city of angles by stefan gagne

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city of angles – //004: Turn Left

Buildings next to buildings, askew or aligned. Buildings sometimes intersecting buildings, for that matter. Walk down a hallway, end up in a ballroom, double glass doors to a subway station, third exit on the left goes to a donut shop. It’s the only place where you can buy klein bottle jellies with sprinkles.

There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it—we’ve got streets which lead to dead ends, roads which criss-cross and loop back around, highways which go nowhere. Literally nowhere, as in “anybody going down that road is not coming back.” This is not a good place to wander off unless you like wandering off forever…

Nobody knows where the city came from. Nobody knows how we got here. Nobody knows why any of this is happening. But it’s happening. The city exists. We are here now. It’s growing every day, and bringing new people with it.

We live a life amidst the twisted yet familiar.

If we’re going to survive this, if we’re going to stay alive and thrive, we need to learn to live in the City of Angles.

…here’s an angle to consider…

Adrift in a warped concrete jungle, a man might sit to ponder the surrealistic horror of his situation. But soon enough, if he wants to continue those ponderings, he’ll also need what everybody needs to keep going—food, water, shelter. That means a job, that means money, that means obeying the Maslow Hierarchy. Practicality breaks the back of philosophy. Existential crisis does not put pasta on the plate.

Perhaps the clock you punch in every morning is melting across a Dali landscape, but a punch clock is a punch clock. The chain of survival yokes you down to that grind, burying your face in the trivial and mundane.

In a lot of ways… that doubles as a psychological survival mechanism. If you’re putting spindles in boxes for ten hours a day, that’s ten hours spent not thinking about the warped abomination lurking in the depths of your subdimensional closet that wants to eat your face.

But for the unlucky ones, the ones who are keenly aware of the weirdness perpetually lurking at the edge of vision… even the drudge of the day won’t keep the nightmares at bay. And no matter how far they go, how distant from the center they may journey, they find themselves closer to the core of the matter inch by inch, moment by moment, until…


//004: Turn Left

Dreams, by Cass

Random thoughts light the way down the corridors of dreams, loose and dangling like shoes on a telephone wire, the hare just inches ahead of the fox, the three notes that echo in your head without a title to hang themselves on.

Dreams of the spaces between, hives of madness and horror which are the perfect vision of hell for the Average Joe—but the perfect vision of heaven for Average Joe’s mixed-up derivatives,

Dreams of the nightmare engines which exist in plain sight on the evening news, safety and fear dancing hand in hand, reassuring with a pat on the head with one while waggling a finger of disapproval with the other,

Dreams of the holy trinity of Lucidity, Madness, and Oblivion—and within the topmost triangular vertex of the pyramid lies the three-sided goddess of flesh and thought and concrete, known to all yet unknowable,

Dreams of Tommy Westfall, whose spherical dreams in turn encompass everything that ever was and ever will be, the self-reciprocating feedback loop of imagination where reality asserts its own lie,

Dreams of

Snickering.

snickers bars, snacker doodles, snaggletooth, smirks. very funny words.

The smoky haze of the coffee shop / bar / poetry club / bingo on Thursdays trickled into her lungs after that. It sapped out whatever loose forward momentum she had going into it, drained away the impetus. For a moment she considered plowing on anyway… but the words on the page were mocked by the words in the air around that random audience member. Cheapened.

“I don’t really feel like reading anymore,” Cass announced, flipping her spiral bound notebook shut. “I just sorta haven’t got any kind of steam.”

---

Fortunately that incident was the middle of the night; there were two poets up after her, all too eager to snag the spotlight and start reciting with great gusto. By the time the night’s session was done and everybody broke for drinks, few people even remembered the derailment of Cass’s train of thought.

But she did. The book on the table in front of her, closed, sealed, mocking… that was plenty to keep the localized memory fresh.

Her sour mood was not duplicated by her two table companions, off in their own secluded corner of the club.

Reg (né Reggie) (actually Reginald) was all good cheer and smiles, perhaps trying to elevate Cass to his level. He was all good cheer and smiles for all the poets, really—Mister Encouragement, with his hipster dark glasses (similar to hers) and his hipster beanie (semi-similar to her own baker boy cap). Far too warm and personable to make sense in the cool elitism of the club.

Despite looking like some genetic duplicate of a young Miles Davis recently escaped from a jazz-loving mad scientist’s lab, Reggie was a scene rider… a rich socialite producing nothing, soaking in the ambiance, wanting to be a part of it all despite having no ability of his own. He headed up several failing ‘zines and poured perfectly good money into art galleries that shut down weeks after opening. Despite being as creative as a kumquat and having the business sense of an avocado, Cass could appreciate his place here. He had a consistent passion and a good ear.

By contrast Fi (because Fiona was too suburban) maintained a cool dispassion and aloofness that rivaled an ice sculpture. She didn’t care that Cass had flamed out, one way or another. She was above everything, floating on her own little cloud, daring to touch down only when she felt she had something of tremendous value to say.

A poet’s poet, who only spoke in color. The living embodiment of pretension, to be honest, but Cass couldn’t hate on her for that. After all, at her worst moments, Cass was just like Fi. Having Fi around kept Cass honest, in the same way a room of mirrors encourages you to comb your hair once in a while.

Two of the three, smoking and drinking. Expected of the scene. Oddly, the club smelt the most of nicotine after Bingo nights more than any other night. Cass herself did neither; she’d had more than her fill of biochemical modification, once upon a time. Which might’ve been to blame for her shutting down earlier, to be honest…

“I’d say ‘Don’t let a heckler get you down,’ but honestly, I don’t think that was heckling,” Reg explained. “So someone laughed. So what? It was a funny line. Tommy Westfall! Cool, way cool. You know, even your mentor had them rolling in the aisles from time to time. Howl had plenty of humor.”

“Mine wasn’t meant to be funny,” Cass mumbled. “Though I can barely take it seriously, myself. God. I can’t believe I really stood up there reading this crap. Like ‘The hare just inches ahead of the fox,’ what was I thinking? That’s ridiculous. All of it, every last word was too floaty and thin. I need the words to be… I don’t know. Heavier. Grounded and real…”

“Yeah, but didn’t you say you got most of your words from your dreams? Of course they’re going to be floaty.”

She held back a twitch.

It was the wrong thing to tell Reg. Cass honestly had no idea why she’d admitted to that, weeks ago. Because yes, most of the words were remembered from dreams… where they had more weight, more value. There was an impetus behind the words while they were in her dream. Putting them on paper seemed to wreck whatever strange magic they once held.

Even the words which came to her in her waking hours had more strength than this… and that was the unsettling part, the part she never told Reg. The waking words…

“Anyway, I thought it was working just fine,” Reg said, swerving away from that topic, thankfully. “I never thought I’d hear the name Tommy Westfall in this club. St. Elsewhere, right? Final episode, the entire series turns out to be the dream of an autistic kid?”

Fi’s obnoxiously musical voice chimed in, with response. “Interconnectivity,” she lilted, in agreement.

“Right. Crossovers with crossovers, leaving nearly all of television in the mind of Tommy Westfall. I like it. Strong image there. I mean, I don’t get how it ties into your poem just yet, but I think there’s some meat on those bones worth chewing on.”

“I guess. I don’t know. Maybe,” Cass waffled. “It’s just too thin right now. Doesn’t feel real to me… too out of balance.”

“So, do a rewrite. Present again next week. I bet nobody here will even have remembered the first draft by that point.”

Cass leaned back in her crappy old wooden chair, dangerously close to tipping backwards. Arms folded.

“That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?” she said. “The only audience in this city for poetry is a room full of poets. They’re all too busy anticipating their turn at bat to bother paying attention to the game itself. —UGH, sports metaphor, no. Point is, none of them are really listening. A reading’s for readers and my audience is entirely writers.”

“I’m not a writer,” Reg reminded. “I just like cheap booze and fascinating art.”

“And that’s why you’re the only person who seems to care about my work. At risk of inflating your ego, I’d say you’re the most real person in the room.”

Fi wrinkled her nose. “An honest poseur is still honest,” she agreed in a backhanded way.

After draining what was left of his tiny little glass of venom, Reg had his say.

“I don’t write and I barely grasp any of this. I’ll admit that, straight up,” he concurred. “No matter how deep I am in the scene I know when I’m in over my head. But even if I don’t get what you’re trying to say, I get what you’re going through. Too floaty? Not grounded? Okay. What you need is to get away from this club for a while. This place isn’t healthy for you, and I don’t just mean the secondhand smoke. Maybe go on the road, like Jack. Work your day job, soak in the city a bit, enjoy the mundane life the rest of us lead. Then take that back to your writing.”

Fi coughed impolitely. “Trust fund baby,” she noted.

“Okay, so my life is slightly less mundane than most,” Reggie admitted. “But I use my petty cash to work my ass off on promotion and management of the art scene. I serve with both hands and that’s something I’m good at; dealing in what is so artists have time to deal in what can be. Honest work keeps me stable, and I’m thinking it’d help Cass, too.”

Cass rocked back and forth on two chair legs, pondering. And trying to ignore the words around Reg’s head.

i could tell you some stories, the letters hovering in that haze read, jiggling around lightly in memory-mockery.

Barton Fink, 1991. A highly poetic playwright claims to have his finger on the pulse of the common man, when he actually ignores the common man next door in favor of his own idealized but faux-grounded life. Every time Charlie’d try to speak, I could tell you some stories, Barton would interrupt and blabber on without realizing how out of touch he was.

“What the hell. It’s not like I have anything to recite next week,” Cass reasoned, planting all four chair legs on the floor at last. “May as well earn my keep. Poetry doesn’t put food on the table these days.”

---

I was ten years old when I got to know the old man down the hall.

His newspaper had been accidentally delivered to my mother’s door. Being a good girl, I timidly brought it to that sequestered door, knocked, and waited to meet the hermit.

Our apartment building was quiet during daylight hours. Kids here couldn’t afford home-schooling—my mom worked two jobs so I had a phone tutor, because she was terrified of putting me on a school bus and sending me off into the unknown. That meant I was home alone most of the day, and once lessons were done, boredom set in. That’s why the old man and I were the only ones around.

For a hermit, he was surprisingly kind and gentle. I’d been warned of Stranger Danger of course, and started out distrusting him. He offered a cookie and coffee in return for the newspaper, which I declined. He insisted on at least giving me some spare change for a reward.

As he was rooting around in the kitchen for some money, I noticed the tiny black and white book on his end table. Very small, very thin, not a proper book. Curious, I started reading it.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…

He caught me red-handed, reading his book. At first it looked like he was going to rush over and take it away from me. He was certainly worried about me reading it… but stayed his hand.

I asked what it meant, since I didn’t recognize most of the words. He said I’d understand when I was older, but I wanted to understand now. I insisted. He could compensate me for my good deed of the day by helping open me up to this fascinating new world.

That was how the elderly echo of Allen Ginsberg came to meet a ten-year-old girl, a girl who would forever be driven by words.

---

Allen told her once about how easy it was to be a taxi driver in New York, back in his world. It was terrific work for any immigrant fresh off the boat (you had to cross an ocean, like a giant lake, to get there). Fleets of cabs would take you where you wanted to go, and at worst you’d have to deal with someone who didn’t know the best way to get around and delayed you a little.

Taxi driving in the City of Angles, in contrast, was serious business.

Not that she’d gotten into it in any serious manner to start with. Cass had become a taxi driver on a lark after graduating with her English Lit degree—she’d always been good at navigating the back streets on her bicycle, thanks to being unable to afford on-campus housing at City University. The commute had expanded seven times in the four years she spent earning credit hours, which meant she had to learn quickly how to adapt to the changing flow of traffic. Taxi driving seemed like a natural extension of that… a way to earn extremely solid money in daylight hours, so she could spend her nights writing.

Most cab drivers drop out after a year, unable to maintain the mental focus needed for the job. Cass could sadly say she’d learned more in four years of cab driving than she learned in four years of college.

Never ride the Buckles; passengers are a surly lot, suspicious of their drivers, and do not like the up-and-down hills of the Buckles. Makes you look like a hotshot. The Spindles were a good and undertrafficked hub, giving you access to all sorts of roads, and worth going out of your way for. Avoid the Zag like the plague after rush hour, because that’s where the hungry go to feed in more ways than one, with tons of foot traffic to match the wheeled traffic…

Buckles, Spindles, Zag, Causeway, Pileup Intersection, Crossway Points. Poetic names given to streets which once had other names, before being echoed into the city against their will. Sometimes Cass could see the writing on their pavement, crying out in protest at their repurposing.

Literally, she could see the writing on their pavement. It wasn’t something she liked to think about, the literalness of that.

Four days removed from the flameout. Grounding herself on four rubber wheels, getting the job done. Here to there and back again. Reg was right—she needed a break from the cloud if she was going to see the sky. Nestle deep in her comfort zone. Racking up the fares didn’t hurt, either. This might’ve been the first month where she wasn’t scraping to make the rent.

Her shiny company cab rolled up to the curb, where some guy in a suit and tie had been frantically waving for attention. No time for idle thoughts; fares, fares, fares. Going to ground. Real life.

He piled into the back seat, briefcase in both hands. The bluetooth in his ear yammered away while he yammered into it. Soon the case in his lap was open, and files were coming out, the seat being used as an impromptu office desk. Cass had already pulled away from the curb and gone a block before he bothered telling her where to go.

