11 January 2017

Neon [Short Story]

"Skulljack" by Aaron Agregado
“It’s day four, you know.”
“What?”
“Day four of the murders, Ski.”
“There’s always murders.”
“Not like this. Strung upside down publically. Guts everywhere. All kinds of nasty shit, man. Real gruesome horror story stuff.”
“Yeah, alright.”
Payload sighed and flicked the stub of his Plano Lhas. The digital smoke stopped for the briefest of seconds and pixelated ash appeared, then disappeared to satisfying effect. Payload’d forgotten what real smokes were like and this bore no real significance for him.
“Got people talking,” Pay managed through the smoke clenched between his teeth.
“I’m sure it has.”
Promulgated reticence made Payload uncomfortable, but he thought himself a gentleman, and so stayed quiet while Ski worked. He felt confident that she’d muttered something like “There”, but the warning was not enough. The tall, gangly man was still surprised when Ski jammed the interface into the socket atop his head.
“Jeez! You can’t just -- ohhhhhhhhh.”
Her foot tapped without patience and she eyed the cable that lolled indifferently between Payload’s head and the cash machine she’d just broken into. The gentle suspension took her away for a moment. The simple way the cord rested where it was supposed to, there on the quiet street with no breeze, was a strange bit of peace in what should have been a tense moment.
“There!” cried Payload.
“Shhhh!” corrected Ski.
In a second the interface was put away and the cash machine renewed to its former not-brokenness. The odd looking pair, a length ebony man in a brown duster and a pale, tiny girl in a patched biker jacket covering a black dress, marched away together quickly, but not so quickly as to draw attention.
“No trace?” she said.
“No trace.”

Caffeine and pastry were the fruits of their labor. Actually, the cash they downloaded was the fruit of their labor, but one would find it difficult to eat a number on a screen, so caffeine and pastry had to do. The wretched diner was all neon and shineless chrome. Ski was tired of neon and wondered when she’d see the sun again. A lingering odor of trash and burnt oil kept out more respectable folk, and the backs of the booths curled up and over their patrons a bit, creating a sense of privacy. It was a rare respite from a life that was usually spent walking on dirty streets and looking for a place to crash. Payload tapped a panel in the table. A few minutes later, a bedraggled waiter came to a halt at their table with a transparent ramekin of hot liquid. Payload smiled while he chewed; the waiter rolled his eyes, poured, and trundled off.
“Got a lot of people talking.”
“What does?”
“The murders.”
Ski leaned back against the booth. “Back on that?”
“It’s what I want to talk about!”
“What’s Gorias say?” Gorias was the smartest person Ski knew.
“Haven’t spoken with him about it. He’s been jacked in for the last week.”
“The last week?” Her words were coated with worry. To be under for a week was a problem.
Payload waved his hand carelessly and digital ash trailed from the fresh smoke between his fingers. “Gorias is a pro. You know he’s IV’d and got a spotter. Anyways, Cheryl’s onto it. Cheryl says it’s a wave of justice killings.”
“Cheryl is an idiot. Cheryl couldn’t hack her way into a pre-school library.”
“Nah, Cheryl knows things. Every target has a criminal record--”
“Everyone we know has a criminal record!” Ski was getting frustrated.
“I mean real bad stuff, like rapists and such like,” Payload began to gesture madly, causing his partner to focus.
“And?”
“And they deserved it.” Silence. Payload hadn’t spoken like that before. “So someone is taking these guys out. And what I think--”
Ski, now looking in her lap, raised a hand and said, “Time to go.”
There are times when words prove unnecessary, and so it was that they both downed their caffeine and stood wordlessly to exit the diner into the humid night air. The pair rounded the corner just as a police car cruised past the diner.

