Glass House

My world is weirder than your world.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Circle.

I went to Greta's shindig last night. It wasn't deep in the haunted forest after all; it was in her friend Sandy's backyard. There were six girls there, all under the premise of a sleepover rather than a Wiccan ritual. Mom had to drop her off, of course. I snuck out in the bed of the truck. (It was easier than explaining that I was not going out to spy on the pajama party of a bunch of fourteen-year-old girls. I got my fill of that sort of thing when I was fourteen.)

As an armchair anthropologist, I found the ritual entertaining. This was the girls' third full moon in five months. Sandy was the "high priestess" of their little coven, and spent ten minutes lecturing the other girls on the Dianic tradition, the superiority of the sacred life force of women, and how they were all Goddesses who simply had to awaken themselves. I guess it was old news; half the witches started to look bored, and Greta actually muttered "Starhawk, yadda yadda" under her breath. Sandy didn't notice.

When the priestess judged that the moon was high enough, they all put on their cloaks and formed a circle between the candles. Greta had a wool cape she'd bought online from some RenFest site with a good chunk of her allowance. Two of the girls had cheap rain ponchos, and they drew sharp looks from Sandy. Hers was a handsewn purple robe with stars and moons in silver thread. She said something about how their ancestors would have gone skyclad, and one of the girls said "Our ancestors didn't care about assholes with digital cameras." I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing.

Sandy drew the circle with her athame -- it looked to me like a letter opener from the Franklin Mint with a Lord of the Rings theme -- while she intoned a welcome to the good spirits and a banishing of the evil ones. I picked sides, and stepped inside the circle while she was doing this. Four of the other girls invoked the quarters and the elements by lighting candles at the corners, reciting lines they were given, and then Sandy and Greta lit the candles in the middle to the Goddess and her Consort. (Greta was the Consort, with an artfully ambiguous gender. I believe, watching as an outsider, that Sandy was actually attempting to put some moves on her. Greta contrived to keep the lit candle between them the entire time.)

The preliminaries done, they got to the business of the ritual. Some of the witches had athames or wands or Tarot decks that needed blessing. These were duly purified with Dasani bottled water and blessed. Some of the girls shared problems with the group that they needed healing or positive energy for, and they got it. I won't repeat those details -- some of it was quite serious, and this was the one part of the evening where I felt rather guilty over invading their privacy. I got over it with the next part.

Sandy -- known throughout the ritual, no kidding, as Lady Starshine -- announced that with the close of the old year and the rebirth of the Goddess, this was the perfect time for divination. They would all appeal to the spirits of the land and air to tell them what to expect in the coming year. She poured the rest of the Dasani into a wooden bowl and spoke some florid incantations. Then they all took turns scrying into the bowl.

I meant what I'd said to Greta before: I may make fun of people, but fundamentally I respect their right to believe what they like. If people want to practice magic, I've got no grounds to tell them they're wrong. I truly wish the stuff I got involved with when I was fourteen had been this innocent. But just the same, Lady Starshine was getting pretty thick, and I was starting to understand why Greta had invited me. Gods help me, I took the bait.

Sandy was going to go last, surely so she could upstage everyone. The first scryer was one of the poncho girls. I've perfected the art of whispering over the years, and as she leaned over the bowl, I said so that only she could hear me, "You will find love this year -- and the strength to be its master." Her eyes went wide, and Sandy asked her what was up.

"I heard a voice!" she said. "A spirit spoke to me! It said -- it told me I would find strength." Sandy was skeptical, but the other girls were awed. Greta was grinning a Cheshire cat grin.

I gave similar platitudes to the other witches. When Greta's turn came up, I whispered, "You are a conniving shrew. No soup for you." She laughed out loud. Then Sandy stepped up to the bowl. By now she was a believer, and she clearly expected some major cosmic revelation. I leaned over, composing something lengthy in my head about humility and the stupidity of Lady Starshine as a name, when a voice stopped me cold.

Something whispered in my ear. It was high-pitched, either a woman or a boy, and very clear. It said, "They have always been watching you. Try to forgive them."

"What was that?" Sandy said. "I can't hear you, spirit!"

"They'll tell you you have no choice," the whisper said. "They're liars. Don't forget."

"Come on! Tell me my future!" the high priestess whined. She sounded about eight.

"Sandy, shut up," I said, not bothering to keep my voice down. "Who are you? Who are they? If you're here to help me, there's no reason to stop now." I listened intently for a while, but apparently the whisper was done.

I looked down at the circle of young women. Their faces were white, except for Greta's, which was red. Sandy seemed to think the questions I just asked were for her; she cleared her throat and said, "We will help if we can, spirit. I am Lady Starshine, and these are my sisters of the Coven of White Light!"

"Yeah, whatever," I said. My knees were shaking a little. I wanted to bolt, to find a place where I could be alone and pace for an hour or two. I picked up Sandy's athame with the pewter dragon on the hilt. She gasped and stepped back at the sight of the floating knife. One of the other girls screamed.

"Spirit," she said quickly, "if we have offended thee-- Oh god it's got my knife--"

I sighed. It was on the tip of my lips to ask what these toys were for; to tell them that I wasn't a spirit, that magic spells were pure stupidity, that if they couldn't rely on what was in them to change the world then there was no point in ever looking outside for it. I could have broken their circle easily with cold truths. But then I looked at Greta, and I bit it back. These were fourteen-year-old girls, and they were having fun. My own life wouldn't be any better off for messing with that.

I opened the palm of one of the poncho girls and put the athame in it. "Your circle was weak, Lady Starshine, because you drew it alone," I said. "That allowed your coven to bring their ghosts in with them. If you wish your magic to be greater than the sum of one part, you'll all have to share your talents and your thoughts." I thought a moment, then said, "And be careful what you summon. Be precise. The next thing you call to give you answers, may not be a benevolent as I am."

Sandy had nothing to say for once. To the poncho girl I said, "Will you cut me a doorway, Lady? I would leave this circle, if you would all allow it." Oddly, this didn't seem like a mere courtesy. There's something about ritual, about sacred space, that pulls you into its structures even if you're not a believer. I'd stop short of calling it magic, or saying I was bound by anything, but just the same, I didn't feel comfortable about simply walking across their imaginary line.

The poncho girl opened the circle for me, stammering over the words, and they all bade their farewells to the spirit. Greta actually said "Tell Mom I'll be home--" before she clapped her hand over her mouth. No one seemed to be paying attention, though.


I walked the five miles home, and did my thinking on the way about that whispering voice. If I had to lay down money I'd say it was probably the watcher in the woods. What was it? Still no idea, but another unusual seems most likely -- a telepath, maybe, or some sort of astral projector. Why did he/she speak to me this time, and not before? Maybe for the same reason I spoke in the circle: just to be peevish, and to mess with the head of someone he thought deserved it. If that's the case, then the actual content of the message could be nonsense, just like my own whispers were nonsense.

But I think it's going to stay with me. "They have always been watching you" is a hard line to forget. I'm not going to obsess about it, but I'll keep my eyes open.

I made it home, took the expected crap from my mom about sneaking off -- I ought to act my age, I ought to set a better example for Davy and Greta -- and slept. Today I got up early and did the Greyhound thing back to Atlanta again. It was gratingly uneventful.

New Year's Eve tomorrow night. Date with Callie. I'll try to get it right this time.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Home.

Well, sort of home. I never lived more than a few months in Asheville -- my mother and stepfather moved there when I was seventeen, but I quickly went stir crazy and moved back to Atlanta on my own. My circle in Georgia was at an all-time low -- Nick, of course, and the few friends of Lenore who'd still speak to me -- but I knew no one in North Carolina, and I was feeling too old and jaded to haunt another schoolyard looking for the one or two interesting peers out of six hundred. So I went back and shared Nick's apartment, which turned out to be far more educational.

So this place doesn't speak much to me; but to the rest of my family, Asheville is home. My stepfather, a kind and intelligent man with the rare gift of knowing when not to speak, died four years ago of prostate cancer. No conspiracy there, no mystery. So it's my mother, sixteen-year-old Davy, and fourteen-year-old Greta. We get along fabulously. That I'm a decade older probably helps. They've had an invisible older brother since they were born, and think nothing of it. The distance helps too -- by the time they were old enough to get on each other's nerves, I was long gone.

