“Sweet Dreams Walter, because that’s the only place we are safe.”
The day Angel came for him, Walter Winkler was standing with Leggs outside the Mary Magdalene Shelter for Homeless Youth. They were watching Medic One pull away with Abra inside.
Abra was methed out.
“Don’t touch my skin.” She was screaming wild. Screaming the way the lights were flashing on top of the van.
“Get that strap,” the big medic said.
The little medic cinched Abra down tight as a saddle. He slammed the double vault doors of the red and white truck. Sealed Abra’s fate. The last thing Walter saw was Abra’s eyes, bulging out of her head as if she was dying on an alien planet without an atmosphere.
It was the end of August. Walter was shivering despite the surprise of hot Seattle sunshine in the rainy city. The icy fingers were back, caressing his neck. It was the catatonia. Trying to take advantage of the spectacle.
This was not a good time to leave his body standing around. He cracked his jaw, this way, that. Shelter kids being taken to Public Health, up to Harborview Hospital. The brick castle on the hill above the shelter. This was a bad thing. Out of the shelter, into the system. Into limbo again. They didn’t come back from there, most of them, not the same anyway.
As the van wailed up the hill, Walter felt his catatonia making a break for it. Trying to get out of his brain. Take over his body. He felt the lightness of his feet leaving the ground. In a moment, the ice fire of paralysis would spread over his body.
Walter felt the swat of a small hand on the back of his head.
He turned around. Leggs was firing up one of her long clove cigarettes. She slipped her purple Bic back into the bag hanging by a string of leather across her chest. The bag was always at her side. She kept her kit in there, before rehab. Kept Tarot Cards in there now. She leaned back against the wall, one cowgirl boot cocked back, her pink leg warmers up over her knees, her trademark black mini-skirt jacked up. Her bait look.
She was clean now. The dark needle swamps on her arms and legs were just hieroglyphics. You couldn’t see the scars on her stomach where she got cut. She was not working anymore. She just dressed the part. Walter understood. People don’t change their clothes overnight.
Leggs couldn’t talk. At least she wouldn’t say anything. Maybe she talked before, but she kept her secrets now, even from Walter. She spoke body language. Leggs looked up after the medics left and turned back to Walter. She wagged her head. Took a pull on the cigarette and sent delicate Saturn rings off into space. Looked at Walter and spoke in her body code.
Not you. Not me. Not yet.
Walter took a breath, felt the sidewalk under his feet again. Leggs grounded him. She grabbed the string of his catatonia the instant before Walter’s mind went floating off like a loose helium balloon, leaving his body standing there, a schizophrenic mime. There were dogs that can do that, detect seizures and earthquakes, too. Walter preferred Leggs. Besides, he didn’t have a dog.
Leggs was writing on her little black spiral notepad, her cigarette protruding from between her lips. She held the pad up for him to read.
She is not coming. Let’s go.
“Bill said to wait for her,” Walter said.
Now Leggs scribbled something and tore the page from her pad and pushed it toward Walter, the way she did when she was frustrated.
Who is this Angel?
Leggs was wearing her suspicious-of-everybody-in-the-universe look. There were sarcastic scribble lines under the word ‘Angel.’
“Bill just said it’s an opportunity,” Walter said.
Leggs blew contemptuous smoke rings all the way to Pluto.
He wanted to leave, too. And she was right. What did he need an opportunity for anyway? But what was he going to do? Walk away? When had Bill ever asked him to do anything? Anyway. He promised Bill. To meet this Angel. He saw right away, though, that he should not have brought up ‘opportunity.’
Leggs pulled a picture out of her bag and handed it to Walter, the way a meter maid gave out a ticket. It was printed from some website. It showed a kind of rowboat, with a red top, white sides and a trace of deep azure bottom. It was floating on crystalline, turquoise water. The boat was moored by anchor to brilliant white sand. There were green palmed, cup-sized islands in the background. There was no one on the boat. It was just another picture of some paradise, Tahiti, the kind of place Leggs was dreaming of going some day.
Not you. Not me. Not yet.
Leggs repeated herself, like this.
She pursed her lips with irritation as Walter shook his head. How were they going to get to Tahiti? Fly? Where was she getting these ideas? Tahiti. Montana. Belize. Africa? She was all over the map.
Leggs snapped the photo back and hid it away in her bag with the others.
Walter saw that now Leggs was staring toward the shelter door. She was glaring down the pimple-faced on-call counselor who sentenced Abra to Harborview. His zits were livid against his frightened skin. He was watching them, suspicious and ashamed because of what Abra did to him. What he did to her. What he did not understand. That Abra did not invent meth. That he was the frightening one because he was a temporary cipher passing through their shelter. That he was the unpredictable one.
The on-call wiped his nose with the side of his sleeve. He pulled off the latex glove on his hand, then the other, balled them up inside out. People made a passageway for him, careful not to touch him the way he was careful not to touch the business side of his gloves. He cast one last glance Leggs’ way. Nobody stared down Leggs. He turned and took his opening through the pack, went back inside the shelter to the glass cage the counselors used as a fort.
