I am walking, or crawling around the dark city of Lacrasa. A surface that seems to be slanted down is suddenly a steep incline, and I'll have to "slide" upwards to get wherever it is I am going. Sometimes I have to walk on all-fours, often on an arm-and-leg to squeeze through something invisible. I begin focusing less on direction and form than rhythm—writhing, dragging myself in a sort of 7/4 + 4/4, rolling around, all the awful angles of the dark intersecting cityscape with its sky rivers and purple-gray-black stratified horizon tumbling around as the green triangular moon stays stationary—always visible when "outdoors" in Lacrasa. I make it into a spired tower that I hadn't meant to, and begin feverishly trying to ascend—or descend—to the tip, by sidestepping through staircases and bookshelves and apartments with vivid portraits of fish philosophers, panicking as millions of eyes watch my movements from the walls and the floor and unhuman shadows reach out and desperately try to touch me. I hear crying. I "see" or "feel" glimpses of the conductor, standing in an unidentified room somewhere else underneath this sea of spires—as I sidestep building to building, home to home, bedroom to bedroom—and he's desperately ecstatically jumping and directing selected members city to dance: to impose its eternal pre-universe history onto me, and their collective dance—coordinated across separate private rooms—because in Lacrasa everyone can always see each other—becomes more deranged and unhinged, climaxing into my fall, or rise, into the pitch black interior of Lake Lhume. Quiet, and now struggling for air, I start swimming what I estimate is upwards, having no inkling how far I am from the surface, feeling creatures I cannot see softly brushing and tickling their cilia against my ankles and back as I writhed, and writhed, and finally reached the surface, only to be blocked by hair. Hair covering the entire surface like ice, moving minutely. I punched and kicked and wailed and screamed against that hairy wall, but the monster standing above paid no heed, and soon I lost my energy and fell back into the endless black unknown underworld that is Lake Lhume.
I woke up gasping for air. No paper bird, no toe. Edith Daeth was found dead in the morning on the floor of her kitchen. Throat slit, hand on knife, in an apparent suicide. Everyone thought it was the work of the Mothman.
I knocked on Mr. Foster's door shy before the pink hour, and waited for a while. He opened, eyed me.
"Y'here about James?"
I entered. He sat me at the dining table and served me some coffee. Before seating himself, he appeared to perform a frantic check of his house: Going through each room, opening drawers, looking underneath cabinets, shuffling through papers. It took minutes. If it weren't so hot, my coffee would be cold. I felt extremely uncomfortable. He looked paranoid. Suddenly, I didn't want to be here anymore.
"Sorry, son. That damn Pinkie, ya know, it likes-ta goddamn flatten its damn self and hide all about, spy on conversations an' such."
"'Pinkie'? You mean, the Queen in Pink?"
"Ah, hell. Whatever the damn hell it wants to go by. Used ta call itself the 'Mathman'. Hell the more names it has, the more confusin'. Damn thing likes stayin' ambiguous.
"Hell, know what Ah think about this new name it got? Son, y'know how James was all into that 'weird fiction' crap. Hell, e'en little Amy was all into The King in Yellow. I remember you two pretendin' you were walkin' in 'Carcosa' an' 'Lake Hali' an' all, heheh. All that crap about 'Lacrasa' an' 'Lake Lhume' is all prolly made up bull just to make fun of old James. That damn Pinkie just wanted to denigrate ol' James' name."
"So, all that stuff Ms. Daeth was saying... it was made up?"
I felt foolish for having a nightmare about it—having such serious visions about something that was entirely someone's fiction. It was a relief, in a way, but unsettling just what someone's words can invoke in people.
Before I could ask more, Mr. Foster got out of his chair and opened one of the drawers he'd checked before, and pulled out a stack of papers. He slammed it on the desk in front of me, making some of the coffee in my cup spill.
As he took his seat again, I leafed through the papers. I noticed that the text—along with some "stage directions"—was strikingly similar to Ms. Daeth's performances.
"All of that was scripted?"
"Yep. The poor woman was coached by me. An' what you see was all written up by that damn Pinkie to make a self-fulfillin' prophecy. 'Pen, speech, wit.' Damn it!"
"I don't understand what's going on."
He stayed silent for a bit, then started talking.
"Well, guess you're the only person left to tell. Ol' Aiken trusted you more than anyone. Thought of ya as a son an' all...
"Well, son. Ah'll tell ya now. That damn thing Ava saw is real. Real as hell. And that was Aiken's secret. That damn Queen was Aiken's secret.
"Hell, it's been my secret. Woulda never got that fraction of that damn East Texas field if it weren't for that Pinkie. I don't know how deep that damn Pinkie has its stubby hands in the oil industry, but it's deep enough to be bad. Think it mighta been what brought ol' Patillo Higgins to Spindletop. Sure as hell it had plenty t'do with the East Texas boom. That thing makes a hell of a field scout, y'know. Can flatten its damn self or float an' blend in with the pink sky. Transferred a damn good amount of power from the majors to the independents that way.