It's been an easy week. We had the huge turkey feast, I've had my ass kicked by Davy in chess but kicked his ass in Halo 2, and I've caught up on my reading. I'm going through King's Dark Tower series again before I read the seventh book. (It had better be worth it, to suffer through the sixth one a second time.) Greta's going through a Wiccan phase right now, and has invited me to witness a ritual her friends are doing tomorrow night. I pointed out that she missed the solstice by a few days, but she said too many of her friends were out of town, and anyway it was the full moon, so it'd work anyway. Actually, she sort of invited me to be the ritual, to mess with her friends' heads by moving candles around and such, but I told her I don't screw with magic. I don't believe in it, but I'd rather not give it a reason to start believing in me.

Besides, these woods are haunted. Or something. I went walking in the hills yesterday, and the sense of being watched was so strong it was palpable. It got to the point where I'd stop after every couple of footsteps to hear if anything else was crunching leaves. Nothing was, of course. And my breath was the only breath leaving fog in the cold air. I'm not a shy person, but it took me a few minutes to screw up my nerve to say, in a normal speaking voice, "Hello? My name is James. If I'm not alone, who are you?"

Nothing answered to my ears. Nothing answered in my head. But I had the absolute conviction that someone was standing behind me. I had a sharp mental picture of a child, a boy I think, watching me from maybe eight feet away. "Watching" makes no sense at all, but that was the impression that I had. I twisted at the waist, so I wouldn't make any noise turning to look. I saw the leaves rustle a bit, although there was no wind where I was standing, and then the feeling was gone.

I started whistling on the way back to the house. Stupid or not, it does make you feel better. I announced my return, my mom commented that I was home earlier than she'd expected and I might as well unload the dishwasher, and I pounded Davy again on his Xbox.

It does creep me out again a little, writing about it, but I'm not inclined to dwell on it. I'm quite certain I felt something real, but if it didn't want to communicate with me, I see no reason to make it my problem. I've dealt with weirder, and with things that wouldn't go away just by turning around. Curious spirits in the forest may be worth a cold shiver or two, but they're not worth losing sleep over. I'm cool with them. As long as they stay in the forest.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Bus.

Confirmed. Greyhound still not my friend. I caught the early early bus, hoping it would be nearly empty, but no such luck. Only a few empty rows to sneak a seat.

One family had a six-year-old kid who claimed the entire bus as his territory. He bounced around between all the empty seats, and ran smack into me before I could slide down. He recoiled, confused.

This happens occasionally. Kids are usually the easiest to handle. I leaned in close and whispered into his ear, "Don't tell anyone."

Eyes wide: "Are you a ghost?"

This kid was way ahead of me. I went into my dramatic mode. "Yeesss. I am the ghooost of Rolling Ronnie the bus driver, doomed to roll on these highways for eterrrnity."

"Why?"

"Promissse not to telll anyone?"

"Maybe," the kid said. He was fascinated, but not about to close off bragging rights. I was tempted to argue the point, but it didn't really matter.

"I ussed to drive a schoool buss," I whispered. "One morning I picked up the kidss. But I didn't take them to schoool. I droove them to the swimming poool."

"Cool!" the kid said.

"No. Verrry hot. For I had lit a fiiire under the poool. And put in some potaaatoes, some carrrots and some orrrregano." (Was I overdoing it? Yeah. I wad overdoing it.) "I drooove the busss right into the pooool. I jumped out jusst in time, but the kids were made into soooup."

"Why'd you do that?" the kid asked. His voice was as quiet as mine.

"Sooo I could EAT them!"

The kid screamed and ran back to his parents. "Mommy there's a ghost in that chair over there and he says he rode a bus and he used to eat kids in a pool!"

The mother looked around, severely embarrassed, and hushed the child. He tried to explain -- I heard an outburst of "Potatoes!" -- but that clearly wasn't going anywhere.

After that I was able to sleep for most of the trip.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Travel.

I'll likely be scarce the next week or so -- traveling up to
Asheville, North Carolina to spend the solar holiday with my mom and
my half-siblings. The traveling part will be a major pain in the ass.
Greyhound is not my friend. But I like my family, and I'll get to
walk around in the mountains, which'll be nice if it isn't raining or
sub-freezing the entire time. It's worth the trip. I'll try to post
while I'm there, but don't expect daily updates or anything.

To Dana: No, I'm not going to be on IM. You know that. You'll just have to learn to send e-mails that are more than two sentences, or get
comfortable with a damn phone. Who have you seen before? What
is it that you need me to remember?

And although I hope it's unrelated to your problem, do you have any
advice on how I can get this damn song out of my head?

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Evil laugh.

Callie e-mailed me yesterday. You might think she'd be annoyed about my blogging on the intimate details of our non-sex life; but if you do, you don't know Callie. She's not the shy type. Here's a choice excerpt from her e-mail:

I talked to Jenna and she helped me understand how insecure you can be. I thought about it Saturday and I think getting you drunk was probably a mistake, it probably caused some performance anxiety for you and that's why you said no. That's understnadable if so. I can forgive you, because you're a romantic and I think that's cute. You will just have to romance the hell out of me next time. (Or I will crush you like a grape! JK.)
And then later:
You're probably going to talk about this in your blog, aren't you. You have my permission, but you have to use the words "performance anxiety." EVIL LAUGH!
By now you understand fully why this woman intrigues me.

(The fact that she could crush me like a grape, or at least make me grape-sized and do finger motions while wildly cackling "I am crushing you!" is entirely incidental.)

Administrivia 2.

It's official: I'm getting the hell out of Blogspot. I've picked up some Web hosting through a helpful minion -- er, I mean intermediary -- and have begun configuring a WordPress blog to replace this one. I'm even looking at skilled professionals for design tips.

Where will it be? Sadly, that's the part I don't know yet. I'd love to get a sensible name like glasshouse.org or glasshouse.net, both of which are taken but parked. I've sent inquiries to both parties, but I have a suspicion that the pittance I'm willing to offer them isn't going to sway them. So I need to think of something else clever. Or maybe you can suggest something. (Anyone have opinions on invisiblejames.com? I hate it, personally.)

Stay tuned, and for those three or four people on the planet who may have bookmarked this page, get ready to move it in the next week or three.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Grinch 2.

(Still on Friday night. This gets explicit. Kiddies, cover your eyes.)

After "Grinch," Jenna took Jon upstairs to babysit him, and the party degenerated pretty quickly. Everyone had more shots. I'd been doing cinnamon schnapps during the show, but now Callie wanted whiskey, so I joined her in some Black Bush. Dana played some Christmas carols on the Yamaha keyboard, badly, and Lara unveiled a new party trick where she got us all to sing in each other's voices. I do a pretty nice "Silent Night" in Callie's mezzo soprano. People affirmed that I was on key; she rarely is.

Someone had the idea to pull out Dance Dance Revolution, which is hardly fair in this crowd, but we were buzzed enough to make it funny. Somebody got me a pair of Jon's pants out of the laundry room so they could see my legs jumping. Everyone took a turn, although Nick was razzed for doing his on the couch without moving. We also blamed him every time someone screwed up, claiming he had TKed the buttons. (I think he did, at least some of the time.) Callie cheated spectacularly, speeding up her own time so that she could take the hardest level with ease. I must say, watching her do "Butterfly" in a blur was very sexy. She also tried to make the pad bigger, so Dana and Lara could dance on it together, but she was too toasted to maintain it. She doesn't do anything involving space distortion and other people without a lot of concentration.

We laughed, we sang, we geeked. Midnight rolled nigh and no one was close to crashing yet. Nick started flirting with Lara's date, which I thought was pretty crass, but L.D. was really rather casual about it. Not sure if he was bi, or if drinking and watching superpowered people make idiots of themselves for three hours had simply lowered his defenses enough that a homosexual advance was nothing in comparison. Lara seemed pretty amused by it, and I was watching to see what happened next when Callie felt around for me, grabbed me around the waist, and started pulling me toward the basement door. My basement. "Goodnight everyone!" she called. "Merry Christmas!"

I started to say something too, but then everybody was saying goodnight very very fast, and suddenly I was the bottom of my own stairs. Callie had a cheerfully evil grin.

"That wasn't very nice," I said. That sounded pretty weak to me, but I was too drunk to articulate the moral dimensions of the situation.

