by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by sairobi
According to Multiverse Theory, you, in an infinite number of universes, right now, are fucking Rick Santorum. All it takes for there to be a divergence is a decision, no matter how small: the second you make a choice, you go one way, and a universe where you make the other choice goes the other way. Another choice, another split. Every decision you make, from where to go to college to when to scratch your balls, is happening at that very same moment in an infinite number of other universes, and some of you are making one choice, and some of you are making another.
Or maybe the choice got made before you even got there. Maybe your great-great-great grandmother had a pickle for lunch one August Thursday, and that set off the chain of events that led to you, where you are, right now, reading this. Maybe if she’d had an apple instead, you wouldn’t be sitting here at all. Instead, you — or someone enough like you that it might as well be you — would be knees-up in some sturdy Pennsylvania Dutch four-poster bed, taking it like whatever you take it like from a former senator and presidential candidate in a sweater-vest. There’s even an infinite number of universes where he’s removed the sweater-vest.
There is, of course, an infinite number of universes out there where this is not happening. But mathematically speaking, infinity and infinity are the same — that is, you can’t have more of the infinity where a thing is happening than you can of the infinity where that thing isn’t happening. So if you could step through the thin membrane separating these universes into that next universe over’s version of you, odds are fifty-fifty that you’d find yourself on the receiving end of Rick Santorum’s glorious Republican penis.
Think about that next time you’re having trouble sleeping.
Ty was balls-deep in me when Mike called. You better believe I let that bastard go to voicemail.
Balls-deep isn’t even an exaggeration. I was actually feeling his firm, hairy nutsack slap against my asscheeks every time he plowed into me. It’s one of those things that feels awesome at the time but feels so stupid when you talk about it later, like when you’re jerking off to porn and five seconds after you come, you can’t believe what the hell crap it was that just made you shoot your load. But he was there and my knees were touching my shoulders and it was all great.
Speaking of shooting one’s load, that’s what I did about three minutes after the terrible midi version of Coldplay’s ‘Clocks’ that Mike, that asshole, had set as his personal for-me ringtone stopped. I grabbed Ty’s hair — ‘Electric Lizard’ green this week, though he’d done a shit job at the roots and I could still see ‘Bad Boy Blue’ peeking out just above his scalp — and pulled him into a deep, toothy kiss. “Fucking come in me,” I demanded straight into his mouth, like he could hear me better that way. “I want to feel you jizz in me, you fucking beautiful fuck.” I am not at my most creative right after I’ve had my balls drained.
Fortunately, Ty found my stupid dirty talk as hot as I found his stupid tongue stud and his stupid black fingernails and his stupid everything else hot, so he doubled down and fucked me so hard I figured we’d leave a permanent me-sized mark in the mattress. I didn’t care. It was Mike’s bed.
With all the lube and friction and sweat, you can’t actually feel when a guy comes in you — at least, I can’t, and I’m a pretty sensitive asshole by several definitions of the phrase — but Ty’s face gave me the good news as he gasped and furrowed his brows tight for a long moment, then collapsed on top of me in a great pile of sweat and limbs. I love him, but I put up with this for about two seconds before I shoved him off me and out of me, then curled up with him face-to-face. We kissed for several minutes like that, just touching and petting and snuggling and leaking all sorts of bodily fluids onto Mike’s sheets. He’d used my car’s backseat similarly last month; fair was fair.
At last, Ty slapped my ass twice, hard enough to sting, and rolled off the bed. “Fuck, I needed that,” he said, stretching his arms above his bed. His soft, still-glistening penis dangled about eye level with me as I lay there; if a penis could have looked proud of itself, his would have been doing just that.
“I assume showing up at ten on a Tuesday morning means finals are done for you?” I rolled onto my stomach, both letting my ass air-dry and giving Ty a good look at what he’d done.
“One more.” Ty stretched out his arms behind him and popped his spine. “At noon. And then nothing to do this summer but apply for grad schools and have sex with my boyfriend.”
“Not in that order.”
Ty picked up his discarded clothes from the trail that led from the bed to the apartment’s front door. Okay, fucking on Mike’s bed was revenge, but it was also a matter of convenience. My room was ten whole feet farther away. “Sometimes in that order.” Items collected, he tossed them on the corner of the bed that was still relatively semen-free. “And I need a shower. I don’t want to sit a language exam smelling like cock.”
“You could sit on my face smelling like cock,” I offered, which was the most Mike-like thing I’d said all day.
“Later,” he promised, blowing me a kiss as he stepped into the bathroom. I was already ready for round two, and I love fucking in bathrooms as a general rule, but our apartment’s particular shower was about the size of a second-grader’s pencil case, meaning if we did try something, Ty’s dick was liable to wind up stuck somewhere less comfortable than in my ass.
The door hadn’t been shut two seconds behind him before I heard a distinct and melodious scream. I slapped my forehead. “It’s just Chester!” I shouted back.
He stumbled back out, looking even whiter than he usually did and pointing an accusatory finger back over his shoulder. “I can’t shower in there.”
We were coming up on our three-month anniversary, which meant Ty was about to finish his third full month of being a psychic. I’d given him spectral herpes — consensually! wholly consensually! — on our first date, which had not-coincidentally been in a creepy haunted house where we’d needed a combination of my highly contagious paranormal abilities and his in-progress Asian Languages and Cultures undergraduate degree to keep us from being siliconed to death by animated anthropomorphic sex toys. He was adjusting well, all things considered, but I can still remember my first year of my infection and how many times I’d thought I had a handle on what was now inside my head and been totally wrong. “Maybe keep the light off?”
“His intestines glow in the dark,” Ty reminded me, which was a good point.
“Okay, okay,” I said, rolling out of bed. I felt bad for having forgotten to warn him, but the truth was that our bathroom had looked like that for a week now, which meant I’d been used to it for nearly as long. No matter how much of a trooper he was, Ty had only had twelve weeks to adjust to being able to view the unseen world that hung around us every day. I’d been this way seven years and counting. “Get dressed, we’ll go back to your dorm, you can take a shower there, you can go prove your Mandarin-translating skills to some tweedy professor, and then we can celebrate by breaking your dorm bed.”
“Fine,” sighed Ty. He picked up one of Mike’s discarded t-shirts from the floor and wiped down his front; bless him, he had from the start taken the right attitude toward my terrible best friend, roommate, and occasional sexual outlet. Speaking of, I remembered the phone call from earlier a split-second before Ty asked, “Was that Mike calling?”
I nodded and flipped open the phone, and was surprised to see that he’d left me a voicemail message. Ever since the whole haunted house incident, he’d decided that live conversation was his preferred method of long-distance communication. I tapped in my voice code and held the phone to my ear, wondering what it was he wanted this time.
Ten minutes later, badly dressed and badly parked, we were in the lobby of Hellman Hall. “And he said the sociology building?” Ty asked, looking at the directory near the elevator.
“Do you have more than one?” Mike’s message had been weird and garbled, especially near the end, but that part at least had been clear.
“No, but … there’s the sociology offices and there’s the sociology classes. Most of the classes get held in here. The department offices are in … Pitlow, I think, but that’s the other side of campus, and it doesn’t have a fourteenth floor.”
“Well, if this isn’t it, we know what our next stop is.” I pressed the elevator call button.
Unkempt and obviously not-very-long-post-coital as we both looked, we would have been out of place literally anywhere but a homeless shelter on singles night or a college campus during the last day of finals week. I might have looked slightly older than the average student, but was no more recently washed. The cracks in the linoleum formed arcane alchemical symbols. The espresso machine at the coffee cart growled at me in what I think was French. The first letters of every student organization flyer on the bulletin board, read in order, told the time and date of a combination faculty tennis tournament and Roman orgy. One girl’s copy of Cry, the Beloved Country called me a crypto-Marxist as she walked by. I hate higher education.
At last the elevator car came. We stepped into it, and Ty held my hand while I tried to look cool. Mike was a stupid obnoxious asshole idiot, but he was my stupid obnoxious asshole idiot, and I still wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d worried me. At last, the elevator arrived, and when we stepped out, Ty tugged me left. “This way,” he said, guiding me down a corridor lined with classrooms.