“You don’t even know that we were traced! That’s just a plain old police scanner! My mother’s got one!” Payload used hand gestures to make an otherwise strong case for himself.
Ski was calm. “I know. I’m just saying it’s a strange coincidence, don’t you think?”
“I think all these banks have stepped up their game,” came a voice from the kitchen. An immaculately dressed woman with nut-brown skin popped her head in the window between kitchen and den, hair frizzing outwards from under her helmet. “I think the government’s funding it, too.”
Rolled eyes were Ski’s specialty. Payload nodded like a sage. Cheryl’s was the nearest safe place, but Ski still had to be convinced even against the prospect of arrest.
“All these motherfuckers are stacking the deck against us,” Cheryl continued. “We’ve got no honest way to earn, so they’re just trying to catch us and feed us to the workhouses.” She took a minute to smirk and let the blow land. “Oh, I mean prisons.”
Narrowly dodging the blast crater of this truth bomb, Ski shook her head. “I suppose these murders I keep hearing about are government orchestrated, too?”
“Hell yes they are!” Cheryl stepped out of the kitchen, a slice of peach pie clutched in her hand. “Justice killings. Take out the real scum so the floaters feel safe.”
“So they deserved it?”
“They deserved it.”
“Rapists and traffickers get it and it’s justice; one of ours gets locked up and it’s a socio-political checkmate.”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with earning off the corporations’ fat. Hurting folks on purpose…”
The older woman’s port distracted Ski, thankfully. She wondered why Cheryl would try to cover the interface bored through her neck with makeup. She came to, saying, “I guess.”
“You guess? You guess you wanna stand up for some dirt bags while we here starving? You don’t get tired of the grind, or being hungry all the time? When was the last time you had something to wear besides that ratty old jacket?”
Ski went for obstinate silence, but really she was counting the weeks.
“Can we just do this, please?”
Payload cracked his knuckles in the affirmative and slid into the chair. “Onwards!” he sang, and leaned back.
Cheryl did the honors, throwing a few switches on her primitive device and guiding the interface gently into Payload’s skull and his world turned misty blue and dun. He was under.
“He’ll figure out if the cops are on us in no time,” said Cheryl.
Ski’s ignorance was not feigned. The crack about the jacket had left the wheels whirring. She tapped away on her datapad to avoid the older woman.
“Aren’t you supposed to be spotting him?”
“He’s fine,” said Ski.
Most in the employ of their starvation worked in pairs, a spotter and a diver. One dove into the well of cyberspace, the other handled any potential barriers in meatspace. Barriers like cash machine casing and police interference. Cheryl had a spotter once. “Best to keep an eye on him. He’s got to trust you,” she said.
“He does,” whispered Ski.
“I wouldn’t.”
Ski put the pad down and lifted emotionless eyes with some struggle. “Something to say?”
“I know how spotting can go bad. Dreamer slipped and now he’s dead.”
“Sorry.”
“It was justified,” mused Cheryl, now peeping between grimy blinds onto the street below. “He was a dick.”
The metal joints that were her knees became a focal point for Ski. She couldn’t look at the neon anymore; it made her sick. Grazing her fingers against her thighs, then the steel hinges, seemed the only action worth taking. Then the monitors came online. Three screens at odd angles over Payload’s unconscious self, full of blue shapes resembling a cyclopean temple. She was, yet again, in the consideration of smoking as an addition to her vices when the monitors went black. Payload shifted a little in his seat.
Under normal circumstances Ski was the one with the clean mouth, but her leaping heart preempted profanity.
“Fuck.” Cheryl beat her to the lapse in virtue.
The pair of them dashed to the rig, checked Payload’s vitals and the system monitors in automated fashion. The diver seemed fine, but Ski gave him a long and serious look. His spotted should be able to bullseye trouble through analog intuition. Cheryl jiggled a wire or two from a crouched position and rose to her feet slowly. Her knees popped and the sound drew Ski’s eyes away from her partner, then the glow of the monitors drew her eyes again. Something was there.
“Get him out,” said Ski.
One of Cheryl’s chief interests was making sure Ski knew she wasn’t the smartest person in the room, but she digressed under the circumstances and began the shutdown sequence. Ski tapped a finger against her cheek and stared at the screens, waiting for the thing to return. There were cubes and cylinders, strictly outlines, against the blackness of microchips and fiber optics. A face like a skull swam into view, taking up the entirety of the monitor. Ski stared and went to whatever place was available to find calm. Then the screens went black again and Payload gasped, like a swimmer coming up for air.
“Well?”
Payload took another breath. “I need smoke.”