“I don’t care what Resources says, our copyright should still hold. We’re a legal extension of…” A glance up at the driver, through the Plexiglas. “Synergy building, Hammerhead Block. …yes, that’s my point, they can’t annex it because we’ve got the rights to the original works. I don’t care what they think they’re entitled to…”

She spared a glance to the flurry of papers and folders, to confirm.

“Should buckle up, sir,” she called back, loud enough to be heard over whatever angry voice was jammed in the salaryman’s ear.

“Should watch the goddamn road, missy,” the fare barked back. “What? No, not you, I’m in a cab. Look, the account is registered and fully legal, so there’s no reason…”

Typical. But, whatever. Cass watched the goddamn road.

Most cars this deep in the city were cabs, just like hers. Driving was an adventure few city people were prepared to undertake themselves, preferring to take the subway or simply walk. Others dared to hop a bus or entrust their lives to a cabbie. Sure, car accidents happened, but it wasn’t like the roads were certain death… it was just fear. Fear and an insane desire for safety.

So, she could let some of her focus drift. There was plenty of city life to take in with her eyes, after all. Things which might work their way into a poem one day. Grounding, feeling, reality, process by osmosis…

Rolling through the Chow District. Street merchants, hawking somewhat sad looking fruits and vegetables. Probably snagged off the back of one of the many rattier-looking box trucks that carted in produce from the sick farms of the Outlands. When you couldn’t buy from a branded grocery store like Piggy’s, you got your calories where you could.

A mother with a toddler in a harness, with retractable leash, the handle clutched in white knuckles. The kid straining at the end of it, desperate to roam the sidewalk and explore the world.

Glowing typeface appeared, hovering in place.

cages keep wild animals safe from cities, not the other way around, the words read, jittering slightly in the haze over the struggling child…

Cass tried to pay no attention to it; she couldn’t afford to float off like that, not when she was trying to be as normal as possible this week.

Best way to Hammerhead was down 11.5th street. Traffic was a bit thicker, but this time of day it wouldn’t be thick enough to offset the time savings. A good cabbie didn’t run the meter out with a scenic tour; folks who took cabs regularly were smart enough to call you out on that crap.

Sure enough, plenty of cabs and buses and box trucks and even some luxury cars on 11.5th. Licence plates with jumbles of letters and numbers.

An expensive BMW. Imported, or rather echoed. Someone forked over enough money to feed a family of four for ages to get that thing. have a care for people who don’t, the words printed out, glowing and hovering over the rear window of the car. Cass immediately looked away, to a nice safe public bus—every path leads me to nowhere, it declared, where an ad for the city’s recycling program should have been. Even the haze of chemical exhaust from its high pipeline held words, the clouds are as real as you make them

Finally, the traffic started moving fast enough that she could pointedly ignore the phrases trying to edge their way into her brain. She pushed the accelerator down.

Moving at a fair clip, now. Salaryman would be where he was going in no time at all. And then maybe Cass would pull over, hit a public restroom, splash some water on her face, try not to look in the mirror. The letters enjoyed a good mirror—

TURN
LEFT

—twisting the steering wheel sharply to the left.

No thought, no consideration. The words large as God’s eyes, right in front of her, and that was that.

She should have careened at high speed directly into a taco restaurant, killing herself, her passenger, and countless Mexican food patrons. At best she would’ve started rolling sideways, hurling herself into some other building. It was insanity to make a ninety-degree turn at speed in this city, especially if you weren’t actually turning onto a road, but straight into a wall.

Instead of dying, Cass did a hard left onto a road which didn’t exist a split second before she started turning onto it.

And then started rolling sideways.

Unconsciousness kicked in, which made the pain a bit easier to take.

---

Let’s be fair. My earliest poetry was terrible. I was only Allen’s prodigy for three years before heart failure took him away from me—three short childhood years. The best I could hope for at that point was roses being red and violets being blue.

Even my high school poetry was horrible. Everybody went through their “dark and gritty” phase. I could ape the motions of the Beat Generation, but it came out trite and angry in a world which had no desire for trite and angry. After all, life in the city is and always was life in the city, comparatively peaceful compared to America in the 50s…

You’ve never had any wars here, Allen pointed out. No defining struggles. You copied problems from America, but even those were flimsy strawmen compared to the originals. The Beats never happened here because this world couldn’t have given rise to them.

Only in college did I start to write things which I wasn’t agonizingly embarrassed by. And unfortunately, that only happened after my acid test.

I’d managed to avoid smoking and drinking, despite how both ran roughshod through the Beats. Peer pressure didn’t hit me very hard, I guess. But when my roomie offered an invite to an LSD party… all I could think about was Allen’s musings on consciousness expansion. It seemed like a sure bet for self-improvement, walking in the shoes of my lost mentor.

The little sugar cube opened a door in my head, and the words came out. They hovered, they danced, they commented on my surroundings like footnotes for the real world. The experience was actually quite amazing.

Problem was… the door never closed. Even after the acid faded, the words were still there. When I slept they overtook me like a tidal wave… and when I was awake, distant echoes of them persisted in my vision.

I was too scared to tell anyone. I didn’t want to go to Rockford and Greystone, didn’t want to suffer Naomi’s fate. I knew full well how little this city tolerated madness, seeing it as a stepping stone to cubism.

For a while, I worried I WAS going cubist. I checked myself every day for telltale signs of blurriness or distortion. Edge of my seat living, worried sick about the weirdness, unable to accept it, desperate for the words to go away but unwilling to tell anyone about what I was going through…

I survived despite the persistent hallucinations, and graduated a few years later with most of my marbles. Only once I started ignoring how strange it was to see captions everywhere could I grasp some control over my life again.

And sometimes… they made for really striking poetry. And other times I just couldn’t translate what I was seeing in my head into anything meaningful. They tease and taunt me as much as they inspire me. Maybe it’s a zero sum game. Maybe the words will never truly help me.

---

Sirens. Klaxons. Live without warning.

Cass was sitting on the ground, next to an upside down cab. Someone was waving a hand in her face.

“How many fingers am I holding up?” the man asked.

The word three printed itself in front of the blur.

“Three,” she replied.

Focus came to her, soon after. An average-looking joe, wearing the brown of a First Action Response Team uniform. The name tag read SMITH, which was a relief, because it was printed text that was not only in her broken brain…

“Good. I mean, there may still be a concussion or something, but… you’re alive, which is kind of amazing,” he said. “Your passenger’s going to be fine. He’s on his way to the hospital now. Wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, so he’s got a broken clavicle… err… shoulder? I don’t know, something in that region. You saved his life, turning onto this road. Others weren’t so lucky…”

Past the rescue worker… and there was a pileup to rival Pileup Intersection’s legends.

A building had inserted itself into the city, right in the middle of 11.5th Street. The street obligingly turned off to the left now, reshaping itself to accommodate the new structure… but it had given no warning of what was about to happen. As a result, a dozen or so cars and a city bus had plowed head-on into the new building.

That was what happened. Cass didn’t need it confirmed; she knew how the city worked. These things happen. Insurance companies hate it, mortuaries love it, politicians shake their fingers about traffic safety laws and speed limits, and life goes on.

Especially for her. Because she was the one of the few who had managed to avoid the crash. Cars towards the back managed to veer onto the new side road, having several seconds of visual forewarning of the city change… they made the same call Cass did.

But Cass made the call first. She made it before anyone else could have thanks to two words, four letters each, burning bright. A split second of precognition… but that split second was enough to save her.

Rescue workers, FARTs, firemen and EMTs were swarming over the pile of cars. Department of Safety officers had set up barricades, turning back traffic, keeping folks away. None of them paid much attention to the taxi that had swerved off to the side. The significance of how it survived was lost on everyone, with the far more spectacular pile of wreckage to attend to.

That included the First Action Response Team leader, who angrily called over, waving to the technician tending to her.

“Dave, get your ass back here!” he shouted. “You’re only a trainee right now, remember? You’re not authorized to talk to anyone! Let the EMTs deal with her.”

“Sorry,” Apparently-Dave spoke to her. “Gotta go. Sit tight, someone’ll be with you soon. It’s going to be okay, ma’am.”

Leaving Cass to her thoughts, dazed from the crash, waiting for someone to take her to the hospital or something. A living miracle nobody cared about.

Although in her heart, she knew that miracle was probably going to spell disaster. She’d crashed her cab. She’d injured her passenger. Even if they’d survived… this was not good. Not good at all.

---

The dark man laughs as the hordes of psyches march towards the festering smile of the nightmare child. What’s wrong, he taunts? Everything falling apart, nothing making sense? But isn’t that for the best? He embraces the thing which shreds and gnaws at the edges of your mind because it pours the vile venom of horrific power into the ego which inflates it to sizes that are not recommended by your pediatrician, and eventually the nightmare and the dream become one and the same and fearlessness is identical to ferocity.

The azure youth watches impassively as the thousands fall in slow motion, tumbling down the sides of buildings and the edges of chasms and through the cracks of society, bouncing off the walls and leaving bloody smears as they plummet in the infinite abyss of nothingness. What’s wrong, she asks? Hopeless and bleak in the face of knowing you are nothing? But isn’t that for the best? She embraces the nonexistence of the oblivion state because it snuffs out the candle flame that burns and induces pain and passion and encourages you to endure, time out, retreat, it’s better to surrender than to lose.

And then there was the third option.

And then there was the third child.

Her herald has designed the hardest road of all, paved with the blood of suffering and trauma, flesh burned bright in ovens of existence before being hammered flat into ceramic red bricks of hemoglobin, the living testament of the ones who live, who with shining lucidity reach out and seize life with both hands, despite the horror, despite the sorrow, despite the weirdness you want to avoid because unfortunately the weirdness is everywhere and there is no avoiding it, no escape, no retreat, the only way out is through, to turn yourself into something new, to turn left, to answer the door because your guest has been knocking for a good three minutes now and you’re being a rude little thing.

Cass awoke with a start, cheek pulling from a small puddle of her own drool on the kitchen table.

Which would have been horribly embarrassing if anybody had seen it. Especially since she sat down last night intent on writing some poetry, not intent on passing out at the keys until morning. After finding her glasses, a quick glance showed she hadn’t gotten further on her typewriter than “The” before blacking out. How deliciously comedic. Falling asleep sitting up, despite having absolutely nothing exhausting happening during her daylight hours…

No job anymore—the company released her contract, despite saving her passenger’s life. If he’d just worn his seat belt, he’d be fine… but no, he had to ignore rule number one of city safety. Instead of blaming himself, he chose to blame Cass for the resulting injuries and slap her employer with a lawsuit.

No self-respecting judge would find her guilty, but the dispatch company didn’t care. Cass was just one of dozens of drivers, with more waiting to step up and take her job. Easier and cheaper to settle out of court, cut the problem driver loose, and issue a statement describing the firing as a proactive step towards public safety. It beat tangling with a vengeful lawyer, right? The company didn’t owe her anything, they didn’t care. Just a replaceable cog in the system.

The only person who gave a crap was Vincent, her direct radio contact in dispatch.

It’s a raw deal, I know, he’d agreed. I can tell you right now, none of the other companies will want a driver who was involved in such a major accident. You don’t deserve this mess, so I’ll see what I can find for you, but… it’s a good thing you have your poetry to fall back on, right?

No poetry—her antique typewriter hadn’t been clacking away through the midnight hour, despite the words that filled her dreams. She felt like a faker before, and without the anchor of the daily grind to cling to, all she had left was being a poetic phony. No confidence. No inspiration.

No progress. No success. No purpose. No…

No knocking.

No, knocking. There was knocking. She vaguely recalled being aware of the knocking even before waking up, but the dream had faded by that point, becoming little more than a random pile of vaporous musings. Knock knock at the door, guests arriving, let me in.

Quickly Cass wiped up the drool puddle with a sleeve, adjusted her hair to look slightly presentable, and crossed her small apartment to go open the door.

Probably the mailman, or a delivery boy with more severance paperwork. Maybe she ordered food and forgot about it. The landlord, here to demand the rent she couldn’t afford anymore. Any number of ordinary city folk could be at her door for any number of ordinary city purposes. Simple and direct and understandable.

Instead, she found a charming old lady in a ridiculously vintage looking dress, with wrinkled skin and a hair bun. Like someone’s grandmother from a salvaged 50s celluloid comedy. Which would be funny if not for the very impressively tall and muscular bodyguard-looking type looming behind her, nearly filling the hallway beyond her door. That balanced out the equation somewhat.

“Hello, dearie,” the old lady rasped, dry as a bone. “I’ve come to offer you a job.”

Weirdness, Cass thought briefly, her hopes for an ordinary visit leaping spectacularly out the window.

Unbidden, the old biddy waltzed on into the apartment. Had herself a good look around. Meanwhile, the pile of beef that had been following her around chose to fill the doorway instead of filling the hallway. Cass could always jump out the window after her hopes, but that would be the only exit now…

The woman pondered the kitchen table, with its stacks of blank paper and its portable typewriter.

“Oh my. Is that a Smith Corona Sterling?” she asked. “I didn’t think they existed anymore…”

“Ah, it’s a Clark Nova portable,” Cass clarified, moving away from the bodyguard and towards the old woman in a hopefully nonthreatening fashion. “It’s… uh. It’s a replica movie prop, honestly. I thought it might have mythic resonance but honestly it doesn’t type very well. —I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name, Missus…?”

