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Part I — Approach
:: 1 ::
They say Jesus Kristus was untouched.
You learn it in school, you hear it from parents, from grandparents—from them especially—from friends, and from preachers. You read it in the Bible: Jesus Kristus was the first to, and the only one ever to, escape, ascend, transcend, what have you, the Storm. He was the first ever to rise above it unscathed, as they like to put it on the late-night TV preacher-shows, especially now with a new Storm approaching, although unscathed means the same as untouched, just has more of a bite to it, I think, and these late-night TV preachers like biting.
And not only was Kristus untouched or unscathed, they then go on to tell you, he was conceived beyond the Storm—or unconceived, is how the Bible puts it in many places—although born in December like the rest of us, mind you. He was Stormless, is how I like to think of it when I believe the most. Sometimes I believe less, or not at all, and then I don’t really care how He is thought of.
Grandma, who always believed—hungrily, thirstily—used to say He was beyond the Storm: “Jesus Kristus was beyond the Storm,” she would say, with a sigh, with a blissful little expulsion of air, with an upward longing, her eyes moist, seeing not what was there right in front of her, but instead looking at (or for) some private heaven, some longed for celestial ecstasy. Beyond it, she’d sigh. Beyond it and Untouched, is what she kept telling me since as far back as I can remember. Hungrily, thirstily. Longingly.
And not only Untouched, she would then go on—and when I was little there was no getting away from her or her going on—Kristus was the first to see the Storm for what it was. He was the first to call it by its real name: Temptation. That’s the name she gave it, and often. As does the Bible, and all those preachers, too.
Temptation. Temptation. Temptation.
But let me tell you, the Storm is more than temptation. This word, this thing, temptation, if you really look at it, it implies a choice, does it not? Doesn’t it promise you some say in the matter? So my question is, how can the Storm be a temptation if you have no choice? But Jesus Kristus, too, uses that word. In the Bible. And so she did, as well, Grandma did. Temptation. And often.
“The Storm is temptation,” she’d say. “It is Nature’s test of the spirit.”
And it is also God’s command to make more of us, Grandma would often add, in the form of desire: the urge to people God’s beautiful planet with more of us. And that little heavenward sigh. She was so blissful, especially when she had me in her clutches.
Of course, that’s what they teach you in school as well. The Storm is nature’s way to make sure we go on. Without it there would be no more of us, no humanity, no babies, no sir. That’s what I was taught when I went to school, and that’s what they still teach, as far as I know. And who’s to argue? It’s true enough, that’s plain. The proof lies in the sea-of-babies pudding come December.
Still, Jesus Kristus does urge temperance in many places. I don’t find that surprising, really. What I find surprising is that He never urged abstinence, not that I can find, though those biting late-night preachers swear He said it. They go on about it. And on about it. But I have not read Him say it. What I have read Him say in the Bible is to let the Storm enter only for the sake of offspring, only deeply enough to spawn.
That accomplished, He says, shun it. Do no invite it, He says—as if we were inviting the Storm. It doesn’t need an invitation.
In other places Kristus warns against “indulgence.” That is how the New Testament puts it, and therefore how Grandma puts it, too: Indulgence.
Before He arrived on this Earth to save all of us these couple of thousand years ago, the New Testament goes on to tell us (and yes, I’ve read this, too), the Season—or the Storm, one word’s as good as the other—was nothing but one long orgy. Was nothing but a month of sexual revel and abandon. Of course, that pretty much hits what happens these days right on the nail, as if the New Testament had never been written, or read, or certainly never followed—talking to itself like just so much old paper, even if gilt-edged, like Grandma’s Bible.
Yes, He warned us about that, Kristus did. He warned us about the dangers of letting all restraints go—which is how you indulge: you let all restraints go. And when you let them go you become inhuman, which I’ve always found to be a strange word to use in that context. One of His Disciples, Luke, I think—or is it Matthew?, now I’m not sure—uses the word unhuman instead, equally strange but for some reason it seems to fit better. It is the same thing though: inhuman, unhuman. Grandma had another word for it: Beastly. She liked to say that word: beastly. Again and again. Beastly. Said it a lot.
But I do know what He is talking about. What He’s talking about is letting all restraints go. He’s talking about opening your doors wide and letting the Storm in and letting it take over. To open yourself up wide, to offer no resistance, to let the Storm enter fully. To let it rage. Perhaps that’s what Kristus means by invite.
Lately, I’ve come to think that perhaps what Kristus means by inviting is agreeing. And that what He means to say is that we are not animals. Not beastly. We are better than, higher than, stronger than, finer than the beasts. That we, being human and not un-, have a choice, where animals don’t. But here’s where I return to square one, for I don’t think we have a choice. I don’t think the Storm is a temptation, no matter what Kristus says, Untouched and all. I think it is an imperative.
Something that occurred to me a long time ago is this: how would He know? If He indeed was untouched, if He was never seared by that awful (or wonderful) heat, how would He know, truly know, what the Storm was like? How could He call it a temptation if He had not been tempted by it? That’s what I’d like to know. And that’s one question Grandma never got around to answering—she could be very hard of hearing when she chose to, could Grandma, looking around to see where the noise was coming from, not finding it, giving up, changing the subject—although, as I grew older, I got around to asking it often enough.
Had He been Touched, and then ascended—shaking himself free of the Storm—well, that’s one thing. But He’s always Untouched, as in Never Touched. That’s what bothers me.
