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How Like A God
B.W. Clough

©1997 Brenda W. Clough
    To Simon, who slept, and Larry, who put him to bed.

    Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
       from the straight road and woke to find myself
       alone in a dark wood.  How shall I say
    what wood that was!  I never saw so drear, 
       so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
       Its very memory gives a shape to fear.
					The Inferno, Canto 1
					Dante Alighieri
					translated by John Ciardi

Part I

Chapter 1

It was Rob's turn to drive the kids to day care. As usual the noise and chaos of the morning departure was stupendous, enough to make a strong man quake. Davey, eighteen months old, was perfecting a full-throated imitation of Tarzan of the Apes. Julianne carried him yodeling out to the minivan on one hip, her briefcase slung over her shoulder and a bulging diaper bag hooked over the other arm. In the living room Rob wedged the filled baby bottles into Angela's diaper bag and scooped his daughter up. "No!" she shrieked. She raised her arms into the noodle position and almost slipped right out of his grasp. He foiled her by grabbing one chubby leg.

"Come along, sugar pie." With his free elbow he pushed the new storm door open. He had installed it himself only last weekend, and made a good job of it -- a white steel frame and door with a safety grate over the glass and a self-storing screen.

"No no no no!" Angela howled. Rob stuffed her expertly into the car seat in the center seat of the van. Before she could wiggle away he clicked the latch home. In the other car seat Davey had already accepted the inevitable and was philosophically eating Cheerios by the fistful.

Rob slid the door shut on the pair of them and waved at Julianne's retreating back. "Bye, darling!"

"Have a good day, hon!" she called over her impeccably tailored pink shoulder. "Don't forget to tell Miss Linda about the shots!" Then the Washington D.C. commuter bus roared into view at the far end of the suburban street. Julianne sprinted to catch it, her satin blonde hair bobbing.

Julianne was always in a rush. Years of hurrying in high-heeled designer pumps had taught her to run as fast in them as in sneakers. But she had cut it too fine this time, Rob decided. The bus showed no signs of slowing down. The gray diesel plume of its exhaust streamed out straight behind like a fox's tail. Probably the driver hadn't even seen her. Shaking his head, Rob went around the maroon van to the driver's side. If only Julianne would allow herself five more minutes! Now she would need a lift to the Vienna Metro station, and that would make them both late. The family schedule had no slack in it at all.

The revelation came to him suddenly, just as his fingers touched the van's fake wood door panel. The bus driver had indeed seen Julianne. Rob was absolutely certain of it. The knowledge was plainly visible to him. The blue of the May morning sky over his head was not more obvious. The rotten bastard! Taking out his petty frustrations on an innocent commuter -- Rob jerked open the door, seething.

A warm solid wall of sound and odor hit him in the face. The twins yelled in stereo and he realized that at least one diaper was very thoroughly soiled indeed. Bitter experience had taught Rob there was never any percentage in postponing the inevitable. Holding his breath, he climbed up between the front seats and clawed a diaper bag out of the back with one hand, unlocking Angela with the other. It was fifty-fifty the diaper was hers, and she was sobbing with rage, in desperate need of soothing. Cheerios crunched underfoot as he backed out. Davey had broadcast his snack with happy liberality, onto the dashboard, over all the seats, and into his sister's clothing and hair.

Then Rob stared, the screaming child muffled against the knot of his necktie. The bus had stopped after all. But not at the bus stop, not for Julianne. It had halted right in the middle of the street. A few passengers were climbing out, and others were crowded at the front. Julianne came trudging back. "Thank god you haven't left yet," she said. She tossed her briefcase into the front seat. "You'll have to drop me at the station."

With his free hand Rob shook the orange plastic changing pad open and laid it on the driver's seat. "Sure -- can you hold her for me?"

Out here in the open air it was evident that Angela wasn't the culprit. Julianne took the hiccuping toddler and said, "Now what?" But when Rob hauled Davey out in a hail of falling Cheerios no further explanations were necessary. The stay-dry gathers had utterly and visibly failed in their duty. Rob held his reeking son and heir at arm's length to save his tan sports jacket. Sighing, Julianne pulled the wipes and a complete change of clothing out of Davey's bag.

"What happened to the bus?" Rob asked as he wiped.

"I didn't see. The other passengers said the driver went into convulsions or something. A woman with a cellular phone called 911."

"Lucky there wasn't an accident." An ambulance sped past the bus and halted, lights flashing. Rob didn't look up. The appalling condition of Davey's clothing and car seat commanded his full attention.

There was heavy traffic on the way to the train station, and then Miss Linda had to be brought up to date on the twins' vaccinations. Rob didn't have a chance to catch his breath until he got to Chasbro Corporation, in a Fairfax City brick-and-glass office complex. Luckily nobody noticed he was late. He dropped his briefcase on his desk, hung up his jacket, and hurried to the kitchen alcove for that first reviving cup of coffee.

"Yo, Bobster," Danny Ramone said. He was bearded and generously-built, like a rollicking black Santa Claus. "How they hangin'?"

If there was a name worse than Bob, Rob thought, it was Bobster. But he didn't want to say this to the head of the software project. Instead he said, "Low, Dan, very low -- in need of coffee. Traffic on 66 was all shot to hell this morning."

"You should leave earlier. Hey, I got in at 5:30 this morning! The commute was a breeze!"

Once more Rob held back his first words. Day-care didn't start until 8 a.m., and it was impossible to ask for more. Miss Linda already kept the twins until 6 p.m. And Julianne's job at the Garment Design Association demanded so much from her --

Again there came that opening sensation, as if a skylight gaped wide in his forehead. In the driveway at home it had been a mere flicker of enlightenment, a camera shutter opening and then shutting again. Now Rob stared at his boss, amazed at the flood of sightless unheard perception. Danny was pouring coffee and saying something about the joys of unlocking the office and having the mainframe all to himself. He hadn't intended to annoy or criticize. He was too busy contemplating his own vigor, efficiency, and intelligence. There was no more malice in him than there was in the elevator doors that shut before the passengers crowd on board. Rob could almost taste Danny's magnificent glistening self-absorption, like a Thanksgiving turkey huge enough to shrink everyone in Chasbro Corporation into small potatoes and side dishes. "Wow, that's weird," Rob said.

"Coffee too strong for you, huh, Bobster?" Danny clapped him on the back with a meaty hand and turned away. Rob stood staring at nothing for a few moments. Had he always been able to do this? It felt so natural, to inspect personalities in fine detail through this new mental microscope. Then why had he never done it before?