“You may call me Grandma Scarlett. That’s Scarlett with two T’s, like the actress or the character,” the woman noted, holding up two fingers. “It has mythic resonance. Mmm. A bit of a sham, I suppose, like your typewriter. But if this world is a sham, does that make it any less real? Who’s to say what’s real and what isn’t? The answer, of course, is us. No other answer makes sense.”

For someone who chose to live in a world of words, Cass had absolutely no words in response to how this situation was developing.

Grandma Scarlett with Two T’s, meanwhile, eased herself into one of the chairs at the kitchen table. And gestured for Cass to sit as well, across from her and in front of the Clark Nova. The bodyguard declined to join them.

“Don’t mind Jeb, missy, he’s just not one for talk,” Scarlett said, noting Cass’s increasing uncomfortableness with the large fellow. “And he’s a big softie, really—though he worries about my safety whenever I need to leave the farm. I visit the city so rarely these days, it’s a treat for both of us, really. My word, how this place changes each time I visit! Oh, I don’t just mean the buildings, but the people. So many new faces…”

Before she started rambling off in a random direction, Cass decided to wrestle this back to normality. make sense of nonsense, the words on her kitchen wall suggested.

“Said something about a job?” she asked. “Did Vincent at the cab company recommend me for something? Said he’d try to find me work… you run a taxi contract service?”

“A what? Oh, heavens no!” the old woman replied, with a giggle like rustling paper. “No, no. I manage an orphanage, on a farm in the Outlands. The Happy Acre Orphanage! There’s so many poor children left stranded in this world, with no family and no one to take them in. I provide a home, a waystation for those who need somewhere to rest and heal. Mm. Well. I have side businesses too, you could say. A delivery business. The business of deliverance. Which is why I’m here today. You are a delivery girl, yes? You deliver people?”

“I… guess you could say that,” Cass replied. “I’ve been a taxi driver for a few years now. Vincent would’ve given you my resume. You need your kids driven around the city on field trips or something? Because if so, I’m legally obliged to tell you about a traffic accident I was involved in…”

The woman clicked her tongue, in sympathetic disappointment. “Troubles in the past, dear? Well, that’s the city for you. So dangerous. Really, it doesn’t matter to me; I know in my heart you’re the right woman for the job. But I think I’ve led you to the wrong conclusion. You wouldn’t be delivering people, dearie! I have packages that need delivery… care packages, of a sort, handcrafted at my home sweet home…”

Reaching into her purse, the woman withdrew a smart tablet. After some fumbling, not particularly good with the touchscreen interface, she called up a map.

“My orphanage is here, in the Outlands,” she explained, pointing with shaking finger to a random spot on a random highway through the highly random rural landscapes beyond the city. “A bit far away, I know, but it’s home. You would be making deliveries from my home using a box truck, traveling to various places in the Outlands, in the Suburbs, and even in the City itself. Quite a few stops, quite a distance. An ongoing task as well, week by week, plenty of deliveries to make in the months ahead. I’m afraid it’s a long haul, in and around and through… but the pay is above standard for the trucking industry, I’m told. Are you keen?”

Her hopes wobbled slightly. will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you…

First, this wasn’t cab driving, it was truck driving. Cargo haulers were a culture onto themselves, rolling through the Outlands with vital loads from factories and warehouses—the lifeblood of the city, since nobody could survive off imported scavenging alone. Her commercial driving licence didn’t cover eighteen wheelers, which would’ve shot this right down… but it did cover box trucks. Still quite beyond her comfort zone. Literally and figuratively.

Cass had rarely driven outside the City (her comfort zone). Technically all of it was the City of Angles, but the “City of Angles” existed in three different “layers” of a sort—Outlands, Suburbs, City. Rural, suburban, urban. If you knew which roads to take, you could safely transition from one space to the next in a non-Euclidian manner.

Taxi drivers stuck to the cramped little roadways of the city, the twisted rat’s nest of side streets and major intersections that linked its denizens together. Sometimes you’d be carrying a passenger home to the burbs (safe little bedroom communities), but commuters usually took a bus or owned their own cars. And never, ever did she drive all the way out to the open spaces of the Outlands…

But four wheels were four wheels, and a map was a map. She could read maps, commit them to memory, get a feel for the terrain and optimize the routes. She’d gone from being a collegiate bicycle warrior to a professional taxi hooligan in a few short years. With the cab companies unlikely to knock on her door anytime soon… she’d take whatever work she could get and figure the rest out later.

“I can tell from the series of expressions on your face that you’re going to take my offer,” Grandma Scarlett said, before she had a chance to take the offer. “With reservations, of course. Understandable, very much so…”

“This isn’t really something I’ve done before,” Cass warned. “I drive cabs, not trucks. And not in the Outlands. But… yeah. I’ll take it. —what exactly am I hauling, if not toddlers? Apple pies? Knitting? Denture cream?”

“Ahhh. Humor as a coping mechanism. You’re a dear one, dearie, just as I thought you’d be. And no, none of that. Jeb, if you please…?”

Now the wall of meat moved from the doorway. But not before fetching a cardboard box, which had been set just out of sight for the big reveal.

Despite saying PAPER TOWELS 6 UNITS on the side, odds were low it held paper towels. Repurposing things was common enough in the city, after all, including containers.

Jeb opened the box, then held it out for Grandma Scarlett. She carefully reached in, and withdrew…

Well, that made sensible sense, at least.

“These teddy bears are hand-sewn by me, with love and care,” she explained, setting the adorable flopsy stuffed doll on Cass’s kitchen table next to the Clark Nova. “I produce one batch every week. It’s been a hobby of mine for over a decade now. Mmm. Not a hobby. More of a calling, I suppose. Sometimes the children help me—not a sweatshop, mind you, but they have a vested interest in this project as well. Once the dolls are complete and… prepared, I ship them out to where they need to be. That’s where you’ll come in. One run a week, a day or three to complete each run. Lengthy hours but in the end, it’s worth it.”

Slowly, Cass edged back into her comfort zone. Old widow (presumably a widow) in an orphanage sewing teddy bears for kiddies? That was downright cliché and ordinary. The ordinariness of it, that was exactly what Cass was hoping for. Nothing the slightest bit odd about all of it.

“I’ll definitely take the job,” she confirmed. “I can start whenever. Got nothin’ going on right now.”

“Good, good,” Scarlett said, with a click of the tongue. “Jeb will transfer the relevant maps to you today. I’m not much with computers, afraid. I have a charming little rented cargo truck you’ll be using, which is currently in storage here in the city; I’ll give you the keys, you can drive it out to the orphanage as soon as you’re ready to fetch your first week’s deliveries.”

Carefully, the old woman rose from the kitchen chair—Cass could hear bones creaking and hopefully not cracking. She extended a brittle hand to shake… which Cass shook, very, very carefully. we have an accord, the words agreed.

“This is exactly what I need right now, I think,” Cass admitted. “I’ve been trying to get down to earth lately. City living gets to you, y’know. Delivering teddy bears? I can swing that. It’s out and out normal. I’ll have to thank Vincent for sending you my way.”

“I suppose you can if you like,” her employer said… with a cartoonish little twinkle in her eyes. “Except I’m afraid I’ve never met this ‘Vincent’ person you keep talking about. Good day, miss.”

And so they left, without another word.

Presumably they’d seen Cass’s name in the news, or something. Or maybe she was more famous in the world of commercial transport than she thought. Or Vincent knew a guy who knew a guy, or something. Plenty of reasonable reasons for that little twist ending.

By the time Cass settled back in to her typewriter, they were long gone—and had left the bear behind.

It flopped adorably against her Clark Nova, as if to say hug me. Well, as if to say and literally to say, with the words in her mind making a return appearance after staying oddly quiet through that discussion.

She nudged the bear aside, letting it topple over and lay awkwardly, while she tried to remember what word was going to come after “The” when she sat down to write last night.

A few minutes later without any words spilling forth, she took the bear under one arm. Not because it told her to or she wanted to or anything like that. Just ’cause.

---

Having gone without second hand smoke for several days, inhaling it anew was not a pleasant experience. Cass pushed through the haze anyway, identifying her preferred table (on its last legs) and weaving around various hipsters to get to it.

She found Reggie and Fi locked in intense debate over a hot pink sculpture of a penis, which was the opposite of what she wanted to see when she walked in here today.

“I’m just not sure what the piece is saying,” Reg pondered aloud, studying the item sitting in centerpiece position of the coffee house table. “Is it a statement about the role of male sexuality in society, or some sort of celebration of neoprimitive fertility? I mean, there’s a lot of attention to detail here; it’s not an abstract by any means. Is there meaning in that detail? Highlighted aspects which are meant to convey something?”

“Or someone sold you a used marital aid and called it art,” Fi suggested.

“Okay, so maybe it’s found art, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be art,” he defended. “Hey, Cass, have a seat. Help me figure this out!”

The chain-smoking poet opposite Cass shook her head, sadly. “Reg got played again,” she confirmed.

“Can we put the icon of sexuality as portrayed in the media aside for now?” Cass asked, turning her chair backwards and straddling it (before realizing how that played into the current discussion, with a wince). “Got a puzzle of my own to sort out.”

“Sure, sure. Besides, it’s getting me funny looks,” Reg admitted, fetching the objet d’notquiteart off the table, putting it in his messenger bag. “What’s on your mind, Cass? Still looking for work? You know, I could take you on for a bit hanging paintings at the new gallery—”

“Got a job offer, actually. But… it’s… it’s kinda… it’s,” she said, unable to find a clever word despite being a poet. “It’s a wheel job again, and one I know I can do. A bit out of my usual range, but… ugh. It’s cargo trucking. Specifically, long distance cargo trucking of teddy bears in the Outlands.”

Neither the pale-faced poet nor the overly enthusiastic hipster reacted badly to this.

“Can either of you seriously see me as a trucker?” Cass supplied, to add her concern to the pile of non-concern. “I’m a city girl. Am I going to need mud flaps with silver strippers on them? Do I have to start listening to country music and wearing big caps reading ‘Female Body Inspector’? And to add to the oddity, my employer’s like someone straight out of Interzone. A mysterious old bat who talks in riddles and has an ogre for a bodyguard. Also I’m pretty sure she used creepy mutant powers to find me or something.”

Fi, who was only capable of laughing if it involved a derisive snort, performed a derisive snort.

“Wild, baby. Sounds like good material for a book to me. Take the job,” she suggested.

“But I thought I was shooting for less weirdness in my life, not more,” Cass said. “Ugh. Hanging paintings would be saner. Or maybe I should just wait tables like every other starving poet out there, or write pulp porno for pennies or something…”

“You’re way overthinking this, Cass!” Reg insisted. “It’s just a cargo hauling job! Very straightforward. Very mundane. You said you wanted to invest in the mundane, and now it’s walked across your doorstep! Teddy bears? Big rigs? Okay, a weird combination, but taken individually they’re quite ordinary. I say run with it. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen?”

The temperature in the coffee house dropped four figurative degrees.

“…what?” Reg asked, puzzled by the frozen expressions on their faces.

“My god, Reg, you really have no clue, do you,” Fi mumbled.

“What?”

Never say things like that.”

“Like what?”

Cass buried her face in her hands, picking up the ball so Fi could conserve her words. “She means things like ‘what’s the worst that can happen.’ You’re a literate sort, right? How often do things go WELL after that’s uttered?”

“Oh, come on! Life is not a Burroughs novel, okay?” Reg protested. “This is what I’m saying about this world messing with you. Life is what it is and that’s all it is. I don’t buy into supernatural superstition. Poetry is beautiful but in the end, the real world is out there. That’s how I choose to see it, so I’ve got nothing to fear from ‘What’s the worst that can happen.’ Take the job, Cass. Everything will sort itself out. You’ll see.”

---

A job is a job is a job. In the end, Cass buckled to the need to keep her landlord at bay.

The box truck she’d be spending much of the next few days in was waiting for her at a private lockup, a waystation for rental vehicles intended to do the highway shuffle from A to Z. A decrepit old janitor helped her find the right storage bay, the one with a lock that fit Grandma Scarlett’s golden key. what wonders hide within? the words wondered.

Cass was relieved to see the wonder truck itself was completely uninteresting—a battered and dirty thing, boxlike (hence the name) and unmarked. The sort of truck you moved plumbing supplies or the corpses of unsuccessful gangsters in.

She’d spent the previous night memorizing the maps between the rental depot and the orphanage. Not just the specific sequence of turns; that’d land you in hot water if your map became outdated and a turn changed here and there. She memorized the names of roads. She memorized landmarks. She memorized what sort of terrain and what sort of buildings she was going to be passing by. Every single marker that would help her establish where she was could prove useful, in the end.

The key to navigation in the city—and hopefully in the Outlands as well—was to get a feel for your surroundings as a whole. A holistic approach, burrowing a hole through the chaos, coming out the other side. Understand and grasp everything. No mental shortcuts or memorized routes. Grasp what’s out there and trust your instincts.

Well. Trust your MAP, first. Then if that fails, trust your instincts.

Even with enough built-up confidence to roll out, she didn’t immediately hop Highway Nine to the Outlands. First she eased the truck in and around city traffic, through streets she knew were undertrafficked, to get a feel for it. It felt like navigating a washing machine on skis with team of overly enthusiastic puppies dragging it every which way. Cumbersome, slow, and prone to underturn or oversteer, whichever you didn’t want at the time… but after an hour of random meanderings through streets she knew by heart, she had enough of a grasp on the giant lump of iron to make do.

