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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer


                ---family was always telling Jordy he needed to relax, and he didn’t disagree with them, he just couldn’t accomplish it. He didn’t understand the strategies. Like trying to focus his thoughts on relaxing subjects, for example. How was someone supposed to control their thoughts? His thoughts were drawn to stressful subjects like metal shavings skittering across an oil-slick concrete floor toward an industrial magnet. And it was the same with regulating his breathing. Jordy didn’t believe in regulating his breathing. He just breathed without thinking about it, and that seemed normal and correct to him, and he didn’t understand how tinkering around with that process would relax him. If anything, it would make breathing more like work, which was one of the main enemies of relaxation in his life. What else was there? Getting a massage: there was no way. Jordy didn’t think it would be possible for a stranger to feel truly neutral about touching his body. They would either like it or not like it, even if by only one degree, and neither possibility appealed to Jordy. Also, attempting to discern which side they landed on would be stressful. There were a bunch more methods, too, people were always throwing out suggestions, but Jordy knew they wouldn’t work, and constantly being told how much he needed to relax was another stressor exacerbating his unrelaxed state.

               One afternoon, Jordy’s son Jed brought a new chair over in the back of his truck. “Help me get it inside, Dad,” said Jed. The chair was covered in beige upholstery. It looked soft but firm. A few green leaves had stuck to it on the drive.

               “What’s it for?” asked Jordy.

               “It’s to help you relax,” said Jed.

               “How’s it gonna do that?” asked Jordy. He could feel his tension headache ramping up at the base of his skull.

               “You’re gonna sit in it,” said Jed. “Come on, help me lift it down. It’s not very heavy. That’s one of the innovative things about it. A chair doesn’t have to be huge to be relaxing.”

               “Is it comfortable?” asked Jordy.

               “It’s relaxing,” said Jed. “That’s what the saleslady told me, and she seemed honest.”

               Once the chair was inside the house, Jed asked Jordy where he wanted it. “I don’t want it,” said Jordy. “I never said I did.”

               “We’ll put it in the den,” said Jed. “There’s plenty of room in there.”

               Jordy couldn’t tell if this was meant to be a disparaging comment about the lack of stuff in his den – was having an uncrowded den something to be ashamed of? – but he chose to not take offense and allowed Jed to lead the way down the hall to the den, waddling backward with his arms wrapped around the back of the chair like a man embracing a beloved benefactress. Jordy, on the other hand, gripped the chair by its odd little legs, drawn onward at a shuffling pace.

               When the chair was established in the den, Jed stood back and told Jordy he wanted to see him sit in it.

               “You’ve never seen me sit before?” asked Jordy. “I’ll sit in it later.”

               “I want to see if you like it,” said Jed.

               “I’ll text you,” said Jordy.

               “But if I see you don’t like it, then I can just take it away with me now,” said Jed.

               This was a tempting offer, so Jordy, already dialing up the correct amount of displeasure to get Jed to take the chair away without being too hurt, sat down in the chair.

               It felt great. Really, really good. Jordy shifted around in the chair and found an even better position.

               “How does it feel?” asked Jed. “Is it relaxing, or not really?”

               “I’ll hang onto it,” said Jordy.

               “You like it?”

               “I like it,” said Jordy.

               “And it’s relaxing?” asked Jed.

               “I don’t know about that,” said Jordy. “But actually…I just realized my headache went away, so maybe there’s something to it?”

               “Great!” said Jed. “I knew that saleslady seemed honest. You usually have headaches pretty much all the time these days, don’t you, Dad?”

               “Huh?” said Jordy. “What was that?”

               Jed laughed. “You’re already so relaxed you’re spacing out.”

               “I’m not spacing out,” said Jordy. He rolled his shoulders and was amazed at how loose they felt.

               “Don’t get up,” said Jed. “I’ll see myself out.”

               “Sure,” said Jordy.

               “No need to thank me,” said Jed, mostly joking. He paused. “Bye, Dad.”

               “Sure,” said Jordy. A few moments later, he heard the front door open and close, then the sound of Jed’s truck starting up and receding down the block.

