Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.
—Saint John Paul the Great
Parkside, San Francisco, California
7:10 a.m. GMT−8, May 12, 2021
The fog blankets the house where Peter oversleeps his 6 a.m. alarm. Cold, damp, opaque, and yet ethereal in how in its mists mingle the real and the imagined. But for Peter, his fog, real or imagined, is not one of love, but that of the cursed.
In his darkness, in the silence, in the emptiness within his soul, he cries out, “Please help me. What do I do? What do I do?”
And the man who can pull together others’ words so they sing out cannot even find the words to cry out his angst as he rolls through the twists and turns of sheets and blankets.
Thud. His body, rigid and cold as Death’s scythe, ripping with contracted muscles yelling for the mercy of the heavens to end it all, hits the floor.
“Oh my God. My little sister. She’s in trouble,” Peter screams out as he bolts to his rickety thirdhand desk to find his MoxWrap, tapping away in panic on the call icon of a young woman wearing long golden metallic swirls in her blond hair, accented by similar earrings. “Pick up. Pick up. Please.”
And then he sees the time in Shanghai: 12:04 a.m. tomorrow morning. Sheepishly, he shuts down the call, hoping he didn’t wake up Michaela.
The fog from the night clearing, both outside and inside, and with microwaved instant coffee finally in hand, he scans his MoxMail. Nothing from MoxMedia yet. Ouch. But then there is his landlord’s gentle reminder that his rent is due, and one from his boss, Jerrod Olson. He opens the last one, hoping Jerrod has mercy in mind and is going to give him a surprise bonus for his exceptional work for nearly two years as a contract copyeditor for the Journal of International Geo-Archeology.
Oh, the trauma. Oh, the inhumanity. I’m fired again. I was right in what I edited. Why doesn’t Jerrod see that? Why is the author always right? Even when they’re wrong?
The irony of it all. I finally had a job that would have made my father proud of me. The son he always wanted me to be. Another few months, and I would have gotten my year-end bonus and maybe a perm position, in which I would have had full access to the resources and people I need to complete his and Pappy’s search. A full-time employee.
And so, he puts his head to the desk with arms around his aching brain. He finds relief from his dream-impaired thoughts as he goes for his run along the Pacific, up to the Golden Gate Bridge. Better than Pappy’s smoking, but certainly not as good as passionate bonding. But he makes due as he warms his heart with the image of little Peter sitting in the lap of his pa while he reads the newest findings in archeology. They shared the love of discovering the new in the old of the past. And his brain energizes with the memory of Pa’s words explaining the nuances of the Star Trek franchise. It’s a large object that defies even our sensors, says Spock.
His chest fills with pride at the memory of winning a summer internship in the newly created Near East department of the Asian Art Museum after his junior year in high school. But with that thought, the darkness always returns. He ran into the house to tell his pa the great news. But the darkness began. The gun. In his mouth. The blood. His eyes open in despair. And Peter sank to the ground and cried. His mother’s God left him that day, and so he left God.
Blond. It was blond that shone through the darkness. He could see his mother’s hair glistening as her fingers wiped his tears away at his father’s funeral. Only her touch could breathe warmth into his beleaguered soul as his clammy hands clasped hers and they watched his father’s casket lowered into the ground.
Blond. It was blond that caught his eye as Sarah asked him to coffee that night at the Aliens R Us Society meeting.
How am I going to pay the rent if I don’t ask Ma again? What am I going to tell her? Should I pretend nothing happened?
Back at his little studio, he peers out his window with that precious itty-bitty view of the Pacific and sees sunlight peeking its way through the fog. Maybe there’s hope after all. He picks up Sarah’s photo, puts it in the trash bin, but then pauses, taking it out and placing it facedown on his table. His mother still holds out hope they will get back together, but Peter knows better, for he edited Sarah’s first book.
A long shower. Cold one at that, given what he thinks he dreamt only minutes ago. A close shave this morning because he will be meeting his mother for brunch, hand held out, begging for more rent money. Those “adorable eyes of innocence” stare back at him in the mirror. What was Dr. Fontaine talking about? All those eyes got him in Manhattan was mugged at gunpoint late one night coming out of the subway. Naivety, not innocence, beaconed his eyes to all would-be thieves. He puts on his John Lennon round-rimmed glasses. Maybe he should get Terminator glasses so he won’t look so “innocent.”
