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a novel Flex
by Jeremy Benjamin


CONTENTS

Chapter 1: Bench Press Blues
Chapter 2: The Beginning
Chapter 3: Strange Phenomena
Chapter 4: Shattered
Chapter 5: Walking
Chapter 6: Marlena
Chapter 7: A Warm Welcome
Chapter 8: Causing Trouble
Chapter 9: Highways
Chapter 10: Homecoming
Chapter 11: A Window to Infinity

          Epilogue



Chapter 1: Bench Press Blues



     Harmon Flekzor had everything under control, or so he thought. The sky had its own will, as unfathomable as the enigma who called herself Marlena, and within a week, he would succumb to the fact that even his body had a will of its own. At the culmination of months of training, months of sweating, months of inundating his body with hormones and protein drinks, the idea of control over the external world became a tangible object he could run his hands over. He found it at the weight-benches at Powell's, he found it in the classroom, he found it in amalgamations of shards of glass under a yard-sale-quality fluorescent lamp in his basement, he found it in the arms of Sarah Madison, and he lost it on an unremarkable autumn afternoon while jogging in the woods.
     He was on his third sweat (it may have been unscientific to think in terms of successive levels of perspiration, but it wasn't un-Harmon) when he stopped to take his first break. It was warm out, and he had decided it was worth the ten-mile drive to go running at Hunter's Point. The track offered little solitude (not to mention little incline), and the treadmill offered little inspiration.
     He breathed slowly and deeply, relishing all the outdoor scents which he wasn't knowledgeable enough to differentiate between but associated the net effect with good times. Looking up through fractals of leaves at a spray of sunlight, his back against a tree, he let his mind wander. He held his hand over his diaphragm, feeling the frantic undulations of his heartbeat like waves breaking on the ocean. His body was a red-hot malleable piece of steel ready to be forged by the steady, sometimes impulsive hammer of his steady, often impulsive ambition. He slid down against the base of the tree, down to a sitting position, sadistically relishing the feel of the rough bark scraping his back and ripping his shirt.
     He was barely aware that he held a rock in his hand. It was an unremarkable rock, and he didn't happen to glance at it until it left his hand. That's when he lost it.

     Focus.
     "Come on, H, let's do it."
     He lurched his upper body as if doing an abdominal crunch, only to slam his back and head against the padded bench. He did this three times, holding onto the racked barbell above him. He wasn't looking in the mirrors that covered all the walls, and he hadn't just caught the eye of an attractive well-toned blonde, and hadn't perceived a cluster of slim, likewise-toned female bodies surrounding him with an air of casual reverence. He was . . .
     "Get focused, H."
     "Call me Flex. Everyone calls me Flex."
     His hands slid dexterously across the rough treads of the barbell (approximating the distance from the smooth surface in the middle) and settled into an appropriate grip. Harmon breathed deeply, feeling the surge of adrenalin twist and invert his stomach. The bar gripped firmly in his calloused hands, anchoring him to the bench, he planted his feet on the floor and slid his body back and forth, letting it find the ideal position under the bar (close enough so the spotter could access it, but far enough so the bar wouldn't bang the rack on its way up). He thumped his head once more on the bench, and nodded to his impromptu spotter.
     "One."
     He felt the weight of the blonde's eyes hanging from the ends of the barbell, next to the ten-pound plates.
     "Two."
     She wanted a spectacle. Let's give her a spectacle. He fidgeted with the bar, readjusting his grip, and then clasped it, squeezing it till his knuckles turned red, so that his flesh was in effect welded to the steel, and his blood flowed through the cold barbell.
     "THREE!!!"
     In a burst of energy he locked his arms out and held the load high above him for a moment, arms fully extended, acquainting himself with the feel of the weight, like a wrestler staring down his opponent before the ref says go.
     "Come on, H, here we go, six reps, easy."
     I wish he'd shut up.
     "Let's break that record, come on."
     If he says come on one more time I'm gonna punch him.
     He lowered it down until it was nearly touching his chest. The artillery of his pectoral apparatus was triggered by some outside force and the weight was fired up into the air like a mass-less object on a spring.
     "Solid."
     He brought it down slowly and fired again. Two. Easy. And then a third. Three more to go. It was always at that midpoint that he became aware of his surroundings. He could hear murmurs from the . . . audience? Was that what they were, his audience? He could only guess what they were saying (and that wasn't too hard). He might as well have been underwater. His state of concentration (what he termed 'lifting mode') had a damping effect on sensory input equivalent to that of a viscous fluid on sound waves. But he heard them, and he knew they- she, was watching. By rep number four, he was performing. On the fifth rep he started to slow down. The hindrance prompted an immediate reversion to the sheer focus and resoluteness of the first rep.
     Tunnel vision activated. Tap all resources. Push, damn it, push!!
     On the other side of that bar were not iron plates, but hands pushing down, the hands of his enemies, the hands of all the people who'd tried to hold him down (the hands of Art Merkle). Now it was time to push back. Right here and now. Although it was perhaps the most commonly used word at the weight benches, Harmon knew better than anyone else who had a membership to Powell's Gym what it meant to push, to really push. At the unassisted completion of the fifth rep, he held it at bay, arms fully extended for a brief moment (a microsecond perhaps; his perception of time was always warped at this point in a set) of reflection. His goal was six. As any and every mentor would tell him, the last rep was crucial. It was the only one of importance; if you don't go all out on the last rep, you're wasting your time. The 'failure' principal - perhaps the second most widely used word in the gym. This was it, the final showdown between good and evil - that last lull in an action movie before the climactic battle scene. His mind was clear as he lowered the bar to his chest for the final time. As he inhaled strategically, he sensed the spotter's uneasiness. His hands were held about two inches beneath the bar, ready and eager to assist. Now he was quiet. The whole room was quiet.
     This was the moment of truth. It was time to push. On rep number six, Harmon began to get emotional. His vocalization was no longer the typical lifter's 'growl' but something more akin to a scream.
     The spotter broke his silence as soon as Harmon broke his. "Push it! Bring it home! Set the record, H, you got it!" His hands followed the bar's ascent, respectfully keeping their distance from it, but ready to be called promptly into action should the weight come to a complete stop. But it didn't stop. It inched upward increasingly slowly in the course of five seconds, through which Harmon's yell was perpetual. He pushed, and he overcame. There was applause as he racked the weight. He sat up, catching his breath. His heart was pumping furiously. His signature vein pulsed visibly in his forehead.
     "You're an animal, Flex . . ." Some girl's hand was on his breast, feeling his musculature with rapt, unabashed fascination. That was the last day Harmon felt in control.

     It was inevitable. Dave had seen it coming. Even Harmon could have foreseen it. It was bound to happen. He'd hit his plateau, and he hit it hard. The only person to turn to was Dave Powell of Powell's Gym.
     "Yo Dave, you got a minute?"
     "Sure, whaddya need?"
     Harmon was silent for a moment, and then said sincerely, with a note of desperation in his voice, "I need help."
     Dave nodded. Someone once told him that seventy percent of human conversation consists of body language and facial expressions. Seeing Dave nod his head, he believed it. It was a nod of comprehension, one that not only said he understood Harmon's feelings of frustration and vexation, but that he knew exactly what his problem was.
     "You've hit a standstill, eh?"
     "I'm stuck. I've been stuck at the same weights for way too long, and I don't like it."
     "You haven't gone down, have you?"
     "No, but-"
     "I know how you feel. Everyone goes through it. Everyone who's serious, that is."
     "I don't get it, I mean I started off so good, I was making progress every week. Now I'm not getting any stronger. It's like I'm just going through the motions. I mean I'm taking sets to failure, I'm using good form, I don't know what I'm . . ."
     Dave put a hand on his shoulder, led him into his office and sat him down.
     "I've watched you since you first came in here a flabby insecure science nerd with a bad haircut and a nervous twitch. In eight short months, I've seen what you've become. Your dedication astounds me. Stick with this and you'll go far, believe me. I've watched you surpass all your lifting buddies, I've watched your name creep up there on those charts, I've seen you showing off for the girlies, looking like a damned pimp, and I see what you're going through now. You've hit your first plateau. It's nothing to worry about. It's an important part of the process. Think of it as your first trial on the road to muscular bliss."
     Harmon's eyes lit up as if he had just glimpsed the solution to a perplexing equation.
     "This is the point where most people get discouraged and quit. Up till now there's been no binding contract between you and your body, but if you stick it through, you will be making a commitment to yourself. Are you prepared to make that commitment?"
     "Yes. Tell me how."
     "By listening, and I don't mean just to me. By watching. By keeping an open mind, and never letting yourself get too comfortable. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
     "Could you elaborate?"
     "Of course I'll elaborate. You didn't think I'd let you go without a lecture, did you? It's all about establishing a relationship with your body. An antagonistic one can only go so far. Don't be mad at yourself. Be optimistic.
     "When you first begin lifting, your body isn't suited to the lifestyle, so it produces more muscle mass to accommodate the demands that you impose on it here. After a while the novelty wears off and your body adapts to the stress and just doesn't get the level of stimulation needed to make gains. That's what happens if you let your workout bore you. Everyone's searching for the best routine, the perfect workout, the last one they'll ever need, but there's no such thing. That very mentality is anathema to what we're doing here. When you start thinking in terms of a routine, that's telling your body that you've stopped caring. You have to be emotionally involved. Always. A routine is like a fashion trend; it only yields results for the transient time that it happens to be en vogue. They're disposable.
     "My advice? Read magazines, talk to people, see what kind of methods they're using and discover what works for you. Try doing concentration curls with a dumbbell, try incline presses instead of flat presses, try increasing your repetitions, try decreasing your reps, try working chest and back on the same day, change your whole schedule, do whatever you got to do. Allow your workout to evolve, and you'll evolve. Don't let it become a habit. I want you to be excited and full of anticipation when you walk through that door, and I want you to walk through it habitually."
     "That's vague."
     "You ever had a girlfriend? What's the key to a successful relationship? You could tell me it's communication and that bullshit, but that's a girl's answer. You've got to surprise her, do something unexpected once in a while; just when she thinks she's got you figured out, throw her a curve ball, keep that spark of passion burning. Lifting's about passion too. Passion. And hunger. Be consistent, but never hesitate to be spontaneous. And most importantly, never, ever neglect it for more than a week, or you can consider yourself through. You're looking at me like you're unsatisfied. What do you want, a personal trainer?"
     "I don't know, I thought maybe- no, forget it."
     "You thought maybe what?"
     "Well, I was talking to a dude the other day, he just started taking Mega-"
     "You know how I feel about supplements."
     "But there must be some that are legitimate. You know I trust your judgment more than anyone's. Is there anything you could recommend?"
     "I recommend you get your head out of your ass and start listening. I've offered you pearls of wisdom. I served you a gourmet meal and you're asking me directions to the nearest Macdonald's! If you're not getting what I'm saying, I'll try paraphrasing it for you in other terms."
     "No, I understand perfectly. You're saying I should make little changes here and there, try different things, learn from my resources, and always continually be making little changes so that my workout is never exactly the same from one month to the next."
     Dave smiled. "I couldn't have put it better myself. I've been looking into competitions for you, you know. I think you're ready."
     "Really?"
     "I wouldn't say it if I didn't think so."
     "I know you're into natural bodybuilding and stuff, but there must be something-"
     "If you even think about using steroids, you can start looking for a new gym. I have a very strict zero tolerance policy on that." He sighed. "Your concern is perfectly valid. You're bothered by this, and I applaud you for your distress. I say the solution to a genuine problem does not lie in a bottle or in a syringe. It's up here." He pointed to his head. "And here." He poked Harmon in the chest.
     "Come on, everyone's using lifting supplements these days."
     "Not in my gym." He crossed his arms sternly, and shook his head. "Not in my gym."
     "What's the big deal?"
     "What's the big deal?" Dave stood up. "Your body needs stimulation. You could give it cheap stimulation, the kind you get over the counter, but how long will that last? A couple months and you'll be right back where you are now. Granted you'll have a little more size, but you won't have gained anything. Your body adapts. Once again, surprise, you're at a standstill! Why? Because you didn't listen to me! So now you've got to go back to your sports-nutrition store and get a more powerful, more expensive supplement. Before you know it you'll be pissing radioactive blue shmegma and you'll still be stuck, you'll still be crawling to me with that naive look on your face saying Daaaave, I don't get it, Daaaave, help me . . . People in search of that myth of the perfect supplement are the same people who seek the perfect routine that I was talking about. Do you want to be addicted?"
     "Addicted? Surely you're overreacting."
     "I'm a purist, you should know that by now. The correct answer is, I am addicted. Lifting is an addiction - the last addiction you'll ever need."
     "I got to go. Thanks for the pep-talk." Harmon got up and walked out defiantly.
     "Anytime."
     "And by the way, no, I've never had a girlfriend."
     That's when he began looking elsewhere for answers.
     
     Focus . . .
     While everyone around him had come here to lose all concentration, Harmon's inner voice was telling him focus, but on his third beer that was becoming rather difficult. Fortunately, as could be easily ascertained from looking in his opponent's eyes, this guy had had a trifle more than that. Drunk or not, this was important.
     The flashing strobe lights from the next room beckoned him like an ethereal finger lewdly gesturing to the corner of his eye. In the same room, couples made out and danced obscenely to the pulsing bass of the stereo as guys dressed to impress spilled alcohol on themselves. There was an occasional howl followed by bouts of cheering coming from upstairs, or perhaps the roof. He wondered what that was about. At eleven fifteen on a Saturday night, this was the teenage livelihood of the town.
     Harmon sat with his elbow on the kitchen table, his hand holding that of an overzealous partygoer he didn't know, wearing their high school's football jersey. He clasped the stranger's hand in a grip that could only imply one thing; there was about to be a contest of strength, and somebody was going to lose.
     "One. Two!" Already, substantial attention was drawn to the table. "Three!"
     Harmon didn't growl or moan or even grit his teeth. This guy had nothing on him. His arm went down like a sinking ship. When it came to drunken arm-wrestling, Harmon was the divine embodiment of gravity itself, an undisputed champion. That match led to another match with another opponent, another victory, which led to a third. The crowd grew larger and more enthralled with each successive battle. Harmon could see that he was fast becoming the focal point of this party. He felt a smile surface from deep within his chest and grow to fruition on his face, and then fade as an all too familiar voice broke through the crowd like a crazed prophet shuffling to the forefront of a convocation to voice his rant in an epic movie, tearing through Harmon's perfect moment like a bad memory.
     "Hey, Flex! You da man!"
     Art Merkle. The name alone was enough to make him cringe. He had the exact same sarcastic, malevolently devious tone as in the third and fourth grade wherein he had adopted the role of Harmon's primary childhood tormentor. Art Merkle. The word bully didn't quite befit him, for he was too pathetic. But he was mean, he was popular, and he had power. He had the power of crowd control. Art sauntered over to him and sat down in the other chair, but didn't put his arm on the table.
     "Who here thinks I could beat Flekzor?"
     The response was laughter, but Harmon wasn't smiling anymore. Demeaning laughter was exactly what he had intended, in accordance with whatever he had up his sleeve. He may as well have been conducting them.
     "Who's willing to bet money that I'll lose?" Everyone raised a hand. Art pretended to count hands, and then pulled a five-dollar-bill out of his pocket and laid it on the table. "I'm not stupid. It would be over in a second. Would that prove anything? You all think Flekzor here is a strong man, is that so?" He put his arm around him.
     Harmon tensed up and crossed his arms, shaking with trepidation.
     "Who here would like to see him prove it?"
     "Why don't you just fuck off?" Harmon whispered in his ear, over the perfectly orchestrated cheers of "Yeah!" Art wasn't the least bit deflected.
     "Do you think Flekzor could lift my car? Who'd like to see him try?" He pictured Art waving a baton wildly in the air procuring the crescendo of hollering that that received. Art raised his own hand. The next thing he knew, Harmon was whisked away from the table, outside into the driveway in the ocean-current of partygoers. This was where the party was at, not upstairs in some dark bedroom, not on the roof, but in the driveway centered about Art Merkle's Mustang.
     "Flex, Flex, Flex," everyone chanted in unison.
     Adrenalin surged through his veins. He told himself to focus on his breathing, for that was what he had to do. He inhaled deeply and powerfully and let it out slowly through his mouth, just as he did at the gym. Planting his feet, he knelt down and let his hands find a secure grip on the front-end bumper. This would be just like a dead-lift, except without the alternating grip, and without the treads on the barbell.
     "Wait," someone interrupted. "Why don't we get a couple big guys to sit on the edge of the trunk to balance out the force." Harmon recognized the kid from his advanced physics class. It struck him as a good idea, but Art's response was "Fuck that, I don't want nobody's dirty ass on my Mustang," and thus was the consensus. The kid sank back into the masses and they revived their chant.
     Harmon closed his eyes and summoned all his strength. Had he been a religious man, he would have prayed to his deity or deities at this time.
     "Flex! Flex! FLEX!!! FLEX!!! FLEX!!!" Silence. An abrupt unified silence stole over them, giving voice to the wind rustling the trees, singing over the vestigial rumble of bass drums from the far off rock-and-roll music, a last remnant of the party's indoor incarnation.
     This was it. It was time to work some magic. Harmon breathed in a mammoth breath and squeezed his facial muscles tightly. Beads of sweat were already forming above his brow. It was time-
     No. Something didn't feel right. He stood up, confused and nervous, his heart pounding, and then it hit him why. There was one more thing he felt he must do to consecrate this performance. He grabbed a hold of the collar of his t-shirt with one hand and gracefully ripped it off, tossing it blindly to his onlookers. He flexed. The crowd went wild. He knelt down and assumed the position once again. The next interruption was a female voice accompanied by a hand on his shoulder.
     "Harmon. Talk to me for a moment." Sarah Madison - a pretty face he recognized from period five study hall. Sarah Madison - a voice from out of the shadows, comfortingly familiar yet enticingly foreign. It took him a few seconds to attach a name to this girl whom he'd talked to once or twice in passing, and in the state he was in, a few seconds was a considerable amount of time. He hadn't even been aware of her presence at this party.
     "Why are you doing this, Harmon? Why?"
     This was absurd. He laughed, but already he was too engaged to be genuinely annoyed at the question.
     "What are you talking about?" he asked coldly.
     "You could get seriously injured. You're not Arnold Schwarz-"
     "Haven't you ever been challenged?"
     "This is how people get hurt. They go to parties, get tanked up and do stupid things, then you see them on the nightly news and you wonder what they were thinking. Tell me what you're thinking. Who are you doing this for?"
     Harmon sarcastically spread out his hands, indicating the assembled crowd.
     "You think these people give a damn about you? You're just here for their amusement - free entertainment. They don't care if you break your back-"
     "What are you saying, I should wimp out right now? Drag them all out here just to say screw you and walk off?"
     "Who dragged who?"
     "Or are you saying . . . you don't think I can do it. Well that gives me all the more reason to prove that I can. If you're trying to talk me out of it, then you don't know much about human psychology. What am I saying, you don't even know me, why . . ."
     "Because I care. I see what they're doing to you, and I think it's rotten. Why do you want to impress them so bad? If you crave attention so much that you're willing to risk your neck for it, that doesn't impress me. Wait, I know. You've been instilled with this chauvinistic notion that if you win, you'll succeed in taking one of these girls home. Is that what this is, a desperate attempt to get laid?" She looked around in one sweeping glance and shook her head. "Don't be deceived."
     "That's bullshit. It's just a challenge, nothing more."
     "I'll tell you how you can impress me, if it means anything. Walk away right now and we can find a quiet place to chat, but if you lift that car, I'll be gone when you turn around."
     "You think I'm just doing this out of peer pressure, but you're wrong. I want to do this. I'm doing it for myself."
     "Then do it. I'll disappear and go flirt with other guys, I'll have a good time and so will you. I'll be disappointed, but it won't ruin my night. It's your choice."
     "There's honor in meeting a challenge, even if there is some stupidity involved."
     "Sometimes it takes more courage to back down."
     There was a mutual reflective pause.
     "I do have friends. It's not like you think."
     "These people are getting antsy. You'd better make your choice."
     Harmon looked around. She was right; he hadn't noticed it while they were talking, but the crowd's attention had been dwindling. People were having their own conversations, some drifting back into the house. He turned back to Sarah, but she was gone. He surveyed the crowd and found her eyes. She had retreated stealthily, but hadn't gone far. Her absence magically resuscitated the gathering.
     "Are you gonna do it or not?!" Art taunted. He looked at his watch in a drawn-out gesture of boredom. "Show us what you're made of, Flekzor, come on!"
     A new chant arose from the reassembling horde. Instead of "Flex," now they were chanting "Har-mihn, Har-mihn, Har-mihn, Har-mihn . . .," and getting louder and louder. His eyes were locked with Sarah's. What do I do, What do I do? The tension mounted.
     "HARMON, HARMON, HARMON . . ."
     He began to feel intensely ill. He suddenly knew that he had to get away from this scene or he'd vomit all over Art's Mustang. He made a dash for it. He blitzed through the throng, knocking a few people over, and once he was past them he broke into a sprint. He ran for several minutes, not knowing where he was going, only what he was leaving. As soon as he entered the dark woods, he felt better. He sat down against a tree trunk and caught his breath, allowing his dizziness to subside. The pulsing bass was no longer audible. The crickets were all he could hear, along with the internal ringing in his eardrums, but that would soon fade away. He breathed deeply. There were footsteps approaching. He froze for a second, and then he remembered. Sarah had followed him, as promised. She sat down beside him. He didn't say anything.
     "How do you feel?"
     "I don't know."
     "I'm amazed you listened to me. Nobody ever takes my advice."
     "The more I think about it, I think I could have lifted that car. I really do."
     She put her arm around him and they sat in silence for a while.
     "I watched you doing pushups in the school gym."
     "I do that sometimes."
     "At night."
     "You watched me?"
     "You seemed . . . I don't know, you just seemed so driven, I couldn't stop watching."
     "I was pissed off that night."
     "It was more like . . . sad. I wanted to talk to you, console you, get to know you, but I didn't want to break your concentration, and you didn't stop, you just kept going, like-"
     "I was pissed off."
     "Like a machine."
     "I heard you breathing. I didn't see you, but I knew someone was standing over me. I just didn't care. When I got up, they were gone - you were gone."
     "I'm sorry. That must have spooked you."
     "Don't be."
     "You seem like a nice guy. You're very mystifying, I'd love to . . . figure you out."
     "That won't be too hard. I'm motivated by two things; muscles and - well, okay, one thing."
     She laughed. "liar. I think you're very complex."
     "Thanks."
     She laughed some more and then waxed serious.
     "Have you ever had a girlfriend?"
     His heart skipped a beat. "Excuse me?"
     "It's a yes or no question."
     "I do better with true and false."
     "Okay, how's this; I'm making a pass at you right now, true or false?"
     Harmon smiled for the first time that night since the arm-wrestling championship.

     As he sat against a tree in daylight on his jogging expedition, his posture made him think of that haunting night, of how they had kissed under the stars, of how she had known and he had known that she knew that it was his first time. It was hard to believe that was less than two weeks ago. They kissed, and then after that night she disappeared from his life as swiftly as she had stolen away in the middle of the crowd around Art's Mustang, in the same way she had come and gone while he was punishing himself for a bad test grade with relentless calisthenics in the deserted high-school gym. When he passed her in the halls she ignored and avoided him. In just one week, she had solidified for him the cliché that women were a complete mystery.
     He was situated in a spot he had visited countless times, about fifteen feet away from a certain childhood relic which had fascinated him albeit he was scarce to admit it frightened him, but which he had never messed with. When he first realized where he was, it seemed coincidental, but he had to wonder if he had selected this spot out of a subconscious force of habit. He believed the subconscious mind was more active while he ran, as the repetition of the motion and the mental focus - and not to mention the lack of oxygen to the brain - dampened his typical neurotic thought processes, allowing him to temporarily forget his worries, and leading to a harmonious resolution, a sort of peace of mind presiding over the end of the workout like a clear sky after a storm. Had he been a psychologist, he would have written his thesis on the therapeutic value of exercise.
     He turned his attention from his love-sick musings to the enigma before him.
     It was a window.
     A window without glass.
     A window without a wall to contain it, a nonexistent wall which lacked a house, a nonexistent house lacking a foundation, which lacked a clearing. It was just a window hanging from two oak trees by frayed, fungus-ridden ropes stiffened by years, perhaps by generations. Nobody knew how long it had been there, who put it there, or how or why it had come to be the subject of such childhood mythos, but there were stories. Legends regarding it were told around campfires. He didn't recall how the various stories went, but there was one thing he remembered, something about it being a portal through which the dead could cross over, through which spirits could be invoked. It was rumored that local satanic cults held séances around it where they summoned demons and so forth. Just then another memory came to him as he sat and examined it from his vantage point of post-adolescence. They said that if you came out here late at night alone under a full moon, and you stood in front of it, closed your eyes and counted to ten, and as you counted you extended your hand into the window frame, when you got to ten a cold hand would grab hold of yours and lead you away. Nobody ever specified who or what the 'cold hand' belonged to, although for the brave kids who went and tried it for initiatory purposes, the hand usually belonged to a prankster wearing white face make-up, or so Harmon had surmised.
     The window was about four and a half feet tall and half as wide, and hung a few feet off the ground suspended by four ropes, the top two tied around tree branches and the bottom two staked to the ground. It consisted of a rotting wooden frame caked with mildewed remnants of white paint, but no remnants of glass panes. Perhaps it was somebody's attempt at modern art. Or perhaps it was a monument to a house that once stood there long ago, but burned down and the window was all that remained. It was a conundrum, and what better way to deal with a conundrum then to tell ghost stories? Harmon had never taken the stories seriously - his father wouldn't permit him to - but nevertheless to this day he felt a chill whenever he came to Hunter's Point and stopped to look at it.
     He was fiddling with some pebbles on the ground as he wandered about the great landscape of his thoughts. He was barely aware of the rock he held in his hand. It was an unremarkable rock, and he glanced at it arbitrarily only as it left his hand. He nonchalantly chucked it through the window, and that's when he lost it.
     The rock didn't hit the ground. It passed through the window and seemed to disappear as it did so. Harmon perked up and rose to his feet at this observation. There had to be an explanation for what he'd just seen. It struck him not so much as frightening, but rather humorous. He hadn't had any alcohol, and he had never been prone to hallucinations, which meant there had to be a rational explanation. He picked up another pebble and watched it carefully as he tossed it through the window frame. It ceased to exist as it crossed the plane of the window, where the glass should have been. There was no deflection, no slowing down, and no sound as it happened. It just disappeared. He bent down, picked up two more rocks and threw one of them to the left of the window. It flew past the frame and bounced off the ground with a hollow clink. He then threw the second rock into the frame, and it vanished just as the first two had. Harmon pondered this phenomenon with an objective scientific eye for a moment, and then burst into a frenzy of laughter. There was simply no other way to react, and there was no sense in searching for an explanation, rational or irrational. There was no mortal terror. There was no enlightenment. His breakdown, if he could call it that, was nothing more than a casual matter-of-fact realization that the world he lived in did not obey the laws he was force-fed in physics class, and he found this hysterically funny. He'd lost it. He'd lost it on a Wednesday afternoon at Hunter's Point in the middle of a jog. The more he thought about it, the funnier it was. Is this what going insane feels like?
     When he calmed down, he gathered a handful of rocks and began pitching fastballs through the window and watching them vanish. He threw one after another.
     "Strike one! Strike two! Strike three!"
     He was having fun. When he depleted his handful of rocks, he immediately scavenged for more and went right back at it. There was something wholly irresistible about the act of throwing rocks through an impossible hole in space-time. He spent twenty minutes, perhaps longer pitching rocks, and then stopped and approached the window slowly.
     He held up his hands, palms facing the windowless window. He intended to pantomime running his hands across the glass, but he froze. He wouldn't allow himself to bring his hands any closer, and they trembled when he attempted to. The humor that had overwhelmed him was now souring over to fear, pure fear saturated with nervous energy. His whole body shook violently at the thought of putting his hand through it. There was no hilarity in it now, just fear, cold, heavy, numbing fear that seemed to radiate from the window. He backed up slowly, keeping his eyes on it. He thought of the moment at the party when, with his hands on the Mustang's bumper, he had felt overwhelmingly ill. There was no Sarah Madison here to comfort him now.
     He picked up one last rock, chucked it through and started jogging without looking back. As he jogged, he contemplated dragging Brock out here and showing him his discovery, but decided to keep it his own little secret, for reasons he felt quite strongly but couldn't identify right then. But he would be back. For the sake of science, for the sake of whatever, he knew intuitively that he would have to come back some day.
     Harmon finished his jog, got back in his car and drove back to his mundane home. The next day he went to school, and everything was normal. But nothing could have prepared him for what he saw on the following night.

     Focus.
     He tweaked the little knob on the laser apparatus on his workbench in the darkened basement. He was projecting a test-image onto a sheet of photographic paper taped to the wall. Mounted in front of the laser was a convex lens, and in front of that he had carefully positioned a playing card on which he had carved a simple pattern with an Exacto knife. The effect was a magnified smiley face stenciled out of a red beam. He moved the components back and forth along the strip of masking tape that aligned them, searching for the clearest image so that he could mark the spots with cross-strips of tape. He had no interest in calculating the focal point of the lens or the optimum image distance. His interests were purely aesthetic. Just as he almost had it, the door opened, casting artificial light on the wall, squandering the image.
     "Dad, would you please knock first?"
     "Brock's on the phone."
     "Tell him I'll call him back in a few minutes."
     "He said it's urgent."
     Harmon rolled his eyes, went up stairs and picked up the phone.
     "What's up?" He tried his best to sound irritated.
     "Flex, oh my God, have you seen it, have you seen it?!"
     "I'd prefer you didn't call me Flex, and have I seen what?"
     "Everyone calls you that."
     "We've been friends since fourth grade, you're not everyone."
     "Whatever. Have you seen the news? Haven't you heard?"
     "What the hell are you blabbering about?"
     "Harmon, I think you'd better step outside."
     "I'm setting up a laser diffraction projector."
     "This is better." His sentence was punctuated by the dial tone.
     Harmon went outside and didn't come in for a long time.







Chapter 2: The Beginning



     At the age of sixteen, Harmon's life - and Brock's alike - revolved around two things, neither of which were girls, cars or booze, and they both were perfectly aware that it was the lack of those interests which set them apart from their peers. The first thing was found at newsstands whereas the second took place in darkened basements. For Harmon at least, creating phantasmagoric images from arrangements of prisms and other collected glass formations was a hobby. Photon-Man was a passion.
     Photon-Man was more than a comic book. It was a comic book soon to be made into a feature film by Harmon Flekzor, as he announced to Brock.
     "That's ambitious." Brock laughed. "Are you crazy? To make a movie you need actors, you need a budget, you need a crew, you need sets and back-lots, you need a screenwriter capable of writing a tenable comic-book adaptation - and you know nobody could possibly ever do Photon-Man justice - you need special effects artists, you need a fucking catering service, you need-"
     "A camera?" Harmon smiled. It was the beginning of summer and anything was possible. "I think it's time we took our optical experiments to the next level," he explained. His new goal was to buy a good quality video camera before the summer was used up, and he was prepared to earn it by any means necessary.
     "You were just kidding about Photon-Man, right? 'Cause making a no-budget home-movie spoof on it would be grounds for going to hell, you know that, right?"
     "I'm getting a camera. A nice camera."
     "And how do you intend to do that?" Brock's enthusiasm was held at bay by a skepticism rooted in the countless times Harmon had flaked on his impulsive goals after proudly declaring them.
     "I got a job stacking hay. I start tomorrow."
     Brock laughed.
     "What?"
     "I have trouble picturing you as a farmer."
     "Yeah, well, soon you won't have to picture anything, we'll have a camera to do it for us."
     "You're really serious, huh?"
     "Damn right I am."
     "Have you ever hayed before?"
     "What, you don't think I can handle it? You think that just because I read comic books, I wear glasses, I do well in school and I'm socially and athletically inept, that I can't handle a man's job?"
     "You don't wear glasses, Harmon."
     "Fuck you. You've never seen me really motivated."
     "Why don't you work retail or fast food or something?"
     "And be bored eight hours a day?"
     "That's what people do."
     "Since when do we compare ourselves to other people?"
     "You won't last a day. I'm sorry, but you won't."

     You won't last a day, his mind whispered as he held on to the wooden railings to steady himself on the rickety hay-wagon. The tractor trudged on, hauling the wagon down a bumpy path leading to the field. Ahead of them was a beautiful landscape of rolling hills and farmland that he squinted to behold in the bright sunshine. Then his eyes fell - literally fell - upon the immediate view; rows of neatly lined up bales of hay receding for what looked to be miles.
     On the wagon with him were two high-schoolers who he didn't know and didn't care to know, and a middle-aged farmer who introduced himself as Jim. The four of them and Boss-Man driving the tractor comprised the crew. The high-schoolers' role was to walk behind them picking up bales of hay and tossing them on to the back of the wagon where Jim and his "protégé," as he wittily referred to him, would proceed to stack them from front to back, layer upon layer until the wagon was full. There was a simple pattern that was strictly adhered to in stacking them, a formation yielding the greatest geometric efficiency given the dimensions of the average bale and the dimensions of the wagon, so for the first ten minutes Harmon had a lot to learn. The ride was so shaky he had to put most of his intention into keeping his balance at first, which made it difficult to pay attention to the job. The goal was to pack as many bales as possible into a given space. At one point Harmon got to the end of his row and found he couldn't stuff the last one in. Jim stepped on top of it and started jumping, pounding it into place in just a few jumps.
     "Use your brains, kid."
     They laid out bales to the very edge, and the hay became their floor. Harmon zealously grabbed the next bale by the two loops of yarn that served as handles, ready to shove it into the corner and begin building the second layer when Jim grabbed it from him and threw it aside gruffly.
     "You're not stacking like I showed you." He led him to a spot around the middle and pointed out a gap in the lattice of hay bales large enough to bounce a basketball off the wooden floor. "We can't have that. A hole like that could cause the whole load to collapse. Now I got to fix what you done." He went about rearranging it while Harmon started on the second level. Now he had to keep up with incoming bales from two loaders by himself. He worked so fast he had to stop and catch his breath. It was then that he noticed how beaten up he was. There was a stinging sensation all over his hands and the base of his neck. He looked at his arms and saw that they were covered in fibrous scratches all the way down his forearms. He was sweating and would soon be extremely thirsty. The sun beating down on him made him wince just sitting there.
     "What're you stopping for, kid? We ain't done yet."
     In his brief moment of respite, he saw what he'd be dealing with all day, he knew exactly what muscles would be aching by the end of it, and he knew that he didn't like it, in fact he fervently hated the work, which was all the more reason to stick with it. They stacked until they were sitting atop a mountain of hay looking down at the Boss-Man, putting effort into not falling off. After the wagon was hauled off, the tractor would return with a second wagon, and after that a third.
     On the final stretch of the field, Harmon began to understand what it felt like to enjoy pain, to crave it. As the work became agonizingly desensitizing, he remembered why he was putting himself through it, and focused on that for the rest of the day. He held out his hand, gripping a phantom video camera with one eye closed and the other looking through the vista of the imaginary viewfinder. The camera belonged to him. The more he suffered, the more it became a part of him. At the culmination of all this labor, he would hold the glorious shining implement like a trophy, the magical tool that would give him power, that would make him the director of his world. He wanted it badly. His aching, slightly sunburned arms went through the motion a thousand times only to hold it. His heart pounded with exhaustion only to see that day. The sweat flowed from his pores and drenched his t-shirt only to cleanse him, absolving him of his passivity, his nerdiness, and all the qualities that made him hesitate to pursue his dreams or even realize them. For the first time ever, Harmon had a purpose, and he loved it. If pain and harassment happened to be associated with that purpose, the more pain the better. At the end of the day, as he lay down in the driver's seat of his car with a headache and more aches and pains than he had energy left to count, he couldn't wait to come back early in the morning and take on the next field. The masochism by which he would later come to be identified undoubtedly had its origins here, in his first workday.
     By his fourth day, the crew became depleted. Boss-Man assigned Harmon the task of stacking an entire wagon by himself. He met this challenge with delight and a subtle cockiness. Not having Jim on his case was a huge relief. He stacked according to the layout that had been drilled into him, managing by a great effort to keep up with the rate of incoming bales. He stacked rapidly, darting about the moving wagon with the dexterity and agility of an athlete. Keeping his balance no longer required any attention. He worked as fast as he could, eager to stand on a solid foundation of hay built by his hands, eager to sit in the shade chugging water and watch Boss-Man's tractor tow a mammoth load of hay into the distance and to think that he assembled it without any help. And that was just what he did.
     But something wasn't right. The feeling nagged at him like a pesky mosquito that he just couldn't kill. Something had been forgotten or neglected, something just plain didn't feel right. He kept his eye on the wagon as it was driven off. It was the hay. It seemed to be swaying a little more than usual. It wasn't just swaying; it was shifting. It looked unstable, as if it were about to-
     And then it did. All hell broke loose in an explosion of entropy from some interstitial nucleus of disaster, or maybe several within the ostensibly tightly packed load. The wagon suddenly became a dump truck, spilling more than half the load on the ground, leaving a scattered mess of bales, many of which burst on contact. If anyone had happened to be walking behind it, they would have been buried alive. The wagon hadn't lurched or pitched in any direction; the spill was purely horizontal. It was clear to see what happened was not the fault of the wagon. He had packed too hastily, that's what his premonition had been. Jim had warned him, and he was right.
     The tractor halted. Boss-Man was too far ahead for Harmon to hear his cursing, but he didn't need to. He jumped off the tractor and walked around to the back surveying the mishap. He then turned toward Harmon. The distance between them was too great to see the look on his face, much less his pupils, but for a moment Harmon could have sworn they made eye contact. His glare from a quarter of a mile away conveyed it all; it said, 'get the hell off my farm you goddamn good-for-nothing useless klutz, and don't come back.' In person twenty minutes later he would say it a little more discreetly than that, but the message was already clear; he was through. He had worked hard, but he screwed up, and he wasn't wanted anymore.
     After being promptly fired, he walked along the edge of the field where there was shade, toward the path that led to the barn by which his car was parked, cursing himself out loud. "You stupid moron, how could you let that happen, you piece of shit? Why'd you have to fuck this up?" Voices from his past swarmed in on him, degrading, heckling, abusive voices. Time to grow up, Harmon. You sit around reading those comic books of yours all day, why don't you go out there and make yourself productive for once . . . Harmon sucks! Harmon sucks! . . . Flekzor! What's the matter with you, you let that ball go right by you. Show me some hustle out there! . . . He started running, thereby eluding the voices. Still they hovered right behind him like insects. He picked up the pace, and then his foot caught on something and he tripped, hitting the ground with a thud.
     He lay on his stomach sprawled out on the hard ground, the sun beating down on his back, rivulets of sweat dripping from the back of his neck, his face scratched raw and dirty, his ragged jeans and long sleeve shirt baking him alive. Tears welled up in his eyes. Don't just lie there, I said give me twenty! What was that? You call that a pushup? Make it forty. Don't roll your eyes at me . . . He brought his hands to his shoulders and pressed his palms against the dirt intending to stand up, and then paused. That was it; he was in the position, why not? As a kid, the most familiar form of punishment for screwing up was pushups, and occasionally sit-ups. It seemed like a logical thing to do.
     He started doing pushups slowly with perfect form. He cranked out ten and kept on going. He got to twenty and didn't stop. He just kept on going. He wasn't counting anymore. As he approached the threshold of torture the voices subsided, and his dismay along with them. He cried out through gritted teeth on the last one, his arms shaking, his chest on fire, and then collapsed on the ground panting, feeling remarkably better. A lone breeze blew by, entering his body like an apparition, filling him with a gust of renewed vigor. He sprang back into the pushup position and cranked out more reps as fast as he could. This was the moment he would look back on as The Epiphany. He was discovering something, and each time his nose touched the grass, he became more aware of it. Later in the week, that self-discovery would take him to a place in town he had heard about in passing countless times but heretofore had no desire to venture to.
     With his arms fully extended and his body arched upward, he leapt into a standing position and sprinted the rest of the way to his car. On the way home, he thought about his goals and where he was headed, and what he would do about his new predicament.
     He saw Brock that afternoon. He told him about the hay collapsing, and about getting fired, and in doing so, he remembered what made him such a good friend; Brock was the only person in his immediate world he could tell that story to without being laughed at.
     "I'm impressed."
     "Shut up."
     "No, I mean it. I doubted you, but now I stand corrected."
     "I got one hundred and ninety dollars. Now I just need to find a new job."
     "I've been getting ideas."
     "About jobs?"
     "About the camera. We could make a documentary of . . ." Harmon zoned out as he rambled on, and nearly fell asleep. He let Brock - and to some extent himself - believe that his lack of excitement was due merely to fatigue, exhaustion, a sore back and a sorer ego.

