Aphelion Issue 231, Volume 22
August 2018
 
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Maggie's Farm

by Charles Ebert




When Maggie finally answered the door, she was carrying a grapefruit. Its spotted skin sagged in her hand like a beanbag and the rotten citrus smell filled my nose. Maggie's fingers were spotted too and the flesh around them was soft and wrinkled. Still, her tight jeans stretched over slim hips, and her smile lit up my world.

"Bear," she said, dropping the grapefruit on the hall table amidst keys, junk mail, and old batteries. She gave me a big Maggie hug. I gathered her up in both arms, lifting her easily and holding her to my chest. For a moment, she was mine. I held her, taking in that smell: incense and tobacco. Not even the thought of Jake could ruin it.

"When did you get into town?" she asked, disengaging. Her voice was as scratchy as my old Bob Dylan albums.

"About an hour ago," I said. "I stopped to eat a burger in Naperville."

Maggie smiled and motioned me into the living room of the small apartment. On the walls were faded concert posters for shows by the Dead and Jefferson Airplane. "So you're not hungry?"

"You kiddin'? Always room for more," I said, patting my belly. She laughed as she crossed the small living room to get to the kitchen.

"I have some leftover casserole in the fridge," she said. I followed her and sat down at the table. She opened the refrigerator and took out two beers. Slapping one down in front of me, she twisted the top off the other.

"So, he's here in Chicago?" I said, opening mine.

She took a swig and nodded. "He just started up again about a month ago--three victims so far. Fortunately, no one's been killed. I don't think the police have thought to check for similar incidents."

"You'd think some cop in St. Louis or one of the other towns would remember and call them up."

Maggie set her beer on the counter and opened the refrigerator again. "So far it's only a local story, but it's just a matter of time."

I rolled the neck of my beer bottle between my thumb and forefinger. "Why don't we just tell them, Maggie? Before someone else dies. That's the right thing to do."

She emerged from the depths of the refrigerator, holding a half-empty casserole dish. A graceful motion of her hips pushed the door closed. She shook her head. "They'd never believe the truth." She set the dish on top of the counter. "And there's my father. He's still mad enough to press charges. I don't want to spend the rest of my life in prison."

Standing on tiptoe, she reached into a cupboard and retrieved a plastic bowl.

"And what about Jake?" she continued, setting the bowl on the counter and scooping half of the remaining casserole into it. "The cops will just figure he's some whacko and strap him down in a mental institution for the rest of his life. He still has lucid moments, Bear. I don't want that for him."

"You really think he can be helped after all this time?"

Maggie shrugged and shoved my dinner into the microwave. She didn't look at me. "I've got something that might work. Assuming we can catch him this time."

Looking at her now, it was hard for me to remember that back in '69 Maggie had been a pre-med student at Stanford. She had worn plaid skirts and white blouses, and called herself Margaret. One night, she and her friends went slumming in the Haight where she met Jake and me. We promptly introduced her to the scene.

As she leaned against the counter in her jeans and a tied-dyed T-shirt, I wondered if she ever blamed us for her lost potential. There were times, especially in the last thirty years, when I resented Jake for turning me on to all that stuff, and I hadn't lost nearly as much as Maggie. I was just a big dumb kid from Modesto whose knees were too weak to play football.

I came to the same conclusion I always did. It had been Maggie's choice. In those days, Jake was the most persuasive tempter I've ever known. But Maggie was strong and smart and would have told us to go to hell if she hadn't been interested in the life we were offering.

The microwave beeped and Maggie opened the door. She scooped a steaming heap of ground beef, macaroni and tomato sauce onto a plate, which she set down in front of me. But I couldn't stop looking at her long enough to eat. After all the miles and all the drugs and violence, her eyes still looked sharp. The skin around them drooped a little, but that intelligence still burned.

She caught me staring at her and smiled. "How're you doing, Bear?"

I leaned back and set down my fork. "You know me. I always manage to get along. Had a job at a bike shop in Bullhead City when I read your ad in the Rolling Stone. It wasn't anything I minded walking away from. How about you?"

She shrugged, frowning. "Waitress at a bar downtown. Not the greatest place, but I get by with the tips."