I didn’t even have to check the plates by the doors; I could see our destination from the other end of the hall, and from the way Ty slowed down as we got close, he could too. Anybody else would have walked right on by without so much as a second glance, but seeing the world the way everybody else did was a luxury I’d long since given up. It made me think of watching movies where the audio and video got just a hair out of synch, enough that my brain could tell something’s wrong even if it couldn’t say what specifically. The patch of floor by the door was a little too beige, the blue around the door frame was not quite blue enough, and the handle was just different enough from all the other door handles that the wrongness began to itch at my brain. I tightened my grip on Ty’s hand and pressed the call button on my phone. Sure enough, from the other side of the door, I heard a distorted, underwater rendition of ‘Sexyback’.
“Mike?” I called out after it rang itself to voicemail. I tried the doorknob and found it locked, so I knocked a few times. “Mike, are you in there?”
“Jase?” The voice from the other side was muffled and feeble, but unmistakable. “Jason?”
I tried the door again, hoping for the very real possibility that I’d just been an idiot the first time and turned it the wrong way. No such luck: the handle swung but the mechanism didn’t disengage. “Mike, the door’s locked. You’re going to have to let us in.”
There was a small pause before Mike spoke again. “…Jason, you’ve got to get me down from here, I’m so scared.”
No. Mike was lots of things — a dickhead, a jackass, an asshole, a cocky bastard, a shitstain, a fuckwit — but he wasn’t ever scared. Being scared required certain sensible parts of his brain I’d lay good money on his having been born without. I looked at Ty, who shrugged and knocked a few times himself. “Mike, it’s Ty. I’m here too.”
“Ty?” He sounded on the verge of tears. This was equal parts troubling and embarrassing.
“Yeah, dude, it’s me. I came too.”
“Just the two of you?”
“Just the two of us,” I promised, jiggling the handle to see if I couldn’t shake its inner workings loose by sheer force of will. Now I was starting to panic. If he was pulling my leg, I’d throw him out the window. “Come on, Mike, if you want us in there, you’ve got to open the door.”
After another pause, this one longer, I heard a sound from the other side of the door I associate only with deep-sea documentaries and certain seminal (pun unintended) pieces of Mike’s porn collection: a very peculiar sort of squishing, damp and sort of sticky, enough to make my skin crawl. It slapped up against the door and then slid down, and as it did, the handle pulled free, leaving the door to swing open a crack. A trickle of green, swampy water appeared to flow out from behind the door, though I couldn’t feel it even when it washed over the tops of my crappy Keds. Holding Ty’s hand so that he wouldn’t get scared and absolutely not because my own stomach was about to crawl up my throat and out my mouth in a show of frankly well-timed self-preservation, I placed my other hand flat against the door and pushed it open wide.
More ghostly water flooded out, and now I could hear it as it my feet slogged through it, even though I still felt bone-dry from top to bottom. A soggy smell wafted through the air, the green-and-brown scent of decaying organic things. The room was empty except for desk-chairs in neat rows and a lecturer’s podium at the front; on top of the podium sat Mike.
Well, ‘sat’ may have been a strong word for it; I’m not really sure what you call it when you’ve got a human head from the neck up and nothing but a whole mass of long purple tentacles beneath it, and you’re staying very still.
“Jason,” said Mike’s head, fixing me with a worried gaze I now knew to be sincere, “I think I screwed up.”
Because it seemed like the polite thing to do, I stepped closer and shut the door behind us. Ty’s expression wavered between horrified and fascinated; bless the driving intellectual curiosity of college boys. One long purple tentacle snaked up my leg, and I very manfully did not wet my pants, though it was close. I looked down in time to see another snakelike appendage brush across the top of Ty’s sandaled foot. “Jesus!” Ty yelped, clutching my hand so hard I feared for my very bones.
“So,” said Mike, and I hated my brain then for, faced with all the logical impossibilities in front of it, getting hung up on the way he shouldn’t have been able to speak on account of not having any room for human-sized lungs in his flat, tentacled body, “remember the sociology professor I told you I was seeing? Turns out she’s an elder god.”
I wanted to claim it wasn’t the weirdest thing that had happened to me all week, but no, this made even Chester seem like small potatoes. “…Like Cthulhu?”
“Cthaeghya, actually,” said Mike, his tentacles swishing in a way that might have been a shrug. “But she prefers ‘Katie’.”
Ty shook his head. “Cthaeghya’s not an elder god; she’s a Great Old One–”
“Not the point, sweetie,” I said, patting his shoulder in a way I hoped wasn’t too patronizing; we’d talked about how best to respect and treat one another as equals despite the five-year age gap between us. “So, what, did you piss her off?”
“No! I showed her a great time!” Mike sighed. “So she wanted to see me again and…. Oh fuck, hold on.”
“Hold on to what?” I asked, but by the time I’d said that, it was already too late.
‘Too late’, of course, is a relative term even at the best of times, because whatever happened not only had happened before I even started speaking, but had always been happening. Mike sat on the podium now — and sat, on his human ass, with his human legs dangling off the sides, balanced precariously on a piece of equipment not meant to support a full-grown male human — and had always been sitting there, just like that. I had only a half-memory of seeing him as the half-octopoid abomination holding court above the murky, ghostly sea, like being able to remember a dream yet all the while knowing it’d never happened. I felt a flash of vertigo that passed as quick as it had come, leaving me wondering if I’d even really felt it at all.
Mike hopped down from the podium and landed on his feet with a little grunt on impact. “Well, that was fucked up. Anyway. Where was I?”
“You mean ‘Katie’ like Dr. Starr?” asked Ty, who seemed to be rolling with this now even better than I was. Couldn’t handle toilet ghosts; could handle sudden whole-body changes. Good to know.
“Yeah! Why, you know her?”
“Took her Intro to Semiotics last semester.”
I waved my hand across the air between them. “Again, not the point.”
Mike walked over and poked me a few times, which I allowed in part because when I’d heard his fear through that door, the back of my mind had started considering worst-case scenarios about why he might have been scared, and if he’d been dying, I would have felt really bad about how much spunk I’d recently left on his belongings. “Okay, I think it’s every five minutes or so. It’s hard to tell time as half an octopus, though. And that clock is–” Mike pointed and frowned, and I turned, following the line of his finger see to a blackboard-covered wall with not a timepiece in sight. “You see the problem.”
With a sigh, I leaned more heavily on my crutch, taking some of the weight off my prosthetic leg, which had started to pain me. “All I saw was you doing your best neck-down impression of a cephalopod, and that seems to have cleared up on its own. Did you say to her something involving a kitchen and sandwich-making? Because we talked about that.”
“If you must know, she invited me here for a little mid-morning hanky-panky,” Mike said, looking about as smug and self-satisfied as he ever did, “and then, after I had pleasured her to her satisfaction and then some — which I, respecting your sensibilities as homosexuals, shall not detail here, lest you clutch your own pearl necklaces — she needed to get some grading done, so she left and told me to wait five minutes before following her. But I waited slightly more than five minutes, and then I was made entirely of cheese.”
“Entirely?” asked Ty.
“Mostly. I think I had pimento eyes. But the really weird thing was how it wasn’t weird at all. It was like, oh, okay, I’m a sentient man-sized cheese conglomerate, that’s what I’ve always been and what I’ll always be, that’s fine. I could remember not being one, sure, but it didn’t feel wrong that I was. Kind of sad that cheese can’t eat itself. I bet I was delicious.”
For all the shit that Mike had landed himself in before, this definitely won some kind of special jury prize for creativity. “Well, all’s well that ends well.” I shifted my grip on my crutch before turning for the door. “Let’s get out of here so Ty can get ready for his exam–”
“Jase, hold up,” said Mike, and I stopped with a sigh, wondering what now. “We’re not out of it.”
“What?” I looked him up and down. “You are neither cheese nor a sea creature. Congratulations.”
He pointed to my lower half. “You don’t have a prosthetic leg.”
Of all the stupid things he’d said that day, that was the stupidest. Of course I had a prosthetic; I’d had it — or something like it — since I’d lost my right leg from the hip down in a car crash when I was nine. I’d had to go through months of PT to learn to walk with it, and I’d never been able to balance well enough to get by without some sort of secondary support. I’d met Mike in middle school and he’d been the first non-family, non-doctor person to see my stump, which he’d proclaimed ‘pretty cool’ before asking if I wanted to watch Silk Stalkings reruns. Everything in my entire life since the age of nine had been colored by my leg, or the lack thereof.
