December, 2016 — Minneapolis, Minnesota
The Hawthorne neighborhood in the Near North of Minneapolis is a square mile bisected from south to north by the ten lanes of I-94 and bounded on the east by the great Mississippi, already five hundred feet wide less than two hundred miles from its origins. Even before the War the large neighborhood was not especially prosperous, but it was well kept up with peaceful tree-lined streets and a lower crime rate than central Minneapolis.
In history’s first brief nuclear war almost seven years ago, the United States was victorious. In this neighborhood it doesn’t look like it. One effect of the establishment of US Foreign Command rule over two-thirds of the planet was the sudden simultaneous establishment of the largest free-trade zone that the world has ever seen. The effect upon the Hawthorne area has been catastrophic. Manufacturing jobs which supplied more than half of all employment for the area’s several thousand families have all but disappeared. Construction activity dried up soon thereafter. Helpful statist politicians moved in with government subsidies to ‘save’ the middle class and provide consequence-free income and housing. The result is that, after almost seven years, the northern half of Hawthorne has had thirty-five murders this year—still time to get a few more in before Christmas!—one hundred and fifty reported robberies, four hundred reported burglaries, and nearly nine hundred emergency calls related to drug overdoses. The combination of government assistance and cheap heroin, occasionally laced with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, has hit north Hawthorne like an invisible nuclear detonation. More subtle even than a so-called neutron bomb, this nuke not only leaves the buildings standing but it also spares the lives of most of the residents. It only destroys their souls. Some people have compared the epidemic to the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century, suggesting that the drug epidemic is the revenge of China upon the West, inspired by the Opium Wars and motivated by its semi-defeat seven years ago. In fact, however, the epidemic is another form of government assistance. More than ninety percent of the new drugs are coming from southern China and southeast and south-central Asia: all areas that are firmly under the control of US Foreign Command. This is not a fact that is reported by any HomeSec-approved news source.
There have been two hundred and nineteen drug overdose deaths in Hawthorne this year. Tonight there will be two more: John Straight who is now climbing out of his car on the north side of 26th Avenue, and his white acquaintance Norman Fisher.
John is in front of a townhouse complex that is was originally built to look like a series of white castles. Sort of. The effect consists of siding that was cut to resemble white rectangular stones, and an attempt at fake crenelations along the top of the row of buildings two stories high. Even when it was all new in the late nineteen fifties the effect was pretty weak, and time has not been kind. But the land to the west is mostly open lots now and 26th street is relatively high—It passes over I-94 just fifty yards to the east, and from experience John knows that the sound of rushing traffic on the highway will be loud even inside Fisher’s place.—and the light of the setting sun, shining on the dingy off-white front of the long building is giving it, just for a few moments, a kind of sad grandeur.
The day is clear and pleasantly warmer than normal for this time of year, so John Straight decides to lean against his car and have a smoke before going inside to get his hit. He is nearing the point where he will not be able to resist running in there no matter what, but for right now he decides he can wait for the duration of a smoke, so he lights up and leans against the car and watches the sun go down.
Sad grandeur is the only kind that John Straight has ever known. At the age of twenty-eight he has never held a paying job for longer than two days. Raised on the White Earth Reservation up north by a drunk man and a crazy woman, there was never much in the way of employment available and what little there was of course went to people of Chippewa ancestry. John’s parents and their modest community of relatives and acquaintances were an oddity: Algonquian-speaking but not Chippewa, they were Shawnee in their heritage and told the story that a great chief—one of John’s ancestors, his grandmother had once told him—had led them to come far north from western Ohio in the late eighteen twenties, just before the main Shawnee tribes were forced off their lands toward reservations in Oklahoma. So the better part of a year later they arrived in northern Minnesota and persuaded their Chippewa cousins to let them settle in that area. It turned out to be a lucky move for the small band of Shawnee, since the Chippewa tribe that they settled with turned out to be feisty enough to pretty much tell the whites to fuck off—You actually can’t say anything like that in any native American languages, but you can make your meaning understood to the whites if you are patient.—and kept their land intact from that day to this.
Not that it was good for any goddamn thing except hunting, which was just about John’s only pleasure up there. He provided a good deal of venison for his grandmother and his uncles and aunts afetr his worthless oxygen-parasite parents both drank themselves to death by the time he was thirteen. He still fondly remembers, sometimes when he has the legendary moment of clarity, what it was like to hunt up there in the autumn, in the heavy forest north of the big lakes.
John blows out smoke and watches the last of the red sun disappear below the western horizon, breaking into brilliant sparkles and winking out.