"Son, y'probably know about all the 'city bosses' and the 'city machines' up in the Northeast. Well, the Pinkie's been tryna do just about the same thing here down in the South—here in ol' rural areas. Call 'em 'town bosses' an' 'town machines' if ya well. Create bosses like me for small towns like this by given us shares-a stock an' loans to buy up rich leases, ask us to do political favors in return. Wants t'control the whole damn South. An' hell, who can say no? Y'damn well know how strapped we were when the Depression hit. Y'might as well thank that Pinkie that we made it through that hell.
"But listen, son. Oil's a damn dirty business. A damn dirty business. And the Pinkie's got me to do some damn dirty things in the past. I ain't gonna tell you the things I've hadta do with my money. Ah've bankrupted marriages, blown up affairs, broken up marriages, defamed people as 'Commies' an' 'Jews' an' all. Ah've ruined people's lives, son.
"An' hell, maybe I can understand. Bad things needta be done to get by. But by some point the economy was turnin' back around. Was straight clear we'd make it through the Depression. Y'know, wasn't all that enough? But damn Pinkie wouldn't let up. Just wanted more and more power. Well, let's just say at some point I couldn't take it anymore. Came to the point it almost made me place a hit on someone. God damn it. We're through the Depression. We don't need to do this crazy stuff no more.
"Well, it was about that time I noticed Aiken had his hands deep in this too. 'Cept he was tryna break it all up, bless 'im. He knew it wouldn't stop at the Depression. Power corrupts. Give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile an' all. Hell, this Senate election sure as hell ain't based on no platform no more. Wait till the rest of Texas—rest of the States—turns into that. Well, I started talkin' to him. And he knew this thing existed.
"Listen, son: That Pinkie don't like to show itself to people. What Ava said is right. It's weak as hell. Likes to show itself to little girls, since they think it's cute. As for up in the ranks, only a few are privy to it—you prolly know these names thanks to James. It's best friends with Lyndon Johnson an' H.L. Hunt. Probably met with that young whippersnapper John Connally, and Sid Richardson, Alvin Wirtz, and—ever heard of this fellow George Parr down in the Valley? Well, that's prolly about all I know. I'd reckon say someone like Roy Cullen nor E.M. Joiner have no clue about it. Harold Ickes sure don't. And it's shown itself to me. An' I'm sure a buncha other small town country folks to make bosses out of 'em.
"Well, ol' James' a sleuth, as ye know. Somehow or another, he figured out about this damn balloon's existence. And he realized, if he captures this thing, it'll become a huge national story. It'll sure as hell blow the whole industry wide open. That damn Queen was the key to his plans. That's what me an' him were discussin'
"But we can't go around talkin' about it, y'know. We had to keep our moves secret. Y'know, cause if word got out, some idiot might go ahead an' kill it. Hell, it might be assassinated by one-a its allies in order to keep it from talkin'. If it's dead, it can't talk, and then there'd be no goddamn way we'd be able to connect it back to oil. If we didn't have it alive, there was no point. An' we can sure as hell make it talk. If it ain't gonna talk, we could just stretch and twist and squeeze it till it do—Ava said how much it hurts the damn thing—we'll jus' make one hell of a balloon animal out of it and leave it there in pain for hours till it starts spillin'. That was the plan. It was goddamn perfect. An' guess what? The damn thing is scheduled to meet with me tomorrow. But I'm ain't sure no more it's gonna come.
"When this special election 'ere kicked off, Aiken got antsy. Too antsy maybe. Couldn't bet it all on me capturin' the damn Pinkie, he figured. So he was tryin' some other stuff. Some more occult stuff. Hell, y'know how he was into all that 'weird fiction'. An' he was close with some-a the Indians too—the Comanche descendants. Hey, if a damn pink balloon exists, maybe the damn Mothman's real too, he figured. Maybe that Mothman can capture the damn Pinkie, he figured. I tried to talk him outta it.
He pointed to the stack of papers.
"Well, it was around that time I started getting these damn papers in the mail, with instructions t'make Edith to go an' perform 'em. And I knew it came from that damn Pinkie. Well, Ah guess you better know that, y'know, Alan—Edith's husband, if y'remember—he died back in '30. An' well, y'know, I kept her afloat with the money, an' y'know... I comforted her. Gave her company, if y'know what I mean."
"Well, she was head over heels over me. Damn Pinkie knew she'd do anythin' I ask her too. That Pinkie's damn good at collectin' info, y'know—personal info. It reads people's mail, flattens its damn self an' sneaks into people's houses 'neath the door—that's how the notes spread, and I bet those body parts too—listenin' in on convos. It loves spyin' on people. Knows a decent amount about the people in this town, 's it does in them other town machines—y'remember those notes.