But self-examination had never been Rob's habit, and anyway the oddity of the whole business made him uncomfortable. He dismissed all these peculiar thoughts and went back to his cubicle to immerse himself in the day's work. Since the days of the abacus, no software has ever been developed smoothly, cheaply, or on time. Nor was Chasbro going to be the first to do it. Rob, like everyone else on the team, in the division, and in the entire company, was racing the clock to produce, lurching from one looming deadline to another without letup. It was a crazy way to make a living.

As the program booted up he briefly considered getting away from it all -- doing something entirely different with his life. But the thought was a fleeting one. The mortgage, the twins, the car payments: all these turned his paycheck into golden handcuffs. Only in his early thirties, Rob's life was already laid out from here to retirement.

Absorbed in writing C++ computer code, Rob jumped when one of the junior programmers stuck her head in the door. "Lunch in five, Rob," Tawana called. "Can we count on your van for the ride?"

"Sure," he said. "Uh, we're going out?"

"C'mon, you remember -- Jean's getting married next month, and we're going to give her the present. Lori chose this absolutely buff Fiestaware salad set."

Rob had completely forgotten, and scrambled to put on his jacket. At Chasbro it was important to fit into the corporate culture, to make all the right noises and touch all the bases. He liked people, but since social skills didn't come naturally to him, Rob had learned to compensate by deliberately joining things and saying yes to all invitations. He followed Tawana over to Lori's desk and duly admired the salad set before the gift box was taped shut.

For the luncheon the bride had chosen the Blackeyed Pea, a restaurant just up the road that advertised its comforting American-style food. Rob ordered the meat loaf special and ate without tasting it, hardly listening to the technical chat around the table. He was too busy observing people.

What a fascinating variety of personalities there were! It was like looking out over a delightful intricate garden in which every flower was totally different, not only a different color from its neighbor but a different species entirely -- a cactus next to a rose, a sequoia shading a pansy. Here, a staid computer nerd with a lurid second career writing leather porn; across the room a waitress working on a Ph.D. in heuristics. He worked among Trekkies and canoeing fanatics, an ex-CIA agent and a world-class glazer of chocolate truffles.

A quiet and reserved man, Rob had never wanted or been able to delve into his associates' private lives. Now this painless panorama delighted him. The charm of living in the greater Washington area was its diversity. There were so many different kinds of people here, and now he could really appreciate and enjoy it. The kaleidoscopic view reminded him of his first experience of computer bulletin boards -- a hundred thousand topics to surf through, each holding a hundred thousand messages.

"Yoo hoo, Earth to Rob! Would you pass the ketchup?"

With a start Rob looked up. Lori, one of the secretaries, smiled impatiently at him and pointed at the ketchup bottle. Everyone was looking at him. This was obviously not her first request. He lunged awkwardly for the bottle in front of him, his hand feeling as large as hams. Rob had never been graceful -- even as a boy he had dreaded Little League and square dancing. Now his reaching hand closed an instant too soon. He could feel the glass bottle sliding across his fingertips. It went spinning onto its side across the table and a gush of ketchup hit Danny Ramone dead center.

"Damn it!" Danny exclaimed, leaping up. When he dabbed with a napkin the stain merely spread down the broad white expanse of his shirt.

Two of the younger programmers applauded. "Definitely hit points!"

"Holy mackerel, Danny, I apologize!" Horrified, Rob held his own napkin to Danny's belt buckle, to save his pants. The secretaries giggled. Their waiter bustled over with a towel. People at other tables craned their necks to see. Rob yearned for the earth to open and swallow the entire restaurant. He wouldn't live this one down for weeks -- celebration lunches always made the company newsletter, and any incident was fodder for it.

Danny burst into one of his braying laughs. "I look like a drive-by shooting victim! You're lucky I don't hold grudges, Rob!"

"What with salary review coming up next quarter," Lori said.

Other people at the table chimed in with wisecracks too. Rob ignored them and said, "I'll swing by the mall on the way back and pick up another shirt for you, okay?"

"I sure can't go to the design meeting this afternoon like this!" Danny laughed. He mimed being hit by a bullet, clutching his stained chest and slumping back in his chair. "Bitch set me up," he moaned. He resembled D.C.'s ex-con mayor enough to get another big laugh.

Rob could only be glad that Danny was being such a good sport. Still, he wished with all his heart that everyone would forget his role in the entire stupid incident. And the all-important software design meeting with the customer had completely slipped his mind! He was too flustered to hang on for dessert. He left a twenty with Lori to cover his share of the meal and hurried off to the mall. A men's shirt sale was on at Hecht's. Rob bought three plain white shirts in the three most likely sizes, since he had forgotten to ask what Danny wore. For good measure he bought a tie too, in a vivid Wile E. Coyote pattern that Danny would be sure to appreciate.

His stomach was in a knot by the time he got back, and Rob swung by his own desk to pop a few Tums before rushing to Danny's office. "Thank goodness you're still here," he exclaimed. "When's that design meeting?"

"Doesn't start until three," Danny said absently, staring at his computer screen. When he looked up and noticed the bag in Rob's hand astonishment spread over his plump brown face. "Good god, Bobster!"

Rob took the shirts out of the shopping bag. "Didn't know your size," he said. "I'll return the ones that don't fit."

"This is above and beyond the call of duty, my man! And a necktie, my god! You're really determined I'll represent the division with pride!" With genuine surprise and pleasure Danny held the coyote necktie up, unbuttoning the stained shirt with his other hand.

"Well, this is the least I could do, considering my part in the whole debacle," Rob said uneasily.

"What part?" Danny demanded. He flung off the ruined shirt and tore open the largest new one. "All my own clumsiness! I better not tell the wife either. She'd never let me forget it." He buttoned the fresh shirt up over his pot-belly and tucked in the shirt-tail. "Damn, I need a mirror to do the tie."

"But -- don't you remember? When I pushed the ketchup bottle over?"

Danny rapidly transferred three pens, a pink highlighter, and a 0.5 millimeter mechanical pencil from the old shirt pocket into the new one, and sat down. "That was me, Bobster. I pushed it over. Stupidest thing I've done this week -- except for this damned code here." He frowned at the glowing screen and tapped a few keys, the unknotted necktie draped around his neck already forgotten. Stunned, Rob began to retreat. "Leave the receipt and I'll reimburse you later, Bobster," Danny surfaced briefly to say. "Appreciate your thoughtfulness, pal. I won't forget it."

"It was nothing, really," Rob muttered, and left him to it.

Obviously the thing to do was to interview the witnesses, talk to the other people who went to lunch. Rob made a quiet circuit through the division, eavesdropping. As long as he frowned down at the printout in his hands he blended in completely. No one mentioned the luncheon at all, so he was forced to bring it up himself. He caught up with Jean, the upcoming bride, at the water cooler. "Pretty messy scene at lunch there, huh?" he greeted her.

