Level 1: Veteran of the Psychic Wars


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Craterhoof_Behemoth

The Craterhoof Behemoth crested the top of her craggy, dirty mesa and looked down into the village she called home. Her tiny eyes squinted, straining to see. She sniffed the air, smelling for danger. Hunks of flesh had been torn from her side and her face was wounded and bleeding, but she didn’t seem to care. There were more important things on her mind.

Stars twinkled dully in the sky, fading to purple as morning broke. The beast inhaled, pulling an ocean of air into her mighty lungs. She bellowed, deep and sonorous. The note shook the ground, calling her family.

In the distance, a flash of light, and then a piercing comet. The Siren Phoenix sped towards the craggy mesa, her feathers scorching the air. She landed gracefully on the Behemoth’s back, the flames of her vibrant plumage searing skin and flesh, but the great leviathan took no notice, her body healing as quickly as it burned.

Then, from above, an odd man descended, born aloft by a fabulous jet pack of his own invention. He set down with a pudgy thump and removed his goggles, “Sisters, how fare you?” He was covered in gadgets and pouches, the tools of his trade.

“The Artifact is broken,” sang the Siren Phoenix, her words both caustic and bright. “A token of my sister’s care. Let all who claim to trust her power, do so, but beware.” The Phoenix bore no love for her siblings, but hated the Behemoth most of all.

From behind the group, soft footfalls padded up the rocky trail. The Siren Phoenix turned and watched as a party of eunuchs, bald and pale, wound their way up the craggy path. They carried a litter on their shoulders, a fancy carriage adorned with gold and jewels. The party stopped near the edge of the precipice, and looked out over the valley.

“Hello brother!” said Agent Snuffleupagus, the lights on his jet pack blinking as it recharged. “I trust your travels were pleasant?”

But the curtain remained drawn and the eunuchs dared not answer. From inside one could hear the clink of gold coins being counted.

Mr. Wister was a small cowboy, happy and covered in dust. His mechanical horse galloped across the valley then climbed the mesa with ease. He reined the clockwork steed to a halt beneath the massive shadow of his wounded sister.

“Brother Wister!” Agent Snuffleupagus waddled over to greet his middle brother. “I see you have a new horse.”

“Painter died,” Wister replied matter-of-factly. No one tried to console him. They had each grown up in the wild and knew the savage way of death.

“The youngest is waiting at the cave,” sang the Siren Phoenix, her voice beautiful and sharp. “We have travelled far and now must brave, the awful truth inside.” She dug her talons deep into her sister’s back. The Behemoth turned reflexively, heeding the command, unmindful of the pain. The group began it’s silent march across the valley, to the cave where half of the Artifact lay shattered on the ground.

• • •

This is my uncle, David Dvirnak. I lovingly refer to him as Agent Snuffleupagus. Stay tuned, I can't wait to tell you why.

The second youngest child of the Dvirnak clan.

“Three hours!” Said my uncle proudly as I opened the door to the alley.

“Not bad,” I handed him one of my bags. The men on the Dvirnak side were always bragging about the time they made while traveling, speeding from place to place as if the apocalypse were on their tail.

“Is this all you’re bringing?” He popped the trunk of his rental car and loaded my bag into it.

“No. I’ve got all kinds of computer stuff as well.” I turned and headed back down the stinky hallway.

“It was an easy drive,” bragged my uncle as he followed after, “strategically simple.”

“Awesome,” I handed him one of my two computer screens and took the other.

“That’s some nice gear you got there, brother,” he said, looking at all the electronics I had stacked by the door.

“The mic stand is yours,” I headed back down the hallway.

“Really?”

“Yeah, you gave it to me a long time ago,” my uncle was a musician and had produced music and concerts for various bands, “I’ve recorded four albums with that thing.”

“Groovy,” he held the door for me and we loaded the computer screens into the back seat of the rental.

