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Out of Nowhere by Patrick LeClerc.
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Stormcastle: And Other Fun Games With Cards And Dice

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THE MELODY PLAYGROUND DEMO TAPE DIARY

by

Andrew Dunn



                                                                                                                                                    
 
                                                                  THE MELODY PLAYGROUND DEMO TAPE DIARY          
                          
                                                                                        By: Andrew. A. Dunn
 
                                                                               TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
 
(Please note: Drummer  Toby Hall and bassist Pat Ruiz did not consent to use of their names in the below. Therefore, they are referred to by position and not by name.)
 
Rock ‘n roll, and that’s a loose term the way It’s used here but we’ll get that in a moment, has a storied past. It exists, it’s always existed, in an artistic niche situated on the corner of sex, rebellion, and salvation. Rock ‘n roll was built upon a foundation of rhythm and blues, ragtime, jazz, country, and gospel. But its whole was always greater than the sum of its parts. To listen to a rock song, a real rock song, is to ride the coattails of older musical forms to a juke joint or a gritty urban nightclub where sweat and muscle give life to stories. 
 
Like any art form, rock wouldn’t exist were it not for the cast of characters that made it their lifestyle. And what a cast of characters! Saints. Sinners. Thugs. Wimps. Romantics. Losers. Winners. Workers. The opulent. Junkies. Takers. Beggars. Jokers. Traitors. And thieves. Some names will remain firmly affixed in our lexicon for generations. Elvis. Jimi Hendrix. Dylan. The Beatles and the Stones. Bowie. All of them carved off their own unique sliver of rock, and made it something of their own. The Jacks did the same when they  made it big back in the 1980s. 
 
                                                                                               #
 
  I liked the guy. The more I look back on it, I liked him. I honestly did. From the first minute I saw him in that dive bar, where was it? Cincinnati? Pittsburgh? It was somewhere around there. Back then the bar scene was full of kids like him. A bunch of lanky skin and bones kids that played the same kind of songs. 
 
     Jack was different though. Sure, he was doing all the same kinds of things all those other wannabes were doing. But there was something about him. Something special. 
 
   Everybody playing shows back then was one way or another living hand to mouth, some more than others. There the ones that had day jobs or parents willing to give them a few more years to live out their rock ‘n roll dreams under mom and dad’s roof. And then there were those like Jack that were really pushing it. Really living hand to mouth. 
 
   Whatever money Jack and his band made every night was the money they had on hand to eat and make it to the next show on. They got lucky some nights and pulled down enough to book a motel room. Most nights they cleaned up back stage and they slept in their van after they packed up their gear. That brought out something in Jack I liked too. 
 
     His band played hard music. Whether it was punk or rock or punk rock or just rock, who cares. They were good. Nice, tight rhythm section with Jack’s lead guitar on top. They were too good to be playing low-rent joints where half the crowd was more interested in Freebird than the guys on stage. 
 
     Where a lot of singers back then over did it, Jack was different. He never went for the screaming opera singer style a lot of the hard rock bands aimed for. Jack’s voice was rich. With heart in it. In those days, you could sit there at one of their shows and close your eyes and know what Jack was feeling just by the way he sang the lyrics. 
 
     The lyrics were amazing. It was a shame a lot of the bar owners made bands play covers. I guess they had to keep the Freebird crowd drinking or whatever. Every original song The Jacks had was a show stealer. It didn’t matter what song. The riffy number with the syncopated back beat or a softer ballad, every single song of their own they played would stop you in your tracks. 
 
     “Who writes those?” I set things up one time so I could run into their drummer when they played Cleveland. 
 
     When you’ve worked around rock for a while you learn how to read a band. My initial read on The Jacks was based on that quick conversation with their drummer in a Cleveland bar restroom. He smiled and said “we all write ‘em”. I could tell by the way he smiled and the way he lied that there were problems in the band. 
 
     Not surprising. Rock could be a hard way of life. Even harder if you were stuck in a van going from show to wasted show week after week, month after month. It took some time, too much time, to figure out whether that was all that was affecting The Jacks, or whether something else was going on. 
 
     Life got in the way for a while. When I caught back up with The Jacks, the only thing that had changed was their set list. There were a few new songs they played. A couple new cover songs thrown in to keep the bar owners off their backs. And there was Jack, thin as a rail and pouring his soul out through that microphone. 
 
     At the end, like always, Jack took a bow and followed the band off the stage. It was the last time they’d ever play a dive bar.
 
                                                                                                  #
 
     Their van ended up behind a house right outside Dayton. They flew out to Los Angeles and signed their first deal on a Wednesday morning. I can’t remember who it was that signed them. Looking back, it’s a shame they couldn’t have held out for a better deal. 
 
     Maybe if they’d started out in LA they could have. Back then there was a new band every week hitting the jackpot and a lot of them weren’t anywhere near as good as The Jacks. Most of them were as hand to mouth as bands were anywhere else. A lot of them only played in or around Sunset Boulevard. They hadn’t lived on the road the way The Jacks had. 
 
     Coming off the road and living in an apartment near the beach brought out something in their music that hadn’t been there before. Their first show on the strip showcased the change. Their sound was a little more sparse. Edgey. And more polished than it had ever been. Nick Stein would later explain why in an interview.
 
     “When they came out to LA,” Nick said, “they were so raw and so unfinished. That was part of their appeal. But that doesn’t always work in the studio. So we started working through ways they could keep that raw energy that made them unique without making a record that sounded like crap.”
 
     In fact, before they ever took the stage in Los Angeles, The Jacks spent three months in a recording studio working around the clock seven days a week. Producer Nick Stein alternated the time helping them to refine their sound, and then recording material that would make it on their first album. 
 
     “We worked around the clock.” Nick went on to say, “Jack Simon didn’t just want to record. He wanted to learn about the recording process and how he could use that to make his songs sound like the ones he had in his head.”
 
     Jack Simon. The singer. Somehow I knew most, maybe all, The Jacks’ songs were ones he’d written. There are different kinds of songwriters out there. There are the ones that know how to string together words a certain way that keep a song on the radio and make a lot of money. And then there are the ones that can do all that, and still put pieces of themselves into their work so that it’s not just words strung together. That’s the kind of songwriter Jack was. 
 
     Catching them in LA around that time was great. The west coast seemed to have done them some good. They didn’t seem haggard anymore. They fed off the energy in the audience. About halfway through the show each of them took a couple minutes to do a solo. When Jack Simon’s solo came up, he stunned everyone in the club by laying his six-string down and playing a bit on electronic piano for a minute or two. 
 
     That night I tried to catch them, any one of them, there at the club. I wanted to try and get a feel for how they were doing. See if I could figure out whether the things that had been bothering the drummer were still there. It’s one thing to hang around outside the restroom waiting to talk to the drummer in an Ohio dive bar. On the Sunset strip in those days, that was nearly impossible unless the band wanted to see you. 
 
