or, Jeremiah Hemlock meets his Temp(t)er
a prelude to Pantheon, a nanowrimo, 2002


Once upon a time there was an imaginary friend with a real gun.

He kept this gun strapped to his thigh, in a secret compartment that was made out of cardboard and duct tape.

This imaginary friend’s name was Selwood Orthinal, or Kid Sel, for short. He had an alias, too, but maybe sometime later we’ll get to divulging it. And although this friend was imaginary, his very real gun let him go wherever he wanted, even into the Reality, which was where he met Jeremiah Hemlock, on the corner of Fifth and Main, in the town of Fairgane.

The day those two met had been a very eventful day for Jeremiah Hemlock. He had made the first big theft of his life, just before lunch, in metamath class, while the teacher was talking about the Sacred Geometry of Pythagoras, and contrasting it with certain hermetical ideas that had been developed during the Age of the Alchememe, but which ideas had long gone dust-ridden, until the Age of the Homunculi.

All told, it was a very interesting lecture, though Jeremiah didn’t have much brainspace to spare it, as he was trying to steal the secret life of the most beautiful girl in the class and exchange it with that of the ugliest girl. For the full details on the score, I will have to refer you to Jeremiah Hemlock Steals the Girls, which is found in the previous chapter of this anthology. Right now, I want to talk about Kid Sel, and his and Jeremiah’s first meeting.

So Jeremiah was riding his bike home, confused and disturbed and munching over what happened earlier that day. He was taking the curbs like a dust devil, pedaling up and over straight inclines as if he had no need of shinpads or helmet or the laws of physics for that matter. He was singing his favorite bike song, called Don’t Run Around With Scissors in Your Mouth, which helped him a lot with speed and precision, two factors which cannot be understated in the life of a bikebound boy.

But it so happened that he fobbed a verse as a sudden thought sprung from his head and made him feel alive with furiousness. The thought was about his best friend, Jay Branson.

Jay Branson the thief.

Jay Branson, as you may know, had taught Jeremiah all about thievery. Jeremiah wanted to be a thief because his dad was a diamond salesman. Jeremiah had successfully accomplished each task, challenge and assignment Jay Branson set him, all except the last, the Final Project, which Jeremiah didn’t do, and therefore ended up doing, against his will. Again, see the previous chapter to get a better idea about what I’m talking about.

Anyhow, Jeremiah, fobbing a verse of his favorite song, discovered a way to make sense of his prosaic, cocky pal or bestfriend or conscious projection of his subconscious drive for devilry. Jeremiah suddenly saw that Jay was actually a part of him, so no matter what, whatever happened to Jeremiah, happened to Jay, and the versa was vicefully true: what was the fate of Jay, was the fate of Jerry.

So that, even though Jay had stolen off, with the box and the purse, into another realm, that meant, insofar as Jeremiah and Jay were the same person, Jeremiah was right there, in the other realm, along with Jay.

So that, in some profound way that he obviously wasn’t totally conscious of, Jeremiah Hemlock was in the same once at two different places, or at the same place in two different onces. That is, Jeremiah was a dual being, somehow, in someway, and this knowledge made him feel a little cocksure, which caused him to misjudge the distance between a parking meter and a Chevrolet.

He instantly spilled to the ground floor of the town, sprawled out like a stack of potatoes whose bag just burst unexpectedly, wrangling with the hard cement so that within a second’s span he was laying out next to his bike, looking up at the clouds, dazed and short of breath.

The clouds. They were up above him, right as rain and just as damp, only sort of white and puffy, suspended in such a way as to let the sun alight them visible and huge in the big blue air. Jeremiah thought Wow. The Wow he though came out of his pain like the way certain words will leap fully formed from your mouth without you intending them. Jeremiah thought Wow because he had never seen clouds like that before. They looked like laundry. Heaps and heaps of laundry. It was breathtaking, although he didn’t have much breath to spare.

Wow, he thought, smiling at the shape of laundry, when a voice that wasn’t Jay’s and that wasn’t his said:

“Laundry doesn’t have a shape, partner. It can’t have a shape. It’s like saying: wow, that woman is the shape of dough. Dough doesn’t have a shape until it’s baked. It’s strictly unformed until some blast of heat sets it in a thick nutritious crust. Same with laundry: only laundry doesn’t have a shape until after the wash and after the dry and after the hands of the button pressing laudrymaster has shaped the laundry back into clothes. Folded clothes, to rub the dime of the matter. So what you’re wowing about really is just the fact that your mind is too lazy, at this moment or from the whack of the cold concrete against you skull, to shape the clouds into something that has a real true shape, like a beast of some sort, or a dish of fine Italian food, angel hair pasta or meatballs in red sauce.”