What the White Earth Rez was no good for at all, at least for John Straight, was getting paid or getting laid. Which is what finally drove him off the Rez at the age of seventeen after his father finally kicked off. The eleven years since that time feels like a lifetime and a half, and he still hasn’t managed to get paid or get laid worth a goddamn.
The last of the sun is gone, and so is the last of his smoke. It’s already noticeably colder outside and John is kind of regretting his decision earlier this afternoon to wear his denim jacket. It’s going to be cold as fuck tomorrow morning when he comes out of it and has to go home. And in the meantime, of course, it kind of emphasizes how skinny he is. It makes him look like a junkie.
Which, of course, is only fair. He drops the smoke and steps on it, then turns to go inside to find the only place in the world where he can still find some real grandeur.
Fisher’s place stinks, but that won’t matter pretty soon. The call of the junk is starting to sing in John Straight’s blood.
Norman looks at the EBT cards suspiciously, then squints up at John.
“God damn, man. Four cards? So how much is on these?”
John Straight isn’t happy about the reality, but there’s no point in lying about it. Fisher has an attachment for his illegal jailbroke floppy that he can use to read the cards if he decides to.
“Three large,” John says.
“God damn it, man! God damn it! The fucking price is fucking thirty-five hundred, you fucking cunt. What, what—” Fisher looks up at Straight from his place on the filthy couch. He is blond, more or less, and his hair is long and unkempt. His eyes are a kind of muddy shade of blue, but they’re fever-bright now. He needs it as much as Straight does, and they’re both a little afraid to shoot up alone with what’s been going on lately. “What do I look like, Tonto? Do I look like a fucking social worker? Do I look like a fucking charity?”
“I’ll bring you the rest tomorrow. After,” he waves at the little tin decorative box that Fisher keeps the shit in. “I’ll bring you a thousand, OK? But, uh, I kind of need it right now. Come on. You do too.”
Fisher looks at him and licks his lips. He only says ‘Tonto’ when he is being intentionally mean. It doesn’t work, though. John actually kind of likes it.
“Fucking asshole,” Fisher says. “OK, all right. Sit down.”
He opens the box and John sees the powder and the needles.
“Here’s some fucking real fire-water, huh Tonto?” he say, grinning up at John with his crooked teeth.
It’s like setting your soul on fire.
It’s like everything you ever—oh, everything you ever imagined coming true at once and lighting you up from the inside.
Do you remember the first time you had sex? Do you remember the first time you had an orgasm? Well, it is so much better than that, that you cannot imagine how much better it is. You would sell the lower half of your body for one more time in this brilliant place. You would jump off a cliff if you knew you could feel this one more time on the way down.
It’s not a hallucinogen. It’s not acid. It’s not god-almighty ayahuasca prepared by fair-trade organic aborigines wearing saintly inclusive rainbow kilts and riding on unicorns. It’s not pseudo-intellectual bullshit, making you think about God and the Devil and the wheeling cosmos.
This is better. This is bliss. White light, white heat. All here, all now. This is life.
This is death.
On some level, he knows it, and he is OK with it.
On some level, he hears Fisher’s woman Terry come in and run across the room and start yelling Norman? Oh my god, Norman?
All time passes.
John Straight stands in the room, with blue and red flashing lights illuminating the dark walls. He knows that there will be a time soon for remembering, but for now he is content to stand and watch.
Now might last forever. Time, as he has known it, is not a meaningful idea here.
John Straight is not sure, actually that he is standing. His point of view seems to be a little too high, up near the ceiling of the old townhouse the old castle-shaped place of sad grandeur where once the setting sun shone on old-white siding where once he lived.
The woman Terry is weeping loudly because her man Norman Fisher has died. The police have some spray devices, to be inhaled by the living, but they are not for Norman Fisher, they are for the policemen themselves, and the policemen are inhaling from them now. They fear lest they have inadvertently inhaled some of the powder that has killed these two men.
John Straight looks at his own body, lying slumped on the couch, its head thrown back in an awkward pose.
It is not a good body.
He can see all things now. He can see what his body could have been should have been would have been was to have been. Was. Somewhere else, someplace else sometime else.
Ah, he has been weak in this life. Weak and sorrowful, which is in itself a kind of weakness.
The knowledge of a failed life is a disappointment so vast and oceanic that a merely human mind would fail to contain it or be destroyed in the attempt. But the being who has used the mask of John Straight these last twenty-eight years of life on Earth is more than merely human now. It has begun to remember, which will be its last act on this world for an indeterminate time. The mask called John Straight begins to fade away, while the being who has used that mask prepares to depart this universe.
