Once (and only once) the Trickster fell in love. The girl loved him too, though this was hardly surprising since most women (and many men) loved him at first sight. She was very traditional, however, and insisted that her parents approve of the marriage. Convincing her mother was no problem, but her father was suspicious.
Do not make the mistake of thinking he was concerned for the happiness or well-being of his daughter, for he was a small-minded and vain man whose only concern was to better his own wealth and standing in the eyes of the world. He had dined with kings, queens and presidents, he had appeared on television twice, and he was a member of the homeowner’s association. His lawn had won “Lawn of the Year” for the past fourteen years in a row and was the envy of the neighborhood. He doubted whether adding the Trickster to his family could provide the kind of life that he desired.
So, he devised a series of tests which he was sure were impossible. “You must understand,” he told the Trickster, “She is my only daughter and she is most precious to me. I want to make sure that she marries the kind of man who can provide a good life for her.”
“I will take your tests,” the Trickster said, “But you must swear that if I pass them you will let me marry her, and that if you break your vow my sister Fate will visit misfortune on your family for a thousand generations.”
The father swore the oath. “Now then, I want to know that the man my daughter marries is financially secure. Show me a million dollars in cash.”
The Trickster smiled. “That’s easy!” he said, and headed into town. A few hours later, he returned, carrying the vault from a bank. He dropped it on the front lawn with a heavy THUD. The door flew open and money poured out. “Here is one million, two hundred thirty-five thousand, six hundred ninety-three dollars and sixty cents,” he said.
The father scowled. “Well, you have passed the first test,” he said, “But the measure of a man is more than money. It is important that a man be reliable, and to be known by all to be trustworthy. I would like for you to gather a hundred character witnesses to vouch for your reliability.”
The Trickster threw his head back and laughed. “I am the most reliable man in the world!” he said. “Everyone knows I can always be trusted to do or say what will cause the most discord in any situation, and you can reliably predict that I will do the most unpredictable thing possible.”
He pulled out his phone and made several calls. Over the next few days, thousands came to the house vouching for the Trickster’s reliability at always being nothing but trouble. The steady influx of pilgrims trampled the grass, leaving the front lawn muddy and ruined.
“That is not quite what I was hoping for,” the father said grimly, “But I suppose it fulfills the letter of my request. Some say it is better to know that a man will cause trouble, rather than to be uncertain if he will. Very well. You have shown that you are a man of the world, but are you also a man of the heart? My daughter was raised on Disney movies and Nicholas Sparks novels and has grandiose ideas of romance and love. She will expect the kinds of gestures that would impress a queen.”
“My friend,” the Trickster said, “Over-the-top is the only way I know how to live! While other men would buy their sweethearts a dozen roses, I would dig up the yard and cover it in rose bushes! While other men might take their wives to a cabin by the lake, I would take her to an oceanside castle! While other men might close the blinds to keep the sun from her eyes, I…I would eat the sun itself!”
To prove his point, he plucked the sun from the sky and swallowed it, plunging the Earth into darkness.
“For the love of God, man, spit it back up!” hollered the father.
The Trickster stuck his fingers down his throat and vomited the sun onto the lawn. What little grass remained in the yard immediately burst into flame. Nonchalantly, he picked up the sun and flung it back into the sky.
The father stared at the ruins of his yard in dismay.
“What’s the next test?” the Trickster asked.
“No more tests,” the father said, “Just get out of here before you do any more damage.”
The Trickster and his wife lived happily for many years, though her father spent a great deal of time in prison when the police discovered a stolen bank vault in his yard.
As John Francis sat down to his breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, he earned the achievement “One Year Without Bacon.” As if that wasn’t enough for him to feel good about himself, the congratulations began to roll in immediately.
“I’ve been trying for that one myself,” a friend of his told him, “But every time I make it past the one-month mark I fail!”
“Maybe you should get your doctor to sign you up for a more realistic set of achievements,” John replied, “One month without, three months without, six months…earning those early achievements is a great motivator.”
His daughter Cynthia came down the stairs. He turned towards her with a smile, then realized that she probably hadn’t seen the news.
“Honey, I did it,” he said.
“Did what, dad?” she asked.
“I did what the doctor said, I went a year without bacon.”
“Oh, was that today?” she said. “I forgot! Congratulations!”
“How could you forget?” he said, “I’ve been keeping track of it on the family calendar every day!”
She shook her head. “You know it’s harder for me to check those things than it is for you. Without an implant, I actually have to spend time looking it up rather than just thinking about it.”
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” he said, “Your 18th birthday is coming up, and your mother and I have talked about it, and we’ve decided that we’re willing to pay for the surgery for you to get one.”
