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Flowers for Barry Ween

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Barely post-teenage kid on a liquid crystal screen, tall, gangly, just beginning the final transition from "boy" into "man," blond hair standing up in spikes that tell their own story; a story of sleepless nights, hands running and re-running through hair, tugging, yanking, snarling as the work, the endless work, continues. If there's such a thing as "mad scientist hair," this kid's got it. His eyes are fixed on the camera. Angry eyes. Old eyes, much too old for the face they're in, eyes that have seen too much, looked into the secret heart of the world, and found it wanting. He holds the camera captive with his gaze, measuring what he's about to say, and when he begins to speak, his voice is tight, furious...and tired.

"My name is Barry Ween, and you'd better fucking believe that I am of sound mind and body. At least right now. How much longer it's going to last...let's just say that I've weighed the options, I've measured my own condition, and it's this or my best impression of Doctor Doom. And I would be a very, very good Doctor Doom. Believe me."

He glances away for a moment, and when he looks back, the anger is gone; only the exhaustion remains. No one that young should ever look that tired.

"I did this because it had to be done, and because nobody else could do it, and because I refuse to be yet another stupid fucker letting hubris get him killed, or worse, get someone else killed. It's the only way. You wanna know the funny part? It wasn't even my idea. It was Jeremy. He's the one that made me think of it. And after the idea..." He shrugs, and the gesture speaks volumes. After the idea comes the execution. After the idea has always come the execution, because that's what it means to be him; that's why the wall of sanity behind his eyes has grown so damn thin. "Anyway. Here we are. So listen up, you future douche bag. I don't give a shit what you do or don't remember, or whether this makes any sense to you, or why you're watching this recording. I. Don't. Care. But I want you to be sure you understand one thing before you go any further with whatever it is you're doing: I did this of my own free will. It was the best hand in a fucked-up game, and I took it. You took it, back when you were still me.

"So think about that, and be sure you want to do this."

*

JEREMY RAMIREZ: STILL MONKEYIN' AROUND.

*

So here's the deal, okay? From the time I was five until I was twenty, my best buddy was like, the smartest dude on the goddamn planet. Seriously. Einstein, that dude from the Jurassic Park movies who invented dinosaurs, the guy in the wheelchair who talks like a robot, that guy who invented the Internet and global warming--none of them could hold a fucking candle to Barry. He didn't just blow the bell curve, he got the bell curve to blow him. And it paid for the fucking privilege, because he was just that fucking smart. Barry changed everything. None of the rules could touch him, none of the boundaries applied--he wasn't just playing a different game, he was playing in a different league. Am I makin' sense yet? Barry wasn't smart. Smart wasn't a big enough word.

I saw that guy fight aliens, an' warriors from another dimension, an' army assholes who wanted to fuck me up because they thought I was him, an' no matter what happened, he never let me get hurt. Not me, not Roxie...not Sara. Especially not Sara. That's the kind of friend Barry was, once he decided he was gonna give a damn about you. I guess that's why he always tried so hard to pretend he didn't care. Because once he did, he'd change the universe to make sure you didn't have to deal with its bullshit. Best friend a guy ever had. He still is. It's just, well...

It's just that things are different now.

I always knew things were hard on him. I mean, have you ever seen those videos of, like, kittens raised by gorillas? Everything's all cool at first, but eventually, the kittens just want to go off and be cats, and the gorillas still expect them to be little baby monkeys. And they can't do it. They just can't. But sometimes they try, see, 'cause they don't wanna let the gorillas down, and then they just sort of snap. They can't be monkeys and they can't be cats, but they can be totally fucking crazy. That was Barry. He was so much smarter than everybody else that just playing at our level was driving him out of his mind, one little day at a time. It didn't help that he was getting smarter. He tried to explain it to me once, something about "exponential curves" and "correlative synapse function," but I was like, dude, who the fuck do you think I am? You? And then he just looked sad, and said that no one was. Unless there was another whatchacallit, genetic anoma-thingy like whatever made him, he was always gonna be a cat inside the monkey house. Except for the part where this cat was a super-super-super-genius. Which I guess kinda changed everything.