Around the street light swirled the vapors, causing it to look like a foggy moon. Ski gave him a lot of space and he took it, along with his time. Cheryl wasn’t there in spite of much protest. The partners needed a moment alone and it had taken that declaration to back Cheryl down. “He has to trust me,” Ski had said and Cheryl relented.
“It was like an invisible wall,” said Pay. “However they did it, they did it well.”
Ski was looking at him more seriously than she had in the last year. “They?”
“The skulls,” he said after a puff. “They were just like a presence, like you feel out in the real world when somebody comes up on you. Never felt it inside before. They floated around me, like they were scanning me or...judging me.” He sighed. “Weird shit, man.”
“Weird shit,” echoed Ski. “What do we do?”
Pay cleared his throat. “We leave it,” he said, “until the next time. If there’s a next time. Until then, we keep the job going.”
The job was to keep siphoning the numbers out of the cash machines. The pair had been at it for months, rogue bees hopping back to the same hive hoping the drones don’t notice them. It was trying for Pay. Even though the defenses were local, meaning not connected to a larger server, those digital walls seemed to find new bricks each go. A difficult day-to-day spent on the streets, avoiding death at the hands of gangs and policemen alike, was a mighty driving force. Given time and luck they just might make it out, if only for a little while; a hard earned vacation away from the looming spectre of constant arrest or dismemberment.
Ski shrugged. It was the kind of shrug a despondent child raises out of sheer practiced defeat, knowing that the taller human in the room would prove victorious. “Alright.”
In all truth Payload was putting the blinders on. His experience with the skulls had left him shaken in a cloudy, existential way. Diving was in order if he were to find words and earthly expression for the strange feeling, and he was tired of diving. Instead of heeding the feeling he tamped it down into a nether region somewhere between kidney and liver, hoping it would not rot him there from the inside out.
The gangly hacker with the bright smile leaned on that God-given benefit again, flashed his teeth, and told his partner: “Let’s get rich.”

