The Sympathetic Universe Part 13

Eloy’s watch read 12:15 PM when they saw the sign for Camp Virtue.  Indeed, they shortly crested a hill and saw cabin lights. The triangle roof of the cabin extended forward out from the main building. A trellis extended across the base of the triangle, three beams rising outward, one straight up, one diagonal to each side, creating an image like a starburst. Almost before Angel finished parking the van, Eloy was out and running to the cabin.

Eloy opened the door.  Sitting on the wide, wooden floor was a young girl listening intently to an old man in an easy chair. The girl had hair long enough to cover her ears. It was messy, but somehow in a way that seemed free rather than unkempt. It was brown at the top, fading to blonde at the bottom. The man looked like he was wearing a scratchy brown blanket held together by a rope tied around his waist, and he was speaking loudly and waving his arms. Eloy had trouble understanding what he was saying through his thick beard.

“Regardez!” said the girl, looking in Eloy’s direction. By this time, Angel had caught up with him, and had shoved through in front.

“Ah,” exclaimed the man, “Bienvenue les amis!”

“I don’t speak French,” Eloy muttered to Angel.

“I would be surprised if you did,” Angel replied matter-of-factly.

Angel and Eloy stared at the man, who stared at the girl.

“Good evening!” said the girl. Her accent was metropolitan American with a hint of southern, no trace of french, “where did you come from?”

Eloy stared. Angel jerked her head in their direction, “you tell us, first.”

The girl’s and man’s eyes widened at Angel’s aggression, but it only took a moment “I’m Eliza Cunningham from Carrboro, North Carolina in the year 2019. This is Gabriel. He’s a monk from thirteenth century France.”

“Bonjour, ah,” he looked back at Eliza and stressing each syllable said, “Hello.”

Eliza smiled back and nodded approvingly. Gabriel put out his fist and without missing a beat Eliza pushed hers to his. In unison, they both withdrew, evidently very pleased at their secret handshake.

Eloy had to consciously close his mouth. Eliza was from the future.

“I’m Eloy,” Eloy offered, “I’m from Richmond, Indiana, 2003.” Eliza beamed, but Eloy figured she did that for everyone. All eyes turned to Angel.

“I’m Angel,” she said, “I’m from Detroit, Michigan, 1975”

“Bienvenue!” exclaimed Eliza.

“Bienvenue!” Gabriel agreed.

Eloy did a double-take in Angel’s direction. She didn’t look like she was from 1975 at all.  Maybe it was just that she wasn’t wearing a disco outfit or a huge afro and she wasn’t washed out like an old TV show.

“Is there someone else with you?” Eliza asked.

Eloy started to look behind him, but Angel growled, “There’s no one behind us, Stupid.”

Eliza continued, “There’s another bed is why I ask. Two double rooms and one room with just one bed. Also, there are five chairs here, if you count the loveseat as two. There are five cups in the cupboard, five each of forks, spoons, and knives.”

“The cabin expects five people,” Angel summarized.

“Yes, the cabin or whoever set it up.”

“All right,” said Angel, “you two have special relationships with God, right?”

She thumped her chest, “I get visions,” she pointed at Eloy, “he gets overprotected.”

Eliza patted her shoulder, “I had a physical conscience that took the form of a grasshopper.”

“You had a Jiminy Cricket?” Angel asked, bemused.

“Yep.” Eliza pointed to Gabriel, “He heard God’s voice when he prayed.”

“Does anybody know why we’re here?” Eloy asked, not expecting an answer.

“Virtue,” Eliza said.

“Beyond that, though.”

Eliza shrugged.

The virtuous thing to do, Eloy knew, was to let someone else have a bedroom all to him or herself, so he volunteered to bunk with Gabriel. He wondered if it netted him additional virtue credit when he quietly endured Gabriel’s snoring.

Breakfast the next day was curious. After her morning calisthenics, Eliza showed him how to get it. Just open the fridge around mealtime, and it was there. Usually it needed some microwaving. It was individually portioned. Exactly four packages of food in tupperware, one for each person. Not five, he noted. To Eloy’s delight, the breakfast sausage and eggs tasted like it had been prepared the night before by hand.

Angel held tight to the keys of the van. She pointed out that it wouldn’t do anyone much good if they drove out to look for civilization and ended up out of gas in the middle of the woods. She was impervious to Eloy’s argument that he appeared in the van first and therefore it was rightfully his and he should get the keys.

Eloy synchronized his watch with Eliza’s amazing phone that did everything. She was the best prepared of all of them. Her grasshopper had instructed her to hold onto a bag of useful supplies as tightly as she could before she disappeared and it had worked. She had a charger for her cell phone and the cabin had outlets. She said her phone could even connect to the internet and use satellites to tell you where you were, but there were no nearby cell phone towers, and apparently no satellites either. Eliza said she would love to synchronize to the central world clock, but she couldn’t without internet, so her time was just a guess. Nevertheless, her phone set the standard for the whole camp. They were on Eliza time.