Except that a woman bursts through the apartment’s front door whose arrival arrests the attention of even the being who has begun to forget that he was John Straight. Although the being who was John Straight is now invisible to mortal eyes, the woman looks directly at him. She is angry.
“You stay there!” she commands, and the being who was John Straight finds himself rooted to the spot. Moving faster than any baseline human, the woman takes a syringe from the case on her shoulder as she moves and tosses the orange cap behind her. By the time she has knelt on the sofa next to John Straight’s body, she has prepared the needle. In one motion she tears the shoulder seam of his denim jacket and the cotton shirt beneath it as though they were tissue paper, exposing his upper arm. She has the needle into the body’s shoulder before the orange plastic cap hits the ground behind her. She keeps steady pressure on the syringe, steadily injecting the naloxone opioid antagonist with her right hand, even as, with her left, she plucks out the heroin needle from the body’s forearm and hurls it backwards so that it sticks in the room’s drywall like a dart. She tilts the body’s head back and begins to administering CPR.
Normally the being who was John Straight would at this point feel reluctance, and very likely profound regret, at being pulled back into its mortal life. But in this case the being who was John Straight returns to the body eagerly. The opportunity to interact with such a being as this woman, even if only for a few moments, is immensely valuable. These few minutes may exceed the value of the rest of the life.
The woman breathes into the body’s mouth, and pulls back her hand apparently getting ready to slap its face, and
John Straight wakes up, the left side of his face stinging, and the rest of his body feeling like he has been rolled in a cement mixer. He remembers shooting up, and he remembers standing outside of his body. He remembers dying.
“Who—are you?” he asks the woman leaning over him.
She stands up and pulls him to his feet, holding his hand and keeping her other hand on his shoulder, making sure he can stand. He can, but barely.
“I’m your fucking guardian angel,” she frowns. “And you are not making me happy.”
She is quite a tall woman, only a couple inches shorter than he is, which means that they are really seeing eye to eye right now, he is so stooped over, like an old man. He hangs on to her and looks around.
“Fisher,” he says. There are two EMT guys kneeling over him, but he isn’t looking good.
And there are three cops in the room, and the door opens and another one walks in. It’s quite dark outside now, and half of the light in the room is coming from the flashing blue and red of the cop cars outside. Fisher’s lamps are pretty dim.
John remembers watching the sun set and having a smoke. A lifetime ago.
“Your friend is dead,” the woman says. “If ‘friend’ is the right word.”
Two lifetimes ago.
“I was dead,” he says, pulling back against the motion that she is trying to urge on him so he can look at her. She’s quite good-looking, and of about his own age, apparently. “I was dead, right?”
“Yes,” she looks at him. “The heroin was cut with fentanyl to increase its potency. One of the people who cut it doesn’t know the difference between micrograms and milligrams. You got enough to kill you five times over. Come on. Try to walk.”
John looks around the room, moving his head slowly. None of the cops or EMTs are looking at the two of them. The cops are looking around the room, and here he is standing in the middle of it, being helped by a woman who is apparently neither a cop nor an EMT, and the cops are just completely ignoring both of them. Finally, the cop who has just entered the apartment walks toward them, but at the last moment John realizes that the cop is not looking at him but rather through him. He’s looking at Terry, on the couch. At the last moment the cop detours to avoid a collision, but then walks straight to Terry apparently completely unaware of the two people he has just walked around.
John Straight pulls away from the woman and takes a few halting step over to the couch where he actually taps the cop on the shoulder. He has never before in his life deliberately tried to attract the attention of a cop, but this is just too weird. He grabs the cop’s shoulder and gives him a good shake, but the cop just moves a little to his left to break John’s grip.
“Ma’am,” he says to Terry, “ma’am, we’re going to have to ask you a couple questions.”
He is unaware that John has just shaken his shoulder. Except he must know it, or why did he move? John straightens up and faces the beautiful woman again, who is standing where he left her, looking at him with an irritated expression.
“What’s happening?” he asks her. “Am I still dead? Why can’t they see me?”
“You are not still dead,” she says, “but you are still a little dim. They can’t see you because I don’t want them to see you. You are not making this easier. Come on, we need to leave. I can’t keep this up all week.”
John stares fixedly at her, his heart still hammering in his thin chest, then he turns to look again at Norm on the couch.
“You can’t—help him?” his voice trembles a little.
“No. He was long gone.” She puts her hand on his shoulder to turn him back toward the door again. “Come, come.”