The other shelter residents lingered around the scene, the way the pigeons did. They lost interest once the breadcrumbs were gone. The people at the bus stop across the street stared right through them, not missing a detail. The green No. 11 rolled up, spouted diesel fumes out its blowhole, squatted with a beeping hiss of its air shocks to pick up a wheelchair, then grunted off up the hill with a bicycle in its front teeth, leaving the sidewalk vacant. It left the roar of the freeway and the city behind.
Walter looked back toward the shelter. He wondered if there were any hard-boiled eggs left.
Walter turned back at a nudge from Leggs and saw the car materializing before them in the wake of Medic One, like a shiny, perfect red pod from that alien world Abra was trapped on.
The girl that got out of the car looked expensive. Her hair was streaked with gold, and pulled back tight into a perfect ponytail. She looked over the top of the car and gave Leggs and Walter a tight-lipped sales smile. She looked down and then both ways before stepping across the sidewalk. Walter saw a tattoo of bamboo leaves rising up the side of her caramel neck. Delicate job, not like the tattoos Needles did for $5 at the shelter.
She walked right up to him. She had weird black freckles stretching down her cheeks, as if some sorcerer turned her tears to tar. She looked at Walter’s eyes, studying one then the other, back and forth again, the way people did when they first saw that he had Heterochromia, one blue eye and one brown one, when they wanted to make sure it was him.
“Walter?” she said. “I’m Angel.”
She called him Walter, like they were old friends. She extended the cleanest hand he ever saw, offering him a little white business card. Her nails were lacquered the same color as her car. There was a gold bracelet on her wrist. She was no cop. He could tell by the way she held her hand that she did not want to touch him. Anyway, Walter didn’t shake hands any more than Leggs talked. He stared down at her fingers.
Leggs reached over and plucked this Angel’s card from her hand, then read it forever, turning it slowly over twice, like it might be some new kind of improvised explosive device. That was the way Leggs did things, on her own time. Another bus came and went. She handed the card back without moving the rest of her body, so Angel had to step forward and snatch it back.
Angel looked like she expected Leggs to be impressed. Leggs blew smoke rings in her face. Angel held her smile and her breath until they passed. The black tears seemed to dry up for a moment. Nobody talked. The card was in Angel’s court.
“I’m from Microsoft,” she said. She said it like Leggs couldn’t read. Or it was a credential. Like she was from Google or something.
Leggs inhaled. Took aim. Angel stepped back from Walter. But she extended her hand and the card to Walter again so that it was just out of Leggs’ reach. He took it and read the card. One side had a fleet of logos and bunch of contact stuff. The other side said:
Angel Chong, M.B.A.
Holotar: neXt generation games
Games. So. She was here about the games. Bill, the pirate counselor who took over the shelter nights, he had told her. He called Walter ‘Pinball.’ Now he had set Walter up with a game Angel.
Leggs pushed off the wall and eyeballed Walter the invisible word.
“Wait, Walter,” Angel said. She almost reached out to touch him, but stopped herself, her hand hanging there. “We just want you to play a new video game.”
‘Just.’ Even he knew better. People like her didn’t show up at homeless shelters for crazy kids just to invite them to play games. Nobody ‘just wants’ anything in this world. There was always more.
“We’ll pay you $100,” Angel said.
More. That’s more, Walter thought. A lot more.
He was going to ask what these Holotar: neXt generation games are, but Leggs took Walter by the arm. Her black fingernails fish-hooked into his arm. She was not afraid to touch skin when she wanted to emphasis a point.
“Ouch,” Walter said, pulling away.
“It’s from Siberia,” Angel added, enunciating each syllable, eyeing the barren street around her. Siberia. As far from the shelter as imaginable. “The game. It is the latest thing. Nobody can beat it. But we thought maybe you’d like to try.”
Walter looked into Angel’s eyes. He caught her off guard. She was caught in his vision. She had that deer in the headlights look he gets when he is about to hop into someone’s head. Poke around their mind. For a moment Walter hovered just beneath the lens of her eyes. He felt the cold flutter dancing around his neck, again. He was tempted, to hop in and see what was going on in that head of hers. He got that feeling that she was hiding something in there. But then he felt Leggs’ claws again.
Angel teetered back on her high heels and broke free from his stare. Walter teetered too, let out the gasp of air that he forgot to breathe. Walter turned and saw Leggs’ face going off like a fire alarm.
He heard another warning in his head, loud and clear, but it was not Leggs’ talking that he heard now. It was the voice of the shelter, the Shrink of Oz, the man behind the Mary Magdalene Shelter for Homeless Youth, Dr. Hiram Sushi.
Resist these delusions of ‘head hopping’ and ‘mind Googling,’ Mr. Winkler.
It was this voice that Walter heard counseling him. It was Sushi who diagnosed Walter as a catatonic schizophrenic with delusions of ‘Mind Googling.’ Everything was an illness to Sushi. As far as Walter was concerned, though, Mind Googling was the best diagnosis Sushi ever came up with to describe Walter’s delusions. He only said it once and Walter knew Sushi regretted ever saying it. It sounded too normal for Sushi.
