Thursday, September 16, 2004

Russel and the Forces of Evil

In June of 1967, I was ten years old and my younger brother, Russell, was twelve. Canada was about to celebrate its Centennial, the Toronto Maple Leafs had won the Stanley Cup for the last time, and Russell decided to kill Satan, the Prince of Darkness and Father of Lies.

The Village General Store

It was an unusual day. Saddam Hussein apologized for making all that trouble, the federal government refunded the taxes we'd paid for the last fifty years, and Catholics and Anglicans were getting along. It's just too bad I had to go and break my leg.


The only thing setting Timmy apart from any other active, cheerful ten-year-old boy was the fact that he was dead.

Russel and the Forces of Evil

Saturday, July 31, 2004

In June of 1967, I was ten years old and my younger brother, Russell, was twelve. Canada was about to celebrate its Centennial, the Toronto Maple Leafs had won the Stanley Cup for the last time, and Russell decided to kill Satan, the Prince of Darkness and Father of Lies.

Perhaps this needs some explanation. The reason I call Russell my younger brother, although he was (and still is) two years older, is because he has always maintained a peculiar innocence and purity of purpose: the "eternal child" as it were.

Take, for instance, the matter of Santa Claus. In 1967 Russell still believed the basic elements of the story and had worked out a complicated theory involving quantum mechanics to explain the more troublesome details. By incorporating Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Russell had established to his own satisfaction that it was possible to visit every spot on the globe within twenty-four hours. He was even able to explain, by a modification to the fourth equation, how Santa could enter homes without being detected, regardless of whether or not they had chimneys.

We were living in a small village called Marshtown located a few miles southwest of Welland. Marshtown got its name from the fields of peat marshes which surrounded it. Every summer these caught fire from underground combustion and spread clouds of ground-level smoke throughout the area. This effect, like the reversing falls, was known far and wide with the result that during the tourist season, Marshtown's population underwent a wide fluctuation since many families took the opportunity to go elsewhere and be tourists.

When school let out that year, Russell and I hung around in the Marshtown Public Library. This was a new feature for the village. It consisted of one room in the basement of the village's only three-story building. In the 1800's this structure had been an inn; now, however, it was a "multiple-residence unit" housing four families. It was a source of pride to the community that, like the big cities of Welland, Port Colborne and Dunnville, we too had an apartment building. The librarian was a nice old lady with shockingly orange hair and such a strong Scottish accent that nobody was sure what her name was. When she first introduced herself to me, I thought she said her name was Mrs. MacKlaren, but Russell swore it was Mrs. MacCarthy. Father Dodsworthy called her Mrs. MacNaughton and Reverend Shaw called her Mrs. MacNollen. The Post Mistress, Irene, knew her as Mrs. Mahoney but covered all the angles by sending her any mail addressed to an unfamiliar name.

One June day, as we were exploring the library shelves, Russell discovered a book about the evils of Satanism. Included was a complete ritual for raising the devil, presumably meant as a guide to help the interested reader differentiate between a black mass and a cub-scout meeting — (a distinction many scout leaders have puzzled over late on sleepless nights.) When he checked it out the librarian bobbed her orange hair in a friendly fashion, smiled angelically and said, "Aye, yeel ken a loot aboot auld Clooty afore yeer doon."

All that evening Russell studied his book. Shortly before bedtime, our mother gave us a couple of homemade popsicles as a treat. These were made by mixing up a strong batch of Kool-Aid, pouring it into plastic molds, and then putting them into the freezer. I began to eat mine immediately, but Russell sat staring at his for so long it formed a puddle on the table.

In bed, after our lights had been turned out and the grownups were downstairs watching The Tonight Show, Russell hissed at me.

"I've got a plan."


I was still limping from his last plan which had involved jumping off the front of the root-cellar (a 12-foot drop), with a bed-sheet tied to my ankles and wrists. His intentions were always good (in this case he had been trying to invent a method to escape from burning buildings) but the results were rapidly repaving the road to hell.

"This is the biggest yet."


"We can end all misery on earth."

"How the heck are you going to end all misery on earth?" I asked, regretting it immediately.

"I'm going to kill Satan."

The idea had come to him while reading the Satanic ritual. If you could conjure up Satan, he reasoned, then you should also be able to ambush him. The problem, as he saw it, was to find an effective weapon.

"When Mom gave us the popsicle, I had my answer," he said, knowing it would be impossible for me not to comment.

"You're going to kill Satan with a popsicle?!"

"I'm going to get some holy water from the Catholic church, freeze it in one of the molds, file the end to a point, and then when he appears, I'm going to stab him through the heart."

"Right. You're going to kill Satan with a sharpened popsicle."

"I would prefer," he said slowly, "to call it a Pope-sicle."

I could tell he had been waiting for hours to say that.

We started preparations the next day by filling a canteen from the font inside Our Lady of the Marshes. Russell, who didn't want the sin of stealing on his conscience, especially when he was about to engage in mortal combat with the God of Evil and all, left behind a dollar bill and an unsigned note explaining that the water was going to a good cause.

