Sunday, March 26, 2017

Melody and the Pier to Forever: Melody's First Lesson in Transforming!

From Book Two of Melody and the Pier to Forever:

He taught her how to Transform by having her climb with him all the way up to one of the many crows’ nests on the Eleysius. Maggie refused to watch any of it. “No way. I’ll bite my nails down to my knuckles. Do what you have to do; just please return my daughter to me in one piece, preferably breathing.”
Three hundred eighty feet above the deck of the flagship, and with Jade nearby, cocking her head curiously, he said: “You need to trust me. Do you trust me?”
Melody nodded uneasily, staring at him with huge eyes. The climb itself had scared her plenty, which would help him now.
“Good,” he said. “Here we go …”
And with that she floated up off her feet and over the nest’s railing.
“Whoa!” she cried. “Whoa! Wait! Wait! Mr. Conor—!”
She floated away until she was well over the water, where she stopped. She gawked down in terror.
“I’ve got you, lass,” he called out to her. “You’re going to have to trust me.”
She flailed and whimpered.
“Do you hear me, Melody?”
“Y-Yes … I don’t want to fall! Please, Mr. Conor … please bring me back. Please!
He knew she had the power to return, but he didn’t want to remind her. He needed to show her. Her trust in him was so strong that in his presence she forgot about her own Mathematical abilities. While that was very touching, he knew it couldn’t continue. She needed to learn to trust in them, especially in his presence. Tonight would be the first step towards her independence.
“Listen to me, lass. Are you listening?”
“Y-Yes … yes … whoa … whoa!Mr. Conor, please!
“You said you became a bird—a hawk, you thought—when you were trying to get off the Pier before the tsunami got to you. Do you ever wonder how you managed that?”
“Wha—?Mr. Conor, please!”
“I won’t let you get hurt. Trust me, lass. And most of all …
—… trust yourself.
And with that he released the aecxis holding her up.
Melody shrieked as she fell towards the ocean. He was ready to stop her before she struck water, but two hundred feet down there was a bright flash, and out of the dissipating aecxal ball zoomed a red-tailed hawk. She winged back up to the nest and landed on the railing and stared at him accusingly.


New Fractal Art: "Governor Distance"

Governor Distance


Saturday, March 25, 2017

Free Chapter from Sole Survivor: The Story of Kaza of Theseus by Shawn Michel de Montaigne

You can purchase Sole Survivor: The Story of Kaza of Theseus
at all major retailers, including Smashwords!