     Word on the street was, other than Jack Simon, the other three Jacks were drifting into the after show party scene. Whether they were using back then or not I don’t know. There were girls and there were bottles, that much I do know. Who could blame them? After living in the back of a van and showering in gas station restrooms, playing LA clubs a few times each week and recording in a studio must have felt like making it big. 
 
     “Once they got things down,” Nick continued, “it’s true. They played their shows and they partied. I knew that if they were playing a show on a Tuesday night I probably wouldn’t see them all together again until Thursday morning. That slowed down the recording process a little bit. But Jack Simon would come straight to the studio after a show with ideas he’d come up with. Honestly, it got to a point where I couldn’t keep up with Jack.”
 
     Their first album was supposed to come out in March. Nobody’s ever fessed up but my money says the advance copies that were leaked were leaked on purpose. I don’t doubt it. Not one bit. The Jacks already had a pretty good word of mouth following. It made sense to leak the album before the first single hit the airwaves. 
 
     I know, I know. Other bands leaked songs or albums too. What made The Jacks leak different was the way they did it. They took cassette tapes and marked them as “The Melody Playground Demo Tape”. So whoever ended up with a copy had no idea who was actually on the tape. 
 
     About one hundred tapes total were a part of the leak. A lot of them went out on the Sunset strip. Handfuls made it to places like Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Dayton, where The Jacks had started out. I got a copy and just to be safe, I made a backup copy of it. 
 
     The most interesting part of The Melody Playground Demo Tape wasn’t how good The Jacks sounded as a finished rock music package. Back then the average album had nine or ten songs on it. That’s around thirty to forty-five minutes total play time on a cassette tape counting the dead space between the songs. The Jacks used ninety-minute cassette tapes for Melodies Playground Demo. 
 
     Most people lucky enough to get a copy of the tape played it through to what they thought was the last song. For those that let the tape run, they found an interesting four minute piece of music right before the end. It never made the first album and it was something they never played live. 
 
                                                                                                  #
 
     The Jacks rode a string of hit singles through fourteen months of non-stop touring. It was a brutal schedule. I still believe if they’d held out for a better deal, they might have been gotten a better tour schedule as a side benefit. They headlined their own shows and they were the opening act for bigger names all over North America. For a group of guys that had been unknowns, hanging out with their idols and playing in front of thousands was overwhelming. 
 
     “I think so.” Ruben Galvez, their first tour manager, remembered. “For bands like The Jacks, fame and everything that comes along with it came really fast. You know, all at once.”
 
     Life on the road had its share of excesses. Women. The drinking. If the drummer hadn’t been using before their first tour it was a habit he picked up on the road. Cocaine mainly but other stuff too. It wasn’t just the road though that went to their heads. 
 
     Going from zero to celebrity as fast as The Jacks was a lot like winning the lottery. Between record sales and merchandise and royalties from wall to wall airplay, they made a lot of money fast. Real fast. 
 
     “In a way it was hard to watch.” Ruben went on. “These guys they’d do all their business from the hotel on the phone buying things they never had a chance to see and putting their money in things they didn’t know much about. A lot of artists I’d seen lose it all that way. The Jacks didn’t but still, it was something I worried about.”
 
     When the tour ended, with an outdoor show in Dayton billed as a thank you to their hometown, for the first time in a long time The Jacks had a couple months down time. That brings its own excesses too. 
 
     The drummer and bassist had bought places to stay in out in  LA. Chuck Reynolds, the rhythm guitarist planned to spend a month out in the Colorado mountains. Jack Simon bought a place outside Dayton and spent a couple months setting up a makeshift studio in the basement. 
 
     “I visited him in Dayton,” Nick recalled, “and I saw his studio. He was so proud of it. Jack had a drum machine set up and some instruments and he’d spend hours in his basement working on things. These were things he wanted to bring out to LA when they started working on their second album.”
 
     They should have started recording their second album around September or October. Nick Stein had arranged a meeting to talk about it in late August. Second albums can be harder for a band than the first, especially when the first album was as successful as The Jacks debut was. There’s pressure to match or out do the success of the first album. 
 
     There are competing wants too. Record labels want something they can turn a fast profit on. The band wants the freedom to be creative. Fans want something that’s like the first album but new and improved.  Listen to any big name band’s first album and the ones that came afterwards and all those things are evident. 
 
     “The meeting,” Nick said, “I won’t say it was contentious. They were all still very much on good terms with each other. There were rifts though. They were starting to separate into two camps.”
 
     While Chuck Reynolds had been roughing it in Cheyenne County and Jack Simon had been working on new material, the other two had spent their time off partying like the tour had never stopped. They had been working with other artists too. Rap was starting to gain attention back then. The drummer and bass player experimented with it, providing the rhythmic backdrop for some aspiring rappers. 
 
     Sitting in the California sun on an oceanfront terrace near San Diego should have been a great moment for The Jacks but it wasn’t. Nick showed them what was and wasn’t doing well in music and made some suggestions for the second album. Then he opened the forum up to the band. 
 
     “Nick had this really great presentation,” Chuck said, “really thought out with a lot of great ideas. I was open to just about anything. I wanted to try some new things on the new album but I didn’t want to go overboard with it, you know.”
 
     “That was when Jack cut in.” Nick recalled, “I knew he had the studio back in Dayton and I knew he’d been working on some ideas for the album. Jack wanted to take things in a different direction. A drastic direction really. He had this vision of The Jacks that, I don’t know. It didn’t really fit who they were.”
 
     Jack brought a stack of tapes and played parts of a few at the meeting. They were an outgrowth of the cut found at the end of The Melody Playground Demo Tape. Trance like drum beats. A melodic bass line. And layers of piano and synths with the vocals drenched in reverb and mixed way down inside the music. 
 
     “There was no guitar,” Chuck laughed, “so I asked Jack. I said Jack, where’s my part?”
 
     “Jack was cool about it,” Nick offered, “he told the band that there was room to work together. I think he even said something like ‘these are just ideas’. I could tell though he wasn’t happy when Chuck asked where the guitar part went or the way the other two just sat there and seemed to be waiting him out.”
 
     That was how the planning meeting ended. With a block of time booked at a top of the line LA studio and one of the hottest rock bands in the country confused about what to do with it. They needed a way to relight the spark and get things going again. 
 
     The Jacks booked two gigs at a venue in San Diego and a third at one of their old haunts on the Sunset strip. They’d do a short set list, and then jam for a little while in front of a live audience. At face value it seemed like a perfect way to knock off the rust, get back in the swing of things, and find out what worked and what didn’t for their fans. 
 
                                                                                                #
 
     Jack Simon never made the third show on the Sunset strip. Rather than cancel, Chuck took over lead vocals and The Jacks performed as a trio. LA being LA, the rock ‘n roll press was well represented in the audience. Seeing The Jacks on stage without their front-man was like seeing the Stones without Mick  Jagger or The Who without Roger Daltrey. Speculation ran wild. Was Jack Simon in or out? Who had fired who? 
 