Sometimes—especially as the Season draws near—I think the Bible, and especially the New Testament, is just a gathering of lofty off-Season notions. Lots of good intentions—which I hear the road to Hell is paved with. Notions that perhaps meant something to ancient saints and crazy hermits but which don’t mean much to normal people at the best of times, and nothing at all to anyone once the Season arrives. And by normal people, I should add, I mean the vast majority who have not—unlike me—been neutered.
Still, that’s the message: Normal people are to strive for these lofty things: temperance, abstinence, harmony, ascension. Says the Lord, and His Apostles, and the many preachers you see more and more of on television the closer the Season draws. We’re to ascend the beastly and the animal in us for the lofty and unreachable, for the ultra-human, the Untouched. We’re to move, like Kristus, beyond.
The plain truth—which I sometimes like to look straight in the face and be real honest about, that actually gives me a thrill—the plain truth that these lofty feats are quite impossible, if my experience is anything to go by, seems to escape them, these early ante meridiem evangelists.
Untouched. It’s a sweet word, and Grandma sure believed it to be a true one. This theoretical and hoped for word. This unattainable beauty. That’s what the Bible is full of. Things unattainable. I wish they could be attainable. But in this world, so full of tables and chairs—and this table and this chair in particular, and this pen and this paper, and this elbow which hurts a little when I write too much—here in this world it’s hard to conceive of these unattainable things being attainable.
Untouched. Even for a neutered like me, it’s hard to envision.
Though I do try, believe me, I do try.
I used to be not neutered.
I used to be normal. For eleven Seasons I used to be normal. From my first Season at fifteen to my last Season at twenty-five I was as un-neutered as the next guy. Then I grew sick and tired of it, disgusted with the whole thing, with the whole crazy thing. I could not handle it anymore.
Besides, the money came in handy.
Well, the thing is, I never was much good at fighting, or at asserting myself, and you must be average, at least, in that department, if not slightly above average—survival of the fittest and all—to have much success with the female of our species during the Season. For come the Storm, there is always competition. Always. There are always others. Which is odd when you stop to think about it. I mean, statistically there are more women than men in the world.
Be that as it may, during my Seasons there were always others, and hardly ever were there any females left over for me. They were always spoken for. Always some above-average prowler to tell me to get the fuck out of here kid, or he’d beat me up. And he means vanish, now.
And if I didn’t move to leave, which sometimes I didn’t—the need is tremendous—he’d come at me. Then I’d move, fast. He’d still give chase, pissed now, but I’m hard to catch, for I’m very fast on my feet, or was.
And all I wanted was to… like everyone else.
So what do you do? With your lower half in turmoil, burning with the wonderful, hateful, urge we call the Storm. What do you do? When you must pierce and expel, and would do nearly anything—no, not nearly anything, when you would do anything.
And running for your life, threats of violence still fresh in your ear, pursuing you like angry birds.
What do you do?
Let me tell you what you do. You find your way home, is what you do, you lock all doors, and then you help yourself, that’s what you do. You empty the bucket once, twice, perhaps three times to you gain a modicum of peace before your nether regions regroup and begin screaming again. And repeat. And repeat.
Ejaculation is always nice, of course. But for all that warm pain, for all those deeply swimly feelings it drags along—as if swimly’s even a word—my Seasons were not so pleasant on the whole.
For my eleven un-neutered Season were nothing but month-long fevers where all I could think about was copulation. Eleven Seasons mostly spent cooped up in my room, with a lot of ventilating (a clever euphemism, that—much used in advertising). And I mean a lot.
Seriously, despite those white rivers of ejaculation, I really did not enjoy those Seasons.
I came upon a good word for it the other day: monomaniacal. Look it up, that’s what it was like. Those March months, those eleven Marchs.
Monomaniacal. A very good word for it. Mono, one, single, alone. Maniacal, having a mania, an obsession. It comes from the Greek, meaning then, loss of reason—how appropriate. And earlier than that it meant rage. Even more appropriate. The one rage. The only rage. The only thing to really exists for you under the Storm’s spell.
For, you see, nothing else does matter. Yes, every now and then you get hungry, and then you eat something; you get thirsty once in a while, and then you find something to drink. And you sleep off and on. But other than that, there is only the one thing on your mind. It becomes your mind, your room, your world.
God has seen to that. God’s somewhat cynical gift to man. That’s what the Old Testament calls it. Well, it does not say cynical, of course, but it calls the Storm a gift. I say cynical. As if He didn’t trust His creation to make more of us without it, this gift is, apparently, God making sure.
“Eve’s fault,” says Grandma. And really means it.
I know you’re wondering, so I might as well get it out of the way: The answer is “yes.” Four times.
Three of the four women were my age (two of which I had to pay good money for).
The fourth was my mom’s age, and here the word rape (or as we normally call it: Un-Invited Intercourse, or UII)—springs to mind, and where I was the rapee, though perhaps it wasn’t all that uninvited. Let’s just say that she didn’t stop to ask, and would not have taken no for an answer.
Details? Not so much of that. Just the urge to. Nothing, nothing, nothing is more important in the entire world to you (or her) once you get going. All else ceases.
Once you lock onto each other with the understanding that, yes, it is going to happen, you’re like some heat-seeking missile that’s found a target, no way to call it back now, it’s going to pursue and copulate.
At times during these eleven Season the urge grew so intense, so searing, so all-encompassing, that I caught my self astounded, observing myself in amazement, taking myself in: how can anything be so driven, so compelled.
Just for a flash this would last, this stepping outside in amazement. A second or two, then back again into the drowning.
