The Last Stand of Boursen Ran

“What do you think, goat man? We all die here today?”

“You can’t think like that. Ignore death until you see it’s shape in the corner of your eye.” Boursen Ran told Hilo when they stood on the wall of the ruined fortress with the others. Over their heads the tattered banner of the Unseen flapped in the wind sweeping up from the gorge, the shut eyes painted on the yellow silk looking like a sad send off.

Hilo Tamarand fidgeted in her golden armor, scratched under the gorget absently with the edge of her dagger. From their vantage point they all looked down into the darker rift at the bottom of the gorge as a black shape armored in steel was beginning to rise. Before it the terrible corrupt army was starting to claw upwards.

“So optimistic.” She said dryly.

Boursen Ran tossed his head, the sharpened silver tips of his antlers glinting. “Not optimism.” He said. “No time for that and no time for thought.”

On his left the Upsheer, Yamhill took to the sky with a flap and screech, summoning the rest of his bird men to the first assault. On his right he saw old Vespertine test the grip on her great sword. Ahmia raised up her fist and from the high granite outcropping he knew without looking hundreds of arrows were knocked and held. The Coustlet twins, Zouk and Veeta licked their teeth and crouched, war clubs held easy and ready. The gibbering roar from below grew louder.

Bousen Ran glanced over at Hilo as the terrible noise crested. He took the time to give her a wide white grin before raising his heavy short sword. “Only time for a slaughter.”

He didn’t think when he charged forward. He didn’t think when he cleaved through the bodies of open mouthed slakers or when one of the towering monsters knocked away his sword. He also didn’t think when he headbutted the beast in the stomach, felt one of his antlers snap and give way or when he felt the thing claw his stomach to ribbons.

Now, laying on his back in the mud, twisted and crumpled next to the huge body of a Coustlet, oily slick and stinking with Boneblack corruption, with his guts spilling from the hole in his middle Boursen Ran had nothing but time to think.

He thought of the Hanging City. The daughter he had fawned with a textile trader who wasn’t interested in a Setmate but had wanted a child. He thought about the way the sun looked when it slanted through the kitchen window that faced out onto the open air of Durthan Rift as he wrapped gold wire around his daughter's budding horns.

He thought about what her mother had said.

“It’s so far away though. You don’t actually think there is anything to worry about do you?”

For his entire adult life Boursen Ran carried a sword to guard the Hanging City. He kept the Traders from Benga Loa and Sekmets Climb in line, forged outside of it when need be to protect the seat of Eidlemark culture and prosperity. When the rumors came from the west that some unheard of threat was crawling it’s way up from the buried kingdoms he listened, even when the Set Council did not.

Boursen Ran saw the shape death in the corner of his eye grow closer.

“I don’t know. I hope not.” He had told the mother of his fawn. “I just want to be sure. It’s close enough to the city to make me concerned.” He kissed his daughter between her horns and bounced her on his strong red furred knee.  “I’ll be away for a while in any case.”

“Ah? So you’ll be back then?”

“If I don’t return…” He handed the little girl back to her mother. “If I don’t return you know something is wrong.”

It had been three years.

Boursen Ran gagged on his own blood. He hoped the mother of his child had taken him at his word.

From somewhere over his head he heard a clacking noise. The sky tongue of the Upsheer. He had never really gotten the hang of it. A long orange beak dipped into his dim field of vision, one golden eye fixed on his midsection in consternation.

“Hello, beaky.” He said weakly.

The Upsheer made a concerned noise and dipped her white wing in front to his face so he could see the red paint across the feathers. One of the healers. The Upsheer began pulling dried moss from the pouches tied around her long legs. He gurgled a wet laugh when she tucked it into the gashes in his flesh.

“Leave it, beaky. It’s done.”

The Upsheer trilled, a high distressed noise. A young noise, from someone who hadn’t yet seen so much dying.

Boursen Ran thought about the arboretum's planted into the cliffs, the swinging rope bridges, his first boyhood fight where he had broken a Set Brother's nose. The scolding he had gotten afterwards. Unfiltered sunlight. The rooms he had in the center of the city. Most Eidlemark lived in the cliffside dwellings but Boursen Ran had liked the constant breeze.

He thought about his strange unwanted companions and hoped some of them had lived. Vespertine, Hilo, Yamhill, the twins. The sounds of fighting had dulled. Maybe it was just because his heart was so slow and loud though, maybe he imagined that.

