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Books by Quantum Muse contributors and friends.
A Felony of Birds

by
Harris Tobias
The Greer Agency

by
Harris Tobias
CHRONON--Time Travel

by
Harris Tobias
The Stang

by
Harris Tobias

The Atheist Diaries

by

Patrick Niemeyer



I

When he was young, Ethan had liked to look at the moon. It was inherently mysterious—a giant, glowing orb of which he saw only one side. These days, he was not quite so enamored. Maybe he was just preoccupied, but whenever he looked at the moon now, he saw just one more light. It was sad. He prayed to something he couldn’t see, but there was something more comforting staring him right in the face. And his dreams were growing increasingly fevered. Every time he shut his eyes, he saw a flurry of images so frantic and intense that when he opened his eyes again, he wondered if he’d gone to sleep at all. He’d tried keeping a dream journal, but it only took the edge off. Something was wrong, not just in his mind, but in his waking life. And he wanted answers.

He stood at the path leading up to Mrs. Bridges’ house. She wasn’t your typical sweet old lady, nor was she the creepy old spinster with a dozen cats who chased you off with a broom if you set foot on her lawn. No, she was somewhere in between. She had a cat, but he was quite friendly, and while she had a sharp tongue, she was happy to distribute cookies to the neighborhood kids every now and then. Most importantly, she had an almost supernatural ability to see what you were going through before you even knew it. It was that that drove him to walk up the steps, place his hand on the knocker, and announce his presence to whomever lay within.

“Come in,” croaked a woman’s voice. He half-expected the door to open by itself, but he grasped the handle and pushed it open. It was heavy. The hall beyond was musty. None of this was surprising, although he did blink once or twice upon seeing Jerry Springer on the TV in the next room.

“Good to see you, Ethan,” she said as he stepped inside. “I thought you’d be in school today.”

“It’s a holiday,” he said. “Archdiocese decided to give us the day off.”

“That was nice of them,” she said, patting the sofa cushion next to her. He sat down. Today’s program was about a husband and wife who had both slept with each other’s parents. Her parents had enjoyed the three-way with him, but his had found her a bit of a cold fish. He suggested she sit in on another three-way between him and her parents to get a few pointers, but she elected instead to take off her top and head-butt her husband. Mrs. Bridges turned off the TV before he could see the exciting conclusion. “Are you still praying?” she asked.

He had been dreading this question. “Yes,” he said truthfully.

“But…?”

He sighed. There was no fooling her. “It doesn’t feel right,” he said. “It’s like there’s no one listening.”

“So why do you do it?”

“I don’t know. I just can’t stop. I’ve been doing it ever since I could talk.”

“Did you ever really want to?”

“I think. When I was little, I loved to pray. It was like God was my imaginary friend and I could talk to him whenever I felt lonely.”

“Your imaginary friend?”

“Yeah. I know how it sounds.”

“Well, don’t force yourself. Take a night off. Maybe it’ll come back.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

She turned the TV back on. The guest was convinced that his newly-out gay younger brother was possessed by Satan. He had tried to exorcise his brother by physically wrestling the demons out. His brother, however, had turned out to be the better wrestler, and now they were both gay. Ethan thought the younger one reminded him of Mr. Benton.

He stayed for a while, then left. Mrs. Bridges didn’t always have much to say, but what she had to say was quite meaningful. Tonight, he would do something that he hadn’t done since his age was in the low single digits: go to bed without praying. Perhaps he’d just stare at the moon for a minute or two. It was very pretty, and unlike God, he usually knew where it was.

II

Marcia lay in her bed, staring at the ceiling. Her mother had told her never to think too hard about why she couldn’t sleep. Trying to sleep was the quickest route to insomnia. Still, she was frustrated. What else was she supposed to think about?

She wanted to call a nurse, although she had no idea what she would call him or her for. They weren’t here just to provide the patients with company. Of course, some of them were friendly, but she was fairly certain that that was part of the job. They were there to look after the patients and make their stay in the hospital as comfy as possible, not make friends with them. Still, there were a couple who seemed to genuinely care. They were the godly ones, as her mother used to say.

