9 – December 24

Strolling over the dusty dirt margin demarking the North/South divide of US 283, Lester looked both ways before crossing the highway. The time-tested precaution proved unnecessary. The only souls in sight were two Black Angus steers fenced under a forty degree sky. Unwilling to mosey from chosen grazing spots, cud-chewing craniums a yard apart in mirrored opposition, the cattle stood parallel to the other at the center of a yellowed prairie. The season had siphoned their energy, rendering muscle such a premium that the bovines’ broad shoulders remained statuesquely affixed against the big country blue—as if to keep it from falling. Witnessing Lester’s advent with a cow-eyed inquisition, they could only huff a reply as he saluted a how-do-you-do and ambled along Main Street, passing the windblown sign rattling a welcome to “Willow, OK – Population: 150.”

Staring down at his polished full-grain leather wing-tips, Lester frowned. A lift of his pant leg displayed the parched orange soil scuffing yet another pair of his custom footwear. Adamant on making this promenade a daily occurrence, Lester would have to expand the town’s sidewalk situation if he wanted to keep his shoes from getting tarnished.

Currently the only raised walkway in Willow’s existence ran in front of the meeting house, a lonely concrete path supporting a greyed wooden marquee. The jutting shade cast a sundial’s shadow upon the hall’s red brick exterior, its everyday creep casing the post office before fading into dusk to be reset by the resurrecting sunrise.

Lester’s paved network could start there, work its way around homestead acres before cementing a mile long track leading to his abode. The undertaking would demand a complete unearthing of the town’s roads, a state government oversight commission for the highway track, and a detailed report to meet environmental regulators approval. Dismayed but not disheartened, Lester made a mental note and continued onward.

Scratching past the self-serve gas station specializing in tractor fumes and octane, Lester marveled at the general store rationing Sooner-made staples like sugared meltaways, raspberry habanero sauce, and handcrafted soap suds. He cut in front a desiccated schoolhouse yard, its winter recess in attendance, then ran by the water department responsible for squeezing rainfall out of an arid index. The extended drought had shriveled up the town’s coffers, forcing the city trustees to keep the present alive by mortgaging their future. The decision had brought Willow to a hair’s breadth from joining county ghost towns like Brinkman and Reed but Lester’s resolution had afforded a new opportunity.

Turning a left past the police station and it’s dusty cruiser, Lester watched a family decorate the holiday by fastening lights around their whitewashed door frame. While the father hammered in nails along the perimeter of the entrance, the red-haired mother help the little hands of her youngest wrap colored plastic lights around the metal, embroidering their ramshackle with artificial merriment. Lester waved a hello.

“Merry Christmas!” they called out, smiles buoyant with cheer.

Their delight was contagious and caused Lester to grin. A familiar tune drifted on a gust and wandered into Lester’s ear. Captivated, he shifted his attention to the Church of Christ up ahead, its Evangelical song baptizing Meyer Avenue. It drew Lester forward until a voice interrupted his trance.

“Mr. Albright?”

Lester spun around to see the father of the family he had just passed. Dressed in a Texas tuxedo, his denim sullied with work, the man approached with reservation, hat in hand. He was the size of a refrigerator.

“Yes?” Lester responded.

“I’m sorry to bother you, sir. I just had to thank you,” he said, offering an open palm.

“Oh, that’s kind of you,” Lester said, returning the gesture, closing the handshake. “Thank me for what?”

“For saving us,” the man said. He tucked his hat under his arm so his other hand could clasp around Lester’s weathered reach, a vice around wet macaroni. “To be perfectly honest with you, when you purchased the old Atlas missile silo we all thought that was it for us.”

“Oh?” Lester said, attempting a polite rescue to wrangle his fingers free.

“We’re a small town, one of the smallest in the country I reckon. Everybody knew we didn’t have the resources to back it up but we took on the loan anyway, out of survival. People these days, if they can hold living against you they’ll make you suffer.”

The man’s eyes began to well with tears.

“When we heard that the bank had put the town’s debt on auction, well, you start to worry. It’s a strange thought, thinking about how your life can be bought from under you, that strangers from around the world could place bids on the ground under our feet and the roofs over our heads.”

The man began shivering, a divining rod of showcased appreciation.

