Over the last four days, I worked hard to finish the first draft of this novel by my self-inflicted deadline of Sept 11, I met my deadline. I got four more chapters sketched out. I found the ending I was hoping for. The novel is twenty-chapters long. It will take me a few days to proofread all of them before I put them on my website. (Yes, your typo corrections are welcome.) Today, I’m adding a new chapter after Chapter Eight.
It’s mostly dialog between Winston and his friends, Horatio and Laertes, from his old life in my last novel. The chapter establishes some tension that will snap in the rising action of (what will be) the eighteenth chapter. In the next months, I will be going over the entire novel, tweaking and tightening and, most importantly to me, adding more poetic resonance.
Right now this chapter reads a lot like movie script with very little stage direction. One of my best friends, N, tells me she hates fiction, especially when the author cranks out a bunch of adjectives. So if you’re like N, you might prefer this version of the chapter before I sully it with echoes from Alexander Pope’s Dunciad.
CHAPTER EIGHT AND A HALF
I glanced up. A figure in my periphery had caught my attention. Horatio.
“Some guy working at your house told me you might be here,” he said. “When did you get back?” My old school teacher had taken off his mask. He was a little more gray and thinner than I remembered, still wearing a tweed jacket over a t-shirt, carrying that same leather bookbag. He put his coffee cup on my table and held open his arms.
I jumped up and we embraced each other hard (much to the horror of the barista, no doubt). “June,” I said. “Sorry I haven’t tried to get in touch. My mom died.”
“I just found out.” Horatio hugged me again. “I stopped by the farm a bunch of times this summer. Your renter didn’t say anything?”
“Nothing.” My eyes teared up. Self-pity will do that, even to a man.
Horatio told me to sit down. I saw his eyes go glassy too. We smiled at each other. Manly blinking away the tears before they gathered enough mass to fall.
“My dad passed away from Covid. He was in a care home. We weren’t allowed to be with him. My mom is devastated.”
I shook my head. “They’re monsters,” I said. I noticed the barista was leering at us, letting me know that she utterly condemned huggers.
He nodded. “I live in Poland now,” he said after a while.
“In that community?”
“Three or four years.”
“It’s like five since I’ve seen you.”
“You see Leartes at all?”
“No, I don’t. It’s awkward running into old friends since Covid. You don’t know whether they’ve lost their minds or not.” I didn’t doubt that Horatio knew SARS-CoV-2 was an inside job.
“He knows we were lied into Iraq; you’d think he get this.”
“Handsome brute, that Laertes,” said Horatio.
“Wounded warrior. Did I ever tell you he really opened up to me when he first got out. Laertes’ dad was military and pretty much shamed him for leaving.”
“West Point?” Horatio took out his phone and was occupied with it for a moment. Then he put it down, saying, “I just texted him and told him I found you.”
“How is war still a thing? Who buys into that?” said Horatio.
“It’s video games,” I replied. “Getting boys to practice virtual murder free from the inconvenient emotional consequences of mutilating some mother’s son, has altogether eliminated the need for manned army recruitment offices, expensive advertising or the promise of free tuition.”
“Yeah, it’s a different world now for young people. I don’t really know what they’re up to anymore. My students are always on their phones.”
“According to Laertes, meat-space killing turns out to be a whole lot more gross and complicated than a video game. Once home if they don’t suck it up, they hang around for a while secretly thinking about how and when to off themselves, and then, they finally do it in the most obvious and apparently ill-considered way possible.” I paused. “His buddy killed himself, left a wife and a four-year-old boy behind. Laretes married her. They make those kinds of promises to each other in war.”
“Shit,” said Horatio comprehending.
“Soldier suicides since 9/11, so Laertes told me years ago, were up to 30K. Roughly, one in a thousand are so miserable they go ahead and do it despite the incalculable pain for their parents, sibling, spouses and children. Incalculable pain.” I was thinking of Ophelia. “If there were a disease that many, we would do everything to fight it, wouldn’t we?
“Those are worse statistics than this virus, that’s for sure,” said Horatio.
“We will give up freedom. But we won’t give up war.”
There was a pause during which Horatio drank his coffee.
“I can’t believe you live up here now in Poland. That’s great. You’ll have to come over for dinner. Meet Julia,” I said.