There’s a pizza place a few blocks away that serves beer, and she takes him there in his car. She drives. The place is nice inside, red fake leather booths and not too brightly lit this late at night, and quiet. There’s a few people, but everybody’s minding their own business. The woman orders a pitcher of cheap beer and a small pizza. John Straight doesn’t make any move on the pizza, although he is gratified to discover that the smell does not immediately nauseate him. The beer, however, goes down like nectar from heaven.
And, at some point, he realizes that she is just sitting there, waiting. Finally, he looks at her.
“You look like a relative,” he says. His voice sounds a little rough. Maybe he vomited or something when—
When he was dead.
Her skin is smooth, and her hair is black, and her eyes look like they have seen everything that has ever happened upon the Earth. He looks into her eyes without flinching, and she looks back at him without shame.
“I am a relative,” the woman says, “of sorts.”
“So who are you?”
The woman regards him. She is a little shorter, now that they are sitting down. She looks so much like a relative! John finds himself wondering if this could be some aunt or something that he has forgotten, come from up north to—
Come from up north to make him invisible to the police. No, that’s not working.
“Who are you?”
The woman looks at him and her eyes are deep and dark.
“Some of your ancestors called me Kokumthena.”
John Straight laughs.
“Oh, so you’re God then! Well, damn. That explains a few things.” He looks at her over his beer, then sets it down. “If you don’t want to tell me, then you’re not gonna tell me.”
She looks back at him.
“OK,” he says after a moment, “that’s not what matters. What matters is you, uh—” John Straight looks down at the table top, and his face contorts.
“I really fucked up, didn’t I?” He looks up with tears on his face. Even with the soft lighting in the nighttime pizza place, the twenty-eight-year-old man looks like he’s going on fifty. “You saved me but you couldn’t save Fisher. I sure as fuck don’t know why you bothered with me!” The woman says nothing, and after a while John Straight dries his face and takes an angry swallow of his beer.
“Have some pizza,” the woman says.
“It’ll make me sick.”
“No, it won’t. Please try some.”
Frowning suspiciously, John extracts a piece from the medium-sized pizza and takes a small bite. It looks like he’s afraid to swallow it, but he finally does. Nothing frightful happens. He looks at her and nods.
“Not bad. I usually can’t eat after—you know. After coming down. Look,” he surprises himself by taking another bite, and then has to talk around it, “who are you? How’d you know we were there? I never talked to anybody about Fisher. But you came in there knowing what you were gonna find. So, thank you and everything. Yes, pizza is better than being dead. But—who the fuck are you?”
“My—original name, I suppose is the best way to put it—is Arias. But who am I? I don’t know. I already told you, but you didn’t believe me. Who are you? Is it the past that best defines us? Or the future? Do you know anything about your own past? If you do, maybe I can answer your question better. Did your grandmother teach you anything? Did you listen?”
He looks at her suspiciously but keeps eating the pizza slice, realizing that he is starving.
“I listened, some.”
“Do you know why your surname is Straight?”
He finishes the slice and wipes his mouth with a napkin. A police car zips past on Broadway, heading west in a hurry, its siren making a weird counterpoint to the 80s nostalgia music the restaurant is playing. There aren’t many people in the place—maybe a quarter of the tables taken—but at least it’s not empty. A lot of restaurants have been shutting down lately in the Hawthorne area. Maybe it’s the same in the city, but John Straight wouldn’t know about that.
“Yeah,” he says at last. “It was one of the old people. Nana’s great grandfather or something like that. His name in Shawnee meant ‘Straight’. So later they just changed it to English.”
Arias smiles. She has been occasionally smelling her beer, now she absently takes a sip of it.
“I think you need two more ‘greats’ in front of that great-grandfather. His name was Pahtecoosaw, which, in the language of the Shawanwaki peoples, meant Man Who Goes Straight.” She looks up from her beer and smiles into his eyes. “And he looked just like you. It’s quite uncanny. You are kind of—” she grains, “low-body fat person, is one way to put it. In your case, I suppose that’s because of your drug use. In his case, it was because he was starving.”
“It was a hard time. Game was reduced because of the agricultural Europeans moving in nearby, and they were still suffering from the tail-end of the climate issues caused by the Tambora eruption. But your great-to-the-fifth grandfather was a good shot, and he was a natural leader. So I gave him a rifle, and told him that he would lead his people. And the next spring, I took them from northwestern Ohio to the White Earth country in northern Minnesota.”
“Ah,” he smiles. “That is where they came from. So, you know some history. So, you said you’re an angel, right? So you flew them all up here?”