               Jordy shifted in the chair again, and felt it further accommodate him. He did not sink into the chair, it was too firm for that, but it was is if some aspect of the chair sank into him, suffusing his body. What else could this feeling be but relaxation? It almost brought Jordy to tears when he realized how foreign it felt. Had he ever been relaxed at any other point in his life until now? Or was this it? Was this chair bestowing a gift upon him that other people routinely got from dozing in front of football games, smoking cigarettes, constructing model train---


---him furious when people suggested that maybe the number stood for a letter. His replies to this suggestion and others almost as bad were often rude. “Brilliant,” he would say. “So the numeral ‘2’ stands for the letter ‘B.’ And what does the ‘B’ stand for, genius?”

               Sometimes people would blush and mumble that they were only trying to help. Others would become indignant. “I’m not saying that’s the final answer,” they would say. “That’s just the first step.”

               “Well, I considered and rejected that ‘first step,’ as you call it, when I was 10 years old,” Cade would say.

               “What else could it be?” the people would shoot back. “How can a coded message be a single numeral?”

               “That’s what makes it so difficult!” Cade would respond, often shouting by then.

               And the discussion would degrade from there. But the truth was that Cade did not want suggestions of any kind, whether good or bad. In fact, bad suggestions were preferable, because a good suggestion would taint the accomplishment of eventually cracking the code. He enjoyed talking about his work on the code, but it was best if people just listened attentively or commented on the cleverness of his methods or assured him that they were certain he would crack the code one day soon.

               Cade had recently begun to incorporate elements of untruth into his explanations of his decades-long hobby. For example, he no longer told people he had come across the code in the last panel of a Crushing Blow comic book. He now said he’d encountered the code in the letters section at the back of an issue of The Knowledge-Oriented Mind, a magazine that hadn’t been published for at least 20 years.

               At a family reunion, Cade’s wealthy cousin Marissa asked him how, if the magazine was defunct, he would know if he’d arrived at the correct answer. Who would he contact to confirm his solution? How could he ever be sure he’d cracked such a stubborn code? The legitimacy of this concern and how closely it struck at Cade’s own insecurities perhaps accounted for the extremity of his reaction. “I’ll know!” he shouted, dropping his half-consumed can of beer in his agitation. It landed upright on the cement patio with a charming clank, not a drop lost, a mini-miracle.

               “You’ll know?” asked Marissa, looking up from the fallen can. “Just like that? That doesn’t sound very scientific. That sounds a little mystical.” She wasn’t wearing business-appropriate clothing, but she wore her casual clothing with a businesslike air. Her glasses looked incredibly fragile, like they were made of spun sugar. How much had she paid for such fragility? Her face was broad and seemed impregnable.

               “Mystical how?” asked Cade, summoning paranoia to his side. “Mystical like the events common in a comic book, for example?”

               Marissa laughed. “No, that’s fantasy. I’m talking about the mystical. Don’t look so offended. I have a lot of respect for mysticism. It’s played a role – not a huge role, but a role nonetheless – in my business success.”

               Finding Marissa’s conversation style too challenging, Cade went in search of a dimmer cousin. He left the beer can where it was.

               That night in his study, Cade glared at the numeral “2” written on the whiteboard mounted on a wheeled metal stand in the middle of the room. When was the last time he’d been excited about cracking the code? When was the last time he’d dived deeply, plunging himself into an hours-long struggle with---


---apex of her bounce, her hair wreathing her head like wrongly-textured clouds around a mountain’s domed peak. She felt as if the humidity kept her suspended in the air just a touch longer, a slight resistance at the beginning of her return trip to the trampoline’s taught dark surface. From this point, she could see over the fence into the Garvey’s yard, detritus floating in the pool they’d left uncovered when they took off in a rush to assist Mrs. Garvey’s mother, who had tumbled down her basement stairs in another state. Olivia imagined the old woman lying at the foot of the stairs, waiting in discomfort with her head propped on the bottom step for her daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren to cross all six states between them to help her. Which was probably not accurate; surely local emergency personnel had gotten her up before the Garveys even heard what had happened.