I could see the subject of our careers didn't interest her.

"Boy, the Rolling Stone sure sucks nowadays, doesn't it?"

"They lost all credibility when they moved to New York," she said, sitting down.

I shook my head. "And the people they put on the cover now: empty-headed pop stars from bands I never heard of, or movie, even sports stars. It's a total sell-out."

"And if they can't find any of them, they just stick a naked girl on there."

"Now that I don't mind." She rewarded me with a playful whack on my shoulder.

When we stopped laughing, she sighed. "I guess the sixties are over, Bear."

I took a long drink of beer and shook my head. "There are still pockets of it here and there, waiting to rise again, someday."

She smiled, but I could tell she wasn't convinced. "Still, maybe we should switch to High Times or Heavy Metal."

"Or maybe we could keep in touch from now on?"

Maggie put her hand on mine. "If we catch him, we'll talk about it." We had decided twenty-eight years ago that it was important that at least one of us be at liberty to try and stop Jake whenever he surfaced. So we lived apart, disconnected, not knowing where the other one was, so if one was caught, the other would be safe.

"When Dad dies, we can go back to California. Mom won't testify and they'll drop the charges." She nodded, trying to convince herself.

I changed the subject again. "You want me to call the paper?"

"I already did. The ad appeared today."

I looked at her disapprovingly. "That's a pretty big risk. What if he'd come before I did?"

She looked away from me. "I just want to get this over with."

My stomach growled and I leaned forward and started in on the casserole. We spent the next few hours drinking beer and catching up. It was a thirty-year-old ritual with us: waiting for Jake.

Back in 1972, the three of us shared an efficiency on Broderick Street in the Haight. It was cramped and cold at night, especially in the bathtub where I slept. But I still think of those as the best years of my life.

One Friday at about eight in the evening, I came back to the place with about twenty bucks worth of change in my pockets from panhandling all day near Fisherman's Wharf. I opened the door to the apartment and clanged into the single room. Maggie was lying on the bed, watching TV with the sound off and sucking on a roach. The sweet smell of weed permeated the apartment.

"Where have you been?" she said, looking at me with bloodshot eyes. She was wearing jeans that had been cut off very short and her tan legs were entangled in the unmade bedclothes. For a top, she had some scrubs that her sister, a nurse, had given her. Her hair was mussed but clean, framing a puffy face with high cheekbones and a large nose.

"I missed the bus again," I said, crossing the room and sitting on the windowsill. "Did Jake leave already?"

"You see him around?" She waved her hand around the efficiency. The bathroom door was open and the light was off.

I bowed my head. "I'm sorry."

She sighed and sat up on the side of the bed, almost across from me. "No, I'm sorry, Bear. I'm just not used to having you around again."

"I guess I get in the way."

She smiled and then handed me the roach clip. "Here, I've had enough. I'm going to get something to eat."

She got off the bed and went to the cabinets on the other side of the room and started ransacking them. I relaxed and took a few tokes. The joint was just about finished.

The door opened and Jake blew into the tiny room. He had a raincoat on, even though it was summer, and sunglasses. Looking around, he tossed a paper bag on the bed.

"Hey, babe," he said to Maggie, taking off the shades. She was reaching up to the top shelf of the cupboard. The curves of her buttocks were just visible beneath the cutoffs. Jake grabbed her and spun her around, burying his face in her neck, his hands working their way around the small of her back. The kiss went on for a long moment, and I thought I'd have to go out into the hall to wait for a while. But Jake broke it off just when I had decided to get up.

Maggie put a hand on the counter and rolled her head back, letting out a sigh. "You weren't out long."

"No," said Jake, watching the long curve of her neck. When Jake looked at Maggie, all the attitude drained out of his face. His smile changed, losing its impudent edge and becoming softer. It was like he was seeing his home after a long trip. He was always a lot less manic when she was around.

Maggie rolled her head forward, obviously feeling the marijuana buzz and enjoying the look on Jake's face. Her smile mirrored his as she straightened the lapels on his raincoat, and smoothed the front with a couple of gentle brushes of her hand. He took her hand in his and gave it a few light strokes.