You are at the edge, Mr. Winkler. I cannot sit by and let you fall over that edge. Resist. Or we must consider the alternatives…
The edge? Sushi did not understand. It was the edge that interested Walter. It was the ‘alternatives’ that worried him.
Anyway, Walter let it go. He understood. Sushi had issues when it came to reality. Of course that made Sushi unpredictable, too.
Leggs’ cigarette flew past Walter and bounced off the windshield of Angel’s alien red car and then dropped dead as an insect into the gutter. Angel turned to stone again, just for an instant, and then forced her smile back. Walter heard the sound of cards being flushed coming from the direction of Leggs.
When he looked over at her, Leggs was shuffling her Tarot deck in mid-air the way a poker shark does. The cards made the sound of wings. They were Russian, too. She bought them at the paganism and occult store on Capital Hill. The strobe light in his mind froze a single card into focus. There was a monk on the front of the card, painting himself sitting there with an owl. There was a palace with pointed turrets out the window behind him. Walter knew that on the other side, the monk was painting a picture of your fate. The cards collapsed back into a deck in Leggs’ hand. She held the deck out to Angel to take a card. Reveal her destiny.
“Oh,” Angel said. She looked at the cards like they were covered with feces. “Actually, I don’t do that. Thanks anyway.”
Walter felt both Leggs and Angel staring at him. He imagined that this was what it felt like to be on one of those coffin-shaped tanning beds golden girls used to get cancer on both sides at once. He looked from Angel’s crisp little card still in his hand and then back to the fan of mystical cards in Leggs’ hands.
Angel made a big show out of pulling out a translucent nPhone that was almost as thin as her business card, nano tech, 3D imbedded imaging, see through, he’d Googled all about it. She worked her cell, as though she was looking for something. She pretended to ignore Walter. He could see the glow of messages flowing by as she slashed her finger down the silver bound rectangle. His own fingers twitched as he copied her movements, the swipes and taps, memorizing them as though her finger was a conductor’s baton playing her interface. There wasn’t a device he couldn’t play, not that he got the chance to do anything but watch other people play with their digital toys. Walter felt Angel spying on him out of the sides of her eyes. Her eyes didn’t have corners.
He turned to Leggs. She was still holding the cards. She flipped over the Tarot Card that Angel did not take. The Skeleton on the Horse. It was the Death Card. This was not a good sign. Up went Leggs’ eyebrows. Of course, Walter thought, Angel technically did not take the Death Card. He raised his own eyebrows a doubting notch back at Leggs. He was not sure what the Tarot Card rules were on this point. Leggs glared back at him. He saw this was not a good time to ask Leggs to clarify the rules.
If an Angel showed up at the shelter and was crazy enough to pay him that kind of money to play a game, it was a no-brainer, wasn’t it? His hand would fall off standing in front of Nordstrom holding out an old Starbucks cup before he would make that kind of change.
On the other hand, Leggs was usually right about people. And she did not like this Angel of Death.
From far up the hill, he heard Abra’s Medic One siren. No. It was another one, a new siren coming down the hill from the evil castle. Hungry and eager.
“I can pick you up at noon tomorrow?” Angel said, looking up, ignoring Leggs. “If you’re free, of course.”
“Have some more Doro Wot, Pinball,” Bill said.
Walter and Bill were sitting in the main shelter dining room. It was just after midnight. The dining room table was covered with cartons from the Ethiopian café Bill stopped at on his way to work. The smells of exotic spices floated from the green, brown and yellow contents of the cartons.
The other counselor, Greta, was playing solitaire over in the glass cage, next to the double screens of security monitors. The monitors had twenty screens flashing by, so that she could see if anybody was having sex, sneaking out or shooting up in the dorms. Greta preferred technology to walk-throughs and solitaire to human contact. Bill said she was the last one out of the Führerbunker just before Hitler killed himself.
“Frankly,” Bill confided to Walter, “I think she may be the reason he killed himself.”
Then Bill did his mile-wide gold-toothed grin, followed by a thunderstorm rumble of laughter. Greta did not approve of Walter being down here at that hour. The glass cage was her personal Führerbunker and Walter felt her watching him through her sniper holes. But Bill ruled the night shift. No one else would put up with her. He almost made her laugh sometimes. So she pretended Walter did not exist. Walter didn’t think that she was going to complain about Bill letting Walter sit around playing games or Googling the universe on the residents’ computers all night.
Bill had been all over the world. He called himself ‘an old hippie.’ He played ‘The Grateful Dead’ on a cassette player. Bill rode a huge 500 cc World War II motorcycle, called a Puch. He parked it out front where he could see it, not that anybody touched Bill’s stuff. He was old but he was also six feet two with arms half the length of the pool table. One time, he crossed Africa on this Puch and got Dengue fever. This African family adopted him and saved his life. He had a picture to prove it, a black and white one, crinkled in his wallet, which was on a chain, a picture of him and this entire tribe standing around that motorcycle. He had 1,000 stories like this.
“Did I ever tell you about the time…”
And then he told Walter anyway. His stories were as rich and exotic as the food. Walter told them to Leggs during the days, since she was locked up in the secret shelter nights.
