconically. "This is like shooting fish in a barrel, though I've never actually done that, and don't know why anyone would. Over there, Gonzalez, there's some more to your right."

           Blake got in front of the soldiers, raising his hands, thinking they wouldn't shoot if they saw a general. "Wait, wait!"

           The soldiers fired anyway as if they didn't see him, somehow the bullets missing Blake or passing through him without harm and slamming into a group of long-haired youths cowering beside a van painted in swirling psychedelic colors, killing them all, including the kid who had tried to give Blake a flower earlier. The two soldiers gave each other high fives.

           "Could I have your name, sir?" Blake whipped his head around. It was a young soldier holding out a microphone, another soldier behind him filming the proceedings. "It's for the documentary, sir. How do you think the battle is going so far?"

           "This is no battle, it's a slaughter!"

           "Yes sir, war is hell. Which makes it a little strange to me why we're always making or taking pictures of it, from Waterloo to the Civil War to the Nazis to Vietnam, recording our atrocities and battles as if we're gathering evidence against ourselves. Do you think that's the reason, sir? Seems a little odd to me."

           Blake slapped the microphone away and began running, but hadn't gotten very far when someone tripped him and he fell flat on his face. He tried to get up, but was clubbed in the back of the head, and the next thing he knew he was lying on the floor of a helicopter with his hands tied behind him looking out over the edge of a doorway watching tree tops whip by.

           "I'm sorry about this, General Atlantis, but you can no longer be trusted," said the lieutenant. "Don't worry about your family or your reputation, they'll both be well taken care of. We'll let it out that you lost your life on a secret mission behind enemy lines. The public will buy that because they'll buy just about anything from the government, because if you can't trust your own leaders, who can you trust? We all need to believe in something whether it makes sense or not, not that most of us are going to lose sleep over that little detail." The officer bent down so his face was close to Blake's, and smiled. "Good-bye, General. No hard feelings, I hope. Adios."

           With that, Blake was pushed out of the helicopter and started falling. He wanted to scream but it seemed frivolous, and then he was surprised when instead of hitting tree tops or the ground he crashed into water making a big splash.

           "Jesus Christ," said Freek when he bobbed up. "Did you have to do that?"

           He was back at Mink's party in Beverly Hills, in the pool up to his chest in chlorinated water with Freek floating next to him on an inner tube. Freek was wearing sunglasses, swimming trunks, had a drink in one hand and looked sunburned.

           "Where the hell did you come from?" Freek asked. "It was like you dropped out of the sky."

           "I did."

           "Yeah, right. I'm glad you could make the party. I was wondering if you were going to show up."

           "What's going to happen?"

           "I don't know. I'm just glad you could make it. Have you seen Weldon yet?"

           "No."

           "He hasn't changed, he's still making speeches. Mink's letting him stay here. He's trying to write a book expressing his, uh, philosophy, I guess you could call it."

           "Are you helping him?"

           "Hell no. I write for television now, I've found my niche. It's fun, easy, and lucrative. It's amazing how little it takes to make you happy, sometimes."

           "Have you told Weldon?"

           "Yeah, it makes him nuts. He still wants to burn everyones' money. I just want more. Let's face it, being rich is as close to real heaven as human beings are ever going to get. Look around you, if you don't believe me."

           "Did Weldon burn that money he embezzled?"

           "Just like he said he would, after we came out here. He got his fifteen minutes of fame, then he went to jail. Nothing changed, of course, we're all still using money and killing each other for various reasons. I don't think Weldon understands that basically people like the way things are now and don't want to change them that much, if at all. Weldon always did have a stubborn streak in him a mile wide. When Mink got rich and famous, she hired a lawyer who got Weldon out on parole, otherwise he'd still be behind bars, pretending to be a martyr and trying to start his religion that way. Not a bad idea, I suppose. Mink should have let him rot in prison, but she's too softhearted. Women."

           "You don't think Weldon's right, that we need something more to believe in besides money?"

           Freek made a face. "I have my doubts. Maybe there is nothing to believe in, not like Weldon wants. Just go with the flow."

           "Not even the idea of a world where someday everybody is friendly?"

           Freek chuckled. "Maybe when we're all dead we'll get along that well. I have a feeling that the dead don't have that many disagreements. But while we're alive, I think we're always going to have conflicts, unless science can come up with a pill that makes everybody a lot smarter, I suppose there is always that hope. Is that what you want to believe in, Weldon's hippie, utopian idea of a world where someday, somehow, everyone is on the same page of peace and love?"