He tried to tell the Upsheer still peering down at him, Stay with me for just a little while. It’s not going to be long now and I’m far from home and I’m afraid… But all that came out was another gurgle of blood.

“Pl-” Boursen Ran’s fingers twitched.

The shape of death became clearer as the Upsheer laid her warm, long neck across his throat to try to still his shuddering and Boursen Ran thought of how his daughters horns would look fully grown and wrapped with gold and gems. He thought of the swaying tenements in the Long Quarter, the bouquets in the springtime market, drinking during new moon fairs and the last warning he gave the mother of his child.

(Written 2015, Writing exercise in the Deep Engines Universe)

Little Deals

The Throat may have predated the Big Rupture, although the theory was hotly debated at the Grand Academy. The yawning sinkhole used to mark the western border of Benga Loa in ancient days but in time superstitions surrounding it faded and the city grew around it. Meanwhile the Engine Children built downwards forming a kind of city within a city. Merchants of every race were welcome to ply their trade on the upper levels but lower, close to the water that pooled in the bottom and flowed out and down into the great rift river things were decidedly more hostile. Here in the Low, the Buried Sons were the ruling power and they did not welcome outsiders, Kef or otherwise.

Juon supposed he could count himself lucky for finding a Buried Son for a husband. Marmont was smart, talented, insanely handsome and insanely well respected within the Sons. Juon would have been more than content with simply experience the bliss of true love, but if true love came with new ridiculously lucrative business opportunities far be it from him to question good fortune.

He pinched Marmonts bare elbow affectionately, dancing back a step when the shorter man went to slap him in the stomach.

"I've never been down this far! Very exciting!" Juon grinned.

"Try to control yourself, will you?" Marmont’s gaze flicked to a group of Sons hefting pick axes over their shoulders. He nodded curtly at one of the women who saluted briefly before setting out across one of the many rope bridges strung across the Throat with her fellows. "I don't need you making a fool of me."

Juon ducked under one of the red lanterns that hung over the wide, descending staircase. It was still crowded in the Low but the population had become markedly more homogenous and uncaring about the comfort of taller peoples. A young man shouldered Juon unnecessarily as he passed and Juon shrugged it off. His parents had always taught him to show deference when not on his own turf, but Juon noted the boys face should the youth ever find himself outside of it.

"You wound me."

Marmont snorted. "I'll have to take you through The Whetstone to get to our contact. It's the best route to the waterline. I won't let anyone give you any trouble, but for the love of Breath don't make any."

"Wounded!" Juon clutched his chest and Marmont rolled his eyes.

Juon brushed another lantern out of his way, not bothering to duck this time. It was actually rather pretty down here, thousands of the red paper lanterns holding glowing stones were strung across and around the vast sinkhole to illuminate the thick tree roots that reached down towards the water. All around them faces carved open mouthed for the entrances to dwellings by some long dead civilization spilled their inhabitants. The carved brands on cheeks and foreheads more recently painted bright blue. Stairs, walkways, bridges everywhere. To an untrained eye the Throat might look haphazard, but Juon could recognize an elegant practicality to the design. Welcoming at the top it was planned to confuse anyone not of the Engine Children towards the bottom. Switchbacks and choke points to corner intruders should the need arise. And the need had, frequently. The last time the Watch attempted to storm the Low in pursuit of smugglers they were slaughtered to a man, trapped in the net of the Throat.

Juon had always had a vast appreciation for clever traps.

They had come to the lowest reaches now, to a deck built around one of the gaping stone mouths.

Marmont flashed his engraved token to the thick armed youth standing at the entrance as a matter of courtesy. The girl only had a token portion of the tattoos and brands Marmont did. A novice in the Sons, then. She held an arm up in front of Juon as he moved to enter behind Marmont.

"You're fine, Settlebranc, this one stays outside." Jaw set, she did not waver.

"He came with me and he stays with me." Marmont said gruffly.

"And what business could this Kef have in the Throat? Master?"

Juon spread his arms and flashed his most genial smile.

"Master Juon Tiro."

Her arm stayed up but her face was now uncertain. His family name reached far, wide, and deep. His husband's rough bark was the finishing blow to the girls confidence.

"Novice. When I bring a guest to this hall it's for a reason. Now drop your arm and move away."

She did, muttering a shamed "My apologies, Brother Settlebranc." If her eyes hadn’t been cast downwards she might have noticed Marmont take his hand away from his second best hammer, the one he reserved for the more indelicate work of cracking skulls.

