The Orange and the Black: Brooke and Jared Nescott

by Devon Pitlor

I. Another episode in Brooke Nescott's strange life is about to open. Something new was poised to happen, but Brooke Nescott, at age thirty-six, did not see it coming. She had, as the reader knows, lived a life punctuated by moments of utter improbability and would probably not be surprised if more were to come. But the imposition of strange events into otherwise ordinary lives, and Brooke lived a boringly ordinary life, must by definition come when one least expects it, and as the fall approached and the college crowds returned to Aristock, Brooke expected very little. The only thing new in her life was that, mostly on her son Jared's request, she had begun with some reluctance dating once more. By September, 2010, she had given up hope of ever seeing the almost mythical Dragonsnort again, except in the eyes, thoughts and expressions of his son Jared, and it was characteristically Jared who dominated most of Brooke's activities outside of work, save for the occasional social encounter. One of the latter was going to become very peculiar and once again force Brooke to make choices and see perspectives that ordinary people rarely see. But first we have to visit the trigger point which will begin this new adventure. II. A call from Jared's teacher

Jared's fifth grade teacher, a Mrs. Umberly whom Brooke knew rather well from previous visits to Casgrove Elementary, was an even-tempered woman who did her job well and was not given to drama. If she called a parent, as she did suddenly in Brooke's case, it was for a good reason, and there was every reason to return her call as soon as possible. Mrs. Umberly had left a rather tense-sounding voice mail on Brooke's phone about needing to see her regarding some peculiarity regarding Jared. That was totally unexpected because Jared had always led his class in attentiveness, ability to learn, inquisitiveness and interest in school.. Perhaps, thought Brooke, the promotion ahead of his class to the fifth grade had been a mistake and that was what the call was about. Maybe it was good news. Some new, creative, achievement on Jared's part. Certainly the news couldn't be bad. So when Brooke finally reached Sarah Umberly after school on Monday of the second week of classes, she was shocked by the serious tone in the woman's voice. "I think we need to schedule a brief meeting," she said. “I have something rather odd to convey to you about Jared’s behavior last week." Brooke agreed to a meeting that very day at five o'clock after she left work. She drove up to Casgrove Elementary school expecting the worst. She kept Jared on the longest leash possible, giving him all possible freedom to develop, remembering always that he was Dragonsnort’s son and that would have been the way Dragonsnort would have wanted it. But there was a limit to Jared’s freedom too, and Brooke ardently hoped that her son had not passed it. Sarah Umberly was known far and wide to be an animated and captivating teacher who could--without reservation--hold the interest of the children in her

room. Jared had always been fascinated with her in previous years, and he was thrilled, or so he said, that she was going to be his teacher this year. That being mentioned, the problem was that on Thursday of the previous week during a lesson on geometry--a subject that enthralled Jared---the boy had suddenly gone blank right in the middle of class. His eyes had glazed over and his eyelids drooped. "He was totally out of it," Sarah Umberly said. "For a lot of less alert children that would have not been surprising but for Jared that is nothing short of shocking. I had to call his name aloud several times, and still he would not come out of his...his trance. It was kind of like a reverie. Finally, I patted him on the shoulder, and he blinked open his eyes, looked around and was, I guess, surprised that my demonstration of isosceles triangles was over and that the other kids were already bent over doing problems. All in all, it was really not all that much. I'd say we lost him for less than three minutes, but with Jared..." "I know," said Brooke, concerned. "Maybe he was just tired. We had a exhausting two weeks before school began." "At a nature camp in Tennessee? Jared told the class all about it. Sounded like fun." "It was, except for the...." "Ticks," concluded Mrs. Umberly. "He told us about those too. I hope you had him checked."

" I did," said Brooke. "The doctor said that if he or any of the others had contracted any sort of virus or bacteria, the symptoms would have shown up by now. Things like trouble breathing and fever. He has had nothing of the kind. Besides, I had the tick checked. I took it to the county extension office and they found no trace of microbes. It was an ordinary spotted dog flea. The deep woods in Loudon County, Tennessee, where we were, were bursting with them. I took them off several other children too. Their mothers were too hysterical." "With your pocket knife," smiled Mrs. Umberly. "Jared told us about that too. You don't seem to be squeamish in the least. I like that. You seem like a very capable and unshakeable person." "I'm not easily upset. They were just ticks. No one had a tweezers, so I popped them off with a knife, saved them in a bottle full of alcohol and took them to the county office. Nothing more. I don't suppose they cause trances." "Well, let's just keep an eye on Jared," concluded Mrs. Umberly. "He is the most attentive child in my class. It is not like him to phase out." Brooke agreed and took polite leave of the alarmed teacher, making a mental note to ask Jared about the incident. What she did not tell Mrs. Umberly was that the head of Central State University's entomology department had contacted her with a further confirmation of the innocuous nature of the ticks, but had asked to see her briefly in his office just the same. Then what she did not tell Mrs. Umberly is

that for some strange reason---and it was novel---she had found the man attractive in a very odd sort of way and had agreed to meet him for a drink one evening during the week. She had, after all, promised her gifted son that she would get out more and see more men. That was something Jared, at age nine, was going to hold her to. III. A casual date with Eric Palobay, PhD. They met shortly after Brooke's meeting with Mrs. Umberly. It was an early September evening and still hot enough in Aristock to fill the streets and café terraces with crowds after dusk. They sat for a long time just staring at one another when, out of the crowd on the sidewalk before them came, Jewel Narsikov, a long-time co-worker of Brooke's at the histotechnology lab where both of them had been employed for over ten years. Jewel had never liked Brooke, and the feeling was mildly mutual. Jewel eyed Brooke with her new companion, nodded her head and passed on. Later she would say at work the following rather revealing thing: "It's just like Brooke to be with a weird looking guy like him, another Dragonsnort, if you ask me. Strange, zany appearance. Nothing like the regular sort of guy Brooke could get if she wanted. Not handsome at all. Just outlandish. How typical of her." Jewel's statement about summed up what most observers might note about Dr. Palobay: He was odd looking, but swollen with the kind of inner selfassurance that had always attracted Brooke, and that was one thing he did indeed have in common with Dragonsnort. Palobay was around six feet tall and extremely muscular in the upper torso and shoulders. In fact, his shoulders were so square as to look almost unnatural. His lower body was

barrel shaped and thick, although not fat in the slightest, but the most striking part of his physique was the strange curvature of his back. Later, Jewel would describe him as a "hunchback" but not a crooked over hunchback, just a large man with a symmetrically rounded protrusion in the middle of his back. His legs were long and powerful as well. As for his face, he had deep-set brown eyes and a prominent but well-shaped nose. His cheekbones were abnormally high, and his skin seemed stretched around his facial muscles like a tight but slightly worn canvas cover. His face, although not aged, was weathered in spots, and his too-long hair hung down to his shoulders in uneven tendrils. It was black and shiny, and, as Jewel would later relate to other co-workers, it was impossible to gauge the age of such a creature. Brooke had taken a liking to Dr. Palobay almost at once after she had visited his laboratory on campus. Palobay had assured her immediately that the tick specimens sent to him by the county extension office were free of disease, but then he abruptly said: "You're a very pretty woman. I'd like to meet you for a drink sometime if you do that sort of thing." He then arched his eye at her with an overabundance of self-confidence, exactly the way Dragonsnort had once conducted himself. Brooke wondered how he knew she was not in a relationship and wondered, naturally, whether Palobay had been stalking her as Dragonsnort had once done prior to their romantic union. Everything about Eric Palobay was puzzling and, above all, direct. Brooke was intrigued by him from the start. She had always been repelled by run of the mill people and had likewise always been immediately attracted by those who stood apart from the herd both in looks and personality. She sensed an animal attraction within herself to Palobay and accepted the idea of a casual meeting almost at once.

