David Goodman





David’s eyelids dropped like blast doors the instant the smoke hit his lungs. He could feel every muscle in his body going slack, and then his mind went slack as well.

For an infinite moment, nothing. Awareness returned slowly, in snatches of sensation. Thin arms, a child’s arms, clamped around something soft - a pillow? - with all the shaky strength they could muster. A sense of pain and exhaustion. The feel of eyelids squeezed shut with the effort it was taking not to let go. The terrifying, desperate need to breathe. Then David came fully awake and remembered the moment. This was the first time. 21 years ago. The first time David had tried to die. Except this wasn’t going the way he remembered it. In his memory, his body had done what any body trying to asphyxiate itself does, and let go of the pillow as soon as he’d started to gray out. This time, some strength of will David had never found locked his muscles tighter and tighter.

The tingling in his face and limbs, the roaring in his ears, the commingled panic and resolve in his mind - all intensified more and more until the world receded again. It was almost pleasant, really.

Some facet of David seemed to stay aware after everything else way gone. That part noticed that one other thing had changed from the way he remembered that night. When he’d opened his eyes again, gasping for air and hating himself for his failure, he’d heard a voice. Fleeting words: “Not today, boy.” This time, no voice. No implied reassurance that someday David would have what he’d been after. Just the finality of his goal and the comfort of oblivion.

David’s senses came back faster the second time. 12 in this vignette, the first time he’d thought of using a knife. Sitting in the bathtub with his parents out for the night, laying the cold metal first against his wrist (radial and ulnar arteries, if he could bear the pain long enough to get both), and then his throat (carotid artery and jugular vein, closest to the surface), and then where his thigh met his groin (femoral artery, deeper but fastest loss of blood), and then against his wrist again. His indecision wasn’t about the end, merely the means. In the memory, there’d again been the ghost of a voice: “Not today, boy.” This time, when the knife reached his neck, David put both hands on the handle, and in the instant between one thought and the next, jerked it down. He had just enough time to be surprised at how red arterial blood was as it sprayed over his hands and spurted against the shower curtain. Then that almost pleasant oblivion again, like sinking forever.

There were a couple dozen more like that, differing only in age and minor details. David caught on to what was happening after the first few. He got older, the settings changed, sometimes the knife dragged down his forearm or up the inside of his thigh, but the ending was always the same. In none of these modified memories did the actual moment of death seem terrifying or painful - only in the endless anxiety of the buildup and the visceral chemical reactions of the body struggling against the injuries it had sustained.

When memory-David was 26, the scenes stopped featuring knives and started to feature the .45 revolver with the soft lead slugs that would flatten as they rebounded off the inside of the skull, tearing a hole in the brain the diameter of a poker chip, both of which David had bought for precisely this purpose and which he still owned. There were way more than a couple dozen of these, enough that they started blurring together. The only changes in any of them were the constant lack of that voice, always promising that one day David could go through with it and have peace, and the constant success.

Suddenly the stream of near-instant deaths jerked to a halt with one final scene. David had known it would finish here since he’d worked out that he was going to have to relive every single attempt. The memories were fresh, of course, because this last time had been barely a week ago. After staring down the barrel yet again, giving up yet again, and going to bed because it was the most effective form of unconsciousness he could get, he’d dreamt the angel for the first time. This time, things went as they’d been going for a while: hammer cock, trigger pull, immense noise, nothing. No angel. No strange ad. No conversations with bartenders and old Chinese women about a world beyond the everyday. As the world vanished yet again, this final death felt strangely disappointing.

David opened his eyes again. Wasn’t really expecting that… Shows what I know, I guess. He seemed to be standing in some sort of grassland. Dim moonlight cast shifting, fluttering shadows everywhere as the stalks moved in the breeze. As his eyes adjusted to the light and his mind adjusted to emotions besides suicidal despair, David began to make out another figure standing nearby.

“Took your time,” Doc Pleasant said, hocking his throat and spitting off into the grass. “Guessin’ you had a shit-ton of dyin’ to do, eh?”

He stamped his staff, an ebony stave, with a string of small skulls wrapped down and around. “C’mon, boy,” he said, starting off towards the ocean, “we got places to go an’ dead folks to meet.”

Without waiting to see if David followed or not, he strode off, the skulls clacking against the hard staff, a little off-rhythm from the stamp and thud of the staff itself on the ground. The effect was disconcerting, leaving the listener off-balance.

“Why you so willin’ an’ eager to be tossin’ away the life you got, boy?” He called over his shoulder to where David was struggling to rise and follow. “You got a gift, an’ you be throwin’ it away, every chance you get.”

David followed. What else was he going to do, sit in the grass and wait? His voice was bitter as he answered Doc.

“You think I haven’t asked myself that more times than I died just now? I’ve got the answer down damn well at this point. Not once in my life have I managed to do anything really worth doing. You can call it a chemical imbalance talking, but that’s the plain truth. All the things that give other people’s lives meaning I left behind years ago to pursue this stupid quixotic dream of a career, and I’m just good enough at it to know I’ll never be as good as I want to be. You tell me the fuck else is supposed to be left when you’ve signed up for plastering your nose up against the glass between you and all the things you wanted for yourself.”

“What you do, boy,” Doc said, punctuating his words with the staff, “is quit feelin’ sorry for yourself, hitch up your drawers, and make a path for yourself. Ain’t nobody’s path come easy, but some folks still got to make their own. So you took a wrong turn somewhere…don’t mean you can’t get out your map and find another way ‘round.”