Bill worked the night shift because he refused to give out the meds. They were kept in the glass cage, in a locked file cabinet. He said he did enough drugs himself when he was young and it was usually a mistake, except for peyote and that was holy because it gave you visions. He was not going to give anti-psychotics or atypical anything drugs to a bunch of crazy kids who just needed a real life. Drugs were Sushi’s business. Bill was there to bring a little real life to Mary Magdalene’s.
“We’re all crazy, Pinball,” Bill said. “Life is the cure. Do you know what the secret of life is?”
Walter did not bother trying to get in an answer, because he knew Bill was going to tell him. Bill gestured for Walter to come closer.
“You have to live it,” Bill whispered.
So the day shift gave out the meds Sushi prescribed. The head counselor wore the key, attached to a rubber gorilla, around their neck. Like someone was going to break in and steal somebody else’s Seroquel.
They called it the glass cage because it was windows all around, so the counselors could see everything that was going on in the shelter. The doors into this office were locked, even though one of the doors opened halfway on top, so they could give out meds and check out the phone and the remote. That was how Abra got sent to Harborview, jumping over the half door and chasing the Jesus out of the on-call.
“Hard to believe this is just green chickpeas, isn’t it?” Bill asked as he reached over and swiped up another glob of the Aterkik Alitcha with a mattress-sized piece of Injera.
It was another rhetorical question, since Bill asked it and answered it himself every time he brought Ethiopian food. Walter had most of the names of the dishes memorized, along with every ingredient, which mainly included enough red pepper to kill a normal person.
“You see,” he said, “there are a lot of poor people in Africa. Poor people don’t have a lot of exotic food. So they use spices to make things like peas exotic. They use their imagination to make their food fantastic. That’s what imagination is for, to spice up life.”
Bill and Walter spiced up their lives some more, eating in silence. These were the times Walter liked best, when the shelter was dim and silent, when the traffic outside slowed to an occasional flicker, when he and Bill communicated silently, the way Walter and Leggs did. No outer voices. It was a perfect time, except that Leggs was locked up in the secret shelter, with its curfew.
Walter did not have to read Bill’s mind. Bill spoke it for himself. And tonight, Walter could tell he had more to say, just as soon as they decided who got the last of the Daro Wot they were both eyeballing.
The Mary Magdalene Shelter – Mary’s everybody called it – was a two-story orange building at the edge of Interstate 5.
The shelter was a refuge for “the most disadvantaged children of the street,” that’s what the Web site said, a safe place to hang out and hide out from predators, pimps and inner demons. Although it was hard to keep the demons out. And the pimps and the dealers were not far behind, circling Mary’s the way sharks do a life raft full of wounded survivors on the History Channel.
You could see the Space Needle, if you stood just right in the doorway, the flying saucer floating above the skyline. The R.E.I. climbing rock was just across the freeway, a four-story sandstone thumb in a giant glass box. The rock was always crawling with tiny people. They had colored ropes and helmets. Sometimes Walter watched them for hours, going up and down on belay, the way the golden elevator pods did on the Space Needle. There was no elevator at the shelter. They didn’t allow ropes either. And the only one who wore a helmet was Anthony, and that was just since the cops shot his dog, which was a whole other story.
Bill said that the Catholic Church once owned the shelter, which was why it was not a skyscraper. It used to be a mission for alcoholics. Then the Church ran out of money because of all the pedophile priests and the place was in Limbo until the Church abolished Limbo. That was when they turned the building over to a non-profit.
Walter knew the story was true. There was still a statue of Mary Magdalene guarding the door, next to the red sharpie bucket. Mary had a golden halo. There was a beatific look on her worn painted face. Mary worked the streets too, but Jesus saved her and now she was a Saint, a beacon of hope reaching out to working girls like Leggs. Her hand was even broken off, where she reached out to save you.
Mary was at the door, but the religion at Mary’s was psychopharmacology. Dr. Hiram Sushi was the high priest. He ran the shelter. And he ran the people inside it. Like a lot of the people there, Sushi had a split personality, in his case, half Jewish, half Japanese.
The Japanese part of Sushi was a street shrink. Sushi plied the alleys like a psychiatric monk. His backpack was stuffed with Cliff Bars and bottles of water. There was always a retractable carabineer of keys on his belt. Nobody knew all the things they unlocked. A cord kept his thick frameless glasses from falling off. His orange laminated ID badge was always clipped to his orange fleece vest.
Everybody had a theory as to why the shelter was painted orange. Bill thought it was a metaphor for some traffic light stuck inside Sushi’s head.
When Walter asked Sushi the monk why the shelter was orange, Sushi paused outside the shelter with his vest and backpack and seemed to meditate on this question. Then Sushi the psychopharmacologist took over. This Sushi gave Walter an analytical look, pushed up his glasses so his eyes did the Dr. Sushi goldfish look. He chafed under the backpack.