               The balls of Olivia’s bare feet thrust downward into the trampoline, stretching it earthward, threatening to puncture it until it lost patience and flung her back to maximum height. There, Olivia swiveled to look into her brother’s second-story bedroom window. The light was on, and Olivia saw her parents looking for clues to Jason’s current whereabouts. It had now been more than 24 hours since they’d last seen him. Olivia wasn’t really staying abreast of all the information, but she had gathered that calls to Jason’s friends weren’t turning up anything helpful. It occurred to Olivia, then, that if she could bounce high enough, she might be able to see him, wherever he was. She would have to bounce very high, though, hundreds or thousands of feet, depending on how far away he was, and her eyesight would have to be much better, and he would have to be out in the open unless her eyesight became so good that she could see through solid matter. None of this struck her as very likely, but it wasn’t very likely that she’d find him if she stopped jumping on the trampoline either. So she kept jumping on the trampoline.

               What would it take to get more height? Did Olivia need to be lighter? Heavier? Did she need to wear clothing that was less wind-resistant? What if she shaved her head? Could she alter her technique, improve her form? She wished there was a way to measure the height of her bounces so she could know if and when she had set new records. She imagined a soft blue light floating in the air above the trampoline at the highest point the top of her head had ever reached. Then, when she surpassed it, even by a fraction of a fraction of an inch, the light would move up to the new highest height and change color, something dramatically different so there would be no doubt that she had set a new record, maybe yellow or---


---research,” said Marissa. “It probably wouldn’t have taken us so long if you’d told me where you’d actually seen the code in the first place, but we did figure it out. Crushing Blow issue #163, right?”

               Cade was grateful that Marissa couldn’t see his blush, but then he was stricken with the absurd notion that she could maybe somehow hear it – she had expressed an interest in mysticism, after all – and he held the phone away from his face while he rallied his dignity.

               Marissa said nothing. She seemed content to wait for Cade to break the silence wedged between them.

               “Well,” Cade finally said. “That doesn’t make the code any easier to crack.”

               “I disagree,” said Marissa. “Once we knew it was from the comic book, we were actually able to track down the issue in question and examine it ourselves. It turns out that the context in which the code originally appeared is actually quite crucial to cracking it.”

               Cade did not like how Marissa had phrased this assertion. It made him fearful. “I don’t…” said Cade. “I don’t believe…”

               “We got confirmation from Farley Mapes himself,” said Marissa. “He was easy to find. I didn’t even have to call in a favor. I just reached out to him at the email address on his website.”

               “Farley Mapes?” wheezed Cade from within a restricting ribcage.

               “The creator of Crushing Blow,” said Marissa.

               “I know who he is!” shouted Cade.

               “You’re upset,” said Marissa. “But don’t worry, I’m not offended. I expected this, actually. But trust me, this is better for you in the long run. I’m not going to give you any clues, no hints, nothing. But when you arrive at a solution, when you know in your heart that you’ve cracked it, then you can reach out to me and I can let you know if you got it right or not.”

               “He lied to you,” said Cade. “Farley Mapes lied to you. He told you that you got it right even though you got it wrong.”

               “That’s not true,” said Marissa. “In fact he said he would have sent me the Crushing Blow visor he sent to the first 100 people to write in with the correct answer, but there weren’t any left because he’d sent all 100 out within a month of the code being published because so many people got it right so fast.”

               “I don’t remember anything about a visor,” said Cade.

               “Do you even have the issue anymore?” asked Marissa. “The visor offer is right there in the same panel as the code along with Farley’s home address where you were supposed to send the solution once you cracked it. He published his real home address in his comic book! And he still lives there! Isn’t that wild? He said no fan ever dropped by to bother him, though, so I guess his trust in his readership was well-founded. I can’t imagine someone getting away with something like that today, though.”

               “I will never check my solution against your false solution,” Cade said. “I don’t need or want confirmation from you or Farley Mapes. Keep your false solution to”---


---crown. He set it back on his head and re-mounted his horse.

               “It’s dirty,” said Sir Pasten. “There are globules of mud on the jewels, Sire.”

               “Don’t say ‘globules,’” said King Actus. “Just say, ‘There’s mud on the jewels.’”

               Sir Pasten bit the tip of his tongue, a physical representation of his internal struggle to keep from arguing with a man with whom he’d freely argued for most of his life, never guessing that man would someday stumble into kinghood.

               For his part, King Actus had thought he might grow to miss Sir Pasten’s contrarian nature, but no, it still felt nice to be Sir Pasten’s superior and to force Sir Pasten to treat him as such. King Actus turned to look at Sir Pasten, to make it clear that what he had said was a command, not merely a suggested alternative phrasing for future reference.

