Monday, December 30, 2013


Just a quick note. As you'll see, this list doesn't reflect my favorite books written in the last year, just those that I've read in the last year.
Now then…

5) THE FIFTH CHILD (Doris Lessing, 1987)
Doris Lessing was one of those writers who I’d long intended to read but, for whatever reason, never did. Well, I know the reason – there’s a lot of shit I want to read, and I’m constantly reminded that I’ll one day go to my grave without having experienced a lot of great books or exposing myself to a lot wonderful writers. Thank god Doris Lessing won’t be on that list.
A lot of people hate THE FIFTH CHILD (see the Goodreads comments). It has its champions too, but a whole gaggle of readers can’t stand David and Harriet. It’s understandable. They are, after all, a perfect example of why so many Baby Boomers turned out to be shitty parents. But guess what? You’re not supposed to like them. You’re not even supposed to believe them. I don’t believe for a second that Ben is literally the subhuman monstrosity Harriet and David make him out to be. I think Lessing’s whole point to this book is to define the damage caused by unbridled selfishness. Harriet and David want everything, even when they know it’s impractical, if not impossible, and everyone suffers as a result.
I’ll be reading a lot more of Doris Lessing in the future, so I’ll find out whether or not THE FIFTH CHILD is indicative of an overall detached and critical point of view of hers. But if it turns out to be its own facet in her literary gem of a career, it will stand as a bright one.

4) FLAPPERS & PHILOSOPHERS (F.Scott Fitzgerald, 1920)
Like almost every American teenager, I did have occasion to read THE GREAT GATSBY when I was in high school. I remember almost nothing about it except not liking it. It’s taken me nearly twenty years to wade back into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s languorously limpid waters, and I’m so glad I did.
FLAPPERS & PHILOSOPHERS is a collection short stories, and like every collection of stories some will resonate with you more than others. But Fitzgerald’s first collection is that rarity where every story is a song. Some are pleasant little madrigals, but most are soaring, fist-pumping anthems. And the classic “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” is a symphony, an elegiac adagio that rips the rage and heartbreak from your tear ducts with both hands. In “The Cut-Glass Bowl,” “Dalrymple Goes Forth,” “The Four Fists,” in every story Fitzgerald calls forth bitterly beautiful and beautifully bitter truths that whisper through your blood and set in your gut, heart, and mind. 
I’ve got more Fitzgerald sitting on my shelf. I’ll be digging into it shortly and plan on relishing the mellifluous prose and songbird wisdom of one of the twentieth century’s literary lions. I think I’ll start with THE GREAT GATSBY.

3) KING LEAR (William Shakespeare, 1606)
I once heard or read somewhere that you shouldn’t read KING LEAR before you had turned forty. Well, I’m still in my thirties, and I’ve now read it. Maybe when I’m older I’ll re-read it and gain more from it than I can currently fathom. For now I’ll settle for it being Shakespeare at his most illuminated.
In some ways LEAR employs the Bard’s most diffused story (okay, not as diffused as HAMLET), but what room he doesn’t occupy with plot development and set pieces he fills with poetry underlining some of the most evasive and troubling realities of not just the characters but the human animal at large, how blind we can be to the power of kindness and magnanimity, how we torture ourselves rather than accept our own culpability. Lear is a man railing against his imminent mortality, but Shakespeare shows that what he should be fighting is the destruction he’s left in the wake of his life.
I suppose I could complain that Goneril and Regan are too similar, that I would have preferred some individuality between them, but it didn’t stop me from once again marveling at Shakespeare’s powers of invention and observation. He keeps on proving why he’s The One.

2) EARTHLY POWERS (Anthony Burgess, 1980)
For years I was like most of you. The only Burgess I had read was A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. I loved it, and said, “I should really read more by this guy.” I had long intended to read more, but you know how it is. Not you diehard Burgess fans. I know you don’t know. To you there is no excuse. Well, EARTHLY POWERS is Number Two on my list, so bite me hard.
Anthony Burgess doesn’t invent another language hewn from the outskirts of Slav and Cockney rhyming slang, but he deploys every weapon in the English language’s vast arsenal. Be aware, a dictionary will come in handy. But don’t be scared. Words are fantastic, especially new ones, and Burgess’ words soar off the page like eagles. He uses every nuance and muscle English has at its disposal to tell the story of Kenneth Toomey, a British writer who abandons the Catholic Church due to its castigation of his homosexuality but can’t abandon his Catholic guilt and doesn’t particularly want to. The guilt spreads like a cancer into every facet of his life. It’s a crushing tragedy, a semantic rollercoaster. It’s why literature fucking rules.
Still on the fence? Here’s the opening sentence: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” If that opening sentence doesn’t grab you, please, for our benefit, subject yourself to electro-shock.

1) BIG TROUBLE (J. Anthony Lukas, 1997)
Okay, this was the Big One. BIG TROUBLE may be the best history book I’ve ever read. I’ll be honest – it’s gargantuan. It’s close to eight-hundred pages, the typeface is small, and each page is stuffed like a turkey. But Lukas needed the room. What he does in this book is prop up one forgotten crime from 1905 as the emblem for every social ill that has stricken America since its inception.
Ostensibly this is the story of a murder investigation, but what it turns out to be is the story of Labor versus Capital writ small. It’s the mining interests trying to crush the nascent unions under their boots. It’s the poor and the immigrant migrating to the open West only to find it already closed by men with hired guns. It’s champions of the underdog falling in love with their own fame and glory. It’s true believers who truly believe that the ends justify the means. It’s a star-studded cast featuring Clarence Darrow, Theodore Roosevelt, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Eugene Debs, and half the scoundrels on the Pinkerton Agency’s payroll, with guest appearances by Walter Johnson and Ethel Barrymore. There’s murder, robbery, kidnapping, corruption. Halfway through the book I turned a page, and a kitchen sink flew out, followed by a bathroom sink, a toilet bowl, and a bidet.
BIG TROUBLE is a helluva commitment, but it’s one that bestows great rewards. This is a story about America, about the battles it continues to wage on itself to define its own code of virtues. What does America value more, its ambition or its soul?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


       I’m an anomaly among writers. I’m not an alcoholic. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m far from a teetotaler. I enjoy a drink as much as the next guy with a modicum of self-control. I love a quality craft beer brewed with love and faith by Trappist monks and suckled by a rolling Aeolian chant. A good single malt scotch like Balvenie or Dalmore has the power to elicit in me near sexual satisfaction and childlike awe. And yes, I will on occasion go beyond tipsy, cross over buzzed, and land squarely in the province of drunk. I’ll enjoy it there too. I’ll happily slur my words, absently sway to and fro, and delight in my regression into stupid. But it’s been years since I’ve been smashed, wrecked, hammered, obliterated, fucked eight ways from All Saints Day, or any other charmingly violent colloquialism. I no longer possess the will or stamina to drink like there’s money on the line. When you’ve gone as far as I have into uncharted spirits, you eventually lose interest in crossing the Rainbow Bridge, burning it down, and setting up camp in the heart of Valhalla.
In high school, when most kids’ relationships with drinking go from innocent flirtations to codependent depravity, I was too big a chickenshit to risk incurring my parents’ wrath. So when I got to college and my testicles dropped with a booming clang, I took to booze like Kanye West to the sound of his own voice. I liked walking through the doors booze opened. I could open my mouth around strangers. I had the guts to crack jokes, to chat up girls, to try new things like cracking jokes and chatting up girls. It was honest-to-god liquid courage concentrate. It wasn’t too long before I was looking for excuses to drink. “I got a B on my final. I need a beer.” “Hey, that was a great joke. Let’s drink.” “It’s Wednesday. Close enough.” One night I went to a friend’s party, drove home drunk through Los Angeles on a Saturday night, sobered up, decided I wasn’t ready to call it a night, went to another friend’s party, and drove home drunk again. It was only a matter of time before I had The Night. You know what The Night is, that night where you take partying far beyond the realms of both common sense and self-preservation. Fittingly The Night was December 31, 1999.
I was home from L.A. for the holidays. My friend John had learned of a New Years party at his college in Trenton. It was being thrown by a few sorority sisters of his friend’s girlfriend. Is that circuitous enough for you? It wasn’t for us. You could’ve added half a dozen degrees of separation. As far as John and I and the rest of us were concerned, we were invited. Brian and Scum had already headed up to Trenton, but I was driving by myself because I had to be at the video store for work the next day at 11. I was going to this party with the intention of drinking myself into oblivion and full awareness of the professional responsibilities I had the day after. At twenty-years old this didn’t concern me.
I reached the house in Trenton around 9:30 and walked in. I was greeted by that scene of a couple of dozen faces turning to look at you, not recognizing you, then returning to their conversations. I didn’t care. I wasn’t there to make friends. I had friends, and they were waiting for me to start drinking. I found them all in the kitchen. Brian was already decently buzzed, but Scum wasn’t fazed yet. This was when Scum was a marvel of modern science, when he could put away ten beers and still drive. John was talking to his friend Vinnie – because only John liked Vinnie – and a girl he introduced as one of the party’s hostesses. I don’t remember her name, but she was very cordial and welcoming. She then introduced me to her roommate and co-hostess. I found her to be especially attractive, but any interest immediately dissipated once she opened her mouth and let loose the shrill clipped caw of Queen Shit of I-Don’t-Have-Time-for-You. In retrospect she probably was starting to realize that she had opened her home to the inevitable onslaught of destructive merriment, but at the time I just thought, what a bitch, and actively rooted for her home’s annihilation. 
After those first three minutes I realized that it was time to start drinking. From 9:30 pm on December 31, 1999 to, let’s say, 4:00 am on January 1, 2000, I imbibed a twelve-pack of Corona, a six-pack of Heineken, three Yuenglings, two shots of Jack Daniels, three glasses of champagne, two liberal swigs of Bacardi 151 (because by that point, what did I care?) and more that I can’t clearly remember. I remember watching John and Vinnie lie down in the street and launch fireworks from between their legs. Right next to their balls. Because the fireworks were dicks. Get it? I remember making out with a girl I had met about an hour earlier. Let’s call her Stacy. I remember Scum getting angry because people weren’t as drunk as he thought they should be and vocally challenging them to drink harder. I remember the bitch hostess running around screaming because people were desecrating her house. I remember Brian and I laughing at her. I remember availing myself of her refrigerator and making a sandwich. I remember John passing out on the hood of a car that didn’t belong to anyone we knew. God knows what I don’t remember. But all inebriated things must come to an end. Around four in the morning I went to the basement, found an empty spot on the floor next to a bed, took my coat off, folded it beneath my head like a pillow and passed out.