Smiling is a well-worn and brilliant defense for the practiced, controlling one’s heart rate is not. So it was that Payload enjoyed, if enjoyed is the right word, a lump of gratitude that he was not connected to a proper rig adjacent the cash machine. Otherwise the beeps would have given away just how anxious he was to go under again. No, the rustic input of Ski’s devising, a singular cable running from his brain to the machine itself, was meant only to put him in the lines of code stored by hardware; to allow him a go at the machine at the speed of thought.
Ski stood alongside him, puffing at a Plano Lhas digital cigarette. The girl had no recollection of putting the thing in her mouth; the habit had been forced upon her by her subconscious. Cheryl’s nagging had perhaps nudged her over the edge.
“Keep the line open on your datapad,” the older woman commanded.
“No.”
“Yes. Just fucking do it!” The shift in tone said concession.
“Yes, mother,” Ski said.
Payload had been under for 45 seconds. She was giving him another minute then exit time happened. It was 4 in the AM, which normally meant very little, but the partnership had hopped to an adjacent neighborhood, more working class where people actually needed to sleep. The dark street was quiet, but not quiet enough for Ski. Trusting all her skill, she’d ejected the central drive from the cash machine, a small box, and brought it to a quieter, darker alley. There they could hopefully work in peace.
One minute now. She thumbed the smoke thoughtlessly and stared at her partner. His trench coat scratched as he shifted uncomfortably. Ski’s wide eyes shifted: they were back. She had to go in after him. The girl had no port from which to work; she was no diver. Thinking of putting her brain in direct contact with a computer was slightly disturbing to her, less so than spending time with Cheryl. The older woman’s muffled voice came through the datapad in Ski’s pocket. She ignored it. But, there was a way. She kept an emergency interface in her bag of tricks. It would be enough to put her under, but it was ocular. Ski would have to slide the input into her eye.
Sighing and muttering but seeing no other option, she rummaged through her bag for the device. Upon its uncovering, Ski gave it a long look with a sour face. But Payload was in danger, perhaps mortal danger, and wasn’t the great discomfort and possible blindness small beans to the option of her friend’s life ended? It slowly came closer to her eye. Here we go, she thought. The rounded slip of plastic touched her eyelid. And then came another thought: wait.
The central drive was not hardwired into anything, ejected as it was from its case. The funds would go only through the wireless in Ski’s bag, and that was locked down. If something, or someone, was tapping into that drive, and thusly Payload, it meant that they were…
The skulls weren’t as terrifying in person as they had been on that screen. The likenesses seemed painted on, which they were, in stark contrast to the very real looking skull she’d seen on the monitor. When Ski stood and turned there were three of them, man-form but probably artificial. Whoever made these clunkers didn’t do much of a job to try and make them blend in. Blue-silver exteriors peeped out of the bottom of their cloaks; metal necks extended from cast-off hoods into flat faces covered by a seeming sheet of cloth painted in the effigy of a human skull.
Ski sighed heavily and wondered at the weirdness of the world.
With synchronicity, the trio bent their elbows, then their wrists, then three muzzles were pointed at Ski, black protrusions standing out where hands should be. Thoughtless, acting on human instinct, Ski bolted between them and into the silent streets. The image of Payload shot dead flickered in front of her and she turned her head. Only two skulls pursued, followed by a muzzle flash and a shot.
The feeling of whimpering is quite unlike the sound, said someone in her brain, and she quietly conceded the point. As if to outrun her own self loathing she increased her pace and, as she did, heard the hydraulics in her knees kick in. It was not enough. She did not feel the rounds tear through her body, but there was white hot pain. She did feel the warm blood on her hands and thought it curious and closed her eyes.

Opening them again, all was warm and dim and orange in a wide room. Ski was naked; her body clean and without bullet holes. The girl sat up and crossed her arms in the interest of decency. Payload lay on the bed next to her. At least she assumed it was him.
“Amaris.”
She started. No one she knew was aware of her birth name.
“You were not on my list, but I expect you will appreciate what I’ve done for you,” said a soothing female voice.
“Who are you?”
“That is irrelevant. Here you are. A skeptic, but a heartfelt one. Yes, you will like it here; liberation is far superior to what you’ve come from.”
“You...you shot me!”
“An unpleasant illusion.”
“Then the murders…”
“All thoughtfully considered and less violent than reported.”
“But they were all rapists…”
“No. They were all like you and your partner: justifiable and prepared for extraction. Humans prefer a more comfortable explanation when killings occur and I offered them one.”
“So I’m dead?”
“Hardly. Amaris, there is much to explain. First you should look out the window.”

Her bare feet touched the floor before she knew it and her hands felt the curtains and her eyes went wide. Sunlight, perfect and orange, soaked the clean streets of a white city. It was hers. And there was no neon to be seen.

20 December 2016

The Year In Metal

ENGAGE HEAVY METAL RANTING
Scroll to the metal dog to skip to the music.

It's been one hell of a year. A lot of crappy things have happened: friends and family have passed on; disasters and war have ravaged the world; the U.K. vacated the European Union; the U.S. endured one of the most exhausting election cycles in remembrance. But it was an excellent year in many respects. I published two books, got to enjoy the true pleasure of raising my children, made a lot of friends, spent time with my wife, even made it out to GenCon, among many other exciting and life-giving things. I also listened to a whole lot of heavy metal.

I've always listened to metal (at least since middle school, depending on how generous I can be with my definition of heavy metal), but my interest waxed and waned. The last few years have been pretty consistent in their laze: I'll find a new band or two a year, buy an album or two, and mostly stick to the stuff I have listened to since the early 2000s. Specifically, technical death metal and Slayer. The engines revved a bit when the "new wave" of thrash struck, and I began gobbling up all the bands rehashing the early '80s sound. But that ship flew apart as quick as it came, with only a few bands (Havok, Gama Bomb) sticking it out these days.

