Edited by Christopher Leeson
Originally written 2006
Revised and posted Oct. 21, 2018
CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER
She went out in Morning
Attired plain and neat.
"Proud Mary's gone Mad,"
Said the Child in the Street.
"Did -- Did he hurt you, darling?"
Evie shook her head. "No, but he chased me and he said he was gonna hurt me. Then Laddin came and Lauren helped them beat up on Gus and take him away to jail."
Somebody wake me! How had Lauren Sherwood, the children's favorite babysitter, suddenly gotten into all of this? And what was this about sending Gus to "jail"? The name "Laddin," threw me for an instant, before I realized with alarm what she saying.
"Do you mean 'Aladdin'?"
"I guess so."
Aladdin was the government agency that I worked for. Actually, I stuck with the job because I'd found out how dangerous it was, not only to the country but to the world, and I wanted to keep an eye on it. Like the CIA and FBI, it was being run by power-hungry renegades who took their marching orders from shadowy figures based in Western Europe and in the Far East.
How had Evie learned its name? I was careful never to talk shop in front of Mom -- Barbara Freeman, I mean -- or the kids. I'd been giving them the standard cover story, claiming that I worked for the C.I.A., which gave me the excuse make my job something we never discussed. Had I let the name slip out sometime during the days that I had apparently forgotten, or had something even more sinister occurred?
"Is Lauren okay?" I asked.
Evie nodded again. "We saw her on Monday, remember? She wanted you to go back to being Mantra, but you said you couldn't and told her that she had to become Mantra now."
Lauren had become Mantra? How could Evie have come up with such a bizarre idea -- unless it was true, I mean? I absolutely felt like I'd fallen down a rabbit hole.
"Pumpkin, where is Gus? What do you mean that he's in jail?"
This was too much fragile little girl. She started to cry. I hugged her, stroked her.
What was really going on? Did the authorities have Gus? Was the charge murder? Whom did he kill?
And, even in the worst case, how did Aladdin figure in? It was created to monitor ultras, not to enforce the law. In fact, American law meant absolutely nothing to its hierarchy. Their real job was to draw in more and more power to itself and a cabal of fellow conspirators, especially the American intellengence services, which had pretty much all gone rogue from the day they were created.
In every nation, intelligence agencies saw themselves in the image of the Roman Praetorian Guard, the Turkish Janizaries, the Egyptian Mamelukes, or the Soviet KGB. Like all those rotten-to-the-core outfits, my information told me that America's intelligence agencies intended -- sometime soon -- to be ruling the USA with an iron fist.
For the moment, Aladdin was deeply into the felonious kidnapping of people with special abilities and subjecting them to an absolutely horrendous mind-control program called “M.K. Ultra.” Their objective was to turn unwilling subjects into obedient super-soldiers and assassins.
"M-Mommy," Evie stammered, "is Gus ever gonna get out of jail? He isn't gonna be a -- a lifer, is he?"
"I don't know, darling. I don't know anything about what happened. I just can't remember."
"Did you stop remembering because Gus hurt you so bad? Does your head ache?"
"No, my head feels fine. How did Gus hurt me, Evie?"
"He zapped you. He was so mad that he wanted to make you die! I almost thought you did die.” She threw her arms tightly around my neck. “I -- I don't want to lose another mommy. I-I don't want everybody I love to go to heaven, e-even if it is a nice place."
I kissed her wet cheek. "Evie, you've had a rough time of it. But if I'm still here, it's because God wants me to be with you and not up in heaven. And I want to be with you for just as long as I possibly can."
She settled in against me. Holding her, I tried to reason things out. Gus had tried to kill me? Why? Whatever could have made him so violent – and so effective in his violence? He was a heedless, lazy, and sometimes rebellious boy, but he'd never displayed a wantonly violent nature, not even against animals. And what did Evie mean by "zapped"?
I was at a loss. How could the world have changed so drastically in just six days? I had lost my magic, apparently after an attack by Gus, and then Lauren had assumed the role of Mantra. On top of that, we seemed to be located in a whole different city....
It wasn't adding up. Could Lauren explain things? How did she fit into the picture? For a long time I had been aware that the teenager was a potential witch. Months before, one of Boneyard's demons had zeroed in on her for some reason, and then used her teenage angst to lure her over to the Dark Side. The next thing I knew, Lauren had taken on my physical shape and was wielding magic similar magic to mine. But she was world-class from the start! Lauren had first used her powers in petty ways, such as going after her enemies -- other schoolgirls who had snubbed her. I had tried to reel her in, but it was like tackling a hurricane. She floored me and only Evie's pleading had prevented her from giving me the coup de grace.