THE FIRELIT night swallowed him, the droplets of bright torches of the soldiers stalking up and down the canal in search of Normalas the Healer drifting away, away … gone. Ahead was an almost uniform wall of fiendish orange-yellow, illuminating the sky above it with a sinister and fathomless red; below it roiled a layer of total blackness, darker than the surrounding night, as though Puowbalpom’s ashes, heaped high upon the bones of its massacred citizens, burned still, burned without flame, feeding a ferocious vengeance long awaited and now realized. The conflagration reflected off the swirling waters. He was again floating with corpses—dozens, perhaps hundreds of them. He perceived them as misshapen unanchored islands, the flames bleaching their clothes of all color. Sometimes a face would come with an island, its vacant eyes open in horror, staring forever upward, its attached island-body twisting slowly in the current as though on a macabre carnival ride.
The water flowed around another bend, and he was in the city. The bodies were thicker here, so thick that the canal at points was choked with them. He crawled over the corpses, stroked between them, kicking and splashing, until he could get to open water again. He did these things very carefully; there were bridges over the canal, and without exception they were manned by Gyssians, their soldierly silhouettes backlit by the inferno raging beyond. But the bridges themselves were more often than not concealed by smoke; and crawling like a water rodent over the human logs, he had to fake being one of them several times when a bridge suddenly appeared out of the turbid gloom, the armored men on it peering intently downward. Once again the mass destruction came to his aid: the hot wind would shift and smoke would drift over the bridge like sea fog, thick enough to cover the soldiers for a few seconds, and he would creep hastily on while he could. The corpses were waterlogged and soft, the stench of death like a suffocating, moldering blanket. He did not think about what he was doing; he did not think at all. He instinctively understood that if he meditated on any of this, about what he was witnessing, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the … the feel of what his hand was grasping now—he would not survive the night. It would paralyze him with terror and vacant hopelessness. The bodies sank slightly as he slithered over them, the water so bloody it didn’t feel like water anymore, but oil.
Under the bridge, then on to the other side. The darkness under the masonry was total at times. He hurried forward, gulping back the fear that there was no escape. More crawling, more feeling forward. When the current pressed against him—when it was strong enough—he’d dive under after a huge breath, coming up seconds later very cautiously, just his face appearing at the surface. Above flickered the light of ruination: time to float again. The bodies, he noticed as he went on, almost always clogged up against the bridges, or close to them. It was what seemed to most concern the Gyssian soldiers peering over them.
He spied no winged monsters, no seagulls, nothing. There was nothing in flight here. Just smoke, endless smoke.
At the eighth or ninth bridge he tasted something other than the omnipresent nickel tinge of blood. A chemical taste, distinctly bitter, with a very familiar sweet, soft odor. Slick. It was actual oil. He floated on, the smell of it, its taste—and now the burning in his eyes from it—increasing with each bridge. Finally it became too much. He had to leave the canal—his only possible route to freedom.
But where could he do that without being spotted? And how could he get to Bossool with Gyssians everywhere? In what direction from here did it lie? He swam to the rocky bank, grasped a boulder, pulled himself very cautiously onto it. The smoke here was particularly thick and black and hot, churning and spinning overhead like an infernal tornado. And then with a start it came to him. The Gyssians had poured oil into the canal, and had, downstream, set it afire. That was how they chose to solve the problem of clogging bodies. Already he could see the flames licking through the smoke as it raced towards his position. If it got to him he’d burn, too.
He scampered up the rocky embankment as low as he could, as quickly as he could. The gray rock beneath him scraped his flesh through his shirt, his trousers. At the lip of the canal he peered over. Visibility up here was almost nil, the smoke billowing past like fog in a hurricane, thick and noxious. He took in a lungful of broiling air and managed to suppress the cough that jerked up his neck just long enough to get his hands over his mouth.
The flames of the canal were advancing very swiftly towards him. The heat was already unbearable; in moments it would be deadly. He pulled his shirt off as quickly as he could, shocked by its new color—pinkish-red—and wrapped it over his head, his mouth, leaving just a slit for his eyes. He rolled over the canal lip as he fished desperately for the Infinitum in his right trousers pocket, pulled it out. He came to his knees just as the canal roared to life, illuminating the fog-smoke with flames five or six times his height. The heat made him scamper away on his hands and knees as fast as he could. The ground here was barren, baked, lifeless, covered in a thin, crunchy layer of coal-colored ash which poofed up around him, got through the eye slit, burned his eyes.
An idea. Without considering its merits, he stuffed the Infinitum back into his pocket and immediately started rolling over the ash, covering himself in it. He scooped it into his hands and rubbed it on his bare chest and back, then on the shirt covering his skull, repeating the procedure several times before stopping. He looked down on his person. He was now black as the smoke: just a few small pink patches of skin showed through. It would be difficult to see him unless one was right on top of him.
He crawled on, ignoring the sudden and horrible thought that the ash falling everywhere and smeared over his person likely wasn't just the remains of buildings and trees.
He’d gone just a little way when he stopped cold. Just ahead was a pike, stuck in the earth. At its top was impaled a severed human head.
It was a woman’s head. Her face was soot-covered and screwed up in agony, what must have been the last thing she ever felt, the spear point of the pike bursting like a ghastly crown out the top of her skull. Her long gray hair whipped aimlessly in the hot wind.
There were other pikes, spaced evenly in a row, all with severed heads, like a horrible fence guarding the very border of Hell itself. The wind blew the smoke away for a moment, and in the fiery darkness he shrank into himself. For an entire field of evenly spaced pikes stood here before him, so large that its ends were lost in the smoldering distance. All with heads.
He stood. The pikes were roughly his height, the skulls on their ends making it seem like he had interrupted a parade of the damned. He doubled his grip on the Infinitum and made his way into the field of death, in the same general direction that the canal was flowing when he crawled from the blood-and-oil-befouled water, praying that it didn’t turn somewhere in the city and empty misons away from his present position. Perhaps if he kept in this direction he’d get to Bossool without too much extra searching. Perhaps.
The heads gaped at him as he passed, flat, fat tongues wagging from open mouths in the oily heat. Dead eyes pinned him to the moment, as though he, living being, was invading upon their orderly procession to the underworld. Deeper and deeper into the field he went, always scanning about for soldiers and demons, always ready to run at the slightest hint of trouble. Several times the smoke got too thick and he’d have to crawl again, hot ash falling over him, burning his bare back and arms, his hands, getting into his eyes. The flames from the canal pushed him on. Not too far in front of him, behind grimy smoke, more flames raged and crackled and snapped. He came to his feet again. The sweat pouring out of him mixed with the ash and stung his entire person.
He looked around. He guessed that he was moving away diagonally with respect to the canal: the flames behind and the ones in front determined his path. The parade of the decapitated damned went on and on, heedless of the scorching air, thousands of them, as though the entire city’s population had submitted to mass beheading.
The heads ended suddenly at a cobblestone street. He had taken two steps onto it when he realized what it was and quickly pulled back. He prayed a silent prayer of thanks: soldiers appeared just then to his left, marching in two columns directly towards him. He retreated, dropped to his belly just as they filed past. There were perhaps a hundred of them. The smoke and heat did not seem to affect them; they marched straight through both as though they didn’t exist, disappearing into a white fog bank of anonymous destruction a minute later.
When he thought it safe he came to his hands and knees and crawled back to the cobblestones. The view was limited to just a few pike-heads in any direction. At any moment another column of smoke-and-heat-unaffected soldiers could appear, with no warning at all, no time for him to react. He wouldn’t be able to hear them: the ubiquitous roar of flame made that impossible. Did whatever agency that made the smoke and heat negligible to them also make it possible for them to see through both? In that case, he was as good as dead. It was only a matter of time.
“Optimism is a survival skill,” he coughed, thinking of Normalas’ gentle reproach. Optimism: the soldiers could not see through the smoke and heat any better than he could. He pulled the Infinitum out of his pocket, took a deep breath, counted to three, and then bolted as fast as he could across the road. There were buildings over there, black ones, nightmarish from here, that appeared in the occasional breaks in the smoke. Feeling hugely exposed, he put enough distance between himself and the street before crouching down, looking around.
He stood, came forward cautiously. He ran to the buildings.
He managed to stop before running headlong into the demon. The monster stood still as a statue, twice his height, a tremendous shield in its grasp, one whose point pierced the swirling ash at its enormous clawed feet. It was part of a solid line of them, ultimate number unknown, all standing shoulder to shoulder as though at attention, all with great shields held out before them. The broadsword thrust down through a flaming ring confronted him, left to right, cast in brass, the orange flames of destruction reflecting dully from it again and again.
He didn’t think. He thrust the Infinitum out, blurted something like “GAH!” The lens-shaped object flashed green from between his fingers just as he pulled his fist down and tore back towards the street at a full breathless sprint, then across it without looking for soldiers and into the field of severed heads. He didn’t stop until he was sure he wasn’t being followed. He fell to his belly, still in the field, a fierce stitch in his side, his heart racing wildly, sweat dripping like rain into his eyes. He listened for the tell-tale signs of screeching, or the bass rasp of rage and hunger. Nothing.
It finally came to him that the demons hadn’t seen him. They couldn’t have. As he replayed the scene again and again in his mind’s eye, he realized that the demons had been standing at attention with their eyes closed. He was sure this was so: the yellow cat’s eyes, the vertical pupils, of the demon that ate Lesa was the one standout feature of these monsters aside from their enormous size he knew he’d never forget, if he forgot them at all. And it was the one feature missing in that heart-stopping second as he had stood there, gawking up at them, and just before the Infinitum came to life.
What were they doing? Were they sleeping?
The Infinitum had flashed, but he was certain he hadn't actually said anything useful, or even thought anything coherent that moment. What wish had the Infinitum then granted? He crawled forward for a long distance, his bare belly burning with the ash and scrapes he’d acquired crawling up the canal’s rocky bank. He came to his feet only after his bare hands, arms, and back, long exposed to flying ash, scorching heat, and the hard ground, began to blister. At the street he stopped, looked down. There were tracks under freshly fallen ash. His tracks. He’d managed to return to the exact same spot he’d come to the first time.