     To make things worse, what should have been a quiet return to the studio to begin work on a new album instead turned into a circus. On day one of recording, the band was mobbed by fans and the media when they made their way into the studio building. 
 
     “Oh yes, there was tension.” Nick Simon recalled. “You could cut it with a knife. That’s not how I like to begin a recording session. What choice did we have though? The label had already advanced a lot of money on the project. Their management was hounding any and everybody about it. We couldn’t just stop the whole thing. That’s not how the business works.”
 
     The best option anybody could come up with was to record in shifts. Drum and bass tracks went down in the afternoons. A lot of times the drummer was so strung out for his sessions Nick would take what he could get and run it as a loop for whatever song they were recording. Rumor has it another drummer was brought in on some tracks. Chuck would record his parts in the mornings and Jack would do his work over night. 
 
     “It wasn’t optimal but it worked.” Nick said. “Definitely, it was a lot different from the way we did the first album with the band set up and more or less playing their songs all together, then working from there. Recording everything separately was a more clinical way of doing things and unfortunately that came across on the second album.”
 
     Compared with the first album, the second wasn’t received with the same sense of excitement. Take all the expectations associated with a second album, add the press coverage of the LA show Jack Simon missed, and then release something that’s the musical equivalent of processed cheese spread and that’s what you get. Critics down checked it as “predictable” and “tame”.
 
     Fans though weren’t quite as harsh. Although the first single didn’t chart well, the second and third did ok. Sales were good and instead of a breakneck fourteen month tour, The Jacks were paired with one of the biggest names in rock as their opening act for a seven month haul across Europe, North America, and the far east. On top of that, management began negotiations with Hollywood so that a fourth song from the album could make the soundtrack of what was expected to be a box office smash.
 
     “When you take a band on tour,” Ruben said, “it’s always hard when they aren’t on the best of terms. A band like The Jacks? They’re going to go out on stage and give the crowd their money’s worth because that’s the kind of band they are. They remember where they came from. It’s all that time away from the stage that’s going to be the problem.”
 
     Ruben Galvez only spent the first month of the tour on the road with The Jacks. An illness sidelined him for the rest of the tour. 
 
     “They tried to be cordial.” Ruben remembered. “They weren’t at the point where they totally hated each other. I’ve seen bands like that before and The Jacks weren’t at that point. The place they were in, it was more like they wanted things to be like they had always been but they didn’t know how to get back there anymore.”
 
     Video footage from the second tour hints at as much. The energy and theatrics of the first tour seemed more forced on the second tour. That edge they brought seemed a little more made up, a little less genuine. And there was Jack Simon. 
 
     “When Ruben got sick,” Loretta Marcus said, “at first I was thrilled to get the call to fill in for him with The Jacks. I liked their music personally and since I was still kind of new in the industry I figured it would be a good opportunity to learn. I met up with the tour in Providence and was like, what have I gotten myself into.”
 
     Jack Simon’s on stage behavior had changed remarkably during the European leg of the tour. Providence was their second North American date after Boston. Where there had once been an passionate lead singer with a six-string slung across his back, now there was an angular figure that crept around the stage and sang with his back to the audience. Jack launched into convulsive spasms that were supposed to be dancing while the rest of the band jammed. Jack’s guitar solos were dissonant and noisy.  
 
     “After Richmond,” Loretta went on, “we were on the bus heading to Charlotte. The other manager, the guy for the headline act, talked to me about pulling The Jacks off the tour. So I decided to have a sit down with Jack and talk about his, well, his antics.”
 
     Bootleg audio and video from Richmond shows a very different Jack Simon than the one fans had come to love. There were entire songs he didn’t sing, Or he changed the words, to the point they almost didn’t make sense. Where his guitar solo was supposed to be, instead, Jack stood there looking down and strumming chords for about two minutes. 
 
     “Jack told me,” Loretta said, “I’ll be great in Charlotte and after. I will.” I trusted him.
 
     Compared with Richmond, when The Jacks took the stage in Charlotte they were better than ever. The edge was there. The power and energy were authentic. Jack reached out to the crowd with call and response sing-a-longs. It was like there had never been bad blood between the first tour and the second. 
 
     Backstage was a different story. Jack and Chuck weren’t talking to the other two members. The drummer’s addictions were starting to fester and take over his life, and the bassist had taken to using pain killers. Chuck and Jack maintained a friendly relationship, but it wasn’t as deep as it used to be. 
 
     “It might sound weird when I say it,” Chuck recalled, “but it’s kind of like having a girlfriend and then you break up but you stay friends. Me and Jack were still friends but we didn’t know each other like we had before. If that makes any sense.”
 
     Atlanta, Jacksonville, then Tallahasee went off as perfectly as Charlotte had. Some fans would say those shows were some of the best The Jacks had ever done. Things changed again in Knoxville.
 
     On the way to Knoxville the headliners tour bus went off the road and tumbled over on its side. Everybody on board was hurt, some worse than others. The lead guitarist was thrown from the bus and didn’t survive the crash. Their tour was over. 
 
     “Everybody was broke up about it real bad,” Loretta remembered, “and then I had to call Ruben. Putting together a tour isn’t easy and it’s not something you can just wave a magic wand and do. We went from a booked and paid for world tour to starting over from scratch.”
 
     “Loretta and I tried to work it out the best we could.” Ruben added. “I started calling in favors and getting things lined up where I could. There were a lot of places that were already booked or that couldn’t give us a slot for weeks or months.”
 
     The Jacks played when and where they could while Ruben and Loretta tried to put something together. They’d play two or three events a week for a few weeks, and then they’d go back to LA and play on the strip. Jack Simon met Penelope around that time. 
 
     “So while we were trying to hold things together until Loretta and Ruben could get us back out on the road full time,” Chuck said, “Jack was spending all his time back in the studio with this artsy chick named Penelope he’d met.”
 
     “Jack said she had opened him up to some new ideas for the third album.” Nick added. “Look, I think we all knew back then that music was getting ready to change like it does every five or ten years or so. I know Jack saw that coming. Some of the stuff he was working on though, it wasn’t anything the label or the band was going to accept as a finished product.”
 
     In between a couple of shows on the strip, the drummer and the bassist decided to try and go clean. A friend of theirs that played in another up and coming band overdosed and almost didn’t make it. They both started going through an out-patient rehab program but with mixed results. 
 
     “The drummer was all about it.” Chuck said. “He had seen the guy OD and he didn’t want to go through that, or not come back from that. The bass player said he wanted to kick his habit too, but it was really hard for him. So I got in touch with everybody and Nick and said let’s meet on a Sunday morning and really figure things out.”
 
     The Sunday morning meeting came and went without Jack Simon. Nick and the band met up at an burger joint near Oxnard for lunch. They waited for half an hour before they tried to call Jack. When they reached the hotel desk, the clerk said Jack had checked out and was heading back to Dayton. 
 
