Johnita Luxton paced back and forth in the small room, with its harsh antiseptic lighting and weird, hollow sound, the noise from each footfall of the ill-fitting flats she’d been given bouncing off the bare walls and low ceiling and refracting and reflecting back at her, mocking her. She’d been shouting, first for help and then just for the sake of giving voice to her anger, roaring vulgar insults at the guards, but her throat was raw and her chest sore. She wanted, more than just about anything, one of the stupid cloves she’d all but sworn off back on the marsh.
She moved to the door, the little window in the middle right at eye level, and pressed her face close, tried to see in either direction, but the hallway was dark on top of not being able to angle her face such that she could see much, even if that were not the case. Frustrated, she slammed her palms hard against the thick metal of the door, regretting it immediately when the stinging at skin level yielded to a duller ache that resonated deep beneath the surface, in her bones. She hung her head, pressed its crown against the door.
In the quiet still—without either her feet slapping the concrete floor or her heart pounding and her breath rapid—she could hear, faintly, some kind of animal whine, pained… anguished. No, it was a scream. She put her ear to the door, wanting to make sense of it, identify its source.
“Wild claim, chief—yeh got a source for that?” Captain Hi-Score asked aggressively, employing one of the standard maneuvers in the chess game that was “stream debate.”
“Look, I do have a source, but I’m not betraying them to the likes of you,” the equally adamant voice-chatter on Hi-Score’s “Dissonance” server, where the viewers of his successful “Flinch” livestreams mostly congregated, responded. Then, in a move not unlike a well-timed castle: “How about grappling with the facts instead of engaging in bad faith attacks?”
Hi-Score scoffed sharply. “My dude,” he said, pausing afterward, as use of this utterance alone was akin to taking a few pawns, perhaps a knight, from the opposition, an intricacy that did not go unnoticed by the Captain’s loyal viewers, who contributed a few “Clout Shout” donations to show their appreciation for his beautiful mastery of the form; Hi-Score continued following this brief but meaningful… emphatic pause, “There are no facts to grapple with: just a bunch of baseless accusations.”
The voice-chatter laughed—a fake laugh meant to convey how ridiculous and beneath contempt Hi-Score’s remark was, but the winds on Dissonance were blowing toward this being “cope.” Nonetheless, he persisted, albeit with a slight shift in strategy: “So you’re just cool with the weird racist B.S. Cater said, then? That Stepin Fetchit or whatever routine? Wow. Not a good look, bro.”
“Mate,” Hi-Score now began talking directly into his expensive, state-of-the-art microphone with its fancy-pants pop filter, something he did when he felt he had a real checkmate level move he was making, his thin, reedy voice becoming slightly deeper and more sonorous as a result: “I was the first one to admit that Danny did a racism. Samanda James—my BIPOC friend; think yeh may know her, yeah?—and I took him aside and read to him from Racism is Bad, Mmkay? and got a hard commitment from him to…”
“Oh, so that makes it…” the voice-chatter cut in but Hi-Score, worked into a frothy lather, cut him off in turn.
“—do better… focus on learning from BIPOCs and WOCs. Samanda, who is both, is already…”
“Oh, so it’s the WOC’s job to teach him?” the voice-chatter said petulantly.
“Oh, so it’s your place to tell BIPOC-WOC heroes like my friend Samanda James what their jobs are?” Hi-Score countered.
The conversation would proceed in this direction for some time. Some might say that this interaction, and those like it, have more in common with schoolyard bickering—a “nanny nanny boo boo, stick your head in doo doo”/”bounces off me and sticks to you ‘cos’ I’m rubber and you’re glue and you stink like poo poo”—than a high level game of chess between skilled players, and in fact that was a charge laid at the feet of Hi-Score and his ilk by critics and some former allies who had run afoul of him, but then to the untrained, uneducated eye, complex quadratic equations look like a lot of gobbledygook as well.