It took three more trips, but eventually we moved my hard drives, microphone, soundboard, computer, cables and tablet into his car. I didn’t know how long I’d be in Grand Junction and I needed to keep my blog and podcast up to date. I massaged the final piece of equipment into the backseat and wrapped a blanket around it to fend off dings and scratches. I closed the door and turned to face my uncle. “You look good, man.” He was about 50 with dark, curly hair that still resisted the gray, “You’ve lost weight.” He had the hook nose and hunched back of a Dvirnak. His eyes were blue and calculating, ringed with dark, tired circles. He had been crying.

I’ve lost weight? Look at you!” He laughed maniacally, his ample belly shaking. We hugged, then climbed into the car, “what’s the best way out of here?”

“Just go back the way you came,” I arranged my seat, placing my backpack full of snacks and water near my feet.

My uncle started the car and began backing down the alley, a bum dug through a dumpster, looking for food. “The tests came back from the MRI,” my uncle pulled into the busy street, “and the results weren’t good. The specialist says that Mother was in the late stages of dementia.”

“What?” The news was disconcerting, like being told your sister was actually a dude, “I talked to her last week,” I said, trying to process the information, “and she sounded fine. She was old, but she wasn’t crazy. She definitely didn’t have dementia.”

“Well, she’d been getting pretty snippy with Father—”

“Turn left,” I said, pointing across the street, my uncle swerved across two lanes and made the turn. I was a terrible navigator and it seemed he had forgotten the route.

“I was there when Brett,” he trailed off, “you know…” My cousin had died a month earlier when one of the heroin-filled balloons he’d swallowed ruptured in his colon. My very Christian family was still reeling, “and Mother just would not let up. I told her she didn’t need to jump all over Father like that. She never used to be so mean.”

“She’s always been controlling,” I countered, “that doesn’t mean she had dementia.”

“Maybe she did and maybe she didn’t,” my uncle continued. “I no longer care. Turn right on this street?” He asked.

“Left,” I pointed towards the opposite side of the intersection.

“I came to peace with it two days ago,” he turned onto the winding road that zigged and zagged towards the highway, “when I go into that mode, I live moment to moment,” he moved one hand across the horizon, his gesture encompassing all possible moments, “I’m keenly aware of everything. By the end of the day I’m exhausted from noticing everything.”

“So what happened?” I adjusted my seat belt and settled in, looking up at the summer clouds gathering in the sky. “My mom said grandma hit a semi, but that’s all I know.”

“She didn’t have a good night’s sleep,” my uncle changed lanes to avoid a gaggle of off-ramp traffic. “She called Bryan at 4:30, which is 3:30 Grand Junction time, so the sun wasn’t in her eyes. She wasn’t drunk because Mother never drinks, so we think she fell asleep. The truck driver saw her head lolling to one side. He laid on his horn, but she didn’t react. She hit him doing 60. Her left bumper clipped his front fender and tore the dualies clean off. They bounced 70 feet away.” His voice quivered and his hands gripped the steering wheel. They were mighty, Slavic hands, strong and dark. “And now this news that she was in the late stages of dementia? The doctor said he’s never seen anything like it, but you and I both know that grandma was smart. If she had been in the intelligence field, she would have been phenomenal. Knowing what I know, she would have been a prime candidate for pimp daddy at the top.” He shook his head, sad that his mother was dying. “So the three brothers, Sister Cindy and Father had an audience with the doctor. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what to think.  I mean, I’ll trust Craig, but Bryan? No way.”

Craig had bought the ranch when my grandparents retired. He was a hardworking man, friendly and affable, the middle child of a sprawling clan. Bryan was the eldest son, and used his station to control the rest of the family.

“Dwight will follow whoever’s in charge,” my uncle said in reference to the youngest sibling, “but he has common sense, and Cindy lets emotion get in the way.” My uncle and mother hadn’t been invited to the meeting, now he was questioning what had been said. “According to the neuron sparky dude, Mother was going crazy, but I don’t believe it.” He shook his head, “I’m challenging them. I make those doctors commit to the words that I want to hear and then I hit ‘record’ and let them speak into the box. I tell them it’s my way of making sure everyone is on the same page.” He cackled at his own brilliance.

