“Humanity’s monopoly as the only advanced sentient life-form on the planet will soon come to an end, supplemented by a number of posthuman incarnations. Moreover, how we re-engineer ourselves could…raise crucial questions about our identities and moral status as human beings.”
“Inside the Movement for Posthuman Rights,” Village Voice, 7-30-03
Sheri drummed her fingers nervously on the heavy wooden table. Her knees were rigid, her heels arched upward inside her stylish leather shoes. For the third time in the past five minutes, her pale blue eyes searched the windows hoping to see Joe’s familiar gait shadowing up the walk. She had been here nearly an hour already and was just finishing a second bowl of chips, “the best in town,” or so the crooked sign on the restaurant’s wall said, especially when dipped in “the salsa that’s so addicting it should require a prescription.”
But a person could only eat so many before etiquette demanded a real order, one from the menu, one that actually cost money.
She snapped the last chip in half and stirred the remaining salsa, then dropped both pieces haphazardly into the bowl.
She looked at her watch again.
Checked her pager.
Still no messages.
She flipped the switch to sound and put the pager back in her purse. She nestled her chin meditatively against the tops of her hands, thinking this was so unlike Joe. He was never late for anything, especially their midweek lunches at Charlie’s.
“More while you wait?”
It was Janet, her favorite waitress. She was holding a fresh bowl of chips and salsa.
“Ugh…I couldn’t,” she said, twisting her pudgy fingers through her sassy short red hair. If Sheri had a nervous tick, it was twirling the curls near the nape of her neck.
“I’ll turn into a chip if I eat another.”
“Joe’ll want ’em I bet.”
Sheri knew that was true. In fact, Joe would say he needed them, just like everything else these get-togethers had come to represent. In her own way, she did too. Joe was not the only one affected by Dad’s death. Images of her father’s tortured body dumped by the roadside haunted her even now. Terrible, gruesome details that startled her awake at night, scorching away the sacred moments she preferred to remember, softer times when laughter had framed the family’s warmth.
“So do I leave ’em or not,” Janet pressed, swirling the bowl in the air and smiling. She looked like she could tell Sheri was troubled. The brother and sister duo had met religiously at the restaurant for the past six months, and neither of them were ever this late.
“Sure, if you don’t mind. But I feel like I’ll have to pay rent on this space pretty soon.”
“Let me see…a four-foot booth in the corner by a window. That’ll be a thousand dollars a month!”
Sheri smiled at the glib humor.
Placing the chips on the table, Janet sat down across from her. “You know what I think?” she said.
“I have a feeling you’re about to tell me, whether I want you to or not.”
“I think the spell has been broken. He’s met a girl, and they’ve run off to Mexico.”
The spell, as Janet called it, referred to Joe’s fear of attachment. It was second only to his anger issues—both vexations of Dad’s untimely death he couldn’t seem to overcome.
“Wouldn’t that be a hoot,” Sheri chuckled. “I’m just hoping his car broke down and he forgot to bring his cell phone.”
“I’m serious about the girl thing, ya know. Your brother’s a hottie.”
“Janet!” Sheri said, slapping her on the hand. “That’s my brother!”
“Well! That gorgeous hair and body!”
“Well nothing! You’ve got a fiancé!”
“I know…but Joe’s a hottie,” she repeated, blushing.
Sheri wagged a shameful finger at her while siphoning a small drink through her straw. She could hardly blame Janet. Joe’s ruggedly handsome features belonged on a fashion magazine. Plus the way he carried himself, so confident, as if he didn’t want nor need anybody. It made him all the more appealing to the ladies. Not that it mattered. His disposition had recently become as hard as his marine sense of duty. Somebody was going to pay for Dad’s death. Until they did, his life was on hold, no time for long-term relationships and certainly no room for deep love. He was as chained to his self-imposed prison, guarding her, his younger sister, and waiting to toe-tag the culprit of his father’s murder, as was the Greek hero Prometheus, who, having been bound to a rock by Jupiter, became the symbol of resistance against unmerited suffering and the champion of magnanimous endurance.
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A beeping sound went off, and Sheri looked across the table. She snatched her purse from the space Joe usually occupied and located the noisy device. The return number wasn’t the one she was hoping for. Her heart sank to her stomach. It was “Paul the jerk,” another in a long line of losers she’d dated recently. Or, as Joe liked to say, “la-hu, za-her.”
“Joe?” Janet asked.