Now as she sat waiting for a tossed salad and a second glass of red wine, she started noticing small things about Eric Palobay that put her on guard. The first thing was, strangely, a tattoo that he had on his upper right arm. Dragonsnort had, of course, been covered with tattoos, and Brooke had grown to like them very much on men. But Palobay's large purple tattoo gave her a particular pause and a definite chill. It was a tattoo of nothing, a wholly unsuccessful rendering of some kind of picture that had been completely distorted by the tension and or slackening of the man's skin. It looked more like a strange, deformed apparition than a tattoo, and what was worse, it was impossible to read the script that had been written under it. What on Earth was that supposed to say? So Brooke finally asked. "Something really stupid," replied Eric Palobay. "Something that I'm glad has been disfigured. The whole tattoo was really bad. I should go have it removed. All it is is a blob now. Bad tattoo." For some reason that set off an alarm in Brooke but she really couldn't think of why. Later she would remember, but that would be much later. As they talked, Brooke found herself answering a lot of questions about herself and Jared, and that set off another alarm. She was well aware that certain men only dated single mothers in order to get close to their children for reasons too perverted to mention, and she had always been cautious when it came to that. But then Palobay, the bug specialist, began an interrogation about the summer nature camp field trip Jared and his mother had been on in the Tennessee woods. He wanted to know lots of particulars. Like where exactly

in Loudon County they had been, and since the Boys' Club had hired a bus to drive them there, Brooke really couldn't say. It was somewhere in the dense woods along some of the lesser branches of the Tennessee River. She wasn't sure where. Why did this man want to know that so much? He had already declared the ticks harmless. Eric Palobay rocked back in his chair and said "Hmmm" about a dozen times as Brooke explained the scant details of the summer nature camp excursion. The boys had gone off to collect water bugs, amphibians and skinks for their collections. The whole area was swampy and, of course, chock full of ticks. "I know Loudon County pretty well," said Palobay with a kind of snappy suddenness that scared Brooke. "That part of the Tennessee River has hundreds of hidden lagoons nestled in those little swamps and swales. There are some people that claim that certain branches of the river and the pools they flow into have never been totally explored by anyone, but that may just be a rumor." "Aristock is a long, long way from Loudon County," said Brooke suspiciously. "It took us almost a whole day to get there. The camp was creepy too. Just wooden cabins, and the mosquitoes were terrible. Why do you know so much about Loudon County?" "I just do," said Eric. "Listen, have any of those boys had any trouble concentrating that you know of?" Brooke was floored by the question. How in the world could Eric know about

Jared's little lapse of the week before? Was he in touch with everything the way Dragonsnort had been? She told him about the small problem with Jared's attention, and he nodded his head keenly. He was far too interested in Brooke's description of what she now deemed to be a minor event. "Listen," he said with a assured earnestness. "I asked you here because I am attracted to you. You can do whatever you want, and I assume that will be to dismiss me. I am prepared for that. But now I must ask you a few more questions about your son and his companions. Please bear with me. I know I'm ruining our evening, but it may be important." Eric Palobay went on to ask about Jared's examination following the excursion. Did the doctor ask him to strip naked and look at every part of his body? Brooke blushed at the directness of the question. But Palobay followed up with another blunt assertion: "Jared is a nine year old boy," he began with intensity. "I understand what that means. That means he is shy about showing himself. I was a boy once too. He is probably starting to get pubic hair, and I'm betting that neither you nor the doctor looked over his crotch, inner buttocks, or even felt under his arms." "True," Brooke stammered..."he's sensitive....the doctor didn't want to probe too much. Jared is at that age..." "I understand," said Palobay firmly, "but he may need to get over it." "Now you're scaring me."

"As well I should." Palobay wasn't softening anything. He said that the question about concentration problems should be asked of each of the boys who had been on the field trip. Would Brooke call their parents and do it? She reluctantly agreed to do so. Palobay was compelling enough to defy denial just by his tone of voice alone. "And another thing," continued Eric Palobay. "I am a full professor in good standing at Central State. I am not a pervert or a child molester as you may be thinking. What I want to do is to take that whole bunch of boys who were there out for ice cream on Saturday. I presume they all live in town. How many were there from Aristock?" "Only five," said Brooke. "What does taking them out for ice cream prove?" "Just humor me. Tell their parents to come along. The more mothers the better. Tell their parents about what I found about the ticks, that they are harmless, etc. And don't tell them anything else. Tell them I am interested in kids who have bug collections for the obvious reason that a scientist of my standing would be. Get as many as you can of them to meet you, me and Jared at the flagstand by the stadium at ten o'clock on Saturday. That's the day after tomorrow. Do you promise you can do that?" Brooke promised only to try. She still had the phone list from the nature excursion and would try to speak to the parents. A nice university professor wanted to take a bunch of nine and ten year old boys out for ice cream. That would never fly. Palobay must have seen the worry on her face.

"Tell them I am going to give them a lesson on ticks," he said finally. "How to protect yourself from them. What to do if one embeds itself in your skin, etc. That might be excuse enough to bring them." "For ice cream?" "Yeah, and a little something else to contribute to their knowledge." "I suppose you are going to want them all to undress in front of you so you can go over their bodies with a magnifying glass?" "Not at all. I said ice cream. On me. Then a little walk here in town, and that is all." "I'll try," repeated Brooke again. "I think this evening is over," she sighed pushing her second glass of red wine into the center of the table and standing up. "I'm not sure I want to talk to you any more right now." "I would always like to talk to you, but, you know, sometimes things happen that are more important. I wasn't expecting much anyway. I'm not exactly a movie star." "I thought you were okay until you started this creepy stuff. Now I don't know. You haven't said a thing about yourself since I told you about Jared." "Okay, I'll tell you the one little thing about me that you probably want to

know. My back. That interests you, doesn't it?" "Not until you mentioned it." "I have to wear a permanent trussed body cast over that part of my spine. It makes a bulge. I know it is unattractive. But that is all it is. The result of an accident a long time ago." Brooke smiled and stood up. It was time to twist away from Eric Palobay and get back home to Jared. Something was dreadfully wrong with this man, but the burning intensity in his eyes told her that she needed to try to get the five boys and their parents together....the boys who had been along with Jared in Tennessee at the nature camp. The boys who had had ticks on their bare chests and legs. Ticks she had flipped off with her pocket knife. Ticks that were harmless and disease free. Or were they? IV. A brief exchange between Brooke and Jared "So, if I'm understanding you right, you have been seeing this college professor who specializes in bugs, and he said all our ticks you took off were harmless, but you like him because he's strange, and he likes you because you're pretty, but what he really wants is to see me and all the guys from the Boys' Club naked after he buys us some ice cream. Do I have it right, Mom?" Brooke, annoyed because Jared did not have it right and he knew it, countered her precocious son in kind with:

