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The Secret Mathematic
A novel-in-progress from Cheeseburger Brown
The Secret Mathematic, an original novel by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 30

He has been away.

The feeling is disconcerting. Time has passed, but an uncertain amount. Awareness begins with an ellipsis, coasting dumbly from the dark. The inner monologue is slow, simple and easily caught in loops of repetition. Fear bolsters it, gives it edge, thrusts it toward the surface: what has happened to me?

It takes a moment to recognize that he has shouted this aloud. Aglakti, startled beside him, stares with wide eyes behind her glasses. She tucks a bookmark into her book. "So," she says, "you're awake."

Mr. Mississauga turns his head toward her, feeling out a tongue that is still thick and unresponsive. "I slept?" he rasps.

"And how," she nods, then consults the clock on the wall. "A hundred and forty-four hours, Mr. Miss."

"I...did not dream."

"Nope," she confirms. "Medically induced coma. When the doctors saw the state you were in, physically, they shut you down. Something about a build-up of crap in your blood and your brain -- adrenal insufficiency, neurotransmitter hypertolerance, yadda-yadda-yadda." She shakes her head. "They said it was like you hadn't rested in years. Like, literal years. It's a wonder you're not dead."

Mr. Mississauga does not deny it. He takes stock of his body, noting that he is entirely without arms or legs. "Where are my limbs?" he asks.

"Wrecked," says Aglakti flatly.

He shifts and winces. "What's wrong with me?"

"A couple of broken ribs. Plus, they had to do a little graft on your pelvis -- they said you'd chafed the skin right off, rubbing it against the top of that old leg of yours. The wound was going septic, but last time I checked it seemed to be healing up pretty good."

He makes a face. "You...checked?"

"Yeah," she says heavily. "It is true, Mr. Miss. I've seen your wiener."

He closes his eyes and lets his head sink back into the pillow. "I need to get out of here."

"Wrong," she says. "You need to eat, and then you need more sleep. If you don't, they'll send you to sleep chemically."

"I can't sleep here. I'd keep the whole ward awake."

"Wrong again. This is a specially outfitted private room." She points to the sheets of thick burlap-coated sound-studio sheets hanging on the walls and door. "You're insulated and you're isolated. It's your party: you can cry if you want to."

"That must be costing a fortune --"

"Shut up. It's on me."

"I don't like that, Aglakti."

"Oh yeah?" she says carelessly. "Why tell me? You have a friend or something who gives a shit what you do and don't like?" She laughs. "If you have a problem with the way I'm running things you're more than welcome to get out of that bed to teach me a thing or two." She raises her fists. "Fair warning, though: I can take you."

"That's not funny."

She snorts. "You're entitled to your opinion. Now: it's snackies time."

"I'm not hungry."

She ignores him, bending down and pulling something out of her handbag. She straightens in her chair with a can opener in one hand and a tin of Campbell's Scotch Broth soup in the other. She presses the opener into the lid and starts twisting. "Better get this down fast before the nurse catches us. Bitch has a hate on for outside food. It's worse than the movies in this place."

Mr. Mississauga allows himself a small smile. "I don't go to movies."

"Nobody does. They download them. The popcorn's cheaper that way. Now let me prop you up and we'll shove some barley into that sour-puss pie-hole of yours."

"You enjoy seeing me helpless. My humiliation pleases you."

She shrugs as she peels back the metal lid. "I'm a cheap laugh," she says. "Besides, somebody needs to take care of you."

"I can take care of myself."

She smiles indulgently as she dips a spoon into the cold soup, then raises it toward him. "Open wide, Sky."

He frowns, but obeys.

When Aglakti has gone Mr. Mississauga takes a more careful inventory of himself, noticing for the first time that many of his most familiar aches are absent. The steady pain around the lower orbits of his eye sockets is gone, for example, and so are the twin lumbar stitches that used to remind him how many steps he had taken each day. His breath seems to come easier, to be drawn down deeper, and to leave him feeling more refreshed than he can remember since he was a kid.