“Who are you?” asked Jeremiah Hemlock of the voice.

“Kid Sel is what they call me, but I do have at least one other name,” said the voice.

“And why are you talking to me?”

“Ha! I’m talking to you cause you’re in my way.”

“What’s this?” exclaimed Jeremiah. “How can I be in your way if you’re invisible. I mean, here I am, listening to you and looking around, and I hear you but I don’t see you, so you must either be a figment of my imagination, or invisible, which amounts to the same thing.”

“You got some rusty logic circuits if you think that just cause you can’t see me, you can’t get in my way.”

“That’s not what I mean. What I mean is how exactly am I in your way?”

“You just are.”

“So how can I get out of your way?”

“Well, first off, you can pick yourself off the ground, and then you can tell me your name.”

But Jeremiah remained on the ground, staring at the clouds, letting the shock of his fall make its way out of him.

“Hey then,” said Jeremiah, “Are you like a product of my fall or something?”

“Gee’s. No, I’m not the “product of your fall”. Could you try to pick out some less loaded terms?”

“Loaded how?”

“I don’t want to get into it. Just tell me your name so I can tell you who I am and we can get you out of my way.”

“I’m Jeremiah Hemlock.”

“Thanks. Now, could you stand up?”

Jeremiah stood. He turned this way and that, ostensibly to crack his back and sluice his muscles into their proper positions, but really he was making sure the disembodied voice didn’t have some sort of visible evidence of locality.

Kid Sel remained invisible, or unapparent or whatever. Jeremiah said

“So, who are you again?”

“Me? I’m your imaginary friend with a real gun.”

“Oh, you have a gun.”

“I do.”

“Is it loaded?”

“Er… how do you mean, “loaded?””

“Loaded as in does it have bullets. Can it do damage. You know, loaded as in bang-bang.”

“Well, I could shoot it, if I wanted to, but that would defeat the purpose of me asking you to get out of my way, if all I had to do to be done with it was point and click. Sure it’s real, but real ain’t the way I operate, exactly.”

“Well hold on a minute,” protested Jeremiah. “If you’re my imaginary friend, wouldn’t that mean that I made you up? And if I made you up, then that real gun of yours I made up too. And if I made it up, and it’s really real, then doesn’t that mean that I have the power to make something out of nothing? And if I can make something out of nothing then—“

“Whoa, whoa there, partner. You’re getting way ahead of us. Of the both of us, and the gun. First, lets get you out of the way, then we’ll see about how far you can take me, or I you.”

“I’m not sure I want to see how far I can take an imaginary friend with a real gun. That doesn’t seem like something I’d be up to, at the moment.”

“Don’t be facetious, Jeremiah Hemlock. There’s a good reason I’m here. And there’s a good reason why and how, too. But the reasons will have to be postponed till later. First, we get you back on your bike, headed to Briarwood Park, and then we get into the Game, and them we get into the Answers.”

“Alright.”

Jeremiah leapt back on his bike, checking it for mobility, finding it sound, and returned to the speed of his pedaling, which was quite impressive, even to the imaginary friend, who had trouble keeping up.

Jeremiah turned right of Seventh Ave., rode five blocks north, then took a left on Birch, till he came to the westernmost entrance of Briarwood Park.

“Should I take my bike?” he asked Kid Sel.

“No. Chain it up.”

This he did. After he had the lock in place, the combination obscured, and his waterbottle hid craftily in a bush, Jeremiah hitched up his backpack and entered the park.

“You can quit the whistling,” demanded the Kid.

“Sorry. I didn’t realize—“

“It’s giving me a headache.”

“A headache? How imaginary are you?”

“Yes, a headache, and very. I’m very imaginary. So imaginary that I have a real gun.”

“Which you’re about to involve in a game, or something, right?”

The Game, it’s called, not a game. You must take it seriously, or else it looses it’s whole point.”

“Right on.”

They walked for some time, or Jeremiah walked, as it’s not certain what the Kid did to keep apace. The path they took was windy and slick in patches, where water had found its way into the dirt, creating mud. Jeremiah didn’t care much to fuss over dirty shoes, pants or body. He was almost eleven. He had better things to think about than temporal cleanliness.

They walked the path until they came to a clearing. The clearing had a familiar smell to it, but Jeremiah, being only eleven, hadn’t yet experienced this smell before, so to him it was not familiar. To him, it was brand new, as well as a little bland. And it was bland because nothing had happened to him in this place yet. So it was. But not for long.

“Now what?” asked the real boy of his imaginary friend.