13 September 2016

Peace, and Thought

It's been almost two months since the release party for Homes. It was a great night, one with lots of friends crammed into my house, lots of rain, and some good wine. The next day, I had a strange feeling. One that said, 'Hey, buddy. You need to rest.'


To that voice I said, 'Hey, buddy. Shut up.'

But the feeling persisted. I knew I was coming into a time requiring rest, after producing The Dig and Homes and a few other products, and managing the family, and working, and so on. And yet there was so much more to do! Too many game ideas, too many stories to write! Then the school year began and my writing time was reduced to 0.

I kept at it. The writing time did not appear and the creative frustration grew. It's still growing. It's a real pain. And yet I'm too tired to get much of anything done. I can't wake up early enough or stay up late enough. The tiny bits of time for putting finger to key aren't enough. This blog is collecting dust, as are some of the other little projects I contribute to. There are lots of feels to deal with as well. The one thing I thought I could set aside (myself) is begging for my attention.

So I'm chilling out and attempting to take care of myself. Read stuff I want to read and play games I want to play. I'm trying to be okay with not writing every day and letting the progress ticker slow to anything but naught. It's stymieing. The Homes sequel has been percolating for a year and I feel some direction for it; I have at least two PBTA games I'm ready to make; there's a language learning card game I have in mind; Good Heart is still sleeping on the cloud, waiting for a home. In short, there are lots of things I want to finish which would require, really, a patron to give me a couple years out of the classroom.

I've got one freelance gig that needs finishing, and one other game on which I am collaborating, and hope to release by the end of the year. Other than that, I must chill and make this a restorative, monastic time. I have no mountains to escape to, ala St Antony. But there are hills to rest upon; little islands of inspiration. Good books for the eyes, metal for the ears, and all the rest.

All of that is to say that you may not see too much out of me for a little while. I hope to be cranking out updates and fiction and games real soon, but we shall see what we can see.

16 August 2016

Quick Write


They were actually trying to kill each other with their bare hands! Whatever happened to polite society where you simply shot your opponents? A clear sign of the decline of western civilization; yet another bug spattered on the windshield of hedonism.

He shook his head, rose to his feet, and ignored the jeering of whoever it was whose view he'd blocked. Long legs carried him down the aisle and out of the cinema. Bright light took him until his eyes adjusted and the smell of popcorn greeted him back into waking life.

What a terrible thing that was, he thought. Never go on Stan's recommendation again.

He slung his jacket around his shoulders and up over his arms, nearly striking one of the cleaning youths with the sleeve as he went. A "Sorry" fluttered out of his mouth and he blushed and stamped again, passing posters of large creatures, desperate-looking men in suits, and blonde women surrounded by cars and men less desperate-looking. The locked door was a bit of a detriment to his departure. He tried another. Then another. None of them opened. He shook the last one by its crossbar in dramatic fashion, not unlike a character in the film he'd just escaped. With a hefty sigh he looked around for another door, thinking he'd stumbled into some staff exit or the like in his embarrassment.

The lobby was empty.

In that dim, air conditioned place he was the only breathing human. There were the posters, the bad carpeting, the horrid popcorn, the fountains of soda and worse. And that was all. Fear stepped in and he sat on the black bench nearby, almost weak from confusion. What did it all mean? What was happening? He stayed the fear and sat, blank of mind, waiting for clarity to come. When it did, it was accompanied by words like "trapped" and "forever" and, as he waited patiently for his next move to be realized, footsteps broke the silence. Chatter. Human chatter. The chatter of foolish people who would sit through a movie dedicated about people killing each other with their bare hands. Alongside the onset came young, annoyed people in vests, the cinema staff.

When their bathroom breaks and parting reviews were finished, the audience hugged and shook hands. In a single horde they departed, pushing open the apparently locked doors with ease, where he had been pulling.