“I’m in love with an older woman. Beautiful, smart, cynical. I met her working at the New York Public Library. She’s a curator of a collection of old papers.”
“Hm,” said Horatio. “I’m glad you’ve had someone to help you get through this.”
“Every day. She’s good at talking too. And you?” I asked.
“I’m good,” he said, avoiding the subject of that part of his life, as always.
“Is everyone in Poland still sane?”
“It’s hard to predict. I heard the Waldo School up there went whacko. They used to never have any vaccine requirements, taught the kids permaculture farming, didn’t let them on smart phones, then Covid comes along and they suddenly decide they’re going to trust the System on this one.”
“I know,” said Horatio. “It’s like the madness correlates with organic food consumption.”
“It’s the dumb hicks who survive on McRibs with Szechwan McNugget sauce that are the smart ones now.”
“You know it’s September 11 today?” I asked.
“That’s why I came to find you.”
“It’s a tradition,” I said, referencing the day my father died and Horatio found me hiding from the demolition cloud.
“And now we have phase two of that conspiracy.”
“Oh, I don’t think they’ve bothered to number them since the Great Irish Potato Famine.”
As we were talking costumers kept running in and out of the café, wearing safety paraphernalia that indicated the degree of their hypochondria: double masks, a rhinestone studded plastic shield that fitted over the woman’s glasses, plenty of latex gloves and even one shower cap. People watching had never been so much like doing case studies.
A slender young black man strode in wearing a blue burqa covering his head, matching hot pants, and platform Pleather boots. I waved, guessing it was Chaz.
Horatio asks, “You know Chaz?”
“Yeah, he’s got balls dressing like that in a small town, or maybe it’s easier when everyone knows you.”
After getting his coffee, Chaz stood at our table and threw back his veil. “It’s so great to see you. I didn’t know you knew each other. Where have you been? Oh my god, it’s been years.” Chaz rearranged his veil. “How’s it look? Outrageous, no? I always liked the mysteriousness,” he shimmied his shoulders, “of the burqa. Now I have an excuse to wear one.”
“You look fantastic.”
“Thank you.” Big smile. “Oh, let me show you my best pandemic outfit.” He scrolled through his phone and held it out at arm’s length, presenting us with a picture of himself in a WWI gas mask and a black full-body leotard topped with an oversized codpiece.
Horatio and I laughed.
“I’m free to accessorize,” Chaz explained, “I don’t even have to wear a mask. I had Covid in March, so I’m good to go.”
“Glad to hear you recovered well.”
“Let me tell you, I was on tour in Colorado. Absolutely packed venues every other night, while they were starting to lockdown up here. It was kind of scary, but the show must go on,” he said, throwing the folds of the burqa over his shoulder. “On the way back, our keyboardist got sick first. By the time we made it back home—it took us three days to drive—we were all so sick. We barely made it those last eight hours.”
“Did you go to the doctor?”
“No, we just toughed it out. Now I’m immune,” he sang the last word and posed for a brief second before saying, “Well, I’ve got to be off. It was great running into you two.” He smiled at Horatio. “Bye-bye.” Chaz traipsed out the door.
“That is the sanest person that I have seen come in here today.”
“No kidding,” Horatio agreed.
“He’s oldschool. Proud of his birth pronoun. And clearly, he is still intact.”
“Yeah, I noticed.”
“I liked Freddie Mercury’s feminine phase better than the mustachio’d macho one.”
“Hey look, speaking of macho, the man himself.” I pointed to Laertes crossing the street. “Did you ever see a man with better posture in your life? Are those catcher’s mitts or hands? I don’t know how he gets that pumpkin sized head trough his t-shirt neck.”
Laertes was wearing a cone mask, looking a bit too much like a muzzled pit bull. He was even neutered somehow. He was rather cool with his greeting, considering how long it’d been since we’d seen one another. After he got his coffee, he suggested we move outdoors to a table in the park across the street. Our barista had had about enough of Horatio and me germ swapping by then.
Once outside and sitting down, Laertes lowered his mask to take a sip and replaced it.
Horatio looked at me shrugged.
As he chatted with Horatio, his voice was measured, almost as if he were being held by the enemy for questioning.
