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Archive for September, 2020

Beast20

Chasseradès, Lestampes,

Bleymard, Le Pic de Finiels,

Le Pont de Montvert

She’d burnt the bread. Fanny stomped through the apartment toward Louis, her face angry and her brow slick with sweat. For a moment, he tensed, but she only closed the bed curtains with a huff and returned to the oven. He heard windows opening. They hadn’t opened the windows for weeks, fearing the chill might worsen his condition.

Under the nutty smell of smoke, Louis could discern the green smell of leaves. Something clean. He wheezed a small, innocuous cough. It had been subsiding, the coughing.

“It’s ruined,” she bellowed from around the corner.

Louis had taught himself to play the flageolet, and he wished he’d had the lung capacity to play it now. It might cheer her; it would certainly cheer him. He didn’t care about the bread, and frankly, the loaves she didn’t burn didn’t taste like bread either. They were always still doughy in the middle, but he ate them anyway, when he could eat.

He wanted to call out to her that nothing was ruined. He heard the oven door open, slam closed, then what he perceived to be the muffled thud of the loaf hitting the ground in the garden. Out the window it had gone.

*

At dawn, after a simple and silent breakfast, Louis gathered his things and packed Modestine by the gate. The donkey seemed relaxed, much to Louis’s consternation—he would continue to travel with this little beast, to whom he was growing closer despite himself, and yet who couldn’t be told of the previous night’s horrors. But then, he thought, perhaps it was a relief, that this creature, with her big brown eyes and tiny, searching feet—whose only concern is to get from one point to another without stumbling—should carry on without fear.

“It is better that you do not know,” Louis whispered into Modestine’s long ear.

“You take your leave early,” a voice said behind him.

Louis spun to find Father Prior, his hands, as usual, hidden inside his sleeves.

“Yes,” Louis said after a quick recovery, though he wiped his palms on his coat as they’d broken instantly into a sweat. “Early to leave, early to arrive.”

“Your next stop?” Father Prior chose not to draw attention to Louis’s obvious nervousness.

“Chasseradès.”

The friar nodded. There was a moment of silence between them.

“I am very sorry for what happened to Father Apollinaris,” Louis stated as he played with Modestine’s ears, to her delight.

“As are we all,” Father Prior began, “but, it is something that would have happened whether or not you slept under our roof. It is what it is. These hills are full of wolves. We must simply not allow ourselves to become complacent, as, perhaps, Father Apollinaris had.”

It is what it is. It dawned on Louis that he kept hearing this phrase, or some version of it.

He nodded, but could no longer look at Father Prior, so he returned to fastening his pack and making sure all the knots were secure.

There was little left to say except their goodbyes, which they did warmly. Father Prior opened the gate and Louis and his donkey left the relative safety of Our Lady of the Snows, continuing on their journey.

They again aligned themselves with the Allier river, backtracking into Gévaudan once more, and then forsaking the river’s direction to take an advised trail that blazed over a hill and across a long and comparably flat terrain. The wind had calmed to a pleasant breeze and the grey skies had born themselves miles away. It was, in fact, perhaps the most agreeable leg of the trek so far, and Louis found himself wishing for rain, for a strong wind to force him to fight to steady his pack, as he did on the way to Luc, anything to engage him away from the multitude of thoughts that invaded his weary brain.

His mind on the subject of the cloaked man and the werewolf—and the terrible carnage that unfolded from this still puzzling situation—fell upon itself in a circular fashion, getting absolutely nowhere. So he tried to return to his intended purpose—to take advantage of this wide-open space and meditate on his life and where he was going—and was disturbed to find that it took him more than a few seconds to form a picture of Fanny’s face. Granted, it didn’t take long, but long enough to concern him. Just a handful of days ago, Louis was positive the woman’s image was tattooed forever along the folds, and in the deepest recesses, of his brain.

He spent the rest of the walk occasionally goading Modestine, who would slow and stop to munch, and wondering whether he should be alarmed or thankful for this distraction from his Fanny troubles. On one hand, the situation that he would return to was such stunning chaos that, though he was reluctant to agree with his friends, he did not see a clear way out of the heartache, and secretly feared he was growing accustomed to the constant, throbbing pain it put him in. In this way, his fate was entirely in her hands, and it did not seem as if she felt particularly uncomfortable with this burden, if it was, indeed, a burden at all. On the other hand, the obvious way out of that mess seemed to be right here, but only not in the manner he might have envisioned. It was as if his dependence on Fanny was being secretly severed each time he found himself diverted. And he didn’t think that he liked it.

Quite suddenly, it occurred to Louis that perhaps Fanny’s husband, Sam, knew of their affair, and perhaps it was he—or one of his many unsavory cohorts whom Fanny had occasionally described—who followed him along this passage. Whomever it was, they knew him, knew he was a writer . . . but, alas, even Fanny would only know of this adventure through a letter that may yet have been delivered, much less Sam. No, it was unlikely, if not impossible, though the idea gave Louis a brief spate of comfort, if only to have an answer. Any answer. He pushed it away.

It was on this walk—the route from Our Lady of the Snows to the town of Chasseradès—that he had to admit to himself that he really hadn’t taken this journey to sort out his emotional affairs, or even to gather material for another travel book. These things were not absent, but they had been so low on his list of priorities that pretending to them had become cumbersome. No, Louis ventured off into the French mountains to wallow in self-pity and then throw his hardships into Fanny’s face as proof of his perpetual love, to show her to what lengths she had the power to send him. Now, with this sliver of emotional distance wedged between them, he wondered if, when he’d set forth on this adventure, he’d been in his right mind. In this moment of lucidity, he was beginning to have his doubts.

The longer the walk to Chasseradès, the more agitated and angry Louis became. Ultimately, he thought, the end question was what it was to be a man. Was it defying every last one of his friends and family to be with the woman he loved—to have made that life-altering decision and to have stuck with it? Or was it cleanly abandoning a love that was not equally and clearly returned? Louis feared to find an answer to that question, because, as things set, he felt capable of the former, but perhaps not the latter. It didn’t matter because neither felt easy.

Oh, why couldn’t she just write and say the divorce had been petitioned, and that they could be married?

Modestine snorted. They walked on.

Louis had managed to direct his attention from his immediate troubles back to his more existential troubles, to the extent that he found himself complacently returning to the internal pleas from his mindset in Monastier—begging Fanny to just say yes and solve all of these problems for him. Instead of falling limply over the precipice, he could claim he was pushed. Lo, the burden was still his to bear.

Finally, over a slight hill, the town of Chasseradès came into view, and the two travelers entered uneventfully with Louis as troubled as when he left the monastery, only for a different reason.

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13

FM18 (13)

After a hard day of Golden Ticket selling (up 2.7% from the day before), Jesus dropped Rupert off at the Royal Courtyard Econo-Regency Chalet. He walked in, greeted by the customary arctic breeze and dim hallway, but worse, Angel. She smiled at him as usual, but it was never a real smile. Like a hi-how-are-you smile. It was an I-know-something-you-don’t-know smile and that irritated him, itched at him in a way that made him want to yell at her, but he had no idea what to yell.

He went to his room, tired from the day and the heat and the standard weirdness, though he thought maybe he was getting used to that, which worried him. As he entered the unit and swung his cross-body bag over his head, throwing it onto the unused bed, he considered how he’d concluded earlier with Bananas that he felt more comfortable surrounded by abject morons. That couldn’t be a good thing. It wasn’t the most flattering thing he could think about himself, but he knew he wasn’t merely a smarter idiot. That made him intellectually superior, sure, but on the social and emotional scale, Rupert had to admit the lack was pretty drastic in these areas.

He lay down and stretched out across the bed, heels hanging over and his back loosening up a little. Maybe he needed to be around people who weren’t competent enough to judge him correctly. But then he had to consider the word “correctly.” What was it to “correctly” judge someone? What were the criteria? He thought about people in DC, “associates”—the people he’d encountered briefly, the people whose judgment was most frequent and thorough. What did they look for to approve of? He guessed that if he’d known that, or could ever figure it out, he would have by now. He also understood that he wasn’t thinking in terms of “correct” so much as “accurate.” These were not the same thing. Whatever the case, Rupert felt least qualified to judge himself out of the entire population of the planet.

He sighed. Is this who he was? A reasonably intelligent person burdened with such a profound social handicap that he could only feel all right surrounded by meth cookers, sellers, and smokers. If that was the case, he was in bad shape. But then, being in bad shape, in this way, was something he’d always known. It was only now highlighted in a new and disheartening way.

On the bright side, here he was, doing something right. He moved closer to his goal and gradually away from an occupation pulling used tampons out of wads of paper towels clogging the ladies’ rooms’ toilets. He’d heard such gruesome tales.

He took five deep breaths, inhaling, exhaling, not quite zen meditation, but meditating on the good things he’d accomplished so far, despite his apparent handicap. In ten minutes, he felt better. In fact, he felt pretty good. So good, he decided to prove his own competence to himself by calling Pyrdewy this time instead of waiting for the phone to ring. They’d had a few conversations—if they could be described as such—since his arrival, none of which were productive or went well in any way.

“Pyrdewy. What do you want?”

“Mr. Pyrdewy.” Rupert tried to sound cheerful and confident. “It’s Rupert.”

“Who’s Rupert?”

“Rupert, down in Sarasota.” He deflated a little during the long pause.

“What the fuck are you calling me for?”

“Um—” Rupert stammered.

“Don’t you ever call me, you hear? You don’t call me,” Pyrdewy raged, a little out of proportion to the infraction, Rupert thought. “I call you, understand? I need to make sure you are where you say you are and not checked in at some fancy resort hotel on Siesta Key, tanning your black ass on those white beaches, ogling the women, and defrauding the federal government out of that long green.”

Rupert didn’t reply. He couldn’t reply. What do you say to that? Seriously, aside from Barack Obama, who says “long green?”