If she wasn’t mistaken, two orderlies had just slipped away for a tryst in one of the storage closets. They were both male, but that wasn’t such a big deal, at least not in this day and age. At least they were keeping it down. One of them had had a woman in that same closet the other day, and she wasn’t nearly so quiet. Of course, every noise sounded a lot louder than it was supposed to. The smell of death hung in the air. They tried to cover it up by being nice and keeping everything so sterile, but that didn’t fool her. She didn’t have long to go. The pain was well nigh unbearable, even with all of the drugs they gave her, and she hadn’t kept a meal down in God knows how long. It didn’t help that hospital food made her sick. She’d take a bacon cheeseburger over this stuff any day, but they’d never allow it. If I’m going to throw it up, I might as well enjoy it, she thought.

She could just see the moon through the window. It was not quite full tonight. A gibbous moon, that was what they called it. Very pretty. As a girl, she’d wondered if the moon disappeared every time it went behind a cloud. She knew it was silly, but couldn’t help herself. For some reason, she never asked the same question during the day. The sun did not need the moon. Even at night, its presence was felt in the form of the light that the moon reflected back at the Earth. But the sun could exist without the moon. The moon only existed in relation to the Earth and the sun, doing nothing but providing beautiful light for everyone to see by. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

The orderlies reemerged. They probably got so lazy because they figured that nobody was awake to see them at this time of night. She didn’t mind. Even if she suddenly dropped dead, there wouldn’t be much anyone could do for her. She was an old lady with terminal cancer. Who gave a fuck what happened to her? Well, that was a bit harsh. Ethan would miss her. Yes, that was a good kid. Troubled, but sweet. Marcia remembered teaching him to swim. She hadn’t taught him to swim, exactly, so much as helped him work up the courage to take his first few tentative steps into the water. Before she knew it, he’d mastered the dog paddle and was just starting to tread water. There was something about picturing him floating out in the middle of the deep end, his parents applauding him for his bravery, his grandmother sitting on the edge of the pool, ready to dive in in case he needed her that made her tear up. He had looked so tiny in the middle of that big blue pool, his arms and legs not even close to touching anything solid, but she thought he looked bigger than most grown men. In recent years, her children had grown bored with her. That didn’t bug her. The Luna blood was strong in that boy.

I hope we meet in Heaven. She tried to turn on her side, but her distended belly made that impossible. So she continued to stare at the ceiling. Perhaps she was just a silly old lady, but she swore there was something beyond it.

III

Ethan closed his locker and strode down the hall to his first classroom. Richard sat on the floor just outside the door, playing a game on his iPhone. Ethan sat down next to him. “Hey,” said Richard, not taking his eyes off the phone.

“Hey.”

“Did you see Mr. Benton yesterday?”

“I was sick, remember?”

“Oh yeah, that’s right. He was wearing a really faggy shirt. It had, like, guys blowing each other on it.”

“Really?”

“Actually, they were cherubs, but, same diff.”

“I don’t know why he doesn’t just come out.”

“I met his girlfriend.”

“She’s real.”

“I know, right? Yeah, she came to one of our concerts. She was really nice.”

“That’s cool.”

They sat in silence. Richard was getting really good at that game. Ethan wondered if he played it even when he was getting a blowjob.

“Ethan Francis-Luna!” cried a familiar voice. He knew it well, but it hadn’t sounded in these halls in all too long. It was Kurt, back from a long vacation in Europe visiting family. He sprang up to give his old friend a hug, silently remarking on how much lighter his blond hair and darker his pale skin had gotten after apparently hitting up every beach on the Mediterranean.

“How was it?” he asked.

“Wonderful,” said Kurt. “Especially the National Socialist rally.” Ethan smiled. Kurt was only half-German, but he had a pretty sick sense of humor. It was a good thing that their Jewish friends were not easily offended.

Richard was still playing his game when the two sat down on either side of him. Kurt could not stop talking about all of the tourist spots he’d hit up. Apparently, nude beaches were something to be avoided unless you liked looking at fat old people. (Although judging by Kurt’s enthusiasm as he recounted the story, it was possible that he was into that.)