"Well, it knew about me an' Edith. Knew she'd do just about anythin' I tell her to. Not like I wanted her to do all that, but guess who was beggin' me to make her? None other than James Aiken. He wanted me to follow that Pinkie's instructions, y'know, to show that thing I was still 'loyal' and not sabotage the meeting. Edith, bless 'er heart, wanted to cooperate too. An' well, that's what all that nonsense was outside her house. I don' know how much-a it ye listened to, but at first it was all abstract. The first of these papers had nothin' about James or Amy or nothin'. But the references started creepin' in. That somethin' was gonna happen to James on your folks' graduation day. Me an' Edith were warning James, but he told us to push on. He wasn't scared. Kept tellin' us there's no way he could let a pink balloon kill him.
"Well, he was wrong. I have no goddamn idea how that weak ass thing got him an' Mary, but it did. Ah'm sure it was planning the murder ever since it was sendin' us those notes. Somehow when James was gettin' antsy—just about when he was tryna contact the 'Mothman' an' all, and bein' more careless—that Pinkie must-a figured out he was up to somethin'.
"But I still don't know how that goddamn thing coulda killed them by itself! Fine, I can see how it got Mary—she was always quite sensitive an' frail. But James? James was prepared—always on edge. There's no damn way James'd lose against a balloon."
"Couldn't the Queen have just shot him with a gun or something?"
"Well, we woulda heard the damn gunshots then, wouldn't we? And 'sides, did ya see that corpse-a his? Seems like he got killed way worse than a damn gunshot. How could that happen? James knew somethin' might happen to him that day—wan't he prepared? Maybe if he was asleep... Well, hell! That bastard was drunk! He was shit-drunk on the very day he knew there might be an assassination attempt 'gainst him! Why'd he go get himself all drunk like that!?"
I could feel Mr. Foster's frustration. Mr. Aiken did have a habit of drinking himself through times of stress. And this time, it appeared his vice led to his end. He had so much potential, to become something great, change the world, maybe even become President one day, and he blew it on a bottle.
...That was one way to frame it. But I wondered if James Aiken ever even stood a chance. Mr. Aiken used to tell me something peculiar he noticed: Whenever Lyndon Johnson met with him—or anyone else—Lyndon would always instruct his aides to make his own drinks weaker than the other person's. A disparity engineered such that Lyndon would never get drunk, but the person he wanted information from would. Perhaps when dealing with people like this, preventing one's own grand plans from leaking was all but futile.
I have to admit, it still seemed difficult to imagine a balloon being able to take out Mr. Aiken like that by itself—and in such a grotesque fashion too. I didn't want to suspect Amy of anything, but I did decide I was going to pester her more about it.
"Poor Edith, felt guilty as all hell 'fter James's death. She had nothin' to do with it, but felt damn awful havin' t'had 'predict' it. Put 110% effort into those speeches too, thinkin' it would help lure the Pinkie. 'Er father was a Broadway feller, y'know? She coulda made it big there, but decided to take 'erself down here. Loves Texas that much, bless 'er soul. That was a suicide, Ah bet. Visited her a couple-a times yesterday an' the day before an'... well, she wan't in no good mood. Hell, it was close enough to a suicide. She was a tough lady—could easily take on a pink balloon, that's fer sure. If that Pinkie killed her, she let it kill her. But I do think she took 'er own life. Damn! It's all my fault!"
So Ms. Daeth spilled all her passion—her infatuation for Mr. Foster, her rich personality, her respect for Mr. Aiken, her altruism and intimacy for the town, her near-straight back—into those performances, only to learn that she was contributing to the demise of everything she loved. The Queen directed her passions against her own ends.
I wondered if it was fair to say that it was Mr. Aiken's fault as well for diving too deep into this, and stringing these people along into it.
"Well, I still got a chance to capture that damn Pinkie an' put an end to this. We're supposed to meet tomorrow. But I ain't sure it'll come. I ain't sure if the darn thing trusts me no more. I didn't even know it was in town! Remember that note it sent me about ol' Hunt? Almost like it's tellin' me—an' the town—who's boss. Maybe it found out Ah was workin' with Mr. Aiken. That's why it's been doin' all these antics. To make sure the town answers to it instead o' me. Maybe install a new boss. Or hell, maybe that was its plan all along."
"So the Mothman, the monster standing on Lake Lhume... All that is made up?"
There were so many facts and questions he was spinning out at once that I was having trouble keeping track. And part of me felt annoyed at the complexity of it all. That under this grand pink curtain was just pettiness and games of inches. That it was just stupid politics. Although we were now dealing with something "supernatural" regarding, say, a talking pink balloon, it felt almost disappointing that so much of the larger imagery that had been surrounding this incident was nonsense. Instead of some grand narrative about ancient and alien forces being summoned, it was about oil. It was infuriating. That's what all this was about? Oil? All this dramatic lore and tragedy was over oil? It was sickening. Yes, Mr. Aiken uncovered a sort of conspiracy to hijack democracy, but it didn't feel great. It felt dirty, deflated.
And yet, after I had asked my near rhetorical question, Mr. Foster hesitated to respond. He chewed on his nails, looking diagonally onto the floor in some sort of horrified expression. As if my supposition wasn't quite right.