"So, if I am understanding you right, you dozed off in Mrs. Umberley's class for a few minutes and have no idea where you were or what you were thinking." Jared paused for a minute and buried his forehead in his palms. The repartee had gone a little farther than he had planned. He felt very sorry for his mental lapse in Mrs. Umberley's class and had never been able to recapture any of the thoughts he had had before or after the incident, and that bothered him because he knew he had been thinking about something, but what it was he could not summon up, try as he would. "It was something important," he gurgled half sobbing. "I know it was something I was supposed to remember." "Like your geometry." "No!" screamed Jared, pushed into frustration and anger now. "Not like geometry. Something else." Then he began crying and ran off to his room. Later when he came down and snuggled with Brooke as he always did on the sofa in front of the television, he said "I'm sorry." Brooke said "I'm sorry too," and hugged her son. Every day he was growing more independent and more like Dragonsnort, his father. That both pleased and frightened Brooke. She felt him slipping out into a world that she had never particularly liked, but a world nonetheless where he belonged and where he needed to forge his own separate destiny. There would be no apron strings in the Nescott family. Jared would grow up and maybe take care of her some day. He would be strong, maybe even a little wild. He would make mistakes and find solutions to rectify them. He would meet girls and teachers and guides and whole host of other people that did not live in the Nescott house. He would be as normal or as

abnormal as he wanted to be. In short, he would grow up into himself, and she would watch and hope for the best, and she could already see the best coming. It didn't seem to need much of her guidance. "Anyway, Dr. Palobay is not a pervert. He only wanted to check you boys over for more ticks. If he does that us mothers will be right there to make sure..." "That you see us too. Uh uh, I do not want to get undressed for anyone. I tell you I have no ticks anywhere on my body. You have seen my back. I have felt everywhere else. They swell up and itch too. I don't have anything like that. Far as I know, the other guys don't either. I think you did a good job, Mom. We were lucky to have you there. You got all the ticks. If it had just been Malachi's or Tyshawn's or even Subaru's mother, we'd be covered with bumps now and probably sick. All they could do was scream." Brooke was proud that her son had appreciated her immediate response with the pocket knife. It was true that in the dusk of that first night in the crude wooden camp cabin by lantern light, the other mothers had simply gone hysteric. Still it bothered her why such a learned man as Eric Palobay wanted a further examination. Maybe he was attracted to little boys. One never knew these days. V. The ice cream party and a short journey on foot Saturday morning found Brooke, Jared and three of the five boys who had been with them to Tennessee standing beside the huge flagstand at the town athletic stadium. The other boys had skeptical looking mothers milling around

with them too, mothers that Brooke had done her best to calm, but mothers who were all thinking the same thought. And when Eric Palobay finally appeared, his broad smile and friendly brown eyes could not dispel the distrust written across the faces of the women. With almost stilted gentility he shook each of their hands, introduced himself---making sure to let them know he was Doctor Palobay from the university. Then he shouted to the boys to line up with their mothers at the ice cream stand. He stood at the counter and assented to each of their purchases, some of which were noticeably large and expensive in the fruity combinations of various flavored dips, candy sprinkles and exotic syrups. There was no skimping on ice cream treats that morning and the boys knew it. Jared sat with Tyshawn behind something that looked like a latter day banana split covered with chocolate cannon balls and drizzled with a sparkling neon lava that at times looked almost radioactive. Subaru had an enormous dish of straight vanilla swimming in a mélange of five separate syrups. Malachi was eating something out of a cone the size of a megaphone. The mothers huddled together behind their children, eating only small single dip cones and nattering together about things that no one could distinguish. It was clear they did not like Dr. Palobay, and a couple of them kept glancing at the rounded bump in the middle of his back. Palobay, for his part, chose to stick with Brooke and keep her apart from the others. "Let's give them something to talk about," he laughed. Then he put an arm around her shoulder. Brooke did not flinch away. Instead, she found herself feeling rather warm and safe with Eric, much as she had once done with Dragonsnort. In reality, the other mothers were as irrelevant to her as they would have been twenty years before in high school, where she may have even known at least one of them. But she never asked, and the subject was not brought up.

As the boys finished their huge treats and began to throw the leftovers in the trash bins, Doctor Palobay called for them all to assemble around his table. The mothers naturally followed. "Listen up," he began in a unassailable voice that made them straighten their necks and listen. "You can all tell me thank you all at once and loud too. So do it. One, two, three..." The boys and mothers shouted “Thank You.” "Okay, now that that's over, let's get one thing straight one more time. Those of you like Jared and Subaru who had a tick on them, none of you have had headaches, muscle pains, fever or anything else wrong with you. Am I right?" A general assent of YES came from the four boys standing by the table. "And your two missing trip mates, what are their names, Ian and Cody, they haven't complained of anything either. Right?" Tyshawn piped up and said "Cody couldn't poop for two days." A ripple of laughter went through the crowd. "Has he finally pooped?" asked Eric, winking an eye. "Yeah, and a big one too. In the school john. You could smell it...." Tyshawn's mother put her hand over the boy’s mouth to end the description of Cody's toileting escapade. "And Ian is okay?" continued Palobay. A nearby mother shook her head in total assent, saying she was his neighbor and she would know if anything had been wrong in the last week.

"Okay then. None of you have any disease from those ticks. I presume you all thanked Mrs. Nescott for removing them. Now as for me, put yourselves at ease. I am not a doctor of medicine. I am a doctor of entomology. I know you fifth graders know what entomology is. The study of bugs. Doctors of entomology do not tell boys or anyone else to take their clothes off, so you can all quit whispering about that." Another ripple went through the crowd of boys. It was clear that all of them, and their mothers, were relieved. God, this man is strong and direct, thought Brooke, slightly spellbound. He was becoming more and more like Dragonsnort every day. "So we can forget this whole tick thing now," continued Palobay. "The ticks did not have germs, and you are not sick. You have all checked yourselves over for stray ticks, bumps and itches, haven't you?" "I have a lot of mosquito bites," shouted Subaru, whose real name was Neal, but he had refused to use it since starting school at age five. "Mosquito bites don't count. You are boys. Boys are supposed to be outdoors and exploring, collecting these giant water bugs and skinks you have been showing me. It must have been a great trip. Take good care of your prizes. Don't forget that the giant water bugs will bite you if you let them, but their bite is never poisonous. It just hurts. Keep the skinks and flatworms in water all year around and don't let them get cold. And next time you're in such a deep wet woods, wear oil of citronella all over your exposed bodies. That will usually keep the ticks away. Wear boots and check yourself often. If a tick

gets into you, try to take it off the way Mrs. Nescott did and keep it for one of us to examine. That is about all I can tell you. Some bugs can really hurt you, but most can't and won't. And nothing should ever stop you from exploring. Not even mosquitoes. That's what the Boys' Club is about, isn't it?" Then Palobay raised his head and addressed the mothers standing behind. "Let's end the day with a little detour on the way back to the parking lot," he said. "I want to show these boys and all of you the small art gallery that is just over there in that house." Palobay pointed toward a dark, three story Victorian town house complete with decorative filigree and chiseled newel posts leading up the stairs toward a set of two massive oak doors. On one of the doors was written Overholt Art Exhibits...Visitors Welcome. It was, in effect, one of the miniature and almost inconspicuous galleries that dotted the historical section of Aristock. On the same street there were several more like it, houses converted into art and sculpture showrooms for the small but trendy art community that fringed the university campus. A general groan went up from the boys when Eric Palobay suggested a museum. Even the normally curious Jared looked over at his mother and said "I don't like art." Brooke shushed him with a finger. There was something more going on here than just a trip to a chic museum, and seeing a few paintings couldn't hurt any of them. Brooke, however, knew that while the entry was free to these kind of places, the artists---starving, as the expression went---always appreciated if not expected a small homage or gratuity from visitors upon exiting. Four boys and five adults would probably be worth about twenty dollars, she calculated as she dug through her purse. She was determined not to let Eric Palobay pay for the museum as he had so generously