     His next job was at a construction site. He spent the day unloading trucks, digging trenches, breaking up gravel with a sledgehammer, picking up rubbish on the ground, taking commands in a subdued, obedient manner, and performing menial tasks. He didn't talk much all day, didn't draw any attention to himself, and he didn't screw up once. He had one thing on his mind while he worked, and it didn't involve words like "cut" or "action". When released after nine hours of labor, he didn't go straight home. He drove into town, past the main drag, past the shopping district, past the city park, and on into unfamiliar territory. The road was nondescript; a few houses and a few stores, a gas station, and then there it was. The building stood on its own, flanked by trees with bare branches, greeting him with a flashy red and white sign with the words POWELL'S GYM inscribed on a cartoon of oversized dumbbells in the hands of an exaggerated caricature of a bodybuilder with bulging muscles and spiked hair, dwarfed by the dumbbells he held up over his head, on which the name of the gym was displayed. In a smaller font to the side, it read;

     Free weights
     Nautilus
     Pool
     Aerobics
     Sauna
     Open daily 7am-10pm

     Harmon slowed down to take this in as he turned into the driveway and made his way to the parking lot. As he parked his car, a feeling came over him. It was an unpleasant feeling, familiar yet new. In the past week he had gone through many cataclysmic emotions, but none that could be compared to this one; he was nervous. It was the kind of nervousness one felt before one's first day at a new school, before trying out for a varsity team, before a job interview, before delivering a speech, before a date, although Harmon had done none of those things. He sat numbly in the driver's seat and watched other people get out of their cars, men and women wearing tank tops and sweatpants, long hair hanging out the back of bandanas, snazzy water-resistant yellow headphones that went with specialized sports walkmans, casual succinct conversation and swift high-fives as they walked to the entrance with determination, ready to pump some iron or whatever it was they did in there. They looked serious. They looked focused. They looked confident, and Harmon wanted desperately to emulate those qualities.
     He took a deep breath and got out of his car, still wearing his orange construction vest and filthy torn-up jeans. He walked inconspicuously along the side of the brick building and paused to peer in the window. What he saw was enough to deter him from going inside, and enough to lure him back the following afternoon.
     The first word that came to his mind was factory. It was like a factory in there; a rectangular floor the size of two basketball courts with gray square rubber tiles, a slanted navy-green ceiling with a row of fans in the middle, and giant mirrors covering all the walls, giving the illusion that the gym was three times as large as it actually was, a never ending expanse of equipment. In one corner there was a dumbbell rack that extended along the wall and an array of weight benches, some flat, some with adjustable inclines, some with fixed vertical back-supports, all uniformly blue with black pads. The rest of what he saw was an assembly line of myriad machines where people seemed to be progressing from one to the next successively, like factory parts. Except for the ones people were using at the moment, he had no idea what all the machines were for, but a part of him desperately wanted to.
     With the pounding bass from the radio inside resounding in his chest, he was more nervous than ever. He didn't know how long he had been standing there staring in the window, but he knew it was time to go when a burly man hostilely made eye contact with him from across the weight room. He ran to his car and took off, his heart beating fast.
     The next day he was taking orders from a different foreman, but the work was the same. When it was over, Harmon went into one of the malodorous portable bathrooms and held his breath while he changed into a pair of soccer shorts and an old t-shirt. There was no question where he was going. He drove to the gym, parked, got out and walked to the entrance without hesitation. When he went inside, the man who had caught him looking in the window the other day was sitting at the front desk wearing an official looking gray shirt with the Powell's Gym logo in the right hand corner, and a nametag that said Dave Powell.
     "Can I help you?"
     Dave was a middle-aged man with short brown hair and a mustache. He had the broadest shoulders Harmon had ever seen. His frame suggested he had been a heavyweight wrestler in his youth. He had the demeanor of a man in charge. Even had it not been for the nametag, it would be clear that this guy owned the place. Harmon hoped that he would never have to see Dave Powell get angry.
     "Can I help you?"
     "Oh, yeah, uh, I was, uh-"
     "Speak up, kid. I don't bite. Would you like someone to show you around?"
     "Yeah. I mean, I've never been to a gym before . . . but I want to start working out."
     "The first session is free. I'll have one of our trainers give you a tour and briefly show you how to use some key machines, then you can stay and play, or you can leave. But before you go, I'll take you into my office and give you a sales pitch about memberships and what not. Should you choose to join, we'll arrange a one-on-one meeting to assess your goals and start you off on a program, and for your first week you'll receive personal training from myself or a member of my staff. As I said, the first workout is free of charge. I just need you to sign a liability form. How old are you?"
     The nervousness went away as he was shown around and introduced to pieces of equipment with weight stacks and pins to set the resistance and fancy mechanisms involving cables and pulleys and stainless steel bars to work various muscles, but sitting in Dave's office with the door closed and three other guys listening attentively, it came back. Ironically, the heaviness descended on him after he was finished lifting weights. From the small taste he got, he knew wholeheartedly that his life was about to change, and from listening to Dave's sales pitch, he knew that there'd be a literal price to pay; one hundred dollars per month, or five hundred for a year's membership. To join meant, inevitably, the camera would have to wait till another summer. That was his dilemma, and that was his only dilemma. He didn't care if his parents insisted that he save the money he earned for something more practical. He had never brought up or even hinted to them his aspirations of taking up weightlifting, and he honestly didn't know how they'd react, but it didn't matter. Support or no support, it was his initiative, it was his choice, and it was a choice between a gym membership and a camera, and he was losing sleep over it.
     Usually when he had important decisions to make, Brock was the one friend he consulted, but this time he couldn't bring himself to tell him of his ambivalence. He wanted that camera badly, but he wanted the gym membership more, there was no use denying it. His stalemate wasn't really about the camera. It was about Brock's reaction. On the surface he was debating where to spend his money, but it was a deeper conflict of interests that kept him awake at night; it was a choice between friendship and self-respect.
     Harmon had signed on with a temp agency that provided manpower to local contractors, landscapists, carpenters and the like. Jobs weren't permanent; they lasted anywhere from one day to a week, but the agency was committed to finding their clients some form of work every day. It was grunt work, and the transience of the jobs was the only thing that made it tolerable. There was variety, and there was surprise; he often couldn't predict what he'd be doing, whom he'd be answering to or what godforsaken place he'd be driving to the following day; one day he'd be on a roof hammering nails, and the next he'd be in a sewer operating a jackhammer. But lurking beneath the variation was an all-encompassing consistency, a unifying nature of work, a certain attitude of the workers, a certain structure to the day which made him want to simultaneously vomit and scream at the top of his lungs.
     Each morning when he got in his car and put on his hardhat, he would pick up an envelope or receipt off the dashboard, on which he'd taken down the directions to the next job sight from a pleasant female voice at a phone booth. Beneath the directions would be the name of the boss he was to report to. As soon as a job ended, he was to call the agency and find out what to wear to his next gig, what time to be there, and how to get there. On those mornings when he groggily followed a new set of directions, he didn't know what to expect, but still it felt like he was marching off to the same regimen. The location changed, the activity changed, occasionally the climate changed, but it was the same job. The face changed, but it was the same boss, the boss that controlled how much sleep he got, who his "friends" were, when he ate and when he took his fifteen-minute break, what time he got to work and what time he was released.
     He couldn't take it anymore. He had to make a decision, and after one particularly long and arduous workday, he did. This time he didn't bother to change in a PortaPotty at the end of the day. He fled the site and drove straight to Powell's with five twenty-dollar bills folded up in a zip-lock bag in his pocket.
     When he walked in, Dave wasn't at his desk. Ignoring the other employees there, he sauntered over to Dave's office. The door was closed. He crossed his arms and waited, and while he was waiting he overheard the conversation inside.
     "Why are you here?" he heard Dave say intensely.
     "Wh-why am I here? Huh?" It sounded like a teenaged male.
     "What's your aim? What kind of body do you want? Are you training for an athletic team? What's your inspiration for coming in here?"
     "Oh, I see what you mean. Well, this is kind of personal, but I just broke up with my girlfriend."
     There was a pause.
     "I don't see the connection."
     "She dumped me for a football player. I was thinking if I get all like buff, I'll have all the girlies hanging off me, y'know, make her jealous?"
     There was a long silence. Harmon could feel the tension building from outside the room. He backed up from the door and just barely heard Dave half-whisper the words "Get out."
     Another pause. Then he said it louder; "Get out. Don't waste my time."
     "Huh? Aw, come on, man, I don't know what I said to offend you, but I just wanna get some pussy-"
     Dave banged his fist on the table. The floor shook. Harmon jumped.
     "Don't you ever - EVER - use that word in my office, do you understand?"
     "Hey, chill out, dude-"
     "This is a gym. Respect it or leave. I suggest you leave."
     Now Harmon understood the real purpose of the one-on-one conference; in as much as it was for the benefit of the customer, it was a screening process. The door opened and a boy about Harmon's age with long hair, wearing a Motley Crew t-shirt sulked out of the office, banished. Harmon waited a minute and then walked in timidly. Dave's composure was solidly calm, with no sign of the vehement rage he had just expressed. His face brightened up a little when he saw Harmon come in.
     "I didn't think you'd come back."
     "I got the money." He fished the zip-lock bag out of his pocket and laid it on the table. "I want to join."
     Without blinking, Dave opened a drawer and produced a manila envelope with some forms stapled together and handed it to Harmon.
     "Since you're under eighteen, you'll have to have a parent or legal guardian sign these documents before you can officially begin, but we're informal here, as you'll find out. I'm free for the next ninety minutes. We can do your one-on-one right now, and then I can take you through orientation, brief you on our rules and policies. As I said, we're pretty informal, so don't be intimidated. Just be aware that - and I'll say this once - Powell's Gym maintains the right to refuse admittance to our facility to any person at any time, in other words, this is my gym, if I don't like you, I can kick your ass out. That being said, welcome aboard, I'm Dave."
     He extended his hand. Harmon shook it without hesitation and introduced himself. Dave had a painfully solid grip, as he'd expected.
     "Take a seat. Relax. This is my chance to get to know you, and your chance to tell me what you hope to get out of your membership here so that I can tailor a workout to your bodily goals, to your hopes and dreams. Keep in mind this is just to get you started. In the future, you'll pioneer your own workout autonomously. My staff and I will always be here to answer questions and provide guidance, but your success is ultimately up to you. So I ask you this; why are you here?"
     "I . . ."
     "Why are you here, Harmon?"
     "I want to better myself."
     "That's a generic answer. Be specific."
     "I want to build up my arms and my chest. And I want a six-pack."
     "Why?"
     "For self-confidence, respect, I don't know."
     "You don't know?"
     "I want to lift. I want to feel pain every day of the week. I want to walk into school without fear. I want to approach people without feeling inferior to them. I want to walk onto a construction site and be the best damn workhorse they got. I want to work towards something, I want to be able to look in the mirror and like what I see. I want to flex and be the center of attention, and never be laughed at again, I want to tackle the world!"
     There was a long pause. Dave was nodding his head slowly.
     "Are you willing to devote four to five hours a week to this?"
     "Yes."
     "Congratulations, you can pick up your academy award on the way out."
     There was another pause. Harmon started laughing, and then Dave started laughing, and they laughed hysterically together. Out of the lesson that proceeded, the word that stuck out in Harmon's mind was "failure," the most important principle in weightlifting. "Taking it to failure" meant pushing the limits, it meant finding out who you were in relation to the weight you were lifting. It meant not quitting until your body flat out gives in, it meant that you don't decide when a set is over, the weight decides that for you; if you set out to do eight repetitions and you do eight reps, you ain't finished. "Don't you dare put that weight down if you can possibly crank out another one, or if you can still move it at all," Dave would say. The running definition of 'failure' was 'you lift until you simply can't lift it anymore no matter how hard you try, no matter how loud you shout.' But it meant more than that. Taking it to failure was what determined if you were ready to increase the weight by another increment the next time you used that machine. Failure meant progress. Failure meant self-discovery. A word that had had only negative connotations prior to the day he stepped into Powell's Gym would soon become an integral part of his vocabulary for four to five hours a week. Wasn't there a proverb that said it's only through identifying with failure that one can come to know success? If not, then there should have been.
     He was on a high when he left the gym. He blasted heavy metal music on the car ride home and sang along.
     That night Brock paid him a visit.

     "You're gonna hate me," he told Brock as they walked along the docks in the moonlight. "I have a confession to make."
     "What, did you cheat off me in that history test last year?"
     Harmon shook his head. "I made a decision that's irrevocable. You won't understand my reasons right now, but try to understand that it's something I had to do."
     "Did you take up drinking?"
     "It's about the camera."
     Brock had no quick response. The word hung in the air like a rifle shot.
     "You couldn't have bought it already without my input in picking one out, you've only been working a few weeks."
     "I'm not getting a camera. I'm buying a membership to Powell's instead."
     "What the fuck is Powell's?"
     "The fitness center."
     "Whoah, whoah. Tell me you're kidding. That's the most random thing you've ever pulled . . . you've never exercised, why . . . I don't get it. Why do you suddenly want to do this so strongly that you're giving up the chance to make movies to . . . to pump iron?"
     "I can't explain it. I know how absurd it sounds."
     Brock turned away and waived his hand dismissively. Harmon walked after him.
     "This is just like you. You have a plan, a good one, and then you throw it away for some crazy whim that pops up, something completely irrelevant, and then you apologize for your insipid shenanigans, you fucking apologize. Have I told you how much I hate when you do that? I could punch you right now."
     "I'm sorry."
     "Don't apologize to me. Just-" He stopped suddenly. "Wait, what am I saying? You still have at least another month to change your mind before you have enough money to do either, you're just talking out of your-"
     "I've already bought the membership."
     "What?"
     "And I feel great! See, they have this cumulative deal where you buy a month, or several months, then-"
     "Shut up. I don't get it, why can't you do both? You're making good money, aren't you? Christ, you work so many hours, I never see you."
     "I have to put half of it away for college, besides, I have-"
     "Look, fine. Whatever. Go and lift weights. Do your thing."
     "Next summer, next summer I swear, man, we'll get a camera."
     "You're an idiot. Don't give me this 'I can't explain it' crap. You're just an idiot."
     "Fuck you."
     "What made you want to join a gym, anyway?"
     "Look at me-"
     "Good answer."
     Harmon punched him in the shoulder. "Could you be a little more insensitive, dick?"
     "Could you be a little more flaky?" Brock punched him back.
     "Why don't you buy your own damn camera?"
     That shut him up and ended the exchange of punches, but it ended something else as well.

     The next few weeks were a blur. Visual results were slow, but he could feel his body tightening, hardening and forging itself into an image of perfection. He began to pay attention to what he ate. Junk food implied extraneous matter to carry around inside him. Everything he did had a purpose. The mentality was not confined within the walls of Powell's. When he walked outside, if an impulse told him to run, he'd break into a sprint. If he walked by a playground, he'd do pull-ups on the jungle gym. Whenever he walked by a hill, he was possessed by a sudden urge to run to the top. His environment no longer presented itself as static, transcending his existence. It was challenging him. That hill is laughing at you, it thinks it's bigger than you. Forty seconds later he would stand at the top of it breathless and yell out "Who's in control now, huh!"
     He didn't build the city (although that wasn't necessarily true these days), he didn't tell the trees where to grow, he didn't affect the weather, but at least he could be the master of his own body. During the day he was everybody's bitch, whoring himself all over the site, bouncing from foreman to foreman and doing as he was told like a good little construction worker. From eight to five or seven to five or seven to seven or whatever hours they set for the crew, they owned him. Then he'd go to the gym. There he controlled what he lifted. There nobody told him to haul these beams up a ladder, stack these cement blocks, unload this trailer . . . there he was the boss of Harmon, and the demand was even greater. The best way to get a hard-ass coach off one's back was to create an even more demanding one in one's immediate psyche. Nobody would push him around anymore; he would take care of that himself. Pain tasted better than candy. When he pushed himself, really pushed himself, when his muscles screamed to him audibly to relent, his heart about to explode and burst out of his chest, his whole body throbbing, baking in the summer heat, he couldn't distinguish the sweat running down his forehead from tears and all he could think was faster, faster, only in those moments was he truly free.
     Harmon was undergoing a shape-shifting transformation, a transformation of body and mind, and Brock noticed it. He noticed it when they were walking through the woods and Harmon suddenly sprinted up a hill without warning, and rolled down.
     "What the hell, man?"
     "I felt like climbing a hill, what's wrong with that?"
     "You're crazy."
     "I'm free."
     "I mean it, Harmon, you've changed. All those weights have gone to your head."
     "You should come with me sometime." He squeezed Brock's arm. "You could use a little-"
     Brock yanked his arm away and said "No" so forcefully and resolutely that Harmon recoiled. He never suggested it to him again.
     Harmon grew bigger and bigger and leaner and leaner. The summer bled into the school year, and he continued to get bigger. Eyes turned when he strutted through the halls wearing tight t-shirts and a don't-fuck-with-me expression. Girls began to take notice. And then he hit his plateau. And then he met Sarah Madison.










Chapter 3: Strange Phenomena



     "No, I do not take steroids."
     "We'll need a urine sample." The nurse handed him a cup. "You understand, don't you?"
     "Understand what?"
     "Every competitor gets drug tested, federation rules. You looked at me like I was accusing you. It's my job to-"
     "No, no, I understand."
     "It's for your own safety, and for the integrity of the sport. Will this be a problem for you?"
     "No."
     There was no problem, no problems at all. Dave had booked him for a contest, and would prepare him in due time. Meanwhile, he drove to the gym every other day after school diligently and sweated just as he'd been doing since the summer. In the beginning he'd carried around a chart on a clipboard to keep track of what machines he used and record his weight and reps at each of them, but now he had discarded the chart, and kept it all in his head, which was somewhat liberating. But it wasn't liberating enough. One day when he got off the bench press, a young man slightly bigger than Harmon was standing with his arms folded observing him.
     "You think you're hot stuff, huh?" The man shook his head derisively. "Bench press is for sissies."
     "Yeah? Why's that?"
     "You only use seventy percent of your chest. The first third of the motion just strains your shoulders."
     "You're full of shit."
     "Flies are where it's at."
     "What, you mean the Butterfly Chest machine?"
     "No, I ain't talking 'bout no sissy-ass machine. I'm talking flat bench, dumbbells. That's how you get the full range of motion." Harmon looked confused. "Come here."
     He led Him over to the dumbbell area and showed him how to do flies. After an excruciating set of eight, Harmon sat up with the weights resting on his knees, breathing heavily.
     "You feel it?"
     "That's intense. I'm definitely gonna start doing those."
     "Still think I'm full of shit?"
     "I'm Harmon. Most people call me Flex." He extended his hand, but the man just stood there.
     "I know who you are. Don't thank me yet. I got something else to show you, something I know you'll like. Meet me in the locker room when you're finished with your workout, and we'll talk about it."
     It didn't even occur to him that most people he knew would have immediately misconstrued that invitation as a proposition of anal sex, so with blissful ignorance he went ahead and sought the man out when he was done and accompanied him to the locker room. The man craned his neck to look around the room and then spoke very quietly.
     "I got to keep a low profile, so keep your voice to a whisper if you would."
     "Is this about Mega-Mass?"
     He expression was more than taken aback; he looked frightened. "How'd you know I take Mega-Mass?"
     "Word gets around."
     "Well it's not supposed to, so don't tell anyone else. Dave would have a fit if he found out. Can I trust you?"
     "Are you a distributor or something?"
     "You want some, I'll get you some for less than retail price. You want in?"
     Harmon thought about it for a moment.
     "Absolutely. How much?" After doing business and shaking hands, he left the gym guiltily without looking at Dave on his way out.

     Harmon kept a half-gallon container of powdered Mega-Mass under his bed and mixed one scoop of it with half a liter of water in a soda bottle that he'd take with him to school on lifting days. He'd down it in the parking lot before going inside, as the instructions on the container said to do. It tasted bitter so he had to hold his nose and chug it. But that wasn't a problem.
     There was no problem at all.
     His defiance began to manifest itself in subtle ways. Dave began paying him more attention than usual. He didn't seem suspicious, but he did seem uneasy.
     "So, do I have to do that thing you see in the Olympics where you thrust the barbell up to your shoulders, do a standing press, and then put it back down?"
     Dave laughed. "Sure, if you want to have back surgery by age thirty. Those are called cleans, and no, I would never advise you to do them. Power lifting consists of three events; dead-lift, squat, and the most overrated staple of the modern American workout, your forte, the flat press, also known as the bench press. But you don't have to do all three. At the professional level you're scored based on your total weight for the three lifts, but here they'll be judged separately."
     "So you win by out-lifting everyone in your weight category?"
     "It's not how much weight you lift, it's your formula."
     "Huh?"
     "They take your body weight, your age and your max, plug it into an equation and get out a number. That's called your Formula."
     "And you only have to do one rep?"
     "That's the definition of a max; how much you can lift just once, effectively."
     "I don't even know what my max is."
     "Of course you don't. Training that way would be a waste of time. You only start maxing out three weeks before a contest. Don't worry, I'll train you. Don't even think about trying it without me. Oh, and we'll have to get you fitted for a one-piece suit."

     It was less than a week before the competition when Brock called him, interrupting his laser experiment, and told him to go outside. On his way out, he glanced through the window. No apocalyptic hailstorm or tornado or surging flood that he could see. He opened the door, turned on the porch light and stepped into the yard, expecting to have a cursory look around and then go back inside, call Brock and say, "I give up, what am I looking for?" It was dark. Looking straight ahead, that was his only observation. And then a flash of brightness grazed the top of his field of vision and he looked up. His life would never be the same again.
     It was a clear night. He could see constellations, and even recognized a few. Just beyond the North Star something was happening. Concentric bands of distinct bright colors expanded and disintegrated as they dispersed, like Newton's Rings. It was about twice the size of a full moon, and just as noticeable. The spectacle reminded him of psychedelic animated features he had seen in music videos, and of black light posters.
     "Mom! Dad! Come out here, you got to see this!"
     His father came outside with his arms behind his back.
     "What's all the fuss?"
     "Where's mom?"
     "She went to sleep early. She's tired."
     "Look. In the sky."
     He looked, but didn't react.
     "So? It's probably just the after-blast from some missile they're testing at the base-"
     "Dad, you don't know what you're talking about."
     "Then it's some kind of outstanding pyrotechnics."
     "That doesn't look like fireworks to me, Dad."
     "What's your point? Don't let this be fuel for your wild imagination. I'm sure we'll hear about it on the news."
     "Shut up, Dad. Just shut up. It's beautiful."
     His expression didn't change.
     "What did you say?"
     "I said it's beautiful. Just acknowledge it."
     He wasn't looking at the sky anymore. He was looking at Harmon. His hands were still behind his back.
     "Have you been taking steroids?"
     "Why does everyone think that?"
     "Answer me."
     "Do you think I'm stupid? Of course not."
     "Then what the hell is this?" He held up the orange plastic bottle with the Mega-Mass logo, which he'd been concealing behind his back.
     "It's a protein supplement, and it's perfectly natural."
     "Why didn't you talk to me before using a . . . enhancer, or whatever you call this?"
     "Why'd you go snooping under my bed?"
     "Look, son. I'm proud of you. You're doing good work, and you're on the right path. As long as you're keeping your grades up, I won't interfere. But your behavior's starting to worry me. Just tell me you'll take it easy, would you?"
     "Sure, Dad." Could you be a little more vague?
     His dad went inside. A few minutes later a car pulled into the driveway. Brock got out carrying something. It was Harmon's homemade telescope apparatus he had left at Brock's house.
     "Aw, you're the best, dude!"
     They started setting it up together on the grass.
     Brock sighed. "Now if only we had a camera."
     Harmon dropped what he was doing. "Brock-"
     "This is a historical event. Whatever it is that's causing this, twenty years from now everyone will remember where they were tonight. Imagine if we had a home movie of it to show our kids. They'd see us as teenagers - that in itself would be a kick - and then the camera scrolls up and . . ."
     "Must you bring this up every time I see you?"
     "I guess they'll have to settle for news clips. Speaking of which, astronomers at the observatory are saying-"
     "Don't tell me. I'd rather not hear any explanations till tomorrow. I just want to enjoy this now."
     "-are saying that they're completely baffled."
     The telescope apparatus consisted of some lenses held in place by a line of toilet-paper rolls and some tape, a flashlight and a series of mirrors that, when arranged perfectly, projected the image onto a sheet of paper. Harmon rendered it so they could see the phenomenon in the sky reenacted on the paper screen with impressive clarity.
     "Got any popcorn?"
     "Popcorn's bad for you."
     "No it's not."
     "With all the crap you put on it-"
     "I forgot, you're a health nut too."
     "Get a hobby, man."
     "I have plenty of hobbies. But our hobbies weren't good enough for you."
     Harmon punched his fist through the paper and ripped it out of the wooden frame that held the device together.
     "Look, damn it. You've got no reason to resent me and I'm sick and tired of your little underhanded comments." He took a deep breath. "But let's not spoil this night by being bitter. There's something going on up there, something special."
     They both lay down on the grass and looked up at the entertainment.
     "Doesn't this kind of remind you of-"
     "Photon-Man, issue 38," Harmon finished for him. "I was thinking the same thing."
     "When they're on the planet Lepton and he synchronizes that vortex with the magnetic drive field and leaps dimensions to fight the evil what's-his-name . . ."
     They spent a long time in silence watching the sky.
     "Harmon? You're not on steroids, are you?"
     He lazily held up his arm and gave him the finger.

     The first explanation he heard was in Mr. Nolte's advanced physics class.
     "Many of you, all of you I hope, saw something in the sky Tuesday night. I've heard a lot of talk about it in the halls this morning. It's on everyone's mind. Some people are preaching it's the end of the world. Others say it's a signal from some extraterrestrial intelligence. What are astronomers saying? Does anyone know? Naturally, people will jump to conclusions at a time like this, but what's really scary is when the most rational explanation offered has to do with black holes and extra-dimensional-"
     The class was in an uproar.
     "Black holes don't emit any light!" someone shouted over the pandemonium.
     "Of course they don't. That's the trouble in postulating their existence. But the gravitation enacted on distant bodies disrupts the whole continuum of the universe. It bends adjacent beams of light resulting in dispersion, much like a prism. Think of the gravitational field as a refracting medium. If you looked closely, you would have seen that the very center was dark. Did anyone notice the progression of colors?"
     A soft-spoken girl named Linda answered.
     "It was purple, then blue, then green, all the colors of the rainbow in a wave, an outward wave . . . like it was swallowing the sky." People laughed good-humoredly.
     "A full spectrum of visible wavelengths, all in perfect circles moving like rings in the water. Rings in the water are caused by some disturbance. The geometry of this disturbance resembles the theoretical model of a black hole."
     A student raised his hand and asked, "So you're saying that light traveling past the black hole but far away from it was bent by it's gravitational field and dispersed. Where did such an intense light come from in the first place?"
     "Well, according to theory, a black hole releases a certain kind of radiation in proportion to the mass it ingests, resulting in an astronomically explosive emission of energy traveling through the universe faster than light, a sort of optical sonic boom."
     "But wouldn't that imply that the blast travels backwards in time, meaning that what we saw last night hasn't happened yet?"
     "According to the equations, the component traveling faster than c is in the infrared, which accounts for the wave effect that Linda described, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this discussion. But what we actually saw was standard photon emission, and it was very far away, about a hundred and fifty light-years - that's nine times ten to the thirteenth miles - meaning, what we observed last night actually happened a hundred and fifty years ago. Would anybody care to venture a guess as to how they arrived at that?"
     "Something to do with the gradient of the time lapses between the color rings, and their position relative to the stars?"
     "I like it, but no. Anyone else?"
     "By analyzing the color changes and calculating the relativistic Doppler shifts?"
     "That would tell us how fast distant galaxies are receding from us (or us from them), but not necessarily the distance to them. Nice try."
     "Maybe they're all full of shit. They had to tell the media something to save face, but they're still working on it, and as of now they have no idea."
     "All excellent answers, but you're all wrong." Mr. Nolte picked up a jar full of a sample of Lumac that he kept behind the demonstration table. "No telescopes and no high-tech equipment were used in the investigation of last night's phenomenon, just this that I hold in my hand, and the naked eye, and a room full of the world's brightest theoretical physicists." He paused for reactions. There were a few gasps, and silence. "Now can you guess?
     "In the year eighteen forty eight, it was coincidentally reported by several sources all over the world that Lumac deposits were deviating from their preconceived behavior. Not only did these events happen at the exact same time, but the Lumac's behavior was exactly the same everywhere it was observed, and furthermore, nowhere in the world was it found to act differently. This uniformity lent validity to old ridiculed theories that had been disregarded as mere superstition. But more importantly, these sudden deviations which came to light in the eighteen hundreds correspond perfectly with the parameters of the newly theorized gravitational upset which manifested itself last night, which suggests that it occurred not last night, not in the future, not eons ago, but precisely in the year eighteen forty eight, which means it occurred at a distance of approximately a hundred and fifty light-years-"
     "What if it's a coincidence?" a student interjected.
     "I said 'suggests.' However if you looked at the equations, the proposition of it being a coincidence would seem highly unlikely. Science asks not 'is this coincidence?' The scientist looks at data and asks, could there be a relation here, something significant?"
He paused. "Is anyone here not familiar with the history and the mystique behind Lumac?"
     "What was this controversial theory you speak of?"
     "That's another digression for another time. I could spend an entire lecture on that. Basically it says that Lumac exists at the earth's core, and not only that, but it was present in the nucleus of our universe before the Big Bang, and still pervades our universe, and is somehow responsible for evolution, and ties together the forces behind astrology, mysticism and so forth. The mathematics behind all this eludes even me, however if any of you've read the popular comic book Photon-Man, you may be familiar with the theory, and could probably explain it better than I could."
     A boy in the back row timidly raised his hand and asked, "What's Lumac?"
     "I'm glad somebody asked. Who'd like to come up here and explain it in a nutshell?" His eyes circumnavigated the classroom like a fly and landed on Harmon. "Harmon?"
     The rowdy class cheered and yelled, "Flex!" Enjoying the spotlight, Harmon swaggered up to the blackboard and crossed his arms. As he opened his mouth to launch into an explanation, he thought of the issue of Photon-Man where the professor/mad scientist had the exact same question posed to him. Under normal conditions it behaves ostensibly like matter, but under certain - not necessarily extreme - conditions it behaves like nothing the world has ever known in fantasy or reality. I tell you this only in the strictest of confidence. The government knows this, I know this, and you will use it someday, that is your destiny; under certain un-reproducible conditions, it can convert matter into tachyons. Young Photon-Man; Two questions; what conditions, and what in the hell are you talking about? Professor; Cosmic conditions that are vastly out of our control, and I'm talking about time travel, I'm talking interstellar transportation, I'm talking mass-transference, I'm talking about things beyond your wildest imagination . . . I'm talking, about being a hero. That was wildly farfetched, but it was what Harmon had grown up on, and now he was about to take on that role of explaining what Lumac was.
     "Lumac is something scientists keep in the closet, or try to. It's the greatest mystery of our time. It's a substance with a reflective surface, like a randomly shaped mirror. In its solid state it resembles a crystalline metal compound, although it's not a composite of anything. It's been known about for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, and it's not even on the periodic table. It's elemental, yet as far as we can tell with even the world's most powerful microscopes, the stuff is continuous! It looks and feels like matter, although it's not quantized, the result being it's tougher than diamond, and it can't be molded. It cannot be cut, chipped or shattered, and nor can it be forged by heating. You could drop a bomb on it and it would stay intact. It has confounded metallurgists and alchemists for ages, and we still don't know anything about it. Sometimes it's found in a liquid state, sometimes as a solid, and everything in between, although temperature has no effect whatsoever on these phase changes. The phase changes are a function of one thing and one thing only, and that is they're uncannily correlated with lunar cycles. Experimenters have subjected solid-state Lumac to temperatures that would melt steel, and still it maintains its integrity, yet in the presence of a full moon, it becomes liquid. This fact has been known since ancient times, and no exceptions have ever been documented, until eighteen forty eight that is.
     "Going back further, in the fifteen hundreds indigenous peoples of South Africa discovered that when liquid Lumac was absorbed in the soil, it caused crops to grow hugely out of proportion. This knowledge quickly spread to Europe where it was exploited for agricultural enterprise. When it came harvest time, everyone who ate of the produce became ill, and the practice ended immediately, and was strictly outlawed. The thing is, the history books are very vague about the illness. It was a cover-up. Nobody knows what really happened to those people. That's the real mystery."
     Harmon sat down and Mr. Nolte took over.
     "As you may have noticed, scientists like to project themselves as all-knowing. They like you to think that they have everything under control, that in the tradition of Adam and Eve, they rule the world by way of nomenclature. The truth is, we don't have all the answers. There are many natural phenomena that we're still baffled by. Now that I've shattered your trust in science, we may proceed with my scheduled lecture for today."
     Linda raised her hand.
     "I have one more question about this. You said that the phase of Lumac is uniform everywhere at any given time, but Harmon told us that it corresponds to lunar cycles. Wouldn't that mean that when it's solid in the northern hemisphere it would be liquid in the southern hemisphere, and vice versa?"
     "That's an excellent question, and I don't know. You caught me, I didn't do my homework for today." There were a few laughs, and then lecture proceeded.

     The contest was held at a gym two towns away. That was when he openly defied Dave for the first time. What exactly drove him to do it was ambiguous. It was a combination of the results he'd been seeing which he attributed to Mega-Mass, the image of the strange lights in the sky still fresh in his mind, and the adrenalin rush spurred by the contest atmosphere that empowered him and made him overconfident. As they arrived together, they were greeted with a banner that said POWERLIFTING COMPETITION adorning the entrance. The atmosphere was festive. There were photographers and people wearing suits. There were lights. There was an audience. There were weightlifters of all ages and sizes, from beastly longhaired barrel-chested behemoths slipping into their gear and pounding their chests, to slim athletic-looking teenagers wearing striped wind-pants and backwards baseball caps trying to impress their girlfriends. There was pandemonium. There were hot-dog vendors. There was rock and roll music playing on the radio. Dave seemed to have rapport with everyone they encountered as he led him through the sign-in process and made their way to the scale to weigh in.
     "Relax." Dave patted him on the back. "Have fun."
     He was too tense to even think about relaxing. Every fifteen minutes he went to the bathroom to pee, until the contest began. The master of ceremonies made a welcome address over a microphone, followed by the national anthem, and then the games began.
     Harmon watched intently, trying to grasp the structure of the contest. For each of the three events, there were three rounds. At the end of the event, you'd be evaluated based on your best successful lift out of the three attempts. The announcer would say the lifter's name and a few words about them, and then they'd step up and tell the spotter when they were ready. The lifter then brought the barbell down to their chest and waited for the command to lift, at which time they would press the weight and wait for the command to rack it, and then from the judges' table, three red lights would come on and the announcer would say "Sorry, no lift," or three yellow lights would come on and the announcer would say "That was a good lift," and there'd be applause. The judges' votes were always unanimous.
     Dave had warned him that they were strict; the bar had to be touching your chest before they told you to lift, touch-and-go style, and your arms had to be completely extended before they said "Rack." Dave had worked with him and prepared him thoroughly, they had a game plan, and he was right with him on the sidelines as his coach. "First you do a weight you know you could lift on a bad day, something you're good for four reps with. On the second attempt, challenge yourself but don't take any risks. If you succeed, now you're secure and you can go all out on your third one," he had explained. His first attempt would be for two hundred and twenty pounds. His max was two-fifty-five, so his second attempt would be two-fifty to be safe, and the third one was left open. They had talked it through, and that was their plan.
     "All right my man, you're on deck, get focused," said Dave.
     "Oh God."
     "This is two-twenty, nothing to worry about. Just do what we practiced."
     Harmon bounced around on his feet, shaking his arms out.
     "Harmon Flexor." The voice resonated from five speakers placed throughout the gym. "This seventeen-year-old weighs in at one hundred and sixty pounds, and he is attempting to lift two hundred and twenty pounds."
     As he sat down on the bench, his mom and dad cheered for him. He looked out into the audience and nodded to them, and then lay down. When his hands touched the cold iron of the barbell and found their grip, his fear was sucked out through his hands and he felt pumped. He performed his first lift quickly and with ease, and then watched all the other lifters in round one, slowly nodded his head and turned to Dave.
     "I'm feeling good. I think I'll do two-sixty for my second-"
     "Whoah, whoah, hey, time out. I know how you feel. It's your first contest, you're psyched up, you feel invincible, believe me, I know. You can't let your emotions get the better of you. You got to lift smart."
     "I can do it, Dave-"
     "You may be right, but don't be stupid. If you overshoot and fail your second attempt, you can't drop down for your third, they'll make you repeat the same weight, and then you'll be stuck with two-twenty. I see it happen all the time. Don't make that mistake, not on your first time. On your third lift, I won't tell you what to do, but this one's too important. You've never pressed two-sixty. I've been coaching people for years, and I'm telling you, I'm ordering you, do not go above two-fifty, you hear me?"
     "Fuck two-fifty. I can do it, I just know I can."
     Dave gripped his jaw like an angry parent reprimanding a child.
     "Look at me. Look at me, Harmon. Remember everything I've taught you. You've worked hard on this. We've worked hard on this. Listen to what I'm saying. Don't you dare go out there and make a fool of yourself. You're representing Powell's Gym, now don't embarrass me, make me proud. Your competition has nothing on you. If you get two-fifty, I guarantee you'll bring home a trophy."
     Harmon was silent. Neither of them spoke until the officials came around with the clipboard recording everyone's attempts.
     "What will you be lifting for your second attempt, sir?"
     Dave glared at him. Harmon looked back and forth from Dave to the proctor. The tension was mounting.
     "Do you need some more time?"
     Dave spoke up. "He'll be lifting two-"
     "Two seventy."
     And she was gone. Dave crossed his arms and didn't look at or speak to him until it was time for him to go up.
     "Harmon Flekzor." The name shot out from the speakers like a curse. "Will now attempt to lift two hundred and seventy pounds."
     "You're making a mistake," Dave said softly. "Just do your best. This will be a learning experience."
     He was jumping up and down and smacking himself in the head to get psyched up. Just before he ran to the bench press - actually ran - he stopped and turned around one last time.
     "No, Dave. You watch me, I'm gonna put that weight through the roof!!"
     He didn't pause to look at the audience. He jumped onto the bench and scrambled into position, frightening even the spotters. His arms were shaking. He was ready. They lifted it off to him, made sure he was secure and let go. He usually held it above him for a second before bringing it down to his chest, but now he found he couldn't hold it up. It fell to his chest and stayed there immovably, pinning him to the bench like a prison bar. He pushed. He gritted his teeth and twisted his face into contortions and growled, but it wouldn't budge no matter how hard he fought it. As he struggled to lift it off his chest in a panic, he thought of the hay-wagon vomiting its load all over the grass. You're fired. And then it was off his chest. The spotters were raising it back up to the rack.
     He sat up, feeling lightheaded. He was still shaking. First there was silence, and then there were murmurs of sympathy from the audience, which gave way to normal audience noise - static. He stood up and started walking briskly, keeping his eyes on the floor. For a moment he was sure he heard something in the static, something directed at him. It was laughter. Somebody was laughing at him. He didn't hear it clearly enough to recreate the sound in his head and submit it to his subconscious archives of shame, so his mind filled in with stock footage of people laughing at him. But he heard it, and he didn't stop and look, but he didn't forget it.
     "No lift for Harmon Flekzor."