Desperation washed through him. He’d purposely tried to alter his course, to move far away from his last position, but the heat to either side had constricted him far more than he’d realized. If he was to proceed, he’d somehow have to get by the demons.
Not buildings, he told himself as the blackness peeked occasionally through the roiling smoke across the road. That was a solid blockade of enormous killer demons running in both directions for Satelemark only knew how far. Just standing there, waiting.
He could wait for them to move, he reasoned. But he vetoed that thought immediately. Morning was coming. The light of the new day would surely expose him. No, he’d not only have to be on the Arilyceum but out of the bay altogether. The longer he dithered here, the less likely he’d ever leave the shores of Theseus.
He wasn’t aware that he was whimpering until minutes after it had started. His grip on the Infinitum was manic. He couldn’t seem to relax his fist. After another troop of soldiers filed past, this time from the opposite direction, he crawled back to the curb, said a short prayer and set his jaw; and then he bolted across the street, stopping just a few steps past it, shaking from head to toe, before advancing into the white veil of smoke separating him from the monsters Normalas had called Mephastophians.
They were just ahead. He stood there, faint from not breathing, blank with terror. He’d have to get through them. There was no other way.
Soldiers! The omnipresent roar of flames wasn't so loud after all: he could hear them coming! He was in easy sight from the road; if he didn’t move right now, they’d spot him.
He raised the Infinitum, his entire arm shaking like a weak vine in a strong gale, and stepped forward.
Here stood the demons.
Shoulder to shoulder, shields before them, silent as death, huge and terrible in their might. All with eyes closed.
Green light. It came from his fist. It flowed from the Infinitum like liquid smoke, out of his death-grip, wrapping round his hand like a glove, deepening, gathering, sparkling oddly. All without his consciously willing it. It felt like the Infinitum was waiting for him, anticipating him. He focused on the two demons just in front of him and, his voice quavering and weak, croaked out, “Let me through—”
The liquid smoke deepened to an emerald hue and then struck out in two bright beams that missiled into the heads of the two demons directly in front of him.
Without opening their eyes, the two demons grumbled. Kaza felt the grumbles in his feet. He forced his legs to stay planted where they were and not turn and run—run straight into the soldiers, who surely must be close enough to see him—! The demons grumbled again, and then moved, turning in place, eyes still closed, their shields opening to admit him through. Holding the Infinitum up, he bolted through the breach. The two demons closed ranks just as the soldiers filed past, the emerald beams dissolving away.
Another cobblestone street. He didn’t stop to look for soldiers; he was in full flight now, running for all he was worth, a black blur through murky malicious shade, running until the stitch in his side returned and then on, ignoring it, running until his lungs burned and his eyes watered, running until his heart threatened to seize. He finally stopped, gagging and coughing, beneath trees, all burned, appearing like tremendous black skeletons under a dimly lighted infernal dome. He didn’t wait to catch his breath, but zig-zagged between them at a hard jog, crossed another street, coughing and hacking, and stopped under the thin twisting stump of another torched tree. He bent over and let the polluted air at his knees fill his desiccated lungs, spitting out the bitter ash that had accumulated through his shirt.
Presently he straightened, looked around to get his bearings. He stood before actual buildings this time. Like the trees, like everything else, they were all burned and burned out, their tops lost in fiery smoke. He thought of the canal. It would be left of his present position by an unknown distance. He glanced warily around, ready to bolt again should soldiers or demons appear, and walked hurriedly in that direction. The smoke lightened as he advanced, the fire and heat falling behind him. The occasional cool breeze wafted by; he was sure he could smell sea brine in it. The coolness was so welcome he couldn’t suppress the groan of relief between more coughs.
He must be close to the bay. The notion pushed him on, the darkened buildings passing by on his right, the vacant street on his left. It wasn’t long before buildings appeared on that side as well. They, too, had been burned out. There were skeletons here, the remains of people who’d burned with them. They littered the cobblestones in random patches, curled about themselves, piled gruesomely on one another.
This city was once beautiful, with artful buildings and tall, radiant towers and many trees and pleasant parks. Its nickname, “The Jewel of the Senecum Quarternia,” was well deserved. It had built itself up over two thousand years into a teeming capital port city, one of the largest in the entire Quarternia, a city of trade known for its friendly people and warm climate. Nearly half a million people had called Puowbalpom home.
Were they all dead?
Kaza had no doubt. Yes, they were. Dead. All of them. All but him.
Why would anyone do this? What did the Gyssians have against Theseus? Normalas had assured him that the invasion was total: all of Aquanus was being invaded. What did the Gyssians have against—the whole world? Normalas had referred to the one ultimately responsible as a “nightmare.” What did that “nightmare” look like? Was he a normal-looking person, with hair and skin and teeth and arms and legs? Did he smile? Did he laugh? Did he have friends and family? Did he have a wife? Why would he do such a thing as … as this? Power? Riches? What excuse could possibly justify doing this to attain either?
Metallic noises. Kaza glued himself to a wall next to stone stairs that led up into a three- or four-story structure, listening intently. Even now he could tell by the orderly clank and grind that they were soldiers. There was no way they’d miss him, ashen camouflage or not. He peered left, right. Nothing. He gazed across the street, spied an alley just to his left and two or three buildings away, and tore out for it. He ran into its dark mouth and struck something solid and fell backwards. He struggled to remain conscious amid the pain, like a candle flame fighting to stay alive in high wind. Somehow he was back on his feet in an instant, stars blinding him, the Infinitum thrust out stiffly. He was certain he had been discovered. But nothing grabbed him, nothing roared in demonic anger. Staggering, he plastered himself against the left wall just as the soldiers marched into view.
He waited until they were out of sight, waited until the nausea from the pain of his swimming head had abated enough to move on, then glanced over his shoulder at what he had hit, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. He had to force himself to stay where he was as he stared, so strong was the urge to run and run and run.
The bodies were stacked like cordwood, blocking the alley entirely, rising at least three stories high. These were unburned, likely put here after the buildings surrounding them had been torched.
He couldn’t stop staring. The sight was as horrific as watching soldiers drown children, or a demon eating Lesa. A malignant, perverse fascination gripped him. No “nightmare” responsible for this could be worse than the nightmare facing him right now, the nightmare of his desperate trek through this burning city—could he be? Who in their right mind could think to stack bodies three stories high in an alley between burned-out buildings? To what purpose would doing so serve? The massacre of tens of thousands of Theseans, his own people, had been, like these bodies, well organized, systematic, purposeful. There was probably some bureaucrat somewhere indifferently tallying the death toll, keeping track of the mass destruction as one would keep track of the building of a barn, or log the days and weather after planting a field. Did the “nightmare” responsible for this feel a sense of accomplishment through his actions? Did the soldiers feel justified somehow in killing innocent people? He recalled the children at the ditch. The soldiers seemed utterly unfazed by their task, undisturbed, untroubled by their cries, their begging and pleading as they waited in line for their turn. How was it possible that those soldiers were even the same species as him? How could any human being calling himself such do such a thing?
He came out his dark reverie only by means of the Infinitum in his fist, whose coldness seemed to call to him to move on, and quickly. He stuffed it back into his pocket as he edged to the alley’s entrance, looking left, right. Again the smell of sea brine greeted his nose, the coolness wafting against his blistering ash-covered chest. He did one more check up the street, then ran right. The sea breeze seemed to be coming from that direction.
The buildings ended at a wide circular plaza—deserted. To his right were high gates—unmanned. The gates into Bossool. The very gates he had stood at years ago with his father. He edged his way quickly along the plaza’s circumference, then through them.
The opulent remains of Bossool rose before him in the shifting smokelight like marble shards in a volcano. He made his way very cautiously up the main street littered with great chunks of shattered stone and scattered earth. The street curved charmingly to and fro as it wound up the hill.
The stately homes here hadn’t just been burned. Lonely columns and regal entrances with nothing behind them stood sentinel at the edges of deep craters. The mansions of those who had governed Theseus had been bombed utterly out of existence. The road itself had been shelled in places; he had to negotiate several large holes in the middle of it.
There were no soldiers here, nothing flying overhead. Something else, too. Something that bothered him deeply. There were no bodies, no corpses stacked like firewood, no heads atop pikes, no burnt skeletons lying curled about themselves in random grisly islands. He thought he might actually be relieved if he spotted a body somewhere in this exclusive enclave; he saw not a single one. Their absence was even creepier than their presence. He wondered: Were those heads atop pikes the leaders of the government, the former residents of Bossool?
The hill summited suddenly. He stopped under the burnt husk of a tree, looked out over the bay.
The breeze off the ocean had pushed the smoke landward. Stars shined over the bay against a great skying wall of burning white-orange-yellow just behind him; Satelemark’s children shone in an incomplete arc far to the east; north, in the direction he was looking, the banded light of unseen King Ammalinaeus cast a ghostly glow on the needlelike tops of two Sisters along what had to be Ae Infinitus over a thousand misons away. The Vanerrincourtian navy was out there, way, way out there, in the very shadow of those Sisters. He had to get there—somehow.
But these sights and thoughts had only just glanced his consciousness. He had taken only the slightest notice of them. He was looking down into the bay proper, his breath trapped behind an iron cage of disbelief.
There were ships out there, a mison out in the water, the biggest ships he had ever seen, so large they didn’t seem real, didn’t seem possible. Great black Gyssian warships. Between them were many smaller ones: these were probably larger still than the largest Thesean battleship.
How could he get out of the bay with those ships in the way? Hopeless! It was hopeless!
He looked down the hill and saw them: Bossool’s docks.
They were perhaps a quarter mison away. Absurdly, they hadn’t been bombed or burned or molested in any way. But as he stood there watching, soldiers at both ends busily poured liquid from large barrels over them. There were all manner of small boats in the slips, floating placidly, waiting for their masters, who would never again board them and raise their sails. Kaza counted over—fourth dock, third slip—and spotted the Arilyceum: one of the bigger singleships there.
But it didn’t matter. He had come all this way—and wasn’t going to make it. Because the soldiers at either end dropped torches onto the oil, and the dockwood went up in flames, left and right, racing to meet in the middle, racing to consume the ships, his escape, and his future.

