Plugs

Thomas followed the map’s instructions out of the city, off the highway, into the woods.

He parked at the pulloff, hiked what seemed longer than a mile over mud and slick leaves, found the house.

He didn’t owe the Aarons anything, really. When he’d told them the company he was working for, he had no idea they’d find an agent or invest in the very financial instruments for which he was writing math. They hadn’t told him.

Frozen rain rattled down. A copse of birch trees grew up against the house’s walls, erasing whatever path once led to the front door. Even if the market hadn’t tanked, Thomas couldn’t see how they could afforded to restore it — three stories of Victorian so far from existing roads.

When Marilyn asked him go upstate and shut off the water in their summer house, it seemed like the least he could do with his Saturday. Inside, it didn’t look like the summer house of a small college football coach and his high school secretary wife. Every wall was all shelves and every shelf was crowded with seashells, unfamiliar musical instruments, crystals, lizards in jars…

He looked at the instructions to see where he’d gone wrong. The laser-printed map was now a numbered list in Luther’s handwriting. Directions: find this piece here and move it to there.

Death mask of Marie Antoinette from the library to the kitchen. Gorilla shinbone from the upstairs bathroom to the front hall rug.

No matter how many times he asked himself, he knew he hadn’t seen what future that was hiding in the formulae.

Model of the central city of Atlantis from the pink bedroom to the green.

Could have seen, but why would he have even looked, when everyone was doing so well? When he was doing so well.

Griffin’s skull (boulder-heavy and, he was sure, really some kind of dinosaur) from the rolltop in the library to the dining room sideboard.

A rearranged constellation of curiosities, completed when he set the owl’s beak on the chessboard. He heard the door lock, looked in time to see it merge with the wood of the walls.

The phonograph wound itself and spoke in Marilyn’s voice, “Thomas, dear, make yourself at home. Don’t be angry with us. We aren’t angry with you. But the house needs a caretaker, and we thought you could use some time for reflection…”

Note from the author: Although my girlfriend does read my mind sometimes, this story is not about either one of us. Occasional mind-reading is fun and exciting; it’s only constant mind-reading that’s a problem.

“That’s sweet that you like me better,” Leanne said, reading my thoughts as a jogger passed us, “but you’re right: she has a nicer ass.”

It was great that Leanne always told me what was on her mind, but I found it harder to like hearing what was on my mind. Which, unfortunately, she knew. It was also impossible to surprise her.

“But I don’t need surprises,” she said. We were walking in the postage stamp-sized park two blocks from our apartment on a Sunday morning. “Believe me, I get enough surprises just hearing what people think. The old guy at the Korner Mart yesterday: he wanted to smear–”

“Look, ducks,” I said. It was true, there were actually two ducks today in the bathtub-sized pond in the middle of the tiny park. Of course, I was just changing the subject.

“Sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t bring things like that up.”

As usual, she ignored what I said and responded to what I thought. It wasn’t even a matter of privacy: it was a matter of being able to conduct a relationship instead of having my instincts conduct it for me. For just a while, I wanted her out of my head. And she’d probably just overheard that thought, proving the importance of my point. God, I seriously needed to break up with her.

Leanne looked at me disgustedly. “Fine,” she said. “You … just … fine!”

She strode off in the direction we’d come. She was probably starting to cry already, and knowing that I knew that probably was making her cry even harder.

“Hey, get back here!” I shouted after her.

She turned, but shook her head furiously. Her tears glimmered on her cheeks. “I know what you think,” she said.

“Thinking isn’t the same as deciding,” I said, walking toward her. “If you’re going to hear everything I think, fine, but some of that stuff is crap.”

“It’s not crap!” she said. “You thought–”

I pictured crap, a big, gloppy pile of it. She snorted with laughter that she was trying not to have and made an I’m-really-amused-but-I’m-trying-to-be-angry face.

“Come on, Houdini,” I went up and took her hand. “You didn’t even look at the ducks.”

