Next thing I knew, I was in the yard. Naked, feet on cut grass, firefly on a finger, white trail of a black fighter jet streaked across the purple sky. My parents were drinking beer on the back deck. “We’re so proud of our baby boy!” they said, waving hi. I waved back hi. Such a childhood!

Time marched on: Algebra, trig, & Grapes of Wrath. Team sports & summer jobs. Had I been “stress-free” as I stocked shelves at Ace Hardware? Hell no. Hell no very much. And what about the sweltering summer when I sold hotdogs at the racetrack? Try that on for size. Regardless, it’s important to remember that I had it easier than some.

Take Chad Werkheiser for example, whose family had been tremendously poor and whose dad had been a fired postal worker and whose mom was balding and so upsettingly massive she drove a Rascal scooter at the grocery store. I recall her once flipping her Rascal around a sharp turn in the freezer aisle. All the clerks and stock boys rushed in to help, many of whom we went to school with. It was a real scene. Huge embarrassment for Chad. Predictably, Chad wound up a loser. After high school, he knocked up some heinous woman. Chad’s dad caught Lou Gehrig’s and died badly. Then Chad was arrested for throwing marbles at cars. A bad seed, so to speak. Weird how all factors seem to beget one another. Dominos. Bing-bang-boom. Sad. But what can you do, right? Should gifted people such as myself decline mind-blowing gifts out of pity for the ungifted? Of course not!

I met Doreen at freshmen orientation. An electric body. We fucked in the great outdoors. On jungle gyms at night. In state park bathrooms and in graveyards. Once in an old abandoned mental hospital, if you can believe it. A thrilling time, when I think back on it. Then it seemed like a great idea to get married. I worked at the guitar factory. Pushing papers. Boring, but easy. It paid the rent, anyway. And then came the twins — and here is where everything started going downhill majorly. Not that I don’t love Jayden and Brayden with all my heart and not that I wouldn’t take a hail of bullets for them, but you have to understand: I was suddenly expected to be the dad of the situation. It’s a lot of pressure! These are the times when one is compelled to, like, take pause and think, Well I’m up the fucking creek, aren’t I?

Anyway, we signed a mortgage on a huge house. Would Doreen and I have more kids? More twins? Well, who knows? Regardless, the place had too many rooms, I can see with my 20/20 hindsight. Too many bathrooms, even. A bad idea? Sure. Biggest mistake of my life up until then? Well, yeah.

Mark Circus, who worked at the guitar factory, had four kids and a house big enough to keep them. Why couldn’t I have the same? It was Mark, actually, who gave me my first Tony Robbins tape. Which had been a real game-changer for me, ideologically.

“What a man can believe, he can achieve,” said Tony as I sat with my Walkman in the kitchenette. Wow, I thought. Wow, wow, wow.

Doreen’s father cried when we showed him the house. At first I thought, So impressed he is driven to tears? But, no, we were making a huge mistake, he said. We’d be up the fucking creek, he said. To prove him wrong, I got my real estate license. Doreen made lobsters when I sold my first property. A big celebration. We wore bibs. Laughed it up. Doreen’s father sat at the table wearing a real puss on his face.

“More lobster, Dad?” I said. I felt like a million bucks. I was considering flying out for a Tony Robbins seminar wherein you were told to walk on hot coals as an important symbol of your own personal inner strength, which you have, by then, coolly marshaled, slaying your own inner demons. Unlocking a hidden inner power we all have at our disposal.

Things were chugging along nicely. We had an in-ground pool installed. Landscapers sculpted our shrubs to look like animals, which is something I had always wanted. We put a padded bench swing on the huge old oak tree. Our arborist said, “Why, this old oak tree has to be about 91 years old by my count!” Whoa, we said. What a tree!

The twins were starting to walk and talk. Or, at least to amble and make loud sounds. They could say single words like: Mine, No, My Bad, and Truck. The real estate business was booming. And Doreen was a bank teller, hoping to make branch manager. Things were coming along for us.