At some point I woke up in total darkness, shivering and still nine sheets to the wind. I reached for my coat pillow and found that it too was cold. And wet. Too inebriated to call forth any semblance of deductive reasoning, and far too inebriated to get up and go to a lighted area, I pulled the coat from behind my head and allowed myself to fall back asleep, my head now lying on the cheap flattened carpet between it and the concrete floor.
When I woke next, I was still in complete darkness, but I heard a few muffled snores around me. Obviously everyone else was now passed out as well. Knowing that I had to go work, I stood up and realized I was still drunk as a surfeit of skunks. I grabbed my still cold and wet coat and tiptoed my way through the unseen bodies sprawled across the floor. Just as I reached the stairs, I accidentally kicked what felt like a person, and ran up the stairs to avoid a confrontation.
The sun was pouring through the windows. I looked at the clock on the wall. 8:45. I had plenty of time, so I took a moment to examine my coat. Vomit all over the right side. Joy and rapture. I trundled out of the house, through the snow to my car. I threw the coat in the backseat, cranked up the heat, and drove away. Before I even got out of the neighborhood, something dawned on me. I had no right to be driving at that moment. As drunk as I’d ever gotten previously, I’d never woken up still drunk from the night before. It was a new kind of disconcertion, and I wasn’t all that fond of it. Every manageable area of my brain told me not to drive. But even then I took pride in having never missed work no matter what I’d done to myself the night before. 
I drove home in abject terror, knowing that State Troopers would be out on 295 in magnum force to catch drunk drivers. Somehow I eluded them. I pulled into my parents’ house around 9:30 in the morning. I have no doubt they took one look at me lumbering through the front door and drew all sorts of conclusions that were not far from the reality. I grabbed a quick shower, changed, had some eggs and toast (I don’t know how I was able to hold anything down), and headed to work. I remember pulling into the parking lot, walking into the store, greeting my boss, walking behind the counter, then nothing. From that point forward January 1, 2000 ceases to exist for me. 
The day after that I spoke to Brian and Scum. They had enjoyed themselves as much as I did. Brian made fun of the angry host to the point where she was going to kick his ass. John slept with his ex-girlfriend. Let’s-call-her-Stacy ended up having sex with Vinnie in the bed right next to where I was passed out. Scum stayed up to see the sunrise, because he’ll drink until he is physically incapable of lifting a beer to his lips. And thank god he will. If he had passed out earlier, I’d be dead right now. 
Scum said that he’d found me passed out in the basement with vomit dribbling out of my mouth. He turned me on my side, allowing the puke to land safely on my coat and saving my life. Since then I’ve lost my drive to drink myself into oblivion. It’s hard to top dancing with Bon Scott and walking away from it. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


     The last time I sent you News from Rome, I wrote that I wanted to do so on a fairly regular basis. That was on February 23, so I guess we know who the asshole is. Well, life got in the way as it often does. I wrote “Immortal Anonymous,” which is the most popular story I’ve put up here. Once it was finished and I got over feeling good about it, I got back to writing The Trial of Marcus Aurelius. Then life hit me in the face like a grapefruit from James Cagney. My grandfather got cancer, and I helped take care of him while he died. Some of you don’t particularly care about your grandparents. More’s the pity as far as I’m concerned. For those of us who do care, it hurts when they leave. But eventually the hurt started to recede, and I dove back into Marcus Aurelius. But it had been months since I put a new story up here, and I wanted to write a new one. I latched onto an idea and started plotting it out. I figured out who my protagonist was, what he wanted, and what his obstacles were. I mapped out a beginning, a middle, and an end. I had the tone, the style, and the point of view. This was going to be good.
     NOW, writers, pay attention, because this happens. I started writing and loved the first couple thousand words. Then I ran into problems that kept compounding themselves. I wrote to the point where the story unleashes its first big reveal, and our hero has to make a key choice. But approaching that point became tougher and I started caring less about what was happening. I’ve had this problem before, and I know that it means I’ve made a wrong turn in the narrative at some point. So I backtracked and found my mistake. The problem was that my buildup to that big reveal was too diffused. I wanted the story to be drum tight, so I condensed the action, cut little bits out here and there. But now the piece’s rhythm was screwed up. I fixed it by inserting one little detail that I hadn’t included in my earlier drafts. It was a huge improvement to the story and the tone, but that one bit of data now prompted a big question concerning logic: why wouldn’t our hero already know about this big reveal? Sure, I could just shoehorn in some background exposition, but I want to be a GOOD writer. I had to find a way to organically work this explanation into the couple thousand words I was happy with. But if I did this, the character’s entire motivation was shot. His whole arc would disappear, and there would be no story worth telling. 
     I was going to have to rewrite the entire first act of the story, and at that moment I didn’t know what to do with it. A setback like that can really crush your enthusiasm for a story, and I’ll be honest. That one stepped on my nuts a little. I had a choice to make. I could either slog through a story I was quickly losing perspective on, or I could shelve it. If I slogged through, the story would likely blow. If I shelved it, I ran the risk of losing all passion for it and never finishing it. That can happen. But I knew that even if I did lose the story forever, I could always recycle elements and put them into a future story as I have before and will again. So I shelved it. 
     I hate when a story beats me, but the good news was defeat prompted me jump back into Marcus Aurelius with, as the cliché goes, renewed vigor. I attacked that son of a bitch like it was Lynn Swann and I was George Atkinson. I tightened up the story, came up with some nifty little devices that advance the story and illuminate character simultaneously (you’re gold when you can do that), and deepened some of the secondary characters, who I think should be as rich as the leads in their limited way. The other good news was I ended up starting a new short story. It’s an idea I’ve had percolating for a while, and I finally figured out how I wanted to write. I just wrote half of it, and it’s growing into quite the little badass. We got the post-apocalyptic thing going on, Western conventions, zombies, sadistic pricks, desperation, and a female anti-hero who will fuck shit up like Adrianople. I should start posting the short story in early November, and with any luck The Trial of Marcus Aurelius will be finished by the new year.
     So that’s this News from Rome. Thanks, everyone, for your patience, and I’ll try not to keep quiet for so long. ‘Til next time, “An easy existence, untroubled by the attacks of Fortune, is a Dead Sea.” – Demetrius the Cynic

Friday, May 17, 2013


How much can someone learn in a lifetime without end, Frank thought as he parked the car at a meter and walked the two blocks to Barclay’s. The tavern was the latest in a long line, dating back to Hillfield’s foundation in the 18th century, to occupy that particular piece of real estate on Main Street. It was modestly sized, the couple dozen tables just far enough from one another to still be comfortable, the kind of place that attracted a clientele that didn’t need to be encouraged to speak quietly and ignore the diners next to them. The room was swaddled in evergreen and burgundy and basked in the warm orange of the wall-mounted lamps and tabletop candles. There was nothing about the tavern to either arouse scandalous chatter or inspire devotional praise, which Frank, taking in the tavern’s inconspicuous timelessness, knew was the point. 
Frank approached the hostess, a sweetly smiling, rotund girl with small eyes peeking over her plump cheeks. “Hi!” she chimed with the grating brightness of wind chimes.
“Hi. Frank de Lun to see Mr. Barclay.”
“Is he expecting you, sir?”
“He is.”
The girl excused herself, disappeared into the kitchen, and returned a minute later behind a barrel-chested ox of a man with graying temples and fierce blue eyes that seemed to know you intimately after only a cursory glance. “Frank de Lun?” asked Barclay.
“I’m new here, but I’ve been around a long time.”
Barclay nodded. “Follow me.”

Frank followed the taverner through the kitchen, into the backroom that doubled as Barclay’s office. To call it understated would be an understatement. Cheap paneling hung from the walls. Gaudy orange carpet that might have blinded him had it not been dulled by age, stains, and a strange rhomboid burn in the corner seeped under Frank’s feet. A davenport leaned against a wall like a propped up corpse, its ratty felt weeping down its aged frame like desiccated skin, and the coffee table standing before it looked like it had been literally raked over coals. But as Frank looked around the backroom, smaller details gleaming with pride and significance kept shining through the pervasive apathy and decrepitude. Barclay’s desk was a cheap foldout of plastic and aluminum, covered with spilled papers and empty packs of cigarettes, sullied by coffee stains and dried adhesive. But his chair was magnificent oak, routinely dusted and polished, practically mint, its style and craftsmanship emblematic of the Gilded Age. On a simple, plywood shelf sat a small chest with intricate Rosewood flourishes that reminded Frank of one his mother had purchased during the Belle Epoque.
Barclay opened a slender door set into a shallow alcove. The light from the attic illuminated the staircase and a small picture frame hanging from the door. Barclay motioned for Frank to head on up. “Thank you,” Frank said as he passed. A reflected glint drew his eye to the picture frame and froze him in his tracks as he read the faded ink of the browned parchment inside. “Is this,” Frank tenuously asked, “the actual Articles of Confederation?”
Barclay shrugged. “An early draft.”
“You… you were involved with -- ”
“They’re waiting for you.”