for the mountains of ice cream. Eric put his hand on Brooke's arm as if to say stop. He would take care of the support offering too. "Let's go," he commanded, and the group turned and walked down Ascott Street to the tiny Overholt Museum, where a pleasant college-age girl met them at the door, all smiles. She seemed a bit confused, however, and sought out Palobay who stood confidently in back of the group. "We don't have much here today," she said. "I mean things these boys would like. Apart from the Swedish piece, it's all abstract. It's...well, you know Eric...the black and the orange." The words the black and the orange were spoken with slightly strange intonation, as if whatever these paintings were was an inside secret between Palobay and the girl. Brooke, always perceptive, noticed this, as well as she noticed the term Swedish piece, as if whatever that was was known to everyone in Aristock except her. The girl shrugged her shoulders and continued: "Well, the boys will get a little scare from the Swedish piece, but it's not all that bad. Just a mystery and so on." Subaru, listening, heard the word mystery and bolted forward into the house. "I want to see the Swedish piece," he cried. The other boys followed. In the central sitting room of the huge mansion was an easel set up and covered with two burgundy curtains. The girl motioned for the boys to stand in front of it and for their mothers not to worry and just stand behind them. Brooke squeezed Eric's hand, and he squeezed back as if to say "It's nothing." The girl explained that the Swedish piece had been found by an Aristock traveler in a Swedish farmhouse during the last century. It was not a painting but rather

a large, blown up tintype, a "spooky" thing but not really all that bad. She drew back the curtains to reveal a black and white photograph of several somber, adult-faced children standing outside of some raised graves on a country hillside. Beside them, a few withered and craggy grandmothers looked on with dour and piercing expressions. It was a funeral scene of sorts, a photo montage taken by an unknown artist around the last part of the Nineteenth Century. That was all that was known about it. Tyshawn said "Creepy." Subaru groaned. And Malachi yawned. It took only a few seconds for the boys to become totally disenchanted with the ugly photo, and they started to shuffle away. "Not even an eerie legend to go with it?" whispered Brooke. "Nope, 'fraid not," laughed Eric. "What's next?" said Jared, growing impatient. "All that we have on display now is in the abstract room, and it's a collection of black and orange oil and acrylic paintings by different artists from many places," said the girl, rolling her eyes for direction toward Eric Palobay. Eric released Brooke's hand and took the lead. "Let's have a quick look and go home," he said briskly. The girl shook her head helplessly as if she really didn't want to admit the boys and their mothers, but Palobay was insistent, so she stood aside. Eric threw open the door to a gallery lined with oil or acrylic on canvas paintings of all sizes. Each one was quite different from the next in size and pattern, but all were essentially the same in that they consisted of a bright orange background shot through with tangles and mazes and webs of twisted and tortured black veins...or tentacles...or branches...or roots. Some

also had explosions or bursts of black laid upon the orange matte. No two were the same in pattern, but all were similar in theme. Black "invasions" into an orange field. Black snaking its way through orange. Black exploding on orange. Black intruding on orange. Black blossoming on orange. The boys and their mothers were not impressed. Quickly they passed in front of each picture and moved on. Brooke noted that Eric Palobay was watching every parent and child carefully as they took a fleeting look at the black and orange paintings. He concentrated on the boys and their mothers. Why was he looking at them so inquisitively? Just more strange, thought Brooke. Jared was last in line. He moved slower than the rest. Unexpectedly, Eric Palobay was up behind him. The other boys had all but filed out of the room, but Jared at the rear lingered. Eric darted quickly behind him. "I feel faint," said Jared. Eric grabbed his small shoulders and lifted him before he hit the floor. He cradled the boy in his arms and took him out the opposite way and put him on a couch. He ordered Brooke to stay close to her son while he dismissed the others, which he did quickly by shaking hands on the sidewalk and saying thank you and you're welcome in haste about a dozen times. By the time the group had all walked off toward the parking lot, Jared was sitting up and staring at his mother. The girl had brought him some water. "He was just a little overcome by the stuffiness," she blurted. "That sometimes happens here." Eric Palobay returned to the main room and sat down on the edge of the sofa.

Without speaking, he looked at both Jared and his mother. Then quietly he said "We need to get out of here and talk...all three of us. I think I know what you're going to say, Jared. Just don't say it here. All three of us need to get back to your place and fast." There was an urgency in Eric Palobay's voice that told Brooke not to ask any questions. She and Eric helped Jared to his feet, and the three of them left for the parking lot. Eric insisted that they all ride together in his truck. "We can come back for your car later," he said solemnly. "Right now, we have an emergency on our hands. You need to trust me. Do you think you can do that, Brooke?" With eyes as wide as pie tins, Brooke stared at this slightly misshapen man. She looked at the distorted and unreadable tattoo on his right arm, at the round hump on his back, at the burning potency of his eyes. She knew she had to trust him. Something was dreadfully wrong with Jared. Something that the other boys had not experienced. Something Eric Palobay was expecting all along. She knew she needed his help. VI. Eric Palobay, Jared and Brooke Nescott together With Jared stretched languidly across the living room sofa, Eric Palobay motioned for Brooke to sit down beside him and take his hand. Eric likewise pulled up a chair and rubbed the boy's shoulder. Jared still seemed as if in a daze. His lips moved, attempting to form words, but none issued from his mouth. "I'm scared shitless," screamed Brooke suddenly breaking the silence.

"You have every reason to be," said Palobay. "And I'm giving it to you straight. What we do now we are going to have to do fast, and it may not be the most pleasant thing Jared has ever experienced either. Jared is going to have to be a man." "I am a man," said Jared feebly. "I know," said Palobay. "And all I'm asking is that you remember that." "It was moving," said Jared turning his head toward the back of the sofa. "I know all about it," said Eric. "What in the name of god are you two talking about?" shouted Brooke. "I need to call 911...now!!!" "No," said Eric. "Don't do that. Just listen to me. I am the only one here who knows what I am doing. 911 would just confuse things. Too many questions that can't be answered. You need to trust me like you said you would. Jared's life may be in grave danger. Minutes count here. If you get hysterical and fall back on the police, we may lose him." Brooke remembered her almost insane hatred of police and their conventional ways of conducting interrogations and getting information. She knew that Eric Palobay was probably her only chance.

"What do you want me to do?" she asked, stroking her son's face. "Just sit and listen and learn. You may see something today that few outside of a select group have ever witnessed. You may even learn all about it. You might become an insider to something that will never let you become an outsider again. I hope you are ready. You said there has been strangeness in your life. Well, here comes some more." Rougher than usual, Eric Palobay flipped Jared back over on the sofa so that the boy's eyes were facing him. "You were quite the little explorer, weren't you? You went ahead of the other boys. You went into a muddy lagoon or some dark place that they didn't want to follow. You went there because you are always in front. You are the bravest. You sank in the mud, didn't you?" "How did you know that?" murmured Brooke. "He was covered with mud right up into his hair. I was worried that it may have been quicksand, but I didn't say anything. He jumped into the lake and I washed his clothes in a sink." "Oh, he sank in the mud all right," continued Palobay. "He would have had to. Now let's get serious, champ. I am a boy and you are a boy, and this is your mother. She gave birth to you and you were naked then. She changed your diapers for years and gave you baths. She has seen your little skinny bod naked a million times. And between us boys, I'm not queer or anything. I've seen a lot of naked people myself. So you, my son, are going to have to take off all of your clothes right now, right here in front of me and your mother. You need to consider this a crisis and forget your modesty. We have all seen boys.