“We may be set in our ways, for better or worse, and when the worse comes you just hug your loved ones and accept kingdom come. Then you showed up. We didn’t know what to think, but we watched you put up that windfarm, paid off our debt, and never ask for a thing. You became our guardian angel.”

Lester looked at the man in front of him, unsure on how to proceed.

“What’s your name?” Lester asked.

“I’m Tim, Timothy Quinn,” the man sniffled.

“You have a beautiful family Mr. Quinn. It’s an honor to meet you. I hope—”

“Aw, the honor’s mine Mr. Albright. Again, thank you so much.”

“Please, call me Martin.”

“Mr. Martin, sir, really I can’t say enough how—”

“Tim, it was my pleasure,” Lester said. “Thank you for being so nice to talk to me. I do wish you and your family a merry Christmas.”

“And a blessed Christmas to you Mr. Albright.”

“Please, call me Martin. Marty, if it’s easier.”

“Shucks, Marty, just like us regular folk. Anyway I don’t want to take too much of your time. I just wanted to thank you. From the bottom of my heart thank you.”

“Tim, it’s my pleasure.”

“If you don’t mind me askin’, where are you walking to today?”

Lester smiled.

“You’ve noticed my walks?”

“Everyone has. It makes us feel safe, seeing you care.”

Lester pointed at the large two story tinderbox with sloped roofs several hundred yards ahead.

“Just a bit yonder, is that the town church?”

“Yes sir. My eldest daughter’s in the choir. They’re practicing for the midnight mass. Will you be joining?”

“Sadly I’ll be tucked in by that point but do you think it would be alright if I sit for a spell?”

“Absolutely, enjoy the moment. Always a pleasure to hear a choir sing,” Tim said. “May our collective voices bring us ever closer to our lord and savior.”

“Thank you for the conversation Tim. It was a real honor.”

“Aw the honor’s mine, Mr. Marty Albright. Thank you so much. For everything.”

Lester nodded, offered another wave to his family and continued towards the church.

Seizing the brass handle, Lester pulled open the heavy door and carefully helped it to a quiet close. He tiptoed past a pair of plastic poinsettias still dressed in their aluminum storing paper. Stepping in front of a wall of candles the townsfolk had lit to keep their tangible prayers alight, Lester found a secluded spot near the nave. He sat at the furthest possible point from the altar, listening as the choir rehearsed their Christmas selection.

Said the little lamb to the Shepard boy
Do you hear what I hear
Way up in the sky little lamb
Do you see what I see
A star, a star
Dancing in the night

Staring up at the modest ornamentation, Lester marveled at the confluence of possibility. A chorus of volunteers charitable with their purpose, their celebration combining with the comfort of collected medley, housed with engineered architecture melding function and ideology—the humble nobility of it all made Lester giddy. He sat and listened, the arched roof swelling with humanity.

A brusque movement snapped the mood. Hearing the door open then slam shut, Lester heard two pairs of shoes muffle about in the narthex before a familiar shuffle walked towards him. Lester pivoted to face the disruption, finding a visibly shook Bruna.

“What are you doing here?” Lester asked, his timbre so agitated it bordered on incredulous.

“A man. On the road. Said. You’d be. Here.” The electric tone of her voice box echoed against tune in the cavernous room. Dozens of eyes stared but carried on in song despite the distraction.

“Who’s watching the house?”

“No one.”

“Then why are you—”

“Someone. Came looking. For you.”

“So you take a message.”

“This is. Different. He knew. Your. Real name. He knew. My name.”

Lester’s mouth stopped moving, frozen agape as cheeks paled and eyes widened with fear.

“Where is he now?” he whispered.

“I didn’t. Know what. To do. So…”

“So you brought him here?”

“Yes.” Bruna looked down.

Lester looked over Bruna’s shoulder to see a short man with raven hair parted to the left. His pudgy figure had been watching the choir but as soon as Lester peeked the glare of the man’s buffalo horn-rimmed glasses focused on its intended target. Lester went numb, his prior state washing off of him like water off plastic. He had never met the man but recognized the boy he had been.

“You made a terrible mistake Bruna.”

“I didn’t. Know. What. To do. I thought. You would.”