This continued for a week. For lack of anything else to do, Eloy joined Eliza in her calisthenics routine, struggled to learn 13th century French with Gabriel, and did his best to avoid Angel whenever he could. It wasn’t hard, as she spent most of her time exploring the surrounding area in a systematic attempt to find an escape back home, or at least back to civilization.

At precisely six fifty-seven Eliza time each night, the whole group crowded into the radio room to watch Eliza deliver her broadcast for help at seven o’ clock. “This is Eliza Cunningham. I am here with three other people. We are stranded at a place called ‘Camp Virtue’ near Endurance Peak and seek assistance.” Eloy was irritated that Angel didn’t declare Eliza incompetent and take over that task, too. Apparently he was the only person here that merited so little confidence.

One day, after another tense fifteen minutes of listening for a response, Eliza stood to indicate it was time to leave. As Gabriel in the back turned to leave so everyone else could get out, the radio crackled to life.

“Eliza,” the radio said, “Come in Eliza. Eliza, this is Destiny. Over.”


The Sympathetic Universe Part 12

Eloy watched the road wind in front of him. Gray trees fell behind in the twilight. When the van did not turn with the road, Eloy realized he was in the driver’s seat and swerved out of the way of a spruce tree, managing to only hit a low branch, which dislodged with a crack. Thankful no one was hurt, Eloy backed up back onto the road and set the van to park.

Eloy examined the damage to the van. The left light was smashed in. Not something he could hope no one would notice. His heart was still pounding in his chest. Just a moment ago, he was about to go to school. Then God disappeared, then he appeared in a van rolling down a mountain hill and crashed it. All in all, a stressful day. He could still feel God’s absence. What was he supposed to do now? A voice in his head would be much appreciated.

It was completely dark now. The blinking red hazard lights showed him the outlines of his hands and the road and not much else. Eloy got back in and turned his lights on. He was gratified to see that the smashed light still worked even if it looked like hell. He checked the fuel gauge. Full. Eloy chuckled, like this van had just visited a fuel station in the middle of the woods. He sighed and tried to puzzle through what was happening. Nothing left to do but continue down the road. He started the van up.

The absence of God made Eloy on edge. The fact that he couldn’t see more than a few yards in front of him on sheer mountain roads would not normally faze him when everything was planned out so that he would do nothing but learn valuable lessons. Before he appeared here, Boden’s voice was rambling about virtue and about running out of time on “this Earth.” He also said that Eloy’s pet theory about God being his mother was wrong. On the other hand, that’s exactly what his mother told him in person, too, so…

“ok,” said Eloy aloud, “virtue.”

The road continued to wind. It was a climb now. Time passed. Eloy had seen no one else on the road. No cars, no signs, nothing. He tried turning the radio on. Static. He turned the dial through the frequencies. Static everywhere. Eloy grit his teeth and slammed on the dashboard. Everywhere had radio! Where the hell was he!? He turned the dial back the other way. More static, until he reached 171.7. A young woman’s voice. “…za Cunningham. I am stranded in the woods seeking assistance. I do not know my coordinates, but I am at a place called ‘camp virtue’ near Endurance Peak. Please send help.” The transmission ended.

“ok,” Eloy said, “camp virtue.”

Then he shrugged. “Endurance Peak.”

Eloy grimaced and raised his hands in surrender before clapping them back onto the wheel when the road made a sharp right. “Keep driving forward,” he muttered, “I guess.”

Eloy left the radio on. He turned the static down and listened to the noises of the night. Crickets made a continuous symphony. An owl hooted. A clicking noise he couldn’t identify. Another bird? The road went on.

In time, Eloy saw a figure waving at the side of the road. Easy as pie. The virtuous thing to do is help. Score one for Eloy. Eloy pulled the car over and rolled his window down.

“What have you got that smug look on for?” snapped the woman. Her black hair framed her scowling face. She looked old, like, 35 or something.

“Excuse me?” Eloy asked, taken aback, “I could have sworn what you said just now was not ‘thank you for helping me.'”

“The fuck is your problem?” the woman shouted, “you think this is a joke?”

Eloy and the woman stared at each other, and the woman shouted, “Did you crash this!? Are you old enough to drive!? Are you planning to tell me what’s going on!?”

“What’s going on!?” screamed Eloy, not sure whether to be angry or terrified, “I don’t know what’s going on!”

But the woman had reached in the window and unlocked his door. Before he knew it, vice-grip strong hands were hauling him out of the van. He braced for impact with the pavement, but, without giving him a chance to escape, the woman laid him gently on the ground. Then she climbed in the driver’s seat.