           "There's got to be some way of making it possible. We have improved over the last few thousand years, haven't we?"

           Freek shrugged, taking a sip from his drink. "It's hard to tell. Don't let your current peaceful surroundings fool you, life isn't a poolside party. I don't know what it is, a brutal struggle for existence? Not always, not like it used to be. Does that mean that there's a ray of hope that someday we won't be the assholes we are now? I guess that depends on whether or not you believe that things can change; for the better, of course. I suppose that is possible. Only a fool would believe that things don't change, since there is so much evidence to the contrary. Life is change; amazing, miraculous, perhaps the only evidence that God really exists. Otherwise, wouldn't everything stay the same forever? But things don't, do they? There is always the possibility of change. Just don't hold your breath waiting for it to happen."

           Freek drifted away on his inner tube, sipping his drink. Blake looked around and saw Weldon poolside talking with a tall, slim woman with short, dark hair, in a white dress. Blake swam over to where Weldon was and pulled himself out. He noticed that he was in a hospital gown again, but decided that how he was or wasn't dressed at this point was probably the least of his worries.

           "You're just a humanist," the woman spat at Weldon. "Admit it."

           "If you say so," said Weldon. "Although I don't deny that God or something like that might exist, it's just nothing I'm counting on. If that answers your question."

           "No, it doesn't. You either believe, or you don't. You can't have things both ways."

           "Why not?"

           "You just can't."

           "I don't see what all the fuss is about, why it's such a big deal to believe in God. If He or She exists, fine. I guess I just don't expect anything in return, or perhaps I want my reward here on terra firma. If I was in a foxhole, I'd probably feel differently. Does that mean that the only time you really believe in the Almighty is when you're in immediate fear for your life?"

           "Heathen scum," the woman said, turning sharply on her heel and stalking away.

           "No one wants to die, that's a fact," Weldon said, nodding soberly to himself. "Perhaps that's the secret to all religious belief, if there is one." Weldon noticed Blake dripping beside him, grabbed his hand and shook it vigorously. "Hey, buddy, how ya doin? Figured things out yet?"

           "No."

           "No? Whaddaya mean no? Haven't you been clued in?"

           "A little. I still don't get it. What's going on?"

           "You're trying to figure out something to believe in, something that makes sense in this crazy, mixed-up world. We've been trying to help you, but apparently we haven't been doing that good a job. Which of course might just mean that there's not that much to believe in for a modern, early twenty-first century man such as yourself. Oh well."

           "Why is it so important?"

           "Seems to be to you, for some reason. Uh-oh, here comes trouble."

           There was the throaty roar of a motorcycle and Free Love drove up, splitting the crowd and causing a couple people to jump in the pool. She parked her bike and got off. "Didn't think I was going to miss this shindig, didya?" she told Weldon. "How's our boy?"

           "Confused."

           "Still? Damn. Looks like I got here just in time."

           "YOU!" someone shouted, and Blake saw the bald man running over. "We've got a score to settle. You're mine!"

           Free Love rolled her eyes, and merely stepped out of the way of the bald man's rush, using an arm lock to throw him head over heels into the pool.

           "I told you the last time we met that I'd just kick your butt again," Free Love told the bald man, after he'd made a big splash. "You know why? Because Blake likes me, even though I'm just an Amazon fantasy. You, he can take or leave. You're a minor character."

           "Bah," the bald man muttered, swimming to the other side of the pool, getting out and walking away in disgust.

           "Do you know where we go?" Blake heard someone ask him. He turned and was confronted with a short, strange looking man in a white robe, an older man with grey hair cut short, his hands clasped in front of him politely. "I know. We go back to where we originally came from. It's just a feeling I have. I think it's some kind of pool of life-force energy that we're always going back to and coming from. I don't know if there being more people dilutes it or not, or if there's some kind of balance or if there's an infinite supply or what. I have no idea where or what this energy pool is, exactly, I just sort of feel that it exists somehow, that we go somewhere when we die, and it's the same place we come from when we're born, like an endless sea that's always being tapped. Does that make any sense?"

           An old woman came up to Blake, a woman who looked old enough to have have been a silent film star. "I sense a disturbed spirit," the woman said, looking at Blake. "A troubled soul, crying out for release!"

           "Go fuck yourself," Blake told the woman, who walked away looking insulted.

           "Ready to go to Valhalla, Weldon?" Free Love asked.

           "Not yet. You first. When Blake makes up his mind about things."