It wasn't any secret that Barry was afraid of going, y'know, cuckoo for his cocoa puffs. Not from anyone but Sara, I guess; we got through elementary school and middle school and all the way up to high school, and there's them, going from goin' steady to goin' out to goin' at it in the backseat of Barry's car, and he never told her without wiping her memory right after. "She looks at me different when she knows," he'd say. "I still can't take it." That was pretty much the end of it, because once Barry made up his mind, it stayed made up. I didn't like it, him messing with Sara's head like that--but he never made her like him, and he never made her love him, and I guess that means he had the best intentions. So she never knew that he didn't sleep, or that he was starting to work faster and faster, trying to empty out his head enough that the junk that kept on flowing wouldn't make him explode. "I'm running the Red Queen's Gambit, Jer," he said once. "I'm running as hard as I can, just to stay where I already am. And it's not enough. I'm slipping."

Shit, I never understood half the things he used to say to me. But it was okay, 'cause he didn't really expect me to. He was just talking so he'd know somebody else was listening, and I'd say something about my nuts, and he'd smile that little smile of his, and we'd keep going. Him and me. It's not like that anymore, and I guess some days I wish he'd turn around and say something I can't understand, just because I miss it. Things are better this way, he's better this way, but sometimes...I mean, shit, sometimes a guy just misses the kid he grew up with. The one who had all the answers.

Only the last answer didn't start with him: it started with me, kinda. 'Cause, see, we went all the way through grade school together, and he already had degrees from all the best colleges in the world--why would he want to go there in person? Especially if it meant he'd have to leave behind the people he'd already allowed himself to care about--so when Sara an' Roxie got into State, he just changed a few numbers on my transcripts, and the two of us followed. He'd always been careful about his grades, making sure they were never high enough to attract attention, and when Sara got one of those "you so smart" awards that meant she got to talk at graduation, he grinned like he'd just won the world. She was the only one who ever made him smile like that. And then it was the four of us off to college, no supervision, no one to say "don't eat that many Oreos, Jeremy" or "chicks don't dig monkeys, Jeremy." I mean, dude, fuck that, my chick's like, the Missing goddamn Link, she loves the monkeys.

And Barry was going insane.

So there we were in Speculative Fiction 101--what kind of school lets you read comic books for credit?!--and the teacher's talking about this story about a dude who makes me look like Barry and a mouse with a really stupid name, and this operation that made them both, like, super-smart. The dude gets smart the same way Barry had been getting smart, more and more all the time, only with him, it stopped, and then it turned itself around. And that night, when Barry was rewiring an iPod to hold more nudies than the entire Internet, I said, just sort of accidental-like, "It's too bad there's not a way to do what they did in the story the other way around. Make yourself just like everybody else." Barry froze, and just stood there, staring at me.

Three days later, the machine was ready, and he told me what he was gonna do to himself. What it would mean, 'cause see, he wasn't gonna make himself dumb--he'd never do that, fucker was too proud, and besides, he knew he'd lose Sara if he made himself all-the-way stupid--but he was gonna put himself on the smart end of "normal," which meant he couldn't let himself remember that he'd done it. Because he might start getting frustrated at all the things he knew he used to be able to do, and couldn't handle anymore. He might forget how it felt to be a cat in the monkey house, and just wonder how he could give all that up. If he remembered, if he knew...he might undo it. That's why it took three days. He had to make a machine that could turn off just parts of his brain. Like the ones where he kept the super-smartness, and the ones where he kept everything it meant. But not the parts where he kept us.

My best friend walked into his lab and he sent a stranger out in his place. A dude who's, y'know, nice and all, but doesn't remember traveling through time, or me mutating the babysitter, or anything that really matters. He thinks we played a lot of make-believe when we were kids. He doesn't know the half of it.

Roxie an' me, we covered for him, made sure no one else noticed. Sara noticed the change a little, I think, but he'd always been so careful with her. It's been four years. She still doesn't know what he did. So it's just me an' Roxie, watching the scanners he gave us, watching the security systems he built, and wondering whether the planet can hold up without Barry Ween to save it.

The outer perimeter scanner beeped yesterday. It's never beeped before. Not even when there was that whole stupid thing with the galactic tourists and the beacon they wanted to plant on the Moon. Roxie's checking the numbers--she's always been the smart one--but I think I know what we're gonna have to do. I hope he believes we didn't have a choice. I hope he believes it wasn't just because I missed him.

Jesus, I hope that he forgives me.

*

ROXIE RAMIREZ: STICKING YOUR FOOT IN IT.