“Are you stealing my van?” Eloy stammered, vaguely worried about what would happen if he tried to stand up.

“Hey, fuck you.” the woman jabbed a finger down at him from the van. “How dare you. I was in the middle of a presentation. There were executives in that audience. There were power-brokers in that audience. I was going to show everyone what a woman could do. There were little girls in that audience. What happens when a latina who worked her way up from nowhere starts to tell people who have been told all their lives they’re worth nothing – what happens when she’s just about to tell them they can be something, and then she ceases to exist! What kind of message does that send?”

Eloy had no idea what kind of message that would send. He chanced putting his arms under him and pushing up a bit to look at her. “I disappeared in the bus in front of school,” he offered.

“Don’t lie to me,” the woman did not seem as assured as before.

“I really don’t have anything else but that van. Could I at least sit in the back?”

The woman scowled. “You sit in the front,” she said, “so I can keep my eye on you.”

Eloy had to admit that he had been getting tired of driving. He leaned his seat back and yawned. He checked his watch – it was supposed to be 9:00 AM. The darkness was getting to him.

“Hey, what’s your name?” the woman asked.

Eloy shook the sleep from his head, “Eloy.”

“Hm, so you’re God’s chosen.”

Eloy sat upright, “what?”

The light from the headlights illuminated the outline of the woman’s face. “That’s what Eloy means. ‘God’s chosen'”

“Oh.” Eloy was surprised no one had ever told him what his name meant. “God’s Chosen” seemed a little on-the-nose. “What’s your name?”

The woman shrugged, “Angel.”

The van bumped over a large stick on the road. The radio murmured its quiet static.

“Fuck,” said Eloy, “are we gonna run into Jesus next?”

“That’s my Dad.”

Eloy’s face contorted as he mouthed “what?”

Angel chuckled, her mouth stretched painfully wide across her face.

“God is my mom,” Eloy blurted.

“Fuck you,” Angel managed between heaves of laughter.

“No, really.”

“I just see the future,” Angel said, “It’s like dreams, but they tell me what’s going to happen. The visions always tell me no one will believe me if I tell them what I saw, and they never do.”

Eloy doubled over in his seat. He could barely breathe.

Angel continued, “But seriously, your mom? Jesus is just my dad’s name. It’s a common one.”

“I don’t know.” Eloy kept laughing. He couldn’t exactly say what was so funny. Maybe the night had just got to him.

The van continued on through the darkness.


The Sympathetic Universe Part 11

“People always ask me,” said Reverend Boden in his characteristic long-short rhythm, “why does the world have suffering if God is all powerful and all good?”

Eloy blinked and looked down at his iPod. The display said “Red Hot Chili Peppers – Californication.” He rolled his eyes. Knowing his mom, He wouldn’t get to hear anything else through his earbuds until he was through this, so he set his jaw and got comfortable. Hopefully it would be done by the time he got to school and he wouldn’t have to pick it up again on the way back. He didn’t really mind Boden. Dad used to listen to him in the car and Eloy remembered falling asleep to his cadence. “PEOPLE… ALWAYS… ASK- ME- ….. WHY does the WORLD have SUFF-ER-ING if GOD is ALL POW-ER-FUL and ALL GOOD.”

“First I remind them that God is incapable of evil, for what He does is the definition of good. God is good, but more to the point good is God. They often want more than that.” Cue laughter from the congregation.

Eloy rolled his eyes. Mom was really laying it on thick today. He could put up with it. He had to admit he had enjoyed the attention he got after rescuing that old woman from the fire. The first responders were baffled at how he had apparently ambled in and led the woman out by a hand. The old woman, who’s name he had completely forgotten, had told everyone the fire just died down wherever he was about to walk. They didn’t believe her any more than they would believe him that she and her daughter hadn’t existed at all just days before.

“So, I tell them that they need to look beyond this world. We suffer as children when we learn we cannot take a sodapop from the store without paying for it. Our childish minds curse this cruel society that puts sodapop in our reach and then slaps it from our hands for so little reason.”

Eloy yawned and looked over at his busmates. The red-haired girl was hunched over a bulky green and purple copy of The Half-Blood Prince. Eloy guessed it could be any gigantic green and purple hardcover book, seeing as her wild hair blocked his view of most of the cover, but it was hard to imagine what else it could be. He restrained himself from the urge to shout “Snape kills Dumbledore!” She’d probably heard it a hundred times by now.

“But then we grow up and see the greater plan. With experience, we see the wisdom our parents wished to teach us, and the world makes sense again, all the better for the suffering of our youth. That’s what this world is to eternity. It is your soul’s childhood.”