“I don’t know what to do,” Lester hissed. “But what you did was asinine.”

“I don’t. Know. What. That means.”

“It means. You are. Stupid.”

“I’m. Sorry.”

“That’s not good enough.” Lester sighed, his eyes wincing closed. “This was a bad decision.”

“I. Know.”

“I mean you. You were a bad decision.” Lester then opened his eyes to stare daggers into Bruna. “Trust,” he continued, “is the most important part of this relationship. Without it we are both dead. If I can’t trust you to make basic fundamental decisions then why do I keep you here?”

“Because. You saved me,” Bruna said. “I never. Forget that.”

“Remember this: I have never regretted that decision until now.”

Bruna stared at him, desperate for a connection.

“What. Do you. Want. From me? Do you. Want. Me to. Cry?”

“I don’t care what you do. Not anymore.”

Bruna shuddered but looked at Lester, her fierce regard an attempt to keep the tears at bay.

“Do you know. How hard. I work. For you?”

“Do you know. How little. I care?” Lester mocked.

Bruna opened her mouth but had no words. Silently dying as Lester’s words burned inside her, she left the wake of consequence. Her heart broken from disappointing the only one that mattered, she slipped through the doors in hasty retreat. A crack of revealed daylight rested on the man she had brought with her, the closing darkness quickly enveloping his smirk. With an air of condescension, he turned and made his approach to Lester.

Ringing through the sky Shepard boy
Do you hear what I hear
A song, a song
High above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea

“Mind if I join you?” the man asked.

“Free country,” Lester said, his eyes steadfast on the choir in front of him.

“For now,” the man said, taking a seat at the opposite end of the pew. “Do you know who I am?”

“Of course I know who you are,” Lester said softly. “I remember when you were born. I remember when you would hide behind your father’s leg, I remember lifting you up so you could sit on my shoulders, and that day I bought you an ice cream at Niagara. Hello Henry.”

Henry leaned back and put his hands on top of his head. He could not stop himself from smiling.

“I can’t believe it. It’s been over fifty years. You haven’t aged at all. And your memory, is it…?” He wobbled his hand before offering a thumbs-up.

“As far as I can tell.”

“Unbelievable. I must have been, what, seven years old?”

“How’s your father?”

“He’s still kicking. A little bitter, but—”

“He’s bitter?” Lester growled. “He’s bitter?”

“Relax. I’m not here to talk about the past.” A malicious grin grew across Henry’s face. “Well, that’s not entirely true.” He slipped Lester a manila folder.

“What is this?” he asked.

“The past.”

Lester hesitated.

“Good news or bad news?”

“That depends on you.”

Lester opened the file. Inside were copies of documented U.S. citizenship, federally issued fingerprint records, government issued security clearances, and a death certificate, all under the name Lester Deiss.

“After they lost track of you in Brazil in the 1980’s dad had them make up the death certificate. It seems that you forgot who owns you Lester. Or do you prefer—what was the name on the deed I saw—Martin Albright? Kind of on-the-nose, don’t you think?”

Drained of his luster, Lester stared at dossier, his thumb rubbing over his name.

“How did you find me?” he whispered.

“By accident, really. We were focused on the only other survivor from your test group, a Mr. Edgar Lewis. His investment strategies turned out to be identical to Martin Albright’s, so we started investigating your alias. When I saw your photo you, well, you can imagine my surprise.”

Henry kept leering at Lester, perusing him as a spectator would an animal at the zoo. Lester closed the folder and focused on what was in front of him. Taken aback by being ignored, Henry followed Lester’s consternation to a young girl with red hair singing in the choir.

Said the Shepard boy to the mighty king
Do you know what I know
In your palace wall mighty king
Do you know what I know

“My god man,” the man gasped, shaking his head. “I’ve seen a lot of unpalatable indecencies over the years, but an old man like you pining over a girl that’s barely fifteen? Then again, who could blame you—when they flirt at that age it’s a game, just clean fun. Barren of manipulation, untainted by indiscretions, the simple joy of attention. But sooner or later all appetites get whet. Every now and then we need a wallow in wanton ruin, am I right?”

The man patted Lester on his shoulder.