"Hey," Jake shouted, tearing himself away from her to face me. "Big Time Wrestling!"

He grabbed the back of my neck and we got into it, falling on to the bed. Jake actually wrestled on the varsity at his high school for a couple of years before he dropped out. He had some pretty good moves. But, of course, I outweighed him by fifty pounds and was a good nine inches taller, so it wasn't long before I had him in a full nelson, my fingers locked behind his neck, with his forehead jammed into the mattress.

"No fair," he said. "Full nelson's illegal in real wrestling."

"You called Big Time Wrestling," I said. "Now say it."

"No," he said, trying not to laugh.

"Say it." I pushed him further down into the bed.

"Uncle!"

"What?"

"Uncle!" he shouted. I let him go and pushed him off the bed. He lay on the floor for a second until he stopped laughing. Maggie just looked at us and shook her head.

I leaned back against the headboard. My heart was pounding and my face felt flushed, not just from the effort, but from the thrill of winning. Wrestling was the only thing I could beat Jake at. It never occurred to me to wonder why he kept trying.

"So, did you score?" asked Maggie, motioning to the bag lying on the bed amidst all the change that had fallen out of my pocket during the wrestling.

Jake got up and sat on the side of the bed. "A couple of nickel bags," he said.

"That's it?" asked Maggie, picking up the bag. "That's supposed to last us the whole weekend?"

Jake got up and went to the sink, pouring himself some water into a glass from the cupboard. "You guys can have it. It just clouds my mind."

"You had fifty bucks when you left," said Maggie.

Jake looked down into his water glass and smiled. "I bought something."

Maggie dropped the bag and crossed her arms. "You didn't score some horse, did you? Cause if you're going to spend the weekend strung out on heroin, I'm going to my sister's."

"No, it's nothing like that," said Jake, setting the glass on the counter and reaching into the pocket of his raincoat. "I bought this."

In his right hand was a rock. It was gray with black flecks, and a little too big for Jake's hand. He gave it to her. I leaned forward and examined it as she turned it over. The surface was smooth and it had kind of a twisted shape as if it had been melted and then cooled down again.

"What the hell is this thing?" said Maggie.

"It's a meteorite, man," he said, taking it from her. "It came down in Baja two nights ago. Jim and Esteban saw it. They dug it up, cuz they knew I'd be interested."

"Oh, Jake," said Maggie, plopping down on the bed. "You bought a rock from a couple of pushers?"

"It's not a rock, Maggie," he said, sitting beside her and holding it out to her. "It's a communication. This is from the stars and it's no coincidence I'm holding it now."

Maggie frowned and looked down at her hands. Even I had to look away. Ever since I had known Jake, he'd been convinced that aliens were trying to talk to him, or had talked to him--it changed with his mood and whatever drugs he was taking.

"Christ, Jake," said Maggie, her voice a little higher than usual.

"We're going to have to go down to your folk's place in the valley. I don't want to be disturbed while I study this. Are they still in Europe?"

"For another month, at least. But Jake…"

He turned to me. "Did you get much on the street today?"

I whacked the bed, making the change jingle. "Good day," I said.

"Cool. That's gas money. Come on guys, let's get packing. We're going down to Maggie's Farm."


* * *

"I think I know what happened, now," said Maggie. We sat on her couch in Chicago almost thirty years later, drinking beer. The television was on with the sound turned down.

"What?" I asked, shifting in my seat.

"That rock had to be some kind of nano-technology."

"What-technology?"

"Microscopic robots that can break down and construct materials at the molecular level. It's been in the news lately. It had to have been sent by aliens who couldn't come themselves because it was too far."

"You're beginning to sound like Jake," I said, trying to tease her. She frowned.

"You've seen all the things I have, Bear. What else can it be? Jake was right--at least about them being aliens. Only it wasn't the Star Trek gig he'd imagined. It was millions of molecules hidden deep in that meteorite, waiting for someone to...I don't know. Do whatever Jake did."

I drained my beer and got up to get another one. "So where does that leave Jake?"