Eloy experimentally turned his iPod off. He may as well save the battery. The sound didn’t stop. On a lark, he took his earbuds out.

“God gives you experiences now,” the reverend’s voice rang clear in his bare ears. Eloy glanced around, but no one else could hear, naturally.

“When my father killed himself, I asked God ‘why, God, what lesson should I learn from this?’ He said nothing, for the lessons of our soul’s childhood are not ones that can be taught, they have to come through living.”

A chill ran over Eloy. He didn’t know the reverend had lost his father, too. He probably didn’t, and this was just his mom using the reverend’s voice to manipulate him. Eloy slouched further. He fished the newspaper clipping out of his backpack. The one with the picture of him leading Wilma Duff out through the roaring flames. The article made no mention that Wilma had ever had a granddaughter.

“Sometimes,” Boden intoned more loudly, “people don’t want to LIST-EN to the voice of God. They drown it out with their petty worldly pride and forget that all of their successes were given to them through His holy grace.”

Eloy knew better than to try to talk to his mom out loud in public when she wasn’t there. He tried to think as loud as he could, “I get it, Mom! Can I please listen to my music now!?”

“God is not your mother, young man,” Boden’s voice snapped. Eloy froze. He felt the blood drain from his face. After a moment, the voice continued preaching, “We are all finite beings. We are all running out of time on this Earth. There comes a time in our lives when we realize those who guided us are gone, and now we have to guide ourselves and perhaps be the guide to others.”

Eloy realized his mouth was hanging open and closed it, “What do you mean, time is running out?” he thought.

The voice started speaking more quickly, “Your virtue is paramount, but the acts on this earth are immaterial. Practice virtue, but don’t expect reward. Virtue for its own sake.”

Eloy’s heart was pumping in his chest. Something very bad was happening, he was sure. The bus stopped at his school, but he stayed rooted to the seat. The reverend was now speaking so quickly that he could barely follow, “Pro-social… greatest need… the first stone… the least of these…”

For ten tense seconds, Eloy listened to sage advice pumped into his ear at light speed, utterly incomprehensible. Then it stopped.

Eloy was shaking. He felt like his heart was either beating at quadruple the normal rate or had stopped beating entirely. The bus was empty. The driver shouted, “Hey, Eloy, you gotta go to school!”

More silence. More than that, Eloy felt a chill. He felt like he had been living all his life under a warm blanket, and now with no warning, he was exposed to the January air.

No, he had been in someone’s arms his whole life, and now he wasn’t.

Now Eloy was on his own.


Steve Duke the bus driver was worried about Eloy. He’d had students who were too frightened of bullies or telling their teacher they hadn’t done the homework and wouldn’t get off the bus, but he had always pegged Eloy as more mature. What did a boy who sauntered casually into burning buildings have to fear at South Davis High school? Steve stood and walked back to Eloy’s seat. Then he scanned all the seats. He got down on his hands and knees and looked underneath them. Then he stood up, pulled off his baseball cap and scratched his head.

“Now where on God’s green earth could that boy have gone?”


The Sympathetic Universe Part 10

Eliza’s favorite movie was Disney’s Pinnochio. Maybe it was a little old, but she identified with the protagonist. Not because she wanted to be a real boy, she was happy being a real girl, but because, like him, she had a conscience. For most people, a conscience was an abstract concept, but Eliza was the envy of her friends because she had a literal grasshopper sitting on her shoulder. It didn’t sing, and it didn’t have a top hat and cane or big, expressive eyes. It was just a normal grasshopper that leapt onto her each morning as soon as she had a shirt on. When Eliza had a challenging decision, the grasshopper crawled up and lifted its body so its forelegs were above the opening to her ear. Then its mandibles clicked and she heard a voice tell her what to do.

When she was a baby, Eliza’s parents had apparently been afraid of the grasshopper and tried several times to kill it. When they took it away from Eliza and let it outside she was inconsolable until it appeared on her shoulder again the next time they let their eyes off her. When they smashed or flushed the grasshopper or trapped it in a jar, it always reappeared. Eventually they grudgingly accepted the grasshopper. It was only when Eliza started to talk and told them what it was telling her that they began to truly appreciate it. Now they seemed comfortable to let their parenting role consist of bragging about their kid and listening to her exploits over the dinner table. The grasshopper did the hard work.

“That young woman is pretending to be your friend,” clicked the grasshopper. Mary’s hair had one curly black strand falling down over her forehead. Eliza thought later she might ask the grasshopper what he would think of her getting a hairstyle like that. The grasshopper continued, “She is not introspective enough to understand her motives, but deeply she just wants to be beloved like you. Be kind to her, help her get some friends. She will come to appreciate why you are the most loved.”