Frank nodded and thanked Barclay again before starting up the stairs. As the door closed behind him, Frank shook his head. After so many years he was still unsettled by his ability to instinctively know. Upon seeing the vestiges of living history in Barclay’s backroom/office, the knowledge had fallen into the forefront of his consciousness like a single thread of silk. He had suddenly, unexpectedly known that Barclay had at least bore witness to the drafting of the Articles, that he possessed an early draft as a result of a particular intimacy with them. And no sooner had Frank’s consciousness registered his newly found knowledge had he known that Barclay was also an immortal. It was not a suspicion or likelihood. He knew it as he knew that the earth was round. But even after a century and a half of life, the goosebumps still rose on Frank’s arm in those moments. It wasn’t the bouts of epiphanous understanding themselves that unnerved him. It was the lack of surprise with which he met them. They were never accompanied by anything so dramatic as a parting of clouds to reveal the brilliant sun with a choral drone thrumming in his ears. It was a casual, off-handed illumination, as seemingly commonplace as picking up his mail. Frank remembered a time, before he stopped aging, when he had never experienced the spontaneous onset of undeniable fact and could never have envisioned receiving it so unceremoniously. The day he realized his was a life without end, verbalizing as much to his reflection in the crystal decanter in his salon, the dribs and drabs of knowledge began to make their presences known as anonymously as the countless cells that comprised his body came into existence and died. And still, after all he’d seen and experienced and suffered, Frank had no idea why. He suspected it was a trait common to immortals, but he didn’t know with the unmuddied certainty he was accustomed to. The more he thought of how much he didn’t know about his metanatural predicament, the more unnerved he grew. He had only recently learned that he was not the only immortal to call earth his home, and that, while the phenomenon was far from commonplace, it was more common than he had ever considered. Now he found himself walking into a meeting of other immortals, where he would be encouraged to speak openly of this bizarre affliction that had hounded him into a life that did not resemble living. He didn’t know what answers to expect from it, what the others could tell him. How many immortals were there? How did it happen? Why did it happen? And how and why had it happened to him? Maybe they all had the same questions, were all flailing as blindly down an endless corridor as he was. But, he thought to himself nearing the top of the stairs, that’s why I’m here.

As nondescript as the tavern downstairs, the attic whispered in simple pale gray carpeting and second-hand furniture. No single piece matched or clashed with any other. Even the spines of the paperbacks filling the knee-high bookshelves fled from primary colors and any design intended to draw attention. There was even a foosball table and a dartboard at the far end of the room. Frank felt that it could easily be someone’s wreck room and knew that had been Barclay’s intention.
“Hi, there!”

Frank turned toward the reedy male voice vibrating with enthusiasm. A slim, slight Arab man with bright, brown eyes and a wide, sparkling smile bounded over. “Welcome. Thanks for coming,” he said shaking Frank’s hand. “You must be Frank.”
“Hi. How are you?” Frank greeted the man’s smile.
“Great! I’m Gino. I’m kind of the organizer of our group here, but don’t think of me as the leader or anything like that. We’re all equals here.”
Frank nodded with an indecisive smile. “Sounds good. Uh, I was wondering – I suppose you can answer – what the rules are here.”
Gino slapped him on the shoulder and led him to the center of the room. “No, no, it’s not like that. Other than keeping our secrecy, there’re no rules. We’re not a program trying to cure ourselves of anything.”
“But this is a support group for…”
“Immortals, yes. But that’s all we do, support each other, try to find some common answers, and help each other go on living as long as we have to.”
Frank slumped a little at the notion of the others looking for answers. He knew it was foolish to expect them to answer all his questions. But throw me a bone here, he thought. He drew a fearful inhalation, vexed at the prospect of walking away from the meeting, returning to his ceaseless and ceaselessly solitary life, with no solutions and a mounting grocery list of mysteries. 
There was no table with coffee and pastries. No lectern at the head of the room. The iconic circle of cheap folding chairs was actually a casual living space in the center of the attic, plush sofas and recliners flanked by endtables. In fact the only stereotypical accoutrement one would expect from a support group was a solitary ashtray on one of the tables. Frank and Gino joined the five others already seated. Here they are, Frank thought. He muttered a simple greeting reciprocated by the others, some verbally, some with a curt nod. 
“Okay,” Gino started, “first, obviously, we have a new member tonight. Frank, would you introduce yourself?”
Frank breathed deeply and took to his feet. “Hi. I’m Frank, and I’m an immortal.”
Titters and chuckles swept over the group as if they were waving at a football game. A short young man with the slovenly hair and dress of the modern laughed his way through a nonsensical accusation that immortality was not a drug and admitted that he at one point performed fellatio in exchange for cocaine. Frank knew it was an allusion to something with which he was unfamiliar, and grinned through his discomfiture.
“Nice, Achilles,” Gino said to the younger man. He turned to Frank with a smile. “We’re not that formal. You can just talk.”
Frank sat down. “I guess that was my hazing?”
She was a flaxen-haired, chalk-skinned, ravishing woman. Her smile radiated with a carnal fervency, and the sparkle in her obscenely deep blue eyes was hypnotic. “Don’t feel too bad. They let me embarrass myself at my first meeting. Go on,” she said with an impassioned lilt that wobbled Frank at the knees.
He nodded his thanks and forced himself to look at the others before he blushed into flames or found himself lunging for the siren and wrapping himself around her. “I, Uh – my name,” he stammered, “at least right now, is Frank de Lun. I was born in Nice in 1861. I started to suspect something was wrong with me in my mid-forties.”
“Let me jump in for a second, Frank,” said Gino. “Try not to think of it in terms of ‘something wrong.’ Like your race or sexuality, it’s just part of who you are.”
 Frank obliged him with a nod and continued, unconvinced, “I remember a woman, a spinster-friend of my mother’s whose head was still in the Imperium. She was the first one to say, ‘Mon chouchou, you paint this tired old maid green, you’ve maintained your youthful countenance so!’ It sounds less pretentious in French, or at least prettier. Well, after that, the compliments came fast and furious and without let. And the thing was they weren’t just false civilities. I knew what I looked like – I looked like this, like I did when I was about thirty-four, thirty-five. Maybe I’d even noticed it before anyone pointed it out to me. But after enduring enough jealousy-tinged admiration, I couldn’t ignore it, and it started to get a little… spooky. I started going to doctors. I’d heard there were diseases that accelerated the aging process – Progeria was a new medical phenomenon then. I wondered if maybe a disease that lengthens it existed too. But when nobody could find anything wrong with me, I really wasn’t surprised. I figured, if it’s an aging disease, why did it only kick in in my thirties? By the time my wife died in ’19, I knew I was immortal. I knew it, like I knew the sky was blue, the earth was brown, and Dreyfus was innocent. I didn’t know how I knew. I just… knew.”
Frank looked around at the faces listening. Ageless and inscrutable, they’d heard it all before, been there before. Good, he thought. Perhaps they’ll have some answers. One of them, however, seemed to find something noteworthy in his origin story, a young woman hugging herself into a tight, little ball in her chair, hiding her face behind a rampart of dirty blonde bangs. He’d noticed her when he’d sat down. She’d barely registered his arrival, but now her head was up and she inspected him from behind the shield of hair falling past her malachite eyes.
Gino nodded, his smile glowing with empathy and pride. “Thank you, Frank. We’ve all been there.”
“Not all of us,” spat a melodic, zitheresque voice to Frank’s left. It came from – actually, Frank couldn’t tell whether it was male or female. The flawless Caucasian skin shimmered like samite, and light bounced off the near-silver hair with the blinding fidelity of chrome. The affect made the argumentative androgyne appear otherworldly, and Frank suddenly knew that, whatever he/she/it was, it wasn’t human.
“Did you want to go next, Uzziel?” Gino asked with a healthy dollop of sarcasm.
“No. I was referring to you.”
The ravishing woman spoke. “You could utterly delight this group, Uzziel, if you only stopped attending.”
“No need to bare your fangs, darling,” Uzziel quipped with a taunting grin. The woman leaned back in her seat and looked and Frank with a conspiratorial eye roll. Frank smiled in agreement and tore away from her hypnotic gaze
“That’s enough, everyone!” Gino glowered at both Uzziel and the beauty. He turned to Frank. “I’m sorry this is how you had to be introduced into the group, Frank.”
Eyeing the others one after the next, the vapor of sudden knowledge thickened. “It’s okay.” He paused, then said, “I’m one of the few humans here, aren’t I?”
Gino’s pregnant pause and subsequent, “Wellllllllllll…” confirmed it.
“I suppose,” said the raven-haired beauty, “that depends on whether or not you’d consider an immortal to still be human.”
Frank turned to see a smile suffused with empathic concord and swirling with adumbral danger. He felt it reach across the room to clutch his throat. “You were at one point,” he said.
“He’s quick,” said a burly, hirsute mastodon in a gruff rumble that tumbled like a boulder out his bronzed, scarred face.
The Venus nodded. “Yes. My name is Helena and, yes, I was once definitely human. My people were Slavs who lived a few hundred miles north of the Black Sea. Now it’s in the Ukraine. I was twenty-six, married, three children, living under Khazar rule. Then the Vikings came down the Danube and, probably unbeknownst, they brought vampires with them. They may have been Norsemen who’d been turned, or they could have simply been operating incognito. While the Vikings were doing what Vikings did, these vampires did what vampires do to my family and me. At first we thought they were Vikings like the rest. They kicked open our door, and before I knew what was happening, two of them were on top of me. I started thinking, They’re going to rape me. Then I felt the one sink his fangs into my corotid and the other between my legs at my femoral. I was trapped under them as I watched the others kill my husband and son. I never saw what happened to my girls.
“The thing is, we were the only family in our village they attacked. We weren’t the most vulnerable or convenient or profitable or easy to dispose of, any of the indicators vampires look for in their prey. They came after us indiscriminately.
“I slipped into death, and when I awoke, I was one of them. It took… a period of adjustment. I won’t mince words or obfuscate, Frank. For centuries, I lived just like any other vampire. I’ve killed a lot of people.”
Frank studied the vampire’s face as she spoke, forcing himself to meet the eyes that compulsively attracted him like an ensorcelling perfume. “But,” he said, “you don’t prey on humans anymore.”
Helena shook her head and forced a smile of begrudging pride. “Not for a long time.”
Frank smiled back. “But that’s not why you come here.”
“No, but it helps.”
Gino seized the opportunity for a segue. “And that’s ultimately what we’re all here for, to help each other.”
Frank pointed at Gino. “And you’re not human either.”
“Nope. A genie.”
“As in The Arabian Nights genie?”
Gino chuckled. “Well, that wasn’t me per se. But the magic lamp, three wishes, and what have you, yup.”
“Wait. So you’re – ”
“Yeah,” Achilles cut in, “Gino the Genie.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Gino asked.
“Nothing! Nothing!”
“But,” said Frank, “you chose that name for yourself.”