He looks in his closet. A collection of banana slug shirts. He takes out a navy one with Sammy the Slug in his blazing yellow glory holding his anthropomorphic hands out with boxing gloves on.
The smell of negative ions, so distinct to the Pacific. He knows, as he spent time in New York. The Atlantic just didn’t smell the same. The run along the Hudson was not the same. As he exits the pastel-pink-and-white-trimmed stucco house hosting his little studio apartment to go on his morning run, Peter is relieved he snuck by his nice landlady’s door without being asked about the rent. In his wallet, he has a ten and six ones. Just enough to get to brunch with his mother and back. Hopefully with a rent check. Being fired could not have come at a worse time.
Down the street, a brown fifteen-year-old minivan in process of moving in or out. An early-forties woman in a tight beige tank top and carmine short shorts waves him down. Mrs. Harrison. Colors and mascara perfectly coordinated with MoxFashion’s guidance for this week. “Peter. Peter. Perfect timing.”
“Why, Mrs. Harrison, are you moving?”
“Yes. Come inside, please,” she says.
Once he’s inside, she elaborates. “The terms of my divorce weren’t so good. My husband—my ex, that is—really took me for everything. Do you believe it? I have to pay him alimony,” she says, brushing her dark blond hair back, exposing her earlobes.
She thumbs through a stack of papers. And shows Peter three. “But enough about my problems, I wanted to show you Melinda’s third-round acceptances into Stanford, Princeton, and Harvard. All came within the last two days. And to think, a year ago, all three schools rejected her. If it hadn’t been for your editorial help, your coaching, your confidence building through your quirky humor, she would have wasted her gap year. You are a godsend, Peter. You are.” And Mrs. Harrison takes Peter by surprise with a big hug.
She pulls back, looking at his UC Santa Cruz t-shirt, and purses her lips. “You’re so brilliant. Why didn’t you go to any of those schools? With your writing, I bet you got first-round letters of acceptance.”
Dimples aglow, feet shuffling, hands in pocket, Peter replies, “That was more than a dozen years ago. How could I have chosen differently? I loved UC Santa Cruz. How could I proudly wear Sammy the Slug if I didn’t accept their offer? Besides, I helped my sister with her Stanford application, just as I did your Melinda.”
“I wish I could pay you for your help, Peter, but this divorce has stretched all my finances. Melinda and I have to move to a smaller place not far from here. But I can offer some home-cooked meals. You look like you might be tired of the microwavable cuisine bachelors subsist on,” says Mrs. Harrison with eyes on a certain location on Peter’s light running shorts as she puts her right foot towards Peter, wriggling it to get his attention
But Peter only sees her large, muscular orange tabby cat, coming by her legs to curl around his. He bends down to pet this descendant of the saber-toothed as Mrs. Harrison says, “Maybe you’d like a little cougar in your life, Peter? It’s very common these days.”
With his eyes, those innocent ones, he looks up at her. “No, no, Mrs. Harrison, I couldn’t take care of your cat. Well, maybe babysit him until you can get settled in your new place.”
And to his surprise, she kneels down with him, making sure her cleavage is right under his nose, and pinches his right cheek while gazing into his eyes. “You are so adorable. With those dimples and those eyes. A woman could lose herself peering into them.”
“That was good, Mrs. Harrison,” Peter retorts. “I read the first chapter of your manuscript. You have a latent talent for being a romance writer, not that I’m an expert on that kind of fiction.”
Placing both her hands around the dimples on both sides of his face, she replies, “Call me Amelie, Peter. Maybe if we partner on all things romance, I could pay you with the royalties for my first book?”
Taking her warm hands off his cheeks, Peter nods, pursing his lips. “I tried editing romance novels. My ex-girlfriend started writing them just after I won a set of MoxWraps. She took a test on hers that said she was a natural for writing that genre. I couldn’t relate to the alpha male heroes. Chiseled faces, big chests, glistening pecs, narrow torsos, and the big bulging shorts. But she could. And we made the fateful move to the Upper West Side in Manhattan to further her writing career. But things changed. I guess that’s why I found her in bed with a man just like that. Ex-Army Ranger sniper, ex-NYPD, and now assistant head of MoxWorld USA security. Everything I’m not.”