More surprises once they were in the tavern. Farrow looked up as they entered, hurt crossed his features, then a guarded scowl.

"Ah, your old lover is here. How nice." Juon remarked and nodded cordially in Farrow's direction. Marmont was decidedly less cordial. He jerked his head at Farrow, tongue out he touched two fingers to his throat, and flicked them dismissively. Farrow's scowl deepened and he turn away to start a conversation with a man at his elbow.

"You don't have to be so malicious, Mar."

"You can't be defending that piece of shit." Marmont said as they descended the concealed stairs in the back of the bar.

"Wouldn't think of it. I just don't see the merit in kicking a man that hard when he's down. It must be a constant struggle to be incompetent and be thrown over for a perfect man like myself." Juon slung an arm around Marmonts neck. Marmont tolerated it.

"No one was thrown over. I was done with him before we met."

"I know, but I like to think I won a competition." Juon grinned. He tried not to admit that he liked possessing someone so desired.

They reached the bottom of the stairs to the meeting place and Juon the lover became Juon the business man. Gingerly he stepped out onto a wide flat rock that sat at the base of the stairs. He stood, hands on hips and looked out across the still dark water. A moment later a pale shape broke the surface and slithered towards them. The huge white salamander and it's rider slunk up onto the rock with them.

"Wahey, Tiro!" The sleek, white haired rider dismounted and spit the hollow piece of wood stuffed with withergrass Baseians used to breath underwater into her hand.

"Paleah! Good to see you!" Juon greeted her warmly. "You have something nice for me?"

"Very nice, very nice, Tiro!" She flashed her pointed teeth and pulled a sack from the reed saddle on her salamander. She dropped it to his feet and crouched to rummage through it. She came up with a twisted branch of red coral.

"From the river under the Hanging City." Paleah said proudly. "Hard to find, then hard to get. Had a nosebleed for a week from diving that deep."

Juon took it from her and turned it in his hands. It could be broken up, polished and set into jewelry. The price it would fetch with the well heeled in the patrician quarter was staggering. Paleah was looking over his shoulder at Marmont with wide, pale eyes.

"This your new man, Tiro?"

He didn't look up from the coral branch and waved at Marmont behind him. "Oh, I'm sorry. Paleah, my husband Marmont Settlebranc. He was the one who made this transaction possible in the first place."

Marmont crossed his arms and shifted under her appraising eye until she grinned. "Niiiice, Tiro."

Juon flipped the branch overhand and nodded. "Good. I'll take it. What do you want?"

"No shell, silver. You have silver for me?" She asked.

From the pocket stitched into his outer robe Juon pulled seven silver ingots and dropped them into Paleahs webbed hand. "Pleasure as always, Paleah."

"Hey, hey! Anytime, dear Tiro! And my regards to the rest of your family! Let them know the Marshas Dan appreciate the patronage." One smooth motion and she had mounted her salamander again and slipped noiselessly back into the water. She waved before submerging.

"Olac, Tiro! And goodbye, handsome new man!"

Marmont rolled his eyes.

"The company you keep, JuJu."

Juon laughed, slung the sack over his shoulder and pulled Marmont in for a kiss. "Come on, let's go scandalize your brethren some more on the way back home. Maybe I lied a bit. I do sort of like seeing the look on another man's face when he realizes he can't have you anymore. It gives me a sick thrill."

(Written 2015, a writing exercise in the Deep Engines Universe)

The Longest Brunch

Everyone does it these days, the weekend brunch thing. Stay up late Friday night, go out for pancakes and mimosas when the sun is almost halfway across the sky.

People had been coming to Peety Pops Breakfast spot for about the past five years. Peety Pop started out small and had grown its brand to become a successful contender in the Portland brunch scene. Their menu was impeccable and the interior inviting. It is frequently praised in the Mercury for its food and atmosphere. Its facade is white and teal and their sign has a super cute little retro painting of a birdie on it.

Despite the fact no one seemed to really know who owned it, Peety Pops was the town darling.

Which was probably why no one noticed anything was wrong. At least not at first.

The restaurant opens at 9, the staff has been there since 7:30. There are several people waiting outside the door before it's unlocked by a server. By 10:37 every table in the place is seated and the first orders are being finished. At 10:39 the front door deadbolts itself.