“Yeah, I know that too. More to the point, I really believe - or believed, at least - this was theright path for me. Except even the path I should be on is pretty damn empty, all things considered. I was willing to wait for things to turn around. I set my deadline a nice, long way out. I figure ten years of groping for a path in the dark is long enough. But just because I haven’t actually given up yet doesn’t mean I can’t wish I could. The one thing I have had the guts to do is keep holding out. So don’t give me shit for being tired of waiting.”

David looked around as he followed the irascible spirit guide, or whatever he was. This place really was beautiful. If there was an ‘other side’ when one of those deaths became real, was this it? It didn’t seem so bad, all things considered.

“If you’re waitin’, you ain’t doin’,” Pleasant replied, shrugging. “But you be a smart boy, guess you got all the answers already.”

He headed down the steps, and somehow, it sounded as if there was a tinkle of laughter to the skulls, now. “You ever figure that maybe what you doin’ ain’t workin’ cause you ain’t bein’ real honest with the world?”

David considered. Questions always got him to consider. That, at least, didn’t seem to have changed between where he’d begun and where he was now. “I always figured if I’m wrong about something, it’s something about me, not the world. But your question is meant to make a point, so I’ll shut up and let you make it.”

“We gon’ have to start calling you Thinky Boy, ‘stead of the Stabby Boy,” Pleasant muttered under his breath.

“Seems like you got it all figured out,” the witch doctor said, aloud. “In which case, you ain’t needin’ me to point the obvious.”

David’s reply was surprisingly serious. “Obvious to you might not exactly be obvious to me. I haven’t got the patience for wise old man platitudes, but I’m not quite so far up my own ass that I can’t listen to other perspectives. Say what you meant to be getting at so I can think on it, would you?”

“An’ I ain’t got no patience for mouthy little white boys what can’t see when someone’s clear got a line to the other world,” Doc snapped back, “but here I be.” He grumbled, loud enough to be heard. “Ain’t I too old for this shit already? Good God a’mighty, gimme the serenity…”

He stomped on down the path in silence, jabbing his staff down with a vengeance.

If there was one thing David couldn’t stand, it was rhetorical questions with no clear purpose. He still tried to keep the attitude out of his voice, but it wasn’t exactly working. “Well, apparently, I’ve got some fucking line or other myself, or I wouldn’t be here. I can work with implicature and negative conceptions if you’re dead set on being mystic and cryptic and shit, but it gives me a headache and it makes me cranky. If the point of this whole business is to show me what I’ve been keeping myself around for, I’d take it a whole lot better if you - or someone - would just fucking tell me what that is instead of dancing around.”

“Heh. Heh heh.” Doc’s laugh was rusty and thick. “Oh, there’ll be someone, alright. Heh heh.”

With a final hacking laugh, they landed on the beach and headed towards the boat. A boat which - on closer inspection - seemed to be covered in a bas-relief of all sorts of rather explicit sexual acts.

Doc didn’t say anything further, just beckoned for David to get in.

“I’m going to assume this goes somewhere significant,” David remarked, stepping into the boat with an eyebrow raised.

There was no reply, and the boat slid off silently into the night - at perhaps a slightly slower pace than it had done with others come to this place.

David hadn’t expected any boat in the land of the dead - if that was where he was - to be empty. I even have coins. Not drachmas, of course, but still. Seems a wasted opportunity, really, if what they want is some kind of teachable moment. With nothing else to pay attention to, his eyes drifted to the carvings on the boat, which were plentiful, lascivious, and highly detailed. David could have learned a thing or two from them if he hadn’t been busy wondering why they were there to begin with. The water lapped quietly against the bow as the boat skimmed on regardless of his thoughts. Eventually the boat bumped against sand, slowly driving itself forward until it came to a stop on another beach indistinguishable from the one it had left except for the barely defined track through the grass leading off into the distance.

“Well, I’m hardly supposed to stand in the boat indefinitely, I suppose,” David muttered to himself, stepping out and following the path for lack of any other obvious choices. He kept walking for a time. Suddenly, he sensed movement in the grass behind him and a girl walked out onto the path. David felt an instant shock, though whether it came from recognizing her after all these years or surprise that he’d recognized her, he couldn’t tell.

Isn’t that…? Well, now I know two things for certain. First, this is definitely a vision, because she looks just like she did then. Second, I’m a terrible person, because it’s 15 years on and I’m still having…thoughts. What possessed me to read Lolita in high school I will never know.

Neither spoke, just as always. They just walked, near each other but hardly together, until suddenly the path opened onto a parking lot, a gross intrusion into the peace of the silent grassland. Lights blazed from the signs mounted on the building. ‘KFC’ and the caricature of a goateed face shone out in all directions. Around a group of cars, other teenagers sat and stood, laughing and trying not to look too obviously at each other. David stopped at the edge of the clearing, just like always. The girl went on, a smile on her lips as she joined the group. Just like always.

From the darkness, a presence slid - there was no other word to describe it - up behind David, and spoke. “Oooh, boy,” the voice itself was so full of the promise of innuendo, that it was nearly obscene to hear. “You just gon’ stand there playin’ with yourself all night?”