But then, around this time, I had my first weird panic episode. I was checking out NordicTracks at Sports Authority and I had mounted one of the more complicated models — heart monitor, mileage graphs, caloric gauge, HD visualization — and I was talking with a young, fit, obnoxious salesman with spiky blond hair. His sales technique was horrible. I considered telling him about Tony, but decided he did not deserve to know.

“Stupendous deals on payment plans we got going now,” he said. “$38 per month. You barely feel it.”

As I skied along on the machine, I had a strange sensation. My mind got fuzzy. My eyes unfocused. I saw a man on the far end of the store, browsing the aluminum bats. He was trying a bat now, practicing his swing. Easy and graceful. Such grace. I thought of a whitetail deer, romping through thick forestry. Hoof sounds. My mind flowed like molasses, pouring from one thought into the next. This man looked exactly like me, but older. Saggy cheeks, sunken eyes. He looked like my father. Or like Uncle Dave. What was he doing here? Looking at bats, obviously, I said to myself. Then, a sharp ache zinged in my chest. Then, an ambulance ride. Strangers hooking me up to machines. Paramedics, I realized. They were shouting, telling me to breathe.

My cardiologist conducted many tests. Apparently this thing was “psychological in nature,” he said. “Panic attack. Panic episode,” he said.

“But I’m so calm!” I said. He gave me a pamphlet about breathing meditation. I asked the doctor if the man I saw had been hallucinated.

“There is nothing quote unquote ‘technically wrong’ with you,” he said.

That was a relief, I decided. Best not to wonder about the mystery man. I put him out of my mind.

And, shit, the pool guy then informed us that there was a structural crack developing in the pool. Fixing that, he said, would run us a pretty penny. Pretty penny. Jesus.

I was going to have to really “push it to the limit,” at the office. Harness my inner Jungle Predator, as Tony tells us. Destroy competitors. Chomp down hard on the throats of thine enemies, as Tony says.

Oh, and, more bad news, the arborist informed us that our awesome historical tree had a tree disease? Would probably have to be felled. Taking down that tree would likely displace all the bugs, birds, rats, & possums who lived there. They would have to be exterminated. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Also, the radon detector in the boiler room would not shut up so I unplugged it. Made a note to get that checked when we get some more money in.

In the offices of Remax 2000, each agent was expected to do a certain amount of “phone time,” which meant hanging around at odd hours, waiting for Kay (the receptionist) to forward random calls that came to the main office line. Kay sat at the front desk playing computer solitaire. Kay was really something — just dynamite. A real crackerjack receptionist. Great on Quicken, Excel, Word. Oh, and the joke about Kay was, you would say to someone, “If You See Kay, tell her _______,” which was funny because If You See Kay spells F-U-C-K, we figured out. Ha ha.

It was a Tuesday, just after lunch, when the shit started to take a flying fuck at the fan, if you catch my drift. I was sitting at my desk reading Field and Stream, which I subscribe to. A man named Dr. Din phoned the office. He was an Indian cardiologist (from India the country, I mean) who wanted me to help broker the sale of his actual, full-sized mansion.

“Of course,” I said. “Yes, yes, yes!”

This was a huge windfall! The thought of Doreen’s dad eating more I-told-you-so lobster. No, I thought. Best not to lord it over Jerry. What would Tony say? Humble. Be humble. Be charitable. Kindness. Restraint. A Lamborghini doing 20 mph down Main Street. Self-assured in the power. Not needing to show it off. That’s true strength.

The buyer wound up being a “rough around the edges” guy named Rick Loom. Short and muscular, face like a worn-out bag. He wore coveralls and pointed when he talked. The agreement dragged on for months. Conversations became heated. Mr. Loom owned a junkyard and would frequently allude to being “mobbed up” (his words).

“My friends know how to take care of things if you catch my meaning,” he said, staring off into the distance as if remembering something exquisite.

There were some slight foundation issues with the mansion. Some slight “sink hole issues,” it turned out. And Dr. Din had (maybe, kind of, sort of, off-the-record) agreed to take care of the problem. Nothing in writing.