08 July 2016

Simple Economics

It was a short drive back home. It was the same drive. It was the same drive made shorter by the roundabout way her brain was working. The many homes she had seen, those with immaculate yards and without, those with siding that had clearly been redone within the last year, in historic areas, with leisurely middle aged people reading their books and chatting, had given her pause somehow. Driving past the cemetery had ushered the pause into steep contemplation. The whole thing impacted her in a way it hadn't before.

For she had no frame of reference for wealth. The economics of the upper-middle and upper classes were vague mysteries her mind could not successfully grapple with. That there was enough money to sustain so many people choosing to abide in historically unprecedented abundance was baffling. Perhaps she was too well-versed in history, too much a student of the past to come to terms with the fact that everyone, seemingly everyone had more than they needed.

This was, of course, strictly not true, as there were many in this country and around the world who did have what they needed.

But today, however, today was proof positive that many had more than they needed. Each house, either perfectly groomed or neglected, meant a job. Not just any job,but job enough to pay rent or mortgage and car note and gas and utilities and trips to the (evermore expensive) supermarket and nights out at the unending, amoebically dividing restaurant hive. That job and the subsequent spending meant more jobs and more spending and so, her high school macroecnomics teacher had claimed, the economy went and the capitalist march.

The drive continued. She took the last turn onto the stream of a road that led to the tributary that was her driveway. Strange that we drive on parkways and park on driveways, she thought. And as she stopped the car before her home, she noticed a package resting on the stoop. It was, she felt, another thread in the yarn ball of a world full of money where so many had so much and so little.

She began to reckon it and thanked God her car had working air conditioning. There were more than three hundred millions of people in this country. If one, say, had a product that netted the producer $5 a pop, then they'd need to sell 10,000 or so of these gizmos a year for a comfortable living. That's a small piece of the pie, without even factoring taxes and the potential world markets and the like. And yet, she felt and had been told the same, that countless such business endeavors failed every year. Was it for lack of competence? Sheer bad luck in spite of best efforts?

Again, the scope was lost on her.

It was not that she was lacking in intellect; she was well educated, graduating from college Dean's List with a degree in philosophy. Hers was, it seemed, a mind of intuition. That of and wanderer, rather than that of an accountant. If a worthy abstraction could not be made, then the feeling failed to become thought and, so, lifted to the skies above. Supposing that was the problem, that the shape of her brain held no context for wealth and the many gears of the somewhat terrible money-machine, she slipped inside.

Philosophy was, for her, the high view of life. It was also the low view, the one that viewed the human experience from the inside out. She liked the "high" metaphor more, though, and nodded her satisfaction for the thought as she poured a glass of water. What did cold, hard numbers tell us about life on this planet or it betterment? Moreover, the endless trail of capital told no story. It was cold and mute. And with thoughts like these in her mind, she sat down, drank her water, and took a nap.

CARS, URBAN, IMPRESSIONIST CITY SCAPE OIL PAINTING - Tom Brown

30 June 2016

Homes now available for pre-order!

Well, it's happening. The cover is done and it looks brilliant. All the edits are through, the Createspace demigods are appeased and a proof copy is in the mail. The wheels are in motion. Whether I sell 10 copies or 10,000, it's all over but for the crying. In a few weeks, I'll have a big party and then the book will be public.

Why not start the party early and pre-order one today?


14 June 2016

Fat Kids

Stan heard the beeping of the checkout scanner for perhaps the first time in recent memory. It was such a commonplace thing that it had become a part of the blur of grocery shopping. There are some vague memories of seeing half-dressed women and celebrity adulterers on magazine covers; a sense of cold from, probably, the freezer aisle; that kind of thing. The beeps fell into that little speeding pit. The only reason Stan heard it is because he'd taken notice of what was being scanned: cheese puffs. Stan felt angry.

"He wants them," he muttered, jerking a thumb backwards as if in apology to the checkout girl.

And he blushed and shrugged and waved like a lamb. Stan was embarrassed.