David’s skin prickled. There was a sense of something…predatory behind him. He’d felt that himself, a few times, but having it aimed at him so intensely was a very different thing. He suppressed a shiver and - just - kept himself from turning around. Heh. Time to work that Kinsey 1 for all it’s worth, I guess. Just like the clubs. Show interest, and you lose the feeling. Hold yourself back, and you can walk this line until something truly interesting happens.

“Well, disembodied voice that’s probably another part of this fucked up lesson that I’m failing to learn, if this goes the way it always went, I am not in fact going to stand here indefinitely. I’m going to feel scorn - actually less scorn than I’m feeling presently, since I can’t imagine why I wanted to be a part of this shit at the time - and then go home and read a book. Or, given the way things have gone so far, I’m going to die yet again. Why do you ask?”

“Me,” the voice replied, “I’m figurin’ that if you gon’ stand there jerkin’ off, I wanna watch. Might be the best entertainment I get all night, this rate.”

Ah, like that. I see. Best push the insouciance until this thing decides what it’s actually here for.

“Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I’ve got no plans to whip it out for your benefit or anyone else’s. Tease less and speak more plainly, if you’re here for a reason.” Even more strangely, the voice sounded vaguely familiar, like he’d heard it before.

“Ooh, you got a mouth on you…too bad you ain’t use that mouth for something fun.” There was a throaty, suggestive chuckle. “How’s your head, boy?”

David chose to ignore the innuendo. With things that…wanted…the way this one seemed to, that was sure to keep them around. “Well, I’m not seeing Super Hexagon in stereoscopic 3D, so compared to LSD I’m doing just fine, thanks. I’m just getting more and more tired of this mystic runaround shit. I get that I’m here for some after-school special lesson, and I’d like to just know what it is. I’m down for paying attention to it, which is a big enough stretch as far as I can see, but I can’t pay attention to something that never gets pointed out.”

“Well, fuck my cock-sucking holy Mother, boy…ain’t you got a bit of fun in you?” The voice grew a little closer, right over his shoulder, and whispered, “Monsieur Grincheux.”

A snicker, then, “Guess if you ain’t got none, we best find us a pretty boy to put some fun in you…”

“Let me guess, you’re volunteering?” David quipped before he had time to think.

“Hell, naw…why’d I wanna do that when you can do it for me?” The voice was practically dripping I’m-fucking-with-you-and-getting-off-on-it. “Always did love ridin’ mes chevauxthrough a good fuck…”

Well, at least I judged this thing correctly. Course, now I have to figure out how to get it to do more than hit on me. Concentrating was getting more and more difficult. Past a certain point, the feeling of being desired grows so strong, so electric, that it overwhelms everything else. The longer you go without it, the more intoxicating it is, and David hadn’t had that sort of regard pointed at him in several years. Tingles were happening, put it that way. Still, he managed to keep his voice mostly steady for the moment. “I’m not sure we agree on a definition of ‘fun,’ then, Mr…?”

“Naw, not now, maybe,” the chuckle again, “but gimme five minutes with you and a pretty boy, and I bet we can come to an understandin’ on the meaning of the thing.”

When at a loss, apply logic. “So you and me isn’t fun, but a threesome is fun? Now you’re just confusing me, mystery voice.”

“You playin’ coy, or you just slow, boy?” There was nearly the touch of something along his neck, a finger, crackling in power, maybe. And as it passed along his skin, the almost-touch sent a shudder of pleasure-arousal-lust-ecstasy through the mouthy boy’s body, followed by low, throaty groan. “You think that felt good for you, boy, guess how good it felt for me?”

David arched his back and shook his head to clear it. It didn’t work. His voice had a somewhat dreamy quality to it now. “Why not both? Worked okay for Socrates, after all. Got him lots of attention like that, too…”

“Goddamn and fuck the tits of your mother, son. You sit through that an’ all you got is another smart remark?” Another grumble in David’s ear. “That is it. I am stagin’ an intervention… Don’ know if I even got here in time to save you from bein’ an insuffr’ble asshole the rest of your life.”

This time, the hand on David’s ass had mass and body. “You’ll thank me later. Now quit bein’ dumb as a box of rocks, quit mouthin’ off and go see the shit I done brought you here to see. You askin’ me all these questions ‘bout what’s the meanin’, what’s the lesson? Son, you ain’t stopped talkin’ long enough to even see the lesson since you got here.”

With the shove forward, the dream-like atmosphere dissipated. “You’d talked more, I wouldn’t have had to keep asking,” David shot back as he staggered forward. “But whatever. You want me to stand down there instead of out here, I’ll go stand down there instead of out here. If you’re the one that brought me here, I can hardly do different anyway.” He walked into the parking lot out of the night, his shoulders relaxed in the easy slouch of teenage cool. He hadn’t had it then, but ten years wearing leather jackets will rub off on anyone, even a professor who never quite grew out of being the loner on the edge of the crowd.

The quality of the laughter coming from the group changed as David approached. It had been the forced laughter of kids who each wanted the others to think they were funny. Now it was easier, more genuine, but also more malicious somehow. David recognized faces and voices: bigger, older, cooler kids, the ones he had avoided for his own sanity.

“That Goodman kid, huh? Piece of fuckin’ work, he is!” That one was Billy Craggs.

“I asked him what the fuck Shakespeare was talkin’ about after English class. You know, since he totes that complete works into math every day? He looked at me like I was something on the bottom of his shoe. Skinny-ass nerd kid thinking he was better than me.” And Luke Stone.

“Shit. His nose is so far up the teachers’ asses his whole face is probably brown!” And there, with the knockout blow as always, Simon Gunn. General hilarity ensued.