*

Barry Ween was the best man at my wedding, even though Jeremy and I didn't get married until two years after he'd shut off something like half his brain. Barry Ween was the one who made it possible for me to essentially change species--I'm not human, I avoid hospitals like I used to avoid landslides and tabloid reporters, but I can live human, as long as I stay careful. Barry was even the first one to realize that maybe someday, Jeremy and I would want kids. Before he zapped himself, he gave me three months' worth of "birth control pills" designed to temporarily reconfigure just a little portion of my DNA. Our kids'll be human, when we decide to have them, but they'll be ours. I owe Barry a lot. Maybe everything. That's why I knew, when Jeremy said that the outer perimeter scanner was going off, I knew that we had to be sure. Not just a little bit sure; all the way sure. Because if we were going to do this to him, if we were going to bring him back, we were going to do it knowing that there was nothing else we could possibly have done. Nothing.

So I ran tests and fed numbers into the computer that controlled Barry's crazy-complex web of sensors and defenses and solar panels and satellites and crap--I swear, before he went and tried to buy himself a ticket on the short bus, that fucker sent more shit into space than the entire Chinese space program--and mostly just agreed to anything the automated systems wanted to do. Barry built that sucker good. Largely, I think, because he knew we'd be using it without him, one way or another.

Jeremy was Barry's best friend. He still is, even though he kinda has trouble relating to a version of Barry who doesn't accidentally rip holes in the fabric of space and time between classes. Sara was Barry's girlfriend, and she always was, even before they actually admitted it openly. I mean, dude goes through the kind of crap he went through for her, he really cares. Me, well...

I was the one he could talk to. I was the one who was most like him, outside the greater mass of humanity, but looking in, playing along; pretending to be just like them, even though I always knew I wasn't. I really think that's why he brought me down from the mountain. He was looking for somebody who would understand what it was to be surrounded by people without really belonging. And most of all, at the end of the day, he was looking for somebody who respected him but didn't love him, somebody who understood in a way that Jeremy never, ever could, no matter how much support he offered, or how good of a friend he was.

He was looking for somebody who'd be able to hold the gun.

The computer finished running its last data-check with a loud "ping" that was nothing at all like its normal attempts at sounding normal and non-intrusive. I clicked to confirm that I was at the screen, and entered my passwords--all three of them, one security level at a time. Barry was human and paranoid and smarter than hell. When he locked a system down, he made damn good and sure that no one who wasn't supposed to have access was ever gonna get in.

At first, the data displaying on the screen didn't make any sense. Normally, space is big and messy and chaotic, and full of crap. Barry's crap, NASA's crap, natural crap, crap. Space is the kitchen junk drawer of the universe. It's where all the things nobody wants wind up getting jammed. Only the data was telling me that there was nothing out there. No asteroids, no comets, no space-junk, nothing.

And then the data refined itself, and started telling me that there was something there. It was just that the "something" was so small and so thinly spread that it looked like nothing, at least until it encountered something else. Then it coalesced into a coherent swarm of teeny-tiny little things, and surrounded the something, until the swarm got bigger and the something just wasn't there anymore. It was...the computer couldn't tell me what it was. Space plankton or nanotech or what. I could draw my own conclusions from there, because even without the computer, I could tell that it was coming. And I could tell that it was coming.

Sighing, I picked up my phone and pressed 'redial'. "Jeremy? Jeremy! Tell me about the elephant shit later, okay? This is...this is serious." I put my free hand over my face, blocking off the view of the computer screen and its silently moving swarm of invisible "something." "Something's coming. It's almost to the outer defenses, and it's not slowing down.

"Jeremy, we have to bring Barry back."

*

BARRY WEEN: WON'T GET FOOLED AGAIN.

*

So I was sitting at home, trying to write a sonnet for Sara--it was supposed to be the semi-crowning touch on our romantic anniversary dinner, with the actual crowning touch being my Mom's engagement ring and a question my beloved girlfriend was probably going to beat out of me before too much longer--when there was a knock at the apartment door. I checked the time as I stood. Barely four-thirty in the afternoon. Way too early for Sara to be getting home from work. I was only there because it was a school holiday: Barry Ween, high school science teacher. So if it wasn't Sara at the door, who was it?

Answer: Jeremy and Roxie, hand in hand, Roxie towering almost five full inches over her more diminutive husband, and both of them looking completely miserable. Seriously, if they'd had kids, or dogs, or even a goldfish, my first thought would have been "what time did they die?" But they didn't. There was just the two of them, living in this little house that Roxie was paying off with her photography while Jeremy worked at the comic book store, and so I just stared at them, trying to think of something to say. Only Jeremy spoke first, and all he said was my name, so full of sorrow and regret and "fuck man I don't want to be the one who says this" that I knew. I just knew. All the strength went out of my legs, and I staggered backward, catching myself when my shoulder hit the wall. Roxie's eyes widened. Jeremy just looked confused.