“Mr. Pyrdewy, I assure you that I am at the Royal Courtyard Econo-Regency Chalet. If you want you can call me ba—”

“Do I seem like I have time to play phone tag with you all fucking day?”

“No.”

“You’re a genius. Now what do you want?”

“I wanted to let you know that I’m making fast inroads into a large-scale operation.” He was such a liar, though the Cutlass Supreme was nothing to sneeze at. Rupert decided against mentioning the supervisory Marketing and Sales position at SIKildo Industries, since Golden Tickets were, as earlier revealed, not Pyrdewy’s bag. Then he started thinking about a prospective move up from sales, maybe into Bill’s position, but then if his position included sex with Fulva, perhaps not. Either way, with his smarts, he had the potential to become a thing around town. Big fish, little pond. That wasn’t so bad. Better that than to be what he’s been thus far, a shapeless amoeba in an ocean of bile being eaten and shat out by organisms only slightly bigger than himself. An unfamiliar feeling stirred in Rupert and it took him a moment to place it: ambition. He thought perhaps traces of this alien sensation might have sparked now and then in the past, but he’d dismissed it as indigestion at best.

“What the fuck do you want from me?” Pyrdewy yelled into the phone so that Rupert was not only startled out of his reverie, but now a little deaf in that ear.

“Only to let you know that, Mr. Pyrdewy,” he said, switching ears, “there’s been progress.”

“There’d better be some goddamn progress. I hear Frank’s about to retire. He’s looking for some sack of shit to pass his dust mop onto.” Pyrdewy laughed, then: “Rupe?’

“Yes, Mr. Pyrdewy, I’m here.”

“Don’t ever call me again.” With that, Pyrdewy hung up, and Rupert felt worse than before the call.

Before he had the chance to pull the receiver away from his ear, he heard that double-click again. His brain attempted a logical scenario, but gave up before it had even begun. He was too tired, and too down. He hung up the phone.

Kicking off his shoes, Rupert stretched himself out on the bed again and repeated his calming breathing exercises, this time trying not to think. But his mild, undiagnosed ADHD (he believed) wouldn’t allow it. Though not as enthusiastic as before, he slipped back into fantasy mode—the fantasy of being a big deal in the small meth trade. Did his brain just think that out loud into his head? Yes. Yes, it did. He visualized being a meth cooking whiz—a Geep-making genius—perhaps training others in his rapidly-expanding business, like a master chef, so that he could buy a condo on Siesta Key, tan his black ass on those white beaches, ogle the women, and hope to God they didn’t notice. No, screw that. He hoped they’d notice because he’d finally be a man that demanded to be noticed.

Rupert had begun to drift into sleep when the phone rang, causing him to scream in a pitch higher than he considered appropriate for his size. It must be Pyrdewy again, calling because maybe he’d forgotten a few shitty, bigoted invectives he’d meant to add to that last conversation. The thought alone made Rupert feel like throwing up. He didn’t have any strength left in him today for the social sick feels. The gator sandwich he’d had a little more than an hour ago snapped in his stomach. He picked up the phone.

“Yes?”

“Rupert?” A cheery female voice. Leenda.

Rupert threw up, pulling the phone far enough out of the way not to hit it, but also—he hoped, he begged the Universe—far enough so that she didn’t hear the strangling glurch that came with it.

“Rupert, are you okay?” she asked.

“Um, yeah.” Rupert wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked at the carpet.

“Hey, I don’t know if you got any of my messages but I wanted to tell you that I got that job!”

“Job.”

“The Spanish Point job. The burial mound. In Sarasota? Where you are,” she hinted.

“Ah.” The remainder of gator sandwich thrashed its tail once more. “Yeah. Yes, that’s great!” He tried very hard to sound excited for her. She deserved it. But he still stared at his own puke on the floor, the smell of it beginning to take flight—not a scent Tommy would consider for his line of designer meth. He tried to move away from it, but the damn phone was corded. Like everything else here in this little sub-real world, four decades behind.

Leenda went on to tell him about the burial mound at Spanish Point, but Rupert only half listened. The vomit and the idea of her being near him in a few weeks gave him the shakes. His throat tightened a little. Enough to warn him, get off the phone: Get out of this conversation, or else, the oxygen supply gets it.

Hep me! Please, hep me! Cleavon Little pleaded in his head.

“Wow, Leenda, that sounds amazing,” he half-gasped.

“It is!” She sounds radiant through the phone and Rupert tried to distract himself by imagining what she looked like with her mousey-brown, somewhat-frizzy hair down.

“I can’t wait to see you; I’d love to show it to you,” she went on.

“Show me . . . ?”

“The mound!”

Rupert’s brain scrambled away from this new image and attempted a reluctant focus on his vomit puddle.

“I’d, um, I’d love to see your mound. The mound. Yes.”

Jesus Christ.

“Great!” she said, but then her enthusiasm tempered a bit. “Rupert, you don’t sound very well. Are you sure you’re okay?”

Rupert eyeballed the sick on the floor and thought, well, at least it wasn’t a lot. Just your garden variety vomit reflex, and it was only a little.

“I’m okay, Leenda,” He said. “Just very tired. It’s been a long day.”

“Oh, you poor thing.” She said this in a tone Rupert had never heard himself, but recognized from television. That maternal, fretful tone women sometimes took. He wasn’t sure what to make of that, but it made his heart do that thing that felt like it was malfunctioning. He almost felt sick again.

“Rupert, go lie down,” she continued. “In fact, go to bed. Eat dinner and go to bed. Get a good night’s sleep.”

“Thank you, Leenda. I think I will. I’m sorry I can’t talk more . . . ”

“Never mind,” she said, and he could hear her smile through the phone, a thousand miles away. It felt close. “We’ll talk again soon. And see each other! That’ll be fun.”

“Yes,” he said. “It will be.” Somehow, his stomach had settled and he felt calm. He felt good. He felt . . . he didn’t know. This was all very new.

They hung up and Rupert went about cleaning up his mess. He noted that one is more aware of the mess one makes when one isn’t sure there is housekeeping—a good thing to keep in mind for most situations in life.

He then stripped, showered, toweled off, and burrowed naked under the covers, his head sandwiched between two pillows, and drifted off to the sound of Leenda’s voice in his head.

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Beast19

Louis was in the room, a part of the proceedings, but he felt miles away. He listened to the words swirling around him and fingered the handle of the clawed thing in the pocket of his coat, which he had yet to remove. He stared at his thin legs sprawled out in front of him. Sitting in the middle of three chairs in the office of Father Prior, flanked by his fellow werewolf hunters, Louis felt the breeze of the friar’s robes as he paced back and forth behind them.

Pierrick and Roland described to the saintly man what they’d seen. It was followed by silence, but more pacing. Finally—

“And you have a pistol,” he said, addressing Louis.

Louis nodded slightly.

“Under other circumstances, you would be asked to leave,” Father Prior said. “But tonight, I am thankful that we are not mourning the loss of three more souls.”

The friar set his hand on Louis’s shoulder, gave it a soft squeeze, then withdrew to resume his pacing.

There was some discussion about the beast: that the two men trailed it by the blood it left for about a mile, until concluding that, though wounded, it was likely outrunning them. Louis hardly heard—he was considering whether or not to reveal his find. When he’d first stumbled upon it so literally, he had fully and quite readily assumed it the murder weapon, wielded by human hands, monstrous though the deed. But now, with the very presence of that ferocious, inhuman thing at the scene, Louis was unsure, and thus, also uncertain as to the usefulness of such a revelation.

Further, and perhaps more important to Louis, he couldn’t help but feel personally tied to what had happened. Not because he’d felt a personal connection with Father Apollinaris, pleasant though their forbidden conversation was, but because of all previous events: all the warnings; the poor foal at Pradelles, as tattered as the unfortunate friar; the bizarre interaction at Fouzilhac; and not least, the possibility of the cloaked man.

With that thought, Louis started upright his in chair, startling the others. He turned to Roland.

“You had said earlier, before we went out into the fields, that there was another man housed in the public dormitory. Who was he? What did he look like?”

The old man crossed his arms and looked away.

Louis was surprised to see the soldier’s face still red from where he’d hit him, though it did nothing to raise much sympathy in him. For a brief moment, Louis felt ashamed—not of the slap itself, but of his lack of compassion, particularly as he was surrounded by men of the cloth. He was who he was, and he was not a holy man. He returned to ignoring the old soldier and turned to address the present Father Carthage, who’d been a part of that earlier conversation.

The priest had been so busy gauging the silent, ugly communication between Louis and Brother Roland, he’d almost forgotten Louis’s inquiry.

“Oh!” he remarked as it came back to him. He thought for a moment. “The other man, yes.” He turned to Father Prior, who’d stopped pacing and listened intently. “Father, the man who arrived this morning, just after myself. I didn’t see his face, but he wore a rather imposing hooded cloak. Of a charcoal color.”

Father Prior’s eyes grew wide, as something he’d forgotten flooded his brain.

“Indeed!” He turned to Louis. “Please pardon my lapse in memory, Monsieur Stevenson. Your friend arrived this afternoon, and his message for you slipped my mind completely. And even more so after this night’s events. I do hope you’ll forgive me.”

Louis’s brow furrowed in utter confusion.

“My friend?”

Oui,” Father Prior continued. “He said to tell you that he will meet you at le Pont de Montvert, though he would likely see you before then.”

“What did he look like?” Louis pressed.

“I could not tell,” Father Prior said, “as Father Carthage expressed, the man wore a rather deep hood. It fell over his face.” He turned his palms up. “It is not our custom to pry, Monsieur Stevenson. Not in matters that appear so delicate—I assumed that he was hiding some deformity, and since I did not note any lesions on his hands, I felt safe that leprosy was not the issue, and perhaps merely a terrible accident of the past had left him malformed.”