On the other hand, his heart is weighed down by a profound new grief. As he stares at the ceiling he wonders whether there is really any point in his ever getting up again. He's hobbled, humbled and scared. His enemy has changed.

"Changed how?" asks Aglakti the next day, serving him soup.

Mr. Mississauga considers the question, swishing beef and barley bits around his mouth. "I was stupid," he decides. "I let myself believe Event Zero might be beautiful."

She cocks a brow at him sceptically. "Beautiful? How can something that's screwing up the laws of physics be beautiful? I mean, people have died."

"Yes," he agrees, then pauses to take another mouthful of soup. "But the spiral of a hurricane cloud can be beautiful. The pyroclastic plume of a volcano can be beautiful. There was no one around to see the Moon break away from the Earth, but I'm sure that was beautiful, too, in some terrible way. If not beautiful at least grand. At least...awesome, somehow."

"So what's changed your mind?"

Mr. Mississauga's face darkens. He stares at the wall over Aglakti's head. "I was born like this -- more helpless than anyone has any right to be," he says, his lips pursing icily around the word helpless. "And I guess I could have hated the world for it. But the world doesn't care. The world is too magnificent and horrible to have a hand in justice. It is too overwhelming and too complex, too surprising to be anything but innocent, on the level of men. Thalidomide did what it did to me because of the geometry of its molecules -- nothing more." He pauses, then looks at her. "I can either forgive or not forgive doctors for making the mistake of giving it to my mother. But for the effects of it, the world doesn't need my forgiveness -- it is irrelevant."

"Why?"

"Because molecules are not any more evil than hurricanes. They simply are. If a hurricane is responsible for its cruelty, why not the placid days that preceded it and seeded the future existence of the storm?" He shakes his head against the pillow. "No, destruction and evil are not synonymous. But what I saw in those tunnels -- it was not the product of a storm. It was will."

Aglakti looks at him for a long moment. She takes off her glasses and chews idly on the end of one of its arms, brow furrowed. She looks up. "I get it," she says.

"What do you get?"

She nods, wagging her glasses at him. "You were satisfied to think you were facing a showdown with nature, but a showdown with sinners isn't what you bargained for. It won't give you what you want, and you know it."

"What do I want?"

"Vengeance. The world's been beating you up since before you were born, and you might say nature doesn't need your forgiveness but I think that's bull. You've been stalking nature for decades. You've vowed to bring control to something out of control, to reign in something terrible -- to save some lives." She sits back, sniffs. "And maybe all these years you just weren't man enough to admit that there was something in it for you, too: a chance to put nature over your knee and smack her ass for giving you such a hard time."

Mr. Mississauga's face seems to briefly boil. The tendons in his neck strain and he grits his teeth, then presses him mouth into a thin, tight line. His head drops back into the pillow again, his hawk-like nose pointing at the ceiling. He closes his eyes, takes a breath, then opens them again. "It doesn't change anything," he says quietly. "It doesn't change what I'm up against."

She nods again. "What we're up against, you mean."

He gives her a sidelong glance. "We're not going to have this argument again."

"You're right," she agrees. "Why debate it? You'll accept the facts when you have to, I guess."

He narrows his eyes suspiciously, then looks down at her book. "What is that?" he snaps.

"Oh, this?" she says, holding up a leather-bound journal. "It's one of your case report archives. Those huffers in Thunder Bay -- that's some weird shit right there."

Mr. Mississauga's eyes are wide and wild. "You've taken my files?" he roars. "How dare you?"

"Oh, relax."

"That is an absolutely unacceptable invasion! Put it down -- put it down right now, or I'll --"

"You'll what? Fall out of bed and bite my ankles?"

They stare at each other. Finally, Mr. Mississauga manages a bleak smile. "You're reprehensible, Aglakti," he says.

"Damn straight," she agrees. "I'm a fucking rock star. Being reprehensible is part and parcel."

"I thought when you were wearing your glasses you were Aglakti, not Cherry Nuk-Nuk."