Highway Nine, and out of the City layer and into the Suburbs layer.

“Layers” was a colloquialism. Like layers of Hell, or parallel dimensions… stacked one on top of another in every way except ways which were obvious or visible. You found the right offramp, you could transition from one to the other. The connections were well known, and rarely closed themselves off… Highway Nine had been stable for over seventy years, and was one of the finest ways to get into the smear of middle class housing.

With the scenery getting decidedly less fantastic the farther away from the city she got, Cass busied herself with studying her immediate surroundings.

Someone had hung a cardboard pine tree from the rear view mirror. A hula-girl bobble doll (aloha!) from some far away island chain back on Earth swayed back and forth on the dash, forever stuck in a single ukulele note.

Feeling the need to add her own personal touch to the truck, Cass had brought along the teddy bear Granny Scarlett gave to her, and plopped it right down next to the hula-girl. Mythic resonance, indeed. It seemed content to flop down there, basking in the windshield sun…

The last item of note was a strange box in the dash, which had been blinking at her for some time now.

The CB Radio.

Her first hint (beyond driving a dingy truck) that she’d walked into another culture entirely. This was the black box that truckers chattered on, using trucker logo to talk trucker things in trucker ways trucker trucker trucker. The previous driver had helpfully preprogrammed the buttons to various bands, with magic marker scribbles to indicate which was which. PUB. BEARS. SIDEB. LAWL. TRFF. Meaningless shorthand to Cass.

She tried tuning in to BEARS, wondering if maybe it related to her future cargo, but only caught static. Not enough trucks roaming through the burbs to make it worthwhile, maybe.

The channel came alive when Highway Nine eventually bled over into the Outlands.

The neatly curated forestry of the suburbs shifted, transitioning into the wide open spaces and blue skies of the rural landscape. And immediately, the radio came alive.

“—shooting you in the back. Can you cut the reds?”

“Done already. Bear’s backing down. Worth every penny, putting in the cutter…”

“Just a baby bear, anyway. Doubt he’d have run you down. But they’re getting friskier lately.”

“Department’s being a pain in the ass with the traps lately. As if I don’t pay enough goddamn taxes already…”

“Hear that. See you at Melba’s. Over and out.”

And that was that.

Briefly, Cass considered reaching for the handheld microphone. Not that she had anything to offer, beyond maybe “Hello?” But this wasn’t her element, not yet—she’d be just as out of place as a trucker swaggering on into the coffee house when it was packed shoulder to shoulder with hipsters. Better to leave it on the hook. Maybe permanently.

---

It wasn’t the last time I saw Allen alive, but it was one of the last.

I’d been mentoring under him for three years now, under the guise of a combination of free day care and respecting the elderly. My mother didn’t see an ancient gay Jewish man as much of a threat to her little girl, so she didn’t mind me spending time with him… and I made sure she continued not to mind, by not mentioning word one of the stories Allen would tell.

And boy, could he tell stories. Stories about the Beat Hotel, or the hippie movement protesting the Vietnam War, or of life in the big cities on Earth. Tales of a world I’d never seen myself and had little understanding of outside of salvaged videotapes.

Then one day, he wrapped up all his stories in a neat little bow for me.

You’ve never had any wars here, Allen pointed out. No defining struggles. You copied problems from America, but even those were flimsy strawmen compared to the originals. The Beats never happened here because this world couldn’t have given rise to them.

This world isn’t mine. Its problems aren’t anything I can get a handle on. I can’t live here. Your government pays my rent, hoping I’ll be the skaald of their society… but I can’t be. My fire died out when I was echoed here. I miss my Peter. I miss my Bill. I miss my world.

If there’s going to be a poet for your generation, whatever your generation turns out to be, it’s going to have to be someone born here. Someone who is one with this city, ready to embrace it. The longer people here hang onto the grim reminders of America, the less likely they’ll be able to live their own lives.

I don’t have a place to stand here, Cassy. You do. Make a choice. Make your stand.

Weeks later, Allen Ginsberg passed away. There was no funeral; he had only his government pittance and no family to mourn his passing. It became an interesting footnote in the newspaper, for people who actually knew what he represented. They read that footnote and then moved on.

I published my first poem the very next day, in the school newspaper. It earned me a visit from the principal and a very confused discussion with my mother, regarding exactly what I was up to at that crazy old man’s apartment. I was yelled at and grounded and treated as a weirdo by my fellow students, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

---

Someone had taken a brightly colored plastic farm you give disinterested nieces and nephews for their third birthday and blown it up to life size. That was the only explanation for the way Happy Acre Orphanage gleamed in the morning sun.

Unlike other buildings in the Outlands, it wasn’t the least bit weathered or beaten down by the years. Maybe in addition to looming ominously in doorways, Jeb used his extraordinary size to his advantage and painted the entire building every two weeks without need of a ladder. Regardless of HOW, the farmhouse (candy apple red) with matching barn (also candy apple red) were visible for nearly a mile before Cass actually pulled up to the front of the building in her new truck.

Orphanages were a cottage industry; plenty of refugee children showed up each year without parents, thanks to the echoing process. It was a fortunate and rare thing when an entire family showed up intact. Those who lost that lottery were cast into the Department of Orientation’s network of foster homes… some good, some bad. A roll of the dice to see if you find a loving and supportive new family or someone banking in on tax credits in exchange for neglecting a traumatized youngster who just lost everything she loved in life.

From the looks of it, Happy Acre was one of the better options a kid could have. Unless there was secretly a dungeon underneath the place that cranked out handmade sweaters or something… or maybe handmade teddy bears.

If the bears were crafted by conscripted labor and misery that didn’t show on the faces of the kids. Of which Cass could see many; faces and kids.

They poured out of the orphanage the instant she threw the truck’s parking brake. So many smiles Cass briefly wondered if she’d accidentally found a back lot currently shooting a toothpaste commercial.

At first she wasn’t sure if she should get out of the truck. Perhaps they would swarm and devour her.

Soon the sea of kiddies parted, to make way for their matriarch—Granny Scarlett.

The old lady clapped once, a sound like two flimsy pieces of sandpaper coming together.

“Children, this is Cass. Cass, these are the children,” she greeted. “Children, it’s time to say goodbye to your bears. You know what to do; fetch their favorite things for travel.”

In a flash, the mouse army was gone. Back into the farmhouse, presumably to fetch today’s shipments of teddy bears. Curious.

Cass stepped out of the truck, to get a better feel on the ground for what was going on. Jeb had already rolled up the door on the back of the truck, and kids were starting to emerge from the house… each carrying one cardboard box, with a teddy bear peeking out the top, sometimes with other small toys or a small blanket to keep them comfortable.

The question already poised on her lips was answered by one of the children, who interjected himself between Cass and Grandma Scarlett.

“This is Daniel,” the boy explained, holding his cardboard box high, the flopsy bear peeking out from its depths. “I got to name him myself. He likes lunchtime and crayons. He’s scared of the dark, but it’s okay, because he’s not going to be alone.”

“This is your pet bear?” Cass asked. “And you’re giving him away…? Aren’t you gonna miss Daniel?”

“A little,” the boy admitted… but through a smile. “Daniel’s being adopted, so it’s okay. And I’ll have a new bear tonight, just like every week. Miss Scarlett makes sure of that. I think I’ll name my new bear Cassy!”

With that he shoved the box into Cass’s arms, and scampered back into the farm house.

Grandma Scarlett clucked her tongue, a little chuckle. “Darlings, aren’t they?” she said. “I spend every day sewing new bears for the next week’s supply. The bears are loved quite intensely, then given away to others who need them. The love… that’s important, you see. Very important.”

“It’s important to take a kid’s favorite toy away from him?” Cass asked quietly, as the stream of children dried out to a trickle, Jeb finishing the loadout. “If you’re gonna sell dolls, okay, but… why give ’em to your kids and then yank ’em?”

“Mmm. It serves a few purposes, teaches a few lessons. It’s a very critical process. To share. To accept loss. To grow and raise and care. To love, but be able to let go. To live, but be able to accept change. The city can teach these lessons in a very cruel way; I prefer a kinder way. Aside from that… well. There are no nightmares in my orphanage. Not one.”

Cass winced at the sound of the rolling door slamming shut on the back of the truck, sealing the bears inside.

leaving the nest, the words hovering over the truck door suggested. The same imaginary words that danced in her dreams…

“Everybody’s got nightmares sometimes,” she suggested.

“Not my children. They have protectors,” Scarlett stated, firmly. “Now, then. You’ve got a full swath of deliveries to make. Jeb’s sent you an electronic mail with the delivery details for each bear… places, times, delivery instructions. Follow them to the letter, it’s all very important. You do have time enough for lunch; I understand there’s a lovely rest stop just up the highway on the way to your first delivery…”

Lunch. Cass had spent so much time studying maps and getting a feel for the lands she’d be rolling through that she completely forgot about brown-bagging it.

Food would be good. Even if it was some greasy trucker stop, food would be very good. A pile of calories might help her swallow the uneasy feeling in her stomach.

---

Rest stops were the primary facility type people interacted with in the Outlands. For folks coming in from the Suburbs or the City itself, they acted as waystations between your home and your vacation destination of choice—fuel, fried foods, and maybe a bed (if you needed one). Charter bus lines had contracts to stop at specific rest stops, delivering fresh loads of hungry tourists to distant eateries that would otherwise go uneaten. Plenty of parking for buses. Plenty of parking for the family minivan.

No parking for cargo trucks.

Cass found this out the hard way when she tried easing her bulky bastard of a truck into a space meant for some middle class nuclear family’s station wagon. In less than a minute, she was accosted by a Vehicle of Authority… a golf cart with ‘SECURITY’ stenciled into the side, neatly filled by some guy who clearly enjoyed that fried food on a daily basis.

“You can’t park here!” he barked at her. Twice, since the first time, her window had been rolled up.

“I’m just going in for a muffin and an espresso,” Cass explained, gesturing to yon upscale food court. “I won’t be long—”

“That’s a Class C Commercial Transport in a Class A Passenger Transport space,” the sweaty fellow declared. “You don’t belong in this parking lot. Official Department of Resources policy! You want the commercial parking lot at the other end of the rest area. Move along! Move along!”

“You want me to go park down there and walk all the way back here just to get my lunch?” she asked. “Look, it’s tight, but the truck fits fine—”

“MOVE ALONG!”

Not wanting to end up at the business end of a belt-looped flashlight, Cass moved along.

The quaint charm of a roadside establishment rapidly faded as she eased her box truck down the line towards the commercial lot. Without the need to soothe the worries of folks stepping outside their comfort zones, the grass went unmowed, oil spills weren’t mopped up, and the asphalt clearly hadn’t been resurfaced since the Kent mayoral administration.

Shiny minivans and chromed busses were replaced with filthy eighteen-wheelers and box trucks, haphazardly jammed into whatever space was available… leaving very little for Cass, who had the audacity to show up eleven minutes late to the lunch rush. She managed to find a space light years away from the trendy coffee shop she had hoped to drop in on, which meant a brisk jog back and forth with little time to enjoy herself if she wanted to slog back through the oil and the litter…

Or she could go to Melba’s, which was a stone’s throw away.

down home cookin’, the words suggested to her. just like mom didn’t use to make.

The truckers had their own eatery, complete with a flickering neon sign declaring its existence. The word stuck out in her memory from earlier C.B. radio browsing.

Eh, what the hell, she decided in the end.

---

Within four seconds she understood exactly what a bad idea this was.

Melba’s Diner was not her territory. It was the polar opposite of the smoky poet’s coffee joint she frequently haunted. Just as dingy and smoky, but a daylight dingy, and packed with people who had likely not gotten beyond roses being red and violets being blue.

A number of heads turned in her direction on entering the doors. The smell of flannel soaked in engine oil choked her nostrils. Sideburns were prevalent. A steel guitar was twanging away on a nearby vintage jukebox, likely wailing about foreclosures and divorces. And there was, in a demonstration of ironic providence, someone wearing a large cap reading Female Body Inspector.

Presumably women drivers existed in this industry. Presumably most of the guys here were okay and not raging sexist nutjobs. This was just a chance confluence of events had arranged a picture-perfect tableau of all Cass’s worst fears about her new job. She’d stepped into some redneck variant of Interzone. Something to laugh about, really, not to worry about about. Nothing to even think about, honestly. One foot in front of the other.

Eager to get on with this and get some food in her digestive system, Cass pushed on through the thick cloud of noxious odors, right up to the lunch counter. It was tough finding an empty stool—or finding a stool at all, as many had vanished completely up their occupant’s backsides—but she managed to locate one near the end of the row.

The only other owner of a vagina in the building wandered in Cass’s direction, ready to take her order.

This was the heralded Melba, as declared by the name tag on her apron. An apron which was a war veteran of an apron, decorated in stains, an apron which had seen things. Melba herself was wide of girth and full of life, with her hair bunned up tight in a net behind her. Operator and owner, simultaneously subservient to the trucker’s needs and the master and commander of their appetites. And looking a bit concerned for the out-of-place hipster chick who had just walked in. Still, a customer was a customer.

“What can I getcha, hun?” Melba asked (with a twinge of sympathy).

“Muffin and an espresso,” Cass requested, on instinct.

A few stifled laughs cut through the awkward silence that had dropped over the diner ever since she set foot in it.

“Doughnut and coffee work for you okay?” Melba suggested, trying to be tactful about Cass’s failure to adhere to local menu standards.