It was a pretty normal day, except for one thing. After Beginning Percussion, Mr. Benton asked to speak to him for a minute. Ethan stepped inside his office and closed the door. (Mr. Benton insisted on it being closed whenever someone was inside.) “Yes, sir?” he said tentatively.

Mr. Benton drew a small piece of paper out of his desk and laid it in front of him. “Can you explain this?” he asked.

Ethan leaned forward and had to suppress a giggle. It was a crayon drawing of Mr. Benton loading chocolate onto a delivery truck with “FUDGE PACKER” written in big letters at the top. “It was taped to my door,” said Mr. Benton. “Someone was in here this morning.” Ethan immediately felt guilty for thinking this was a joke. Mr. Benton was clearly in pain. He could barely keep the tremor out of his voice. The problem was that Ethan had no idea who had done it. Benton had become the butt of so many jokes that for all he knew, a teacher had slipped in here this morning with his oh-so-clever practical joke. That, of course, didn’t rule out the possibility of a student. It was easy enough to card the door, after all.

No. He knew who had done it. Kurt had an un-P.C. sense of humor, but Richard could be downright cruel. They’d grown up together, and he still hadn’t quite forgiven him for the time when Richard had grown bored with his presence and decided to ostracize him just for shits and giggles. One day, they’d been buddy-buddy, and the next, Richard wouldn’t give him the time of day. Maybe Mom was right. Maybe he was just an asshole. Either way, he couldn’t bring himself to betray his best friend. Even now, though, he knew he wouldn’t be getting very much sleep tonight.

“No,” he said. “I’m sorry, Mr. B. I don’t know who did that.”

“Okay, said Mr. Benton. He believed him. “It’s not that big of a deal anyway.”

Ethan stopped at the door. He wanted to tell him that everything would be alright, that he was here if he needed him, but he wasn’t so sure about that. With his grandmother in the condition she was in, what assurance did he have to offer that things would work out okay? “You’ll be alright, Mr. B,” he managed. It was the best he could do.

In fact, he was starting to feel better as he drove home that day. Maybe Grandma had a little bit longer to go after all. He was just starting to imagine the possibilities when a car swerved into his lane from oncoming traffic and hit him head-on.

IV

Ethan sat in his wheelchair, staring at the wall. To say that these past few months had been difficult would be something of an understatement. Grandma had died, Mr. Benton had come out and been summarily fired, and Ethan’s doctors told him he would never walk again. And with every passing day, he became more and more convinced of what a reprehensible human being Richard was. He hadn’t seemed particularly outraged by Mr. Benton’s firing, electing instead to make stupid jokes along with the other boys at school. One fellow, a fundamentalist named Steve, had even organized a rally in favor of the school board’s collective bigotry. They agreed that it was God’s will that they rid their community of negative influences, and even though Richard was an atheist, he went along with it. Ethan wasn’t sure what to believe anymore. Both the Christians and atheists he knew were acting like douchebags. Who could he turn to? Some people in their community had seen this for the bullshit that it was. There was a hearing about it this Friday. Ethan was going to attend and speak against it. He didn’t care what his schoolmates said about it. This could not stand.

He’d tried to get up once or twice. Of course, he couldn’t even move his legs, so all he was really doing was fantasizing that he would be the subject of a miracle, much like the people he saw in the videos of faith healers who took out their hearing aids and could hear perfectly or removed their leg braces and started walking down the aisle. Naturally, he knew that it was all a sham. The people in those videos weren’t really healed, except possibly of some sort of psychosomatic problem. But that didn’t make it easier to let go of the illusion. It was so seductive, the notion that all a person had to do was believe and all of their problems would be solved. He’d thought about going down that road once or twice. God, how he wished he could just believe. The people who believed weren’t necessarily happy, and they certainly weren’t better people. But they had something Ethan sorely lacked: a community. A community, he supposed, was not something that could be found; it must be built. Say, that gave him an idea.