     No lift for Harmon Flekzor . . . no lift . . . no lift . . . This was what failure really was. Failure was sitting in a deserted locker room with your head in your hands. He could hear the announcer and the cheering beyond the walls. When it came around to round three, they would announce his name and put two hundred and seventy pounds on the bar for him, but he would be gone. He would be in his car doing ninety miles per hour, or in the bushes somewhere doing pushups till he could no longer feel his hands. They'd repeat his name a couple times, and then they'd reset the bar and the contest would move on without him. Failure was looking for a back exit so that he didn't have to face Dave, his parents, his rival competitors, the fans, the hotdog vendors or the room itself. Soon Dave would come into the locker room looking for him. He gathered his stuff and hustled out of the building.
     He was starting up his car when there was a knock on the window. It was his dad.
     "What the hell were you doing out there? You could have easily taken first place."
     Harmon looked down and didn't say anything while the car idled. Without looking at him, he waved goodbye apologetically and sped off.

     He drove fast, and didn't put on any music. When he got home, he didn't go inside, but went straight to the backyard.
     There was a plastic cup hidden away in a corner, an experiment he had done a few years ago for his own amusement. In the cup was a potato that had begun sprouting those green stems before he began the experiment. He had stuck four toothpicks into the potato and rested it on the rim of the cup so that the bottom half of the potato was submerged in a sample of Lumac diluted in water. For the first two months he had made daily observations, but when he didn't see any striking results, he lost interest and forgot about it. He left it sitting there until about a month ago when he had stumbled across it and an idea hit him. What was I thinking leaving it to rot in a dark crevice collecting cobwebs? It needs sunlight, how could I have been so stupid? So he had relocated it to the backyard, in a spot under the porch that wasn't too conspicuous.
     For one thing, the Lumac had preserved it remarkably. Although there was no light and not much heat in the basement, it was damp, and a few years had elapsed. When he first began the experiment, he had put an identical potato in another cup with just water and no Lumac, and placed this control group next to the one with the Lumac. For those first two months, they had both sprouted at the same rate - or lack thereof - with no noticeable differences, which had greatly disappointed him. But later on that year an abominable stench had wafted up into the house from the basement and when he investigated it, he found that the control potato was crawling with maggots and fuzzy mold. He discarded it with disgust and was about to dispense with the experiment along with it when it struck him that although it had undergone no remarkable growth spurts or patterns, it was not rotting at all. So he left it there. When he came back to it years later and moved it outside, the preservation wasn't the only result to take effect. He didn't have a control now - and he didn't have the gusto to start the experiment over - so technically it was no longer a science experiment, but what resulted was by no means subtle. The stems had grown tortuously to lengths of well over a foot, and it had sprouted more of them; they had more than doubled. But the tentacles didn't just go off in their own directions. They all eventually snaked up to the top where every single one of them was fused together in a bulbous mass of shiny black mucus the size of a chicken's egg.
     Harmon knelt down before it with the words 'no lift for Harmon Flekzor' echoing in his mind. He gently stroked it with his finger. It was like touching a resilient mass of melted cheddar cheese, and it left a residue on his finger. He held his finger in front of his face and examined it. It looked just like machine-shop grease and it had no smell. He licked it off his finger. It tasted metallic and bitter, in the way that soil tastes bitter when you get accidentally get some in your mouth. He spit it out and coughed so hard he thought he would vomit, bent over with his elbows on the grass. He stood up, walked slowly back into the house and poured himself a glass of water to wash down the taste. As he tilted his head back to drink from the glass, a sudden dizziness seized him. The room spun around him and he felt like he was falling but knew he was standing up. The feeling was cadenced with a sharp tingling surge of the metallic taste in the back of his throat. A shiver ran through his body. He staggered over to the couch holding onto furniture to steady himself, plopped himself down and lay his head back.
     In the next moment he was on his feet and wasn't sure how he had gotten there. His hands were made into fists at his side, trembling with vigor. He knew the feeling well, but knew not from whence it came. It was the same vehemence that had gotten the better of him at the contest, that which had gripped him while loading that hay-wagon, that which drove him to go to the gym on days when external motivations were naught. There was no more dizziness, only rage. He tore off his shirt and stood there in the living room, his head throbbing. He could feel his heartbeat in his chest, he could feel it in his arms and all throughout his body. If he didn't put his energy into volatile random action in the next instant, his body would probably explode.
     He bolted out of the living room knocking the screen door off its hinges, crossed the yard, ran up the base of a tree as far as he could get and grabbed onto a branch to save himself from falling on his head. He hung there for a moment and then, as if it was the most natural thing, started doing chin-ups. His punishment had been decided for him. For getting fired he did pushups, for doing poorly on a history test he did pushups, but for making an ass of himself and forfeiting his first weightlifting competition, he was going to do pull-ups and chin-ups until his palms bled. He did ten one way then switched his grip and did ten the other way and kept switching until he couldn't do anymore, at which point he let go and dropped to the ground, but when his feet hit the ground, he continued to fall so that he landed in pushup position and started doing clapping pushups so that the motion was continuous between his last pull-up and his first pushup.
     After pushups came sit-ups, and after that came jumping jacks interspersed with one-legged squats, ending with sprints back and forth across the yard. When he finally felt he'd had enough, he went back into the house, took a plastic zip-lock bag out of the dispenser in the kitchen drawer and went back into the yard. He knelt down before the Lumac experiment, opened the bag and placed it over the ball of black mucus. He squeezed and managed to get most of it in the bag. He sealed it, wiped off the remaining residue with a napkin, folded the bag and stuffed it into an empty mayonnaise jar he found in the trash. He took the jar out to his car and placed it in the glove compartment, next to where he kept his bottles of Mega-Mass solution.

     The next time he went to the gym, he brought with him a box of Wheat Thin crackers and a can of apple juice. He sat in the parking lot with the music blasting, where he normally drank his serving of Mega-Mass, and took out the mayonnaise container. He opened the zip-lock bag with trepidation and dipped a cracker into the black slime. He had the apple juice already opened in the other hand, ready to wash it down.
     He couldn't do it. He felt like he was a kid again, standing at the edge of the dock looking down while all the other campers were jumping off and doing cannonballs into the lake twenty feet below. He wanted to, but when he got to the edge he was physically unable to move. At first the others encouraged him, but then they just laughed at him.
     He turned off the radio and sat in silence with the cracker in hand. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. The answer to the greatest mystery of all time was at his fingertips. He remembered how it had felt in the yard, how voraciously he had run up that tree and done those pull-ups. He had to do this. For the sake of humanity, he simply had to.
     Without another thought he popped the cracker into his mouth, chewed and swallowed it fast with his nose pinched and chased it down. He took an additional few swigs of apple juice and then lay back and closed his eyes, waiting for the intense dizziness to come and pass. He felt nothing. He waited for a few minutes, and then got out of the car and walked to the entrance. He thought of the first time he had made that walk, of how nervous he had been. Compared to these circumstances, he really had had hardly any reason at all to be nervous then. But he felt nothing. He was calm.
     He ignored Dave as he walked in. The man who had introduced him to Mega-Mass was there working out, and Harmon asked him for a spot.
     "Any time, bro. How much you want on there?"
     "Two seventy."
     "Damn, that's a lot of weight, bro, you sure you can handle that?"
     "Yeah, I'm sure."
     As they loaded the plates onto the barbell, Dave kept glancing at him, wanting to walk up and talk to him, but refraining himself. Harmon's embarrassed, probably pissed at me, I should keep my distance till he settles down, he was most likely thinking. But when he saw the weight they were stacking on and instantly recognized the amount, he could no longer hold back. He came over and beckoned for Harmon to step aside to have a word.
     "Look, I'm sorry about what happened at the contest. Leaving before the third round was pretty pathetic of you in my opinion, but I understand. We all make mistakes. Sometimes you just got to count your losses. You're not ready for two seventy. This isn't gonna accomplish anything except make you feel worse and more humiliated."
     "Get off it, Dave. I'm sick of you telling me what I can and can't do."
     "I'm gonna be frank with you. Your attitude is starting to piss me off. Face it, you can't lift two seventy. You're not there yet."
     "Watch me."
     He lay himself down on the bench and set his grip. He rooted his feet firmly on the floor and focused on his breathing, grounding himself. With his eyes closed, he tried to visualize himself lowering the bar to his chest and finding strength he never knew he possessed, strength that existed outside himself, in the air surrounding him, harnessing the energy of the Earth and forcing the weight to rise of his volition, and then bringing it down and making it rise again. Thoughts of Sarah, thoughts of Art and his Mustang trampled through his mind. He let them pass and took deep breaths into his abdomen until his mind was clear. There was only one thing that mattered at this moment. There was a battle being waged, the same battle that had been fought for eternity. It was about domination and power, but it wasn't about people, it wasn't about competition, it wasn't about wounded pride, it wasn't between him and his past, and it wasn't between him and Dave. It was the most fundamental struggle of humankind, the subjugation of the physical world, man's ego verse nature. It was a battle between the lifter and the lifted. Who wants it badder? I do, he thought, and got up. He looked at Dave and smiled as he grabbed an additional pair of five-pounders from a nearby rack and added them on.
     "You're out of your mind. Put those back, bro."
     "Just give me a spot."
     "No, I'm serious. I'm not touching that bar until you put those away."
     Dave stood watching with his arms folded, gravely motionless and silent.
     "I'll bet you ten bucks I'll get at least three reps."
     "Twenty says you won't get one and I'll need Dave to help me rack this bad-boy."
     "Whatever. Just give me a liftoff on the count of three."
     As he re-centered himself, he felt the effects of the Lumac coursing through his blood. His veins were transmitters of fire. His head felt like a pressurized balloon about to float off from his body. He was ready.
     "Three!"
     He lowered the weight and held it on his chest for a moment, and then began to push. He gave voice to a torrent of angst and frustration scintillating through gritted teeth. Time slowed down. It felt like he was lifting it in slow motion - he was lifting it. He was winning. He brought it to full extension and then did another rep, and another. He didn't look at his spotter's face as he lifted, but if he had, he would have seen fear. Fellow lifters had always attested in jest that his facial expressions at the gym were that of a man on the verge of homicide, but it wasn't that kind of fear. He didn't feel any rage now; it was more of an inward concentration, a quiet confidence that could be just as frightening. After the third, he racked it himself without assistance and stood up. Dave had gone back to the front desk. The spotter was in awe and didn't know what to say.
     I feel it, Harmon thought with rapture. I actually feel my muscles growing. This is impossible, but it feels fucking great!!! I'm unstoppable . . .
     "You're looking bigger. Something's obviously working for you."
     "That it is."
     "You must be out of the stuff I gave you. Do you need a refill?"
     "I don't take Mega-Mass anymore."
     For a second he looked not surprised but hurt.
     "Why? Did you find something better?"
     "It's not something you've heard of."
     "Please, you know I read every publication-"
     "Trust me, you haven't-"
     "Because if you know of a product that's more effective than Mega-Mass, then brother you better let me know. Don't forget, I'm the one who hooked you up."
     There was a pause.
     "I just changed my thinking, that's all."
     He waved his hand dismissively. "You're a fool for dropping Mega-Mass, and if you're not a fool, then you're an asshole for keeping this to yourself, this . . ."
     "It's nothing."
     "Whatever."

     That night he got a phone call from Brock.
     "Harmon, you're in trouble. You're in big trouble, man. Whatever you do, do not, DO NOT go to school tomorrow morning. If you do, you will be in danger."
     "Talk sense, would you?"
     "Everyone thinks you raped some girl. People are demonstrating against you. Tomorrow morning they'll be waiting for you outside with baseball bats. It's bad."
     "Are you crazy? I didn't rape anybody. Who did you hear this from?"
     "Nobody. Everybody. It's the talk of the whole damn school. Harmon, if there's any truth to it, I don't want to know."
     There was an intense silence for several moments and then Harmon laughed.
     "No way, man, I'm not falling for this."
     "This isn't a joke. If you come to school tomorrow, I swear to God they're gonna kill you. They'll gang up and-"
     "All right, fine, I'll play hookey. At least tell me who they think I-"
     "I don't know."
     "Well find out. Find out as much as you can."
     "Sure thing."
     "Brock . . . you don't think I did it, do you?"
     "Of course not."

     He left home at the normal time the following morning, but didn't go to school. He drove around numbly for a while and wound up passing time at the gravel pit watching trucks pass through and occasionally waving to workers he knew. He had all his textbooks with him in the car. He used the day to catch up on homework, attempting to keep his mind off of the circumstances under which he was hiding. He detested the idea of hiding, but that was what he was doing.
     He threw down his book and pounded his fist on the dashboard in frustration. He had to act, he had to face people, he couldn't just sit there. And if it was necessary for him to just sit there, he had to think of a plan of action, or at least think about the situation. Avoidance failed to keep his mind at ease. He imagined his name being uttered slanderously all throughout the halls like a rampant pathology in the steady flow of chatter. He imagined the whole school united in murderous anger against him.
     "Let them think that I . . ." That he what? Who could it have been, and what was the story - or many stories - going around? Who would make up something like that? The answer surfaced in his mind before he finished the question, like a bad taste in his mouth.
     "Art, you son of a bitch." Art must have had something to do with it. Now he at least had something to go on. His stomach churned as he mouthed the name, but still he felt much better. Art had diving practice after school. If he planned it just right he could corner him by his locker when he got out.
     When the time was right Harmon drove back to town, parked in the school parking lot, got out wearing a hooded gray sweatshirt he had found in the trunk and went to the school library to kill some time. He sat at a table near the entrance where he had a clear view of Art's locker, and he waited.
     But as he waited, something distressing started to happen to him. His left arm was contracting. It was like an involuntary twitch, but much slower. His bicep and triceps muscles would contract and then relax, contract, relax in a wavelike motion with a period of a little bit less than a second. He looked at his arm on the table. Even beneath his sweatshirt he could see its undulations like some sort of rapid pseudo respiration. He put his right hand on it and felt the waves of contractions but could do nothing to impede them. He sat with his hands clasped under the table, trying to conceal it from whoever might happen to look his way. The last thing he needed was to attract attention to himself. The twitching passed. And then Art appeared, looking innocent as ever with his hair all wet and an open backpack slung over one shoulder.
     Harmon ran at him and slammed him against the locker, catching him completely off guard.
     "What the- Flex? Well holy shit, look who it is."
     "Did you start those rumors? Huh?" He jabbed him in the stomach. Art winced.
     "Flex, I swear it wasn't me. I know I've done a lot of shit to you, but-"
     "Shut up. Stop lying."
     "Did you?"
     "Did I what?"
     "Did you take advantage of her?"
     "Did I take advantage of WHO?!!"
     "You know who. You're gonna burn in hell for this, Flex." He tried to dart to the side and escape, but Harmon blocked him.
     "Say that again." He grasped Art's t-shirt with one hand, pinning him to the locker door, and drew back his fist preparing to slug him in the face. "Say it again!"
     "Harmon!" It was a girl's voice, accompanied by a hand on his shoulder. "Harmon, it was me." He recognized the voice just as he recognized the hand on his shoulder. It was Sarah Madison. He was too stunned to turn around and too dumbfounded to go through with assaulting Art.
     "What?"
     "Art had no hand in this. I told everyone that you raped me. It was me." And then, characteristically, she was gone.
     After a prolonged moment of shock he flung Art aside and ran after her, but it was no use. She had disappeared once again. He walked out of the building with his hood down, seething with anger. He didn't know what enraged him more, the fact that she would do such a thing, or that she had come forth and admitted it only for the sake of protecting Art from taking the heat for it.
     His car was right where he'd left it in the student parking lot, but when he got to it, it didn't look like his car. All four windows were smashed and shattered glass was all over the ground and on the seats. The windshield was intact, but had a web of cracks running from the bottom driver's side corner in all directions. On the hood somebody had scraped away paint with the sharp edge of a rock to display the word RAPIST. Harmon jerked the door open, brushed some shards of glass off the seat, got in and stuck the key in the ignition. It started up without any problems. He gunned the engine and squealed out of the parking lot. He paid no attention to the cars honking at him as he cut onto the road recklessly. He knew where he was headed, and it wasn't home, and it wasn't the gym. He had executed his plan, and now there was only one place left to go.
     Oblivion. It was oblivion that had beckoned to him but scared him away a few weeks prior, the oblivion that had enchanted him as a kid, an oblivion dark enough and secluded enough to really hide in.

     He left his car at Hunter's Point and walked, not jogged to the famous spot. He dropped to his knees before the window and meditated on what he was about to do. The window frame looked exactly as he remembered it, as it had perhaps appeared to him in several forgotten dreams throughout the past few weeks . . . dreams or nightmares?
     The window stood watching him with eyes of un-measurable geometries behind a veil of two-dimensional space contained in a dilapidated wooden frame, although it wasn't standing at all; it was floating. It was held up by ropes, it had always been, but he was certain now that if one were to sever the cords with some cutting shears, the window would remain suspended in the air of its own volition. It was powerful, and it wanted him. He shivered. A pleasant breeze carried the familiar scents that had never failed to placate him. Brown and red leaves fluttered from trees in the turbulence as the chirping of birds announced the autumn afternoon. He stood up, as if rising to his feet was a gesture of waving goodbye to reality itself.
     Would he ever find his way out? Was there an out in as much a sense as there was an in? All he knew was that he was ready to turn his back on the only world he had ever known, a world that had turned its back on him.
     He picked up a rock and tossed it through the window just to be sure. It did as he expected. He didn't try sticking his hand in to test the water. He knew better than that now. He backed up several steps, crouched into a sprinter's stance and took off. He ran and jumped, diving head first into the window, into oblivion, into darkness, into the unknown.





Chapter 4: Shattered



     "Hey, you're Harmon's friend, aren't you?"
     Brock looked around and said hesitantly, "Yeah. And you are?"
     "Listen, I need to talk to you. Can we go somewhere private?"

     "He works out a lot, doesn't he?"
     "You kidding me? That's like saying the Pope prays a lot. Harmon's so ripped he could flex and spell your name with his abdominal muscles."
     "That's repulsive."
     "It's a joke. There aren't enough skeletal muscles concentrated in any one area of the body-"
     "I mean guys who are that buff, I think it's gross."
     "I dare you to say that to his face."
     "Don't get me wrong, Harmon's sexy. On any other guy, that kind of build would be . . . no, actually I take it back. Muscles are sexy."
     "Then you should definitely say that to his face."
     "I think he's already worked out his ego today."
     "This is Tuesday, his back and biceps day."
     "I don't think he's around today. Have you seen him?"
     "I haven't heard from him. Not since . . . well, you know."
     "Harmon's a legend. He's not a person, he's an icon. You can't date an icon."
     "Why, you're afraid to find out that beneath his eccentricities he's a human being?"
     "He's not. Harmon isn't made of flesh and blood, he's made of mutant growth hormones and stuff."
     "You should tell him that too. You know, you haven't even told me your name yet."
     She shrugged. "If I tell you that, you have to promise not to run away."
     Brock laughed.
     "My name is Sarah Madison."
     Brock stopped laughing.

     Harmon opened his eyes.
     He was outside.
     He was in the woods.
     He was outside, and it was morning.
     He was outside, in the woods, and he was standing. Did I just wake up? I don't feel groggy . . . There was no crust to pick out of his eyes as they oriented to the sunlight. He couldn't have been sleeping. Then why the hell am I in the woods? Where am I? Is this amnesia? It wasn't amnesia. He looked down at his clothes and remembered putting them on the morning he didn't go to school. He remembered almost punching Art in the face, and then Sarah . . . He remembered finding his car vandalized and wondering for a second if he deserved it. He remembered leaving the school in a half irate, half suicidal state and driving fast. Where had he gone?
     The answer was just over his shoulder. How did he know that? He turned around very slowly. As his eyes took in the window a few feet in front of him, it all came back in shockwaves, the emotions piercing him first and then the facts, the memories in their wake. Seeing the window in the split second before he remembered what he'd done but felt the impact of it, made him shiver like he'd never shivered before. His flesh, all one hundred and ninety pounds of hulking muscle crawled like a mass of agitated fire ants.
     The window.
     He remembered parking his car (what was left of it) at Hunter's Point. He remembered walking. He remembered the intense fear and hesitation that had gripped him sitting in the parking lot of Powell's Gym the day he ate of the Lumac, and he remembered his complete lack of fear as he approached-
     The window.
     He remembered letting it all go as he ran at it like an acrobat, serene and focused in his intent, and dove into it with his eyes open.
     And then nothing.
     How much time had passed? A week? It couldn't have been more than a week, although it had to have been more than just a few hours. The sun was rising now. He had come in the late afternoon, which meant a night had passed.
     "Where did I go?"
     He looked around wide-eyed and pondered the question, but his abstract musings were expediently trampled by the voice of reason, which took the form of his father's voice. You jumped through the frame head first, what did you expect? You landed on the ground, hit your head and knocked yourself unconscious. You idiot! That was the only reasonable explanation. There were a few holes in it, such as the fact that there was no bump on his head and he didn't have a headache or any other symptoms of a concussion, and then there was always the incident with the disappearing rocks, but still it was the only reasonable explanation. He looked at the window once more, shivered again, quickly averted his eyes and started walking.
     By the time he got to his car he had convinced himself that for whatever time had elapsed since he entered the window, he had been lying on the ground in a coma, and that the rock disappearing was only a hallucination, and that was all. Convinced, that was, until he reached in his pocket for his car keys and felt something foreign. It was flat like a playing card and glossy on one side. He pulled it out and looked at it.
     It was a photograph, a snapshot of a girl's face. The first thing that struck him was that a piece of it was missing. It looked deliberate, as though someone had either very carefully ripped it off or excised it with scissors; a good portion of her face was cut out of the picture. The second thing that struck him was that he was attracted to her. It was a candid shot. She wasn't smiling. Her expression seemed a little taken aback. Perhaps the photographer had whipped the camera out of nowhere and had surprised her. The girl had long dark hair, unkempt, but in a way that looked almost classy on her. Her eyes betrayed a subtle maturity, an unnerving intelligence that seemed to say I know what you're thinking. She had eyes that could get under your skin just looking through a photograph at a stranger. Looking at her face (at about three quarters of her face, that was) Harmon could tell that she not only worked out, but she worked out like she meant it. She very well could have been an athlete. Her age was indiscernible; she could have been anywhere in the range between sixteen and twenty-five.
     He looked at his beat up car with the word RAPIST branded on the hood, and then back at the picture. He examined it for several minutes, searching for some semblance, some spark of recognition, in the same desperate manner that he would stare endlessly at a puzzling question on a test, hoping that some relevant information would pop into his head. He wanted badly for her to look familiar, but she didn't. He'd never seen her before. Who was this girl, and where had this picture come from? If he had been lying on the ground unconscious, that would mean somebody would have had to have found him and planted it in his pocket. That didn't make any sense. For now, though, he had more immediate questions to be answered, such as what day it was.

     "It's Tuesday, Harmon," his mother said patronizingly, and gave him a look that could cut glass. "Where were you last night?"
     "I . . . didn't I tell you I was spending the night at Brock's?"
     "No, you didn't. I waited up all night, you know. If you ever do that again-"
     "I'm sorry, mom."
     "I had the police looking for you."
     Harmon froze.
     "I- I was- I was at Brock's house."
     "On a week night?"
     "We were working on some homework, it got late, I didn't want to drive, I . . . I should have called. I just . . ."
     "Harmon? Is everything all right?"
     "I got two exams coming up, I'm stressed out."
     "If there's something bothering you-"
     "No, I can work things out. I just need some sleep."
     "Is it about a girl?"
     Something about the sincerity in her voice and her tactful, worried look made him laugh, and when she didn't laugh, he laughed harder, until he couldn't stop laughing.
     "If you ever want to talk about it . . ."
     "I need a workout, that's what I need."
     "No, you need to get to school. You're gonna be late."
     "What time is it?"
     As he pulled out of the driveway, he prayed that his mom wasn't watching out the window, and didn't notice the windows or the hood. He couldn't go to school, but he had to go somewhere. A session with the weights started to sound pretty good. If anything could begin to clear his head and allow him to think rationally about what to do, even if there was nothing rational about the recent events in his life, a good workout was exactly what he needed.
     He parked in a more obscure portion of the parking lot around the back, opened the glove box and reached inside. He stopped himself. Maybe I shouldn't do this. I don't know anything about this stuff's side effects. In ancient Europe they did, but if it was so horrible . . . He decided to pass on it this time and closed the glove compartment. He thought of horror stories lifting buddies had told him of ill-fated bodybuilders who pushed the limit with anabolic steroids. Blood clots, arms turning blue and then falling off, blood acquiring the consistency of powder . . . heart failures . . . erratic mood changes, mild-mannered lifters becoming serial killers and rapists . . .
     "Not today."
     He walked in and said hello cheerfully to Dave.
     "What are you doing here? Don't you have school?"
     "I'm playing hooky."
     He turned around and walked exuberantly to the locker room, ending the interrogation. When he came out he was still in high spirits, but in the form of extreme anger, anger that would be taken out on the weights, taken out on-
     "Excuse me there, could I trouble you for a spot?"
     -On this guy. Harmon knew his face, had seen him lurking around the free weights like he didn't want to be there, had seen him sitting around talking to his fellow business-men or whatever, whining in the way that men his age whine about their lives that doesn't sound like whining, but if you added intonations in the right places and dumbed down their conversation, they would be reduced to toddlers throwing a tantrum. He'd watched him lifting like he was somewhere else, then referring to his little chart that told him what machine to use next and how much weight to put on it. He'd wanted to scream at him, and now he had that chance.
     "Sure, man, what are you doing?"
     He was doing seated shoulder presses with a barbell and a meager amount of weight. His reps were a little too fast, but his form wasn't poor enough to justify giving him a lecture. However there was something about the way he lifted that bothered Harmon, something that downright infuriated him, although he couldn't quite put his finger on it, until the twelfth rep, that was. This guy obviously had no intention of taking it to failure. He was going to do his fifteen reps, his eighteen reps or however many the chart told him to do, and then put it down. Harmon wouldn't allow that this time, not if he was spotting. He forcefully yanked the bar away from him and racked it.
     "What the-"
     "You need more weight. You're not pushing yourself."
     "Don't tell me what I need."
     "Sit tight for a second, I'm gonna add on-"
     "No! I don't want more weight."
     "You know what your problem is? You're not focused, you're just going through the motions."
     "I don't need you to tell me that. Your job is to stand there and assist me if I-"
     "Why are you here?"
     "Excuse me?"
     "Are you here to work out, or are you here because your wife or your doctor told you to work out? You're wearing the right attire, you got that part down, but you're still a businessman. I saw you come into the locker room as I was going out. You were wearing a suit and tie, probably coming straight from work. I got news for you; you're not at work anymore. Do you see any cubicles here, any copy machines, any coffeemakers? You know what I see?"
     "Listen, wise guy-"
     "No, you listen. Take a look at yourself. You're not wearing a tie. You shed that costume for a reason. Changing one's clothes is symbolic. You leave your petty daily concerns and preoccupations on a hanger with your slacks and Armani shirt. This is sacred space. While you're praying or performing a religious rite, do you think about your job, your family, your car? No, because you're on a higher plane. Such is with lifting. A gym is a temple - don't disrespect it. Your attitude affects us all. When you're lifting, you got to make some noise, you got to engage your emotions, you got to get pissed! But in order to reach that feral state, first your mind has to be clear. I suggest you go back into the locker room and find a space to meditate. Once you've centered yourself, then come back and we'll try it again."
     He chuckled. "You're a fanatic. There are more important things in life than lifting weights, you know."
     "Then what the fuck are you doing here?"
     "Hey, take it easy, there's no need for profanity."
     "I'll tell you what's profane, the way you're lifting."
     "All right, I'm doing another set, are you gonna spot me or not?"
     "I think you should add on some more weight, a ten on both sides, maybe-"
     "I'm doing another set, are you gonna spot me or not?" He raised his voice slightly.
     "I'm right behind you." Harmon handed off the weight to him from the rack behind his head. "Let's do it. Get mad! You ever been taunted? Get angry, fucker!"
     Arrogantly ignoring him, the man began his lift with the same absent look on his face, void of any strain, void of any emotion. He wasn't even sweating. Harmon was the only one getting angry.
     "Slow it down a little."
     On his sixth rep, his mouth started to tremble, not because he was straining, but because he was trying hold back laughter. By the eighth, he couldn't hold it in, and laughed quietly while he continued to lift. Harmon lost it too. He grabbed the barbell in between the man's hands, but instead of taking it from him he pushed down on it.
     "What are you doing?" Now he was showing emotion. There was fear in his eyes as he fought against Harmon's resistance, really lifting for the first time. "Are you insane?"
     Harmon pushed harder. The bar was on his collarbone, nearly choking him.
     "Are you feeling it now?! Huh?! Push it! Don't let me hold you down, fight it!! Come on, you pussy!!"
     The weight was suddenly boosted up with such explosiveness that he nearly fell over. But it wasn't the man lifting it. It was the hands of Dave and another staff member on either side of the bar coming to his rescue. They had seen what he was doing and rushed over. In the next moment, the bar was racked and Dave was dragging him aside by his elbow. He turned Harmon to face him and shoved him against the wall. Dave was pissed. The day he first joined, when he overheard Dave blow up at that punk kid in his office, he had prayed he would never see Dave really pissed off, but now he was.
     "What the hell was that? What did you think you were doing?" He slammed him against the wall again by his shoulders. "Answer me!"
     "I was just teaching him what you taught me."
     "You could have killed him. If you ever lose control like that-"
     Harmon slipped off to the side and walked briskly back toward the free weights.
     "Don't walk away from me. You're on thin ice. I've kicked people out for much lesser-"
     "Fuck you." He grabbed two thirty-pound dumbbells from the rack and started doing hammer curls. "You're not the boss of me."
     "Get out."
     Harmon ignored him and continued curling, breathing in quick heavy gasps. His ears were perched back and his jaw was trembling with rage.
     "You insolent son of a bitch, get out of my gym!!"
     Harmon growled as he sped up his curls.
     "GET OUT!!!"
     Harmon twisted to his right, swinging his arm with the dumbbell fully extended, and snapped his body, hurling it like a discus at the mirror. He let out a ferocious battle cry as the mirror that covered the entire wall shattered with a cataclysmic crashing noise that awakened the entire gym. In his mind he saw that wagon full of hay pitching and spilling its guts on that hot July afternoon. It was time to go.
     He escaped in the commotion and ran out the door and to his car. When he opened the door and got in, he was so startled he nearly screamed. Sitting in the passenger seat was Sarah Madison.
     "Jesus, what are you . . . I got to get out of here. Put on your seatbelt." He started up the car and accelerated out of the parking lot, swerving to avoid an incoming car. He got honked at several times as he made his way onto the main road, checking the rear-view mirror frantically to make sure nobody had come after him. Sarah waited calmly for him to catch his breath.
     "I owe you an apology."
     "You couldn't have picked a more opportune time. You scared the daylights out of me. You're really something else. First you kiss me, then you-"
     "Oh, is that the only thing I did that night that made an impression?"
     "First you come out of nowhere and rock my world, then you act like you don't know me, then you go and tell lies about me, and now you come out of nowhere again to apologize?"
     "I know you've been through some shit this week. I've talked to your friend Brock. Don't worry about him."
     "You should be at school."
     "So should you."
     "I can't go back there, everyone hates me. You made them all hate me."
     "You think they hate you because of what you did to me?"
     "I didn't do anything to you."
     "Don't be naive. They've always hated you, they just needed a reason. Whatever bonds you think you were building, they were abusing you, to a greater extent than you could ever see. I strongly suggest you take a vacation, get some perspective."
     "You think you know me so well, you think you know what's best for everybody, but you don't. Now look what you've done to me." He gestured with his hand to the shattered windows and the hood. "You've ostracized me, you've demonized me, you've banished me-"
     "I set you free."
     "You've set me . . . Wait a second. If I've suffered the social consequences but done no crime, that's like double jeopardy, meaning I could take you right now with impunity."
     "You could what?"
     "I can't even say it."
     "I saw good in you. I saw a guy-"
     "A guy who lets people walk all over him?"
     "Most people look at you and just see a muscular physique, a spectacle, a former geek turned buff man. I saw more than that."
     "What are you getting at?"
     "You'll have to figure that out for yourself. I just came to apologize."
     They were just a few blocks away from the high school. He pulled off to the side and parked the car. If she didn't leave soon, he would start crying.
     "You should go to school."
     "You're really something, Harmon." She didn't move. They sat and looked at each other silently for some time.
     "What are you going to do?" she said softly.
     "Someone might see us here, you should go."
     She put her arm around him and hugged him tightly.
     "Good bye Harmon."
     He watched her back walking non-hurriedly toward the school as he drove off with tears in his eyes. He had to go somewhere. He had nowhere to go, but he had to keep driving. He took some arbitrary turns until he was out of town. He rode in silence.
     The breeze ravaged his hair, which had been getting rather long lately. He instinctively reached for the switch on the door panel that controlled all four windows, and remembered only as he pressed the button that there were no windows. He drove on. With the wind on his face at sixty miles per hour, he began to relax. His left arm hung out the window and he palmed the steering wheel adroitly with his right hand. The road he was on was no longer familiar. In his childhood, a peculiar pastime of his was to get on his bike, deliberately get himself lost, and then spend the day trying to find his way home without any help. It was an escape, it was a challenge, and it was psychologically cleansing. For the first time, that pastime was finding expression in his adolescence.
     He watched the odometer. He didn't count the miles, but he acknowledged each time another one passed. As the miles separated him from his awful predicament, it all started to drift away, in a sense that was bigger than distance, bigger than time; school, gym, home and everything that tied those three spheres together were becoming not a reality he was enmeshed in, but an alien world that faded like a bad dream wherein he was verging on stirring from. He conjured a mental image of Dave shouting at him, followed by Sarah's last expression he had seen, that sorrowful, determined, confused, pitying yet altogether seductive, wanting look. Then he saw his mom's half worried half pissed-off face from that morning. A procession of faces including Art and Brock meandered through his head, each clearly and distinctly detailed as if they were right there in front of him, but they didn't seem real to him, they were more like images from a movie.
     Just when his dissociation almost felt complete, he jerked his left arm inside. The car swerved. A passerby honked their horn grudgingly.
     Something was happening to him. It had happened before, he was sure of that, but it took him a few seconds to remember the instance. It had happened before his night out at Hunter's Point. It had happened in the school library while waiting for Art.
     The twitching started in his arm. It wasn't a painful or irritating feeling, but instantly at its onset something inside him instinctively abhorred it and ardently willed it to cease. That abstract feeling of control he had strived so hard to attain through his years in high school ran through his fingers, fleeing from him like blood from a gaping wound he couldn't see or feel. It was the sort of involuntary contractions one experiences in their stomach and their bowels and thinks nothing of, as if his arm was performing digestion to a rhythm. It felt wrong, unspeakably wrong, like a prelude to a spasm. But what if it wasn't involuntary, a darker voice in his mind suggested, what if there was some other consciousness in his body fighting for expression? Although countless horror movies may have dealt with that concept, it never happened in Photon-Man, so it wasn't worth thinking about.
     It progressed to his shoulder.
     "Stop it!" he said out loud.
     The pulsing seemed to respond by laughing at him.
     "This isn't happening."
     His arm was dancing. His massive bicep and triceps were like a fish flopping around out of water. Forgetting for a moment that he was in a car, he clasped his hands together until his knuckles turned red, attempting to focus all his energy into-
     He was jolted out of his fixation and before he had time to look up and realize that he had gone off the road, the world was turned upside down. The car rolled over three times, as he would later ascertain. When it stopped, he slid out the window and lay on the ground, bewildered, breathing hard, completely forgetting about his arm.
     He got up slowly, brushed himself off and looked around. He wasn't hurt; a little dizzy and a little bruised, maybe. He was in a field. His car had rolled three times and was, by the looks of it, completely totaled. He walked towards the road, visibly shaken up. What he did next wasn't planned or thought out, but seemed like the most logical, if not natural thing to do. He walked back to the remains of his car, fished his backpack out of the back, found a sweatshirt, a couple of t-shirts and a pair of jeans strewn about on the floor which had switched places with the ceiling, stuffed them into his backpack, and lastly, took the syrup-of-Lumac out of the glove box and added that. Then he walked back to the road.
     He waited, and at the sight of an oncoming pickup truck, he stuck out his thumb. It slowed down as it passed him, indecisively, and then came to a halt. The driver was a slight man wearing a jumpsuit stained with grease, and a worn baseball cap. He had a long, overgrown beard that made him look almost menacing. Harmon got in and thanked him. Right after they made eye contact, the man noticed the car for the first time.
     "That your car?"
     "It was."
     "Shit, man, you okay?"
     Harmon lifted his arms and looked himself over, then nodded. The man laughed.
     "Where you headed?"
     "Out of here."
     "You don't mean you're . . . you running away from home?"
     "No. I'm walking away."
     "You're just gonna leave your car there in the ditch? Police will find it, a few weeks go by, folks will start thinking you're dead."
     "It will be better that way. I just need to get out of town."
     "Well you're in luck. I'm headed up north to do some business. Are you sure you want to come with me?"
     "I've never been more sure of anything." And with that, they were off.
     "I hate to see a young fellow so hopeless. Are you in some kind of legal trouble?" Harmon didn't answer. "When I was a teenager I thought about running off a couple times, but I never did it. Things just . . . I guess they just turned out okay, y'know?"
     Ignoring him, Harmon opened his backpack and pulled out a small Tupperware container with a hardboiled egg inside, which he had packed away for a protein snack, as he was in the habit of doing. He held the egg between his thumb and forefinger and smashed it on the dashboard just hard enough to crack the shell in one blow, and then peeled it meticulously, disposing of the bits of shell out the window.