               “There’s mud on the jewels,” said Sir Pasten.

               “I don’t care,” said King Actus. “Danny will see to it later, and he’s the best crown cleaner of our time. And anyway, if my object were perfect cleanliness, I would not be traipsing about in the woods looking for a rare herb at the behest of a”---


---in the garage and the garage door was closed. But if Jordy had gone somewhere on foot, why had he left the front door unlocked? Jed returned to his father’s den and looked at the relaxing chair, his father’s shirt and undershirt resting on the seat, his father’s pants, with his underwear and socks still inside them, draped over his grubby sneakers on the floor at the chair’s base. It was as if he’d been abducted or raptured or staged the scene to make it look that way. But Jed didn’t buy any of that. Just because he couldn’t think of an alternative didn’t mean an alternative didn’t exist. Jed wasn’t one of those skeptics who thought he needed to justify his skepticism by also being the guy who correctly explained everything. But, as a son, figuring out what had happened to his dad was probably at least partially his responsibility. He didn’t want to call the cops, though. There was a good chance that Jordy was still somewhere on the property, very possibly nude, and Jed knew his father would not forgive him if he did anything to allow strangers to witness the eventual revelation of whatever was going on, even if those strangers were there in an official capacity.

               Jed felt a headache developing at the base of his skull, the exact kind about which his dad was always complaining. Maybe Jed needed a little time in the relaxing chair before buckling down and finding his father. But looking at the chair, at his dad’s vacated clothing on and in front of it, Jed felt something within him, something essentially trustworthy, holding him back.   

               “Dad?” Jed called again. He doubted the effectiveness of this strategy, but it was easy. There was no response, of course. Jordy either couldn’t hear him or did not yet want to reveal himself. Jed looked around to see if any of the den’s other sparse furnishings or decorations had been disturbed. On top of a small book shelf, empty but for the first three books in a much longer series of spy novels, was a framed letter from a famous prisoner with whom Jordy had shared a brief correspondence before the prisoner was gunned down in an escape attempt. The framed letter was the last the prisoner, whose name was Hampton Walls, had sent to Jordy before he died. In it, Hampton said that if he’d been raised by a father like Jordy, then maybe he wouldn’t have turned out so bad, maybe he wouldn’t have done all the awful things he did, or maybe he’d at least have done a better job of avoiding capture. Never mind that Hampton had been two years older than Jordy. Hampton never knew that because Jordy had pretended to be a much older man in the letters he sent to the convict he claimed to not, but clearly did, admire.

               Jed had never been allowed to touch the framed letter. As a child, if he wanted to read it, he had to try to do so from sufficient distance to keep his breath from fogging the glass. As an adult, he hadn’t paid much attention to it, but as far as he knew, the rule against handling the letter still applied. As such, with his father not present to observe him, Jed was now overcome with a desire to handle the letter. He picked the letter up, holding it by either side of the frame, and held it close to his face, examining the penmanship of a man capable of visiting so many atrocities on the only world he’d ever known. As he peered at the words, the individual letters, Jed saw something reflected in the glass holding the letter in place, a rustling of the clothes in the relaxing chair behind him. He whirled to see what was happening, and as he did, the framed letter flew from his hand and struck the corner of his father’s inoperative mini fridge. The frame broke and the glass slipped free, sliding across the top of the fridge, striking the wall, and cracking into three pieces which then fell behind the fridge.

               But Jed’s eyes were still on the chair where the vague shape of Jordy had begun to cohere, where a slight thickening of the air suggested the merest outline of the man Jed knew as his---


---No one could bounce her off. Jason invited guys from school over to try, not because he wanted them to succeed in bouncing Olivia off the trampoline, but because he wanted to prove that no one could. He was far more proud of Olivia being unbounceoffable than she was. For her, it was just the most expedient means of returning to solo bouncing. If someone deigned to get on the trampoline with her, that was fine, but they would have to live with the consequences. She would time her landing perfectly at the perfect spot and the perfect angle to send the interloper, whether that be a Multioak High School varsity football player who bought stolen video games from Jason or a college student Jason had met at a party who kept bragging about her “low center of gravity,” sailing over the edge of the trampoline at odd angles, legs kicking, arms flailing, to sprawl gasping in the grass while Jason hooted and Olivia bounced serenely onward, returning to the trampoline’s central sweet spot and regaining every lost altitudinal inch.