"Well, son. Ah think so. But what if there is a Mothman? Hell, the Indians saw something back then, din't they? Well, hell, you can dismiss their 'Spirits' as bull, sure. But James seemed to believe in it, din't he? Well, fine, James took that 'weird fiction' crap too seriously. Maybe there ain't no Mothman after all.... But what if there is? He he he."
He smiled. He looked like he wanted to eat me.
"He he he, what about the hairy monster in the city of Lacrasa standing on Lake Lhume...? Hell, I'm sure 'Lacrasa' and 'Lhume' are jus' made up names. But maybe there is an unnamable city with an unnamable lake and an unnamable monster standing on it. Maybe there is something like that out there. Maybe there's another world where somethin' like that is 'happening.' Here's the thing, son: All these words: 'hair,' 'monster,' 'city,' 'lake,' 'standing,'—these prolly ain't even concepts in that... 'city.' They're just the best approximations of describin' something we can't describe. Callin' that other world a 'city' may not be as accurate as callin' it a 'scheme.'"
Something clicked in him, and his smile became blatantly malicious.
"I'll tell ya something that'll keep ye up at night, boy. Listen close: There may be other worlds out there. I ain't talkin' about other planets or nothin'. I'm talkin' about other worlds outside—or containin'—our universe. I'm talkin' about something much vaster, much more different than our little universe. Listen, son: We live in a certain type o' geometry. It's a space we live in, y'see. Einstein figured out our universe was a certain type-a 4-manifold—that's spacetime: It's a type-a what's called a ringed space. That's our world's geometry. And there's this lad... name's Grothendieck... this ain't common knowledge yet, but he's the one seein' these things as geometries. He's findin' out this special class of geometries he calls schemes: types-a ringed spaces. A smooth manifold, y'see, is just a certain type of ringed space—where the sheaf structure on it's a bunch-a differentiable functions. But here's the thing: There are other types of ringed spaces too. Mathematically, y'see, 'space' can have other shapes than our universe do. And, well, son. If our universe is a ringed space, why wouldn't there be other universes for other ringed spaces? Why wouldn't there be other worlds out there with other geometries? Y'know, y'can get a bunch-a schemes by just plugging rings into the spectrum. Y'can make all sorts of fucked up geometries. Varieties, discrete spaces, elliptic curves—and you can even glue 'em together to make larger schemes. And once you realize that, well, now you've opened up a whole Pandora's box of geometries. A whole Pandora's box of other possible worlds. An' now think: What other things are living in those other worlds? They're nothin' like humans, or octopuses, or mammoths, or dinosaurs. But, y'see, if consciousness can be embedded in a Lorentzian manifold, why can't it be embedded in a scheme? These... things, y'see, living in those other geometries... their essential shapes are different. Think of things crawlin' on the prime numbers, like ants on a line—after all, there's a geometry on the prime numbers: it's just the spectrum of the integers: a scheme. What about varieties? Think-a 'bugs' sliding up an' down projective curves all the way up and down to the points at infinity. And hell, think-a more general ringed spaces. Think-a things chasing each other on a torus. Think of exotic R-4's: manifolds that topologically look like Newtonian spacetime, but got a different differentiable structure: Think-a the things that 'live' in there—that look Euclidean, but where the calculus is all fucked up. What about complex spacetime? What about exotic 7-spheres? What sorta things are crawlin' on a nonstandard 7 dimensional sphere? What does something livin' in that 7-sphere look like? Well, it's impossible to visualize 'course, and that's scary enough. But now let me ask ya a scarier question: What does its mind look like? Heh heh. Now that's the fucked up question, ain't it? That's what bothers me: What does consciousness look like in an exotic 7-sphere? Now we're playing a whole other game. HEH HEH HEH HEH HEH. Well, son, you wanna play? Let's think about it, eh? If our Lorentzian manifold has consciousness, what does consciousness look like in other ringed spaces? Y'see, for something 'living' in an exotic 7-sphere... its 'perception' has to be all different: Its perception needs to be adapted to the shape-a the space its embedded in. Which means the form of its consciousness has to be completely alien to ours. That thing don't think like a creature in spacetime do: It don't got nothin' close to emotions like happiness, sadness, anger, love, hate. A creature in a 7-sphere thinks like a creature in a 7-sphere would. A creature in a 7-sphere feels like a creature in a 7-sphere would. It's got a whole other ensemble of qualia adapted to the shape of space it's embedded in. The geometry determines the form of consciousness. 'Course, 'think' and 'feel' ain't the right words at all. 'Is' is a better word. It is unlike we are. It's an entire different form of being. HEH HEH HEH. Don't you see, boy? If there are different universes with different geometries out there, then there are whole different ways of being out there."
He began to look berserk.