“Stop giving him shit just because he’s the only one who’s going to make it out of here!” Her voice cut through the laughter. The only person more stunned than Billy, Luke, and Simon was David himself.

Did she…

“You meatheads are going to knock up your cheerleader girlfriends - except you, Tommy, because you already have, she didn’t tell you yet? - raise a pack of jackass kids, and grow tobacco the rest of your fucking lives. David, he’s going to go to college, in case you hadn’t noticed. You know, move to the city, live a life? If you had any brains between you, you’d envy him.” Then, barely audible. “I do.”

Did she…?

The surprise and the silence hung for a moment in the night air. Then the laughter burst back even louder than before. Her face fell.

“Ooooh, somebody’s got the hots for nerd-boy!”

“You want those grabby little hands grabbing at you, huh?”

“Bet his glasses get all foggy when he beats it thinking of you! But you’d like that, I guess…”

She did, didn’t she? Shit, I can’t even remember her name. I can remember them, but not her. How fucked is that?

“Pretty damn fucked up, boy,” the voice said…this time accompanied by a corporeal manifestation of a young light-skinned black man, shirtless and covered in tattoos. Slim, but well-built, wearing a combination of crude wooden jewelry and flashy modern bling, as well as body piercings, he puffed at a cigar for a moment, blowing out a series of smoke rings.

“Guess you was too busy playin’ with yourself to even notice her, huh?”

“Not exactly how I’d put it, mystery voice,” David replied, taking the young man in. “I was, as she so eloquently said, busy getting out. Do I feel like an idiot for missing it? Sure. But everyone misses opportunities in high school. Par for the fucking course of being a teenager. It’s not like we’d have been the love of each other’s lives or some shit.”

The man practically growled, a feral, animal sound that set the hair on the back of David’s neck rising and brought the feeling of predatory desire flooding back. “You are dense as a dog-shittin’ post, boy! Guess you need a picture done in fuckin’ fingerpaints to get it, so let’s try this, son.” He snapped two big fingers and David was elsewhere.

As it turned out, he hadn’t gone very far, just to a seat in the library in the school up the road a piece. He was reading - what else could he have been doing… Looking down at the page brought the memory back with a twinge of recognition. This was my first time with Hume’sPrinciples.

Magical. He tore himself from the book to glance up at the clock, and with a bit of awareness he certainly hadn’t had at the time, saw her looking at him. She wasn’t just looking at him, either. He’d seen that look in the years since, if not as much as he’d have liked. That was the “Oh God, his eyes and his hands and his forearms and the curve of his neck and the way he pinches the edge of his eyebrow when he’s really into what he’s reading and the way he mouths angry replies when he sees something he disagrees with and he thinks nobody’s looking and… Oh God, I want him!” look. She caught his eye and got up.

Funny, I don’t remember this part.

He didn’t look up when he felt her presence next to him, one hand on the back of his chair.

“What are you reading, David?”

“Hume.” An interruption. He’d always hated them, still did. Especially interruptions that insisted on smelling good.

“What’s it about?”

“Causation. Why?”

“Just, you know, wondering what was so interesting.”

“No you weren’t.” Older David cringed inside, but that didn’t stop the words from coming out. “What do you actually want?”

“Nothing, I guess. N-never mind…” The voice quivered, the presence retreated.

I don’t remember that part either. God, I was a shit in high school. Is that supposed to be the point of this?

“The lesson gettin’ clearer, boy?” his companion asked. “Nevermind, we got more things to see.”

He headed off down the path from whence they’d come - and another familiar sight came into view.

It didn’t seem possible for a path through a field to lead to a room, but this one had, somehow. When David looked back in confusion, all he saw was another white wall. Well, allegedly white, anyway - this was a college dorm room. David was reading again, Lewis’s On the Plurality of Worlds this time, his body trying and failing to stretch out on the undersized mattress.

The door opened and another boy came in, shoulders hunched as he sat on the edge of the other bed. “David, can I talk to you for a second?”

Oh, fuck, not this…

Interruptions. Always with the interruptions. “What, Paul?” David bit off his answer with obvious frustration.

“Well, it’s just… This shit with my family, it’s getting pretty bad. Dad said if I don’t ‘get myself back on track’ they’ll… They want me to go to conversion therapy. A-and I don’t know what to do, and— Are you even listening?”

“Uh-huh.” He wasn’t; he’d gotten to a good bit.

“Thanks, David. Thanks.” Paul went out again.

“Must’a been a real good book, that,” his companion remarked, strolling up to join David. “Fuckin’ amazin’, eh?”

Fuck you, whoever you are,” David snapped. “You think I don’t know the next time there’s a knock on that door it’s a counselor telling me they’ve found Paul’s body? You think I didn’t - don’t - wonder what I could’ve done differently? What’s the point in punishing me for something I already regret?”

“Ain’t ‘bout punishing you, pretty boy. You ain’t payin’ attention. Again.” The man blew a puff of smoke in David’s general direction. “Think it out, think it out! I ain’t brought you here for my health. You read all them damn books, tasty, ain’t you learned anything from ‘em?”

David waved away the reeking cloud, mystified. The pattern forming in his mind seemed pretty clear - he was being shown times when his failings had hurt other people. Some, like the girl from high school, he hadn’t known about at the time. Others, like Paul…well, it was like he’d just said - he’d had plenty of chances to think it over. What other explanation could there be for why he was here?