The man, Louis presumed, was deliberately hiding his identity.

“Did he call me by name?”

“Why, no, he did not,” Father Prior answered. “In fact, he only called you the writer. And as we are housing no other writer, I presumed it must have been you. You do not know him?”

Louis almost missed the question as he’d nearly slipped back into the private room of his thoughts. There was a cloaked man, and he was being followed.

“Yes,” Louis mumbled. “I suppose I do know him.”

“Well,” Father Prior put his hands together. “Then I suppose you will be meeting up with him soon enough. If you will all excuse me, there are still preparations that need to be made for the interment of Father Apollinaris.”

Father Prior made to leave, but Louis stopped him with a hand on his sleeve.

“May I, Father,” he began. “May I pay my last respects?”

Father Prior’s face grew ashen and grim.

“My son,” he said. “While it is only a shell, it is somewhat . . .” He paused, not finding the appropriate word.

“Ghastly,” Louis finished.

Father Prior nodded.

“But if you feel up to it, you may view him and pray over him.”

Louis thanked him and the friar slipped from the room, the heavy hem of his robe sweeping the floor.

* * *

The chapel of Our Lady of the Snows was plainer than Louis had expected. Instead of muraled, plaster arches and towering stained-glass windows, the vaulted roof was modest and constructed of simple wooden beams. The pews were unadorned, the crosses wood, and the candleholders iron.

When Louis entered, there were but two monks sitting separately in two front pews, whispering their prayers, heads bowed. There was no haze of incense, but the scent lingered tangibly from so many years of vigils and vespers. He walked slowly up the main aisle and the two monks rose silently, moving to the outer ends of the pews, and back up to the exit, acknowledging, he presumed, his need for privacy. Indeed, he thought, he needed it.

In front of the altar—his feet pointing to the nave, his head to the apse—lay Father Apollinaris. Louis approached the corpse, though he was loathe to. It was not dressed, but only covered to the chin with a set of clean robes, as though it had been too difficult to dress such a ravaged body. No part of the man was bare except for his head. The friar’s face was ivory, and Louis studied it, wondering at the stillness of his dead skin, taking note that, in life, the very flesh must have some barely-perceptible movement that signifies the soul surging beneath. The dead man’s mouth set strangely, and Louis saw that it was propped closed with a wooden block beneath the chin. Looking around to be sure he was alone, he pushed the edge of the robe down just a bit. Indeed, he suspected the only part of the poor friar that went unscathed was his peaceful face, as even the block that held his jaw shut sank into the wounds he’d received in that area.

To their devoted credit, there was no blood. None to soil the habit that covered him, none to stain the wood of the block. His body had been so thoroughly cleaned, the men that performed the duty could sleep well knowing they’d helped deliver Father Apollinaris to his heavenly Father cleaner than he’d come into this world. Louis pushed the robes down a little further, searching for the thing that would answer his troublesome question. He prayed he would not have to see more than his spirit could take.

Below the block, the holy man’s flesh lay mangled and torn. Louis marveled at the man’s resilience, for his wounds were so grave, his lingering time had defied the truth of them. His eyes searched the carnage anxiously, hoping not to have to descend to the man’s belly, which, judging by the shape of the covering, could not be seen without a lifetime of nightmares. Then, he found it. Around the edge of the butchery that extended from the friar’s chest to his right shoulder, spread four claw marks, as from an animal.

Louis looked around again, and seeing he was still alone, he moved to the other side of the dead man and looked closely. He thought of the monster’s spread forepaws, its talons flashing. These marks, Louis thought, just didn’t seem large enough—widely spaced enough—to accommodate the size of the wolf. Le loup-garou.

Louis shuddered. He considered his excitable state at the time he’d seen the thing and knew that, in such situations, one’s memory could become exaggerated. He thought briefly to search the body for fur, perhaps embedded in the wounds, but his conscience and his stomach forbade him. Also, it is likely that the brothers had washed away anything that might have remained.

He stared at the marks on Father Apollinaris’s shoulder, and then remembered that he held evidence right in his pocket. If he cannot disprove one, maybe he can prove the other. With that, Louis pulled the bizarre clawed tool from his coat pocket and unwrapped it from the handkerchief. The blood had dried, and the cloth stuck, having to be pulled away. He set the points of it against the dead man’s flesh, just where the wounds ended.

It was a match. Louis re-wrapped the weapon quickly and pulled the robe back up to the friar’s chin. He’d found what he’d needed and best to put things back as they were. But he remained. Louis felt elated at the discovery, but also didn’t know how it resolved anything. It answered the question as to whether or not the murder had been committed by the beast or by a man, but it did not allow Louis to unsee what he’d seen in the fields, nor did it corral and catch this cloaked man, Louis’s only suspect.

It didn’t matter. It was one solid piece of information that could not be disputed. The claws of the creature were too broad to have caused these particular wounds, whereas the claws of the cultivator matched perfectly. One single piece of true evidence was all Louis needed to, at least, be able to sleep a few hours this night, as it gave him that small foothold back to the world he knew, where he could find purchase and return, something he fully intended to do.

Finally, Louis laid his hand across the cold forehead of the dead friar and said a small prayer of his own composition. Then, as a few brothers entered to continue their vigil, Louis bowed silently to them and left the chapel. He made his way to his dark cell, undressed, and crawled into his sack spread across the cot. He penciled the events into his journal—a few of his own thoughts on the matter, some short, rudimentary sketches—and then he extinguished the candle and fell almost immediately into a deep, dreamless sleep that went unperturbed until dawn, even sleeping through the ringing bells that woke the brothers for their first office of the day at 2 a.m.

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12.2

FM17 (12.2)

Tommy’s attitude changed abruptly and he walked back around the front of his car to the driver’s side, the door of which still stood open.

“Aw, get away from me with that shit.”

Rupert stood there a little perplexed, slid the ticket back into his cross-body bag, then followed Tommy and stood in front of the driver’s seat where Tommy had re-slumped.

“Um, you didn’t even hear the pitch.”

“I don’t need to. You’re a shyster.”

That’s definitely racist, Rupert thought without thinking.

“I don’t understand.”

“You work for that crazy bitch selling them damn tickets to, what is it? Crack World.”

“Planet. Crack Planet. It’s a whole . . . planet . . . ”

“Rip off,” Tommy said, disgusted and peeling his banana before taking a bite.

“Well, I know it seems too good to be true, but . . . ” Rupert thought for a minute and looked to the rear of the Cutlass, half its brown smoke disappearing into the bush. It occurred to him now that the bush was dead, because he parked here all the time specifically for this reason. This guy was a nutter, and he wasn’t too bright. But he wasn’t a complete idiot.

“You’re right,” Rupert conceded. “I only took the gig because I’m new in town and I had to do something. I’m looking to get out of it as soon as I can.” He was impressed at how well that came out of his stinking, lying mouth.

Tommy looked up at him. “Yeah?” He took another bite, peeling the banana down a little further.

“Yeah.”

“Well,” Tommy paused, chewing the mush. “I didn’t think you were an asshole.”

“Thanks.”

“What kind of work you looking for? What’s your specialty?”

“I’m an entropo—” Rupert stopped. “Well, I’m pretty good with sales.”

Tommy looked at Rupert a little longer, scanning his face for traces of bullshit. Rupert sweat, but for once, it was the sun beating down on him.

“Come into my office,” Tommy said and started to move the few items scattered around his passenger seat. He held the next bite of banana between his teeth, peel dangling.

“Oh, no,” Rupert said, smelling the air fresheners, feeling his throat spasm and something once edible threaten to eject at the thought of what it would be like shut up in there. “It’s way too hot. I’m not used to this heat. I’m from DC.”

Tommy chuckled. “Yeah, yeah, I get that.”

Rupert squatted down next to the car, his knees cracking, then he brought one knee down onto the asphalt to take the pressure off.

Tommy leaned toward him a little, and Rupert leaned back enough to keep the same distance.

“You might not realize this,” Tommy confided, “but, I’ve got a little business of my own, and well, sales . . . to be honest, it’s a little hard to get the word out when, you know . . . ”

“You can’t leave your car.”

“Excatly.”

“Excatly?”

“Exactly.”

Rupert looked at Tommy for a moment and then ignored the glitch.

“It’d have to be a step up from what you’re pushing now,” Tommy said.

“Meth,” Rupert said.

“How’d you . . . ?”

Rupert pointed to the Cutlass’s trunk and smiled.

“Damn, is it that obvious?”

It absolutely was, but Rupert respected the effort.

“No, it’s actually rather well hidden . . . out here, in the open.”

Tommy smiled, finished his banana, and pushed the peel into a leather car trash sack full of brown, dried banana peels. “You’re good at sales?”

“So far.”

“Well, let me tell you about my idea,” Tommy started, both hands animated now that he was banana-free. “I got this idea. Meth is meth, right? They make that holiday shit that turns it green with the Drainü. They make the blue shit, but, man, it all smells like ass.”

Rupert could see where this was going. “Bananas.”

Tommy grinned. From this angle below, Rupert now noticed Tommy missed a couple of top teeth: one central incisor on the right and the first bicuspid on the left. The rest weren’t exactly prize-worthy.

“Man, you’re sharp!”

Rupert shrugged.

“Not just bananas, though, obviously . . . I gotta start with bananas.” Tommy put his thumbs up and leaned back into the car, a little like The Fonz. “But I’m thinking bigger than that. Lots of smells. Apples. Pine trees. Caramel. Eucalytptus . . . ”

“Eucalyptus?” Rupert was still as impressed as one could be with this guy.

Tommy nodded like he knew it was damned impressive.

“Tommy,” Rupert said, serious now. “This could revolutionize the way meth is produced, marketed, and sold.”

Tommy clapped his hands and let out a whoop, from which Rupert cringed. His knees ached, so standing, grimacing a little, he stretched.