"HEH HEH HEH HEH HEH HEH HEH HEH. Wanna talk about greater games, boy? Y'see, if our universe is a space, maybe it's subspace. That's right: what if our universe is just a subspace of one of these bigger spaces? What if there are other modes of being that contain ours. But you know what, son? Modes of being that contain ours don't scare me as much as modes of being outside of ours. HEH HEH. Listen to this, son: Some-a these geometries y'can make are unknown to us on a whole other level. Hell, even an exotic 7-sphere is something you can sorta comprehend if ya stretch your imagination enough. But the deeper you go, the more exotic the geometries become. And that's where you find things that'll haunt you day an' night. Listen, son: There may be things out there living on the very ends of unsolved logical questions. There may be worlds where shape depends on logic. Take the spectrum of the natural numbers, and y'get what's called the Stone-Cech compactification of 'em. It's a geometrical structure—it's a scheme, after all—but here's the thing: that structure depends on whether the continuum hypothesis holds. Now think: What must the things 'living' in it be like? What must they think like? The shape of their space—the nature of their consciousness—is determined by the truth or falsity of a logical axiom. Can't you see? They're living on the fucking edge of logic itself! Fucking freaks.... Y'know, Charles Fort once said, 'If there's a universal mind, must it be sane?' Heh heh heh. Well, I don't wanna know the answer to that no more."
He went on like that for a while, looking sadistic. He had apparently learned this from the so-called "Mathman", or now "Queen in Pink." I could hardly comprehend most of what he was saying, but I grasped some of the implication. Was is true? Some say that we are fairly insignificant with regard to the universe, but what if it was even worse than that? What if there were other universes with incomprehensible structures? Or worse: What if it reached all the way down to our consciousness itself? What if our most basic tenets of existence: Our thoughts, feelings, experiences themselves were just tiny specks in a larger zoo or soup of consciousness? What if there were a whole Pandora's box of "other minds," with incomprehensible structures?
His tirade went on and on. He talked about "morphisms," and how points in one space could be mapped to others. How all the angels and demons, or witches, monsters, aliens that had been spotted over many generations may actually be "ultraterrestrial" figures mapped through morphisms from other universes. How all those lectures of the Mothman being a manifestation—a bundle of "hairs"—of a monster in Lake Lhume was just a way of expressing the fact that the Mothman was simply a set mapped via some morphism from the city-scheme of Lacrasa. Or perhaps that the characterization of the Lake Lhume monster as the God of all worlds was to say that Lacrasa was a space or scheme containing ours—among many others—with the Mothman being that portion of the monster in our subspace. That maybe all that was made up, but perhaps that it was closer to the truth than one may think. After all, our universe is a space. Why wouldn't there be other spaces?
Yes, Mr. Aiken was into "weird fiction," as was Amy. Those stories had some fairly dense, antiquated language. I remembered how in our childhood, we'd take days to read through just one of them together—after all, we were children, and it took a long time to decipher the prose. But crawling through those stories—our imaginations running wild—deciphering the text like detectives and ganging up to ask adults questions about certain sentences, and getting conflicting answers, and making our own conjectures made the whole thing feel that much more immersive. I almost feel like we had a better intuitive understanding of what it was getting at than an educated adult that could chew up The Call of Cthulhu in an evening. That adult probably would chew it up fairly coolly—disillusioned and less prone to vagaries that fiction might invoke in a child. But I remember how as boy and girl, after a week's worth of trudging through that story together, huddled in a blanket and squinting at the text by a dim candlelight—how horrified we were on the night we reached some of the later text: "As Wilcox would have said, the geometry of the place was all wrong."—such lines any seasoned reader may gloss over without much shock, but as children—despite having a poorer understanding of the text in a literary fashion, yet after having reached there in mountains worth of effort and a pace that matched the slow burn of the story—we had some vaguely better feeling of what deeper horrors it was suggesting. Of course this sort of thing was fiction, but I wondered if it was suggesting at something more dire: Something too real for comfort: Other worlds. I thought of widely reported "monsters" like the one in Loch Ness, or the Mothman of the Indians, or the pink balloon terrorizing our town. Were they just images of morphisms from other schemes? Mr. Foster's tirade gave some uncomfortable mathematical legitimacy to the idea of alien worlds. I felt my jaded adult self receive that same sort of spark of terror that Amy and I had felt in those dim cozy nights. Perhaps there was no reason to feel jaded as a grown-up. Perhaps there was reason to continue being horrified well into adulthood. What if it was real? What if humanity was up against something so unbelievably and incomprehensibly and mathematically vast in scope?
"Now, here's the thing, son. That Pinkie ain't from no other world. It's from here. Or, hell, even if it came from another world, it ain't otherworldly to me. It's Earthy, like you and me. It's got emotions. It's got pain—when ya twist and stretch it it cries. When ya make a joke, it laughs. It's got goals, plans, motivations. It's got thoughts, feelings, ideas. Hell, it's weak as hell. Ain't much for "otherworldly" powers. Slow as hell, weak as hell. It ain't much different than just a damn bird—like a pigeon, if anythin'.
"That's what makes it so despicable. Y'think about other worlds an' all, an' most o' us want to just settle an' live peaceful lives. But that damn thing just gets more greedy. No wonder its best friends with that bloke Lyndon. E'en if our world is just a stupid speck in the larger scheme of things, they wanna be the queens. That thing is just about the damn weakest creature on Earth, and yet it wants to be the most powerful. An' it's starting small—by takin' over small towns like this."
"What is its end goal?"