“No. Paul. Probably wants another go at me.”
“Not dating him anymore?”
“Na-na-na-no thanks!” Sheri quipped.
“He puts the man in man if you know what I mean.”
“As in, ‘what a man’?”
“No, as in, ‘Ah, Man! Pa-lease stop calling me!’”
Sheri grinned and burst into laughter. Janet joined her until both of them were forced to hold their mouths to keep from annoying the other customers.
“The funny thing is,” Janet whispered, leaning forward, “Joe tried to warn you. He said Paul was a joke.”
Sheri hunched her shoulders and sat back against the booth, subconsciously twirling the hair at the nape of her neck again. “Well…that don’t make him a seer. All my dates are jokes to him. He never thinks anybody is good enough.”
“So far, he’s been right,” Janet teased.
“Okay, but as Grandpa Tony used to say, you’ll never get a ringer if you don’t throw a shoe,” Sheri added, taking a dig at Joe’s lack of dating, the usual argument between the two siblings. No man would ever be good enough for Sheri as long as Joe was around. He watched over her like an angry guardian angel, thoroughly intimidating most of her boyfriends, while he rarely dated at all. Their father’s murder had affected him so profoundly that he feared love itself, while she on the other hand went through men like a bag of jelly beans. The irony hadn’t escaped Sheri. Their mutual psychosis formed the core of their bond. They needed each other—to heal, to figure things out, to find closure, to move on. So they met each week to agree and argue, to laugh and cry, and above all else to nurture this contest about dating. As silly as it seemed, it appeared to be working, at least for her.
“You know he’s only that way because he loves you,” Janet said after a moment.
“Sure. I know. He’s thinks he’s filling in for Dad, but sometimes it’s smothering.”
“Yet he doesn’t seem to be that way with Allie or Donna?”
Joe’s older sisters, Donna, who lived on the East Coast, and Allie, who lived near Sheri in Portland, had met Janet during Christmas vacation the year before.
“That’s because they’re married and I’m not. They’ve got husbands to protect them. Plus, I was adopted, remember? So poor little me, I’m really all alone.”
Janet puckered her lips and batted her eyes. “Ohh, boo-hoo, I think I’m gonna cry. No, wait, it was just some salsa in my eyes,” she said with a jab. She slid from the booth, stood, and opened her writing pad. “Work is calling. You gonna order?”
Sheri checked her watch again. Joe was ninety minutes late.
“Guess not. What do I owe you for the chips?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Right,” Sheri said, digging in her purse and dropping three dollars on the table. “If he shows up, will you have him call me?”
“Only if you can get him to call me.”
“Knock it off, or I’m telling.”
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Am I dreaming or did someone say something to me?
A rhythm of pain beat at the base of his skull as the cloudy mixture of smells and sounds slowly interrupted his oblivion. Trapped momentarily in that surreal place that exists only in waking meditation, Joe struggled against the nightmarish images occupying his thoughts. A distant gunshot, a shadowy creature, a tree limb, something damp and warm bobbing along his cheek, and a soft, metronome-like object tapping systematically against his right leg.
He listened again, trying to determine whether he was awake or asleep. The sound repeated, a little clearer this time. “Tater, leave that boy alone,” an elderly voice warned.
Joe raised his brow and stretched his face to force his eyelids open. A whining sound from Tater acknowledged the dog’s excitement at the recovery of his patient. A fresh round of saliva poured forth from what seemed an endless tongue.
Lap, lap, lap.
“Wh…uhh…stop, please stop,” Joe moaned, raising his hands defensively.
“Tater!” the grainy voice snapped. “I’m fixin’ to kick you in the head, dog! Leave that boy alone!”
Joe could barely discern the lanky silhouette crossing the room toward him. In response to the approaching master, Tater’s tail slapped harder and faster against his leg.
He heard the aging voice say something about “fingers.”
The old man repeated, this time with deliberate repose, almost spelling his words. “How…many…fingers…yeh…SEE, hmm?”
“Uh…mmm.” Joe licked his lips and drew in a deep breath. “Uhm, I…d-d-don’t care…two…two, maybe?”
“Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat give that boy a pig!” the old man howled laughingly. “Yer posalutely right, son!” Then he dropped his voice to a whisper, as if he had a secret to share. “And it’s a good thing too boy—I figur’d yeh was dead fer sure.”