At any rate, at its conclusion—something of a stalemate, we might say, as the original argument mostly fell away and, by the end, the point of contention had become whether or not roles such as “Stepin Fetchit” were, in fact, Good, Actually, because although they seemed to be bad and responsible for perpetuating negative stereotypes, they did help achieve some measure of diversity in media, such as it was, and steady work and personal wealth for minorities at a time when those things were all in short supply; Hi-Score and his challenger alike seemed to become both tired and confused when all was said and done, and parted company with half-hearted “do better” style bon mots—and following the end of another lucrative Flinch stream, Hi-Score found himself uncharacteristically unsettled, for in the quiet of the post-stream glow, he had his first opportunity to really consider the charges that the voice-chatter had leveled not only at Cater, but at Samanda James (BIPOC) and Hi-Score himself.
Hi-Score texted his father, with whom he wasn’t close, but who was known to work his way out of a tight spot from time to time, among other talents for creative problem solving. “Hey dad think i need ur help, in some trouble” he wrote, hesitating for a moment before hitting send but ultimately doing so.
“Trouble? What kinda trouble?” Servais inquired.
“It’s… better if you come see for yourself, I think,” a perturbed Brian Powell replied.
“Ah, hell,” Servais grumbled, then sat up from the poolside deckchair upon which he’d been lying shirtless, sunning himself and drinking from a handle of Old Overholt. He rocked back and forth a bit and then rose to his feet.
Servais looked Powell over quickly and passed him the bottle, figuring he looked like he could use a drink. Brian took it and had a healthy pull while the grizzled former catcher walked around the fence, opting in the meantime to remain calm and put the patient veteran leadership that had made him one of the ‘98 Cubbies clubhouse’s steadying forces on a team where that sort of even-tempered guidance was somewhat lacking, as fundamentals and concern for calling a good game had fallen by the wayside in favor of an unhealthy obsession with that narcissistic goofball Sosa’s “taters” arms race against the grotesquely swollen juice aficionado “Big Mac” McGwire.
Powell was breathing heavily and his eyes were flitting about wildly. He’d been doing a lot of cocaine, in lieu of lifting the weights with which Servais had recommended he get acquainted, but this seemed less the product of the drug, which Brian usually handled with a sort of green-faced, tense-jawed outward calm at high doses rather than this readily ostensible psychic distress.
“You wanna hang back by the pool, Kid? Some nice-lookin’ babes back there,” the hardman offered, giving his unnerved friend a little squeeze on the shoulder.
Powell shook his head quickly, before Servais was even done speaking, shaking him off like the irascible forkball specialist Kevin Tapani, too headstrong for his own good at times, unwilling and unable to pitch around a dangerous hitter—perhaps the preternaturally old looking Derek Bell, of the vaunted “Killer Bs” lineup from Servais’ former club, the ‘Stros—despite Servais’ advice. The grizzled tough guy hoped his younger friend wouldn’t, to extend the metaphor still further and render the waters muddier yet, see his fragile psyche clubbed, like Tapani’s waning 89 mph “heater,” onto a Waveland Ave. rooftop, so to speak, blasted out of the “Friendly Confines” of reality, shattered totally by whatever it was that had the pizza boy so rattled.
“I need to see,” Powell said quietly… hoarsely, then glanced at Servais, “If it’s still there.”
Servais shrugged a little. “Suit’ch’erself.”
They reached the red Malibu, parked just outside the room. The wooden front door to the room was open and the screen door lay ajar as well, the only sound its clanging against the brick face of the motel’s exterior in irregular time, sometimes rather more like tapping and other times a resonant sort of flanging. Servais started to step forward but Powell grabbed him, pulling at his arm.
“I can hear it…” he croaked.
“Hear… what?” The Reformed Genius gasped, nearly dead from the torture that his feeble husk of a body had been made to endure for god knows how long.