I managed to keep either one of us from being hurt until Lauren came to her senses. Once removed from the demon's influence, she had manifested no sign of magical talent. Even so, I suspected that her ultra power had only gone dormant. A minor demon like Willie Wolf could never have imparted so much sorcery into an ordinary mortal. No, the truth had to be that he had picked Lauren out of the crowd because he had detected her genetic potential for it. I'd been pretty sure that her ultra nature would eventually reassert itself, now that it had been stimulated.
And, seemingly, it had done so last week.
But how far could a trust the information provided by a second-grader?
"Evie," I asked, "did Lauren look like herself, or did she change to look like me again?"
The tyke shook her head. "She didn't change. She just got magic. Mommy, why are so many people getting magic?"
"Gumdrop, who else got magic, besides Lauren, I mean?"
"Gus got magic, but it made him angry and mean. He acted like he hated everybody, even you. Whenever Lauren or me asked him not to be bad, it only made him madder. It was awful!"
Was this true? Could Gus have attained magic and gone on a rampage, like Lauren had earlier done? It made no sense. As far as I could see, the males of the family bloodline didn't inherit sorcery. Was it possible that Evie was confusing a nightmare she'd had with reality? But if so, that wouldn't explain how I had lost my ultra abilities, or why we had made this unplanned move.
I needed more information from somebody -- from anybody.
"Where's Lauren?" I murmured out loud.
"She must be in school," Evie replied. "That's where I wish I was. All my friends are there, Mommy. I also miss Grandma, Aunt Lila, and Mrs. Griswell."
I petted her hair. "Poor little thing. Can you tell me why we came to San Francisco?"
She grew even sadder. "You said you wanted to work in Sanfrisco, to visit Gus at Laddin every day."
Was Aladdin really keeping Gus in custody? If Gus had displayed ultra powers, they just might lock him up for study. Evie couldn't know how the agency operated, so her description of their intervention held credibility. San Francisco, interestingly enough, was the Aladdin regional headquarters, and also the location of a secret Aladdin prison for ultras. If Gus had been taken for incarceration, relocating him to San Francisco made sense. As a trusted Aladdin employee, I could probably gain access to the boy on a regular basis.
All at once, a strange thought came to me. What if Gus's powers had originally been mine? Could my magic have inexplicably transferred itself from me to him? That would explain a lot. If only I could get back my Mantra ability, Aladdin would have no reason to keep him locked up.
What was I saying? How could I possibly undo something that shouldn't have happened in the first place?
"Evie, darling, I'm going to talk to Lauren after she gets home from school. Once I understand what went wrong, maybe we can set things right."
She was suddenly all eagerness. "Can you make all the bad things go away?"
"I'm not sure, but I promise to do my best. Tell me, was everything still okay when you, me, and Gus after we visited the Kid's Club Thursday night?"
She looked confused. "You're forgetting again, Mommy."
"What am I forgetting?"
"Gus wasn't with us. Gus never wants to go out anymore, not since the bad people made him ugly."
I regarded her incredulously. This was whole new – and very unexpected – detail. "I don't understand. Gus looked perfectly all right last Thursday. Don't you remember how you two were talking about ultra ladies in the Target store?"
Evie shook her head. "It didn't happen that way, Mommy. Maybe you dreamed it."
Somebody had to be been dreaming; I was willing to grant that much.
"What's this about Gus being ugly? What bad people are you talking about, Button?"
That put her over the edge. I let her cry herself out against my shoulder. "There, there, honey,” I said at last. “If it's too awful, you don't have to talk about it."
"It was the bad fairies," she finally whispered.
"What bad fairies? When?"
"Last spring. They caught me and Gus in the garden and took us away to fairyland."
Fairies? First Aladdin gets mixed up in a place where it had no business being, and now fairies? This just had to be a nightmare, either Evie's or mine. "What garden?"
"The big one that Mrs. Dimsdale has. I thought I saw fairies hiding under the flowers and I told Gus about them. He didn't believe me and so I said I'd show him. When we were looking through the leaves, the ugly fairies got us."