"Who knows? Just power, Ah bet. Doesn't hold down an opinion or belief or nothin'. It'll say one thing, then change it 10 minutes later. It'll tell ya all this bullcrap about this and that, like it actually believes it. Nah, it'll make itself believe in what its sayin', so it is comin' from the heart in the moment. But deep down that damn thing just wants power! Ah'll tell you this, son: Never trust a squeaky voice. I never wanna see no goddamn pink balloons again!"
He slammed the table.
My undrunk coffee spills over again.
Mr. Foster said too many things to unwrap at once. I didn't really care much about the details of the whole Daeth-Foster-Aiken-oil situation, nor the "scheme theory" or "algebraic geometry." The main point was that Foster and Aiken were planning to capture the balloon, but the latter preempted Aiken—and it's unclear whether it noticed Foster's betrayal as well. I had to get to the jailhouse to make sure Amy did not follow my advice yesterday to stab the Queen. And to unwrap what actually happened on graduation day.
The sky was pink and visiting hours were open. I entered the limestone jail. I'm sure Ava gave a speech, or some other antics had occurred while I was at Foster's. The sheriff told me, essentially, it was more of the same. I ascended to the second floor and briskly made it to the last cell.
There she was, dressed bonnett-to-shoe, leaning against the corner, looking toward the window.
"Heya," she said grumpily.
"H-hi. You don't sound too good."
"Well, yeh. That stupid 'Balloon Thingy' came last night. Or as I like to call it, 'Pig Bladder.'"
"You didn't kill it or anything, did you?"
"Nah, we just argued again. Fuck!"
"That thing eavesdropped on us. It listened to our whole convo yesterday. Was floatin' right outside this window the whole time."
"What!? Is it there now?"
"Naw, shouldn't be. Got the sheriff to keep checkin' out the window while you're here."
"Well, I guess I'll thank him on the way down... Was it listening to us since, like, the first night?"
"Fuck if I know. Creepy as hell."
I concurred, and unfortunately I had more creepy things to tell her.
I wasn't sure where to start on updating Amy on the situation. While I was fumbling, she began talking.
"That thing sure pisses me off."
"Ahaha... What happened between you two this time?"
"Well, first thing it did was tell me it'd burn my nose off, impregnate me, and drag my infant through cactuses."
I am amazed she held back from killing it.
"Said 'There's no such thing as freedom, just power,' then tried to tickle my armpits but I just slapped it away."
...This thing is seriously going to take over the South?
"Well, stuff like that. Y'know, Kev. My memory's unfuzzying a bit, and based on our arguments... I'm thinking now that thing mighta killed my parents."
"That's what I think too. But how?"
"Well if the damn thing comes again tonight, I'm gonna snag it and make it talk."
"You sure you can hold back from just killing it?"
"I've got a hell of a patience, Kev."
Knowing that she happened to have the same goal that I did, I took that as an opportunity to update her on my conversation with Mr. Foster, which made her that much more frustrated that she didn't just snag it last night.
"You think it'll come again tonight?"
"When you get it, give it one hell of a time for me. You can stretch it and twist it into some screwed up balloon animal and make it taste utter pain."
"Damn, Kev. Ain't ya hardcore?"
"I mean, to make it talk... But also for revenge. Over what it did to your father. It should taste the same pain that your dad did."
"Har har har. Eye for an eye? If you think about it, Kev, Daddy probably didn't go through that much pain."
"He wasn't tortured, I'm pretty sure. Neither was Mommy—you know, those erm... scars...."
"What? Where are you getting that from?"
"I mean, Kev. Just think about it logically, right? It's a stupid, weak balloon. Just how in the world would it be able to strap 'em both down alive and do all that to 'em? It hadta kill 'em first, definitely."
"Well then, why would it desecrate their corpses like that?"
"Whaddya you think, Kev? You're the newsman."
It didn't take me too long to infer.
"...Optics. It wanted to make the murder look more brutal than it actually was. To make the town that much more scared."
"That's what I'm thinking. You said this thing wants power, right? All its gotta do is make the 'Mothman'—and maybe itself—look scary, and suddenly y'have the whole town bowin' down to it. And listen...
"Listen, Kev: I'm pretty sure I was sleepin' through most of it. If they were tortured I shoulda heard them screaming, and I wouldn't like to think I did nothing back there, y'know?
"But I do remember goin' around and seein', well, basically the aftermath. And here's the thing. I don't quite remember what the killer looked like. My eyes were all swollen and teary or somethin', it was hard to make out. Let's say it was the balloon. But what I do remember is that Daddy was... ugh... already halfway skinned by the time I got there—he was definitely dead by that point.
"And here's somethin' I just realized: The... eugh... sections of skin that I saw bein' taken out of Daddy: they were pretty large sections of skin. God, I'm gonna puke. But, y'know, the sheriff showed me Daddy's body parts from the... errr... 'scavenger hunt', right? And, well, they were definitely not chopped up into little pieces like that. The killer chopped 'em up after it removed 'em."
"To make the murder look that much more brutal."