The man watched the struggle on David’s face. “Want a hint, tasty?” he offered. “I’ll give you a hint…an’ somethin’ else, too…Heh. Heh heh.”

‘Something else’ could only be one thing when uttered in this man’s tone. David’s mind did some lightning-fast dot-connecting. Dick, obviously, plus hint, so relevant somehow to my place in this? And Paul’s reason, or assumed reason, anyway… Wait. For me? Ah. There is another pattern here.

“I think I’m all right on both counts, thanks,” David said, his tone evening out as he grew more sure of his new conclusion. “But why are you showing me people who were attracted to me?”

“I seem to recall you was readin’ a book last time, ‘bout causation, eh? You remember anything ‘bout it?”

“No shit I do. One of the most beautiful arguments there is, both an explanation of why the cause-and-effect relations we observe can’t be metaphysically necessary and an account of why we think they’re real anyway. I teach it every semester. So?”

“Uh huh…an’ ain’t he said that a body can only understand cause an’ effect once they seen the relation between two things time an’ again?”

David eyed the man suspiciously. “I was rather aware that there’s a constant conjunction between reading a lot and not getting laid, but I concede the point, I guess. Why does that matter, exactly?”

The man slapped his forehead. “Boy, your momma drop you on your head when you was little or somethin’? Guess you ain’t seen enough to,” he curved his fingers in the air, “‘infer a causal relationship between two actions’, eh?”

He waved for David to follow him. “C’mon, pretty boy. Let’s go see some more objects what are precedent and contiguous to another.”

As David stood to follow the man, he saw another piece of the new pattern being developed. Of course. There was only one place they could be going next. He stopped short the instant he made the connection. A “No!” burst from his lips before he had time to think. “Not…not her. Don’t make me do that again.”

“What’s the matter, pretty boy?” His guide sauntered back to David, once again disregarding the concept of personal space with no small amount of insouciance. He ran one finger along David’s jaw, then slowly, delicately, brushed it across his lips. “You need some hand holdin’, hmm? A little somethin’ to help you through a hard time, mebbe?”

David was so consumed by clashing emotions - five years and it still won’t go away… - that he barely registered the other man’s presence, his touch, or any of his words. He just stood, inert; his mind had leapt ahead to the moment he knew he was being taken to, probing at the enduring pain there. Through the fog of those memories, he dimly noticed that there was someone standing very close to him.

“Huh? No!” Enough of David’s mind came back to start reacting to stimuli. He stepped backwards, since pushing the other man away would have meant resting a hand on his bare chest - and that would have been an entirely unambiguous action that would never have been purposely misinterpreted.

“You know perfectly well what’s wrong, you’re the one leading the tour. I go back there enough already anyway.”

“Guess instead of goin’ there metaphorically, we goin’ to go there literally, pretty boy.” He took off down the path that had materialized at a rapid pace, leaving David to catch up on his own.

“C’mere, tasty,” he called back to where David was still standing. “This lookin’ familiar to you?”

David stayed put. “No, ‘we’ are not going to go there, metaphorically, literally, or in any other fashion.”

“Oh? ‘Parently you do need some hand holdin’…and maybe some somethin’ else holdin’, too.” He grinned, his teeth gleaming in the faint light. “I hope you ain’t gonna make me come back there an’ pick you up an’ carry you, are you?” The glee in his voice suggested that he did, in fact, hope that. “Don’t think I won’t, pretty boy.”

David sagged. If this bastard was that dedicated, there probably wasn’t anything he could do. He trudged forward without replying, trying and failing to steel himself for what lay ahead.

A few strides, and he was there, sitting on another bed. He wasn’t reading this time, and he wasn’t alone. She was sitting there next to him; they were holding hands, pressed against each other. ‘She’ wasn’t a nebulous high school girl this time. ‘She’ was Jane Sullivan, and this was spring break, the first time they’d seen each other in months, and a few weeks after their fourth anniversary. She was crying. David was trying to find words to explain something he didn’t really understand.

“Yes, the market is bad, and it won’t be any better by the time I finish. And no, I don’t like what this is doing to us. But I…I love it there. I really do. When things are clicking, there’s nothing else like it. And I know I can do it now.”

She sniffled. “I know you can too. It’s just…I’m tired, David. I’m tired of having our anniversaries over Skype. I’m tired of barely knowing what’s happening in your life because our schedules don’t line up. I’m tired of not having you here.” She squeezed his hand. “With me. The way things were.” She didn’t say, ‘The way they could have been if you hadn’t decided to go in the first place,’ but David heard it anyway.

“You know I’d quit right now if that’s what you—”

“No! No, David. I love you. I want what’s best for you, and I know how much you care about what you do, how good it is for you. Don’t think that I’m asking you to give that up.”

He half-laughed, half-sobbed. “You are, though. You’re right. We’re not working, not like this. We’ve been having this exact fight since the month before I left.” He turned to look at her. “I don’t want that for you, you don’t deserve it. I need to be there, and I need to be here with you, and I can’t do both. We’ve just been trying not to face that, and now we have to.”

“So…what, then?” she asked, barely able to meet his eye. “How do we fix this?”

There was only one thing to say with her tear-stained face right there, with her hand in his, with the pain and guilt of having caused all this roiling inside. “I do what I’ve been offering to do,” he said. “I quit. I take my comps - at least I can get a master’s out of it - and I come home for good.” He sounded defeated.