This is the second MP3 player I bought. The first was a terrible one, made by Samsung. The language was set permanently to German and if there was a way to change it, I couldn't figure it out. But I was crazy and Robbie was coming home so it seemed like a good omen. Robbie is a German native. In my deluded state this was a portent of great meaning.

This is the MP3 recorder I was wearing on a necklace as my uncle drove me over the mountains. I almost told him about it when he picked me up from my apartment, but something stopped me. You are reading the consequences of that decision right now.

I touched my MP3 recorder, the one I was wearing around my neck. My uncle was paranoid and unstable, but so was I. I should have told him, but I didn’t. I kept it to myself.

“But you know,” he grew still, staring off into the distance, past the roads, past the mountains, it was as if he was peering through time itself, “if it’s true, if she really had dementia, maybe it was the LORD’s way of sparing us from having to watch her go through this, of sparing her from having to watch everything go poof.” He spread his fingers like dandelion fluff dispersing in the wind.

If this was mercy, it was a brutal kind.

“They’ve been together for so long,” my uncle continued. “They’re like one unit. If she dies, Father won’t survive. That’s my theory, at least, but I’m good at theorizing, I can see the black swans before they appear.”

“I feel so powerless,” I looked out the window as the city transitioned from suburb to foothill, “On Thursday, I couldn’t even walk. My Chron’s was flaring so hard I couldn’t even keep down water. I was in school. I was doing my homework and now, four days later, I’m not in school. You’re driving me to Grand Junction because no one thinks I’m strong enough to make the trip myself. My life is crumbling and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“What caused the relapse?” My uncle put on the breaks as traffic slowed, a light rain had begun to fall.

“I went to my fates, my furies, my Jesus witches,” I had been taking heavy doses of prednisone for four days and the pill was beginning to take effect. I was beginning to see symbols where none existed. My words were no longer my own. “They weave and cut the tapestry of my life, do you know what I mean?” I looked at my uncle.

“I do,” he nodded solemnly.

This is Jackie. She's a white witch in my mom's coven who has had great success helping people get well using natural means.

Jackie, the most powerful of my white witches.

“Jackie is a powerful witch. She believes she can read the vibrations in my voice— over the phone, mind you. She thinks that, just by listening to my voice, she can tell which marshmallow root is the best marshmallow root for me.”

“Have you tried the hide and switch on her?” My uncle winked at me.

“No, because I don’t care. The doctors don’t know shit either. Sorry for cursing. Prednisone makes me curse.”

“It’s alright, brother,” my uncle smiled. “You do what you gotta do.”

“After I got sick, I went to the Emergency Room and they gave me an irradiated beverage, then they threw me into a CT scan so they could look at my insides. When I came out they wrote me two prescriptions, one for Crohn’s and the other for parasites. They were guessing. Nobody knows anything, not doctors or witches.”

“I’ve been talking to my spook friends,” my uncle said thoughtfully, “are you sure that you have Crohn’s?”

Sauron These are the pictures Hruza took with the camera he shoved up my but. apparently the parts with squiggly lines around them are Chron's disease.

Here’s a picture of my Chron’s in case you have some spook buddies who doubt my story.

“Well, I had a colonoscopy and they took a biopsy and it came up Crohn’s so yeah, I’m as sure as I can be.”

“And then you went to your white witch and she told you…?” my uncle brought me back to the story. My mind was fracturing. I’d forgotten the point, I’d lost my way.