I had to fight for a second to find my voice, finally saying, "Sara. How...how bad is it? Is she...?"

Roxie's eyes widened further as she understood, and she hurried to fill the silence between us, saying, "Oh, no! No, Barry, no, Sara's fine, this isn't about..."

"This doesn't have anything to do with Sara yet," Jeremy said. For once, he was the calm one, he was the rock, while Roxie and I were stumbling. That was new. And almost scarier than the thought that something had happened to Sara, because Jeremy only sounds like that when it really matters. My mind was racing, looking for other possible victims. Jeremy's parents. My parents. Hell, even Roxie's foster parents--they always took care of her like she was theirs, right? Maybe losing one of them would be enough to put that look on her face. Stranger things have happened. "Barry, we have to talk to you. Is this a good time?"

Not when you have that look on your face, I thought, but somehow, I found the reserves to smile, to stand upright; Jeremy's been my friend pretty much forever, and when he needs me, I'm there. "Shit, Jer, it's always a good time for you. Come on in. Either of you guys want something to drink? I've got Sara's Diet Coke, there's OJ, and I think there's still some beer in the cooler..." Roxie was moving toward the table, and I laughed, a little embarassedly. "That's, uh, something I've been trying to write for me and Sara's date tonight. It's not finished. Whoever decided to combine math and poetry is a big dickcheese."

That must have been the wrong thing to say, because Roxie just shook her head, looking sad. Jeremy cleared his throat, and said, "It's...this isn't easy. Can we maybe just sit down in the living room, and we'll explain? It'll be easier if we just explain. And you have to promise to really listen. No laughing at us. This is serious."

"Scout's honor," I said, holding up two fingers.

Roxie snorted. "You were never a Boy Scout. You hate camping more than I do."

"Sentiment counts," I said, and followed them into the living room. I had no idea what was coming next. If I had, I would've, I don't know, told them I was busy or something, and called the comic store to find out whether they'd had some sort of toxic gas spill. Clouds of space plankton that they'd managed to detect using super-advanced high-tech security systems I shot into orbit when I was fifteen? Dude, when I was fifteen, all I gave a shit about was finding a way to hack the parental controls on the school computers so we could get some decent quality porn in the place. Like I had time to go shooting shit into space, even if I knew how?

They talked for like twenty minutes, and when they finished, they just looked at me, all expectant, totally waiting for my response. I guess I was supposed to buy into the joke, or maybe freak out a little, trying to figure out whether they were serious or they'd just caught a good, old-fashioned case of nervous hysteria. Yeah, right. That shit ain't scientific, and my mama didn't raise no fools. I looked at them solemnly, turning my attention from one drawn, grave face to the other, and then I did exactly what the situation called for: I laughed.

Jeremy looked stunned; Roxie just looked like she'd been expecting it. That was enough to make me laugh harder, wrapping my arms around myself and gasping for air as the tears squirted free and started running down my cheeks. "Awwww, fuck, you guys..."

"Barry, we're serious," said Jeremy, in that same calm, slightly saddened voice. It should have stopped me, hearing him like that, but just the thought of how long they must have practiced for this prank was enough to set me off again. He turned toward Roxie, brows drawn together; she put her arm around his shoulders, and I? I kept laughing.

"Heh," Roxie said, finally. It was more, I don't know, the idea of a laugh, the symbol of a laugh than an actual laugh, but it was accompanied by an ear-to-ear smile. What Jer would've called a shit-eating grin, if I'd worn it. She stood, hauling Jeremy along in her wake. She's been doing that since our first year of college. "See, Jeremy? I told you he'd see through it."

Jeremy giggled weakly. "Can't blame a guy for trying."

"You two are fuckin' awesome, you know that?" I stood, wiping the tears off my cheeks. "You knew I was gonna propose to Sara tonight, and you just wanted to kill my nerves. Good job. I mean it. But now, if it's nothing but fairy tales about alien invasions and brain-blaster machines and me being some sort of Einstein--"

"You used to call Einstein a hack," said Jeremy, mostly to himself.

"--I really gotta finish getting ready for Sara to get home. Big night."

"The biggest," agreed Roxie, faintly. "Thanks for putting up with our little jokes."

"Always."

They were almost out the door when Jeremy paused, looking back at me, and asked, "Why'd you stop wearing your hair up in spikes? They looked good on you. The spikes. Kinda...right."