Eliza nodded, and Mary gaped at her. “What – what did it say?”

Eliza beamed – it was a smile the grasshopper had trained her to give through hours in the mirror. She stepped forward and hugged Mary, who was too shocked to react. “Mary,” she whispered into her ear just like the grasshopper, “you are a wonderful and beautiful person.”

Mary blinked as Eliza withdrew. “What?” she asked

“Mary,” said Eliza with a serious pause, “What do you like? How do you like to spend your time?”

“I, uh,” stammered Mary, “I like… football.”

Eliza was the head cheerleader and assistant coach of the men’s junior varsity football team. She was also its lead Instagram and Twitter promoter. Sometimes the junior varsity games drew a bigger crowd than varsity. She didn’t need her grasshopper to tell her that Mary didn’t like football.

“Mary,” said Eliza, “for a moment, stop trying to please or impress anyone. Just for you, what do you like?”

Mary pressed her lips together. She had not considered liking anything besides being liked or things that made her be liked. This was a difficult question, Eliza knew. Eliza saw Mary’s eyes lock on her shoulder, and felt the familiar sensation of the grasshopper climbing back onto her ear. “Mary likes cooking pasta with her mother. She enjoys long walks in the park and writing poetry about boys in her notebook in Social Studies. She has a crush on Chris Evans.”

“Who’s Chris Evans?” Eliza whispered

“Captain America.” The grasshopper replied. Eliza nodded.

“I’m going to see the new Avengers movie with some friends in a few days. Would you like to come?”

“What?” asked Mary, startled from staring at the grasshopper, “oh, yes! When?”

“I’ll be in touch. I have to go work out.” Eliza beamed and left Mary in the hallway.

“That was well done,” whispered the grasshopper, “Now you just have to find some friends she’ll like and plan an outing.”

“It seems like everyone just wants people to like them,” Eliza mused as she let herself into the chemistry lab that was empty during fifth period, “people are so simple.”

“Yes,” agreed the grasshopper, “that is why you shall be the most virtuous of them all.”

Alone between the thick granite tables Eliza began her calisthenics routine. As she did burpees, the grasshopper continued to whisper to her. “How could you have learned what Mary liked without me telling you?”

A chill ran over Eliza. She did not like the suggestion that the grasshopper might someday leave. It was bringing it up more lately. “That’s what you’re here for, though, to tell me. Hey, what do you think if I get a couple strands of hair to fall in my face like Mary? Doesn’t that sound cool?”

“I won’t always be here to help you, Eliza,” the grasshopper pressed, “how can you find out what a person likes if she doesn’t tell you?”

Eliza started a plank. “Well, ugh. I guess I’d, uh, just talk with her for a while and mention a lot of things and see how she responds.”

“Very good,” murmured the grasshopper. “The gym shower will be cold. The heater broke a few hours ago. Be ready for discomfort.”

Eliza steeled herself.

The Sympathetic Universe Part 9

“C’mon, Eloy,” said Bert, “I’ve got your ID right here.”

“Cool, thanks!” Eloy took the id, “Hey, man, why does it say I’m 24? Shouldn’t 21 be enough?”

“21 is too exact, yo! It makes ’em suspicious!” Bert spoke with his whole body, throwing his hands in the air, his curly red hair bouncing as he bobbed his pale, freckled face up and down. He shone in the streetlights, like he was glow-in-the-dark.

“I don’t want to get in trouble, dude. My mother will get mad AF if she finds out.” Eloy didn’t want to disappoint Bert. He was literally the coolest friend he had ever gotten to hang out with. Every time someone remotely interesting came his way, he’d go right away again. His Mom nixing the deal was the best outcome. More often, something else even weirder happened. Freddy taught Eloy what “ass” meant in fifth grade, then became mysteriously allergic to his clothes or something. He couldn’t come near without breaking out into hives. Jack suggested he thought graffiti shouldn’t be a crime in middle school, then an hour later, his dad showed up in class and announced his decision to move the whole family to Iceland that afternoon. Wally offered Eloy a joint sophomore year, then just plain vanished. One kid insisted he saw his feet in the bathroom, and then he blinked and they weren’t there. He climbed under the locked door and just saw a half-smoked reefer floating in the bowl. Wally’s parents said they’d never had a child. Eloy felt vaguely guilty for putting Bert in so much danger, but the universe itself seemed to have made a pact with his overprotective mother, and he desperately needed to rebel.

“You’re 24 years old?” the bartender looked Eloy up and down.

“Ha ha, yeah, we get that all the time,” Bert jumped in, “he’ll have a Miller Lite.”

The bartender shrugged and pulled out a pint glass. Eloy’s adrenaline was racing. Was he finally going to get to do something bad? He watched the bartender fill it with frothy beer. Terrified that at any second the beer would disappear, the glass would shatter, or the entire bar would vanish and reappear in Quebec, he grabbed it the moment it hit the table and chugged it down.