Over the next week or so we collected as many of the materials as possible. Mostly we were forced to use substitutes the way a cook does when making roast pork for a vegetarian. For instance, the "Hand of Glory" (a hand cut from a murderer's corpse) proved impossible to find. Instead we had to settle for the claw from a particularly vicious rooster that had pecked a hole in the minister's tire while standing underneath it and thereby accidentally crushed itself to death. Salt was easy to get, but mandrake root was replaced by ginger.

I can still see Russell rummaging through Grandma's pantry, complaining about her mundane spices while shoving aside bottles of cinnamon, allspice, and belladonna.

On the appointed evening we snuck out. Russell's "magic icicle" was wrapped in Saran Wrap and stored in a thermos of crushed ice. We wandered for almost half an hour before finding a suitable spot. Peat-smoke covered the ground to a depth of three feet completely obscuring anything beneath it. It was Russell's idea that Satan would be more likely to show up if the environment was familiar to him.

As we performed the ritual I felt an odd tension in the air, and for the first time actually believed it might work. Unsurprisingly, this was not at all reassuring and my voice cracked several times as I gave the memorized responses, none of which made any sense in the first place. At the height of the ceremony, Russell threw some powder into the fire. As it flared, he shouted the command: "Satan come forth."


Then, a deep rumble began to shake the ground. Paralyzed with the most mind-numbing fear I had ever experienced it seemed nothing could make it worse, when of course, something did. Hovering above the mist a towering figure bore down on us. Even allowing for the magnifying properties of panic it stood at least ten feet tall. It made no walking motion but simply glided, a pale, gigantic shape leering down upon us. The rumbling increased with every passing second and the fiend closed in for the kill. I could see its face clearly, frowning with circles under its penetrating eyes and its great jowls lined in shadow. Just when it looked like the evening of June 23rd would end in the dismemberment of two young boys, Russell earned my lifelong admiration. His icy weapon held high above his head, he launched himself like a striking snake and shoved the glittering spike into the demon's breast with an ease that could only have been caused by the guidance and strength of Divine intervention.

Now I realize that to the reader it probably seems unbelievable — me being able to remember that the date was June 23rd after all these years — but the reason has to do with a peculiarity of Marshtown history.

Marshtown was founded sometime in the middle of the 19th century by an Englishman who had made his fortune in gold mines.

Unfortunately, the mines didn't actually contain any gold as such, and his fortune was that he managed to leave England in time to keep what little he had. Upon arriving in Canada, he settled in the Niagara region where he discovered hundreds of acres of combustible peat. Certain that he could sell it for fuel, he founded a tiny community and went into business. Neither he, nor those few who joined him, seemed to consider the full implications of the vast forests covering most of the countryside. For a time the industrious band of peat-merchants tried to interest farmers in their product, but the farmers stubbornly continued to burn the trees they cut while clearing their land. As a result, the villagers were compelled to reorient their economic base. Unable to sell the peat as fuel, they instead mixed it with whole grain alcohol and sold it as "The Marshtown Miracle Restorative."

The 20th century found Marshtown gradually leaving behind its tradition in patent medicine. With the advent of the car it became possible to live in Marshtown and work in Welland or Port Colborne. By the end of WWII, the village had become a tiny bastion of office clerks. In 1967, with every other community in Canada celebrating its own, as well as its country's, origins, the people of Marshtown wanted to honour their founder.

The problem was, nobody knew his name, or the date on which the incorporation had taken place.

Although the original legal document still existed, most of it was completely unreadable including signatures and dates. No other records existed. No tombstone could be found. The only thing the founder had left to posterity, besides the village itself, was his motto painted on the side of the original general store. This had lasted long enough to be photographed in 1919 and the photograph was now part of the library archives. It read:

If your health seems deteriorative
And you need an ameliorative
Today could be commemorative
If you try The Marshtown Miracle Restorative.

The people of Marshtown finally decided that if they couldn't find out when their village had been founded, nor who their founder was, then they would simply make it all up. To this end a committee was formed and after several months of arguments they announced that Clarence Whipplespoon had founded Marshtown on June 24th. Conveniently, this was exactly one week before July 1st, Dominion Day.

Since Centennial Year was a year of celebration, it seemed like a good idea to have a Founder's Day Parade for our first Founder's Day. Many letters were sent to the committee endorsing the idea. When Russell heard about these letters he had muttered, "Huh. Fan mail for a founder?" but, as was often the case, I had no idea what he was talking about.

For the parade, our local carpenter, Mr. Stravosky, and his son Jim, promised a surprise. They refused to tell anyone what the surprise was, saying only, "You'll see, you'll see," and since they lived about a mile outside the village and worked in their shed, nobody could easily spy on them.

Their plan, as it turned out, was to build a huge papier-mache statue of Clarence Whipplespoon (using as a model their hero, former prime minister John Diefenbaker), place it on a cart and offer it for the central float in the procession.

It was this object they were wheeling down the road the night before Founder's Day when suddenly, out of the smoke covered ground, a screaming young boy sprang up and stabbed it with an icicle.

And that explains why I can recall the date so clearly.