“No,” Arias returns his smile. “That would be beyond my limits by about a factor of one hundred. No,” she looks into the past, and her expression becomes serious. “No, we walked. We left as early in March as we could possibly begin to travel, and we averaged only four miles a day. I’m afraid I hadn’t realized just how difficult it would be. That was a hard journey.”
“But!” she shakes off sadness and looks across the table at him. “We made it before the snowfall, and Pahtecoosaw used his fancy new rifle to lay in venison for the winter.”
John shakes his head.
“This is amazing. So you also found out we have an old rifle. What the hell, have you been stalking me? Waiting for me to OD?”
Now Arias’s gaze becomes intent. “You still have the rifle? I mean, your tribe still has it? After all these years?”
“Yeah,” John Straight smiles. “Which is kind of a big deal, since you can get real money for a piece like that. And I’m afraid that’s where your little Live Action Role Playing bullshit’s gonna end, sister. Because while you apparently heard about it—I have no idea how.—one thing they don’t do is show it to outsiders. Kind of a sacred thing, you know.”
Arias’s eyes moisten. “I’m glad to hear that. Very glad.”
She breathes a few times, and takes another sip of the watery commercial beer. After a moment, she begins to speak.
“It was a Hall rifle, made the year before, in 1827. It was the most advanced weapon in the world, back then. It had this little weird,” she gestures with her hands, “thing, where you could kind of rotate the back little bit of the barrel up like this. And so you still had to load it the same as a muzzle-loader, but you only had to pack all that powder and ball crap down into this little five-inch back part of the barrel, which, I gather, was a lot easier than trying to ram all that crap down an entire Kentucky Long Rifle. And—something he pointed out which I actually had not thought of—you could much more easily load it in the rain. That, plus the fact that it was the first rifle that used percussion caps instead of having to put some powder in that stupid little pan. I couldn’t believe those things ever worked at all, actually, but it’s amazing what people can do sometimes.”
She stops and smiles at him. John Straight’s expression has gradually become more amazed as she described the antique.
“How in the hell did you get them to show it to you? You’re a relative, aren’t you? I knew you look like it.”
“I can look however I want, John. Right now, I look this way. For old time’s sake, I suppose. I know about the rifle because I remember when it was new. When I gave it to him so he could feed his people in a hard time. The same reason I am giving this rifle to you, now.”
He frowns at her.
“John. You’re going to have to get better at the whole Indian tracker kind of thing. It’s here.” Arias points to the end of their short table with both index fingers, jabbing for emphasis. John Straight looks.
“Jesus!” He startles hard enough to spill some of his beer.
There is a large, expensive-looking rifle case lying crosswise at the end of the table, open, with an astonishing weapon in it. Very obviously new, it looks like no speck of dust has yet touched this thing.
John Straight has owned many expensive rifles since he left the Rez, but always on only in his imagination. Even when he used to hunt on the Rez, it was with borrowed weapons from older men who charged him half of whatever he took for the privilege. But even in his imagination, where you would think that price would be no object, he has never owned anything remotely like this. It’s huge, and forest-camo patterned and skeletal and deadly and glorious. It has got to be—
John stops staring at the rifle, shakes his head, and looks back at the woman. Arias. The important thing is not the rifle. Although he would very much like to come back to that real soon. The important thing is that it has apparently just appeared out of nowhere.
“How the hell did you do that?”
She smiles at him. She is a very attractive woman, although it is difficult for John to feel attracted to a woman who, he is beginning to suspect, is about ten times smarter than he is.
“Did you not notice the fact that we walked out of a death scene without the police noticing us? You did everything but punch one of them. Have you forgotten that?”
“I thought,” he scowls. “Maybe I hallucinated that.”
“Oh, is that how it works when you inject heroin? It works on you like a hallucinogen?”
He scowls harder. “OK. Fair point. That would have been the first time.”
She waits while he has some internal mental issues. After a few seconds he exhales hard, several times.
“I though, uh,” he looks across the table at her. “I thought angels were supposed to have wings.”
“Well, I can fly, in a manner of speaking. And I could carry you! Although that would definitely make you puke.”
“And,” he is staring at her. “You’re saying—what. That you’re immortal?”
“Oh, definitely not that. I’m still quite physical. Although I don’t think you’d be able to kill me with that.” She nods at the rifle.
“Oh yeah?” he laughs. “Like, what, the bullets are gonna bounce off? That looks like it’s not gonna bounce off of anything.” He allows himself to look again at the rifle for a moment.
“No, I would just fix myself. Or better yet, not be there when they arrived. But no, I don’t think that’s going to bounce off of anything. And that,” Arias says, “that rifle which you are gazing at longingly, is custom made by a company called Surgeon, believe it or not. Five rounds, bolt-action—”
“Yeah, I noticed that part.”