I had just come from a meeting wherein Mr. Loom had threatened to crush Dr. Din into a cube with his junkyard machine. It was a sunny spring day. I drove home and tried not to think about the whole thing. Tried to focus on the simple, cyclical nature of the world. Plants and animals. Erosion. The slow and persistent crawl of time. This, says Tony, is the thing to do. Perspective. Humility. Charity. Consideration. Contemplation. Structural crack in pool. Plus, don’t forget that radon detector. Better nip that in the bud. Practice saying, “Doreen, honey, I don’t think we’ll have enough money to fly You, Me, & Jayden/Brayden out to visit your parents this summer baby I love you you’re my queen I worship you babe.”

I did three minutes of breathing meditation in the car before walking around the side of our house, into the backyard. I contemplated the grass. The living grass. I breathed and smelled the air and felt a peaceful, easy feeling.

Walking along the patio, I accidentally kicked something metal. It ricocheted off the shed and into the rosebush. I carefully picked it out, avoiding thorns. A shiny metal triangle. I felt strange. I was getting that same falling feeling from my NordicTrack episode. It was a prosthetic metal nose, I realized. I was having trouble breathing, trouble standing. No, no, no, I thought. I walked inside and got my bearings. Drank some water. Put the metal nose in the roll-top desk and locked it. I felt better.

Doreen was getting ready for our date night — the baby sitter, Karen, was already at the house, playing Crocodile Dentist with the twins. Doreen was fixing her hair in the bathroom. I came in to check on her progress, walking into a cloud of hairspray. We were going to the Chinese place recommended by Doreen’s work friend, Terry.

Terry was Branch Manager. Drove a Lexus. Went to Broadway shows. Saw Cats, Seussical the Musical, Annie, Phantom, many others. Terry, Terry, Terry. Would I be “happy” if Terry were given grave news by a doctor? If she were struck by a vehicle? No, of course not. If such bad news happened, Doreen and I would step up. Be good friends. Be compassionate. Bring soup. Buy flowers. Pitch in.

At this so-called “to die for” Chinese place, Terry & Company had brought their own cabernet sauvignon. They were given wine glasses by the stellar wait staff. Had a great time. Laughed it up with contiguous tables of strangers, making toasts and singing songs. A fun, chic dining experience, said Terry.

“Just three more minutes!” said Doreen. I kissed her cheek. A red rouge gradient like an autumnal sunset. What a lucky guy I am, I remember thinking as I stood in the hallway by the telephone table.

Then, lo and behold, there was a brusque knock at the door. The dog flipped out. Shut up, Dusty, I said, locking him in the laundry room. Rick Loom stood in the doorway, cupping his hands over his eyes to stare through the screen door into the foyer.

“Mr. Loom, what are you doing here?”

“Here to talk to you about your bullshit. What kind of fuck do you take me for with this shit?” he said, pointing.

Mrs. Kleintop looked up from her yard work across the street.

“How did you find my house?” I said.

“I know where you live,” said Mr. Loom, grinning big time.

I calmed him down. Said, Whoa now let’s not be hasty, etc. Reminded him how totally sweet that property is going to be when the Looms move in. All those memories they would make together. The big pool parties he would throw. Christmas. His daughter’s eventual graduation party someday. Imagine her walking down that great beautiful wooden staircase in her cap and gown. “I love you, daddy,” she’d say. Mr. and Mrs. Loom beaming with pride.

“You fucking people,” he said. “You just don’t listen, do you? What does a guy have to do around here to be fucking heard?” And so he jumped in his Bronco and did a few donuts in the yard before blazing off into the sunset. I told Doreen it had been a college student selling encyclopedias. Not sure why I lied.

The parking lot of China Buffett was a madhouse. I had a cold feeling in my stomach as I thought about Mr. Loom and about the kids and the house and, shit, I’d left Dusty locked in the goddamn laundry room. How strong was Karen? Surely not strong enough to overpower Rick Loom in some kind of home-invasion showdown. I should have showed her where I keep the shotgun. Told her the combo to the gun safe. Did she know how to use a shotgun? I should have taken her out to the rod and gun club, shown her how to use it properly. Doreen and I sat down awkwardly only to say, “buffet,” and rise back up to enter the buffet line.