Now stand up and get undressed, and don't say a damn word." Jared, overcome by the stentorian tone of Eric's voice, climbed dutifully to his feet and began undressing. He stared at the ceiling and whispered to himself again "It was moving." Once again, Eric said "I know" but this time in a kinder tone. Within seconds the wiry young man was naked in his mother's living room standing in front of her and an eccentric hunchbacked man. Eric wasted no time. He spread Jared's buttocks and carefully examined his anal region, probing at times with a finger. Then he sorted through the scant pubic hair which was just starting to sprout in the boy's crotch. He pulled back each testicle and examined Jared's penis. Then came his navel and his arm pits. Eric brought his eyes closer to Jared's body, private parts and all, than any other person ever had. Then he repeated the whole routine again. "It has to be here," he said with growing frustration. "What???" stammered Brooke, embarrassed for her son and herself. "The vap," barked Eric. "The vap. Don't bother me now. I'll explain everything later.” As Eric continued his examination of the Jared's skin, its folds and private parts, Brooke chanced to glance up over the mantel piece. There as always hung a military photo of her father, the late Colonel Nescott, US Special Forces, Clandestine Operative. Brooke had never been close to her father and

because of his frequent absences, she had seen very little of the man during her childhood, but at once she remembered one thing: his tattoo. The only thing in any way remarkable, especially for the child that Brooke was, about her father's tattoo was its essential ugliness. Often Brooke had asked her father what the tattoo was supposed to be, and always he shirked off her question with "Nothing. It was supposed to be a fish once. But the ink ran. They did tattoos differently back then, not like today. The ink always blurred as you got older." Her father's tattoo thus had become formless just like Eric Palobay's. Its image had been lost. This made Brooke briefly glance at the man who was still minutely examining her son's body. How old is he, anyway? thought Brooke, and what is he looking for? Jared stood patiently frozen as the tall man bent over squinting at each part of his naked frame. Finally, he burst out: "I don't have any more ticks. I could feel them if I did." Palobay was quick to answer: "You won't feel what I am looking for. Not until it is too late." He continued his search over Jared's body. Finally, he glanced up at the boy, stared at his head for a moment, and said "Of course!!" In an instant, Eric was on his feet and looking down at Jared. He spun him around so that his back was facing him. Then he plunged his fingers into the long ringlets of Jared's hair which fell half way down his neck. Finding nothing, he proceeded to part Jared's thick mane as it fell over his left then right ear. Holding a lock of hair up and pushing Jared's right ear forward at an almost painful angle, Eric exclaimed "There you are, you little son of a bitch!" He put his finger on a small lump about the size of tick or small horsefly which was lodged in the crack between Jared's ear and skull and

obscured by his hair. "I don't feel anything," muttered Jared. "You won't. If anything, that's a good sign. If you told me it felt good back here, I might start getting really worried. Remember what you said about being a man. Just stand here." Then Eric turned to Brooke and pointed for her to look. She squinted behind Jared's ear and said "Another tick. I'll get my knife." "Don't even think of it," snapped Eric. "Go get a big handful of dirt from the yard. Put it in a glass and make some mud. Stir it around. When it is muddy enough, pour about three capfuls of vinegar in it. Then stir it up some more and bring it to me. Jared, you put your clothes on." Both mother and son were obeying Eric Palobay now, and quickly. By the time Jared had tied his shoes and buckled his belt, Brooke returned with the muddy mixture in a glass. Eric at once plunged two fingers into the concoction and smelled it. "Seems right," he said mostly to himself. Then he proceeded to pack the muddy substance into the crack of Jared's ear, holding it in place with his thumb and securing his grip with Jared's hair. "Ow," said Jared at one point, "my hair." "Be a man," said Eric. Eric stood there for a moment at Jared's side as if waiting for a sign of some movement. "There it comes," he said at length with some satisfaction. "Now Jared, when this thing comes totally out of your head---and a part of it is in your head, make no mistake about that---you are going to feel exhausted and

tired. You will need to lie down right away, and you will probably drift off to sleep. There is nothing to be afraid of now. Just take your nap. We can discuss the whole thing when you wake up." "You mean the bug," said Jared with obvious disgust. "Yeah, the bug," said Eric. Then to Brooke: "Bring me a small bowl or dish." By the time Brooke returned with a bowl, Eric had taken his hand away from Jared's ear and had the mud and whatever else it contained cupped in his hand. He dumped the mud quickly into the bowl and set it aside. "Don't touch it," he said to Brooke. Then he looked at Jared. "I know you are feeling faint, so just lie down." Jared, his eyelids slightly fluttering, immediately curled up on the couch and fell asleep. Eric looked satisfied at Brooke. "Jared's problems are over," he said. "Yours may be just beginning." VII. Vapus vapici They sat in Brooke's kitchen alcove, each with a tumbler of brandy in front of them. Brooke felt relieved that this strange man had saved her son from some evil parasite, but natural curiosity kicked in and she started asking questions. What was this bug? What had it done to Jared? Up to this point Eric had refused to let Brooke look into the mud in the bowl. He took a big swallow of brandy and stared once again keenly at Brooke. And once again Brooke was taken in by the forceful glow of his eyes. She knew in her heart that she was attracted to Eric despite his grotesque strangeness. His

rugged and even rough manner appealed to a part of her that Dragonsnort had left behind. She wanted to hug him and kiss him as thanks for what he had done for her son. She wanted something more from him, something to fill the void within her, some mutual confidence, some indication that he really liked her and wasn't just on a scientific or entomological bug hunt. She wanted to feel something warm and human coming from his person, and suddenly it came. His determined face-set melted a little, and he flashed her a kind of warm smile. "Well, to start with," he began more tenderly this time, "it is not an insect. It is a kind of slug, a gastropod. It is very rare and is called vapus vapici by its scientific name. If we had left it in place, it surely would have killed Jared within weeks, but killing is not all that it does." Brooke started to form more questions with her mouth, but Eric placed a finger over her lips. "There is an old joke," he continued. "And it is just a joke so don't get scared. If I told you, I would have to kill you. Well, I'm not going to kill you, and, if you don't want, I'm not going to tell you, but if I do, then you become a part of something very big and something very different than anything you are used to, and there is no going back....ever. I told you that I have feelings for you. Whether or not you have feelings for me hasn't been revealed yet, but there are some obligations I have which go farther than just feelings. If I tell you about this thing and show it to you, then you will automatically join a kind of select club---one that involves the very life and death of thousands of people worldwide---and I will have to report you to these people, and you will become

one of us in your own way. I guess it all depends on how much weirdness you want to deal with at this stage of your life. Maybe you are done with strangeness. If so, I can assure you that Jared will be all right, and I can walk out of here as if we have never met. We can pretend we don't know one another if we pass on the street. We can forget that any of this ever happened." "And if I want you to tell me?" “ Then as I said you join an exclusive guild, and there’s no quitting. It may, however, have its rewards both in human satisfaction and maybe even money.” “So out in the swamps near the Tennessee River, where there are dozens of church and ecology camps for kids, these kind of things exist. Things that can kill children like Jared. And you are just going to let that pass?” Eric sighed. He shook his head in a kind of wonderment at Brooke. “I wish we could be closer,” he said somewhat sadly. “Every question you ask gets you one step nearer to membership, but that may not be what you want. I may not be what you want. As for the stuff in Tennessee, I made some calls yesterday to some special people in the state Wildlife Division. I don’t think the threat is going to go very far. These things---vaps, we call them---do not migrate in the waterways. They get planted in some mud and they stay there. My contacts in Tennessee have a pretty good idea where they are. It will be their job to keep things under control. It’s a lot like bootlegging. If you find out where the operation is, you can shut it down.”