Except that he was right, too. Like he’d said about his full-body cheese experience, while I could remember everything about growing up with a prosthesis, I also knew at the same time that this wasn’t right. It was right for here, but it wasn’t right for me. “Shit,” I said, tapping the crutch against the cosmetic plastic case beneath my leg and hearing it click.
“So what do we do?” asked Ty, and now when I looked at him, I could see the ‘Electric Banana’ yellow that made him look not unlike Tweety Bird from the scalp up, but I could also remember seeing that morning a blur of neon green as the real Ty — my Ty — had sucked my cock like it was going out of style. Everything was okay right up until you could look at it and remember it wasn’t. Now that was fucked up.
“Are you sure you didn’t piss her off?” I tried again. Even Mike himself sometimes did not know the breadth and depth of his true annoyingness.
“We made a dinner date for six tonight. She kissed me. She giggled. And not in a Pennywise the Clown way, either.” Mike flicked me in the ear, then stepped back just far enough that I couldn’t return it without chancing falling over. “She did nothing to indicate I’d earned any amount of psycho bitchness, whether on a purely human or elder god scale.”
“Great Old One,” Ty corrected him.
“And that’s another thing: at what point did the whole ancient-evil-from-beyond-the-stars bit come up?” I frowned at Mike. “Is there a space for that in your OKCupid profile, or do you usually wait for the third date to share the really personal stuff?”
Mike pointed to his eyes, then rolled them like it should have been obvious. “You’ll see it too when you meet her. You know, if five minutes from now we’re not all ice sculptures or motorized teddy bears or sea monkeys.”
“Well, in the meantime, does anyone have any productive suggestions?” I asked, feeling the room sway a little as I did.
“Do you think she can stop it?” asked Ty, running his fingers through his salt-and-pepper hair as he pulled it away from his face and back into a ponytail. Our daughters teased him about how old-fashioned it made him look, but I thought it was handsomely leonine, and after almost twenty-five years of marriage, middle-aged husband opinion overruled even four teenage girls’ shared opinion.
“I think she went back to her office,” said Mike, bracing one hand against his back as he bent down and retrieved two cell phones from the floor, only one of which I recognized as his. “I tried calling her, but it must’ve fallen out of her pocket when I was nailing her over the projector cart.”
“Charming.” I took both phones for safekeeping and deposited them in the left-hand pocket of my Dockers. “…It happened again, didn’t it?”
Mike looked down at his Bermuda shorts and ill-fitting lilac polo shirt, then gave a slow, sad nod. “It must be speeding up.” He gave his rather impressive beer belly a mournful pat.
“Look on the bright side,” Ty said to him. “You could have gone back to being a half-octopus.”
“Fuck, being a half-octopus was awesome,” said Mike, punctuating his sentence by wiggling his fingers beneath his chin. “I had tentacles. I could breathe underwater! My dick could get up to five feet long!” He spread his hands apart on either side of him almost as far as they could go. “It was flexible, too. I tied it into, like, eight knots while waiting for you guys.”
“On that note,” I said, grabbing Ty’s sleeve and dragging him toward the door, equal parts hoping Mike would follow us and hoping he wouldn’t. “Come on, Dorothy. Let’s find the Wizard and get him to send us home. You said the sociology offices were in, what, Pillow Hall?”
“Pitlow.” Ty took my hand from where it had been tugging his sweater out of shape and twined his fingers with mine; I could feel the smooth titanium of his wedding band press against my skin. “I think.”
“Good enough for me.” I looked out the hall on the odd chance that this disturbance might be tied to the room, but the farther out I leaned, the more it spread; it had been tied to Mike before, but it was tied to all three of us now. Fuck spectrally transmitted diseases. Right then and there, I made a new rule to live by: when in doubt, don’t touch Mike.
Mike poked me in the back of my sport coat. “Wasn’t the whole point that Dorothy had what she needed from the start and didn’t even need to follow the Yellow Brick Road in the first place?”
I glanced back over my shoulder. “You got ruby slippers on you?”
“Then, Toto,” I said, stepping forward, “we’re off.”
A combination of late middle age and antiquated elevator technology meant that the trip from Mike’s ground zero at the end of the hall to the building’s lobby took several minutes and was punctuated by a bathroom break long enough to shake a few drops free from Mike’s insistent bladder. Ty and I waited out in the hallway, where we passed the time by necking like teenagers. Disgusting, I know. We paused only long enough for me to answer a question from Meena, our second oldest, about getting a tattoo; Ty was for it, I was against it, and so the response she got was the classic dad line about how ‘we’ll discuss it later’. Even if I wasn’t going to be here for much longer, the me whose life I was borrowing was going to have to live with it, and I didn’t feel right making his decisions for him.
I took advantage of the slow-descending elevator cab to try and piece together a bit more about our situation. “So you were cheese, and you were a half-octopus,” I said to Mike, “but what in-between?”
“Well, I was cheese, and then I was a tortoise, and then I was a toddler, and then I was sort of a zombie, but at least I was a zombie who could dial a phone.” Mike pointed to my pocket. Well, rotting flesh would have accounted for a lot of the distort in the message. “And then … well, I don’t know what was going on right after I called you, but the next time I became aware of what was going on, I was hanging from the ceiling tiles by one of my feet. And then I was pregnant, and that wasn’t fun.”
“You were a woman?” asked Ty.
“No, just pregnant. Like I said, not fun. And then the floor was lava, which wasn’t really a reflection on me so much, I guess, but the top of the podium seemed like a safe bet, and that was where you found me.”
I frowned, trying to find any sort of connection in what seemed an otherwise random cast of characters. “Everything looked wet when we found you.”
Mike nodded. “That’s what happens. Everything changes. And it’s hard to tell unless you try because everything just seems … normal. Even as a zombie: I was miserable, but I wasn’t freaked out. It was like, oh, okay, same shit, different day.”
“But you sounded like you were about to piss yourself when we showed up.”
With an annoyed frown, Mike looked away. “Octopuses, and this was news to me too, are scared of heights.”
Before I could say anything, the elevator gave a little lurch, and when it stopped, I stepped out. The lobby looked both just the same size I remembered and bigger than I remembered, and I tried to hold my spine as tall as I could, pretending like I belonged on a university campus. Maybe I could psych everyone out, let them think I was some sort of Asian kid prodigy already taking college classes instead of a guy who had just barely passed eighth-grade math with a 72 average.
Ty towered over me, having hit his growth spurt way ahead of most boys our age; he was the school’s basketball star mostly by virtue of his height, and his popularity for his sports accomplishments meant that it was still okay that people knew we were friends, but I couldn’t hold his hand when anyone else could see and nobody could know that sometimes I sucked him off when our parents thought we were in the basement playing Halo. By my closeted and nervous fourteen-year-old standards, it was a fantastic arrangement.
“Well, now what?” asked Mike, taking off his backwards baseball cap just long enough to scratch his scalp. I sucked him off sometimes too, when we were in his basement pretending to play Call of Duty, but you couldn’t have paid me enough to hold his hand anywhere.
Ty shrugged. “Man, I don’t know. I’ve been here, like, once.”
I could see Mike was starting to get pissy, so I stepped on his foot. “There’s got to be a map or some shit around here. Okay? Colleges love that sort of thing.”
“That’s the mall, dickweed.” Mike rolled his eyes.
“Not an insult!” I pointed out for, like, the eighteen billionth time that week.
“Your mom’s an insult.”
“Yeah, well, so’s your face!”
“Fuck you both,” said Ty, flipping us off with both of his unpainted middle fingers before strolling toward the closest set of doors. Seeing that our audience (and therefore only reason to continue embarrassing ourselves with our little show) was leaving us, Mike and I both shrugged and followed him out.
On an immediate, practical, to-do-list level, I had no problem at all holding on to our multi-part objective: find a map, find Pitlow, find this elder-god-I-mean-Great-Old-One-whatever person, go back to being myself. Knowing that, however, didn’t make it any easier for me to focus on the task at hand. Being in college made me think about how my parents were already talking about college, which meant they were on me about my grades, even though I was like, seriously, I’m starting high school next year, nobody cares about a C in middle school math, but then they were like, no, colleges care about that, and besides, colleges care about extracurriculars and community service and shit like that, so why don’t you go walk some old ladies across a street or hand out soup at a soup kitchen?