Looking back at these moments, I’ve thought that perhaps it was the spirit moving out of my body to take an amused look, but I don’t know, it happened so fast. All I am really certain of is the amazement, the astonished at. That you can be so out of control, or so completely in control, depending on viewpoint, on who’s doing the controlling.
Now, let’s clear up another point, an important one: Neutered is not the same as Untouched. For even once you’ve had it done, the Storm still touches you. Only thing is, you can’t do anything about it.
Not that they tell you this upfront, before the operation.
No, that’s a kept secret. In fact, before you have it done, they have you sign an agreement—in very small print and un-plain language—where you promise to not talk to anyone about how you feel after the operation.
Once you wake up after surgery, and before they let you leave, they give you a little booklet—which you have to read then and there and then hand back to them—that explains, in much clearer language, what you’ve agreed to, and how you will feel. Not Untouched, is how you feel.
And the secret you agreed not to share with anyone is this: it still aches. It doesn’t burn or rage like it used to, no. And it doesn’t take over and drive you like it used to. It’s receded to an ache, dull enough to still let you function.
It’s like you’re a tall building and your way down there basement is smoldering, unpleasantly hot.
There is nothing you can do about this ache. After a while it aches less, though it still aches. After five years—yes, it’s been five years now—it still aches.
I must confess that sometimes I think that Jesus Kristus was nothing but another neutered—or gelding, as we’re sometimes called. And that’s what a lot of people say, especially those who don’t believe in Him, or who haven’t read the Bible, and who say that Jesus Kristus and the Bible is a lot of hogwash. Yes, it’s true, sometimes I, as well, think He was nothing but some neutered person with a big mouth and a bunch of industrious hangers-on.
But then the off-Season returns, and the ache goes away altogether, and I find easier to believe, to once again see him as the Untouched, as the unconceived preacher of moderation. As the unattainable I wish for more than anything else.
For the off-Season is so very different.
Once the Season ends—officially with the last day of March, even though sporadic incidents usually straggle into April—the cleanup begins. People have calmed down by now, though they tend to walk around a little stunned for the first couple of days, like what on Earth? They smile meekly at neighbors, drive carefully, take in the mess, the breakage, the neglect, the garbage (which usually piles way up even though we have a small army of neutereds to run the Sanitation Department and other such services during the Season).
And the damage assessment begins. City engineers, with the help of sometimes police, sometimes firemen or even the National Guard, take stock of the ruin and draw up plans for full restoration. They’re good at this, they do it every year.
Come the end of April, restoration is in full swing, and, depending on the severity of things, it’s usually complete by mid- to end of May; though last year June was almost over before everything was back to normal.
And so begins the Calm.
Well, officially it begins with the end of the Season, but you don’t really think of it as Calm until things are restored.
The Bible describes the Calm as “that Sea which does not ripple.” An apt enough description which is both true and untrue. If by ripple the Bible means sex—which I think it does—then it is true, very true: the Sea does not ripple, not in the least; for men and women no longer see each other as men and women, but as people, as humans, sans sex but for the fact that men usually urinate standing up while women sit down.
But if by ripple we include frictions and misunderstandings and upsets, then the Bible lies, that Sea still ripples: for people still disagree, conflicts do occur, fights do erupt, sometimes with lethal outcomes. Life—even if sex-less—is still a matter of survival, and what survives me may not necessarily survive you.
And there is a downside to those Calm conflicts—when they escalate beyond negotiation: they are never tempered by sex, for sex is nowhere to be found.
Tempered may not be the best word, but it’s as good as any, and will do, for of course sex, during the Season, acts as a dispersal which filters out everything but sex itself: a tempering effect.
By contrast, off-Season disagreements strike me as pure, clinical. I sense the intent to injure for the sake of gain, and I look in vain for compassion or quarter given. None. Off-Season animosity is undiluted, undispersed.
But so—and this is the upside of Calm conflicts—is rationality, and as often as not disputes are settled by an honest exchange of views, especially when guided by negotiators.
For the off-Season lets you think. It lets you carry one thought from birth to conclusion, lets you foster it, guide it, grow and develop it, undisturbed, sometimes for hours. Rationality is possible.
And that’s—even before I was gelded—that’s when I would view things clearly again, and that’s when my faith in Him would resurrect for a good many months, until the next Season swept in, crazy with urge, doubts in tow. I mean, who can believe in fairy tales when Hell rages below and the world goes insane again all around you. It’s hard to hold onto your sanity then, much less your faith.
And that’s why—as I’ve tried to explain—that’s why I had myself neutered, or gelded, as some say. That and the money.
:: 2 ::
Harry caught his first heightened scent of the Season that morning. It was a dog in heat, some blocks away.
It was a few minutes before six and barely enough light to see by. The stars were still out in force, and the air was cold with just that hint of gasoline on it that said yesterday had been smoggy. Streaks of high amber hovered in the eastern sky, beyond the mountains, climbing their far side. Though the night had been windy, there was no wind to speak of now, just the occasional stirring, shivers, memories. A thin layer of pine needles not only covered the lawn but had now blown onto his covered porch as well. The roof would be full of them, too, he thought. May have to get up there later to sweep them down.
He had stepped out into the cool morning to save the paper before the sprinklers got to it, and as he bent down for the loosely stringed Los Angeles Times he caught it, as if the scent had been standing in wait for him, right there, and now suddenly moved to reveal itself.
Clear as a bell, it hit his nose with precision, a minor explosion of message telling him his Season wasn’t far off now.