No one is interested in egress however, not with these dope ass 2$ mimosas flowing forth. The guests are averaging about one pint every 30 minutes. A plate of biscuits and gravy is set in front of a thin blond man with a virgin of Guadalupe tattooed on his neck and he eats demurely with fork and knife for a bit before casting aside the knife and picking up a second fork, alternating, left, right, left, right.

"Jim, Jim, are the biscuits good?" Asks the woman across from him at the four top he's seated at.

Jim doesn't answer, but nods vaguely and continues eating as a bead of sweat trickles down his forehead.

His dining companions debate over their choices for a while, shooing away the server several times and slurping chunks from Peety Pops new Bloody Mary drink, called the Bloody Geoffrey, a daring new cocktail consisting of raw steak bits shaken with three shots of lighter fluid, poured over chilled asphalt, garnished with two olives.

At a booth, six twentysomething women are brunching off their bachelorette party hangover. A heavy set brunette receives her egg white tofu scramble along with the greyhound she ordered served in a pickle tub. They aren't sure how long they've been there but the bride is on her second plate of bacon waffles. She would suggest they leave, as this place is clearly overrated but she can't stop pushing large pieces of waffle into her mouth. She signals a server, which may not even be her tables server but they are all beginning to look very similar, the same empty eyes and rictus smile. She gestures for another order. Fat tears start to roll down her cheeks and for all the world she wishes she was home with her fiance.

Meanwhile Jim has drowned, face down in his gravy, A fork fisted in each hand. His remaining three companions have finally decided on their food. Tina opts for Hannibal's Breakfast Castle, Jon and Grace decide to split the Eggs Erryway Trough.

Servers jerk hollow eyed around tables as they carry platters of increasingly terrifying sizes. The line cooks sweat and tremble over saute stations. A visibly upset dishwasher leaps over the stainless steel dish pit and breaks for the back service door. He yanks it open and with a fading scream goes spinning off into a black, interminable void. The door slams shut again and the doorknob sinks into the painted metal with a moist, fleshy 'Ftthrp'.

It might be 2:30 in the afternoon or next Tuesday for all anyone knows when the guests at table 8 build a sort of idol from gnawed fried chicken, pancakes and hash browns. Its form is a mockery of gods creation, its eyes are triple and made from eggs over medium. The people at table 8 howl madly,  beseeching hands held out to their profane new god before they tear at their faces or fornicate with each other on a pile of used table napkins.

Over near the window Peter is having a nice time with his wife. She is dead already, the poor weak lamb. Blood gushes out from under the pancake that's been draped over her face like a funeral shroud. He thinks this is the happiest he's been since their children were born. Just a nice quiet brunch with the wife. Just...so blissfully quiet… for the first time in ten years.

A crash of pans resounds from the kitchen. A bleeding prep cook comes tearing out of the back into the dining area and runs at full speed into the full length front window. The window doesn’t break but the cooks neck does. A sallow middle aged woman, seated closest to the mans crumpled form, pauses her lascivious deep throating of a fist full of sausage and shouts, “DELIGHTFUL! MY COMPLIMENTS TO THE CHEF!!”

The acolytes of table eight's breakfast god have become embroiled with an opposing sect, Table tens Devotees of the Holy Mother of Parfait. The clash between healthy options and fatty ones is brutal. The Saladeers beat the Bacon Popes about their heads and necks with ceramic plates,  eyes vacant with a natural sucrose high. The casualties on both sides are heavy.

The pitched battle is ignored by the other diners, who are having their own issues with stroke, Mimosa induced liver failure or the sudden ability to see through time to a nightmare future where seven breasted crab people will walk the earth.

Back in the kitchen the remaining two cooks are on fire, but they continue on, making omelettes the size of cats, pressing waffle after waffle.

The temperature in Peety Pops is excruciating but the brunch continues on at a feverish pace. Even the diners with the terrible flatware wounds all over their necks have their heads thrown back in ecstasy, gulping down strips of undercooked bacon, their glassy eyes peer into the coming days of the crab people and their spiny, chitinous empires.

A mass of multiple limbs, mouths and flesh dressed in a sparkly pink sash that says “1# Bachelorette” stretched across its girth drags itself into the kitchen, past the blackened enflamed cooks and begins to guzzle down pitchers of Hollandaise sauce. If the congealed wad of bridesmaids had ears in it’s bulk it would wonder if the sound coming from the cooks was wailing or just squealing, popping human fat. Small mercy, one supposes, that this newly joined together form was mostly just hungry mouths and reaching hands.