“We brought our own wine,” said Doreen.

The waiter was confused. He disappeared and came back with plastic cups. Was this the wrong restaurant? Had Terry played a complex and unnecessary prank? Doreen was embarrassed. People were looking at us. Our bottle of wine, our date-night clothes. They were probably thinking, Well looky here at these fancy fucks who think they’re hot shit. La-di-fucking-da to these shit-head millionaires! These people would not want to chat it up and make toasts and sing songs. This was not stellar atmosphere, is what I’m getting at. No talking, only eating. Lo Mein, General Tso, fried rice, chicken fingers, soft serve machine, tray of dry almond cookies, green jello.

“It’s okay,” I said, patting Doreen’s arm. She wore a stunning dress. Everyone in the restaurant was a slob, it occurred to us then. People in shorts and fanny packs. Wearing a fanny pack to dinner? I was wearing a sport coat and tie and tie clip from Today’s Man! Were people laughing at us? I looked up from my cup of wine and Doreen was crying.

Date night was a total bust. The car phone rang on the way home. Dr. Din.

“My man, you must understand. This guy is bullshit,” I heard over phone.

“But you said — ”

You said, you said, you said! This is all you say. No means no, my man.”

Dr. Din was pretty “turned up,” so to speak. I tried to calm him down. Remind him of what’s important. Closing the deal. He wasn’t having it. He would not cave in to Rick Loom’s demands. The whole thing was going off the rails.

The next day I came home from playing the lottery and the twins were crying in the driveway, which was a shocking development.

“What’s wrong?” I said. But, oh yeah, they could not talk good yet. Were not “developing” at a speed that was “average,” said that goddamn hotshot doctor who was younger than me. I was furious with Doreen. What’s she thinking, leaving these non-communicative blonde children unsupervised in the front driveway? Then it occurred to me: Doreen, dead in the tub, or having a seizure in the den, or suddenly and unexpectedly killing herself due to well-hidden depression, the signs of which I could see only in retrospect and I would now regret not doing something for the rest of my lonely days. I should have never told her the combo to the gun safe. I burst into the house. I called for Doreen but she did not answer. I picked up a fire poker, imagining a villain. There was a bright spot of blood on the back patio. I saw Doreen in the grass, giving CPR to poor dead Dusty. The dog heaved in sync with her compressions. Blood. Doreen’s body shuddered. Blood from the dog’s mouth on the gray shorts Doreen always wore for yard work and painting. I dropped the fire poker on the patio.

We had the dog incinerated that afternoon. Doreen bought ice cream for the twins. I found some lunchmeat behind the shed. Shards of glass. Mr. Loom showed up later that night. I watched him through the screen door. He smiled.

“How’s your dog?” he said, folding his arms. I didn’t say anything.

“Maybe now you understand how serious I am,” said Mr. Loom, whose truck, I saw, was parked boldly in the middle of our lawn. “Maybe now you’ll listen to me.” Then he stormed off, Bronco peeling out, tearing up new sod.

Doreen had been eavesdropping. She was not pleased. She was taking the kids to a motel, she said. It was not safe here, she said. She didn’t get it, I told her. I could handle this. I’ll take care of it. Mr. Loom can be handled. He’s a pussycat. Harmless. She cried and packed and took the van. I stood in the foyer. It was starting to rain.

People. They ruin everything. I stood in the foyer next to the telephone table, wishing/praying/imagining to God. An angel appeared. He/she/it said my number had come up. I could go. A whole planet of green foliage just for us. Naked, picking fruit from trees. Be happy and warm and safe and die painlessly at a ripe old age, drifting peacefully, surrounded by the strong, able-bodied children and grandchildren, imbued with the ideals I had instilled. I opened my eyes and looked around the foyer, thinking nothing. The sound of air conditioning and rain.

A real storm, now. Pounding down on the house. I turned the porch light off and watched the dark. Lightning. Whoa, I said aloud. For a moment, everything was brighter than daylight. I saw a figure walking down the street. A homeless guy? What was he doing in our neck of the woods? Should I call the police? And, Jesus, he was dragging a huge black trash bag behind him. I locked the deadbolt. Christ, he was coming up the fucking driveway. This mysterious hobo was now banging hard on the goddamn door. Ringing the goddamn doorbell, even. I watched him through the peephole.