He’d been expecting it, of course—any day now—with one eye on the calendar as March approached. Still, it was with a slight quiver—a small physical shock that chilled him—that he recognized the aromatic clarity which for him was always the first sign. He rose, paper in hand, turned in the direction of the scent—a faint, flavored wind—closed his eyes, and took a deep breath through his nose, testing the air with purpose, and again.
More than likely: that white poodle. He’d seen her often—she’d usually bark at him as he jogged by—over on, what was it? Deerborne Street?, and now she was announcing her availability to the world. He nodded to himself. Yes, more than likely. What was her name?
There would be an unseen cloud of pheromones surrounding her, thinning as they sped away like some exploding little galaxy, soon to be discernable as far as a mile away by other dogs—discernable by Harry for several blocks once he reached Season peak.
He looked up at the sky, took another look at the beautiful clouds out east, already visibly lighter, took another deep breath—part sigh. Only a matter of days now.
He returned inside. Vixer looked up at him as he entered, just a brief glance involving no more than eyelids and eyes. Then he too caught the scent. His nostrils widened and his muzzle rose to test the air, once, twice. His ears peaked. He looked back up at Harry who now was closing the door behind him, shutting out the scented breeze. Vixer sighed an “oh, well” and decided this was too early for him, anyway. His head sank down onto the carpet and he closed his eyes again. Crazy people, up at this time. Crazy dogs, too.
Harry tossed the paper onto the kitchen table, pulled out a chair, and sat down. Leaned forward to begin reading, but changed his mind. Instead he slumped back in the chair, looked out the window across the deck, across his back yard, his lawn, his plants, his trees, all gradually stepping into dawn now from the cover of night. The birds were up too, he could hear them discussing things among themselves.
And beyond these things—beyond this silently approaching spring morning—he imagined the Storm gathering.
When Harry thought of the approaching Season he pictured it like a flood, or like an avalanche, cloudy or dusty and distant, still rounding itself up, still building, like something you could hear advancing if you really listened: a nebulous but mammoth something, still the far side of the San Gabriel Mountains, upper desert somewhere, no, farther away than that: Nevada, Utah, Arizona, the far side of taller mountains, amassing, sweeping, almost quaking the earth as it spread out from some unknown mid-continent epicenter toward the Pacific, soon to reach the San Gabriels and scale them to then creep not so unhurriedly down the crevices and slopes this side of those silent hills to find Sierra Madre, Monrovia, Altadena, Pasadena, and from there on to the ocean, smothering everything in-between with lust.
A milky, almost metallic, unseeable fog, a miasmatic flash flood of Biblical proportions. Covering the Earth.
He shivered, as if to clear himself of the image, then sat up, reached for the paper again, and this time took it, unwrapped it, balled the string as best he could and tossed it toward the waste paper basket by the stove, missed. He rose—almost tipping the chair over as he did—picked the string up from the floor, and placed it in the basket—hard to miss from two feet, he thought—then sat down again.
He unfolded the paper to the front page and shifted forward to scan the headlines. Mostly Season related stuff, of course, this close to March—more and more as the Season approached: interviews, suggestions, and of course, ads, and ads, and ads, but nothing yet, no actual incidents to indicate its arrival.
Officially, the Season arrived on the 1st of March each year, but since Nature is not wont to observe legislation too closely it usually arrived a few days early or a few days late, depending on who knows or reports what.
Unofficially, each year, the Season was sparked (according to the media, and according to what there was of folklore these days) by the first Seasonal incident—a much employed word this time of year, everyone waiting, waiting—the first fight about a woman, the first UII, the first open copulation.
Harry perused the various sections. More of the same. And ads. And ads. More Seasonal ads. But other than that, Los Angeles seemed to have had a normal Tuesday: accidents (as usual), too little rain so far this year (as usual), a something something at the Getty Museum had been well attended (as usual). Several pictures of the something something showed many smiling faces, self-congratulatory in a not too offensive a way. A new jazz restaurant opening in Pasadena, re-opening actually, it had been at that spot in the 1980s according to the reporter. Pictures of that too, smiles not quite as smug.
A couple of book reviews. Business goings on. People still buying stocks, people still selling stocks. More articles (all trying to help) about the upcoming Storm: what to do, what not to do, what to wear, how to prepare, how to odor-proof as best you can, how to this, how to that, all very much about the around the corner Season, but nothing as yet to say it had actually, if unofficially, arrived. Not as of going to press, at least.
Probably for the last day, thought Harry, for once his scent arrived, the first incident was never far off. Never more than a day off, that he could remember.
That first Seasonal incident acted like a starters gun.
For once this incident had taken place, and been duly reported—over the radio, on television, or online—what over the last month or so had steadily been building (some manufacturers and most services—you have to book in advance, you know—began advertising as early as January) would erupt into an advertisement and commercial frenzy: for here was the narrow window— a week’s worth at the most—to reach the Seasonal consumer, for after the Season’s first week no one would be in any sort of state to pay attention to anything but copulation.
Nor would much else be covered in the way of news either: the Season was the news. All the news. Was everything.
And frenzy was the word. The papers would be glutted with Seasonal ads, the television stations would shift everything to the New Season, as loudly and as offensively (in Harry’s opinion) as possible. All else would, for all intents and purposes, cease to exist.
But not yet. Everything was still under starter’s orders. No first incident reported, no arrival—at least not according to the Los Angeles Times. Of course, much could have happened overnight, but Harry had no urge to check the television news. As far as he was concerned, let calm reign a little longer.
He didn’t read further, but instead leaned back again in his chair, and looked back out across his yard. So, this was to be the year.