One guest,Timothy, sat in the middle of the floor of the restaurant with a small room made from pilfered toast built around him, and peered fearfully out through a chink in his wall of wheat and rye at the carnage. He had not ordered, had not eaten.

“Im safe in here.” He whispers. “I’ll be safe in here forever…”

Convinced of this, Timothy was slowly starving to death.

And the brunch went on and on and on.

But everything ends. Even terror, even horror. The weeks marched on and then months. Eventually the missing posters for the erstwhile brunchers rotted off the telephone poles they were stapled to and their families abandoned hope.

Over time the blood that covered the floor and walls of Peety Pops soaked into the foundation of the building. On the day the last stain disappeared the building seemed to heave a satisfied sigh from deep within its wood work. Not that many people noticed of course, and the few that did thought it was the wind.

The paint peeled and the building sat empty. Kids stole the cute birdie sign in about mid March. Businesses come and go in this part of town so it didn't take long for people in the neighborhood to stop saying, "Hey, remember Peety Pops? Goddamn, they could make a good Eggs Benedict."

One year the buildings sat vacant, and then a nondescript black van pulled up in front of what used to be Peety Pops. A faceless man in black coveralls emerged from the van and popped the side door. He rummaged for a moment and produced a hammer and large board, of which he tucked under one arm.

The faceless man quickly nailed a the board across the faded door frame and hopped back into the van, which backed up, burst into a controlled gout of flame and then crumbled to ash in front of the abandoned Peety Pops. Oddly enough no one really saw that happen either and that was a pretty distinctive event.

The next day people jogging down the street, heading to work at a cafes or pushing strollers read the sign and gossiped about how much they were looking forward to sessions at Madam Varanasis Hot Yoga Studio, opening August, 2014.

(Written December 2013)

Tank Baby

Humility is meted out in interesting ways over time. For example, if you spend years openly shit talking things like therapy, alternative treatments for physical and mental health, or smoothies, you will find yourself frantically and pathetically availing yourself of all of those things all at once. The final tap to the nuts is discovering the fucking things are actually beneficial.

I don’t want to get into the nitty gritty but this has easily been one of the most putrid summers of my life. Professional failures, personal disappointments, insomnia, major housing issues, chronic pain- top that all off with days that consistently vaulted over 90 degrees that left me in a sort of brine of anxiety- by the start of September I shook constantly and couldn’t eat more than a few mouthfuls. Sleeping was right out since sleeping required staying still, staying still meant hours of laying in the dark while my heart tried to beat out of my chest. The thoughts and lists of things to do, people to appease never stopped. I panicked at random moments. Any anomalous feeling in my body was the immediate onset of cancer. Just going down a flight of stairs was an exercise in fantasy where my legs would fail and I’d split my skull open on the bannister.

Terror is a bone in my throat I can’t cough up.

The only time I could catch a break was knocking back wine like it was medicine to give me a couple hours of stillness so I could complete some work. That’s not just putting a bandaid on it. That’s having a vagrant lick the bandaid, slapping it on your open wound, then flashing a thumbs up to horrified onlookers. Nothing gave me pleasure, everything was just a conquering of minutes for a reason I couldn’t find between passing out.

I think the therapy came first. I picked out PK because she has a dog. Once a week I sit in her office and she picks apart my coping mechanisms.  Her tone of voice suggests there were things I didn’t deserve. It’s deeply uncomfortable. She asks useless questions like: “If you could talk to yourself when you were a child, when that was happening to you, what would you say?” When I refused to answer she proceeded to tell me what she would say. I instantly blocked that shit out. I still go every week.

Massage therapy came next. Every two weeks a friend of mine cuts me a discount and tries to undo a lifetime of damage 90 minutes at a time. It’s probably the first time in my life anyone has handled my body with anything resembling ongoing concern in a medical context. Andrew knew I’d been in a car accident in my late teens, that I carry the most tension in my left shoulder, and that working in the vicinity of my kidneys triggers what he calls ‘guarding’. That’s when the body reacts immediately to protect itself despite your best intentions.

It’s a slow, irritating process trying to heal yourself. More irritating is that once people find out you are doing it they set a timeline for you on when you should be acceptably fixed.

The shaking didn’t let up, and the pain in my chest was like a hot metal splinter in my sternum.  I was walking around with a stomach full of iron slag. After waking up one morning feeling, again, like I was experiencing the final moments of death while not just dying, for the love of god, I went: ‘Fuck it. Let’s get woo woo.’