John Diefenbaker, Canada's 13th Prime Minister

Naturally, the event caused a certain amount of confusion. Russell was yelling, "Die, you fiend from hell!" while Mr. Stravosky inexplicably began to kick one of the wheels and shout, "Damn the atomic bomb! Damn the atomic bomb!" His son, Jim, meanwhile, took off across the marsh and couldn't be found until morning.

Eventually everything was sorted out, at least as much as could be expected. It turned out that Mr. Stravosky had been harboring a secret fear that radiation from nuclear testing was scrambling the brains of the young people, and I'm not entirely sure that he changed his mind after hearing our explanation of how we had simply mistaken John Diefenbaker for Satan and tried to kill him with frozen holy water.

Ultimately, no serious damage was done. The statue was repaired by morning. Mr. Stravosky covered the hole with what looked to be a large war medal but underneath the silver spray paint you could still make out the words: "1st Prize, Pumpkin, 1958." Of course, as is to be expected in a small community, word of the incident spread like wildfire and people talked of nothing else through the whole parade.

"Can you believe it?" said Father Dodsworthy to Reverend Shaw. "The kid actually tried to ice the devil?"

Mr. Wentmore, the owner of the general store, remarked, "If he'd had the sense to go for the real Diefenbaker back when he was still in office we'd all be better off," which resulted in a fist fight with Mr. Trenton who was a staunch Conservative.

We were all much relieved when the day was over and we could put the past behind us. My own nerves had been pretty well shot since the night before and it wasn't until we were settled into bed that evening that I truly began to relax.

And then, just as I was dropping off to sleep I heard a sound that chilled me to the bone: "I've got a plan," hissed Russell.

The Village General Store

Friday, June 18, 2004

Hey Jimbo, Bob, Tom. How's about a bit of room by that stove? It's cold ‘nuff out there to freeze the balls off'n a witch's teat.

My leg? I was kinda hopin' nobody would notice ‘cause I don't want any special treatment an' all. Don't get up Bob. ... Oh, you wasn't? Well, it looked to me like you was kinda thinkin' about it and I just wanted t'tell you not to bother. Anyways, I got enough room on the end o' this bench next to Jimbo. Now if only the pickle barrel were a tad closer – why thanks Tom, I do believe I will have one.

And don't go makin' a big deal of it all. It's nothin' more'n a busted leg and I'd just as soon that y'all ignored it, like.

The red cast? Yea, I gotta admit, that does make it a tad conspicuous -- and don't you go thinkin' I'm not pretty darned sore about it too. But the doc was all out of the reg'lar white casts and so I got stuck with this'n.

That's enough Tom, I'm sure we don't need to be hearin' about how casts are made, leastways not right this very minute.

What's that? Well hell, Bob, ‘course I got a red flag strapped to my foot. I may not wanna be conspicuous, but I sure's hell don't want some poor fool doin' a mischief to himself ‘cause he don't see I'm carryin' a longer load'n usual. Where's your sense, man? You stick a red flag on lumber when you're haulin' it in that foreign Jap pickup you drive, don't ya?

Never mind. I kin see I ain't gonna get no peace ‘til I tell ya the whole silly story.

It happened three days ago, during that real cold snap. You remember that? Makes today look like a trip to Cuba or the B'amas. I got up that mornin' fixin' to finally start repairin' the barn, but after lookin' outside I was pretty sure the tools would just snap like twigs from the cold, so's I put it off for the day.

You say somethin' Bob? ... I didn't think so.

Well, a day off is a day off -- even when you're achin' to get some work done -- and I figured I'd settle in a little ‘n' watch a bit o' the television. So I got myself a coffee and flicked on the set for the noon news.

What now, Bob? Well ‘course I meant the mornin' news seein' as how I'm a farmer and had just gotten up. I mis-spoke myself is all.

Anyway -- if I kin be allowed to get this business over with so's we kin talk about somethin' else -- like I was sayin', I put on the mornin' news and ... well, I guess y'all remember the big story that day, don't ya? No Tom, it weren't about th'envir'ment gettin' bad – that ain't the big news on any day, is it. Well seein' as how none of you keep up on the current ‘vents like me, I'll tell you what the big news was. It was about how that Saddam guy had come out of hidin' and was apologizin' for all the bad stuff he'd done and offerin' his own personal fortune to help make things up to his people. That was the big news on that day.

I'm not s'prised you don't remember it Bob, you was prob'bly out riskin' your tools in the sub-zero weather, ‘stead o' keepin' your ear to the ground like me.

Well ‘course I don't mean it lit'r'lly, Tom!

So where was I? No Bob, it wasn't "the end."

Oh, I remember.

Well something about the news kinda unsettled me like, so I put on my heavy coat – don't know why you ever threw it out Jimbo – and walked into the village. I was passin' by the post office and figured I'd pop in to see the post mistress. She was as glad to see me as ever, though she goes outta her way not to show it. I talked to her for a while ‘cause I know she enjoys the comp'ny, even though she don't say much, then the door flies open and this guy comes runnin' in like he's a seven time widower whose ex-wives have all suddenly dropped in to pay their respects. Other than his wild demeanor, though, he was a right smart-lookin' fella. City type, you know? Suit with a jacket that matches the pants, a tie that don't have a recognizable picture on it or nothin'. A real good speaker too, the kinda guy that counts the letters in a word so's he knows he's saying them all. I pegged him right away for some gover'ment geek, and sure'nuff, first thing outta his mouth is, "Quick, have you got a phone I can use right away! I've got to call the government!"