“Well,” Gino started, “genies don’t really have names. So, when my quote-unquote life became my own, I picked one, although it wasn’t originally Gino. Like most immortals I’ve had to change my name over the years, and I like a name that’s kind of catchy, you know? It’s playful.”
“How did your life become your – ”
The rest of the group slumped back into their seats with agonized, defeated groans. “He’s never heard the story!” Gino said to them. “They think I talk to much,” he explained to Frank. “My lamp changed hands I can’t tell you how many times over the millennia, mostly around the Middle East, obviously. Eventually I ended up in the hands of this unscrupulous trader from Otrar. Technically I still owe him two wishes which I’ll never be able to pay off, which is just as well, because he was unscrupulous. So, I didn’t lament him all that much when Genghis Khan came charging through Otrar and slaughtered him along with just about everyone else. My lamp and I were carted off with the other baubles, and eventually we ended up in China, where I was discovered and went to work. After a century, give or take, the Yuan Dynasty was falling apart and my masters were getting scared and their wishes were getting more desperate. Happens all the time. And, as happens, the imbalance was become more pronounced.”
“The imbalance?” asked Frank.
“Well, you know how in stories about genies or the guy who sells his soul to the Devil, the wish always ends up baring bitter fruit? Well, that’s not because the wishgranter is malevolent. It’s because cosmic forces come into play with wishes, and the cosmos has to stay in balance. Call it karma or luck or whatever you want, but the good and the bad have to stay balanced at any given point.”
Frank nodded, verbalizing his new knowledge, “Chance is an elemental force.”
“Like gravity and entropy and all the rest,” said Gino. “So, when someone wishes for something, I have to take something of equal value away.”
Achilles asked, “Like what?”
“Well, let’s say they wish for a Ferrari. They’ll get it, but sooner or later – ”
“ — a car crash and it’s totaled,” Helena said.
“Maybe. Or they might get pulled over, and that’s when they realize the car’s not registered, or it’s not under their insurance, or it’s stolen.”
Achilles threw in another two cents, “The car comes illegal?”
“Unless the wisher specifies.”
“What if the wisher covers all his bases and seals every loophole?”
“Doesn’t matter. The universe will maintain its balance.”
“What if he wishes for infinite wishes?” Achilles asked with a mischievous grin.
“I try really, really hard to talk him out of it.”
“And if he doesn’t bite?”
“It’s bad. Wishing upon wishes just compounds the problem. Chance works on a logarithmic scale.”
The others silently tried the math in their heads before Frank summarized, “‘When I get aggression, I give it two times back.’”
Gino nodded, “That’s about the size of it.”
“Is that the Clash?” Achilles asked.
“So,” Gino continued, “with 13th century China disintegrating around their ears, my masters tended to make some pretty big wishes, and that led to a lot of imbalance to be rectified. Dead wives and children, ruined livelihoods, a lot of reruns of Job. And they tended to blame me. I’ll never understand it, how people, in all times and all places, expect to get something for nothing and then blame the cosmos when the taxman comes. My last master made two gargantuan wishes that landed him in Limbo, but before he faded into nowhere, he had enough time to make his third wish: he freed me from my lamp.
“Why would he consider that a punishment?” asked Frank.
“Turned out he was mistaken. He thought he was making me mortal, but actually he was just releasing me from eternal servitude. Now I’ve had the last seven centuries-plus to figure out how to live like a mortal.”
“What do you do?” asked Frank.
Gino shrugged. “Travel, meet people. Honestly I like to work for a lot of N.P.O.‘s.”
Uzziel loosed a derisive snort.
“You know,” Helena spat, “the irony underlining your selfishness is not lost on any of us.”
“I’ll bet it’s lost on Frankie here. He doesn’t know what I am.”
“Well, guess what, Uzziel? It’s your turn,” said Gino.
Uzziel lit a cigarette and spewed an angry cloud of smoke. “Make Procula,” he said indicating a woman balled into a chair, hiding her face behind a balustrade of dirty blonde bangs. “She’s obviously in her I’m-not-going-to-share mood.”
“Procula will have her turn. Now it’s yours.”
“Who made you the director of this group?”
“I am not the director – ”
“Then stop fucking directing us!”
“He’s an angel,” ejaculated Procula.
“Oh, now she speaks!”
“Go, Uzziel,” Gino ordered. “Talk.”
The angel exhaled the first vitriolic sigh Frank had ever heard. “Okay.” He turned to Frank. “You know anything about the spheres of angels? The choirs, as they’re called?”
“Not much.”
“I know, but it’s nice to see you’re honest, if not educated. There are seven different spheres, each one fulfilling a unique role in the Divine Plan. I’m one of the Virtues. That’s the sphere responsible for supervising the movement of heavenly bodies.”
Everything Frank knew railed against Uzziel’s words. “You’re saying natural law is a sham?”
“No, that’s the assumption you little things always jump to. Natural law exists and functions as far as your science has been able to correctly measure.”
Frank pursed his lips. “Then… doesn’t that make your job –”
“Redundant?” Uzziel spit. “Yes, matter of fact, it does! Figured that out, did you? So did I – 3,000 years ago. So, I very politely pointed this fact out to the Creator, suggested that my abilities might be better utilized on other efforts, and humbly requested a different assignment. And The Prick accuses me of rebelling! Compares me to the Morningstar! But He doesn’t send me to Hell. No, He exiles me to earth until Armageddon. That’s why I’m here. Next!”
The huge mass of masculinity leaned forward. “What did you expect him to do?”
“Oh, I don’t know – not hold His creations to His own impossibly high standards? That’s fucking ridiculous.”
“Precisely. That’s how Man created him.”
Uzziel sent a glare the muscular jungle’s way that would have torn a lesser man to ribbons, and Frank suddenly knew more. “Man created you,” he said to the jungle.
“Yes, he did. Call me Alexander.”
“From your appearance I’d probably guess you were Ares or Wotan. But that’s not right, is it?”
Alexander chuckled. “No, but you’re not far off.”
Helena opened her mouth, but Gino beat her to the punch. “Alexander here, technically speaking, isn’t a living being like most of us.”
Frank looked at Alexander. “What are you?”
Alexander leaned back and put his hands together at the fingertips. “This gets esoteric rather quickly, but bear with me. You’ve heard the term ‘collective unconscious’ before, I assume.”
“Well, the idea has been around as long as human thought, by one name or another. Different religions have different names for it. Science has dubbed it and re-dubbed it a few times now, sometimes modifying its definition. But the central fact is this: as thoughts manifest themselves within a consciousness, they also manifest themselves in a dimension beyond the corporeal, abutting and intersecting the web of mortal consciousness.”
“You’re an idea.”
“In human form.”
“That’s like Alan Moore’s ideaspace,” Achilles rang in.
Alexander turned to him. “I’m not familiar with this era’s vaunted artisans, but there are some theoretical physicists, like Rupert Sheldrake, who recognize this dimension and endeavor to legitimize its existence in scientific circles.” 
Frank asked, “What idea are you?”
“The Right of Conquest.”
Frank nodded as the knowledge softly, silently congealed. “That’s why you took the name of Alexander the Great.”
“To this day, Alexander has no peer as regards his talent for waging war and holding what he has taken.”
“Why did you decide to take human form?”
Alexander crossed his arms beneath a newly hardened face. “After several thousand years of incorporeal divorce, you yearn for material stimuli.”
“Bully for the tough guy,” sneered Uzziel.
Frank ignored the angel’s snark, tuned-in to Alexander’s lie. He didn’t know what the truth was, but the dishonesty curdled like tortured pangs of starvation, and Frank knew the lie tore through Alexander like a saw caked in rust. But he thought it would be a mistake for the new kid in class to call the living embodiment of war a liar, so he chose to change the subject. “Do you use a last name?”
Frank couldn’t help chuckling. “I’m sorry, but it’s a little surprising.”
“Because,” Uzziel said, “he was a Muslim. He believed the Will of God led him to victory, not some abstract political rationalization hatched by humans.”
“You know nothing of it, Uzziel.”
“The fuck I don’t.”
Gino raised his hands between the two. “Gentlemen, let’s respect one another’s –”
Alexander chose not to. “You, failed Virtue, were traipsing through a shitheap in Cornwall while Saladin drove his armies hither and yon across the Levant with the speed of Mercury. And with every splash of bloodied sand over hoof, every brick from a wall felled by his siege engines, with every victorious march into Aleppo or Damascus or Jerusalem, the song from his sword rang in my ear.”
“Saladin believed in you,” said Frank, “even though he was a Muslim?‘
“Saladin was a man of both pragmatism and ambition. He knew the truth, that the prophet of Islam recognized the need for a mortar of faith to bind his conquests. But they were conquests first and always, and the great general, like the prophet, knew few would fear the invisible flames of Perdition more than the blade racing for their gut. He told no one, fulfilled all his obligations, and always ascribed his greatness to that of Allah. But in the marrow of his soul, where no god could hear, he spoke to me.”
A succession of veils lifted as Frank listened to the Right of Conquest. The first to lift confirmed the famed general’s secret infidelity. The dangerous exposure of Mohammed’s blasphemous cynicism followed. A third curtain parted to reveal Alexander drowning in a turgid pool of helixed emotions. Thorned currents of grief, regret, rage, and loss cocooned the immortal bastion of martial primacy. Frank knew Alexander was a defenseless fly imprisoned in a web of bacterial heartbreak, and as if by reflex, he knew what spun that web.
Luckily, but not surprisingly, Achilles steered the conversation onto a road far less treacherous and entirely beside the point. “Does anybody ever question your name?” he asked.
“Why would they?”
“Well, you’ve got a normal first name and a famous Arab for a last name.”
Gino cocked an eyebrow. “If I was human, I’d probably be offended by that.”
“I haven’t been human for over a thousand years, and I’m offended by that,” added Helena.
“I’m just saying Saladin’s not the most common name, especially in New Jersey.”
“As opposed to Achilles?”
“Most people have at least heard of Achilles, even if they don’t know anything about him.”
Frank saw Alexander bristle in his periphery, but went ahead and asked Achilles his question. “Is that why you use the name Achilles?”
“I am Achilles.”
Frank looked at the others, unsure if this was another raw kernel of foolishness from the immortal jester, but they all nodded their heads. “No, it’s true,” Gino confirmed.