“It’s just paint, Mr. Winkler,” he said in his monotone Dr. Sushi voice. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
Then Sushi the monk was back and seemed to regret the remark. He made a soft clucking sound. Snuggled his backpack tight. He gave Walter a soft, apologetic smile and slipped off into the Friday evening dusk in search of lost young minds.
It was the Jewish Sushi, the psychopharmacologist that specialized in curing the disadvantaged children the monk brought in, the crazy kids, disoriented seekers, bleary-eyed ravers, and tweakers selling blowjobs for meth or smack. He addressed all of them as ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms.’ His game voice never revealed emotion. Walter called him Sushi, but never to his face. In fact, Walter couldn’t remember ever calling Sushi anything to his face, like his name was Voldemort or something unspeakable.
There were two shelters, too. The secret shelter was for rehabbing working girls like Leggs. Getting them social services. The entrance to the secret shelter was around back.
Walter didn’t remember much of his life before Sushi the monk found him in the Starbucks dumpster. Somebody beat him with a board from a crate, beat him pretty bad, trying to get Walter’s shoes. His hair covered most of the scars now. They didn’t get his shoes, his Hyperdunks. That was the only thing he figured he had that was worth beating him up for, with a board from a crate. They were wasp-colored. Double-knotted laces. He always double-tied the laces. The resulting knot was very difficult. It was what Sushi called a Gordian knot. A problem you can’t undo in a normal way. Kept people from stealing Walter’s shoes. They would have to cut his feet off to get them.
A famous basketball player wore Hyperdunks, Kobe Bryant. Walter found his pair in the shoe heap at Value Village. They were Nike originals. ‘Jump higher. Cut sharper. React faster. Be more explosive. Fly Wire technology.’ They didn’t make them like this anymore. He saw the irony in his beating experience. That was why he got beaten and how he got away from the guy with the crate. His shoes. Hyperdunks were not just his shoes. They were another one of his secret powers that Sushi did not believe in.
Bill said Walter put up a good fight, left a trail of blood a block long. That was what led Sushi right to the dumpster. Walter was catatonic when Sushi found him. His right hand was broken up so bad that two fingers were pointing in opposite directions. Walter saw the whole thing, he was floating up above his body as Sushi the monk gently examined him in the trash heap of clear plastic bags filled with day-old donuts and half-full latte cups. That’s what happens when he went ‘cat.’
Sushi did not believe any of this happened, that Walter ‘saw’ Sushi save his life, that he had this ‘out of body’ experience, or that Walter ever went ‘mind Googling’ and ‘head hopping.’ No. Sushi said it was all just the schizophrenia and catatonia. And he thought the crate beating exacerbated Walter’s ‘delusions of paranormal grandeur,’ not to mention his ‘diminished cognition’ and ‘post traumatic amnesia.’ No. Sushi said it was all in Walter’s head, that he was just hearing ‘inner voices.’
Walter and Sushi didn’t see eye to eye, mainly because Sushi would not look Walter in the eye. Sushi told Walter to join the Inner Voices Group. Walter countered that they should start a ‘Mind Googling’ Group. Sushi just shook his head when Walter brought this up. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes like he was exhausted. Like he was sorry for Walter. Like they would have to consider the alternatives. Walter felt sorry for Sushi sometimes, for all the things he did not believe in.
“You have a gift,” Bill said. “Don’t let anybody tell you different.”
Still, Mary’s was the closest thing to home that Walter knew. And Sushi was the closest thing any of them had to a father. He was happy here at Mary’s living in the margins. At the edge.
The TV was always on. TV gave him good ideas for what to watch on YouTube. And Bill let him live on the PCs and play the ancient Xbox into the night. Breaking and entering games and exploring the secret subterranean worlds programmers left hidden there. Walter didn’t sleep much nights. Sushi said this was something left over from his street life, where you only sleep days in doorways. Because that was the only time you were safe, when the predators can’t get you. Most of the time.
And of course, at the center of it all there was Google.
Walter Googled the whole universe from Mary’s. Visited places. He found out stuff. He Googled the schematics of the Space Needle, and even though he never got up it, he knew it like he built it. His favorite part was the secret stairway that runs up and down the elevator shaft. He rarely got to touch one of the million other gadgets he saw evolving in the world around him. Most of the stores had him flagged on their security cams, with facial recognition software, so the guard was waiting for him by the time he got to the goodies. But he knew everything about everything, thanks to Google.
Perfect days in Seattle only last a few minutes. It was always another perfect Seattle day on Google Earth. Sitting in the cozy gloom and glow of the shelter, Walter was captivated by the eternal sunset Google captured for Walter as it glinted from the grinning windows of a billion Seattle condos, houses and skyscrapers lining the bowl of hills around the bay. Walter could zoom in and prowl the streets of rich neighborhoods, watch people watering their lawns just to keep them green, go places where he would get arrested if he went there in person.
Googling Earth was a lot like Googling minds. He couldn’t change the things he saw. He knew that. He could only look. That feature wasn’t available yet. For now, Google kept its data trapped like souls inside its farm of computers hidden in the desert, where only Google could manipulate it.