               Miraculously, no one had ever gotten hurt. Maybe a few bruises, a tweaked ankle, but no broken bones, no concussions. Even when Olivia had bounced Jason over the fence into the Garvey’s yard, he’d been fine, more amazed than anything. It hadn’t really happened, though, Olivia had to remind herself of that every so often. The memory felt real, but it couldn’t be, her brother cartwheeling through the air like a cartoon, arcing over the fence and crashing down among a tangle of windblown lawn chairs. It was a lie he told to his friends to impress them, to enhance Olivia’s legendary status as Multioak’s foremost trampolinist.

               People always wanted to know if Olivia did front flips, backflips, back drops, front drops, and the answer was, no, she didn’t. Maybe that was why Jason was fixated on Olivia being impervious to bouncings off, why he exaggerated his accounts of her victories. She had not bounced him over the Garvey’s fence no matter how clearly she could envision it, no matter how vividly she recalled the exact clothes Jason had been wearing, the clothes she had been wearing, their conversation directly before and directly after, the quality of the light in the back yard, the song playing on the stereo they’d laid on its back under the trampoline, speakers pointed straight up, connected to the house by a long yellow extension cord. So how did she know it was a lie? Well, she remembered knowing it was a lie the first time Jason told the story, and her memory of that knowledge was what she now had in place of---


---a response.

               Not that he was under any obligation to respond, but King Actus favored him with one anyway. “The seer said we would need to become lost in order to find the Satisfying Conclusion herb. Now we’re lost. So that means we’re right on track.”

               “But what good is finding the herb if we’re lost?” asked Sir Pasten. King Actus noted that he had not seen him bite his tongue for a few hours, a sure sign of slipping reverence.

               “Once we find the Satisfying Conclusion herb, we will then endeavor to become un-lost,” said King Actus, again neglecting to scold Sir Pasten. A sign of slipping reverence for himself, perhaps, a known danger of---


 ---that code,” said Farley, waving his hands as if clearing spider webs away from his face. Seated, his belly looked boxy, like a cube with rounded corners. Desert sunlight blazed through the single-paned window behind the couch where Cade sat. He could feel it biting at the back of his neck.

               “I don’t want any hints,” said Cade. “I don’t want any clues. I just need to know if my cousin Marissa and her team really cracked it. And I need to know if you really sent visors to a hundred other people who cracked it. And if there were even more people who cracked it who didn’t get visors because you’d run out.”

               Farley looked confused, his thick eyeglasses magnifying that confusion so that it looked like a whole lifestyle. “Are you serious?”

               “Extremely serious,” said Cade. He had almost said “deadly serious,” but thought better of it, and was now relieved he had.

               “But you’re the only one here,” said Farley. He didn’t even drop his hands to the armrests of his chair that hard, but little clouds of dust still rose from the impact.

               “I wanted to hear it from you in person,” said Cade. “I’m…suspicious of Marissa. And electronic communication, you know, that’s easy to, like, hack.”

               “Exactly,” said Farley.

               “So they were wrong?” asked Cade. “Marissa’s team and all those readers?”

               Farley snorted. “Look around you,” he said. “Do you see them anywhere? They accepted their visors and their pats on the head and they went about their lives.” He glanced at his watch. “Of course, I guess someone else could still show up in the next, uh, hour and 18 minutes.”

               Cade was missing something. He and Farley Mapes were talking past each other, that much was obvious. “So if Marissa and her team were wrong, what was their guess?”

               Farley cleared his throat. “Oh, they went in for the whole issue-#2-panel-#2 thing.”

               “Ah,” said Cade. “And how does that one go?”

               Farley smiled. “It’s actually a relief to me that you don’t know. That means you never considered it. You knew there would be more to it than that.”

               “Of course,” said Cade. “There had to be.”

               “If you look at Crushing Blow #2 in the second panel,” said Farley, “Neckhole is wearing a prison uniform and the number printed on his chest is 25152123914, and if you read that as 25-15-21-23-9-14 and assign a letter to each number, it spells out ‘Y-O-U-W-I-N.’”