"What, these?" she says, sticking the glasses up on her forehead. "My Clark Kents? It's a shallow disguise. Cherry's never far beneath the surface."

"Apparently."

She smiles, then taps on the book. "I'm not reading this to mess with your shit, Mr. Miss. I'm reading it so I can be prepared. Because -- you know what? -- it doesn't matter what we're going to face: we're going to face it. And before you even start your bleating let me tell you something: you're not facing it alone. You're just not. End of story."

He sags, staring at the ceiling again. "So. What now? Did you bring me those meter sticks I asked for?"

She grins. "I've got a better plan."

He looks over. "What?"

She bites her lip mischievously, the leans over and presses the call button beside the headboard. "We're going on a little trip," she says. "We'll have to take a taxi, because everyone else is waiting down at the hotel."

"Everyone else who? Take a taxi where?"

Aglakti ignores him as she reaches into her handbag to extract a wide-brimmed sunhat and a pair of oversized sunglasses. She puts them on, then draws her jacket close so that there is none of Aglakti visible save her light cocoa nose and full lips. She tucks the journal away and stands up. "See?" she says playfully. "Suddenly I'm nobody -- I'm a transformer."

Mr. Mississauga sniffs, looking down at his own limbless body. "Yes," he agrees. "I am nobody, too."

She winks. "Not for long."

He squints as Aglakti pushes his wheelchair out into the bright morning sunshine. An orange checkered Angrignon Taxi idles at the curb, its driver watching a stretcher being unloaded from the ambulance ahead of him. He spots Aglakti and Mr. Mississauga and springs out of his seat, popping open the trunk and walking over to offer his assistance. Aglakti helps him haul Mr. Mississauga into the back seat, then he collapses the wheelchair and stows it. "Just let mommy buckle you in," says Aglakti, leaning over the prone detective. "And no looking down my shirt," she adds.

"The moment I have something to use as a hand," he says, "I'm going to smack you."

She laughs.

They stop beside the front canopy of Hotel Le St. Andre, and together the driver and Aglakti grunt and struggle to replace Mr. Mississauga in his chair. The driver ducks his head inside the cab to check the meter, then furrows his brow thoughtfully as he accepts his pay. "You look familiar to me," he says. "Are you on the TV?"

"No," says Aglakti.

The elevator doors part with a chime. Aglakti rolls Mr. Mississauga over the soft, burgundy carpeting and then parks him to rap on the door of a suite. A muffled voice: "C'est qui?"

"Les cerises indigenes," replies Aglakti. The lock unbolts.

Half of the suite is dominated by white curtains on stands surrounding a sitting area that has been transformed into an operating theatre. The coffee table is jammed with electronic instruments, an EEG scrolling a flatline graph, its electrodes collected in a small plastic tray on a bed of cotton wadding. A young lady in a starched labcoat is in the process of setting up a bank of lights.

They are approached by a thin man with a long, Gallic face and olive skin. "Goodmorning," he says, his accent Parisian. "We are some minutes behind, so let us proceed without delay. Are you quite ready, monsieur?"

"Who are you?"

The thin man looks surprised but unoffended. "Why, we are from the Zhang Workshop, of course. My name is Docteur Pelletier. Were you not told, monsieur? We've put to work the measures we took at the 'ospital, and your new appendages are now ready for installation."

"My...new appendages?" echoes Mr. Mississauga, twisting in the wheelchair to look back at Aglakti.

"It's the least I can do," she says.

"But you can't," argues Mr. Mississauga, now looking back and forth between the tall Frenchman and Aglakti. "Do you have any idea how much Zhangs cost?"

She nods, whistling. "Yup."

Dr. Pelletier leans in. "Monsieur, we are now ready. Are you?"

"I can't accept this," says Mr. Mississauga, shaking his head.

"Shut up," says Aglakti, nodding. "He's ready."

The doctor comes around to take the handles of the wheelchair. "Wait!" cries Mr. Mississauga. "What's with the surgical table? What are you planning to do to me?"