Again to his surprise, she kisses him on the forehead. “And maybe some women have grown out of that alpha male type. My ex was one. And look where that got me.”
Out the open door, an old white pickup truck can be seen pulling up, and out exits a large man, chiseled face, day-old stubble, perfect chest-to-torso ratio, tattooed arm, dressed in a tight-fitting grey compression tank partially covered by overalls. He yells, “And you would be trying to seduce someone too young for you just a week after our divorce papers were final.”
Amelie bolts up, straightening out her top and hair. “You should show this young man some respect. He helped your daughter get into Stanford, Princeton, and Harvard. Something that you couldn’t do.”
Barging in the open door, slamming it shut, reeking of alcohol, the worst, cheapest kind, he pulls Peter up by his hair and leans his rough face into his. Spitting away, he says, “An intellectual, huh? That means you have nothing in the shorts worth speaking of. Didn’t you know my ex here only likes her men big? But take my advice, she isn’t worth it. Don’t fall for her act. I did.”
“Randall,” Mrs. Harrison yells. “Get out of here. Haven’t you hurt us enough?”
And the perfect alpha-formed Randall lets go of Peter and grabs his ex-wife by her tank top, stretching it well off her body. He slobbers out, “I’m here for my daughter. She shouldn’t be living with you. You’ve missed paying my first month’s alimony already. What kind of role model are you, parading around like this?”
And the straw that breaks the banana slug’s back—the big man strikes her, drawing blood. And what is he thinking? Peter, that is. For he grabs this man, who must be fifty percent bigger than he in all dimensions.
“Mr. Harrison, you need to sober up and come back later. It would be best for all.”
“Oh, Mr. Egghead here thinks he can talk me into leaving. And let him try to be a role model for my daughter? Not happening,” he yells, taking Peter’s hand off him.
And that gene activates, the same exact one that wrote in the margins of that pristine, pompous professor’s paper about how wrong he was about the Black Sea hypothesis, and out of Peter’s mouth comes, “You know that one to two percent of our genes come from the Neanderthals. But in your case, the aliens who designed us made an exception. You must be at least fifty percent. You should leave nice homo sapiens ladies alone so our species can keep evolving. So, crawl back to your cave, why don’t you?”
Whap. Something very hard rips Peter’s skull. Barely standing, wavering to and fro, Peter feels warm fluid drip down his hair onto his neck. Bright crimson stains form, blanching down towards Sammy.
Looking up from the redness streaking through his beloved slug, Peter tries to focus as his glasses have gone flying. And then Peter sees it. Randall Harrison had a gun in those overalls. A gun now pointed at his face. A gun with his blood on it.
And he stands there frozen in time. There he was at 157th and Broadway, staring down the barrel of a gun. There he was in his father’s den, staring at the gun in his bloody mouth. There he was in the forests, staring down an arrow at…at his sister’s breast. Frozen forever in time.
But it is her screams that snap him out of it. With an iron grip on her tank top, stretched out so nothing is covered, the caveman drags poor Mrs. Harrison towards the bedroom, yelling he is going to collect an advance on the alimony she owes.
Words won’t save him. Words won’t save Mrs. Harrison, Amelie. What can he do? He taps on his MoxWrap, looking for 911. What is he doing? She needs him now. And the welterweight editor, the alien-loving omega male sci-fi nerd, this average-height twig of a man tackles the monstrous caveman.
Whap. Well, his tackle is more like a ping-pong ball against the side of an elephant as Peter flies backwards to the floor. Maybe he’s merely stunned. Maybe he’s petrified by a haunting flashback. But for sure as he looks up, he’s staring once again into the darkness of a gun barrel. Maybe there’s a glint of a bullet. But that’s the last thing he sees.
“And what do you think you were doing, young man?” asks Samantha Gollinger. “I didn’t raise my son to be a ruffian lout. And certainly the Gollinger men weren’t born to be the hero type.”
The bright white institutional lights of the urgent care clinic burn his eyes only a modicum less than his mother’s words do his ears. He is trapped here waiting for the neurologist report stating that he does not have a concussion. Fortunately, he only smells bleach and antiseptics, with no trace of sulfur, gunpowder. He hasn’t been shot. But his ego sure feels like it, trounced first by that Neanderthal and now by his archetypal helicopter-parent mother.