“Drop your backpack, and walk into the clearing,” said the imaginary friend with a real gun, which was just then being nozzled into the tender side of Jeremiah. It sort of tickled, even though it was very dangerous. But there was not doubt it was dangerous now. Now, Jeremiah knew he was playing for Keeps.

He shrugged off his backpack and entered the clearing.

The clearing was less bright than it should have been.

He walked until he came to a hill.

He walked up the hill.

At the top of the hill, Kid Sell said

“Now, here are the rules of The Game. Rule number one: I am in control. Rule number two: you are not to question me. Rule number three: if you question me, I shoot.”

Jeremiah’s left eye twitched. He was sandwiched between a feeling of excitement, and a feeling of offense. He didn’t like being told what to do. That’s why he became a thief, so he could do whatever he wanted, no matter what his dad said. But here he was, being bossed around by a figment of his imagination.

But what if the figment was bluffing? What if the real gun wasn’t really dangerous, but only seemed that way?

Jeremiah wasn’t certain how to answer those questions, so he decided to play along.

“Okay. You’re the boss.”

“Good. Now, I want you to cuss.”

“Pardon?”

“I want you to say a bad word. Something dirty, explicative. Something that would make you’re mother blush.”

“Lay off the mom-talk, invisi-boy… Now what word to you want me to say?”

“I don’t care. Just a dirty word.”

“Why do you want me to—“

“No questioning me.”

“Right.”

Jeremiah looked at the sky, which was really bright, which made the darkness of the clearing seem even more strange. He began to wonder where he was, then to wonder if he was allowed to wonder. Then he tried to think up a cuss word. He came up with a number of them, but he couldn’t get his mouth to pronounce any which one. He tried. He got so far as taking a breath, exhaling.

“Sorry, dude,” he said, shrugging. “I can’t cuss right now. I don’t know why… although the fact that I’ve never cussed before might have something to do with it.”

“Just say a dirty word.”

“Like what? Really – which word do you want me to say?’

“Try *^%@, for starters, or &!$# if you want. I don’t care.”

Jeremiah opened and shut his mouth many times. Finally, he had to give up.

“Here,” said the disembodied voice of Kid Sel, "maybe this’ll help.”

Jeremiah felt a sharp quasar of pain sprout from the kneecap of his left leg, traveling up his thigh and down his calf, into his chest and foot, slamming into his head and toes simultaneously. He yelped. There was another burst of white fire – pain as big as the space between heaven and hell, if there is such a space, and if there isn’t, then pain as big as the difference between an angel and devil – pain so big it made Jeremiah scream, wince, and cry. But he didn’t cuss.

“I just can’t do it,” he said after a while.

“Fine then.” And Kid Sel pressed the gun harder into the side of Jeremiah Hemlock. But instead of shooting, he said, “Then think a dirty thought. Think something angry, something mean. Think about hurting someone, making someone feel pain. Just one thought, but it has to be graphic.”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“Give me a break! How old are you?”

Jeremiah told his imaginary friend the truth of his age.

“Haven’t you seen any violence at all, anywhere? Even read about it happening in a war? c’mon! Use your imagination! You made up me, and I’m pretty cruel, so you should be able to think at least one damaging thought – just a thought! I want you to try!”

Jeremiah tried. Or he though he tried. After a while Kid Sel offered to help him again.

In front of Jeremiah appeared a blank white screen, the kind Mr. Schwartzman used in S.B. Class, to graphically subsidize his lesson plan. The screen lowered from an invisible point maybe four meters above the strange grass on the hill, the grass that was rippling like water, waves of round circles radiating concentrically from a point somewhere to Jeremiah’s left.

The screen did not remain blank. On it soon appeared a live video feed showing his bike, chained to the post at the entrance of the park. There was a large yet boyish body toying around with it. The guy was wearing a blue hoody, and his face was turned from the camera so Jeremiah couldn’t see it. What Jeremiah could see was a heavy object in the guy’s hand. Jeremiah couldn’t tell what kind of object it was, only that it was heavy. The guy raised the object, then smashed it down against the combination lock of his bike. It was raised and smashed down several times.

Jeremiah wondered why the guy didn’t just use some pliers of maybe a pair of low grade industrial wire cutters. Evidently, the guy was wondering the same thing. He began to fish around in the unipocket of his hoody, his head still obscured, and pulled out something sharp. Again, all Jeremiah saw about the thing was that it was sharp. The sharpness was put against the chain and sawed back and forth a few times. Nothing happened. So the guy just started pounding away at the bike with his fists and legs, going so far as to give the meaningful object several body-slams, and something that looked like a full nelson.

It hurt to watch his bike being molested, and even more that he couldn’t do anything about it.