Thank you for reading!

New Fractal Art: "Dynamic Sky"

Dynamic Sky


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Free Nightmare from Slum: "The Health Clinic"

Slum is available at all major retailers, including Amazon.


[Note: Slum is a place I have dreamt of for more than thirty years. It is nightmarish, hellish. The dream I've written about below details my latest visit there, which took place a couple of years ago, and will appear in the next edition. I thought I'd include it now given that Republicans in Congress are desperate to give us a version of health care that is in many ways no less horrific.]


The Health Clinic

THE MOST recent visit to Slum couldn’t have been mistaken for anything else. I knew I was there the moment the vision began.

   I’m trudging up to the summit of a bluff. A wide, long white building is there. It looks like a huge warehouse. It’s not brick or wood but aluminum siding and windowless. Its roof appears to be green.

   It’s night. I don’t know what time it is, but it feels late. I’m walking on loose dirt. A quarter mile behind me is a circular parking lot. It’s freshly paved and brightly marked. Several cars, all of modern make, are parked in it with their lights on. I see no sidewalk leading from it to the building. It’s as though the builders ran out of funds before they could put one down.

   Just as I think that, I spy one. It’s a hundred paces ahead and begins between dead bushes.

   The air is dry and cool and smells of a slaughterhouse. There are thick columns of orange-light-illuminated steam rising behind the building, which appears to sit at the edge of the bluff. The lights seem to be coming from below it, as does the steam.

   The loose dirt under my feet occasionally gives way to harder, cracked earth that looks like it hasn’t seen rain in months. Both are hard to walk on. It’s apparent many have judging by the shoe prints everywhere. I spy what looks like bicycle tracks as well. Lots of them.

   I gain the sidewalk and stop to catch my breath. The sidewalk looks brand new and sits on the dirt like a stone tapeworm. It’s virgin-white and well groomed and two yards wide. It winds haphazardly towards the building, passing through more scrub on the way. I stop to catch my breath once I get to it.

   Stairs are just ahead.  I start for them after another minute.

   I stop when I reach them, and stare down them. The sidewalk continues at the bottom, where it crosses a gully. A gate is in the middle of the bridge, like one of those you’d see at a subway terminal. There are lights on it. They glow the same cold orange as the light shining up through the steam.

   I descend the steps. Abandoned and wrecked wheelchairs are at the bottom. There are scars of tracks in the hard earth to each side, as well as oxygen bottles and tangles of plastic tubing.