“Bootlegging,” said Brooke exasperated. “Look, all I want to know is what kind of thing it was you took out of my son’s head and what kind of damage it may have done. I don’t need to join a club to know that, do I?” “Yes, you do. Unless you become one of us, all I can do is tell you that Jared is totally okay now. You’ll see that yourself. He is going to tell you about those paintings in the little museum, and he is going to tell you that he saw them in his head long before we visited, but he’ll probably forget that soon. He is a brave little boy and a smart one too. It also took a lot of courage for him to get undressed today in front of us, but the need was pressing. I’m sorry I came on so strong.” “I’m not,” said Brooke, lowering her eyes. “I believe you saved my son’s life. I am sorry I ever doubted you. You remind me of someone, someone who was as direct and strong as you. I can’t hide some of the feelings I have for you. It’s almost like you’ve become a part of the family after what happened today. I’m sure Jared will feel the same way. I know the way he is.” “I like you a lot too. I have already told you that, and I wish I could become a part of something in your life, but there are a lot of obstacles between here and there, and the first obstacle is you. If you want me around, I’ll be there, but it will be on my terms, and you may not like that. If not, I’ll leave, and what’s more, I’ll leave right now. Your curiosity, and I know you have a lot of it, will never be satisfied either.” “You said vapus vapici and vaps. Sounds Latin. I could probably spell that and look it up on line.”

“Not a chance, and don’t go pretending that every bit of information in the world is on the Internet because I know you are smarter than that. What needs to be suppressed is suppressed.” “You mentioned human satisfaction and even money. I get my curiosity satisfied and even get you in the deal. Sounds interesting.” “To make it even more interesting let me say that you can dump me whenever you like. I will change nothing in your membership. You may grow to dislike me someday.” “I doubt that,” said Brooke taking his hand once again into hers, “but it’s nice to know anyway. Okay Eric, I’m in. There you heard me say it. Go on and make your phone call or whatever you do and ‘report’ me. I’m in it for you too once we get to know each other better. I just thought you should know that. Now can you show me what was drilling into Jared’s head?” Eric Palobay rose from his seat and bent over and kissed Brooke’s forehead. She felt a rush of warmth course through her body the likes of which she had not felt since Dragonsnort. She continued to squeeze his hand as he led her to the veranda where he had placed the bowl containing the mud and the mysterious vap. As the couple passed through the living room, Brooke made a mental note that Jared, while still asleep, looked truly peaceful and relaxed, more than she had ever seen him before. Maybe, she mused, he will get the stepfather that he has been asking for. Maybe not.

Eric took the bowl of mud in his left hand and began probing around in it with his right index finger. Suddenly his finger jerked backwards and extracted a jet black entity no larger than a bumblebee and having a very long and flagellating tentacle as its only feature. The long whip-like probe immediately began drilling into Eric’s finger, but Eric pulled it out and pinned the flapping appendage to the side of the creature. “Vapus vapici,” he began. “It is a sort of exotic slug first discovered in Africa and then exported clandestinely to the jungles of Guyana in South America. Obviously, there are a few here as well. This one is only a baby. They grow to be about twenty to twenty-five kilograms in weight when they are full-sized, and they grow fast once they have been attached to a host.” “A host?” said Brooke, repelled at the creature writhing to set its flagella loose from Eric’s grasp. “A larger animal of any kind. To grow, the vap must have a host. If it gets the wrong host, like Jared for example, it will take over his mind all at once and reduce him to a vegetable within weeks. If this drill, this flagella, this probe goes into the wrong spot, it can destroy the host completely. But there is a huge black market for these things. Whoever brought them here was looking to break into the trade, a trade which I and my several hundred colleagues worldwide have controlled for almost a hundred years now since vaps were first discovered by a French explorer in the Congo basin in the Nineteenth Century.” “And why may I ask would there be a black market for a creature like this?”

“Well,” said Eric, “it is rather disgusting. It’s a member of the slug family in the genus gastropodia, totally eyeless and blind. It lives deep in acidic mud until it finds its host. It is rather slimy too as are all slugs , and it has a slight odor when it is young like this one is. It is totally voracious and will drill this whip into any warm blooded creature it finds.” “So once again, why would there be a black market for them? And why would you compare their owners or tenders to bootleggers?” “Because when they are about twenty times bigger than this little one, about the size of a puppy, they are worth nearly $100 thousand apiece if not more.” “And why would that be?” “Because for the sick and infirm, those dying of incurable diseases, liver and kidney failure, even cancer of vital organs they can join in total symbiosis and not only save their host from death but prolong his or her life to beyond one hundred and fifty years or better. Some even say beyond two hundred years, but there are complications after a certain point, and that is why you may not want to keep me forever.” Brooke stared vacantly at Eric and connected the dots. “You’re wearing one, aren’t you?” “Yes,” said Eric smiling faintly. “I am.”

VIII. Most of the rest of the explanation with one exception Eric went on to explain to Brooke how vaps, once attached to humans. drilled into their bodies and took over the functions of whatever organs were failing. How they were painlessly attached to the middle back and began inserting their probe almost at once. Brooke learned that, however disgusting, this beneficial parasite could indeed preserve and prolong life. She further learned that if attached to a child in good health, it would drill straight for the brain and reduce the child to a mere automaton and eventually kill it, but with adults it was different. Vaps were attached to many people in many places around the world, mostly people who were very old or dying. Within days the host begins feeling and looking better and actually becomes far more vigorous and healthy than he had ever been before in life. The only drawback, according to Eric, was the unsightly bulge on the host’s back which is impossible to hide. “I keep mine fairly well hidden,” said Eric, “but of course you can see it. We always need to make up a story about that.” There was another slight problem too, but Eric declined to go into that during the first explanation. “I’ll tell you about it later,” he said. Brooke, no stranger to strange things, sat back in awe taking it all in. She still had a million questions but she realized that Eric would get to them in his own time and way. There was more than an explanation of vaps here. There was an explanation of Eric himself. Eric was seeking not only acceptance for the slug parasites but for himself as well. His eyes at times became huge and imploring. Brooke could sense his pain. On his back was a parasite drilled into his body and keeping him alive and healthy. It was, she knew, a hard thing to explain to anyone, not to mention someone in whom one had a

romantic interest. Brooke, only slightly repelled, tried to keep an open mind. She glanced again at the deformed tattoo. Eric followed her eyes. “August 17, 1914,” he said. “That would make me ninety-six. I got that on a dockside in New Orleans when I was twenty. They really didn’t know how to do tattoos in those days. They were not very widely accepted, only by sailors on tramp steamers, and that is what I was in those days.” “You look about forty-five.” “I feel about thirty-five. I’m stronger in fact than I was at that age.” “The rest of your bio?” “I was a wild kid from Chicago. I lived on the streets for some time as orphaned kids did in those days. I went from one jail to another for petty crimes. Finally, I got taken on a shuttle boat which ran between Louisiana and Trinidad and the Guyanas. You would not imagine the things we smuggled into this country back then. Snakes, exotic birds, lizards, cocaine…” “And vaps…” “Eventually so. That is how I had the connection later in life to get mine. It was more or less a free gift. I knew the right people and how to keep my mouth shut. I was dying of self-inflicted cirrhosis of the liver. I always was a bit fond of the gifts of grain and grape.”