The Man with the Beard Made of Bees smiled, the resultant shift in the pitch and tone of the buzzing of his bee-beard pairing with his thin, smug smirk to capture the very quintessence of self-satisfaction and condescension. He took a step forward, into the harsh white light under which TRG sat strapped to a heavy, stiff-backed chair, his sweaty, shriveled form connected by a series of esoteric wires, cables, tubes, diode and terminals to one of his most savage creations from a lifetime ago—another lifetime completely—the Marvelous Murder Machine, the predecessor to his more advanced and, in a way, more humane, as killing devices went, Magical Murder Machine and the later Miracle Murder Machine.
The Man with the Beard Made of Bees traced one of the many vein-like wires lightly with a forefinger. “Your judgment,” he said nonchalantly, then turned to face TRG. “Creation is the province of gods and artists, Mr. Genius, and you, I’m afraid… are neither.”
“Ethel…” TRG said weakly as his head drooped and his eyes closed.
TMwtBMoB scoffed through his nostrils, the bees just below them scattering at the quick rush of air momentarily before returning. “Is that what you call it? ‘Ethel?’”
TRG mustered up all his strength to raise his bald egg head and glare defiantly… bitterly at The Man with the Beard Made of Bees: “That’s… her… name! What have you done with her!”
The Man laughed, now more genuinely bemused than anything. “Goodness me, you… you actually care for it, don’t you? Love it?”
“Where… is… Ethel!” TRG roared with all the ferocity his scrawny 110 lbs. body contained.
“Honey, I’m home!” a robotic but feminine voice called out cheerily as the heavy steel door burst inward, shooting across the holding cell and banging off the concrete wall at the back of it.
“What the…! Who… who are you?” Johnita, jumping off the stiff metal plank that hung bolted to the wall and served as the cell’s bed, inquired of the heretofore unseen intruder, thoroughly stunned.
The large, Amazon-like figure with the ample “ass shelf” and gargantuan hips and thighs and muscular calves who Johnita had seen at a distance on the marsh barged in, sashaying in a stiff approximation of a sexualized manner. She wore a short pink 1950s-style swing dress and a string of pearls to go with her hoop earrings and tall blonde beehive hairdo. She turned and regarded the puzzled, frightened Johnita with a curiously vacant look.
“Do you like my new dress?” The woman asked stiltedly. “How about a night on the town!”
“What? Who are you? I… hey!” Johnita shrieked as she was suddenly seized roughly by the alarmingly strong intruder.
“I feel like dancing!” the woman said in a vaguely “happy” robot voice, throwing Johnita unwillingly, kicking and screaming, over her shoulder with little trouble.
“Put me down! Put me down right now!” Johnita protested in vain.
“Put you down? What the hell you talkin’ about, Kid?” “Mumps” Atwater snarled as his brother, “Lumps” Atwater, mopped blood from the raw hamburger-like forehead of Kid Pop, causing reddish water to cascade down the battered fighter’s disfigured face, past his chest and down to his formerly white, now sickly pink shorts. “Mumps” grabbed his fighter by the wrists and shook them heartily. “You want me to call it, Kid? ‘z’at what’ch’er sayin’?”
Kid Pop looked up lazily and hazily through his one good eye—the left, itself no great shakes after the occasional working over it’d been getting, but certainly in far better repair than the right, which “Prose Painter of the Pugilistic Arts” Spuds Donegal observed “look[ed] like the snatch on a 50-cent Front Street hooker”—breathing unsteadily before spitting or vomiting blood, perhaps both, and elaborating, in a voice distorted by swelling and obvious delirium, “Put me down… put me down… for another big one with the…”
“Mumps” looked at “Lumps” in disbelief and vice-a-versa. “You gone nutso, Kid? Yer inta him for 3 G’s already! This guy’s takin’ you apart and you wanna dig yourself in deeper with more action on a losin’ bet? I’d slap yer head if I didn’t think it might put’cha down fer the count!”
Pop raised a gloved fist obstinately, disrupting “Lumps’” futile effort to improve the horror show condition of the fighter’s eye with an enswell but drawing a loud roar of support from the otherwise restive crowd. He fixed his left eye on “Mumps,” lowering his fist only to pound it on his bloodstained pectoralis. “This is my round. Lucky number 11…” he grinned through a mouthful of blood and stood.