When he was Googling around in somebody’s mind, he couldn’t change things in there, either. Memory was that way. But he could see things a million different ways. Google things that even the people who lived in there couldn’t see. Find a keyword that Walter Googled and used to follow the threads running though a million memories. Of course, a lot of people encrypted their thoughts, locked them away where even Walter’s keywords could not unlock them.
Most people only saw things one way. They saw what they wanted to see. Or they only saw what they could not stop seeing. They forgot the rest. Forgot the passwords they used to encrypt stuff. Still, Walter found years of memories abandoned or hidden under the mattresses in people’s minds, waiting for Walter to Google around, getting different perspectives.
Walter also Googled every new word he heard. Words are better than the fantasies in video games. Words have memories, histories, lives. Derivations. Everything came from somewhere else. Everything was like something else, a string of similes as far as Walter saw, all the way back to the Primordial Soup. To the Big Bang. And those were just metaphors. Nobody was sure what they were really like. Walter was the shelter Scrabble king. He took down every new college kid who came to be a counselor at the shelter, to put real life on their resume.
“You are becoming an etymologist,” Bill said.
This set Walter off on a Google of ‘mologists.’ Sushi was an epistemologist. He was always searching for reality, which he pretty much defined as his own. Walter did not bring this up with Sushi. Anyway, what was Walter going to do? Change Sushi’s mind?
Walter wanted to be an entomologist. Who didn’t like bugs? It was a good time to get to know insects. Bugs were going to rule the world. There was a YouTube video called ‘Cyborg Insects,’ where they implanted nanotech into moth brains so they could see through their eyes and use them to guide robots. Roaches were next. Walter was not sure he wanted to meet a robot controlled by a roach. But it wasn’t like they were asking to be masters of the universe. He was taking a wait and see on that one.
Bill studied Walter as he licked his fingers. He was not afraid to look Walter in the eyes.
“Walter, it’s time to take a chance.” Bill called him by his name, which meant he was telling him something very serious. “The cactus isn’t getting any younger.”
Walter looked over Bill’s shoulder at his Christmas cactus, which Walter planted in Gardening Group when he first came to the shelter. It was sitting up on the counter, inside the glass cage under the fluorescent lights. It was much bigger than the baby thing he planted. Its arms were all over the place, pointing in all directions, like the arms of a giant Medusa alarm clock, all snakes of wafer-thin green cacti with crimson blossom heads. It was blossoming even though it was summer, not Christmas.
Walter looked from Bill’s face, eyes intense and somehow humorous, skin weathered with the experiences he had around the planet, looked around the universe of the main shelter room, paused at the inviting glow coming from the PCs, then rushed over the terrain of Greta’s green and blue Solitaire lit face. He arrived back face-to-face with the blossom-laden cactus. So what if it was not Christmas? The cactus was happy. Who was to say, epistemologically speaking, that it was not Christmas, at least for the Christmas cactus?
“It’s the artificial light, Pinball.” Bill shook his head at the cactus so that the silver loop danced in his long leather ear and his gray ponytail twitched. “That’s what it does to you.”
Bill leaned over Walter’s shoulder, so Greta couldn’t hear him from her listening post. His breath flowed over the dunes of Walter’s cheeks, a trade wind of fiery peppers and ginger and temptation.
“Go for it,” Bill said. “Take a chance. Before our good Dr. Sushi cures you.”
“But what if Sushi is right?”
“Sushi is crazy as a loon,” Bill said. “It is a prerequisite for being a shrink.”
Bill winked at him.
Now Walter was feeling what Sushi called being ‘conflicted.’ Bill knew the world. But Sushi was not going to like this any more than Leggs was going to like it, his taking a chance with Angel. And who was going to look after Leggs while he was taking a chance? The sharks swimming around the shelter, they had their eyes on Leggs. They wanted her back in the water. Of course, there was Sushi. Walter believed in Sushi because Sushi believed in Leggs. Because Sushi saved Leggs from the sharks.
One of the first things Walter remembers after he came to the shelter was watching Leggs working the wall of McDonalds across from the Westin, waiting like Chicken McNuggets for customers. It was Sushi the monk who stopped by, talking to her, giving her supplies and trying to talk her down from using them. It was Sushi the shrink who took over after someone reported a dog run over by the side of Aurora Avenue and it turned out to be Leggs. She got cut and beaten. They said she was going to die. Sushi put his foot down. Made sure they saved her. That’s how Sushi was, when Sushi believed in someone. He did not give up on them.
Walter thought that down deep, Sushi believed in him, too. That’s why he wanted to cure Walter. Walter knew that was why Bill was worried. Because Sushi never gave up. And because Sushi had ‘alternatives.’ Maybe Bill was right. It was time to take a chance, prove himself to Sushi.
There was a flash of gold teeth as Bill snatched up the last leg of Doro Wot chicken and it vanished in the cave of his mouth.
“You snooze, you loose,” he grinned.
Angel drove Walter in her red pod car into this maze of green glass Microsoft buildings, in a perfect, landscaped forest called Redmond. They turned for no reason at identical intersections. He tried to memorize the way but everything was the same here. In Seattle, every alley had its own look, own smell, unique landmarks, he could find his way in the dark. He understood how salmon got home from the ocean, found the right stream that was imprinted in their brains. But Walter was lost here.