There was silence while I opened the fridge and grabbed two more bottles. I twisted them open and threw the caps into the garbage. When I returned to the living room, Maggie had a thoughtful expression on her face. Absently, she laid her empty on the end table and motioned me to put the full one down beside it.

She stood up and walked to the hallway closet. Opening the door, she retrieved a cardboard box from the top shelf. When she set it down, I could see a tangled mass of electronic equipment inside. She reached in and pulled out a manila envelope.

"What's all that stuff?" I asked.

"It's an electroencephalograph," she said, opening the envelope.

I eyed the jumble and said, "I'll take your word for it."

"My sister still works at Cowell Hospital in Berkeley. She knows somebody in records who was able to get me a copy of this."

Maggie handed me a sheet of paper. It was a photocopy of some kind of medical chart with a squiggly line on it.

"What is it?"

"That's Jake's EEG, taken in 1970, when he went in for that psych evaluation." She took it back from me and examined it like she was looking at an old picture of Jake. "One thing we do know is that spike he's been carrying around conducts electrical current. That's what scrambled his brains. If I can hook him up to this equipment and manipulate that current to get his brainwaves to match his old pattern, we might get Jake back again."

I stared at her, trying to understand. Something was confusing me. And from the look in her eyes, it was clear that she wouldn't be very patient with questions on this point. But it occurred to me that if it were that simple to restore mental balance in someone, why didn't they do it with crazy people and epileptics?

Of course, Maggie knew a lot more about this stuff than I ever would.

"There's one more thing, Bear." She leaned toward me, putting her hand on my shoulder. I looked at her, feeling the goosebumps run up and down my arms and back.

"What?"

"We're going to have to go in through the eye."

I drew away from her. My throat went dry and my hands were shaking as I dragged them through my hair. "Why?"

"It's the most direct path to the brain, Bear. I don't like it either, but we don't have a choice."

Through the eye. That's how this all began.

Maggie's parents had a place near Fresno where they grew strawberries that they sold to local markets. They didn't make much money, but they were rich and the farm was more of a hobby to them. We called it Maggie's Farm, after the Bob Dylan song.

Maggie and I were out walking by the dry brown fields, trying to catch whatever breeze we could find in the stifling air. She was telling me about growing up out there when we noticed the smoke coming out of the barn.

"Oh, man," I said, breaking into a run. My first thought was that Jake had changed his mind and decided to smoke a joint after all. When he was distracted or stoned, he wasn't always careful with the lighter. We had put out more than one small fire back in our apartment.

When I pushed open the barn door I saw Jake, sitting cross-legged, totally absorbed. The rock was glowing red and sitting in the middle of four square feet of charred planking. Maggie slipped in behind me.

"Jake," I yelled. "Come on. The barn's on fire."

He waved at me, not taking his eyes off the rock. "It's changing," he said.

In spite of the situation, I looked. It was doing more than just glowing. It writhed and churned like lava in a film I saw once in high school. But that stuff was flowing somewhere. The rock stayed where it was. Except for a long tentacle that pulled out of one end as we watched.

Maggie was crying now and coughing. She ran forward and grabbed Jake's arm, pulling on it. But he wouldn't move.

"Look, Baby, it's turning into something. They want to communicate. I know it."

"Bear, help me," she said.

With all my might, I tried to haul him toward the door but I couldn't quite get him into a hold. Jake twisted out of my grip. I was going to have to knock him out. Desperately, I looked around. Sitting on a workbench across the room, was a tire iron.

I rushed to the bench and grabbed it.

The tentacle solidified into a metal spike about three and a half feet long. It extended toward Jake, who watched, fascinated. Even though the churning mass of the rock was molten red and yellow, the spike was cool white and narrowed to a point.

It stopped, the tip hanging in the air for a second, swaying as if it were a snake surveying its surroundings.

"Speak to me, man," Jake shouted at the spike, which was about a foot or so from his face.

The spike lanced forward so quickly, I didn't see it move. The next thing I knew, it was in Jake's eye. Maggie screamed in terror.

Rushing forward, I swung the tire iron and brought it down on the rock. I did it again and again. Gobs of molten lava shot into the air with every strike. They mixed with ash and burning cinders.

A few moments later, the rock was a puddle of goo. The air inside the barn was hot, making it hard to catch a breath.