He wheeled his chair over to his desk and took out a pen and paper. “I am an atheist,” he wrote at the top. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not a member of this community. Many of my friends are Catholic, along with most of my family.” He crumpled up the paper. This was no good. Only two sentences in, he was apologizing just for being who he was. It should be about Mr. Benton. He was still a practicing Catholic, despite being told by his chaplain that he was an abomination. If Ethan was going to do anything for Mr. Benton, he needed to make people see him as a person rather than a collection of labels.

“Mr. Benton is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met,” he wrote, starting on another page. That was a start. Odds are that he wouldn’t put that in the finished product, but it gave him something to work with.

“Ethan?” His mother knocked on the door.

“What is it?” He put down the pen. Perhaps she’d want to come in and have another heart-to-heart. Maybe she just wanted to make sure he wasn’t dead.

“I’m thinking of making you a grilled cheese for dinner,” she said. “Is that okay?”

“Sure,” he said. “Just let me know when it’s ready.”

“Okay.” She was gone. Before the accident, she had never asked for his approval before making dinner. Now, she tiptoed around him as if afraid he’d blow up at her for failing to grill the steaks properly. Another idea flitted into Ethan’s head. It was crazy, but it just might work.

Using him armrests as leverage, he pushed himself to his feet. He was unsteady at first, having not stood on his own in almost a semester, but he figured he’d get the hang of it. He paced in a lazy circle around the room. If only Mom could see this! But something told him that he’d collapse the instant she walked in, his powers disappearing as surely as they’d arrived. This was for him and him alone. Someday, he might find someone with whom he could share this. In the meantime, he’d have to hold on to the chair.

These past few months hadn’t made him happier, but they had made him stronger. After all that had happened to him, there didn’t seem to be much that could be done to him anymore. Where to go from here? Perhaps the answer lay in helping Mr. Benton. It was all he could do. There were a great many people trying to tear him down. It seemed doubtful that his job could be saved at this point, but the petition circulated had garnered enough signatures from students, teachers and sympathetic parents to grant him a hearing. It would have to do. He sat back down. In a minute, he’d write his remarks, but first, he had something else to do.

He flipped open his phone and started typing out a text message to Richard. “Fuck you,” he typed, and hit SEND.

V

Kurt was caught in the middle, literally as well as figuratively. His brothers were a pair of tigers. He wrenched them apart after they started fighting, and since they knew they couldn’t overpower him, they grabbed hold of his arms and started on a tug-of-war. They were about to dislocate his shoulders when Mom walked in and put a stop to the whole thing. “Thanks,” he said, hoping they hadn’t done any serious damage. He needed to be in good shape for the regatta.

“You getting enough sleep?” she asked, setting down the basket she’d been carrying and beginning to load the washer.

“Yes,” he lied.

“It’s okay if you want to miss a day,” she said. “I’ll tell them you’re sick.”

“Coach would kill me.”

“She wouldn’t believe me?”

“She’d know.”

“Did I ever tell you how happy I was when you finally learned to drive?”

“Yeah. No more getting up a five to drive me to practice, having to coordinate rides with the other moms.”

“I just like not having to listen to you complain about how busy your life is.”

“I get it. It’s my fault.”   

“Well, you always liked being in control.”

“I don’t think I am anymore.”

She stood up straight, looking him square in the face. She was an imposing woman—tall, with a beautifully-maintained figure that didn’t even hint at having born and raised three children, two of them twins. “Mr. Benton will be fine,” she said. “There are plenty of other schools that will take him. I hear Westfield, that public school out by Los Altos, is looking for a music—“

“I wasn’t talking about Mr. Benton.”

She lowered her eyes slightly. “You know, I really didn’t like Ethan at first.”

“He can be a little prickly.”

“I just couldn’t believe his table manners. Didn’t his mother ever teach him to use a salad fork?”

“She tried. But you can’t always get through to him.”     

“Is that why you’re not going to the hearing?”

“I don’t know. I just…I agree. I think it’s totally shitty.”

“But you don’t think it’s going to do any good.” 