By the time they pulled into the garage underneath one of the green glass buildings, Walter was starting to think maybe they were already in the game.
Then the manicured forest gave way to layer after layer of parking, a hive of shiny pods. He pressed his face against her side window and watched Porsches and hybrids and Land Rovers rush by. Some of the cars were low to the ground and were shrouded with tarps, the way they covered furniture in old movies when somebody left for a long time or was dead. Who covers cars inside a garage? Somebody who worked with her in this green castle, that’s who, Walter thought. Maybe they died? Or maybe they never got to leave? Every space was full as she wound down level after level, not ever slowing down, her tires squeaking on the curves down, down, until her car jolted to a stop in a spot that seemed to be waiting for her near an elevator bank.
The elevator opened into a cathedral of lobby. There were windows tiered up three stories above double sets of security glass doors with heavy frames. Walter stepped out and followed Angel without a word. They stopped in front of a counter, behind which another gleaming young woman was multitasking. She was talking into the kind of microphone-on-a-wand that famous singers use, while she fed documents into a fax and slid a clipboard with forms on it under Angel’s nose. There was a painting hanging over the receptionist’s head of a pink Cadillac convertible with huge tail fins, the top down, flying past a Route 66 sign, with nobody at the wheel.
While Angel attacked the forms with a familiar eagerness, Walter did a turn around to get a good look at the cathedral. There was a yellow chair across from the check-in counter, the stone kind you saw pictures of people reclining on 3,000 years ago over their sarcophagus. There was a guy sitting on this one now, wearing a name badge. He was motionless, like he was part of the chair. Walter walked over and stood in front of him. Walter saw that his badge read: ‘Jawaharlal Tobaccowabbi, Candidate.’ Walter stared at him, but the candidate’s eyes were lost in preparation. He did not acknowledge Walter’s existence. If this Tobaccowabbi wasn’t dressed in a suit as tight as his name badge, he could have been a shelter kid with that distant look. Anyway, Walter was not interested in him, either.
On the wall above the boy, rising at least twice as tall as Walter, was a picture that stopped Walter in his tracks. It was a painting of a gigantic pinball machine. It was so real, Walter heard it, really heard it, the steel balls flying and the flippers pounding. He heard laughter and shouting. It was the most amazing painting he had ever seen. Then Walter realized the voices were coming from above him. He looked up and saw an open level, a choir loft in the cathedral. But there did not seem to be a way up there.
Someone opened a door between the elevators and the reception desk where Angel was still filling out forms.
“Jaws?” a female voice said with a giggle.
Jawaharlal sprung to life now.
He walked to the door with his hand extended and followed the unseen voice inside. As the door swung shut, Walter heard the laughter in the loft notch up in volume. He slipped through the door without Angel noticing. ‘Jaws’ was just turning into a room with a long table. There were stairs and the sounds of pinball and familiar scratchy, electronic voices that seemed to be calling down to Walter as he ascended.
There were four guys around a Star Wars pinball machine, an ancient one with that cheap painted art they had when the Empire was young. The people around the game were not wearing suits. They were wearing jeans and T-shirts, like him. The machine exploded with the defeat of the player at the flappers. He slapped the machine and the tilt bells went off.
“Jesus, 21,670,000,” one of them shouted. He bent over and pushed a button that reset the flashing contraption. So this was it, Walter thought. Angel’s game. He frowned. Star Wars? This was the original deal. He saw the Jedi with sabers and dorky plastic toy figures of R2D2, Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi, Han Solo and Princess Leia and Darth Vader, of course, the whole cast stuck around the pinball field like Darth Vader had them all trapped here with carbon freezing, which Walter knew was impossible, because that happened in the sequel. Still, Angel was mixed up if she thought this was The Next Generation. He knew that was Star Trek. She must not watch SyFy.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Walter Winkler,” he replied.
“You the new ‘C’ candidate?”
“I’m here to play the game.”
“Really,” said the 21,670,000-point scorer. Walter saw his name, Brett, flashing in orange lights next to his score. His voice had that bully sneer. “Let’s see what you can do.”
This was Walter’s first real pinball machine. Bill called him Pinball because of a song, by The Who. Bill played it for him, because that was how Bill thought Walter played video games, by intuition. Like a deaf, dumb, blind kid. But the closest Walter ever got to a pinball machine was the doorway into Game World. The bouncer there never let him in, not that Walter was going to spend his life savings playing pinball. Walter stepped up to the frenetic flashing face of the machine and looked around suspiciously for the coin slot.
“Ah, its free.”
Walter looked around twice to make sure they were not kidding. He took his position and put his hands on the flappers, tested them out, pulled back on the spring-loaded ball launcher, still hot and sweaty from the other pinball wizard. He let the silver ball fly. Walter felt the ball hit the first posts. He heard the sounds of Darth Vader taunting Princess Leia and he heard Han Solo warning him about some unseen danger. The Light Sabers were slashing. The storm trooper pistols were firing. Walter saw the lights going off crazy and wild. The cacophony of electric clacking ran through his body and rattled his bones. All the lights and sounds melded. His eyes went wide and he saw the machine working, he saw where the ball was going, where it might go, where he could make it go. He never pulled another ball.