“Well, if you need someone to help you get the word and the stuff out, this sounds like a product I could get behind. Get creative with.”

Tommy got out of the car and grabbed Rupert’s hand to shake again. “I like the way you talk. You know, you don’t talk like you’re colored.”

Everything Rupert had found half-respectable about Tommy, in a context-dependent kind of way, dissipated and he almost—almost—turned around and walked away. But he was about to land a gig selling meth, not tickets to a fictional planet made of free crack. And selling meth was another step closer to making it, thus closer to finding the D.E.A.T.H. program. And perhaps, if he played his cards right and laid it on thick, this toothless asshole would teach him how to cook.

Rupert laughed, Tommy still shaking his hand. “Haaa, yeah. Haha. You know, sometimes I slip right into my peoples’ language. You know, it’s innate, that jive.”

“Whoa,” Tommy stepped back, laughing. “Innate? Jive? Damn. What is that, that eebonics?”

“Yep,” Rupert said, smiling. “Yes, it is.” Jesus Christ. This guy was a complete idiot after all. For now, Rupert felt a little better about the racism. Tommy’s idiocy, in this particular circumstance, made it a little more palatable, but stupidity was a funny, complicated thing. Is it willful, or does it come down to literal mental capacity and ability? Where on the idiot fault/some-fault/no-fault spectrum did Tommy fall? And it gradually dawned on Rupert that he was more comfortable around this level of moron. “Maybe if I teach you some Ebonics, you can teach me something.”

Tommy grinned his gapped, banana-y grin and nodded. “Yeah, man, that sounds good, Rupe.”

“Alright, I gotta get going,” Rupert said. “You here often?”

“Yeah, either here or at the Bean Ringer on Bahia Vista. They got the same kind of bushes.”

Rupert had to laugh.

“Right. I’ll iron some things out and I’mma find you.”

“Alright, my man.”

Christ.

Rupert trotted back over to Jesus, who was asleep with the radio now blasting Stryper’s “Honestly.” Rupert was honestly upset that he recognized it.

As Rupert opened the door, Jesus woke up, rubbed his eyes and turned down the radio.

“What the hell station are you listening to?” Rupert asked, sliding his awkward frame into the passenger seat, narrowly missing cracking the side of his head. “Goddamn, these cars are huge, but still, the low headroom.”

“I was listening to the news,” Jesus said around a half-stifled yawn.

“That wasn’t the news.”

“WWUT, the nation’s only 24-7 hair metal/news radio station, continually rotating sweet ass power ballads and political updates and commentary.”

Rupert said nothing for a moment, then: “Okay.”

“Clinton’s getting the nomination.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Not being funny,” Jesus assured Rupert.

“Today’s the seventh—we’ve got until the convention. Superdelegates can change their—”

Jesus laughed for an uncomfortably long time. “Sure they can.”

“They will.”

“Sure they will.” Jesus ran a finger under the left lens of his sunglasses, wiping away one hysterical tear.

“Fuck.”

“Also,” Jesus continued. “Did you know Muhhammad Ali died a few days ago?”

“I did not,” Rupert answered. “I had his album, The Adventures of Ali and his Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay.”

“What?”

“When I was a kid. 1976.” Rupert smiled big. “Never had a cavity. Saw him box Mr. Tooth Decay on Dental Hygiene for Children Day in 1980.”

“In real life?”

“Yep.” Rupert knew these facts bought him a certain amount of weird pop cultural social cred, and he would capitalize on it as much as possible, because his account was usually empty.

“Wait? How?”

“Chuck Wepner played Mr. Tooth Decay.”

Jesus nodded, but asked: “Who’s Chuck Wepner?”

Rupert was aghast. “Who’s . . . man, Chuck Wepner . . . former pro heavyweight boxer. Fought Ali in a 1975 title fight—fell short of a full fifteen rounds by fifteen seconds. Fifteen seconds. That fight inspired the Rocky screenplay. Rocky III was influenced by Wepner’s 1976 fight with Andre the Giant.”

“No shit. Andre the Giant fought Mr. Tooth Decay?”

“He did.”

“Who won?”

“Andre tossed him over the top rope.

“Tooth Decay lost?”

“Always.” Rupert felt pretty pleased with himself and flashed a reasonably white smile.

“Did you know that Rocky II is slang for crack cocaine?”

Silence.

“No cavities, huh?” Jesus redirected.

“Not a one,” Rupert said. “Thanks to Muhammad Ali.” He buckled his seatbelt, preparing to hit the road.

“What were you doing over there?” Jesus slipped into the conversation, effortlessly.

Damn. “Making some business connections.”

“With Tommy Bananas?”

“You know that guy?

“Everyone knows Bananas. And they don’t call him bananas just because he’s got that creepy thing with bananas.”

“Hey, it reminds him of his deceased father.”

“His father lives across town with a black magic woman named Alejandra and her forty fucking cat familiars.”

“Hmm.”

“Whatever the deal, Fulva won’t be thrilled.”

“Well, Fulva doesn’t have to know,” Rupert said.

“I won’t say anything, but, it’s a small world, you know what I mean?” Jesus started the car.

“I’ll be careful.”

“You better. I’m telling you.”

Rupert wasn’t sure how much of a viable threat Fulva really was. Or Bill. Or Osceola. Whatever the case, he thought he could keep this under wraps. He only had to do it as long as it took to learn to cook and see if there’s any D.E.A.T.H. program information to be had.

As Jesus pulled them out of The Gorge (Fine Men’s Clothing)’s parking lot, Rupert watched two shirtless men in the next plaza fight. One of them had a hammer, but only one arm. That could not end well.

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Beast18

The three lanterns threw barely enough light to see five feet of road before them, and Louis strained to remember what the terrain had looked like in the daylight just this morning as he’d arrived. But he could only envision Father Apollinaris’s dirty habit trailing along the ground, sullied by a happy day of honest labor.

There was no point in searching around the edge of the light of the lanterns, as it only served to make the band more nervous than they already were. So, the three men merely cast their eyes down to their feet—to avoid loose stones and random divots—and hoped for the best. They could have walked this road entirely blind, as it was—to Father Apollinaris’s great credit—as smooth as the barrel of the gun in Louis’s coat. In this fashion, the trek out into the field, which seemed to have been much longer for the good talk with the friar along the way that morning, came to an unexpectedly abrupt end in a tacky pool of blood.

They stood around it with their lanterns. Pierrick had already seen it and only wiped his mouth, Roland stood stoically gazing down at it, hardened, Louis supposed, by years of the carnage of war. Louis, though, struggled to force his dinner to settle and remain tranquil.

Silently, the three men circled the immediate area, each piecing together what might have happened. The blood on the ground told a short story—Father Apollinaris was attacked suddenly, dragged only a few feet, then eviscerated.

“It is a miracle he survived long enough to die in the comfort of his brothers,” said Louis.

“Well, it is good to see you believe in miracles,” Roland answered.

Louis was about to reply hotly when he was interrupted.

“Over here,” Pierrick called, and the two men followed his voice.

Pierrick stood beside Father Apollinaris’s barrow. Inside lay a few hand tools deemed worthless because of the close proximity required to use them for defense. But there were also two long-handled tools: an edger and a tamp. While one could use them at a distance and the heads were of iron, they looked to be from the last century and well worn. Pierrick handed the edger to Roland and kept the tamp for himself, as he was younger and strong enough to heft and swing the heavy head if necessary. Once everyone was armed, Louis wandered away—the lantern in one hand and his revolver in the other—to explore the area a bit more.

There was little in the way of topography: just the compacted soil of the road with its paper-straight border—the work of the tamp and edger, now makeshift weapons—and the grassy fields on either side. Louis walked, his lantern illuminating only the ground beneath his feet, fading quickly into pitch on all sides. Like the night before Cheylard, the light felt isolating, and again, he felt cut off from the world, not to mention his two companions.

He drifted a little ways down the road from which they came, while the other two explored other directions. As he scrutinized the perimeter of light, Louis noticed distractedly that the boots and gaiters he’d bought so recently, just for this trip, were so scuffed and worn they looked to be as old as Father Apollinaris’s tools. His thoughts drifted, perhaps as a reprieve from the immediate tragedy—to images of his family, his friends, and Fanny. He wondered what they were all doing, this very moment, to pass the evening. Did they have clear skies, or was it raining? Were they reading by a fire? Enjoying the company of others for whom they cared and by whom the same?

Then, Louis tripped.

The road had been so meticulously compressed and cleaned of debris that he immediately blamed his own clumsy feet and awkward limbs, but instinctively returned to the spot with his lantern to inspect it. Lying there, points down and into the ground—probably from the force of Louis’s toe against it—was a strange thing. He recognized it as similar to a common, claw-shaped garden cultivator, such as the one his mother used with her potted herbs. Though this was different.

He set the lantern beside it and got down on his queasy belly to inspect it. The iron claws of the thing, instead of being bent at angles were curved and of two pieces each—one like the finger of the thing and then tipped separately with another, smaller piece that was ground to a sharpened point. The handle was of wood and just an inch or two longer than the average hand tool. Most curious, it was engraved with the crude figure of a snarling wolf. The wooden end had been drilled and a thick strip of leather was looped through the hole, as if to wear over one’s wrist for better, surer service. And as if all of this was not sufficient, it was coated in gore.

Louis brought himself to his knees, carefully lifted the thing by its leather strap, proceeded to wrap it in a handkerchief and then pocketed it. He then stood with his lantern and revolver, and was about to call out to the other men when he heard a yell.

“Here!” called Roland. “The beast!”

Louis ran, and as he did he heard first a growling, and then a vicious snarling, as a wild dog over a piece of meat. Pierrick reached Roland first. Louis heard both men shouting. As he approached, he could make out what was happening.