   The gully looks deep. It’s more like a gorge. It’s no more than sixty feet wide and runs in both directions into sightless night. I listen for sounds of water, but hear only the distant grind and hum of machinery, and the rusty creak of what sounds like wheels spinning weakly on axles. I look back. None of the wheels on the wrecked wheelchairs at the bottom of the stairs are spinning.

   I turn back and start across.

   I study the gate when I get to it. It was designed to admit wheelchair-bound patients. On the other side is a large, square metal platform with a big red symbol of a wheelchair on it, along with unavoidable black block letters:


   I push partly through the double turnstiles and hesitate. The platform is mounted over machinery that has been neatly integrated with the structure of the bridge itself, making it nearly invisible. I wonder what it’s for.

   Without warning the turnstiles come alive. The orange lights on the gate switch to red at the same moment a pleasant female voice announces: “Time expired … time expired … time expired …”

   The turnstiles are pushing me onto the platform. At the last second I yell and leap as far as I can.

   I land just on the other side. How I managed to clear the platform is a mystery: it’s at least three feet wide, maybe four. I gawk down at it, and then look over the metal railing of the bridge into the darkness below.

   It takes a minute for my eyes to adjust. I back up, horrified, and hurry on my way. The mystery of the spinning wheel sounds has been solved.

   On the other side are more stairs. I climb them at a run. At the top I gaze ahead. The warehouse is still a quarter mile away. It must be positively enormous. I hear a high-pitched whistle and then a long bell, and then the grudging grumble of heavy machinery. I can feel whatever it is in the bottoms of my feet.

   I catch my breath and continue, walking fast.

   There are signs posted every couple hundred feet. They’re circular, yellow, and bordered in black, with the same black block letters.







   I look up. This … is a health clinic?

   There were health clinics in San Diego that were awful-looking, but none as nasty as this one. I think of the gully and what I saw at the bottom of it, and shudder.

   I’m standing at the last sign and find myself staring at it. It confuses me. What the hell is a “patient package”? Is it some sort of admittance package meant to expedite processing? Do I need to go to the west entrance to pick one up before coming back to this entrance? Which one is this entrance? Which way is west?

   I try to get my bearings. I know I’m in Slum. Perhaps I can find my way if I can find Slum itself. Try as I might, though, I cannot spy the skyscrapers of the metropolis no matter which direction I turn. The night is ink-black and starless. The only light comes from the building, the orange glow of the steam, the cold white circles over the sidewalk, which begin here, close to the building, and the negligible yellow glimmer of headlights on cars in the parking lot, now a fair distance off.

   After a long time trying to figure out what to do, I continue on.

   At the entrance I try looking in, but can’t. The sliding glass doors are tinted and impossible to see through.

   I take another step and the door slides open. I look.

   An abandoned counter is fifty feet ahead. A single light shines down on it. I look for a sign on the sliding doors for the clinic’s hours, but can’t spy one. Frustrated, I walk in.

   A three-inch-wide bar of fading red masking tape is on the floor next to a sign on a stand that reads: WAIT HERE. So I do.

   I’m at the edge of the light. I glance around to get my bearings.

   To the left and right of the admittance desk is the waiting area, but it’s shrouded in darkness. As my eyes adjust I can see that many of the chairs are occupied. I can just see people’s silhouettes. No one is moving.

   I can hear them breathing. There are at least a couple hundred of them, and they are all breathing in unison. It’s barely audible but unmistakable.

   There are big double swing doors to the right of the desk. I decide not to continue waiting when it occurs that they are watching me. I walk quickly to the desk and look down. The scheduling notebook is open. My name is on the bottom.

   I turn to leave, but when I do the shadows stand and turn to face me. The noise of their breathing gets much louder and sounds very close.

   I hurry to the double doors and half-walk, half-jog through. I stop to calm myself when the noise stops.

   The corridor appears endless. At the far end is only darkness.

   It’s patchily lit by bright, white corporate lights and has a white tile floor so common to hospitals, and white walls. There are blue doors on both sides, spaced at irregular intervals. All are closed. I hear the murmur and mumble of machinery and decide to walk on.

   There are people behind the doors. They’re screaming or puking or cursing. I see no medical personnel anywhere. At one door I hear nothing, so I cautiously open it.

   A man is on his back on the examining table. His arm hangs over the edge. His hand has been amputated. The stump is spurting blood into a drain. He appears dead. He’s wearing a hospital gown, his big belly tight pushing up against it, his eyes staring unblinkingly up. Flies buzz around him.

   I quickly close the door and walk on.

   I approach a section of hallway that’s dark. It isn’t entirely lightless; maybe one in ten of the lights have been left on. The half-gloom is more menacing than total darkness.

   The sounds in this part of the corridor are more gruesome: drilling, sawing, and loud thudding splashes. One of the doors on the left has a blue LED light on the doorjamb just next to the doorknob. It’s flashing. As I get closer I hear what sounds like a recording. It’s a woman’s voice, calm and reassuring. She’s repeating:

“Code blue, code blue,
Fuck you, fuck you …”

   I hurry on. I don’t want to imagine what’s inside. As I pass a beep sounds and the voice starts laughing hysterically. Just out of earshot I hear the beep again and:

“Code blue, code blue,
Fuck you, fuck you …”

   The corridor goes on and on.

   A small section a hundred feet up is well lit. As I approach, a young doctor steps out of a room on the right and turns to face me. He’s a good-looking man, with curly brown hair and a strong chin and sharp eyes. He’s wearing the expected white lab coat and a fashionable tie. He’s holding a clipboard which he clasps with both hands behind his back as he waits patiently for me to get within range without having to shout. The machinery grumbles to life again.

   I motion over my shoulder. “There was no one at the front desk, so I thought I’d—”

   “Don’t worry about it,” he interrupts congenially. “Come on in …” He sweeps his arm towards the door and gives an impersonal, professional smile.

   I open the door and step inside. He’s close behind.

   “Go ahead and sit,” he says.

   I go to the examining table and sit. The fresh white paper on it scrunches loudly beneath my butt.

   The room smells of detergent and death. There’s a sink to the left, and a cabinet above it. He opens it, reaches into it, and extracts a pair of white latex gloves.

   “Forgive me,” I say, “are you a nurse or a doctor?”

   He snaps the gloves down to his wrist. “Does it matter?”

   He studies the document on the clipboard, which he picks up after setting it next to the sink. He grabs the blood pressure cuff hanging on the wall. “Roll up your sleeve.”