“Not like I have to remind you. You know that better than anyone. At least, you used to. How do you spend your time these days—lost in the memories of what could have been? Ah, the complications of persistence.”

Still unable to rile Lester, Henry looked around the church.

“I see you’ve bought yourself a little world to escape into,” Henry said, breathing in through his nose in an exaggerated fashion. “And woo wee does this Podunk smells like a ten million dollar pile of bullshit. I got a glimpse of auction note—a pretty sizable investment for you. It would be a shame for all of your good intentions to end just because of a few pieces of paper.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“You know my family. You know how we work.”

After several hard swallows Lester returned the folder.

“What do you want Henry?” he asked.

“You,” he said, tucking folder under his seat. “And please, call me Dr. Warren.”

Dr. Warren scooted closer and put his left arm around Lester, a move Lester begrudgingly allowed.

“Years ago my father let me join a little project of his that specialized in your condition. He had a hundred little samples of you bottled up and thought all he needed was time to figure you out. Time passed and he and his team are no closer to unraveling your secret. But we have learned a thing or two.

“Your longevity is astonishing but not completely unique. For one, you’re not the oldest human. That was Jeanne Louise Clament, who lived to be one hundred and twenty-one, mentally sound until the very end. Now she aged but yours closest comparative at the cellular level was the cancerous HeLa cell. We researched other possibilities, learning that the sanicula herb similarly shows no rate of degeneration over time. Neither do sea urchins and clams.

“Now the beings with the greatest longevity are trees. The oldest tree on record lived five thousand years before it was cut-down in 1965. A thirty-five hundred year-old Cyprus tree was burned down in Florida by a woman who set it afire smoking meth under its shade.

“A few months ago an amateur fisherman hooked and dragged a rockfish out from the depths. The fish was determined to be only middle-aged at ripe old age of two hundred years. Who really knows hold old a thing can get. But I can tell you what is for certain—we would rather kill it than let it be. It’s the reality that made today’s meeting between you and me an inevitability.

“We’ve reached the age where people would rather watch something die than help it live. We are cannibalizing our young rather than sacrificing for it. Either by accident or on purpose human beings specialize in two things: controlling their surroundings and killing everything within it. And when an environment becomes so harsh that a species must adapt or die, sometimes life will necessitate strange bed-fellows.”

“I don’t follow.”

“You and I are going to work together.”

Lester started to laugh.

“Why would I work with you?”

“You mean besides the obvious?” Dr. Warren said, waving the manila folder. “Because I’m the only person who can save you Lester.”

Lester rolled his eyes.

“I’ve been surviving for nearly a century. I’ve outlasted and persevered through everything, including being stabbed in the back by friends and family. If you want to take all of this away, go ahead. I’ll just move on.”

“I don’t think you understand how the world works now, Lester.” Dr. Warren said. “Have you ever set up a bird feeder? Descendants of dinosaurs, birds are the most evolved species on this planet. They’ve adapted and existed in every domain, invented the beauty of elemental survival. The moment a food source is found a pecking order is immediately established. It’s a system of order that is constantly challenged. And it is vicious. These birds gouge out eyes with their beaks, break wings, push competitors from breeding grounds, cannibalize a rival’s young, evict the eggs from the nest and lay their own for the unsuspecting mother to foster and incubate.”

“I’ve survived worse things than birds,” Lester said.

“I know you have,” Dr. Warren said. “Nature is awful. But human nature is worse. And sooner or later these people will get you. If it comes down to sacrificing or cannibalizing, you are going to sacrifice. I know you. I know you already have.

“But the pecking order of humanity has succeeded not because of sacrifice. Altruism kills. We’ve reached a point where those who succeed are the ones who inherited, revolutionized, or were willing to lie, cheat, rape and kill. The ones who succeed are the ones who survive, and our tactics are tools of torture. Now, it takes someone special to survive the way you do. But what you’re doing now, here in this town, it worries me. I feel like you are going to be eaten alive because you don’t know the difference between good people and bad people.”

“Sure I do,” Lester said. “Bad people try to make good people seem bad. Good people don’t do that.”

Dr. Warren smirked and shook his head.