The two men held their weapons in front of them, their lanterns on the ground, staring into the darkness. Roland looked frantic. Whatever it was must have already attacked once and then retreated back into the shadows, as the blade of the edger was wet with blood. Beyond, in the black, an angry growl rumbled cavernously, building.

“Where is that goddamned Camisard with his goddamned pistol?” Roland bellowed.

As he ran, Louis could feel the awkward weight of the clawed thing he’d found bouncing against his hip through his coat pocket. When he finally arrived, his additional lantern gave just enough added light to reveal what it was the men cowered from.

At the edge of the light, bleeding from a wound in its side, was a massive wolf-like creature. It hung its enormous head low and glared up at the men with yellow eyes that sat strangely in their sockets, and when it blinked, it seemed less an eyelid than a fur-covered membrane that slid over the orb somewhat sideways and snapped back. Overall, it was fawn colored, except for its hackles, which began at the top of its head and trailed down its thick neck to its back and beyond—this was a reddish color, striped black. Its tail and hind legs were of a wolf’s, only significantly larger; its forelegs were thicker, longer. The four toes featured four corresponding claws which flexed and penetrated the earth beneath them and extended long past the unguicular crests, not at all like a dog or wolf, but like a cat.

Louis had to take all of this in over mere moments, for just as he arrived and had enough time to set down his lantern, the beast reared. Or, Louis thought it was rearing, when, in fact, it was only standing. The three men gawped as they watched a thing they’d never experienced before do something they’d never expected. It was certainly an action Louis had never witnessed in a wolf, or dog, or any sort of canine creature. The thing raised itself on its hind legs in such a way that didn’t seem as if it required much balancing, but was as natural as its menacing crouch. When it reached its full height, which Louis guessed to be roughly nine or ten feet, it spread its claws as wide each as a dinner plate, and its mouth gave way to rows of vicious, jagged teeth. It snarled and Louis could see the pink flesh of its throat tremble with the sound. And just as is seemed poised to strike, Louis heard a gunshot.

The thing yelped and flew back, then yapped and squealed a trail through the field to a nearby wood. Louis felt his palms throb against the butt of the pistol, aching with the recoil of its action. Smoke floated like a fog from the barrel.

“After it!” Pierrick yelled, and the two other men grabbed their lanterns and ran. Louis, though, stood for another few moments, gazing at the contraption in his hands, and finally let out the breath he’d been holding since he’d put down his lantern. His legs shook beneath him and, slowly, he lowered himself to a seated position.

Everything he’d been told in this strange land was true, and therefore everything he’d believed about the world was scattered. He could almost feel his convictions landing on the ground around him, some up facing, some down, none what they previously had been. As he sat, he felt the clawed thing in his pocket poke his outer thigh and he shifted enough to silence that sensation. After the realization that he could never trust anything ever again, his mind merely went blank. He thought of nothing—not of family, nor friends, nor even of his beloved Fanny, on whose image, in other times of crisis, he’d relied wholly. He thought nothing, neither saw, nor heard, anything—later, of those following minutes, he would only remember the sulfur smell of the shot he’d so recently fired.

By the time the two men had returned, Louis was standing and wandering around his circle of light, pistol drawn, and thinking. He’d gathered himself, but the only reason he didn’t shoot the advancing men was because they were smart enough to call ahead their approach.

“Why didn’t you follow?” Roland demanded.

Louis said nothing, only placed his pistol, hammer uncocked, into the pocket opposite the clawed thing, and picked up his lantern.

Indignant he was being ignored, Roland placed himself between Louis and the way back to the monastery.

“Protestant coward,” the old soldier hissed.

Louis, with his free hand, hauled back and slapped the man across the face, hard.

Roland’s eyes grew and his cheek reddened. Pierrick said nothing, did nothing, as though he knew exactly why Louis hadn’t gone along and chased the beast. The peasant’s eyes said to Louis, you are not from here. You’ve never seen what we’ve seen.

“Now get out of my way,” Louis said to Roland, almost calm.

The old man obeyed, and with that, they made their way back to the holy sanctuary, Pierrick wheeling Father Apollinaris’s barrow full of tools.

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Stitches

Whoopsie. Looks like Stitches was also arrested at the Whole Foods. To be fair, some handicaps you can’t see…

So—there’s a lot going on here. This will involve some work on the part of the reader. Suffice to say, the rapper Stitches had four young women on stage to do coke with him and his wife was deeply unhappy about it. This story also features flour, his wife screaming “I’m going to fuck that bitch up!” off camera (yes, there is evidently video somewhere), and a mosh pit (obviously). Stiches is renowned in some circles for his cocaine doing and selling, as immortalized in the song, “Brick in Yo Face.” Definitely look into this incident—visualize the scene, view photos of Stitches, and then I strongly urge you to look up the lyrics to “Brick in Yo Face,” which I desperately wish I could reproduce here in its entirety. Preview: It’s very repetitive, but not in a meditative way, including a short refrain somewhere in the middle of “I love sellin’ blow!” (as cited in the article). When it’s not repetitive, it’s name-checking Dade County, referring to the AK-47 tattooed on his face (definitely view photos of Stitches), and, well, this: This gun will not reload/cause bitch I got extendos/bitch I got extendos/don’t play with me boy/don’t play with me boy/go play your Nintendo! It should be noted that, as a layperson, I’m not sure if by “extendo” he means an extended magazine clip, which would seem obvious, but “extendo” also refers to two blunts stuck end-to-end and packed with weed to form an extended super-blunt. I’ll assume the former, but the latter is reasonable as well. Whatever the case, well worth looking into.

Lavitt, John. “Rapper Stitches Invites Women to Snort Cocaine On Stage.”The Fix. Clean & Sober Media, LLC. November 3, 2014.

Read Florida Man: Battle of the Five Meth Labs: A Love Story here.

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12.1

FM16 (12.1)

A week later, Rupert had started to feel like he’d made a solid inroad with some Methheads, so at the very least, he could tell Pyrdewy there was progress, though, in fact there was not. No one had mentioned the D.E.A.T.H. program, and he was wary of bringing it up. He had a position now. Marketing and Sales. He even got a small commission, so while the Spliphsonian paid for the room and a meager daily stipend, Rupert was cultivating a small monetary cushion, in case of an emergency.

The idea of an emergency down here upset him and he tried not to think about it.

He walked out of a Gorge (Fine Men’s Clothing) store after a meeting with Bill, who was, as usual, cooking and smoking, but had grown so accustomed to Rupert’s visits that he no longer turned from his lab to conduct the business anymore. Rupert didn’t have to worry so much about the pipe triggering him, though he was always on guard. You never knew.

If you have a pipe aversion, navigating the world of meth and crack was a minefield of potential panic bombs—like a Bouncing Betty, it could jump up out of nothing and blast your face off.

He left the air-conditioned store, out into the punishing heat and blinding sun, and was about to step off the curb into the parking lot, toward Jesus’s blue Lincoln, when he smelled a smell of . . . cooking meth. At first he thought maybe it was on his clothing, so he sniffed his sleeves and shirt, but no. It came from elsewhere. Rupert scanned the lot, squinting and making another mental note to get some damn sunglasses.

There were a few cars here and there—cars from the present decade, which was remarkable as more often than not, Rupert felt like he was in a bit of a time warp. Off in the corner, somewhat camouflaged against a large brown bush that Rupert couldn’t tell was brown by species or by death, was a chocolate-colored 1977 Cutlass Supreme with matching brown smoke wafting from its half-closed trunk.

Of course it is, Rupert thought. And then he wondered how many of these little box labs there were per square mile in Florida. The Feds must keep track with statistical information published somewhere.

The car was backed into the bush, which followed the curb, landscaped in what someone assumed was a pleasing form, but its maintenance routine must have been suspended. Most of the smoke disappeared into the bush, and Rupert thought that maybe he was witnessing his first evidence of strategic intelligence among these people. But then his eyes drifted forward to the front of the car and he saw a middle-aged, though balding man in khakis and an unbuttoned baby blue, sweat-stained dress shirt, slumped in the driver’s seat, door open, one leg hanging out, heel on the pavement, and a banana in his limp left hand, which was balanced perilously on his thigh. His ears protruded from his head dramatically and he looked as though he had recently shaved off a thick mustache, as his upper lip was considerably lighter than the rest of his face.

Nope, Rupert thought. That’s not normal.

He was in with SIKildo Industries, but in sales. He felt that if he was going to get in with a community of Methheads and get closer to the D.E.A.T.H. project, he’d need to be around meth production, hands on. He needed to learn how to cook it. Bill wasn’t apt to teach him; his usefulness to Fulva—who consorted with demons—was shaky enough as it was.

He looked to Jesus who put up his hands in a what the fuck? gesture from the car, to which Rupert replied with a different hands-up signal that said, hang on a minute. He heard the music turn up in the Lincoln, despite the windows being up (Whitesnake’s “In the Still of the Night”), took a deep breath, then exhaled through his nose.

As he walked toward the brown car, he kept an eye on the man inside. Rupert wasn’t sure how he’d react to being approached out in the open like this. He didn’t even have a game plan, until it came in a flash: He’s just trying to sell some Golden Tickets, man. But the closer he got, the more he wondered if this man was even alive.

Then the guy twitched. Well, less a twitch than a waking convulsion. His shin smacked the bottom of the open door and his banana fell to the concrete.

“Aw, shit,” the man mumbled.

Rupert’s pace slowed to a more cautious speed as he watched the man lean as far over to the left as he could to pick up the banana without having to change his drooped position. Rupert saw now that this guy’s Cutless was mint. It was in perfect condition—washed and waxed. The front seat, pristine. But everything from the back of the front seats to the rear window was jam-packed full of all manner of things, including the ominous head of some angry horned animal that Rupert didn’t recognize. Barely-contained, highly-localized entropy, it looked on the verge of collapsing and winking out of existence to become a clean, but rusty Cutlass on the other side of the universe and in another dimension.