“Uh, yeah, doughnut and a coffee are fine,” she agreed. “And a sandwich. A… um… you know what, surprise me. Whatever you personally like to put between two slices bread will do.”

At that, Miss Melba offered a smile. “I think I can whip somethin’ up for ya good,” she offered. “Back in a jiff.”

With the lunch lady MIA, Cass was left to look at her own reflection in a chromed napkin dispenser and hope its gleaming surface was merely a bit dingy. The alternative explanation was that she’d started growing a five o’clock shadow from all the testosterone in the room.

23% of which had just waltzed on up behind her.

Of course it was the proud owner of that Female Body Inspector hat. Of course that would be the first coworker to speak to her. Of course.

Those who weren’t nervously minding their own business studied the scene with interest. The alpha male of the pack had just stepped up to a young wolf, after all. There might be blood. That would be entertaining.

anything different is bad, spoke the not-telepathic words over the man’s capped head. we fear change. so do you.

It took him some time to figure out where to start in on Cass. There were so many avenues presenting themselves, after all. A woman in an industry which was 3.3% women? A woman wearing men’s clothes, slacks and a tie? Obvious dyke. Thick rimmed glasses? You could go for the nerd angle there, that was always a classic.

All choice digs to make, but he decided to open with the safest insult—calling out her dining order faux pas. The rest would likely come along later.

“Well, what do we got here?” he began, because of course. “You’re a long way from the tourist trap, y’know. You want one of them fancy coffees in the tiny cups you’ll want the other end of the rest stop. Name’s Eddie; kind of a big deal around these parts. And in case you didn’t notice, it’s all truckers in here, girl.”

Having predicted the specific statement he’d deliver, she had her wallet out—complete with laminated commercial driver’s I.D.—and flashed in front of his face without even turning around on her stool.

“I am a trucker,” Cass replied. “Class C Commercial Transport driver. If you don’t mind, I’d like to eat my mystery sandwich in peace.”

“Ho-lee…! I’ll be damned,” Eddie paradoxically declared. “City’ll give those out to anyone these days, huh. Now what company in their right mind’d hire some young city slicker like you for an Outland rig?”

And here was where Cass dug herself just a little deeper. Although to her credit, she realized lying would potentially land her in hotter water—and it’d be better to keep things focused on her inappropriate job than anything more personal. Once issues like her ownership of a pair of breasts were on the table, you didn’t want to be surrounded by a hundred guys. So far only one loudmouth had made it his business to get up in her business, but… no need to push it. Give ’em a different bone to chew on.

“I’m hauling toys. Contract work. Nothing special,” she insisted.

Worked like a charm.

Worked a bit TOO well. The room exploded into laughter. Even truckers who had been ignoring the situation squeaked out a chuckle.

It was like Cass had suddenly put on a clown nose and hit herself in the face with a pie. Suddenly this was less about a visibly different stranger in their midst, and more about the sad and unfortunate joke which had just walked in the door.

“Happy Acre,” Eddie recognized immediately. “The old lady couldn’t sucker in another one of us, so she’s turning to some rube from the city! That is perfect. Hey, everybody! Looks like the Cuddlebear Convoy’s back in business!”

Drinks were raised in mock salutation, toasting Cass’s new job. Well, ironically toasting. Ironic enough that the entire room briefly became soaked in hipsterism.

To further devalue and discredit Cass, Eddie finally put his hands on her… in the form of a paternal pat on the head. Supposedly sympathetic.

“Melba! This kid’s lunch is on me,” he declared. “She’s gonna need every dollar she can hang onto… you poor little girl. You’ll be quitting that crazy-ass job within a week. Nobody lasts on the Cuddlebear Convoy for long.”

Satisfied that he’d neutralized whatever threat Cass posed to his way of life, Eddie wandered back over to a table of sycophants and resumed eating his hamburger.

Shortly after, Melba arrived with her free lunch. Without a word, Cass scooped up the coffee and sandwich and left the building.

---

She was halfway through the most delicious pulled pork sandwich she’d ever had in her life when Melba came knocking at her still-parked box truck.

When Cass rolled down her driver’s side window, a doughnut was offered.

“You forgot this,” the cook/owner pointed out.

The words jittered over Melba’s head briefly. everybody’s favorite auntie they wrote out, supportively.

“It’s empty calories, anyway. I don’t know why I ordered it,” Cass replied, before sipping at her coffee (and accepting the doughnut anyway).

“You’ve got a long haul ahead. Any calories will help,” Melba suggested. “But you’ll also be sitting behind the wheel for hours. Not good for your back. Why not eat inside? I keep my stools comfy. Gotta replace the padding every few months, but it’s worth it…”

“Not my scene, man. Not my crowd. Not interested in being the official court jester, even if it’s better than being the scary outsider,” Cass said.

“Honey, if you’re working a route, this is your crowd. You’re a trucker now, no matter what you did for a living before,” Melba replied. “Better to make peace with that. I can’t bring your lunch out to you every day, you know.”

“Screw it. I can brown-bag. The job’s just a job; I don’t need to ingratiate myself to a bunch of greasy, fat… okay, no, pigeonholing them is vice-versa, not cool. But point is, I don’t need to bother. I can just do my work and be done with it and go home and that’s that. Easy enough way to make a living. Comfy.”

“Not much of a life, that sort of living. Look… it’ll be rough at first. You’ll run into Eddie and other Eddies along the way. But they ain’t all bad. And the sooner you figure out how to fit in the easier it’ll be on you in the Outlands.”

“I’ll be behind the wheel all day, not interacting with anyone. This is a solo job. How do you figure playing buddy boy with those guys will matter?”

Melba stood on her toes, to peer in the window. Feeling a bit sheepish about the wall of metal between herself and the only nice person she’d met at this rest stop, Cass obligingly opened the truck door to make it easier.

In return, Melba reached over, to point out the buttons on her unused C.B. radio.

PUB. “Public channel. General discussion, big forum style.” BEARS. “Warnings about speed traps and other cop patrols.” SIDEB. “Sidebar. Someone in the pub wants to talk to you semi-privately, you can go here.” LAWL. “Jokes. Raunchy as hell, but keeps your spirits up.” TRFF. “Traffic reports. Accidents and slowdown. Critical if you want to get your deliveries done on time. You following me so far, hun?”

“I… guess? What’s my radio got to do with making nice with the locals?”

“All of these channels evolved over the years so folks out here could work together in the Outlands. Good clear signal, better range than you get on Earth for some reason—we had the Internet before the Internet existed. Good thing too, because the world’s spread thin out here. It’s not cramped up and tight like in the cities. Without that connection it’s just you in the middle of nowhere, friendless. Something goes wrong and you’ve got nobody in your corner, you’re in a bad place alone. We pull together and in the end, everybody lives another day.”

Having stretched enough for one day, Melba settled back, adjusting her apron.

“Tomorrow, you come by for lunch. I’ll make you somethin’ special,” she offered. “And I’ll have a word with Eddie and the other Eddies beforehand. You got at least me in your corner, come to that.”

Cass had no dismissive comment to toss off in reply, so Melba bowed out.

“I better get back to the counter now,” she said. “And what Eddie was ramblin’ about, your route? You hang in there. He just doesn’t want to admit he couldn’t hack it running teddy bears. You get this done, stick with it despite the nine kinds ‘o crazy you’re about to face, they’ll respect you in time. Drive safe, now.”

With that, Melba ambled back into her establishment. Back to the crowd of hard-drivin’ truckers that Cass refused to admit she was in any way related to.

Quickly finishing off her lunch—empty calories and all—Cass fired up the motor with one hand and her cellphone with the other. No sense delaying any more, she had deliveries to make. Jeb had sent a series of emails, one per delivery, arranged roughly in order of closest to furthest out. A to B to C and back home again, that was the way to roll.

And all that business about the job being nasty as Satan’s gonads, or whatever… she was delivering teddy bears. There was no conceivable way in which that would be unpleasant or strange.

---

Certainly there had to be a reasonable reason why she was delivering a teddy bear to a construction site.

Cass hadn’t read her instructions wrong—the first email from Jeb was very specific, highlighting an address to a building that didn’t exist yet. Department of Resources Construction Site #378, Highway Four. Deliver box marked ‘Jerry’ to foreman between 1pm and 1:30pm.

So, here she was, parked just outside a whirling hive of hard-hatted activity. The Department of Resources often tried major constructions projects like these, raising new buildings instead of waiting for existing ones to be imported. It showed forward progress and forward thinking, very good for reelection campaigns… provided the buildings didn’t go cubist soon after the ribbon cutting ceremony.

Everybody knew about the New Deal, the massive reconstruction effort from the 30s. It was the early years of the City of Angles, and the Great Depression back in America had enough of a backlash here that drastic steps were needed. Mayor Fletcher demolished several city blocks of imported buildings from Earth, intent on replacing the useless mishmash of clashing building styles with a gleaming city of the future (of the thirties). Ground was broken in September and the buildings were almost ready for occupation two years later…

Overnight, the entire district went bugnuts crazy. Buildings twisted and distorted, workers turned into Picassos, everything completely ruined. Department of Safety had to go in shooting to put down the poor bastards caught in that death trap, then build walls to seal the entire zone away for all time.

Lesson learned—the city knew what buildings it wanted already. Question the ineffable plan at your own peril.

That didn’t stop the government from raising new buildings from scratch, of course. Particularly here in the Outlands, where things were spread out enough that it felt “safe” to interject man’s works amidst the choosings of the gods. Usually, it worked out okay. Usually.

Still, it put an extra spring in her step, eager to get the box containing Jerry the Bear delivered so she could get back in her truck and drive very far away. It took a few minutes to get clearance from the guard at the gate, and she had to swap her baker boy hat for a hard hat, but eventually she was being escorted through the maze of girders and sweaty workmen to a trailer-hitch office.

Perhaps the foreman was a toy collector. Maybe he asked for the bear to be delivered out here because he was driving home to visit relatives after work, and wanted to take a present with him. Plenty of reasonable reasons…

The spectacled workman behind a desk of messy paperwork did not greet Cass’s cardboard boxed delivery with the enthusiasm of expectation. Instead, he deployed a concentrated look of confusion.

“Delivery,” Cass emphasized, hiking the large box up a bit in her arms.

“Deliveries go to the resource shed,” the foreman pointed out.

“She insisted this had to go right to you, sir,” the guard said—he’d insisted on accompanying her. “I tried to explain that you didn’t order any children’s toys, but…”

NOW the foreman’s expression changed to enthusiasm. “Toys? —wait, is that a teddy bear? Tell me that’s a teddy bear. You’re the new bear delivery person, right?”

“Uh… yes. The new bear delivery person is who I am, yes,” Cass replied, setting the box down on his desk. “This is Jerry. He’s a bear. …this is your teddy bear, right? I’m in the right place?”

The foreman eagerly ripped into the box—but used the utmost care to lift the actual bear out of its packaging. He set it down gently, very gently on his desk, propped up against a toolbox. Adjusted the floppy doll’s head slightly, to look out the window at the construction site…

“You have no idea what a relief this is,” the foreman said, with a smile. “We’re eight weeks in on this project and I was beginning to worry I wouldn’t be getting a bear this time. Takes a load off my mind, believe you me!”

Neither the delivery girl nor the guard who delivered her looked as relieved as the foreman. As far as Cass knew, teddy bears were not a load bearing structure, so what purpose they could possibly serve here was unfathomable.

“Well… for whatever reason, glad you like your order. I’ll pass that along to Grandma Scarlett,” Cass suggested. Next up, the clipboard she’d tucked under one arm. “Mind signing here for the delivery?”

The gleeful foreman scribbled out something incomprehensible which was possibly his name.

“Does this mean she’s taking orders now?” he asked. “I’ve tried to reach out to her before, but I got nothing in reply. If she’s finally taking direct orders that would make my job SO much easier!”

“Uh… I don’t follow. Didn’t you order this bear?”

“What? No, of course not. She doesn’t take orders, like I said,” the foreman replied. “The bears just… show up. Sometimes. I mean, last three projects I’ve directed, a bear was delivered. Two projects before that I got no bear, and that put my blood pressure through the roof!”

“Okay. Not following this at all. Why, exactly, is having a teddy bear at a construction site so important?”

“So the building doesn’t fall down, of course.”

The silence suggested that further explanation was required.

“I’ll grant you this is superstitious hokum,” the foreman admitted. “But… I’m not the only one who’s gotten bears. Other project directors in the Department got them too, for a decade or so. At first we were like, what the heck? Why is some crazy old lady sending us kid’s toys? But when Bob threw away his bear in the trash, I kid you not, the VERY next day his building project went cubist and had to be quarantined. Meanwhile, every project where the bear was kept on site? No problems at all. Still standing strong, even after years. They’re good luck charms, and you don’t buy them, you don’t ask for them. You either get one or you don’t. But now I’ve got one! This project’ll be juuuust fine now. All thanks to you!”

Delivering teddy bears. No conceivable way in which that would be unpleasant or strange.

Delivering creepy dolls hand-sewn by a creepy old lady to people who never ordered them… EVERY conceivable way in which that could be unpleasant or strange.

…no. Not unpleasant, actually. Just strange. It wasn’t like the dolls were horrific ruined baby dolls with broken eyes that giggled quietly in the night with busted voice boxes. They were cuddly little bears, unassuming, unthreatening. The fact that they were apparently coveted for their magical luck properties, okay, THAT was strange, but…

Words flickered briefly over Jerry the Bear’s head, to remind Cass of Grandma Scarlett’s words.

they have protectors.

