As Dean and Gene rolled toward San Francisco in Cassidy’s van, Gene’s phone rang. It was on speakerphone.
“Gene. It’s Scilla.”
Dean waved his hands and lipped, I am not here to his friend.
“Hey, Scilla, thanks for having room at the inn for the Traveling Cassidys. Really appreciate it.”
“Oh, sure. Yeah. Um, Gene… Has Dean called you?”
“Nope. Called me about what? Somebody forget something?”
“No… So Dean hasn’t called you?”
“Nope. No calls from Dean Colfax. Things did get a little weird there toward the end.”
“Well, yes, and then, after you left? The old man? He had a massive stroke. After Dean gave his little speech he left. He hasn’t come back. We’re worried.”
“He’ll turn up, Scilla. ”
“I wish I were as confident as you.”
“Is the uncle going to be OK?”
“It’s too early to tell.”
“Well, that’s too bad. I am sorry for the old guy.”
“Yeah. And so, um, Gene, what about that bag thing that Dean gave you?”
“What? You”re breaking up? I wouldn’t worry about Dean. He’ll show up. Hey, I’ve got to go. Bye, Scilla, take care. He’ll turn up.”
Dean waited till he was sure the call was disconnected before he said, “Massive stroke?”
“Yeah. Weirder by the minute. Still don’t want to go home?”
“Nope. Can’t face the music yet.”
They rode along in silence. Dean opened up the deerskin bag and peered into it.
“So what’s in here?”
“Far as I can tell, this guy and his crew, a bunch of other old eccentrics, think they have come up with documented proof for some of the craziest shit you ever heard. Like, supposedly, there is this tiny cult of powerful people who control the politics of much of the world. They’re bent on getting more and more control till they’ve stifled all democratic processes that stand in the way of a one-world government. Run by them, of course. OK, that one’s not so farfetched.
“But they’re into some other, really weird theories, like extraterrestrials built the pyramids in Egypt and Mexico for navigational purposes. And there is supposedly an ET spacecraft buried in an Egyptian pyramid, and something called the zona del silencio in Mexico that’s linked to the Bermuda Triangle and this place off the coast of Japan called the Dragon’s Triangle. In that one, there’s this vast undersea city built over ten thousand years ago. They believe that ETs still use these places to conceal their spacecraft. And there are some earthlings, some of this tiny elite group with designs on one-world government, that have cut deals with the ETs that give them the right to harvest earthlings. And cattle, too. Or cattle parts, like eyes and tongues.
And they say some UFOs are of earthly origin. Supposedly, this tiny cult of power-hungry people have reverse-engineered some ET spacecraft that have crashed, like in Roswell, and learned how to blast through the speed-of-light barrier. They’re flying around with ETs, visiting other galaxies. Crazy shit, man, that makes me look like a mainstream, hypnotized lunkhead.”
“And the flecks of human flesh?”
“You know the box that’s shaped like a bar of soap? That’s heavier than it ought to be?”
“Yeah. But don’t open it while we’re rolling. You’ll spill it. It contains dozens of little bits of metal, shaped by some technology. Stuck to them are little bits of stuff like you find on old fishhooks when the bait’s been left to dry on the barbs. Well, that stuff, according to my friend Jesús, is human flesh. This gang of so-called researchers claim that these are implants removed from people abducted by extraterrestrials. There’s a directory. Supposedly, someone can check the abductees’ DNA with the stuff on the metal pieces. And the implants, they claim, if they’re analyzed, will show that they are made from extraterrestrial metals.”
“They’re nuts. He’s dangerous.”
“See what I mean? Now, considering all of this, are you Bad Daddy for snatching that thing away? Your kid was 14 when he tried to give that to him. And am I Bad Gene for opening the packages?”
Dean ignored the question. “What’s this one about?” He held up the cylinder.
“Rolled up tightly in there is a long piece of paper, acid-free, printed with a letter press in very small typeface. It has all that conspiracy theorizing on it. And the directory of the abductees. Or what they claim are. It also has a list of dozens of URLs and the names of researchers who supposedly know some aspect or two of the greater narrative. It is the key to the so-called ‘proof.’”
“Freaks. Wigged-out freaks. OK, so what about the ball?”
“It’s wood. You twist it in your hands and it pops open, into two hollow halves. In each half are these little grooves. Each groove holds a round plastic sheet with a little hole in the middle. Firmer than an old floppy disc but not stiff. They’re pale green. Supposedly there is this guy, one of them, who has built a machine that can read these. It’s a back-up to the scroll in the cylinder, plus some additional information. These discs have been created so the human race can have access to this information if there’s a massive ET invasion and they jam our computers.”
“Nuts! These people are nuts!”
“Yes! He picked Harlan because he’s young. And super bright. According to them, by the time people get old enough to make up their own minds, they decide these folks are screwballs.”
“Hm. Now why would that be?”
“Sure you don’t want me to take you to Noe Valley?”