Rupert moved closer and was practically on top of him when the guy pushed himself vertical in his seat, clutched the recovered banana like a gun, and looked up at Rupert, squinting.

“What?”

Along with the stink of cooking meth was another smell, one that should have been pleasant, but was so strong under the meth that is was nauseating instead. Rupert saw that strung around the rearview mirror, which this guy didn’t need and couldn’t use, looked to be approximately thirty air fresheners, all banana shaped, some looking more faded than others, some looking brand-spankin’ new.

“I . . . ” Rupert blanked. “I . . . noticed your car.” And he had, in a way.

“Oh yeah?” The guy’s face burst into a smile in a manner that was a little disconcerting. “You like my car?”

“Yes, I can see that it’s very well . . . loved,” Rupert said as the guy stood, stretched, and tossed the banana onto the seat behind him. The chemical-banana smell followed and engulfed Rupert, but he held steady.

The guy grabbed Rupert’s left hand with a surprisingly firm grip and shook it.

“Tommy Bananas.”

Oh? For a moment, Rupert wanted to give a false name—he almost said Derek Peterson—but he knew if he started with that it would get out of control and he’d get nailed in the end.

“I’m Rupert.” He resisted the urge to wipe his hand on his shorts, what with that having been Tommy Bananas’s banana hand.

They stood there for a moment, admiring the car, smoke roiling from the trunk, banana stink emanating from the front seat. Rupert’s gaze kept returning to the scratched-glass eyes of the horned animal within.

“Would you believe I grew up in this car?” Tommy said, grinning and nostalgic.

Rupert thought he misheard. “This was your family car then?”

“Yep! Me and my dad lived in this car, since, whoa, geez, since about when I was six.”

“Ah, is that so . . . ?”

“Best years of my life, right here in this car,” Tommy waxed. “Well, all years of my life.” He looked at Rupert who could only look back helpless in this conversation. “Can’t leave it.”

“I’m sorry, can’t?”

“Can’t. Got a condition. One of them phobias.”

“Agoraphobia?”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“In your car.”

“Yep.”

“But you’re not in it now,” Rupert pointed out.

“Oh well, sure, I can get out, stretch, walk around it,” he paused here. “Do business. And my business! Ha! If you catch my drift!”

He slapped his banana hand on Rupert’s back and Rupert did catch his drift.

Then Tommy turned serious again.

“But, yeah . . . can’t get more than five feet from it.”

“What happens if you do?” Rupert had to ask.

“Well, I haven’t tried it in a while, but last time, I went a little nuts,” Tommy said.

“Nuts.”

“Some kind of attack. Couldn’t breath, heart runnin’ a mile a minute, that kind of shit.”

Rupert felt startling empathy for this weird, sweaty, banana-stinking, open-shirted man.

“Well, as far as cars that you can never leave go, it’s a good one,” Rupert said, hoping to make Tommy feel at ease.

Tommy grinned from ear to ear. “You got that right.”

Rupert also felt more comfortable, but as they walked around it, the horned beast’s eyes caught his and the running in his chest kicked up to a trot.

“My dad left me this car,” Tommy said, reaching in and picking up the discarded banana.

And everything in it, presumably, Rupert thought, eyeballing the beast.

“You know, we didn’t have a house, or anything like that, but man,” Tommy reminisced. “We had some great times in this car.”

Rupert wanted to be polite, and he even thought maybe this guy, though insane, might be all right. Regardless, he didn’t want to hear all the heartwarming tales of living out of a car with your crazy, beast-head-keeping father.

“Sometimes it’d get to smellin’ not so great, you know, two men living in such a small space,” Tommy went on. “But he took care of it. He took care of everything. Know what his favorite thing was?”

“Can I guess?”

Tommy Bananas stood back and held his arms out like, give it your best shot. Rupert imagined the banana was getting warm and a bit mushy inside its peel as Tommy gripped it.

Rupert pretended to think for a minute.

“Bananas.”

Tommy almost fell over. “Man, how did you know?”

Rupert pointed to the wilting banana in his hand, but also drew Tommy’s attention to the suffocating bouquet of banana air fresheners starbursting from the rearview mirror. Tommy laughed and gave Rupert a good-natured punch to the shoulder and a sly side look.

“You’re like that Sherlock Holmes.”

“I can be.” Rupert smiled.

Yes, Rupert almost liked Tommy Bananas. He didn’t even mind that he didn’t know what the man’s last name was, but then, he now knew a white guy named Osceola and a monkey named Steve Perry.

“So, brother,” Tommy said. “What is it that you do? You play basketball?”

For once, Rupert was unoffended. “Ha, no. Knees are no good. Not too keen on sports anyway. No, Tommy, I’m in sales.”

“Oh yeah?” Tommy appeared interested. Rupert didn’t think he’d ever had a conversation with anyone who expressed genuine interest in what he was saying. Maybe that one time, with Leenda, but, had that even been a conversation?

“Yeah,” Rupert said. He started to pull a Golden Ticket from his cross-body bag. “I’m working for SIKildo Industries—”

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Beast17

Out of patience, but to some degree pleasantly engaged, Louis was about to explain that Modestine, his irascible donkey, led him here, and if the men were game to argue the guidance of two asses then he’d be happy to stay up all night. But it was just then that a commotion sounded at the close-by gate. All three men were to their feet.

Au secours!” a haggard voice called from the gate.

Il été a attaqué!” another voice shouted.

Louis, the priest, and the soldier ran from the kitchen and joined a collection of monks, robes flying, all hurrying to the gate.

The night beyond the threshold of the monastery was as black as the blind eve Louis had spent beside the road to Cheylard. Lanterns were hastily lighted, and soon a glowing procession made its way to the wrought iron entry that stood between the blessed retreat and the fields. As they approached, the light revealed an unholy sight.

Two peasants struggled to carry what seemed to Louis but a large, unruly sack of entrails. The habit was clearly of their order, and once a brother had wiped the blood from the man’s face with the hem of his own robe, he was shown to be no other than poor Father Apollinaris.

Louis groaned, and the two laymen, who wept openly, handed the dying man off to his brethren. They gathered him silently and rushed him into the shelter of their sacred house. At first, they began to carry him to his private cell, but he cried out in such pain that they stopped and laid him on the cold, hard floor of the corridor, unsure of exactly what to do. Brother Porter cradled the father’s head in his lap. Father Prior had been called for immediately and he joined them now, assessing the situation. Louis, Father Carthage, Brother Roland, and one of the peasants stood nearby, hating to hear the man’s weeping, but wanting to be close in case they were needed. The second peasant had tearfully excused himself, stating that he could take no more than he had already seen, and afraid to make his way home alone, he waited amongst the three empty bowls in the kitchen.

Father Prior knelt beside Father Apollinaris, spreading his hands over the friar’s lacerated body, haltingly, as if searching for a place untorn to lay them. Not finding that place, he finally took the man’s dirty face in his hands, gently but firmly, and beseeched him.

“You must tell me what happened,” Father Prior said.

Father Apollinaris’s mouth gaped like an airborne fish for water; he brought one bloody hand up to touch Father Prior’s tear-streaked cheek, and then his shaking fingers fell to his own throat and he gasped.

“He cannot speak,” Father Prior announced quietly.

Louis heard the poor friar in his memory, I cannot speak! At this, he could no longer hold back and sobbed loudly at first, but then he turned from his companions, facing the wall. He fought desperately to erase this image from his memory and hold only that smiling, red-cheeked face, that builder of roads, who took so much pleasure in their conversation. Louis lamented that he would, indeed, not be able to search for this good man at the edge of the wood on his way out of the valley tomorrow, for the chance to let a few more fine words flow between them. Father Apollinaris cannot speak, would likely never speak again.

In the gloom of the hallway, the friar’s gurgles faded into unconsciousness, and a steady, but weak and belabored breath. Father Prior directed some brothers to move Father Apollinaris to the chapel. At this, some of the younger of the brothers wept, as it meant the savaged friar was not expected to live. Other brothers were instructed to fetch clean water and rags with which to gently cleanse their brother so that he may enter the kingdom of heaven as uncontaminated as was feasible.

As they lifted his limp, white body, he made no sound, and all that could be heard was the shuffling of the men’s’ sandals against floorboards.

Louis wiped his eyes and face with his sleeve.

“Let us return to the kitchen,” said Father Carthage. “There is nothing we can do.”

The peasant who had been in the kitchen jumped as the door opened and the men filed in. Once he saw who it was, he let his face fall back into his hands, his fingers tangled in a rosary, his lips moving quietly.

After they returned to the benches around the table, Brother Roland broke the sad silence.

“What are your names?”

Je m’appelle Pierrick,” the peasant who stood with them in the hallway said. He was bearded and filthy from his daytime toil; his eyes were dark, but honest. “Et il s’appelle Rémy.” He pointed to the praying man at the table. Heads nodded.

“Wolves?” This time Father Carthage spoke.

“Maybe,” answered Pierrick. “We found him on the monastery road. We sometimes cut through from his field to mine. We were later coming home tonight than usual. Mostly we see him at dusk and he waves. I did not expect to find him.”

“Why would he have been out there still in the dark?” Louis asked, angry.

“Perhaps time slipped from him,” said Rémy softly.

“Not likely,” Louis retorted. “He’s building a road. In the dark?”

“Then he may have been attacked before the sun went down,” Brother Roland said.

The thought of poor Father Apollinaris laying on his own road slowly bleeding to death made Louis’s heart ache.

“Well,” said Brother Roland as he stood. “Let us go and look.”

Quoi?” said Rémy. “Non, I go nowhere but home and only then with a party. Or I sleep here until daybreak.”

“Coward,” said Roland, his chest swelling with disgust. Rémy only glared at the old soldier.

Brother Roland looked at Father Carthage, who turned his eyes away and put up his hand.