               “Oh,” said Cade. He felt deflated. How had he never figured that out? Was he, in fact, dumb, dense?

               “Which spells ‘YOU WIN,’” said Farley.

               “Yes,” said Cade. “Yes, I noticed that.” He felt like his soul was trickling out of most of his orifices.

               “So I figured a lot of people – most people – that’s as far as they’d get,” said Farley. “They’d see ‘YOU WIN’ and take that as confirmation that they’d gotten it right. And for those people, I figured a cheap visor was exactly what they deserved. A cheap visor and false confidence in their own cleverness.”

               Cade hid his face and all the shame it displayed in his hands. His shoulders began to tremble, but he wasn’t crying. Trembling shoulders was what his body sometimes afflicted him with instead of crying.

               “What’s wrong?” asked Farley, hoisting himself out of his chair and crossing the matted carpet to press a fleshy hand to the top of Cade’s head.

               “You’re mistaken about me,” said Cade. “You think I’m here because I cracked the code. Really cracked it. But I didn’t. I’m not better than those people who settled for the ‘YOU WIN’ message. I’m worse. I didn’t even make it that far. It never occurred to me – never would have occurred to me – to look at Neckhole’s prisoner number in the second panel of issue #2.”

               Farley did not remove his hand from Cade’s head. “But that’s a good thing,” he said. “Your mind didn’t even consider something so conventional. And you’re here. On the day. And right on time! Well, a little early, but who wouldn’t want to be a little early for something so important.”

               “But it’s an accident,” said Cade. “A coincidence.”

               “Or,” said Farley. “You’ve been guided by instinct for your entire life, and each instinctive decision has led you to this moment.”

               “But what about the code?” asked Cade.

               “It roused your instinct,” said Farley.

               “But is there even a solution?” asked Cade.

               “Of course,” said Farley. “The numeral ‘2’ equals the letter ‘B.’”

               Cade gazed at Farley for a long time before saying, “And…?”

               “And here you are,” said---


---springs groaning and sighing in unison as she came down and went up, respectively. She knew her parents could hear her jumping from their bedroom, but they didn’t complain, didn’t come shuffling through the sliding glass door to the patio to tell her she needed to sleep. Olivia’s mom had decided that time on the trampoline must be therapeutic for her daughter, a means of processing difficulties in her life, an interpretation Olivia was happy to go along with. Maybe there was even something to it. Recently, she’d been wishing she could be the bounce. Not the person bouncing, but the bounce itself, more verb than noun.

               But then the sliding glass door did whisper open and out came Jason, looking awful. Even in the deceiving light of the moon, Olivia could tell he’d been through the wringer. As he limped across the patio, Olivia watched Jason’s head move up and down in a slow nod, following her with his eyes. When he got to the grass, he stumbled to his knees before leaning heavily on one hand to propel himself upright again. At the edge of the trampoline, he stopped, hands resting on the faded blue pad that covered the springs.

               “You’re getting super high,” Jason finally said. “Maybe the night air is thinner? Would that make a difference?”

               “Maybe,” said Olivia. But the night air didn’t feel thinner to her.

               “I’m in trouble,” said Jason. “They’re gonna follow me here. They’re right behind me, I think.”

               “Who is?” Olivia called quietly down to him from her lofty realm.

               “My video game hookup,” said Jason. “I got greedy. I thought, well, the games are already stolen, so they’re not gonna call the cops if a few go missing, and it’s not like it’s immoral to steal from thieves, but they caught me in the act…”

               “What are they going to do to you?” asked---


---assembled siblings gathered in Jordy’s den.

               “Are you going to explain?” asked Colette, Jed’s sister, the oldest.

               “I don’t want to,” admitted Jed. “I’d prefer that you just trust me and we’ll see if it works or not. Either way, I’ll explain once we’re done.”

               “It feels disrespectful,” said Thad, Jed’s brother, the youngest. “Like spitting on his grave.”

               “He’s not dead!” said Colette. “That’s what you said, right, Jed?” Her hair’s metal-gray color contrasted with the feminine brimmed cap which was the reddish color her hair had formerly been.

               “I’m not saying he’s dead,” said Thad, his too-long pants bunched around his ankles and engulfing the tops of his sandaled feet so that his toes looked like the heads of innocents in the midst of being devoured by a khaki blob. “I’m saying it feels disrespectful, that’s all. Doing a bunch of stuff he hates in his den while he’s gone. It feels defiant. Like spitting on his grave.”

