I am as far as the road will go before it becomes dirt. In the dirt is freedom. There aren't paths so it has to be figured out from scratch. It's blank and flat and goes on forever.

Einstein said the fundamental truth of the universe was that it takes time to go a distance. That's how we spend our heartbeats. Going from here to there.

Your life is like that; you just think it's not. You think you can follow in someone else's footsteps and bang from rail to rail like the bumpers will keep you from careening off the side to your death, but the truth is there are no bumpers. At any point in time you can make something of yourself or wreck your life completely.

That's the joy of living.

Someone wise told me I'd spend my entire life revising what I thought bad and good were--that it would change with time. He said the universe knows no definitions. There were no rules, only souls making their way.

We were in the middle of the Taylor Valley in Antarctica when he said it. Anything you say or think there becomes a fundamental truth.

"Did you know that when you're born the nurses give you a big button that says DO NOT PUSH?" I say.

Kat mumbles something that sounds like, "shut up you paranoid fuck," but I can't be sure because she's not facing me.

"When you die they collect the buttons and count them, just to see how many people could make it without pressing," I say.

Kat groans and turns. I think she's not in the mood for stories, but she tells me she is. Her eyes are sparkling and there's a look on her face as if the world stopped spinning just to keep the sun in the right spot for her at the beach. She wants me to rub her shoulders so I do.

"Guess how many of those buttons come back unpushed," I say to her sighs.

She says, "Four."

"That's right. Only the enlightened buddist monks. The rest of us are Eve: way too interested in life. Even the bad stuff. That's why people like slasher movies. They want to be the victim."

"They want to be the killer," Kat says.

"That, too." I stop rubbing her shoulders and go back to reverie.

The latte I made when we started is getting cold. I look out the window into the shadowy grill of tree trunks beside the building expecting Robin Hood or The Blair Witch to pop out at any moment. Nothing would surprise me now.

"How are Charlene and the kids?" she asks, and I wonder what purpose this question has. She must want me to drink drano, or throw myself into the path of an oncoming cement mixer.

I say, "You know, I was standing in front of the magazine rack at the grocery store the other day."

Kat groans and throws a forearm across her face. Her hair is splayed on the pillow like a halo that's yet to form. A sheet covers only one of her breasts and the thick red light oozing from the fading daytime paints everything the way I imagine it's going to be when I die.

Maybe I'm dead already and I just don't know it.

"No more stories, please," she says.

I ignore her. "There was this guy reading a gun magazine. Guns and Ammo, I think."

"So?"

"So let me finish," I say. "I mean, we're not talking porn, or Soldier of Fortune, it's a magazine with guns in it for normal people."

"You're losing me already," she says, "Normal people don't buy guns."

"Oh, I forgot. Everyone in LA is abnormal."

"Case in point. I wannu...again," she says, rolling toward me. I'm ignoring her.

"So I'm standing next to this guy, looking up one of my stories in Tomorrow..."

"Narcissist."

"All writers are narcissists," I say. "What the hell's gotten into you today?"

"You," she says, like a grenade that's been in bed between us that just went off.

"So anyway, we're standing there for like, I dunno, ten minutes when this little dink of a kid comes running up to the guy and screams at the top of her lungs, 'So THERE YOU ARE. Mommy told me you'd be here reading bad magazines. She says you have to get your ass over to the meat aisle and buy us some hamburger before she shoves that magazine down your throat.'"

Kat looks at me and I know what the artist meant who first painted bedroom eyes, but I want to finish my story. I can resist her for now, but eventually I have to give up. She's stroking my leg.

"The guy's got these terrible, thick hornrimmed glasses and he's tired like he's been running a marathon. He looks at me with this absolutely beaten expression and says, 'What makes a man want to get married and have children? I can't even lock myself in the bathroom. They poke the lock with a paper clip and come right in.'

"And he turns to the kid like he's going to eat her right there. She goes scampering away and the guy slugs off to the meat counter, and all I wanted to do was hug the poor bastard."

Kat says, "Oooh. I knew you were the type to get affectionate with men. You're bi. Admit it."

"You're sick. The lithium is wearing off, isn't it? That's what's going on."

She bounds upward, presses the heel of her palms into my shoulders and I let her force me backward. Her hair spills from her head and tickles my face. In the space between the cataracts I see her eyes gleaming like a leopard who's just found dinner for the whole week. She maneuvers her legs, her hips over mine, but something black and unsexy crosses my mind.

What makes a man want anything? What makes a man forget what keeps him alive?

I'm in the dirt now. There are no more roads. It's cold here. I didn't know it would be so cold. When I went to Antarctica, I didn't know I could be that afraid. It was stark and lonely and God spoke in a roar that he'd just as soon have me dead and out of the way. There was no love in that place except what I brought with me. Now the hollow was in me and it wasn't going away.

Each of us was given the power to change the world at birth. We do it every day. You can't unlove people, things. You can't undo anything. It's always done and becomes part of the record of events that shape the world. That's the secret of the button. It's God's power given to us in tiny chunks and we get to do what we want. Even if it drags us to ruin.

I have to roll out from under her, push her away. I have to stand up and pull on some clothes. Take a drink of water.

"Will? What's wrong?" she says, but I can't answer her. I can't breathe. There's no air for words. Something going on in my chest. It's tightening and I can feel the veins popping in my neck.

There's no way back. There's no road. It was right there and I lost it. Now I know I'll never find it again.

Kat gets out of bed. Naked and lithe, she slides to my side as I'm pulling on my shirt.

"I'm sorry. Stop. Wait. I'm sorry. What did I do?"

"I gotta go home," I say without thinking. Can't she see I don't know my way back? "I gotta go home."

Now she's crying--something intense in me latched on to her and she's crying and all I can think to do is to cradle her, but getting closer makes it worse in me. Doesn't she see it? Look at what's happened. The sun can't rise anymore. Push the fucking button and the light goes out and you can't find the switch in the dark.

Now I know how Lucifer felt when he was cast out. Now I know how vampires feel.

I can never unknow this. And I can never unfeel Kat beside me.

the last episode is Why things burn the next episode is On the tracks, in the light

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