And I called the immersion tank place for the next available appointment, to pay money to lay in a really dark tank half full of salt water for an hour and a half. I don’t like to be touched for very long, I got over that. I don’t like to talk about the things that hurt me in any genuine way, but I- okay I’m not over that one yet but get off my case.  So really, I could probably get over my aversion to hippie shit.

That was my rock bottom. Feeling so fucked up that if a young white guy with dreads told me that a kale enema would provide me relief from this mental and physical agony I would have turned and presented my butthole with a quickness. Ninety minutes in a tank? No problem.

I stumbled into Float On unwashed, barely dressed, and really early. (I ran out of fanfictions to read so I just headed out.) I crammed myself into the furthest corner of the lounge after paying to wait my turn.

“We like to have you pay at the beginning so that when you’re done with your float you can just come out and have some tea, hang out...really enjoy your post float glow without having to worry about anything!” I was told by the clerk who took my card, the most placid goddamned woman I have ever encountered. At this juncture I am absolutely certain that I will not be hanging out, glowing, with or without tea.

There are six private rooms in this joint, each with a shower and the big ass float tank. The lady that led me to explain how it all works was very, very...kind. She seemed genuinely dismayed when I told her I was in to see if I could do something about my panic attacks. She had like, 7 separate suggestions on how I could manage any anxiety. I don’t trust kindness and sympathy, not without trying to find the angle. You have to really anticipate as much as possible about other people so you can’t be caught unawares when they turn vicious.

That’s what I think.

You shower before sliding into the tank. The shower scared the shit out of me. Do you know they make shower heads that like...fucking glow and change colors?! Because they do make them and I guess float tack places are big buyers. I’m washing my depression filth off under a goddamned aura detecting showerhead! When that sucker came on, the work part of my brain, (which is actually the whole thing and never, ever shuts off), was like ‘remember to write about this showerhead later. Holy shit.’.

I tried going in with my glasses. That was a bad idea.

The lady said that due to the amount of epsom salt in the water  it would be slippery. That’s an understatement. I went sliding into that bitch like a shaved hamster through a layer of warm KY jelly, sloshing around in this tank and getting the water all over my glasses. The first couple of minutes were also when I found out any open cut or irritated skin was gonna sting like a motherfucker.

(I want to pause in my essay to thank whatever loving god gifted me with mental issues so crippling that I couldn’t find the energy to shave my pussy lately. Good looking out, big guy. I owe ya one.)

The first ten minutes were not the soothing journey into consciousness the website had sold me. I have a nervous habit of ripping the skin off of my fingers until they bleed, so soaking them in a huge pool of salt water wasn’t putting me on the road to serenity. My glasses sat weird on my face and dripped the salt water into my eyes. In very short order I called mulligan. On my way out of the tank I smashed the Jim Christ out of my head on the entrance. Naked, clutching my head, blind as shit, and you betcha, crying like a baby. I slathered vaseline over my fingers, showered the salt off of my face and took my glasses off.

Because here’s the thing: I spent 65 american dollars to lay in that dark bucket and find some inner fucking peace and so help me, inner fucking peace would be found. I was not going to call it quits at ten. Back in the tank, still crying. Feel free to assume the crying is an intermittent but frequent staple of this experience for the rest of the essay.

I pulled the door shut and laid down. I was aware that buoyancy was one of the core points of floating but damn my ass was buoyant.  I just floated in there, not really trusting that I was actually being held by anything. A few minutes of sniveling and I started paying attention.

In the total dark, away from my phone and email, questions, other people, in a tank of salted chill juice, I was alone where no one could see me. For a little while I wasn’t answerable to anyone but myself. The thought was clear before any actual action upon it took place; whatever fresh hell might be waiting for me when I got out was going to have to wait. Nothing was coming to get me for a little while. No one was going to be able to measure me up and find me too small.

The body came first. I knew I tensed but I didn’t know precisely to what degree. Without the pressure of gravity, other hands, clothes, anything, I was still rigid.

‘You aren’t going to fall.’ I told myself. ‘It’s fine. There isn’t anything to hold yourself against.’

An immersion tank is structured to remove the impression of time. Even without and thing to mark it by, it took a cool minute to relax one piece at a time. Left calf, right thigh, clenched hands, shoulders too high. A muscle in my back spasmed rebelliously, but whatever. I’ll deal with that asshole later.