So Sadie directs him to the phone around the corner behind the counter, and while we wasn't tryin' to overhear or nothin', that is a mighty small post office -- so even as quiet as he was talkin' we could still make out a word or two -- ‘specially when we just stood there real still like.

"Hello, Reginald?" he says. "Get me the supervisor, now!" There was a little pause, and then: "Rupert, I'm glad I caught you. It's true. I've checked through all the county documents in this little hell hole and, well -- the federal government really did waive all taxation rights on the village back in 1921. ... I don't know exactly, it has something to do with recognition for special services rendered to the war effort, but apparently it was top secret so the details are classified. ... Of course I know what that means! It means we're going to have to give the villagers back all the taxes we've collected from them for the last 82 years!"

He said some more, but I'd pretty much quit listenin'. T'be honest, my mind was kinda runnin' in little loops which made listenin' a trifle difficult. He finished up his conversation, then left, throwin' a quick "thanks" over his shoulder like a guy throwin' money at the ticket booth when the movie's started and his beau has been waitin' for half hour ‘r so.

Well, neither Sadie nor I knew what to say t'that, so I left to go think about it over a coffee at Cooper's diner. I walks in, says "Hey" to old Coop who gives off with that jokey rough talk of his, like tellin' me to "get out" and stuff. When the pleasantries are over, and Coop's seen the ten dollar bill I got in my wallet, I sit down at one of the booths by the window and order a cuppa coffee and some eggs with bacon. While I'm sittin' drinkin' my coffee and waitin' for Coop to burn the eggs just enough to satisfy his odd sense of humour, I sees old lady Witherspoon comin' over the Millrace Bridge. Naturally, I don't think nothin' of it, she's a good Church o' England lady and always doin' some good or t'other which is fine by me so long as she ain't doin' it in my general direction.

Then I look down the other way and sees old lady O'Henesey comin' from the opposite direction.

Now the Protestant-English and the Cath'lic-Irish have always gotten along pretty good here – hasn't the Cath'lic church still got those orange flowers some pranksters planted the day before the Orange Parade in ‘38? But while everyone else ignores that Old World nonsense, the misses Whitherspoon and O'Henesey have kept the war goin' enough to make up for the rest of us.

Yes, Tom. I'm sure there's lots of "political complexities" involved, and I'm sure it's the result of "imperial colonialism" – but that still don't make it nothin' but a bunch o' nonsense.

So anyway, when I saw them comin' towards each other like that I gotta admit, I was kinda scared at first. I mean nobody likes to be within the blast area when those two let loose their arsenal. Talk about "shock and awe"! But then I figured I was bein' a fool on accounta because I was safe inside Coop's place while they was a good fifty yards away. If I left now I'd be missin' the chance of a life-time to have a ringside seat at the best boxing match ever.

So I shut the backdoor and returned to my seat -- which Cooper pretended he was annoyed about -- and I settled back to watch what would happen.

They got closer, then they were right next to each other, and then they were past each other, and I thought, "Shoot, ringside seat and both fighters take a dive."

But then they turn, like at the same moment. One of them says somethin', ‘course I can't hear what. Then the other one says somethin'. They get a bit closer. Then O'Henesey puts out her hand and old lady Witherspoon, instead of knockin' it to one side, or even shakin' it for cryin' out loud, reaches right past it and grabs O'Henesey and hugs her!

And O'Henesey hugs her back!

I look real close and can see they're cryin', real gut-bustin' sobs, and it looks for all the world to me like ... well, this is goin' to sound crazy, but I swear they was makin' up! Over fifty years of fightin' each other and suddenly they're makin' up!

Well Coop brought me my breakfast just then, the eggs burnt a little just like always, and since it didn't look like there was goin' to be any shootin' outside – they were walkin' arm in arm towards Mrs. Witherspoon's house by this time – I put my attention on my food ‘cause my philosophy is, if you're goin' to eat somethin', it's better for your digestion if'n you're not thinkin' about anything else at the moment.

When I'd finished up I paid Coop, leaving my customary ten cent tip, ‘cause I kin do the jokey thing too, and headed over to the feed store to see if any of the guys was around gossipin'. There was Sydney, up from Dunnville, and Dave was gettin' some seed for his chickens, and they was talkin' a bit with Richardson while he rang up their stuff on the cash register.

I hadn't no more'n said howdy when the door opened behind me and that Campbell kid comes in, wearin' nothin' heavier than his leather jacket, even though the temperature's gone so far south it's prob'ly eatin' hominy grits and corn bread. Now it's no news flash to any of us that Campbell is a heap o' trouble. He's only 21 and he's already done a couple o' years hard time for nearly beatin' a guy to death for touchin' his car. And that car! The only thing noisier than its engine is the rap music he blasts all the time he's drivin' around – not that you can really call it "music" but ...