The woman dressed in the latest MoxFashion cashmere slip dress in Rhonda’s recommended beige, with carmine trim and a gold cross dangling from her neck, resembles his ex, Sarah, but a couple inches taller. Come to think of it, so did his all of his girlfriends. And he shouldn’t complain. Samantha has bailed him out of all sorts of problems and troubles, as far back as he can remember.
And then the stinging. She has licked her fingers to wipe his right temple clean, near the caveman’s steel club strike. And with all of her saliva-laden-finger-administered salves, that warm feeling, the relaxing opening sensation, overcomes him. She did the same at his father’s grave, the only action that could stop his near-hysterical crying. He needed her helicoptering hovering healing.
“My father was not an overgrown lout. Nor was your father, my George. Look at your frail pappy. You all were born with the genetics to be simple men. Better suited to being librarians than adventurers. But you all fancy yourselves Indiana Joneses without the panache, fantasizing about your next archeological dig which will reveal the truth behind that inane family mystery,” Samantha admonishes, brushing her very blond locks back behind her ear. “What were you thinking, tackling that idiot?”
Peter glances around but cannot find her. He asks, “Where is Mrs. Harrison, anyway?”
“You mean Amelie?” his mother mocks with eyebrow raised. “She came by to see you while you were getting your head examined. Apparently your MoxWrap dialed 911, and the police arrived shortly after you tried to play defensive tackle. We’re supposed to go to the local station and give a statement when we’re through here. You know, if you’re going to save a damsel in distress, maybe you should pick a more modestly dressed one. Although at least she has the sense to be in tune with Rhonda’s colors of the week.” And Samantha brushes her cheek, showing she has the same hue as the MoxMedia anchor babbling away on the screen above about the rumors of the Kurds in Turkey forming another new nation. “Men like you should be finding a woman who can take care of herself, at least defend herself.”
“I wasn’t dating her, Ma. I helped her daughter get into Stanford and a couple Ivies, just like I did for Michaela.”
She ruffles his hair on the side opposite the gun butt wound. Her best emulation of her husband’s attaboy. “And that, you are good at. Not that physical hero stuff. Since you broke up with Sarah, you really have been acting strange. The protein shakes, the push-ups, sit-ups. Did you tackle Amelie’s ex because he represented Sam, the ex-Ranger Sarah left you for?”
Now his head hurts even more as he remembers the day he moved his worldly goods out of Sarah’s place, ready to come home to his beloved Pacific. And Sam was there. His rectangular face with high cheekbones screamed security, strength, and bad boy sex. A distinctive double-clefted chin that could launch a thousand ships. Bare-chested, showing off his massive pectoral muscles, immaculately sculpted six-pack abs. And his gun, big and bad as he cleaned it on the table, watching Peter’s every move as if to say “one false move” with anything to do with his Sarah—not Peter’s, but his—and that gun would be discharged into something vital of Peter’s.
And again, a gun in Mr. Harrison’s hand. One he didn’t even see until too late. A pistol whip administered by Randall the Ape Man. Chiseled face. Tattoos across his massive muscular body. If only Peter could have been born with their kind of bodies—big, tall, structured.
A perceptive Samantha interrupts his self-flagellations with her “en pointe” motherly advice. “I didn’t marry your father because he was a muscle-bound knight and could protect me from dragons. I married him because he partnered with me equally, loved me for my failings as well as my aspirations, and would be a wonderful father to wonderful children. Like you and Michaela.”
With dour face looking beyond his mother’s shoulder, Peter laments, “And look where that got him. And us.”
And that stern mother look washes over Samantha’s face as she puts her hand under his chin, squeezing his now dimple-less cheeks. “We’ve been down this road before. We need to move on. He didn’t abandon us. He loved us. He loved you. And do I need to say for the umpteenth-thousandth time that you should ignore that daft grandfather of yours? Your father didn’t fail. Fail us. Fail you. And you are not failing because you haven’t found that stupid object.”
“Pappy showed me Uncle James’s parchment. Why didn’t Pa tell me? Why didn’t you tell me? I could have taken up where Pa left off years ago,” Peter laments.
Big deep breath and then a long sigh as the stern hovering mother deflates. Fighting the inevitable has just come to a head today. Her son will be the inevitable’s next victim unless she says the right thing. She wraps her fingers around the gold crucifix around her neck.