I learned something really young, and that’s that you need to watch your tells, especially your flinches. Flinching is a sign of weakness. If a rabbit flinches in front of the dog it’s the signals for the dog to snatch it up and shake it to pieces. Flinching is just a way of saying to a bigger animal, “Your yelling is scaring me, yanking my hair while I’m trying to eat hurts me. Your hand coming towards me terrifies me.” And it’s saying to the bigger animal “I can do as much of this as I want and I’ll never get bored of it.” Catch a flinch, smother an expression and you can save yourself some trouble.

It took some coaxing and focus but I managed to unwind bit by bit. Then the rest of it came. There was nothing wrong with my heart. It’s just a heart. It’s only doing it’s job like it always has. The other organs follow and stopped being a source of fear. There are my lungs, nothing suspect. My stomach, empty but not full of lead ingot, or tumors, or parasites, or any other weird shit. It’s not my enemy. It’s just what I’ve been given to work with.

The body proving itself fine meant I could think about something else. So I thought about these things in no particular order:

How much jealousy and resentment I’ve had for people who openly, candidly share their feelings. I read autobiographical comics and journal posts with a harshly critical eye. Not judgement for the actual topics shared, but the execution thereof. Frank vulnerability is a dangerous thing.

Here is something else I learned when I was younger: Never show your flank. Sharing too much of yourself without a deft joke or a blase attitude to deflect is a bad idea. Being vulnerable around someone, even if you think you can trust them, is like sharpening a knife yourself then handing it off to that other person and saying, “When you decide to cut my throat this is what you can do it with.”  If it doesn’t sound like you are actually upset then it can’t be used against you.

That resentment is just cheap sour grapes and cowardice on my part. I shied away from writing anything genuine about myself without making it into a buffoonish joke because being a buffoon has little cost to me. There are some people who I’m sure would be completely delighted to know that i’ve been making myself sick like this. To speak frankly on how it’s affected me is to show my flank.

But here is a thought now and it is stronger than the fear and resentment. It is:

I did not work this hard for this long to hone my craft only to curl my fingers away from the keys in consideration of people who do not love me.

At this point my eye itched like an unholy bastard and I thought I was going to get away with rubbing it. Nope. That just made it worse. In my desperation to really rub my eye without getting out of the tank I had the genius idea of sucking my fingers into my mouth to get the the salt water off of them which was duuuuuuumb. I should have saved myself the time and just taken a break from catharsis to open the damn door and scrub my face with a towel, but oh well. If wishes were fishes.

That hot iron splinter in my chest not gone, but dislodged slightly, I settled back in and thought about whatever pleased me. There wasn’t anyone to stop me. Not even myself.

I’m uncomfortable with the concept of forgiveness as applied to myself. Every time I had food thrown on me, or was grabbed and wrenched back on task for my mind wandering, attracting too much attention so a class full of peers could discuss in in detail, in front of a listening teacher, if I was fingering myself in the bathroom before 3rd period, was a test I failed. I should have played the game better, used a different word here or there. The deliberately thrown elbow I took to the eye trying to get around another kid who knocked me cold was a failure. I should have moved faster, ducked further left, not gotten so close. That was my fault, my mistake, and when it happened again I now knew how to get out of the way.

But I had to remember the specifics of the failure. Forgiving it would be forgetting it. Forgetting it is being caught unprepared when something like that happens again. I learned how to anticipate a trap and disarm it ahead of time when I was younger. It’s good that I learned not to flinch when I was spit on. I’m glad that happened, since now I’m ready as an adult if it happens.

I explained this logic to my therapist, PK early on. She sidestepped that bullshit and parried with a smooth thrust that sunk into a soft spot.

“Our trauma gives us gifts. It doesn’t make the trauma something that was deserved.” She said.

I didn’t have anything for that.

Then she started asking about the specifics, and I swallowed around the bone in my throat and started telling her.

In the dark, with no one to see me, I visited my own private country. It’s made up of fragments of things seen and half remembered or read about somewhere. Bits of rocky coast, a field in the summer full of sulfur butterflies, drowning cities, old mossy caves. This country isn’t populated by anything other than strange, quiet animals who prefer not to be seen and versions of myself at different ages.

“If you could talk to yourself when you were a child, when that was happening to you, what would you say?”

There is me, age 5. My first pair of glasses are huge and heavy on my face, I’m wearing my favorite black costume dress. People bigger than me are speculating about what's wrong with me, and what should be done about it.