     “It was really strange.” Check recalled. “Jack had been in a strange place though for a long time but I don’t think anybody thought he’d just pack up and go back to Ohio. The other guys were pretty pissed about it. Later on, Nick asked me if I would go with him to Dayton to see if we could find him.”
 
     Chuck and Nick flew out to Nick on a Tuesday. Nick brought some tapes of the music Jack had been working on. Somewhere between take-off from LAX and touch down in Dayton, news had broke saying that Jack Simon had quit The Jacks to pursue a solo career. 
 
     “Chuck and me were baffled,” Nick said, “Jack had never said a word to anybody about going solo or anything like that. Hearing it on the radio as we drove out to his place, it was like a slap in the face.”
 
     “It was,” Chuck agreed, “and it gave us a sense of urgency. I know I wanted to sit Jack down and ask him ‘hey man, what’s the deal’?”
 
     Whatever ideas Nick and Chuck had about sitting down with Jack and stitching The Jacks back together again were a loss before they ever made it to Simon’s house. They parked in front of a lawn overgrown and unkempt. The old van The Jacks had started out in sat beside a shed behind the main house. The van was burned out completely. There were no signs of life anywhere. 
 
     “After we knocked and tried tapping the windows and peeking in, I suspected the worst. We drove down to a mini-mart about half a mile away and called the police and then we went back to the house to wait for them.”
 
     “I’ll never forget following the police into the house.” Chuck remembered. “I kept thinking we’d find him in there and he’d be dead or strung out on something. And I remember how it looked like nothing much had ever really changed inside his house. It felt like stepping back in time a little bit.”
 
     No sign of Jack or Penelope was found in the house, any of the out buildings, or in the van. The case was officially turned over to the Ohio State Police and by afternoon Jack Simon’s property was roped off by crime scene tape and was under twenty-four hour police protection while they tried to figure out what had happened to one of rock’s biggest rising stars. During their investigation, the police found cardboard boxes of unpublished stories in Jack’s basement studio. 
 
     Most of those stories remain in state police custody to this day. A few made it out. The story that follows is one of them. It’s presented here along with my notes in an effort to help find out what happened to Jack Simon.
 
                                                                                                                                               Kyle Caleb Marshall
                                                                                                                           Pacific Beach, California 92109
 
 
                                                                 WAKING UP IN THE ELECTRIC FISHBOWL 
 
                                                                              By: Leonard J. “Jack” Simon
 
     “Dear diary,” even after dozens of video diary entries it still felt awkward to talk to that little circle just above the computer screen, “another great day behind us and, can you smell it? That’s right, coffee!”
 
     The habitat(1), normally sterile and utilitarian, took on a softer, more homely quality when the lights were turned down low and the aroma of hot coffee brewing flavored the processed atmosphere(2).
 
     “Yes I know I know, you shouldn’t drink coffee before bedtime. It’s a funny thing though. After a while down here, somehow a cup or two of coffee is just right. Makes you sleep like a baby(3).” 
 
     It did. And it didn’t make sense. Neither did spending day after day on the bottom of a saline lake. Hypersaline(4) really. The currents(5) that gently rocked the habitat from time to time were thirty-one percent more salty than the ocean. That made it an exceptionally good place for scientific research.
 
     “Let’s see, the lake bed samplings for today were excellent. Great numbers. Right after lunch we(6)...”
 
     The idea of ‘we’ had crept into diary entries lately. There wasn't really a ‘we’ on the bottom of the lake anymore. Yoshi didn’t do anything anymore but rest down in the sub-level. It was probably best for Yoshi to take some time out down there and figure things out(7). Being so far away from the rest of the world hadn’t been easy on either of us(8).
 
     “After lunch I,” with a smile and emphasis on the I, “ran the processes, let me see they were the 12301 version A and the beta for the one that ran yesterday(9). Yoshi’s ok. A little tuckered out these days but ok. Anyway, the process results were sent off before dinner and since I was ahead of schedule for once I took some me time and watched some movies(10).””
 
     Truth was the schedule was trashed. Most days were spent doing lake bed samples with the remote controlled rover. They all came back the same. Calcium. Sodium Chloride. Areas where sulfurs had or were presently venting from underneath the earth(11). Once in a while the larvae of shrimp or some other creature came back up in the sludge. 
 
     Strange creatures. Low light levels, the extreme pressure found at such a great depth, and the lake’s chemistry itself conspired to alter the geometry of life. Normal life. Rational life(12). There were things out there that defied biological conventions.
 
     “Finally in this week’s installment of is there life out there, this specimen showed up on deck during rover wash down.” Had it been a week since the last installment of that sickly sweet ‘is there life out there’ weekly thing Yoshi once insisted they do together? Yoshi used to say it would help pass the time and that it was better to count by weeks than by days or by months. So what. There were at least two digital displays in every room except the sub-level that showed the date and the time so it wasn’t hard to count up the days. If the clocks were correct. Were they correct(13)?
 
     The specimen itself hadn’t drizzled off the rover when high pressure water and foam cleanser stripped the mineral crust from its plastic and carbon fiber. A wash was supposed to happen every time the rover was lowered into its airlock which in turn was gradually filled with water from outside so the rover could be sent on its mission. Most missions lasted an hour or so which was long enough to encrust the rover in a glistening shell. Who knew what grew inside the rover’s crevices? It hadn’t been washed in days. Maybe weeks.
 
     Or had it? The rover sat on its elevator, encrusted in the lake world’s residue. Caked on hard and thick, so much so that the steering system wasn’t working all that well and one of the camera lenses was completely obscured. 
 
     The specimen was one already documented at least once before. In its original form it had probably been some kind of lobster. Beautiful with deep violet streaks along an angular body contained in a dull grey-green outer hide. Intelligent too(14). While it was living it seemed to be able to detect and 
react to Yoshi’s presence even though Yoshi was down below in the sub-level. After the creature passed, a kitchen knife fashioned him into something slightly different for the digital diary to chronicle(15). Just the digital diary though. There was no need to report it topside and upset the biological world with lives that existed only in a bored imagination(16).
 
     “Well, as they say that’s all folks,” and with a click the blinking light went out. The computer screen said the file was being saved and the coffee smelled wonderful. 
 
                                                                                                             #
 
     In soft monotone the feminine voice reminded that the habitat's interior temperature was 72 degrees fahrenheit, 22 celcius, and that humidity was below the permissible twenty-five percent threshold. The temperature rarely varied by more than a degree or two. Humidity never changed much either. Even when a long, hot shower allowed steam to drift throughout the voice would dutifully advise that she was reducing water
temperature and activating stage two ventilation. The habitat’s insistence upon self preservation made for a very convenient lifestyle sometimes. 
 