“She restricted my diet to very select things, but I could have rice and fish and organic wine, those were some of the things on the list. So when Derek invited me to sushi for his birthday, I figured it would be OK if I had some rice wine. I didn’t drink much. You know the little cups sake comes in? I had three of those, but by the time I got home I was in pain. By Thursday it had gotten so bad I couldn’t keep food down. I couldn’t even stand. Then my mom called and told me about grandma and I fell apart. I had to go back on prednisone. Now it’s Monday and I can already feel the pills changing me,” I rearranged the folds in my shorts, searching for meaning in the chaos.

“So you dropped out of school?”

“Yeah, my sister told me I was crazy for trying to continue.”

“I’ve seen death more times than I’ve been able to talk about,” my uncle’s brain jumped track, losing its way, moving faster than he could speak. I knew how he felt. “Until recently I’ve had to keep my mouth shut. I haven’t been able to tell my stories because they were classified. I was on a tactical team. We went after the bad guys.”

“Really?” As far as I knew, my uncle was a tech guy. He set up video conferencing systems for big corporations. I had never heard anything about him being in the Army.

“Yes.”

“I had no idea.”

“I know.”

“You were in the military?”

“No. I was a civillian.”

“Like a mercenary?”

He paused again, looking out the window, down the endless road and beyond. “I never killed anyone,” his voice was quiet and distant, “I never had to. Now,” he snapped out of his reverie, “having said that, standing on a flagpole in Afghanistan getting shot at by idiots isn’t a fun thing to do.”

“You’ve stood on a flagpole in Afghanistan and gotten shot at by idiots?” My uncle was a secret agent and my perfectly sane grandma had dementia? It had been a confusing afternoon.

“The Army guys in foreign countries don’t know that a telephone runs at 60 ohms so they hire people like me to teach them common sense. I had to cut family ties for ten years to keep you guys safe.”

“I had no idea,” my family wasn’t close, but I figured my uncle hadn’t been around because he didn’t want to be. Now he was telling me his absence had served a higher purpose.

“I’ve been talking to my spook buddies about what’s been going on with Mother because they have access to things that we don’t. I talk to them on a regular basis. One of them I talk to every day. They’re like the brothers I never had—”

“You have three brothers,” I cut him off.

“We were like the A-Team,” he continued without stopping, “I was the audio video guy. I was constantly in harm’s way, but it never bothered me because one,” he held up a finger, “I never showed fear and two,” he held up a second finger, “I knew that what I was doing was right. Then I got fat and old and married Kristen and I was allowed to get out. They don’t let everyone out, but I got out.”

My uncle was part of an elite team of covert operatives? Could it be true? “Why were you allowed to get out?”

“Because I got a job at Chevron and Chevron is a national strategic asset.”

“I thought you already had a job with the A-Team.”

“What’s with this rain?” My uncle looked up at the clouds. We had begun the climb into the mountains and as our elevation increased, the light, summer shower turned into a downpour.

“It happens this time of year,” I said. “Thunderstorms roll in mid afternoon. They can get pretty violent. This one time I was driving to Aspen to see my girlfriend. She was a model,” I lied. The girl I visited in Aspen wasn’t a model. She had done some modeling, but it wasn’t her livelihood. She also wasn’t my girlfriend, just a fuck buddy who wouldn’t let me fuck her. Kernels of truth, hidden in lies. “As I drove to see her, I saw lightning strike the side of a mountain,” that part, at least, was true. “Sparks flew everywhere. Lightning is supposed to go from the ground to the clouds but it looked like it came out of the sky.”

“I was in a ground to air,” my uncle said knowingly, “people saw this white ring around me and—”

“You were struck by lightning?” I asked, incredulous.

“Ground to air,” he nodded, ” I should be dead. People said my hair was standing on end and there was a white ring around me, and then I don’t remember what happened.”

The rain continued to fall. We wove our way into the heart of the Rocky Mountains. I told my uncle about my sickness and the ensuing madness, about the hallucinations and the tears. There was fervor in my voice, each moment made real by the pills in my blood. Shelob spun her web, filling my thoughts with passion and rage.