And then I was like, I don’t have any time for that, can’t you see I’m busy? Except I didn’t say, how am I supposed to concentrate on school when the guy I’m so in love with spends all his time at school saying things to girls that make them giggle and saying things to guys like how he wants to fuck the girls, except he said that he wants to fuck me, but I’m not really sure if I’m ready for butt stuff yet, but he says that’s “real” sex, but he doesn’t make the air quotes when he says it, and maybe if I don’t have sex with him he’s going to go find some other girl to do it with, and I can’t tell my parents because they’d freak and cry and ground me until I was fifty, and I like sucking dick but some days I just wish we could kiss, except he says kissing’s gay so he won’t do it for more than thirty seconds at a time–
Anyway, I didn’t see the sign until I walked face-first into it.
“Donkey fucker!” I yelped, which was an expression I was embarrassed to say I’d picked up from Mike. I staggered back and clapped my hands to my nose, which had made the initial impact; it felt tender but not bloody, which at least meant I hadn’t added injury to insult.
“Hey, you found it!” said Mike, clapping me on the back as he passed by. He stood in front of the cartoony drawing of the campus, complete with tiny happy students waving from various buildings, and made a stupid chin-stroking gesture as he tried to puzzle it out.
I was about to say something else insult-worthy to Mike when I felt Ty’s hands on my shoulders, turning me so we were face-to-face — or as much as two people could be with nearly eighteen inches of height difference between them. “You okay?” asked Ty in a soft, concerned voice. He reached up to take my hands away from my face, and I fought him a little, but not much.
“Fine,” I said, hoping that the injury would explain my sudden blush. The truth was that Ty never got this close to me when other people were around, and I felt a little weak in my knees just knowing it was true. All attempts at not popping a boner were at present failing. “I mean, just a bump, right? You knock heads with guys all the time during games and walk it off.”
Ty frowned for a second, then started to smile. “I thought you hated watching basketball.”
Shit. Caught by my own big stupid mouth, I stammered a few times before deciding that my feet were the safest place to stare. “I … come sometimes.” Every damn game, from start to finish, no matter how much I fronted otherwise. “You know, when there’s nothing better to do.” Which included everything in the world that wasn’t watching Ty get all sweaty in his uniform. The part of my consciousness that wasn’t a teenager knew that I didn’t have anything approaching a sports fetish elsewhere, which I suppose was a great piece of evidence in the nurture-over-nature column.
“You know,” said Ty, brushing his thumb across my (sore but not busted) lower lip, “I’d really like to see you there.”
I laughed a little, trying to brush it off like hearing him say that hadn’t just sent my heart BASE jumping from the top of my rib cage down into my stomach. “What, I wouldn’t cramp your style or something?”
Ty shrugged, still fixing me with those intense hazel eyes of his. “Maybe being able to kind of remember being married to you,” he said, leaning in close enough that I could smell the musk from his deodorant, “kind of gave me a new perspective on things.”
“If you two faggots are done, I think I know where we need to go.”
“Not an insult!” I shouted back at Mike the Momentkiller, angry at both his language and his for-shit timing.
“Not being insulting! Being descriptive! Excuse me, if you two homosexuals of the homosexual homosex persuasion are done homosexing it up in the middle of the sidewalk,” Mike said, jabbing his finger against a corner of the map, “the only useful member of this whole party has actually found where we need to go.”
Pissed and self-conscious all at once, I stepped back from what I swore in a few more seconds would have been Ty’s manly embrace and turned to see just what Mike had found. The YOU ARE HERE sticker sat near the bottom of the map, not far from what looked like the an approximate rendering of the tall building we’d just left, while Mike’s finger pointed to a pink square in the far right-hand corner that sported both a 52 and a squat charicature of a little blonde pigtailed person wearing an Arizona Ford hat and holding a skull. The legend at the bottom told me that 52 was Pitlow; I guessed from the drawing that archaeology had gotten to represent the building because sociology was harder to draw.
Ty nodded. “Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, like, I kind of remember. But it’s totally way the fuck over there.”
“Shorter if we cut through the library,” I said, pointing to the big blue rectangle that blocked the straightest path as the proverbial crow might fly. “There’s a front entrance and a back entrance.”
“That’s what she said,” said Mike. I didn’t even comment; it was like yelling at a bird for shitting on your car.
Ty pointed to a flat stretch of green on which two cheery cartoon students were tossing a cheery cartoon frisbee to one another. “So we come out of the library, take a left at the quad, cross Kellerman Street, and it’s the second building on the right. Can we all remember that, or do we need to write it down?”
“No guarantee that anything we write down gets taken with us,” I said, rummaging around in my purse for anything that wasn’t my wallet, my keyring, three tampons, a condom long past its expiration date, a half-unwrapped peppermint, my phone, Mike’s phone, the professor’s phone, or a tube of dark maroon lipstick. No dice. “We’d better start walking.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” said Ty, leading the charge in her sparkly purple combat boots. The lipstick was hers, but I had to haul it along because she hated carrying a purse and it would melt in any of the million pockets in her cargo pants. Curse my superior age and intellect, making me always have to be the responsible one.
As she marched ahead with her special kind of neurotic efficiency, I took advantage of the brief bit of privacy afforded us by distance. “Hey,” I said, tapping Mike on the shoulder, “so why didn’t you tell me about this professor?” I’d already ruled out her being embarrassed about the whole Great Old One thing; as Mike’s choice of partners went, ‘evil immortal space monster’ was almost tame.
“I don’t know.” Mike sighed and shook her head, fidgeting with her bracelets as she walked. “I mean, I wasn’t not telling you. It just … didn’t come up.”
“Didn’t come up? How long have you two been seeing one another?”
Mike mumbled something, and when I poked her, she sighed again. “Three weeks, okay?”
I swatted her on the shoulder. “Three weeks and we haven’t even been introduced? Some best friend you are.” Seeing Mike’s face fall, I linked our arms together and walked shoulder-to-shoulder with her down the sidewalk past piles of naked college students on the grass, celebrating having survived the semester by stripping and napping. It almost made me wish I’d come to college. “So, how’d you two meet?”
“She called us, actually. That Friday you and Ty went out to that Take Back the Night Rave, she called and wanted to know if we took care of Dire Sharks, because she had one in her basement. So I went over and we got to talking, and one thing led to another, and then the next thing I know, we’re … getting kind of serious.”
One of the girls on the grass waved Ty over, so we hung back a bit as she went over to chat. “What do you mean, ‘serious’?” I’d heard Mike use many words to describe her various relationships before, but that had never been one of them.
“I don’t know, serious like serious. Like how people get when they start to get serious about things.” Mike snorted and grabbed her bra strap where it’d started to sag across her shoulder, then tugged it back up beneath the strap of her tank top. Well, whatever being in a serious relationship meant to Mike, it certainly didn’t compel more ladylike behavior. “I don’t know, what’s it like with you and Ty?”
“Well, when within twenty-four hours of meeting a person you’ve already been presented with a vision of the two of you forty years down the road, living Happily Ever After, it kind of colors the whole trajectory.” The old-lady versions of ourselves Ty and I had seen as we’d fled the haunted house of our first date probably should have been unnerving at best, but in fact, we both found it sort of relaxing — it was like a friendly guarantee that no matter how bad we might fuck things up things up together, we’d find a way to work it out in the end. Plus, now I knew that Ty would be smoking hot even in her sixties. Call me shallow, but I wasn’t complaining.
Mike stuck out her tongue at me. “Well, you fucking suck. …Anyway, I was going to tell you. I just didn’t know what to say. That’s all.”
Not wanting to make this more awkward than it was already, I tried to divert the subject a little. “What about the shark?” The two of us — three now, when Ty was available to help — had a reputation for making short work of all sorts of supernatural entities and spectral happenings, but as far as I knew, Mike had as much prior experience with cryptozoology as I did, which was none.
“Turns out she meant ‘take care’ like sharksitting. Fluffy’s pretty great, actually. He does all sorts of tricks, like ‘sit’ and ‘stay’. Doesn’t shake hands, but that’s probably for the best.”
When Ty came back to us, her shirt was unbuttoned to show her neon pink bra, over the lacy edge of which I could see peeking, like twin sunrises, the edges of her rose-brown nipples. Sometimes she made it so hard to lift my eyes all the way up to her face. “Julio says I need to get naked, since the Mandarin final’s been cancelled. Apparently Professor Lin didn’t get the exams to the printers in time or something, so she emailed us and said she’d just average out all the other work we’ve done for the semester. How cool is that?”