"And, I'm guessin', to make enough pieces for a stupid 'scavenger hunt'... but also... I'm thinkin' that maybe the killer—the balloon—was tryna hide somethin'. By making the pieces so small and screwed up, I think maybe there's somethin' about those body parts it didn't want us to know."
"Man, Kev. When ya think about it, Daddy wasn't perfect at all. I mean, I know that better than anyone, but man, he really got in over his head. I mean, I support what he was tryna do, but... Look at what happened to Mommy and Ms. Daeth... and himself. Left his own daughter alone. Heh. Ain't that unfair, Kev? I feel alone."
I felt a bit of resentment from her.
"It's the Queen's fault."
"Was it, Kev? I mean, look: Think about it from its perspective."
Why does she always do this? First she wants me to think like a 9-year-old white girl, now a pink balloon?
"If y'think about it, Daddy and Foster were planning to capture and torture the thing, right? From its perspective, y'could argue it was self-defense."
"Well, then it didn't have to kill your mom too."
"Well, maybe it had to—from its perspective, I mean. I mean, we still don't know how it managed to kill 'em both. It definitely pulled some trick, and maybe it didn't want any witnesses to know what it was."
"Then why didn't it kill you?"
"I dunno... Why is it tryna keep the whole town away from me? Make an example outta me or somethin', prawly."
"That thing is a threat to our democracy. What your dad was trying to do was save America, in a sense."
"I know, I know, Kev. I support him and all. But y'know, in each of our heads, we're heroes, right? From that balloon's perspective, maybe it's tryna save the world."
"How is hijacking democracy saving the world?"
"Kev, look: I'm a Roosevelt gal. And, well, it's because I'm a Roosevelt gal that I get it, I think. All these programs... The AAA, REA, NYA, all this stuff is complicated... Like, magnitudes more complicated than anything we've ever seen government do before, y'know?
"The AAA is a great thing, but even Daddy hadta admit it's a fuckin' mess. It's a bureaucratic nightmare. Every farmer has a separate, complicated crop-reduction formula, and millions of those has gotta be negotiated and measured by an understaffed Agricultural Department. It's a freakin' cacophony of bureaus that pop in an outta existence, whose goals and responsibilities change overnight, and they're pretty much always understaffed. It's a miracle that it's accomplishin' anythin' at all. But if you think about it, these independents—these special interest guys and lobbyists like Ed Clark and folks like Lyndon—they're selfish bastards, but they're the ones that help make these systems run. They're the ones that break into this system, bypass the paperwork, distribute money and patronage, make deals with farmers and unions, and all that. These programs and all wouldn't be possible without 'em, in a sense. Hell, most of 'em hate the programs, but they're the ones keeping it running. They're like the grease on the rusty cogs."
"I can't believe you're the one making this argument. Did the Queen feed you this propaganda last night?"
"Well, it's not like it sticks to any damn opinion."
"I'm just sayin': Liberals like Daddy and me complain about 'concentration of wealth' and 'concentration of power' and all, but if you think about it, stuff like the New Deal wouldn't be possible without it, y'know. All these big programs and public power projects and stuff wouldn't function without hierarchy.
"Look, Kev: We're in a complex system now. We've got territory all the way up to the Pacific, we've got a huge military that's gotta fight big World Wars, we've got gigantic government programs. Things ain't simple anymore. Everything's connected. A stock market crash up in New York screwed us up all the way down here in Texas. Much different world than when we were just a frontier Republic, huh?"
"...Maybe we should secede."
"Haha. Well, there's no going back, Kev. That's progress. We're Americans now. I mean, we keep talkin' about 'democracy' and all, but we're not a 'democracy', persay, right? We're a republic. Else we wouldn't have a Senate. The Founders made the Senate to protect the state from the population, right? There's your beloved Rule 22 and all that."
"Rule 22 didn't come from the Founders, and neither did oil money."
"Well, maybe now our system is complex enough that special interests is kinda like the new Senate: A new order that keeps it runnin'. Hierarchy matters if you want your system to be somethin' more than, say, Stone Age freedom. The further we go, the more order you need. Order can be progress."
"Order is a good thing if you hate freedom."
"Order is a good thing if ya want unity, Kev."
"Overrated. I don't want the government or people on the other damn side of the country interfering with me. I don't want a top-hatted Northerner that's never been here to decide my future. I want to live my own way of life. I want to be free."
"Well, go try it, Kev. The rest of us ain't gonna help ya. Get with the program or get out, y'know."
"But it's necessary. Why'd we drive out the Indians, Kev? Cause America wouldn't be America with headdressed folks doin' whatever they want. We had to. We need to act together."
"That's psychotic, Amy! Let people mind their own business. Let Texas do its thing and let New York integrate its damn schools."
"Yeah, Kev. Let's just become a Federation of States with shit for national defense and let the Soviets conquer us. Have fun bein' a Commie."
"I never said we shouldn't have national defense. I'm willing to fight! Sign me up! I'll fight. I want to fight! I'll be on the frontlines."
"Boy, Kev, that's how you make young gal's heart flutter."