She could tell - of course she could tell. “David, love. Is that what you want?”

He couldn’t meet her eyes. The last thing he saw as he looked away was the love and hope in them being replaced by a dawning terror. Then he was crying too, choking out the words. “No. No, God damn it, it’s not. But it should be!”

David’s companion walked over to where the man stood, unable to watch, but unable to look away. He rested a hand on David’s shoulder, but didn’t speak, just stood there with him for a moment - the scene frozen still.

“You need a moment,” he said, “take a moment. We got all the time in the world, son.”

David looked up at him, his face streaked with tears. “What the fuck do you want? Hmm? Some shit lesson about how sticking with something I love makes me miss out on everything else that matters? I fucking know! And I know I chose wrong! But once that die was cast, what else was I supposed to do?”

“Only thing that’s completely irreversible, boy, is death. An’ there’s even some what have negotiated options there. Sure, some bridges get burnt to the ground. Others, maybe there’s still some bits an’ pieces left standing. Maybe they ain’t ever goin’ to look the same again, but you try hard enough, you can fix it up a little. ” He squeezed David’s shoulder gently. “‘Course, sometimes, tryin’ to rebuild a bridge ain’t the best option…truth is, might be best for everyone involved to be movin’ on.”

He looked over at David, head tilted, examining him. “Most important thing, ‘course, even if that bridge is well an’ truly burnt, you don’t be lettin’ that fuck with you the rest of your life, eh?”

“So, what now, being single means I’ve damaged myself?” David wiped his eyes and glared. “I get - well, got, now, I guess - to do what I love every day for years. I might’ve given up everything else for it, but there’s been meaning and value there nonetheless.” Except that there hasn’t, really, but I’m not going to tell this prick that.

“Has there?” Some of the man’s teasing expression, and even his accent faded a little for a moment. “You believe that, yet?”

“Of course I believe it,” David said. “It’s true. What I told her? That there’s nothing like it? There really isn’t.” Nothing like waking up alone either.

The man nodded. “Nothing like it, sure, but that don’t mean it’s good. Ain’t nothing like takin’ a kick in the balls, either. You ain’t seein’ me sign up for that on a reg’lar basis.”

“Yeah, clever.” David’s tone made it clear that ‘clever’ was a pejorative in his world. “This is the good kind of nothing like it. Not much even close, for that matter.” She was…

The man shook his head. “You really thinkin’, ‘That Nibo, he don’t know the difference ‘tween truth an’ honesty’? That what you thinkin’?”

“I’m thinking,” David said, “that you want me to ‘admit’ that I don’t actually feel that way.” He shrugged. “And, sure, fine, most of the time I don’t. But the value of my life has precisely nothing to do with how I feel about it. Biggest reason I’m still alive, really.”

Nibo raised an eyebrow. “An’ what about the value of all them other lives you been playin’ with? How ‘bout them?”

“Playing with lives?” David gave the man a quizzical glance. “What, you mean the drugs? I sell pure, safe shit. I don’t sell anything damaging or addictive. Mine is probably the only molly most of these kids have ever had that isn’t cut with meth to get them hooked. And I’m ‘playing’ with their lives? How do you figure?”

“What’s that them as are clever say? A picture worth a thousand words?” Nibo reached up and touched a finger to David’s forehead. “We got enough pictures for a boxed set of what’s them things? Ring Lords? Lords of Rings?

Faces began flicking through David’s vision. He didn’t recognize many of them, but from those that he did he began to build a pattern. Friends he’d dropped between one day and the next, simply because he hadn’t felt like talking to them any more. Fellow grad students whose invitations he hadn’t merely declined, but had pointedly ignored. Professors whose offers of help he hadn’t even noticed. Judging by the number of young faces, probably a lot of undergraduates - whatever they’d wanted, he probably hadn’t given it. In sum, a whole lot of people he’d refused to ever really engage with.

He felt a sharp stab of regret, but it felt foreign somehow, almost external. That just made him more determined not to feel bad for missing out on these things - things he obviously hadn’t wanted, or else he’d have been paying attention. He batted the hand away irritably.

“That’s enough of those, I think. And I’m still not seeing the ‘playing with lives’ here.”

“Virgin’s tits, son…you got some mule in your family tree?” Nibo eyed David with the expression of someone with an itchy slapping hand. “I got to fuckin’ spell this out for you? I got to, don’t I?”

He took David by both shoulders, looking him straight in the eyes. “Listen, pretty boy. You wanna make yourself miserable? Ain’t nobody or nothin’ stoppin’ you. Seems like a goddamn waste to me…all the fine dick and pussy out there, you just ignorin’…but hey, ‘f bein’ morose gets you hard in the mornin’, well, be my fuckin’ guest.”

“Wait, that’s your big lesson?” David glared back. “I need to get laid more? Really? Where’s the fucking profundity in that?”

“Now, you just bein’ obtuse on purpose,” Nibo said, making a little growling noise is his throat. “Point is, you c’n do whatever sends you…’long as it ain’t affectin’ other people. Costs a lot for someone to come to a man, askin’ for help - like them what’s been coming to you. Takes their pride, takes a lot of guts, too. More, takes a lot of kindness to keep offerin’ a man friendship, too, ‘specially when he throws it back in their faces. All that goin’ on around you, an’ you ain’t got no idea of the price them as come to you has paid.”