“Right.”

“Well, you’re survivor. Grandpa was, too.”

“Really?”

“That’s why he fought. Some people protested, but a lot of them didn’t make it out alive.”

“It’s not always better to stand up for what you believe in.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Want me to help with dinner?”

“Get some rest. You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

“Whatever you say.”

He headed upstairs to his room, closed the door, and flopped down on his bed, not even bothering to disrobe first. He wanted to sleep, hut his mind was racing. What was going on at the hearing? Could anything anyone said change the minds of the douchebags on the school board? The answer, he guessed, was no, although he couldn’t blame Ethan for trying. Richard was going to be there, no doubt, applauding every point that the bigots made. What did they want Mr. Benton to do, anyway? Before he left, he confessed to his students that he’d tried to change the way he was, but to no avail. What was he supposed to do, kill himself?

Outside the door, he could hear the twins fighting again. One was accusing the other of breaking his favorite action figure, which was stupid, since they both played with the same toys. Eventually, it devolved into name-calling, with one shouting “Queer!” and the other shouting “Fag!” until their mother bellowed that both of them should knock it off or get no dinner. This shut them up, and they returned to their room to fight more quietly. Kurt smiled. He’d worried that he’d have to leave his room to break up the fight, but his mother had shown that even at her age, she was still stronger than the two little brats. His arms were thankful.

The sun was sinking out of sight over the hills. Summer was coming, and with it, the days were getting longer. But there was still time left before dark. It was all he needed.

VI

The room was silent. Ethan had finished speaking. He had no idea what their response would be. He’d said some fairly provocative things, the sort of thing that a lot of people thought but nobody said. Then again, he’d shot his mouth off once or twice, saying things that nobody agreed with, but were kind of funny. All in all, it was a very Ethan speech.

He wondered what Mrs. Bridges would say if she could see him now. She almost never left her house, and he hadn’t been to see her since before the accident. She’d probably think the whole thing was funny. If it had more incest, it would be fit for Jerry Springer. He felt proud of himself, at least.

Mr. Higgins, the dean, thanked Ethan for taking the time to share his views and asked if anyone else had anything else to say. They were so polite, these bigots, so friendly until they discovered that you were one of those people who, according to their beliefs, were eroding the moral fabric of our society, at which point they became…well, still polite, but infinitely more condescending.

The next speaker was Mrs. Loren, Tyson’s mom, who had once walked out of a school play because it contained an implied sex scene. She spouted the usual gibberish about not wanting to have to explain to her children why another student had two dads. (Mr. Benton had no children, but what did that matter?) His favorite part was her statement that thanks to her parents’ sheltering her from all the experiences they found objectionable, she had turned out reasonable and well-adjusted. (“Did you?” Ethan almost shouted.) What was most surprising was how calm Ethan felt. He was not an angry person by nature, although he could be blunt to the point of rudeness. It was a rare occurrence to hear him raise his voice. He belonged to the Speech & Debate Club, but was neither the most impassioned nor the most erudite speaker there. When he won, it was because he took his time, made eye contact, and spoke straight from the heart. His remarks tonight were quite possibly the most eloquent he’d ever written. But he seriously doubted they’d have any impact. The board wasn’t going to rule tonight, anyway.

His mother said nothing as she pushed his wheelchair down the ramp. Everyone else was filing down the steps. Richard was there, laughing and joking as if he were at a goddamn party. There was, however, a familiar face at the bottom of the ramp, one he hadn’t expected to see tonight.

“Hello, Kurt.”

“Nice to see you,” said his mother.

“You too, Mrs. Luna. Did I miss anything?”

“Well, not really. Maybe just a little.” She patted Ethan’s shoulder.

“Say, can I talk to Ethan alone?”

“Sure. I’ll wait in the car.”

“I figured something out.” He knelt by the chair after she had gone.

“What’s that?”

“I’m gay!”

“Congratulations.”

“I’m going to tell everyone on Monday.”

“Good for you.”

“It’s not like they can fire me.”

“You’ll get shit for it.”