I am not a woman of great willpower, and thus I was amazed at my own ability to respond to the twinned ideas of my girlfriend and public nudity by saying, “We need to fix this first. You can get naked later. I promise.”
“Aw, poop,” said Ty, but I was right, so she didn’t argue more than a cursory pout before taking my other arm. We walked three abreast toward the library, an arrangement which worked well for me, because the two half-exposed tits bouncing next to me distracted me enough that I would have introduced my face to another campus map had Mike not been watching out for me. What are best friends for, right?
The air-conditioned library was so cold, especially after we’d been out in the midday heat, that Ty’s nipples stood out like little bullets beneath her bra cups. If she kept this up, I could no longer be held responsible for my actions. That anchoring part of my mind, the “real” me, still knew what it was like to possess a gay man’s brain and corresponding penis, but the lesbian I was at present couldn’t help conflating these two worldviews until all I wanted to do was pour warm lube all over her chest and titfuck Ty until I jizzed all over her throat and chin, and believe me, that was a thought neither version of me had ever entertained before.
We walked single-file through the security gate, and by the time I’d been announced by its silence to be not a book-smuggler, Mike was already several steps ahead, looking at the library floor guide. “Okay, we’ve got to go two floors down and through the computer lab to get to the back exit,” she said, tapping the plastic map. “Piece of cake.”
As the library’s central stairwell went down, it got smaller and less well-lit, until we found ourselves inching down the last few steps by the light of a single flickering fluorescent tube, stepping down on faith as much as anything. “I don’t even know what’s down here,” Ty said, holding the door open at the bottom as Mike and I walked through. “I mean, as far as library stuff goes. Newspapers, maybe? Some big books too, I guess. But I’ve, uh, never been down here for books.”
A quick sniff of the air was all I needed to determine what people did come down here for. I’d gotten in the habit of wearing a scarf even on the hottest days of the year, and now I brought it up across the lower half of my face, making a filter which dulled the flood of olfactory information, but by no means stopped it. “Seems kind of empty,” said Mike, looking down the deserted, dim rows between the stacks. “Guess a library clears out pretty quick once finals are over.”
I glanced back to Ty to make sure we were headed in the right direction, but what I saw froze me in my tracks. Given the way he’d talked about the place as we’d stepped through the doors, Ty probably hadn’t been down here in the three months since he’d met me, and now I the look on his face told of just how my infecting him had changed his experience of the location: he looked hungry now, like he’d smelled a plate of fajitas brought out sizzling to whatever table was waving down the waiter with a tiny Mexican flag. Except there was no food allowed in the library, and anyway, he was looking at me.
Hey, Mike, maybe coming down here wasn’t such a good idea, and maybe we should turn back and go around the library the long way, I wanted to say. I even had it all composed in my mind, ready to go, an excellent suggestion if I did say so myself. But I didn’t get more than the first two phonemes out, if that, before Ty was up against me, sandwiching me between him and the wall, and grinding his hard, huge cock against my leg. He pulled the thin scarf away from my mouth, and as I gasped in surprise, I breathed in the full experience of old spunk and used condoms and wave after wave of the pheromones that rolled of Ty as he — and there was no delicate way to put this — humped my leg.
On the one hand, I couldn’t really blame him; I too had spent my first several months as a werewolf wanting to stick my dick in everything that moved, which had led to a large number of bad sex decisions and a small number of fairly awesome ones. On the other hand, though, this was really impeding our progress. But on some third hand, possibly one that I’d borrowed from Mike, I needed Ty to fuck me right then like a Volkswagen needed tires.
“Uh, guys,” said Mike, but I could smell his arousal too. Well, whatever; it wasn’t the first time Ty and I had fucked in front of him, and knowing my luck, it probably was not going to be the last. I let Ty grab hold of the front of my shirt and drag me back into a dark corner behind the stairs where the smell of stale sex was the strongest, and I managed to unfasten and push down my jeans before he could rip them off me. This was the smell of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of students’ having worked off academic anxieties in the most primal ways they could. Did I say I hate higher education? I fucking love it.
Being a werewolf isn’t like most people think it is; for starters, it’s a lot more wer than wulf, to get back to the Old English roots of the term, and the most it has to do with the moon, I’ve been told, is that if you have a working uterus, your periods get really regular. It’s mostly about being closer to your senses and instincts than about any fur-and-fangs transformation. Instincts take a certain amount of control to manage, though, and control wasn’t what Ty had right now. He tossed me onto my back on an old dusty table and spread my legs wide, then spat on his cock and gave it a few quick slicks before he shoved it hard into me. Well, thank goodness I hadn’t dried out completely from our hour-long fuck session earlier, though it’s debatable how much I would have complained even if I had. Getting used to rough sex kind of came with the territory.
I stretched back and gripped the far edge of the short table, letting my head and shoulders fall off the edge as Ty slammed his cock again and again into me. I’d spent no small part of my adolescence fretting about my masculinity as an Asian-American gay man in general and how much of my general manliness I lost by really, really liking the idea of taking it up the butt in particular; actually getting to the ass-pounding stage of things hadn’t alleviated either worry, and had in fact made the latter one even worse. But being and being fucked by werewolves had made me realize that taking it, loving it, and coming back for more involved a level of toughness that had to be fairly impressive. Anyone with a penis could stick it in to something. Taking it all was how I showed everyone who was the real boss.
I opened my eyes to see Mike’s crotch in front of me, upside-down to me as I hung over the edge. “Just fucking do it,” I said, rolling my eyes at his hesitation, and when he unzipped his jeans and pulled out his meat, I opened wide and took it in to the root, so far down that it pressed against the inside of my throat. I didn’t even gag once. Let the little shits who’d made fun of me in Sunday School try that.
Ty grunted and gasped as he thrust into me, the sounds of a man so far gone into basic sexual need that he no longer cared about how stupid he sounded. I’d been half-hard already before he’d even shoved his dick in me in the first place, and now it was like I had a steel bar bouncing against my lower belly, tapping and bobbing in time with every deep thrust. I loved every second of it, and I loved him, and I loved that he knew both of those things. Choking down Mike’s dick was just the cherry on top of that particular sundae.
Being spit-roasted takes a lot of concentration, to say the least, and so not only did I lose track of time, I lost track of how I was supposed to be keeping track of time at all in the first place. Thus, when I felt that now-familiar sense of vertigo wash over me, I knew what was coming, but had too much cock in my mouth to say anything about it before I realized I couldn’t say anything at all.
It was a good thing that I could remember having always had an immobile body constructed of silicone, because otherwise I’m certain I would have been having the most epic panic attack in the history of bad reactions to bad situations. Instead, I just lay there, my mouth and ass both stretched open, and both filled with stiff, realistic, penis-shaped hunks of synthetic material. I didn’t have identifiable senses in the way humans thought of them, but I could sense some things anyway, like how the underside of my nose was still smashed up against the underside of Mike’s hairless rubber balls, and how Ty’s external support had failed, leaving his slumped body pressing my knees back beyond normal human tolerance and all the way to the table.
Somewhere from over my shoulder, a bright light burst to life. “Okay, everyone quiet on set,” said the student director, “and Harvey, will you move that tall one’s arm? Put it around the guy on the table’s cock.” Some small shuffling ensued, and then my ever-stiff cock lay in the loose grip of poseable silicone fingers. “Places, everyone, good.” A weight pressed down on my chest, a wiggly human weight, the kind that accompanied the very particular sensation of having one’s chest sat on. “Okay, this is Manolo and the RealDoll Orgy, scene three, take one, and … action!”
Fuck the universe. Fuck karma. Fuck everything.
When I could move again, I was wearing all my clothes and had no parts of anyone else’s body stuck inside of any orifice of mine, which was something of a relief. I was still on my back on the dusty table, though, and I had the oddest blue-balled sensation of not having achieved orgasm while having a totally flaccid penis uninterested at the moment in getting me even near release, let alone achieving it. I sat up and stretched my arms above my head, looking around. Ty was standing between my knees, leaning up against the table, and Mike was both standing right behind me and a centaur.
“Can I fuck you now?” he asked, performing some sort of weird horse-contortion that involved lifting his back leg and trying to bend his human top half down so he could get a good look at his junk.
“No,” Ty and I said at the same time.