"It is nothing major, monsieur," says Dr. Pelletier soothingly, guiding the chair toward the sheeted theatre. "We are only obliged to insert some small devices under your scalp, to read the cerebral signals and transmit instructions to the appendages."

"My old limbs didn't need any 'small devices.'"

"With respect, monsieur, your previous units were garbage. Monsieur Zhang has come so much further since then. You will see it for yourself."

Mr. Mississauga offers a grudging nod, his eyes still narrowed suspiciously. Aglakti, nervous, catches Pelletier by the elbow. She says, "I don't know anything about these new models or whatever. We never talked about that. I'm...not really sure I can afford it, you know?"

He waves his hand dismissively. "Madamoiselle, it is nothing. Monsieur's bill has already been paid."

She frowns. "Already been paid? By who?"

"By the Shah of Anwar, madamoiselle."

"By the who of what-now?"

Mr. Mississauga looks up. "I know him."

Aglakti takes a breath. "But do you trust him?"

Mr. Mississauga offers her a small, tight smile. "I don't trust anyone."

He is hefted onto the surgical table, his head positioned carefully in a soft brace. The bank of lights powers up, lending his skin an unnatural, shadowless, industrial sheen. The nurse prepares a syringe and hands it to Dr. Pelletier. Watching, Mr. Mississauga shakes his head against the brace. "No drugs," he says.

"But, monsieur, it is only a local anaesthetic --"

"No drugs," repeats Mr. Mississauga.

Though he winces only a little as the scalpel makes its first slice, it is too much for Aglakti. She goes for a walk around the hotel, a telephone clamped to her ear, dodging people she thinks might be young enough and obnoxious enough to penetrate her Clark Kents. She curls up on a sofa in the lobby, jeans drawn to her chin, watching the clock. One of the bellhops seems to be scrutinizing her so she slips away as he's pushing a cart of baggage.

She visits the underground parkade to fetch Mr. Mississauga a change of clothes from the micro-schoolbus. When she squeezes his trenchcoat she smells his tobacco and smiles.

By the time she returns to the suite Mr. Mississauga is almost complete. As he lies on the surgical table Dr. Pelletier conducts a brief tour of the hardware. "If you'll allow me, monsieur, the battery pack nestles here at the small of the back. Oui, comme ci. It is somewhat larger than what you are used to, but allow me to give you my assurance that you would never want to go back: the period between charging is now multiplied by six, the torque by eight."

Mr. Mississauga nods, his chin pressed into his chest as he raises his head to look. The doctor attaches the battery pack belt around his waist, then makes an adjustment on one artificial arm that causes a small bolt of metal to pop out of the shoulder. Aglakti jumps. Mr. Mississauga raises his brow. "Is that supposed to be some kind of weapon?"

"No, monsieur, it is an 'andle."

"Pardon me?"

"An 'andle, monsieur. The lozenge at the tip is a bite-plate, for use as a lever worked by the mouth. This is to facilitate the attaching and the removal of appendages with a minimum of assistance."

Mr. Mississauga nods slowly. "I like it."

The handle retracts with a click. The doctor indicates the arm itself. "Carbon nanotube muscle-fibre bundles, of course, as you are quite accustomed to -- but now they can be moved with a tenth of the input voltage, with double the strength, and a smaller response time. The most novel new feature, however..." he trails off theatrically, then gives Mr. Mississauga's wrist a sharp tap. It jerks, surprising the detective. "...Reflexes," finishes the doctor. "Completely autonomous reactions, triggered by extreme heat or even sudden mechanical compression."

Mr. Mississauga frowns. "How does it know?"

"There is a processor, monsieur, though not an ordinary one. For this design, M. Zhang has taken the concept of muscle memory to its most literal conclusion -- your limbs contain a carbon nanoworks-based decentralized intelligence. This system not only runs programmes for reflexes and transcoding firing signals, but it is also capable of learning."

"Learning what?"

"Learning your stride, monsieur. The more use you make of the legs, for instance, the more rapidly they will accommodate your shifts in balance. The learning is modal, also: you can switch gears, so to speak, from a walking mode to a running mode by means of the control implants under the scalp. In time the system will guess when you wish to move in a certain way, but for the time being it must be trained."