She left the foreman in his peace of mind, her accompanying guard closing the trailer office door behind them.

“You know he’s nuts, right?” the guard mumbled (loud enough to be heard over heavy machinery). “Bet he doesn’t break mirrors or let black cats cross his path, either. Buildings don’t stand or fall because of some stupid doll. I’ve worked plenty of jobs without dolls and without problems. It’s just a coincidence.”

“Nuts. Yeah. Right. Sensible,” Cass quickly replied. And then hurried off, back to her truck, away from crazy town.

---

The next delivery was a strange inversion of the first. Instead of “unexpected and desired” it was a head on crash into “expected and undesired.”

She’d parked her truck outside another isolated little house, much like the Happy Acre Orphanage. Not all the buildings in the Outlands were industrial or farmland, after all; plenty of people came to the rural sprawl to get away from the urban sprawl. Much as Melba had said, things were spread out very thin in the Outlands. That became a selling point for some families, which preferred not to have neighbors within eyeshot and earshot and likely would’ve shot them on sight regardless. Outlands gave them the isolation and mock safety they craved in a world which mocked safety.

Signs like “BEWARE OF DOG” and “NO SOLICITORS” and “NO TRESPASSING” and “someone really needs to chillax” (not what it really said) greeted Cass as she walked up to the front door, with a box full of bear. She was tempted to turn right around and walk away, honestly… especially in light of the revelation that Scarlett’s bears were gifts, not orders. Not worth getting a shotgun to the face over. On the slim chance that this bear was in fact expected or would at least be welcomed, she dared to ring the doorbell.

First good sign was that she didn’t immediately face the business end of a hunting rifle. But that was the only good sign.

The woman who answered the door looked suspicious from the get go. Cass was clearly unexpected, and judging from the rustle at one of the closed sets of curtains as she walked up to the door, this unexpected visitor had been watched very carefully likely from half a mile away. Plenty of open space in the Outlands. Plenty of distance to see potential risks from.

“We didn’t order anything,” the woman said right away.

“I’ve got delivery instructions to bring this teddy bear to your address, ma’am,” Cass replied—having already opened the box, so she could show its contents right away, without any motions that could be mistaken for ‘I’m going for my gun!’. “It’s a gift from the Happy Acre Orphanage. Just a stuffed doll, ma’am. Nothing more.”

“We didn’t order anything,” the occupant repeated, as if it was a magic mantra.

“It’s a gift, ma’am. As I said. Now, if you’d just sign here, I’ll leave this and be on my way off your property—”

“You think I’m not onto you?” the woman insisted. “I read the Department of Safety warning. ‘Don’t accept unsolicited toys.’ They may have anthrax or bombs in them! You turn right around and get back on your truck and get out of here. I’m friends with the local sheriff and he can be here within—”

“Mommy, what’s that?”

A young voice, from down the hall. So, the bear had an intended recipient after all.

It was pushing her luck, but… Scarlett had been very insistent on making these deliveries. Given Cass might be running into this situation a lot, the more she could manage to deliver the better. Plus, no hunting rifle. Yet. A solid plus.

“Teddy bear delivery!” Cass announced loudly enough to be heard. It was a truthful fact and safe to announce, she felt… and would get the kid running before mom could shoo her away.

Worked like a charm. An adorable golden curled moppet had smoothly wormed her way around the goalkeeping mother and snatched the box from Cass’s hands with fierce strength.

“Aaaaa! She’s so cute!” the girl declared, starry-eyed. “The box says ‘Janette’. Is this Janette? You are Janette the Bear and you are my friend! Hooray!”

With that the battle was lost, and the mother knew it. Forcefully yanking the supposedly anthrax-stuffed bear away from her daughter would result in a nightmare domestic disturbance. With eyes of angry spite, she glared Cass down in response to her shenanigans.

In return, Cass held out her clipboard and pen.

“Sign here please, ma’am.”

---

The next few deliveries were considerably less threatening, but no less strange.

Three o’clock, a dentist’s office. This was a strangely freestanding cluster of offices in the middle of nowhere, a building which would’ve made more sense in the middle of the city than in the middle of the Outlands; she had to navigate a maze of hallways and elevators to find the exact delivery location. Inside, a disinterested receptionist pointed out that she didn’t order a teddy bear (of course) but at least she didn’t turn the gift away. It went in the waiting room toy pile, along with building blocks and thick cardboard books from the seventies. Hopefully a child would eventually find little Bobby the Bear in that mess.

Four o’clock, an automobile factory. Not too many garages got copied over from Earth, and annexing (not “stealing”) cars for resale meant going through the Department of Resources for a dodgy second-hand vehicle. Outlands were perfect for building local jobs and transport. Although a factory full of robot arms and guys smelling like engine oil was hardly an appropriate destination for a teddy bear, Cass nevertheless left Louie-Louie the Bear with the confused-looking guard at the factory gate. Having no idea what to do with it, he said he’d see if anybody in the factory wanted it.

Five o’clock, dinner. Too far away from Melba’s and not particularly interested in opening that kettle of worms again. Fortunately the next rest stop down the road had a drive-through; greasy fast food didn’t mesh well with a stomach acclimated to niche little city dining experiences, but it’d get the job done.

Six o’clock, a shipping warehouse for an online retailer, and things got even weirder. “Place the bear in the third open box you find.” By this point she was seriously considering dropping the whole job rather than get arrested for sneaking into some paranoid e-tailer’s secret stash. She ended up explaining it away as a college sorority scavenger hunt hazing week type thing, correctly guessing the guard as a former frat junkie—he allowed her to poke around a little, under supervision, and thankfully the third box wasn’t too far from the front office. And so, Destructinator the Awesome Bear (as his box declared) ended up shipped to someone who was ordering replacement razor blades and vitamins. Pushing luck, pushing what made any sense at all, but…

Seven o’clock.

And if there was a tipping point, it’d be this. Because it made less sense than any of the others.

“Put Daniel the Bear underneath the fifth tree at mile maker 5.4 along Interstate 37. Open the box and walk away.”

Daniel the Bear. Loved intensely by that little boy she’d met at the start of this, given away by an orphan in hopes of his surrogate self being adopted. And Cass was ordered by her obtuse and vague employer to dump this bear in the middle of nowhere.

Clouds were brewing tonight, threatening a rainstorm later. Even if she went against orders and sealed Daniel’s box shut, the package would be soaked and ruined. And for what? For some mysterious higher purpose? For a crazy old lady’s whimsy? What was the point of all this?

When mile maker 5.4 was reached and Cass tossed the parking brake… she considered her options. She’d done some borderline stupid things today, all in the name of living up to her end of this job contract. This was actually the least stupid, the least likely to get her arrested or killed. And yet, it felt like the most wrong.

In the end, she decided on a reasonable compromise.

Her last delivery wasn’t until nine tonight. She’d leave Daniel here, underneath the tree, and walk away… but only a short distance away, re-parking her truck, facing the tree. She’d wait, and watch.

If it was clear the weather was about to dump all over the kid’s precious toy, she’d go fetch the bear, burn rubber to the orphanage, give Daniel back to his owner and tell Grandma Scarlett where to stick it. Life’s cruel lessons, indeed—Cass wanted no part of that, if that’s all there was to this.

Ten minutes in and the bear in the distance hadn’t gotten up and walked away. Her C.B. continued to chatter away, with the background yammerings of truckers. Cass continued to ignore it.

Twenty minutes and nothing. Clouds getting thicker. Even if it wasn’t going to rain, this was looking like it’d be one gloomy as hell day. Not improving her mood any.

Twenty five minutes and Cass reached for the parking brake, to drive back and put an end to this insanity. No more weirdness. Time to call it quits and go hang paintings for Reg…

A car had pulled up to the 5.4 mile marker.

She had to strain to see in the setting darkness of the night, but… immediately a kid burst forth from the car, like a cork from a popgun. Judging from the wiggling and panic, he was doing the Pee Pee Dance. The nearest rest stop was miles and miles away… doing your business behind the nearest tree at the side of the road would do just as well as a proper bathroom. (A projection by Cass, granted; but one backed up by the words. gotta go gotta go too much lemonade trailed after the kid as he ran for the tree line.)

His father chased after him, less hurried, although likely eager to get back to the road. Mother waited in the car.

Two minutes later, and the kid had a much more leisurely and relieved stroll back to the car.

With a teddy bear under his arm. One he just happened to find during this completely random roadside picnic.

Bear, boy, and father got back in the car and drove away. Daniel had found a home at last.

---

This left Cass in a bit of a pickle.

She was trying to escape weirdness, to anchor herself to hard reality. Now she felt more adrift than ever, lost in a sea of strange old women and teddy bears and kids who magically find them. Why hadn’t she just agreed to help hang paintings for Reg? She could be back in the city, in the filth and noise and hustle and bustle that made perfect sense…

Alas, weirdness was afoot. Weirdness was obviously afoot, but it was solidly and definitively reality-breakingly real weirdness. Scarlett couldn’t possibly have known that leaving a bear at that one tree at that one moment in time would result in it finding its way into a kid’s arms—that was madness. And yet… there you have it. It actually happened.

The easiest answer was that all of this craziness was a series of complete coincidences. Just like the guard at the construction site said, a mix of superstition and coincidences. Except, of course, the odds were rather steeply stacked against it being a matter of the odds…

Cass would absolutely be drilling Scarlett for answers about all of this. There was still the remote possibility of it all being a hoax of some sort, or a reality TV show. But… did she drive straight to Happy Acre now? Stop the runaway train? She did have one more delivery to make. A delivery which, oddly enough, she had enough time to make even with the stakeout at the last delivery. Almost as if her intentional delay was built right into the schedule.

One more bear. One more box. One more kid in need (presumably).

Fine. She’d already gone farther than she ever intended just to make this madcap episode pay off; may as well see it through to the end. One more delivery and then she could get her answers.

The clock was ticking, the next stop was some distance away. But she’d make it in time. Just in time.

---

Night had firmly fallen by the time she pulled up to the isolated house. The decorative stars were beautiful in the Outlands, stretching from open horizon to open horizon… but she had her eyes firmly on the ground.

Gravel path. Tire swing spinning in the breeze. Freshly painted treehouse, candy apple red, much like the Happy Acre Orphanage. Fine, so another bear to another kid. She could handle that.

She parked at the end of the driveway, to avoid boxing in a ratty-looking old green pick-up truck that was squatting in front of the closed two-car garage. Today had taught her a valuable lesson in stepping lightly when dealing with Outlanders; no need to look threatening in any way.

Up the path, to the front door. No lights on. Curtains drawn. Maybe the family wasn’t home? But there was the truck…

Bracing herself for whatever, Cass tapped the doorbell button.

Nothing.

She could hear the bell clearly; the only noise out here came from crickets and the like. If anybody was home surely she’d hear activity inside—wait. There. Footsteps, coming up a flight of creaky old stairs. Across creaky old floorboards. Closer…

Door locks, being undone in sequence. A lot of them. Maybe another paranoid type? Scrape of a chair or something on the floor, was it propped up under the doorknob…?

Before she could get properly concerned, the door finally opened a crack.

Dark inside. Hard to see the occupant, for that matter… sickly, unshaven, terrible complexion. He wore a third-hand suit under an overcoat, weirdly enough.

the shabby men, the words printed slowly over his head. The letters didn’t jiggle or dance around. Very cautious.

“Delivery,” Cass announced. “Look, I know it’s late and you did not in fact order a teddy bear, but I’ve got a teddy bear here for your son or daughter, okay? It’s a gift. No tricks, just a gift. If you could sign here—”

“No son. No daughter,” the shabby man replied. A raspy voice, much like Grandma Scarlett’s, but with zero mirth to it. Just… dry. “I didn’t order a teddy bear. Goodbye.”

“No kids? You’ve got a treehouse up there,” She said, waggling her clipboard vaguely over her shoulder.

“Came with the house. Bought it recently. No kids,” he mumbled. “No kids here. Goodbye.”

…except there was a kid here.

Now that her eyes had adjusted properly to the darkness, she could see over his shoulder. She could read the situation, read people for that matter; a good life skill to have…

Marks on the corner of a hallway wall. Height indicators, for a growing child. Dates on the lines. 2010, 2012. Bright and colorful crayon lines. A stray sneaker, far too small to belong to this schlub, laces untied. No second shoe. It had been kicked to the side when he approached the door, as if trying to hide it… but not kicked far enough.

But the thing she put the most faith in, despite the source material, was the words.

They hovered over her cardboard box of teddy bear, small and timid. Scared.

she needs me. help. help.

“Goodbye,” the man replied again. And then the door closed, locked, and the chair under the knob was replaced.

---

Panic, as the long-promised rainstorm finally came. A slow and heavy beatdown of rain, content to release itself gradually for the next twelve hours rather than thrash about in fury. Satisfied with its inevitability.

Cass sat at the wheel of her truck, the box at her side, not sure what to do.

There was a kid in there, a kid in trouble. She didn’t have a single doubt about it despite all the doubts she probably should be having about it. But… what to do about it? Call the cops, obviously. Not that she could get consistent cellphone signal this far out. Department of Safety? Straight to the top, bypass the local fuzz? And say what, that a creepy old man bought a house and said he didn’t have a kid? What proof did Cass really have, other than some guesses and the yammerings of the insane babble from her acid-soaked mind?