     At night lighting in the sleeping quarters automatically changed to a gentle blue hue. Quarters were bound by an oval window on one wall and a flat-screen with an ever changing kaleidoscope of color on another. The bunks(17), cradled in a steel frame and sheet metal, were more functional than aesthetic. But at night they were as comfortable as home. If it was really night. Or day. Or yesterday or tomorrow or both or none. 
 
     That’s how it had been growing up back home where the back bedroom on the second floor became a sanctuary when the rest of the world didn’t make sense. Dad with his questions and mom with her silence(18) when the guy at the music store had said he’d sell the guitar, the black one with the wood chipped away on one side(19), for $100 even. Three chords were what mattered back then. They helped make sense of the blur of days spent not fitting in(20) when fitting in was what mattered most at that age. 
 
     “Temperature in the habitat is now 75 degrees fahreheit  24 degrees celcius and humidity is within parameters”, the voice said. 
 
     On the top bunk the patterns and shadows overhead played tricks with perception. Had she said 75? Or had that been part of one of those weird dreams that comes when sleep doesn’t want to? Those dreams had bothered Yoshi(21) too. 
 
     Yoshi. What a name. It meant ‘good luck’ or ‘righteous’. Those fit Yoshi perfectly(22). Things were so different now that Yoshi’s bottom bunk was empty. But Yoshi had to go away. It was the right thing to do. The habitat was getting to Yoshi and it was affecting work. Safety. Everything. Just like back home when things got to dad, somebody had to be a man and take care of mom and the house(23).  
 
     “Temperature in the habitat is now 82 degrees farhenheit 28 degrees celcius and humidity is approaching threshold”, the voice’s tone was more stringent this time, “activating stage two ventilation and auxiliary cooling system one.”
 
     “Get a job will ya.” Dad’s tone used to be stringent when he'd shout through the bedroom door. He never knew that even with three chords still ringing in the air his muttering was still audible as he stormed down the stairs. “And toughen up boy...be a man for chrissakes,” dad would say. When he said that it hurt. It hurt because in life we don’t get to choose and we can’t be what we are not, no matter how bad we wish we could for
ourselves. For mom. 
 
     Anyway, things were fine. Just fine. Do the math. Every day spent underwater was a day without bills all those gigs at The Nine Lives(24) couldn’t pay off. A day without the outside world getting inside your personal space when all you wanted was for them to leave you alone. Yoshi was like that. Never grasped the concept of personal space. Always getting too close and then feigning offense when called out for it.   
 
     Yoshi was better off in the sub-level. That was where the main machinery was. A crawlspace where the walls were covered in thick white insulation and the steel floors were painted lime green. If Yoshi hadn’t wanted to be there? Oh well, we are all victims of our choices in life one way or another aren’t we?
 
     “Temperature in the habitat is now 90 degrees farhenheit 32 degrees celcius and humidity is approaching threshold”, the female voice gave way to a male tone, “recommend shutdown of all non-essential equipment at this time.”
 
     The right thing to do would be to climb down from the top bunk and call the shore station topside. That’s what needed to be done. Call up there and let them know there was a problem(25). 
 
     Probably a bad sensor in the environmental monitoring system. A system administrator could login in and remotely reset it, or walk through the steps to replace it with one from the storage module like Yoshi had done one time before. It didn’t feel like 90 degrees. It did feel like the waters around the structure were more turbulent than usual though.
 
     Had a vent opened in the lake bed somewhere close by? That made sense. A rush of hot, sulfur-laden water could be boiling up all around the habitat, causing it to jostle and sway. The primary environmental sensors were in the sub-level so it made sense they would register the increase in temperature there before it was apparent elsewhere. It had happened once before.
 
     A geothermal vent had opened near the habitat a few months ago. For several days the temperature readings were way off and subterranean currents shook the habitat down to its moorings. Yoshi had gone down into the sub-level to check on the sensor. Then he adjusted some of the hydraulics that helped maintain the structure’s balance. It helped. The thing to do now would be to go down there and check the sensor and the hydraulics. That meant seeing Yoshi. Coming face to face with Yoshi again. Which would be unsettling. Unnerving. And besides, it was late. The
hydraulics and the sensor could wait until morning or the next day if the currents didn’t ease up on their own.  
 
                                                                                                  #
 
     There was a sound. A sound inside the habitat. Somewhere downstairs in the main living area. Low. So low it birthed doubt where there should have been hot blooded fear right there in that decrepit little bunk room that had once been perfect but nothing ever is and the closer to perfect it is the harder it falls out of favor. 
 
     “Emergency emergency,” the voice said, “structural breach in the sub-level.” Of all the things that could go wrong so far under the surface this was one of the worst. 
 
     Out of favor. Yes. That’s what it was as the noise became more evident. Fallen out of favor with the holy or the elements or the ancient spirits or some writhing mass of congealed psyches of the living and the dead and the yet to come. Was that what this was? That had to be what this was and if it was – no it was – what supplications could be offered that would make it go away?
 
     Call in a favor. That sound that noise that unholy dread(26) manifest downstairs in the main living area was undeniably devouring as it sought to sate its hunger. Who to call? Who would listen? Eric. Bobby. Jennifer. Uncle Stan or Aunt Louise? Fat chance. They would never listen. Not after it all came to a head with dad(27). Even if they would listen why would the phone to shore give up a dial tone when by now the dread had chewed through the line. 
 
     “Casualty condition in the main living area. Casualty condition in the main living area.” The voice begged to be spared from the coming rage. The wrath. “All personnel are advised to take immediate protective measures.”
 
     Crackling crunching popping breathing groaning pulsing and moving towards the stairs. Step by step a little faster each second and why hadn’t the alarms sounded earlier with their call that could’ve made the difference(28). 
 
     Pile things in its path yes anything and everything for heaven’s sake put something in its path because laying there dead in a bunk bed wasn’t working. Noxious whisps of its fog were already surveilling the sleeping quarters looking for what it wanted and then making sure so that the dread could cough in under and around the door until there was enough of it to slither between lips and into nostrils and into the lungs so that the natural exchange of antiseptic air and real life giving blood could be interrupted. 
 
     The dread was unnantural. Of this world and not of this world and neither animal nor spiritual the dread was known by mariners ancient who had been lucky enough for their near misses to become folklore and by Dr. Martin Leggler(29) who had arranged the whole habitat thing. Damn him! Damn Dr. Leggler for that ad he ran in the paper and for saying that it was safe when it was a death trap even if it had procedures in place in case the dread came breathing around the sleeping quarters. And for saying there were ways to abort the whole thing and heave the habitat up out of those toxic depths. 
 
     Depths so far gone the world outside was black as night every hour of all those days that blurred together and there was no way to know the hour of any of them anymore because even though the clocks in every room said it was Wednesday December 6th 22:37, prove it! Prove that and the fact that the world outside was the bottom of a vast inland sea never before visited by mankind.
 