"How do I learn the controls?"

"By thinking, monsieur. Changes in your brainwaves are detected by the system, and translated into locomotive commands. To find the mental objects that produce the desired waves is a matter of trial and error, and much practice. Some people have an easier time than others. The key is learning to be sensitive to the quality of your own mind, and to alter it at will."

Mr. Mississauga smirks. "I think I might have that skill covered."

"Naturally, because you have been making use of the ulnar nerve as a mechanism of control for many years, we have also introduced an auxiliary system that works in the same way in order to make the transition more easy. However, I am obliged to warn you, these appendages will need time for you to acclimate to their function. Do not expect miracles right away, monsieur."

Aglakti wanders closer carrying a Coca-Cola. She swishes the remainder in the bottom of the can and then drains it. Mr. Mississauga's new limbs are works of art: bundles of black muscle housed within gleaming titanium braces, strapped to his shoulders and pelvis by way of soft, worked-leather straps. Aglakti smiles. "Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better...stronger...faster."

Dr. Pelletier slips a hand under Mr. Mississauga back and touches a covered contact on the battery pack. "Alright, monsieur: give it a try."

Mr. Mississauga turns his head to look at his right arm. An expression of concentration flickers across his face. Aglakti holds her breath. The hand twitches slightly. Mr. Mississauga stares at it, his pupils fixed. The hand jiggles.

"Very good!" says Dr. Pelletier.

Mr. Mississauga squeezes his eyes shut, his brow compressed in concetration, and then his entire right arm swings out in a vicious arc, knocking over a tray of surgical instruments and sending them spinning to the floor with a clatter. He opens his eyes. "Um. Sorry."

"Keep it gentle, monsieur, gentle!"

Mr. Mississauga smiles grimly as he makes another attempt. Slowly, carefully, he draws the fingers of his right hand together into a fist. He relaxes it. "I'm getting the feel of the thumb, index and middle fingers, I think," he reports, "but the other three fingers only move as a unit."

"Practice," nods the doctor. "You will need hundreds of hours of practice to perfect your control, monsieur. You must be patient. You have hard work ahead of you but just imagine, monsieur: in a matter of months you will be walking again."

"Months?" repeats the detective darkly. "I don't think so."

With a supreme effort, the muscles all along his torso straining, Mr. Mississauga draws himself up into a sitting position. He lets out a breath, panting, then winces and looks down at the bruising on his chest. "Broken ribs don't make this any easier," he notes.

"Monsieur, please -- take it slowly! You must become accli --"

Mr. Mississauga ignores him, awkwardly using his right arm as a pivot as he rotates his hips with a series of small hops. His legs dangle over the side of the surgical table, the knees folding automatically. In contrast to the clicks and hums of his old limbs, the new ones work almost silently. He is forced to experiment with his arms before finding the right signal to scooch himself forward, his titanium toes leaning closer and closer to the floor.

"Monsieur, no!"

Mr. Mississauga falls on his face.

Aglakti and Dr. Pelletier help him upright, supporting him between them. The nurse rushes forward and dabs at his bloody nose. Mr. Mississauga closes his ears to their protests and his eyes against the world, focusing on the mental image of his new self. The image is of amazing fidelity. Without opening his eyes he says, "They're talking back to me."

"Yes, monsieur. Force and balance feedback are part of the new proprioception engine, to assist you in orienting without external stimuli."

"But...it's like I can hear the shape of myself."

"Indeed, monsieur. The proprioception engine targets nerves in the ears, to better coordinate with the body's natural register for balance. It has been calibrated according to tomography from your particular brain, as each man is in his nervous system unique in certain ways. How this additional input is interpreted by your mind is at least equally idiosyncratic."

Mr. Mississauga opens his eyes, nods curtly, and then promptly knocks over the surgical table with one mighty goose-stepping kick. The nurse dodges it with a squeal, but turns in time to catch the stand holding up the lights before they crash to the floor. Mr. Mississauga looks over at Dr. Pelletier and clears his throat. "Gentle," he says before the Pelletier can. The doctor nods.