“I know you’re home, moron,” he said. I turned on the porch light. He was soaked in rain. Looking wily. Long shock of white hair and a prosthetic metal nose. (The metal nose, I thought. Still in the roll-top desk.) Who was this amputee?

I thought about Chad Werkheiser and about his mother on the Rascal scooter whirring down the cereal aisle. I thought about what Tony says about Charity and Personal Inner Strength. Would Tony not let this man in? Give him soup and clothes? Help him layout his résumé in Microsoft Office? Co-sign a lease on a studio apartment? Become the catalyst that propels him to bootstrap his way back into a fulfilling and comfortable life? So, thus, against better judgment, there I was, opening the door and motioning with my hand as if to say, Welcome In, Old Friend. He was dragging that garbage bag behind him. It left a mud smudge on the foyer tile.

“Yeah well some food would be great,” he said. I went into the kitchen and popped a hot pocket in the microwave. I brought him one of my Tommy Bahama shirts to change into. That and some cargo shorts. I tried not to stare at his nose.

“Shot off,” he said, clinking the metal with a fingernail. He chewed the hot pocket loud with an open mouth. “You know what your problem is?” he said. “You know why you feel weak? Why you feel helpless?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Because you are weak — are helpless.”

Oooookay,” I said. He handed me what looked like an old pager. This guy is bat-shit bonkers, I thought.

“Weakness comes from ease, you doughy turd. Strength,” he said, pointing with the pager, “comes from hardship. The only way to strengthen the self of the present is to torment the self of the past.” And this is when he handed me an aluminum bat. He clipped the pager to my shirt pocket.

“But Tony says–”

“Never you fucking mind what Tony says! Just hold your breath,” he said, pressing the button on the pager.

And I felt myself dissipate. It wasn’t painful. The feeling of my body and mind just… (well) dissipating. Unraveling and merging with a black pool of emptiness. I had no hands. No feet. No eyes or ears. Dark, soundless nothing. I remember thinking, Wow, and then thinking nothing much at all.

Then came a sudden gravity. A pull from somewhere by something. A weight. And in an orange fire, I felt myself reform. I was in the drainage pipe near Mom and Dad’s old bi-level. The first sensation was of the sunlight on my face. Then the cold of the water. I was standing in water. My shoes and pant cuffs were soaked. Christ, I thought. Didn’t this neighborhood get razed years ago? Should this not be Best Buy? PetSmart? ShoeShow? That poorly named dollar store, 99 Cent Dreams?

I remember the first encounter more vividly than it probably happened. I recall vibrant colors. Sunlight on grass. Dandelions. I was alone, riding Amy’s purple bike up the hill by the drainage ditch. This was my main concern at age 9. Riding the bike up the hill, coasting down, feeling wind. Closing my eyes, feeling boundless. The wind saying, You are not trapped in a doomed corporeal form! You are infinite, a cloud of being soaring through space unfettered, it says.

I was huffing my way up the hill by the drainage ditch. I heard the sound of workers blasting in the limestone quarry across town. A low rumbling. But, then realizing, no, this was not a quarry blast, but something closer. It felt almost interior, like a heart murmur.

An orange glow shone from the huge, man-sized drainpipe. And this was when the man appeared. He was like Dad, or Uncle Dave, but not quite. Fatter, for one. Almost obese. He looked as though he might cry. He was holding an aluminum bat. I waved hello.

He walked up the hill toward me. Okay, he was actually crying now. Eyes wet and red. Shuddering sobs. I thought of Chad Werkheiser stifling his sobs when Mike Hammer and Trent Trip took his new Frisbee and wouldn’t give it back. What it sounded like was, “Huhhuhhuhhh.”

“Hi there,” I said to the man on the hill.