Kissing his forehead, she says in a softer voice, “My son, my family, your father’s family, we’re different. We’re plagued by some bizarre notion that we can find the special, the ultimate in saving mankind. The truth is, only through our Lord can we find that salvation. You must believe me. Christ was our savior.”
Seeing she’s not making a dent in her son’s already dented head, she adds, “I know how much the pain of your father’s death has led you to believe aliens created God. I am not going to debate you again on this subject. But listen to your great-grandmother Camilla’s wisdom on the topic of these family legends. She taught me that if the men in our generation cannot solve the mystery, then they need to focus on procreation. No different from what our Bible tells us, except in that the next generation or the ones after might live in a world where these mysteries can be solved.”
Clasping his hands over his ears as he sits on the edge of the examination table, Peter moans. “And now comes the ‘where are my grandchildren?’ discussion.”
She kisses his forehead. “Don’t dismiss what a good woman in life brings. And think about how successful you’ll feel when you see your children master the family oral traditions and show you where that tail of the bird star is at night. Teaching our next generation, raising them to be even better than us, is equally or even more fulfilling than our own personal successes.”
Silence. Well, the noise of the urgent care unit still rattles and clanks in the air, but the two are quiet. A little buzz on the wrist, and Peter glances at his MoxMail. “Ma. I got it. I got it. MoxMedia accepted my application, and they say I should be expecting more information shortly.”
“But what about the job you thought Jerrod was going to offer you? A bird in the hand is always better.”
“Uh, Ma. He fired me this morning.”
“Seriously, Peter? Again? Can’t you call him up and beg like you did the first time he wanted to fire you?”
“Ma, don’t you understand? The number one company to work for in the world just invited me to come and interview. Well, part of the number one company. MoxMedia. They’re looking for a copy editor in their Middle East news group, and they’re interviewing a highly select group of candidates at their new San Francisco office. I can chase my family legends, your family legends, and you won’t have to loan me more rent money…after this month, that is.”
She fully expected his rent payment remark. Why else does a son ask to see his mother at the same time each month? But the protective, concerned mother in her emotes, “Peter, please don’t tell me you’re going to have to run around with your keyboard over there. With the re-emerging war stance between Turkey, Russia, and the Chinese-funded Arabic Confederation, you’d be in the middle of what might be the next world war. What did we just say about not being the hero type?”
“Ma, you just rattled off all the reasons why this is the best editor job in the world right now. And besides, they always put the junior editor in a four-by-four cube, shielded from the real world. There’s no way you’ll see me running around out there with bombs falling all around, Ma. That’s so not me. That’s for the war correspondents, whose words I will be making dance and sing.”
“But didn’t your sister call that company’s CEO evil? He’s a Russian crook, no?”
“Ma, that’s only malicious rumormongering. Alexander Murometz is no crook. He’s the most successful global entrepreneur of this millennium. He is a giant among giants. His MoxWorld Holdings spans the globe like no other multinational company ever did before. Your MoxWrap is a prime example of his brilliance.”
“I don’t know, Peter. Wouldn’t calling Jerrod back and begging be better? You read all those stories about how devious that CEO is and the unethical practices that made him his fortune. And you’re so vulnerable right now. Just waiting for another male figure to follow, like you did with that president you voted for.”
“Gossip, Ma. Idle gossip. Fake news from jealous competitors. Mr. Murometz will be a great man to work for. You know these huge complex corporations. I’ll never even meet the man. But mark my words, Ma—today, Peter Gollinger is going to turn his life around. No more perennial loser. No more moping about Sarah and alpha male snipers. I’m going to do something that’s going to make a difference in this world.”
A beep sounds and the holographic image of another woman appears, blond hair flaring out, wearing a red nightshirt emblazoned with a big white S.
“Hey, bro. OMG. Are you okay? What did you do? Try to get Sarah back and that Army ape of hers clobbered you?”
Sheepish as sheep get, Peter meekly says, “I’m okay. Just a little cut on the head. Well, a bruise on the cheek too.”
Samantha interrupts, “Your brother tried to play knight in shining armor to a skimpily dressed divorcée, whose ex decided your brother was in the way.”