Mr. Mississauga slides one foot slowly forward. He shifts his weight, then picks up his opposite foot, planting it gingerly just a few inches forward. He straightens. Aglakti catches a tiny smile flash over his lips. He takes another tentative step, now raising his arms on either side to spread his centre of gravity. Tottering as if on a tight-rope, he manages to cross the suite.

He turns around on the far side, a half-metal man in his underwear, his face suffused with toddler pride. The Zhang staff and Aglakti burst into applause. Then he falls down again.

"Oh my God, Mr. Miss -- are you okay?"

Muffled, from the floor: "Yes."

While Aglakti helps him dress Dr. Pelletier presents him with a hardbound book filled by rice paper painted with hand-inked logograms. "Unfortunately, M. Zhang insists on writing his technical documentation in the form of traditional Chinese poetry," explains the doctor. He indicates a line of fine printing along the bottom of each page. "This is an approximate translation. Everything is explained in terms of Qi life-energy and liang yi ratios. A glossary has been inserted on the final page, if you are not familiar with Han superstition."

Mr. Mississauga shrugs his shoulders to help slide his coat into place. "Thank you, Doctor. And thank the Shah."

"Monsieur," says Dr. Pelletier with a slight bow.

The elevator doors chime again as they part, revealing the lobby. Mr. Mississauga and Aglakti emerge very slowly, his arm over her shoulder for support as he moves his new feet carefully one past the other. He sways occasionally, leaning into her. She grimaces. "Watch it there, crazy-legs. I'm a girl, not a pole."

"Sorry," he mumbles, concentrating on his limbs.

They inch past the front desk and into a revolving door. After some trouble they succeed in coming out the other side. They pause in the sunshine while Mr. Mississauga clumsily extracts his silver case and pulls out a cigarette. He has to try twice, because he accidentally crushes the first cigarette into a hail of shredded tobacco by virtue of his new and untested strength. As he tries to dust the fragments from his front he punches himself in the chest. Aglakti giggles. Mr. Mississauga does not.

He avoids her eyes as he lights his smoke. He pauses, then, looking at her look over his shoulder toward the street. "What is it?" he asks.

"Our ride."

He turns. The little orange micro-schoolbus is at the curb, but it is canted at an angle with the front tires suspended slightly off the ground. Mr. Mississauga's gaze slips over the schoolbus and along, discovering that is it hitched behind a much larger vehicle: a long, gleaming silver bus with tinted windows and the words MISSISSAUGA EXPRESS emblazoned along the side. He turns back to her. "The Mississsauga Express?"

"It's my tour bus," she explains. "Well, it's our tour bus now, I guess. Come on -- let's go say hello to everybody."

"...Everybody?"

As Aglakti accompanies Mr. Mississauga's slow progress toward the bus, its front door hisses open and a small group of people begin filing out. One of them shoulders past the others and breaks into a run, closing the distance to Aglakti and Mr. Mississauga and then crashing bodily into the detective, wrapping him in an enthusiastic embrace. "Mr. Miss!"

Mr. Mississauga blinks, bewildered, as Aglakti fights to keep him upright. "Mr. Kim?"

Aglakti grins. "Mr. Miss, this is your official mission engineer, Phat-so Kim, on loan from Queen's University."

Phat-so grins too, his face split beneath his electric blue hair. "Holy crap, Mr. Miss -- I never thought I'd see you again!"

He steps back and Aglakti gestures to the rest of the group, indicating first a diminutive blonde with a serious, efficient air about her. "Franzi Eisler, my personal assistant." The girl nods at the detective. Aglakti moves down the line. "Alex Baum, chief of security." Baum gives Mr. Mississauga a little smile. "How ya doing, Detective?"

Mr. Mississauga smirks. "Good to see you again, Mr. Baum." He frowns as his gaze comes to a disheaveled fellow with a pierced face and a shock of unruly ginger hair. "Who's this?"