“So,” Frank said, turning back the mythic hero, “you fought in the actual Trojan War?”
“Nope. Never,” he said with a playful grin.
The silent rush of understanding left Frank confused and more than a little annoyed. Maybe Achilles and Uzziel, and the rest for that matter, were bored by their endless plight, and maybe dangling a carrot before the newbie helped to stave off the monotony. But if they had any real wisdom to impart, Frank was growing impatient to acquire it. He had to remind himself that, as far as immortals go, he was still an infant. There was no ticking clock, no clock at all, and he had more than enough time to answer every question he had yet to ask. He smiled with a forced chortle. “Care to explain?”
“I’m Homer’s Achilles. I’m fictional.”
“But you exist.”
“Yeah. How’s that for a twist?” Achilles asked with a laugh. “All fictional characters exist, like in Imaginationland.”
“You come from a dimension called Imaginationland?”
“No – South Park!”
“I don’t watch television.”
Achilles rolled his eyes with a huff. “They did a couple episodes where the boys went to Imaginationland, where every fictional character ever created lived. Well, that’s what my dimension’s like.”
Frank turned to Alexander. “This is a different universe from yours?”
Alexander nodded. “Yes. It seems an idea crafted in fiction manifests itself differently than, for want of a more appropriate term, a philosophy.”
“Why is that?”
“We don’t know,” said Gino. “There’s a whole lot even the oldest of us, like Uzziel and I, don’t know.”
Frank slumped as deeply into his seat as his heart inside his chest. Clutching the first straw to hove into view, he asked the others, “Have you ever met other fictional characters?”
“Other than false gods?” snipped the angel.
“Uzziel!” Gino reproached. 
“I was in Japan in the 17th century and met Kenrei-mon,” said Helena. “She was visiting the historical sites of her fictional life. Poor girl. I’d hate to be her for eternity.”
“I met the Sphere from Flatland once,” said Gino. “But generally, fictional characters stick to their own realm, and the ones that do come here usually go back pretty quickly.”
Frank’s face was long enough to fill a Public Service Announcement for existential dread. He turned to Achilles and started at the sight of his face.
For the first time all night, the Trojan hero was not smiling. “Don’t believe me?” Achilles asked, the words spoken in a coat of ice. He walked to Uzziel and pointed at the cigarette between his lips. “May I?”
“Oh, no wonder you’ve been so peppy all night.”
“May I, please?”
“You get to do the parlor trick again.”
“This is what I am. He needs to know that.”
The words, uttered with more severity and hostility than Frank would have thought the fictional jester capable of just five minutes prior, rippled with honest desperation. “It’s okay, Achilles. I believe you,” Frank said, though belief didn’t enter into the equation.
Achilles pulled the butt from Uzziel’s mouth and marched over to Frank, stopping directly in front of him. “No. I need to know you believe me. Stand up, please.”
Frank stood.
“Take the cigarette.”
Frank took it.
“Put it out right here,” said Achilles, using his thumb and forefinger to hold open his left eye.
The group was silent. None of them looked particularly enthralled. Frank looked at the cigarette, then into Achilles’ wide-open eye.
“Do it.”
Frank drove the red-orange embers into the dead center of the pupil. Water hissed, and smoke spiraled from Achilles face as a cry of inhuman horror exploded from his mouth.
Frank leapt back, wrenching the cigarette from the fictional man’s face. “Jesus Christ!” he cried.
“Oh, he doesn’t need that,” said Uzziel. “Look.”
Frank listened to Achilles cries shrink to groans and then fall to silence as he examined the assaulted, and stunningly unmarred, eye. 
“It still hurts like a bastard,” Achilles said, “but unless you’re going after my heel, nothing.”
Frank dropped Uzziel’s butt into the ashtray. He sat down, sifting through the gaseous ribbons of knowing now drifting through his mental foreground. Three groans of loss-birthed rage; one each belonging to Uzziel, Alexander, and Achilles; hummed a dissonant chord. But this was not the ancient, adamantine grief he heard in Helena’s voice or saw in the lowlights of Procula’s hair. This was the screaming tear of muscle reaching for a fortune only briefly seen and held. But what were those fortunes? “Achilles,” Frank started, “I’m… I’m sorry. I didn’t intend for –”
Achilles, returning to his seat, a couple fingers massaging his eye, said, “No, it’s not a problem. I just wanted you to know –”
“Okay!” boomed Uzziel with the gusto and volume of an overzealous town crier. “Procula’s turn!”
Had it been possible, Helena’s undead face would have been sunburnt crimson. “Gino,” she growled, “get him out of here! I’ve had it!”
“Okay, listen –”
“You’ve had it?” asked Uzziel.
“Yes. Does bullying and humiliating Procula –?”
“If I’m so objectionable, you leave.”
Gino stood quickly. “No one is leaving.”
Paying no heed to Gino, Helena bounded to her feet. “You contribute nothing to this group but animosity,” she castigated, an accusatory finger spearing the air.
“Oh, listen to that violin weep!” mocked Uzziel.
Gino’s voice struck a high, fevered pitch. “I said, stop!” 
“My apologies,” said Helena. “A violin is a poor substitute for a harp.” The anger in her voice had been replaced with a hue darker than cold and harder than cruel. For the first time Frank heard the voice of the man-eater. He saw her jugular punch her skin. He could almost see it gallop with precipitous thrill as the scent of impending mortal struggle coursed through her olfactory. Frank remembered the unassailable, hypnotic allure he’d felt draw him into her aphrodisiacal indigo. He’d learned Helena was a vampire, but only at that moment, seeing her coiled like an upright cobra, did he know the allure to be the paralyzing toxin of a natural born predator.
That didn’t dissuade the exiled angel from meeting her face-to-face with less than a foot separating them. “You think I can’t literally kick your hell-spawned, parasitic ass out of here?”
The room dropped into silence as Procula’s cry tore through the air, oscillating with the terror of a small child witnessing her parents fight. Helena turned to her, the thirst for violence suddenly quaffed. Instantly she softened to a doe-eyed harbinger of mercy and knelt before the quavering crumble of neuroses and mousy hair. “Procula, dear, you don’t need to acquiesce to the cretin.”
“No! Just stop. Please… stop.”
Frank watched the microns of hope and understanding peel away from Helena’s face like time-lapsed footage of insects devouring a carcass. Frank watched her face sink and knew she would rise and return to her seat under a façade of pride and magnanimity. But what that façade masked surprised him. It wasn’t the snarl of a caged beast or a monster’s mindless impulsion for havoc. It was the fear, thick as plasma, of a dying victim staring at her open wound, watching herself exsanguinate, preying for aid she knows will not arrive.
Uzziel opened his mouth.
“Shut up,” said Gino. “Go ahead, Procula.”
Procula drew a sharp, nervous breath through her nose, and started to speak. “I’m an Atlantean. We were the most advanced people in the world for thousands of years. We spread civilization to every inhabited patch on the globe. Everyone from China to the Mayans. When you look at the earliest civilizations, you see what Atlantis gave them. Mathematics, a written language, their gods, all of it. But we were careful not to share too much. We enjoyed our superiority. Every great nation has believed in its own exceptionalism, but ours was the only one you could categorically prove was exceptional.” She said it with an absence of pride, the words crowned in a faint halo of bitterness. “We weren’t an empire, but we leveraged our advantage at the expense of the other nations. We were greedy. It was essential we kept our technological and spiritual monopoly, and the rest of the world hated us for it. They formed a coalition. Not to conquer or destroy us. Just to convince us to share the wealth. Just for equality. They never even slung a stone in our direction. They just meant to send a message.”
Procula sorrowfully shook her head and looked directly into Frank’s eyes. “Our elders decided to conduct a ritual. It would unlock secrets we’d all been raised to believe should never be revealed. It was a hard line. Not one of us questioned it. Millions of hawks screeching blindly across an island. The rite called for a sacrifice, for an Atlantean to sacrifice their most cherished love.”
Frank knew where this was heading. His swallow ripped down his throat like shards of volcanic rock. “They promised us unparalleled status,” Procula continued, “incalculable wealth, everything we would ever want. That should’ve told us how pious our leaders were, that they assumed we were all as shallow and petty as they obviously were. But we didn’t see it. We didn’t need their temptations. If an Atlantean could see what passed for patriotism to a Spartan or a Roman or a Briton or an American, they’d be retching for days. I didn’t even need to convince Gaeda. She was eleven years old, and she said yes without a second’s hesitation. The night of the ritual, I watched the priests take her up the pyramid’s steps, my cheeks soaked. My heart was breaking that I was about lose my baby girl, the deathless light of my life, forever. But I was so proud of her. She actually looked back and smiled at me, assuring me, like she was the mother, that everything was going to be okay. She had no fear, no regret. She was a true, honorable, perfect daughter of Atlantis.
“I don’t know… I don’t know what it was the priests summoned, if it was even what they’d intended. They’d never told us exactly, and why would we ask? But when it happened… it tore a hole in the heavens and dyed the sky blood red, as if its function and meaning was to wound the world. The whole earth shook.  It wasn’t an earthquake. I’d felt earthquakes before, and I’ve felt them since. This was the earth itself, like it was an animal flailing through its slow, merciless slaughter. Everyone started screaming. I watched them disappear into columns of fire as our whole civilization was reduced to charred, violently humbled rubble. And for a brief, chilling moment – the longest moment of my life – I saw what was causing it. It looked like… nothing describable, nothing imaginable, some enormous aberration spawned from the nightmares of the damned. I don’t know what it was, but I knew it was very old, very powerful, and… evil.”
Frank watched Procula breathe in a semblance of composure. For a fleeting shard of time, he felt her unparalleled horror, and sneaking a glimpse at the group, he knew they felt it too.
Procula went on, “I blacked out and came to on an island off our eastern coast so small we’d never bothered to name it. I turned to my home continent and watched the ocean swallow the emerald peaks of our tallest mountains, mountains taller than Everest. That’s the truth behind the legend, but the legend never mentions a last survivor. I’d been spared by whatever that was, and for a long time I thought that was punishment enough. But then I never died. Atlanteans live a long time, sometimes for centuries, but not over nine thousand years.”