“I am best employed in prayer, I’m afraid,” he said.

Roland snorted and then looked at Pierrick. “And so it is only the two of us,” Roland said.

Pierrick nodded.

“I am going,” said Louis, angry he’d been excluded.

Brother Roland shook his head.

“I cannot trust my back to a heretic,” he said coldly.

Louis thought he might lash out and strike the old man, but Pierrick spoke up.

“I don’t care how this man worships,” he said. “His eyes are as good as any, and the more on my back the better.”

“I am willing to bet,” Louis added, “that despite anyone’s little red ribbons, I am the only man here holding a pistol.”

Roland’s face turned crimson, and Father Carthage gasped. Louis insisted they remain until he returned with it, and with that, he dashed to his cell and retrieved the revolver from his knapsack.

“But there is another man,” Father Carthage insisted as Louis walked through the door and stood by it.

“Right,” said Roland. “I saw him in the afternoon, but I haven’t seen him since. And he hasn’t seen fit to dine with us. Perhaps he is already gone on his way.”

“Perhaps,” said Father Carthage and the matter of the extra man was dropped. Louis didn’t think much of it. Four men would be preferable, but he felt confident that, with three plus his pistol, they’d be safe enough.

“We have no other weapons,” Roland said.

“The father’s barrow and tools were nearby,” Pierrick said. “Obviously, it didn’t seem important at the time.”

“We will make our way . . .” Louis began, but Roland spoke loudly over him.

“Our unit will make its way to Father Apollinaris’s barrow and then inspect the area.”

Louis closed his mouth and resolved not to concern himself. In the end, the old soldier would arm himself with a stick, whereas Louis would be able to blast anything that growled in the shadows.

“Father,” Roland turned to Father Carthage. “Please inform Father Prior of our operation.”

All but Rémy stood and they left the kitchen. Each grabbed a lantern from the line that remained glowing just inside the door.

“My son,” Father Carthage addressed Louis. “It is not too late.”

For a moment, Louis couldn’t see what Carthage was getting at.

“Your sect,” the priest went on, “for I think you will admit I would be doing it too much honor to call it a religion, will not shield you from what is out there.”

Louis’s face burned.

“Where ever should my sect fail me, Father Carthage,” he spit, “The three of us shall be shielded by the God of steel.” He patted the revolver beneath his coat and Father Carthage crossed himself.

The three men let themselves out through the door and then paused at the gate to open it. As they did, the abbey bells rang out across the night, echoing their somber song over the hills and valleys of Vivarais. Father Apollinaris had died. The men stopped and bowed their heads, except for Louis, who looked up to the sky above the belfry, half-expecting to see the jolly white-clad friar ascending on a beam. The chimes changed from sad to joyous, as if welcoming the dawn of a new day, and in fact, he supposed they were, for one man, at least. After a moment, Louis could discern the distant song of what must have been the bells of a hundred surrounding holy houses, all joining their brothers in both their joy and sorrow. And, despite Brother Roland and Father Carthage, Louis’s esteem for the Catholic faith expanded a little more.

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10.2

FM16 (10.2:11.1)

Rupert stood, sweaty and red-faced, in an area of the room cleared of a few pink cushions so he could nervously pace while he explained to them how they could improve their sales of Crack Planet tickets. Fulva, Bill, Osceola, Jesus, and Steve Perry sat or reclined around the scattered pillows, looking tired and bored. Rupert noticed that Steve Perry sported a new vest—leopard print.

He’d been talking for roughly twenty minutes about closing ratios, performance plans, prospecting, quota, and methodology. He wasn’t sure he knew what he was talking about. He’d read a Start a Small Business for Morons book a few years ago when he considered opening up a shop that specialized in electro-stimulation devices for both newbies and extremists. He wondered for a moment why he hadn’t gone through with it. Oh, because he was a social idiot and uncomfortable with his own sexual proclivities.

Fulva sneezed and brought him back.

“So, what it comes down to is this: we need to expand our employee base in order to reach a wider customer base. Our margin is good; our markup is ridiculous. But the customers need to know the benefits of a trip to Crack Planet. Yes, it’s free crack, but what else? We need to put our heads together on that . . . ”

Rupert watched Osceola pick something off of Steve Perry and eat it.

“ . . . if you turn to page five in your handouts . . . ”

Papers shuffled.

“Shit!” Bill had gotten a paper cut.

“ . . . you’ll see a graph I made to make it as clear as possible . . . ”

Chále, güey, it’s shaped like a rock. That’s sweet,” said Jesus, smiling and nodding.

On page five was a giant crack rock divided equally by lines into four sections, each containing a letter.

“In expanding our sales base, we need to think about AIDS—Awareness, Interest, Desire, and Sales.”

Steve Perry slept, and Rupert didn’t know why that bothered him.

“Start with Awareness. We need to spread out and push the Crack Planet message to the crack houses, the trap houses, the rock and smoke houses, the abandominiums. We can’t just stand behind greasetraps and wait for them to come to us. Consider it an interplanetary mission . . .”

“Oooo, I love the sound of that,” Fulva cooed like a buzzsaw.

“ . . . door-to-door selling. It worked for vacuums, it works now, still, for Bibles, and what is religion but America’s best-selling drug?”

“Mmmm,” the group considered.

“That’s a good point,” Bill said.

Rupert wasn’t sure it was a great point at all, but it sounded good.

Raise Awareness, develop the Interest, whet the Desire for the product, and push, push, push for Sales.”

“Always Be Closing!” Jesus said, pumping his fist in the air.

“You’ve seen that movie?”

“I’m not uncivilized, carbón.”

“Hey.” Rupert didn’t know what he’d been called, but he was beginning to read Jesus pretty well.

Silence, but for Steve Perry’s snoring, sawing his tiny log in Capuchin monkey dreamland.

Bill stared, half-blind with sleep. Jesus sat there grinning. Osceola stared at Steve Perry. After a moment of presumably bewildered silence, Fulva stood up and clapped.

“AIDS! You, big man, are hired. In fact, you are now his boss,” she said and pointed at Jesus, who wasn’t bothered by the idea at all. “Make it happen, but . . . ” And then she did what all bosses do: She hobbled them right out the gate by being stingy with the resources. “We can’t hire any more people right now. So, you guys scope things out on your Awareness-raising mission, and we’ll see where this goes. Nice job, Rupie. You’re gonna go places.”

Rupert smiled, and then frowned. What the hell was he doing?

* * *

In three days, Rupert and Jesus had worked through all the places Crackheads go—a lot of month-to-month micro-rent housing complexes, full of squatters and not much different in upkeep than the brick row houses of DC and Baltimore, with the exception of all the stucco. So much cracking, falling stucco. And dead grass. So many dead and dying lawns littered with palm husks and fast food wrappers. But they doubled their Golden Ticket sales and were already seeing the evidence that their word-of meth-mouth working.

As they drove around (Fulva even gave Jesus extra cash for their lunch and gas money), Rupert still had trouble understanding what was happening. Was his proposal amazing? Or were these people amazingly stupid?

“The proof is in the pudding, ese,” Jesus answered after Rupert had wondered this out loud.

“I don’t mean you, Jesus.”

“I’m smart enough to know that.”

“Hey, did Bill get anywhere with his 911 call the other day?”

“Hell no. They can’t do anything about that shit. But he calls, every week,” Jesus said, turning right on 33rd Street.

“Every week?”

“Clockwork.”

“He get in trouble for this?” Rupert asked.

“He did, once. The first time,” Jesus said, laughing. “But when they realized he wasn’t going to stop, they let it go. I guess they have some slow days sometimes. They make fun of him and let it go.”

“Jesus, I’ve seen a lot of weird shit happening since I’ve been here. Just stuff, you know, around. Tell me—when lunatics call 911, how do the police know when it’s something they need to come out for or not?”

“Tall Man, I have a theory that so much crazy, drug-fueled shit goes on down here, la jura have developed a kind of sixth sense. Like, they just know.”

“Like Kreskin,” Rupert said.

“Yeah, like that. Telepologetic.”

“Telepathy.”

“Checking to see if you were awake. Yeah, I even think maybe they have to have some kind of special training program for people with the ESP. Like, I don’t think any other state has, or would need, a program like this.” Jesus explained, eyes on the road.

“I guess that makes some kind of sense.” Rupert scanned passing parking lots for signs of madness.

11

Shit Pail still sits on the shit pail in which she took a dump, her ass holding in most of the stench like a cork. Her pants are still bunched up around her ankles and she’s reclining a little, like she’s lounging in an Eezee-Boy. She smokes a cigarette.

“Perdooee . . . what does that mean?” she asks.

“What?” Rupert squints at her through the nicotine haze. “Oh, Pyrdewy. I have no idea.”

“Guy sounds like an asshole.”

“Astute.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“SHHH,” Shit Pail flings the index finger holding the cigarette sideways to her lips and the smoke rises up into her eye, affecting her in no noticeable way. Rupert listens.

“What?”

“I thought I heard someone.”

They listen for about two minutes. Nothing.

“You’re freaking out,” Rupert said.

“Am not.”

Rupert looks at Shit Pail, feeling tired.

“So. Now you’re King of the Golden Tickets to this Crack Planet, which sounds amazing, by the way.”

“Uh, yeah. I guess.”

“Are these tickets still available?”

Another long look at Shit Pail, who spreads her thighs a bit and drops the spent, still-smoking butt into the mop pail with no water. Rupert, even as a Methhead, can’t believe he still has standards.

“I really don’t know,” he said, sighing and staring into the banked corner drain, clogged with hair, sopping lint, and small chunks of filthy yellow cleaning sponge.

“Well, this is all pretty weird, dude,” she says, stretching her arms above her head and then returning to her half-recline.

“You live here. This doesn’t sound normal to you?” he asks.

“Okay, well mostly, but . . . Crack Planet.”