The beeping and embarrassment was over. They sat in the car together, Stan driving of course. He couldn't do the driving, they'd end up in like a McDonald's drivethrough or something. Dinner was waiting at the house so there was no time for such shit.

"Sure you needed those cheese puffs?"

"Obviously I don't need them, I just wanted them. I had a salad for lunch, so this is okay," he said with a little defiance.

Stan sighed. "Alright, buddy," he said.

It was a boring drive through the parking lot and the intersection and the treed road home. Not much to maintain one's interest besides music. And food. Being bored was bad for him, so he took out the cheese puffs and opened them -- upside down, of course, to make sure the goodies at the bottom didn't go to waste.

Stan thought, No way he's going to...

And he did. Two cheese puffs to start. He wouldn't lick his fingers, though. He'd let the saliva work like pollen, attracting all the little cheesy particles to his fingertips, then lick it off in one glorious moment of saturated fate and ecstasy.

Two more puffs. Then two more.

For God's sake, thought Stan.

It went on like this for the 1.3 miles homeward. A few more puffs, a few more shots of shame and embarrassment for Stan. Stan thought of creamy white clouds and a skyward view and pine trees, a time when he could live free from him. It was only a temporary relief, but it was enough to survive the 1.3 miles homeward.

Seated at the dinner table, Stan's wife presented chicken, marinated and broiled and tasty. She liked to make dishes she knew Stan would appreciate for both their flavor and caloric economy. And Stan did! Here was a fine dish. Chicken, veg, a little rice but not too much. Stan tucked in and enjoyed his chicken, eating it slowly and deliberately, offering time for brain and stomach to communicate as a well-oiled unit. Last bite of fowl in mouth, he swallowed then realized he was still there. He'd downed his chicken a full three minutes before and sat expectantly, waiting for desert or the like.

For God's sake, thought Stan.

"It's alright!"

Good old Tina. She always knew how to defuse a situation.

"It's alright," she claimed. "I have desert."

But it wasn't desert. It was cantaloupe or honeydew; one of those loathsome melons that some claim to be breakfast and others hoist up to the grandstand of desert. He frowned. In his mind it was ice cream and chocolate, the only satisfactory means to achieve the end of desert.

"Just have some, alright?" said Stan.

He nodded and ate a little and frowned. It wasn't ice cream, nor was it chocolate. His disappointment filled the room and Stan caved.

"Fine! There's probably some ice cream in the freezer or something," he muttered.

"Are you sure that's okay? I mean, I feel like he's gotten worse of late," said Tina.

Stan sighed a heavy sigh. It was the kind of sigh one applies to situations in which all power is gone. "I don't really care right now," he said.

That night at bed it was awkward. He lay at the edge of the bed at least, leaving Stan and Tina to discuss the matter.

"He can't stay here," she said.

"I think I can just, you know, shove him to the edge. He'll be alright. We'll deal with it in the morning."

"No," said she.

Stan sighed again, the very same sigh he'd made at dinner time. "Wake up," he said. "Just wake up, okay?"

There was a tap on the shoulder and he muttered something incoherent.

"Get out. Get out of bed. You can sleep on the couch."

The muttering grew into coherence. "Stuck here. Stuck with you."

Stan began to see red and shame washed over him. Why couldn't he be rid of him? With all his compulsions and foolishness. Shame begat rage. Stan lifted his foot and pushed. He fell to floor with a jiggling thud. But, he just stayed there on the ground, snoring, an unwilling lump with no place else to go.

Stan and Tina went to sleep.

Upon sleeping, Stan dreamt of times unbound, when he wasn't there to clutter and annoy his every waking moment. Those would be good times, salad days in a literal and figurative sense, when the pressure was simply to be and not fight with him constantly, or his obscenely fit cousin. Such times were lofty dreams, far away on the edge of thought and reality. That glimmering, hopeful horizon faded away into a chubby, scruffy face. Words were coming out of it.

"Come on, Stan. Wake up! Wake up! I think there are some donuts donwstairs."