Well Tom, I'm sure we'd all like to hear about the cultural roots of rap at some point, but if you don't mind I'd appreciate if you'd wait until I've been dead for a couple o' years first, okay? Besides, I gotta finish this story you guys were so hed-up on hearin'.

So he comes over to the counter, but not with the normal stride – you know the one I mean, where he looks like he's the cock o' the walk and he's gotta swagger a whole bunch or else all the hens'll crowd around and get in his way. Instead he comes in kind o' embarrassed or somethin' and he pulls Richardson to one side to talk to him quietly.

‘Course, the feed store is a hell of a lot larger than the post office, so there was little chance the rest of us would be able to overhear anything, which made us kinda relax. We relaxed so much, in fact, that Dave decided to go look at some seed bags he hadn't really examined earlier and Syd ‘n' me went along with him ‘cause they did seem pretty interestin'. It wasn't till we got there we realized we'd sorta invaded Campbell and Richardson's private space and that now we could hear a word or two. So's not to disturb them we stood real still like.

"Uh, Mr. Richardson, I understand you're a big show-tunes fan."

"Yea, that's right," said Richardson cautiously, like the way you would while talkin' to a guy wearing a ski-mask and carryin' a chain saw.

"Well, I'd kinda like it if you could tell me a bit about the field, you know? Maybe let me borrow a few tapes or CDs? I've been goin' to a shrink for a little while and, though I didn't like him at first, the fact is he's made me become aware of a lot of things."

"Like what?" Richardson wasn't exactly letting down his guard any, but he was beginning to get a little curious.

"Well. I found out that, although there are many valid elements to the music I listen to, I've really only been listening to it as a form of rebellion – he calls it "cultural appropriation," but whatever it's called, the fact is I don't really like it. I like show-tunes. When I was a kid I knew all the words to Oklahoma by heart, and I don't just mean the title song, but the whole musical."

"So you like show-tunes, huh?" By now Richardson was so intrigued he wasn't even scopin' out the exits anymore.

"Yea. See, the thing is, I've been fightin' against my nature for a long time but Doc Sandville – that's my shrink -- he's shown me that it's nothin' to be ashamed of."

"What isn't?"

"Being gay."

I don't know what they said after that ‘cause I just had to get outside and sort out my thoughts. This was turning into one of the strangest days I'd ever seen.

In fact, I don't mind telling you I was so befuddled I actually decided to go see the reverend Shaw. Maybe I've not been a good Anglican, but I've always believed it's the best church around. After all, they're going to be the first ones to see God, for doesn't the Good Book say, "the dead in Christ will rise first"? But while I was on my way I ran into Father Dodsworthy who was out shoveling the rectory walk. He took one look at me and said, "My God man, what's the matter."

So I told him what had been going on. I told him that the crazy Arab guy had turned himself in, that the old ladies Witherspoon and O'Henesey had just become best friends, and that the Campbell kid – the guy whose picture appears in the dictionary next to "bad egg" – had just confessed to being homosexual and was now trying to learn about show-tunes.

Father Dodsworthy listened to me, a big smile growing on his face, and when I was done he said, "You really don't know what's going on, do you."

Well, that kinda annoyed me, but I kept it in check and answered, "No sir, I don't."

So he took me by the arm and led me into the church.

Now like I said, I've always been an Anglican, and I hold with that church, but the Cath'lics definitely have a few aces up their sleeves that the rest of us got no clue about. Dodsworthy took me back to the confession booths, but instead of putting me in the one that his parishioners use, he dragged me into the one that he uses while listenin' to them prattle.

And I'll be damned if it isn't an elevator inside.

There was a small control panel with only three buttons. The top one had an "H" on it, the middle one had a "G" on it, and the bottom one had another "H".

"So what's the ‘G' stand for?" I asked.

"Ground level," he answered.

Well, I'm nobody's fool but my own, and I could pretty well figure out where the two Hs went, so I got into a bit of a panic when Dodsworthy pressed the lower one.

"Calm down," he told me. "We're just going for a visit, I'm not leaving you there. At least not yet."

I wasn't entirely reassured by his last comment, but I did manage to stop shakin' so much.

"You want to know why all these strange things are happening, don't you?"

I nodded feebly.

"You want to know why the Butcher of Baghdad has dramatically repented? Why the English and the Irish are suddenly getting along? Why thugs who have used violence as a means to repress their latent homosexuality are coming to know their true nature?"

The elevator stopped and the doors opened.

"There's your reason," he said, pointing outside.

Well I gotta say, we've all heard about the place, but not many have had a chance to actually see it and come back to tell the tale. I just had to get off and take a little look around.

Which, of course, is how I broke my leg -- by slipping on the ice the day hell froze over.

Be a good lad and hand me another pickle for the road, would you Tom?


Wednesday, May 19, 2004

"Technically, I should call the police coroner and report you," said the doctor looking hopelessly bewildered.

"I'm sorry!?" said Timmy's mother.

"Well ... your boy
is dead," he replied, and instantly cringed. Definitely not the approved method of breaking such news to a mother, he lectured himself. On the other hand, this wasn't a normal situation.

"Dead?" She looked at him like he was talking a foreign language. He said nothing. Neither did she. Finally ...