Getting Mike down the stairs had been enough of a challenge, but weaving him through the short doorways and low-hanging pipes that crisscrossed the ceiling was almost impossible. The worst part was that it was still probably a better idea than trying to get him across the antiquated grate systems that dotted the campus surface, remnants of the last human-centaur war that hadn’t been paved over or dug up yet. “Your campus isn’t exactly accommodating,” Mike noted after he misjudged a sharp turn and kicked over a cart stacked with books.
“Like I said, if we just wait here–” I started, but Mike cut me off with a whinny and petulant hoof-stomp.
“Look, let’s just get it over with.” Mike brushed past, knocking me to the side with his big ass as he did. I fell against Ty, who caught me and shared a quiet exasperated eye-roll. Maybe it wasn’t PC to say out loud, but everybody knew centaurs could be such fucking mares at times.
The alchemy lab on the far side of the library complex was all but deserted, with only a few desk sets occupied by little first-years trying against all odds to format their tinctures before the deadline. It was a testament to how focused they all were that only a one of them bothered even to look up as Mike walked in, and even he couldn’t leave his solutions alone long enough to get a good gape in. The desk monitor waved her bloodstone past each of us as we stood before her until she was certain that we hadn’t absconded with any of the library’s precious volumes. “Are you three enrolled here?” she asked, looking us up and down with her bright orange eyes.
“I am,” said Ty, reaching into his cloak to pull out his silver identification badge. “Tyrannius Oakenthorpe, College of Enochian Languages. And these are my friends who are thinking about enrolling in the fall. I was just giving them the tour. To help them see whether or not they’d like it.”
The monitor blinked twice before shaking her head and opening the doors with a wave of her hand. “Well, good luck with that,” she said, derision dripping from her voice. “Even a novice could see they don’t have a lick of magic in ’em.”
“You have a nice day too,” I said, and I grabbed Mike’s peytral and yanked him away before he could open his mouth and say something stupid. It was almost true — neither Mike nor I had any inborn magic, that was for sure, and even now what we had wasn’t recognized by most academy-trained practitioners — but Mike could be prideful even in the face of truth, and we’d had too many things slowing us down already anyway. I’d already reached the point where, more than anything, I wanted not to be doing this anymore.
We stepped out into the daylight beneath high colored plumes that wafted over from the pyromancy field; Ty sneezed. “Okay,” he said, rubbing his nose on the sleeve of his robes, “out and … turn left.”
The problem was, there was no left. Or, rather, there was, but there was nothing to the left but open expanses and burned-out shells of buildings, remnants of the last war that now, even a hundred years later, lay in ruins used only for the safe practice of dangerous magics. Even if our human legs had been able to see us through, Mike’s hooves would never have found sure enough footing to make the crossing possible. Two rows of red-cloaked sophomores hurried away from what must have been their final exam, though some looked a little more the worse for wear than others; one in the back row even looked to be a little on fire.
“Well,” I said, folding my arms across my chest, “now would be a great time for Plan B.”
Plan B? B was for ball. Those two humans sitting on the grass had a ball. I was going to get it.
Mike darted past me like he was going to get the ball, which was stupid, because I was going to get the ball. I tried to bite his tail to make him stop, but the tail I tried to bite was too quick, and it tried to run around behind me! I chased after it until I got sort of sick and had to stop, and it disappeared. But that was okay, because the ball was right where I’d left it. Mike had stopped to sniff something. The ball was mine! This was the best day ever!
The humans with the ball wanted to pat me on the head, and I allowed this because maybe they would give me the ball when they were done patting, or at least throw it, because that was all I really wanted to happen, just throw the ball and go get it. It was all the fun of getting the ball with the added good of knowing that, in a minute, I was going to be able to go get it again! I loved that game. It was the best game ever.
The ball was a lot bigger closer up than it was far away. It must have been a magic ball, because by the time I got there, it was black and white and bigger than me. One of the humans said something to me, so I barked back, because whenever humans say something to you, it means they want you to bark back. I wagged my tail so hard I fell over a little. Ty came up behind me and he tried to chew on my tail for a while, so I tried to chew on his tail too. I knew it was Ty because I sniffed his butt and his butt smelled like Ty’s butt.
Mike came up after and I sniffed his butt too. He smelled like Mike, but he also smelled like something else. I sniffed the air and could smell the same smell as Mike’s butt, only this time from the far edge of the green soft part. Something over there smelled like Mike’s butt. No, Mike’s butt smelled like something else, and something over there also smelled like something else. Mike’s butt smelled like a lady.
That’s when I remembered that we were looking for a lady. I didn’t know why, but we were, so we needed to keep looking. Ty still wanted the ball, but I grabbed him and chewed on his ear to remind him that we were still smelling for a lady. She must have been a nice lady, to have had such a nice smell, and it was right over there. We could keep following it.
Ty didn’t want to go, not with a ball right there. I reminded him that we were supposed to be smelling for a lady, and anyway, that black-and-white magic ball was way too big right now, and maybe the lady would have a ball that didn’t change size. Ty thought that was a good idea, and we started running. Mike came along a little bit later, after going to smell something in a patch of dry grass that was almost the same yellow color he was. It was a good smell, but it didn’t smell like the lady, and we had to find her and the ball she maybe had. It was up to us.
There were all sorts of big houses with doors that people went into, but only one of the houses had the right smell. The lady was in there! She had to be. The house smelled like Mike’s butt. Maybe we could get inside. Someone could open the door and let us in. The door opened and a person came out! We were good boys! We could come in! This was the best day ANTS
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ANTS ANTS ANTS ANTS ANTS ANTS ANTS ANTS ANTS being inside Lyman House was enough to prove that we were in the presence of something very large and very old. All the items on the shelves were turned just enough toward the house’s center to give the impression that there was something inside working like a magnet, drawing everything towards its great metal heart. There was what looked to be a secretary’s desk just past the front, but the chair behind the desk was empty and a little out to lunch sign stood like a little cardboard sentry over all the piles of folders and paperwork stacked high. Everything was quaint, from the wall-hung pictures of what I assumed were supposed to be prior students and administrators, to the little red gingham curtains that fell over every window, letting in light while blocking any real view of the outside. I’d want to go to school at a cute little place like this, I thought. The design guys really knew what they were doing.
On the closest wall was a directory board made of little white letters stuck to a black slotted background. It read like a credit roll of crew in-jokes, all except for one entry six lines down: Dr. K. Starr, Sociology, room 301. Mike indicated that line with his finger; he was getting good at pointing fetchingly. “Third floor,” he said, giving it a tap for good measure.
“So what are we going to do if she’s not there?” asked Ty.
I shook my head. “Better question: what are we going to do if she is?”
Mike pulled off his sunglasses and tucked them in the inside pocket of his leather jacket. “We start with ‘please’. And if ‘please’ doesn’t work, we get her face in–” With a sigh, he shook his head and reached for the sunglasses he’d just put away. “Sorry, hold on.” He put them back on, left them there for a second, then proceeded to take them off and store them with the same gestures he’d used before. “We start with ‘please’. And if ‘please’ doesn’t work, we get up in her face about it.”
“How do you get up in an elder god’s face?” asked Ty. I could see a knot of frustration at the corner of his mouth; he’d been a big enough nerd in high school that he’d argued for the change, but in the end had lost out on account of the executive decision that ‘elder god’ was less likely to get someone into copyright trouble than ‘Great Old One’.
“I’ll think of something,” Mike said, grinning out of the left side of his mouth. “Her bark’s worse than her bite.”
“Her bite’s pretty bad,” I pointed out.
“Says the man whose last girlfriend could have had her frickin’ picture in the dictionary next to vagina dentata. And anyway, I tell you, she didn’t do this on purpose! It’s got to be some kind of accident. So I’ll just turn on the charm.” Taking a quick, conspicuous look around to make sure no one who cared was in the vicinity, Mike reached for a bouquet of carnations in a vase on the front desk and plucked them out, shaking the stems a few times to get off the excess water. “See? Charm. Now follow me.”
I tailed first Mike and then Ty around the corner of what we all pretended was a wall and not a small rig of cameras with three people hanging on behind it. I don’t know what made Julianna think that filming in a cramped setup like this was fun for anyone, but mine was not to reason why. I guessed it was better than that awful dusty haunted house we’d used a couple months back, where I’d been sure I’d bust through the floorboards at any minute and had come down with a mild case of bronchitis just from all the mold we’d stirred up. She was a great director, and I know the studio gave her only minimal control over things like screenplay and location, but somehow we and she always seemed to wind up in the worst places together.