The smart thing to do would be to turn around and head back to Happy Acre. Get out of this dangerous and surreal job. Phone in her concerns to the cops once she was closer to the core of the Outlands, away from these fringes. Let the powers that be sort this out.

But…

But she had a delivery to make. Scarlett was very insistent that all the bears get where they’re going.

—no, that was stupid. Her life wasn’t worth a delivery job. Whose life was?

you know the answer to that.

She nearly accidentally hit the horn in surprise. Which would have been bad, since she was still parked at the edge of the crazy man’s property.

The words were printing themselves on the inside of her rain-soaked windshield, now. The wipers went back and forth slowly, swiping them away, and then the words would reprint themselves on the other half of the windshield. Back and forth. Back and forth…

we need to talk.
we need to talk.

Her personal hallucination sideshow had only directly addressed her once before in her entire life. It was the day she was lazily rolling along, minding her own business, and a building dropped right in front of her. The words which normally draped life in sardonic color commentary chose that day to tell her to turn left, saving her life… and now, for the second time, they were talking right to her.

you have a choice.
everyone gets a choice.
you could give up,
go back,
quit the job,
return to the familiar,
embrace normality.
or you could stand up,
challenge the nightmare,
save the innocent,
embrace what you call weirdness.
for life in the city
is not weird or normal.
life in the city is both.
normal is weird is normal.
you can decay in happy denial.
or live your life, come what may.
succumb to fear and take no risks.
or deliver us from evil.
i could leave you alone forever.
no more lucid dreaming.
or you can become the oracle that allen always hoped you’d be.
choose.
choose.

Apex. Top of the hill, up one side, down the other. In one ear and out the other. Event horizon. The point of no return.

Metaphors running through her head, piling up, poetry desperate to get out.

Ever since her one and only experiment with illegal drugs she’d assumed the hallucinations were the result of brain damage; a harmless harm done to her mind in a bout of youthful stupidity. Harmless. Unimportant. But it knew things she couldn’t have known. Just like how Grandma Scarlett knew things she couldn’t have known.

Whoever was on the other end of the cosmic Clark Nova was breaking Cass’s fourth wall.

But this wasn’t the tipping point, was it? The moment where everything she thought was true upended itself neatly in a pile on the floor. No. That was the day the words saved her life. turn left. She’d been in denial of how critically important that was, too busy focusing on things like career and money and creativity… the world kept turning and she didn’t even notice it was always turning on a different axis.

The words were even right there on her handwritten page, so long ago, in a distant coffee house. Visions from her dreams which she thought were deeply nested metaphors that she couldn’t un-nest properly, a stacking doll set that was missing a few sizes. Dreams of the holy trinity of Lucidity, Madness, and Oblivion

There wasn’t really a choice. Because the alternative was insane. More insane than the insanity she was ready to embrace.

So, she embraced the weirdness in the most normal way possible.

“How do I get her out of there and not get us both killed?” she asked her muse. “Risking myself to save a kid’s life, okay, I can work with that. But let’s be sensible about it. Get a proper plan going. What do you recommend?”

---

A Hipster’s Plan For Assaulting A Compound Of Weirdness And Possible Kidnappings At The Behest Of Your Imaginary Friend And/Or Mental Illness, First Draft.

1. Park out of sight (but not too far out of sight) and leave the engine running.

The storm was providing good cover, here. If she killed the headlights and parked on the edge of the highway itself, just out of sight from the isolated house, she could cut through the tree line on foot and approach the house from the side. Presumably far away enough not to be seen, but not so far away that getting back alive with a potentially psychotic madman in tow would be implausible.

2. Don’t go in through the front door because it would be suicidal and you can’t anyway.

Whoever this creepy guy was, he was expecting a full frontal assault judging from the locks and the doorknob gag. Instead, she’d approach from the side.

Like most rural houses this far from civilization, it had a proper storm cellar complete with external access. Best way to run for your life in the event of a tornado tearing through the Outlands, after all. What’s more, thanks to Cass’s voice in her head (words on her page, anyway) she knew there was a key under the flowerpot he doesn’t know about. Hidden there by the former owners of the house, before he presumably started wearing their skin.

As predicted by whatever supernatural force had been passing itself off as brain damage all these years, there was in fact a hidden key to the storm cellar near the door. The parents probably wanted their kid to be able to get in even if they weren’t nearby, and burglars were not exactly common out here.

3. Even though you set out this morning to deliver toys and weren’t expecting to come face to face with the grim spectre of death, do not stand there like a slack jawed idiot when you find a surreal medical torture dungeon complete with two corpses.

This was the step Cass was experiencing difficulty with.

Over the years, she’d gotten used to the idea of seeing crudely typewritten words hovering over people’s heads. She’d also steeled herself against the horrors of the world by watching lots of indie documentaries about the degradation of the environment and social injustice and the wars of Earth that Allen often talked about. She was a poet, which meant she had to be in tune with the sick and strange of the City of Angles, ready to speak its verses of life and death to the masses.

That did not mean she had ever actually been in the presence of a dead body. Grandma’s funeral didn’t count, because that was a situation designed for comfort and emotional security. Very little murder or aftermath of murder was involved. And while Grandma’s last days were indeed in a hospital, full of strange tubes and beeping equipment, that was equipment designed to keep her alive. This appeared to be designed to do the opposite.

Having stepped right into the pages of a Burroughs novel, someone had gone and installed a Facility with a capital F in the basement of this family home. There were machines. There were tubes. IV drips. But also electrodes and wires and metal hooks and things Cass didn’t even want to look at. All of it hastily arranged, unpacked from cases that were brought in by pick-up truck, like an impromptu meth lab.

No clear purpose to any of it. If there was a purpose, it was lost in a wall of medical notes and diagrams, hastily tacked up near the bodies—wiring diagrams, crudely written instructions, things like that. Quick reference guides for the madman on the go. Pencil notes on drywall around it all, jotting down numbers, scribbling out unreadable writings. Words which started out coherent but then wandered off towards nonsense…

One word kept repeating. Repeating often enough that Cass could spot it easily, despite trying very hard not to let her curiosity dig any deeper into the wall of crazy.

Bedlam. Bedlam. BEDLAM.

None of that junk really mattered. Leave it for the Department of Safety to investigate. She had a reason to come down here, and it wasn’t to marvel at the surroundings. It was a rescue mission. Unfortunately, she was too late to rescue everyone.

Mother and father, dead. Previous owners of the house, before their home invasion experience. Lying on the floor and dead for a few days, from the smell and the look of it. Still hooked up to drains and siphons and worse. The shabby man hadn’t bothered unplugging them—he just shoved them into a corner for later disposal. Plenty of dirt around here to bury a body in and no rush to get it done when your nearest neighbor was miles away.

It was perfect, really. Need to slowly and horribly murder people for purposes unknown? The Outlands will provide the ideal victims in the ideal scenario. Too far away from any stable community. Nobody will know. Nobody will care…

The angel on the other end of Cass’s golden telephone cared. And for what it was worth, their daughter was still breathing.

Maybe six, maybe seven years old. Malnourished and unbathed for days. Unconscious, but she was alive. Lying on a makeshift cot, some token gesture of comfort, while she ran through a gauntlet of nightmares…

Enough chewing the scenery. Cass was a hipster of action today, and action called.

Quickly she started unplugging things. Left the IV sites and electrodes on, no time to yank them off, but the flimsy tubes and wires could be torn apart or yanked out easily. Disconnect her, grab her, get the hell out of crazy town—

Creaking. Old wooden house, everything creaked. Not the concrete of the storm cellar, but the ceiling above her head, which represented the floor underneath the shabby man’s feet. He was on the move now. In hindsight Cass was damned lucky he wasn’t down here already when she came in through the side door, but if she wanted to stay lucky, she had to get out before those creaks got any closer.

With the disconnection finished, she scooped up the girl in both arms.

Delivery time. As fast as her feet could carry her.

---

The girl didn’t wake up, even being hauled around roughly through a rainstorm and shoved into the passenger seat of a truck. (Buckled up, always buckle up, sir.) Hopefully she was going to survive this. The typewriter of her brain wouldn’t have sent Cass on a rescue op for someone who couldn’t actually be rescued, right…?

For lack of a better way to reach her, Cass pulled Jeremy the Bear from his box, and made her delivery. Tucked the bear under the sleeping child’s arm. The kid instinctively curled that arm, to hold the bear tightly, so maybe that could be considered a good sign—

Roar of the demon. Light in her hindsights. Headlights. Engines.

Doctor Demento had fired up his pick-up truck, and was coming to retrieve what he had rightfully stolen.

So much for escaping cleanly into the night. Cass didn’t bother running around to her side of the truck; she clambered over the child’s form and into the driver’s seat, strapping in, getting ready to gun it. Leaving the engine running was definitely the right move; headlights on and she’d be ready to bail.

Not that “bailing” at any great speed was possible. This was a damn box truck, not a dragster. It struggled and groaned at the effort of pulling out of the wet roadside dirt she’d left it in… far too long, too much struggling, before she was back on the road. Back on the highway, stretching off into the remote and distant edges of the Outlands…

With rubber on the road, she stabilized the truck and tried not to slip on wet pavement. Then checked her rearview.

Big green truck. Moving at speed. Intent on taking her down.

Pedal down, into the night at the speed of mercy. Whatever she could wring out of this washer-dryer on rollerskates, Cass would wring. It wasn’t her vehicle yet, not like her old taxi, an extension of her mind… but no time to become one with the wheels. She had to do what she could with what she had…

She glanced to the wipers, swish-swish.

“I would WELCOME any suggestions, whoever you are!” she called out.

drive, the words suggested.

“This is a lousy time for you to resume being vague!”

drive fast?

Some writers got a muse. Cass apparently got an amusement.

Cellphone. Call the cops. …who would arrive maybe in an hour, given how far out Cass was from civilization.

Something goes wrong and you’ve got nobody in your corner, you’re in a bad place alone…

Right. Time to break the conversational ice.

Cass grabbed the handset from her C.B. radio, jammed the PUB button, and pushed the red button down nice and firm.

“Uh… breaker breaker… 10-4— hell, I don’t know, look, I need HELP,” she called out. “This is… it’s the Cuddlebear Convoy and I’m on Interstate 455 coming up on Exit 23 and I seriously need help from anyone who can hear me. Please. Anybody out there? Can anyone hear this? Over.”

Nothing. Maybe she was out of range? Melba said the radio reached farther than you’d expect, but Cass was near the edge of the known Outlands and there was a thunderstorm going down right now—

“Copy that, this is Eddie in the Hotrod Express—the hell you yammerin’ about now, girl? Over.”

Cass tried not to groan in despair. A glance in her rear view, at the wildly weaving and honking green pick-up that was still chasing her helped her keep locked into a firm panic mode.

“You aren’t going to believe this but listen to me anyway, Eddie,” Cass explained. “I was delivering one of those bears and ran into some psycho who killed off a little girl’s entire family. I got her out of there and we’re headed down I-455 as fast as this piece of crap can go and now he’s chasing us and I’m not going to be able to keep this up for long so if you could ring the… bears, or smokey or call a SWAT team or I don’t know what I would seriously appreciate it! —over.”

“Look, kid, I don’t know what drugs you’re toasted off your ass on—”

Vector shift. Impact. The box truck rattling from impact, as the green pick-up smashed up against it. Cass swore heavily and twisted the steering wheel, pushing back, trying to re-align with the center of the road.

“Are you or are you not near Exit 23? Yes or no! Simple question! Come see for yourself, assuming I survive that long!”

“Fine! I’ll be on there with you in a minute. You’re damn lucky I’m so close by. But I find you’re stoned I’m tearing that radio outta your truck! OVER!”

“This is Jonesy in the Starlight Runner—Eddie, you seriously going through with this? You know that brat’s just pranking you…”

“Yeah, seriously, Eddie. It’s probably all crap—”

“Cut the crosstalk and let me drive,” Eddie barked back. “I’ll deal with this. Everybody back to work. Over.”

Cass had let the handset drop long before the debate began. She was too busy trying not to die.

The kid somehow was still sleeping, despite the box truck rocking and rolling all over the road. Hopefully she wasn’t in a coma or anything… but given the waking nightmare Cass was enjoying right now, maybe being asleep would be best for the kid. The way Cass’s head was hurting from the sideswiping impact, she almost wanted a nap, too…

Already rolling at top speed. The green pick-up had fallen back a bit, being less weighty than the box truck and needing more of a head of steam before it could try again—but try again it was going to do. Cass braced herself, waiting for the blow…

The world shook. Her vision blurred. But when it came back… there was an 18-wheeler ahead of her, pulling on from Exit 23. The Hotrod Express, if she was guessing correctly. And yes, it had silver strippers on the mud flaps.

“Jesus Christ, the kid was telling the truth!” Eddie’s voice echoed from her C.B. “We’ve got a smash-up on I-455! Someone’s trying to run the Cuddlebear Convoy off the road! —okay. Jonesy, get a bear on your ass, blow through a speed trap if you gotta. Pollock, I want you on your LD with the Department of Safety, tell them there’s about to be a pretty damn huge accident. I’m going after that sunofabitch.”

“What the hell? Eddie, you’re serious about this?” Jonesy replied, confused.