To be honest, Jeremiah did get angry. He got very angry, actually, because he realized that Kid Sel was making all this up, just to test him or something, but for no good reason. No reason he could see. And then he got even angrier when he realized that, if he was making up Kid Sel, then he was the one responsible for this whole stupid game. A game whose sole purpose, as far as he could see, was to get him to be angry or to cuss. And what would be the point of that? Surely, there was a place for bad language, and the occasional murderous rage, but this wasn’t it.

“You can stop this, now,” said Jeremiah to Kid Sel, who answered

“Alright. You won’t do this, you won’t do that. Fine. The Game can still go on. No prob. Here, why don’t you… um… why don’t you…”

But Jeremiah Hemlock wasn’t there. I mean, he was there, but Kid Sel lost track of him, for just a second. Kid Sel, for just the briefest possible moment, forgot about the existence of the real boy who had imparted him with his existence, and in that moment, Jeremiah Hemlock saw his imaginary friend super clearly.

And Jeremiah saw that the gun was indeed real. But that didn’t stop him from reinventing the wheel, and when he was through, the gun was lying on the ground, and the imaginary friend had turned into something without hands. Kid Sel was now a blackbird, a raven, a crow, or something to that effect.

Jeremiah reached for the gun, but the bird made a loud Caw!, and the Caw had something to say, something along the lines of:

“Cheater!”

“How do you figure, man?” asked Jeremiah. “If I made you up, then I can change the rules, can’t I? I mean, who’s the real one here, you or me?”

“Well, in that case,” rattled the bird, “I ask that you don’t shoot me!”

“Aw, give me a break, I’m not going to shoot you. I just want to feel the gun. I’ve never picked up a gun before. I wonder how heavy it is…”

And Jeremiah kept reaching for the gun. His hand got closer and closer to the gun. His hand kept moving forward, and the gun remained in the same place, but it took some time for them to connect. This really was a strange place.

The next thing you know, the ravenbird was on Jeremiah’s shoulder, and the gun was in both his hands. It was heavy. And Jeremiah was sure it would be loud, to shoot.

“Hey,” said Jeremiah Hemlock to his familiar. “Do you know where Jay went?”

“Who?” asked the bird.

“Jay Branson, my döppelganger.”

“Oh, him. Yeah, he’s in some other where.”

“Do you know how to get there?”

“Sure, that’s where I’m from.”

“But you can’t tell me how to get there.”

“You are there.”

Jeremiah looked at the bird, which hurt his eyes, because the bird was so close. Still, he eyed the bird suspiciously. Something about the way the bird said “You are there,” didn’t sound like it should be interpreted normally. That is, there was something a bit more literal in that "are", and it probably wasn’t the crackling sound of the bird’s voice.

“I am there?”

“You are.”

“But this, this place that I’m standing in… this isn’t here. I mean, I’m not in some other where, I am some other where, right?”

“Right.”

“Huh. Interesting.”

And Jeremiah Hemlock raised the gun to the sky, and said “Fetch,” and pulled the trigger.

There was a big sound, and a loud screech, and when Jeremiah opened his eyes, he was laying on the sidewalk all over again, staring at the clouds, at the laundry in the sky.

He pulled himself up. He wiped his forehead and stretched and looked at the untoward rips in the knees of his pants, and the strokes of blood colouring his skin. Mom was going to kill him. He got on his bike and rode home.

*

Later that night, Mom knocked on his door.

“Come in,” he said, because it so happened that it was his unalienable right to choose whether or not someone could come into his room, even his parents. His family was odd like that.

“Jeremiah?” said Mom, the questionmark in her voice meaning something other than a questionmark, for the time being. “What’s this?”

She handed him a little brass thing. He held it under his 60watt desk lamp. It was a bullet. Hollow tip. .45 caliber. He didn’t say anything.

“Where did you find that?”

This time he was supposed to answer.

“Was it in my pocket?”

“Don’t answer a question with a question,” said Mom. “You’re too young for that, and I don’t have the patience for that sort of talk. Now, where did you find that?”

He tried to answer. But the truth is, he didn’t know where he had found it, exactly. And he couldn’t lie. He tried, but nothing came out, except a little sound, like static, like a brush with death.

“I don’t want you playing with guns. Do you understand?”

Jeremiah nodded his head. When Mom was almost out the door, he said

“Hey Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Sorry about the pants.”

She looked him over. She was cool with her glances, when she wanted to be. She didn’t say anything more. No Boys will be boys or anything like that. She left him to his modeling kit. He was building a cherry red ’57 ]T-Bird] convertible from molded plastic parts, strong glue, and modeling paints. He had been working on it for almost a week now.

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