“You have this real philosopher king vibe about you, Lester. I appreciate that. You brought this town salvation, showed these people that there’s more to watching to shadows on the wall. You probably even have plans to upgrade the place, to create a shared purpose, something that lasts. But I need you to realize that there is no difference between good people and bad people. The only difference is what we have to lose. And I want to work with you Lester. Only I can’t allow my investment to be ruined by foolishness.”

A child, a child
Shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Let us bring him silver and gold

With his right hand Dr. Warren pointed at a suspended sculpture of Jesus Christ on the cross.

“That is Jesus Christ. Do you remember what he said right before they speared him in the heart? ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do.’ Can you believe that? They know not what they do. Of course they knew.

“When the kings said do not lay a foot on the land I claim, what did Jesus do? He rode in on an ass. When the kings told their villages not to acknowledge the man, what did the people do? They threw him a palm parade. See, Jesus unveiled the great illusion. He showed that for all of their wealth and power, a king is just a man. So the kings got together, consolidated, and showed the people what men in power can do. They butchered him like innocent cattle. Because they could. Over embarrassment? A moment of insecurity?

“And Jesus forgave them! The bible plays it off like noble divinity but in reality that was his greatest mistake. God may have created the universe and the earth, man his sin, but Jesus created moral hazard. He gave us the benefit of the doubt and we’ve been systemically decaying ever since.”

“But people remember,” Lester whispered.

“I can barely hear you, what did you say?” Henry mocked. “People remember? Sure they do. They even made miniature crosses and tied them tight like a noose around their neck. The market pushed back.

“So, knowing they couldn’t kill everyone, the kings realized and pivoted. They co-opted his example, took on the cross, paraded it’s usefulness and kept right thieving. Today it keeps people in check, a wink that we’re on the same team. Another symbol, another narrow concept for us to divide the greatness in humanity. Because while good is priceless, do you know what evil is? Value.

“Evil exists because it has a price—it’s what you get when you sacrifice the discipline of the greater good for personal opportunity. It is the reality of knowing how to survive in this world.

“Did you know that the human genome has a gene that allows humans to digest its own meat without complication? We have a cannibal enzyme in our DNA. We’re programmed to eat our own if necessary, and necessary has become somewhat arbitrary. If good is one plus one equals two, evil is one eats one to remain one.

“What I’m getting at is in the long run there’s nothing wrong with evil. It’s necessary, it exists because it needs to—good is the base, evil the alkaline. And you’re good Lester. I recognize that. But what we’re so close to being more, and if you and I are going to work together I need you to see what I see.”

Dr. Warren paused to look at the choir, then extended an accusatory index finger.

“These people are not your friends,” he said, pointing. “They are your demise. Filled with potential but low on expediency, people will take what you’ve earned, ignore what’s deserved, self-justify their reasons and lie about their emotional securities. It’s the greatest cocktail of survival the Earth has ever seen. It is also the most disappointing thing on this planet. I need you to realize the ruthlessness of what you are trying to save. People teach you to believe in them only to use it against you. Because people need you. Until they don’t.”

Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say
Pray for peace people everywhere
Listen to what I say

“The meek shall inherit the earth. That wasn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy—it was a threat. And people are so weak that they will destroy everything they can before admitting it.”

Dr. Warren stared at Lester, his face wearing the wariness of his years. Dr. Warren took it as a cue to hit the homestretch.

“Have you ever owned a dog Lester?”

Lester shook his head.

“My father gave me a dog when I was eight. When he gave it to me he said when he was my age he had a pet too. I would later find out that was you, Lester.”

Dr. Warren paused, caught up in the nostalgia.

“My pet was a Black Labrador, a purebred we named Lady. She ended up dying due to breathing problems that are endemic pure dogs of her breed. People were so caught up in making these animals that they make them ill-equipped to survive. They make them weak. But they keep doing it because that’s what the people want. They want determined physical traits and known behavioral temperaments. They don’t want to learn. They want the security of weakness.

“Seeing her death made me angry. I decided to do something about it, so I pursued a degree in veterinary medicine. It nearly broke my father’s heart. But he found his way of influencing me into the family business.