"I know. I'm being naughty," she said. Which, drunk as she was, articulated her moral dimensions pretty clearly.

She pulled me further on, and found my bed by walking into it. Aubrey had been asleep, and woke up just long enough to sniff around her heels before going back to his sleeping pad. Callie pushed me down onto the bed, and I thought way too hard about this until I heard a zipper being unzipped.

Callie felt around and then paused. "You're wearing two pairs of pants," she said.

"Duh," I said. "Those are Jon's pants from that DDR game." She started laughing, and then we were both laughing uncontrollably, and by the time we recovered there were a lot less pants all the way around.

She took me in her mouth, and the only warping of space and time was the natural kind. It looked strange, but it felt -- ah, hell, it felt terrific, but it wasn't satisfying, because: A.) I was too drunk; and B.) I was distracted by stupid thoughts.

Eventually she caught on that nothing was going on, and she slid up to find my ear and nibble on it. I fondled her idly until she kissed me and said, "Well? Are we or aren't we?"

Again, I couldn't quite hit the words I wanted. "We're too drunk," was as close as I came.

"No shit," she said. "Why do you think I've been trying to get you drunk all night?"

Two days later, I feel like an idiot, but that night I honestly hadn't noticed she'd been doing it. I pursued my chosen course of idiocy: "Callie, you're really really special to me. I haven't been... Haven't had a..."

"A relationship, yeah, I read your fucking blog," she said. "You're special to me too, James. Let's have wild special bunny sex. Now."

"I don't wanna take...advantage..."

She stopped cold. She sat up and looked through me. "Are you serious?"

"Uh... I think so?" Somewhere deep inside my brain, alarm klaxons were going off, trying to put my mouth into emergency shutdown. Too late. "I wanna do it with you, Callie. I really do, but I... I want it to be more, uh... Romance and stuff... I want it to be, like, what we said. Special."

She got off the invisible bed and started picking up her clothes. "Well, shit, James. I gotta admit you're special all right. You're a real piece of work."

"Oh. Um, I'm sorry?" She said nothing, just kept getting dressed. "You can stay, you know. I want you to." (In my defense, Callie, I was a lot more drunk than you probably thought I was, and I think at least part of my bullshit was simply fear about performance. Not that I'm not a damn idiot.)

She didn't actually go anywhere, of course. She found Jenna, and crashed in the media room upstairs. Most of the others were also sleeping somewhere in the house -- if Dana decided someone wasn't in any shape to drive, they didn't drive.

Nick came down a few minutes later, during my fifteenth mental replay of the conversation. "Saw your California girl storming through," he said. "Everything all right?"

I told him about it.

"James, I say this as your best friend," he said, "and not just because you're a fucking idiot. Are you sure you're not gay?"

"Fuck you," I said.

"That'd be proof," he said.

I waited for more insight, but really he'd just come down to crash on my couch.

Merry Grinchmas.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Grinch.

Man. Hung over this morning. I almost never get drunk -- partly because it's a little dangerous, largely because it's never that much fun. Being buzzed is a pretty good feeling; by the time you're drunk you can't even tell. But last night was the circle's Grinchmas shindig, and being stupid is kind of a tradition.

It was at our place, the House of J. Hosting duties fell largely to me, because Jon's mind was occupied by his four-year-old self and Jenna only allowed him to come down and play for a little while. So he was up in the media room, playing video games, and she had to spend more time supervising him than socializing with us. Kind of a shame, since this might have been the last Grinchmas where she could let loose. Except for drinking.

Hey, did I mention Jenna's pregnant? About six months now. Some time back there was a betting pool about how weird the baby was going to be. It ended when Jenna put ten bucks on "Baby's going to kick all of your asses to the curb if you don't shut up." She didn't want us jinxing anything.

So I got to be the door-greeter and drink-getter for the evening. The same crowd as last week showed except for O.J., who backed out on the excuse that he had to attend a party at his wife's boss or somesuch. Perhaps for the best. Also, Lara brought a guy. She doesn't think he's unusual, but she cleared it with us in e-mail and swore he was cool. Cool he might have been, but he seemed too nervous most of the evening to tell. We ran through the standard "Tell anyone and we'll find creative ways to make you miserable" litany, but I don't think we had to worry about him. The ones we've got to worry about are the ones who are fascinated, not spooked. If he shows up a second time I'll give him a name other than Lara's Date.

When Callie came in she had a wreath of mistletoe that she put firmly on my head. She gave me a pretty phenomenal kiss, which was just fine, but of course everybody else wouldn't stop doing it while the mistletoe stayed visible. Mostly on the cheek, but not always. Nick, of course, wouldn't pass this up. Little kid Jon wanted to do it because everybody else was doing it. The only person who didn't try to kiss me was Lara's date. Maybe that's why I'm inclined to like him.

There was way too much food. Nobody had time to cook a turkey, but Jenna made a few of her famous tomato pies, and there was stuffing and cranberry sauce and everybody brought a dessert. Even I made something. Sugar cookies. Yeah, I know, please hold your applause. Callie did a Yuletide log thing that was a work of art.

The order of events gets a little switched around on Grinchmas: it's eating, then business, then entertainment. Everyone wanted the business discussion to be brief. I gave my report on the rat bastard. Dana asked how many other people were in the seats watching.

"I don't know," I said. "Twenty, maybe thirty at a time. I think they were all waiting on other cases. Why?"

"Did anyone look familiar?" she asked.

"No. What's this about, Dana? Have you seen someone hanging around?"

But she said she hadn't. She wanted to change the subject. Most of us didn't, and I even offered to let her look into my memory to see if she recognized anyone, but she wouldn't. "I just had a second of deja vu. Like I knew about this from somewhere else. Probably 'cause I already read about it in your blog," she said. Uh huh.

Nobody had anything new. None of us wanted anything new, because we were all going out of town or otherwise had plans for the holidays. Well, except for the Santa Mission. I'll talk about that later.

Business done, we started up the party. First, as always, we pulled out "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." The animated classic, not the recent Jim Carrey disease. This is a drinking game: everybody gets their favorite martini, liqueur, single malt Scotch, whatever, and you take a drink on every instance of the word "Who." Every instance. There are a few other mandated drinking points as well. If you finish your drink, we pause while you get a new one. Everyone must finish their drink on "Stink. Stank. Stunk." and get a new one as well.

You can get pretty drunk in half an hour, it turns out.

Normally we shut off the tape just prior to the last couple of minutes, when the Grinch gives the presents back, "To keep it satisfying." But what with Jon being mentally four years old, we couldn't bring ourselves to traumatize him, so we watched all the way through the sappy ending. He had Kool-Aid, of course, while he was watching with us. Jenna had the safe kind of eggnog.

(To be continued. Lunchtime and analgesic hunt.)

Friday, December 17, 2004

Justice.

Shifted my work schedule around yesterday and spent most of the day at the Fulton County criminal court. Now you might think that just getting to places in the city would be a pain for me. I look at it as an adventure. Let me break this down for you, so you can see what an average day out is like.

First, I dress for the occasion. What I wear is only important in that it can't make any noise. No jeans, no nylon windbreakers. It's been cold the last couple of days, so we're looking at sweatpants and a microfleece pullover. I know I'm going to miss lunch, so I pack a sandwich in a zip-loc bag, grab a banana and a juice box, and I put them into the the pullover's pockets. (See yesterday's rant.)

Then I ride my bike to the nearest Gwinnett County Transit station. Yes, being an invisible man on an invisible bike is dangerous. But I stay far on the left side of the road, against traffic, and when possible I try to ride during congested hours when things are slow. A few times I've had to dive off my bike and hit the dirt, but I've never been hit. I've got one particular spot in the bushes where I leave my bike and helmet -- it would suck to forget where they were.

The Gwinnett bus isn't crowded. It never is. I creep on board before the driver enters and stand near the back, and at the designated time the bus lurches off and we ride to the MARTA subway station. MARTA's the half-assed Atlanta attempt at public transit. It's clean, safe, and barely goes anywhere, which is why all the neighboring counties have had to develop their own half-assed systems. But I use it all the time. If the station looks too crowded, I hang around and wait until I won't have to elbow my way onto a train. Sometimes this can take a half hour or more. Yesterday I was lucky -- I'd already missed rush hour, and got onto a half-filled train.