“Thanks,” she said, “I appreciate it, but I don’t want one.”
John was stunned. “But honey, how are you going to be able to keep up?”
She shrugged. “I’ve done OK so far.”
“Do you really want to be chained to a phone or computer to be able to look things up or get in touch with people?”
She smiled at him. “I’m less of a slave to technology than you are, dad. I’ve got to go to school, I’ll see you later.”
As she left, John shook his head in disbelief. Most kids her age couldn’t wait until they turned 18 and could undergo the surgery to get their own implants. What was wrong with her?
He carefully considered the thought, then tweeted it. “My daughter doesn’t want an implant. What’s wrong with her?”
Amazingly, it took a few minutes before anyone responded.
“You should take her to a shrink!”
“Is she afraid of the surgery? Did you tell her it’s not that big a deal?”
“It’s her choice…but I sure don’t get it!”
The replies started coming in quickly, almost overwhelmingly. He was even starting to get responses from strangers. John had had his implant for years, though, and was used to sifting through the flood of information to weed out the useful comments from the crap. As usual, most of it was crap and none of it was any help. Finally, though he got a message from an old high school friend of his.
“I don’t think it’s such a big deal,” the friend said.
“What do you mean?” John asked him, “I’m worried about her. She’ll get left behind! She won’t be able to do as well in school or work as other people her age…I’m sure these days not having an implant guarantees you’ll never get a very good job.”
“Of course,” his friend said, “But she’ll learn that on her own. Every generation has its own ways of rebelling, but they eventually grow out of it. Even the hippies eventually cut their hair and went and got jobs. My son didn’t want an implant at first, either. It only took him a month after all his friends got one before he changed his mine.”
John was relieved. “Thanks,” he said, “You’re right, of course. I feel a lot better now.”
Later that afternoon, after Cynthia was back home from school and John was back home from work, he sat down to talk to her.
“Of course, it’s entirely your decision not to get an implant,” he told her, “But you do realize this will make life more difficult for you.”
“Oh, I’m sure it will,” she said. “A couple people in my class have theirs already and I can already see that they’re much better off than me in most ways.”
“Then why don’t you want one?” he asked.
“It’s just…I know people can turn them off, but nobody ever does.”
“Sure they do,” John said.
“When was the last time you turned yours off, except when you were going to sleep?”
He paused. “I…I don’t remember,” he said.
“Exactly,” she said. “It’s one of those things that once you have it, you can’t live without it.”
“But that’s because it’s so useful! You’re never alone, for one. You can instantly get in contact with your family or friends. And if you need to look something up all you need to do is think about it! Nobody ever turns it off not because they can’t live without it, but because it makes everything so much more…efficient.”
“It’s not really that much more efficient,” she said, “My phone has access to the same internet that your implant does, I just use my voice instead of my thoughts to tell it what to do.”
He shook his head. “It’s not the same, you can’t understand until you have one. It’s just so much…better.”
“I’m not arguing against that, Dad,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s bad, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t use it. I’m just saying that it’s nice to know that at least inside my head I can have some peace and quiet. Try it. Turn your implant off now. Remember what it was like before you were constantly connected.”
John considered it, then remembered what his friend had said and shook his head. “You’ll grow out of it,” he said.
Mr. Johnson had been coming to our restaurant for years. Every time he came in, he would order the same meal: grilled chicken with a side of broccoli, a baked potato (butter only) and a coffee. After he finished eating and the plates were cleared away, he would take out his domino set. Occasionally he would come in to eat with someone else and they would play with him. Sometimes one of us would sit down to play a round or two. Often, he simply played by himself. Whatever the case, he frequently stayed for at least an hour after he was done eating, and sometimes even longer. He would sip his coffee, politely asking for refills when necessary.
Newer employees were sometimes annoyed by him. “Why is that guy just sitting there playing dominoes?” they fumed. “He’s already eaten and paid for his meal, he’s just taking up a table that some other paying customer could use.”
“That’s Mr. Johnson,” we’d tell them. “Who the hell are you? He’s been a part of this restaraunt longer than you have.”
The restaraunt closed at 10 P.M. Mr Johnson knew that we were trying to go home. Although nobody had ever asked him to leave, he always packed up his dominoes and left as soon as the clock struck 10 if he happened to still be around at that time. Not to mention, he always tipped well.
Nobody knew anything about him. He knew several of us by name, and we would often sit and talk to him, but he never talked about himself or his life. Most people thought he was a lonely widower, his children (if any) grown and long gone. There were, of course, much more wild rumors as well. Some claimed that he was a former Nazi, or a former spy, or even a current spy. One wild-eyed fry cook floated the hypothesis that Mr. Johnson was a highly advanced domino-playing robot.