"Oh, I've seen worse," Jean said. "My future father-in-law is like Danny -- so involved in his thoughts, that there's, like, no one at the helm."

"It was Danny who spilt the ketchup," Rob said. "You're sure."

She stared at him. "Well, yeah. We all saw it."

"I, uh, must have been lost in my thoughts myself."

Jean shook her head, smiling. "That's like, an occupational hazard around here."

As obliquely as he could, Rob quizzed a few more friends. Testimony was unanimous. "A typical Dano trick," as Lori pronounced. Unable to let it rest, Rob slipped out of the building and drove back to the restaurant. It was midafternoon, and the dining room was nearly empty. The hostess chirped, "Would you like the lunch menu, sir? We don't start the dinner menu until 4:30."

"I don't want a menu," Rob said. "I was here at lunchtime, with a group from Chasbro. Could I speak to our waiter? We were sitting right over there."

"That would be Julio's table, but he's gone now. But I was here. Maybe I can help?"

"There was a little accident -- someone spilled ketchup on one of the guys."

"It wasn't our server's fault," she said quickly.

"I know that -- but who did it? Who actually knocked the bottle over?"

The hostess wrinkled her brow in puzzlement. "If your associate would bring us the dry-cleaning bill for his suit, we'd be happy to -- "

"No, no! Besides, I already bought him a new shirt. Did you actually see the incident? Who knocked the bottle over?" He wanted to shake the answer out of her.

She began to look nervous. "From where I was standing it looked like he picked the bottle up himself, and it slipped out of his hand and down his front. Look, let me see the receipt for the shirt. If the manager gives an okay -- "

Rob turned on his heel and almost ran out of the restaurant. He stood on the sidewalk, swaying on his feet, sweating in spite of the mild spring weather. His brain seemed to have gone into overload. He couldn't think properly. It would be crazy to try and drive in this state. He'd have to get a grip on himself first. Across the street he saw the post office and, just beyond, the Fairfax City branch of the library. He took a deep breath and crossed with the light.

Libraries were one of Rob's favorite places. In college he had even written a paper about how the entire goal of civilization was to build libraries and produce books to fill them. Now he stepped through the double glass doors and collapsed gratefully into an ugly institutional armchair. The library's familiar atmosphere of friendly neglect enveloped him. As long as he didn't become noisy or destructive he could do anything here -- sleep, use the restroom, read lowbrow military adventure novels. Nobody would bother him with questions, or descend on him demanding why he was wasting time when there was software to be debugged and diapers to be changed. He relaxed and took the nearest paperback from the rack for camouflage.

Now he felt able to analyze his problem rationally. What the hell has happened to me? he wondered. Can I really be looking into people's heads? Altering their memories? I know what happened at lunch today! How did everyone at Chasbro forget? He took out the pocket notebook he always carried, and made a list:

But before this morning, there had been no weirdnesses. Vague memories of the comic books of his boyhood came to him, of unlikely accidents involving meteors or lightning bolts. "Was it my Wheaties this morning?" he asked out loud. But he couldn't remember anything special. His routine yesterday and last night -- in fact, for the entire past year -- was set in concrete. Having twins did that for you. He and Julianne hadn't even gone out to a movie since Before Children.

But a search for a cause was timewasting. Instead, what should he do about this? Rob got up and took the elevator upstairs to the reference room. The librarian showed him the directories for doctors and medical specialties. The thickness of the books was disheartening, and he moved over to the more popularized medical books on the nonfiction shelves. A fast skim through indexes and tables of contents showed him this was hopeless too. Nobody seemed to have his disease, if it was a disease. If he wanted a medical opinion he'd have to consult a doctor in person, and would Chasbro's health insurance cover such a speculative visit? "Holy mackerel, Chasbro!" Rob exclaimed. He should be at the office!

Dashing out of the library and up the street to his car, Rob realized he had made a default decision. This wasn't an important or interesting ailment. It was just a weirdness. He was going to ignore it and carry on with regular life. Eventually, like a cold sore, it would go away by itself.

There was no time to ponder matters further. Rob stepped into the office and was instantly collared by Lori. "Danny needs you!" she exclaimed. "The customer doesn't like the way the GUI is laid out -- can you fold in these changes right away?"

"I'm on it," Rob said, and dove for his cubicle. Graphical User Interface was always a royal pain in the neck. He spent the next two hours moving multicolored widgets around on the screen. Danny phoned in twice with yet more alterations. His opinion of the customer was sulphurous.

"Everybody's a critic," he groused. "Everybody! Now they want the menu at the top of the screen, not the bottom. They don't know squat about what's under the hood, noooo! But everybody's got an opinion about the user interface!"

Rob was stuck at the computer until past six. He did phone Julianne, but she didn't have the car and therefore couldn't pick up the twins. Rob picked them up himself very late, which made Miss Linda positively icy. When he pulled up in their driveway Julianne stood in the doorway, frantic. "I told you I was running late," he protested.

She ignored him, seizing a twin instead. "How's Mommy's big boy, then?" she cooed to Davey. "And Mommy's darling Angel?" With a tot in each arm she marched up the walk and into the house, leaving Rob to bring in the diaper bags.

She was deliberately making her peeve quite clear. Rob was resigned. Juggling twins plus a two-career lifestyle took incredible drive and organization, and it was mostly Julianne who kept those particular balls in the air. Rob's sphere was the more traditional male stuff, like car maintenance, home repair and improvement, the lawn -- all the Harry Homeowner stuff. There was no point in complaining about occasionally getting caught in the machinery. Julianne never stayed in a snit for long. Over the years Rob had learned that reconciliation was lots of fun. Besides, it occurred to him that getting steamed about things might lead to weirdness. Much better to pick up the ball and run.

He grabbed the phone off its hook and punched one of the preprogrammed buttons. While it rang he began emptying the diaper bags, sorting out the empty bottles and dirty clothes. "Hello, China Garden? I'd like a delivery: two egg rolls, one shrimp lo-mein, no MSG ..."

A tumultuous meal and the kids' bedtime routine gave them no time to work it out. The twins insisted, as they always did, on hearing their favorite story, 'The Three Billy Goats Gruff.' After a hundred readings Rob had honed his dramatic technique finely. He made his voice go deep and gluey for the troll's words, "Who's that tripping over my bridge?" And when he bleated the reply, "It's only meeee, the tiiiniest Billy Goat Gruff," Davey giggled and Angela crowed in delight.

After the story and the final kisses, Rob came into the undersized master bedroom and pushed the lock button on the doorknob. Julianne lay on her side under the king-sized duvet, pretending to be asleep. But he saw the smile dimpling the corner of her mouth.