(My least comfortable moments, BTW, are when a train fills up after I'm already on it. It's not terribly risky -- the geometry of the luggage niche is such that there's basically always a few inches to stand in -- but it's extremely tight, and when that happens there are so many people grabbing the handrails that I can't move my hands or arms.)

Eventually the train stopped at Georgia State University, and I got off and walked the few blocks to the courthouse on Pryor Street. Total time for the bus and train were an hour and twenty minutes. That may not seem long, but consider: if you were doing this, you'd probably bring a book or a Game Boy or something to keep yourself entertained. Guess what.

After I got to the court it was a simple matter of walking through the metal detectors (dead simple, I wasn't carrying anything metal) and waiting in the appropriate courtroom for four hours. Luckily the place had wooden seats, so I could sit in them without making an impression. Otherwise I'd sit on the floor. When I got bored and hungry, I took a walk outside and ate my lunch on the sidewalk, where the traffic noise would mask any eating noise, then I came back in.

And, by now, you're all seething at me for not telling you why I was there. I'm not being coy; I figured you'd find everything above more interesting. It was an arraignment hearing.

Imagine, unknown reader, that you were possessed with the miraculous power to make people happy. Or sad, or any other damn thing you wanted them to be. Most of us can do this anyway, but imagine that you could do it by taking the emotions of an experience away from a person, the visceral feel of that experience, and dumping it into an object. Then the next person who touches that object gets it discharged into them, like a capacitor.

What would you do with an ability like that? I could see a lot of possibilities for therapy. For helping people get rid of old trauma, or bringing two people closer together, or hell, just for evening out some of the unfair allocations of joy and pain in the world on a local level.

This rat bastard was using it to sell drugs.

How we found out about this guy, and what we did to him to get him where he is, is old news. My mission yesterday was just to monitor. To make sure said rat bastard actually was going to go to trial; and if not, to send an alarm to the circle and follow him out of the arraignment until Dana and Nick could get together and catch up with me.

No need for an alarm. If the rat bastard pulled anything funny, I didn't see it, and it looks like the ten kilograms of substance he was caught with was plenty to get him sent to the next level. (The true nit-picker may point out that the substance he was on trial for was not the substance he was actually pushing; nor was he its owner for very long. Not that I would know anything about that.)

So he went back to jail, and I wandered downtown for a little while and then went home. Turned out to be an unnecessary trip, with nothing for me to do. I couldn't be happier about it.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Annoyance #1

Eating. I've only eaten out a few times in my life; it's generally only possible at a big mass gathering where a bit of floating food can get lost in the chaos. So I eat at home. People bring me things frequently, and I've got a dropoff arrangement with the pizza guy, the Chinese takeout guy, and the wings place guy. But if there was one aspect of a normal social life I'd wish for, it would be to go to a restaurant with a friend or a girlfriend, order a meal, and have a conversation.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Physics.

I'm aware that it makes no sense. Believe me, I'm very aware. Until now I've given up mentioning it online, even in communities of other unusual people, because no one buys it. I can be IM'ing with someone who claims to be pyrokinetic, or to have gills and be typing from a giant aquarium tank, and if I tell them I'm invisible they say "Pshaw, right." You really have to not see me in person for it to sink in.

The deal is this: I don't reflect or refract light at all. I can be heard, touched, smelled, and tasted (if you know me well enough), but I can't be seen. Brian, a former Friday circler who was a hardcore science geek, once showed up with a thermal night vision scope from somewhere and established that I do show up in the infrared spectrum. Go me. He seemed very relieved by this: "If you didn't even register on thermal-IR, then you wouldn't be generating heat, and I'd start to wonder if you actually existed."

So do I go naked all the time? No. Not even in Atlanta. But I can't do the Claude Rains thing either. Clothes that I'm wearing also turn invisible after several minutes. It's not a piecemeal thing; they're opaque, and then they fade out over a few seconds. If someone dusts me with powder or airbrushes me, it looks freaky for a minute or two and then it vanishes too. Hair or nail clippings will come off invisible and then appear after several days. This is how I know I'm a blonde.

It gets weirder. If I get a new shirt, wear it for a day, and take it off, it'll generally be visible a few hours later. But more frequently or deeply I interact with something, the longer it stays invisible. I don't know why, but it seems to have something to do with how much association I have with the thing. That's why my bed and several of my couches and chairs are invisible, and why I have one visible couch for guests that I hardly ever sit in. I have an invisible bicycle which I ride when I need to get someplace nearby. (I'll never drive, of course.)

The vanishing effect only happens when there's physical contact. My computer keyboard and mouse are invisible, but my monitor is visible since I never touch it. Otherwise I'd be screwed out of the Internet, and my life would be bleak and desolate. I'm extremely careful with my dog Aubrey: I play fetch or tug with him all the time, but I never pet him more than a few seconds at a time. I've accidentally vanished him a few times, and it lasts for days. There's nothing that adds chaos to a place like an invisible corgi tripping you up.

People? I'll talk about that later. Suffice to say that I can't just shake your hand and make you invisible. Even if it's a long handshake.

There's more, but I have other writing to get done. Tomorrow I get to go to court. Hopefully it'll be the only day.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Origin.

Sooner or later someone is going to ask, so I might as well get it done with. Here's how the invisibility thing goes, as much as I understand it myself.

As I mentioned already, I was born invisible. This was in 1978 at a university hospital in Virginia. What it must have looked like I don't know -- I have a vivid imagination, but I try not to imagine this particular scene too vividly. I am told (this is all from my mother) that it freaked the nurses out something fierce, and that it was about a minute before anyone found me. The fluids were invisible too.

Once the doctor figured it out, he was remarkably fast on the uptake. He felt around for the cord and snipped it very carefully. He wiped me off, took my heartbeat, weighed me, did everything himself. Then he declared a false labor, told the nurses my mother was to be discharged immediately, and helped get the two of us out to the car. There was no documentation that a child was born. I assume he managed to talk the nurses into secrecy; anyway, if anybody talked about it, my mother never heard.

The doctor -- let's call him Dr. Erstens -- came by our house several times in my first few months. He got me a birth certificate, looked after my mom, and eventually referred us to another doctor, Dr. Zweitens. (I know. I'm not even trying.) I remember Dr. Z as a youngish black man with a big smile. He wasn't a pediatrician, but he gave me checkups every year, and he was the one who fixed me up when I got injured, which was a lot when I was a small kid.

He also gave my mother some very specific advice about dealing with the child services agencies and the schools. Where he got this information I have no idea; all he'd tell my mother is "this makes sense, this is what I would do." But the obvious implication to me is that I wasn't the only strange child in Virginia -- and probably not the first one that Dr. Erstens delivered. If it happened so often that some doctors knew what to do, and had procedures for making end runs around the government -- that boggles my mind.

I know the obvious question, too: Where was Dear Old Dad during all this? Honestly, I wish I knew. I know my father's name, and I know he was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. That's about all I know. My mom won't give me the details -- we've argued at length about it -- but the impression I get was that they had an argument shortly after my birth, which he missed due to some assignment. I think she kicked him out. Maybe he wanted to sell me to science, I don't know. Or maybe he thought she'd cheated, since he was visible but the baby wasn't. I can think of a number of theories. None of them really matter.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Nick.

Finally got the pain in the ass on the phone last night, and he came by for lunch. Nick can bullshit a lot of people, but I don't think he can bullshit me when I'm watching him close. We've known each other too long.

He hasn't been trolling, precisely. He probably will again, but that wasn't what he was being so shady about Friday night. I'm not going to give details here (despite my ranting, I do have some sense of caution) but suffice to say that Nick is the only guy I know who keeps an actual written Shit List. He keeps it on his Palm Pilot, password protected, under that "To Do" button.

He showed me some of his list, the Priority 2 and 3 people. A lot of them are the people you'd expect: his boss, his boss's boss, the former chair of the Republican party in Georgia (now a national figure -- yeah, that guy). One of them was "Hummer drivers." I don't know if he has to jack the wheels off of every H2 in the world before he gets to check that off, or just a few.

He takes his Shit List a very little at a time. In his own perverse way, he's careful. I won't tell you what he got up to this week -- but if you've ever got to, say, step out of your office for a minute or two, being on the List of a telekinetic man who can open the window from the outside, stand there with a big box of bumper stickers or a few gallons of pink latex paint, and cover every available surface in about fifteen seconds is probably not a great idea.