               “Well, Dad isn’t dead,” Colette said again.

               “Here,” said Jed, handing Jordy’s phone to Thad. “I guessed his password on the second try.”

               “And what am I doing?” asked Thad.

               “You’re reading emails from his coworkers out loud,” said Jed. “Start from the most recent and work your way backward.”

               “What about me?” asked Colette. “I don’t want to do something too unpleasant.”

               “I don’t suppose you could cry?” asked Jed. “Like, really weep and wail?”

               “No,” said Colette, her voice icy.

               Jed wondered if it was too late to convince Colette that Jordy was dead. But no, he shouldn’t, that would be cruel. Even if it was for a good cause. “All right,” he said, cracking a smile he knew was unconvincing. “I was just kidding. Could you, uh, talk about your ideas for remodeling the house?”

               “Which house?” asked Colette. “Dad’s house?”

               “This house, yeah,” said Jed.

               “Why?” asked Colette, narrowing her eyes. “How is that related to Thad reading work emails? Or me crying? Remodeling this house is a good thing.”

               “I said I’ll explain later,” said Jed.

               “And what’s your role in this mysterious little drama?” asked Thad.

               “I’ll be suggesting some ways for Dad to relax,” said---


---The seer gulped down the concoction, then lowered himself into the padded crate. The candles ensconced on the walls of the seer’s Favorite Chamber produced a pinkish light and no smoke. Tapestries depicting typically seery scenes hung in staggered layers making it difficult to determine the dimensions of the room.

               King Actus wished there were more people present, a nice big audience. It would make the sacrifices feel more worthwhile. As it was, the hideous scars, the loss of his horse, Sir Pasten’s mangled hand: well, the conclusions revealed by the Satisfying Conclusion herb had best be very satisfying.

               Next to King Actus, Sir Pasten stood cradling his bandaged stump like it was a newborn kitten. The sound of his breathing made it clear that the pneumonia had not yet relinquished its hold on his lungs. “How long?” he asked in a pitiful croak.

               “I don’t know,” said King Actus, opening his mouth as little as possible to avoid stretching the facial wound that stung him whenever he so much as blinked.

               The seer sat up, grasping each half of his divided beard. It annoyed King Actus that the beard sections were not the same length. The seer’s eyes were rolled back, of course, in his head. Whatever special properties the Satisfying Conclusion herb possessed, it seemed as if the performance it elicited would be of the typical variety.

               “The brother,” said the seer in his usual monotone. “Crawls atop the trampoline. Begins to bounce. As does the sister. First in alternating synchronization, then they falter, but with purpose. Splintering wood and shattering glass, the pursuers are in the house. The siblings bid one another farewell. The sister bounces the brother away, his threatened body spinning over the trees and rooftops, tumbling across the heavens, out of her life and out of his.”

               “What is this?” asked King Actus. “What are you talking about?”

               “I,” said Sir Pasten, “don’t get it.” He coughed.

               “A man known as a father,” said the seer. “But not a man like others, those composed of blood, bone, and viscera. This is a man composed of pure anxiousness, a being held together only by the worries of his world. But when he finally takes true rest and those concerns are caused to fade, he fades also, dissipating like fog when the sun marches forth. His children desire his return. But how to reconstitute one such as he? They play his most prominent aggravations like instruments, a cacophonic symphony, and watch as the father is stitched together again in front of them, shaped and solidified, they yank him from his seat and embrace him as his headache again takes root and flowers.”

               “That means nothing to me!” shouted King Actus. “Who could possibly find such a conclusion remotely satisfying? Your words mean nothing!"

               “I’m,” said Sir Pasten, “not satisfied either.”

               “And so it comes to pass,” said the seer, “my ancestor and his sole disciple, having found that ‘B’ is the answer to every multiple choice question inscribed on the walls of my tomb, wait at the appointed place and at the appointed time to witness the fruition of my life’s work, the dawning of a new approach, a ‘Plan B’ for the world, for after they behold what they are about to behold, they will put their heads together and come up with a foolproof means of marketing Plan B to the people of their time, and it will not only fix a lot of what’s wrong with how things are in general, but it will also bring them a great deal of personal prestige and recognition.”