A busboy tailed Mr. Johnson home one day to see where he lived. The next day a crowd gathered around him to hear the details of Mr. Johnson’s home life.
“Where did he live? What was it like?” they asked him.
“It was just a regular house,” he said, shrugging.
Mr. Johnson didn’t come in every day, so it took a few weeks before we realized he hadn’t been in for quite some time. There was a sense of quiet panic as we all tried to figure out what had happened to our favorite customer.
“It had to happen eventually,” the conspiracy theorists said, “His cover got blown, the CIA’s taken him in for questioning.”
Henrietta Simmons discovered the answer as she was paging through the newspaper on her break. Henrietta was the type of person who always read the obituaries. She said it made her feel better about herself.
“Come quick!” she called, “Mr. Johnson is dead!”
Stuart Johnson died Tuesday. He was 89.
He died at the Angel of Mercy Hospital of respiratory failure.
Mr. Johnson served in the Army during World War II, and entered the paper industry after returning. Mr. Jonhson was an avid domino player (several of us chuckled as we read that) and dog breeder.
He is survived by three children and five grandchildren. Services will be held privately.
We passed around the newspaper in silence. After all these years, we finally had gotten a glimpse into the life of Mr. Johnson, and now it was too late. Many were secretly disappointed, as it turned out that his life was not nearly as exciting as they had imagined. Mr. Johnson was just a regular person.
We cut out the obituary, had it framed, and hung it up on the wall. It’s still there to this day.
We were on our way to see someone Todd called the Eyeball Kid. I don’t know how he found these people. While most of us were cowering in fear at the nightmare we’d seen the world become, Todd seemed to thrive on it. It’s like Freak had only confirmed what he already knew about the world, and now he’d thrown himself full-heartedly into the weirdness.
We pulled up to an apartment complex. A pretty shitty one, too. Todd led me to room 27 and knocked on the door, which opened immediately, still on the chain.
“Who is it?” a voice called out.
“It’s me, Todd,” he said, smiling.
The door shut, then reopened, revealing a haggard-looking young woman, early twenties at most. Her sunken, tired eyes told me that she, too, was a Freak user. She glanced at me suspiciously.
“It’s alright,” Todd said. He pulled a bottle of pills out of his pocket and handed them to her.
“He’s in the den,” she said, wearily, stepping back into the shadows to let us pass.
“What was that?” I hissed at Todd. “Did you just give her Freak?”
“No,” he said, “There’s no way she’ll ever take Freak again after what happened to her kid. They’re sleeping pills. She has a hard time sleeping, understandably.”
“What happened to her…” I began, then stopped, gasping. We’d entered the den. Sitting at the table was a young boy, about 6 years old. What shocked me was his eyes. They were too big for his face, bulging out so far his eyelids couldn’t even completely shut around them when he blinked.
“Hey Teddy,” Todd said, pulling a piece of paper and a box of crayons from his pocket. “It’s me, Todd. You remember me, right? Want to draw a picture for me?”
The kid nodded, grasping blindly in the air in front of him until Todd put the crayons and paper into his hands.
“Don’t worry,” Todd said, stepping back and standing next to me, “They’re fake eyes.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“His mom used Freak when she was pregnant. He was born without eyes. Just empty sockets.”
“And you wouldn’t believe how expensive kid-sized glass eyes are,” Todd said, shaking his head, “You have to get ’em custom made.”
“Why are we here, Todd?” I asked.
“Turns out Freak’s got some literary sensibilities,” he grinned bitterly. “It took the kid’s eyes, but he can see the future. And if you bring him a piece of paper and some crayons he’ll draw it for you.”
“Todd,” I said, “If he was born without eyes, how does he know what a nod means?”
“I try not to think about it,” he said.
By now, the kid had finished drawing. He waved the paper in the air to get our attention. Todd stepped forward to take it.
“Thanks, Teddy,” he said. “You can keep the crayons.”
The kid smiled at him, showing a full mouth of very sharp teeth.
Todd stepped back and glanced at the picture. I craned my neck to see, but he held it away from me.
“Come on,” he said, “What if I’m having sex in it or something?”
It would have had to have been some really messed up sex, though, because as he looked over the picture, all the color drained from Todd’s face. Wordlessly, he passed it to me, and I could immediately see why.