And this is when he struck me. He swung the bat again and again and again. Cool aluminum on arm and leg and chest and bike. I don’t remember pain at this point, only pressure. And sound. Thud, thud, thud, thud. And then the sight of blood on pavement. Now the man was weeping freely. The water works. I saw blue sky. Pavement. The smell of cut grass. The taste of metal. He bent to pick me up. He was careful. And at his touch, the first trill of pain shot through me. Pain like white light. Like a trillion kitchen knives. The alarming awareness of rearranged bone. He placed me in a ditch, throwing my bike down next to me. There were turtles down there.

The man touched a button on his coat. Then came the low rumbling, like blasting from the quarry again, and an orange halo grew around him. The man disappeared in the light. And then the light disappeared.

It was to be a long recovery. Casts and slings and physical therapy. The whole shebang, as it’s called. “He will go on to lead a perfectly normal life,” said the spinal surgeon.

Nobody believed me about the disappearing man. This man who’d looked so much like Dad and Uncle Dave had been a figment. I had taken a bad spill. I had been clumsy. “You gave us quite a scare!” and “Don’t ever do that again!” At first I resisted this, but, inevitably, I spent my time not trying to convince Mom and Dad that the disappearing man was real, but trying instead to convince myself that they were right. I had taken a spill. Clumsy, clumsy me.

Thus began the glacial crawl on the Road to Recovery. And here is where the days begin to blur together. The song-and-dance cavalcade of therapeutic exercise, consultations, getting hooked up to machines.

There is no cinematic triumph to recovery. At no point did I shout, “I can walk! I can walk!” At no point did I bask in the applause of a studio audience of well-wishers. There were tiny victories. One day, I woke up feeling more or less okay. Stronger. Able, to a certain degree. And this strength was irrevocably tethered to that time. To that trauma. If it hadn’t happened, I would never have known how weak I had been.

And then came the Father and Son Appalachian Trail Backpacking Adventure. After the nasty spill, I became (by my parents’ assessment) notably quiet. “An introverted child,” said Mom. Thus began my parent’s aggressive campaign. I was subjected to baseball, karate, boy scouts, trumpet, hockey camp — Dad bought an old beater car for us to “fix up” even though I was far from driving age. All of this was so boring.

But then I got real jazzed about Survival. Preparedness for inexplicable hardships. “Hidden variables,” Dad explained. It was all very much like the awesome book, Hatchet, wherein the young heroic protagonist is stranded in the middle of the unbridled Canadian wilderness and forced to survive alone. To face bears and weather. To hatchet his way back to civilization. Dad and I practiced all kinds of survival techniques in the yard. Pitching a tent, lighting a fire from scratch, hoisting food into trees, identifying edible plants, making tourniquets. Building booby traps to foil enemies.

We packed our gear the night before. The plan was, Mom would drop us off at Point A on Friday, we would camp/hike/survive our way to Point B by Sunday. We had it all organized. We left at 4:30am. We ate Pop-Tarts in the car in the dark. Mom drove in PJ’s. “Oh, you guys have fun, now!” she said. And with that, we strode into the forest. I remember feeling strong.

“Yes! We are ready for anything!” I said aloud. Dad paid no attention, walking on in the dark ahead of me. Sometimes he played the harmonica, which was nice. We had emergency blankets, freeze-dried foods, rope, gauze, a snakebite kit. Dad even brought his .22 pistol, in case we needed to shoot a snake or scare off a black bear. “Or put down an aggressive raccoon,” he said.

We hiked all morning through piercing orange sunlight. Everything was cold and damp and smelled like fresh dark dirt. For lunch we sat on a felled tree and ate shrink-wrapped Italian hoagies from 7-Eleven. In the afternoon we stood on a cliff and Dad stared out at a wide expanse of pine forest below. He said things like, “Really makes you think,” and talked about vastness. About the insignificance of the individual. Alive for a millisecond and (“Wham!”) blinked away into nothing. It’s a fart in the hurricane of history, son. Who will remember us? And does it even matter?

We pitched the tent in a clearing. The forest floor was covered with flat blue stones — these being ruins of an old gunmetal factory from revolutionary war times, said Dad. The blue stones, he said, were left in the smelting process.