His eyes gleamed told me about this. Of course I told him he'd have to knock it off; but I'd probably feel worse about it if I didn't know some of the people involved. As it is, I can pretty much see where he's coming from.

Expectations.

And for those of you who've read this far, and are now asking silently: "What the hell is all this 'circle' BS? What happened to fighting crime? How does all this weird shit work? Did he say his furniture is invisible? What up wit dat?"

I answer: Patience, grasshopper. Patience. I'm still feeling my way through here. If you ask questions, I'll try to answer them. Otherwise I'll just keep talking as things come to me.

Would you rather hear the story of how my friends and I once thwarted the Black Flag Squadron's attempt to hold the city hostage by means of a disintegration beam mounted on top of the NationsBank building? It wouldn't be true, of course, but I could make something up.

Administrivia.

It's been five days, and already I'm getting sick of Blogspot. Changing fonts in midstream is the least of it. A comments system that won't let people sign their names unless they've got Blogger accounts is the most of it. And in the middle are a slew of minor technical annoyances.

I'm doing research into other blogging tools -- Movable Type vs. WordPress -- and I've started asking smart people about their comparative feature sets. My goal is a zero-hassle solution; while I know that's impossible, I'd like to at least try to approach it. Any thoughts?

The other ramification is that I'll have to get a domain. Have to figure out how to do that surreptitiously. Other John's head is really going to explode if people are able to WHOIS me.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Meta.

Back to Friday:

After some futile attempts to shame Nick until telling us what he'd been up to (futile because he's shameless), it was my turn. It was Jon who brought it up: "I think James has an encounter report to make."

"I do?" This was news to me -- I'd hardly been out of the house all week, except for dog-walking and one evening over at Callie's.

"You've begun your Internet diary, haven't you?"

"It's a blog," Dana said, exasperated. And the two of them started to argue about whether it qualified as an encounter by our standard definition. Jon did not object to the thing, but he did believe it was technically an exposure risk. Dana thought that was garbage, because I was changing all the names and many of the details, and because no one ever paid that much attention to anyone else's blog unless they were in it. I just kept my mouth shut.

Finally Nick said, "Fuck all that. When were you going to tell us about it?"

"We talked about it two weeks ago," I said.

"As a theory," O.J. said. "At the time you didn't even sound like you wanted to do it."

"I didn't, at first. Dana wore me down."

"James can really write," Dana said. "And he needed it. You all know how repressed he is. He needs to vent!"

"Repressed? Are you talking about me? That is the stupidest character judgment you've made yet! Shit, Dana, if your obsession with pop psychology didn't cloud your talent--"

"See?" Dana said triumphantly. "He's venting! It's good for him!"

Jenna cleared her throat before I could speak. She's got the kind of throat clear that could quiet the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. "Jon told me you'd started, but I have to admit I haven't read it yet. Can you tell us what you've said, James?"

This forced me to forget about Dana. "Uh, not much so far. I only started the other day. I talked about how Alyx helped me get that job interview... That's really it. Just old stories," I said. While I spoke, I saw with dread that O.J. was already firing up his iMac.

I was feeling really uncomfortable. I like to talk, but I hate being put on the spot. Nick called for a reading, and I said I wasn't up to it. "Of course you aren't," Nick said. "I was asking Lara."

Lara looked vaguely around, which is what people usually do when their instincts tell them they ought to be meeting my eyes. "Only if it's okay with James," she said. I was rather pleased that she was feeling embarrassed on my behalf.

"What the hell," I said. "You're all going to read it and argue with me anyway, it might as well be a good performance."

So Lara sat at O.J.'s computer, with the browser open, and projected into the room those first four entries, in my voice, filling in Jon's and Jenna's voices on dialogue. She'd never met Alyx, but her guess at Alyx's voice was pretty close. (Yeah. Lara does sound. Any sound.)

No one interrupted. Nick looked amused, Jon looked thoughtful, Callie giggled at some of the anatomical stuff, and Jenna's brow started furrowing halfway through. By the time Lara wrapped up, I had gotten tired of pacing and was sitting on the floor in front of Callie. She put her feet up on my shoulders.

"Damn, you're wordy," Nick said after it was done.

"That wasn't how it went," Jenna said. "Yes, I had the shotgun just in case, but I never pointed it at that thing. Alyx, I mean."

"But you did," I said. "You lowered it earlier than I said you did, but you did point it at Alyx briefly. I remember being struck that you pointed it at her face, not her chest."

"But why distort the facts at all?"

I was quiet for a moment, and then I mumbled, "...Better story."

"Is that what this is?" Other John said. "Is this all just stories to you? When you write about us -- you are going to write about us, aren't you?"

"If I keep this up," I said quietly. I was feeling very warm in the face.

"He'll probably write about this conversation," Nick said. "Word for word. It'll be boring as shit."

"The problem I have," Other John said, "is if you're going to be writing at this level of detail, you make it far too easy for anyone to trace us back. What does it achieve?"

Lara suggested, "Maybe people who should be here, or who need our help, might know we're here?" (That was her one contribution to the debate. I've thought about it since, and I think it's unfortunate that she was ignored.)

"I don't like it, James," Other John pressed.

"And I don't like being misrepresented," Jenna said.

Jon said, "Actually, if James is going to be chronicling his exploits, and indirectly our exploits, I'd suggest that the misrepresentation actually offers a small bit of security. I think that by following his natural ear for fiction, he predisposes the reader--"

Dana stood up and started yelling. (Which I regretted a bit, as I wanted to hear more about my natural ear for fiction.) "What the hell is wrong with you people? What is James doing that's hurting any of you? You already said that he could write about this group. Every one of you agreed. He's following your rules, he's changed all the names; he even changed his dog's name. He hasn't even talked about the Friday circle yet. Are we going to argue about this every week?"

"That depends on what he says when he does talk about the Friday circle," O.J. said. "Personally, I'm willing to go along with this game, but if we're going to be characters in his melodrama we should have approval over what's said about us. I think that's the minimum we can expect if our privacy's going to be invaded."

Everyone looked at where Callie's feet were hovering. I thought about it. It did seem reasonable... Then I saw that Jon still had his poker face on, and Nick was actually looking a little disgusted. Show some balls, his expression was saying.

"No," I said. "I don't think I can do this with a censorship committee. If any one of you wants me to kill the blog, I'll kill the blog. It's sucking up way too much of my time anyway. But if you want to be written about, I'm going to write about you my way. You'll just have to wait and see what that is."

"Word for word," Nick said. "Boring shit." But he was grinning.

I won't rehash the next ten minutes; most of it was more of the same, though I stayed out of it after that. Put as an ultimatum, no one really wanted to see the blog dead. Jenna reconsidered her objection, and Jon continued putting forward his logic that most people outside our social sphere were likely to view my writings as pure fiction anyway: "Ladies. Gentlemen. Here we have an invisible man, recounting the daily lives of his supertalented friends. If you hadn't met anyone like us before -- and most people haven't -- would you believe a word of this?"

Eventually they wore down Other John. He clearly wasn't happy about it, but standing alone, he couldn't bring himself to adopt the mantle of Blogslayer. If you ask me (and this might truly annoy him) I suspect strongly that, deep down, he really wanted to read about himself, and find out what someone else thought of him. I think everyone wants that.

Callie had the final word: "I'm worried about one thing, James. I love that you're doing this. You seem happy when you're talking about writing. But I don't want you to get so sucked in that you forget about other things. I want you to have time for me. Got it?"

Nick made a whip-cracking sound. Lara laughed.

"Piffle," I said. I lifted her legs off my shoulders and slid backwards. I began to roll silently to my feet. "Writing could never take the place of you. Half-Life 2, now, you might have to worry about."

She darted forward faster than physics should allow, but she couldn't catch me.

And that, my unknown friends, was Friday night.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Later.

Dinner was good. The steaks were marinated in port wine and garlic, which was a new thing for me. A sort of sweet/dark taste, but I avoided the compulsion to reach for the A-1, and by the end I was liking it. (A very minor advantage: nobody gets to watch me for reactions while I'm eating.)