“Should we get gas here or later?” My uncle asked.

“Here,” I looked at the clock. It had been four hours since my last dose, “I need to take more prednisone.”

“Sure you can’t hold off?”

“Why,” I looked at him, fear creeping into my voice, “am I getting crazy?” I had told him about the rat portal where my penis used to be. I had started to cry.

“I’m just throwing it out there,” he opened the door and began filling the car with gas.

Did my uncle know that I was crazy? I had to keep it together. My family didn’t like me. They were simple folk from North Dakota and didn’t approve of my writing or the naked pictures I had posted on the internet. Now I would have to face them with half my mind undone.

I pulled a bottle of pills from my backpack and used a razor to cut one of the halves into fourths. I swallowed the little piece with a splash of water from my bottle and felt it tumble down the back of my throat. My uncle went inside the station. He returned a few minutes later and climbed into the car, a steaming cup of joe in one hand, “The blacker the better,” he beamed proudly.

Colorado_Rocky_Mountains

We exited the travel-worn mountain town and merged back onto the highway, a fragile road that sliced its way through the massive Rocky Mountains. They were impressive, those giant peaks. There was nothing like them in all the world. Coastal mountains felt soft and lazy and the Alps were sharp and brittle. The Rockies were different, more solid, less caring, they stretched towards heaven like ancient towers, daring God to strike them down.

“I got out right after the Patriot Act went into effect,” said my uncle. We had been talking about sports and home improvement projects, but he was determined to tell stories about his days as a secret agent, “I accidentally ran into this guy I was surveilling. After 15 minutes of conversation, I knew that Bush One was after him, and that’s when I decided to get out. Ops control had it out for me.”

“Why did they have it out for you?” It was hard to follow his line of thought, like talking to someone who was dreaming.

“Because that’s the way they always do. But all they had was a little piece of paper I signed for the NSA saying that they can throw away the key. There’s no clause that says I have to show up to work. There’s just a piece of paper that says they’ll pay me $35,000 twice a year and then I get paid a minimum of $5,000 for a two day job, $5,500 for three days,  $7,500 for five days, $15,000 for ten days and if I go over 30 days it’s well over $100,000 in cash, in a suitcase to me, thank you very much.”

“That doesn’t scale,” I said, working the numbers in my head.

“I know it doesn’t,” he answered quickly, “but that’s the way it is. So they pay you twice a year on the record and then, all the naughty stuff you do, it’s typically in cash. That’s why I have accounts in the Caymen Islands, because that’s the only smart place to go.”

“So you’re rich?” Back home, in San Francisco, my uncle drove a truck that was more than 20 years old. The thing was spotless. He cared for it meticulously, getting it repainted every decade or so. His house was modest and perfectly organized. He had added a deck, jacuzzi, tool shed and walk-in closet, doing all the work himself. He was comfortable, but I’d never thought of him as wealthy.

“Each year I can bring $80,000 into this country tax free,” he said somberly, “but I’ve never done it. I don’t want anybody to know about it.”

“So why work?” I asked, “why continue the grind?”

“Because I love what I do,” he shrugged simply.

“You hate what you do,” I reminded him, “You’re always complaining about your jerk bosses who keep trying to suck your knowledge.” For as long as I had known him, my uncle had moved from position to position, claiming that he wasn’t getting paid enough to share his precious knowledge, telling lofty stories about thwarting his superiors’ attempts to ‘suck his knowledge.’

“It’s the principle of the matter,” he said, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. “I want to beat them at their own game. I spent the last two months figuring out how to trick the blood pressure machine at work. I’ve perfected a way to game that machine.”

“How?”

“In February,” he nodded at me with a devious smile, “I put my plan to work. I knew I could do it because the machine is electronic, and I am a master of electronics. On Thursday, I had a blood pressure reading of 163/99.”

“I don’t know what that means,” my mom was a nurse, but I didn’t know anything about blood pressure.