"Um, well yes," the doctor sighed. He took off his glasses and cleaned them absently with his sleeve. "I can understand how a...layman, such as yourself, may have missed the, uh...the symptoms." He finished cleaning his glasses and stuck them in his shirt pocket.

What symptoms?" she asked. ("What monsters?" she might have been saying to her son back when he'd been six, after hearing him explain how his homework had been eaten.) The doctor met her stare for a couple of seconds, then, much like her son might have done, looked down at the floor.

"Well, there's the lack of pulse, of course. And the only time he breathes is to talk. His pupils don't dilate and his body temperature is exactly room temperature."

She grasped desperately at this last item of information.

"That's why I brought him to you! Because he was always cold! I want to know why my ten-year-old boy is always cold!"

"That, I suppose, " he said taking his glasses from his shirt pocket and putting them on, "is a side-effect of being dead."

"He can't be dead! That's just preposterous!"

"How long has he been cold?"

"Since yesterday. I figured if he were still cold today I'd bring him in. He was. I did."

"Has he eaten?"

"No. That is ... no." For the first time doubt flickered. But only momentarily, and then it was gone.

"I'm not joking, Betty. Your son, Timmy, is dead. By every definition in the book, he's dead. Judging by body temperature he's been dead for a minimumm of 24 hours, yet you failed to notify the authorities, and that makes it a police matter." He'd spoken firmly and forcibly, looking straight at her. Making the patient, or the patient's family, face situational realities was an important part of his job, and he fell into this role with authority.

Then he remembered what the situational reality was, and looked down at the floor again.

"But ... He ... Are you going to? Call the police?"


"Why? I mean, thank God, but why?"

"Well, I'm afraid they'll bury him," he said still looking at the ground. He took off his glasses and polished them on his sleeve. "And...I don't think such a course of action in his best interests."

In the end he left a strong tranquilizer for the mother; but since there were no medications clinically-proven to help in the treatment of death, he prescribed nothing for the patient.

+ + + + + + + + + + + +

Timmy's father, Brian, was a kind and rational man. He looked over the notes left by the doctor, listened to his wife's observations, and conducted his own investigations: taking the boy's temperature, listening for a heart-beat, and holding a mirror to his mouth (although during this last experiment he was forced, on several occasions, to sternly request that the corpse refrain from talking).

"So, Timmy," he said finally, "Have any of your playmates bitten you lately?"

"What?" asked Timothy looking small and pale. He wasn't sure if he was more scared or excited at being the center of so much unexpected -- and delightfully weird -- attention.

"Bitten him!" exclaimed Betty, who had been hovering, watching Brian's actions closely. "Don't be an idiot. What are you saying, our son's a vampire?!"

"I'm not being an idiot," he said patiently, for he was also a patient man. "I simply refuse to be the guy in the story who, despite living in a society with hundreds of movies, books and TV shows about vampires, still can't recognize one when it's staring him in the face."

"There are no such things as vampires," she said matter-of-factly.

"Normally I would agree. But neither are there such things as dead boys who come home from school with Cs on their English compositions."

"I can explain that," Timmy muttered, but neither parent heard him.

"Yes, but ... vampires?"

"I don't know that he's a vampire, and if he is we're going to think seriously before deciding to drive a stake through his heart ..."

"Well I should hope so!"

"I'll do better on my next test!" said Timmy earnestly, deciding that he was more scared than excited.

"... but we'd be fools if we didn't explore uncommon explanations for an uncommon phenomenon," finished Brian.

That said, he turned to the boy, and after staring at her husband for a moment longer, Betty gave a little shrug and turned too.

For a few seconds they remained like that, two adults looking at a little boy who appeared to have no idea what was expected of him.

"What!" he finally exclaimed in exasperation.

"Oh!" said Brian with a sudden start, "Has anyone bitten you lately."


"I want you to think, sweety," said Betty gently.

The boy thought -- at first by expression alone (frowning in concentration), then, as his natural interest was piqued, with an honest intensity. In the end, however, he just shook his head. "No. Nobody's bitten me." He thought for another few seconds, and added,"Not even close."

His father sighed. "Can you think of anything else?" He asked his wife.

She shook her head.

"Me neither," said the father. "The only undead I know from folktales are vampires, werewolves and zombies. Werewolves," he ticked off one finger, "aren't really known for being 'dead' so much as for being 'wolves' which, if you think about it, probably means they're not really "undead" in the first place. Vampires," another finger, "can only be formed by biting, and I think it's obvious that Timmy hasn't been bitten. As for zombies," third finger ticked, "they don't generally have much in the way of motivation."

Timmy, who had been calmly watching his father speak, without actually understanding anything he was saying except "vampires," "werewolves" and "zombies," flinched at the word "motivation."

"I said I'll do better on my next test," he complained.

"Oh, Brian!" said Betty suddenly, almost in a sob, "How long does he have, do you think?"

Brian looked startled, then nodded. "Yes, that's right isn't it? We have no idea what's going on here, nor what to expect in the course of things." He fell silent.

After a moment Betty said, "I suppose ... it's really no different than before is it?'

"What do you mean?"

"Well, nobody really knows what's going on. Nobody really knows what to expect of things. Nobody really knows how long they have together. This has just ... made us more aware of it than most people."