In Sunnyville, every day was exactly the same. Every family would wake up at 7:00 AM sharp. The parents prepared breakfast, took the kids to school, and headed to work. At 12:00 PM came lunch break. Everyone in the town stopped what they were doing to open their brown paper bags to remove their perfectly cut pastrami sandwich. At 3:00 PM the children got home from school, and at 5:00 PM the parents came home from work, in time for dinner at 6:00 PM, after which the children went right upstairs to do their homework. At 9:15 PM the children would be tucked into bed. The mother or father would read a simple story out of the book on the nightstand, each story taking exactly 15 minutes, so the lights could be off by 9:30 PM. Afterwards, the parents rejoined each other on the couch in the den to watch a sitcom before the 10 o’clock news came on. The news anchors would report that everything was perfect, that everything was going along exactly as it should, just as it had yesterday, the day before that, the day before that, and so on and so on as long as anyone could remember.
There was very little excitement in anyone’s life, but they were secure, and they were happy. Or at least content, which is, when it comes down to it, good enough.
One day, by chance, the Trickster happened to come to Sunnyville. He stood on the hill overlooking the city and watched the industrious citizens go about their daily lives. He sat on the hill for days, watching, waiting for something to change, but of course, nothing ever did.
“This is disgusting,” he said to himself, “I can’t bear to look at a land so orderly and controlled. I’ve got to do something.”
The Trickster sat and thought to himself, trying to figure out the best way to disrupt Sunnyville. He brooded and he pondered, he dreamed and he imagined, he schemed and he planned. Finally, he realized that sewing chaos here would be simple indeed, so simple that he laughed at himself for not realizing it earlier.
Early the next morning, the Trickster awoke at 7:00 AM, just like all the other inhabitants of the town. Unlike them, though, he did not fetch the morning paper, pour himself a cup of coffee, feed the dog or scramble eggs. Instead, he walked straight to the central square of the city and stood right in the middle of the intersection.
Soon, the cars began to pour out of the driveways of Sunnyville, and for the first time in their lives, the people experienced a traffic jam.
It wasn’t like any traffic jam you or I have ever seen, however. The pleasant people of Sunnyville had never in their lives been held up like this before. Rather than getting angry or frustrated, like those of us who don’t live in perfect worlds, they were simply confused.
The Trickster stood staring at the central clock for exactly ten minutes. And then, he simply stepped off the street and left Sunnyville forever.
The people, still confused, tried to salvage the rest of the day as much as they could. While nothing went seriously wrong, they felt as though their whole day was thrown off.
The next morning, though, they felt much better. Most of them woke up at 7:00 AM sharp, exactly like every other day.
But some of them woke up at 6:59. And some of them woke up at 7:01.
“All I want out of life,” she said, “is to kick the world’s ass.”
I watched her out of the corner of my eye. Her bright pink hair stuck out at angles that shouldn’t even be possible. Every word that she said was one of the most unexpected and obscene things I could imagine. She was the most amazing person I’d ever met.
When we got to her door, she turned and kissed me full on the mouth. I was so surprised, I didn’t even think to shut my eyes.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, laughing, “Never kissed a girl before?” Without waiting for an answer, she turned and skipped up the stairs, still laughing.
Her parents hated me. When she brought me home to meet them, her mother cried as her father screamed. They called me names, blamed me for “corrupting” their daughter.
“But she corrupted me,” is what I wanted to say. But of course I didn’t.
“Don’t worry,” she told me that night after she’d snuck out of the house, “I wouldn’t like you if they didn’t hate you.” We’d just made love for the first time.
We were in the park. I had packed a picnic basket and a bottle of wine. She laughed and called me a walking cliché, but I could tell that she enjoyed it.
After we ate, she lit up a joint. “You want a hit?” she asked.
“No thanks,” I said, “I don’t really…”
“Come on,” she laughed, holding it up to my lips, “Live a little.”
What the hell, I thought, and took a drag.
“How will I know when it hits me?” I asked, five minutes later after I’d stopped coughing.
“You’ll know,” she laughed.
My gaze wandered over to the tree we were sitting under. I was suddenly struck with awe at the intricate pattern of bark covering the trunk. No artist could paint something so detailed, and yet here it had occurred entirely by random chance. Not only that, but no other tree in the history of the world would ever have the exact same pattern of bark. I rolled over and stared up at the leafy canopy. I was astonished at the number of leaves — they seemed uncountable. I turned to look at her, and was overwhelmed with the deepest feelings of positivity, thankfulness to the universe just for the fact that she existed.
“Your eyes are as red as the devil’s dick!” she laughed, “You’re high as hell!”
I laughed too. Why shouldn’t we laugh? We were still young enough that life was funny.
We moved up north and got married. A few years later, I brought up having kids.
“No fucking way am I gonna get pregnant!” she said, “I’m not going through nine whole months of that shit, forget it. Unless you’re volunteering?”