Callie ate with us too, I should have mentioned that. Then we listened to some music, sat on my couch for a while, chatted and made out... She just left a half hour ago. I was this close to asking her to stay. Should I have? No idea. We've been seeing each other for two weeks. Is that a short or a long time? No idea on that either. Sex is well within my experience -- women get curious, you know -- but a relationship, the kind where you take it slow and try to understand each other, is totally new to me. And it's scarier than sex.

I'll talk more about Callie later on. I'm still trying to get my head around it all. She's hard to understand for all sorts of reasons.

I was talking about last night. Onward:

So Other John was hosting. The absolute rule on Friday nights is this: no talking shop or weirdness until after dinner and some totally brain wasting entertainment. O.J.'s plan was going be burgers on the grill, but the evening was cold and rainy. We ordered pizza from Mellow Mushroom. They don't deliver, so we sat around for forty minutes while Nick went out and picked it up. Everyone had beer except Jenna, and we watched some random episode of Deadwood on his TiVo. I'm sure it's a great show, but as none of us had been following it, it fell rather flat. (To be fair, some people can't stand the House of J tradition of anime, and make a point of showing up late.)

The business part of the meeting was short. They've been short lately. We closed out an action issue Lara had raised a couple weeks ago: she'd read in the news about Atlanta firefighters having their pay raises vetoed, and wanted to see if we could do anything about it. Apparently not. Dana went poking for dirt we could get out to the press somehow, but it turns out political minds are boring. Go figure. She never got a fix on the mayor, and none of the rest of us ever figured out any way we could address this, so nothing happened, and the pay raise is dead in city council now. Yay team.

The usual question: "Any encounters?" Dana had gotten hassled by the cops for hanging out near city hall looking suspicious, but no harm done. Callie, who's still rather new to the group, didn't quite grok the question and started telling us about the couple dozen times she'd used her power for anything this week. It was pretty interesting, but eventually Jenna stopped her and explained. The question wasn't whether you had done anything unusual, the question was whether you'd been caught doing anything in a way that might get anyone in trouble.

Nick was sitting back with a smug sort of grin on his face, until eventually all eyes were on him. "Oh, nothing to report," he said.

"Nick," Jenna said in a rebuking tone. "Tell us you haven't been trolling again."

"Nein, mein führer!"

I decided I'd have to talk to him. Nick's started to pick up a distressing habit of hanging out around Little Five and Piedmont -- not to pick up guys, but to look for 'phobes and hecklers. Then he finds creative ways to mess with their heads. The first time he told the circle about this, he was bragging about it. Jenna and Dana told him he had to stop it, and he laughed. Then Jon told him he could get himself killed, and that shut him up for a while. When Jon tells you what's going to happen to you -- well, it's not certain, but it's hard to shrug off. (Nick, if you're reading this: answer that e-mail, dumbass.)

Callie just called. I will finish this story.


Friday night circle

I was quite the center of attention last night at our usual gather. It's your fault, of course. By "you" I mean this blog.

The circle of unusuals has been meeting every Friday night for the last four or five years. The constituency's varied a lot. I'm told it started with Brian, Dana, some guy Dana was dating whose name I can't even recall, and Dana's brother (whose name I do recall, but the less said about him the better). I got pulled in a little while later, and I pulled in Nick when he moved back to town. Et cetera, and such is the circle of circles. I'd estimate at least twenty people have been in and out at various times. Maybe thirty, if you count ones who only showed up long enough for us to decide they were unwelcome.

But I was talking about last night. There were eight of us: Dana, Jenna, Jon, Callie, Other John (forever burdened thus, and sometimes called O.J. to make things worse), Nick, Lara, and myself. In theory we take turns hosting, which in practice means it's usually at the House of J -- Jon, Jenna, and James. Last night we were at Other John's.

I wish I could say Other John knew how to entertain. He tries hard, but it came out a little awkward. For one thing, O.J. is married. And he hasn't told his wife who we are. We've told him he's a moron for this, but that's how it is. His own talent, probability control, he's kept under wraps pretty easily. The rest of us, and the flow of our conversation, would be harder to explain. So every Friday night he goes off to a "spiritual study group" -- they're UUs or something -- and, this being the night he hosts, his wife has taken the kids off to a movie.

More later. I've gotta walk the dog, and then Jon is cooking steaks.

Afternoon Date

Callie dragged me off to see Finding Neverland. I was resistant, but it turned out to be a wonderful movie. I had the wrong conception, y'see, as the last I'd read about J.M. Barrie was journalists playing up comparisons to Michael Jackson. (Intense interest in somebody else's kids and all.) But the film doesn't take that direction: he's an innocent, finding his muse by helping out a family that needs it. I did some more reading and it sounds like the movie plays a little loose with the order and manner in which things happened, but the basic spirit sounds plausible.

In any event, it's a terrific movie for writers, and I found myself tearing up a little on Callie's shoulder, starting at the whole "It's just a play! It doesn't matter!" bit. Yeah, I'm a sucker. Her opinion? "I liked all the imaginary stuff." Not deep, but I can't argue. Definitely worth the price of, well, Callie's ticket. (Do I pay for movies? No. Would you pay for movies if you were me?)

Even better was the preview for the film version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of Phantom of the Opera. I've seen the show so many times it started to grow stale on me, but hot damn, the movie looks good.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Answering Phones 3: Interview

(Middle of a flashback here. If you haven't read the entries below this, then none of this is going to make any sense. Of course I make no guarantees even if you have.)

So Alyx works on 'my' body for a little while, taking my suggestions just to humor me. It's kind of fun, really -- like playing with one of those face composite programs on an actual body. I think Alyx is amused, too, if the two inches of manhood she gives herself is any indication.

"It's supposed to be you, right?" she says when I complain. "Do you have a mirror in this lair?"

"Of course not," I say. "What the hell would I do with a mirror?"

"Have more women stay the night? I can't go any further with this unless I can see what I'm doing. I think the face is coming out all lopsided."

"It is, but it's cool. You're just going to burn it up anyway, right?"

She insists, so she grabs her duffel bag and we go upstairs into the house proper. Jon's fixing breakfast in the kitchen, and shows no surprise whatsoever at the naked deformed man in a state of prepubescent development. He was clearly expecting us.

"Hello, Alyx," he says, and waves a spatula toward the stove. "I didn't realize it was Tuesday. Big day for James, isn't it? Pancakes?"

Alyx is a little unnerved. (Sorry Jon, but you have that effect on a lot of people.) "No thank you. James and I just came up to use your bathroom."

Almost anyone else I know would have eyeballed that body and made a kamikaze rush for a punchline. It doesn't even occur to Jon. He's one of the nicest guys in existence, but a lifetime of time-hopping has left his sense of humor lost somewhere in the continuum. "Suit yourself," he says. "I'll make some extra in case you change your mind."

"Don't you know if we'll have pancakes?" she says. I hear kind of an edge, so I take her elbow and say "Come on, big guy." Up again to the second-floor guest bathroom, and I shut the door. "Keep quiet," I whisper. "Jenna's still asleep."

She makes some disgusted noises at the look of her face, and sets about straightening it out? Within a minute or two she's a generically good-looking blonde man of my height, exceptionally thin, with vivid blue eyes. Not bad. Hell, maybe it is what I look like. (Except for the two inches. On that I've got proof.)

"Does it work?" She's got close to my voice, too, though it's a bit deeper and raspier. We'll tune that later.

"It works," I say. "Let's make it hideous."

The burns turn out to be extraordinarily difficult for her. She's used to skin just being skin; she's done different colors, but texture's a brave new world. She overdoes it on her first attempt, and breaks out in hideous bright red, shiny as glass.

I'm amused. "Not bad for a Joss Whedon demon. But, uh, let's take it down a little."

Alyx stares at the mirror.

"Yeah, I agree, it's cool, but -- Alyx?"

"I'm stuck!" she yells in that gravel voice.

"Seriously? That's not gonna work. Shit, you look like the BSD mascot, and this is a Linux job--"

She starts shaking, and she grips the sink counter, still staring daggers into the mirror. I grab her by the shoulders, but it isn't easy; that skin doesn't just shine like glass, it's as smooth as glass. There's a crack as the veneer on the counter splits -- she's also very hard. And on the edge of panic.

"Deep breaths, Alyx, deep breaths."

"You bastard! This is your fault!" She swings backward in a fury. If she'd connected, she'd have leveled me. But you don't make it through society invisible without getting really, really good at dodging. Her fist smashes through the tiles by the shower instead.