The ducks had flown away when we went back to the pond, but I remembered what they had looked like for us both, and that was almost as good.

Lem stepped off the elevator and realized he didn’t have any change. He slapped his pockets, looking for something smaller than a 10. Margie would kill him if he blew $10 on an elevator ride. She didn’t believe in propitiating the gods anyway. “They wouldn’t have given us this technology if they didn’t want us to use it,” she always said. This attitude was why he hadn’t been promoted beyond second-grade, he was sure, but try telling her that!

Someone nudged his arm. It was Jenelle, the new IT specialist whose office was still being painted. Someone had forgotten to propitiate the God of something or other and the painters had refused to work until it was taken care of. Jenelle was holding a nickel.

“Oh thanks,” Lem said. He dropped it in the brass dish, muttering “Thank you for this lift.”

“How is your office coming?”

She frowned. “I’m still camped in the coffee room.”

“Share my office,” he said. That evening on his way home, Lem put $10 in a streetside kiosk dedicated to Libidos, patron of deceivers.

Margie was not affectionate, even downright cold. Could she read his mind?

Lem helped Jenelle carry the old wooden desk into his office. He moved his desk over so hers could fit in front of the window too. He emptied one drawer in his file cabinet for her. He couldn’t help staring at her whenever he thought she wouldn’t notice. As the days passed, her attire seemed skimpier and more transparent. All he could think about was her flesh moving under her blouse and skirt. In his fantasies, she wore nothing underneath.

One day they both stayed late. The floor was deserted. He closed the door, leaned on her desk. He looked her in the eye. “You know what I’m thinking,” he said.
“I’ll draw the curtains,” she replied, and did.

“This was a high-dollar job,” the inspector said. “The blood has been completely drained. Not the work of your standard succubus. He moved the extra desk into his office about three weeks ago?”

The office manager shrugged. “No one else wanted it. More room in the lounge. No idea why he wanted it in here.”

The inspector rubbed his chin. “Any change in his behavior? Apart from the desk.”

The office manager shook his head. “Nothing beyond staying late alone almost every night.”

The office manager reached out to catch the inspector’s sleeve as he turned to leave. “Who called the succubus?”

“It’s usually the wife. That’s where my money is.”

End

We still haven’t found the grave of Alexander, but we believe that the Ark of the Covenant lies guarded in an Ethiopian church, and we have three possibilities for the location of Atlantis. My colleagues and I spend a great deal of time and grant money just turning down back roads on hunches.
For example, I once stopped in a village for gas and coffee at a place where one rather smelled like the other. In the course of a long smoke, while we waited for the owner’s cousin’s son to come fix the gas pump (you have to be willing to smoke and wait long hours if you want to get far in this profession), the owner told me about a cup at his cousin’s house, a cup no one must drink from.
“Most people die,” he said between drags.
“They just drink from it and die?” I asked.
“Just die. Like that. But not everyone. Every now and then somebody drinks from it, again and again, and that person lives a long time, long enough to get sick of living.”
“No really? Has it got poison in it? Why don’t they just destroy it?”
“Can’t. Old Joseph, when he brought it, he said, ‘Take care of this.’ Well, we give what is asked for, here, in this place.”
I decided to test this.
“May… may I see it?”
He took me up to his cousin’s house, where we were graciously shown into the garden, and where I saw the Grail in its little homemade shrine, set into the wall against the hillside.
Now, I have tenure and a reputation to keep up, and I did not want to violate my host’s hospitality, so I waited a week before I came back to steal the Grail.
When I climbed into the night garden, the shrine stood empty, except for a polite note in a copperplate hand that read: “Old Joseph warned us that people would try to take this, even fight over it. So we leave it in the open, because we’ve learned that that is the best way we can protect it. If you don’t want to die, please do us the courtesy of telling this story, but never say the name of our village or give any particulars that might help someone else find us. Thank you, and have a good night.”

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