Rupert considers the woman hovering with wanton ease above her own excrement.

“Fair enough. But it gets worse.”

“Awesome.” Shit Pail lights another cigarette.

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Beast16

Brothers in the garden came and went. Three took their prayers on the terrace, a few tended the browning vegetation, which Louis could see must have bloomed beautifully in the spring and summer months. Others walked alone or in pairs, all in silence. The monastery and garden sat in its hallowed valley between two hills; on one side, the slope ascended nakedly, and on the other, a blue carpet of firs. The atmosphere, though not as sterile as he’d feared, still felt ultimately lifeless, for life was more than quiet contemplation. Life was action. It was more than the bare contours of a rocky terrain; it was the sun warming the needles of the pine and sending its scent up to heaven. It was the comforting shade beneath the boughs. It must be more than this.

Louis sat on a bench looking at his hands. His wrists were slight, his fingers thin, with two gold bands on the left—one on his ring finger, the other on the index. The tips and cuticles of his right were ink stained, the knot of his middle finger pronounced. He examined them because he didn’t know where else to look, being surrounded by people, but not really, as it felt a veil had been drawn between him and them. It was not quite dusk yet, but the light took on that affected golden tone that murmured the coming of night.

Finally, a brother approached. He had so quickly blended back in with his brethren, Louis didn’t know the monk until he was practically upon him. Brother Porter made a slight hand gesture to Louis and smiled. Louis followed him.

He was taken to the part of the building reserved for messieurs les retraitants and to a compact cell that was, like the outside, whitewashed and clean, and sparsely furnished, as he’d expected. Brother Porter humbly received Louis’s thanks and departed. There was a cot, a crucifix on the wall, and a bust of the Pope on the windowsill. Next to the cot was a tiny nightstand, upon which was stacked a book of religious meditations, Kempis’s De Imitatione Christi, and a copy of the Life of Elizabeth Seton. Above the stand were instructions for the visitor, a schedule of prayers, and whatnot. Attached, a note that read: “Free time is used for examining the conscience, for confession, and for making good resolutions.”

Yes, it is, thought Louis, and indeed, all the world really was his own monastic cell.

He spread his sack double over the cot, for a moment feeling guilty and sure no one else in the building would be as warm. They were, though, living this life by choice, whereas he was merely passing through. He set his knapsack—full of his other effects—by the bed and then crept stealthily out the door to explore his surroundings.

This more public section of the building was nearest the gate through which he and Modestine had entered. There was a dining room on the ground floor, in addition to another corridor leading to more visitors’ cells. The adventure was briefer than he’d expected, as there really wasn’t anything exciting or complicated about this place. It made sense, he supposed. The fewer distractions, the closer the mind gets to God, and so follows the spirit.

He lingered in the halls for another ten minutes or so, walking the length and back again, listening. Small noises met his ear amidst the ambient silence—the shuffling of a page, the slight clearing of a throat. So, he wasn’t alone in this part of the monastery. This gave him a sense of relief, as he felt he’d never be able to sleep, entombed as he’d be in this empty honeycomb of rooms. After a few more minutes, no one emerged from any room and Louis’s hopes to find conversation diminished enough to send him back to his own cell, and take up the Life of Elizabeth Seton. With that—boring words on dreary paper, revealing the dull life of this American Catholic convert-turned-Saint—he fell asleep and dreamt disjointedly of friars and firs, of donkeys and dormitories.

When he awoke, it was hard on sunset and his stomach growled angrily. He opened his eyes just in time to watch the last sliver of golden light fade and turn the air blue with evening. He heard a door open and then close, but softly, as though the occupant was an elephant fumbling through the wine cabinet in search of a fluted glass.

* * *

The monastery kitchen, despite being as new as the rest of the building, felt more rustic than anything Louis had seen here so far. The walls were still white, and the tables and cabinets bore only the small scars of the last forty years, but the bowls and utensils—the most intimate objects relating to food—were wooden and pocked with age. There was a large brick oven built into the wall that operated like any rural fireplace, except in that you didn’t have to bend over as much. Long-handled ladles hung beside it; a number of hefty iron pots stacked on the floor. One nestled in the oven over a fire, steaming up the mouth-watering smells of a monkish soup—the best soup in the world.

When Louis entered the kitchen, there was one man sitting with a bowl in front of him, and another man—a religious man—filling his own. There were three lamps—one by the door, one on the table, and one by the oven—that threw three yellow rings of light that connected just around their edges. The rest of the room was in darkness.

Bonsoir,” Louis said quietly. “May I join you?”

The two men looked at him strangely.

“Of course,” said the religious man, as he sat down opposite the other man with his soup.

Louis knew he was religious because he wore a habit, although it was different from the robes of Our Lady of the Snows. It was brown, like sack cloth, only much heavier.

“I am Father Carthage,” he said. “And this is Brother Roland.”

Brother Roland nodded to Louis. He was a short, stocky man of perhaps fifty, with a grizzled peasant’s face. Although Father Carthage called him Brother, he wore a tweed suit with a red ribbon knotted in the top buttonhole, signifying that while he may be a religious novice now, he was, at some point, and still is, proud of having been a soldier.

Louis filled a bowl with the soup that was more of a stew. Although prepared entirely with vegetables, it was so thick with them, and of such variety, that it nearly tasted meaty.

As they ate, Louis learned that Father Carthage was a parish priest on holiday—he’d walked over that morning from Mende for a handful of days dedicated to seclusion and meditation. He complained of the trouble he’d had with his skirts over the rocky paths and grumbled that he would have to have a talk with the Sisters who did the hemming. Brother Roland was, as Louis suspected, an old soldier, who, immediately upon his discharge from a lengthy military career, sequestered himself to this religious life. He found, though, that no matter how calm his disposition became, the soldier in him was not easily quelled. Eventually, he had to conclude that his taking the robes was never meant to be, but that God had led him here for a reason, and therefore he would exist straddling that line, between soldier and monk.

Louis explained who he was and why he was there. The men nodded, seemingly disinterested, which struck Louis as odd. The priest kept glancing down at the hem of his robes and shaking them, as if the mud of the morning’s walk had still not come off completely. The soldier only sat bolt upright and spooned the stew into his mouth, elbow stiffly out. His bowl was empty in about ten seconds. He wiped his mouth and then retrieved another helping, which he readily dispatched as quickly as the first.

Louis dipped a piece of what might have been the most delicious bread he’d ever eaten—soft, but dense, with a nutty country flavor and a consistency that gave the impression of flying straight from the millstone to the oven. He was about to resign himself to the fact that conversation would never come. As with the four Frenchman at Monastier, Louis longed to relax into the charming conversationalist his friends knew him to be. He swore his muscles itched to fling him this way and that, to act out what news of the day happened upon topic, to flap his hands in the face of his audience to drive home whatever salient and belief-altering piece of philosophy he espoused. He missed his friends. But he’d just have to satisfy himself with this fine meal and be off to bed, when the soldier finally spoke.

“It is a shame about Mac-Mahon,” he said, and folded his napkin, placing it beside his empty bowl.

It was a start.

And from there, the three men launched into a dialogue that would fairly cover all aspects of contemporary French politics and last about an hour, until Louis inevitably made his fatal mistake.

“But at least Gambetta has acted in moderation,” Louis said, rubbing the now-dry bottom of his bowl with the edge of his spoon. This was worse than no conversation at all and he sought grounds to excuse himself.

It was as if the temperature in the room had dropped. Louis looked up to see perhaps that someone had walked through the door and caused both the chill and the silence. But the two men merely stared holes into Louis’s forehead. He traced his mistake and knew immediately—although Gambetta was politically moderate, and even kept Mac-Mahon from losing power sooner than he did, he was also a well-known anti-cleric. It made sense that it slipped Louis’s mind.

Comment, monsieur?” the old soldier finally exploded and he sprang from his seat. “Comment? Gambetta a moderate? Will you dare justify these words?”

The man’s anger shook the walls of the little kitchen and Louis cringed involuntarily, but as he was about to rally himself for a defense, the priest set his hand on Roland’s arm. The soldier looked at him and was thus reminded of where he was, and who he was trying to become. Brother Roland took a deep breath, composed himself by running his palms down the breast of his suit, inadvertently flicking the red ribbon as he did, and sat down. He didn’t look at Louis. And when Louis opened his mouth to explain, Father Carthage held up his hand to stop him. The priest gave him a look as if to say, he will not hear you; wait until he is truly calm. Louis nodded his assent.

It was an argument, but infinitely more interesting than the conversational route they had been on.

After a few minutes, the soldier, who seemed as if he’d spent that time meditating fruitfully and was entirely composed, spoke.

“And are you even of the true faith?” he asked Louis.

Louis sighed deeply and then watched Father Carthage’s face collapse slowly as the silence before Louis’s answer lengthened, clearly indicating that it would not be to the holy man’s liking. Louis stared at the bottom of his bowl, as if scrying the wood for a way out. Finally, the priest reached out and patted Louis on the shoulder.

“Well,” he said simply.

Louis was already thanking the stars for the forgiveness he was about to receive.

“Well,” the priest repeated. “You must simply be a Catholic, and come to heaven.”

And so went a defense, infuriating to commence, not simply of politics, but of personal faith. When Louis professed the faith of his countrymen, the priest answered:

“And you mean to die holding that sort of belief?”

When Louis fell to the justification of his parents, the priest answered:

“Very well; you will convert them in their turn when you go home.”

No motive, no matter the impetus, was any match for the holy man’s vindication. All mens’ faiths—apart from his own—were malleable, and once transformed, it could be spread to those equally pliable. Brother Roland sat with his palms now flat on the table before him, looking at Louis’s rings.

“No,” Louis said, finally. “I have no intention of changing.”

“But you must,” Father Carthage pressed. “God has led you here and you must embrace the opportunity.”

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