It tasted like water. Eloy was underwhelmed. Bert was impressed. “Whoah, you’re a natural!” Bert downed a Coors

“Give me one of those,” Eloy said.

This one was bitter. That’s more like it!

Bert downed another Coors. Eloy had three more. Bert had two more, Eloy chugged another, and Bert followed suit.

“Am I drunk?” Eloy asked after a while.

Bert lifted a finger, swayed back, and jabbed it straight in front of Eloy’s eyes. “You, sir, are the heavyweight champion. Are you sure you’ve never had beer?” The pointing finger became an open hand that pressed against Eloy’s face as Bert used it for support.

“I’ll have another Coors,” said Eloy. The bartender gave it to him and he made as if to drink it, then he put it down. Fuck if his fucking magic mom wasn’t thwarting him again. “Bert, try this,” he said.

Bert guffawed and reached out to accept the beer. Instead, he fell off his stool. His head hit the bar top as he went down. “Fuck,” whispered Eloy.

“I’m ok,” Bert slurred from the floor, “could somebody help me get to the bathroom?”

Eloy didn’t know exactly the right thing to do, so he stayed with Bert while he threw up. So this was the new plan, huh? Just make sure fun things aren’t fun? This situation smacked keenly of the movie he’d just seen where the drunk guy’s friend takes his keys. So this was another learning opportunity, huh, Mom?

“Bert, give me the keys. I’m driving us home. I’ll take an Uber from your place.”

Bert raised his head, his face somehow even paler than before, “Yeah… yeah, man. You’re a good friend.”

Eloy sighed, defeated again.

“Do you think God has a plan for us?” asked Bert in the car.

I think God has a very particular plan for me, because my mom is God. Eloy knew he couldn’t tell anyone that.

“My mom says God just made the universe to run on its own like a big clock. He doesn’t have any particular plan for any of us.”

“I don’t care what your mom thinks, dude. What do you think?”

“You know what I think? I think she’s full of shit. God arranges our lives as learning experiences to prepare us to be better people. God is a micromanaging fuck.”

Bert guffawed, “I take it back what I said about holding your beer. God, maybe I should try Miller Lite.”

Eloy’s wristwatch said it was half past one in the morning. He pushed the door one millimeter at a time. Five seconds in, he heard a voice, “Just open it the rest of the way, Eloy Geoffrey Addison. I promise you won’t get more grounded than you already are.”

Mom didn’t like being called out on her witchcraft. The last time he tried to confront her she said she was going to send him to a psychologist. The next day she acted like nothing had happened. When he brought it up, she even played dumb. It was the only time he’d seen her play dumb, and she was good. You’d think she really had selective amnesia.

When he pressed her she got upset and told him she’d never said it before, but this time she really would send him to a psychologist. After she sent him to his room, she just left him in there for hours until he called down the stairs to complain and she said “I never sent you to your room.” After that, he had just stopped talking to her about it. He couldn’t handle the craziness.

Eloy couldn’t play Gamecube when he was grounded, nor could he visit friends. Mom and Dad were too cheap to buy cable internet and they didn’t like the phone tied up, so internet surfing on the dial-up was out of the question. He sat on the couch watching staticky TV.  As Spiderman, Tobey Maguire rushed into a burning building to save an old woman, only to learn that she was in fact his nemesis, Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin. Adventure ensued. Eloy sighed.

The next day walking to school, Eloy saw a curious sight. One of the houses was on fire. Great billowing flames lit the pre-dawn twilight. He snorted and kept walking. He couldn’t be late for first period.

“Help!” Eloy heard a voice and looked all around to see where it was coming from, “my grandmother’s in there!”

Nobody was saying it. Mom was just using her witchcraft and summoning voices. Eloy kept walking. “Help!” said the voice again. A woman was behind him now, “My grandmother is in there! Can’t you help!?”

Eloy sighed and slouched, “Fine.” He began to trudge toward the fire.

She had better not be Willem Dafoe.

The Sympathetic Universe Part 8

When The Entity reset its universe it noticed that the comet was still arriving in the same location and preventing Ta’s tribe from being attacked. Did The Cousin change the initial conditions? The Entity checked, and they were the same. It was not going to give The Cousin the satisfaction of knowing it had outsmarted it.

The Entity moved into a four-dimensional view, just to see if it could see something else it had missed. The whole path of the comet was according to the rules. It noticed something else, though, at the other end of time. The radioactive wasteland a few short aeons into the development of Sapiens was no more.