I knew for a fact that Gus had been fit and fine all summer. He had joined the Cub Scouts in July and was having a grand time of it. And Mrs. Dimsdale had never once mentioned that her garden was infested with fairies.
"What happened after the fairies got you, Sweetums?" I coaxed.
"The good fairies saved me, but the bad ones took Gus away. You came into fairyland to get us, but you saved me first. By the time you caught the bad fairies, they'd done some magic to make Gus look ugly like they were."
I remained calm, amazingly so. This story was passing beyond the borders of objective reality. Maybe Evie was ill. Maybe I had brought her to San Francisco to meet with a child psychologist.
"Why would the bad fairies do something so nasty to a little boy?" I asked softly.
She sniffed. "They said that Gus had special blood and they wanted him to be their fairy king. You brought Gus back, but he still looked like the ugly fairies. He was so sad. He always wore a pillowcase over his head and wouldn't come out of his room. He didn't believe that anybody could love a person so ugly -- not you, or me, or even Grandma." She shook her head. "I don't like fairy stories anymore, not since they were so mean to Gus."
Kissing Evie again, I drew her in, holding her cheek against mine. I was in the mother of all quandaries, but before I jumped to any conclusions as to what the real situation was, I needed to get some trustworthy input from the outside.
I looked around the room. "Evie, do you know where I put the cell phone?"
She slid off the bed and retrieved the missing device from the nightstand drawer. "Thanks," I said.
I punched in the memorized number, but the screen told me that I was dialing something that didn't exist. Didn't exist?
Alternatively, I decided to call Mom and find out what she knew. After I carefully keyed Barbara Freeman's number, I got the same error message.
"Evie, the operator says that Grandma's number is bad. Why should that be?"
I brought up my phone's "friends" list, but I couldn't recognize any of the numbers. And their were some important contacts missing from it, while some of the listed names were utterly unfamiliar. A possible explanation suddenly dawned on me. If my guess was right, I knew I was in a bad way. I needed to test my hypothesis immediately.
Barbara Freeman's name showed a number that I had never seen before, but I tried it anyway. A ringing sound told me that it had reached a real phone. The ringing stopped and I waited with bated breath until Barbara's voice came on. "Hello?"
"It's me, Mom. Are things okay there?"
"I'm fine. Is Evie all right?"
"Oh, yes, but, Mother, there's a new problem."
"What?" she asked edgily.
"This might sound strange, but all of a sudden I'm having some pretty bad memory-loss problems."
"Memory loss?" After a pause she said, "Well, I don't wonder, considering what you've been through. Do you need me to come up to San Francisco to help?"
"Maybe that's an idea," I said forlornly. "What bothers me most is not what I've forgotten, but that I'm beginning to wonder if some of the things I've been remembering are actually wrong. Mom, didn't you used to have the number 818-346-8357?"
"For heaven's sakes! I don't know how you could come up with that. I've had this same number since before you and big Gus were divorced."
"Mom, Evie said something about Gus -- little Gus -- that I don't understand. It's about him becoming ugly last spring. The last I remember, he was looking just fine. Do you know why she would say such a thing?"
A deafening silence answered me.
"Eden, your condition is worse than you realize! Is there anyone in San Francisco that you can leave Evie with while you're getting some help?"
"Mom, you haven't answered my question. Is Gus all right?"
"Eden, it sounds like you're having a serious breakdown. Gus did change. All he and Evie could say is that some fairies kidnapped them. Mantra was somehow involved, too. Eden, stay indoors and try to rest. I'll fly in, but don't drive to the airport to meet me. You might lose control in your state. Give me your exact location. Until I get there, be very gentle with Evie; do not get impatient or excited around her. You're just not yourself!"
I hastily told Mom that I was looking forward to her visit and that I'd be very careful about Evie. After we disconnected, I just sat there, trying to make sense of the senseless. "Mommy, you look so funny," my little girl said.
A terrible thought filled my mind: What if this child was not my daughter at all?
If I wasn't delusional, I had fallen into an alternative reality. I knew about parallel worlds. In fact, I'd been temporarily trapped inside one of them just the previous month. While there, I'd even met another version of Evie. She had been just like the girl I knew, except that she was living a very different life. Thankfully, in that dimension her real mother had never died.
I sat staring at the anxious-eyed tyke, who must have been alarmed by her mother's strange expression. She would have been horrified had she known that her mother had suddenly become a stranger. My first loyalty, I realized, could not be to her, but to the members of my own family. If I got the chance to go home, I would have to leave this little girl behind. I found myself wishing that the local Eden would hurry back from the Jack-in-the-Box, reclaim her own daughter, and allow me to head out and solve my own problems.