Kneeling by the bed he bent and kissed that dimple, tracing the line of her upper lip with the tip of his tongue. Her mouth quivered under his as she giggled. She raised the covers and slid an arm out to circle his neck. Under the edge of the duvet she was naked. Her creamy-pale breasts in their post-pregnancy state sagged charmingly slightly sideways across her chest. "Rise and shine, sleepy," he said a little breathlessly.

If his family was the center of Rob's life, then the white-hot molten core of it was here, in bed with Julianne. Plunging into that sweetness refreshed and renewed him like nothing else. The tensions of the day burned off in her embrace, and he touched an exquisite reality that didn't exist in other areas of his life. After five years of marriage he knew her body well, all the hot buttons and favorite places. And her orgasm always drove him wild, right over the edge.

Afterwards she rested on his chest to catch her breath. He lay beneath her with his eyes closed, savoring the lassitude and occasionally running a hand down her sweaty back and firm buttocks. This was the best time to talk, about the past, the future, or just nothing in particular at all. "... if you get a raise," she was saying drowsily into his neck. "And I talk Debra into bumping me up one grade. It'll be $300 extra every month once we pay off the van. If we save that, put it into a money market or something, in a couple years we'd have some real money. That's my idea -- buy a bigger house. With more bedrooms, and a bigger yard for the kids."

"Sure, Jul," Rob yawned. "A raise. Your wish is my command."

She laughed, knowing as well as he did that she was daydreaming. He could feel her rib cage expand under his palms as she sighed contentedly. "I love you, hon. You put up with a real pushy dame."

"There are compensations." He squeezed her butt gently as she rolled off him. It was only at times like this that Rob could say, "There's nothing I wouldn't do for you and the kids."

"Me too," she murmured, already more than half asleep. An unwelcome little flashbulb pop of weirdness showed him that she hadn't really heard his avowal. But words weren't important. Enacting this love, in bed and out, was enough: bringing home the bacon, as well as sex.

They both liked to keep in contact during sleep -- nothing grabby, but maybe her hand on his flank, or his foot against her leg. As she settled against him Rob thought sleepily about doing something with the weirdness for Jul. For instance, could he use it to convince the head of the department to give him that raise? Probably it wouldn't fly -- salary review took place only in September, and Chasbro had no procedure for mid-course corrections. Was there any way he could use it to pick a winning Lotto number? Or influence Ed McMahon? Jul was right -- it would be so nice to have some money for a change! Take a vacation, buy a bigger house ... Holding her, he slipped into sleep, skipping like a stone over the sunny wavetops of materialistic dreams.

Chapter 2

Julianne got the car the next day. On the way to dropping him at the office she said, "Is that a new tie?"

Rob looked down at the beige silk necktie against his white shirt front. "I think your brother Ike gave it to me a few Christmases ago."

"Maybe it's the way you parted your hair. Something different, anyway."

Rob glanced at her, but Julianne was giving most of her attention to the road. In the back Angela murmured, "Troll, troll, troll," as she pretended to read her favorite book, and Davey sucked on a bottle. "I haven't changed anything," Rob said as casually as he could. He had looked at his reflection in the bathroom mirror this morning to shave. As he recalled, he looked just like usual: tall but not really good-looking, his thick light brown hair not yet due for a trim, his gray-blue eyes surrounded by fair-skinned and slightly doughy flesh. As bland as supermarket white bread.

But he never did pay much attention to how he looked. It was Julianne who had a sharp eye for appearances -- as part of her job. She had revamped his entire wardrobe after they married, for instance, ruthlessly tossing out the polyester neckties and shirts with overly-long collar points. "What sort of different?" he asked, and was immediately sorry he had. What if some sign of the weirdness was becoming visible?

But Julianne was no longer listening. A green sports-utility van cut in too close in front, and Julianne as usual got ticked. "Bastard," she muttered between clenched teeth, and gunned the engine to bring the van right up behind the other vehicle.

"You're going to clip him!" Rob exclaimed, instinctively flinging one hand back to shield the twins.

"Gimme a break. When have I ever made contact?"

"If you wouldn't take your driving so personally -- " They had this same pointless fight about every other month, every time Rob let Julianne's pushy driving style get his goat. Now he made a deliberate effort to simmer down. Suppose -- suppose he could fix Julianne's little foible here? Transform her into a sensible, conservative driver? As the idea seized him his confidence rose, warm and heady. It could be done. He was sure he could do it. How funny! Yesterday it never would have occurred to him to do stuff to her -- to fool her into believing he hadn't been late, for instance. And fixing her style behind the wheel would be a good thing to do, he argued to himself. Julianne was a lousy driver. One of these days she'd piss off a crack dealer or a psycho, and get shot or something. Or she'd rear-end somebody, endangering the kids and incurring outrageously costly body-work on the van. He would be saving her from herself, really.

He turned in his seat to try it. With a hand-over-hand motion Julianne cut the van hard right and jerked to a halt in front of the Chasbro building. "Here you are," she said. "Have a nice day, hon." She leaned over to give him a peck on the cheek.

Flustered, Rob grabbed his briefcase. "Bye, Jul. Bye-bye, kids!" He flapped a hand vigorously at them through the window. Both twins stared at him but only Davey flapped a fist back. With a squeal of tires Julianne pulled away.

Just as well, Rob reflected. To mess with her driving style while she was driving -- wouldn't that be as stupid as changing the oil in a moving car? Absorbed in his thoughts, Rob headed for the building entrance.

"Spare change, mister?"

Rob blinked. By the double doors slouched a homeless person, a heap of gray tatters with eyes. He or she -- hard to say which -- occasionally hung out here, until the building security people noticed. A plastic 7-11 cup sat on the pavement with a dime inside. Automatically Rob felt in his pants pocket for change.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute here." Rob took his hand out. Now here was the perfect subject for a little experiment. Hardly anything that happened to this street person could make his situation much worse -- when Rob concentrated he could tell that the beggar was male. He put his briefcase down and brought the weirdness to bear on him. It felt like reading a newspaper obituary, all the biographical data in chronological order. "You are Joe McNeal Moore," Rob said. "You are 57 years old, a veteran of the Korean War, former bartender, truck driver, janitor ..."

"What you say, man?" The homeless man scuttled back against the granite facade of the building. His watery brown eyes, bloodshot and rimmed with yellow matter, glanced frantically to either side. "Look, I ain't got no money, okay?"