Chapter 5: Walking



     Two nights and three days were spent on the road. The man with the pickup truck left him off at a rest stop on the highway at the end of the day, and from there he hitched another ride into a nearby town. He had twenty dollars in his pocket, and an atm card backed by more than sufficient funds for his prolonged impromptu excursion and whatever it would lead to.
     He got a bite to eat and then walked for a while. He had intended to hitchhike some more, but it was dark and he found that he was exhausted. It was warm enough, and he wasn't inclined to shell out the money for a hotel, so he slept on a park bench, using his backpack as a pillow. The rings in the sky could still be seen at night, but they had progressively diminished since the first night, and he was tired enough that that wouldn't be a distraction.
     In the morning he walked some more, got some breakfast, found a comic book store, spent what was left of the twenty dollars, and then found his way to a truck-stop where he managed to hitch a ride on an eighteen-wheeler. The driver was friendly but didn't talk much. Harmon sat back and relaxed, watching the scenery whiz by. He hadn't thought about Sarah or Art or anything connected with school since he went to sleep. After a few hours of blissful abstract daydreaming, he pulled a Photon-Man comic out of his backpack and started to read. Sitting above the road in the cab of a tractor-trailer truck listening to bad country music and reading a comic book, he was almost completely at ease.
     "Is that that Radiation-Man comic you're reading there?"
     "Photon-Man."
     "Pardon me. I get things confused in my old age."
     "No offense taken." Under normal circumstances he would have taken offense.
     "Isn't that the one where the guy can move with the speed of light?"
     Harmon nodded.
     "He's from another planet, right?"
     Harmon put down the comic slowly, preparing to engage in a full-on explanation.
     "He's not an alien. He was born human, except not quite. He was a government science project, a specimen of genetic engineering, a military weapon in the making. He was an experiment gone wrong. To understand Photon-Man's origin, there's some back-story you need to know."
     "We got four hundred more miles, indulge me."
     "After years of top-secret research on Lumac synthesis, the scientists had created a material that can transfer its own matter from one ultrasound module to another under controlled high-energy conditions. First they tried to mix it with other substances and it didn't work, but then by accident they infused it with organic matter, which lead to a breakthrough. Through futuristic advances in biotechnology, they find a way to incubate embryos and introduce Lumac through gene-splicing. The idea was to create a human being whose physiology has wavelike properties akin to light, and therefore can travel at light-speed. Hence, project Photon-Man. His gestation was carefully monitored, and he was born a seemingly normal child. Whether the project had succeeded was unclear to them for several years, although from biochemical analysis, they knew early on that his photonic anatomy would result in an astronomical level of testosterone, they just didn't foresee what they were getting into."
     "So he was dangerous."
     "At age nine he had the strength of a full-grown male, and the ferocity of a prisoner. He was raised in captivity, without compassion. His lack of a normal childhood instilled in him hatred and mistrust for all men. At the age of thirteen they decided to terminate the project. They tried to kill him, but they failed and he escaped. He lives in an urban environment in a fictionalized city. Having been raised in government laboratories, he lacks social skills and education, so he has no friends, and he's perceived as an asshole for his lack of manners and social graces. He's highly trained in aggressive forms of hand-to-hand combat, yet has no foundation of ethics, which leads to some bad albeit humorous situations, as you could imagine. He's hunted by the government, so he's always on the run."
     "Wasn't there some kind of outer space business?"
     "He lives on Earth, but he travels to other planets, always searching for a cure."
     "A cure for what?"
     "His mother is dying."
     "So he has a mother?"
     "His biological mother who donated the egg to the project becomes reunited with him shortly after he escapes and they develop a relationship. She teaches him how to get along in the world and helps him survive, and he travels the universe looking for a cure for her mysterious pathology, which was the reason she was selected for the experiment in the first place."
     "And what's that?"
     "She suffers from immensely painful spells not unlike migraines. The doctors can't help her. Nobody can explain it, however it's linked to extremely proficient prophetic abilities. Her spells are always accompanied by intense clairvoyant and precognitive visions. She uses her visions strategically to help him avoid getting discovered, and to assist him in his galactic exploits. She can channel him from afar. He'll be about to do something, then in the next frame he'll put his hand to his head and you'll see this half-transparent text-bubble appear holographically over the action; it's one of the most innovative presentations of dialogue in comic-book history, and incredibly cool if I may say so myself."
     "Can he talk back to her?"
     "No. I guess dialogue isn't the right word."
     "So he doesn't have any comrades? What about a sidekick?"
     "He works alone. His mother is his only ally, and a powerful one to have."
     "What about a romantic interest?"
     "Photon-Man has many women."
     "If I could run at the speed of light, I'd have many women too." They shared a laugh.
     "Wait, what am I saying? He does have one other ally; the professor. He's a close friend to his mother, and he's the one trying to cure her. He sends Photon-Man on missions to assist in his research into her condition. He's a mentor to Photon-Man. He helps him to better understand his origin. He's an expert on Lumac. It's been insinuated that he was not only the primary brains behind the experiment twenty years ago, but that he's also Photon-Man's biological father. We won't find out whether it's true or not until the July issue comes out. My friends and I have been placing bets on it."
     "Sounds like one hell of a comic book."
     The rest of the day was a blur, recaptured in his reflections as a progression of snapshots. He saw vivid flashes of highways, graffiti on the back-sides of corporate buildings, overpasses, malls, churches, small roads through wooded areas, faceless drivers who were nice enough to give him a lift, convenience stores, pre-manufactured smiles, played to a soundtrack of mind-numbing country music and a constant ambience of rushing wind and traffic noises. Pictures outside of time, out of order, out of all familiarity, without even the imposed illusion of familiarity . . . For the first time in his life, he could truly say that he was on the road.
     The sun had long since gone down. He was in a clearing in the woods, lying back against a mound of dirt, trying to reflect on how he got there. He wasn't alone. There were cars pulling into the dirt road, there were cars already parked with closed doors, darkened and with steamy windows, and there were parked cars with their headlights on, blaring music, people going in and out of them. There were boisterous drunk people, and there were happy, laughing, flirting drunk people, all teenagers. Looking up at the sky, Harmon immediately understood what the celebration was for. The rings in the sky were much brighter and more pronounced, and even a little wider than they had been the past few nights. It was a festive party atmosphere. Harmon stood up. His first impulse was to go and mingle, but he didn't have to; attention came to him.
     "Holy shit, this dude is jacked!" A kid staggered over and rested his elbow on Harmon's shoulder. His back tensed up reflexively. "We got freakin Mister Universe over here!"
     Harmon grew nervous. As long as nobody challenges me to an arm-wrestle I'm okay, he thought, and let a laugh escape him. A few people noticed him, but didn't fixate on him. Their attention was fickle. For a drunken shindig out in the woods, they were a rather mellow bunch. He sensed no hostile vibes. Perhaps making some friends here wouldn't be a bad idea. Before long he would need to find a ride, and by the looks of it he was in the middle of nowhere. He made some casual conversation, shook some hands, listened to some alcohol-induced theories regarding the meaning of the rings in the sky (most of them were pseudo-scientific speculations grounded more in the tellers' neurotic anticipation of apocalyptic catastrophe than in any knowledge of astronomy or physics, but there was one theory that was intriguing - or at least entertaining - enough to keep Harmon's attention; the rings in the sky were a recapitulated manifestation of God's covenant with Noah, the modern equivalent of a rainbow, God speaking to a new age imperiled by apathy and skepticism - or was it cynicism? - in which religious faith was at risk of extinction, that this was God's way of appealing to us out of desperation), and wound up sleeping in the back of someone's pickup truck with a bunch of people. In the morning he caught a ride with them into "town."
     "Do you live around here? If it's not too far out of the way, I could take you-"
     "No. I'm a long way from home. I'm just a vagabond passing through."
     "Oh, well uh . . . where should I take you then?"
     "Is there like a main drag downtown? I want to recoup a little, do some shopping before I hit the road."
     "Take him to Broadway and Hill," one of the girls in the truck suggested.
     "What's your final destination?"
     "Nowhere. I'm drifting, living from ride to ride. It's like being carried out to sea, except on land. The road's will is like the ocean's will. I just go with it."
     "That's cool. I respect that. I dig it."
     They dropped him off at the proposed intersection and cordially parted ways with him. His intention was to eat and then continue traveling, but as soon as he stuck out his thumb he put it back down. The thought of another day on the road made him feel ill. He needed a shower and a workout badly, and besides, it seemed like a nice town to stay put in temporarily.
     His first order of business was finding a cheap hotel, which wasn't too hard. After paying for a room, he asked the receptionist if there was a gym nearby. He was in luck; there was a brand name gym right down the street. He went up to find his room, put down his backpack and relax. He found a pair of wind-pants and a tank top, and began to change. There was a wide mirror on the wall. He took a minute to evaluate his upper body from several angles.
     Holy shit, this dude is jacked! We got freakin Mister Universe over here . . .
     It was true. It had been a while since he'd really looked at himself with all the turmoil going on, but he had grown so much it was frightening. He looked comparable to some of the more realistic superheroes in the comic books he read. As he flexed his bicep and winked at himself in the mirror, he pictured himself on a glossy page of a muscle-mag.
     "They call me Flex . . ."

     The next order of business was to find a phone booth, which was also easily done. He stood by the phone and thought for some time, then used his calling card to call Brock.
     "Hello?"
     "Hey."
     "Harmon! Where the hell are you?"
     "I wasn't paying attention. Honestly? I don't even know what state I'm in."
     "I figured you'd run away. I'd probably have done the same myself."
     "Listen, I want you to tell my mom and dad I'll be gone for a while, but I'm okay."
     "Where are you?"
     "Tell them not to go looking for me, and tell them not to worry."
     "I'm not gonna talk to your parents for you, I'm sorry."
     "Brock, do me this favor. Please?"
     Brock sighed. "Are you staying with someone?"
     "I'm on my own."
     "So you're bumming?"
     "No."
     "What are you subsisting on, fucking karaoke contests? Or have you resorted to a life of crime?"
     "I like to think I have some dignity left, despite . . . I have money. And if I need to, I'll find a job. I have skills."
     "What will you do, just walk onto a construction site, pick up a hardhat and a shovel and get hired?"
     "Yeah."
     "I wish I had your courage."
     "Yeah, well my reputation comes with it."
     "She's sorry, you know."
     "She told me."
     "She told you what?"
     "That's none of your business."
     Brock was taken aback for a moment. "You know what she told me?"
     "That I didn't do it?"
     "She likes you."
     "Well, she has a fucked up way of showing it."
     Brock laughed. "Guess what I did yesterday."
     "What?"
     "You're not gonna believe this, but I went to Powell's."
     "Shut up."
     "I did. I had my free trial workout. Dave showed me all-"
     "You didn't mention that you knew me, did you?"
     "Why, did you and Dave have a falling out?"
     Harmon was silent.
     "You're not the one who broke that mirror, are you?"
     "Why'd you go to Powell's?"
     "I don't know. I wanted to see what it's all about, I guess."
     "And what did you think? Honestly, will you return?"
     "No."
     "Why not?"
     "That's your world, I don't belong there. It feels wrong, you being gone and all."
     "Then why did you go?"
     "I have no interest in lifting and never will, but I wanted to understand what you got out of it."
     "I see. So first you tell me I'm an idiot and I'll never stick with it-"
     "I didn't call you an idiot."
     "Yes you did. Then when I start getting popular, you forsake me, but now that everyone hates me, you're accepting me for who I am by this magnanimous gesture-"
     "I'm sorry, I just-"
     "You just couldn't deal with the fact that I stopped being a nerd and a social recluse, that I stopped being like you."
     "It's comments like that that make you the dickhead you've become, ever since that summer when you . . ."
     "When I what? When I started to be a man?"
     "You think what you're doing right now is manly? Running away, asking a friend to call your parents for you . . ."
     "I had to leave, you agreed with me. Come to think of it, I bet you and Sarah worked together on this. The whole thing was your idea, wasn't it?"
     "That's rid-"
     "Well while you're at it, see if you can't get another rumor through the works. I want them to-"
     "I would never wish on you what she did to you, you got to believe me."
     "Let them think I'm dead, can you do that?"
     "Whatever. Seriously, man, where are you?"
     "I don't know, and I'd like to keep it that way."
     "Well . . . look, call me if you need anything, will you do that?"
     "I'll be in touch."
     "Take care of yourself."
     "Whatever that means."

     It felt good to workout in a new place. He walked in, paid the ten-dollar entry fee and received a brief tour from an employee. It was similar to Powell's, but a little smaller and with slightly more modern machines. Sitting in a corner of the locker room where he had privacy, he opened the Tupperware container, took a lick of the black gooey mass and washed it down with an energy drink he had purchased on his way to the gym. Then he buried the container in his backpack, locked it up and entered the free weight room.
     As he began his routine, he found that, as was typical as of late, he was out-lifting everyone in the room, even the more muscular fellows. He received a few contemptuous glances, but mostly complimentary ones on account of this. But there was another group of boys who noticed Harmon, and the looks they gave him were inspired neither by envy nor awe.
     There were four of them together, and they looked like ruffians. One of them had a mo-hawk and a pierced eyebrow, and the largest one had a shaved head and lots of tattoos. They were the kind of pack that would be eyed very closely upon entering a convenient store, or any establishment, for that matter. They eyed Harmon in a similar manner. They didn't look friendly, and they certainly didn't seem shy. When Harmon looked over and caught them staring at him, they didn't avert their glances but kept on looking at him, straight faced, as if he was an enemy they were silently, surreptitiously inviting to tangle with them in the parking lot. Had he not been the confident super-buff crowd-pleaser that he was, this would have not only unnerved him to the point of leaving, but made him paranoid thereafter. He ignored them and concentrated on his lifts.
     Harmon had everything under control as he ran his tongue across the revolting ball of jelly, hunched in a corner of the locker room, and now he had everything under control as he lowered the barbell to his chest again and again and-
     He was struggling. He was attempting an ambitious - or as Brock would say, suicidal - weight. Before sitting down, he had looked around the room for someone to ask for a spot. He was by no means shy in the context of a gym, even in a strange town, but he was very selective when it came to spotters; they had to be big enough to know how to spot him right, and had to be nearby and available. He didn't see anyone he felt comfortable approaching, so he had attempted the lift himself. He put it up twice, and then slowly and noisily managed a third rep, which would have made a reasonable final rep, but he didn't feel burnt out yet, didn't feel that cathartic release, so he brought the bar down to his chest again.
     Taking it to failure sometimes meant pushing the limits of safety, going for that one extra rep even after your body says 'that's enough.' On many occasions the risk factor and the sudden enormity of impending danger - or at least shame and embarrassment - had enabled him to tap resources of strength he didn't know he possessed to complete an unassisted lift. The adrenalin rush and feeling of victory made it well worth the risk. Of course any coach would insist that lifting heavy weights without a spot is not prudent, but then again, hadn't Dave said in his words of wisdom that passion superceded any other rules of the sport? In the end, getting huge wasn't something one went about rationally, it was about being passionate and taking chances. To be truly outstanding at anything in life, Harmon believed, you had to be just a little bit out of your mind.
     So he brought the bar down to his chest again. He pushed. It rose a few inches and then stopped. It wouldn't budge. The bar sank back down to his chest.
     No lift for Harmon Flekzor . . .
     Panic set in, accompanied with a momentary sensation of déjà vu. The panic was not a fear of being crushed or choked to death, but purely a dread of the humiliation that would inevitably follow. He rested the bar on his chest, and knew that he could hold it there for an hour if necessary. Someone would come to his rescue soon enough, there was no need to yell for help.
     Not a second had gone by when a face appeared leaning over him, and to his astonishment he recognized the face. It was the girl from the cryptic torn photograph he had found in his pocket at Hunter's Point. There was a blur beneath her left eye. It was a bandage of sorts sewn onto her cheek. Whoever had cut out that piece of the photograph had been deliberately trying to hide it. There was no doubt in his mind it was her. Later that day he would spend a long time looking at the photograph, corroborating this.
     She was lifting it for him. She gave him just the minimum push he needed to supplement his efforts, like an ideal spot.
     "That's it, push it out. Come on you chicken-shit, push it! You can do better than that. My grandmother could do better than that! Come on! Fight!"
     Forgetting for the moment that she was a stranger and not his personal coach, he roared and lifted with all his might, locked it out and racked the bar. Upon reflex he sat up, catching his breath. He was dizzy. But when he turned around to thank her, she was gone. Harmon continued his workout in a bewildered state, and didn't see her until about twenty minutes later. He was in the middle of a set of incline flies when she walked by carrying a duffle bag, on her way out. The duffle bag was unzipped. Something fell out of it behind her, but she didn't notice and kept on walking. It was a paperback book.
     Harmon finished his set and ran to the exit, but it was too late. She was gone. He picked up the book off the floor without looking at it and put it in his pocket.
     On his way out, he stopped to look at a flier hanging on the wall. There was a local contest coming up in a few days, to be held right where he stood.
     Later, back in his hotel room, he looked through his backpack and found the photograph of the girl. In addition he pulled out some textbooks. He divided the rest of the afternoon between doing his homework from school, which nobody would ever see or grade, and staring at the scrap of photograph. For reasons he didn't care to understand, doing homework was relaxing, so he kept on doing it, and when he finished his assignments, he read on in the texts and gave himself more.




Chapter 6: Marlena



     He went back to the gym the following day not expecting to see her, and not consciously hoping to, yet he had very consciously brought along the book she had dropped. In the locker room, he went through his routine of changing and taking his Lumac fix without thinking about her, but when he came out she was the first thing he saw. She was running on the treadmill. She had it set to an incline and she was running fast. A wave of nervousness befell him at the sight of her in spandex shorts and a tank-top, her lean, athletic body moving to an imperative rhythm that only she could hear, well-defined muscles swelling in taut chords of packaged rage with each controlled, ascetic stride, her long brown hair hanging out the back of a bandana that was saturated with sweat. She looked like a living, breathing poster for determination. The bandage on her left cheek glistened with perspiration, making itself all the more noticeable. She was the girl from the picture; as impossible as that was, he accepted it readily. He felt like a jittery junior high school kid, standing there hoping she didn't see him. He turned around, went back to his locker and grabbed the book, then took a stroll around the gym so as to look casual when he got on the treadmill next to hers. She ignored him. After running for about half a minute, he extended the book to her, gripping the handlebar with his other hand.
     "I believe you dropped this."
     She continued to ignore him. He placed it on top of the monitor.
     "You could have just asked me," she said.
     "Huh?"
     "The other day. You needed a spot. I saw that look on your face. I waited for you to come ask me, but you didn't. You went ahead and made a damned fool of yourself."
     "I guess I didn't see you."
     "Is it below you to ask a girl for help?"
     "I only ask people I know, people who know how I lift. When a stranger gives me a crappy spot, it ruins my whole day. I'm not saying you . . ."
     "Shouldn't you be thanking me?"
     "Shouldn't you be thanking me?"
     "We're even. So how was it?"
     "The spot? It was perfect."
     "I meant the book."
     "I didn't read it. I just held on to it to give-"
     "Liar."
     He laughed. "So when can I return the favor?"
     "You want to save my life?"
     "I meant more like if you needed a spot-"
     "You won't catch me turning blue with a barbell pressed against my throat. If I need one, I'll ask you first."
     "Ouch."
     "What, you can't take a little passive aggression? I'm only messing with you."
     He laughed again. There was no denying it now; he was thoroughly taken with her.
     "What's your name?"
     "Marlena."
     "I've never met a Marlena before."
     "Neither have I."
     "I'm-"
     "You're Harmon. Or should I call you Flex?"
     His eyes widened and he stumbled on the treadmill, but caught his fickle ground on the conveyer. "How did you know-"
     "Listen, I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but in a moment I'm gonna start tuning you out. Conversations are distracting, and I really need to finish this mile."
     Harmon put up his hands apologetically and backed off the treadmill. "I completely understand."
     Later when she was off the treadmill he approached her again. "Marlena . . . what should I call you for short?"
     "I can't say. A nickname isn't genuine unless it comes from someone else."
     "Marley? Marla-"
     "What do you want?"
     "Well, I don't know anybody else here, and I really need a spot. Could I trouble you-"
     "Could you trouble me for one? You mean could I graciously divert myself from my important schedule to help you? Or do you mean you'd rather ask anybody here but me, but since I'm your only option, your only comfort zone, you'll deign to entreat me to assist in this so trivial yet so important task? Why, of course I'll give you a spot. Could I trouble you to lift correctly?"
     Harmon smiled. "You're amazing."
     "You're a doofus."
     "You know my secret."
     "What?" She lowered her eyebrows derisively.
     "Sarcasm and antagonism really get me pumped."
     She lowered her head, rolled her eyes up and gave him the death look.
     "I mean . . . you were messing with me, right?"
     She grabbed his shoulder and plopped him down on the seat. "Let's do this."
     He was doing preacher curls. As he brought the EZ-Curl bar up to his chin, he saw his face reflected in the convex curvature of the smooth polished steel bar such that his eyes were huge and intense and his forehead was drawn back like an animal stalking its prey. He burnt out after six reps and she helped him crank out two more. She really did know how to give a spot. This time when he caught his breath she didn't disappear.
     "You're the greatest."
     "Are you flirting with me?"
     "I-ugh-ah- No."
     She laughed. The gray patch on her cheek ruffled just like skin when she laughed. "I'm out of here in twenty minutes. If you'd like to go for a smoothie, catch me as I'm leaving and follow me. If you can't, don't worry."
     "I thought coffee was the universal socializing beverage."
     "We don't have to pretend. We both workout."
     Harmon finished lifting in ten minutes and frantically looked at his waterproof watch in the shower. He ran out into the parking lot with his backpack slung over one shoulder, bouncing against his back, leaving an amorphous shape of dampness on the back of his shirt. He looked around, hoping to see a car pulling out and flag it down, and then he saw her. She was sitting nonchalantly on the trunk of a small sports car. He ran to her.
     "I thought you weren't gonna wait for me."
     "I never said that."
     "Most people are too proud to give the impression that they care."
     "It's all an intricate game," she said as she slid off the hood and turn around, "haven't you figured that out?" Instead of walking around to the driver's seat, she knelt down and put her elbow on the trunk at a forty-five degree angle.
     "What are you doing?"
     "This is the game I play."
     He couldn't believe it. She was challenging him to an arm wrestle. He stood there for a minute with his arms crossed incredulously, then shrugged and cockily walked over to her corner, got in position and gripped her hand.
     "Go."
     They eyed each other contentiously, locked in a stalemate.
     "Are you trying?"
     He said nothing.
     "Are you struggling or aren't you?"
     "Are you?"
     "What if I am?"
     "Honestly? I could take you down in a second."
     "But what if I'm not?"
     "Go all out. I dare you."
     "I am pushing my hardest." He could hear the strain in her voice, and he felt her sudden burst of effort like a gust of wind against a brick wall.
     "Is that all you got?"
     "If you're a gentleman, you'll let me win."
     "Oh, I see how it is."
     "Not so easy, is it? You'd like to, but your ego's standing in the way, because you're conditioned to take arm-wrestling quite seriously. Now you're getting all psyched out thinking about it. What if I raised the stakes; let me win - I don't just mean go limp, I mean pretend like you're really trying and make me believe it - and I'll give you a kiss."
     "You wouldn't."
     "All you got to do is let me win." She smiled. "Now you're struggling."
     "Are you for real?"
     "My strength may be a joke to you, but you're wrestling with yourself. You've got your inadequacies on one side, but in the back of your mind there's a suppressed fear that if you try and beat me, I'll explode at you with some concealed super-strength and overpower you in the blink of an eye, in which case you couldn't stand to look at me, much less enjoy a strawberry-banana smoothie with me. So now you're stuck in the middle; you're afraid to try because you're mystified by me and you fear I have something up my sleeve, but you won't let me win, because you can't let yourself let go."
     "Damn, you're making this complicated. You want to call it off?"
     "Nice try. Shit or get off the pot. What are you gonna do? Come on, Harmon, fight!"
     His arm wavered back and forth indecisively.
     "Just let go. Either let go, or-"
     He slammed her knuckles down on the trunk's surface and then held up his fists.
     "I'm the champion!"
     She patted him on the back and got in the car. He got in on the other side. She turned on the radio to a hard rock station and drove off.
     
     "So how'd you know my name in there?"
     She tossed her head back and laughed. "Wouldn't you like to know?"
     "Yeah, I would like to know."
     "When I saw you yesterday and spotted you, I knew you looked familiar, but I couldn't place it. Then when I talked to you today on the treadmill, the name just . . . you were about to say it, it just came out of my mouth instead of yours for some reason. I still couldn't figure out where I'd met you, but it gave me chills. I had to push you away, you understand that."
     "I don't think I've met you before. I'm not from around here."
     "But then I remembered."
     "I've never met you, that's impossible."
     "I . . ."
     "What?"
     "You're name is Harmon Flekzor, and you're nickname is Flex. It was a dream-"
     "Whoah, whoah, you're saying you saw me in a dream?"
     "I talked to you. I remember you introducing yourself in this macho voice. My friends call me Flex." Her impression of him made him laugh.
     "Is that all you remember?"
     "I think I . . . I gave you something."
     "A gift?"
     "More like . . . something to remember me by."
     "You don't mean-" Suddenly he remembered the photograph, and a tremor reverberated through his entire being. With his arms crossed he could feel the gooseflesh on his chest.
     "It was a photograph, I gave you a picture of myself, and I- what's wrong, Harmon?"
     "Nothing."
     "You look like you've just seen a ghost standing behind me. Don't play this off like everything's cool. You obviously realized something just now that impacted you deeply. In the vein of this conversation, don't keep it to yourself."
     "Wouldn't you be creeped out if someone knew your name?"
     She put down her smoothie, leaned in close, lowered her voice and spoke sincerely. "You probably don't believe in psychic connections, but I do. If this is your first exposure to the world beneath the one we live in, it can be traumatizing, but it's really nothing to be afraid of. It's quite beautiful, actually. Things like this happen between random people all the time, and ninety nine percent of the time they go on with their lives and never find each other, never even acknowledge it. We're-" She stopped abruptly.
     "What? We're what?"
     "Forget it."
     "Finish your thought."
     "You look uncomfortable."
     "Well, yeah, most people don't speak with sincerity about the supernatural until the second date, isn't that the social norm?"
     "You strike me neither as someone who dates frequently nor somebody who has any regard for social norms."
     "My sincere response? This conversation is making me very uncomfortable, and with all my heart I'd like to continue it."
     "I think you just spoiled the mood."
     "How can you be taking this so lightly and at the same time speak so sagely and openly? It's like you're not even phased by this."
     She lowered her voice. "If I told you some of the stories that have happened to my friends, you wouldn't be either. Fear doesn't have to be your default emotional response, you know."
     "Has this happened to you before?"
     "Not exactly. Every situation is unique."
     "Have you ever met a stranger and known their name?"
     "No."
     "But you've had clairvoyant dreams before?"
     "So you know the lingo."
     "I read science fiction."
     "I'm sure you do."
     "Well have you?"
     "I don't know. Probably. You've probably had some yourself."
     "Now you're gonna ask me my astrological sign, I bet."
     "No. I was gonna ask you to tell me more about yourself. Good guess."
     "I'm a drifter. I ran away from home a week ago, left school, and now I'm here."
     "Where are you from?"
     He told her.
     "That's far away. Why'd you come here?"
     "I didn't. I'm drifting."
     "Where are you staying?"
     "At a hotel."
     "You're crazy. How old are you?"
     "Eighteen."
     She glanced at the clock on the wall.
     "I got to go. Do you need a ride?"
     "I'll be fine."
     As she stood up, she pulled a scrap of paper out of her pocket, put it on the table and wrote on it with a pen.
     "Call me if you - well, you know, if you need a place to stay."
     "You're crazy."
     She gave him the death look, then half smiled and left.
     Harmon gulped down the rest of his fruit smoothie in a daze, then went outside and walked down the block idly. He found a two-story super-chain bookstore/café and went inside to kill some time. While browsing, he came across the paperback novel Marlena had dropped in the gym. The description on the back cover looked interesting enough, and the opening paragraph grabbed him, so, all his criteria being met, he purchased it.

     The lifting competition was smaller and more informal than the one back home, but the energy was the same, and he had just as much at stake here. This was his chance to redeem himself, in a new setting with a clean slate. He entered the gym cockily with his backpack slung over one shoulder. Outside it was overcast and cloudy. He felt a few raindrops on his walk from the hotel. He had undergone all his preparation rituals in the hotel room, consisting of a fix of Lumac and some pushups. He registered himself to compete, and then took a stroll around the gym. All the equipment had been rearranged to clear a space on the floor for the contest.
     Amidst all the brutes warming up with fast repetitions on weight benches and the pandemonium of microphone-checks and clipboards being passed around for sign-ins and the pounding bass of the heavy metal music blaring from speakers on all the walls, igniting the pervasive miasma of testosterone, Harmon spotted a familiar gang occupying one corner of the room. Marlena was there, surrounded by four other guys, one of who had a Mohawk. It was the same four guys who had eyed him belligerently on his first visit to this gym. Marlena saw him but ignored him. These guys were obviously her comrades, and the way they were naturally centered about her gave the impression she was first in command. In their presence she looked dangerous, like an ominous but alluring villain flanked by her goons. In his first encounter with the thugs, they hadn't daunted him, but seeing them standing with Marlena in the corner, he was extremely intimidated, in the same manner he'd been when he first saw her running on the treadmill. Now he didn't look at them as imposing individuals, but rather as accessories to her image, rendering her all the more imposing.
     Harmon moseyed over to them in a roundabout fashion. Marlena stood there with her arms folded.
     "Come here to prove yourself, Flex?"
     "Something like that."
     "Guys, this is Flex. Flex, these are my friends."
     Harmon shook hands with all of them, but they didn't introduce themselves.
     "How much you weigh?" one of them asked.
     "One-ninety."
     Just then the music was shut off and an announcer came on with a short introduction, and the games began. Harmon sat with Marlena and her friends and watched the contest. When they were approaching his weight class, he got up and went upstairs to the darkened aerobics room. He went off by himself because he was nervous, but sitting alone on the wooden gymnasium floor with his eyes closed, feeling the echo of the announcer's voice over the loudspeaker and the audience cheering below resonating in his chest, his heart only beat faster, and then he felt it. Twenty minutes later he was still sitting there, and it wouldn't go away.
     The door opened and a light was turned on. Harmon froze. He huddled against the wall with his arms folded around his knees. He had a hooded long sleeve shirt on over his tank-top, unbuttoned.
     "What are you doing up here?" It was Marlena. "They're about to call your name."
     He was silent. As she came closer she saw that he was shaking.
     "What's wrong?"
     "I can't go back down there," he replied in a soft tremulous voice.
     "Everyone gets jitters. No need to get worked up about it, just relax and do your best."
     "It's not that simple."
     "Are you worried that my friends will show you up? They talk big, but - honestly? - they got nothing on you."
     "They don't seem to talk much at all."
     "You're an animal, Harmon. You're probably the strongest guy here. Show them."
     Harmon buried his head in his arms.
     "God, you're so childish. If you come out and play, I'll give you a lollipop, will that coax you?"
     He laughed. "You don't understand."
     "No, I don't."
     He lifted his head and looked at her with the vulnerability of a kid about to confess to doing something very bad. His eyes were teary. She sat down backwards on an exercise-bike, facing him.
     "I've never told anyone . . ."
     She lifted her eyebrows imploringly. He hesitated for a moment and then stood up and reluctantly threw off his long-sleeved shirt, baring his massive hulking bicep and triceps that were moving of their own accord like two agitated snakes confined around a skeletal structure that was still in his control. He braced himself for her to scream with horror and run out of the room. He braced himself for her repulsed expression, but her only expression was one of sympathy. It was as though she still didn't see why he was so distraught.
     "It's happened before. I-I've never told anyone, I don't know what to-"
     "Shhhh." She got off the exercise bike, placed a hand on his shoulder and gently turned him around so that his back was to her. "Let your arms hang loosely at your sides. Don't try to resist." She started to massage his shoulders and then slowly ran her hands down his arms. At the feel of her unexpectedly soft touch, he was instantly placated. Her hands seemed to absorb the tremor, to assimilate it, ethereally reaching down to the bone to purge him of his alarming loss of muscular control. Within two minutes of massaging his arms, the twitching had stopped completely.
     "How'd you do that?" he said, utterly in awe.
     "It's a common side effect."
     "What?"
     "Nothing."
     "A side effect of what?"
     "I meant . . ."
     "You know, don't you?"
     "I didn't know for sure. I had a hunch when I first saw you. Now it's obvious. Yes, I know your secret. And I'm telling you - I hadn't intended to tell you right here, but it slipped out - that it's a common side effect."
     Harmon was shaking his head in disbelief at the implications of what she was saying. "I don't know what you're involved in or what you think I'm involved in, but what you just saw . . . that was not normal."
     "Really, Harmon, do you think you're the only guy in the world who ever thought of eating Lumac and had the impetus to do it?"
     He glared at her as if she was a doctor withholding his diagnosis, spouting little hints.
     "What's happening to me?"
     "We'll talk about that later. For now, you'd better get your butt down there and gain some recognition in this town."
     "No."
     "Why not?"
     "I'm through performing. I don't want to compete anymore."
     "Must I give you some cheesy Walt-Disney-esque pep-talk? Is that what you want?"
     "I'm not going." He opened his backpack and rifled through it, intending to dig out the Lumac ball and throw it against the wall, when she stopped him.
     "What's that?"
     "What?"
     "That book, take it out."
     "Oh, yeah, I was curious, so I went and bought a copy."
     "Have you started reading it?"
     "Yeah."
     "What do you think?"
     "It's good."
     "What do you really think?"
     "His writing style is painfully irresistible and irresistibly excruciating. Reading it is like continuously pricking yourself with needles, with his relentless cynicism and undertone of passive desperation-"
     "Are you quoting me a review?"
     "Did I mention it's brilliant? Riveting? A real page-turner . . ."
     "What do you really think of it?"
     "I couldn't put it down. I'm already about half way through-"
     "What page?"
     "I don't know."
     "Yes you do. What page are you on?"
     He opened it up and checked. "Two-fifty-seven. What page are you on?"
     "Around the same. But I promise you that by tomorrow I'll be way ahead of you, and I will find you, and I will give away the ending, and that's a threat."
     "I'm disappointed. You're blackmailing me with a book? Is that the best you can do? You probably could've persuaded me (and I can tell you, a part of me really wanted to see you succeed), but now you've sunk too low. Not only is that the most pathetic thing I've ever heard, but the nature of the threat negates itself; my knowledge of your plan - which is inescapable given the circumstances - will render you incapable of carrying it out. Now that I know your intentions, I'll stay up all night reading. You'll never get-"
     "Oh, darn, what was I thinking? I should have contrived this in advance and already been ahead of you when I brought it up. Oh wait, what if I did that, and I'm about to reveal to you all the plot twists in this same derisive sarcastic tone, unless of course you get your ass down there and lift some weights within the next three seconds."
     "I saw where your bookmark was when I returned it to you, there's no way you're ahead of me considering the relative amount of leisure time I have."
     "Two, one."
     "You're bluffing."
     "Oh, am I? So that would mean that Mary doesn't die in chapter nine, doesn't get attacked by a horde of killer bees from Doctor Blanche's experiment, I'm just pulling that out of-"
     "Stop it. I'm not giving in, this is childish."
     "And then Mr. Dorian's cult turns against him and-"
     "All right, I'll do it."
     "Really? I thought this was the most pathetic thing you ever heard."
     "I'll do it. Just answer me one question."
     "Anything."
     He paused and took a nervous breath.
     "Why do you wear that bandage upon your face?"
     She laughed. "Is that what you've been dying to know since you met me but been too tactful to ask?"
     He nodded.
     "I was wondering why you never inquired. Nobody's that tactful."
     "I was wondering why you never said anything. Nobody's that mysterious."
     "What did you think when you first saw me? That I got in a fight?"
     "Did you?"
     She shook her head and silently backed away, eyes downcast.
     "Touchy subject?"
     "I'm sorry."
     "What do you usually say when people ask?"
     "That I got in a fight."
     "Do you tell them you kicked the other guy's ass?"
     "That's assumed." She grinned.
     "Look, I'm not trying to delve into your personal secrets, I'm just curious."
     "I could have easily spun off a convincing lie and satisfied your question, but I didn't. That's all I can offer you right now."
     "I'll be frank; if you let me see what's under there, I'll go downstairs and participate."
     She shook her head sadly. "I don't get it. This is your chance to show off."
     "I've done nothing but show off my muscles for the past two years. I ran away from that world. For me to go down there and take first place would only be a regression, and if it took a portentous muscular convulsion to make me realize that, then so be it."
     "Have you ever won before?"
     He winced subtly, struck off guard.
     "This isn't a copout."
     "No, I get it. You're making a personal stand. You are copping out, you're just doing it with honor. I support you, I really do. It's just . . . my friends, they won't understand, and I wanted for you to impress them, deflate their egos a little."
     "Why?"
     "Just because."
     "Look, I'm sorry if this day isn't going like you had planned."
     "Don't be. Life would be boring if it ever did."
     "So we're cool?"
     "You didn't answer me. Have you ever won before?"
     He swallowed hard. "Yes. Just not in the literal sense."
     "Please, Harmon? Do it for me."
     His heart beat faster. With those eyes, you could make me do about anything, he thought. You really get off on making people struggle internally, don't you? He sighed.
     "Why is it that the girls in my life always appear out of nowhere, and always try to coerce me into doing something?"
     "Sounds like you have a story to tell."
     "It's on account of a girl that I'm here."
     "She drove you away?"
     "I knew I had to bust out, but I wasn't brave enough. She intuited that, and yes, she forced me to leave by her machinations. Why am I talking about this?"
     "Look at it this way; I'm not trying to expel you from anything." She leaned in close and whispered. "I'm trying to draw you in."
     "To what?"
     "I think you know."
     "God, I feel like every stranger I meet has an agenda for me. Why does everyone want a piece of me?"
     "Take off your shirt, Harmon."
     He willingly obliged.
     "Look at you. You've got a six-pac, you've got some rippin' pecs, you're every body-builder's dream. You should be in magazines. You should be downstairs winning trophies! You must think you're the shit, and I'm sure you are, in the world you know. But take it from me; you're nothing, Flex. If you only knew-"
     "Are you getting all weird on me again?"
     "Must I resort to quoting Shakespeare? There are more things in heaven and Earth-"
     "What are you getting at?"
     "Be honest. Why'd you start taking Lumac?"
     "For the same reason people take steroids."
     "And what's that?"
     "I got frustrated. I wanted . . . I wanted to be larger than life."
     She smiled. "Are you by any chance a Photon-Man fanatic?"
     He pulled a magazine out of his backpack in one slick motion.
     "Me too," she whispered, taking his hand. "I'm going back downstairs now. Meet me on the bridge at nine O' clock tonight, will you do that?"
     "What bridge?"
     "There's only one bridge in town. Pack your things and be there." She patted him on the back and left.
     After a few minutes Harmon put his shirt on, picked up his backpack, descended the stairs and left the building without looking back. Outside it was no longer drizzling; it was raining substantially. He started running. He ran down the block, passed his hotel and kept running. There was a belch of thunder and the rain seemed to thicken. He looked up. An ominous storm cloud hovered over him. The roar of thunder piqued his adrenalin and he ran faster. He turned a corner at random. It was a residential street, and a car seldom passed him. Without looking, he bore away from the sidewalk and started running in the middle of the road.
     Watching the yellow lines of the road go by beneath his feet with his hood drawn over his head, running in long powerful strides with tightly clenched fists and flexed arms, with his shirt so drenched he couldn't distinguish the rain from his own sweat, ignoring the occasional honk as cars from either direction swerved to avoid hitting him, Harmon had everything under control.
     He ran for hours.
     The rain picked up. The wind howled in arias accompanied by the symphonic voice of rumbling thunder. Mist had risen up from the road and from the grass yards he passed, obscuring the houses. Had he had a destination, he would have considered himself lost.
     He kept running.
     The ghosts ran with him. Lurking just beyond the fog, just beyond his sanity, they were all there. If he looked over his shoulder he'd see Dave's angry face charging from behind, yelling GET OUT!!! Then Dave would fade and his parents would appear, chasing him, all out of breath, pleading with him to come home. Then Brock and Sarah side by side, and behind them, Art Merkle with his despised grin. Their ghosts were all there, crowding in on him.
     You insolent son of a bitch!
     You're an idiot, Harmon . . .
     Get out.
     You're gonna burn in hell for this, Flex.
     Rapist . . .
     Get out.
     You think they hate you because of what you did to me? They've always hated you.
     They've always hated you . . .
     I'm not trying to expel you from anything. I'm trying to draw you in.
     They've always hated you . . .
     Have you ever won before?
     GET OUT!!!!!
     He pressed his hands over his ears and let out a roar of anguish. Behind him he heard the approach of a far-off Diesel engine. He slowed down to a jog and looked back. It was a garbage truck. The driver saw him and slowed down as he passed, honking his horn rudely and shouting unintelligible obscenities. Harmon saw his opportunity, and impulsively jumped onto the side of the truck as it passed, grabbed hold of the iron handlebar and hung on. The truck went on for several miles without stopping, and finally came to a gas station. He jumped off and made a run for it. He turned a corner and stopped under a store awning to catch his breath.
     It wasn't until he had a moment of shelter that he realized how cold and wet he was. He opened his backpack and stuck a hand inside to feel his clothes. The sweatshirt on the top was damp, but the clothes below it were tolerable. His first order of business was to change his clothes. He found a fast-food joint down the street, changed in the bathroom, and then made some inquiries and did some hitchhiking.
     When he got to the bridge, it was dark but he still had some time to kill. He found a secluded, sheltered spot up in the rafters of the bridge and sat down with his legs dangling over the river below. He looked up at the sky, but there was nothing to be seen. It was dark and cloudy. Lightning flashed every few minutes, lighting up the sky in violent bursts of luminescence. The thunder was so loud and deep he could feel the bridge shudder each time it struck.
     She wasn't coming. This was crazy. This had to be a joke. Everything in his limited experience taught him not to trust women, but he had come regardless. The possibility of her not showing up had never occurred to him, but now, huddled under a bridge in a raging storm, something didn't feel right. Pack your things and be there. What was that supposed to mean? Who was this girl? A week ago she had been just a mysterious face in a photograph, and now she was telling him to pack up his belongings and go meet her at a bridge at night in the middle of a thunderstorm. What was he to make of her?
     Pondering Marlena's intentions made him anxious and nervous, and it was no use. He pulled a damp Photon-Man magazine out of his backpack and strained his eyes to read it in the dark. It was impossible to make anything out, but the effort relaxed him and helped take his mind off of her, so he kept on pretending to read it. He practically knew this issue by heart anyhow.
     Above him a car slowed down, pulled off to the side and stopped. He could feel the engine's vibrations in the rafters suspending him. He put back the comic book, put on his backpack and climbed up to the bridge's surface.
     He immediately knew it was her when he saw her car idling fifty feet away. She drove up to him, he got in and they sped off over the bridge.
     "I'm impressed you found this place."
     "It's the only bridge in town."
     "You came out in the rain. That's impressive."
     "Where are we going?"
     "You had the opportunity to prove yourself today, but you didn't. I'm giving you another chance."
     "Lifting a metal bar doesn't prove anything."
     "Don't worry, this will."
     "So where are we going?"
     "You're asking a pointless question. If you had any input in where we're going, we would have already discussed it. Besides, there is no preparing for this."
     "Is it a surprise?"
     "Relax. We'll be there in thirty minutes."
     "Are we meeting anyone else?"
     "Let me put it in more subtle terms; shut up."
     They rode in silence, listening to the explosive sound of thunder. There was a flash in the sky.
     "You ever been struck by lightning, Harmon?"
     "Um, no."
     "I have."
     A thunderclap sounded.
     "I was eight years old."
     "Bullshit."
     "I didn't ask you to believe me."
     "What are you asking me to do?"
     "Asking? No, I don't ask. When I want something to happen-"
     "I get it, you're a force to reckon with. I've been thinking about you, in particular about your face. I think I may have you figured out. Your personality, I mean. I'll bet you a hundred dollars I at least know what you're concealing under that bandage. It's not a normal scar. If you were in an accident, like if you were attacked by some wild animal, you wouldn't be that ashamed. If it were from corrective surgery, you still wouldn't be that secretive. If it was something embarrassing, like if you were trying to remove a pimple and you cut yourself, you wouldn't have made a big thing of it, you would have either changed the subject quickly or just told me and laughed it off. I was puzzled for a while, but then I figured it out. There's nothing under there. Your face looks perfectly normal, you just wear that bandage to fuck with peoples' minds."
     "I'm deeply insulted yet mildly amused."
     "Admit it, I'm right. It makes sense; you crave attention, you-"
     "Feel free to believe that. I'd rather not talk about it now."
     "Were you really struck by lightning?"
     She looked directly at him for a moment, ignoring the road. "Do I scare you, Harmon?"
     "Are you trying to?"
     "What do you make of me?"
     "I don't know. You're unpredictable. I'm spellbound. I'm completely at your mercy, is that what you want me to say?"
     She nodded, with a look of intrigued satisfaction. "Yeah. Close enough."
     Another thunderbolt.
     "Look, I don't have much patience for surprises, all right?"
     "You're nervous. That's okay, everyone's afraid of me in one way or another. That's how I am what I am."
     "What are you?"
     She laughed a delighted, maniacal laugh that was accompanied most naturally by the roar of thunder. The sky was laughing with her.
     "Now you're scaring me."
     Several minutes of silence elapsed before the next outburst of thunder.
     She smiled.
     "There's nothing in the world more beautiful than lightning in a darkened sky."