"But that's only a fraction of the story, Kev. Like I said, we're in a new, complex world right now. Winnin' a war, protectin' our borders—the national economy matters as much for that as a brave, handsome young boys like you signing up. Hey, Kev: If we get into this new quagmire in Europe, guess what's gonna be vital to our success? Oil. Our and our Allies' machinery's gonna need shitloads-a oil. Destroyers and bombers and jets... And who're we gonna rely on to provide that oil? The independents. Sid Richardson, Clint Murchison... These are men—unlike the majors. They can chat directly with the President, and jump in and make quick, unilateral decisons in a time of emergency."
"If we get into this Europe war, y'know, Texas oil might just be our chance to win it. But what happens if Texas 'secedes' its from the rest of the nation, like you suggest? How're we gonna get oil from here up to the East Coast? Ships? Well, the Axis ain't idiots. They'll spend a good amount of energy bombing the hell out of 'em and giving us a hard time. Well, then we'd need a pipeline wouldn't we, Kev? A massive pipeline—bigger than any that's ever been made. Say, a pipeline all the way from Texas to New York. Now how are we gonna build somethin' that massive—that cuts through so many states and requires so much cooperation—if our economy and culture aren't united?
"America can't do great things without unity, y'know. We wouldn't be able to protect ourselves 'gainst great forces. We'd have no stake in this great war. There's no identity without unity, Kev. That's why it's important. We coulda just let the South secede, but we didn't. Texas has been a part of the Union since Appomattox. We wouldn't be able to call ourselves Americans if we don't bring people together. We had to make Quanah into a farmer. There wouldn't be any such thing as 'American' if we just let people run around whoopin' and yellin'."
"Then what about Wilson's self-determination? How do we know that our system is the best? How do we know our way of life is the best? How many times in the past has 'order' turned into tyranny, under the guise of national defense and a supreme culture? Hell, just look at what's happening in Germany. Who's not to say we'll turn into that? You're just assuming Quanah was better off as a farmer."
"Boy, Kev. I'm soundin' like you and you're soundin' like me."
I froze, amazed at what had just occurred. I almost starting laughing.
Here I was, having said few days back that Polk was my favorite President, and yet passionately arguing against Manifest Destiny. I was arguing for freedom, and she was arguing for order. I was arguing for her position and she was arguing for mine.
I suddenly understood why Texas Rangers and Comanche chiefs had so much mutual respect for each other. I understood why Buffalo Hump sent Jack Hays presents. I understood why after having brutally clashed many times, Quanah and Mackenzie were able to become close friends. I understood why Grant and Lee were able to shake hands in 1865. I understood understanding.
"A belt for a belt..." Was that nonsense really true?
When I heard her rant yesterday championing the indigenous, at the time it made me feel uncomfortable and disgusted. But here I was now, arguing from that same position. No, it wasn't quite the same position, and I didn't agree with this position, but now I felt like I could understand it. I finally understood her. I could see, feel where she was coming from. After all, I just now had that very moment of passion. She was arguing for me and I was arguing for her. We sounded like each other.
I felt a hint of what I felt back in our childhood, where she and I could almost merge our consciousnesses: where we both saw presumably the same city in the barren plains of the Hill Country—back when we were able to share a world. That intuitive, effortless understanding between children, it seemed, had been—with some effort proportionally required by the walls put up by our grown brains—at least dimly rekindled. Understanding: That was how to share a world with someone. I felt, briefly, intimately connected with her, in a manner transcendent the cell bars physically separating us. Were there other worlds, with other geometries and other minds in them? If those other minds were incomprehensible, so be it. I felt grateful just to be able to understand her mind—or, rather, a small portion of it: I had understood at least one corner of that vast, sprawling, mazelike space inside her head. It was exciting. It felt so revelatory that I felt that—as Hitler was beating his drum in Germany and Britain was holding down its fort against bombing campaigns—if this small understanding between me and her were just multiplied and scaled up, it could mean something like world peace. It was a stupid, foolish thought, but that's what I felt.
Did she feel the same revelation? I doubt it. Because, I realized over the past several days, that this was natural for her. This was normal for her. To think from others' perspectives. To try to understand. She was the loneliest person in Hill Country, and yet she was always trying to understand. Perhaps that's what made her so lonely.
"Listen, Kev. Everything's gonna be alright. I dunno what the right way forward is, but I do wanna go forward, y'know. Maybe that pig bladder has a point about 'moderation' after all—but if so, it's a hypocrite... It's goin' too far. Meddlin' too much, gettin' its hands too dirty, screwin' over people's lives. Look at what it did to this town. This was just plain unnecessary, right?
"So I'm gonna snag it, Kev. And once that's done I'll sure as hell be released. Don't worry: We'll get it to talk, teach it a lesson, set things straight—or straighter. I dunno 'bout a 'revolution' or anythin', but maybe we can make this system just a tad bit more ethical, y'know? If it comes, I'll snag it. We're gonna win, Kev."
She brushed her hair back and revealed a confident, lipsticked smile.