"Alcohol," Rob announced. "And borderline schizophrenia. Let me see ..." It was like fixing one of Angela's toys, a SpeakNSpell or the pull-toy shaped like a turtle. Unwind a tangle here, straighten out a bit there -- his power encompassed Joe Moore completely. This was easy. "Okay. If you go to the homeless shelter, that Open Door Center over at Fairfax Circle, I bet you can get a shower and shave and some clothes. Here's a couple bucks for the bus fare." Rob held out the money with one hand, and pointed down the road with the other. The homeless man stared up at him for a minute, and then slowly took the dollars and tottered to his feet. Without a word or a look back he shuffled off towards the bus stop.

Lori came up from the parking lot and said, "Morning, Rob. You give them money, they just drink it up."

"Oh, I don't know." Rob picked up his briefcase and politely held the big glass door for her. "You can always hope they'll turn a corner and get better."

"Optimist," Lori snorted.

Now Rob knew what the Amazing Spider-Man felt like, in the comic books he had once loved. With great power comes great responsibility, he quoted to himself -- wasn't that Spider-Man's motto? He could straighten out every steam-grate crazy in the greater Washington area if he wanted to. The power sang through his nerves, beat in his veins. And what other evils could he not battle? Was he going to have to wear a cape and spandex?

With a laugh he tried to come down to earth. A brief fiddle with a schizo's head, and he was ready to save the world. Surely it would be only sensible to see how Joe Moore turned out first. After lunch he borrowed a phone book from Lori and phoned the shelter. "I gave your center's name to a homeless person this morning," he said. "I was wondering if he got there okay. His name was Moore, Joe Moore. Kind of an older white guy."

"Oh him," the person on duty said. "He's doing great -- in with the jobs counsellor right now. Could I have him call you back?"

"No, no, that's okay. I'll check back later." Rob set the receiver back into place. If he really had done it, actually turned a street bum into a productive normal member of society, there was nothing he couldn't accomplish. Suddenly he was sweating, sick with dread. He would have to do it, then: take apart and reassemble the head of every wino in D.C., on the East Coast, in the world.

"No, I don't," he muttered, clutching his forehead. "Why do I have to? Just because I can? Who says?" How did really rich or really powerful people manage? Surely Malcolm Forbes had never felt impelled to feed every hungry person in America.

Danny pounded a brisk tattoo on the cubicle wall as he approached the door opening. "You look like hell," he remarked cheerfully. "If it's the flu don't share it, okay? There's too much work to be done." Leaning over Rob's shoulder he clicked the mouse and called a new section of the computer program onto the screen.

Rob watched it scroll by eagerly. "This is the medicine I need, pal."

"Attaboy, Bobster." Danny double-clicked the mouse to highlight a section of code on the screen. "Lookit, I figure the error's got to be about here. The subroutine works fine up to about there ..."

"Good god, a burglar!" Julianne exclaimed as they turned onto their own street that evening. She stamped so hard on the brakes the van skidded a bit.

Rob stared at the dark-clad figure fiddling with their living room window. "No it's not," he said with resignation. "It's Angie." His sister, for whom baby Angela had been named, ran a restaurant supply firm in Chicago, but came often to the D.C. area on business.

"About time you came home," she called, climbing out from behind the holly bush. "Look at what your jungle has done to my pantyhose!" Her dark hair straggled out of its French twist, and pine-bark mulch stuck to her skirt.

"You can't break in, Angie. I installed bolts on the windows last month. If you'd phoned, I could have left you a key." Rob gave her a peck on the cheek and picked her garment bag up off the hose rack.

"And how are my darling twinlets?" Angie demanded. "Look at what Aunty Angie's brought you, Davey -- a toy machine gun! And what's in here for Angela, a bongo drum!"

Behind her Julianne made a horrified face. Rob shrugged -- aunthood has its privileges. Angie had a gift for choosing noisy inappropriate toys that the kids loved. "Come on in and have a beer," he suggested. "When did you get in?"

"Flew in on the red-eye this morning, did meeting all day, and now I'm a wreck." Angie paused on the doormat, stuck a cigarette between her high-gloss lips, and flicked the lighter.

"Oh no, Angie dear, not in the house," Julianne wailed.

Rob laid the bag on a chair and looked his sister in the eye. "You must quit, Angie," he said firmly. "For your own health, not the kids or anybody else." Come on, weirdness, kick in, he said to himself. To his relief Angie clicked the lighter shut and took the cigarette out of her mouth. She looked at it with a sort of surprise, as if she had forgotten how it got there.

There couldn't be anything at all wrong with getting Angie to lay off smoking for good. The entire family nagged her about it, and she had failed SmokEnders twice now. But Rob felt a twinge of guilt all the same. It came to him that he hadn't truly grasped the magnitude of his fidget with Joe Moore's head this morning. That had been a straightforward cure of a mental illness, inarguably a good deed. But smoking? That was a lot less clear-cut. This was his sister he was adjusting, a real person, not some anonymous recipient of casual charity. To hide his discomfort he said, "I'm starving. Let's order pizza!"

It was Friday, and Angie was in town only over Saturday. On Saturday morning there was no hope of extra sleep, since the twins knew nothing of weekends. But an extra adult on hand was always helpful. Angie played joyfully with the twins, bouncing balls, reading Barney books, pounding the bongo drum. This freed Rob up to run two loads of laundry, mend a window screen, and mow the lawn, and Julianne to cook lasagne and vacuum. "I can't stand you two," Angela announced. "You've got to take a break! I know, let's go out for lunch."

"There speaks the single woman," Rob said.

"With these wild things," Julianne explained, "we wouldn't get to eat, just chase them around a restaurant."

They compromised on a gourmet carryout picnic in the park. The blue May sky was clear as a jewel, and it was too early in the season for the notorious Washington humidity. Julianne and Angie, on their perpetual diets, ate salad stuffed into pita bread, while Rob loaded his pita with chicken dijonnaise. He noticed that Angie didn't reach for a cigarette, not even at the crucial after-meal moment, and secretly congratulated himself.

Angela and Davey burrowed into the sand area, nominally finished with their food. Every now and then Julianne would go over and pop a grape or a bit of pita into their mouths. "It's so neat that they're getting independent," Angie marveled. "Only a year ago they were totally helpless, remember? Now they're eighteen months old, playing by themselves, eating real food -- next thing you know they'll be getting their ears pierced and borrowing the car."

"God forbid!" Julianne said.

"It's only temporary, playing by themselves," Rob said lazily. He lay on his back on the picnic quilt. "In a minute they'll yell for Mommy or Daddo to help with the shovels."

At that moment Davey did yell. "Siren!" he shouted. "Momma, siren!"

"It sure is, poopsie!" Julianne picked Davey up to look for the vehicle, and Rob sat up too.