But wait! The situation might conceivably be much more complicated than that. Evie had said that her mother had lost her powers. So had I. If we were two different people, why should the same thing happen to us at the same time? Had my spirit somehow possessed the body of a counterpart of mine in an alternate dimension? I had lived in hundreds of different bodies over the last 1500 years, a process that had been responsibly for my long lifespan. But back then a powerful sorcerer was making it happen. He'd been dead for months, so what could have made such an anomalous thing reoccur?
The horror I was feeling must have shown on my face, because Evie drew back, startled. With a determined effort, I controlled my screaming nerves and forced a smile. "Easy, Pumpkin," I said hoarsely. "Life hasn't been nice to us Blakes lately, but we're tough people and we're going to get through this all right. Grandma said she was coming to see us tonight. She'll help me take care of you until my memory comes back."
"She coming? That's terrific!"
"Yes, isn't it?" I said with reservation. It wasn't always easy to be around Mrs. Barbara Freeman. I wasn't really her daughter – not on the inside -- and my 24-7 impersonation of Eden Blake had been imperfect, to say the least. From the start, Barbara had been trying to figure out where my head was at.
Just then, Evie encircled my waist. Despite all the differences, she was, in fact, very like my own Evie.
Why had this thing happen to me, and what was going on back in my home world? Was I the victim of some abnormal glitch of Nature, or had it been brought about by malevolent mind? Who could do this, and why?
"Dumpling," I said to the little girl, "did I mention earlier what was I going to do today? After breakfast, I mean."
"Uh-huh. We were going to talk to a man about getting us a new place."
"Do you know the name of the man?"
"Uh-uh, Mommy. You just called him a man."
"Did I talk to him on my phone?"
I had no interest in keeping that appointment, but I thought I should call and postpone it. If I could set things right, I wanted them to be just as smooth as possible for this Evie and her mother. Consulting my recent calls, I chose to re-ring the unlabeled number listed just before my listed call to Barbara Freeman.
"International Exports," came a receptionist-type voice on the other end.
This reply didn't throw me. I knew that "International Exports" was the dummy company that served as a front for Aladdin in San Francisco. It figured. If the local Mantra had transferred down to Frisco to be near Gus Jr., she naturally would have been in contact with the local office.
"Ah, this is Eden Blake. I'm a new transfer. May I speak to my unit chief?"
"Oh, yes, Mrs. Blake," the woman responded. "Just one minute."
Very soon, a new voice came over the line and I was surprised to recognize it. "Sarn here, Blake."
Dr. Sarn had been the hard-as-nails field division supervisor back in L.A. I didn't know what she was doing in San Francisco, so I went into a walking-on-eggs mode, trying to feel out the situation.
"I was wondering if there were any new developments. You can imagine how worried I am."
I hoped this question made sense. If Gus wasn't being held at Aladdin, as Evie implied, I would have to make some excuse to explain what my ambiguous remark meant.
"Your boy is showing periodic signs of consciousness," Sarn answered. "It might be good if you were here the next time he wakes up. How are you doing with your move?"
"It's going slowly. There's just so much on my plate right now. I was set up to talk to a real estate man today, but I'm not feeling well and I'll have to reschedule. I'll need some time off."
"More than the week you asked for?"
"I hope not." So, Eden was on leave. Well, that made sense.
"You really do sound stressed, Blake. You ought to see a company psychologist for some counseling. Our in-house medical service would be best. It wouldn't be wise to talk to any outsider while you're so vulnerable. In your state of mind, you might misspeak yourself – and your work is heavily classified."
Did everyone on this weird planet assume that I had gone nuts?
"I've never believed in psychology, Dr. Sarn. I'll only go that route if I have no other choice."
"Well, you've proved your toughness when you were in Europe, so go ahead and play it your own way. But don't push yourself too hard. You're not a superwoman."
These days I certainly wasn't!
"If Gus wakes again you'll give me call, won't you?" I asked.
"Naturally, naturally," replied Sarn, her clipped tone serving notice that her well of sympathy had gone dry. "Be sure to file your report on Sunday's mall fiasco when you come in."
What mall fiasco?
How was I supposed to file a report on something that I knew absolutely nothing about?
TO BE CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 3....