“It means I’m about to blow up!” He said excitedly.

“Well then don’t drink so much coffee,” I pointed and the gigantic triple mocha he had purchased from the gas station.

“No, no,” he smiled devilishly, staring at me instead of the road, “I gamed that machine.”

“You don’t actually have high blood pressure?” He was fat and drank coffee constantly, of course he had high blood pressure, but maybe his story wasn’t for me. Maybe he had convinced himself of his conspiracy so that he wouldn’t have to face the terror of his own failing health. Kernels of truth, hidden in lies.

“My blood pressure’s fine. I’m gaming the system, systematically setting up a medical condition to prove that I am being stressed beyond my capacity. Now everyone at work has to be nice to me, no matter what. I can be an evil rat prick to my bosses and they have to be nice to me because of my blood pressure.”

“I’m glad I’m not your boss,” I shook my head in disbelief. “If I was, I’d fire you in a second.”

“Well, that’s what Uncle Sam has taught me to do,” he laughed, proud of his accomplishment.

“So, how do you fake a blood pressure test?” Was that what we had been talking about? His stories were hard to follow.

“I tense up my muscle here,” he pointed to a spot on his arm, “without tensing up this muscle,” he pointed to another spot higher up, “and I just keep it tense the whole time. And now I have a doctor’s note that says it’s not my personal life that’s causing my stress, it’s my work life. I got them good,” he laughed, “I won’t let them suck my knowledge,” he shook his head resolutely, “I won’t. I tell them that right to their face, but only when it’s one-on-one and only if I have my jamming device,” he took a moment to recalibrate his thoughts, “I make sure their cell phones are jammed so I know they can’t transmit anything, and if they try to record our conversations, it comes out as a big squeal.”

I wondered if he was jamming my recording device. When I played back his wild ramblings, would they be reduced to distorted feedback? I hoped so. That would be a sign that he wasn’t full of shit, that I didn’t have a maniac for an uncle.

Western_Slope_Colorado_Foothills

We drove for a while, nonsense spilling out of his mouth. The landscape shifted, mountains giving way to foothills dotted with brush, “This is pretty,” said my uncle.

“Only because it’s raining,” I replied despondently, “and it gets uglier the closer we get.” I hated Grand Junction almost as much as I loved Denver. If my grandma died, I was going to have to make the trip again, but this time it would be for good.

“You have to find the beauty in everything,” my uncle put his hand on my shoulder, “in the broadness of the hills and the changing of the seasons, it’s all a mirage, this life we live, but there’s beauty in mirages too, you just have to find it.”

He was right, of course, but Grand Junction was a dismal place, inhospitable to people like me. “A lot of people love Grand Junction,” I said, “It’s just not my town.”

Glenwood_Canyon_Colorado

We entered Glenwood Canyon, a beautiful oasis on the path to desolation. The road bent and swerved at exaggerated angles, displaying the perfect panorama of majestic cliffs dotted with gnarled, ancient pine. “Do you want to hear the haiku I wrote about this canyon?” I asked. I knew our conversation was being recorded and I wanted my readers to hear my poem. Like my uncle’s stories, I wanted to seem more awesome than I was.

“Sure,” he took another sip from his coffee.

In this predawn light

I said seriously, knowing that someday you, dear reader, would see these words.

Familiar Rocky Mountains

Look like asian cliffs

It wasn’t a particularly good poem, but then, I wasn’t a particularly good poet. Prednisone raged through my system. Shelob sang inside me. Her voice was subtle, telling me that every word I spoke was genius. I believed her. It was a wonderful sensation, loving myself. I had spent most of my life mired in self-loathing, convinced that I was a failure.  Madness, it seemed, offered comfort from reality.

“I’ve worked with Ministry, Hanoi Rocks, Billy Joel—”

“Billy Joel?” I cut my uncle off. He had been telling me about his illustrious career as a music producer, at one point he claimed to have been the best hip hop producer in Chicago.