The stranger looked like something out of the past—a preindustrialized souvenir, tall and crooked with age, face covered with three month’s scrub and skin as wrinkled and as sunburned as leftover orange peels on the summer ground. He wore a red flannel shirt, probably as old as he was, and gnarled suspenders supporting crusty denim jeans. His boots were western, worn at the heel, bent up at the toe. A billed cap featuring a fish leaping out of the water sat sideways on his head. His gray hair shot randomly from beneath it.
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Realizing it was not a dream, Joe gestured with his hand for the old man to wait while he used the couch cushion near his right side to push himself up. Clutching the pillow and lifting with both arms, he felt pain erupt through his rib cage like the plunging of a knife blade, and dropped back to the sofa with a groan. His stomach muscles felt like a sledgehammer had beaten them apart. His reaction sent Tater sideways with a woof that rocketed through his throbbing head like a white-hot sear. “Ohhh…”
“Yep,” the old man said, “I’m gonna kick that dog…outside that is!” he added with a snicker as he hobbled on obviously a bad leg toward the door. “C’mere, Tater, yeh dummy.”
Next to the old man, a rustic picture of a B-52 Bomber hung off center above an old woodstove. The frame around it was of rough-sawn cedar, blackened from its proximity to the fire. A tin-colored coffeepot sat below it on the stove, steam rising from its spout. The radiant heat felt good against Joe’s bandaged arms and side, especially where he had been damaged at his waist. Through it?
He watched the dog get ousted, then asked weakly, “W-where am I?”
“Hey, he speaks.” The old man wisped, turning from the doorway and dismissing the question altogether. “What’s yer name, boy?”
Joe focused on the man’s aged eyes. Like the worn sound of his voice, they beamed with kindness. Every instinct he had said there was no danger here…wherever here was.
“Uhh…Joe…call me Joe, sir.”
“Sir? Sir? Why, I ain’t been called that since the War.”
Moving to the couch, the codger asked, “Yeh want a cup a’ hobo-jo, boy?”
Joe knew he meant coffee. His grandpa used to call it that, as did lots of old-timers who made it in the foxholes of World War II.
“N-no…no thanks. Y-you in the second world war, sir?”
“Korean, medic’s assistint, but I ain’t talkin’ ’bout it, and don’t call me ‘sir.’”
Joe hesitated. “Okay…then…w-what should I call you?”
Lowering himself onto a seasoned recliner, the bony man leaned forward and dropped his spittle into a coffee can between his feet. He didn’t answer.
The reaction seemed odd to Joe. Why wouldn’t the stranger want him to know his name? He took a second suspicious inventory of his surroundings. Several pieces of dusty furniture filled what appeared to be the cottage’s front room, including the couch he was lying on and the shabby recliner the old man was using. A woodstove, several burl tables, one with a toolbox or maybe a tackle box on it. That would make sense; it went along with the fishing poles leaned up by what he assumed was the front door. Hardwood floors, dull but clean. A blanket by the woodstove was undoubtedly for the dog. A small kitchen with an antique stove, the kind that didn’t require electricity, behind a plywood partition. An opening in the wall on the opposite side of the room housing a standard issue army cot, the old man’s quarters, he guessed. Several pictures of a woman, probably his wife, sat neatly aligned on a burl facing the bed. A candle was flickering in front of them.
Hesitating, he said slowly, “L-look, I just need to know where I am. If you don’t want to give me your name, that’s okay. I’ll get out of here and forget about this place and you too, if that’s what you want.”
The old man winked and spat again. “Tha’d be good, son, and I’ll tell yeh somethin’ else. Those men who were terrin’ up the river a couple nights ago lookin’ fer yeh…well, them are strange men. Yeh’d better forget anything yeh know ’bout them too, yesiree.”
“Men…looking for me?”
“Uh-huh, it was a real show, boy…yep. And it’s a good thing the fishin’ was slow…er else Tater ’n me might a’ left yeh there crumbled up on that log.”
A faint image formed in his mind…a wet black dog paddling through the river…toward him…catching his arm…holding him until a cloudy figure came alongside in a boat…
Up the mountain…a group of men…no, soldiers…in pursuit of him…it was coming back now.
“Montero. Right?…Montero…,” he mumbled.
“What’s that yeh say, boy?”
Perhaps the elderly gentleman could be trusted after all. He might owe him his life. “Y-you were fishing? On the Columbia at night?” he said, feigning interest out of respect.