     Prove it Doctor Leggler! And prove that the toxic miasma swirling about would fade the second your lackeys pushed the emergency button bringing cranes to life that would haul the habitat out of the depths of hell and into the world of light and life.
 
     Or were recent suspicions on point after all? The whole thing had been a trick. A set up. To send a body into deep space. So deep the stars never shone. That’s what it was. And the dread was some vile interstellar predator starved for the taste of skin and bones and blood and soul. Or a transgalactic parasite that deigned to inhabit an interesting and unfamiliar species. To multiply itself inside arms and legs and eyes. 
 
     The dread was already withholding breath from blood and replacing oxygen with a million chemical poisons. Fight it. Move. Move damn you! Pick up something anything and smash it against the window. The folding chair. Use that! Harder. Harder. Like a man will ya. 
 
     This was no way to die. This was no way to die like a man. Movies didn’t let the hero die like this because in movies heroes are always the favored ones. They are loved and they are adored and when they die on ill-fated expeditions to nowhere they become martyrs people choked back tears over. 
 
     Tears. Real ones. Blurring up in the eyes and making what was left of this world look like a quivering mess. Boys don’t cry. Boys. Don’t. Cry. Should have said sorry more. Should have said less. Listened more. Been nicer to mom and to Yoshi and everyone else.(30) Damn that window. Why wouldn’t it splinter and crack and go brittle and then give way and even if it was interstellar nothingness out there that was a better fate than enduring the advancing acrid sting already burning skin. 
 
     Quivering mess. Shivering sorry quivering mess. So sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Crouch down in the corner near the window. Press hard against the wall. So hard the roaring rage of the noise wasn’t just deafening it was reverberating through the wall and into the mortal tendrils that anchored soul to flesh. It had been easy enough to sever what anchored Yoshi’s soul to flesh. That had been the righteous thing to do hadn’t it? Was that how this went for everyone? That concoction of soul and flesh that makes one whole ripped apart when the dread rattling the door in its frame burst into the sleeping quarters. 
 
     Falling. The sensation of falling. Geometry shifting as the gravitational pull of some celestial body took hold. Or was the habitat under water after all and Dr. Leggler’s crew with their cranes raised high above the desert steppe had pushed the emergency button and the diesels had surged to life and the wheels had squeaked then squealed round and round pulling up lengths of steel cable thick as a grown man’s arm and then something went wrong and the habitat was falling back down towards the lake bottom. 
 
     Sweat and tears and the door rattling and ready to give way because the dread was out there and the hallway was consumed and gone and the only thing left was the sleeping quarters. This was it. The part they don’t write about in stories about people that end because they can’t since the dead can’t write stories that tell the living what life’s last moments are like. No, this was no way to die for a man or for anyone else. 
 
     Numb. Disoriented. Drooling vomit and mucous. What had been perceptible in the room wasn’t anymore and visions of angels that shouldn’t have been there danced overhead. Grip and heave the chair hard against the window one last time. Then duck for cover and hold life’s last breath hard inside as the glass splintered and then shattered free of its frame(31). 
 
     The unmistakable sound of a telephone ringing pierced the cold, empty darkness. A pay telephone, slow tumbling end over was ringing. The pay phone at the end of the universe that’s always ringing. 
 