“Yer a crazy sonuvabitch, Kid,” “Mumps” said, patting him on the butt as he and his brother cleared the ring.
“You want I should tell Jacks to put in that action? For the Kid?” “Lumps” asked.
The bell sounded and Pop charged toward the center of the ring, seemingly full of renewed determination to take it back from his challenger, Miyamoto. “Mumps” lit a cigarette, his response percolating in his scarred head as he scratched his scalp nervously.
“Mumps” groaned, then sighed, “Hell, whadoo I know? It’s his dough. Go ahead,” he said, jerking his head vaguely in the direction of the stands where Jacks sat. As Miyamoto resumed battering Pop’s eye, “Mumps” remarked sadly, “Guy’s a goddamn animal…”
“An animal?” Servais looked sideways at Powell a bit strangely. Not disbelievingly of his honesty or skeptically of his perception, but just oddly.
“Yeah, like a…”
“Shh!” Servais whispered sharply. “Yer right… I hear it too…”
Between thwaps of the screen door against the brick, there was an urgent rustling, an occasional tearing sound, a bit of scratching, and a low animal grunting—not quite a growl, more like a sound of exertion, such as would accompany the foraging of a beast for food. Servais looked at Powell again, realized he had a fistful of the kid’s shirt bunched up in his hand. He let it go, gave him a couple of light pats on the chest.
“When I give ya the word,” he said, glancing at Brian with eyes that held something as close to fear as Powell had ever seen in the diamond-hard man’s man, “You take off runnin’ like prime Kenny Lofton.”
“What about you?” Powell asked after a nod.
Servais grinned his crooked little puckish grin. “Just try an’ keep up.”
In his 11-year career in the Bigs (“The Show”), Servais was 3-of-9 in base-stealing attempts. While there are plenty of good baserunners who don’t master the art of “bag swiping,” and while there are many fast runners who are not great baserunners, no less an authority than long-time Cubbies commentator Steve “Stoney” Stone himself had remarked in the 1990s on more than one occasion—belabored the point, even, one might argue—that Servais was none of these things; he was a liability on the basepaths and a prime candidate for an inning-ending double-play. Now the stakes were higher, even, than in the ‘95 Wildcard hunt, if you can believe it, and Servais was years removed from that particular peak form, while Powell was, suffice it to say, no “specimen,” and possibly not even capable of running at all after a car crash that had netted him a horrifying pilon fracture years prior. Servais clearly knew more about what was in the room than he cared to say, but did he really think the two of them had a chance in hell of outrunning it, or was this a prelude to his ultimate, Christ-like sacrifice?
Dr. Edward D. Blake Jr., sometimes misidentified as Dr. F. Edward Blake Jr. (as by pizza boy/writer J.B. Powell in the story “Mythology Download”), knew a thing or two about sacrifice. He’d worn the same outfit—slightly oversized blue slacks, a light blue dress shirt and red knit tie, with gradually deteriorating brown shoes that he nonetheless buffed and polished to a shine every morning—every day for years running and he always brought his lunch from home no matter what. He knew about pinching pennies… stretching dollars… hard work. But few things in life had required as much gumption and “stick-to-it-iveness” (an idiotic non-word at whose presence on a student’s paper Blake would’ve balked so severely as to dock a full letter grade and likely even use the kid’s emergency contact information to inquire of the accompanying legal guardian whether their charge had been “smoking dope”) as gnawing through the safety belt with his slightly bucked, rat-like teeth to escape his overturned champagne ‘93 Ford Taurus Wagon, crawl out of the ditch and reach the roadside before the vehicle had gone kablooey!
The bald doctor of education allowed himself a quick sigh of relief at having escaped the blast before struggling to his feet to try and flag down a car. As luck—or, perhaps, fate—would have it, one came to a stop rather quickly, almost immediately: an utterly resplendent, glorious gold car.