“The brat’s a trucker. Whatever else she is, she’s behind the wheel so she’s one of us—and you know damn well we DO NOT TOLERATE people screwing with truckers,” Eddie said. “Now get on it! Kid—don’t reply by radio, focus on your driving—I’m just ahead of you. Here’s what we do. When I give the signal you get into the left lane, fast. I’m gonna get in the right lane and jam my brakes. You get in front of me in the center and I’ll bitchslap that guy with my trailer. Honk once if you’re ready.”

Sparing a glance to make sure the little girl was still there… Cass readied herself for whatever was coming.

And gave a sharp blast on the horn, before veering to the left.

The Hotrod Express seemed to shoot backwards, from a relativity standpoint. It cut through the wall of rain, a wall of steel and wheels that dwarfed Cass’s little box truck by far…

She only spared a moment to glance in the rear view, as she pulled out ahead of Eddie.

He’d deftly maneuvered a few tons of metal. The green truck tried to avoid head-on collision, and did so—but not by enough. The front of the vehicle clipped against Eddie’s tail, smashing out one headlight, sending it into a spin…

It worked. Cass was going to survive. Insurance premiums were going to go up, Eddie might get in trouble, but she’d survive and so would the girl. Whoever that freak was, whatever he wanted, this was the end of—

Two headlights.

Three.

Four.

Five.

A whirling mass of headlights and chrome, twirling and twisting, rolling along the highway like a cartwheeling pile of shrapnel. Briefly, Cass flashed back to a terrible sci-fi movie she saw once with robots turning into cars and vice versa… piles of disorganized panels and joints and support structures, whirling and shifting and blurring in a visual mess which nobody could really follow…

She heard one word over her C.B., which chilled her to the core.

“PICASSO—!” Eddie called out, in warning—before static cut him off.

The car/driver/picasso tore through Eddie’s trailer like a whirling ball of knives through metal butter.

His 18-wheeler split in half, a jagged slice carved right through the middle. The back half careened away and disintegrated—the front half ever so slowly teetered over, until his cab was sliding sideways along the highway. Shattered glass, twisted metal…

…and an unliving monster of shattered glass and twisted metal continuing to give chase to Cass’s truck, eager to get at the young cargo inside. Freed from the limitations of physics and the internal combustion engine, the picasso of hard iron could skim across the rain-slick road, gaining incredible speed. She only had seconds left to live.

hey

let me help

Tiny words, barely glowing. Hard to see them out of the corner of her eye…

A teddy bear. Not the one under the girl’s arm… the words centered on the flopsy bear that she’d deposited on her dashboard, next to the eternally smiling hula-girl. The bear Grandma Scarlett had given her, her own personal teddy, no extra delivery required. Cass had been ignoring all day, just another decorative element in the Cuddlebear Convoy… hadn’t even given it a name. Immediately she felt a pang of shame about that.

Cass’s bear was talking to her, now. Its head had flopped to the other side, to look her square in the eye. Probably just a random confluence of the truck rocking back and forth. Probably.

Her senses sped up just enough for the bear to have his say, despite the high speed picasso bearing down on her.

throw me at the shabby man, the bear said. pick me up and throw me. i’ll die. i’m sad about that. but this way, you’ll live, and can help the nice girl in dreams who loves us. i’ll be happy with that. it’s okay. i am your protector. throw me at him. i love you.

…it was silly, feeling pathos for a stuffed bear. And yet, didn’t she watch to make sure little Daniel the Bear found his new home…?

So, she didn’t just grab the toy and chuck it out the window, uncaring. She grabbed the toy and chucked it out the window, caring. And hoping.

Instead of watching the road like a responsible driver, she watched her mirror. Watched the impossibly slow arc, the doll tumbling through space, through the rain. It was falling at exactly the speed of gravity… but trailing behind her truck at speed, relatively speaking. And impacted with the twisted sphere of horror dead center.

The twisted sphere of horror turned back into an ordinary green pick-up, driven by a very surprised-looking murderer. Because the truck had re-manifested itself upside down and at a strange angle.

With a horrific sound, the truck cartwheeled off the road, spinning end over end as physics took control of the situation. Last Cass saw of it, it had smashed into a tree line by the side of the highway, and was gone in the darkness of night.

---

The C.B. radio was on fire with activity for the next hour.

Eddie got his radio working again, salvaging it from the wreck of his truck, and politely asked someone to send a goddamn ambulance because he was losing blood fast and probably broke something. He was relieved to hear Cass somehow survived her encounter with the high-speed Picasso. In fact, all the truckers on the horn were relieved. She was one of them, after all. Far from the court jester, now… she’d survived one of the craziest things the road could throw at her, giving her the stamp of legitimacy. Eddie wouldn’t hear anything from anyone who joked about it, now.

For lack of a better idea… Cass drove her cargo back to Happy Acre Orphanage. She was carrying an orphan, after all. The smarter play might’ve been to wait for the Department of Safety to show up at the crash site(s), to sort things out there, but… for some reason, Cass just kept on driving. No words prompted her. Just a funny feeling that maybe dealing with the Department of Safety wasn’t the thing to do tonight.

Her precious cargo was still asleep when she rolled up to the candy apple red farmhouse… but after finally killing the engine after a full night of lunatic driving… she heard a yawn.

The girl roused briefly… snuggled the bear under her arm, smiled, and drifted off into a far more pleasant sleep.

Jeb was there, to help ease the child out of the truck and into one of the orphanage’s beds. He had a first aid kit on hand, to aid in removing the IV sites and un-glue the electrodes.

Scarlett was there, to help ease Cass down from her night of insanity. Not that Scarlett’s brand of insanity was that much more comforting.

As if walking through a haze, Cass found herself sitting in the quiet and dark living room of the orphanage, with a cup of tea in her hands. Somewhere beyond, the children were sleeping, each with their own teddy bear… including one extra child and one extra bear.

“They’ll never come for her, you understand,” Scarlett was explaining, as Cass shook herself out of the half-sleep of her collected exhaustion. “No government agent, no Department of Safety investigator will come looking for the girl. The devil never sets foot in a church. She’ll be lost in the system. But no matter; she’s safe here, safe as houses. And she has her protector to watch over her dreams.”

Warm teacup in her hands. Strange night.

“What are they?” Cass asked, thinking aloud.

“Mmm?”

“The bears. What are they. Who told you to make them?”

And Scarlett’s chuckle, like raspy paper. Warm and brittle and old, but comfortingly fragile.

“I think you already know that, dear. You know all of this, just as much as I know,” Scarlett replied. “You just couldn’t find the right words, couldn’t write them down. That’s because they can’t be written down without losing something of their essence. She comes to us in dreams, see. Lucid dreams. She doesn’t speak in riddles, not exactly—she speaks in dreams the way we speak in English. We see them as riddles, and in the waking hours, something less. That’s why Jeb writes down the instructions for where the bears are to be delivered as I mutter them in my sleep. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best way.”

Grandma Scarlett set her teacup down, for now.

“Thirteen years ago… maybe fourteen? It’s a bit of a blur, I admit,” she said. “Thirteen years ago, a single father came to me with his infant daughter. He had recently lost his wife, you see, and wasn’t sure he was capable of raising a daughter alone. He had a bad past. A violent past. Perhaps he didn’t feel he deserved this happiness in his life. He wept, you know. He sat where you’re sitting and wept, while his infant daughter slept quietly in a port-a-crib… for a time. And then she cried out, and he was there in an instant. A father’s instincts. I knew then he would be just fine, and told him as much.”

As if this explained everything, she paused. Leaving Cass to egg her on, a nod of the head, go on, what does this have to do with anything…?

“When he looked in the crib… it’s the strangest thing. The little baby had a teddy bear,” Grandma Scarlett said. “Where did she get it from? He hadn’t brought it with her. It wasn’t a bear from my orphanage. She hadn’t pulled it off a toy shelf. Where there was no bear, suddenly, a bear. I named it, you know. Little Penelope’s ‘Gregory the Bear.’ They left that night together, hopefully to grow as a family. I wonder if she still has that bear, some days…”

“And then you started getting the delivery instructions in your dreams,” Cass realized. “It was that day, seeing that bear. You started sewing the bears, giving them to your kids to be loved and… I don’t know, charged up with love like a battery… and that helps them keep kids safe. Safe from fear. Safe from picassos and all the other insane threats this city offers…”

“I’d like to think my little bears offer some hope against the darkness, yes.”

“The one who gives you the delivery instructions in your dreams… I think she’s been talking to me for years,” Cass confessed. “She saved my life tonight. Saved that kid. …I’ll keep delivering your bears. I promise. I’m sticking with this, at the very least until I understand it more. I thought I was just mildly crazy, but…”

“Ohh, dear, dear… everything’s mildly crazy. But only mildly,” Scarlett joked… before looking distant for a moment, and then solidifying her expression into something more serious. “And if this world is a delusion, does that make it any less real? Who’s to say what’s real and what isn’t? The answer, of course, is us. No other answer makes sense. Hmmm. Still. It’s opportune, I feel, that she led me to you. I’m old and getting older, Cass. What’s to come… it’s going to take the fire of youth. Your fire, perhaps. And I think you know what’s coming, don’t you…?”

Lucidity, Madness, and Oblivion.

Bedlam.

The spiral down to the heart of the city.

But one word, above all of those, was coming to mind. A word she’d seen in her dreams, which she tried to express in poetry, tried to shackle down to metaphor and imagery and flowing lines without any success. It stood better on its own.

“War,” Cass spoke.

---

Speeding on in the dark of night.

Soon, she’d be at the Suburbs, and then back to the city. Back to the crowds and the noise and the traffic and home sweet home.

So quiet out here in the Outlands. Everybody asleep in their little houses, far apart from each other, unaware of anything else in the world beyond their tiny slice of it. Maybe aware, but not thinking about it. Same thing in the end.

Cass fetched the handset from her C.B. radio.

“Hey. Cuddlebear Convoy here,” she called out across the night. “I’m gonna be over in SIDEB talking a bit, if anybody wants to listen.”

Release the button. Switch the channel. Press the button.

And recite the poem. The first true poem she’d written in many a year. A poem of truth.

---

They’re coming.

They’re coming.

They’re coming for all of us, coming down the spiral, digging and clawing and fumbling in the dark as they search for the same prize, the heart of the city, the core of our souls, the root of our existence.

They’re coming to tear our sanity apart or to cast us into the void, to drive us to madness or to despair, to ruin and destroy and obliterate and take apart everything we know bit by bit until it’s served back up to us in a form which is completely unrecognizable.

They’re coming for the quiet ones, the ones that stay quiet, that shut up and move on day by day, shuffling their feet and working their jobs and keeping their heads above water because to do otherwise, to stop and think for even a second about what could be wrong would tip the scales too far one direction or another, because the darkness has already won and destroyed those people inside.

But they’re not coming alone.

We’re coming with them, we’re coming to stop them, we’re coming to stand against them, we’re coming down the spiral to claim it for ourselves with the help of the one who stands with us against them, she who is the collective unconsciousness, the inner child, the voice of reason, the spirit of living which says we are not alone and never will be no matter what illusions claim otherwise.

We’re coming to make our stand with lucid eyes that will see forever.

Are you ready?

Are you ready?

//end

next chapter

Comments

  1. Hey Cassandra is a goodgirl i like her she writes good poetry please dont cancel the series until its done then feel free to cancel (but only when done)

  2. We’re coming to make our stand with lucid eyes that will see forever.

    Are you ready?

    Are you ready?

    I didn’t even notice this last time. That makes Ch. 25 a rather impressive callback.

  3. “by not mentioning word one of the stories Allen would tell.”

    Should also probably be “one word.”

    • That one’s actually a common turn of phrase; “Not saying word one” meaning you aren’t offering even the bare minimum.

      The other one’s definitely a typo. Unfortunately this book’s already gone to press ages ago so I can’t fix it there, but I can fix it here!

  4. “he chose to blame Cass for the resulting injuries and slap her with employer a lawsuit.”

    Should probably be “slap her employer with a lawsuit”

    • “A projection by Cass, granted; but one backed up by the words. gotta go gotta go too much lemonade trailed after the kid as he ran for the tree line.”

      Should probably be “by the words: gotta”

  5. A few minutes later without any words spilling forth, she took the bear under one arm. Not because it told her to or she wanted to or anything like that. Just ’cause.

    You’ve seen it here first, folks. Tsundereing towards a teddy bear.

  6. I gotta say I’m not really digging this constant change of protagonist. I like sinking my teeth into the meat of a story, and to me that meat is the characters, not just the world. I really hope it settles down on either one steady protagonist, or these disparate protagonists all come together. Cause as it stands now, all I’m seeing are three really good first (and second in Dave’s case) chapters to what looks like three separate really good stories. Maybe I’m not giving you enough credit, and I will certainly be giving the story a few more chapters. But I wanted to share my feelings with it as of right now.

    • Originally, the plan for this series was to have each story be a standalone with new characters. That way readers could hop in at any point. But I think you’ll find that very shortly (as in one chapter from now!) that plan has clearly changed, and now that the primary cast is introduced, they’ll be coming together. It’s definitely an ensemble series with new protagonists in each chapter but that ensemble is consistent from book to book.

    • I dunno. I like the protagonist switch, because I can tell it’s all one story at the end.

      Heh. I’m getting Madoka flashbacks.

      Don’t forget.
      Always, somewhere,
      Someone is fighting for you.
      As long as you remember her,
      You are not alone.

  7. I admit I was dredging on up until the last third of this chapter but BOY it finally took off and it sounds so exciting.

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Copyright 2014 by Stefan Gagne