 FOOTNOTES
 
1) Jack Simon used “the habitat” in general terms to describe a recording studio, and in particular to describe his hone studio in Dayton, Ohio. More so than anywhere else, the studio was where he felt the most comfortable and at his creative best. 
2) Simon often burned incense or other aromatics in the studio to, in his words, “help frame the spirit”. 
3) In the months before his disappearance it’s been said Jack Simon no longer slept, at least not in the conventional sense. Instead he existed in an in-between world fueled by amphetamines when he wanted to work and broken up by naps here and there and occasionally a crash in which he sometimes slept for days at a time. Whether he used sleeping pills or other substances to force himself to sleep is unclear. 
4) Band members claim that Jack Simon viewed the world as a hostile, predatory place. The world made Jack Simon uncomfortable. Jack believed there were always figures circling just outside his own inner circle intent on doing him or his band harm. This had been Simon’s outlook since The Jacks earliest days and it intensified when the band gained fame and notoriety. 
5) Probably a reference to tensions that had always existed within the band, and that worsened over time. 
6) Initially “we” seems like a reference to Penelope. Without a doubt Jack and Penelope became extraordinarily close. However, as his story unfolds it’s debatable whether “we” and “Yoshi” which is used synonymously, refers to Penelope or to an unidentified figure in Jack Simon’s inner circle.
7) The context and tone of this reference to “we” and “Yoshi” lends credibility to the idea that Jack subconsciously created “Yoshi” as a psychological extension of himself. Alternately, it may be that rumors of Jack’s bisexuality were true and that Yoshi was as close a partner to Jack as Penelope was.  8) When and where Yoshi and Jack’s lives initially intersected doesn’t matter as much as Yoshi’s effect on Jack Simon. Yoshi latched on to Simon, isolating him from everyone but Penelope. Jack may have tried to build some distance between his own life and Yoshi’s intentions. If so, Yoshi’s reaction may have been a contributing factor to Jack’s disappearance.
9) 12300 and 12301 were marked tapes found in a Los Angeles studio after Jack Simon was reported missing. There is no record of Simon, The Jacks, or anyone connected to them ever booking time in that particular studio. To date the studio has not released these tapes to anyone outside law enforcement. Those that have heard the tapes claim that they don’t contain any music by The Jacks and instead contain commercial jingle music out-takes.  
10) It’s well understood that Jack Simon wasn’t a big movie watches. When he uses “movie” here it’s most likely a euphemism for something else. What though is unclear. Equally important to note is that he asserts his need for “me” time away from Yoshi. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help determine whether Yoshi was Jack’s lover or an extension of Jack’s own psyche. 
11) There were individuals, some close to or within Jack’s inner circle, that didn’t have Jack Simon’s best interests at heart. Dark forces that didn’t understand him or the direction he knew The Jacks needed to go in the future. People like that viewed Jack as merely one part of a larger vehicle they thought they could ride to the top. The only defense Jack understood was to withdraw into himself rather than face them. 
12) “Geometry of life”, “normal life”, and “rational life” were Penelope’s phrases. Her artwork was fixated on these themes. Penelope was fascinated by the idea of taking things that were normal and rational, and “deconstructing their geometry” in her own way. 
13) Penelope rejected the idea of time. At least as far as her and Jack’s art were concerned. Time was one of those things she felt she could deconstruct and repurpose on her own terms. 
14) This seems to refer to Penelope and if so, it indicates that Yoshi preceded her in Jack’s life. Further, it suggests there were tensions between Jack, Yoshi, and Penelope. 
15) Did Jack want to change Penelope? Break up with her? Or was it something else? Penelope was a strong-willed young woman and would have resisted change. If Jack had broken up with her, she would have gone back to Los Angeles where most of her friends lived. As for more nefarious possibilities, it’s highly unlikely Jack Simon would have harmed Penelope. Jack couldn’t handle confrontation.
16) This lends credence to the idea that Yoshi may have been a psychological extension of Jack Simon. Furthermore, it’s possible that certain aspects of Penelope were fictional as well. Penelope was a real person. There is no doubt about that. But was she really an art student that shared many of Jack Simon’s proclivities? Or was Penelope an art student and glorified groupie that played along with Jack Simon’s game to share in his money and fame?
17) Here, Simon is describing life on the tour bus.  
18) Lawrence J. Simon’s upbringing wasn’t a happy one. Jack never got along with his father and he couldn’t stand the way his father bullied his mother into near constant silence.
19) The guitar described here remained Jack’s primary instrument of choice and was also noted as missing from his Dayton residence. 
20) Lawrence J. Simon never fit in well at school or among most of his peers growing up. Some thought he was gay. Others found his moody and often intense mannerisms as either overbearing or excessively dramatic. 
21) On a tape found in Jack’s home studio marked 11197, as a lengthy instrumental piece ends a voice in the background can be heard saying either “I’m sick of these dreams” or “what’s wrong with me”. It’s unknown whether the voice is Jack Simon’s or somebody else’s. Voice analysis has never been performed on tape 11197.
22) With this reference, there is no doubt Yoshi was either a psychological or some other manifestation of or within Jack Simon’s mind. Yoshi represented all the things Jack Simon wanted to be but couldn’t bring himself to be. Yoshi was the straight A student his father had wanted to try out for the football team, sleep with the homecoming queen, and then get a scholarship to a big-name college. While Jack Simon scraped by with C’s, was too frail for sports, had qualities that hinted at the effeminate, and had no ambitions beyond playing guitar in a rock ‘n roll band. 
23) Yoshi and Jack couldn’t co-exist forever. At some point things had come to a head and Jack had taken steps first to contain Yoshi and later, to make Yoshi cease to be. Given her influence over Jack, Penelope no doubt played a role in this. 
24) The Nine Lives were where The Jacks first got their start. Those early years were difficult. They haunted Jack Simon. Even after The Jacks made it big, Simon knew that a bad turn of luck or two could put them back in their van crammed with gear and hustling for gigs at places like The Nine Lives. 
25) Supposedly, Jack Simon made a series of phone calls to his bandmates in the forty-eight hours before his disappearance. At least one of these calls may have been recorded on an answering machine. As the story goes, Jack asked for help in very specific terms. Whether this is true or not is unknowns and to date audio recordings have never been released. 
26) The supernatural cannot be ruled out as the reason for Jack Simon and Penelope’s disappearance. Jack often spoke of “the dread”. It was something he believed lurked around himself and his inner circle. In Jack’s view “the dread” manifest itself in ill intentions and it conspired to take away everything they accomplished. Eventually, Jack believed “the dread” would consume them all leaving nothing in its wake. 
27) “The dread” had been there the night Lawrence J. Simon came home drunk and got into a fist fight with his father. That was the night Jack left home for good and moved full time into what would later become The Jacks tour van. 
28) Had Jack Simon set the tour van on fire out behind his Dayton residence? Had Penelope done it? Someone else? Was it done in a celebratory manner, marking their impending departure from life as they’d known it as they moved into a more anonymous lifestyle someplace else? Was there some other reason why the van had been set on fire?
29) The identity of Dr. Martin Leggler has never been determined. Reviews of medical licensing boards have failed to identify a Dr. Leggler that could have realistically been connected with Jack Simon or Penelope. Dr. Martin Leggler may represent a parapsychologist or specialist in the occult that Penelope introduced Jack to. Or, the doctor may be a figment of Jack Simon’s imagination. 
30) A reference to “Boy’s Don’t Cry” by The Cure, one of Jack Simon’s favorite bands. 
31) The only damage discovered within Jack Simon’s Dayton residence was that the glass window separating the recording booth from the studio control area had been broken; most likely a folding chair had been used to shatter the glass in the window frame as though someone had struggled to break free from its confinement.
 
                                                                                          ###
             
                                                                                THE INTERVIEW  
      
     “Good morning Mr. Marshall, good to meet you.” Anthony smiled as he took a seat in the diner. “Like we talked about on the phone, I’m Anthony Murray with the Dayton Star. If it’s okay with you I’d like to record our conversation just to make sure I get the notes right.”
 
     “Of course,” Kyle Marshall replied. 
 
     “So for the record,” Anthony began, ”you’re Kyle Caleb Marshall?”
 
     “Absolutely,” Kyle smiled, “Kyle Caleb Marshall and I’ve been working in and around rock music since before you were born young man.”
 
     “So,” Anthony blushed, “you’ve probably seen a lot of the biggest stars then.”
 
     “Most of them yes,” Kyle replied dryly, “but I’ve never seen a case like the Jack Simon story.”
 
     “Right,” Kyle replied, “so what got you involved in the Jack Simon disappearance? Were you connected with the band in some way or was it personal interest or...”
 
     “Both.” Kyle interrupted. “I followed The Jacks when they were coming up. I knew from moment one they were going to be something special. At the time I was working for a record label out in LA and they had me on the road here in Ohio looking for talent. I guess I found it.”
 
     “Do you think Jack Simon’s disappearance had something to do with his talent? Was he such a larger than life figure he couldn’t handle the realities of stardom?”
 
     “I don’t know,” Kyle said after a long pause, “I don’t know that any living, breathing human being is truly capable of handling everything that kind of fame throws at you all at once. Anthony? Do you like girls?”
 
     “Well um,” the reporter blushed again, “I do. I just got engaged in fact.”
 
     “Congratulations.” Kyle reached out and shook the young man’s hand. “Now imagine if you went from life as normal to being able to call a guy and have all the women and the booze and anything else you wanted delivered to you for the asking. That’s the kind of fame The Jacks had to deal with.”
 
     “I guess that can be pretty intense.” Anthony agreed.
 
     “That’s not what happened to Jack Simon though.” Kyle smiled.
 
     “It’s not?” 
 
     “No, it’s not.” Kyle continued. “It’s going to sound crazy when I say it, but I think somehow he sold his soul to something. Don’t ask me what.”
 
     “I’m not sure I follow Mr. Marshall.”
 
     “Call me Kyle.”
 
     “Okay Mr. Marshall err Kyle” Anthony stammered, “I’m not sure what you mean when you say he sold his soul.”
 
     “You’ve read the story?” Kyle asked. “The one I marked up with my footnotes?”
 
     “I did and in fact I brought it with me,” Anthony looked down at his briefcase. 
 
     “If you ask me,” Kyle said after another long pause, “Jack Simon was into things. Spiritual things. And he was in way over his head. Then Penelope came along and she was into the same kind of stuff.”
 
     “Double suicide?” Anthony offered. 
 