"Red Vicious, make-up," supplies Aglakti.

"Make-up?" echoes Mr. Mississauga.

"Well, that's what he does when I'm on tour. We're still, uh, figuring out his exact role on Team Mississauga."

Red Vicious blinks at the sun, sneering. "It's too fucking bright," he mumbles. "Where's my fucking vodka? And who stole my fucking sunglasses? Fuck." He sidles up to Mr. Mississauga, taps him on the chest and whispers, "Hey mate, can I bum a fag? We're, like, waiting for some kind of fucking cripple to show up."

"Um, that would be him, Red. This is Detective Mississauga."

Red blinks more as he turns to examine Mr. Mississauga as if seeing him for the first time. "Fuck off, really? He's pretty tall for a guy with no fucking legs." Then, in a quieter tone, he adds, "Listen, hows about that fag?"

Mr. Mississauga looks stunned. "Team Mississauga?" he grumbles when he catches Aglakti's eye.

"You remember my cousins, of course," she blithely continues as three Inuit men walk up to collect Mr. Mississauga's instruction manual and Aglakti's handbag.

"Hey," says the first.

"How's it going, eh?" says the second.

The third, the fat cousin, simply smiles and doffs an imaginary hat.

Aglakti turns with a flourish and urges a shy, slender black man wearing a cleric's collar to step forward. "This is Father Bellamy, chief mechanic. He's on sabbatical from his congregation in order to spend some time among the layfolk."

The priest wipes his hands on his coveralls before offering one to shake. "God be with you, my son."

Mr. Mississauga ignores the hand, turning back to Aglakti with his mouth opening in objection. She talks over him, pointing to a heavyset older gentleman in a plaid jacket making his way out of the tour bus. "Our driver, Papa Rock."

"Yves LeRoche," he says gruffly. "Phat-so tells me I just missed you in Kingston last year."

"Florida," says Mr. Mississauga, staring. "I met you in Florida. Years ago."

Yves nods. "Saved your bacon that night, didn't we? Glad you came out of it okay, partner."

Mr. Mississauga's cigarette dangles out of his mouth, forgotten. His forehead creases. "But how...? I don't understand, Aglakti. What is this exactly?"

She puts her arms around Father Bellamy and Phat-so. "This is your crew, Mr. Miss. This is your posse. We're Team Mississauga, and we're on a mission to kick Event Zero's ass." She grins. "And now that you're here we've got our fearless leader, we're good to go."

"To go where?"

Her expression becomes more sober. She drops her arms and squeezes between Father Bellamy and Phat-so to approach Mr. Mississauga closely. Quietly, she says, "You already know as well as I do, Mr. Miss. You caught some of those fumes, too."

"Wiyasakami," he breathes.

She nods. "Wiyasakami. We're going north. All of us together. And then you're going to figure out what Event Zero's all about, and we're going to be there to help." She touches his shoulder. "That's what you've inspired. We're here because we're your friends. And you can't talk anyone out of it so don't even try. Now: are you going to waste time bitching or are you going to just suck it up and manage?"

Mr. Mississauga says nothing for a moment. They all look at him, searching for some clue in his unfathomably deep brown eyes. At last he raises his chin, mouth compressed into a tight little smile. "I'll manage."

"Hallelujah!" cries Father Bellamy.

"Fucking A," says Red Vicious.

Yves climbs back inside, drops into his chair and turns the tour bus on. The engine growls. The members of Team Mississauga gather into a line at the steps and then shuffle aboard to find their seats. "Come on, Mr. Miss!" calls Phat-so. "You can sit beside me!"

Mr. Mississauga looks over at Aglakti. "It could be dangerous."

"Yup," she agrees. "But don't worry: I'll save you."

"But what about him?" he persists, nodding over at Phat-so. "He's just a boy."

"And how old were you when you started tilting at windmills?"

He allows himself a brief chuckle that turns into a sigh. "Fair enough." Aglakti offers out her arm and he takes it. She leads him up the stairs into the bus, and the door hisses closed behind them.


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