“You sittin’ there, a fuckin’ hurricane. You all turned inside, seein’ just the eye where it’s nice an’ quiet, an’ all the while, you missing the gods-damned chaos you causin’ ‘round you. Hell, not just missin’ it, refusin’ to even look.”

“You want your big lesson, all spelt out in big letters an’ everything? Here it is: get your damn fool head out your ass and pay attention.”

The man’s conviction shook David enough that he actually considered the idea before rejecting it. His absence from these people’s lives couldn’t have been that important. The world didn’t need him any more than it needed anyone else, after all.

“Okay, look. I take the point about the price other people have paid to try to get near me.” He shrugged. “But what would they have gotten for it anyway? What good could I have been for them? And…” His voice nearly broke again with the memory of Jane’s tears. “Whatever harm my distance causes can’t possibly be worse than what happens to the people I have let in.”

“We ain’t always privy to the good we do,” Nibo said, his tone a little less pointed. “Sometime, it don’t pay off till later. An’ sometimes, it ain’t even our business to know. But son, you can’t even begin to tell me that what you coulda offered Paul ain’t better than what the boy’s got now. And me, I should know, bein’ the one what caught him.”

David shook his head angrily. “What, betrayal, abandonment, and a rejection that would have had to happen anyway would have been so much better? Like all that extra pain would have kept him alive? If you ‘caught’ him - whatever the fuck that means - I’d think you would know that.”

“He already had all that pain, boy. What he needed was someone to just fuckin’ listen to him. I know it to be so…” He paused. “’Cause he told me.”

“What the fuck does that even mean, you unidentified fucking pseudo-divinity?” David was evidently frustrated past any point of restraint. “You haul me out here through all this to tell me that I should care more or some shit, that I’m hurting people by keeping them away. Well, I don’t fucking buy it. There’s no fucking way these people’s lives go better with me in them. Not Jane’s, not even Paul’s, none of them. And as much as you want me to think otherwise, you haven’t given me a solitary reason why I should. So fuck you and fuck the high horse you rode in on.”

Nibo slapped David on the shoulder and stepped back, shaking his head. “Devil’s prick, boy. I said it ‘fore, goin’ to say it again: me, I got here just in time. You ain’t get laid soon, you goin’ to be tellin’ them kids to get off your lawn. You got one of them severe vit’min p deficiencies.” He tsk’d. “Ain’t going to be livin’ in a head that cranky…got to get you some help.”

“‘Sides,” he added, “you just lookin’ for shit to object to, now, and ain’t nothing I c’n say’s gonna be enough, is it?”

“None of that sounded like you telling me who the fuck you are and what the fuck you want. So no, probably not.”

“Surprise you ain’t clock it, yet.” He made a little face, apparently miffed that he hadn’t been recognized. “Me, I’m Ghede Nibo. Right han’ man of the baron, an’ voice of the dead as can’t speak for themselves. An’ like or not - prob’ly not, from the look of things - you been promoted. You my acolyte, now, pretty boy.”

David made a tenuous connection between horny Caribbean men, death, and ‘baron.’ “Loa, then, I guess.” As he filled in more information, he grew even more unenthusiastic about his conclusion, and progressively more irritated. “And not just any loa, no, but some third-rate oversexed errand boy I’ve never once heard of. And I can only assume ‘acolyte’ - which I definitely did not sign up for, thank you - means you plan to ‘ride’ me for fuck only knows what purpose. Yup, ‘not’ is definitely the right interpretation of my reaction to that.”

“Third-rate? Third-rate? You got to be fuckin’ kiddin’ me.” He stalked over towards David, the air around him crackling with the power he commanded. “You want to see what a fuckin’third-rate loa can do? Got a burnin’ desire to see what happens when you smart off with that pretty little mouth of yours?”

David stood his ground. Part of him was paying enough attention to be surprised by this, and more than a little concerned, but most of him was just angry. “Right now,” he snapped, “I’ve got a burning desire to tune your bullshit right the fuck out until I wake up.”

Nibo didn’t say anything. His only response to David’s little rant was a slow smile that grew into a laugh - deep, knowing…and disconcerting. He cupped David’s face in both hands, the glitter in his eyes mesmerizing his acolyte, holding him there. With great deliberation, he dipped his head and brushed his lips against David’s in a gentle kiss - a caress that was tender, loving even.

And into the kiss, he poured himself. His power, his knowledge, his desire, his need for the fulfillment his acolyte’s pleasure would give him…everything that made him the avatar worshipped for centuries, and worshipped still by those who needed him.

David found himself sighing back against Nibo’s lips, his knees going weak as a rush of pleasure hit him. He took back the ‘pseudo-divinity’ part of his conception of Nibo - this was too good and too powerful to be fake. And as Nibo gently broke the kiss, David made one final connection, shuddering with the realization and the last tinges of sensation.

“That voice, all those times. ‘Not today, boy.’ That was you, wasn’t it?”

Nibo nodded. “You been destined for me, an’ me for you. ‘Fore you was even alive, pretty boy. You ain’t goin’ to get rid of me, ‘cause I can’t get rid of you. ‘Times, there be things even gods got to accept. You was chosen to get the Gift…an’ I got to tell you, you goin’ to have a better life soon as you learn to be usin’ it.”

David remained unenthused at the prospect of having Nibo around permanently, but if there really wasn’t anything he could do about it, then there wasn’t anything he could do about it. Better to start gathering information so he could at least navigate his new circumstance. “Gift? There’s more to this than suddenly popping off to the shadowlands every time I get high?”