Looking more closely, The Entity saw that all of history was different. Some of the patterns worked out the same, but the names and dates were completely different. Now, in this version of the universe, nuclear disaster threatened, but was narrowly averted. It threatened again, and was narrowly averted. It seemed as if by sheer coincidence that sneaky cousin had nudged its universe onto a path where the dominant species just happened to make it through the most dangerous phase of its existence.

It still wasn’t going to tell The Cousin, but maybe it didn’t need to fix this comet issue. Since all the lives were different, it would even open up another batch of stories to live. Human stories were so popular, the one entity per person rule had turned out to be a serious limiting factor. There was always an entity ready to inhabit a mortal.

To limit the pressure on his universe to provide more people for entities to inhabit, The Entity had doubled down on its policy of letting other entities copy its universe and do whatever they liked with their own versions. This led to some very strange spinoff universes. Most common was an entity who wasn’t satisfied with how their life turned out.

Now The Entity had multi-layer rule protection and emergency shutoff mechanisms that stopped the universe and kicked out everyone living a life in it if anyone attempted to make an illegal change. It also identified the guilty party in an automatic mass message to let everyone know whose fault it is that they had abruptly been ejected from their physical journeys. After that, three more entities tried to save their unjustly executed children,  their prematurely perished parents and their cancer-stricken golden retriever respectively. Each was in short order cowed into a meek reassertion of the hand The Entity’s reality had dealt them, and then there were no more violations.

Its punishment scheme seemed so effective that The Entity didn’t even see the need to ban these three entities. However, each one took its offer to make their own universe where things were not quite so random and, well, cruel. Others followed suit. These were so common that they became a class unto themselves. “Guided universes” were ones where the entity on the outside behaved as a closely interested deity, making deliberate tweaks here and there as it saw fit.

For the most part, a guiding entity was satisfied just to help the people close to the mortal whose life it had lived. Occasionally an ambitious guiding entity would instead seek to create a utopia, ending all suffering for everyone within its universe. Some entities questioned the point of this, as these private universes seldom had any entities inhabiting them at all. Did the mortals in these universes even experience anything without entities in them doing the experiencing for them? “Kindness is wasted on an empty body.” became an aphorism among entities attempting to dissuade each other from trying to make utopias.

Why it was so important to so many entities that no one try to care about empty mortals for their own sake was an open question. The entity who created the first physical universe was now known for its obsessive protection of it from tampering and behind its back was called “Leave My Universe Alone,” or Lmua for short. Lmua’s position that consciousness only lay in entities had not even been a position before. It had just been taken for granted. It may well have made entities making their own universes uncomfortable to think that the “empty bodies” they were making actually felt and thought what they looked like they were feeling and thinking. For one thing, it might implicate them in some moral transgression to create such suffering, but for another, even the idea of a finite existence was inherently frightening.

So, an entity guiding a universe to maximize the happiness of its residents was frowned upon and rare. Those who did try it found themselves flummoxed by a human’s unfailing ability to be miserable even in the most pleasant circumstances. Entities that edited their mortals to not do this found they behaved much like entities that edited themselves to be always happy. An entity with an entire universe of satisfied humans laying on their feather mattresses in unending meditative joy can only remain interested for so long. At best, they leave that universe to its blissful stasis and move on to another project.

The most ambitious entities, through trial and error, struggled to make beings that will always be happy, but also will interact with each other in interesting ways, grow, and create art. To this day, they may still be trying to make such a being.

The Sympathetic Universe Part 7

The night was warm, and Ta was out underneath the stars. Ko was spending the evening with the other girls, and Ta was weaving baskets while Da nursed. After a moment, Da let go and looked up. He looked back and hit Ta on her chest with a tiny hand. “What,” asked Ta, “what is it?”

Da pointed up, and there was no mistaking what he wanted Ta to see. A brilliant arc strode across the night sky. It looked as if Ko had found a glowing white paint and drawn it there herself. Ta stared in wonder, Da babbling nonsense and hitting her and pointing and her hands weaving baskets on their own without need for her to even look.

The next day, the mood was different. The chief, always energetic, seemed to have even more of a spring in his step than usual. He shouted to call the tribe for a meeting. “Last night, many of you saw the sign from the Great Crocodile,” he boomed, to shouts and cheers. Ta cheered with them, holding Da’s little arm to show him how to shake it in triumph. Ko seemed to have learned something from her friends the other night – she put her hands to her face and howled like a wolf.

“A brilliant white mammoth tusk in the sky, pointing to the west. The Great Moon Crocodile has spoken – we must move west to the land of the mammoths! More mammoths, more food!”

The crowd’s response to this was mixed. Ta found the Moon Crocodile’s message strange. There were still more than enough mammoths here to feed the whole tribe for moons to come, and she had never seen her baskets so full of nuts and berries since they had moved here. Ko would be sad to leave her rhinoceros painting behind, but she could draw another one.