Brooke looked at the half drunk glass of brandy in his hand and said: "Looks like it doesn't mind if you drink a little now." Eric once again followed her eyes and anticipated her question: "Nope, and I could go back to my old ways again if I wanted. Except it won't let me get too drunk. A vap can process anything you throw at it. The species is tough like a leather belt." Brooke wondered what convoluted embroilment she had gotten herself into this time, but she could not help continuing to feel her attraction to this man. Pouring herself and Eric another full glass of brandy, she chuckled: "So we met because you were looking for a girlfriend, and I liked you, so now I'm stuck with a ninety-six year old boyfriend kept alive by a life-support slug plugged into his back?" "No one said I had to be your boyfriend." "No one said you didn't." IX. Sunday morning Jared came in and woke them up. A brutal late summer sunshine slanted through an opening in Brooke's bedroom blinds and illuminated a column of dust particles that seemed to be floating just above Eric's head in the bed. Brooke kissed Jared and told him to go out and put on some coffee. It had been decided long before that his mother might have boyfriends stay over, and Jared, as ever, welcomed this. In fact, he welcomed it more than his mother

did. Eric had seemingly fallen back to sleep, and Brooke examined his taut face in the bar of sunlight which shed light on it. Looks young enough to me, she thought. No morning face, and unlike me, he doesn't need any make up. The night had been extremely passionate, and Brooke, far from feeling repulsed, felt singularly excited by the idea that she was sleeping beside an alien species of some sort. At her own request upon his disrobing, Eric had given her a glimpse of the creature that melded seamlessly now with his lower back. It was black as pitch and smooth, featureless and quite a part of him. "It can never be removed," Eric said at one point. "It is just another organ like my heart or liver now." Maturely, Jared brought them both coffee. They sat up in bed and drank it side by side. Both had questions for Jared. Jared had none for them. A prescient boy, he knew in advance where his mother and her new friend appeared to be in their newly forged relationship. But Eric especially had questions for Jared. Yes, Jared felt fine. In fact, he was getting ready to go out and play. Alan from down the block was waiting for him on his bike in driveway. No, he would not mention this last "tick" or how it was removed to anyone, and Brooke reassured Eric that when Jared said he wouldn't, he wouldn't. "He has had other secrets before," said Brooke. "I'll have to tell you about some of them someday." And no, Jared had had no further brain lapses. On this last question, Jared paused again and said "It moved." Eric assured him that he knew about that and that it was just another thing that he wasn't supposed to mention.

"What moved?" said Brooke suddenly. Eric stretched his arm around Brooke's bare shoulder and said: "I'll tell you about that later. It is just another small problem. We have two of them to discuss. It's best to let Jared go and play and forget about stuff. But I need to and will explain it to you a bit later. Or...I'll let someone else explain it. That might even be more interesting to you." Jared kissed both of them on the forehead and ran out to meet his friend Alan. As he left the bedroom, he looked one last time over his shoulder, paused and said: "I really didn't mind being naked in front of you two. I hope you were not too embarrassed." Both Eric and Brooke laughed. Brooke rolled over and kissed Eric on the cheek. "I hate keeping secrets from Jared," she whispered. "He needs to know about vaps if you're going to stay." Eric assured her that he would explain and even show Jared his vap when the right time came. Brooke seemed satisfied and smiled at her new lover once again and asked flippantly: "So what was the Second World War like??" "Pretty bad, I guess. But I had to stay hidden the whole time. I was in Guyana helping with these things. It would have never done for me to have been drafted. I could not have stood a physical exam for the obvious reasons. You know this whole thing is about secrecy. We would all be dead in days if they started cutting into us. And, make no mistake, that is exactly what they would do."

"So what are the other issues? What is it that Jared keeps talking about? Why did he pass out in that creepy art gallery?" "I'm going to answer that question last," said Eric getting up and adjusting the truss that he kept around his vap hump and pulling on his pants. Brooke noted the smooth strength of his arm and leg muscles. She envied the tightness of his skin. "We can get rid of your ugly tattoo," she laughed. "Let's do it some day. I've been meaning to for a long time. Do you want me to get a new, modern one?" "Not really," said Brooke quietly as she too got dressed in her jeans and tee shirt. "It reminds me too much of another guy." "Dragonsnort?" "Yeah." "Well, I love you. But if he ever comes back, I'll just get out of the way. I promise." "Don't worry. He won't. Just don't get any cool tattoos. You aren't the type. Now what other issue should I be worried about?" Eric's face grew serious. He stared out of the cracked blind at the morning sun for a few minutes and then said "Cost." He looked with seriousness at Brooke

and said "I was lucky. I told you I got this vap for free because I was just a wild young guy who hung out with vap keepers and helped smuggle them into this country....for the rich. Even back then it cost thousands to have one applied. Today it is even more. About $150 thousand cash and other costs. But there have been some decisions made recently. We are like a worldwide organization...a club...who control, or try to control, the spread of vaps. There will always be bootleggers like I suppose was happening in Tennessee. But in general, we control the breeding, raising, selection and application of these magnificent creatures. They are not just going to the rich anymore. People wiser and more powerful than me decided that. It is like liver transplants. Not everyone qualifies for one. Right now we are screening ALL applicants and referrals. The breeders in South America are well established, and there is a trust fund to help those who can't afford the procedure. But the screening is rigorous, especially the confidentiality part. There is a triage based on need too. I would have never made it today, worthless drunken kid that I was. We are trying to save people on the basis of merit and value. Not ability to pay. That is where you come in. Every day you deal with the life and death diseases of people who are only serial numbers to you. You either condemn them to life or death or something in between. You do that coldly and from a distance. What you may be asked to do, now that you are irreversibly one of us, is to help evaluate applications. In doing that, you will have to follow certain criteria and you will have to adopt a rather Nietzschean view of humanity, to wit: not all people are created equal and some have more right to life than others. That is something you will have to accept or reject before you decide whether to help with application screening." "I'm going to have to know more before I commit to that."

"For sure. Hope you don't have any plans for today." "Plans that don't involve my new ninety-six year old boyfriend?" "Yeah, like those kind of plans. Church or garden club or whatever." "Nothing of the kind. What do you have in mind?" "I made a call. In fact, I made several of them while you were sleeping." "I figured you would." "There's a little event planned for us this afternoon at a farm out off Route 16." "A vap farm?" "I guess you could say that. They keep some there. You could see them in their natural state. Pretty ugly and grimy, though. You'll meet some interesting people, and you'll get the final piece of information you need to know in making all your decisions....especially the one about me." "I make my decisions as I go along. For the time, I've decided you are pretty cool. But I reserve the right to change my mind. If you live to be even 150, like you say, then I'll be at least ninety when you kick it. I don't plan to live that long unless...."

"No, that won't happen unless you need it. Being my girlfriend or wife won't qualify you for a vap." "So I should start drinking a lot now and ruin my kidneys?" "No. It's just something that comes with the territory. I may outlive you. I promise to be attentive right to the end. Right now you are beautiful, and I assume you will always be beautiful to me." "I'd better." Later that afternoon, the couple loaded Jared into Eric's double seated truck and took off into the country. Jared knew that he had some surprises in store for him, but as they drove through the rolling hills of mid-Pennsylvania, Eric took charge and explained everything he had told to Brooke to her son. When he finished, Jared looked over the seat at Eric's hump, glanced up at his mother and said "Cool!!" That was his only reaction. "There will be kids there too," said Eric after a long silence. "Lucky kids. Kids who have to keep themselves hidden but kids who would be dead long ago if..." "I understand," said Jared, and he did. The farm was guarded by two men dressed in old clothes who carried shotguns, but whose faces displayed the congenial smiles of sincere hospitality.