“Eh, it’s okay. The crew team already suspects.”

“I didn’t.”

“Say, do you think Richard is—“

“No, just an asshole.”

“I figured you’d say that. Say, I gotta get going. See you on Monday.”

“See you on Monday.”    

Ethan watched him go. He hadn’t offered to push him out to the car, but that was okay. Kurt was clearly excited, and besides, Ethan didn’t think he’d be needing this chair anymore.

He stood up. Nobody noticed at first. Then he spun around and kicked the chair over. A few people glanced over at him, then fell speechless. He smiled. Perhaps everything was going to be alright after all.

Mom watched him from the car. She didn’t seem all that surprised. Perhaps she’d known all along. She started the car as he came around to the passenger side door. They drove away with all eyes on them. No one said a word.

VII

Mr. Benton sat on the edge of the cliff, staring out at the sea. He was doing alright these days. Everyone at St. Jude’s had experienced the Rapture, so he couldn’t have his old job back even if he wanted it. That was okay. Westfield was treating him just fine. His students seemed to find his mannerisms adorable rather than off-putting, so he fit right in. The parents were nicer, too. Hell, one had even offered to set him up with her ex-husband. He’d declined, but now that he thought about it, maybe he was just scared.

The sun was setting. He’d been out here a long time. He’d brought Crusher out here this afternoon to throw a Frisbee and watch her catch it, but she grew tired and was currently asleep in the backseat of the car. The bucket of chicken was only half-empty. Maybe someday, he’d have someone to share it with.

His new church was very welcoming. The choir director had asked him if he’d like to sing, and his priest was very fond of giving sermons about tolerance. All things considered, he had a pretty sweet deal.

He stood up, gathered his things, and headed back to the car. The parking lot wasn’t as crowded as it had been when he arrived. Most families left just as the sun was starting to dip in the sky.

Crusher lifted her head slightly as he opened the door. She was beat. They’d probably spending the evening watching a movie on the couch.

Summer was here. That was apparent from the sudden abundance of Beach Boys songs on the radio. His personal favorite summertime song was Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata”. She was a South African singer who had been exiled from her country after speaking out against Apartheid. The song was bouncy and fun, with lyrics that, so far as he could tell, were just about the Pata Pata itself and how much fun it was to dance that dance.

The traffic was thick. He didn’t mind. There were worse ways he could be spending his time. A police car pulled in behind him with its lights flashing. He pulled over thinking he’d done something wrong, but the car sped by, apparently after someone else.

As he went over the hill, something strange happened. The car began to hum. He pulled over and popped open the hood. He had no idea what he’d do even if he spotted something wrong. He was no mechanic.

Crusher honked the horn impatiently. “Hold your horses!” he shouted. She was getting unruly. At this rate, he’d start making her sit on the floor.

“If we hurry, we can catch Real Housewives,” she said as he got back inside.

“I DVRed it.”

“Cool. What was making that sound?”

“I don’t know. It’s gone now.”

“Want me to drive?”

“No.”

They rode the rest of the way in silence. Once they got home, she went inside and flopped down on the couch. She was still having trouble operating the remote, so he turned the TV on for her, and she settled in as he started dinner. It was homemade pizza that night—not her favorite, but at least he remembered that she hated anchovies.

He joined her on the couch. They watched for several hours, then fell asleep. She woke up later. The TV was showing infomercials on an endless loop. She went outside. It was a new moon. That did not make her happy. It felt more like a full moon kind of night.

This was a stagnant life. He was moving forward, but she was stuck in neutral. It was not what God wanted. Not at all.

She went back inside and joined him on the couch. Maybe she’d get her big break someday, an opportunity to do more with her time than bark at squirrels and beg for attention. Maybe the cat next door had it right. Maybe Satan really did have all the answers. But she could never go over to the Dark Side. Not out of boredom. She laid her head on his chest. Unconsciously, he started to stroke her ears. No, this was not the life she wanted. For now, though, it would do. It was what God wanted, after all.

Someday, we’ll get back, she thought. In the meantime, there’s always reality TV.


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