Frank should have shuddered at the possibility of nine thousand answerless years, but he found his thoughts wreathed around Procula’s incalculable agony. The others’ stories had unfurled before him like windows exposing unreachable origins. They had been bright, detailed engravings rising from the pages of a book of history. But they were alien, too remote for him to feel the heat of their illumination. Only Procula’s story had tweaked Frank’s senses. The vaporous coalescence manifested, and Frank knew that Procula had struck a nerve and cleaved it raw. His understanding of her eternity bit into his tongue with the offensive tart of soured cherries. But he didn’t recoil from the slap. He found himself casting aside all concern for himself, and his heart breaking for the tragic Atlantean.
“Procula,” Gino breathed, leaning forward, his watery eyes reaching out to her, “you’ve never opened up like that before. I’m so proud of you.”
Procula nodded silently, and looked again at Frank, her bangs shielding her eyes from the light around her.
Then came the onslaught of wisdom, voiding the room in a blinding crash of whiteness and a migrainous shriek. It was a merciless blitz of cognizance Frank had never before experienced, and his breath was choked in a clutch of fright. Not the distant, existential dread that kept him up in the dark silence of night, but the immediate, palpable alarm that tensed the muscles and wrung the adrenal gland barren. It left him with ranks and files of new questions he hadn’t anticipated. Where did this shock and awe of violent knowing come from? Why now? 
He looked up to see the genie staring into his face.
“You okay?” Gino asked.
He blinked away the weight of mysteries and shook off the stasis of fear. He knew that by the evening’s end, he would have all the answers he wanted. He knew that the others were the key to those answers, and he knew how to reach them.
 “Sorry,” Frank said. “Yeah, I’m fine. I, uh… you remember when I said that I just knew that I was immortal? As if I’d always known it?”
 “Yes.” The others nodded.
 “Well, is that common?”
 “No one’s really sure why it works the way it does, but generally speaking, wisdom seems to osmose into immortals’ brains. It probably has something to do with aging, but again, how or why, who knows.”
 Frank looked around. “So, you’ve all experienced it?”
 They nodded.
 So did Frank. “Good. You’re more likely to believe this.”
 They looked at him quizzically.
 “One of us is mortal.”
 Frank watched the faces of his fellow immortals, and one secret mortal, change. Eyes grew larger than moons. Backs snapped straight like a catapult’s arm. Jaws crashed into the ground, yelps and bleats of incredulity and fear filling the air. Helena, Achilles, and Alexander were on their feet. Gino and Uzziel exchanged the village elders’ glances of conspiratorial dubiety. Only Procula remained in her huddle of pathological stoicism. But Frank saw her eyes through the stringy, blonde columns. He saw a glint of something more than curiosity, and found his nostrils strangely filled with the scent of ash trees and the salt of the sea. 
Gino raised his voice to a tin roar, quieting the group. He turned to their newest member. “Frank,” he began gently, “no one’s calling you a liar, but –”
“—but it’s hard to think otherwise,” Frank finished with a nod.
“Please, just try to see it from our perspective. It’s been the six of us for nearly two years. We’d know if one of us was a mortal.”
“How would you know?” he asked softly, almost a plea. “You said you’ve all experienced that sudden onset of knowing, like I have. Have any of you suddenly known that any of you were immortal?”
They looked amongst themselves, the color starting to fade from their faces.
“So, why couldn’t I suddenly know that one of you was mortal?” Frank asked, the attic’s air thickening as the others shrank from the possibility with each passing moment of silence
Achilles broke it with a hammer. “So, who is it?”
Frank’s head slowly bowed. “I don’t know.”
Alexander stepped forward. “How is it you know that one of us is mortal, yet have no clue who that is?”
Frank shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Uzziel humphed. “But you know that one of us is, and we should just take your word for it. How neat and shitty is that?”
Frank spun toward him. “What does that mean?” he asked.
Uzziel was now on his feet. “You come in here out of nowhere and wreak havoc on our pleasant, little bastion of self-pity with bullshit accusations.”
“I knew nothing about any of you until I arrived.”
“Maybe you’re the mortal!”
Gino stepped between them. “Uzziel, stop.”
Frank stared dumbfounded at the angel – if that’s what it was. “If I was mortal, why would I announce my presence?”
“To sow discord, get us hating each other. That’s the kind of shit a mortal would pull.”
“I think you’ve already got a handle on that.”
“And that’s the kind of shit a mortal would use for a rebuttal.”
Gino grabbed Uzziel by his lapels. “This—is—not—helping!”
“Get off me!” Uzziel thrashed free of Gino’s grip.
Gino’s face warped into a furious snarl as he drew back his hand to strike. Frank could see the assault coming. He saw the shape of Gino’s hand, not a fist or chop or some other physical assault. It was for an attack only Gino, or his ilk, could have made.
Uzziel jumped back, his face shaded in scandalized mirth. He held up a single finger. “Be careful, Magic Fingers.”
Gino’s glower assumed a frightened tint, and the genie lowered his hand. Frank knew that it was not a fear of Uzziel or his powers that stayed his hand. He knew the angel’s words were not a threat, but a genuine warning. Why fear his own power? Frank thought.
Achilles watched in the adrenalized terror of a witness to a Mexican standoff, bracing himself for the first gunshot. Alexander watched with the detached examination of a scientist observing an experiment mid-Method. Helena ground her teeth, expelling air through nostrils quivering with rage. “Finished, you two?” She turned to Frank. “If you don’t know who the mortal is, Frank, how do you know there is one?”
“The same way I suddenly know anything. It just arrives. It’s like waking up with the sun in your eyes, but you can’t remember falling asleep. Except… when I knew there was a mortal here… it was different.”
“How so?”
Frank sighed. “I came in here looking for answers about why I was like this, and I’d thought, or, I guess, assumed you would all be looking for the same answers. But when Procula finished her story, it was like I’d been blinded by an atomic flash. My ears were ringing, and I suddenly knew more than I ever had before. I know now that you’ve stopped looking for answers. This group hasn’t provided them, but it’s become that false answer we glom onto when the true answer is too elusive. But it’s a dead end. It’s become a safe cul-de-sac in a frightening world. I know that if I help you all resume your search, I’ll find the answers I’m looking for.
“But through the white light and the high, thin roar in my eyes, one piece of information shone a little brighter and screamed a little louder. I knew one of you has never stopped searching. And then I knew that one of you was not immortal.”
“That seems thin, Frank,” said Achilles.
“It does. But it’s the truth.” Frank looked from one face to another. He saw no betrayal of mortality. Only the desperate longing to believe what they couldn’t.
“I don’t know,” Achilles ventured to the others. “What do you think?”
“Bullshit,” Uzziel summarized.
“Bullshit?” Frank repeated. “That’s the beginning and end of it as far as you’re concerned?”
“Yeah. That’s it – bullshit.”
Alexander said, “You are two hundred years-old, Frank. For an immortal, you’ve barely entered your adolescence. As you age, you will arrive at a deeper understanding of what that means, and the impact your rarified abilities will have on your existence. But I’m sorry, Frank. Entertaining the notion that you have a firm grasp of immortal wisdom strains credulity.”
Frank, his heart sinking like a corpse face-down in an interminable bog, looked to his closest ally and greatest admirer.
Helena greeted him with the pitiful eyes and wan smile typically reserved for the recently deceased’s next of kin. “Frank, I don’t doubt that you think you know this. Your description of the sudden wakefulness of learning is accurate. But I’m forced to agree with Alexander. I think you’re misinterpreting your knowledge through simple inexperience. And the new sensation you describe – the light and sound and pomp and circumstance – that’s impossible. Immortal wisdom doesn’t happen that way.”
“Actually,” Gino interrupted, a buoyant tease of Frank’s spirits, “it’s not unprecedented. There have been a handful of individuals throughout history who’ve gained knowledge in that explosive kind of way. But,” he said to Frank, “when I say a handful, that’s what I mean. I could count them on one hand. And these are people who lived for thousands and thousands of years before that explosive sensation started. It’s just not possible.”
Frank, sapped of strength, hoisted himself to his feet. He looked into Gino’s dark brown eyes, eyes that had seen so much of mankind’s experience and learned so much. “I swear to you,” Frank said solemnly, “I know what I know.”
He saw the pity pool in Gino’s eyes. He knew he had lost them, had lost his answers, had lost his path. Then he remembered Procula. He remembered her intrigued glances, her sudden vociferousness. He remembered her anguish coursing through him, riding his blood flow like a galleon piercing the whitecap of a great wave.
And he knew.
“Procula!” he exclaimed as he dropped to his knees in front of her. She jumped back as he grabbed her hands. “Tell them. Listen to me, look in my eyes. I want to know what you want. I want to help you. Tell them.”
Their eyes met, and a disorienting potpourri enveloped all five of Frank’s senses. Freshly tilled earth, burning incense, blooming thistles, decaying beasts, rotting fruit, ammonia, Chanel, barley, pitch – it was a jigsaw flavor to a lightning-flash glut of disunited images looking down on the heights of ecstasy and up at the depths of sorrow.
Frank’s orientation slowly returned. He refocused his eyes into the glowing green of Procula’s as he heard her say, “It’s true.”
“What’s true?” Helena asked with a churlish uptick.
“All of it,” said Procula. “We didn’t know because we don’t learn anymore. We’ve stopped listening to one another. How long has it been since any of us have awoken to Frank’s sudden dawn of understanding? We’ve become a carousel screaming from a stage in an empty theater.”
“Procula,” Gino said, all affability now invisible, “if you’re not getting anything out of this group, you ought to put forth a little more effort.”
 “Gino, be honest. You enjoy running the group, organizing our meetings, keeping us civil to one another, reinforcing why we’re all here. But aren’t you here to tell us what to do?” And Frank saw Procula, for the first time since entering the room, smile. He saw the soft, gentle lines in her face sharpen with the mournful regret of having to state the obvious.
Gino, shrunken to a wounded animal, breathed, “That’s what you’ve awoken to?”
Procula shook her head. “That’s just what I’ve observed.”
Gino slowly stood and walked away as a child would from his dead pet, each pitiable step underscored by Uzziel’s uncontrolled laughter.
“You are like the Morningstar,” Helena chastised.