“He procured me a job when I was getting my doctorate at Maryland in the 1970’s. His contact was an animal behaviorist named John Calhoun. My only responsibility was to take care of the albino mice being used in this experiment. Calhoun specialized in creating environmental models, in what at first seemed like rodent utopias. He placed four females and four males in a large communal space with ramps that led to dozen separate apartments. It was huge, about the surface area of this church, and the mice would have an endless amount of food and water, plenty of nesting materials, no predators—the only limit was the wire mesh keeping the mice contained.

“Every day I would stop by and see how the mice were doing. Initially they did great, doubling their population every two months—eight to sixteen to thirty-two to sixty-four. By the end of one year the eight mice had become six hundred and fifty, and that’s when we started seeing it.

“Normal mice behavior had brought them to this point, but once they could feel the limits of their confinement we started seeing the breakdown of social structures and norms. They would spend hours chewing at the wire mesh, desperate to seek out new space, but once they accepted this perfect box as their cage, that was when the horror began.

“Forced to compete with hundreds of others, tail biting, originally an abnormal behavior in mice, increased. It spawned aggressive females and a passivity in males who became so unwilling to defend themselves that homosexual behavior became rampant. Mothers began abandoning their young, letting their children be attacked and cannibalized. Fights were common, deaths were ignored, and breeding patterns slowed so that the population would only double once every five months. It did not matter. They had reached their event horizon, the point of no return.

“We noticed something else, something no one had predicted. A new type emerged against the main population. The dominants that had taken control of the apartments guarded each entrance with larger males, protecting several females in havens where they remained peacefully isolated. They focused on eating, drinking, sleeping and grooming so their coats were sleek, healthy, and absent of scars. We called them The Beautiful Ones.

“By day 560 the total group had reached its peak population of over two thousand. Even The Beautiful Ones were tainted by the masses. By day 600 females had ceased to reproduce. Within a month, the experiment concluded. Every mouse had expired, the utopia turned dystopia gone extinct.”

“You might tell me that the world today is willing to change, that humans are not mice, but we are already beginning to feel the limits of this world—the climate, the culture, the people—we’re already suffering the same consequences.”

Listen to what I say
The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light

The choir had stopped singing. Dr. Warren stopped talking, and Lester sat in the silence, letting the words sink in. Dr. Warren noticed a bible in the pew beside him and grabbed it, turning to the New Testament.

“Revelation 2:11—the one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death. That’s us Lester. We need to create our own pecking order, a hierarchy where the beautiful ones can survive the coming collapse from society’s behavioral sink. I have the means to make it happen. But I need you to make it work. And I know you, Lester. I know that I can work with you. You moved up the old fashioned way. It took you some time, but you finally realized how this world is. And I trust that. I trust you realizing your weakness.

“Here’s what I want. First, I need you to sacrifice. I need all of this benevolent benefactor governing to stop. You forgave their debt, but the forgiveness ends there. Make it quick and harsh—it’s easier that way. I heard there’s a Christmas Mass tonight, everyone in our great big pot—seems like a good opportunity to break the news.

“Second: Doctor Mangel. We lost track of him a while back. He’s a loose end that my family needs to be rid of. If he gets caught and brought to trial, things could get complicated. My guess is you have an idea of where he is. Find him. Get rid of him.

“Finally, you’re going to join the Human Longevity Project. Meet with the scientists, go over your regimen, they’ll be able to alter, adjust, and provide whatever you need. Every once in while we’ll have a group meeting. You can ignore them but when I summon you must come. That is the contingent of our arrangement.”

Lester sat, contemplating what he had heard. His body was as still as a statue. Finally he turned to face Dr. Warren, his eyes unleashing a thousand-yard stare, his spirit broken.

“Okay.”

Dr. Warren clapped his hands in excitement. The sound caused the choir to jump.

“Excellent. I’m looking forward to working with you Lester. I’ll leave you to it. Glad we could catch up.”

Dr. Warren walked to the door, pushing it open as he whistled the tune that had echoed off of the walls of the church moments before. He left Lester to bury his head into his hands, enveloped by the candlelit darkness within.

Once he was outside, Dr. Warren looked out at the serene winter heaven haloing the weeping Midwest. He breathed in through his nose before letting out an exaggerated sigh.

“Self-justification,” he said to himself. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

He started the long walk back, passing a couple and their child on the way. Dr. Warren forced a smile.

“Merry Christmas!”