     Harmon Flekzor was not in control whatsoever when the car turned onto a dead-end road and came to a halt before a wooden gate. Marlena killed the engine, got out and shut the door behind her all in one eager motion, then ducked under the gate and started walking briskly without hesitation. Harmon followed suit.
     She had something around her neck. She had grabbed something when she stepped out of the car, a purse or pocketbook of some sort.
     "Where in God's name are you taking me? We're in the middle of nowhere."
     She said nothing, but picked up her pace. They were walking down a wide path through the woods. Something loomed ahead, something monolithic that stood much taller than the surrounding trees. It was a water tower, an old neglected fortress of rust encompassed by a dilapidated fence bearing KEEP OUT signs. She jumped over the fence gracefully, as though it were as familiar as her own backyard. He followed less gracefully.
     "That's it. I'm turning around right now unless you tell me-"
     She broke into a sprint and disappeared around the cylindrical structure.
     "Damn it!" He ran after her, but once he got about halfway around he realized it was no use. He stopped and listened for her, but all he could hear was the heavy, drenching rainfall. And then a terrible thought dawned on him. His stomach rolled with a heavy feeling that was close to nausea. Could it be he'd fallen for another mean practical joke, a bitter recapitulation of his early-adolescence? How could he not have seen it coming? Great, he thought, she's already lost me. There was no doubt in his mind that she was going to leave him here. Any moment now he would hear her car speed off, leaving him alone in the middle of nowhere.
     He heard something. It wasn't the sound of an engine starting up. It was a faint dull clap, like the sound of a small object bumping against a wall (a pocketbook, perhaps). It came from above. He looked up, frantically encircling the tower, and when he saw her, his feeling was far from relief. She was about fifteen feet above him, vigorously climbing up a steel ladder along the side of the tower.
     "Marlena!"
     She paused and looked down.
     "Oh, hi Harmon! I wouldn't recommend coming up here. It's dangerous. Worst possible place to be during a lightning storm." She continued her climb.
     "What are you, suicidal?!" Right as he said the word, it hit him; she was testing him. Without a further thought, he jumped up, grabbed the highest rung he could reach and started to climb. The rungs were wet and freezing cold in his hands, which spurred him to climb faster. Thunder roared. He felt its vibration through the entire tower and through his heart. He looked up. She wasn't in sight. There was about ten more feet to go. When he reached the top, the platform was slippery. She offered him a hand, but he ignored it and hoisted himself up. He sat down on the roof of the abandoned water tower and caught his breath.
     "You're brave," she said with a smile.
     "You're insane. I don't know exactly how to talk you down, but . . ."
     "That's a clever play on words, now how about you shut up and enjoy the view."
     "What view?"
     She pointed to the sky. "It's the best view in town."
     He stood up.
     "Of the storm?"
     "Your chances of getting struck just standing here are pretty small. Don't be nervous. Actually, be about three percent nervous. Me, I've already been struck once."
     "They're two independent events, probability isn't effected-"
     "I wasn't talking about probability. I meant I'm not afraid of lightning."
     "Some people find sunsets empowering, others are drawn to storms. Whatever makes you feel bad-ass."
     "It's beautiful. Just acknowledge it for one moment."
     "You're beautiful." He looked at her and she turned away from him.
     "Sorry to disappoint you, but that's not what I brought you here for."
     "I'm not disappointed."
     "Embarrassed at least?"
     "I meant it."
     "You got the wrong idea-"
     "No I don't. I'll say it again. You're beautiful. I want to see what you really look like. Without the mask."
     "Trust me; no you don't."
     "Just one peak. How bad can it be? I've had enough time to imagine all sorts of monstrosities-"
     "Shhhhh." She shook her head.
     "I was right, wasn't I? It's the mystique of it that keeps people in awe of you and preserves your role of leadership. Nobody dares to ask, and when you don't say anything, they assume they don't want to know, which keeps them in fear of you, keeps them subservient."
     "You really got the wrong idea. You don't have a clue, Harmon."
     "Then humor me. You know what I think? Maybe it started out that way, or maybe it started out as a joke - wear a fake bandage to school, see how people react - but you liked the attention so much that you kept wearing it. It became an addiction, and eventually you forgot it was a joke. You fabricated a story behind it and made yourself believe it. You're delusional. But of course you are. Nobody as intriguing as you are-"
     She ripped the bandage off her face and tossed it over the edge of the roof. She took a few steps closer and stood before him with rain dripping from her hair and running down her naked face, her true form illuminated by the light of a momentary flash of lightning. For a moment Harmon thought he would go into shock, and in the following moment he thought he had already fainted. But he was still standing there. In that moment he understood what all the solemn secrecy was for. He didn't comprehend what he was looking at, but he understood that she was not of this world. She was still beautiful, but now he was truly frightened.
     "Oh my god, I'm . . . please forgive me . . ." He stammered.
     "Shhhhh. It's your turn." She took another step closer.
     "Huh?"
     "Initiations are done sky-clad. You do realize this is an initiation."
     "What?"
     "That means naked."
     "But it's freezing!"
     "I'm pleased that's your only reservation. Now start stripping."
     "I'll catch a cold, I'll-"
     His rambling was severed by a sharp gleaming blade, off of which a glint of reflected moonlight caught his eye. She was holding a stubby malformed dagger of some sort, which she had doubtless at some point produced from her purse. She held it in front of her face pointing skywards with both hands clasped around the handle. It was too dark to see her eyes, but the blade was her expression. With water streaming over it in diverging, converging rivulets, animating the phantasmagoric shapes of dimly majestic refracted light crawling along its amorphous but smooth, shiny surface, it compounded the solemnity, the solid determination, the venomous allure and the sheer beauty of her persona, sorceress, psychopath, enigma that she was.
     What the hell is that, he wanted to ask, but his ability to speak (or react with anything but silent, reverent awe and terror) was lopped off by the mere presence of the implement held in her hands. At first sight he told himself it must have been forged out of iron, although he knew that wasn't true. Even in the dark he recognized what the material unmistakably was. It was pure Lumac. He glanced behind him at the ghost of a crescent moon. That meant it was solid, more so than any element, any rock, any mountain in the world. He looked back at the blade with horrified fascination.
     "Go on," she whispered.
     He went ahead and stripped off all his clothes. She was advancing slowly toward him. No, she wasn't moving, it was the blade; she was handing it to him, and she was doing so ceremoniously. He put out his hand. The touch of the leather-bound handle was enough to send shivers down his spine. He held it just as she had held it. He stood there holding the Lumac sword for what felt like a long time. He marveled at how instantaneously this encounter had transitioned from absurdity to ritual.
     "Raise it up above your head."
     He shook with apprehension.
     "You have been fortuitously selected to inherit the divine powers of the universe, powers granted to mythic heroes of forgotten epochs, echoed in the lore of our contemporary mythology, powers visible today only to those keen observers who looked at the sky and saw beyond the spectacle, saw its implications."
     He raised the implement above his head.
     "Are you prepared to accept this honor, and to take on the responsibilities it entails?"
     "May I ask a question?"
     "You may."
     "What did you mean by our contemporary mythology?"
     "If I said it any more bluntly than that I'd be trivializing this process. But I will give you a hint; two words."
     "I thought so."
     "What you're about to experience will be very painful, so painful that you will be . . . disoriented for several days thereafter. Worry not, for you're in good hands."
     "What are you gonna do to me?"
     "Nothing. This is your rite of passage. You will repeat after me, and then you will thrust the sacred sword into your flesh, and when you do, the energy you raise will draw down electricity from the heavens. At the precise moment of contact, lightning will strike the sword. Make sure to keep your eyes open. For a split second before you go into shock you'll see a blinding light, and it will be a split second you will never forget."
     "You want me to stab myself? Where?"
     "That's a personal decision. It's best not to plan. Try not to think about that as you're doing it. Let the sword plant itself where it may."
     "I'm ready." His hands were shaking violently, his wet naked body was shivering from the cold, and he was ready.
     "Repeat after me-"
     "No, I'm ready now!"
     With a savage grunt he forcefully brought it down and plunged it into his thigh. The last thing his senses perceived before he was enveloped by bright light (it was the exact opposite of blacking out) was an explosion. It was actually three simultaneous explosions, although in his last instant of consciousness, it all blended perfectly into one cataclysmic burst of violence comprised of the pain, the sound of close up thunder and the blinding light.
And then there was only the bright light.



Chapter 7: A Warm Welcome



     The glare from the lightning bolt was still fading from his eyes when he found himself sitting on a couch in an empty room, dressed in a bathrobe. Except for the throbbing pain in his leg he felt normal. In front of him was a window looking out on the woods. It was daylight - mid afternoon by the looks of things - and the storm was over. A moment ago he had been standing naked in the pouring rain atop a water tower, and now it was a sunny day, he was in an unfamiliar room and he was no longer shivering. Aside from that ascertainment he felt normal; he was not intoxicated, there was no profound dizziness, no lapse in his memory, just a pain in his thigh. The flash had been not just a visual whiteout but a visceral one. Just as a movie could transition smoothly from one scene to another through a fadeout, he found himself in a different time and place and a different physical humor without the cognizance of any amount of time having passed. The shock of bright light had enveloped all his senses, and when it faded he was in this strange room. He remembered what had happened on the water tower not in the way one would recall events from a dream they had just been jerked away from, and not as a memory from the previous day; he remembered it as though it had happened a few seconds ago. He was grateful for the agonizing pain in his thigh, for it was the only thing obstructing the overwhelming flow of questions banging, seething at the wall of his conscious thoughts. How had he gotten here? Where was Marlena? Had he actually been struck by lightning?
     Ignoring the myriad questions that he would at some later time have to ponder, he turned his attention toward the wound. The sacred blade was obviously not still in him. He pulled up the robe slowly and apprehensively to have a look. What he saw gave him chills. There was a bandage, just like the one Marlena wore. He hastily threw the robe back over it. A part of him was compelled to look under the bandage, but the image of Marlena when she had revealed herself brought out a cowardly impulse in him that was overpowering. He turned his attention to the room.
     It was a plain drab living room, not particularly spacious yet not particularly cramped, not particularly tidy yet not particularly cluttered, devoid of any character. Although the room had no features which stood out as dead giveaways as to who it belonged to, there was no doubt in his mind that this was Marlena's dwelling place, and there was no reason to contend that assumption.
     On the couch beside him he found his backpack and a change of clothes. He got dressed and sat back down on the couch.
     Something began to feel not quite normal. It wasn't him; it was something about his surroundings. There was an unnatural silence about the place. It was as if it weren't a house at all, but a movie set constructed to deceive him into thinking he had been taken to a house. He turned his attention to the window.
     When he leaned to one side, the trees' position shifted relative to the sky in the background, as they should have. There was nothing fake about the view. The woods were real and not some Hollywood backdrop. It looked slightly darker now, as though a cloud was passing over, but something told him that wasn't the case. It didn't look like early afternoon anymore. It looked like dusk was approaching. That's impossible, he thought, just a minute ago it-
     Suddenly he understood what the feeling had been. It wasn't just the silence that was preternatural, and it wasn't just his mind overcompensating for the confusion of waking up in a strange place, it was something very real, something that could only be realized after looking at the same spot meditatively for some time. There was motion. There was no wind, there were no animals outside, nothing was moving physically, yet there was a sensation of motion inherent in everything he saw, inside and outside the room. He continued to concentrate on the view. Something was changing. The dark silhouettes of tall trees now bordered a dark blue sky. Just a minute ago the sky had been so bright it almost hurt to look at it, and now it was clearly evening. He watched until there was no light left in the sky, and the room was pitch black. But still, the feeling of motion was present. Another handful of minutes went by and there it was, the unmistakable reddish hue of emerging dawn.
     He watched the sun rise. He saw it rise up like a submerged beach-ball floating to the water's surface as light filled the sky like theater lights cued to come on gradually after the show. In his astonishment, he neglected to shield his eyes. When he realized that he was staring right into the sun, he reflexively shut his eyes and waited for the bright yellow residue to fade from his vision. When he opened them it was afternoon again. Now he was even more aware of that feeling of motion since he knew what it was.
     He stood up and walked slowly to the window, leaned against the windowsill and watched in disbelief. He stood there for nearly half an hour as the Earth underwent three rotations. While the cycle repeated itself before his very eyes, he thought analytically. One of two things was happening, assuming, that was, that the illusion wasn't created on some high-tech movie screen as part of some elaborate joke (or elaborate experiment), and that this wasn't a dream; either the planet was spinning rapidly due to an effect of the black hole phenomenon, or the world was the same and his perception of time had been altered. The latter seemed more plausible. If there were a clock in front of him he would see the hour hand moving at a rate comparable to the second hand under normal conditions, and the minute hand would be moving so fast it would be invisible, like the blade of a fan. That meant that while it felt like he had been in the room for around thirty minutes, he had in actuality been standing there for three days straight.
     That explained the solitude. People could have been passing through the room frequently and he wouldn't have detected their presence. Only if someone sat in the same spot for hours would he see them, but even then they'd be a blur, which would only have served to confuse and frighten him. He tried to imagine what that would look like. A much more unsettling thought was, how would he appear to them, as a non-blinking, non-breathing statue of a human? Whoever happened to pass through the room must have thought he was catatonic. But then again, this was surely a controlled environment that Marlena had brought him to, and anybody who was in the room probably understood what he was going through far better than he did. Marlena must have been in the room with him frequently. It gave him the creeps to think that at any given moment she could have been staring at him or even touching him . . . She was definitely there, watching him. He felt her presence like an ominous unseen eye lurking behind a metaphysical peephole.
     His thoughts then turned to abstract musings. If people could carry on in his midst (or so he speculated) and completely elude his awareness, then perhaps there existed an entire world of sentient beings living on a timescale astronomically smaller than that of humans. These theorized beings would regard humans as humans regard trees, as solid, inanimate organisms that were not to be interfered with. Or maybe they did interfere with the world of men, thus accounting for certain unexplained phenomena. That also brought on the question what if trees and other plant life did have consciousness and were unaware of our fleeting existence? Humans certainly interfered with their world, which meant that they must regard all the devastation as mysterious forces of nature. Moreover, if these putative beings did exist, it would be impossible to observe them, much less make contact with them. They would regard humans as plants, but would they know to associate them with human creations? Buildings, cars and so forth would be seen as wonders of nature that evolved over eons.
     This proposition was problematic. All animals' biological clocks were attuned to cosmic forces, namely the Earth's gravity. For instance, when one jumped off a diving board, gravity allowed a fixed amount of time to pass before they hit the water, regardless of their size, shape or biological makeup. How could any species experience the passing of time at a different rate than another species? The laws of physics simply wouldn't allow it. This was, however, assuming that the species' body was composed of matter. If a body had no mass, then it wouldn't be affected by gravity, but rather by the other three primary forces. Perhaps the theoretical beings had a bodily composition of a nature entirely different from yet just as complex as that of humans; rather than molecules and cells, their anatomical structure was based upon photons and electromagnetic waves.
     These conscious entities, composed of light rather than matter, would interact with sunlight and electric fields just as humans and animals interact with the physical world. Their monuments would be built out of light and electricity. They would regard our skyscrapers and airplanes as natural formations without questioning them, and if they tried to conceive of a consciousness behind the creation of those things, they'd call it God. Perhaps we see their work every day and have similar attitudes towards it, he thought. One could only imagine what in our experience they're responsible for.
     After seeing the sun go down for the third time, he couldn't bear to stand there and ponder these things any longer. He had to leave the room and explore this world. There was a door a little ways down a hallway, on the opposite side of the room as the window. It looked to be the entrance to the house. He went to it, slowly opened it and walked outside. There was a small front yard and a road. It was a small rural road. He walked towards it.
     "Harmon!"
     He turned around. Marlena ran out of the house and urgently approached him.
     "You weren't supposed to leave the room."
     "What? How are you here? How is this happening? This doesn't make sense!"
     "Your body is releasing chemicals which shouldn't even exist in this world. When the lightning struck, the shock to your body reset its clock in this slow mode. Don't try to make too much sense of it."
     "Were you in the house this whole time?"
     "Not exactly. I saw you making a bold move so I slowed myself down in order to converse with you. I'm not supposed to be here."
     "And I am?"
     "I think it's safe to say we're alone, so we can speak candidly." She stroked his face. "Want to make love to me right here on the grass? People walking by can marvel at the sight of a living statue of two lovers locked in an inexorable embrace."
     "You're teasing me."
     "Look, I came to make sure you didn't do anything stupid."
     "Nobody told me I wasn't supposed to leave-"
     "Fear naturally holds one captive in a bizarre situation - either fear or intelligence. That's expected."
     "So I'm the exception?"
     "You're not acting very bright right now."
     "I was curious."
     "I guess I can't stop you, but-"
     "Can't stop me? If you can make me climb up a metal tower in a thunderstorm, and then talk me into stabbing myself, I question whether there's anything you can't make me do."
     "Well then, heed my warning; whatever you do, do not cross the street."
     "Why not?"
     "Think about that, Harmon." She lowered her eyes patronizingly. "Every split second hundreds of cars pass by. You can't see them, but they're there. A day goes by in, what, five minutes? Twenty four hours times twelve, that's two eighty eight, multiply that factor by speed, a car going by at thirty miles per hour would be traveling at . . . eight thousand, six hundred and forty miles per hour relative to us. We wouldn't see them coming."
     "But wouldn't they see us if we're moving so slowly?"
     "There's still a chance you'll get hit."
     "Yeah, and when you're on top of a giant piece of metal in a lightning storm there's a chance that's dangerous."
     "The probability of a car hitting you is maybe one in two hundred, but in the time it takes you to cross the street well over two hundred cars will have passed. Think about that."
     "Aren't I invincible or something now that I've become one of you?"
     "First of all, there's no such thing as invincibility, and second of all, you're not one of us. You've taken the first step and I congratulate you for that, but-"
     "Okay, I stand corrected."
     "Do you promise you won't cross the street or wander too far?"
     He said nothing.
     "Repeat after me. I, will, not, endanger, myself. I, will, do, as, told."
     "I'm. Taking. A walk, whether you like it or not." He started walking defiantly and she blocked him aggressively.
     "Don't you get it? Even if you don't get hit - which is enough of a risk in itself - people will start to take notice. Imagine if you were driving and you saw someone standing in the middle of the road, just standing there perfectly still in mid stride, not responding to anything. Someone will call the police, and then things will get complicated. That's why you don't leave the room. Imagine if you were out in public and didn't know it. At any instant a crowd could have gathered around you. First they'd think you were playing a joke, like one of those street performers in gray face paint pretending to be robots, but eventually some concerned citizen will call for paramedics, and [eventually] consists of a matter of seconds. When medics start to notice you, that's when the shit hits the fan. You don't want to find yourself in a . . . just trust me."
     "Why are you being so protective?"

     "When I first went through what you're going through, I didn't have the safety of a secluded room, and I didn't have a mentor to guide me through the process. Let's just say I learned the hard way."
     "Why didn't you just leave me a note saying 'stay put' when you saw that I was going for the door?"
     "Because I know you. You would have thought about it and then done the opposite."
     "Wouldn't anybody?"
     "Then what's your point?"
     "Do you still want to make love?"
     She laughed. "I'll have to take a rain check. I got to get back to real time. If you decide to be rebellious and make for the road, don't be surprised when you suddenly find yourself back on the couch with a headache. The next time you misbehave, I won't come here and reason with you, I'll just pick you up and relocate you."
     "Why the headache?"
     "Because I'll have smacked you in the noggin, wise guy." She kissed him on the cheek.
     "I don't understand."
     "You don't understand what?" She glanced around impatiently.
     "Everything. I mean . . ."
     How could he walk? In the instant before he put one foot down in front of him, wouldn't real-time gravity cause him to topple over? That was a question for Mr. Nolte. But then, what about respiration and other bodily functions? How fast was his heart pumping blood to his extremities? He hadn't had to use the bathroom too urgently and he hadn't gotten intensely hungry. His entire body had slowed down, not just his mind and perception. How was that possible? The theoretical nonmaterial life forms of his musings (which may not have been very different from what people commonly referred to as ghosts or apparitions) were one thing, but this-
     "What?"
     It was a conundrum, one Mr. Nolte probably wouldn't have an answer to. It was a question for Marlena, although he already knew what her answer, or lack thereof, would be; Lumac had now been properly integrated into the very fabric of his physiology, which meant that his body was no longer entirely subject to any known laws of physics or biology, and a more scientific explanation than that was not yet available to mankind. They were the first people in modern times to experiment with it.
     "Nothing. Go if you need to go. I'll be okay."
     She threw her arms around him and kissed him. He closed his eyes and when he opened them again, she was gone.
     It was happening faster now. Clouds raced across a darkening sky. His heart raced to keep up with it. His eyes darted around from the sky to the road to the woods to the house to the ineffable stillness and emptiness of this sterile world where invisible monsters stirred just beyond the brink of perception, to the ground where even there he could see the light changing. A terrible thought was held at bay by impending panic; what if he was stuck here all alone? There was no denying that days were going by faster now. The wheel of time was accelerating like it was rolling down a hill in the fifth dimension. Although he didn't have a watch - and one wouldn't be much use to him if he did - he swore that the rate had doubled since he had left the couch. There was a mere instant of pitch black, and then his shadow extended across the grass and he could see its angle change as the sun came out. His eyes never had to adjust to the light, but his skin itched with the rapid change of temperature. It reached a climax and then faded again, and less than three minutes later it was once more pitch black.
     Time was burying him alive and he was powerless to stop it. He watched the morning arise through a film of tears and collapsed to his knees trying desperately to confine his focus to the grass, then in a paroxysm of panic threw his head back, stared into the fleeting sun and screamed at the top of his lungs "HEEEEELP MEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!"
     He fell to his back, and lay stretched out on the ground catching his breath. As he watched the sky dance in this mesmerizing theatre of accelerated life, he wondered what his scream must have sounded like to those around, and laughed. He wondered what a slow motion laugh would sound like and laughed harder. As funny as it was, just lying there wasn't going to cure the situation. He was going to have to do something, and he was going to have to put his mind to it.
     Maybe if I knock myself out, I'll wake up in real time, he thought. I'll go inside, find a frying pan in the kitchen . . . No, that was a stupid idea. She - or they - would stop him for sure. The frying pan would vanish from his hand in mid swing. Or better yet, he would instantaneously find himself tied to a chair. He would have to choose a wiser course of action.
     He got up and went inside the house. After rummaging around in a frantic but controlled manner he found a neon blue highlighter. He wrote on a wall in huge words that could not possibly be missed. His message read, HOW DO I MAKE IT STOP? He stepped back to read it, and as he turned sideways to walk out of the room, something caught his eye on the wall opposite it. He turned around and to his astonishment there was a word written on the wall with a red marker. The word was RELAX.
     "That's great," he said out loud, "How am I supposed to relax?" The answer came to him just as he asked it, as if it were telepathically planted in his mind by some force of magic. At this point, he wouldn't put that beyond her.
     There was only one way he knew of to really relax, one activity that never failed to take his mind off even the most vexing imbroglio, the most enraging circumstances if only for a short time, and he was going to do it without a moment's hesitation. He jogged outside and immediately, without any warm up, started doing lunges back and forth across the yard until his legs refused to move. The pain in his thigh was explosive each time he bent down, but he kept going. He sprinted to the other side and back again. He performed a series of relays including crabwalks, G. I. Joe-crawls and cartwheels and ending in more sprints. He then dropped to the ground and did some one-handed pushups, then stood up and did some squat-thrusts, breaking into a jog on the final one.
     He jogged around the perimeter of the house and spotted a tree with an ideal branch for pull-ups. He jumped up and grabbed hold of the highest branch he could reach, climbed up to the desired branch and lost himself in pull-ups and chin-ups. When he could no longer pull himself up he swung his legs up over the branch, crossed his ankles, let go with his hands and hung there upside down. He had intended only to catch his breath, but the blood rushing to his head gave him a voracious impulse to do vertical crunches. He clasped his hands over his stomach as he did them, taking in the splendor of his rock hard abdominal muscles contracting. In the silence he could hear the pounding bass and screeching guitar riffs of rock and roll music. Agitated by the adrenalin - and God only knew what else - pumping through his veins, he joined his hands behind his head and broke into sit-ups, bringing his elbows up to his knees and growling with the vitality of a warrior. This was bliss.
     Only exertion could bring relaxation. He knew this and Marlena knew this. Dave Powell knew this. Brock had failed to understand it, but everyone that mattered at the moment would have related. In the silence he heard the roar of a crowd cheering him on. That, however, wasn't his imagination. There were intoxicated voices howling and cheering his name.
     He looked down. First it looked like a blur of indiscernible colors, an incandescent shadow like an impressionistic brushstroke imposed over his field of vision, a brushstroke set into rapid evolution, a shapeless haze which coalesced into human beings before his very eyes. Marlena was there and her friends from the gym were all there standing on the ground below him, clapping and shouting his name as if he had just scored a touchdown.
     He looked up. The sky looked stable. The clouds were calm and that feeling of motion was no longer there. It was mid-afternoon and it clearly intended to stay that way. He had done it. He grabbed the branch with his hands, slowly lowered his legs and jumped down. His shoulders brushed that of two of the guys as he landed. They all patted him on the back and shook hands with him. So this is what a hero's welcome feels like.
     "Welcome to our society." Marlena hugged him.
     "Society?"
     "What, can't a society consist of five people? Come on in. We've got sandwiches."
     The tall one with the shaved head and plethora of tattoos was nicknamed Munk. The one with the mo-hawk and pierced eyebrow was Brendon. Then there was Tommy and T.J. Tommy had long disheveled blonde hair and looked like a rock-guitarist escaped from an 80's heavy-metal band. And then T.J. Although he was the least physically distinctive of the four, his demeanor was the most unsettling. There was a certain quiet fierceness about him, as though trapped in his body was a savage beast isolated only by a thin layer of skin, pounding to get out, a predatory snarl lurking just beneath his civilized, nondescript expression.
     After formal introductions were made, Harmon posed the question; "What are you, like, some crazy underground cult?"
     "We're, like, a brotherhood. A Lumac brotherhood, as tacky as that sounds," Marlena responded.
     "I assume you're the leader?"
     The four guys nodded their assent and Marlena went on with explanations.
     "I'd like to say we're everywhere. I'd like to say that we have lesions all over the world operating in secrecy, hiding from the government, experimenting just like we are, but I can't say that. As far as I know, we stand alone. We all grew up reading Photon-Man. What we have in common is we all read into it more than we were supposed to, and we believed in it. As teenagers, we gradually found each other, just as I found you. We're not afraid to admit that we think the story of Photon-Man is not entirely fictitious. While there may not have actually been a classified experiment resulting in mass transference, we believe that the author knew something, and the comic book was his way of expressing his insights to the world, to those with the sensibility and the ambition to recognize it. I developed The Powers at an early age, and I taught them to my friends here. They've all been through the same initiation and they have the scars to prove it just as you do. With that, we welcome you."
     "We welcome you," they repeated in unison in exaggerated cult-like voices and then laughed. Harmon laughed with them.
     "This is a very significant time for us," Marlena continued, ignoring the interlude. "Anybody who's looked at the night sky this past month has the gut feeling that there's something special and unique happening, something of mythic proportions. Although none of our beliefs are grounded in any substantial researched scientific or historical body of facts, there is no question in our minds. My personal belief is that every few thousand years our solar system moves through some kind of cosmic energy field that affects life on the planet, enabling magic to take over our lives, and that the world's treasured mythology and occult legends all come from such periods, and that, quite frankly, we're entering the next one. I strongly believe that Lumac has a lot to do with these cosmic energy fields. Let me emphasize that there's no doctrine. This can be a forum for philosophical discussion, but it doesn't have to be. We're not a cult. What are we, you may ask? We're hard to define, but with our powers, we are one fucking force to reckon with." The four boys banged their fists on the table and hollered spiritedly. Harmon felt at home.
     "So, what exactly do you guys do?" Harmon stammered in a conscientious effort not to sound disrespectful or condescending while at the same time struggling to make sense of it all for himself. "I mean, what do you do, bend spoons? Levitate? Astral project?"
     "Yes," said Munk. Everyone laughed.
     "Do you . . . have some sort of cause?"
     "To push the limits of human potential?" Marlena suggested. "We have no political agenda if that's what you mean. I'm afraid this line of questioning will lead only to disappointment. You're asking the wrong-"
     "I've got one more; when do I get to hear all your stories?"
     Marlena sighed. "So eager to know the paths that converged to this meeting, this bond we share . . . we thought you'd be begging for a demonstration right about now."
     "I-"
     "I was in prison," T.J. broke in. "You want to know my story? There you have it, I was in the slammer and I busted out. I was on the run and I met up with these guys. They said they'd heard about me on the news. They were real curious about the details of my escape, as the news story was vague on that point. This made me nervous, since I didn't know what their intentions were at the time. Maybe there was a bounty or some shit, for all I knew. But I figured, what the hell, I needed someone to talk to real bad, and besides, supposing they did turn on me, what was the worst that could happen, right? So I told them everything. Unloading right then and there was probably the best decision I ever made."
     "How'd you do it? How did you manage to break out of jail?"
     "That's complicated."
     "At least tell me what you were in for."
     "Assault and battery." He grinned as if recollecting some pleasant, innocent childhood memory.
     "I guess I'll go next," said Tommy, "in keeping with reverse chronological order. Munk and Brendon came first, then me, and then T.J., to fill you in."
     "I thought this was started by Marlena."
     "When I say first, I mean the first to meet Marlena. She's the alpha member, as you've probably gathered. Our former lives - the stories you're hearing now - were simply processes, journeys by which we all unknowingly, unconsciously gravitated towards her by way of a psychic undercurrent that operates beneath the skin of the collective human experience, as I like to believe. Call it synchronicity, call it destiny, call it what you will - you can call me a wacko, I'm fine with that - but call it anything but coincidence that we're all gathered here. I say this not to impose my theories, nor to exalt in the special nature of what we have going here; I bring it up only because it makes a perfect segue into my life story, which I'll make brief.
     "I'm a psychic. I might as well be up front; I was a child prodigy. At the age of ten I was giving psychic readings on national television. Normally when the media purports a sensationalized sorcerer or prophet, rumors of him being a fraud will circulate just as sensationally, but for some reason nobody doubted me. I had undisputed natural talents. My parents recognized my abilities, but they didn't encourage them. They said it was blasphemous, and vehemently forbade any displays of 'magic'. Consequently, what I was repressing at home I made up for at school. You could say I acted out. At first I was shy and secretive about it, but by the third grade I took every opportunity to show off and dazzle my friends, mess with their preconceived notions of reality. As rumors spread and my popularity base grew, it soon got out of control. Kids I didn't even know were constantly begging me for readings, anything. Everywhere I went it was always Tommy, what am I thinking right now? Tommy, how many fingers do I have behind my back? Tommy, can you do this? Tommy, Tommy . . . What was I gonna say, I can't, I'll get grounded? Sometimes I'd telekinetically cause a bookshelf to topple over in the middle of class, and everyone would erupt in laughter. The teachers weren't stupid, they knew, but they were pretty freaked out, and they dealt with it awkwardly. Every kid fantasizes about controlling things, but deep down we all have a need for authority and strict guidelines. When your authority-figures are flat-out afraid of you, you lack a certain something in your childhood development, something irreplaceable. So, surfeit with attention, I drifted through my adolescence as a quasi-celebrity, and it wasn't until the age of thirteen that I got kicked out of the house.
     "For a while I traveled with a carnival. My show was a big hit. From there I got picked up by a research team at a university and took part in exhausting ESP experiments. Finally I got tired of it, so I went home and reconciled with my parents, basically promising that I would stop exercising my . . . distinctive abilities. This was not an easy resolution, I found; I had heretofore always been associated with my extra-sensory adeptness, and when I was forced to renounce that, I suddenly found that I had no identity. I became quiet and withdrawn, voluntarily relegating myself to social and academic obscurity. I sank into a deep depression. Nevertheless I made good on that promise for a couple of years, with the exception of an occasional innocent fidgeting with objects in the house, making things float around and change places when nobody was looking. Until I got to high school, that was. There I made the inevitable discovery that I could use my abilities for personal gain. After one particularly catastrophic incident that I won't go into - catastrophic on many levels, to the point where I subsequently stayed up all night crying - I learned my lesson, and I vowed to myself that I would never mess with telekinesis again. I decided that my parents had been right all along when they told me it was sinful and all that dogmatic bullshit, and that I should have listened to them. So I abstained. I abstained for a very long time.
     "After high school, tension arose around matters that were unrelated, and I left town. I met Marlena along with Munk and Brendon under casual circumstances one night, and after a couple beers I found myself performing my repertoire of 'tricks'. I was astonished and unnerved that they had so nonchalantly brought it out in me; I hadn't lifted a single coin from across a room or made a single clairvoyant insight in over three years, and here I was jumping through hoops without any thoughts or hesitations. But even in this sudden flash of self-awareness I didn't feel any guilt or trepidation. It had just naturally come about in this carefree social atmosphere I'd wandered into, and it didn't feel wrong. It felt right. For the first time in my life I was performing for people who had no intention of exploiting me. They taught me to embrace my gift, which I had at first marketed, then abused, and finally forsaken. They liberated me in a way nobody had ever done before. And then they made me whole."
     A heavy silence hung on his last word, and then Munk broke it.
     "Awww, it's a Kodac moment." Munk's attempt at levity afforded him a jab in the sternum but no chuckles. "I guess it would be my turn."
     "Now hold on," said Brendon, "who elected you to tell the story by default? Shouldn't we flip a coin for it? It's our story."
     "I just think that I have better oratory skills than you do." Munk shrugged comically.
     "Maybe we should let the initiate decide."
     Harmon laughed. "You'll both be interjecting each other either way, so you might as well tell it together."
     "I like this guy," Munk said as an aside.
     "We used to make these long treks through the desert, collecting Lumac deposits and hauling them in jars stacked up in the back of our jeep," Brendon began. "We'd travel for months on end, spelunking caves, digging through sand, any way we could get it."
     Munk nodded in agreement. "This one day we were high on mushrooms-"
     "No, you were high on mushrooms."
     "Right, so anyway, I was lying in the sun, I was all wiped out, and I had this vision like I was flying through the cosmos, like some spiritual . . . I don't know. That's when I got to thinking about why we kept doing this, hunting for Lumac. I started getting all philosophical."
     "The desert will do that to you," said Brendon.
     "This other time, we found something in the Lumac; a scorpion was preserved in this block of it, like one of those mosquitoes from Jurassic Park, you know? This is true. Of course we didn't know it until the following full moon when it had melted-"
     "Lumac doesn't melt, numb-nuts. Melting implies decomposition due to heating. There are no molecular bonds to decompose because Lumac doesn't have molecules, Lumac just is."
     "Nobody requested a lecture on Lumac cycles," said Tommy. "We use terms like 'melt' and 'liquefy' only as analogies to substances that we do understand. I think that's understood, at least by everyone in this room. I mean, how else would we talk about it?"
     "Good point," said Brendon. "Lumac dynamics is in need of - and certainly deserves - its own body of terminology, at least among us, which is something I've been meaning to bring up."
     "Which is something he'll bring up at an appropriate time," said Munk. "So anyway, I was rummaging around the back of the jeep when I noticed that one of the jars was shaking. I picked it up and examined it, and I saw the little critter thrashing around in there. The damned thing was still alive! I brought it to Brendon's attention and we did the most sensible thing; we cautiously unscrewed the lid to let it out, and lo and behold the fucker jumped up eight feet in the air, flew and attacked us! It bit me, and that's when I developed my superpowers. Just kidding. So we let it out of the jar, it scurried away into the sand and we never saw it again. The point is it was still alive after being frozen in a block of Lumac for several weeks."
     "Why were you looking for Lumac in the first place?" Harmon inquired.
     "We used to make sculptures out of it," Brendon explained. "After these harvesting expeditions, we'd take it home to the shop - crossing borders was hell sometimes - and go to work on it. We had these molds. We'd wait for a full moon, pour the Lumac in, let it harden, then take it out and encase it in clear plastic to preserve its shape. It was almost like mass production. We'd make these little figurines about the size of my hand - unicorns, elves, that sort of thing - and sell them for fifty dollars apiece."
     "We had our little vendor's booth set up at this like real touristy beach," Munk continued. "That's where Marlena comes in. She was jogging by and she must have noticed the poster that said REAL LUMAC, because the way she stopped, it was like she suddenly ran into an invisible brick wall. I'll never forget it. It looked kind of like this." Munk did an exaggerated impression, jogging across the room and then stopping short, skidding clumsily, his head snapping around with a cartoonish wide-eyed look. Everybody laughed hysterically, including Marlena. "We were rolling over laughing, but she didn't even notice, she was so fascinated with our sculptures. She kept asking us, are these real? Is this logit? I'm all, you think we'd have the audacity to be out here selling counterfeit Lumac? Trust me, it's real. Of course, Lumac fraud wasn't uncommon around that area, as I later learned. I'm thinking, if she only knew what we went through to get that stuff! She says, prove it. So I looked her straight in the eye and said, what do you know about Lumac? We had something of a staring contest - looking back on it I think she bewitched me or something - and then she pulled out her wallet and handed me fifty dollars. Now tell me the truth, she said, are you for real? I nodded sincerely. Give me your hand, she says. She wrote her phone number on my arm and said call me tonight, I have a proposition for you."
     "Dude, you're telling it all wrong," interrupted Brendon. "First of all, she gave her number to me, second of all, it didn't happen that quickly. She came back the next day, we started hanging out, she got to know us a little before making the proposition."
     "I altered those details on purpose for dramatic effect, numb-nuts. Anyway, so we met with her privately. She came dressed to kill, walked up to us silently and handed us a piece of paper. At first we were baffled by it, then she explained what it was. It was the specs for the sacred sword. I'm like, let me get this straight; you want to commission us to make this piece? How much are you offering? She shakes her head and says, not for money. I'm like, you want us to do it for free? And then she says, I'll make it worth your while." Munk said it with a provocative wink and everybody cracked up.
     Marlena jabbed him in the shoulder. "I didn't say it like that."
     "Anyway, you get the idea. We started talking about Photon-Man, she enticed us, we were both curious, and besides, we live for adventure. So we did it, and lived happily ever after. Now you're probably wondering, what did the mushroom binge or the scorpion have to do with anything? Nothing. I like to digress, which is why you would have been better off having Brendon tell the story." He patted Brendon on the back.
     Everyone turned their eyes to Harmon.
     "We've spilled our guts, now it's your turn," said Brendon.
     Harmon looked expectantly at Marlena, feeling cheated. She was sitting attentively with her arms crossed.
     "What don't you know?"
     "Hobbies, occupation, sexual orientation, whatever's relevant," said Munk.
     "I assume it goes without saying that we're all into Photon-Man and we've all messed around with Lumac in one form or another, am I right?"
     "In your case, I'd say that's relevant," said Marlena.
     "Well, y'know, I was always fascinated with the history of it, in particular the part about those farmers who cultivated it and grew mysteriously 'ill.' So I grew some of my own. I used it to help with my lifting. To make a gigantic understatement, it worked. I notice that your stories all seem to be centered around feelings of isolation. Well, so is mine. I was a nerd. I didn't get along with my peers. I took up weightlifting and got all big and buff, so they left me alone for a while, but nothing really changed. Then things got bad. And then things got really bad, so I left. I left, and here I am."
     "Group hug?" Munk offered after a prolonged awkward silence, and got some laughs.