The door bursts open, and there's Jenna with a shotgun. It takes her about a nanosecond to assess the demon in her bathroom and raise the shotgun to its face.

Jenna says, "Don't move. Explain."

I say, "Jenna, it's cool. That's Alyx. Things got a little confused, is all."

The two of them lock eyes for a moment, and Alyx -- restored to her senses by the calming effects of a shotgun -- says "James was being a prick. I'm all right now, except for this fucking skin."

"James was being a prick? You trashed our bathroom!"

"I was being a prick. I'll get it fixed," I say quickly. Then the shotgun lowers.

(I must reiterate here that Jenna is indeed awesome. She'd never shoot a demon in the face without giving it a chance to explain. But she's extraordinarily protective of her family, her friends, and -- as I learned that morning -- her interior decorating. God only knows what she'd have done if that countertop had been marble or granite.)

"I'm sorry things went wrong, Alyx. Is there anything I can do to help?" Jenna says.

With a little patience and our encouragement, Alyx figures out that while she can't just unredden herself and go back to Simulated Me, she can flip back to cute female Alyx. Her standard body's practically automatic; but her shapeshifting's not quite a reflex, and she'd choked herself off from it while she was freaking out.

So we're back to square one. Jenna goes to get her a bathrobe, and I say, "Hey, I shouldn't have gone sarcastic on you. You did a lot for me just coming here. And if you don't want to do this anymore, I understand."

"Don't be a fool. I'm not quitting." She's still got that male voice, a little deeper than mine. It's bizarre coming from that sweet girl, but divorced from the way she looks, it sounds natural. I wonder if it's her original voice. "I'm ready to try again. I just need something to concentrate on."

So while she redoes all that work on size and body shape, I go to Jon's computer and spend a few minutes Googling on face burns. (Today's helpful hint: you get a lot more out of Google Images if you turn "Safe Search" off.) I print out some stomach-churning images on the inkjet and tape them up on the mirror next to Alyx.

She doesn't break herself again, but she never can get anything close to realistic. It's past 9 AM now. Eventually Jenna says, "We may have to settle for close enough. I have some medical bandages -- it's sort of a stereotype, but could we wrap you in those, and only leave a little of the scar tissue showing? That could be enough to suggest the rest of it."

Alyx rolls her eyes, now surrounded by pink pustulent blobs, but I think it's a great idea. "It's what everyone's used to seeing in movies anyway," I point out.

"Whatever," Alyx says. "Get whatever you think you need. I have to get dressed." That's what was in the duffel bag: a somewhat wrinkled business suit. She'd thought ahead -- Jon wouldn't have one the right size, and I just wouldn't have one.

"It's business casual," I tell her.

"They always say that. It's always better to overdress."

"You mean with bandages, a trenchcoat, and a fedora?" That's what Jenna's just brought out with a smirk. By the time everything's arranged, Alyx looks exactly like Liam Neeson in Darkman. It's uncanny. And a little silly, but time is short. As the one sign of more ordinary geekdom, she lets that long blonde hair drape down behind the bandages.

I give my thanks and goodbyes to Jenna and Jon -- who is surprised to see Alyx looking so Hollywood Gothic; perhaps he jumped probabilities when he offered us pancakes -- and we get into Alyx's car. As she drives, she adjusts her voice to match mine. "I don't know how I'll get through the interview," she says. "I don't know jack about computers."

"I'll take care of that. Just move your mouth underneath those bandages, and don't mind me if I get close."

She chuckles a little, but of course I can't read her expression.

After all that, the interview is practically anticlimactic. The Linux company's got two floors of an office building on Piedmont, and we pull into the parking lot with five minutes to spare. People look at Alyx as she lopes into the place, her coat swishing dramatically, but she pays nobody any mind. I follow behind.

We're shown to Kaydia's desk, and she greets and gazes at Alyx with a clinical You are utterly full of shit expression. She's not buying the Darkman thing; but she doesn't argue it either. Alyx sits (I stand nearby) and reads magazines until Mr. Brooks calls us in.

I call him Mr. Brooks because, although he clearly wants to be called Paul, he just doesn't look like the kind of guy you can think of in first name terms. He'd old enough to be my father, and even in a golf shirt he looks more like a dentist than an IT executive. But it turns out he's sharp as a tack, and he doesn't just know Linux, he was part of the original LSB spec authority. If I'd done my homework properly instead of worrying about body doubles, I'd have known that.

He shakes Alyx's scarred hand and greets her warmly. He's not thrown by the bandages thing either, somehow. "The hat's a nice touch," he says.

"Thanks," Alyx replies. "It was a good movie. If I'm going to get out at all, I might as well entertain people doing it."

I rarely see Alyx at work, and every time I'm struck by her comfort in whatever role she's playing. More than comfort: she's got charm. She never turns it on for us, the people she sees as friends, colleagues or peers (more or less). But when she wants it, it's there.

The two of them make small talk for a few minutes, and then the techie questions start. "So what distribution do you favor?" this nice old man asks.

I slide up behind Alyx so that my head's on her shoulder, and her own head tilts a little. She opens her mouth, and I say, "I think all the focus on distributions is kind of a distraction, Mr. Brooks. My main machine was put together from scratch. If I'm in a hurry I use Slackware. If this is for a client, then my favorite distro is whatever the client wants."

His lips pull down, but he's nodding. "So you don't believe in vendor admin tools?"

"Personally? No. But most users do, and it's not my place to deny their religion."

It goes on like that for a while -- he probes me about security policies, about managing networks, about prior work I've done. Most of the questions aren't so much technical as social; he trusts that I know the job, or can learn it. He wants to be sure I can communicate it to other people. The whole time I'm talking, he's scrutinizing Alyx. He knows the sound isn't quite right; it isn't coming from the right place, it isn't matching up perfectly. Almost everyone shrugs this off, as they shrug off most minor weirdness -- and having a distracting source of major weirdness, like a man dressed as a Sam Raimi character in your office, helps. I think he shrugs it off too. Like his assistant, if he isn't, he's not saying anything.

Finally he says, "Are you sure you're just interested in the phone job? Someone like you could really do well here -- never mind the appearance issues. You wouldn't be the only employee here outside the ordinary."

The way he says it tickles a question out of me, but before I can formulate it Alyx says, "Thank you, Paul, but I'm sure. I'm happy to have met you, but this is sort of a strain for me. I'm not sure I could do it every day."

"Well, all right. We'll give you a call -- probably this afternoon." The two of them shake hands again, and Alyx strides out. I sneak behind her.

When we're back in her car, it's safe for me to speak again. "Thanks again, Alyx. Do I owe you one now, or--?"

"Only if that dog of yours has eaten my clothes. Otherwise, we're even."

"Works for me." Naturally, I've totally forgotten about the damaged bathroom; and when I call Alyx later, she reminds me we're even and she won't pay a thing.

But the call does come that afternoon, so I can afford a handyman (Do it myself? No. Invisible people should not work with hand tools.) and start catching up on rent again. And the job...well, it's as I said yesterday. It could be a bit more interesting, but it doesn't suck.

And that's just another day for me.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Answering Phones 2: The Saga Begins

I got this job about a year and a half ago. I'd been doing some odd contract gigs over the Internet (eLance used to be good for that sort of thing), but it was irregular work and it had mostly dried up by then. I saw the Linux support thing on computerjobs.com and threw in my resume, since it said it was telecommute-friendly. It's a small company, too, so fewer rules. I prefer small companies as long as the checks come in on time.

They like my resume and check my references. Unusual step before the first interview. Kaydia, the boss's assistant (she kicks too much ass to be properly called a secretary) calls me up and says Mr. Brooks would like me to come in.

"That's great," I say. "I'd be happy to talk to him over the phone, but I'm afraid it's a little tough for me to get out of the house. I've got, ah, some health issues."

"Oh. Are you confined to a wheelchair? We've got ramps--"

"No, no. I was..." I have to think through my list of standard excuses. This one's delicate, because it's full-time work with benefits. If I go too far over the top (severe allergies, cancer, stuck in an iron lung) they might decide I'm not worth the cost to their health plan.

"I was in an accident," I say, and try to sound upbeat but embarrassed. "Several years back. There was a fire, and... And I got burned pretty badly over most of my skin."