Brian nodded. Timmy looked serious. And for the rest of the evening they were all especially kind to each other.

+ + + + + + + + + + + +

The years passed. Timmy's doctor devised a series of tests aimed at detecting any signs of decomposition. For a while each visit was fraught with tension as they waited for the results, but after a while they grew accustomed to the idea that, whatever the actual state of his health, their son was not going to putrefy any time in the near future.

At first his parents attempted to keep his "condition" quiet, but it was a small town, there were too many school nurses, too many injuries (always completely healed after he'd slept), and in general too many outside authorities for it to work. In the end, his "condition" became the worst-kept secret in town. It didn't matter though, he ended up being viewed as something between a local hero and a local mascot. Shortly after his eighteenth birthday, Timmy graduated highschool, and at the graduation ceremony, when he went on stage to receive his diploma, most of the students and teachers gave him a standing ovation.

He waved at his crowd of admirers, looking both proud and embarrassed, shook the Dean's hand and walked off stage. After the ceremony was over, Timmy, who now went by "Timothy," ran off to a post-graduation party with Karen, his girlfriend since the tenth grade, and a small party of close friends while his parents drove to their favourite restaurant.

"It was a grand day, wasn't it," said Brian by way of a toast when they'd been served their wine.

"Yes, it was," said Betty, smiling, but with small tears forming. They clinked glasses and drank, neither speaking for a while.

"It's good he grew."

"Yes," said Betty with a bit of a laugh, "It would have been terrible if he'd stayed looking like a ten year old."

They both smiled at the ghosts of old worries.

Just then their meal arrived. While cutting his steak, Brian suddenly laughed out loud.


"I was just remembering when we were deciding we wouldn't drive a stake through his heart."

Betty laughed too. "Yes, but that was a different kind of stake."

They finished off the evening in a warm glow.

Later that night, or more accurately, early the next morning, three of Timmy's friends arrived looking unhappy and carrying a large bundle wrapped in a sheet.

"We got a bit drunk," said the darkhaired boy whose name neither Betty nor Brian had ever been able to remember.

"Timothy doesn't drink," said Betty.

"Or eat," murmured Brian.

"No, but...well, I guess he got silly from being around us."

"What happened?" asked Brian.

"He tried dodging the train."

Timmy's parents looked at the bundle.

"I take it he didn't jump fast enough," said Betty.

"my foot got stuck," said the bundle in a muffled voice.

"Can you take him up to his bedroom?" asked Betty, and the boys were more than happy to oblige. Afterwards she made them some coffee and everyone sat around in the kitchen, Brian and Betty listening with amusement as their son's friends relived events of the party.

"Oh!" said Betty suddenly. "How's Karen?"

"Tim's girlfriend? She's fine. She was kind of grossed out when the train hit ..."

The dark-haired boy chortled, which brought coffee up into his nose making him snort. "She completely refused to help pick up any pieces."

"Yea!" laughed the fair-haired boy whom Betty remembered was named Danny, but whose name Brian couldn't recall. "She was all like, 'Im not touching you in that state,' and 'What were you thinking!"

"Yea," said the first boy smiling, "but the whole time we were searching around for parts Tim kept apologizing to her for being a jerk and ... well, you know how he is."

Both his parents nodded and smiled for they did know. When Timothy was sorry for something it was impossible to stay mad at him.

A couple of hours later the boys went home, Brian and Betty put the cups in the sink, turned off the downstairs lights and went up to bed.

"You asleep yet?" called out Brian as they passed Timothy's door.

"not yet."

"Well see that you get to sleep," admonished his mother, "because we're going to Nanny's tomorrow and you certainly can't go in that condition!"

"i will. sorry."

"Don't be sorry," she replied, "just go to sleep."

+ + + + + + + + + + + +

After college, which was a journalism school of some high regard, he spent the next couple of years moving from one freelance writing job to the next. He had a natural wit, and a keen eye for details, which boosted his reputation in circles where it counted. Then, when he was 24, Timothy got a job as a regular staffer on a national paper. There was some problem at first with insurance, since he refused to go for a medical exam, but when he promised to take care of his own insurance, and signed a legal form absolving them of all responsibility, they gladly took him on. When the chance came for him to become their foreign correspondent in a war-torn region of the world he took it without qualms.

His long stints overseas brought his relationship with Karen to an end; but both of them were more relieved than crushed. Any sadness they did feel was really a kind of nostalgia. For the last few years they'd been dating as much out of habit as for any other reason.

"You come back in one piece, you hear?" said Karen just before he left for his assignment after their breakup.

"That's how it always ends up, isn't it?" he laughed, and they parted best of friends.

Later that year, at a posting in Bosnia, Timothy met Sam, a pretty, spikey brunette, quick with words, and fast with comebacks. She was with the Post and they hit it off immediately in a friendly rivalry. After a while he realized that they were now what would be considered romantically linked, and began wondering when he should tell her about his lack of a beating heart.

"It's not the sort of thing you can look up in Miss Manners," he wrote in one of his frequent letters home.

Brian chuckled when Betty read it to him that evening. "Maybe we could publish a book on etiquette tips for the undead."