I gathered sticks for a fire. We heated up metal bags of camp food. In the middle of the night, Dad said, “Gotta take a leak.” I stayed in the tent. I heard the sound of trees listing in the wind. Unidentified animals scrambling around on rocks and dirt. The sound of Dad peeing on some leaves. Then came a low rumble, like a blast from the quarry. And then a brilliant orange glow, like a sunrise through the places between trees. I opened the rain flap and saw the silhouette of a man in the distance. Dad stood frozen on a rock in the foreground. A middle-aged peeing fountain. The disappearing man walked toward the campsite.

“Huh?” said Dad, confused, peeing.

I took the pistol from Dad’s camp bag. The orange light sustained, illuminating the whole show. Dad still frozen there, pissing away on some leaves. The disappeared man, however, had left the confines of the waning glow, which stayed put. He was coming toward us, carrying an aluminum bat. I pointed the pistol, thinking: But, but, but, but. I could not pull the trigger. The disappeared man, who looked so much like Dad and like Uncle Dave was no longer fat. He was lithe and wiry, now. But I knew it to be the same man. He wore a black duster now. And swung that portentous bat. The glow faded. I pointed the pistol at the dark. Then came the metallic thud, and the sound of ringing aluminum. And the sound of falling stuff.

I was finding it hard to breathe. A dizzy spell, I thought. I practiced mind-clearing breath exercises taught to me by physical therapists. Counting to ten, then counting to ten again. The orange light reappeared, showing the silhouette of the disappeared man and Dad on the ground, not moving, fly open, head bashed in. I put the disappearing man between the crosshairs, squeezed the trigger, and blacked out. Not the cinematic fade-to-black type blackout. More like a gap in memory. The next thing was daylight and the surveying of my poor, brained father. Recollection of those horrible aluminum thuds. Gruesome stuff on red on orange leaves. Everything covered in sunlight and dew.

And so I was forced to survive on my own. To leave dead Dad’s dead corpse. Just as Bryan, the Hatchet boy, was forced to survive. To hatchet his way back to society. To carry what was important. To use a map and compass. To build fires and eat emergency meals. A transformative experience, this. The key, I imagined Bryan telling me, was to not think of Dad. Thoughts of Dad, and of corpse, and of brain. These were the toxic element. A slippery slope. No, I thought. Hatchet. Hatchet, hatchet, hatchet. Onward.

I was asked to talk with a gentle policeman. “Explain to me,” he said, “in graphic detail, the whole chain of events.” And so I did.

I would be stronger now, I thought. This was a heinous thing, but I would be better. Next time the quarry blast comes, I will be prepared. An imagined Bryan telling me to use all tragedy as important lesson.

After my trip, I had become a real expert. In science fiction, one gets totally bogged down in the quagmire of logic. “What if I go back in time and have sex with my grandpa blah blah blah — ” No, idiots. Here’s the thing: As the traveler moves from one plane to the next, he creates a new world from the choices he has made. The improvements constitute a new existence.

Anyway, I came back from my first trip feeling like a million bucks. A billion bucks, even. I’d lost weight. Gained muscle tone. Had new clothes. I reformed in a much nicer house. Ornate woodwork, big TV, legit-looking suit of armor in the foyer.

I surveyed the pictures on the walls. No pictures of Jayden and Brayden. Oh, and it appeared that Doreen had maintained her electric bod. Pictures of me (so thin!) and Doreen on an African safari? Then I remembered (oh, yeah!) we had gone on an African safari! Shot a giraffe. Took pictures next to a sedated rhino. Oh, the fun we’d had. Where was Doreen, by the way? Was it not time for me to fuck her electric bod on the floor of (say, for example, this time) the upstairs observatory where the mechanical roof dilated at the touch of a button, revealing the evanescent cosmos? Then I remembered Doreen had taken her poor friend Terry to Hawaii for their annual Gal’s Only vacation. Poor Terry. She had it rough.

I explored the house, remembering as I went. Racquetball court, indoor swimming pool, billiards. A home theater with rows of real movie theater seats. The Fast and the Furious played on an enormous screen. There was the old man in the front row, metal nose gleaming in the dark. He pressed a button and Vin Diesel paused, as if lost in thought. Lights came on.