               The seer stopped speaking and laid back down. King Actus limped over to the seer and peered down at him lying there in his padded crate, an accommodation that now seemed unnecessary considering he’d neither shaken nor thrashed at any point during his prophetic trance and now the whole event seemed to have concluded, and not very satisfactorily.

               “We’ve been duped,” said King Actus. “Whoever those conclusions were meant to satisfy, it wasn’t us.”

               “I didn’t expect,” said Sir Pasten, “heavy-handed morals. I knew there might be a little ambiguity. But what’s a ‘trampoline?’”

               “I shouldn’t drown him in the moat,” said King Actus. “I really should not.” He turned to look at his former-friend-turned-subject.

               “Yes,” said Sir Pasten, his teeth well clear of his tongue’s tip, “you should.”

               And just like that, the years peeled off of the two men like shed skin, and they were boyhood pals again, forging, through incessant bickering, a friendship they were sure would last a lifetime.

               Sir Pasten, struggling mightily, managed to regain his feet just in time to attempt a high-five with King Actus. Too late did either man realize that the hand with which Sir Pasten attempted the high-five was gone, capable only of a high-zero. They were stricken silent by the horror of the moment, but then that horror gave way to amusement, then hilarity, and at a certain point, both men were so far gone in their laughter, eerily still in the midst of simultaneous desperate inhalations, that it was as if they were fixed in place, a frozen image of hysterical camaraderie over which credits might roll, for example, and maybe a sonorous voiceover would---


---employees were not helpful, but when you knew hardware stores as well as Jeannie did, “helpful” employees were nuisances. Jeannie knew her way around pretty much any hardware store, but especially this hardware store. On this occasion, she was paying a midday visit to Tools and So Forth because she was painting the basement bathroom and she needed some more pan liners and she didn’t feel like driving all the way to one of the paint stores in Multioak.

               No one greeted Jeannie when she walked in the door, which was just how she liked it. The girl standing at the sole checkout counter was writing something on the palm of her hand with a green pen, and she did not so much as glance up from her work as Jeannie breezed past her.

The store seemed deserted as Jeannie made her way toward the small paint section near the back, but one aisle from her destination, she saw movement out of the corner of her eye and stopped. There, from the clear plastic drawers organized by type and size, a young boy pulled handfuls of screws and stuffed them into the pockets of his jacket. When he saw Jeannie watching him, he turned to face her, pointed a steady index finger at her, and said, “You won’t tell anyone about this.”

“Why are you doing that?” asked Jeannie. She phrased the question as innocuously as she could, as non-judgmentally. The boy made her very uneasy. He did not speak or conduct himself like a child of his apparent age. There seemed to be more and more of these kind of children around these days. Jeannie couldn’t explain it.

“I need these,” said the boy. He patted his bulging pockets.

“Are you going to pay for them?” asked Jeannie. As much as she had appreciated Tools and So Forth’s lack of customer service for years, she now despised them for it.      There should have been an employee nearby to deal with this exact kind of situation. Since there wasn’t, now Jeannie was stuck dealing with it even though it was not her responsibility and she was under no obligation to intervene or even care if a kid was stealing screws.

               “I will not be paying for them, no,” said the boy. He gathered himself, rising up on the toes of his poorly-tied sneakers, and Jeannie got the distinct impression that he was about to deliver his least childlike line yet. Something cynical or philosophical or ironic. She couldn’t bear to hear it. She turned to walk away, but no, his eyes were alight with inappropriate intelligence, his lips were parting, his tongue was selecting a syllable, his---

Discussion Questions

  • If you were a being composed of pure stress who became too relaxed and then dissolved, what would be the best technique for irritating you back into existence?

  • Those net things that go around trampolines to keep people from flying off: are they a sign of good-sense progress or are they contrary to everything a trampoline stands for?

  • In fact, write a passionate multi-paragraph defense of unsatisfying conclusions.

  • Do you ever find yourself wishing that I would consume a concoction made from the rare Satisfying Conclusion herb? Ha ha. Well, I never will!

  • Do you recognize the sound of a manual radio tuner when you hear it? Do you know what the “seek” button does on a radio? Is it a grave error to organize a Bedtime Story around the concept of switching stations on a manual radio tuner in 2021?