   I unbutton my left cuff and roll the sleeve up. He wraps the black band about my upper arm with professional ease and starts squeezing the bulb with smart rapidity. The band inflates and squeezes my arm, tighter and tighter. He keeps going.

   “Excuse me,” I complain when I’m no longer sure I can contain a groan of pain, “isn’t that enough?”

   He stops, puts his stethoscope against my wrist. “Shhhhh …” A moment later the pressure of the cuff releases.

   “Elevated, I’m afraid,” he says. “One forty over eighty-five.”

   “Clinics make me nervous,” I tell him as he yanks the cuff off and hangs it back on the wall. “I also get performance anxiety.” I shrug.

   He watches me with professional concern, then snatches the clipboard and starts writing after removing his gloves. “You’re a fuckin’ pussy, then. Is that what you’re telling me?”

   He stops, stares. He isn’t smiling.

   “I … I’m sorry,” I say. “What did you say?”

   He tosses the clipboard. It bangs loudly on the cabinet, hits the wall, and falls to the floor. He gives my arm a companionable slap. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of. You’re in the right place to get it treated.”

   “To get what treated?” I demand.

   He smiles understandingly.

   “It’s all in fun, Mr. Montaigne. I was just trying to make you feel comfortable. Now roll that puss-ass sleeve down and let me write you a prescription, you fuckin’ faggot—”

   He pulls a small pad from his coat pocket and begins writing. The calm, professional demeanor is gone. He’s scribbling madly.

   The pen starts pulsing blood—or what looks like blood. It drips off the pad and covers the pen and his hand.

   He keeps scribbling. It spatters his clothes. Finally he turns and heaves the pad at the sink and rages, “You FUCKIN’ PUSSY! You didn’t bring your patient package, did you? DID YOU? I’ll get one. Here!—”

   He jerks the top cabinet drawer open and yanks out a shiny silver package. It’s the same size as a package of ramen noodles. He bites a corner and violently tugs. The package opens down the middle. Shit oozes out of it, and maggots, and trash. What looks like an infant’s hand is in it. The hand is alive; it reaches weakly for him. He spies it and licks it and then stuffs the package down his unbuttoned trousers and begins masturbating.

   The pen, on the floor, is still pulsing blood. There’s a sizeable puddle of it between me and him and the door.

   A baby is crying now …

   “Oh … oh, yeah,” he moans, his arm jerking up and down with steady severity. “Fuck yeah! …”

   I get control of my disgust and jump the puddle for the door. It’s unlocked. I throw it open and hurry into the hallway. I hear a deafening whistle and long bell very close by, and then machinery rumble to life. I wheel about to look—

   A huge tractor is growling down the hall from the waiting room. It has no driver. In front of it are shadows—what have to be those who were sitting in the darkened waiting room. They’re stumbling towards me like zombies. I can’t make out their features.

   “Oh yeah,” grunts the doctor through the closed door. “Oh fuck yeah!”

   Blood seeps under the door. I step back and gawk at the oncoming silhouettes and the tractor looming up behind them.

   As I watch they start changing. The closer to the front they are, the faster they get younger, the more I can make out individual features. Soon the frontmost ones are nothing more than crawling babies, each horribly visible. The devolving silhouettes step on them mindlessly as they hurry to avoid the machinery advancing on them. But the faster they hurry, the faster they devolve. The hallway is filled with screaming infants in perfect detail and the stumble and crush of the faceless shadow crowd, and the grumbling, roaring tractor, which is now only fifty feet away and greedily shoveling blood and guts and writhing babies up.

   I back away. Double doors are suddenly just behind me.

   The lights go out—

   —I’m standing on a high scaffold of some kind. The warehouse is forty feet above and to the left. It was built at the edge of a cliff. I’m looking at the double doors, but from outside. As I watch they burst open. The tractor’s big scoop suddenly appears. It’s filled to capacity. The scoop turns down and a great bloody mass falls into the maw of a rusty funnel labeled in chipping yellow letters: NUMBER ONE. The tractor roars and the scoop disappears back into the hallway. The doors slam closed.

   There are many other double doors. Beneath them are rusty funnels: NUMBER TWO … NUMBER THREE … and on and on. As I watch, double doors burst open at random and dump great globs of red writhing flesh.

   The funnels lead below a geometric tangle of pipes of all sizes and shapes. There are workers down there. They glare up at me with hate. They man huge cylindrical tanks like water heaters. Some work over what looks like troughs. Steam hisses angrily; still, I can hear babies crying just beneath it. I try to see where the funnels lead, but can’t. The tangle of pipes and troughs and tanks makes it impossible. It’s all lighted by harsh orange lights and confused by steam.

   At the far end isn’t an orange light, but a yellow one. It illuminates a large sign, one that I can see clearly:





From the Fractal Archive: "Listening to Air"

Listening to Air


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Free Chapter: The Cheapery St. Heroes by Shawn Michel de Montaigne & KJH Cardinalis!

The Cheapery St. Heroes
will be released this May!
Look for it at all major retailers!

The Detective

THE BLACK Mustang tore around the corner of Tenth Street and June Boulevard, fighting to keep from spinning out of control. It smashed end-on into an SUV and then roared up the street, tires squealing. It accelerated as another car gained the same corner, following. It was a junker, a Sebring or a Vega or a Pinto. It spun out of control and flipped over—

   —and landed back on its wheels. The driver, who should've had the good sense to quit right there, instead hit the accelerator, following, while pedestrians on sidewalks gawked and the waiting traffic honked.

   The four-beater sounded like it was in its death throes. It left behind a cloud of blue smoke as it lurched ahead, gaining speed as fast as it could.

   The Mustang should've been Casper, out of sight, gone, history. But the driver managed to snag himself and his two passengers in a jam half a mile up. He threw the car in reverse and backed up with a squeal, slamming into the vehicle behind.

   With the extra space, he spun the wheel right and jumped the sidewalk, horn blaring. The Mustang rounded the corner as pedestrians screamed and scurried out of the way.

   The snarl eased up a block later. The car flew over the sidewalk and back onto the road. It swerved dangerously to avoid oncoming traffic, but was only occasionally successful. It pinballed into cars, spitting fans of sparks as metal ground against metal. At an alley it jerked left and disappeared.