Jake hung limp in Maggie's arms. About a foot and a half of the spike still remained in his eye. She struggled to keep him from falling on his face and driving it deeper into his brain. Blood spiraled down its length. It dripped onto the charred floor and sizzled.

"Help me get him out of here," Maggie shouted.

I threw the tire iron onto the remains of the rock and picked up Jake, being careful not to disturb the spike. Then I ran out of the barn with Maggie right behind me.

We didn't stop running until we were a couple hundred feet from the barn. Setting Jake on his back, I tried not to look at the wound.

The barn went up in a ball of flame and ugly black smoke. Maggie leaned on me, her arms encircling my chest. She was weeping.

"We've got to get him to a hospital," she said. "We've got to get him into the back of the bus and…"

She couldn't finish. I looked over her shoulder at where I'd left Jake.

He was gone.


* * *

A few days later, we began hearing about the Sacramento Spikeman. Three people had had eyes poked out. One of them died. The two survivors said a one eyed man did it. We both knew it had to be Jake.

Of course, by that time we had problems of our own. Maggie's parents had come home and her father accused us of burning down his barn. We had to leave California.


* * *

My beer was empty. I licked my dry lips and thought about getting another one but decided against it. Afterwards would be the time for drinking.

"Christ, Maggie," I said, getting up to pace. "I don't know if I can do it."

"It's for Jake," she said, twisting around to look at me.

"But don't those EEG things have electrodes that connect to the brain? Can't you do it from there?" I stopped pacing in the foyer by the hall closet.

She shook her head. "No, Bear. They measure electrical activity from the brain but aren't actually connected. We need a physical connection."

I nodded, looking into the living room. Nothing had changed since I had arrived, but somehow everything had. A lamp sat on an end table, casting a dingy yellow light over the stained couch and carpet. The TV was running with the sound off. Across the living room, I could see just a slice of the kitchen with the metal and vinyl chair I'd been sitting in still pushed back from the table. It all had a grainy look to it, like a cheap movie, which somehow made it seem more real.

There was a knock at the door.

Maggie gasped and brought both hands up to her face. I turned and picked up the grapefruit.

"Be careful," whispered Maggie. I motioned to her to be quiet.

My hands shaking, I pressed the grapefruit against the door beside the peephole. Then, after a second to calm myself, I rolled it over the glass lens.

The grapefruit split open. A needle sharp point pierced it. I shouted and squeezed the grapefruit, grabbing the spike before it could retract. Rotten, sticky juice exploded all over the door and my shirt. I could feel the spike slipping out of my fingers.

"Jake, let go," I screamed. Instead, he started tugging at spike. Little bursts of energy. I tried to discard the ruins of the grapefruit while keeping my grip on the spike. But I was losing. My hands were sticky but the spike was slick. It went back through the ruined peephole, pinching the skin on my palms.

"Damn," I shouted, pounding the wall and putting a good dent in it.

"Bear," came Maggie's voice from behind me.

"What?"

"He's getting away."

I unlocked the door and pushed it open. "Lock it," I shouted to her on my way out.

A quick glance down the hall revealed an open window at one end. I ran to it and poked my head outside. I could hear Jake climbing down the fire escape.

"Jake," I shouted once I got to the window. "It's me, Bear."

I couldn't see or hear him. Either he'd stopped or had reached the bottom and was hiding. And then a movement caught my eye. It was a subtle thing; just a shadow crossing a reflection in an oil stain. But I saw it.

With a painful groan, I climbed through the window and descended the fire escape. This is stupid, I thought. I was too exposed and making too much noise as I clambered down the metal steps. The flesh on the back of my neck itched and my stomach contracted into a ball. As soon as my feet hit the concrete, I spun around and put my back to the wall.

The air was like a wet sponge. It took an effort to draw it in. Sweat stung my eyes and dripped off my nose.

Pushing off from the wall, I ventured into the middle of the alley. The feeble light of the street lamp barely penetrated the gloom. But my eyes adjusted, and I saw the outlines of a dumpster and a few trashcans strewn across the pavement.

And an inky figure stepping out of a doorway.