Vixer stirred in the front room, roused himself, stretched and yawned the way only dogs can, ready to swallow the Earth. Scratched himself briefly behind his left ear with his hind leg. Arose, stretched, shook his pelt as if he had just stepped out of water, spotted Harry by the breakfast table and sauntered into the kitchen mumbling something about hungry and food.
Harry turned and exchanged glances with his dog—saw him but didn’t really see him. Reached down to scratch him behind the ear, which Vixer really liked, almost as much as he liked food. Did scratch him behind the ear, but not really, not really aware of doing it.
He had promised himself, repeatedly: this was to be the year when.
And here it was, just around the corner. So easy to make future decisions as long as the future stays put; but it had ceased staying put, it was here. Could it really be done? Was it really doable? To his mind, yes. It had to be.
After all, it had already been doable twice, if only for a moment, if only for a glimpse.
:: 3 ::
Fletcher Jones had spent the night in his sister’s garage. He had lost yet another job, had been kicked out of yet another week to week, sparsely furnished apartment and with nowhere else to go, he had returned to where he had promised, often, never to return.
His sister Samantha didn’t want him there, had asked him, pleaded with him, begged him on many occasions not to come back there again, ever, to leave them the hell alone, for Kristus’ sake, please. To get a life. She had even changed the locks to the garage, three times in fact, each lock a little more “secure” than the next: meaningless gestures. Fletcher could break into just about anything. So he came and went pretty much as he pleased, or as his needs dictated, his younger sister’s prayers notwithstanding.
The garage was used for storage rather than cars these days and Fletcher, ever resourceful, could always find things to curl up upon and beneath. This time, to his delight, he had discovered an old couch—which either Sam or her husband must have tired of—and plenty of old sheets and blankets to boot. Made to order. Like a real bed. Hotel-like.
He knew it in his sleep: the Storm was here. He knew when his dreams turned from running and hiding and avoiding and getting fired or evicted, and getting even with the bastards and perhaps scoring some coke or ludes or crack and outwitting and running again, to sniffing, tracing, chasing down, and yes, hallelujah, raping—though that was such an unfair word, it wasn’t really rape, not really uninvited, was it?, when in the end they’re always willing—and hey man, enjoying life again. He knew it without even waking up: His Season was back. Full swing.
And as he knew this, he turned over onto his stomach the better to rub himself, the better to relieve himself as his dream raced on along with his mates and hunted her down, cornered her outside the old Nate Simmons warehouse with nowhere left for her to run, and no one around to hear her scream, first with fear, then with ecstasy.
Oh yes, he thought, even as he dreamed, it was here all right, he was hard and pulsing. Finally. Life was about to turn sweet again, really sweet. She was moaning beneath him, screaming. The others were holding her down, just to make sure. He was moaning too, breathing hard, and harder, then he exploded.
Then he surfaced.
With a smile on his face. He shifted onto his back. Touched himself. All gooey. Oh, yes. And here he was, already stiffening again. Oh yes. Man, was it ever back. He looked around for something to clean himself up with: rag, towel, anything. Nothing. In the end he used one of the sheets.
Good enough. Then he found himself not just hungry, but starving.
As he stepped out of the garage and he sniffed the air once, then again; and of course—as if he needed confirmation—his scent was back too.
He entered his sister’s house through the kitchen door, which faced the stand-alone garage. She was already up, by the stove, fixing something or other for breakfast. She turned when she heard the door open. She was not pleased to see him.
Though not surprised.
“I heard,” she said.
“You heard what?”
“You’ve been fired again.”
“What the hell? That’s not true.”
“You’ve been fired again,” she repeated. “They called here, looking for you.”
“It was a shit job anyway,” he said.
“It was a job.”
“It was a shit job.”
“I doubt you’ll get a better one.”
“Well, I’m happy to see you too, Sam.”
“I am not happy to see you. You can’t stay in the garage.”
“It was only for one night, I promise.”
“Promise, my ass.”
“I hope so,” said his sister. Then, taking a closer look at him, “What’s wrong with you?”
“What are you grinning at?”
“What’s here?” As if she didn’t know.
“You know, the Season. My Season has started.” He couldn’t stop grinning.
“Happy about that, are you?”
“You know it, Sis. Always.”
Sam didn’t answer.
“I’m starving,” he said. “A couple of eggs? Too much to ask?”
Sam still didn’t answer.
“And some toast. If it’s not too much trouble,” in an attempt at being sarcastic, though it came out wrong.
“You can’t stay here,” said Sam without turning away from her chore at the stove.
“I won’t. I promise.”
Then she turned. “I’ve promised Josh.”
“Well, fuck him.”
“You have to promise.”
“I do. I promise.”
“I said I do. I promise.”
:: 4 ::
Lara West was an orphan. Or, to use the official term, she was unclaimed.
December was rarely called December, it was called Birth Month. True, some were born late November, and there were stragglers who didn’t show up until early January, but even so: hospitals, schools, churches, and many of the larger hotels turned into makeshift maternity wards during the last month of the year to cope with the annual births.
The year Lara was born had been particularly busy and it was never clearly established whether her mother had in fact lost her (it was know to happen) or had simply slipped away in the general confusion of things, wanting nothing to do with her daughter, most likely the result of some unfortunate event—the going euphemism for rape around the wards; or a UII—an UnInvited Intercourse—the official designation. In either event, Lara ended up unclaimed, officially. An orphan.