   That should've been the end of it. But the driver of the clunker knew this city like the back of his hand, and had left June right away, seeing the traffic jam ahead. Already in the same alley, he watched as the thieves squealed into it.

   A determined grin spread across his face as he jammed the pedal to the metal. He slammed into trash bags and had to swerve to avoid bums and restaurant workers smoking—he sniffed—well, whatever the hell it was they were smoking. He gained the one-way street and just managed to cross it before a delivery truck slammed into his right side.

   The ‘Stang was a hundred yards ahead. It careened into a dumpster, pushing it into a loading bay, the men on it yelling and leaping out of the way. But too much of it was still blocking the thieves’ escape. With half of the black car’s hood crumpled and its tires squealing blue smoke, it backed threateningly towards the junker, whose driver grinned even wider.

   "Gotcha, boys," he said. "Come to poppa."

   A thief popped out the Mustang's passenger-side window, submachine gun in hand. The muzzle flared.

   Bullets peppered the hood with hollow pops. One tagged the windshield, shattering it. The clunker driver grinned no more as he ducked and jammed his foot into the accelerator, swearing like a truck driver.

   The cars came together before the gunner could squeeze off another round. He ducked his head back into the car—


   The driver of the four-beater just managed to get his seat belt on. The crash hurled him into the steering wheel, knocking the wind out of him. He watched the back end of the muscle car crumple and ride up the hood as it came to crush the life out of him.

   The thieves piled out.

   "In here! In here!" yelled its driver.

   The submachine-gun-toting passenger opened fire, raging at the top of his lungs. The bullets tore into the heap, shattering the rest of the glass.

   "No time, Clowny!" yelled the driver. "We'll get that jerk later. C'mon!"

   The assailant joined his fellows as they threw open an alley door, which belonged to another restaurant, and vanished inside.

   The clunker driver kicked open his door, groaning. The hail of bullets had showered glass and car seat stuffing all over him—but miraculously he wasn't hit. At least he didn't think he was. He gave himself a quick inspection as he pulled himself out.

   "Son of a ..." he muttered angrily, shaking glass out of his hair.

   He got to the alley door and twisted the handle, or tried to. Locked. He backed up two paces and pulled out his forty-five, aiming at the handle.

   The door suddenly burst open. A Chinese man in an apron glared at him, then started yelling in rapid-fire Broccoli-With-Beefese, pointing up the stairs that were just inside and to the left.

   "Got it. Got it!" he yelled over the caterwauling. "Thanks, Kwai Chang!" He leapt up the stairs. "I owe you one!"

   Four flights of stairs led to a dimly lighted corridor at the end of which was a service elevator. There were five doors on the way, any one of which the thieves could be hiding behind. He growled at the probabilities, then bolted down the corridor to the service elevator, where he impatiently jammed the UP button.

   "C'mon ... c'mon!"

   A muffled scream. Behind one of the doors.

   A woman's scream.

   But which damn door did it come from?

   Back against the wall, gun at his side, he sidled as quickly along to the first door as he could, listening intently.


   Second door.



   The elevator dinged and opened just as he heard another muffled scream.

   ... Or ... was that just the Chinese cooks downstairs? He could hear sirens. Cops were coming.

   "About damn time," he murmured.


   He would have to guess.


  He went to shoot at the doorknob of the third door.

   Just before he squeezed the trigger, he stopped and, listening to a tiny voice inside his head, jumped in front of the next door instead. He aimed and squeezed off three shots—


   He kicked the door in—

   The submachine gunner was taking aim—

   He dove out of the way—


   Wood and plaster sprayed everywhere.

   The end of the smoking barrel of the submachine gun appeared around the corner of the decimated door like a sniffing attack dog—

   On his back, covered in debris, he fired—


   The submachine gun tore free of the grip of the thief and landed spinning down the hall.

   The woman screamed.

   He jumped to his feet. Instead of waiting, he bullrushed through the doorway, weapon leading the way at the end of a statue-stiff arm.

   The thief who tried to riddle him with holes jumped him.

   They crashed yelling into a large desk. The woman was gawking at him from the corner: another thief had a knife at her neck and a black-gloved hand over her mouth.

   The thief riding his back was punching his kidney.


   Trevor pushed back against him. The thief grabbed his hair, bowing his back, the other over his gun hand, smashing it into the desk.

   "Get the piece! Get it!"

   Trevor stomped as hard as he could on the man's right foot just as the driver wrenched his pistol from him. The assailant stepped backward to avoid another stomp, which was exactly what Trevor wanted. He wrapped his arm about the man's neck and threw him over his shoulder just as the driver fired. The bullets bit into the back of Trevor's assailant, killing him instantly. Trevor used the dead man as a shield, his arm wrapped about his neck, as the driver continued firing, the bullets powering into the dead man's body with staccato sprays of blood. Trevor could feel the bullets’ shocks against his stomach. But now the shooter’s clip was empty.

   "We'll kill her!" roared the driver, jerking the now-useless weapon in the direction of the woman. "I swear to God we'll cut her throat! We'll—"

   That was all he got out. Trevor chucked the knife he'd pulled out of his boot with his free hand. The blade spun with a hiss and sunk into the man's sternum. He gurgled and fell limply atop the desk, staring lifelessly at the black handle as the woman bit into the hand of the thief behind her. He roared and released her a split second before she drove a sharp elbow into his rib cage. She tore herself out of his reach as Trevor got to him. He grabbed the slimeball by the throat and heaved him into a corner.

   "Don't ... don't kill me, Trevor ... don’t!" he coughed. He wasn't even looking at him; he was goggling over his shoulder at his dead friends.

   "Two seconds," growled Trevor. "Where is it? Answer me! One ..."

   "In ... in his pocket—his pocket, his pocket!" the thief squeaked, his face turning blue. He pointed at his dead comrade.

   "Well, then ..." said Trevor releasing him. "I guess that means you're under—"

   Trevor unleashed an elbow into his face. The only surviving thief crumpled to the floor.


   The sirens were much closer. His fellow badges would be here in just a minute. He dug into the pocket of the leather jacket of the dead thief, from which he extracted an enormous diamond wrapped in tissue paper.

   The woman gawked, half in fear and half in open-mouthed admiration.

   Holding the rock in his upraised fist, he took a bow.

   "Josh Trevor, ma'am, at your service ..."