"Huh?" I raised a hand to my head, and shrugged. "Guess I don't have the same anxiety issues I did as a kid. I don't pull on it as much."

"Guess so," Jeremy agreed, and they were gone, Roxie pulling the door shut as they exited. I frowned at the door for a while, feeling like I was missing something that actually mattered, before I shrugged and turned to head back to the table. Sara would be home soon, and I still had a sonnet to write.

*

"They're used to being able to count on me when shit gets bad. Things get funky, they turn to ol' Barry, and he makes everything right again. After tonight, that's not gonna work anymore. They're gonna need to find new answers. I think they'll be able to do it--my friends are pretty damn smart--but the probability is still that eventually, there's gonna come a day when they really think they're out of answers. Jeremy and Roxie, they're the first line of defense. They're the ones who'll be watching to see what's out there, waiting for the day when whatever it is turns out to be just too much. I'd like to think that day won't come, that they'll be able to step up enough to make sure it doesn't, but the I don't trust the fucking universe to go along with what I'd like to think. Mostly, it just goes with what I do think, and what I think is that you're out there, sometime in my future, watching this tape, thinking everyone around you is so full of shit that their eyes are turning brown...but starting to believe a little, too, because the evidence says it's true. The evidence says this is the real deal. Hard to fight with the evidence. Fucking evidence.

"They're gonna try to convince you that you're the last hope for mankind. They're gonna say you knew this day could come, that you were prepared for it, that you may not be happy about it, but you'd be a lot less happy with everybody dead. They're probably gonna be right. That's the lousy thing about my friends--our friends, because I swear, you future pussy, if they're not still a part of your life, I will rise up out of whatever part of your hindbrain I'm about to blast myself into, and I will hurt you. They're all I ever really did in the world. The science happened because I didn't have a choice. I chose them.

"They can't make you choose this, Barry. They can't make you close the door on being you and open the door on being me. Only you can do that. So what I'm asking is this: you listen hard to what they're saying, and you let yourself believe them, and you choose the right thing. That's what you get. This choice. This choice, and however many years pass between here and wherever it is you are. This choice is yours, and yours alone. Not theirs, and not mine.

"So make it."

*

JEREMY RAMIREZ: MONKEY SEE, MONKEY DON'T.

*

We were barely out of the apartment before Roxie turns to me and says, all serious-like, in that voice she used to use when she was shrieking about Barry making her take her library books back, "We have to talk to Sara."

Me, I'm still a little shell-shocked just then--y'know? I mean, you tell a guy he used to me smarter than fuckin' Lex Luthor, you expect him to at least be a little flattered, even if he's not gonna listen--so I said the first thing that came into my head, which was, sadly, "Why?" Sadly because as soon as the word was out of my mouth, she whacked me in the back of the head, just like we were suddenly riding some crazy-ass invention of Barry's all the way back to elementary school. Which was nuts. Even if Barry hadn't gone and dumbed himself down to live with the rest of us monkeys, he never did make a time machine that worked. Not on purpose, anyway. "Ow! What'd you go and do that for?"

"She's the only one that's got any chance of getting through to him. And she's got--"

"Ooooooooh. Right." I nodded, finally seeing where she was going with all this. Hey, what do you want from me? It was shaping up to be one fuckin pisser of a day.

See, when Barry came up with his grand brain-blaster plan, he put some controls in place. First, he made this recording of himself, explaining exactly who and what and why and that it wasn't actually my fault. He showed it to us, when he explained what Roxie and I were supposed to do, and taught us how to work the security programs and what the various commands meant. Taught Roxie, anyway. Mostly, I looked through his collection of vintage eighties porn and made cracks about lousy boob jobs. But see, the recording...when it was done, he etched it onto a little piece of diamond that he'd grown himself, and he put it in a gold heart-shaped necklace he bought at the Valentine's Day sale at Sears, and he said...

He said...

"I'm giving this to Sara before I come back here. That way, if something goes wrong, the last thing she'll have to remember me with will be a good thing. But nothing's going to go wrong. Not right now, at least. Maybe someday. If you guys ever need me back the way I am now, you have to get the necklace from Sara. She has to understand what's going on, or you can't play the recording, and if you can't play the recording, you're never gonna convince me. I figure any version of me, however smart or stupid he is, is gonna be a skeptic."

So the dude spends literally years making sure Sara never finds out about the big brain, and then he runs off and leaves me an' Roxie holding the bag on the big reveal. No fair, right? How do you tell somebody "PS, your boyfriend used to be the smartest person in the world, maybe in the universe, and he burned his brain out so he wouldn't go crazy, and now we need to put it back together so that the alien slime monsters from out beyond Pluto don't eat the whole planet," huh? I mean, unless you want to put it just like that. Which, really, probably not gonna work on Sara.