Chapter 8: Causing Trouble



     "Has she arm-wrestled you yet?" T.J. asked when Marlena had left the house to go about some errands.
     "Why, does she do that to every guy she meets?"
     "No, just the ones she likes. She says it predetermines the whole relationship or some crap . . . something her mother taught her." He made a dismissive gesture.
     "Oh, we're not-"
     "You don't have to lie to us. You should remember, when you're in slow mode, there's always someone watching."
     "What's the matter, you jealous?" said Munk and clapped him on the shoulder. T. J. wasn't laughing. He was looking at Harmon the same way he had the first time they saw him at the gym.
     "I just think it's inappropriate for her to be fraternizing with an initiate. I mean, come on, they kissed right out there in slow mode where we could see them!"
     "Would you rather they had a secret affair behind our backs?" Tommy put in.
     "I'm . . ." Harmon stammered nervously. "I didn't mean to come between . . . I have the utmost respect for all of you, and-"
     T.J. mimicked him obnoxiously.
     "And I apologize if I've overstepped my ground."
     "T.J.'s just upset he didn't get any during his induction," Munk taunted.
     "Like you guys did?" T.J. retorted.
     "Wait, I think Teej has a valid point," said Brendon. "Once you get past his selfishness, he's right. We may not be a gang, or a fraternity, or a team, or a coven, but we are a family, and we should remember our roles. Although she's our age and it's perfectly natural that some of us may be sexually attracted to her, she is a mother figure to us, and that includes Harmon. It's not his fault, but it is a problem that needs to be dealt with. Many things can threaten the integrity of a family unit; lies, bad communication, addiction, incest . . . A romantic relationship, whether it be with Harmon or with any one of us, is something none of us would be comfortable with. It is inappropriate, and it should be addressed as soon as possible. When she comes back, we need to all have a talk."
     "No, I think we can settle this without her," said T.J. and thrust the table forward into Harmon who was seated across from him, knocking the wind out of him. He got up and walked around the table with his fists raised. The other three held him back. Harmon stood up and faced him.
     "You're just a big bully, aren't you?" He was angry now. T.J. had sparked something in him, a reference to something from his past he couldn't tangibly remember, but the uncontrollable rage it elicited was still fresh. He stood up.
     "You're gonna die." T.J. scowled and grinned at the same time with eyes wide. It was the most frightening facial expression Harmon had ever seen.
     The other three valiantly stood between them, Munk and Brendon holding back T.J. and Tommy restraining Harmon from behind. They stepped in immediately, although they seemed to do so more out of a habit of social etiquette than an actual desire to break up the fight. Nevertheless, Tommy's hold on him was not very effective. In one smooth motion, Harmon hunched down, grabbed Tommy's elbow and threw him over his shoulder as he had learned to do in Judo class years ago. The very moment Tommy hit the floor, Harmon leaped over him and charged for T.J. who had just broken free from Munk and Brendon and was attacking as well. Harmon had a longer head start and he was bigger than T.J., and he used that excess momentum to tackle T.J. to the floor, but when they struck the floor together, something happened. For an instant Harmon felt something akin to an electric shock, and in the next instant T.J. had him in a choke hold.
     "You think you can just waltz in here and get the girl, is that it? You think you're tough?"
     "Take it easy, Teej," said Brendon, "We can work this out."
     "Just let him go, T.J. Think about what you're doing."
     Suddenly Harmon was terrified; what did he mean Think about what you're doing? Was T.J. about to use supernatural powers to do something awful to him? Panic-stricken, he impetuously flexed his shoulders and neck muscles in an explosive bulge that loosened T.J.'s grip just enough for him to duck his chin under T.J.'s forearm. Without a moment's delay, he reached behind him over his head and punched T.J. in the face. T.J.'s startled reaction allowed him to shake free from the hold, turn around and face him. The two of them scrambled to their feet and traded punches furiously until the other three managed to separate them.
     T.J. left the room, slamming the door behind him. Harmon sat down in a chair and caught his breath, surveying his bruises. Silence pervaded the room.
     "You're not gonna tell Marlena about this, are you?"
     The three of them burst out laughing.
     "What's so funny?"
     Tommy patted him on the back. "Marlena is more intuitive than I am. We don't have to tell her anything."
     "You mean she'll like sense a disharmony among us?"
     "The room reeks of tension right now. If we had a farting contest, the lingering odor would be less conspicuous."
     "What will she say?"
     "I don't-"
     Everyone froze. Marlena was standing in the doorway. She crossed her arms and walked slowly through the room. Her demeanor was not one of accusation, nor of confusion, and nor of anger. It was a look of total control with perhaps a hint of all those three hovering in the air just in front of her as she strolled through the living room, making her way towards Harmon. She might as well have held a gun in her hand. They all sat rigid in their chairs, nervous and stiff like delinquent schoolchildren in the principal's office awaiting their sentence. She walked right up to Harmon and looked into his eyes. He didn't flinch, but sunk into himself, prepared for a hard slap in the face. She stood there with her arms folded.
     "What happened?" she said softly.
     "I'm sorry," said Harmon, eyes downcast.
     "Why?"
     "It's my first day and already I'm stirring up trouble."
     "Who started it?" A slight smile grazed her lips.
     "I can't answer that."
     "Why not?"
     "Did you talk to T.J.?"
     "Don't worry about T.J. I'm asking you."
     "He was upset. He was . . ."
     "It's my fault. That's the answer I was looking for."
     "Are you gonna smack me? 'Cause if you are, could you get it over with now?"
     "Do you agree that it was my fault?"
     "It was just a scuffle. The implications-"
     "It's my responsibility. I'm sorry for putting you through that, and no I'm not going to smack you. Just tell me what happened."
     "I told you; he was upset, we got in a scuffle."
     "How did it end?"
     "They broke it up, T.J. stormed out."
     "What?"
     "They broke up the fight, T.J.-"
     "He left? Where did he go?"
     "I don't know, I-"
     "Didn't anybody follow him?"
     "He had to go let off some steam," said Munk.
     She walked angrily over to Munk and backed him into the wall. "He had to go let off some steam?"
     "He lost his temper," said Brendon. "We thought he was just gonna walk into the woods to cool off, but he took off in his car."
     "And not one of you went after him? YOU LET HIM GO???" She picked up a glass that was sitting on the table and hurled it at the floor where it exploded in shards of glass like sparks spraying across the entire room. She clenched her teeth and veins protruded in her neck and her forehead. She closed her eyes and took a moment to compose herself, shaking her head in dismay. "Unbelievable. What ever happened to looking out for each other? We all know - with the exception of Harmon - what happens when T.J. goes to let off steam. I want the three of you to go into town and find him right now. I need to talk to Harmon."
     The three stood up quickly and went for the door.
     "Wait." Harmon held up his hand. "I think I should go."
     Marlena shook her head apologetically. "That's very courageous of you, but it wouldn't be wise. You haven't had any practice with tracking. And besides, say you did find him. You wouldn't know what to do. We may have a very serious situation on our hands; as you've learned today, T.J. isn't exactly a model of self-control."
     "I can learn fast."
     "He's got a point," said Tommy. "If you think about it, right now he is the one most closely entangled with T.J., psychically as well as emotionally. He would be more likely to locate him than any of us, despite his lack of training. I think we should all go and split up, but most importantly Harmon should go alone so that his psychic field will be unimpeded."
     "Are you sure you want to do this?"
     Harmon nodded steadfastly.
     "The rest of you go. I'll give Harmon a briefing."
     They ran out the door with the urgency of soldiers. Harmon took a deep breath. "What do I do, look into a crystal ball?"
     "Scrying takes years of practice. We don't have much time."
     "Now you're gonna smack me, aren't you?"
     "Did you see this in a vision?"
     He laughed.
     "Close your eyes, Harmon."
     "Oh God, please don't-"
     "I said close your eyes. Good." She darted away and came back a few seconds later. "Hold out your arm. Good." She held his wrist tightly as if to restrain him from jerking away. "You're tense. Relax."
     "Ow!" He felt a biting pain on the bottom of his forearm as his skin was violently pinched and then twisted by some cold metal implement. "OWWW!!!!! What are you doing?!" He tried to pull his arm away but couldn't. Her grip was too strong.
     "Don't resist it. Focus on the pain. Open your eyes."
     She was pinching him with a pair of pliers and didn't relent.
     "Stop! That hurts!"
     "Don't look at me. Look at the object that's inflicting it." She let off on the tension just a little bit. "Look at it carefully. Now close your eyes. Visualize your pain as a vast nebula of fiery mass. Now imagine a point of gravity in its center pulling it inward. As it condenses and solidifies, it starts to take on the shape of this pair of pliers. It's now assimilating all the intricate details of the pliers. Visualize its color, its texture, every tiny flaw, every spot of rust, give shape to the teeth, each individual one that's biting into your skin right now, it's right there in front of you. See it. Understand it. Reach out with your mind's eye and touch it, see what it feels like. Focus all your attention and all your energy on the pliers." She squeezed harder. Harmon bit his tongue to avoid crying out. "Let the image of it embody your pain. Your pain has a shape and that's it, right there in front of you, that is your pain. Focus hard." She then released it completely. "Hold the picture in your mind and don't let it fade. Hold on to it, I'll be right back." She scurried off and returned about ten seconds later. "Now open your eyes, but keep focusing on the pliers."
     "What did you do, hide it somewhere? You want me to look for it?"
     "This isn't a game. You're not going to look for it with your eyes." She handed him a bandana rolled up as a blindfold.
     "You're kidding me."
     "I don't kid. If you think you can locate T.J., this is your test."
     "This is ridiculous."
     She slapped him in the face. "Put it on."
     "You said-"
     "Yeah, I know. You don't like to play along, and I respect that. Rebellion is cute and all, but this isn't just some demeaning bullshit exercise. This is what it's all about."
     "We're wasting time."
     "Is it that you think you're above this, or are you afraid you can't do it?"
     "So it's a challenge now? That's all you had to say." He tied the bandana over his eyes. "What do I do?"
     "Guys are so simple, I love it. Okay." She clapped her hands together. "Clear your mind. When I say clear your mind-"
     "I know. I've done meditation before."
     "Excellent. Once you're as relaxed and receptive as possible, retrieve the image of the pliers. With each breath, imagine that you're breathing verisimilitude into the pliers, making them more and more detailed, more and more prominent. Identify with every groove on it. Now physically reach out your hand." He did so. "Imagine that you're picking it up, turning it over in your hands. Notice how it feels to the touch, if it's cold or hot, how heavy it is, what force would be required to bend it. Don't just visualize it. Experience it. Now-" He started to advance in her direction. "You're getting ahead of me, but that's fine. Don't walk. Let yourself drift towards it. Let it attract you like a pole in a magnetic field."
     "It's coming from you."
     "Are you sure about that?"
     He slowly approached her with his hand outstretched. As he got closer, he physically felt the object's magnetism pulling gently on his fingertips like a vacuum. His hand bumped her hip. She didn't move. He slid his hand around her slim waist and found the pliers' handle jutting out of her back pocket. He pulled it out and presented it to her. "Are you toying with me?"
     "If I was toying with you I would have slipped it under my bra." She lifted the blindfold off of his eyes. "You're blushing."
     "Right. I think I'm ready."
     "You think you're ready?"
     "I've accepted my mission."
     "Reach back into that pocket, would you?"
     He reached in and pulled out a set of keys, presumably to her car.
     "Go. If for any reason you need me . . . well, you've seen The Shining."

     Focus.
     The sun was going down as Harmon pulled out of the driveway. He paused, unsure of what direction to go. He put it in park at the head of the driveway and closed his eyes.
     Focus.
     T.J. T.J. T.J. T.J. T.J. T.J. T.J. T.J. T.J. T.J. T.J. T.J.
     He clasped his hands over his throat where T.J. had choked him and tried to bring himself back.
     "I must become T.J.," he whispered to himself. "I must become T.J." He said it louder. "I must become T.J. I must become T.J. I must become T.J." He repeated it over and over like a mantra until the words lost their meaning and became a refrain of alien sounds resonating in his larynx, a voice originating not from within but from the air leaving his mouth, physics-defying sound waves propagating through time from the moment T.J. slammed the door, an ethereal consciousness begging to be assimilated, and when he opened his eyes he felt T.J.'s anger surging through his veins like fire. But there was something else driving him, something other than anger, something . . .
     Left.
     T.J. reached through his hand, grabbed the wheel and yanked it to the left, gunned the engine and squealed out of the driveway.
     Something . . .
     He drove for several miles, making turns not spontaneously and not contemplatively but naturally.
     Something more complicated.
     He was headed somewhere, somewhere familiar. After twenty minutes he found himself racing through an urban-industrial wasteland of factories and oil refineries and warehouses with faded logos and boarded up windows, and an occasional compound gas station/convenience store. He came to a screeching halt in front of a construction site. Harmon parked on the side of the road and took a deep breath, remembering who he was and what he had been sent to do. There was no doubt in his mind T.J. was here.
     He stepped out of the vehicle and walked towards the site. There were plastic barrels and orange signs lining the road warning passers-by to slow down, but the site itself wasn't visible from where he parked. There were muddy trenches with spools of rebar strewn about. There were man-high mounds of dirt beside excavators leftover from the workday, which had long since ended. Harmon ducked under the yellow caution-tape and walked across the creaking wooden boards laid across the trenches, providing a walkway for the workers. The actual site was bordered by a tall fence draped with brown tarps and adorned with signs that read KEEP OUT and AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. He heard a crashing noise from inside and jumped. He looked once over his shoulder and climbed the fence with urgent dexterity.
     When he landed on the other side, he found just what he had expected; a haphazard foundation spanning about half a football field's length, with a skeleton of towering wooden beams half assembled. Whatever it was being built, they were still in the framing stage, and compared to the carpentry sites Harmon was used to, it looked rather disorganized. There was another loud bang and then he saw him. He was too far away to distinguish by features, but he knew it was T.J. by his body language. He was smashing a wall of sheetrock with a sledgehammer. With each swing he put his whole body into it, as if he were passionately searching for something on the other side. Harmon made his way over to him in a sneaky roundabout fashion, reminding himself of the first time he approached Marlena at the gym. When he got close enough to hear the curses T.J. was uttering, he was trying to knock down a transverse beam suspended horizontally by two structures. He was bashing it in the middle harder and harder with full swings, but it just wouldn't break. Harmon could almost see his frustration rising off him like steam. He walked up behind him slowly so as not to startle him.
     "Let me help you with that."
     T.J. turned around and laughed. "I see they gave you a task to do. Better make sure that punk T.J.'s behaving himself!" He took another swing, this time accompanying it with a forceful yell, but once again failed to fracture it. "You better not tattle on me."
     "Can I take a shot?" He put out his hand.
     T.J. gave him a hostile look and then acquiesced and handed him the sledgehammer. Harmon hefted it, taking a few practice swings at the air, and then surveyed the setup with his physics eye. He walked over to one of the structures suspending the beam and started hitting it lightly until he found the spot he was looking for. He took a deep breath and started attacking it, driving the mallet relentlessly into the same spot until it gave way and collapsed to the ground with a deafening boom that shook the cement beneath their feet. He then dropped the hammer and took a seat on a block of lumber.
     "Why did you come here? Did they give you a crash course in telepathy? You probed me, didn't you, you fuck."
     "Can we talk?"
     "This is an invasion of privacy."
     "I know. I'm sorry."
     "When they sent you, did they tell you I'd be wreaking havoc on the town, smashing windshields, running from cops? I bet they gave you bale money, just in case. They did, didn't they? You got some guts coming here by yourself." He picked up the sledgehammer and caressed it. "You may need backup on this one, crazy T.J.'s on a rampage! Whoohoo!!!" He swung it in a circle above his head by the handle, throwing his hips into the motion. "What did you think you'd find? Honestly."
     "I- I don't know . . ."
     "But you were prepared for anything. A holdup, a shootout-"
     "She's concerned about you."
     "Stupid bitch still doesn't trust me. I got arrested once - she thinks I need to be babysat. I may have anger management issues but that doesn't mean I'm gonna go on a killing spree every time someone rubs me the wrong way. I'm an adult. I may not always act like it, but I am."
     "You got to admit there's irony in this, you giving that speech as I find you demolishing a construction site with a sledgehammer."
     "This is where I work. I'm a foreman. I built much of what you see here with my own hands. It's not like I'm destroying someone else's work."
     "Funny, I never understood that logic, the kind that says it's acceptable to make racist jokes about one's own ethnicity. Why are we only required to respect that which is not our own?"
     "Sometimes things just fall apart. No explanation, no rhyme or reason, they just do. Why not take entropy into your own hands?"
     Harmon looked around. "What was this place gonna be? A store? An auto-shop? A school?"
     "I'll tell you what it's gonna be. A blazing fire." He reached behind some lumber and picked up a container of gasoline he had brought with him. He held it up and grinned.
     "Why? Why are you doing this?"
     "You couldn't possibly understand." He started pouring it on the remnants of framework, circumambulating the site, making sure he covered every remaining manifestation of progress. Harmon followed him. "Aren't you going to at least try to stop me? Are you good for anything?"
     "I haven't seen a decent fire in a while. I'll be good company."
     "Fuck that. You didn't come here to make amends, to bond with me."
     "Marlena was worried. She means well."
     "Right. Are you just gonna stand there, or are you gonna help me?" He pointed to another gasoline container with a spout.
     "Sure, why not." Harmon helped him douse the premises. When they were finished, T.J. produced a spool of some sort of waxy string-like material from his pocket. He fastened the end of it to a plank with electrical tape. He instructed Harmon to hold onto that end of the string tightly while he took the spool in his hand like a baseball, aimed at the top of a nearby garage and threw it hard. It landed successfully on the roof. They then went to T.J.'s car where he grabbed a plastic bag out of the trunk. After that they proceeded to climb up to the roof of the garage and sat on the edge where they had a good view of the construction site.
     The sun was setting and Harmon's heart was pounding as T.J. held the wick in one hand and a match in the other.
     T.J. looked at Harmon. "Are you ready?"
     "What do you mean am I ready?"
     "Okay then."
     He touched the match to the wick, and at that instant something made Harmon shut his eyes. He kept them shut, and was in disbelief when he saw the blaze of red intensity through his eyelids, and felt the heat bathe his face. A giddy excitement arose in his stomach. There was something undeniably soothing about the sight of fire from a distance. He opened his eyes. Engulfed in flame, the unfinished building looked ten times as big as it had before he closed his eyes. Now it was complete; it had been half finished when he got there, but now the building's true shape was emerging in glorious patterns of hungry oxygen seeking the sky. The fire gave it a roof, gave it structure, and inhabited it with life. The sun was no longer visible. The sunset became an extension of the fire.
     T.J. reached in the bag and produced a sketchpad. He flipped through it, looking for the first blank page. Harmon tried not to look at the sketches he flipped through out of respect for his privacy, but one caught his eye.
     "Whoah, whoah, hold up. Is that Marlena?"
     T.J. didn't say anything but handed Harmon the sketchpad, opened to that page. The portrait not only bore a remarkable likeness to her, but captured the depth of her expression with artistic sensibilities that were hauntingly dazzling. But there was another reason it had grabbed him, one which it took him a few seconds to recognize, but that gave him chills when he did; it looked almost exactly like the photograph of her he had.
     "You really admire her, don't you?"
     T.J. didn't respond. Nearly a minute went by and Harmon began to wonder if he heard him. Then he answered. "Maybe. That which we're looking at was scheduled to have its grand opening in fourteen weeks, but that doesn't matter any more, does it?"
     "What are you talking about?"
     "I told you you wouldn't understand."
     "Look, if you want to know why I came here, I came to apologize."
     "You're not sorry. Why should you be? You're just a pawn in all this. She found you, whisked you away, and suddenly you wake up and find yourself at the butt of all this conflict. You're sorry? Fuck that. You don't know what the hell's going on. You saw a good looking girl on a treadmill, hey, cool, she's into Photon-Man, hey cool, she's got this nifty sword, wants you to get naked and stab yourself, whoah, trippy, everything's fast, now there's a bunch of guys pissed off at you and you've got to make it right. You didn't expect to find yourself in the middle of a love triangle, did you?"
     "What was it like when you joined?"
     "I was a punk. When I lost my temper, I'd lose friends. I was always losing, I lost jobs, I lost bets, I lost patience, I lost my ambition, the only thing I didn't lose at was fights. And then I lost everything. I was lost. All I knew was I didn't belong in prison. I couldn't take it. I had voices in my head and shit, I had to get out of there. One night I couldn't sleep, I was seeing demons, I freaked out and the next thing I knew I was outside my cell. I stood there thinking this must be a dream. And then a guard came after me so I took him out and grabbed his gun. The rest of it was a blur. I ran, I got the hell out of there, got the guards off my tail and then I really started running. Once I was a safe distance away from that place I discarded the gun in a dumpster. I hate guns. I was homeless for several days. I had nowhere to go back to. I was a wandering fugitive. And then Marlena came into my life."
     "How did you meet her?"
     "The same way you did."
     "At the gym?"
     "No. You know what I mean."
     "I don't."
     "Let me ask you, what would you have done in my situation?"
     "You mean if I were in jail?"
     "No. Today."
     Harmon thought for a minute. "I've noticed something about you guys, you and Marlena in particular. You overreact a lot."
     "Oh, you think I'm overreacting?" Rage crept into his voice.
     "Just look." Harmon motioned to the fire. "Some people relieve tension by taking a long walk or-"
     "I'm a fighter. I learned to throw a punch before I could walk. Violence doesn't have to be personal. When two strangers take their frustrations out on each other everyone leaves happy. You'd be surprised how easy it is to start a fight."
     "Just walk into a bar and call someone a bad name?"
     "Bar-fights are a joke. Anyway, I thought I'd do something more constructive this time."
     "You mean destructive."
     "Construction's what I'm paid to do during the day. Enough with the play on words."
     "I don't get it. How could you stand to watch the infrastructure that you've toiled over unravel in flames? It must have taken months to build that."
     "It did."
     "Why?"
     "Why didn't I just do what I usually do? Because I'm not frustrated." He paused, swallowed hard and turned to him with a look that Harmon never would have expected to see on T.J.'s face. "I'm devastated." It was a look of vulnerability.
     "Why?"
     "Haven't you ever been jealous? When you see the girl of your dreams connecting with somebody else, it may seem trivial in retrospect, but the moment you see it . . . there's no pain greater than that. When you put all your hopes in something . . . when you meet someone and you plan in your head what's going to happen next, you think she's gonna rescue you from your past and . . . and make life beautiful . . ."
     "She did rescue you."
     "Relationships are a form of construction. When you fantasize, when you think about someone all day, when you have long talks, when you draw portraits, that's building something. It wasn't gone the moment I saw her kissing you. When I attacked you, then it was all over. As I said, when I lose my temper, I lose friends. You want to know what it's like?" He pointed to the fire before them. "There you go."
     Harmon looked at the spectacle for a long time. As the sky darkened, the fire seemed to get brighter. He looked down at the portrait, and then back at the fire, doubly transfixed. "I used to do construction work too," he said.
     "You want a job?"
     "You could get me one?"
     "If you don't mind digging."
     "That would be great."
     "Look, I'm sorry I flew off the handle today. I got carried away. It's just that . . . I've always loved Marlena."
     After a long silence, Harmon said, "If you hadn't hit me, we never would have had this conversation. You know how when you're a kid everyone says 'don't fight, talk it out?' I think talking is overrated. There are many forms of communication. Nobody says what's really on their mind. Most people don't have the slightest idea what's really on their mind."
     "Preach it, brother."
     "Seriously, though? She cares about you. Why do you think she sent me?"
     "Do me a favor. Don't tell her I called her a stupid bitch."
     "The police could get here any minute. I reckon it's about splitting time."
     T.J. didn't respond. He just kept looking into the flames, and then he half whispered something.
     "What?"
     "A mini-mall. It was going to be a mini-mall."
     "Not anymore. Want to go get a beer?"
     "Fuck that, let's go jogging."
     Harmon smiled.
     "Are you even old enough to drink?"
     "No, are you?"
     "Oh, shit."
     "What?" And then Harmon heard it too; the sound of approaching sirens. "What do we do now?"
     "If we drive off, it'll look too obvious. We'll have to hide here until they're gone. Get down." They both lay on their backs and scooted away from the edge.
     "But it could take them hours to put out the fire."
     "If we run, our chances aren't good."
     Lying on the roof of the garage they heard several emergency vehicles approach, sirens blaring. Harmon covered his ears. Some time later T.J. tapped him on the shoulder. He removed his hands from his ears and heard people talking nearby. There was too much pandemonium to follow the conversations, but his heart froze when he discerned the words "search the garage."
     "T.J.?" His voice was shaking. "We forgot about something."
     "What?" T.J. whispered, sounding more annoyed than scared.
     "That string you used to light it, that will lead them straight to-"
     "Fuck. We better split up."
     "What-"
     T.J. was on his feet, and before he could sit up T.J. was gone. He heard him hit the ground with a heavy thud and sprint away. He lay back down and told himself to stay calm. Let's think this out. My options are hide or run, and the roof should be as good a hiding spot as any. They'll search the interior of the garage and then move on. If I just wait patiently-
     They were coming up to the roof. He could hear the static of a walkie-talkie belonging to an officer who was climbing up to the roof. Had they heard him? There was no time to speculate, he had to act fast. He got on his hands and knees and looked down at the roof's surface. The tar shingles were tattered and faded. His hand seemed to ascertain that before his eyes did and involuntarily contracted into a fist. As he pulled back his fist, something came over his entire upper body, a swelling ocean of potency that was not unlike yet something more than adrenaline, a feeling that had been foreign to him prior to the day he took a lick of the Lumac-mucus and got on the bench-press at Powell's. That day he had known with an unshakable internal confidence that he could lift anything he put on that bar, and now he knew that he could put his fist through the roof unscathed with one punch. For the moment, his knuckles were not made of bones and flesh, they were constituents of an iron wrecking ball on the end of his arm.
     He drove his fist through the shingles and the sheet metal, grasped the edge and bent it upwards, peeling the roof away like a carpet. When he had a big enough hole to fit through, he hastily lowered himself into it with his legs first and grasped the jagged edges with his hands, hanging from the roof inside the dark garage. He hung there for not more than a second before the door burst open and police officers rushed in with guns drawn.
     "Freeze!"
     Harmon had never in his life had a gun pointed at him, and now there were three.
     "Jump down and put your hands on your head!"
     Harmon let go and landed on his feet fifteen feet below. Before he could think about what he was supposed to do with his hands, he was handcuffed.
     "You have the right to remain silent . . ."

     The sound of the bars slamming shut behind him would echo in his mind for the rest of the night in his holding cell. It was dark and lonely. He wondered if he could enter slow mode and make the next few days of limbo fly by in an hour, but the thought of that only added to his desolation. He couldn't control his body's rate of existence on command. Maybe Marlena could, but he wasn't that self-aware.
     Thinking of it was like grasping at thin air, hopelessly grasping for something too far off to be tangible, something in a world from which he was isolated by more than just steel bars and thick cement walls and darkness. In his prison cell he was no longer Harmon the super buff Lumac hero, he was no longer part of an elite brotherhood, he was no longer connected to the outside world, if there still was a reality beyond the cold stone walls, beyond the darkness, beyond the perpetual clamor of unintelligible but hostile echoes that filled the halls establishing an unseen current, an unspoken chain of command among the incarcerated, beyond the smell of piss and general mustiness, beyond the stagnant emptiness.
     He was no longer a rebellious teenager looking for adventure, no longer a drifter. Sitting in his cell with his back against the wall, shivering, he was Flex the maladjusted physics nerd, Flex, the loser who backed down from Art Merkle's challenge and ran into the woods like a coward, and as he sat there he devolved rapidly into the sixteen-year-old who let down his best friend, the loser who stacked hay-bales all wrong and got fired, Flex the pretentious weightlifter with too much hubris to listen to Dave's instructions and humiliated himself at his first contest.
     He was Flex the nobody, Flex the rapist.
     He was Harmon Flekzor, a lonely kid locked up in a cell with a long night of self-reflection ahead of him. He tried to think about where T.J. was, if he had made it home and what he had told the rest of them, what they were doing, whether they were out looking for him . . . the thought of the five of them, even of Marlena, felt so distant, he might as well have been fixating on the whereabouts of fictional characters. The world had gone on spinning about its axis and left him behind, reduced to an insecure teenager who had committed a crime and gotten caught.
     He thought of what his life would have been like had he chosen the camera instead of the gym membership. In that case he most likely wouldn't have ever talked to Sarah, would never have discovered the window, would never have crossed over . . .
     He shivered.
     If he had kept to his original plan, he would have put all that hardening labor behind him and gone back to his world of shining lasers at different types of crystals in his basement. He would never have brought his attention to the Lumac-potato, would have left it on the shelf to collect dust.
     His last thought before drifting off to sleep was, where would he have been at this very moment had he made that choice?
     At first his dreams were shallow precarious ramblings that left no lasting precipitations in his waking mind as he floundered about the border between consciousness and sleep, an occasional scream or struggle somewhere down the hall jerking him out of his attempt at slumber. He tossed and turned for a few hours but then sank into a robust sleep that was impervious to the noises and disturbances of prison life. The dream he had was the most vivid one he had had in a long time.
     It started with him running on a treadmill. He began at a moderate pace, but then the treadmill started to speed up of its own accord. He ran faster and faster, sweat literally pouring from his face, his heart beating furiously, and then he began to panic. It wouldn't stop speeding up, but just as he reached the threshold of what he could contend with and was about to fall to his knees, the treadmill faded away and he was in a natural setting, not sprinting but jogging through the woods.
     "Harmon!"
     Someone was yelling to him from far away, but he couldn't tell what direction it was coming from, so he kept on running. It sounded like Marlena although it wasn't Marlena.
     "Harmon!!!"
     The voice was changing as it repeated itself. It was becoming the collective voice of his parents together with Brock. He slowed down. There was something happening in a small clearing off to the side of the path. He crept towards it, ducking low, and hid behind a tree where he could peek and not be seen. There were two robed and hooded figures engaged in a ceremony. One of them knelt before the other one and removed their hood. It was Sarah Madison. The other one then removed her hood as well. It was Marlena. She slowly brought her hand up to her face, peeled off a corner of her bandage and then ripped it off her face. A pressurized flare of blinding white light emanated from what should have been a wound. Sarah screamed. Harmon shielded his eyes, and as he looked down he realized that in his other hand he held the sacred sword.
     The bright light went away and the screaming stopped. Marlena was hooded again, and she was walking towards him carrying Sarah's unconscious body. She laid Sarah down on the grass in front of him, then stood up and folded her arms. Harmon knelt down, the sword still in hand. And then Marlena was gone, but there was a crowd of faceless people closing in on him. It was everybody from the party long ago who had gathered around to watch him lift Art's Mustang. Now they were chanting Harmon's name again.
     He clasped both hands around the sword's handle and held it high above his head, pointed down at Sarah's body lying at his knees. The chant grew louder. And then Sarah opened her eyes. She look up and saw what was happening, but wasn't alarmed.
     "Harmon," she whispered.
     "What am I doing?" he asked with distress.
     "Harmon."
     "Harmon, wake up."
     It was Marlena. She was standing outside his cell wearing a white halter-top and a leather jacket. She held something in her hand. He blinked hard a few times, flushing sleep out of his system, and saw that it was his backpack she was holding.
     "You've been a bad boy."
     He laughed.
     "I'm not joking around. I understand you raised some hell last night."
     "Did T.J. make it home okay?"
     "Don't worry about T.J. Your job was to keep an eye on him so that he wouldn't end up in jail."
     "Ironic, huh?"
     "Don't ever let this happen again."
     "What time is it?"
     "It doesn't matter."
     "Somehow I knew you'd say that."
     "Listen to me. I didn't come here to bust you out of here, and I didn't come to listen to your bullshit. I'm tired, it's early and I'm not in a good mood."
     "What are you saying?"
     "Why do you think I came here?"
     "I don't know."
     "I'm about to lose my patience. Tell me what I came here for."
     He thought for a moment. "Oh, no. No."
     "Yes."
     "You want me to do what T.J. did, is that it? You want me to prove myself by breaking-"
     "I want you to?"
     "You're crazy. What am I gonna do, bend the bars with my bare hands?"
     "Myself, I would have zapped them with my fingertips and melted them, but if that's your style . . ."
     He laughed. "This is insane. What will I do after I'm out of the cell? I don't suppose you brought me a police uniform to change into."
     "That would be immoral. Any form of deceit is anathema to our values, as unconventional as they may be."
     "I thought you said you didn't have any established precepts."
     "My values, then. Let me put it another way. I only date guys who have guts." She gave him an affirmative look that in an instant conveyed more confidence than he ever could have conjured on his own, and then she was gone.
     He sat down on his cot with his head in his hands, his heart beating like mad. This wasn't just some dare. This was something he had to do. In a strange way it made sense; everything had been leading up to this. Just then he felt a swelling sensation in his bicep.
     The twitching was back. Both arms were pulsating, but he didn't resist. He got up and grasped the bars in his hands. His chest was twitching too now. He closed his eyes, gritted his teeth and focused his energy. A growl arose in his throat but he pushed it back down, focusing it all through his hands. His legs were shaking. His face was even shaking. He felt a burning sensation in his hands that was not altogether unpleasant. The bars were getting hot.
     As the twitching intensified, he anchored himself to the bars, but soon found that they weren't stable. The bars themselves were twitching along with his muscles. The entire cell was an extension of his flesh. The twitching was not an alien consciousness fighting for control of his body, but rather a force that allowed him to assimilate inanimate objects and cause immovable steel bars to submit to his volition as though they were part of his body.
     He opened his eyes.
     Harmon smiled. He was doing it. He was deforming the bars of his own cell. He took a deep breath and in a single burst of power thrust his hands outward from his sides and acrobatically jumped through the fleeting gap he made for himself, landing gracefully on his feet.
     He ran. As soon as his feet hit the concrete floor he was sprinting. Once he was liberated from his cell he didn't stop to see if he was being chased, he didn't listen for footsteps, he just ran. As he turned a corner he collided with a guard, tackled him, grabbed his gun out of its holster and flung it into an empty cell, wrestled with him on the ground and managed to grab hold of his handcuffs. He slapped one around his wrist, dragged him to the nearest cell and handcuffed him to the bars, then kept on running. An alarm was going off. When he got to the door to the cellblock he stopped, looked around jerkily, and then got an idea. Using nearby bars to climb on, he scrambled up to the ceiling and waited there. Sure enough, a second later the door burst open, and at that instant Harmon swung forwards, let go and dropkicked the guard, did a somersault over him and ran out the door.
     As soon as he got outside and breathed fresh air, a car sped up to him and came to an abrupt halt in front of him. His heart stopped for a split second, and then he recognized the car as Marlena's. He got in and they drove off.
     "You were right," Harmon said excitedly, catching his breath. "I concentrated, sent my energy into the bars and they became malleable, like - like they were red hot, I mean - no, that's silly - I mean-"
     "Shhhh. Calm down. We're not home free quite yet."
     "We're not?" His question was answered as he asked it, by police sirens. "Oh, shit."
     "Is your seatbelt on?"
     "Yeah."
     "Take it off."
     "What?"
     "Just do it. You'll understand in a second."
     He looked at her, then looked back at the two police cars in pursuit, and reluctantly unlatched the belt.
     "Open your door," Marlena commanded. "Open the door!"
     Harmon opened it nervously. "What do you want me do, fly?"
     "Do you think you could?"
     "You're kidding me."
     "Of course I am."
     A car honked its horn loudly and pulled up right beside them in the next lane to their right. It was Munk. He reached back and popped open the back door while driving, then pulled ahead slightly so that the two opened doors were aligned with each other.
     "Jump!" Munk yelled.
     Harmon froze with terror. Marlena practically shoved him out the door. He dove for the seat, pulled his legs in, then sat up and closed the door. On the floor was a male mannequin wearing clothes roughly the same color as his own. Before he could say anything, Munk spoke authoritatively.
     "Get down! Stay on the floor. Here's the plan. Brendon's right behind us. The police are chasing us now. When he passes us, we're gonna open the doors but you're not gonna jump. We're gonna fake it by throwing that dummy into his backseat. It has to be done fast. Then when they start chasing Brendon, we get off an exit, Marlena follows us, and we lose them. Brendon will pull over, they'll search him, but they won't have anything on him."
     "You guys are awesome!"