     “Not so much suicide,” Kyle took a deep gulp of his coffee, “but rather, the two of them took things too far and they had to pay for it.”
 
     “So you’re saying evil spirits took them away?” Anthony couldn’t help but smirk.
 
     “Look,” Kyle answered, “I flew out here from the west coast to talk to you because you said you were doing an expose on the case. I gave you what I have and I told you what I’ve come up with. Evil spirits? Ghosts? Who knows. You’d have to ask an expert in those things about that. What I do know is that Jack Simon and Penelope Martin were into things they ought not have been and that’s why they aren’t with us in this world anymore.”
 
     “They were cursed?” Anthony tried.
 
     “If that makes it easier,” Kyle was growing annoyed with Anthony’s smug demeanor, “call it a curse. For all we know we’re cursed too just because we talked about Jack Simon.”
 
     “That’s interesting.” Anthony lied. “Can you excuse me for a moment, I need to use the restroom.”
 
     Kyle Marshall smiled and nodded. Anthony crossed the diner’s linoleum floor and made his way towards the restrooms. Of all the crackpots he’d ever interviewed this Kyle Caleb Marshall guy took the cake. A curse was the reason a rock star disappeared?
 
     “Wait till I tell the guys back at the office about this one,” Anthony laughed at himself in the bathroom mirror, “that it was a curse. I hope it isn’t contagious.” In the distance there was the unmistakable sound of a telephone ringing.
 
                                                                                                   #
 
     There’s a pay phone at the end of the universe. It’s always ringing. If you ask the guy working the grill why, he’s not going to know. His name is Jared. Don’t ask Jared, okay Anthony? Just don’t. Just know that it’s ringing. 
 
     If you were to look at the phone Anthony, you’d see it had a number written in ballpoint black on the front. It’s right there, in a recessed space on a gleaming metal plate so clear you can see your soul reflected in it – if you still have a soul anyway. Right there above the pushbuttons sits a number, the pay phone’s number. Written there on the pay phone and scrawled inside a Dayton restroom stall along with things like:
 
     “For a good time call Amber”
 
     A rudimentary sketch of a skull and crossbones above the name of a rock band nobody’s ever heard of. 
 
     “If you shake it more than once...”
 
     “EDDIE!”
 
     “I’m F
           A
            L
           L
            I
            N
             G
         SPLASH!”
 
     But the restroom stall isn’t in Dayton anymore. It’s out there too. Big thick panels of puke green and graffiti slow tumbling end over end in zero gravity forever. It used to have a tail. Of toilet paper unraveling little bit little in the void. Cosmic rays disintegrated the toilet paper over time. Not the restroom stall though, where about the pay phone’s number the words “if Jared says the world’s about to end you gotta call me at” are written in thick black.
 
                                                                                         #
 
     Off Dawes Street, Mr. John’s sits wedged in between a sheet metal warehouse and a vacant lot. The warehouse used to be something. Really something. It isn’t anymore. The company name painted on one side is faded and many of the loading docks sit idle day in day out. 
 
     In fact, walking into Mr. John’s is like stepping back into May 12, 1992. That’s the date on the calendar hanging just behind the cash register. It never changes. Neither do the same three truck drivers with their coffees and eggs or the lone waitress watching the second hand chase the minute hand around the clock. Neither does Jared working in the back to make sure the omelet you ordered matches the picture of the omelet in the menu.
 
                                                                                           #
 
     A cheese omelet seemed like the best choice Anthony thought, although the western sounded pretty good too. Cheese omelet with a side of hash browns and an orange juice. The waitress – Liz printed on her nametag – jotted it down. It would’ve been delicious, that cheese omelet. It was neutralized early on through. But not Liz’s pencil. Yellow, with a little pink eraser on one end and the number two stamped in blue. Her pencil is somersaulting somewhere through interstellar nothingness. 
 
     In those final moments before Jared said it, a palpable disquiet settled over Mr. John’s. The second hand chasing the minute hand. Liz staring blankly out the window. Three grizzled truck drivers mumbling through their conversation between slurps of coffee and mouthfuls of eggs. Kyle Caleb Marshall sitting in a booth. The screech of a loading bay door opening or closing over at the warehouse. The rumble of a tractor-trailer barreling down Dawes Street trying to beat the claxons and crossbucks that would block traffic so a freight train could pass through. 
 
     And then the jingle of the bell attached to Mr. John’s door. The sound of shoes walking across the linoleum. Liz shifting her attention from the window to the middle-aged man coming her way. With his hands shoved into his pockets and a tense expression on his weather-beaten face. She’d seen him before. Jared had seen him before. Somewhere. But where?
 
                                                                                             # 
 
     How a wanted poster survived as long as it did when cosmic rays turned so many other things into ask is anyone’s guess. It was fitting. The grim weather-beaten face sailing past the galaxies had survived as a fugitive for a long time. 
 
     Authorities never knew the stick-up man’s name. They knew he had robbed dozens of places all over Ohio and before that they had reason to believe he might have done the same around Buffalo, New York. At first, he knocked them off at night. Then he started robbing places during the day. By the time he made it to Mr. Johns’s in Dayton, his robberies involved violence. “$25,000 for information” had once appeared in red – now washed pale pink – above his likeness on the wanted man poster. 
 
     The wanted man marched Liz, Jared, and the customers into a storeroom before he ransacked a small office off the kitchen looking for cash, or anything else of value. Outside, the distant throaty whine from an approaching freight train’s whistle cried. 
 
    “All right,” the wanted man shouted, “you ain’t got nuthin back here and there was twenty-two bucks in the register. Where are you hiding the money!”
 
     “That’s all there is,” Jared offered. 
 
     “That’s a load of bull,” the wanted man snapped, “get over here and get on your knees. Move it!”
 
     Jared took a small, nervous step forward and then looked at the others. “Our world’s about to end,” he told them. 
 
     Right then Anthony, if you could, you’d reach out. You’d answer the phone ringing at the end of the universe. You’d tell Jared, Liz, or one of the old truck drivers about the freight train pounding way too fast down the track towards a tanker truck stuck in the train’s path because one of its front tires had blown out. That the wanted man wouldn’t even have time to cock his pistol because once 10,000 tons of heavy freight hit the tanker truck the ensuing fireball and derailment would annihilate Mr. John’s and the warehouse next door. If you spoke to the wanted man, you’d tell him to look at what his own greed had done to him and that he could’ve been anywhere but Mr. John’s if he hadn’t decided to knock off a diner on a Wednesday morning. 
 
     Anthony, If you could reach out and answer the phone, you’d tell yourself how lucky it was that you’d been in the restroom when the wanted man rounded everybody else up. And that if you moved fast – like your life depended on it because it did – there was a chance you could make it. Yeah, you might get hurt once the train cars came off the tracks and whipped their way across half a dozen city blocks. But those odds were better than the curse those people trapped in the storeroom had been stricken with.
 
                                                                                            ###
 
 
 

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