I hoped he wasn’t going to flashback. I’d seen the kind of force he could apply in a state of rage. When he thought that I was responsible for his father’s death and his sister’s suicide, Laertes had broken my nose and given me a set of raccoon eyes that lasted a good two weeks.
“I’m not conspiratorial about his,” Laertes was saying, “War that’s different. This is public health.”
“Wouldn’t you rather have natural immunity from the virus and be done with it? No top-offs every year like with the flu shot?” I asked.
“Get the virus? What are you crazy? You could end up on a ventilator.”
“Not if you stay away from the hospitals,” I said.
“Laertes, his mom was vented,” said Horatio.
“You’re mom was ventilated?”
“She died. Ventilators kill.”
“The virus kills. Ventilators don’t kill. That’s three people I know who have died from Covid.”
He and Horatio moved on to talking about the solution to all our problems, just over the horizon.
“You know it’s some brand new technology,” said Horatio.
“That’s why it doesn’t need the same kind of safety trials. It isn’t an actual virus, just a bit of genetic code that will get your cells to make a harmless synthetic piece of the virus. Brilliant really. The only thing they’ll need to test is whether it make antibodies or not.”
“We don’t know what we don’t know. I heard they found a treatment anyway. Ivermectin. Works if you take it early,” said Horatio.
“There is no treatment,” said Laertes with finality.
“There is no vaccine for coronaviruses. They’ve never been able to make one that didn’t kill the test animals,” said Horatio.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” quoth Laertes. “They’re going to cut the red tape and make it happen.”
I added, “It’s impressive how the Corona astrologers have convinced everyone that extraordinary measures, incompatible with democracy and reason, are wanted.”
“I’m starting to think the whole vaccine schedule needs to be reevaluated,” said Horatio.
“Those hippies are turning him into an anti-vaxxer,” I said to Laertes.
“It’s all based on the dubious idea that tricking the natural immune system’s billions-of-years-old method of dealing with infection,” said Horatio.
“It’s the kind of science that pursues a pill for weight loss, a shot for big muscles, a video game for increasing IQ,” I further added, knowing that ganging up on a trained assassin might be foolish.
Laertes’ eyes were darting back and forth from me to Horatio and back again.
“Infectious diseases might be ameliorated if everybody had access to clean water, healthy food and a non-toxic environment, but governments say we can’t afford it,” said Horatio.
“It’s much more cost-effective to medically intervene after the fact of terrible living conditions,” I added.
“Think what you want,” replied Laertes, “but I’m going to do my part to get everyone out of lockdown and back to work.” Clearly Laertes was running the ThinkRight program that had recently been installed in his brain.
“Tell you what, Laertes,” I said, “wait to make a decision until after you see what happens to the geezers when they shoot them up.”
“Unfortunately, they are not going to experiment just on the old folks first,” said Horatio. “They’re going after nurses and doctors, and then teachers too. Nursing and education are the two professions that are dominated by women of child-bearing age. And flight attendants.”
“Disabled people are going to be pushed to the head of the lab rat line too,” I said.
After thinking it over carefully Laertes responded with, “You’re just anti-vaxxers.”
The machine in Laertes’ head was now running by itself and no one in his same condition had to be coerced or bribed to ThinkRight. The least energy intensive way to learn is to mimic what most people are doing. Mirror neurons work when you aren’t even paying attention. Horatio and I were the oddballs, and Laertes had received too much confirmation of his position by now to see us otherwise.
“We’re what you can call Jaythinkers,” I corrected Laertes. “‘Jay’ means some kind of rustic hick. That’s how they got people to cross at the corner. They slandered them if they took the direct route.”
I hoped that this harmless raillery would inoculate us against the dangers of tribalism. I planned to continue to work on Laertes and convince them that the Covid shot would be at least as bad as the Anthrax shot they made him take in the military.
Our oligarchs were experts at weaponizing neighbor against neighbor, teen against parent, friend against friend. It was accomplished swiftly by assigning them each a different color or name and getting them to wear distinctive articles of clothing or don a notable accessory. Although what a color or name signifies could change with the weather, the symbol could still trigger hatred or love instantly without provoking any thought.
After we finally got to the point when we each had to be going, the awkward moment came when, according to convention, we would hug each other and slap each other manfully on the back. Horatio and I paused for a second and then did the thing. Laertes, however, was already backing away waving good bye.
Go to Chapter 9
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