“You seem to be doing pretty well for yourself,” he said.

I said “Yeah,” or something to that effect.

“Well, now, if I can give you some advice, I’d say you’d better settle back and stay put here. A comfortable place, no? Very easy to take a good thing too far. It’s hard to know what’s too much with a thing like this. Easy to come back to a loony bin or a prison camp or buried alive, I’ve found. Now, if I were you, I’d take your aluminum bat there and smash up the old pager to bits.”

“Your suggestions are duly noted,” I said. This guy was a real horse’s ass, it occurred to me. Why would I destroy such a valuable piece of equipment? Plus, imagine what could be accomplished by another trip!

“I know what you’re thinking,” said the old man.

“Why don’t you just go back to when your nose got shot off and make that not happen?” I asked.

“Oh. The nose serves as a reminder. This ailment,” he said, clinking the nose, “is to remind me of the importance of humility. The fleeting insignificance of materiality, the — ”

What a jackass. Yes, this was a nice place. Was it perfect? No. Not yet. We could do better. A bit more struggle in the past and this place could be a palace. A literal kingdom for a literal king.

And here’s where the old man just up and fucking dropped dead in his theater chair. “Aughgh!” he said, clutching his stupid heart and just keeling over pathetically. Great. A dead body, I thought. How was I supposed to dispose of that? I thought back. Had I ever done that before? No. I’d seen it in movies, for sure. People dissolving bodies in corrosive chemicals, or just dumping them in a hole in the desert. No matter. Needn’t worry about it now. There will be plenty of time to dig a hole when I get back from another self-improvement.

Huh. Could this time machine be duplicated? Too bad the old geezer (ostensibly the inventor?) fucking keeled. What a great self-help program that could make for. Time Travel Self Improvement. I imagined a seminar on a tropical island. Me on stage with a headset microphone. “The only path to strength in the self of the present is to torment the self of the past,” I would say. My followers walking on coals. An important symbolism.

One more trip and then I’ll start working on my self-help program. Start a PowerPoint file. Oh, and dispose of this old geezer, probably in the yard, which I recalled was huge and maze-like.

So there I was, clocking my own Dad straight in the head. My trusty bat. Dad whizzing in the woods. Ha. A zero of a man, now that I think about it. I conjured the necessary rage with ease. Blamo. This, I thought, would constitute a fair stumbling block for my boyhood self. I could throw away the food, too. Dad had hoisted it up in the tree to keep it away from bears. Hell, I could have broken a boyhood leg. That would have been a hell of a struggle. Foodless, Dadless, legless in the middle of nowhere. But, no, dead Dad would do fine. There was some wisdom to what the old noseless jackass had said. It’s so hard to know what’s too much. So, off I went, pressing the button. The orange halo grew around me, the quarry blast sound sounding. But, then! Unexpectedly: Pop! Pop! Pop! A facial impact. The little bastard had shot me! And then I was gone.

Flash forward, there I am back in the present. A panic room full with monitors. Security camera footage. The monitors display live feeds of a perimeter yard, a foyer, dining hall, armory, attack-dog training facility. The list goes on.

Best not to leave the panic room. The appointed staff would take care of the house, I recalled. They would be around soon. Dusting, buffing, washing, and shining the house. How many people had I employed? Sixty. Extensive background checks on all. No need to leave the panic room. Safer inside. Away from elements of unpredictability. Where was Doreen? Oh, yeah. We never married and copulated and authored Jayden/Brayden. Never had an African safari. She married a guy who fixes cars and they are moderately happy, according to my surveillance team.

And (oh, yeah) Mr. Loom has been killed by sniper fire for spite even though, all-in-all, he is not strictly speaking a “bad guy.” Just a cornered animal. No matter. Pop-pop-pop through the windshield of his Bronco on a sunny afternoon as he ate a hamburger in a Wendy’s parking lot.

Speaking of which (oh, yeah) blood flowing down my face. Ouch, ouch, ouch. I see in the video Droste of security footage showing this very room. A gaping facial gash. Oh great, splendid, my nose.

William Fatzinger Jr.

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