“Sorry,” she smile. “It actually wasn’t obvious to me. Chambered in 338 Lapua Magnum—”
“Um,” John interrupts again, his eyes narrowing. “I’m sure I’m not as manly as my ancestor, but, ah, I think that’s gonna dislocate my shoulder.”
“No, no! The rifle weighs eighteen pounds! And it has a muzzle break and a suppressor—the guy laughed when I asked how that was possible. He said you need the muzzle break to screw the suppressor onto. He said it still won’t be what anyone would call quiet, but at least it won’t blow your eardrums out if you’re not wearing hearing protection.”
“So how does an angel buy a rifle?” John smiles. “Drop in to the store?” He finishes his beer and puts down the empty bottle regretfully.
“You’re still having trouble with the angel thing, aren’t you? Your ancestors didn’t. They thought differently about it, though. You have cartoons in your head. No, I’m not a cartoon. Actually, I ordered it over the internet. He told me a rifle just like that one was used by three shooters who ended up in the top ten of last year’s Precision Rifle competition. He said that’s never happened before. If you put that gun in a vice on a still day, it can put five rounds out of five in a two inch circle.”
“So what?” John Straight looks dismissive. “I can do that with my uncle’s Winchester!”
“From six hundred yards.”
“Ah.” He purses his lips, and glances at the rifle again. “Holy shit. OK, so what—”
Turning back to look at the woman, he stops talking. There is a new bottle of beer in front of him. She has a new one also, although she hasn’t finished her first one yet. John Straight looks at her bottle, then at his. He picks it up slowly and looks at it. It’s still cold, straight out of the fridge they use at this place.
Arias laughs. “I’m still working on you about the angel thing.”
He puts the bottle to his lips and takes a cautious sip as though making sure that it’s really a beer. It is a beer. Then sets it back down and looks at her.
“So being invisible to the cops and having a rifle on our table that nobody is noticing is no big deal, but if I can make beers appear—that really gets your attention!”
He laughs, but only momentarily.
“How’d you do that?”
“Well, it’s kind of like hypnosis, and kind of like telepathy. Similar to why nobody in here has noticed this rifle yet. Although that is actually getting kind of tiring, so I will just close it up if you don’t mind—”
“I basically asked you to not notice anything for a couple minutes, and I went up to the front and asked for two more beers.”
“So, what, I was asleep?”
“No, no. You looked like you were thinking.”
John Straight drinks from his new beer while looking into her eyes, his prematurely lined face very serious.
“OK,” he says. “You can so some things. I don’t see why it matters, whether I believe you or not. Why do you care? You want worshipers?”
“No, no. That’s always a danger. More with Europeans. I’m sorry, that’s not what you are genetically, but you pretty much are culturally. No, I want to make sure you believe the next thing I tell you. Belief might matter, in this case. But you were about to ask something? Before my trick with the beers?”
“Um,” he frowns. “Yeah. I was just gonna say—what do you want for all this? You save my life. Give me a pretty rifle. What do you want?”
“Do I have to want something?”
“Everybody always wants something.”
Arias laughs. “You’re right! And I am no exception!” She becomes serious and holds his gaze. “I have given you three gifts. My only request is that you use them. Hard times are coming. Harder, I think, than even I have ever seen. You are the man to lead your people. Go back to them. Use this rifle to help keep them alive though what is to come. Don’t throw your life away.” She smiles. “Hopefully, make babies.”
“Yeah, you know, I’m not sure how it is for angels, but for us humans it kinda takes two to tango.”
“Go back to your people,” Arias grins. “And I promise you that you will get laid.”
“Oh, boy!” he laughs. “How’s that work? You gonna hypnotize a squaw for me? Don’t look now, angel, but I’m not the world’s greatest catch.”
“No, no, no. I just know something about how boys and girls work. And I’m pretty good at predicting.”
“Is that right? Well, let me give you another news flash.” Levity instantly transforms into anger, from depths of anger that John has had since he was a boy. “Everybody back there knows exactly what I am! I’m not one of my hero ancestors, lady. Look at me!” He pounds the beer down on the table. “I’m a fucking junkie! You want me to take a pretty rifle and find a pretty squaw? You saved my life tonight! OK, great, thanks. How long you thinks it’s gonna be before I got another needle in my arm? Look at this!” He pulls back this shirtsleeve, loose on his slender arm, to show her his left forearm, scarred by needles.
Arias looks into his eyes.
“No,” she says softly, reaching out to take his hand. “You look.”