"I'm so sorry!" she says. But God help me, she says it businesslike. Like she's checking a 'Severe skin trauma' box on a form in front of her. "So you don't like people to see you?"

"Yeah. Not so much that I don't like it -- but it's a little hard for others to see me." I pause for effect. "Of course if Mr. Brooks insists, I can still come in, but--"

"Oh, he will. We don't hire anybody here until we've met them," Kaydia says, totally unphased. I pick up on that we. "But we're equal opportunity here, Mr. _____. If you're qualified, you won't need to worry. And you certainly won't need to see us often. How's next Tuesday at 10 AM?"

"Uh, fine," I say. I'm too startled to say no as I should. She says she'll e-mail me directions, and that dress is business casual. Then we're done.

I give myself a good ten minutes to sit stunned, swearing at myself for being an idiot. Then I stand up, carefully push my chair under the desk (it's also invisible, so I have to be careful where I put it) and pace the center of the basement floor. That's where I do all my planning.

I could just say "Screw it," of course. Call them back and say "Sorry, I can't bring myself to do it" -- or even "Sorry, I'm invisible, and you wouldn't see me even if I showed up." I've actually pulled that before, when I'm annoyed and want people to think I'm insane so they'll leave me alone. But no. This really does sound like a good job -- and I've always been a little too stubborn to give up.

So I need to show up at the interview. Which means I'll need a surrogate to do the showing. I've pulled that trick before, when I've had to sign leases or open bank accounts. If Jon's in a good state of time, he usually fills in as me. Nick's done it in a pinch, but he's mischievous; I can't trust him for anything serious. In this case, neither of them will work. Whoever shows up will have to sound like me, since I'll surely be talking to these people on the phone a lot -- and since I was so damn clever about the burns, he'll have to look like Freddy Krueger, too.

I go upstairs and talk to Jenna. She's Jon's wife, and as far as we know her only power is being extraordinarily cool and reasonable in the face of all weirdness. She hears me out, and then tells me she's proud of me for going after a steady job.

"Yeah, thanks. I'm not twelve, you know." It's gratifying to hear her say it anyway, but I've got my pride. "So what am I going to do? I can probably fake the voice, but I don't know anybody who's that good at makeup."

"What about Alyx?" she says.

"Alyx? She's no good at-- Oh." Why hadn't I thought of Alyx? I hadn't seen her in a year -- or if I had, she didn't want to be recognized -- but she's the obvious choice. And she owed me a favor, for saving her ass from the Siren. (That's a longer story than this one.)

She'd gotten tired of our Friday circle well before that, and she was never quite on our social wavelength outside of that. And she's changed her phone number a couple times, though I'm pretty sure that wasn't to avoid us. But Jenna had her e-mail address, and sent her a note on my behalf. Jenna keeps in touch with everybody somehow. (Maybe that's her power.)

Alyx meets me Tuesday morning at about 8 AM to prepare. She knocks at the back basement door, and when I answer it she doesn't look around like most people do. She's in her default body: blonde pageboy hair, not quite five-and-a-half feet, more cute than sexy. It's an eerily familiar look, like somebody I've seen in a movie or on TV, but I can't for the life of me figure out who.

She bends down to let Aubrey lick her face, and sets down a duffel bag she's carrying. "I'm getting up early for you, James," she says, with a very weak smile. "If you don't get this stupid job I'm going to kick your ass."

"Find it and you can kick it," I say. "So how you been?"

I fix coffee while she sits on the visible loveseat, and we catch up for a little while. She's got a cliché job now, working for a private investigator. I give her some lighthearted crap about that, and she tells me I could be doing the same. "You'd be better at it than me," she points out. "It's not always exciting -- ninety percent of it's just tailing philandering husbands -- but you'd make a shitload of money. Instead you want me to help you be a stay-at-home geek."

I look at her seriously. She can't meet my eyes, of course, but she seems to try. "Believe me, I've thought about it. PI, PD, CIA, the whole alphabet. It's not my thing. Being a geek means I'm not paid to judge people I don't know."

"No, you and your friends do that for fun," she says. I've got nothing to say to that -- it's a valid point. Also, it's too damn early in the morning. She looks guilty for a half-second or so, then says, "So what do you need?"

"Well, he's me, so he's got to be tall and handsome," I say. "My voice, of course. And -- oh yeah -- he's got skin grafts over half his body from third-degree burns."

"What?"

"Hey, I was thinking quick! I wanted to sound like a monster so they wouldn't want me to come in. But apparently monsters don't qualify under the Americans with Disabilities Act."

"Jenna didn't say anything about burns."

"Sorry. Can you do it?"

"I've never tried," she says.

By now you've figured this out: Alyx is a shapeshifter. She doesn't do animals, dwarfs, or giants, but in the range of normal humans she can look like anyone she wants. I don't know how she does it, and it'd be rude to pry too much. She's never needled me about being invisible, either. We like each other okay -- I think she likes me better than most of the rest of the circle -- but we've never really been attracted to each other. On my side it's not her talent (which is pretty damn hot, at face value); it's her personality. She's blunt and abrasive, and never really opens up. I've never asked, but I have a pretty strong theory that she's originally a man.

She does the body without burns first. She takes her clothes off -- again, this ought to be a turn-on, but it's 8 AM and she's Alyx -- and grows eight inches, erasing her breasts and squaring off her curves. It's a fascinating process to watch, and I'm curiously pleased that she doesn't feel self-conscious about doing it in front of me. Perhaps it's just because it's so easy to imagine I'm not in the room. There's a moment of distraction when Aubrey jumps up on the loveseat and runs off with her panties in his teeth, but I catch him with the usual 'Bad dog!' and bring them back with some embarrassment. Alyx just shrugs.

"Do you have long hair?" she asks me.

"Yes. Just past my shoulders. Not that it matters -- do whatever you think works." The question takes me by surprise; most women I'm friends with already know this, because sooner or later they get curious and just have to touch my hair, my face, anything on my upper body. Men never do this, just women. Alyx never has. Score another point for my theory.

(Holy crap, it's getting late. The story's coming out longer than I expected, and I've got some other business to attend to. You'll forgive me if I finish this tomorrow, I hope. If anyone's even reading this yet.)



Answering phones.

Just took a call from a guy who had no clue why he couldn't look at all his employees' files. He seemed morally outraged by this, as if the machine itself was joining in some conspiratorial uprising against him. Was he root? No. Did he have the root password? No. Some brave martyr in your IT group wants to protect you from yourself, I think. I shunt him back to his own people, and feel sorry for whoever's cubicle is about to get barged in on.

Not a glamorous day; but then most days aren't. Everybody's got to eat. I make food & doof money by doing first tier phone support for a local Linux services company. It's below my actual skill set, but a full consultant job would mean I'd have to be seen on site. I can't be seen on site. So I stay home, answering dipshit questions from people who can't remember their own passwords or want to know why that new printer doesn't just work when they plug it into their Linux box. Sometimes I get called by one of the field guys to SSH into a box and do something interesting, but not very often.

Some of you are raising eyebrows now, wondering how does an invisible man get a job at all, even a telecommmuting gig? Teamwork. Funny story -- I'll get to it in a bit.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

No one's asking you to believe it.

I don't think it's possible to create a first blog post that doesn't sound forced or self-conscious. So I won't try. Dana says this has been on my mind for a while. She would know -- though sometimes I think she talks out of her ass, to get what she wants done.

I'm James. If you aren't already in my circle of unusuals, here's what's important:

  1. I'm invisible.
    I mean this literally. It's not a metaphor; it's not a bitch about my social life. I mean that light does not reflect off of my body, nor things under my influence. This is not some superpower I gained from a comic book genesis story. Nothing radioactive bit me. I was born this way. I can't turn it off.
  2. Most of my friends are stranger than me.
    They'd have to be, really. I know two telepaths. My best friend's telekinetic and hits on men with his mind. My housemate's unstuck in time. My girlfriend (I think it's safe to call her that) warps spacetime. --And those are just some of the people whose faces I know. I've got weirder acquaintances online, though some of them of course I just don't believe.
  3. We, uh, fight crime.
    Sometimes. It's fair to mention that sometimes we commit crime, though none of the really bad ones, so far. And sometimes we use our power just to get the good seats at the movies.
Implausible? No shit. But it's my life.

It isn't boring.