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From the Fractal Archive: "Letting the Drain Take Me"

Letting the Drain Take Me


Monday, March 20, 2017

My Rogue Mile: "Cathedral of Light"

[This essay was written the summer of 2016, and will appear in My Rogue Mile, a collection of thoughts, photos, and meditations, later this year. The photo above is from a redwood grove in northern California.]

IT ASTONISHES me how many people refuse to look up, to bathe themselves in the descending light.

I'm not talking physically: that's a trivial thing to do. The sun rises, the sun sets, and sometimes folks actually look at it. The moon goes through its phases, and sometimes it gets noticed as well. The stars wheel soundlessly above us, and occasionally we'll go out and look up at them.

No, I'm talking spiritually. I'm talking about looking up and seeing the good in this world, and taking the time to give thanks and praise, and to call that good what it is.

We live in a moral universe. I know that doesn't jibe with the current, dominant mindset, which clings to a materialistic worldview, but I don't care. I'm convinced that underlying the foundation of the physical universe is a moral infrastructure.

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Martin Luther King, Jr., knew it, and so do I.

People don't want to believe that evil exists, let alone that they may very well embody it. Look at the modern Republican party. Look at their candidate for president. Look at what they say in comment strings all over the Internet. The light cascades down, it illuminates everything—but they have dug themselves into a hole and refuse to see it, let alone call it good, and attack folks who try, or do.

Looking up and calling good good requires courage and faith. It requires a constant willingness to change and to admit that you might be wrong,. It requires that you learn the art of appreciation and unlearn what you've been brainwashed into doing since you took your first breath, and that is consumption. It requires compassion, resilience, honesty, and reflection, none of which is easy to develop.

For far too long I kept my chin down, my gaze fixed at my feet. But a life worth living requires that you learn to look up. It isn't as easy as it sounds.


New Fractal Art: "Left of the Garden"

Left of the Garden


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Five Exuberant Stars: Beauty and the Beast is Happily, Colorfully, and Musically Anti-Troll

I HAVE purposely kept away from the reviews. Kye has read them, and has told me not to bother.

Emma Watson, apparently, is "soulless." She "lacks range" in her singing. The movie is "flat." Critics were bothered by what is known as "the uncanny valley," where computer-generated things and people appear to be too lifelike and therefore bother the viewer.

Apparently there is also no small amount of thinly disguised disdain for Watson offered as objective critique of her acting skills and applied as a whole against the film. Watson is one of the most beautiful women on the planet. She's intelligent, graceful, multitalented, and an outspoken activist for humanitarian and feminist causes (which are, truly, one and the same thing). That drives a lot of fools insane.

Additionally, there are reams of blatant hatred for her and for the remake itself. An NPR commentator evidently railed against her and the film because he wants adults to grow up and let go of fairy tales--like Beauty and the Beast and Harry Potter. He can't stand that Disney insists on making live-action remakes of their animated classics. Somehow, apparently, doing so is evidence of perverse immaturity that threatens to destroy civilization. Something like that.

I can't say for sure. Again, I have avoided the reviews. I've gotten wind of them second-hand.

What I didn't avoid was the film itself, which we saw yesterday.

It is rare, especially in these parts, for a film to receive an ovation when the credits begin rolling. Both Kye and I know this. We're major film aficionados. Most of the time the audience, like the zombies they typically are, get up and walk out, silent.

This film received a loud and enthusiastic ovation at its end. Yes, there were plenty of kids there, but there was a very healthy percentage of adults too, probably forty percent or more. Walking up the aisle, we heard something we very rarely hear: effusive praise.

"That was absolutely wonderful!"

"I can't believe how good that was!"

"We're coming back next week!"

And that was before we got outside.

Outside I listened in on three groups of adults--not kids--as they heaped more praise on it. They loved the music, Emma Watson's singing (which was perfect, not "soulless"), her stellar acting, the color and pageantry, the dancing and happiness. They praised the incredible sets and the supporting actors, which was a veritable Who's Who of the profession: Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, and many others.

Kye and I are going back to see it again next Friday, and probably the Friday after that. I bet we'll see plenty of the same faces we saw last night.

Cynicism is a spiritual disease, one that has taken an unshakeable hold on a disturbingly large percentage of the human population, Americans in particular. It runs part and parcel with nihilism. The cynical believe in nothing, because that way they can avoid, to their way of thinking, getting hurt. Caring, being happy, dancing, laughing ... well, those things are for children, right?

Cynics believe they have an objective grip on truth, on reality. "Reality is harsh!" you'll often hear them warn in a loud voice (or in all caps). "It's a bitch!" And then they'll offer some unasked-for advice: "The sooner you learn that, the better!" And to finish: "Life isn't a fairy tale!"

No, it isn't. I know it isn't, because in my fairy tale, cynics wouldn't exist. But they do. And they are hammering on this excellent film.

I suppose it isn't a surprise. A beacon of light shines out in a very dark time, and the slime and bottomfeeders immediately get to work trying to snuff it out.

Understand this, folks. These nasty reviews have been written by people who a) had an agenda against it before they even sat down to watch it; or b) didn't even bother sitting down to watch it. In the case of the former, it's a sad truth that nasty reviews get far more clicks than good ones. Ripping on something or someone is the new black these days. Hell, it got a vile pig into the White House!

In the case of the latter, many reviewers simply don't bother watching the movies they review. No shit. It's true. The reasons why they don't bother don't matter in the slightest; their review is grossly dishonest and has nothing to do with the film they're panning in the end, but with themselves and their own patheticness.

Remember, though: they have a solid grip on truth and reality.

Fans of the film have begun to notice the grotesque attacks on it. On IMDB alone, the movie has risen from a 6.7 rating (out of 10, which isn't bad) yesterday, to a 7.7 rating not even a day later.

It doesn't deserve a 7.7 rating. Anything less than 9.0 is ludicrous.

What a dark time we live in. Historians will surely look back on this era and call it the Troll Age. That assumes, of course, that we survive it. The smart money is against it.

Beauty and the Beast is anti-troll, top to bottom, through and through. That's why it is so hated. Have no doubts about it.

So let me offer you some advice. Fight the darkness. Fight the cynics. Fight the one in yourself. Fight the bottomfeeders. Fight the trolls. Go see this film--especially if you're an adult--and let yourself freakin' enjoy it. The world is desperate for light, now more than ever. Beauty and the Beast offers some. Why not let yourself bathe in it; and when you walk out of the theater, why not try to spread a little around yourself?