“Oh, c’mon!” Uzziel wheezed, bent over in his seat, clutching his gut. “This is news to us?”
Frank stood before the angel. “You should be grateful to him.”
“For what?”
“For allowing you to stay in this group,” Procula answered. “He’s the only one patient enough to tolerate your infantile behavior.”
Uzziel wasn’t laughing anymore. “What the fuck is that supposed to –”
“It means, direct your anger at the one with whom you’re really angry.”
A pall eclipsed Uzziel’s unearthly luminosity. He impressed the notion that he was something not just other than human, but less than it. “I’m getting really angry at you right now!” he barked.
Frank said, “Uzziel, don’t say anything else until you’re actually ready to speak, rather than insult and antagonize.”
Uzziel leapt to his feet and started toward Frank. “You think you have the balls to tell me –”
Uzziel was struck by a furious, invisible punch that could have been a crossbeam swung by a giant. The others jumped back, and Uzziel doubled over backward. Air flecked with spittle erupted from his mouth as he hit the floor with a dead thud. Groaning through gritted teeth and eyeballs flooded red, the angel forced his head up. He looked past the invisible pestle grinding him into the mortar of the floor at his assailant.
Alexander held his arm aloft, his index and pinky fingers extended, directing the invisible force into the androgynous Virtue’s chest. The Right of Conquest’s face was unsullied by angry crimson or the hard shadows of throbbing blood vessels. It was as serene as a cloudless sky, and when Alexander spoke, his voice betrayed only the mechanical calm, the divested placidity, of war itself. “You are finished threatening the lower beings. You will comport yourself with civility, and you will offer insight to our common predicament when applicable. At all other times you will sit in silence. And I suggest you to reflect on your limitations and those of your master.” Alexander lowered his arm and the weight evaporated.
Uzziel flung himself into a seated position and clutched his chest. He stared into the ancient idea’s unfeeling eyes as white returned to his, the pupils contracted with the horror of one whose world has not simply been turned upside-down, but splintered into shards. The others watched silently as the angel pushed himself to his feet, and receded into his chair. Uzziel crossed his thin, alabaster arms over his chest like a wicker shield held before an inferno.
Frank turned to Alexander. “What changed your mind?”
“My mind has not been changed. But Procula is not likely to be swayed by prevarication. So, for the time being, I will entertain the notion.”
Frank nodded his appreciation, then turned to Achilles. “What do you think?”
“Look,” he said with a shrug, “I don’t know what’s what here, but if everybody else is willing to ‘entertain,’ then yeah, I’ll go along.”
Frank ignored the clarion-ring of Achilles’ endorsement and turned his attention to Helena. The vampiress was staring at Procula. Her eyes were in shadow, but the sparkle popping through the shade was a star going nova. The razor sheen of her cheekbones was drowning in shrunken pools as dark as her hair. She stood backlit by a lamp but ringed by a thin aura of obsidian flame. “Why should we trust your assessment?” she asked, her voice crackling like pulverized gemstones.
Procula turned to meet her gaze and never flinched. “You know why.” She said the words with the unyielding stability of Khufu’s pyramid.
Frank then knew that many lifetimes of triumph, defeat, betrayal, and redemption were wrapped around the terse exchange like thin tendrils of phosphorous. Helena nodded and skulked back to her seat. 
Procula stood and crossed the room to Gino. He stared out the attic window with tragic eyes of an abandoned dog. “Gino,” she whispered, laying a soft hand on his shoulder, “please join us. We need you. You’ve been here since near the Beginning.”
He turned to her, his voice a defeated rasp. “If I’m really a genie.”
“I would be very surprised if that was the case.”
They took their seats.
“So,” Achilles said, “what do we do now?”
Frank turned to Procula. Her eyes reached into his, and nudged him on with a smile as alluring as Helena’s bottomless gaze, took his hand with fingers as supple as feathers, and pulled him into the circle with Alexander’s adamantine strength. His nose filled with the salt of the Mediterranean and dry, sandy wind of Arabia. “Who can prove they are what they say they are?” he asked the others. 
“What do you mean?” Achilles asked.
“Well, you’ve demonstrated your invincibility. Is there anyone else who can prove what they are through demonstration?”
Uzziel stood. “How’s this?” Like a razor through tissue his wings tore through his shirt. The buttons exploded off the front, and the back was ripped down the center. The cloth tatters hung from the ivory-feathered extremities. Their full span unfurled and smacked Gino in the side of the head. “Is that what you had in mind?”
Frank looked at the others. “Anyone want to posit an alternative?” No one offered one, and Uzziel withdrew his wings and sat down, contenting himself to go bare-chested for the rest of the night. “Gino, how about you?” Frank asked.
He looked, and Gino shook his head with the gravity of reporting a loved one’s demise.
“You can’t prove it?”
Gino stared at an inconsequential spot on the floor that met the criterion of not being someone’s face. “It’s about balance. For all intents and purposes, I’m a god. The universe has to balance that by limiting how I can use that power. Unless I’m granting wishes, I can’t use my powers.”
“Well,” said Alexander, “that’s not the entire truth, Gino.”
“It certainly is.”
“You can use your powers. You choose not to.”
Frank asked, “What does he mean, Gino?”
The quote-unquote genie expelled a breath with the solitary chill of air seeping out of a tomb. “I have my powers, but I can’t use them. Not without causing myself irreparable damage.”
“You could die,” Frank said.
Gino shook his head. “Worse.”
“Worse than eternal impotence?” Procula asked.
“I wouldn’t use the word impotent!”
“It’s not meant to be an insult, Gino.”
“And yet.”
Procula looked at Frank as he said, “It’s a frustrating reminder of a painful reality.”
Gino’s shoulders bristled into hunches as he leaned forward in his seat, his elbows on his knees, his hands wrung together.
Frank watched the genie’s barely contained writhing, when milky white poured over his vision and a metallic, insectoid buzz filled his ears. The white burst into nonsense blotches of the spectrum, and the buzz trailed into a Mellotronic crescendo. When his senses returned to the room, Frank looked at Gino and understood how a god felt pain. “What would happen?” he asked, gentle as a lioness with her cubs.
“I don’t exactly know. And I don’t want to find out.”
“Well,” Uzziel said, “that’s convenient.” The group started to grumble, but Uzziel cut them off violently. “Consider me an asshole all you want, but you know I have a point. According to him, he risks killing himself if he even pulls a rabbit out of a hat. But we’re supposed to take him at his word.”
“What would you like him to do?” asked Frank. “Commit suicide to make our job easier?”
“I’m not convinced he’d be committing suicide, and none of you should be either.”
“Well,” said huffed Gino, “I can’t use my powers for my own benefit.”
Procula pointed out, “You would be benefiting all of us, Gino. We’ll all feel better with each presentation of –”
“Semantics, Procula. I would still gain from it. It wouldn’t work.”
“Like I said,” Uzziel mewled without a scant micron of wit, “convenient.”
“Jesus! What do I have to do to prove I’m a genie?”
“Do something genie-ish.”
“You wouldn’t – all of you wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for me!”
“Is that an admission?”
Frank said, “You’re being unreasonable, Uzziel.”
“Is he?” Achilles was suddenly standing. “He’s got a point. You said so yourself – you were just a man until you spontaneously became immortal. We only have your word that you’re immortal, and we only have Procula’s word that you know one of is not immortal.”
Frank didn’t know if he was more stunned by Achilles’ out-of-the-blue assertiveness or at that he was the target of the invulnerable hero’s attack. “What are you talking about?”
“We’ve never had this kind of animosity in this group before tonight.”
“Before I arrived.”
“Isn’t that what I said? You come in here, wave the Glengarry leads in our faces, and now the office is in shreds.”
Procula extended an open hand. “Achilles, calm down.”
“No. In fact we’ve just accepted that you’re the last of the Atlanteans. Can you prove that?” 
“I’d like to point out to everyone that this is one hornet’s nest I didn’t stir up.” Uzziel chimed.
“That’s debatable,” Helena countered.
Achilles continued, “As far as I’m concerned, everyone’s going to have to whip out their bona fides. What do you say, Helena?”
Frank felt his head being wrenched in opposite directions and his face fighting to shape itself into opposing contortions. He wanted to keep facing Achilles and let his face twist with disgust at his unmanageable obstreperity, but he also wanted it to limpen and sag in empathic concord in the direction of Helena. Her face was petrifying before him. Frank turned back to Achilles. “Are you insinuating she’s not who she says she is?”
“No,” Helena answered, “he’s not.” Turning to Uzziel, she said, “Tell them.”
“Tell them what? What are you mad at me for now?”
“You know damn well I’m a vampire.”
Achilles answered, “I don’t. I’ve never seen your fangs grow, I’ve never seen –”
“Is that true?” Achilles asked the angel.
“Of course it’s true,” Helena answered. “Heavenly beings can see the damned behind any disguise.”
Burnt flesh, sage, lavender, and brimstone wafted through a cascading whorl of pastels and pulsing burgundy. The colors turned porous, and through them Frank saw Helena in all the crystalline detail of a diamond under a loop, her every flaw and discoloration as vibrant and clear as her muzzle-flashes of light. Before he could act on his most recent explosion of knowledge, his senses returned, revealing Gino looming over Uzziel, his fists balled into furious little morning stars at his sides. “Goddamn you!” he screamed.
“He already has!”