By the time she was ten she had escaped, been caught, and returned to, the #6 Arcadia Orphanage—known as Arcadia Blue—a record fourteen times. A record which, by the way, still stands since the fourteenth escape finally prompted review and overhaul of the facility’s security arrangements and after which not even Lara—though not for lack of trying—managed to slip out again.
After her fourteenth escape she didn’t see much of the outside world until she, with the rest of that year’s litter, was released at age thirteen—the age that statistically signals the first female Season; and since California orphanages are not equipped to handle the calamity of volume estrus, law mandated (still does) release of female charges by the 31st of December of the year they turn thirteen. This, again statistically, avoids most of the trouble, or to be more precise, relegates this trouble to the outside world.
Except that Lara—known as trouble—beat the stats by a year and entered her first Season at age twelve, and with it, the requisite confinements and strap downs, never a pleasant experience under the best of circumstances.
Early Seasons are not unheard of—some girls experience them as young as ten—but in an orphanage they are always traumatic, for ward and personnel alike. Lara, far from a favorite at Arcadia Blue to begin with, received very little in the way of comfort and support during this, her initial Season; this to the point where she—although she had heard all about the Season by this time, no one reaches that age ignorant about it—assumed, when it did arrive, that she had in fact gone insane.
For hearing tell about the Storm, and experiencing it, are two very different things.
Lara was now twenty-eight years old and a wisp of a woman. She kept her blond hair short, worked out regularly, kept a fiercely independent cat, and was not very ladylike. She also had a habit of vanishing—without her cat, who could fend for himself, thank you—toward the end of February every year, not to return until early April, when it was all over. Whenever asked, she was vague about precisely where she had been—not that it was anybody’s business.
This Wednesday morning she pulled up at work on her 250 cc Yamaha dirt bike a few minutes early as usual. She needed the extra time to mount the ungainly messenger box on the back of her bike, not an easy task on most bikes, an outright pain on a dirt bike; it took both a special carrier and custom straps.
When her boss, and (pretty much only) friend, Helen Suffolk saw her arrive, she got up from her desk, and stepped out of her office to meet her.
“Lara.” An almost shout from just outside the small lobby of Helen’s Messenger Service. She waved, too, then set out for Lara. “A word?”
Lara looked up from wrestling the box into place, grimaced and squinted at the sun, large in the sky behind Helen. “Sure.”
Helen had a few years on Lara and was nowhere near as thin. But she had a friendly face which many, including her husband, found beautiful. Lara did too. Helen now sauntered up to Lara wearing a part smile, part frown.
“You’re still here,” she said. She made it sound like a question, though it wasn’t.
“I told you I would be.”
“So you’re not going this year then?”
“No, not this year.”
“You sure about that?”
Lara, still working one of the straps, nodded, “I’m sure.”
“You know, it’s not a problem, not at all.”
“I know. You told me.”
“So if you want to go.”
Lara pulled the final strap tight, secured it, then stepped back to admire her handiwork. Then looked back up at Helen. “I appreciate it, Helen. I really do. But I’m staying.”
“Sounds like you mean it.”
“Yes, I do.”
When Helen said nothing, Lara added, “It’s time. It’s something I must do.”
“Really,” said Helen, as if set on talking Lara into leaving. “It’s okay if you want to take off. Just give me a few hours’ notice. Besides, we’ll be shutting down shortly.”
“I’m staying, Helen.” Lara wasn’t sure whether to laugh or yell.
“What will you do?”
“I’m not sure, Helen. Not leaving. That’s all I’m sure of right now. Not running.”
“You’re not running.”
Lara didn’t answer.
“Do you need any money?” Helen asked apropos of Lara wasn’t sure what exactly. And it earned her a surprised glance.
“No, I’m fine.”
“I was thinking maybe you need a private guard, or want to hit a spa or something. They don’t come cheaply nowadays.”
“No, I’m fine. And you?” said Lara. “What will you and Larry do? And the kids?”
Helen looked over as she heard another messenger arriving, waved briefly at him, then looked at her watch, as if to make sure there was time enough to answer. “Well, the kids are off to their center as usual, although with Susan turning twelve this year, it’s getting tricky.”
Lara nodded. She understood, all too well, “I know.”
“As for Larry and me, we’re going to bunker it, as usual. We’re already stocked to last the full month, with lots to spare.”
When Lara didn’t answer right away, she continued, “We’ve also installed some extra locks this year, you can never be too sure, and bought enough ammunition to fight a small war if it should come to that.”
“You may have to,” said Lara, though she wasn’t sure why. Wished she hadn’t.
“Oh, I hope not.”
“Seems to come to that, though, more and more,” said Lara. Then added, “If the news are to be believed.”
“That’s true,” said Helen. “That’s why.” Then, after checking her watch again, and a brief silence. “You should find yourself someone.”
“As in a guy, husband-guy?”
“Well, as in someone-guy.”
“That’ll be the day,” she said, then grabbed the box with both hands and shook it again to make sure it was secure. It was. Ready to go. “So,” she said. “What have you got for me today?”
“Don’t know,” said Helen. “Check with Al. Don’t forget, though.”
“Don’t forget what?”
“It’s not a problem, not at all.”
“I know. And I appreciate it. Really.”
“But you’re staying.”
“Yes, Helen, I’m staying.”
Helen nodded, turned and walked back to her office while Lara headed over to the dispatcher’s office to see what Al had for her this morning.
Crossing the parking lot tarmac Lara couldn’t help but wonder if she had lost every last one of her marbles. Was she really going through with this?