"Jake?" I asked, almost hoping it was some punk, thinking he could roll me; that I could handle.

The figure broke into a run and shot past me. I tried to grab it but only came up with air. But as I reached, I shifted my weight to the left and tried to spin around. A sharp pain jabbed through my knee and I went down in a heap.

It wasn't serious. I didn't need to see a doctor. But I would be spending the next few minutes hissing four letter words at the alley walls. Long enough for Jake to get clean away. I thought of Maggie and cursed harder, tears of frustration rolling down my cheeks.

"Bear?" The voice broke into my diatribe. I looked up, and silhouetted in the light of the street lamp was a gangly figure.

"Hey, Jake."

"You ok, man?"

I winced as I sat forward on the pavement. "You know my knees, Jake. Just a twinge."

Silence. I thought he'd switched back to animal mode again. But then he spoke. "I wanted to see Maggie."

"She's around. Help me up and I'll take you to her." I said it as casually as I could, but my voice was still strained.

This time the silence dragged out. I massaged my aching knee and tried to blink the sweat out of my eyes. Jake was maybe six feet away, his silhouette twitching like a lizard caught on a hot sidewalk. I was just about to say something more when he walked forward.

He brought the spike up to my face.

I focused on that impossibly sharp point, which was maybe three inches from my left eye. My breathing stopped. I stopped rubbing my knee. The moment stretched to the point of pulling apart.

"Do you promise to take me to Maggie?"

I drew in a ragged breath and croaked, "It's cool Jake. I'm going to help you."

After another tortuous minute, the spike withdrew and was replaced by a hand. I grabbed it and let Jake pull me up from the concrete.

"Thanks, Jake," I said, still holding his hand.

"Sure, buddy."

"Hey, Jake," I said, smiling. "Big Time Wrestling."

I yanked him towards me and grabbed his shoulders. Turning him around, I put him in a half nelson. Then I snatched the spike out of his hand and stuffed it in my back pocket. It stuck out about nine inches but it wasn't going to fall out. I put my other hand on the back of his neck. His only reaction was a surprised grunt.

"Sorry, Jake, but you've been going in and out on us for close to thirty years. I can't take any chances."

"You know, the full Nelson is illegal in real wrestling," he said as we walked in step toward the street.

I smiled. "Just call me…Oh, hell, what was that wrestler's name? The big one with the greasy hair?"

"Bobo Brazil," he said.

"That's the guy. Just call me Bobo Brazil."

"I'd take Flying Fred Curry any day."

I laughed. "Brazil's closer to my weight class."

"The wrestler or the country?"

"Keep it up, funny boy," I growled, but I was smiling. We turned the corner and walked up the street toward the building entrance.

"Hey, Bear," he said, as I elbowed our way into the building. "Is the war over?"

"Yeah, it's over. LBJ and Tricky Dick are dead. The whole thing's done with." Through my fingers, I could feel him trying to nod.

Pushing the elevator button with my elbow, I stepped back and hoped nobody would come in right then or be in the elevator when it opened. This would be hard to explain. But then again, in neighborhoods like this one, people tended not to ask too many questions.

The doors opened to an empty elevator. I marched Jake inside.

"They're in the eyes, Bear."

"What?" The doors closed.

"The aliens. Sometimes you can see them if you stare at a blank wall or just unfocus for a second. They float in the watery parts of your eyes."

"Whatever you say, Jake."

He screamed, and tried to twist out of my grip. I managed to hold on, even though he caught me unprepared. I forced him downward. I could feel the sweat on his neck through my palms.

"Uncle," he shouted. "Uncle, you son of a bitch."

"Jesus, Jake, I'm just trying to help, like I said I would."

The door slid open and he planted his feet on either side of it. I leaned back and then wrenched him around, dragging him out of the elevator backwards. We went like that down the hall until we got to Maggie's door.

"Maggie, I've got him," I shouted. "Open up."

The door swung open and I dragged Jake into the apartment. When he saw Maggie, his struggles increased. He tried to kick her. Only my pulling him further in prevented him.

"We've got to calm him down, man," I said, tightening my grip.

"Here, put him against the wall."