Each member of the group launched themselves to their feet and unleashed a rush of accusations and counteraccusations that filled the attic’s pallid atmosphere and massed into a pulsating miasma of ad hominem. Before Frank could move to squelch the invective, before he could even fully register the din of animus, he was overcome again. A roar of ungodly tumult welled deep within his head behind and beyond his eardrums. One sound instantly crested over another, jostling for supremacy in the sonic scrum that enveloped Frank and sent him tumbling out of his seat. Curled into himself he crashed to the ground, his eyelids clasped shut and driving his fists into his ears, hoping against hope to squeeze away the clamor only he endured. He couldn’t hear or see the others turn and rush over to him, call his name, Helena frantically scream for him to come around. The clangor of sterling silver and the clack of Italian soles on alder reverberated. He recognized the frivolous bouillabaisse of voices puncturing the apocalyptic noise. It was the persiflage of his mother and her sister socialites echoing through her parlor. The violent blasts of light arcing across his closed eyes metastasized into an assaulting montage. His wife cursed him and his immortality from her deathbed, and the reek of her rapidly dying organs and her sheets stained with sweat, flew through his nostrils like a destructive comet. The woman held her frightened, weeping son, huddled behind a mountain of refuse on the outskirts of a hastily erected shantytown in Elizabeth, their odor indistinguishable from their environs’. He saw the corporal standing next to him, a boy from Conway, Arkansas, and watched his face change, watched the water gather in his eyes as they entered Buchenwald and fought not to shrink from the cries of the living skeletons piled before him. He saw the revolver in his hand, watched his trembling thumb glisten with sweat as it started to pull back the hammer, and the hammer slip from his grasp with the gun still pointed away. The scream of the revolver blasted away the aural and visual din of Frank’s past. He no longer felt his hands against his head. He felt the vaporous sands of the cosmos sifting through his fingers, the winds from a thousand spinning galaxies running over his feet like the edge of a warm ocean. The pain was gone. The noise was gone. Billions of voices, human and otherwise, came together in a harmonious “om” and sailed around him. He was spiraling peacefully, untethered to solid sphere of viscera, through a tube of infinite fireflies, the incandescence a marvel of synchronous variety. He saw at the end of the tube a shadow. His. It spread its arm, presenting the light speeding around them. Frank looked directly into the light.
And just like that, it was gone. He was back in the attic, the other immortals and the secret mortal huddled over him, and he knew.
He knew it all.
Gino and Alexander took Frank by his arms and helped him back into his seat. As the fog cleared and his sight crisped, Frank raised his hand with a slow intake of breath and said, “It’s okay. I’m okay.” He saw his compatriots’ widened eyes study him through fear-tinted lenses. 
“What do you know?” Procula asked.
Frank looked at the Atlantean and saw in her eyes, glassy and shimmering, the desperate urging of a heart dying to embrace.  “Everything. I know everything.”
“What do you mean everything?” Achilles asked.
“And it’s not a vague, common knowledge like it’s always been. Everything I now know is living around me. It’s like I’m watching life play out under the strongest microscope and listening to the explosion that birthed our universe. I can reach out and touch the entire web from end to end. Each thread has its own pungency, but the whole remains in perfect view. Procula, I can see you all those millennia ago as I’m seeing you now. I can see you seated at the kitchen table with your daughter on the night you asked her to make herself a sacrifice. She’s just become a woman.”
The tears started to flow as the memory of her daughter, having just leapt over the first hurdle of womanhood, sprung her mouth into a bittersweet smile. 
Frank went on. “I see you, Helena, looking down at Simon. I’m touching your thoughts as concretely as you’re touching his neck, letting the tears fall onto the wound, hoping they’ll wash away not only the blood, but the sin, the past, everything you are”
Helena brought her hands to her mouth over a sharp inhalation. She and Procula exchanged looks, not of shock, but of long-unspoken, synchronous regret.
“Alexander, I see you traveling every year to Damascus and standing before your friend’s mausoleum. I hear the prayers, as you do, throbbing through the Umayyad’s walls. And I hear you lament to yourself, an immoveable force in a malleable world.”
Alexander’s cragged face regarded Frank silently for several moments, then softened as if worn and eroded by eons of rain. He gave Frank a brief nod more than a little akin to a bow.
“Uzziel,” Frank continued, “your prayers are lamentations. I hear them from below the earth and from the highest planes. I hear the impotent crack of your whips against your impenetrable, angelic skin. And I hear your pleas screaming across space and time. And I feel the cold snap of the lump rising in your chest when they’re never answered.”
Uzziel, his eyes close to exploding out of his reddened face, opened his mouth, renunciation and invective teetering at the edge of his tongue. But Frank met him with only empathy and pity. Uzziel mouth slowly closed as he collapsed into his seat.
Frank turned to Gino. “I feel a pulsar’s waves of radioactive fury and I hear you in them, Gino. I hear them as you ladle out soup for the homeless in New York and administer vaccinations to children in Tanzania. I wave my hand through the tantalizing hair’s-width between you and the power the change the world.”
Gino lowered his head. He clenched his hands together, the aimless, purposeless force enough to turn diamonds into coal.
“Achilles, I feel the noose scratch your neck raw as you hang from the ceiling. I smell the fumes filling the garage as you hope to die in your car. I watch the water in your tub run red before you check your wrists and see the incisions have healed.” Frank saw the sweat bead across Achilles’ forehead. His eyes drooped sadly as he shook his head. “Didn’t you know there were other invulnerables too?”
The others’ heads darted in the direction of the exposed mortal. “Achilles?” quivered Helena.
“Son of a bitch!” fumed Uzziel.
“It’s not me! I swear to God!”
Procula neared Frank. “Who is he?” she asked.
Frank looked at the man who was Achilles, silently beseeching him to confess despite the fact that Frank knew he wouldn’t. “His name is Connor Upton,” he finally answered.
“It’s not!” he shrieked.
Frank stood. “He doesn’t know why he started to become more difficult to injure as he entered adolescence. By the time he reached manhood and he was completely impervious, the novelty had worn off. It was raising more eyebrows than he’d anticipated.”
“Stop it!”
“But there was always pain. None greater than the isolation imposed by his invincibility.”
“Fuck you! You’re lying!” Connor Upton was on the brink of tears.
Alexander stood beside Frank. “Expose your heel,” he ordered.
Connor Upton froze, his mouth agape. He looked from one member of the group to another. Only Frank greeted him with melancholy understanding. The others were unanimous in the condemnation, and Gino’s stare was an immolation stoked by impotent betrayal. But Connor Upton locked eyes with the genie and persisted. “Gino, I swear, it’s not –”
“This was my group,” he growled dark and forbidding. “I told you the rules.”
“No! Gino!”
The genie advanced on him. A stormy roll of timpani trembled through the air, and the light started to seep out of the attic. 
“Gino, what are you doing?” Procula asked.
“You can’t stop him,” said Frank. “I know it.”
The tears were streaming freely now down Connor Upton’s cheeks. “Gino, please!”
The genie grabbed the invulnerable’s face. They both screamed as a maelstrom of fiery dust enveloped them, screamed, and just as suddenly blew into nothingness. They were both gone.
Helena spun toward Frank. “What happened?”
“Gino killed him.”
Her face had somehow grown more ashen than usual. “What happened to Gino?”
Frank stared into the space where the two had stood as if viewing the decrepit remnants of a once glorious edifice. “He went were gods spend eternity.”
“Where’s that?” asked Uzziel, his voice cracking with genuine concern.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” he screamed. “You said you knew everything.”
“Uzziel…” Helena reached for the angel’s arm, but Uzziel ripped it away.
Frank lamented, “I can’t know what I can’t understand. I’m a man, not a god. None of us are.”
Uzziel stormed to the other side of the room. 
Alexander nodded mournfully. “It was his decision. He knew what he was doing. Still I can’t but regret he made it over the misguided aspirations of a mortal.”
“He was only human, Alexander. We can all appreciate that”
Helena fetched Barclay from downstairs, and they recounted to him the events of the last hour. Frank wasn’t stunned to find the innkeeper take the whole thing in stride. They drank to Gino – and to Achilles – and reminisced, regaling Frank and one another with stories of Achilles now-understandable immaturity and Gino’s stouthearted charity. Even Uzziel, once he’d chosen to forgive Frank and speak to him again, joined in the camaraderie.
Once Barclay had returned downstairs to close, the five remaining considered what to do now. They agreed that the group should be retired, but no one was willing to cast the others aside, to forget about them, to write them off as just another transient connection in the neverending stream of their seemingly endless lives. Only Uzziel elected to withdraw completely. “I have to figure things out,” he said. “I have to figure out what I’m going to do.”
“We can help you,” Frank offered.
“I know. I got to figure out what I want to be though first.”
Uzziel slid his bony, tender, chalky arms though the sleeves of a duster Barclay had supplied and left. 
Helena suggested to Procula that they meet for lunch tomorrow. They agreed on a place, and hugged each other goodbye. Before she turned to leave, Helena gave Frank a limp smile and nodded.
“Well, Frank,” Alexander said, “have you ever been to a re-enactment of a battle of the Civil War?”
Frank said that he hadn’t and agreed to attend the Battle of Antietam that Alexander was taking part in the following month. They clasped hands and Alexander took his leave.
Procula accompanied Frank to his car. They stood together beside it. “Thank you, Procula,” he said gently.
“For what?”
Frank smiled. “For…” Frank couldn’t settle on the words.
“I should be thanking you,” Procula offered. “You probably know that I haven’t spoken in three hundred years as much as I have tonight.”
“Yes,” he said with a nod. “I do.”
Procula leaned forward and kissed Frank on the cheek.
Frank blushed and smiled back at her.
“Would you like to come to bed with me tonight?” she asked.
Procula laughed. “You knew I was going to ask you that too.”
Frank nodded with another blush. He unlocked her door and started to his side. Then he stopped and turned back to her. “There’s one thing.”
Procula looked at him.
“During the episode, when all of your lives became so clear, the only one whose destiny remained elusive was mine. I saw myself, but I was in shadow. I came here tonight to find out why, for no discernible reason, I was a normal man who became immortal, but I still don’t know why.”
Procula cast her eyes away for a moment, lost in thought, before saying, “Have you ever heard of the Scribe?”
Frank shook his head.
“The Scribe is an immortal tasked with recording the entirety of human experience. Everything every human being has every done since the first of us emerged is written and protected by the Scribe. No one is sure who or what assigns the Scribe to his task, but periodically the Scribe, despite his immortality, needs to be replaced. Presumably it’s only happened a few times in the history of the human race, but it has happened. That would mean that an immortal has to be prepared to take over.”
A devilish grin crossed Procula’s face. “We’re supposed to get wiser as we get older,” she said. “How wise do you suppose someone would need to be to assume the role of the Scribe?”
“I’m to be the next Scribe?” Frank asked, a sudden wonder and trepidation welling up as he envisioned the Gordian network of paths suddenly running before him.
Procula smiled at him. “I don’t know.”
Frank smiled back. Neither did he.
He was okay with that.