A jeep careened around the corner on two wheels. Behind it came a police car, sirens howling and lights flashing. "They're chasing a bad car, just like on TV," Angie told Angela.

"That guy's a menace," Rob exclaimed. Automatically he reached out and scanned the driver. The roiling chaos in his head was dizzying -- the kid must be hyped up on drugs. All three adults winced as the jeep screeched around the minivan parked at the curb.

Rob's first thought was to wait for the chase to vanish. The police were paid to do this kind of thing. But a deep atavistic instinct rose up in his chest: defend the women and children! And Batman would never have let it go by. Quietly Rob said, "Stop." For good measure he added, "Foot on the brake, not the accelerator." The jeep slowed immediately, and almost got rear-ended by the police car.

Davey squealed with pleasure at the sight so Julianne didn't notice, but Angie stared at Rob narrowly. "Rob, did you just tell that car to stop?"

Rob was pleased that he didn't tense up. With his enhanced perception he could strike exactly the right note for his sister. "You think I did it?" he asked smiling. "Superman and Green Lantern ain't got nothin' on me."

"Oh, very funny." Angie rolled her eyes. "I told you when you were nine that all those comic books would warp your brain. That's right, baby dumpling, wave at the nice policeman!"

Of course Angie was right -- she frequently was. Rob knew that the comic books were a bad precedent to follow. Besides, he was just a little too plump around the middle these days to wear tights with dignity. Any public display would be repugnant, not his style at all. If he was going to dabble in crime-fighting and world-saving he was going to be private about it. The idea of being a secret benefactor was powerfully attractive -- all the pleasures of do-gooding without having to cope with the people involved.

He went to work on Monday and got the day off by announcing to several people, "I'm really here." Anyone looking for him would now be told something like, "Well, I just saw Rob a second ago. Isn't he in the xerox room?"

This meant, however, that he only had today to act in. The software would continue to accumulate on the company computer net, and eventually he'd have to debug it. What was the most efficient use of this short time? He got into the minivan and thought about it. What he needed was a large concentration of criminals in one place that he could easily visit. "Of course," he murmured. "Lorton Reformatory." He opened the glove compartment and rooted around for a map.

It was in Fairfax County, but due to archaic regional regulations Lorton Reformatory housed convicts from nearby Washington D.C., not suburban baddies. The two-lane highway ran incongruously right through the prison complex. One moment Rob was cruising past subdivisions full of six-figure mansions, and then the road was flanked with tall razor-wire fences and guard towers. He turned off onto a side street and unfolded the map, pretending to be lost -- no point in exciting the perimeter guards.

He closed his eyes and reached out. How many prisoners were detained here, maybe nine thousand? For a second he wondered if he'd bit off more than he could chew. But when he called on the power it was there, inexhaustible. There were limits to everything, but not, apparently, to this. Or hadn't he found the limits yet? This would be an interesting test.

He phrased it carefully. "Decency," he said aloud. "Honesty. Politeness." Should he mention honor? Maybe not -- too complicated a concept. "Law-abiding," there was a useful one. He scribbled the words on the edge of the map, so as not to omit one, and concentrated on broadcasting them, impressing each on the soft clay of the brains around him. Vaguely he realized how vastly his abilities had multiplied in less than a week. First he had just observed, then he could interfere, and now he could impose a mindset on nine thousand people. Amazing. Where would it end?

"Excuse me, sir -- do you need help?"

A frowning uniformed cop tapped on Rob's window. Hastily he powered it down. "I was looking for Occoquan," Rob said, rustling his map. "But I seemed to have turned myself around."

The policeman relaxed. A Plymouth Voyager with fake wood paneling on the sides and two child seats in the back was a preposterous vehicle for a prison break. And Rob knew that he looked supremely uncriminal: an out-of-shape white guy in a brown sports jacket and khakis. "You didn't go far enough south down Route 123," the cop said, pointing. "Another three-four miles'll get you there."

"I get it," Rob said, nodding at his map. "Thanks a lot!" He started the engine again and, turning in a driveway, returned to 123 and joined the traffic rolling south. Might as well grab a sandwich in Occoquan before heading back to work. Five minutes' worth of weirdness should be enough. Cruising past the prison again Rob began to laugh. "I can't believe I'm doing this," he said out loud. "It's like something on TV!" He could imagine himself, in an Armani suit, simpering beside Phil Donahue. "Yes, Phil, I am indeed personally responsible for the 27% drop in the D.C. crime rate ..."

Chapter 3

Rob took his time driving back after lunch, stopping to raid the ATM machine and fill up on gas. It was a sunny warm day, the kind of afternoon that insidiously encourages idleness. How long has it been, Rob wondered, since I went to Great Falls and sat on the rocks by the river? But he didn't feel comfortable playing hooky any longer. He was too conscientious to enjoy the thought of all those software bugs piling up in cyberspace. Sighing, he turned onto the side street that led to Chasbro's building.

Lost in thought, he almost side-swiped the fire engine. "Holy mackerel," he muttered, swerving around it. There was another pumper truck pulled up in the circular driveway at the main door. The air was hazy and foul with smoke. An oily black plume of it streamed from the roof of the building. On the grassy strip beside the parking garage huddled his co-workers, clutching handbags and briefcases.

Rob pulled into a parking space and reached out. A fire? What about the software? But to his horror, when he peeked into the others' minds, he found them full of images of himself. When he powered down the window the smoke made him cough. He could hear Danny yelling, "We know he's in there, man! You gotta find him!"

"Damn. Oh, damn." Rob slouched in his seat so that no one would see him. He had "told" people he was really in the office, and they truly and totally believed it. Everyone could see he was missing, and therefore he must be still inside. No hope now of slipping out and just joining the group, letting them assume he'd followed everyone out. He'd have to go into the building and allow himself to be rescued -- be seen, carried out by a fireman.

Lori was weeping loudly, saying, "And poor Julianne, with the twins! They have to get him out, they just have to!" Rob opened the van door and stepped out, concentrating hard. Invisible, he thought. I'm not here. I'm wearing a tarnhelm, an invisibility hat, just like in the Norse myth. You don't see me. He walked past a group of firemen in yellow and brown slickers and stepped over a tangle of canvas hoses to the side door. Nobody saw him. It was a fire door, usually shut but now propped open. Inside, the acrid smoke burned his throat and made his eyes water. I am not Superman, he told himself. The power, whatever it is, will in no way save me from burning to death. I have got to keep my ass safe! Nevertheless it seemed impossibly incorrect to be found standing just inside the door. Coughing, he moved a little further in.