I wasn’t, of course. We adopted. A girl from China. When she turned 17, she ran away and joined the army. We got a letter a few months later saying she’d been killed.
We never talked about it, but we both knew we blamed ourselves. And, to some degree, each other.
She moved out one day. She said it wasn’t my fault. She felt like she’d turned into her mother and couldn’t live with herself that way. I told people she’d run away with some young actor, but as far as I know she never saw anyone else. I know I never did.
I sat by her bed in the hospital. She’d been unresponsive ever since the stroke, but I was there every day. It’s not like I had much else to do these days.
She opened her eyes and looked at me. “Hey there,” she said, a pained smile crossing her lips.
“Shhh,” I said, taking hold of her hand, “Don’t strain yourself.”
She seemed as though she didn’t hear me. “It was a good run, wasn’t it?” she said, squeezing my hand.
“It was,” I said.
“We sure kicked the world’s ass,” she said.
“We sure did,” I said. “We sure did.”
“Yuri!” screamed Zed the Collector, “You son of a devil! I know you stole my brand new Elvis stamp last night!”
Whenever anything in town went missing, everyone blamed Yuri the Unvisible Man, even though as far as anyone could remember, he’d never actually ever been found guilty of stealing anything (in fact, half the time the “stolen” item was actually just lost and the owner usually found it a few days later).
“What a shame,” said Eugene the Thief (who accounted for the other half of the missing objects), shaking his head, “He truly is a menace.”
Yuri, fearing yet another attempted lynching, immediately took off his clothes and ran, bringing Zed’s chase to a halt. Zed spat on the unvisible man’s clothes and cursed.
“A man like that is nothing but trouble,” Zed said, “And not just because he’s a thief — no offense meant to your self, sir.”
Everyone in the village knew that Eugene was a thief, but nobody could ever prove it. And everyone liked him too much to try.
“Not just because he’s a thief,” Zed continued, “But also because I have a daughter. I’m worried what sort of mischief an unvisible man can get up to with the women in town!”
His daughter, Yulia, smiled to herself as she walked home from school with the other girls, because she knew first hand just what sort of mischief Yuri did get up to with the women in town, or at least one woman in particular.
“It’s unholy,” agreed the thief, “A man no one can see has too much to hide.” Secretly, he was just jealous of Yuri’s transparency and thought that he could put it to much better use.
Yulia made her way through the forest to the river bank where she knew Yuri went to sulk whenever he was blamed for a crime. She knew that he was there because of the twin indentations in the ground marking the resting place of the unvisible man’s buttocks.
“What can I do?” Yuri moaned, “I’ll never be accepted, wherever I go! Nobody trusts an unvisible man. Your father will never let us marry!”
“You need to show them that having an unvisible man in the village is a good thing,” Yulia said, “You need to do something good that no visible man could ever do.”
“I’ve got it!” Yuri shouted, snapping his fingers (or so Yulia assumed, he could have been cracking his neck for all she knew). “I’ll finally catch Eugene in the act! That way, I’ll clear my name and also help the village at the same time!”
“That’s wonderful!” Yulia exclaimed, leaning over to try and kiss him, but falling flat on her face because she was three feet too far to the left.
So, for the next few nights, Yuri sat on the roof of his house watching for Eugene. It was difficult work. The nights in this part of the country could be bitterly cold, and of course he had to sit through the whole night entirely naked. Some nights, Yulia would sneak out and bring him warm borscht, which made it slightly more bearable.
It seemed as though Eugene was living easy off the profits he had made from selling Zed’s prized Elvis stamp, because the village was free of any larceny for two weeks (though Yuri was still blamed when the widow Ivanova’s cat batted her favorite necklace under the dresser). The cold, sleepless nights began to wear on Yuri’s resolve, and he feared that he’d missed his chance.
However, a stroke of luck came into his life when a famous merchant came through town. The people in the town were so pleased to see a foreigner, they insisted he stay the night free of charge in Nikolai’s inn. Yuri knew that Eugene wouldn’t be able to resist the call of the merchant’s many riches, and late that night, his suspicions were confirmed as he spied Eugene sneaking towards the inn.
“Stop, thief!” he shouted, leaping off of the roof and landing on Eugene, knocking him unconscious. He shouted “Thief!” until a crowd began to gather.
“What’s the matter?” shouted Ivan the Sheriff, running up to the scene, wearing his uniform over his nightclothes.
“Yuri’s attacked Eugene!” shouted Zed.
“He’s too dangerous,” Ivan said, shaking his head. “Back when he was just a simple thief, we could let him roam free. But a violent unvisible man is too dangerous to have in town. There’s nothing left to do but to throw him in jail.”
So they did.