           "He'll never make up his mind, he's worse than a woman. At least Mink's not here. I always knew that was a dead end."

           "You're just jealous."

           "What's more fleeting than youthful, physical beauty, sexual attractiveness? I'd rather have him fall prey to your goofy ideas, though they're just an illusion too."

           "What isn't?

           "A world where we're all hippies, that's pretty much what you're trying to peddle, isn't it?"

           "Yeah, pretty much, without the drug emphasis. It's the best I can come up with, old dogs don't learn new tricks. Maybe someday it will happen."

           "If you really believe that, you're out of your mind. Things will never change that much."

           "I don't know, I'm not so sure. Maybe I just believe in people more than you do."

           "You always were a moron."

           "Vive la difference'!" Freek shouted, floating by on his inner tube. "Rock and roll forever! Remember the Alamo! Yee-hah!"

           Suddenly, Blake remembered something. He was standing on the flat roof of his dormitory, looking over the edge. It was a warm spring night, and he was alone. He had come back early from a show on campus with music played by bands with names like Sludgemoth, Infected, and Death to Angels. For some reason, everything seemed meaningless to him, completely absurd and pointless. There didn't seem to be any reason to go on. He knew there wasn't. Strangely at peace with himself, he stepped forward-

           No. No! He tried to hide from this memory, escape from it, but it was no use, no matter how much he twisted and turned. He had jumped and now he was nowhere and nothing, blind, deaf, and dumb, floating in total blackness, bodiless...

           "Are you going to stay like this forever?"

           He was back at the pool. Everyone had gone, the party was over.

           "Sleep is easy. Why don't you try and do something?"

           "What?"

           "Make a better world."

           "How?"

           "Just by living."

           Blake turned around. Behind him was a tall, distinguished looking older man with short, curly, white hair, wearing a white suit and white everything else, shirt, shoes, and tie.

           "Who are you?"

           "Appetite. Appetite for living, appetite for destruction, somehow it all works out in the end."

           "I don't get it."

           "You don't have to."

           "What do you want from me?"

           "Nothing."

           "Am I just imagining everything?"

           "You bet your sweet bippy you are. Remember that show? Laugh-in, Rowan and Martin."

           "Why?"

           "You know why. I shouldn't have to tell you."

           "Am I dead?"

           "Nah, you're just in a coma."

           "Why, what happened?"

           "I can't tell you everything."

           "Am I a college student, who jumped off the roof of my dormitory because I was depressed?"

           "Maybe. Maybe you're someone else, the possibilities are endless. Does it matter? You'll remember everything when you come out of this."

           "When?"

           "That's kind of up to you, isn't it?"

           Blake shook his head. "I'm just talking to myself, aren't I?"

           "Maybe. Maybe I'm more real than you think."

           "Are you?"

           "No."

           "Then what---" Blake thought for a moment. "What am I trying to figure out? What am I trying to learn?"

            Appetite sighed impatiently. "You're just trying to think of something to believe in. It's not that easy these days, perhaps it never has been. That's why you invented all of us, you're playing all the parts. We've been trying to help you make up your mind, but so far it's been impossible."

           "So it's hopeless?"

           "Not exactly."

           Blake felt lost, trapped. "What is there, then? What is there to believe in?"

           "Nothing."

           "Nothing?"

           "Wel-l-l," Appetite said slowly, turning his hands out, "if you want something to believe in, if you personally want something to believe in, which seems to be what you're reaching for here and have been all along, then you're going to have to decide whether you think people are basically good or bad. If you think people are basically bad, then there really is nothing to believe in. If you think people are basically good, then there's hope for the future."

           "That's it? That's what it all comes down to?"

           "Far as I can tell. Simple, isn't it? Too bad you didn't run into me earlier, I could have saved you a lot of trouble, though I don't think that was an option." Appetite smiled, raising both eyebrows. "Can I go now, or do you have some more questions?"

           "You can go."

           "Thanks." Appetite turned and walked away, after making a little bow, and disappeared into a hazy distance.

           Blake looked around at the pool, the house. He could sense that there was no reason for him to be here any longer, but where could he go, what could he do? It occurred to him that maybe he wasn't going anywhere until he decided whether or not people were basically good or bad, but how could you decide something like that? Blake started chuckling, then he began laughing, shaking with laughter, because there was something so funny about the question, absurd even, taking everything into account, until he felt himself being pulled back to wherever he had come from or perhaps to somewhere new, it was impossible to tell which. He wondered if he should hold on but decided not to, and let himself go.


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