Everything was chaos, noisy and strange. Under his feet the carpet squelched with water from the hoses. From above came shouts and the crashing of fire axes against doors, and the thump of booted running feet. Rob thought he couldn't see anything, but then an orange glow lit the smoky air. The building's on fire, he noticed idiotically. He found he really hadn't quite believed it until now. Somehow he was slumping to his knees as the menacing light and glare slowly increased. Cause of death, smoke inhalation. Damn it. What a stupid, stupid way to die.

A dark tornado seemed to whirl down the hallway. It caught Rob up and sent him jostling back out the door into the blessed clean air. He fell onto the grass and stared up at the tornado, which revealed itself to be a fireman in full protective gear and gas mask. Other hands seized him, starting an IV, thrusting a cold stethoscope disc inside his shirt, slipping a mask over his nose and mouth. He pushed it away to cough, and coughed until he gagged. The shriek of the siren as the ambulance pulled up beside him almost split his head in two.

Then he was in the ambulance, strapped to a wheeled stretcher and covered with a cheap scratchy blanket. Oh boy, now I'm in big trouble, he worried. They'll do a CAT scan or something, and discover I'm weird. Scientists from the National Institutes of Health will come and dissect me. And Julianne will be stranded without the car. She'll hit the ceiling. The constant siren noise filled his skull, making connected thought impossible. He wanted to beg the paramedics to turn the horrible thing off, but couldn't get the words past the oxygen mask.

Finally it was quiet. Bliss! He opened his eyes. His stretcher stood in a nook curtained all around with green cloth. He was completely alone. Suppose I was really ill, Rob thought crossly as he sat up. A guy could die in here and nobody would notice.

His shoes had been removed, but nothing else. When he stood up his chest ached from all that coughing, but otherwise he felt okay. He reached out. The emergency room people were all busy somewhere nearby, on something more important than Rob Lewis. He pulled the curtain aside and shuffled off in his stocking feet to find out what.

All the action seemed to be happening across the room, in another bay of the ER. Nurses scudded towards it pushing laden instrument carts. Mysterious machines with lots of dials and LED displays beeped and booped. In the center, tense doctors in green scrub suits clustered two deep around a gurney. Rob went to a sink and helped himself to a paper cup of water. A very young nurse said, "Excuse me, sir," and reached past him to open a drawer.

"What's happening there?" Rob asked.

"Oh, there was a fire in an office building."

Rob could feel the blood draining away from his face. "Somebody was hurt?"

"A fireman -- he was searching the building, and had some kind of attack. Heart, I guess."

The nurse hurried off. Rob leaned against the sink, sweating. My god, the poor devil was searching for me! And I told them I was there, but I wasn't. If this guy dies, I will have killed him. Rob's stomach twisted even worse than before. He retched into the sink, clinging to the chilly stainless-steel rim.

"What are you doing up? You should be lying down!" A passing nurse grabbed him and hustled him back to his own bed.

"Is he going to die?" Rob croaked.


"The fireman ..."

"Now you have enough to worry about, with your own self," she said, firmly tucking the sheet around him. But Rob read the truth easily enough. He lay shivering behind the shelter of his green curtains, his mind racing madly. I could make them forget, he thought. Everybody, just like at the restaurant. Chasbro, the fire department, the ambulance people, the doctors: everyone would forget this ever happened. But what about the burned building? And, more to the point, what about this fireman? Maybe he has a wife, parents, some kids. Do they forget him too? I could wipe him out utterly from all living memory. It would be like he was never born. But what a shitty thing to do to someone who was only trying to save your life! And -- and I would remember, Rob realized. I can't wipe myself.

If only the weirdness could make the fireman get better! Heal the sick, raise the dead ... he tried it. "Get better," he whispered sternly, glaring at the curtain in the direction of the sick man. But the muted bustle of medical wizardry out there didn't change in tempo or tone. If it had only been a matter of the guy's head Rob felt he might have pulled it off. But a physical problem, a heart or pancreas or whatever, didn't seem to come under his jurisdiction. And suppose the guy died? The thought of being anywhere near made Rob cringe.

From outside came a purposeful tip-tap of high heels. The curtain was jerked aside, and Julianne stared down at him. "Oh my god, Rob!" she exclaimed. "Are you very badly hurt?"

"I'm not hurt at all," Rob said hoarsely. "Get them to let me out of here, Jul -- please!"

"You poor thing, you're upset!" Julianne hugged him, feeling his forehead and straightening his shirt collar. She wasn't taking him seriously, Rob saw, and no wonder. Reflected in her mind better than any mirror he saw how he looked -- smoke-begrimed, red-eyed, distraught. I could make her do it, he thought desperately. Really inspire her with a sense that she has to get me away from here. But he winced away from the idea. Light-hearted and casual mental dabbling had generated enough misery for today.

"Jul, the fireman is dying, and it's all my fault," he blurted. "I did it."

"What, get trapped in a burning building? You big silly, what you need is something to calm you down." With a swish of the curtains she was gone, and then back again with a doctor in tow.

"Not quite ourself, are we?" the doctor said cheerfully. He pressed a stethoscope to Rob's chest. "Now, breathe! In, out, good!"

"He's been talking a little disjointedly," Julianne told the doctor.

"No, I haven't!" Rob said indignantly. "I'm trying to tell you something important!"

"Breathe again," the doctor commanded. "Perhaps a mild sedative to take home with him, Mrs. Lewis. It's probably not necessary to hospitalize him overnight, but he should certainly take it easy the next few days."

Rob kept his mouth shut. If they were inclined to let him go there was no reason to argue. Let the doctor talk over him as much as he liked. Paperwork still had to get filled out and signed. Julianne and a nurse conferred on it. Rob wanted to hold the pillow over his ears. What did they do in hospitals when somebody died -- ring a bell, take off their hats? If they did, he didn't want to know about it. He couldn't help straining his ears for bad news about the fireman, but he was damned if he'd trawl in minds. If he could just go home! But the nurse had to take his temperature and blood pressure one more time, and then he had to sign to get his wallet, digital watch, and shoes back. All this time he hadn't even noticed the wallet was gone. He pocketed it again with embarrassment.

He put his shoes on. Then, shod, he felt foolish sitting on the edge of the bed. He stood up. "Just stretching my legs," he said to no one in particular. But there wasn't enough space in his curtained alcove, and he didn't want to jog Julianne's elbow while she filled out forms. So he found himself unwillingly walking through the ER, drawn back towards the other nook.

He was more collected about it this time, able to tarnhelm himself so that none of the nurses and doctors noticed him. A peek at a clipboard, clutched in a passing hand, showed him the fireman's name: Vernon Shultz. For the first time it occurred to him to wonder how Vernon Shultz felt about this whole thing. From wondering to finding out was for Rob a step so small now that he hardly noticed it. This close, scarcely three yards away, he could dive right into the sick man's head.