Was she really staying down here? She had strived to sound all determined to Helen—who was more perceptive than Lara dared to acknowledge—but that was not exactly the case. No small part of her wanted to drop everything right now, drive back to her apartment, grab her backpack—which in fact was packed and ready—and head out of the city. The remaining part of her, and still in the majority, remained resolute: no, she would not run this year, that was not who she really was, she was stronger than that; she would face it. Ride it out. Face the damn thing down. On her own.
Without the aid of trees or water or solitude or distance or whatever it was that brought her sanctuary.
It was possible—the last ten years stood as proof—it was possible to stay undrowned; and if she could do it up there, then she could do it down here. She knew what she’d be looking for and she’d steel herself against it.
Lara’s Seasons set in early, as a rule sometime during the last week of February. She considered this lucky—almost like an omen at times—as it gave her time to head out before the Storm proper descended in force.
At the first sign of oncoming Season—normally her scent intensifying, though sometimes her hearing, and some Seasons even her eyesight (subtle, that one, creeping up on you like that)—she would calmly finish off what she was doing: day’s work, visit, shopping, whatever, then go home, get her already prepared backpack—at the ready since mid-February: food, books, medical supplies, gun, ammunition, clothes, sleeping bag, thermal blanket, and other needed odds and ends—lock her apartment (after making doubly, triply sure Shadow wasn’t inside), get on her bike, and head for the San Bernardino mountains.
Here first few Seasons away from Arcadia Blue had been as traumatic as her first. At thirteen—she’d by now been transferred to a State sponsored school for unclaimed girls—she had been confined to her dorm with the rest of her class, something she had objected to in terms so certain, and so repeatedly, that after two days of putting up with her they sedated her instead, and after that she had more or less slept through the Season.
Same the next. They weren’t taking any chances with this one.
At fifteen they tried confinement again, which she endured this time, though with some medical help. With no way of releasing the terrible tension—all forms of self-help were strictly forbidden by the school—she found it nothing short of painful, and also degrading. This was repeated for two more years, after which she graduated the school and left the charge of the State. Lara was now eighteen years old and very much on her own.
After a month of looking, and prepared to accept pretty much anything, she found a job as a motorcycle-messenger for a small firm in Glendale which paid her rent and put food on the table, though not too much more. But she liked it. There was a nice sense of freedom on a motorbike—which they provided, at least until you could get your own: you could go anywhere you wished to, and fast.
This appealed to her. Very much
As the next Season approached, or more like attacked—her scent exploded from normal to amazing in a matter of hours—her immediate impulse was to flee. Now that she was alone, and could turn to no one for help, that was her only solution, her only direction: away; as if the Season was outrunnable and she was the one to outrun it.
And she acted on this impulse. She finished her deliveries, called her boss for Seasonal leave, which naturally was granted, filled up her bike (she had found a well-maintained and affordable 250 cc Suzuki only the month before), bought a sleeping bag, and a backpack, and as much food as it would hold and set out going east on the 134.
No plan, no destination, just away. Led only by instinct and the need to out-run; and by the ever advancing tarmac of the freeway. The 134 soon gave itself over into 210 East and while she had the sense of running towards the advancing Storm, as if to meet it, she also felt that she was putting distance between herself and its approach. The bike beneath her ran smoothly, the engine humming, almost singing, as if happy to get away too, glad to stretch its legs. She leaned forward on the tank and faced the onrushing air with a determined but happy smile.
Near San Bernardino she approached her first choice: 215. North or South? As the wheels spun on beneath her, they seemed to say: neither. She listened to them and found herself on California 30 heading for she had no idea. At Highland the next choice: stay on the 30 for Interstate 10 and Palm Springs, or veer left onto California 330 and the mountains.
Looking back she cannot remember actually choosing, actually thinking: no, I don’t want to go to Palm Springs, or yes, I should head up the 330. Again, the spinning wheels, and the singing engine seemed to do the choosing and before long she found herself winding her way past Running Springs and other smaller mountain communities, except now the road was called California 18. With water in sight she turned left again onto the smaller still California 38 and several miles beyond Fawnskin she spotted, on her right, or her bike did, a small unpaved road, leading into trees with the promise of water.
No buildings here; and the road got worse—I could do with a dirt bike here, she thought to herself—and worse still. Several impressive roots had reclaimed tree-territory, and here she finally stopped and stepped off her bike. She killed the engine into wind, and—overwhelmingly—scent.
She looked up: straight strong spines of forest elders, ignoring her. Not inviting her. A “keep out” sign could not have done a better job.
But kept out was the last thing Lara would settle for, and then there was the stillness, the promise of stillness.
She rolled her bike around—best as she could—or over the knotty suggestions that she turn around. Another fifty yards and all pretence of road had ceased. She was steering her cautions bike over forest floor and toward water.
She could hear waves. Not big ones, no, not like the ocean, more like a reassuring watery rustle, water moving on stones, a constant motion. And, to her left, between the ankles of these great and brooding trees, she spotted what at first she thought was a single, very large, yawning boulder; but then, following its outline, the boulder became a toe to a foot to a leg to a mountain and the yawn, partially concealed by leafy branches of birch and aspen, an entrance; though still not inviting.
She looked around for somewhere to park her bike, she wanted to take a closer look. She leaned it against a graying pine to her left, but—and to this day she doesn’t not know what made her: it was as if the tree had objected—immediately unleaned it, looking up into a branchy frown.
Instead she guided her bike towards, and then into the yawn and the dry and quite roomy cave within. She steered the bike to the back of the rocky room and unfolded its stand. There. No objections here.
She squirmed out of her backpack, placed it on the pine-needly floor, looked around her and knew: she had arrived.