     Everything went according to plan and they reconvened back at the house. T.J. was standing outside to greet him.
     "You're one of us now." T.J. shook his hand and gave him a hug that was more like a body-check.
     Marlena came in carrying his backpack. "I thought you might want this."
     "Why'd you bring that with you?"
     "It's all your material possessions. I thought seeing it might spur you on."
     Material possessions, he thought to himself while sitting on the floor looking at the photograph of Marlena he had been keeping in the front pocket of his backpack. It didn't belong there. She was right, the backpack was his last material connection to his past. He put the photograph in his wallet.
     Once everyone was home safely, Harmon pulled Marlena aside to take a walk. They walked down a wooded path behind the house in silence.
     "What's on your mind?"
     "First of all, that was incredible what you guys did for me today."
     "Don't mention it."
     "Listen, I hope you don't take this the wrong way. I know I've only been with you guys for one day, not counting the slow-motion thing, but . . . Last night, while I was in prison, I did some thinking. I need to go home. Just for a while, I mean. I left too abruptly, I just need to . . . what's wrong?"
     "What's wrong? Oh, I don't know. You could have picked a better time to walk out on us maybe?"
     He stopped and took her hand in a gesture of pleading. "I trust you more than anyone I've ever known. I'd rather have my name blacklisted than to have you think for a moment that I betrayed you. It's not what you think. I just have to tie up some loose ends. Please believe me, I'm not ditching you."
     "And just what loose ends would that be? Pay a fuck-you to all the assholes at your high school? Say a few heartfelt goodbyes? Hey mom, hey dad, just came by to grab a few things, oh, I didn't tell you? I'm living with a bunch of hippies up north, we're all at one with Lumac, we got psychic bonds, it's great, no mom I'm not doing drugs, gee look at the time-" He laughed, but she was being serious. "You really think it will be that easy to pick up and leave once you're home? I don't know your parents, but I do know that repairing a relationship takes more than a week's vacation."
     "I never said goodbye. I knew I was leaving for good, but I didn't say goodbye."
     "If it's closure you're seeking, then I'm sorry, but you're not very wise. You've already broken away. You can't break away twice. Confronting your ghosts won't make the separation anxiety go away, it will just make things harder and more complicated for you. You're probably telling yourself your intent is simply to patch things up and make a clean break. You can lie to yourself, but don't lie to me." She looked into his eyes deeply and intensely. "If you leave now, you'll never come back. Face it. You've got to make a choice."
     "That's not true. My life is here now. I'd never be accepted back . . . there's three people I care about back home; my parents and my best friend. That's three loose ends."
     "I guarantee you there's more to your intense desire to go home than you'd like to believe. You said you did some thinking last night. Well I suggest you do some deeper thinking. Unless you want to hear what I think."
     "What's that?"
     "That although you refuse to admit it, you still maintain a rich attachment to your hometown and your inner resolve is to get back on your original path and stay there, yet on the surface you think it's the opposite because your true feelings are clouded by a tremendous guilt."
     "Guilt? What are you talking about?"
     "You stabbed yourself with a ritual sword in a thunderstorm. That's the kind of commitment one doesn't take lightly. You feel a kind of auxiliary kinship with us, you respect us enormously, and you're loyal. Your breakaway was originally supposed to be a temporary leave of absence, a chance for you to gather your thoughts, maybe have an adventure or two." She squeezed his hand. "I think you got more than you bargained for. Now you're ready to go back home but you're overwhelmed by guilt because you've gotten yourself too intensely involved here with us, and you don't want to hurt me. But maybe, just maybe, this is real to you too. So you're conflicted, torn. I'll tell you this, though; going home to visit won't resolve anything. You need to be real with yourself and decide whether or not this is for you. And if you do make the decision to leave, don't tell me you're just tying up a few loose ends. I can't honor your decision if you're not true to yourself. And if you do decide to go . . . " Her eyes were welling up with tears. "I demand a heartfelt goodbye." She turned around and walked briskly away.
     "Marlena-"
     "Give it a day. Think this over."
     "Marlena, wait." He walked after her. She picked up her pace. "Marlena!" His next action was not premeditated or in any way orchestrated by his mind, but came about purely out of passion. He reached into his pocket while at the same time grabbing her shoulder with the other hand so that at the instant she turned around, the torn photograph was right in front of her face. She stopped short and held it in front of her eyes, utterly transfixed. She looked as though she was about to collapse. Harmon put his arm around her.
     "What the hell is this?"
     "Think back. Remember the conversation we had the first day I met you?"
     "Yeah. I said, come on you chicken-shit, push it, and you didn't say much."
     He grinned sardonically. "The second time."
     "We arm-wrestled and you kicked my butt."
     "You know what I'm talking about."
     "Then explain what I'm looking at."
     "You knew my name. Not only that, but you knew my nickname. I asked how you knew it, and you told me you met me in a dream. You said that in the dream you gave me a photograph. When you told me that it gave me chills. You asked me what was wrong, and I said nothing. Ever since that conversation, I've wanted badly to tell you this, and I guess now's the time."
     "You had this photograph with you when I spoke to you then?" He nodded. "Where was it, in your backpack?" He nodded again. "Why?"
     "It was the most bizarre experience of my life, at the time, that is." He told her all about the window in the woods, how he had discovered its unique property accidentally while jogging one day, how he had jumped through it in a time of despair, and how he had woken up and mysteriously found the photo in his pocket. He told her how he had held on to it, how he carried it around as a sort of token of the occult, of the mysterious elements to life. He told her how he had known it was her when he first saw her leaning over him on the bench press. When he finished getting the story off his chest, she stood silent and spellbound.
     "Say something."
     She slowly handed him back the photograph and spoke softly. "That's freaky."
     "Do you still think I'm walking out on you?"
     "I don't know." She hugged him.
     "You were wrong. My breakaway, as you call it, wasn't supposed to be a transient diversion to let off some steam. I was meant to connect with you. As Tommy said, our coming together was no accident. It's fate. This is my path. If you can accept some rings in the sky as proof that Photon-Man is real, then I give you this photograph as solid proof that what I'm saying is true. I'm not leaving for good. I'm going home to tie up some loose ends and that's all there is to it. Well, actually, there is one more thing."
     "What's that?"
     "Guess."
     She smiled. "Of course I'll come with you." They kissed passionately. "You need a ride, huh?"
     He laughed. "I'll pay for gas."
     "A long road trip has been the death of many a relationship, you know that."
     "Then we'll walk."
     "A more witty response would be, then we'll fly."
     "No, that would be cheesy."
     "You see? We're fighting already."
     He smiled and toyed with her hair. "I think my parents will like you."
     "Whatever. I'll pack a tent and some sleeping bags. We'll leave in an hour. Can you handle that?"
     "It's a deal."

     An hour later, as promised, they were in the car casually waving goodbye to the foursome. An hour after that, Harmon was looking at a roadmap while the wind ruffled his hair on the highway.




Chapter 9: Highways



     After a few hours they pulled off an exit to take a break, get a bite to eat and change drivers. They cruised down the streets of a small town, on the lookout for a café or a fast food joint.
     "You in the mood to pump some iron?" asked Harmon. "We just passed by a gym."
     "My, you've got a one track mind."
     "We're stopping and taking an hour out to eat meals, I don't see how that's any different. It's a bodily need and it costs about the same. Besides, it's not like we're on a schedule. Plus, it's my lack of a schedule we're following."
     "I wasn't objecting. I could definitely go for a workout, I was just waiting for you to suggest it first so I could heckle you."
     After a workout, a shower and a burger they got promptly back on the highway. Harmon was behind the wheel, munching on a protein bar and bobbing his head to the radio. Marlena looked at him and rolled her eyes.
     "What?"
     "Nothing."
     "You want some?" He held out the half-eaten protein bar to her. She declined.
     "You know, some would say you're using muscle to compensate for something."
     "That's just something lazy people say to make themselves sound mature."
     "You don't act like a muscle-head, but you do carry yourself like one. Do you derive your self-confidence from the gym?"
     "You bet."
     "I'm trying to understand you, Harmon, and I'm this close. What I don't understand is why you're so obsessed with size."
     "You workout just as much as I do."
     "I've spied you posing in front of the mirror. I know obsession when I see it. Why are you so fixated on a muscular physic? Why the food charts, why the . . ."
     He laughed softly, shaking his head. "I've been asked that a thousand times and I've given a thousand bullshit answers. The truth - you wouldn't believe me if I told you."
     "Give me the bullshit first."
     "When you're a kid, you play with action figures, you read comic books and you try and emulate those heroes in play. Why stop there? There are obviously countless practical advantages to being strong. Disregarding those, you could say I do it for attention, you could say I do it for respect and admiration, the glory, whatever, all of which were true at a given time. There are lots of good reasons, but at this point, I don't do it for any reason at all. It's not even about goals anymore. Hell, I've reached all my goals! So why do I still go to the gym? Why the intensity? For the same reason you eat, sleep and whatever else you do. Your body speaks to you. And when you ignore it, it only gets louder, until you can't think about anything else, you feel an emptiness growing inside you, a hunger eating through you . . . So you could say it's engrained in me as habit, which is certainly true, but that's not it either. It's more than an addiction. I go to the gym for the pure love of working out. I fucking love it. As ridiculous as that may sound, it's the most honest answer I can give."
     "That doesn't sound ridiculous. I knew that about you from the start, I just wanted to hear you articulate it. I saw it in your face that day when I spotted you, and I envied you for your passion."
     "You're right though, I am compensating for something."
     "I doubt that."
     "You don't know what I was like back before-"
     "Yes I do. You were a nerd."
     "I was more than that. I was timid. I thought being buff would change that. I walked with my head higher, I was more socially secure, I felt powerful, but deep down I still had no guts. I was just compensating."
     "Can I ask a personal question?"
     "Go right ahead."
     "Where were you on the first night the rings appeared in the sky?"
     "Why's that a personal question?"
     "It was an empowering moment for us. It's the kind of thing you always remember."
     "I was at home. My friend Brock - you'll meet him - he called me up and started rambling about something in the sky. I thought he was just being stupid, until I saw it. I watched it from my backyard. My dad wasn't too impressed, but I knew it was significant somehow."
     "What did you think about when you were watching it?"
     "It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. I lay there on the grass for hours just enraptured. I knew my physics teacher would explain it the next day, but I didn't want to think about that. I just lay back, looked up and let my mind wander."
     "Do you think it will be visible tonight?"
     "What do the forecasts say?"
     "I don't know."
     "Definitely." He nodded assuredly.
     "Shall we camp out and watch the sunset?"
     "Sounds romantic. Where were you?"
     "You're asking a personal question." She smiled and stroked his massive shoulder.
     "Is that okay with you?"
     "You should ask permission before asking such a personal question."
     "May I ask you a personal question?"
     "Go right ahead."
     "Where were you on that night?"
     "We - the five of us - watched it from a hilltop."
     "What's personal about that?"
     "We watched it from the hilltop, but we weren't on any hilltop. We were up there."
     "So Munk brought along some hallucinogens?"
     "It was a magical night, and no. We all joined hands and . . . well, okay, we were a little high."
     "And what, you journeyed into the black hole?"
     "No, I just told you, we got high on mushrooms."
     There was a pause and then Harmon started laughing, and then Marlena started laughing, and they laughed harder and harder. For the next few hours they played childish games and talked about inane things and laughed it up, and then fell into a comfortable silence that lasted nearly an hour. And then the sun went down.
     "Didn't we say we were gonna find a hill to watch the sunset from?" said Harmon.
     "Who said anything about a hill?"
     "I'm suggesting it now."
     "Sounds lovely."
     They were on a lonely rural stretch of highway, and they were indeed surrounded by hills. They took a random exit and found their way to a grassy hill, got the tent and sleeping bags out of the trunk and started climbing.
     "I'll race you," said Marlena, and without a cadence they both sprinted up the hill. By the time they got to the top they were both out of breath and neither was in the lead. They plopped down the sleeping gear and sat side by side. Marlena was still wearing sunglasses, although the sun was setting.
     Harmon put his arm around her and took a deep breath. "You ever wonder if we're not alone?"
     "I think about that every day."
     "No, I mean seriously. Photon-Man is internationally acclaimed. With billions of readers all over the world, it's highly unlikely that we're the only ones to be doing what we're doing."
     "So why can't we channel each other and unite, is that what you're asking?"
     "No, I'm saying what if there are people out there using the powers for evil? Wouldn't we then have the responsibility of being the good guys?"
     She laughed condescendingly. "Is there a dark side? Maybe." She picked up a pebble off the ground and turned it over in her hand. "This rock is round. Does that mean that somewhere out there there's a square rock? Maybe, if you're under the illusion that the world operates that way."
     "But what if people are committing atrocities and we're the only ones capable of stopping them?"
     "Not everything comes down to a battle of morality, and if it did, we're not exactly moral. Wake up, Harmon. There are no bad guys. Society conditions us to look for opposition in every endeavor. Our culture is built around competition; having an antithesis gives you a role to play, gives you something by which to define yourself; having an opposite implies existence. What makes us special is our lack of an identity. We exist to explore the possibilities of the universe, to play and learn. That's all."
     "But what good is power without an adversary? Without a cause?"
     "If a challenge comes along, we'll rise to it. But for now that's irrelevant. Think outside the box."
     "We are the good guys, right?"
     "If by good guys you mean the protectors of everything that's righteous and honorable, defenders of justice and peace-"
     "No. Human beings with courage and compassion."
     She lowered her sunglasses and looked at him. "Are you?"
     "All I'm saying is there's two sides to every coin."
     "The world we live in is a sphere, not a disk."
     "What's that supposed to mean?"
     "There is no heads or tails, there's only everything in between. The only place an absolute delineation of good and evil still exists is in comic books."
     "And history books, and the nightly news-"
     "What are you suggesting, that we become vigilantes, band together and go out every day hunting down injustice? That we fight crime?"
     "Why not? We already model our lives after certain aspects of a comic book."
     She removed her sunglasses and put them down. "Let's review; in the short time you've been with us, you've incited a brawl, been an accomplice to arson, broken out of jail and eluded the police in a car-chase. How does that not make you sanctimonious?"
     He shrugged.
     "Harmon, when you're backed into a corner and can't think of a snappy rebuttal, the correct response is to kiss me until we've both forgotten what it was we were talking about. That way you win."
     He stroked her hair and looked into her eyes. "I've forgotten already."
     "You still haven't seen an official demonstration of our magic, have you?"
     "The past few days have been surreal, to say the least. I don't know what more I could stomach."
     "Don't you want to see me fuse sand into glass in my hands, float on-"
     "No. Being with you right here right now . . . that's magical, I don't want to spoil that." He kissed her.
     "What is it you want, Harmon?"
     "You know what I want," he whispered.
     "Sometimes you confound me." She kissed him back.
     "When I asked to hear everyone's story, it was yours I really wanted to hear."
     "Oh, really. What part do you wish to know?"
     "Hobbies, occupation, sexual orientation, whatever's relevant."
     "Guess."
     "You want me to tell you your life story based on my impressions of you, so you can laugh and tell me how outrageously off I was, so you can awe me with your unpredictability?"
     "Guess."
     "Guess what, your sexual preference?"
     "You're not a man, Harmon. You're in a gender all to yourself. That's my preference, although I don't think it's relevant."
     "For the record, that is, word for word, the weirdest thing anyone's ever said to me."
     "Yeah, well, you're about to hear some pretty weird things."
     "I'm intrigued."
     "This doesn't leave this hilltop, you understand that."
     He smiled sarcastically and held her hand. "Should I close my eyes?"
     "Maybe later. Where was I?"
     "You hadn't started yet."
     "Right. So I was eight years old. My friend Caroline Bates got a hold of a slab of Lumac. She wouldn't tell me where she got it from. I'd never heard of Lumac at the time. She told me it was a magical rock that turned into water when the moon was full. I thought she was crazy. Ironically, I was the one who found myself in a mental institution the following day."
     "Is that what you were hinting at when you stopped me from crossing the street in slow mode?"
     She nodded.
     "Friend or best friend?"
     "Caroline? I'll say this much; it's times like the night I'm describing to you that you find out who your real friends are, and after that, I had none. Not until the fabulous four years later, that is. Caroline was . . ."
     "The archetypal childhood friend who's always getting you into trouble?"
     "You nailed it. She was too daring and I was too cautious. She got me to try things, I kept her from going too far. We complimented each other. But our relationship isn't important here. The important thing was this one children's story that we were both fond of. We probably heard it in school or something, I don't know where. It was about this little boy whose sole ambition in life was to ride a bolt of lightning. He goes out in a storm, jumps up and tries to grab one like a rope. His mother scolds him and tells him his ambition is absurd and perilous-"
     "And he makes a flying apparatus with a conducting rod at the top, that was one of my favorites."
     "Do you remember how it ends?"
     "He disappears and is never heard from again."
     "No. He brings his friend to watch, his friend gets struck by lightning and vanishes. In desperation, the boy catches a gust of wind and floats up to the heavens in search of his friend. He goes before the lord of the sky-"
     "Right, I remember it now."
     "Anyhow, we thought it would be fun to reenact the myth ourselves. So we both snuck out of our houses this one night when there was a thunderstorm. We had this secret clubhouse out in the woods. When we got there, she told me to close my eyes, put the Lumac in my hands, then shone her flashlight on it and told me to look. I remember the feeling I got touching it for the first time. For a split second I thought it was alive. Placing a lizard or some freaky insect in my hands as a prank was not unlike her. I was bracing myself. But it wasn't moving - it was solid-state Lumac - it just had this warmth to it that I didn't expect. Then I looked at it, and I said So? It's a rock. And then she starts ranting about Lumac-cycles and the history and all. I didn't know what to make of this show-and-tell. I figured it was a setup for some elaborate practical joke, one I would nervously look forward to the punchline of." She paused, appearing lost in thought.
     "Go on."
     "I've never told this part of the story. I'm just going over it in my head for coherency's sake."
     "What about the guys? You can't have gotten away with never revealing the genesis of this . . . cult, or whatever you call it. Are you telling me it's so secret even Munk and Brendon had it left to their imaginations how it all really started? No guru can start a movement without opening up to their disciples about the epiphany that sparked-"
     "I've told them up to what I've told you just now, and then I say something along the lines of you know what happens next, you've experienced it, and that suffices."
     "They weren't curious how the Lumac wound up in your mouth?"
     "That part's embarrassing but too trivial to be worth going into. Let's just say Caroline didn't quite have her facts straight about Lumac."
     "Did she tell you it tasted like candy, yet neglect to mention it was sharp?"
     "You've never been an eight year old girl, you wouldn't understand. I hope you won't be offended if I gloss over that detail and jump to the important parts."
     He shrugged. "I know what happens next, I've been there."
     "No you haven't. You were brought to an isolated safe haven to experience the transition under the guidance of those who had gone through the process before you. Me, I have a turbocharged nauseating montage of ambulance rides, hospital rooms and indecipherable blurs sundering my childhood memories like a freight train running over my carefree existence. I had been struck by lightning, I understood that much. I had been naughty, I had gone along with Caroline's shenanigans, and in an instant I was alone, a frightened little girl sitting in an empty white room watching the days roll by, shadows from the windows sweeping across the sterile walls as though trying to imbue life into them. The silence made it feel like it was a dream. And when it passed, suddenly there I was, back in real time, huddled in a corner surrounded by orderlies checking my pulse and firing questions at me. And then came an image I'll never forget.
     "My parents had heard the news that I'd awoken from my apparent coma and promptly arrived to take me home. When I saw them they had already been standing there for a few seconds, just standing there staring at me. After that they ran to me and hugged me and were all relieved, but for one moment . . . it felt like an eternity to me, and I'm speaking figuratively (in the context I feel the need to specify that). They were both standing against the far wall with their arms crossed, looking at me sternly. Comprised within that moment I came to a full cycle of realizations and insights into how my life was going to change thereafter, long before I even began to ponder what had happened between getting struck by lightning and finding myself in this predicament, and what it must have looked like from their perspective. My initial thought was that Mom and Dad were angry with me, but then I realized that it wasn't that at all; they looked on me not with blame but with fear, as though I were not their daughter, but some freak, a specter of the mysteries of the universe. The doctors had no explanation for what they had observed in me.
     "Before they let me leave that god-awful place, they took me into an examination room and spent over an hour trying to make some sense out of my case. They were absolutely baffled, and they failed to hide it from me, especially with my senses being enhanced. I could see it plainly in the glances they exchanged, and in instants of hesitation trying to decide what tests - physical and psychological - to administer next. Their uneasiness didn't abate, but rather they seemed more perplexed the more tests they did. I was - and still am, for all official purposes - a medical mystery, and I was scared as hell."
     "When did you stop being afraid?"
     "Not until much later. I didn't even find out the facts until five years later when I did some research on my own. Whenever I brought up the subject with my parents they hushed me up. I had this bandage on my face when I came to, and they forbade me to look under it. They didn't have the answers, and they wanted to keep the whole thing buried and forget it ever happened. They didn't question me about what I did that night, or why in God's name me and Caroline were playing out in the thunderstorm. It was never discussed at the dinner table. I think my parents and her parents both forbade us to see each other, but a true friendship would have endured. The one time I talked to her after the incident, she told me that she came to visit me in the hospital, and seeing me that way really freaked her out. She kept her distance, as did everyone else in school. With my elevated senses, I had to pretend not to hear the whispers in the hallway, not to register the dread in their eyes when they noticed me behind them and thought to themselves there's that girl so and so told me about, I wonder if it's true. Nobody asked me why I wore this-" she touched the bandage on her face "-but they all knew, or at least they'd heard whatever the rumor had become. At that age you can throw a snowball at a passing car and miss, then the next day someone in school will say I heard you made a car roll over five times and explode, you know how it is. I can only imagine what stories were circulating about me, and at the time I didn't care to know. They probably told each other I'd been abducted by aliens or some shit and believed it. All I wanted was to be normal, and this-" she tapped the bandage again "-made an outcast of me. At home it was no different. I told you what went through my head the first time I saw Mom and Dad after I turned. You see, deep down and not so deep down, I still creeped them out. The fear may have left their eyes, but it never left their hearts. It wasn't until I was thirteen that I found out why. And finding out wasn't easy; I had to secretly ride my bike to the hospital, bribe them to look at my records and give me the contacts of the doctors who dealt with my case, and then seek those doctors out and get them to sit down with me and answer all my questions."
     "What at thirteen finally impelled you to investigate?"
     "Nothing in particular."
     "Nothing?"
     "Well, about six months after the incident, I started having this recurring dream where I'm standing in front of the mirror, and this wormlike thing bursts out of my cheek, through the bandage, I mean, then all this tentacles start squirming around like . . . I remember intense moments late at night in the bathroom standing in front of the mirror, compelled to look under the bandage. Whenever I reached for it I would freeze up, I'd start trembling, and I just couldn't do it. Sometimes I would stand there staring in the mirror for an hour until I was sweating with anticipation, and then back down and go to sleep. After a while I stopped thinking about it, but then when I was thirteen I moved to a new school district, and the anxieties that came along with that brought back the recurring dream. People were asking about the bandage again, so I got in the habit of telling them lies. That's when I decided it was about time I asked myself the same question. So finally I mustered up the guts - it was on the night of another thunderstorm - and I ripped off the bandage, just ripped it off. When I saw it for the first time, I think I fainted. I hardly remember the details of that night, but I came out of it with a strong feeling in my gut; I had to know, and I would stop at nothing to hear the full story. I was more determined than I'd ever been in my life."
     "Were there any repercussions to your inquiries?"
     "My parents never found out, if that's what you mean. The repercussions were more psychological ones. I almost understood why Mom and Dad had shielded me from the facts. I couldn't sleep, I was constantly wrestling with my understanding of the physical universe and my own body. From what they said, the doctors had no explanation for my catatonic state. I had no vital signs. Their instruments reported that I had no heartbeat! By any medical definition I was clinically dead, although I showed no physical signs of death either; my eyes were open, and my body wasn't limp but rather erudite, like a statue. Although my pulse indicated that there was no blood flowing through my veins, my muscles were all tensed. I was a walking talking paradox, except that I was neither walking nor talking, and had I been, only I would have known it. One of the doctors who was kind enough to speak with me described me as a fully functioning human being suspended in time, which fit perfectly with my experience of it. Now do you understand where I'm coming from a little better?"
     "What about the powers? Did you develop telekinesis like Tommy?"
     "Tommy didn't develop it, he was born with it, and yes I did, but I never made a show of it. My only ambition in grade school was to be accepted as normal. I was a model student, I followed the rules, I did everything that was expected of me, but I was still a freak in their eyes. While I should have been practicing and exploring my dormant powers, I tried harder and harder to fit in. I didn't know any better. I was denying my true nature. Then in high school I learned how to mold contempt into respect, as I presume you did. Then, as I'm sure you discovered, I found that there's no difference. So then I dropped out of school, as I know for a fact you did. And the rest is history."
     "Look!" Harmon pointed to the sky. It was indeed visible, and more vibrant than ever before. Sprays of multicolored light emanated from some distant universe like a great celestial disco ball in the sky, placed there just for the two of them to dance under. He was so transfixed he didn't notice that they were both levitating two feet off the ground.

     Harmon Flekzor had nothing under control as he lost his virginity under the stars on a hilltop, and it was the greatest feeling he had ever known. He was utterly, blissfully lost in her, and didn't have to look at the impossibility in the sky to be reassured that everybody in the part of the world where it was nighttime was looking upward and felt just as powerless. People like his father who were eager to simplify and demystify the world had nothing to fall back on tonight, because the scientists had laid down their telescopes and their calculators and were looking up in surrender to the unknown. Even the religious fanatics had nothing to quote. Everybody else who was looking up felt tiny and insignificant and probably a little scared, while Harmon was at the mercy of a beautiful woman, realizing as he looked into her mesmerizing eyes that they were floating ten feet above the ground, and completely at ease. A question that had been pounding at the door of his conscious thoughts for days flowed through his lips and whispered itself into her ear, a question that just hadn't been worth asking on the ground;
     "Are we immortal?"
     There was no concrete answer to that, there was no esoteric answer, no existential answer, no verbal answer and no telepathic answer, there was only the light breeze brushing her hair against his face as she swallowed the words, which instantly lost all meaning.

     They awoke to the sunrise and descended the hill only to find that Marlena's car was no longer where they left it, or anywhere to be seen. Reality began to penetrate Harmon's detached state of ecstasy that the rising sun had failed to dissolve.
     "Oh God, I'm sorry, this is my fault, I'm so-"
     "Harmon." She laid a hand forcefully on his shoulder. "Do I look like I'm upset?"
     "No."
     "Then what are you whining about? We'll deal with it." They kissed. She took his hand and started walking in the direction of the highway entrance ramp, leading him like a puppy-dog. "Let's see, our options are, hitchhike, or . . . teleportation?" They both chuckled.
     "This isn't right. Your car just got stolen, shouldn't you be kicking the ground and shouting profanity or something? I mean, aren't you mad at me just a little?" She raised an eyebrow. "You're human, don't you at least want to say the f-word one time?"
     "Would it make you feel better?"
     "Yeah, it would."
     "Okay," she said, taking on a sarcastic tone, "I'm really pissed off, fuck the motherfucker who took my fucking car, now can we get on with it?"
     "Thank you for that. So you're okay with hitchhiking?"
     "If you were a stranger driving by, would you stop for me?" She tossed her hair.
     "I don't know. You look like trouble." He put on a sardonic grin and braced himself.
     "Then we'll separate, both stick out our thumbs and see who has better luck. Shall we bet on it?"
     "Seeing as how I'm broke and you just lost your car-"
     "I'll walk ahead of you, they'll drive by you first so you get the benefit of the doubt. If I win, you have to call your parents at the next rest stop-"
     "Whoah, whoah, time out."
     "Sorry to spring it on you like that, but you really should prepare them."
     Harmon stopped short and turned around to face her. "First of all, how do you know I haven't already?"
     "From where, prison? We've been together every moment since, and before that . . ."
     "Okay, disregard that question, but-"
     "I know it's out of line of me to interfere given I've never met your folks and know nothing about your situation and the complications thereof-"
     "No, no, it's . . . well, yeah, exactly. With all due respect - and I have more respect for you than you could possibly imagine - it's none of your business."
     "I know, and I sincerely apologize for bringing it up, and especially for what I'm about to say, but just hear me out. I know you're going through a whirlwind of emotions about returning home, which - don't get me wrong - is extremely brave of you to do, and right now I'd say I'm a little more capable of rational objective thought regarding-"
     "Whoah, hey, easy."
     "One of the reasons you brought me along was for moral support, right? Now for what it's worth, I insist that you call your parents, even if just to leave a message. I know how insulting and big-sisterish it is for me to say this, ergo I wouldn't suggest it if I wasn't very serious. Harmon, trust me, this is something you need to do."
     "Just take it easy, wouldja?"
     "Stop trying to save face, just cut the shit, you know I'm always right, would it kill you to give me a little credit for once?"
     "What's going on, why so egotistical all of a sudden?"
     "Because I foresee a very awkward situation which could be made to go a hundred times smoother through the agency of a single phone call, now if you'll excuse my pretentiousness, at least think it over. From the little you've told me, things were obviously quite volatile when you left home. Just showing up after falling off the face of the Earth for two months would be troublesome in ways only you can imagine. Give them a couple days to get used to the idea. It'll make a world of difference."
     "What do you know?"
     "Please, Harmon? I know it's hard for you to do, but it will be a lot harder knocking on the door out of nowhere after your absence."
     "You're just like Sarah, always thinking you know what's best for people-"
     "Like who?"
     "I don't need this. This is bullshit."
     "Just tell me one thing. Had I not said anything, would you have called them on your own?"
     He laughed. "Wouldn't you be hitting your head if I said yes. How about I don't answer that, would that frustrate you?"
     "You don't have to be nasty about it."
     "You don't have to tell me how to handle my personal business."
     They walked in tense silence that was made tenser by the rumble of passing trucks just a few feet away from where they walked in the breakdown lane.
     "I knew this would start a quarrel, it was stupid of me."
     "No it wasn't. Actually I'm glad you did, because I actually had been contemplating sneaking off at some point and calling them, but now you've given me a better idea. How's this for saving face? If you think it's so important, you can call them yourself."
     "Me? And say what, this is a friend of Harmon's, just wanted to let you know-"
     "No. Please. Identify yourself as my girlfriend." They looked each other in the eye.
     "Harmon-"
     "It's the perfect solution. Hearing someone else instead of me will ease the initial shock on them, and that way they'll at least know I'm not alone wherever I've been."
     "Harmon-"
     "Just to hear your voice, they'll know deep down that I'm in good hands. Plus, they'll be less intimidated when I show up with company."
     "Harmon, this is pathetic." She said it sympathetically.
     "Your reasoning was sound, and so is mine. Admit it."
     "You want me to call your parents for you? Fine, I'll talk to them. I'll tell them you've been behaving yourself like a good boy. While I'm at it, want me to beat up your childhood bullies for you? Harmon." She put a hand gently on his shoulder and spoke softly. "Some demons you have to face alone, you know that."
     Harmon bowed his head, and before he could say the words 'you're right,' a car had already stopped.
     The ride was pleasant and uneventful, and ended at a rest stop. After waving goodbye to their ride, Harmon spotted the phone both and took a deep breath, they hugged, and then Marlena went off to give him some privacy. About five minutes later, Harmon found her, and was pleased to learn that she had already procured the next ride. They sat in the back but didn't talk for several hours. Marlena sold the tent to the driver. Harmon didn't object. The heavy silence continued when they were let off in the breakdown lane by the driver's exit and had to walk. Traffic had decreased significantly. Marlena broke the silence cautiously, keeping her distance.
     "Are you okay?"
     He said nothing.
     "You can talk to me, you know." She looked around and sighed. "This is futile."
     Harmon stopped angrily. "Please, I just need to think things out for myself. I'm not mad at you."
     "I meant the hitchhiking. Nobody sees us. We could be walking for hours."
     "What's your point? Do you have a better idea?"
     "Earlier when I mentioned teleportation, I was only half kidding."
     "You're insane."
     She started jogging.
     "Wait, what are you doing? Marlena!" He shrugged and ran to catch up with her. She picked up the pace.
     "Close your eyes," she said.
     "What?"
     "Try it, it's fun."
     "Isn't that a little dangerous?"
     "No, it's extremely dangerous, but it's a neat feeling. Try it. Now try and reconstruct the highway in your mind by the sound of passing cars. Visualize where the curves are. See the lines in the road. Keep your head up but imagine that you're looking down and you see your feet pumping furiously in front of you."
     "What is this, a workout or a fucking guided meditation?"
     "Neither. This is magic."
     Harmon shivered as she said the word. Her voice sounded strangely distant.
     "Marlena?"
     Obediently, he kept his eyes closed.
     "Keep up!" she shouted from impossibly far ahead.
     Adrenalin flooded his body from his cranium to his fingertips. "Why not," he said to himself through gritted teeth and broke into a sprint without opening his eyes.
     "See your feet barraging the pavement," she instructed calmly once he had caught up. "Focus on that plane of impact. As you look closely, you see that an infinitely small separation is emerging. Your feet aren't actually making contact with the pavement, they're pumping the air, except there is no atmosphere, there's only the sound of my voice." As she said the last words, her voice began to take on a rippled effect. "We're approaching Mach one."
     The distortion gave him the eerie sensation he was under water, and there was no ground beneath his feet, and if he stopped accelerating he would sink. He no longer heard the sound of passing vehicles.
     "Your body has no flesh," she went on, "think of yourself as a supercharged wave propagating . . ." Her voice disintegrated into a sea of layered echoes where consonants lost their form and vowels blended together into a unified high-pitched hum that faded away.
     He inhaled deeply but he couldn't feel his lungs inflate. His bodily sensations seemed to be elsewhere, outside of himself. His eyes were neither open nor closed. The highway was a blur of ever changing colors and non-colors like living vectors . . . his thoughts were no longer coherent, except for one that infiltrated his concentration with a frantic sense of alarm; where was Marlena? He wanted to shout her name, but he didn't have command of the oxygen in his lungs, and besides, sound was irrelevant at the speed they were traveling at. The thought of having lost her sent overwhelming pangs of anxiety through his bloodstream, which had an instant sobering effect. He took a breath and felt the dusty air fill his lungs with desperation. He heard himself cough, and then his vision came back to him. He was back in his body, and he was running practically as fast as the cars. This realization made him panic and slow himself to a stop, standing in the middle of the road. Cars were honking as they swerved to avoid hitting him. He dropped to his knees and shouted at the top of his lungs;
     "MAAAAAARRRRRLLLLLEEEEEEEEEEENNNNNAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
     There were tears in his eyes. He got up and walked back to the shoulder of the road, still calling her name. And then he saw a human figure up ahead running towards him. He collapsed to the ground, panting with relief. She walked to him and leaned over him. Her face was dripping with sweat, and her hair was disheveled. It was a photographic moment. She extended her hand to help him up, and the musculature of her forearm seemed more prominent than ever before the way the sunlight hit it. He smiled and grabbed her hand, but instead of letting himself be helped up, he pulled her down on top of him and clasped his arms around her back.
     "I thought I lost you."
     "I had to know your true feelings."
     "What? Are you saying you did that on purpose just to fuck with me?"
     "I had to know if you really wanted me along on this trip."
     "Don't ever do that again."
     "Sometimes a girl needs a little reassurance. I have insecurities too, you know."
     "Sometimes a guy needs a little space."
     "I'm sorry." They both stood up. "Now what should we do?"
     "That was exhilarating, but I say we go back to good old-fashioned hitchhiking."
     She laughed. "Sounds good to me."

     Several hours later they were dropped off at a rest stop at dusk.
     "This time let's look for a car without little kids. I don't know about you-"
     "Wait a sec. This place looks familiar. I think I've been here before."
     "You sound a little too excited. Is it just a case of hitchhiker's delirium setting in or are you saying we're almost there?"
     Harmon looked up and speculated. "Five or six hours give or take."
     "Are you sure?"
     "Absolutely."
     "Do you got butterflies in your stomach? Because I do, and if I'm feeling nervous you must be-"
     "Shhhh."
     "How do you want to do this? One of us take to the parking lot, the other ask around inside and then signal each other? I'm surprised we don't have a system down already."
     "Not just yet. I got to find a phone booth."
     She looked at him with confusion.
     "I didn't reach them earlier."
     "All that and you never even talked to them? Why didn't you tell me?"
     "I mean I . . . I didn't call them. I couldn't do it."
     She bowed her head in understanding.
     "This is your last chance, huh?"
     "There's one over there." He pointed to a phone booth beside the restrooms.
     "Want me to wait outside?"
     "No, I want you to come with me."
     "Don't you want privacy?"
     "I couldn't do it by myself, that was my point."
     Standing at the phone booth holding his hand, she could feel him trembling as he dialed the number.
     His mother picked up. "Hello?"
     "Mom?"
     "Harmon! Where are you?"
     "I'm on my way home. I'll be there by tomorrow morning."
     "Are you all right?"
     "I'm bringing company, I hope that's not a problem."
     "Company?"
     "I have a girlfriend, Mom. She's right here."
     There was a silent pause.
     "Are you still there, Mom?"
     "Yeah, I'm here. This is a lot to process. Um . . . listen, I heard what happened in school. I want you to know that I understand why you left. But you could have called us once or twice to let us know you were all right, where you were-"
     "I'm sorry, Mom."
     "Are you . . . staying?"
     He swallowed. "No. I haven't figured out what I'm doing yet."
     "Do you want us to leave the door open for you tonight?"
     "That's an open invitation to burglars, don't do that. We'll use the window."
     "Do you need anything?"
     "I got to go."
     He said goodbye, hung up and clapped his hands expediently. "Okay, let's find a ride."



Chapter 10: Homecoming



     It was around five A.M. on a Friday when they made it into town.
     "So this is where you grew up?" she asked as they walked down a small road. The sun was beginning to come up behind the trees but still it was bitterly cold.
     Harmon yawned. "I don't know about you but I'm slightly tired. What do you say I save the grand tour for tomorrow?"
     He shivered as they walked the remaining few blocks to his house. A feeling of heaviness rose into his chest choking not his airways but the passages of his vocal chords. He had nothing to say and no desire to make small talk, but had he tried to speak, the words would have gotten stuck somewhere between his throat and his diaphragm. There was an immense weight dispersed throughout his thorax like air pounding at his insides, determined to blow him up like a great human balloon.
     Harmon had been extremely nervous countless times in his life, especially in recent weeks, and he comprehended to the minutest detail all the visceral ramifications of extreme nervousness, from the clichéd quickening of the pulse to the tightening of one's muscles and tendons as the very surface of one's flesh becomes slightly taut, to the induced propensity to impulsively laugh at awkward moments or at things which in no way rationally lead to humor, to the upheaval of fluids in one's stomach as it shifts positions, to the subtle causticity of air first entering one's lungs, to the tingle of adrenalin radiating to one's fingertips. Evaluating his current feeling against these calculated notions of what he should have been experiencing right then, he realized that this particular feeling of heaviness was completely foreign to him.
     This was not a typical case of homecoming jitters or butterflies in his stomach, it was a feeling that went much deeper than that. It was as though all the weight he had strained and sweated and roared to push away from himself for the past few years was crowding in on him from the inside, weight that was in no way associated with gravity, weight that acted not in any physical direction which could be graphed by Mr. Nolte in a free-body diagram. It acted in no direction and every direction, intending to crush him, a pressure that threatened to explode and implode at the same time. It was a force that had no face but had a personality. Throughout his childhood people had pushed him down, and then, through the metaphorical agency of weightlifting he had pushed back, and now that he was in town again he suddenly found himself gripped by the ferocious omnipotent hand of some ghost. It was not one ghost but a continuum of ghosts, the ghost of all the animosity against him that was embedded in the very landscape, embedded in the concrete of the sidewalk under their feet, embedded in the wind that swept the street and rustled his t-shirt giving him goose-bumps.
     There were no voices, no imagined taunting cries of "Flex!" issuing through the trees, whispered on the wind. There was only the feeling in his chest that was not a physical but a metaphysical heaviness. He had never really escaped that ghost and never would; the feeling would go away only when he faced it and made a stand. He understood that now, and before long Marlena too would understand his reasons for coming home.
     Harmon took a deep breath but said nothing as they approached his block. He looked up at the sky and thought back to the day he had left town, realizing for the first time what had been in the back of his mind when he crashed his car and set out on the road with his backpack. He had told himself that when he set foot in town again he would be a different person; he would have a new perspective on life and he would be bigger in every sense of the word. Upon reflection, he had certainly accomplished all that, but being back, he felt like the same old Flex. He glanced at Marlena walking beside him. She was his only link to the new person he had become and he had to squeeze her hand to assure himself that she was really there, that the past few weeks had really happened.
     "We're here," he whispered and squeezed her hand harder. The lights were all off in his house. He led her around the back to his bedroom window. They climbed in as quietly as they could, got into his bed and both fell asleep almost instantly.

     Marlena woke him up around noon. "It's time."
     "What time is it?"
     "I mean it's time."
     "Right."
     "Have you planned out an elaborate story to tell your parents?"
     "No, did you?"
     "It's none of my business."
     "I'll tell them what really happened, I'll just leave out all the interesting stuff."
     "You mean like getting ritually struck by lightning and breaking out of jail-"
     "Shhhh."
     They both giggled. Harmon yawned and leapt out of bed. "You're right, it's time."