The first thing he noticed was an ill-fitting, gritty quality, like putting on sneakers after a day at the beach. Rob realized this must be from the heart attack, and all the medicines they were pumping into Vernon Shultz's system. The real Vernon was safe in a deep inner fortress, beyond the discomforts besieging the outer defenses. Rob walked up to this central keep and knocked politely on the door, which, in contrast to the rest of the castle, looked like an ordinary modern wooden door.

Vernon opened it cautiously to the limit of the door chain. "Not buying any today, man."

"I'm not selling anything," Rob assured him. "I'm the guy you were searching for today, in that burning office building off Waples Mill Road. My name's Rob. And you're Vernon, right?"

"Holy shit. It's Vern, actually. Nice to meetcha." Unsurprised, Vern undid the chain and held the door open. "Get a move on, there's bad shit happenin' out there."

Rob stepped inside. The space within was totally un-castle-like. In fact it was a college boy's room, furnished by a fairly hip early-70's undergrad. A black-light Grateful Dead poster was stuck to the wall with poster putty, and brown shag carpet covered the floor. Vern refastened the chain and gestured towards the waterbed. "Have a sit, man. 'Less you want a floor cushion."

"No, this is fine." Rob perched on the edge of the bed. How funny -- the man in the ER looked twenty years older than this kid, who had shaggy ringlets and a Ho Chi Minh beard. But, of course! This was Vern's mental image of himself, perpetually young and hip -- probably hipper than Vern had really been at that age. "What do you think is happening out there?"

"Oh, smoke inhalation, probably -- carbon monoxide poisoning, that kind of stuff. But I'll be okay. Take more than this to kill me."

"That's good to hear," Rob said with relief. "I really appreciate your searching for me. I would've felt terrible if you died doing it."

"All part of the job, man." Vern shrugged. He took his heroism utterly for granted, which disconcerted Rob a little.

"I hope you won't be sick long."

"Maybe I'll retire on medical disability," Vern said. "Move down to Florida and go fishing every day."

"That would be fun." This was not how Rob wanted the conversation to go. Platitudes and small-talk he could do in a bar. He didn't have to storm Vern's central soul to sit on a water-bed. But there didn't seem to be any way to move out of the mundane, to explain and apologize.

Looking around the room, Rob rather thought Vern was a fairly mundane man. This was Vern's space. He was calling the shots. Maybe any other way of interacting would make him uncomfortable. Possible comments flitted through Rob's head: "So, you a Dead Head?" "How long you been into fishing?" "I went to Florida once." Guy talk, all of it. He had not realized how paltry most male conversation was, how trivial and shallow. With the weirdness he could peer deeper now. But even then the insights were incommunicable because Rob himself was a man, trapped in that same tight-lipped Clint Eastwood mold. Women were luckier -- at least in the volleys of their female chatter some feelings came through.

A deep noise, not very loud but almost subsonic, made the entire room quiver. "Damn, it's getting bad," Vern said. Then Rob noticed that the dorm wall was dissolving behind Vern. He pointed, and Vern whirled. Suddenly Vern wore his full fireman gear, the helmet, the rubber coat, the boots, everything. He brandished a fireman's axe at the onrushing darkness. "No way!" he yelled, flailing.

Rob knew there was nothing for him to do. This was the absolute last place he wanted to be, stuck in a dying man's head. He stood up on the jelly-like surface of the water-bed as the dark washed up around it. The walls were gone. Even the bed was melting away like an ice cube in hot chocolate. Vern stood alone in the nothingness. His axe drooped. "Oh, well," he said reluctantly. "Maybe I'll go. I guess. I dunno."

He didn't look back at Rob. Rob called, "Hey, thanks again for your help!" But Vern still didn't look back.

Haul ass before it's too late, Rob told himself. He launched himself up and out through the icy dark, refusing to think about getting lost in here. But it wasn't far. He blinked and found himself staring at an annoyed nurse. His tarnhelm trick must have slipped while he was 'away.' "This is a restricted area, sir," she said. She thought he was ghoulish.

"I'm sorry," he said meekly. Something was urgently beeping behind Vern's curtain, and a doctor was talking rapidly at somebody. The intercom was paging a Doctor Mallory, and a nurse ran by with a rattling trayful of instruments. Rob shuffled back to his side of the ER. The misery that had made him frantic five minutes ago still oppressed him. At least he had done something. Finding Vern and saying thanks was a minor achievement, better than nothing. But none of these cheer-up reflections had much impact. He went back into the cubicle and sat on his bed again. Unhappiness seemed to press down on the back of his neck, so that the pillow looked very attractive. He lay down.

"You can't nap here any more," Julianne said indignantly. "They've just discharged you!"

The nurse put down her pen and grabbed Rob's arm to hitch a blood-pressure cuff around it. "Do you feel bad anywhere, Mr. Lewis? Dizzy, nauseous?"

"No no, I'm fine!" Rob sat up.

Julianne felt his forehead. "You don't feel feverish."

"I'm fine! Let's go!"

The nurse stared narrowly at the gauge on the blood-pressure cuff. "Well, I guess you'll do," she said reluctantly. She ripped the velcro cuff free. "Your wife has the list of the doctor's recommendations there. Stick to them like glue!"

"I'll see to that," Julianne promised. "And if he gets sick, he's coming straight back here."

"I won't get sick," Rob muttered. There was nothing wrong with him that unloading to Julianne wouldn't cure. All this secret identity stuff seemed utterly juvenile, the power fantasies of little boys. Strength is in partnership, he thought as they left. I can tell my wife anything. And she'll help me. Julianne's such a sharp one, she'll have ideas, give me guidance. The very presence of their minivan in the parking lot was testimony to Julianne's resourcefulness. She had taken emergency medical leave from the association, phoned Miss Linda to set up the twins' care, taken a taxi to Chasbro to get the van, and then driven to the hospital, all without knowing whether Rob was alive or dead.

It was almost midnight now, and Rob shivered in the cool sweet air. Somewhere this afternoon he had lost his sports coat. The sleeve of his shirt scraped annoyingly at the edge of the Band-Aid in the crook of his elbow, where the IV had been stuck. Suddenly exhausted, he collapsed into the passenger seat of the van. He buckled the seat belt and fell into sleep the way he would flick off a light.

Preface from THE DIVINE COMEDY by Dante Alighieri, translated by John Ciardi. Translation copyright 1954, 1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1965, 1967, 1970 by the Ciardi Family Publishing Trust.
Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3
Notes on How Like a God

©1998 Brenda and Larry Clough Last modified 11 January 1998