“‘Course there is! Ain’t bringin’ you here just to fuck with you…much as that’d be a whole big ol’ bunch of fun. You a diviner, tasty. An oracle. You got the power to manipulate bits of the future. Think about that, boy. Think ‘bout the implications of that.”

“That there’s a new problem for hard determinism?” David knew that was probably the wrong answer, but he didn’t know what the right answer was supposed to be. “I think if I could manipulate the future or whatever that I’d have, I don’t know, actually done it?”

Nibo stared, then laughed…and laughed some more, till he was coughing and wiping his eyes. “Boy, what you think you been doin’ all your life? All them little things you just knewwas gonna happen? You been prophesyin’. True speakin’, you ken?”

David reviewed the instances to which Nibo was referring and noticed a disturbing commonality. “You mean all the shitty things I just knew were going to happen? My superpower is seeing how my life is going to suck before it does?”

“Your superpower, as you call it, is making shitty things happen, ‘cause you expect them to. ‘Cause you want them to. Self-fulfillin’ prophecy be the only accurate prophecy, boy. But it ain’t just about you. You c’n affect them what are around you, too. Why you think I been showin’ you all this shit tonight? You think it’s cause I’m one of them, what they call ‘em…sadists? Well,” he amended, “mebbe in some things, but not the things that matter.”

“Because I want them to?” David boggled slightly. “The whole point of shitty things is that Idon’t want them to happen, but they do anyway. That’s precisely what shitty things are.”

“A goodly bit of the time, shitty things happen ‘cause someone didn’t get up off their precious little ass and do something about the situation,” Nibo replied. “There be this thing I seen humans do a lot…and now, I ain’t accusing you of nothin’, but if the shoe fits an’ shit… See, there’s them as get so hurt when things goin’ wrong, they fuck everythin’ up on purpose, ‘cause that hurts less. An’ it makes ‘em feel like they’re right ‘bout the world, that everythin’ is shit anyway, so why bother. Then, on top of that, them as do this be usin’ it as an excuse to escape, not have to risk gettin’ hurt, or failure or nothin’. Them as what are obsessed with life bein’ full of shitty things, they usually one of them types…”

He snapped his fingers and the cigar, which had disappeared at some point, returned - fully lit - and he took a drag on it. “An’ like I say, I ain’t namin’ names or nothing, but boy, you got a real unhealthy int’rest in things bein’ fucked up.”

David rocked back on his heels a bit. That rang true so much it hurt. “But things are fucked up,” he said, barely louder than a whisper. “How am I supposed to stop that when I can’t even fight it for my own self?”

“That be what you got me here for, boy. Me, I’m here to keep you on the straight and narrow…mebbe not the straight..heh heh heh…but you take my meanin’. Lots of things man can’t do by himself…” He snickered again. “I got a hand for you, is what I’m sayin’.”

David looked at him skeptically. “Um, you just took that hand out of your pants.”

“Picky, picky.” Nibo snapped his fingers, and a strangely incongruous, personal-sized bottle of purell appeared. “Happy now, tasty?”

“Not particularly, but that’s par for the course, really.” David sighed. “So…what do I do with this shit?”

“Go back ‘n the living world, an’ do the job you been hired to do, mos’ly. You goin’ to find others like you, and them as can help and train you, too.” He shrugged. “Ain’t real hard. Show up, do what they askin’, get laid and get paid. Think you can handle that?”

“I think it would help if I knew how to do any of those three things,” David answered wryly, “but if those are the marching orders, those are the marching orders.”

“You don’t know how to get laid?” Nibo’s expression was shocked, though whether it was real or just good acting wasn’t clear. “I ain’t jokin’ when I said I got here just in time, ‘parently.”

“Oh, what to do with a partner, sure,” David said, growing distinctly uncomfortable. “How to get to that point? You’ve seen my memories, you know I was Jane’s idea, not the other way around.”

Nibo coughed. “There been plenty women what thought you was an idea…still are. You just got to fuckin’ pay attention. Mebbe even say something when they talk to you. I heard talkin’ works real well with the ladies…”

“Can we maybe not do this now?” David fidgeted some more and put a hand on his forehead. “I’ve been here for what feels like hours, and I’m not in the mood for tips from the Mystery of the underworld.”

Nibo spat on the ground. “Don’t be sullyin’ the air bringin’ that rat bastard’s name into my presence. That fool missin’ out all the fun of life. ‘Sides, rat bastard.” He clapped David on the shoulder. “Go on, pretty boy. Get outta here. You got work to do.”

The god of death, sex and patron saint of suicides cupped David’s chin in his hand and brushed one last, light kiss against his lips. Tasty

David’s world abruptly narrowed to the touch on his lips, then vanished entirely. When he woke, pipe still in his hand, he was woozy, confused, and tired. He also had an erection that felt like a bar of molten iron. That motherfucker… What the fuck have I gotten myself into? He looked around groggily.

Chesa, on doctor duty since Dr. Wu had an emergency situation to deal with, watched the latest addition to the team thrash and toss and turn his way through his trip to the Diyu.Must be a contrary one, she thought, checking the time. He’d been in there for awhile.

Finally, though, the agitation began to subside - only to be replaced with squirming, a low groan…and a rather apparent hard-on.

He’d gotten one of the fun patrons, then. She smirked, already anticipating the fun and games that portended. This one definitely had promise…