“No. Still not ready. But, thanks, Gene.”
“For what? The ride or going back on my promise to you?”
“Both, I guess. Take the Ninth Street exit, will you? I gotta make a call.”
Dean took out his phone. As expected, it was filled with messages from Scilla and even a few from Candice.
He called Bert Quant, his counselor friend and fellow volunteer at the Karma Light Fellowship Hospice. He went through the required pleasantries, the Happy Holidays, and the like, as efficiently as possible.
“Bert. Do you know Allen’s cell phone number? He’s the duty nurse tonight at the hospice, is he not?”
Yes and yes, and Dean had the number.
It took some persuasive juice but, citing the poor timing of a family problem on Christmas Day, Dean’s own no-room-at-the-inn story swayed Allen to agree that, yes, he could sleep in the one spare bed in the hospice but he had to be out by 7:30 the next morning. Graciela would be in to spell Allen at 8:00, and she stuck close by the rules.
Dean slept better than he had expected that night. His prospects seemed not as gloomy after Cassidy’s inventory of the bag. Blake was off the charts with his paranoid fantasies.
For eight months the idea that Dean was protecting Harlan had felt like a lame rationalization to avoid admitting that he feared a stranger might have superior rapport with his son. That was all turned inside-out now. The old man now seemed grotesque. What might have happened had the deerskin bag not been diverted from Harlan?
And, since no one knew of his jealousy of Blake, Dean could be vindicated simply by presenting the contents of the leather bag in a family show-and-tell. From thief to prescient protector.
The price for this invincible empirical support was Dean’s disappointment that his friend had failed to comply with a simple promise. Maybe it was something he and Gene could work out at the dart board over a pint or two of home brew.
Dean slipped beneath the symphony of snores and coughs and nightmare moans that surrounded him, the songs of finality caught by the open beams of the old mansion as it held, perhaps sacred, the final exhalations of broken bodies in the last of their hours on earth.
He awoke at 7:00, hurried into his clothes and bid Allen Goodbye with a grateful squeeze of the shoulder.
Though it was a legal holiday, the Monday after a Sunday Christmas, Dean found a breakfast joint that was already open. He took the last vacant seat at the counter. He soaked up an unspoken camaraderie with the community of people eager for the return to ordinary life.
After he ate, Dean went walking without any particular destination in mind. He wanted to open up the little deerskin bag, now safely in his coat pocket, and examine the contents, but he needed to find the right place. It was a nice day, still no sign of rain, the morning brisk with the light of new winter.
As he walked up the hills through Pacific Heights, he shed his wool cap. On the Fillmore Street steps his heart sent hot blood throughout his extremities; perspiration streaked down his cheeks.
He let his eye guide him. If down a side street, a building looked interesting, he turned and walked by it. Ordinary life had returned to other families, too. He counted three stripped Christmas trees cast into the gutter awaiting pickup.
Soon, without intending it, he was in Alamo Square. There were park benches. Perhaps he could find some privacy on one of them. He walked along a pathway.
Before he got there, Dean came upon a couple, youngsters, it seemed, embracing on a park bench. They had not noticed him. Her hair surrounded his head, making them appear to be one figure. They rocked gently. First Dean thought they were necking, but then it seemed more like they were quietly sobbing.
So mine is not the only family that has been through a rough Christmas.
To give them privacy, he turned around. He thought he might walk some more.
By noon he was at the JavaPort on Chestnut Street, sipping a latte. Buzzing with fresh adrenalin, he went out to the street. He had to do something decisive. He had walked for hours, he had seen the cast-off holiday trees, he had seen the sobbing couple, and he had thought about what to expect when he called home.
He would have to call home. He would have to go home. It would not be so bad, he counseled himself. He went stiff with anxiety when he contemplated the grilling Scilla would subject him to.
But, for the first time since he had taken the little deerskin bag, he felt he could justify his thievery. If he played it right, maybe he could justify almost everything, even lying to Candice. Concealing it all from Scilla, that would be harder to explain. This was the part that stiffened him and made his heart race. Where was Strong New Dean? He so wanted to be him. Maybe he could find a way to do it as the strong new husband. Maybe with enough I’m sorries his family image would survive the Christmas to Remember.
Dean took out his phone and called Scilla. His heart was raging, feverish, drum-like in his ears. What would she be? Furious? Relieved? Relieved now, furious later?
“Dean! Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m all right, Scilla. I am sorry if I worried you. I am very, very sorry, for everything.” He hated that his voice quavered but he thought maybe that was not such a bad thing.
She paused, as if deciding to extend a virtual hug or a virtual hammer. He held his breath. Thud, thud, thud went his heart.
“It’s OK, Dean. Just come home, please? We’ve all been so worried.”
Her voice was tight and her words sounded wet, as if she were fighting back tears, as if her words wanted to come through the phone and hug him.
Maybe it is going to be all right.
“Soon as I can, Scilla. Soon as I can.”
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