“Oh yeah, boy. Some of the best sturgeon fishin’ in the world is in that river. Me and Tater love sturgeon fishin’. We go at night so’s we can be alone. Otherwise, too many weekend warriors, yeh know.”
A smile blanketed the old man’s face. Perhaps he was remembering a happy fishing experience with his slobberfest pal. The firelight emanating through the woodstove’s open door painted his skin with a brassy, comfortable tone. Joe couldn’t help notice how much the entire scene looked like a Norman Rockwell painting.
The old-timer placed both hands on his knobby knees and stood up again. “I’m just glad we was in the cove, uh-huh. I’m just glad we got to yeh b’fore they did. It was Tater what fetched yeh from the log, yeh know.”
Shuffling to a window by the front door, the old-timer pushed a burlap curtain blackened by years of soot out of the way. He pointed to a stark canyon on the Oregon side of the Columbia. “That’s a long way to fall, boy. The Good Man upstairs musta been watchin’ out fer yeh, uh-huh.”
Joe tried to focus through the dingy glass, but something about the windowpane’s shadows triggered a more important matter in his mind.
He felt for his belt line. The fanny pack was missing. Carefully, he glanced at the stranger. “Uhhmm…you didn’t happen to find a fanny pack…did you?”
Relaxing his right leg and leaning against the wall, the old man pointed across the room and said, “Is that what yer lookin’ fer, boy?”
Beneath the splintered top of a homemade table in the corner of the cottage was the belt purse.
“Do you know if it still has…my stuff in it?”
The elderly fellow cocked his head and stared out the window. Joe could see Tater eagerly raise his ears from his position on the porch, as if to say, “Do you want me?”
“Don’t know nothin’ ’bout that,” the old man sighed heavily. Suddenly he looked worn with worry. “But whatever yeh got there, boy, if them Trainers want it, be smart t’ give it to ’em, uh-huh.”
He glanced suspiciously through the window, then grimly back at Joe. “I’ll not hide it from yeh, boy. I gotta bad feelin’ ’bout ’em. They don’t seem right to me, and Tater don’t like ’em either.”
“Your dog, Tater…he don’t like…who? Trainers?”
“Nope. He don’t like ’em a bit. And Tater’s a good judge of character fer a dog. One time we hear’d roarin’ over there, so Tater ’n me sneaked across in the boat to get a listen. The noises we heard, boy, they weren’t natural. Unearthly and spooky like. Made Tater ’n me’s hair both stand on end!” he said with a nervous grin. “If yeh got somethin’ belongin’ to the Trainers, I’d give it back to ’em.’”
“But…what do you mean, the Trainers? Who are they?”
“That’s what I’m a tellin’ yeh,” he said, raising his voice as he turned toward him again. “Me and Tater call ’em Trainers cause we don’t know their real name! They control the apes, we think. They train ’em, uh-huh…”
Joe didn’t mean to say as bluntly as he did, “Apes!? They train apes!?” His imagination was suddenly enthralled. Was this old guy nuts? What was he talking about? Apes?
Yet he wondered. Had he seen something running with the dogs above the Columbia? A glimpse of something large, apelike, silhouetting through the forest?
Nausea boiled in his belly.
Run, his instinct shuddered unexpectedly.
“Yeh, apes! Bigfeet, yeh know,” the old man continued. “I see ’em up there sometimes, doin’ a hoop-de-loop or fetchin’ sticks or some dang thang. Could prove it too, if I had to, uh-huh.”
Joe steadied himself. The old fellow was eccentric, maybe even a bit crazy, but probably sincere. “I’m sure you could,” he said, pausing. “So…as for me…I need to get home…contact my family…make sure they’re okay…let them know I’m alive.”
Slowly reaching forward, he placed his hands on top of the cushions and pushed up again. Severe pain racked him like before, and he grabbed his side and fell backward against the sofa. “Oomph!”
Blood seeped through his waist bandage onto his hand.
The old man, hobbling over, scowled, “Hold on there, boy! Yeh can’t do that! Yeh gotta stay still if yer gonna heal up.”
“B-but…I’ve got to check on my family. It’s important, sir.” He grimaced.
“Well, I ain’t got no phone, and yew ain’t got no energy, so yer jest gonna take it easy fer a spell whether ya like it ‘’er not.”
Adjusting Joe against the pillows, he pulled the blanket over his legs. “And like I done said, don’t call me sir. If yeh jest haft-ta have a name, it’s Buck, uh-huh.”
UP NEXT: THE MAN IN BLACK
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