He did not know his eyes were closed until he opened them. The point counter was flashing and maxed. ‘100,000,000.’ A game siren was going off. There were now a couple dozen silent people surrounding the pinball machine.
“Holy shit,” someone said.
Walter felt the familiar pain of female nails in his bare arm. Then something with sharp little teeth bit his nipple.
“Ouch,” Walter said. He looked down and there was a nametag hanging off his T-shirt.
“He’s mine,’ Angel hissed to the mob of programmers.
Angel took him down a maze of halls. The offices were the size of the parking spaces and filled with computers and monitors. The walls were covered with posters and stuffed with junk. Most of them were empty, except the ones with intense figures hunched over keyboards. Angel made one stop, at an open kitchen that smelled of the expensive coffees in the little shops in Seattle. She opened a refrigerator and exposed a collection of every pop Walter knew.
“It’s free,” she said. “Just take what you want.”
He was wary, with that ‘just’ word again. But he took a 16-ounce Amp from the top shelf. He popped it open and it was freezing and perfect.
Then she took him down the hall to an unmarked door. There was a bullet-shaped trashcan next to it. They stood there together, bonding in silence. What was he supposed to do? Then he saw she was staring at his Amp.
“You’ll have to leave that here,” she said, pointing at the garbage can. He just had time to get it down. He got a stab of brain freeze before she practically levitated it out of his hands into the trashcan.
She opened the door and held it open so he would step inside.
“I’ll be with you in a minute.”
Then she closed the door and he was standing in a padded cell, a cube with acoustic foam on the walls. There was a pedestal with a sleek, black pillar of computer built into it. He moved closer to the computer. He heard the subtle breath of smooth cooling fans. So, Walter thought, this is one of her ‘neXt generation games.’
There was a single large circular button on the pedestal slowly pulsing blue light, with words in circle backlit by the light: ‘Holotar: Powered by Dragon Eye.’ Atop the pedestal of the game machine, there was a giant glowing dragonfly eyeball. It was a compound eye. It looked like a real dragonfly eyeball, bubbled with 30,000 lenses so you didn’t know what it was looking at, since it saw everything. He loved dragonflies. He did not like this Dragon Eye.
There was a big flat screen across the cube from the pillar, where another dragonfly eyeball was staring at him, covering the room from that side. They got both eyeballs. Somewhere, he thought, there was a big, pissed-off blind dragonfly bumbling around, maybe in this game.
Walter looked behind him and the door was gone, it was padded right into the wall. Walter had never seen a game dungeon before, but he was pretty sure this was one. Angel did not bring him here to play pinball.
The simmering Holotar Dragon Fly eyeballs came to life. There was a chain reaction. Translucent laser beams of blue and green light shot out from each lens. The screen came to life. Walter felt the spears of coherent light pierce the heterochromatic prisms of his eyes. Strange contructs began building within his brain. It was a kind of doorway, assembling itself like a black hole spinning with faces and fragments of places. It appeared to be an opening to another three-dimensional space. A glowing, hollow, bluish ice cube version of the game dungeon was forming on the other side.
Floating in the middle of this ice cube was a perfect avatar – no, a perfect three-dimensional hologram — of Angel. He blinked. So this is one of her ‘Holotars.’ He saw himself now, also floating on the screen next to Angel.
He looked at himself floating up there in the center of this virtual game cube. Angel’s Holotar was hovering next to his own digital image, which was still forming next to hers. Then he looked down at himself still standing in the game dungeon. He was dissolving, his flesh and blood was being disassembled by the intersecting laser beams, transporting Walter from himself into his own image on the other side.
She was waiting patiently for the process to complete, floating there rendered perfectly, right down to the leaf of bamboo peeking around the stem of her neck and that same smug sales smile parked on her lips. She seemed pleased and full of pride, as he was deconstructed and reassembled.
Walter did not look at himself in mirrors much. The mirrors in the bathrooms at the shelter were polished steel rippled with the imprints of many angry fists. This holographic mirror was stealing his soul. He blinked. The transfer was almost complete. He was in the cube with Angel, looking down into the game dungeon at the last vapors of his real body, which was a thin translucent husk now. He could see through the skinny-legged black jeans Leggs gave him, the faded Grateful Dead T-shirt Bill gave him was hollow. His Hyperdunks were empty and clutching their Gordian laces tight. His entire body was a specter, caught in a latticework of Dragon Eye beams.
He lifted his hand before his face, the hand in the cube. His hands looked exactly like his hands. He cracked his knuckles. He heard them. They had made a lot of noise since they got broken in the crate beating. It was his knuckles, all right. He saw Angel’s Holotar grimace at the sound of his knuckles cracking. Yes. It was his body, all right, this digital phantom.
Angel snapped her fingers. Walter’s body, the one he came to play the game with, gave up its ghost and vanished right before his eyes, along with the game dungeon.
“Are you ready to play, Walter?”