His head jerks down like he expects to see something crawling on him. Instead his mouth opens and he inhales in a gasp. The skin of his left forearm is smooth. Around the top of the forearm, the inside of the elbow joint, there are no gaping sores. His arm tries to spasm, but Arias’s light touch keeps his hand on the tabletop easily. He reaches over with his right hand to carefully touch the skin. It is real skin. His fingertips feel it, and it feels his fingertips. His arm looks like it did when he was twenty years old. His breath shudders and tears come into his eyes. He looks up at the woman across from him, and finds that he is unable to speak beyond saying “How—how?”
Arias smiles gently. “I showed you the thing with the beers,” she says. “But you didn’t ask the right question.”
He frowns, and then his head jerks again, this time to look out the window, frowning. He has to wipe his face for the second time in one night.
“What—what time is it?”
“Close to one in the morning,” she says.
He jerks his gaze back to her.
“It was less than an hour after sunset when you—” He frowns, trying to remember. “And when you took me in the car, that was about right. But when we got here— You took me somewhere, in between. So you could do this.” He touches the arm again, but keeps looking at her.
“No,” Arias says. “I mean, yes. We parked in a deserted lot for a few hours. But not so I could do that. That was the easy part.”
She sips from her beer and composes her thoughts.
“When you use heroin, or other opioids, you’re sending the opioid molecules to some of the cells in part of your brain that are designed to receive such things. Those are the same molecules that the brain uses to signal pleasure from high levels down to lower levels and memory-formation and so on. But you’re flooding them with the stuff. That’s why it feels good. But when overpower the little sensors that much, they are able to adapt. They’re actually very complex proteins.” He hand moves unconsciously to trace part of some kind of shape in the air. “Astonishingly complex. And when you flood them that much, they are actually able to interact—somehow—with some of the signaling pathways that they themselves activate—it’s like a kind of backpressure from the pathways— It changes the proteins to become less sensitive to the stimulating molecules. That’s why you need more and more, and why you gradually quit being stimulated by things like sex or food. It’s so evil. The adaptations that the proteins go through—” She shakes her head, remembering. “I actually couldn’t understand that part. But I didn’t need to.” Arias looks back at John, bringing herself back to the present moment.
“I restored the sensor proteins in that part of your brain to their original shape. You won’t feel the craving now. You’re not an addict anymore. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
He blinks, looking at her, and draws another shuddering breath. Then slowly and gently closes his left hand to hold hers more tightly.
“I give you your life back, John Straight. Now I want you to go and help your people as I have helped you. You have lived through a terrible time, in a terrible world, and it finally started to kill you. But even as you failed, your spirit kept fighting. Even your means of despair was a kind of reaching for hope.”
“Oh, is that right? What could I have done that would be more pure despair?”
“Put a bullet through your brain,” she tells him. “That wouldn’t really stimulate the pleasure receptors. And I sure couldn’t fix that.”
He nods. “It’s still weakness, though.”
“Yes,” she says. “You are not the strongest being in this world. I actually know him. His name is Michael.”
“Oh yeah? Michael who?”
“That’s his whole name. And he’s the first one who had it.”
“Um. So, you’re talking about—” he chuckles. “You’re talking about an archangel? Are those guys around here too?”
“Yes,” she smiles. “And he’s tougher than you are. But, you know, considering what you have done with what you have—he’s not much tougher. He would be proud of you. As I am. I tell you, John Straight, I who have spoken with your ancestors of a thousand years, that, although you have made your body weak, you are the strongest in spirit of any of them. That is why I came to you, not for your weakness. And because your people need you.”
“My people? Wow, yeah. Look how great they’ve done. Why the hell are they worth your bother? Hard world been real hard on them, innit?” He smiles angrily. “And anyway, you’re a fucking angel! And now you say you know the big guys, whose names I hear in church, and they’re real too? I’ll tell you lady,” he pulls his hand away from hers and rotates the arm to show it off, “I believe you now. In fact, I am now ready to believe just about anything. You tell me you have a one-on-one with God every Wednesday, I’ll believe that too. So why don’t you tell me—instead of telling me how tough and hard the world is, why don’t you just fix it? Fix it like you fixed this! What’s stopping you?”
“Other angels,” she says after he has calmed down for a second. “You know? The bad guys.”
“War in Heaven, and all that? Yeah, I heard about that in church too. But the bad guys lost, right?”