“Oh yeah, I still have the two-track master laying around somewhere.”

“Who else?”

“Stevie Ray Vaughn, Steve Miller, Carlos Santana—”

“Santana?”

“I mixed Santana live to radio the night Stevie Ray died. The first record I helped produce was Queensrÿche’s Empire. My name didn’t get on the record because the artwork had been done before they brought me on the project,” he added parenthetically.

“Why’d you give it up?” I asked. The roads and rivers had leveled out. The land was dotted with scrub brush and dirty mesas.

“It wasn’t my day job. My day job was working for Uncle Sam. I recorded Melissa Ethridge, but they reworked the guitars and took my name off the credits; I helped out with the Crash Test Dummies’ first album, toured with Genesis, remixed Ike and Tina Turner from the beginning until Tina broke up with Ike, I worked with Smashing Pumpkins on Melancholy, all the Pumpkins’ bass pre amps were mine.”

“And this whole time you were working black ops?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I didn’t want to join the military. I wanted to serve, but I knew that in the military I’d be in the brig, so I found another way.”

“But you didn’t need to have a day job, so why work?”

“Plausible deniability,” he tapped his right ear like it was the missing piece of a grand puzzle, “I knew I could do it. I had great ears, I had the music background. It was perfect. I smuggled guys out of eastern Europe on tour busses, right in front of the Russians.”

“Why?” I rubbed my neck wearily, the drive was long and we had been talking for hours.

“It was my job.”

“Why did rockstars need to get smuggled?”

“Not rockstars,” he corrected me, “dignitaries. I smuggled ordinary people who needed to get out of the country. I built small cubbies over the wheel wells that people could hide in. There were FSB agents who knew me.”

“What’s FSB?”

“The Russian secret service. Their agents knew I never lied. They knew I always told the truth.”

I wanted to laugh. I wanted to tell him that he was being recorded and that someday I would write a book and expose him for the fraud he was, but I didn’t. I kept my mouth shut. I let him talk.

“The agents asked me where the guy I was smuggling was, they said they knew he was with me. I told them that I didn’t know, that he was somewhere back there. I was already past the line, pointing towards the tour bus and Yugoslavia. The guy was in the tour bus back there, but the guard didn’t ask the question the right way.”

“Wow.”

“There’s nothing like a loaded AK-47 pointed right at your gut to get you feeling relaxed,” he said proudly.

“Relaxed?”

“You look the guy right in the eye and you do not waver, not your voice, not your eyes. You make him believe it,” he disappeared into the past, into fantasy, “I was a veteran of the psychic wars. Grandma taught me how.”

“Psychic wars?” That got my attention.

“Growing up on the ranch, it was highly political,” the road stretched straight and long. The grass, where there was grass, was brown and brittle with a few trees clinging close to the river. “Your grandpa went into the military. He was the only one that got drafted and when he came back, all of his brothers had married into the same family. That family had one daughter left and Father didn’t want to marry her, so he married your grandmother instead and they scoffed and ridiculed us.”

“What does that have to do with psychic wars?” I was hoping for a tale of espionage, filled with untraceable mind-bullets and neural swords.

“Grandma taught me how to manipulate people. You can make people think they’re getting the better of you when in fact they’re playing right into your hands. That’s what I mean when I say that I’m a veteran of the psychic wars.”

He took a sip of his now-cold coffee.

“There’s responsibility that comes with power,” his voice was low, as if he was talking to himself, “I didn’t start using some of the tools until this year, because you don’t use those types of things for personal gain. I signed a paper and I’ve never crossed that line. I’ve come dangerously close, but I will not cross that line.” There was fear in his voice. He actually believed that he had psychic powers. I understood. A few weeks before, I actually believed that I was God.

“Part of being a veteran of the psychic wars,” my uncle cleared his throat, “is guilt. They leverage that guilt, if they can make you feel guilty they can make you feel weak and then your guard goes down and you’re dead. I’m not cold,” again, his eyes grew distant, seeing beyond reality’s fragile membrane, “I could have been cold, but I became precise instead.”