I could hear the squeak of the wheel-mounted rig as it pushed along behind us, following us down the narrow, pastel-wallpapered hallway toward the flight of stairs that would take us up to the house’s upstairs. Just far enough up that he couldn’t be seen any longer, Mike stopped his ascent, which didn’t give Ty much room to go, and I damn near had to shove them both out of the way so I could complete the shot. As soon as my backside was eclipsed by the architecture, I heard Julianna call, “Cut! Got it in one, boys!”
Smiling with relief, all three of us trundled back downstairs and into the little house’s main room, clearing the stairs for the rest of the crew to set up the next shot. A low murmur rose, full of the conversations and activity that had been suspended for the length of the cameras’ rolling. A little cooler of water bottles sat over in the corner, so I went and got one out, then drained it all in what felt like a single swallow. It was bad enough when you had to shoot summer scenes in winter, but shooting winter scenes in summer was a special kind of miserable.
As Julianna and the rest of the crew negotiated the cameras up the stairs, I flipped out my phone and listened to my messages: one was from my agent, asking me to give her a call whenever I got a chance; the other was from my wife, reminding me to pick up the dog’s antibiotics on the way home. Well, with any luck we’d be finished up here soon, and I could do both of those things well within the scope of normal business hours. The twinkier of the two hair-and-makeup boys came over and gave my hair a little spritz to make sure the fauxhawk he’d carefully sculpted that morning wasn’t about to give up the ghost, and I shut my eyes, allowing him permission to poke and prod at will.
At last the cameras were set, and we lined up single-file at the bottom of the stairs: Mike stood first, pilfered flowers at the ready; Ty hung just behind, holding out the props department’s best estimation of an amateur EMF reader (which looked to me more like a handheld pinball machine with headphones, but what did I know?); and I brought up the rear, both sensible and fashionable, tapping a kid-sized baseball bat against my leg. We made one hell of a ghost-fighting team.
“Whenever you’re ready!” we heard Julianna call from the top of the stairs, and Mike spent a moment getting into character, then lifted his foot and took the first step up.
I held still in the shadows at the bottom until both of them were all the way to the top of the staircase, and when I heard Ty’s quiet whistle, I sprinted up as fast as my shackled legs could carry me — which was faster than I would have imagined, but whatever alien metal this was, it wasn’t at all as heavy as it looked. They weren’t even shackles, really, but they were made of metal and they were screwed in permanently at my knees and the backs of my calves and I didn’t know what else to call them. “Clear?” I asked in a voice only loud enough to carry over the prison machinery’s deep, pervasive grind.
“Clear,” Ty nodded, gesturing to the empty hallway. The corridor was lined with doors, but all of their keypads were locked and lit up red. Someone had scratched the word chariots several times all over the door facing the stairwell, which was unnerving, to say the least.
Mike pointed down to the far end of the hall, where a faint glow shone from just beyond a bright green NO EXIT sign. “Her office should be at the top of that staircase. There’s only one room on the whole third floor.”
“And we’re sure she’s there?” I asked, glancing at the laser components of the security system I’d disabled earlier. I wasn’t sure how long it would be before the testing officials figured out how to reverse what I’d done, and I wasn’t keen on the idea of going to a floor with only one way up or down, only to find ourselves there both trapped and out of luck.
“We’re sure.” Ty tapped a panel on the wall next to him, and a glowing 3D schematic of the building popped up, complete with three glowing blue dots that indicated our position and a bright orange dot in a room one level above us. The blueprint didn’t show past the eighth sub-basement or so, but the pink security dots were making their way in droves up the stairwell we’d climbed just minutes earlier. I could knock out the automated systems, but human components were another thing entirely.
Mike took a pumpernickel roll from his pocket, squished it once for good luck, and sent it bouncing on its bready way down the corridor. The throw covered barely half the distance, but not a single laser turret so much as budged as it had bounced by. “Okay, slowly,” I said, pointing first to Mike, then to the far end of the hall. “I’ve told the system everything’s okay. Don’t give it any reason to doubt that. Just go nice and easy, like you’re supposed to be there.”
“Have you met me?” asked Mike, who turned and started walking away before I could point out that, yes, I had, and that was why I was worried.
Watching the pink dots climb the digital staircase made me nervous, so Mike wasn’t more than a few yards down before I sent Ty on after him, and I didn’t wait much longer after that to go myself. The closer I got to each door, the more I could hear sounds from the other side: sometimes voices, sometimes just pounding, sometimes the crackle of radio static, sometimes a combination of all three. The lowest sub-basements where we’d been kept before had been just holding cells, a hundred bodies to a room, and the floors above that were all testing rooms of various sizes and arrangements, but I couldn’t tell what was going on here. From the outside, these rooms didn’t look too small to be prison cells — I’d learned the hard way that there was no such thing as a room too small to be a prison cell — but they didn’t seem to have windows or slots on the doors, which seemed to me poor prison design, if a jailer couldn’t see in.
The loudspeaker crackled and turned on with a whine of feedback right on schedule, straight-up on the hour, but we were all so tense that we jumped and froze even that this familiar sound. “Here’s a question for you,” said the warden’s voice, without preamble or explanation. “Who is not afraid of no ghosts?”
Mike looked back at me with a frown, but I shooed him on ahead: Mike himself was on record as being not afraid of any ghosts. Huge difference.
There was a sharp beep, and the voice continued: “As of just now, every character in every book by Virginia Woolf. Man, those things were dull. Chariots chariots.” And then it was silent.
After a pause long enough to be sure that the announcement was over, Ty shook his head. “I think he makes less sense every time.”
“You’re telling me.” I gave him a gentle nudge onward.
As soon as we’d cleared the far doorway, I hit the panel on the wall with my gloved fist and watched as the corridor we’d just walked through fill up with crisscrossed purple laser beams. It might not do much to slow down the guys who had the master keys to every system on the station, but it was something. We raced up the stairs, Mike-first again, to find that at the top landing, there was indeed only one door. A gold nameplate at eye level indicated that this was the office of one Dr. K.T. Starr, Department of Human Experimentation.
Mike paused, then licked his hands and slicked back his hair as best he could. “How do I look?” he asked, turning his good side toward me.
“Like an escaped convict; how do you think you look?” I rolled my eyes. One day Mike’s vanity was going to be the end of us all, and that day was very possibly going to be today.
“Fine, fine.” Mike knocked twice. “Katie?” he called out, and then, without waiting for an answer, he turned the handle and walked on in.
Her office was everything I’d imagined a place inhabited by a combination social sciences professional and ancient evil from beyond the stars would be like. It was homey, with lots of natural woods and fibers, and the high triangular window brought in a lot of outside light. Bookcases lined every wall, and a comfy beige couch sat just opposite the desk. I wanted to take a nap on it. I wanted a lot of things.
Cthaeghya, the Great Old One herself, sat behind the desk with two ballpoint pens pinning up her curly black hair and a pair of neon orange reading glasses sliding off her nose. She was dark-skinned and darker-eyed, and her short, round frame looked like she’d dressed it that morning by robbing every aging hippie in a five-mile radius. When she saw us enter, her face broke into a lovely (if a bit surprised) smile, and she pushed her glasses on top of her head. “Mike!” She closed the gradebook in front of her as she stood.
Okay, ‘stood’ may have been a strong word for what she did. Sure, she pulled the human part of her body to its feet from a sitting position, but that wasn’t all of her body, not by a long shot. No wonder Mike had known what she was just to meet her: the entire lower half of her body seemed to be made of deep indigo-black tentacles that moved and swished around her regardless of what her human aspect was up to. I couldn’t see them when I looked straight at her, but if my eyes darted away for a fraction of a second, there they were, clear as daylight in my peripheral vision. I felt nauseated and aroused all at once, which wasn’t a new feeling for me, but which was one I didn’t normally associate with women.
“Katie, baby,” said Mike, walking across the room to take her hands in his. “Got a little bit of a problem.”
She looked him over and clucked her tongue. “Well, you sure do, don’t you?” She had a lovely unplaceable accent, all her vowels caught somewhere between Middle East and Deep South, but at the same time her speech had a folksy tone that made me think of someone doing a bad impression of every character from Fargo. “Oh, that was me, I’m so sorry, sometimes I just get a little carried away, you know how it goes.”
“Carried away?” I asked. I decided that my accumulated exhaustion at that moment was a more powerful force than being afraid of what might happen if I sat on a Great Old One’s couch, and I sat on the couch.