     After hugs and cordial introductions and pleasant conversation and avoidance of the bigger questions over a hearty breakfast, Harmon and Marlena borrowed his dad's car to visit Dave Powell and get a workout, which Harmon felt was necessary before confronting any more of his past, but on the way to the gym, Harmon skidded and made a sharp turn, gripped by a sudden impulse.
     "What the-"
     "Change of plans."
     "I can't imagine what could possibly deter you from a workout, especially now."
     "It's two thirty, school's just getting out."
     "So?"
     "There's something I got to do."
     He turned on the radio and blasted heavy metal music as they made their way to the high school. When they got to the student lot, students were indeed streaming out of the school. The parking lot was in pandemonium and nobody noticed Flex speed recklessly into the lot and stop short, blocking a familiar Mustang that was just about to pull out. Art Merkle honked, not realizing who it was. Taking advantage of the element of surprise, Harmon jumped out of the car, crouched down in front of the Mustang, took a secure hold of the bumper with his hands and then looked Art straight in the eyes so that he'd register who it was and the shock would hit him the moment his front wheels left the ground.
     The intense look of surprise saturated with fear in Art's face was invigorating. Harmon smiled at him and then closed his eyes. He let out a yell so loud that all heads in the parking lot turned.
     And then he began to lift.
     Harmon opened his eyes when his knees were straightened. He was shaking, but he felt in control. Harmon Flekzor had the entire world under control as he did a standing curl with Art's Mustang. He didn't notice when the bulging of his biceps and shoulder muscles ripped his shirt open and his sleeves ceased to be sleeves, but everybody milling around the parking lot, the smokers, the athletes tossing baseballs to each other, couples making out, even the people already in their cars noticed. Marlena noticed.
     "Marlena! Get him out of the car, I don't want to kill him."
     She darted to the driver's side door, yanked it open, grabbed Art by his shirt and threw him to the ground swiftly. Art was still on his stomach with his face in the dirt and didn't see Harmon jerk up his hands with all his might, toppling the Mustang over onto the grass behind the parking space. Harmon let out a horrendous growl that was drowned out by the cheering and applause of the onlookers proceeding the thunderous crash of the Mustang's roof caving in, which could be heard all the way in the football field, distracting football players from their practice drills for a moment, and inside the school where students in detention exchanged looks.
     Art sat up, spitting out dirt. First he looked at his car, and then turned to Harmon standing over him with his massive arms crossed in front of his equally massive chest. He backed up, his mouth agape, still on his knees. He surveyed the crowd that was loudly mocking him, then looked back at Harmon and the pretty girl with her arm around him who had just thrown him on the ground with amazing strength. His eyes darted around with bewilderment and began to well up with tears. All around him a chant was emerging.
     Flex.
     Flex.
     Flex!
     Flex!!
     Flex!!! Flex!!! Flex!!! Flex!!! Flex!!! Flex!!! Flex!!!
     "Flex, you fucking steroid freak, you're a fucking monster! Why'd you come back?"
     Harmon grunted and stepped towards him. Art nearly fell over as he scrambled backwards and ran away. All the people inside the school and in the football field who were debating in whispers what had produced that loud crashing noise then heard the distant sound of cheering, and a few people claimed that they made out the word FLEX when they listened closely, but nobody believed them.
     Harmon whispered in Marlena's ear, "I've been wanting to do that for a long time, and I don't think I could have done it without you." They kissed passionately with raucous cheering and clapping in the background.

     Their next stop was Brock's house. He knocked on the door and Brock answered.
     "Harmon! Holy shit, this is too much." They did the male equivalent of a hug. "Dude, you're huge!" He felt Harmon's bicep.
     "Brock, I'd like you to meet my . . ." What he saw then shocked him just as much as his presence had taken Brock by surprise. Sarah Madison was sitting on the couch, in a posture suggesting that she spent a lot of time there. She got up and they walked towards each other. "Fancy meeting you here." Meanwhile Marlena and Brock introduced themselves.
     "I saw you today," said Sarah.
     "What?!" Brock was outraged. "You knew Harmon was back and you didn't-"
     "I wanted to let him surprise you."
     "Where did you see me?"
     Sarah laughed. "Where do you think?"
     "You were . . ."
     "Yeah, I was there. I saw what you did in the parking lot."
     Harmon was stunned for a moment, and then he laughed. It was actually quite fitting. "Why didn't you try and stop me like the last time?"
     "Obviously things were different at that party."
     "Were they?"
     "They pressured you. They dragged you out there to scoff at you, see what they could get you to do. Had you succeeded, it would have been Art's triumph, not yours, for manipulating you. What you did today was heroic. Nobody dragged you there, nobody expected you, nobody particularly wanted you to show up. You entered enemy territory and you shined. I've been waiting for this day. Art's been a real asshole since you've been gone."
     "He was a real asshole before I left. That's why I left."
     "I thought you left because of me."
     "I left because of people like Art who believed you and wanted to believe you."
     Harmon and Marlena looked at each other and shared a thought; the real reason he left, as they both knew, was because he found a torn photograph in his pocket and was guided by a deeper knowledge that he was destined to encounter the girl in that picture.
     The four of them went out to the back porch and shared stories and laughs over junk food. When Marlena got up to use the bathroom, Harmon took the opportunity to ask Sarah a question in a low voice.
     "I got to know. Do they still think . . . I mean at school . . ."
     She patted him on the back. "Don't worry about that. Word got around that I was not to be trusted, people were unsure, it was a sensational issue for a while and then the whole thing fizzled out. It served its purpose and it's been forgotten."
     "If you're not to be trusted, then maybe you're just saying that to relieve me."
     "Nobody threw rocks or yelled rapist today, did they?"
     Marlena returned and they immediately shifted gears.
     Harmon posed a question to Brock and Sarah. "So are you guys . . ."
     "Yeah, Sarah and I are going out. You haven't spoken much about your travels. At least tell me how you two met."
     Marlena smiled. "Bigshot here was benching some heavy weight, got stuck and I had to bale him out."
     "You met at a gym?" said Brock.
     "You say it with such disdain."
     "No, no, I - Harmon, wait right here. I got a present for you."
     "I thought you didn't know I was coming."
     "Its been waiting for you."
     "I'm intrigued."
     Brock left and came back a minute later with his hands behind his back. "Close your eyes." He placed a box on his lap.
     Harmon opened his eyes and nearly screamed. "You're joking."
     "You remember-"
     "Of course I remember. I'm . . . I don't even know what to say. Thank you, I mean. This is . . ."
     "Open it! I want to see you hold it."
     Harmon opened the box and pulled out a brand new expensive camcorder. Sitting on Brock's porch, holding the camera in his hand and looking into the viewfinder at a black screen with infinite possibility, it suddenly transported him back to the age of sixteen. He thought of all the hard work he did on farms and construction sites that summer, his only wish being to do exactly as he was doing now, holding the glorious instrument in his hand and imagining all the opportunities it had in store for them. How simple life had been then, before he had made that drive to Powell's Gym and peaked in the window, before making the most difficult decision of his life. At that time there had been two sole focal points of his life; Photon-Man, the comic book, and his goal of earning enough money to buy what he now held in his hand. It was . . .
     "This is too much."
     "Let's try it out!"

     They spent the rest of the day figuring out how the camera worked and playing around with it, making silly movies. On their way home, Marlena asked out of the blue;
     "Is she the girl?"
     "Is who what girl?"
     "The time I tried to get you to compete in that weightlifting contest and you went upstairs and-"
     "I remember, I was there. What about it?"
     "You mentioned a girl who had significance to you."
     "Significance?"
     "You said 'I left on behalf of a girl.'"
     "Good memory."
     "It's Sarah, isn't it?"
     "What gave it away, when she said 'I thought you left because of me'? Or on the road when I said 'you're just like Sarah'?"
     "I sensed strong feelings between you the moment we walked in. I don't know, maybe you were just surprised to see her with Brock. Was she your first love?"
     "We kissed, that's all."
     "First kiss?"
     "You were my first kiss."
     She lowered her eyebrows. "How could I have been-"
     "Oh, well if you mean first in the chronological sense-"
     She laughed. "You are so full of b.s."
     "Well it's an awkward question."
     "Harmon, she's with your best friend and I've got you, do you really think I'm jealous?"
     "I don't know. This situation is pretty new to me."
     "If it wasn't for the impact you had on her, we never would have met."
     "What are you saying?"
     "I'm not saying anything. I'm just trying to get a sense of who you were and what drove you to leave."
     "Well, you witnessed a very important moment for me this afternoon. Art, the puny pathetic guy in the Mustang, he was my worst enemy."
     "I kind of got that impression."
     "I suppose I ought to tell you the story of how I met Sarah. It'll explain a lot."

     That night Harmon dreamt he was sitting on the grass with Marlena watching the rings in the sky through the homemade telescope apparatus through which he had viewed it that first night with Brock, projected onto a sheet of cardboard. In retrospect he would not be able to determine whether the dream took place on the hill where they had made love or in his backyard. Whenever he looked at her, they were on the hill. In the moments he was looking anywhere else, they were located in his backyard, but they were alone together nonetheless. He looked intently at the image on the cardboard sheet as he carefully adjusted the lenses and mirrors. As it swam in and out of focus, for a split second he saw something that chilled him to the bone. It appeared for only an instant and then was lost, but the image would be burnt into his mind long after he woke up.
     It was a human face, and it was staring into him.
     He jerked his eyes away from it and looked at Marlena, but she was gone. When he looked up, what he saw was a hundred times more chilling than the phantom that had manifested itself in the rings for a split second, reaching up from its world to look him in the eye. Marlena was floating in the air, standing upright but slouched submissively, as though she were unconscious. She hovered about twenty feet above the ground, rising steadily as though an unseen alien spacecraft was beaming her up. It was the rings themselves she was ascending to.
     Harmon stood and watched her, but did not say anything. He wasn't sure whether he was supposed to follow her somehow or not do anything, but he knew by an absolute knowledge afforded only in dreams that to call out to her would be inappropriate and blasphemous. He watched as she slowly rose up, her arms dangling at her sides, her head back, looking up as though she were in a trance. She was about thirty feet high when she slowly rolled her head in a zombie-like motion so that she was looking down at him. She looked at him with an eerie detached expression that said that she saw him but she couldn't interrupt the heavy importance of this ritual to interact with him.
     She stared at him for several seconds and then reached into her pocket, pulled out a flat gray object and flung it to Harmon. He reached up and caught it. It was the photograph of her that he had carried in his backpack throughout his voyage, although something was different about it. It was no longer torn, and in the spot revealed by the completeness of the picture where the bandage should have been, there was no bandage. There was nothing there, just a normal human face. It wasn't Marlena, it was some normal girl who looked identical to her. Harmon studied the photograph in disbelief and began to scream.
     He woke up with his heart pounding. He sat up in bed and looked at Marlena sleeping peacefully beside him. He got up quietly, found his backpack on the floor, unzipped the front pocket slowly so as not to wake her, took out the worn photograph and held it in front of his eyes so that he could see it and her real face juxtaposed. Looking at her sleeping in his bed he tried to fathom the fact that a few months ago she had been nothing more than a mysteriously enticing face in a mysterious photograph that he now held in his hand. The craziness and impossibility of that notion was infinitely soothing to him.
     "What are you dreaming about, baby?" he whispered.
     There's only one way to find out, an alien voice in his mind whispered back. He shivered and got back into bed. He tried to go back to sleep, but at the instant he shut his eyes the image of the face projected onto the cardboard from his dream flashed behind his eyelids and then faded. He knew as soon as he saw that that going to sleep would be futile, but still he lay there for a while letting his mind wander.
     Finally he couldn't take it anymore and sat up in frustration, and in his moment of frustration he had a spark of clarity. It was the same spark that had caused him to turn the car around and go to the high school earlier that day. There was something he had to do, and now he saw clearly what it was. He got out of bed once again, threw on some clothes and then tiptoed across the floor and picked up the video camera off the shelf that served as its pedestal. He set it down on the windowsill, opened the window, climbed out into the chilly night air, slid his hand through the leather strap of the camera and grasped it with determination. He stood outside and looked at Marlena through the viewfinder as he closed the window with the other hand, framing an imaginary shot.
     It was around One a.m. and the sky was so cloudy the moon was barely visible, much less the majestic rings. He got in his parents' car, placing the camera carefully in the passenger seat. Before he started the car he made sure that there was a tape loaded in the camera. All preparations were in place. The only question was, was he ready?
     He started up the car and pulled out of the driveway with the headlights off and didn't turn them on until he was past his block. He drove in silence. After a few minutes he had to open the window to drown out the sound of his own heartbeat with rushing wind.

     The old familiar wooden sign reading HUNTERS POINT: CLOSED DUSK TILL DAWN: NO TRESPASSING greeted him like an old friend as he pulled into what served as a parking lot during the day to sane people. For his purposes, the word 'trespassing' somehow didn't seem to apply. He went around to the trunk and got out a flashlight before turning the headlights off. With his father's flashlight in one hand and the camera in the other he set off down the path.
     As he hiked briskly he avoided the impulse to jerkily look over his shoulder and sweep the flashlight beam in a protective circle around him every time he heard a rustling in the woods, which was amplified by his state of mind. Looking up, the trees seemed taller than he remembered them in the darkness. He picked up the pace. Even after his absence he knew instinctively where he was walking despite it being nighttime, and didn't have to stop at the forks in the path and contemplate which way to go. The hike seemed to take much longer now, but he knew enough not to attribute that to anything other than the fact that one is physiologically inclined to measure the passage of time by the number of heartbeats elapsed, and his heart was beating quite fast, which meant more beats per distance.
     Thinking scientifically gave him a sick feeling, as though a tiny demon living in his stomach was stabbing a fork into his guts and twisting. He tried to turn his thoughts to trivial matters, but nothing stuck. The other option was to focus on nothingness, but darkness inevitably gave birth to form, which unveiled it's self to be exactly that which he was trying to avoid thinking about in the first place.
     And then it hit him; he was there. He didn't have to see the window frame to know that it was close by. He slowed down but kept walking towards it, and turned off his flashlight for the sake of reverence, or else for reasons that he wasn't ready to understand.
     And then he froze. He saw something. It was a flicker of light. Probably just a firefly, he told himself. But it was the precise location of it that bothered him. It was where the window was. It was like a glint of reflected moonlight off glass. The window had no glass and had always been like that, but for a split second he could have sworn it did. He turned on the camera, switched on the built in light and looked at the window in all its neglected, rotting, crude splendor through the viewfinder. He closed his other eye. His hand was shaking so badly he couldn't see the window clearly, but that was okay. He pressed the record button.
     "My name is Harmon Flekzor. It is now . . ." He announced the date and time in a serious professional tone that sounded more like a police officer than a documentary maker, but without the authority. "I'm at Hunter's Point. Where I'm standing . . ."
     He pressed stop. He lowered the camera to his side and took a deep breath. It wasn't fear or reluctance that gripped him now, it was the absurdity of his plan; what did he really expect would come of taking the camera in there? The logic was simple; when he came out he wouldn't have any memory of what went on in that world, so why not have a videotape of it, a firsthand documentary of the excursion? It was too logical, that was the problem; when dealing with the occult, science breaks down, and logic along with it. It just felt absurd.
     Suppose you do successfully document everything you see in there, what then, he thought to himself, you're entering another dimension, what your eyes see in there is not necessarily photons bouncing off physical matter, if you tried recording your experiences, who knows what you'd really be recording. He had taken a physical object - the photograph of Marlena - out of that realm, therefore that implied that he could bring instruments into it from the real world, didn't it? Yeah, but . . . you don't know anything about the nature of this thing, there's a whole world of paradoxes that would arise if you sat down and thought about it I 'm sure-
     "But I'm not sitting and thinking about it. I'm going in there. I'm not the old Harmon, I'm bold, I'm strong, I am Flex! I am Flex. I am Flex . . ."
     And then of course there was always the danger that he might wake up without a camera in hand and no explanation for how he lost it, which was arguably a risk worth taking. But that wasn't his real concern; as he was well aware, his real reluctance was due to a deeper fear that the experiment might work, a fear of what he might discoverer when he woke up the next morning, brushed himself off, drove home and popped the tape into the VCR.
     "This is bullshit, I'm going in there." He picked up the camera and began recording. "I am now standing in front of the famous window of Hunter's Point, I'm about to-"
     Someone was coming. He saw a flashlight beam not too far away from him.
     "Harmon?! What the fuck?!" It was Brock's voice.
     He stopped filming.



Chapter 11: A Window to Infinity



     "So . . . what brings you here?" said Brock.
     "There's no way this is a coincidence. Please tell me you followed me."
     "I've been coming here for weeks."
     "What for?"
     "What do you think?"
     "So you've been inside the . . . I don't even know what to call it. Is it a portal?"
     "Whatever you'd like to believe."
     "Prove to me you're not making this up."
     "What, you mean tell you what happens when you step through it?"
     "Yeah."
     "You wake up outside in the morning and you don't remember a thing."
     "Jesus . . ." Harmon turned away and started pacing. "This is too much."
     "When did you start?"
     "I've only been in there once, out of curiosity."
     "When?"
     "Soon before I left. When did you start? How did you find out about it?"
     "Same as you did; curiosity. We've all heard the legends when we were kids. It's something I've always wanted to do, the time just felt right for some reason, I don't know why."
     "Come on, you can do better than that."
     Brock took a deep breath and sighed. "Sit down." They both sat in front of the window. "The truth is it's an addiction."
     "How could you be addicted if by its very nature you never remember any of it?"
     "The first time I did it I was really freaked out. But I had this gut feeling that something significant had happened in there. I pushed it to the back of my mind and went about my day-to-day life, going to school, drowning in homework, daydreaming about girls, all that good stuff, but as the weekend came near, all I could think about was going back there on Friday night. I had this overwhelming compulsion, and I don't mean like a little voice in my head, I'm talking a force. Remember the time in fifth grade we went swimming at Seal Rock during high tide?"
     "As I recall swimming wasn't our intention that day." They laughed.
     "We were looking for crabs and shit. We weren't paying attention when that huge wave came crashing over us out of nowhere. When we came up for air, we must have been carried out forty feet. Luckily we were able to swim back to shore without much trouble. Then your parents gave us that big lecture about the dangers of being swept out to sea. I think that was the first time I had ever taken someone else's parents seriously."
     Harmon laughed. "That still cracks me up."
     "Looking back on it, yeah it was pretty funny, but at the moment we were both terrified. At that age we just didn't have a concept of how powerful the tide was. That's what it felt like with the window. When it got dark that Friday, I found myself jumping in my car and rushing off. At first I was so flustered I didn't even know where I was headed. It was like one of those moments when you're frantically looking for something and then you just space out and can't even remember what you're looking for. I knew all the turns, it was like my body knew where I was going, but I didn't consciously realize it till I was already half way to Hunter's Point. It was very scary. When I got out of the car, I didn't walk the path, I ran. Okay, that probably sounds normal to you, but it never comes naturally to me to run unless I'm late or I'm being chased. I hate running. But it didn't feel like I was running. It was like the tide was inside me, propelling my legs without consulting my brain. I had internalized the steady, potent momentum of the tide and externalized my terror of it. This time I really was being swept out to sea. Once you let the vast ocean consume you, fear disperses in every direction. Once I saw the window in front of me, I didn't slow down and I didn't speed up. I didn't close my eyes. I looked straight at it and I surrendered myself to it. I let it consume me. I knew before I jumped in that I would be back again and again and again. There's no cure for this addiction."
     They sat in silence with their arms crossed tightly, shivering in the wind. Finally Harmon changed the subject.
     "I must admit I was pretty astonished to see Sarah at your house. When did you hook up with her?"
     "Come to think of it, it all revolved around you leaving. After, well . . ."

     When she revealed to Brock her name during lunch break, he was stunned.
     "You probably have a lot of questions. I don't know what Harmon's told you-"
     "I got to go."
     "Wait. I know my name has a lot of baggage, but I'd like to get to know you. At least take my phone number. You're the only person I can talk to truthfully about this."
     "This is a lot for me to swallow. I have to go." He turned to leave and she grabbed his arm.
     "Are you mad at me?"
     "I don't know. Should I be? I haven't heard his side to the story."
     She was still holding on to his elbow. She grabbed his wrist with her other hand, took a pen out of her pocket and wrote her phone number on his arm.
     "You haven't heard mine either." She looked him in the eyes intensely for a moment and then ran off, leaving him bewildered.

     "You must have felt like a hero going through the rest of the school day with a girl's number scribbled on your arm. Was that a first for you?"
     "Shut up, Harmon. Don't forget, you were a dork once too."
     "I'm just playing with you. Go on with the story."

     The following weekend he called her up.
     "Hi, it's Brock, Flex's friend."
     "Hi! I didn't think you'd call."
     "Neither did I. You sounded like there was something you wanted to tell me."
     "You sounded like you didn't want to hear it."
     "It was just too much to deal with. I didn't mean to be rude."
     "It's okay. He's your friend and I did a horrible thing to him."
     "What do you mean?"
     "He didn't rape anybody. It was all a cunning fabrication."
     "So you confess it was your own skullduggery?"
     "That's not how I'd put it, but that's a start. The most important point is he's innocent. You haven't heard his side of the story because there is no story."
     "He did sound pretty aloof when I called him and warned him not to come to school. He honestly had no idea what I was talking about. If he had known, he would have been really torn up. Harmon isn't very good at hiding his feelings."
     "How did he react when you said my name?"
     "I didn't know your name at that time."
     "Really. He never mentioned me?"
     "You sound hurt. Should he have?"
     "If he's a gentleman, I suppose not."
     "Now I'm really confused."
     She laughed. "Maybe we should talk about this in person."
     "Let me get this straight; the entire school wants to kill him because of some story you made up to attack him? Why would you do such a thing? Did he hurt you in some way? Is this a plan of revenge that mushroomed and now you're regretting it and trying to find a way to turn it around while saving face? Is that where I come in?"
     "You must think all women are evil."
     "He didn't . . . did he violate you?"
     "Shame on you for letting that even cross your mind. Harmon is the only victim here. What I'm trying to explain to you is, I did this for his sake."
     "If you're not evil, then you're sick and you need some help."
     "Do you think I'm benefiting from those rumors? I didn't do it for my own personal gain. I sacrificed my reputation, my honor to help him."
     "I think you will have to explain this to me in person, because I'm not getting it."

     "Is this before you discovered the window?" asked Harmon.
     "Yeah, I guess."
     "This is about to get juicy, I bet."
     "When I talked to her on the phone, I thought she was insane. I wasn't sure I wanted to know what her rationale was. But when I met her in person, my feelings changed, and I began to see that she wasn't crazy."
     "I'm getting bored. When does this get juicy?"
     "Why don't you tell me how you met Marlena?"
     "I already told you."
     "Yeah, but I never got the chance to ridicule you. You met at a gym, that's so classic!"
     "Do you want to hear the juicy parts?"
     "Maybe later. I'm getting kind of antsy." His eyes were fixed on the window. "I have this theory."
     "Wimps sit around and theorize."
     "Just hear me out."
     "No. I'm going in there, and in the name of science . . ." He held up the camera.
     "Oh my God, that's brilliant! That never occurred to me, how could I not have-"
     "Of course it didn't. It's different for you."
     "What do you mean it's different for me? You don't know any better than I do what goes on in there."
     "I wasn't being literal. What does the window mean to you?"
     "That's a question I'd have to contemplate for a long time."
     "I can answer it for you right now. For you the window is a form of escape and that's how you've always seen it. For me? It's a mystery."
     "So you're not addicted?"
     "I wouldn't jump to that conclusion, however that's beside the point."
     "My theory is to the point. I won't tell you how I arrived at this, but . . . this is gonna sound ludicrous, you're gonna think I've flipped."
     "We've both accepted the reality that there exists a wooden frame, un-extraordinary in appearance, such that when you throw a rock into it the rock vanishes. That alone dictates that we're open to any and all possibilities. Just say it."
     "It's a portal to people's dreams."
     "Care to elaborate?"
     Brock looked around nervously and took a deep breath. "This doesn't leave these woods, understood? It involves Sarah. I had this, well, fantasy, I guess you'd say. You know how sometimes you see a good looking girl in class you don't know very well, while the teacher drones on you make little mental movies of scenarios . . ."
     "You mean when all you can think about is fucking some girl?"
     "No. I'm talking about the times when you're so bored that you get creative. You don't just go right to the sex scene, you start constructing dynamic scenarios with detailed plots and back-story and character development and - no, I'm talking about the times when it's not even about sex."
     "If you daydream about girls who you don't want to have sex with, then you're far more creative than I am."
     "Okay, fine, in your Freudian world I'm sure somewhere in the back of my mind I wanted to fuck her. Anyhow, that wasn't part of my fantasy. So, with that fantasy in mind, I took one of my late night window-dives. It was soon after that that I got to know Sarah better, and she told me she had a dream about me. When she described it to me, I swear she was describing my fantasy word-for-word! I get chills thinking about it."
     "You're giving me chills!"
     "When I go in there, I'm interfering with her dream life."
     "Have you told her about this?"
     "No way. It's my secret. The ironic part is, I have no idea what I do in there most of the time, but she does, and that's her secret. I see her everyday knowing this. She thinks these dreams are coming from her own psyche. She construes my fantasies as her own suppressed desires, I live with the guilt of that, and meanwhile this is all unspoken between us, yet we're intimate with each other!"
     "Sounds like a pretty fucked up relationship."
     "It feels wrong, but I can't stop myself any more than I can stand in the way of an ocean current. But it feels so wrong, it's like . . . it's like I'm raping her subconscious."
     "I'd say that's the ironic part."
     "You have no idea how relieved I am to get that off my chest."
     "A portal to someone's dreams, huh? That raises a lot of questions. If someone else goes in there, do they pop up in Sarah's dream, or does the system route them to someone else's dream? Does everyone have a certain individual to whom they're inexorably tied through this channel, or rather is it a doorway to a universal Jungian collective unconscious, wherein you actively endeavor to find your way to that one person? I suppose there's a lot we don't know about the nature of dreams."
     "So you believe me?"
     "I happen to know it for a fact. You see, I was lying when I said that I first met Marlena at a gym. Guess where we made our first acquaintance." Brock motioned his thumb at the window and Harmon nodded his head. "Our ostensible first meeting at the gym was preordained by some greater power, I'm left with no choice but to believe that wholeheartedly. This portal we've stumbled upon is part of some divine master plan."
     "I'm intrigued, but how is that more solid proof than my story?"
     "It's solid proof because I woke up with a souvenir, a solid object I brought back from the other realm. It was a photograph of her. When I saw her at the gym, I recognized her from the photograph. Then she told me about meeting me in a dream and giving me a snapshot of herself. When you say the revelation gave you chills, believe me, I can empathize."
     "Wait a second. You brought back with you a photograph? That says a lot."
     "That's the only reason I'm confident I won't lose the camera. What I'm not so confident about is . . . well, anything else."
     Brock was scratching his chin in contemplation. "So . . . if a physical object that only exists in one's dream can be transported, or, or recreated in the real world through the window, wouldn't that imply that . . . oh my God. What if - imagine that you were in somebody's nightmare, say you were being chased by like some monster or something, what if the monster then followed you out and became real? My God, this could be dangerous!"
     "I don't know how plausible that is, we're just theorizing, we don't begin to understand the mechanics of this phenomenon. Our gut instincts about what is and isn't plausible reveal more to us than logic will, I surmise, and while your reasoning is sound, my gut reaction says that's laughable. But I will say this; that would make one hell of a good premise for a horror movie; two teenagers discover a doorway to another world . . . it seemed like an innocent game, until . . . dhn, dhn, dhn, the evil is unleashed on their sleepy town . . . what did they bring back with them?" They both laughed hysterically.
     "So," said Brock, "Shall we go in together?"
     "Let's do it."
     "Which one of us should film?"
     "Well, if you take the camera, the movie will have an R rating. You've got a lot of repressed-"
     Brock punched him in the shoulder. "It was your idea, I guess it should be you."
     "I'll go in first."
     They joined hands. Harmon stepped one leg into the window and paused. Something wasn't right.
     "Why'd you stop?"
     "I can still see my leg. That's not supposed to happen."
     "What do you mean you-"
     "Look! You can still see my leg on the other side of the window!"
     "Calm down, just go in."
     Harmon rolled his eyes and stepped through to the other side and Brock followed. Harmon jerked his hand free of Brock's and threw his arms up.
     "We haven't gone anywhere! We're still at Hunter's Point."
     "We don't know that yet. Let's just wait-"
     "Face it, Brock. It's broken." He stepped back through the window. "Look, I'm back on the reality side and I can see you right now, I'm talking to you, and I remember everything that happened in there; I threw my hands up in exasperation and said-"
     "Why?" Brock picked up a rock and lobbed it at the ground furiously. "WHY!!!" His eyes were tearing up. "You're right, it's broken. Piece of shit-" He grabbed hold of the window frame and shook it till the bottom plank broke off. He held the moldy slab of wood by one end and swung it against the tree like a baseball bat so that it snapped in half with a loud bang that echoed through the woods. "GODDAMN PIECE OF SHIT!!!" He tore the rest of the window free of the ropes that had suspended it for years and shouted unintelligible obscenities as he destroyed it, breaking the frame into several pieces and smashing them against trees and throwing them in all directions until he collapsed to his knees sobbing.
     Harmon stood back and waited for his tantrum to subside. When he calmed down Harmon sat down and patted him on the back.
     "It's the rings," Brock said softly.
     "Huh?"
     "The rings in the sky, whatever Mr. Nolte called them. Whatever celestial event caused them, it's over now."
     Harmon looked up. He was right; it wasn't just cloudy, it was gone.
     "Are you suggesting that there was a connection between what was going on in space and this portal opening up?"
     "Yeah, I am."
     "That doesn't make sense. It's not over now, it was over a hundred and fifty years ago, remember Mr. Nolte's lecture?"
     "Then how do you explain the coincidence?"
     "I don't."
     They began walking along the path back towards their cars. Brock's head was down. After several minutes of silence, Harmon said,
     "Hey, it's not the end of the world."
     "It's the end of something bigger than the world we know."
     "What appealed to you so much about it? Why were you addicted?"
     "That's an obvious question. When I go in there, I know that I can do anything I want and come back without any guilt or regret, or at least without any consequences."
     "Kind of like getting drunk; you know you won't remember what you did and nobody else will either. The only difference is you don't run the risk of getting a girl pregnant."
     "The window was special. You and I may be the only two people who can say that."
     "So you were feeling repressed and used that imaginary fairyland as compensation for the staunch limitations of reality."
     "I can sum up what you just said in three words. I'll miss the window because the whole idea of it was JUST FUCKING COOL!"
     "The way I see it, we haven't lost anything. On the contrary, we should feel blessed to have discovered it, and ask ourselves what we were meant to learn from this unique experience."
     "Don't tell me you went and got religious on me."
     "Well, in a manner of speaking, yes." He grinned to himself.
     "So what are you saying, there's a moral lesson behind this?"
     "If you want there to be, probably. What I'm saying is, why not approach real life as you approached whatever was in there?"
     "And how's that?"
     "You tell me."
     "I guess we weren't meant to know." Brock looked up at the sky longingly.
     Harmon leaned his elbow on Brock's shoulder. "You know what Sarah said to me on the day I bailed out of town?"
     "What?"
     "I said, 'look what you've done to me,' and you know what she said to me? She said, 'I set you free.'"
     Brock said nothing.
     "Tell me, Brock, has she set you free?"

     They walked the rest of the way back to their cars in silence.
     "What are you gonna do now?" Brock asked when they got to their cars.
     "I'm going home, what about you?"
     "No, I mean in the long run. Are you here to stay? And what about Marlena?"
     "Everyone's asking me that."
     "How do you answer?"
     "I say I haven't figured things out yet."
     "The truth?"
     There was a long pause.
     "I'm not staying for good. I don't know what I'm doing with my life, but I'm not staying here."
     "You've outgrown your childhood, huh?"
     "I've outgrown my own body."
     "That's for sure."
     "Listen, why don't you come over tomorrow?"
     "Yeah. Good night, Harmon." He got in his car and drove off.
     Harmon sat on the hood of his car, lay back and looked at the sky.
     "How could it be gone, just like that?" he said to himself.
     The answer was up there somewhere. All the answers were up there somewhere just out of sight, somewhere beyond the clouds, beyond the blackness, beyond the stars, beyond his eyesight, beyond all human senses of perception, beyond reason, beyond ambition, beyond love, beyond space and time, beyond the beyond. For a short time they hadn't been beyond him, they had been right there at Hunter's Point, they had been right there in the sky, manifested in colorful rings, but now they were gone. No they're not, he thought, I searched and found my answer and it's at home, sleeping in my bed right now.
     He smiled, got in his car and drove home.

     She woke up when he opened the window from the outside of the bedroom.
     "Harmon? What the hell are you doing?" she yawned as he climbed in the window.
     He sat down on the bed, put his arm around her and whispered, "It's over."
     "What's over?"
     "Look out the window."
     She sat up and blinked her eyes. Now she was awake.
     "What are you talking about?"
     "Take a look."
     She reluctantly got out of bed, went to the window and looked up at the sky.
     "The house could be blocking our view-"
     "Go outside then. Look around, I'm telling you, it's gone."
     "You don't know that for sure. Some nights it's more visible than others."
     "Trust me, it's over."
     She turned around and looked at him for a moment, trying to figure out whether he was sad about it or just simply intrigued, and why he was so convinced of his point, and then, as if to change the subject, said, "I had a dream about you."

     The following morning they went to Powell's Gym. Harmon was silent in the car.
     "Are you okay?"
     "I'm just a little nervous. Dave and I didn't part on the greatest of terms."
     "Are you sure you want to do this?"
     "If I could confront Art the way I did, I think I can handle this."
     "After what you did in that parking lot, I'd say you're ready for the spandex suit and the secret identity that you've always wanted."
     He laughed.
     "Except there's one problem with that," she pointed out.
     "There is? Darn."
     "If you were a superhero, I'd have to sneak off at night, put on a silly costume and be your arch nemesis. Who else would be fit to play that role?"
     "We could be the fantastic six! Who needs a villain?"
     "What would be the fun of that? I want to be your villain." She kissed him on the cheek.
     "We're here."

     Dave saw them pull into the driveway and was standing in the doorway to greet them when they walked in.
     "I didn't think you'd be back." He shook hands with Harmon. "It's good to see you." They hugged, and then Dave stepped back and squeezed his biceps. "Look at you, you're a house!"
     "What did you expect?" Harmon was aware of a hint of arrogance creeping into his voice and Marlena was too.
     Dave shook his head derisively. "You think you're a big man now because you're taking . . . I don't even want to know what you're taking."
     "I'm no bigger than I was the last time you saw me."
     "Are you sure?"
     Maybe it's the way I carry myself, Harmon thought, an internal solidness-
     "I know what it is. I've never seen you with a girl before. It compliments you."
     "I'm Marlena." She shook Dave's hand. "I've heard a lot about you."
     "I take half the credit for this piece of work." Dave tapped Harmon's chest with his fist like a sculptor displaying his masterpiece.
     "I take the other half," said Marlena. All three of them laughed.
     "I'm gonna get on the treadmill, hon. Don't be shy if you need a spot, y'hear?"
     "I haven't shown you where stuff is yet."
     "I'll find it." She winked at him subtly and walked off, giving them privacy to talk.
     "Why don't you come into my office?"

     "Listen," said Dave, sitting down at his desk, "The last time we spoke I said some harsh words."
     "Oh, yeah, I'm gonna pay for that mirror, don't worry."
     "I won't accept your money."
     "I feel real bad about it. I was afraid you were gonna ask me to leave just now."
     "Don't apologize, just listen to me. I said some harsh words . . . and I meant them. I gave you guidance and instruction, I took you under my wing, I taught you everything I knew and you spat in my face. Maybe I pushed you too hard. I made my mistakes too; I don't know exactly what they were but I know I made them. I can forgive you for being rebellious, but there's one thing I can't forgive and you know what that is."
     Harmon nodded gravely and somberly.
     "I appreciate all you've done for me, I hope you know that."
     "I didn't do anything. You earned that body through hard work and diligence."
     "You're contradicting yourself."
     "I was kidding around when I said I take half the credit-"
     "No, what you said just now. You implied that I'm using substances, which in your mind is synonymous with cheating, and then you contradicted yourself by saying I should be proud of my achievements."
     "I know, I know . . . as you can see, this is hard for me."
     "Look, if you want me to leave, I understand, you don't have to say anything more. But I would like to say something. First off, you're the best coach I've ever had and I'm . . ." Harmon turned away and wiped a tear from his eye. "I'm sorry I betrayed you. I wish I could say you were right, Dave, I learned my lesson, I owe it all to you, but I'd be lying if I said that. It's weird how sometimes the little impromptu things we say in jest reveal more truth than the thought-out sincere speeches we make. I couldn't put it more honestly and to-the-point than you and Marlena put it a few minutes ago out there. Half of the things in my life I've come to value I learned from you, and the other half . . . she's taught me things most people could never understand. On the surface the two philosophies may seem diametrically opposed, but I can't conceive of one existing without the other for myself.
     "When I first came to you, my life was in turmoil, I needed a new direction, I needed something profound, and you supplied that. When I blew up at you, when I disappeared, I was at a similar place in my life, and that's when I met Marlena."
     "Are you trying to tell me you were corrupted by a girl? I don't buy that. You were jacked up on something the time after that stunt you pulled at the contest."
     "What she gave me went beyond what you've taught me. Honestly, Dave, this isn't what you think it is."
     "Oh, no? Enlighten me, then."
     "I can't do that. I mean, I couldn't possibly put it into words."
     "Ineffable, huh?" Dave was shaking his head sadly and condescendingly. He leaned in closer. "Harmon, I'm gonna tell you a secret. I'm telling you this only because I care about you and I may not get another chance, but you have to promise me that this doesn't leave this room."
     Harmon nodded attentively. Dave took a deep breath and swallowed hard.
     "I used to use steroids."
     Dave closed his eyes so that he wouldn't have to see Harmon's reaction.
     "You heard me right. My friend Lynwood and I used to do it together. We'd enter contests and we got pretty far. Then I began to see first hand the stuff they warn you about in drug-prevention programs; liver dysfunction, heart problems, people flipping out . . . It stopped being a sport. I didn't even know what it was anymore. I started doing some serious thinking. Then, sure enough, Lynwood gets caught." Dave looked down at the table for a while, and then realized that Harmon was sitting rigidly in his chair as though awaiting something terrible. The unnecessary level of tension in the room made Dave laugh. "Your face is white as a ghost. You're expecting the story's gonna end that he dies, is that it? Well you can relax and stop planning your sympathetic, respectful reaction because that's not how the story ends. I didn't have to have a friend die to make an impact on me. Seeing him in a prison cell pissing out of a rubber tube was enough. From that day on I never touched steroids or any supplements at all, and I never told anyone what I'm telling you now. That was twenty years ago. You don't have to look so shocked."
     "You've always been so adamant about all-natural-"
     "Well now you know why. When I trained you, I swore to myself that if there was one thing I impressed upon you, it would be that. I couldn't bear to see you repeat my mistakes. But, as every psychologist and every parent knows, when you feel strongly about something, you'll inevitably impel your pupils to do the opposite of what you tell them. The only way to really teach somebody is to divorce your emotions from your actions, but can a human being really do that?"
     "I guess not. It's the tragic flaw of humanity; the patterns of the past will unavoidably find expression in the following generation, and the harder one tries to thwart their fate . . . it's like Oedipus."
     "Oedipus killed his father and slept with-"
     "I mean, it's like every Greek tragedy, I mean - I don't know what I'm saying."
     "The point is, I failed you."
     "Don't say that."
     "I went overboard with my zero-tolerance policy. It was foolish of me. But I failed you. I cried the day you shattered my mirror. I knew then that I'd lost you to-"
     "To what? The Dark Side?"
     "Harmon, I'm gonna ask you a question and I want you to be straight with me. I want you to tell me, what in God's name are you on . . ." Dave looked him straight in the eye for a long time, and then said with a smile, "and where can I get me some of that shit?"




EPILOGUE



     Dave Powell shivered in the pouring rain.
     "Are you crazy? You want me to follow you up there?" Lightning flashed in the night sky as he said the last word, and he shuddered.
     Marlena smiled and nodded. She slung her purse - in which the ceremonial Lumac-sword was concealed - over her shoulder.
     Harmon shrugged. His arms were crossed.
     "You'd better do what she says."
     "I'm too old for this!"
     "Do you trust us?"



Jeremy Richard Benjamin was born in Western Massachusetts in 1981, grew up around the Boston area and then moved to mid-coast Maine at the age of thirteen. He entered the University of Southern California in the year 2000, studied mechanical engineering for four years and then dropped out of the program and am currently a student of creative writing. He likes to boast that he was once a garbage-man. His hobbies include filmmaking, weightlifting, hiking, mountain-biking and intentionally getting lost in strange places. He had been dedicated to the craft of writing since third grade.

Email: jbenjami@alumni.usc.edu


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