I remembered my own childhood, and the things I had been through. My parents enjoyed searching my room, ferreting out comic books and Magic cards. They told me I was satanic, that demons controlled my thoughts. They made me burn my comics, they made me throw away my cards, then I had to memorize Bible verses and sing worship songs to cleanse my tainted mind. They leveraged my guilt. They convinced me that I was evil and unworthy. I understood what my uncle was talking about. I, too, was a veteran of the psychic wars.

We rode in silence, each of us lost in thought. The river ran next to the road, swerving closer, then skipping away, the rain had stopped, the clouds had parted, sunlight danced across the water’s back.

“I know for a fact that there is a divine being,” my uncle said after a while. “Things have happened in my life that science can’t explain. On grandma’s side of the family many of us are clairvoyant. After Brett died of an overdose, everyone was wondering about the status of his soul. Uncle Dwight had a vision. Not a dream, a vision. I know the difference. Dwight told me that Brett’s OK.”

Religion offers answers. It claims to know what happens when we die, a comfort to those mourning loss. I didn’t know if the soul lived on, but I understood the allure of spirituality’s embrace.

“Your grandma,” my uncle’s voice began to choke, “there is something special about that woman. She gave me her gift. And I will never forget.”

Grand_Junction_Colorado

We rounded the final bend and entered the valley. To our left, grape and peach orchards stretched towards the river, dotted here and there with the verdant half-spheres of Globe Willows. Houses and roads divided the landscape further, an odd mixture of rural and suburban aesthetics. To our right, the oasis disappeared, replaced by massive stone sentinels, their gnarled trunks rising up towards heaven. The mesas: giant, brown and crumbling, they stared down on the valley, watching its people with dusty eyes, remembering a time when they too drank from the waters of a mighty river.

“I was misunderstood as a kid,” my uncle continued. “I never told anyone about the visions or premonitions, about seeing my dreams come true weeks and months after I had them. I thought I was losing my mind.”

“Do you know where you’re going?” I asked, we were coming into town, working our way towards the hospital.

“Oh yeah. I only need to go somewhere once, and I’ve got it,” he tapped his fingers against his temple. “Are you hungry?”

“No,” I said, fear dancing in my stomach, “I’m ready.”

“Ready to get taken to your knees?”

“Does she look bad?” I was scared to hear the answer.

“It’s horrible,” a tear fell down his cheek, “I don’t want to remember my mother this way. I want to remember her teaching me to gut chickens. I want to remember her showing me how to thin vegetables in the garden,” he started to cry.

I put my hand on his shoulder, “I’m sorry.”

“This bites,” his shoulders shook, “It just bites. But it’s part of life. It’s our turn to hurt.

He exited the highway and pulled into Grand Junction. “Turn left, here,” I said, pointing.

“Left? Really?” My uncle was turned around, confused and crying.

“I promise.”

Saint Mary's Hospital, where the ambulance took my grandma after she hit a semi.

Saint Mary’s Hospital, where the ambulance took my grandma after she hit a semi.

We made our way to the hospital and found parking, “I didn’t know grandma very well,” I confessed, at last. “We lived in the same city for years. I should have spent more time with her. I should have gone to see her more.”

“She loved you,” my uncle looked into my eyes. A wave of guilt and shame washed over me. I was unworthy. I didn’t deserve to be loved by such a wonderful woman. Tears poured down my face and my throat choked and cracked. I couldn’t breathe, my sides began to ache. “She loved you,” my uncle repeated. He came closer, trying to hug me. I pushed him away and sat there sobbing. Eventually, I climbed out of the car, my sickly legs trembling with each step. I didn’t want to see her, but my uncle was right. It was our turn to hurt.

We entered the hospital and took the elevator to the second floor.

to be continued

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