“Oh, and this must be Jason and Ty! Come in, boys. So pleased to finally meet you. Make yourselves at home.” Well, that answered any questions I might have had about the couch in terms of my being on it. “I’ve heard so much about you two. Can I get you some tea?”
It was not how I’d imagined my first real encounter with an immortal creature of unimaginable power to go. “Uh, no, ma’am,” I said, and then remembered to add, “but thank you.” I felt strange here, and it took me a minute to realize that what was strange was that nothing was strange at all: I was myself again, at least so far as I could tell, with no lingering cognitive dissonance or troubling sensation that I was living someone else’s life. No, I was myself again, familiar old warts and all. I’d never been so happy to be boring in all my life.
“What kind of tea?” asked Ty, and I had to be impressed that even after all he’d been through today, he still had the wherewithal to be choosy.
“Oh, just black, I’m afraid. I bought a little assortment the other day, but wouldn’t you know it, I left it at home again this morning.”
Still holding her hands in his, Mike bent down a little to look her in the eye. She only came up to the middle of his chest and she appeared physically to be at least twenty years his senior, if not more so, but she was unbelievably sexy. I couldn’t quite put my finger on specifics, but I felt sure it had something to do with the tentacles. “You wouldn’t believe the shit that’s been happening. We’ve been bouncing through–”
“Through the dimensions, yes, yes, I know.” She used his hands to tug him down to her level and gave him a quick but affectionate kiss on the lips before working her way out of his grip and going over to the electric kettle by the window. “I’ve never had that linger for someone else after I was gone before, but then again, I’ve never met people with powers like yours before, so I suppose there’s a first time for everything, now, isn’t there? I hope you like lemon, dear,” she said to Ty, “because I’m fresh out of cream.”
“Lemon’s fine, ma’am,” Ty said. “Can I offer you a hand?”
Katie — it felt odd to call her that, but if that was how Mike was going to play it, I was going to come along — shook her head with a smile. “Oh no, dear, you just sit yourself down next to that handsome boyfriend of yours and I’ll bring it right over when it’s ready.”
Being called ‘handsome’ by an ancient evil was pretty flattering, especially when I felt far more haggard than handsome, a train of thought which brought me back to the substance of my initial inquiry. “Excuse me, ma’am,” I said, because my mother, the champion of the mixed metaphor, had always taught me you catch more flies with honey than by putting your foot in your mouth, “but can we go back to the earlier ‘carried away’ part?”
She smiled as she unwrapped a pair of tea bags. “What you’re wondering is: when you walk out that door again, are you going to be yourself or not. Am I right?” All three of us nodded in semi-unison. “Well, there’s nothing to worry about. Dimensional travellers such as myself can forget from time to time that not everyone’s re-entry is as smooth as our own. Obviously if I’d realized you’d been like that, I never would have left you, dear,” she said, blowing a kiss over her shoulder to Mike, who looked about as accepting about all this as his golden retriever puppy self had been a couple universes over. “But right after I called you to set up our date, the provost asked if I could come and look over some paperwork about fifteen minutes after, and I thought, well, there’s not enough time for both! So I made time.”
“Made…?” Mike frowned. “Out of what?”
“All right, maybe not made so much as borrowed. Time is a universal constant, it’s true, but only in the sense that it’s only reliably constant within a single universe at a time. Time that passes when crossing the lines between universes doesn’t necessarily accumulate the same way in the universe one started in. So I took us a few steps over so we could get in a little quality time.” She shot Mike a lascivious wink before going back to the business of tea-making. “It’s also how I finished my doctorate in two years.”
I hadn’t put on my watch as we’d rushed out the apartment to answer Mike’s message, but we couldn’t have left the house any later than 11:15. I felt certain we’d been running around for well over an hour since then, but the clock behind Katie’s desk showed it was only twenty minutes to noon. “Ty, your Mandarin final!”
Ty shook his head. “It got canceled, remember?”
“Oh, did it get cancelled here or did it get cancelled somewhere else?” asked Katie, tapping her teaspoon against the side of the kettle as it started to steam. “Because that’s always something you should check.”
“It … got cancelled when we were all sexy, emotionally available girls and everyone celebrated finishing finals with casual nudity,” said Ty, looking more crestfallen with each word that came out of his mouth.
“Ah, I’d wager your luck’s not that good, dearie,” said Katie, shaking her head. She brought over the cup of tea to where he sat dejected on the sofa, and despite how my eyes could see her feet take each step, her true motion had all the grace and beauty to it of a giant squid countless fathoms beneath the ocean. Her hips were positively hypnotic. I was having flashbacks to the time I’d gotten strep throat in sixth grade and spent my whole convalescence watching The Little Mermaid eighty billion times. It still bothers me to this day that Triton has no nipples. “So you drink up and then you go, and if Dr. Lin has a problem, you can tell me and I’ll send him an email.”
Sometimes, after you’d made your way through a dozen or so different and to-various-degrees-disturbing versions of yourself, when an elder-god-like-thing handed you a cup of tea and told you she’d write you a note excusing your tardiness, the only thing to do was what Ty did right then, which was take the cup and saucer and say, “Thank you, ma’am.”
I pulled the rubber waders up as high as they would go and cinched them tight around my waist. “And she said she’d be back Thursday?”
“Thursday or Friday,” said Mike. “Or maybe next week. Punctuality’s not her strong suit.”
“So what happens if she’s not back by the time the semester starts?”
Mike shrugged. “She says she wants me to come home with her over fall break, see her hometown, meet her parents. What do you wear to a family gathering of unimaginable evil?”
“Tie’s always good,” I suggested, and Mike nodded at my sage advice.
From the garage door just past the kitchen, Ty staggered in, lugging a cooler and visibly sweating. “I don’t think it’s fair making me haul all the heavy things.”
“Fine,” I said, “I will trade jobs with you right now. You go down there.”
“I have a condition!”
“Galeophobia is not a condition! You can’t just make up an actual medical condition by putting together two Greek words and saying, well, there’s a phobia.”
“It is a real and documented phobia.”
“It’s a fear of cats,” said Mike.
Ty shook his head. “No, fear of cats is ailurophobia.”
Mike took the cooler from him and took off the lid; the smell of cold, raw meat filled my nostrils. “Galeophobia is a fear of dogfish, sharks with cat-like markings, or cats. Fluffy is none of these things.”
“He’s got you there,” I said to Ty, not necessarily believing Mike, but wanting to do everything I could to give my dearly beloved boyfriend as much grief as I could for leaving the hard jobs to the little guys. “So what happens if both you guys go home to her parents’ this fall?”
“Depends on how long we’re gone, I guess. Think they sell shark carriers at the mall pet store?”
I shook my head and got a good grip on the cleaver. “Not in this universe,” I said, bringing it down and leaving a large gash in the bone. “Try the one next door.”
When we’d successfully hacked up the beef carcass into more manageable pieces, I wrapped them all up in a tarp and put a zip tie around the loose ends to close it like a dumpling. I was about to cinch it shut when Mike called out, “Shit, the leeks!” He went over to the refrigerator and grabbed a produce bag from the crisper drawer, then dropped all dozen or so leeks into the meat pile. “Okay, there you go.”
“I don’t think he can taste those,” I said, securing the ends.
“Katie says it makes his coat shiny,” said Mike, and I wasn’t about to be the one to tell the Great Old One that we’d been neglectful in the quest to give her Dire Shark the shiniest coat possible. Giving his yellow kitchen gloves one last tug for security’s sake, Mike grabbed the top of the bag and lugged it toward the basement door and the dark, howling void just beyond it. From deep within, there was a hungry splash. “You know,” Mike said between grunts of effort, “she’s been talking about kids.”
“Kids?” I grabbed the bag just below his hands and tried to time my lunges with his. “I guess you just make women long for the pitter-patter of little tentacles.”
“Yeah,” Mike sighed, though the grin that curled up the side of his mouth didn’t look grudging at all. In fact, in the months since he and Katie had been together, I’d seen a real change come over him: he was still a vulgar, irritating, slightly psychotic shit, but not he was an infinitely more responsible vulgar, irritating, slightly psychotic shit. It wasn’t just any woman who could make you feed her pet while she was on vacation. He paused at the top of the staircase just long enough to get his footing and looked down to the swirling black waters below. “Shall we?”
“Let’s,” I said, and together my best friend and I went to see a shark about some dinner.