Arias smiles at him, but is silent for quite a while. At last she nods. “OK, I guess you should hear this. No, actually, the war wasn’t in Heaven. There isn’t a place called Heaven. Well, there is the Sun, but that’s not the way you’ve been taught to think of heaven. The War was right here, on Earth. Well, my part of it was. And no, we didn’t win. We got our asses handed to us. It was the worst defeat for my people that our best historians have ever heard of from as far away as they can hear about things in this whole part of the cosmos, ever. They took this world and completely reshaped it, to their desires. People like myself, and Michael, and the rest of the survivors of my people—we’ve been in hiding ever since. They hunt us, or they used to, when they still cared to.”
“You know,” John Straight smiles, “it seems like somebody down here would have noticed all this.”
“Oh, they noticed. Mostly they died. If you’re surprised that you didn’t see anything about it on CNN—it was kind of a long time ago. Twelve thousand years. There were actually three separate omnicides, but the biggest one you actually have heard of. You would call it the Flood. At the end of those three great dyings, humanity had mostly forgotten its original culture and history. Like a man who survives a head wound but forgets who he used to be. Ready to be reshaped into anything at all, by your new owners. All of humanity, except for a few little remnant bands in remote places.”
“Like—us?” he says quietly.
“Yes, like you.” Arias smiles. “Although those first remnants would be way back before what even the Shawanwaki would consider to be their earliest ancestors. You are the cultural descendants, let’s say. Your people are important, John Straight, because after what is to come, if anything survives, then all of humanity will need you. They’ll need the ways that your people still remember.”
“The old ways, huh?” he makes a wry face. “Terrific. You know what the old ways on the Rez are? Living off of EBT cards and getting drunk every night.”
Arias nods. “It will be easier to live new lives in a new place. And the White Earth region is no longer the right place. Not everyone will follow you, but those who will, I want you to take them to a place in Wisconsin called Castle Rock Lake. A kind of cooperative or something is being set up there by a wealthy woman. The place is called Wanagi Wakipi.” John frowns at this so she translates. “Ghost Dance. It’s in a better spot, and best of all,” she smiles, “I got you an invitation!”
“An invitation? You’re seriously expecting me to just—go visit this place?”
“I’m expecting you to go live there. And take the tribe with you. They will follow you. They will be ready.”
He stares at her.
“Um. Me? OK,” he shakes his head, amused. “Listen. How about, um. Look. Who is—setting this place up? And why?”
“A friend. And why? Because she knew that something is coming, the same way you know, right? You’ve always known, haven’t you, John?” The woman looks into his eyes. “It’s why you’ve been trying to kill yourself, isn’t it? But now I’m offering you something better than getting lit twice a week. A new life for you and whoever will follow you.”
“Look, I’m sorry, but—”
The woman holds up her hand to stop him, and he stops.
“The time for doubt is past. You already did that, and you saw its end. I tell you truly, John Straight, that if you find the courage to go, your people will follow you. And the people who are already gathering there—I think they’ll be happy to see you. And before you tell me you’ll need money, look in the rifle case, under the foam, and you’ll get a big surprise.”
She falls silent, and her eyes focus on things at a great distance. He watches her thinking, and he thinks that she looks like the perfect image of what his people, his real people, whom he has not seen in years, would call beautiful. She looks exactly like the ideal Shawnee woman of a hundred years ago or more.
“But you’ll come and visit us there?” he asks. “It would, uh, it would sure be nice if, you know—for whoever comes—if they could see you.”
She thinks a while longer, then looks up at him and smiles.
“I made a promise once, to the Man Who Goes Straight, that I would someday come and see you. I don’t think I can make promises like that anymore. Today I have fulfilled my old promise, though, and I think he would be glad to know that I have. Maybe, somewhere, he is glad.”
“What, don’t you know? You’re an angel.”
“No, I don’t know, John Straight, for the machineries of Heaven are as unknowable to me as they are to you.”
“I thought there wasn’t any Heaven?”
“Maybe I misspoke,” she smiles. “There is someplace, infinitely far away or right next to us, or both. But I cannot see into it, and I can’t remember having been there any more than you can, although I suppose we both have been. And,” she sighs, “I cannot see the future, any more than you can. Well—not much more than you can, let us say. But I have always had some sense for at least my own future. At least enough to know that I would have some future. But now—no, John Straight, I cannot make the same promise to you that I once made to Pahtecoosaw.” She looks at him with such love that it pierces his heart and does as much damage as she has healed, and it is a moment that he will remember for the rest of his long life.
“And I want you to know, contrary to the stories that our enemies have told, that I am human, as you are. And that someday, after many lifetimes, you will be as I am now.” She smiles and takes his hand again. “I hope that you will remember me then.”
“Yeah,” John Straight says after a few seconds. “I think you can count on that.”