Two weeks later she was running dangerously very low on supplies. She had found the lake water clean enough for consumption, but even though eating as sparingly as she possibly could—she felt weak at times—she was down to four cans of mixed fruits, half a dozen protein bars and two bags of trail mix: nuts, raisins, sunflower seeds, and dried pineapple. It would not last her the Season.
The day before she had ventured out in order to, somehow, replenish her stock—hoping to avoid hunters or other prowlers, while finding an open, neutered-run store: a long shot. She had not thought this through. Well, she had not thought at all, was the point. She had simply upped and run.
She’d rolled her motorbike out of the cave, then navigated it over and around roots and bushes—all of which seemed to do their best to make her turn around—for the road, but before she reached it the drowning suddenly set it, and set in with such force that it physically shook her, as if she had walked into a wall or a fence, charged, demanding. Reeling, she let go of her bike, which fell over, and she staggered back, into safety, waters receding.
With some effort she pulled the bike right-way-up again, and rested it on its stand. She steadied her breath and stilled her heart, then approached the road again, slowly, alert.
And again into a wall, savage with hands.
And again, her first instinct was to recoil, and that was the one she acted on; but there was also this second notion that said: let’s enter, let’s drown. Let these hands enfold you and carry you into the mist which she could almost make out from where she stood, a mist surrounding, held at bay.
Held at bay.
Tentacles, as if the mist knew she was there and strained to reach her, to snare and capture. Held at bay.
She stepped back farther, out of harms way. Then looked around; attuned now to the spectrum of the mist, she could make it out clearly, massively surrounding. She turned; looking past the cave and toward the lake she found herself at the very edge of a glade, a clearing in the allness of milkish steel. Looking up she could not make out sky.
Taking one more step back her foot caught a root and she fell. Things shifted: the mist vanished, or rather, she could no longer see it, she could still feel its presence.
Scrambling to her feet she went to retrieve her motor bike, and again: it was a magnetism, palpable. With some difficulty she pushed against it, folded the bike stand back and made for the cave.
Why here? Was that the question? Or was the question, why me?
Lara spent the remainder of the Season not finding an answer to these questions. She ate sparingly beyond caution, but did not have a choice; although she had found some edible berries in the glade, the food she had brought just had to last. On two occasions she fainted from fatigue.
Some days she could make out the mist clearly, others not at all. Either way, she would perceive the wall—its greed—whenever she approached it.
The answer to why some days she saw the mist and others not also proved elusive. It wasn’t that she felt differently day to day, it was as if some days she caught the right frequency, others not. But even though she could not see it at will, she was getting more attuned to the mist, for toward the end of her stay, she could sense it, even from within the cave. Hovering, waiting, waiting, for her.
On the 2nd of April, by her watch, she would up, exhausted, into a mist-less world. It was gone, she had no doubt. Humming, irritated, shifting the night before, and rustling past her in her dream, in the morning she knew: it had withdrawn, the Season was over.
Weak—as exhausted as she’d ever felt—the nonetheless made it back into the small town of Fawnskin where she did find an open gas station; the little store attached to it had restocked and she bought three candy bars, two sodas, and some nuts.
Which she devoured in about ten minutes. Five minutes later she was violently sick in the restroom; but still, all things considered, she felt much better. Well enough to make the ride home.
The following year she knew precisely where to go. Reaching the end of the little road she felt not as much welcome as grudgingly accepted. By whom, she had no idea; but the feeling was palpable. She steered her bike back into the cave which, from what she could make out, had not been disturbed since the previous Season.
This time she had planned better; had filled her messenger box with supplies as well as brought a larger back pack. As far as she could calculate she would be set for the Season.
She saw the mist off and on; could still not determine the reason. She pondered why the glade, why her: still no answer. She read a lot: Her electronic book reader housed over two hundred books. She walked the glade end to end—which to the best of her reckoning measured roughly ninety by ninety yards, well, ninety by seventy, the remaining twenty yards extended over water, and was only an approximation from those days where the mist was visible to her.
She exercised. She even swam once—but the water was too cold for her to repeat that venture.
And she sat at the mouth of the cave, looking out over the lake, not doing anything but sitting at the mouth of the cave looking out over the lake.
Time, in this state (is how she came to think of it) seemed to cease, or rush rather, for one moment the sun was high in the sky, and the next it was setting beyond the western shore, an afternoon all but expired.
One morning, again, she knew that the mist was gone, the Season over, and she made it back to Los Angeles.
For eight more Seasons she had done this: taken refuge. Escaped. Startled for her sanctuary at the first sign of. Run away.
It was on the ride back from her previous Season that the feeling fully stirred and then sprouted: She would stop running away. For all the strange blessings of the glade and the cave, she could not help but feeling that she was, well the word that sprung to mind, and which she could not shake, was chicken. It wasn’t really who she was, she who had escaped Arcadia Blue nearly at will before they made the thing into a fortress; she who had always fended for herself; she who always made it without anyone’s help, except come the Season.
She resolved then and there, heading west on the 210, the sun setting ahead: she would not return to the glade next Season.
Though it had yet to manifest, she could feel her scent approaching. Hours, perhaps only minutes, away. In fact, it was as if it had already risen and filled her, but was standing so still that she could not detect it.
Then it moved. She turned to see who had spoken, but there was no one. Just the trace of a dog on the prowl, perhaps a block away. Loud and clear.
The urge to out-run returned and for a moment filled and seized her. It took all of her determination not to submit, and again head for the sanctuary of the glade.