I pushed Jake into the living room wall, pinning him to it with all my weight.

"Hold his arm up."

I released my grip on the back of his neck and grabbed his wrist, pulling his arm out and away from his body. Jake tried to squirm out of my grip.

Maggie's hand reached in, holding a syringe. She slipped the needle into Jake's arm and pressed down on the plunger.

Jake roared and twisted until the energy in his body drained away. I gently lowered him to the floor and leaned against the wall, catching my breath.

Maggie put her hand on my shoulder. My eyes locked onto the empty needle in her other hand.

"Morphine," she said. "I don't do junk anymore, but I still have connections."

I nodded, grabbing the spike out of my back pocket and handing it to her. "Where do you want him?"

"Bathroom," she said.

Picking Jake up, I followed her, pausing as she opened the door. Maggie had laid a new shower curtain on the floor and the plastic smell filled the small bathroom. I set Jake down. The room was typical Maggie. About fifty candles sat on the toilet tank and on various shelves and the sink. A couple of them were lit. Looking in the tub, I saw the used medical equipment all set up. It looked like a hopeless tangle of wires and gray boxes.

There was a pile of bandages and plastic bottles sitting on the floor by the tub. Maggie picked up a bottle of rubbing alcohol and twisted off the cap. She soaked a square of gauze and then started cleaning the spike.

"Is there anything you want me to do?" I asked.

"Just try and relax, Bear. You've got the tough part." She pulled some wires out of the mess in the tub and pressed them against the blunt end of the spike, securing them with black electrical tape.

Her eyes were red and puffy, and tears flowed freely down her face. I sat down on the floor next to the sink, thinking how difficult the years must have been for her. To be separated from Jake, on the run and alone, unable to settle anywhere for long or even use her real name. It had to have been rough. I know it hadn't been easy for me, and I'd been brought up rough. Maggie had been a rich kid.

She snatched a little razor from off the sink and took it out of the plastic and shaved away patches of Jake's hair.

I looked at Jake, my first good look since twenty-eight years ago. Of course, the wound is what most I noticed first. A horrible scar had formed over it. The twisted flesh was lined with impacted grime, as were all the lines and seams on Jake's face. The clothes he wore were rags and ones my Mother would have thrown out at that.

But I could still see Jake in there. Even unconscious, an irreverent grin pulled the sides of his mouth. The end of his nose pointed up at a defiant angle. He still had the same wiry frame that made him such a contrast to me.

Maggie eyed me as she squeezed some goo onto the shaved areas of Jake's head and applied the electrodes.

"You OK, Bear?" she said.

I nodded at her, taking deep breaths to calm myself. I could tell she wasn't doing much better. She wiped the goo off her hands with a paper towel and then put it into a grocery bag at Jake's feet. If things went wrong, we'd want to be able to easily destroy the evidence.

She looked up at me, her eyes filled with fear. "You're on," she said, holding out the spike.

I took it very slowly because her hands were shaking and so were mine. The light glistened off the surface where Maggie had rubbed it with alcohol. It was white with spiraling lines going up the length of it. It was about a foot long. Somewhere along the way, it had lost some length.

Scooting up, I clamped Jake's head between my knees and Maggie stuffed gauze and bandages along the side of his face. He was still unconscious, his good eye closed.

I grabbed the spike in two hands and waited until I stopped shaking. Then I slowly brought it down.

"Sorry about this, man," I said, as the point pierced the old wound. Blood welled up around the spike and flowed down the side of his head. Maggie leaned forward daubed it away. I could feel the tears rolling down my cheeks. Jake was silent but I whimpered like a baby.

"I think that's far enough," said Maggie, touching my forearms. She leaned back and threw the blood-soaked gauze into the bag. "Now get back, while I plug in the EEG."

Gratefully, I let go of the spike and wiped the blood from my hands, putting the paper towels into the bag. Then I leaned back against the doorjamb, trying not to touch the sink.

Maggie took a deep breath, not making eye contact with me. She paused, tears rolling down her face and neck. He fingers grasped an electrical plug. But she just held it as she looked at Jake and cried. Setting the plug down, she leaned forward and put Jake's face in both her hands.