Now noticing her mother, Michaela tries to sort out her frazzled blond strands as she says, “Hi, Ma. Don’t be hard on him. He was my knight in flimsy armor. You remember the time you fetched Peter from the emergency room when I was in middle school? He defended my honor then, too. Against really bad odds. But his broken arm and ribs healed fast.”
Peter’s not-so-little sister turns to him and asks, “So I’m not interrupting another one of those ‘where are my grandchildren?’ talks?”
A little chuckle and Peter replies, “Sis, yes, you missed her not-so-subtle grandkids innuendo, but she hasn’t had the subtle monthly ‘Michaela the Stanford grad is so much better than you, the Banana Slug school grad’ discussion.”
“Why, big bro, she’s right, you know. Little sisters can always best their big brothers. And Pappy knows it too. I can even say the precious family words backwards. ‘Save can object the. Peace find you can together two as only.’”
Eyebrows raised for sibling sparring action, Peter asserts, “Well, Little Miss Stanford Showoff, if you have to know, I was just letting Ma know that your super editor brother has just been asked to interview with MoxMedia.”
Eyebrows furrowed in alarm, Michaela replies, “Peter, you wouldn’t. Not with that misogynistic MoxWorld CEO. You can’t work for him.”
Peter is very amused. He hasn’t seen his sister so riled up since the 2016 election. “Admit it, sis, you just don’t like male billionaires. Admit it. Like I say to Ma all the time. Some things are more important than money. Like the truth. And I’ll be a great copy editor for MoxMedia.”
Seeing the errant strands crossing her face, Michaela straightens out her hair. “Yes, big bro. The truth that you’ll be covering up some huge corporate conspiracy working in his fake news empire. But if you are going to sell out your soul to be in that crook’s company, maybe you can get the MoxFashion group to help me get into Shanghai University’s Paris-Shanghai Fashion Institute. They have that place locked down only for their fashion needs. I’d be happy for you to sell your soul if that means I can get into that closed club.”
With a tsk-tsk-tsk face, Samantha intervenes again. “Michaela, you know better than to joke about selling souls. The Lord looks out for our family and our souls. And no child of mine will be selling their soul, even if it means no grandchildren.”
“Okay, Ma. No soul selling. Hey, I gotta go,” says Michaela. “Big bro, two things before I go. Faust. Reread it. Be one hundred percent sure of where your moral lines are before you interview. They’re tricky, those Moxers. Before you know it, you’ll have a blood contract with you know who.”
Peter spies his mother cringing at his sister’s admonitions as Michaela adds, “And Ma’s sure to remind you about your mating success after I hang up. Maybe you’d have better luck if you diversified. Go dark hair for a change. I can set you up with some super-sexy raven-haired sirens at the school here. They’d love that you’re so docile you couldn’t hurt a squirrel, not even if it was a rabid one about to bite you.”
And with that, her image disappears.
As the discharge nurse comes and goes, with Peter signing away his life on endless documents, he asks her about the faint bleach smell. She replies a ten-to-one bleach dilution is used for cleaning up bloodstains or spills. He apologizes if he has left too many of these, and she smiles and leaves.
Alone again, Samantha says her final piece. “I’m proud of my son, of you, for getting invited to interview with the world’s most successful company. Your sister’s Faust comments aside, I’m sure the place is full of wonderful single women and you’ll find a good one somewhere.”
She brushes her blondness back again. “And as much as I’m flattered that you like women who look like your mother, and your grandmother, Michaela is right. A dark-haired woman who can help you, who can defend herself, but who needs your special gifts to find her special role in the world, you should not turn her down either. But a blonde daughter-in-law wouldn’t be bad either.”
Grasping his hands, she adds, “And by special gifts, I don’t mean your lack of brawn, but your heart and the wonderful words it can sing.”
Back in the safety of his nest, his little studio apartment, rent for this month paid by his mother as she saw him back to his little abode, Peter stares at the framed picture of his ex turned upside down on his desk. His perishing pappy, his hovering helicopter ma, and even his sassy sister, all pointed the same way. He can’t do it alone.
His MoxWraps sounds. What did his mother forget to tell him this time? He taps it to reveal an unexpected hologram.
“Mr. Gollinger?” a hauntingly lovely woman asks, to which Peter replies affirmatively.
“Mr. Murometz would like to speak with you. Please hold.”