As I’m passing by I’d say:

“Listen, you are gonna learn some hard shit in the next few years. You’re gonna learn the difference between ‘can’ and ‘should’. You are gonna learn that ‘can’ is an easy word and that ‘should’ is the hard one that takes work. Some people ‘can’ do things to you and they will. They will do it because it’s easy and satisfies them. It’s not going to be fair and no one is going to protect you from it.

When you are a little older there is going to be a boy in your grade who tortures you, you are gonna ask him what if he would do if he was in your place. All he going to say before he goes back to touching your face with his wet hand is: “Yeah, but I’m not.

You will begin to understand what the word ‘should’ means when he says that. That’s going to be hard, but it’s going to define you.

It shouldn’t have happened, but it did.

It’s not fair, but it’s going to build you. “

Ah, here I am, age 15, surly, salty, and spoiling for a fight. I’m a little more clipped with her.

“Listen, You are doing too much ‘can’. Just because you suffered and you’re angry about it doesn’t mean you get to inflict more on whoever you please. Stop being such a shit to your parents. You asked them not to intercede on your behalf and they respected your wishes. You don’t get to punish them for that.  Besides, they protected you as best they could out of your sight. Mom told a teacher to get bent when they suggested taking your books away to bring you

in line. Dad asked a teacher who called to drill him about your failing grades if she knew you were reading Paradise Lost. When she said no, he said,  “You don’t know shit about my daughter.”

You don’t know about that now. You’ll find out much later and you are going to feel like a real dick when you do.

Also, have fun looking back on these years once the word Weeaboo comes into common usage.”

Here is me in my 20’s on my own, confused but ready to consume everything put in front of me. We saw each other recently so I can be to the point.

“Listen, what happened in that motel room wasn’t your fault. You were new to the city and you’d never been around people like that. Good thing that one guy stopped the other guy, but still what happened that night and how other people treated you afterwards was bullshit. You didn’t deserve it. It didn’t make you dirty. A dude you thought was hot because he wore a cologne you like is going to call you a whore in front of the whole dorm. No one is going to defend you. The word will hurt you then but it will be the last time it ever touches you. You are going to realize that people who use that word say more about themselves than they do you.

Also that motherfucker will die of a drug overdose about a year later so go on brush your shoulders off.

I gotta get going, but listen, you are going to say ‘yes’ to a lot of people who don’t deserve you because you didn’t get a lot of chances to say it earlier. You are gonna give a lot of men your body, time, and consideration who don’t deserve it. That’s fine. Every choice you make in love now is going to place you in the position to recognize what David is when you find him. The road leads to him and it’s going to be so worth it.

There are two of us now going forward, The me that ‘can’ and the me that ‘should’. We are a bit cagey about each other, not really friends at all, cruel and judgemental. But we are headed towards ourself at age 45 or so, the image is hazy but I’m sure I’ve aged gracefully into the kind of wardrobe my classy mother wears now. David is there, more handsome than the day we met him, the people who do love me, who I do owe consideration are there. Maybe somewhere is a shelf full of books I’ve written.

In my own private country on a trail that looks like one I used to hike in St Louis, I look at this bitch next to me, who might be my good face or my bad face, and nod. I underestimated your resilience for a minute. I’m sorry about that. This is just a minute to breathe before we put down the things that didn’t work and focus on refining things that do.

An unstoppable force in the universe.

I thought about having a talk with the staff at Float On about the music they played to signal my session was over. When the grinding dirge started I sat up out of that tub like, HAS THE WAR STARTED??? Did holistic people forget about Enya? I mean maybe don’t go with the blood pumping jam of Orinoco Flow but definitely get a good copy of Shepard Moon, you know?

I did hang out in the lounge and have tea. I texted with my mother for a while and then went to my favorite plant shop and talked with the owner for about an hour. Fascinating guy. I bought one of his terrariums and invited him to be on my show sometime. Then I called mom, wandered around the neighborhood for a while. It’s September now, so the heat’s broken. I went to have my head shaved over at Bishops. I drank the beer they gave me and didn’t feel the need to pour five more on top of it. I actually just enjoyed a beer.

Then I went home to David. The bone coughed up for the time being, the splinter in my chest not as sharp. Nothing fixed exactly, but less fearful, less noisy. I don’t know how I’ll feel later, but right this moment what I feel is good, stronger, and sure that I can do this.

And if I feel like I can’t then I know I can go spend 90 minutes in a dark bucket down the street to figure out how. I’ll go to therapy once a week, massage therapy every other week, and I’ll figure it out.

(Written September, 2015)