She kissed him and said, "I love you, Jake." She glanced up at me and then back down to Jake. It felt like those times in the old apartment when I had to wait in the hall. "Soon you'll be free."

Maggie leaned back, dragging her hands down the length of her face.

"You can do it, Maggie," I said.

She nodded and with shaking hands, she picked up the plug and pushed it into a cheap extension cord. Only then did my slow-working mind begin to realize something was wrong. Of course, it was too late.

There was a flash, and then a sizzling sound followed by darkness and the heavy smell of burning flesh.

I sat on the floor of the bathroom, unable to feel my limbs. I tried to scream but my throat was constricted. My eyes were locked on Jake's body, which lay, unmoving. The spike was in his eye socket, smoke curling up from the wound. Maggie sat in the corner, hugging her knees and weeping. The wires attached to the spike led to the extension cord. They weren't connected to the medical equipment in any way.

Finally, I could move; I rolled over and vomited into the toilet.

"Jesus," I said, when I'd finished. "What'd you do, Maggie?"

She was blubbering and sniffing back tears. "We couldn't help him, Bear. And I didn't want to see him in some kind of asylum."

Painfully, I stood up, using the wall for support. "But I was just talking to him. Down on the street. He was fine. I promised I'd help him."

"He's always had his lucid moments, Bear. You knew that. He called me sometimes. This is what he wanted."

"Then why did you need me here? Why all this junk? Why didn't you just shoot him?" I pushed off from the wall, my indignation growing.

Her head lolled back and she said, "I couldn't catch him by myself, Bear. And I needed you."

"But why the spike? Why did you make me…" I saw my hands pantomiming placing the spike into Jake's eye socket.

"Because of the nanobots. They were real, Bear. Jake could hear them talking to him. We had to be sure they were destroyed."

"Why didn't you tell me?" I shouted, my fists cutting through the air.

"Because you wouldn't have gone along with it," she said. "It took me ten years to work up the nerve."

Ten years! I turned to the door, slamming my fist into the wall. The whole bathroom shook.

"I just told him I would help him."

"You did, Bear. You helped him."

I roared, grabbing the doorjamb and trying to pull it off the wall.

"Don't you think this was tough for me?" she yelled. I turned on her, ready to shout at her again. "He was my old man." Her words disintegrated into tears and she curled up into a ball.

Part of me knew I should stay, but I couldn't. I punched the wall again and walked out of the apartment, slamming the door. It rained all the way back to Arizona.


* * *

She was right, of course. Jake had been beyond help. I couldn't admit it to myself until I got back to Bullhead City. I sat in my broiling apartment for two weeks, waiting for the police. Surely Maggie couldn't have cleared up that mess by herself. And the way I deserted her, I figured I deserved to spend the rest of my life in jail.

But the police never came. I never heard anything about Maggie being arrested in Chicago, either. She must have dealt with it. Somehow, that made me feel worse. I even considered turning myself in on the arson charges. But I knew I'd have to answer a lot of questions about my accomplices. Maggie's father would demand to know where she was. Even though I didn't know, I couldn't take the chance that they'd get some kind of useful lead out of me.

I didn't want to betray her again.

I went back to Chicago. Some old man answered her door. There was a new peephole but the couch and the hall table were still there. I even noticed that the hole was still there where I'd punched the wall after letting Jake get away.

"Don't know where that came from," said the old man. "The things some people do around here." He shook his head.

I talked to the landlord who said she hadn't left a forwarding address. So I went back to Arizona, empty-handed.

Eventually, I took out an ad in The Rolling Stone. When several months went by with no answer, I tried High Times and even Heavy Metal. No luck.

She's out there somewhere, in another truck stop or seedy bar, taking orders, fending off drunks. She's carrying with her the weight of what she's done.

And she's doing it all alone.

I guess the sixties are really over.


THE END


2013 Charles Ebert

Bio: Mr. Ebert is a librarian from Durham, North Carolina and has been writing since high school. He has had stories published in Aoife's Kiss and he won honorable mentions from both Xignals and Writers of the Future. Kaleidotrope will run another of his tales in 2015.

E-mail: Charles Ebert

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