They were gate watchers. That was all. Farther into the compound, others met the trio with equal amiability. There were kids too, just as Eric had promised. One immediately ran up to Jared and introduced himself. He had shoulder length blond hair and seemed quick and athletic. He also had a visible bump on his lower back. "Hi. I'm Tanner," he said. "I used to be bald for awhile. That sucked." Tanner took Jared off to a crowd of other kids, each having a slightly hunched back. They all started jumping around and playing just like kids do. A man named Doctor Quinton took charge of Eric and Brooke, welcoming Brooke with a kind of warmth reserved for new members to a select society. He thanked her for her understanding and "participation." He also introduced her to men and women of all ages who were walking around socializing with one another. Most of them carried drinks in their hands, and a whole array of usual snacks was set out across several folding tables near the front of the farmhouse. "Don't ask anyone their age," Eric whispered to Brooke, who shook her head knowingly. "And don't ask Quinton what he is a doctor of because it is probably nothing. He just knows a lot. So he gets the title." Quinton finally directed Brooke beyond a chain link fence to a muddy channel dug into the ground. Another fence prevented them from getting too close. "Well, there they are, this batch. Not much to look at," said Quinton raising his eyes. "Ugly and dangerous and blind and stupid," he continued. "You don't want to get near them in that state. Once a guy fell in, and...well...you don't want to hear that story."

Inside the earthen channel, black slugs, each equipped with a nasty-looking tentacle probe, writhed and wriggled around with each other. Each looked to weight about twenty pounds. Some were larger. Their squirming and splashing made an unpleasant sound that reminded Brooke of catfish in a breeding pond on a feeding frenzy. "It's all pretty simple," Quinton continued. "The candidate comes here. A special handler nets one of them from the channel. Carries it to a bed where the candidate is lying on his stomach, puts it smack in the center of his lower back, and the vap drills in at once. There is no pain. No nothing...other than complete recovery with a week or less. The candidate gets up, or jumps up, and walks, or runs, away." Quinton's last sentence was said as a joke. It was meant to impress on Brooke how vigorous the patient would become. Finally, Quinton motioned for Brooke to sit down at a table apart from the crowd. Eric had disappeared inside. He took her hands in his across the table and stared into her eyes. Then he began the final explanation of the role she could play in the vap community if she wanted. Brooke listened absorbedly. It involved evaluating written applications of possible candidates without ever meeting the person or seeing a photograph. The applications were all about what the person had already done in life and how the patient would spend the next era of his life were it extended. It involved making some very subjective choices about the value of human beings based on such criteria as originality, creativity, ability to help others, ability to remain confidential, ability to get along with people and be productive in society. There was, Brooke noted with some satisfaction, nothing about

spirituality or religion anywhere in the long application form. The vap organization eschewed religion as well as concerns about race and ethnic background. Ability to pay on a sliding scale was, however, covered. Things were not entirely free, as Quinton explained. "And you get paid for this," he concluded. "Your evaluation is not the final word. It is joined with those of others whom you will not meet. Then a committee looks at everything and decides. We do, however, let you know the decision. It will be your choice if you wish to participate. And, incidentally, we have already checked your work record at the Medical Center. We have a contact or two in there too." Brooke let loose of Quinton's hands and looked around for Jared and Eric. All around her people were picnicking, laughing and having fun. These were, Brooke knew, people would have ordinarily been dead long ago by now. Life extension must be a exquisite thing, she thought. Or else it isn't and they are just all pretending. Brooke had no way of knowing. X. The black and the orange. The final piece and Brooke's decision Eric appeared suddenly out of nowhere. He wound an arm around Brooke's shoulder and smiled at Doctor Quinton. "Well Quint, did you tell her everything. We want informed employees, you know." "Not everything, Eric. I suppose you know what I left out." "I guess that is my job," replied Eric.

"I'll help you," said Quinton. Brooke stared hopelessly at the two of them. They returned her quizzical look with warm smiles. "You're the boyfriend," laughed Quinton. "Pretty woman too. You won't have to tell her about all your other girlfriends either, will you? That would be a big turn off if I were a woman sizing you up." "Other than that they are all dead," said Eric. "But Brooke could have guessed that anyway." Eric stared at Brooke for a minute, pursed his lips and turned his head to the side of a grassy hill just beyond the farmhouse yard. On that hill blankets were spread and several guests were curled up sleeping peacefully in the warm September afternoon sunshine. "Do you mind being with a guy who takes naps?" said Eric with a kind of acid tone that was meant to convey seriousness. Then without waiting for an answer, he continued: "As the vap matures on the host, it asks for very little, except what we here call 'brain time.' As the host grows older, the vap asks for more and more of this 'brain time.' It starts out at about an hour per day, but with oldtimers like those people up there, it can grow to around three hours a day. What the vap does is borrow the brain of the host. The host falls into a tranquil doze and his mind is filled with a bright field of orange. Upon this orange field the vap projects dark black splatters, explosions, bursts or veins

that---and Jared knew this for a few minutes once----that move. In all, it is very intriguing and even beautiful. You saw the paintings. The host is treated to a panorama of black patterns erupting upon an orange canvas. Little by little as the vap matures, these patterns become more complex---and I might add---more stunning. They effloresce into displays of the most perplexing intricacy. We feel that it is the evolution of primitive thought that these creatures are engaging in. We call it, appropriately, the orange and the black. The orange is only a background which is invaded by the black in these complicated and moving designs. We have been convinced that it is the onset of reason and contemplation in this primitive species which is, in effect, borrowing our brains. To a mature host, the brain time is not debilitating in the slightest. In fact, it is relaxing. In a child like Jared, it destroys the developing brain. That is why we had to move fast. The patterns splatter in gushes of black, and the vap thinks. I truly believe we can call it thought." Brooke looked again at the people stretched out on the hill. "How long did you say they are out of it?" "Sometimes as long as three hours in the older ones. Sometimes less. It is the least we can do for a creature that has saved our lives---give it a chance to think, ponder, contemplate, perhaps evolve." Then Eric fell silent. Quinton nodded his head as if to approve of what had been said and indicate that he had no more to add. Brooke continued to stare at the people "asleep" on the hillside. "I'll leave you two alone," said Quinton, shaking Brooke's hand and sidling

away. Brooke walked straight to Eric's chest and put her arms around his waist and her hands over his back. She stroked the smooth hump under which the vap resided. She raised her head to meet his chin and looked into his bottomless brown eyes. "I like your strength," she murmured at length. "I feel a little akin to your vap now, like I have just in a few hours become a part of you as well. You have that effect on me. I don't suppose we would ever run out of things to talk about, and our lovemaking...well...it was superb, equal or better to anything I have ever known...and excuse me Dragonsnort, wherever you are. I love you Eric. You were born sixty years before me, and you will probably live sixty years after I am dead. But I want to be a part of your life now. That is all I can say...other than I don't care if you take naps. If you really feel the same way about me, let's stay together for as long as we can and not worry about your past and my future. All we have going for us is the present." Then she kissed him deeply on the lips and stroked his dark, shiny hair. Eric returned the kiss avidly. "Okay" was all he said. "About the committee," Brooke said. "No religion, no race, no social class, no political affiliation, no rich people getting special privileges...just me and some others making decisions. I don't mind decisions. I've had to make them all my life, and my decision to this offer is yes. Besides, I can use the extra money. We can use the extra money, can't we? I accept." Jared suddenly appeared with Tanner. Both boys were dirty from playing in the woods. Jared looked with satisfaction at his mother enlaced in Eric's

embrace. "Can Tanner come home with us?" he shouted. "His mother says it's up to you. Can he?" Tanner, looking fit and fresh, looked up at Brooke and said: "Can I?" "Of course," said Brooke. "Let's go home. Okay Eric? Home." "Home," replied Eric. __________________________________________ Devon Pitlor -- August, 2010 ////

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