Over the next week, the tribe traveled west. Ta hated travel because she had to manage the transport of all her baskets and spears. When some got broken or left behind, which they always did, she had to work through the night to replace and fix them. She didn’t interpret the Moon Crocodile’s will, though, and it would not serve anyone well for her to be left behind, so she went along with them.

Eventually, the chief proclaimed that the tribe had arrived at “the land of the mammoths.” Ta didn’t see much difference from where they had left, but Ko drew an antelope on their new cave wall and it felt like home. Ta’s cautious nature helped her live a long and rich life. As Ko and Da grew into productive tribe members themselves, Ta grew to be a village elder, and her sage advice encouraged the tribe to become less nomadic and take advantage of staying in one place at least until the food began to get scarce. There was a scare when Ko came close to her deathbed in childbirth, but, thank the Great Moon Crocodile, surrounded by the love of her family and her friends she had known all her life, she pulled through.

Ta passed away at eighty six years of age surrounded by her great grandchildren and the countless people who she had helped during her long life. From far away outside time and space, The Entity looked on in consternation.

“WHO ALTERED MY UNIVERSE?” The message went out to everyone in the family, tinged with livid rage in a way not describable to one with only human senses. Just imagine that looking at seemingly ordinary text on a page you feel as if you are being screamed at. The text itself looks like it wants to bite your jugular out and leave you to bleed to death on the floor despite looking no different from any other text on your computer. You don’t want to look at it too long for the irrational fear that you might spontaneously combust.

By the time The Entity had noticed the break, over ten million cousins had taken trips through mortal lifetimes, many had taken thousands of trips. It did not go unnoticed, though, that Ta’s life had just happened to be much longer and more fulfilling. In fact, it was when Ta’s murderer complained that he never even got to meet Ta, let alone murder her, that The Entity had first realized something was wrong.

The Entity didn’t get a reply immediately. It doubted anyone had ever received an angry message in such a literal way before, and they probably were in doubt of how, or whether, to respond. It rewound the universe to see why the tribes never met. Here at this moment Ta’s tribe decided to move west for no apparent reason. The Entity took a low-level bird’s eye view of the action when it saw the tribe gathering. One man standing on a rock told them that the Great Moon Crocodile wanted them to go west. He wanted to because of a “sign” from the Crocodile that many had apparently seen last night.

Back up to last night. People are out, they’re looking up. Ok, let’s flip over and see what’s in the sky. A comet. Where did the comet come from? Move to the comet. Rewind, follow the comet’s trajectory, looking for it to wink out of existence or take an unexpected turn. The comet’s origin was when it formed from the meandering gas of the solar system. Then it flies a wide ellipse around the sun, occasionally coming near a planet and swinging into a different path. After a swing around Uranus it heads on its path leading to Earth, where a little over a year and a month later it makes the brilliant display in the sky that leads Ta’s tribe to wander a different direction. Everything looked to be in order except that the comet should not be causing anyone to move west and change the course of prehistory.

“I know you did this,” came an icy message from The Entity. Ta felt a chill wash over her reading it. She had never thought to include feelings in messages before and sent an innocent “did what?” with as much sweetness as she could muster.

“You know what. Now I have to restart the whole universe.” The disgust hung on every word.

“That sounds frustrating,” Ta sympathized, amping up the sweetness until it was like a whole mouthful of honey straight from a beehive.

“They’re going to die no matter what you do, Cousin. You may have lost your senses, but I can just keep restarting the universe as many times as I need to. You’re completely banned from even looking at it.”

Ta didn’t respond. After she figured out that her tribe would respond to a comet, she had taken only twenty-two tries to add an infinitesimal adjustment to one each time it rounded a planet. Enough adjustments later its course was dramatically changed, and her children were saved. When the Entity reset the universe, a set of rules inside its domain but outside of the universe would apply the same adjustments Ta had worked out. If The Entity found and disabled that, there was another one hidden elsewhere. Ta had constructed four hundred and fifty five thousand two hundred and seventy one such automated adjustment mechanisms hidden throughout The Entity.

Beyond that, she would just have to hope that it gave up finding them all and put up with Da living. She could satisfy herself that she had done all she could.

Meanwhile, in Ta’s own personal universe, she enjoyed another warm night under the stars. “Mommy,” asked the nine year old Da, wincing as Ta applied yellowroot to his scraped knee, “Why do bad things happen?”

The mortal Ta had dismissed this question, “The Great Moon Crocodile tests us in this life.” Ta chose to do something different this time. She took Ko’s face in her hands, “Bad things happen because people let them, my sweet baby Da,” she whispered, “Your mother will never let anything bad happen to you.”

It's about whatever I say it's about