"I think it would appeal to a very small niche market," Betty commented archly, but for the next few months they made notes and wrote rough drafts. They called it Social Tips for the Life-Challenged Person.

When attending dinner parties, it is important for the life-challenged person to make the other guests feel at ease with the fact that you are not eating. Claiming to be fasting for religious reasons can work, but it casts you into the role of a "priest" or "guru" and therefore you probably won't hear the best jokes of the evening. Likewise, complaining about a stomach ailment, begging off food because you've just swallowed 72 live goldfish while stopping by the frat house on your way over, or pausing just before the meal to "take my 7:00 medication," then looking in horror at the bottle saying, "Oh God, I just mixed it up with the rat poison again," will all explain your reasons for not eating, but are not likely to put your fellow guests at ease.

Much better is simply to avoid the situation altogether. Arrive, with a plausible and respectful excuse, when the meal is over, decline dessert because you're still a bit tense from whatever emergency caused your tardiness, but gratefully ask for a hot cup of tea or coffee, which can be safely ignored without anyone really noticing for long periods of time.

At one point, they showed the growing manuscript to a friend in the publishing industry who felt it would make an excellent post-modern entry in the literary field, and arranged a publishing contract on the spot.

The timing was such that, when it came out in the Fall releases a year and a half later, they were able to present the first copy to their son, Timothy, and his bride, Sam, at their wedding reception.

"By the way," said Timothy's parents, when they had a few moments with him alone during the night, "how did you end up telling Sam?"

Timothy glanced with open affection across the room at his wife of several hours. He laughed and Sam, who happened to look over at just that moment, smiled at him in pleasure.

"Fact is, it kind of got taken out of my hands when a suicide bomber blew me into three pieces while I was waiting for her at a sidewalk café."

They laughed easily, then Brian frowned in thought.

"Any problem with the morgue attendants?"

Timothy winced slightly. "Some," he admitted. "I was dead tired when I got to the café in the first place, then with the explosion and getting trundled to the morgue -- you wouldn't believe the way they toss you around when you're not in one piece! -- it all kind of wore me right out so I fell asleep really quickly. The next morning I woke up early and suddenly panicked because Sam would be worried. I was going to make up some story about being detained the day before and wow-did-you-hear-about-the-explosion-that-happened-at-the-cafe kind of thing. I sat up without thinking and scared the socks off the graveyard shift guy just as he was getting ready to go home."

"What happened?" asked Brian.

"Well, a lot of stuff, nothing too awfully traumatic, but he did quit his job."

They tsked in sympathy for the man.

"And Sam?"

"I saw her on the street a couple of hours later, called out to her to tell my carefully reheresed story and she fainted.

"I didn't faint!" said a throaty female voice behind him. Tim moved and his wife stepped into the little group, putting her arm around his waist. "I screamed and I screamed and I screamed, and then, and only then, did I faint."

"Turns out she'd been coming around the corner and had seen me get disassembled."

Tim reached down to the hall table beside him and picked up his parents' new book. "Did you get to see this?" he asked. Sam took it and read the title. Tim showed her the chapter called "Dating Tips For the Undead."

"You certainly could have done with this when we got together. When were you going to tell me, you jerk?"

Tim smiled in an "aw shucks" way and all four laughed.

+ + + + + + + + + + + +

Of course, Tim and Sam had no children, but they were completely happy with themselves, and besides, their careers called for a lot of travel. Tim was always the more widely known as a correspondent, but that was only because he could risk more to get a good story.

As they approached their mid-thirties, they realized that danger was rapidly losing its thrill for them, and so began casting around for more sedentary positions, preferably in the same paper, definitely in the same city. As it turned out, the newspaper in Tim's hometown happened to be for sale. Tim and Sam went to check over the operation, but it was well beyond their budget. The town, however, was so happy with the prospect of its newspaper being run not only by their favourite son and his wife, but by two internationally renowned newspaper people, that a special assembly was held between town council and the newspaper's board, and a deal was put together which proved virtually impossible to resist.

And so Tim and Sam ended up back in Tim's old hometown, happily building up their own paper. As the years rolled by, two of Tim's and three of Sam's stories were nominated for, but failed to win, Pulitzers.

Timothy always looked young for his age, but he did age, and his wife looked even younger than he did, so they moved gracefully into their senior years.

His father died at the age of eighty-nine, his mother a year later at the age of ninety. Four days after her ninety-first birthday, Sam complained of chest pains and died the next day.

For a year or two after that, Timothy wrapped up his affairs and, ninety-five years, three months, and four days after he'd been born -- or eighty-five years, six months and twenty days after he'd first died -- he died again.

He was attending a retirement party for one of the paper's old-timers (although not as old as he was himself) when he suddenly went still. Those near him noticed first, and after a time a doctor was called and pronounced the death. He was taken away, but the party went on because although they all felt the loss, it had come as no surprise, and they knew he would want them to carry on. His body was put into one of the drawers in the morgue under the town hall.

"That ends the strangest story this town's ever seen," said one of the attendants as he flicked off the lights.

In the darkness Timothy smiled and, this time, waited until he was sure the place was deserted.