"She's not gonna give us the necklace," I said, slowly. "She loves that fucking thing."

"I know. It was the first real jewelry Barry ever gave her." Roxie almost looked wistful as she said that.

I eyed her. "Hey. You said Bigfeet didn't do all that girly romantic stuff."

"I also quit being a Bigfoot to be a person, remember?"

Girls are damn weird, even when they're the next best thing to fictional. But there really wasn't time to argue about whether I'd been falling down on my husbandly duties by failing to supply jewelry, because dude, we needed to be focusing on the important things. Like how we were gonna convince Sara to give up her necklace. She really did love the thing. And I may not be the sharpest crayon in the box, but even I know that girls don't usually react well to conversations that start with "sorry to be the one to tell you this, but your boyfriend has been lying to you since the fourth grade."

"We can, uh, stress about that later. When the world isn't space slime." And I'd had a chance to go to the jewelry store. I sighed, looking up at her, and asked, "So what's the plan?"

Roxie tilted her head to the side, clearly thinking. Then she smiled. "I know just the way."

*

SARA TAN: IMPROBABLE SITUATIONS.

*

My friends rarely come to visit me at the office. Maybe it's a little bit of "there but for the grace of God"--I mean, really, look at us. Jeremy works in a comic book store and moderates online forums about comics (which he admits to) and porn stars (which we all pretend not to know about, but c'mon, Jeremy, we're not stupid). Roxie was a fashion model for about three years, made more money than anyone should ever have handed to them in one lump sum, spent most of it on books, and went into photography, which involves, quote, "less airbrushing, fewer assholes, and more carbohydrates." Whatever makes her happy. Barry teaches high school science, which somehow keeps him interested, even though, quote, "most of those kids would benefit from heavy sedation, loss of Internet privileges, and a smack upside the head." I think he likes how angry they are at the world. It reminds him of the way he used to be, before he mellowed out--and if Barry Ween can mellow out practically overnight, I guess there's hope for the rest of us. They're all stickin' it to The Man one way or another, and me?

I work in the human resources department of a major telephone company ("telco," in the local lingo, and maybe it's a sign that I've been here too long, but I have to think to expand that word into something longer). I wear a suit to the office every day, and whether you call it "business casual" or not, a suit is a suit is a suit. My language is polite, ladylike and refined, and I love Jeremy to death, but if he worked here, I'd have six sexual harassment cases to deal with in as many hours. Is this the future I planned for myself when I was a kid? No. But I make good money, I have friends who care about me, and I live with a man who really loves me, so I guess things turned out okay. Still, you can see why I was surprised when the receptionist buzzed my office and said, "Ms. Tan, a Mr. and Ms. Ramirez to see you."

"Wha--" I caught myself before the receptionist (Carol; I think her name is Carol) attempted to answer, and said, quickly, "Yes, please, send them in."

I try never to be sitting behind the desk when my friends actually come to see me--it makes me feel too much like the school principal getting ready to lay down the law--and I had the time, barely, to move around it, leaning with my hands centered on the blotter as they reached the door. I was trying to look casual. I was probably failing. It's hard to be casual when something that never happens decides to actually happen; that sort of thing is way too likely to be the sign of an oncoming emergency.

Roxie knocked. Jeremy just opened the door and stepped inside. That, right there, pretty much summarizes them both.

"Hey, you busy?" Jeremy said. "'cause we need to tell you some stuff, and ask you something."

"I was about to take a break, sure," I said. That was a lie--I still had at least two hours'-worth of work, and nowhere near that long to do it, if I didn't want to be late for the date Barry had hinted he was planning--but they looked so serious. I could spare a few minutes. Barry would forgive me. "What's going on, you two?"

"Uh..." said Roxie, looking just as flummoxed as she used to back in high school, when the gym teachers wanted to know why she could do three hundred pull-ups while the rest of us gave up after fifteen.

Jeremy has always been a lot harder to flummox, partially because he has no shame, but really more because he's never been bound by our silly Earth logic. Which is probably why he was able to say, with a straight face, "Sara, we need your necklace so we can make Barry smart again and he can use his big brain to save the world."

I blinked.

Jeremy appeared to take this as a sign of belief, because he added, "Please? I mean, it probably won't melt. Or turn into a giant robot. Or explode. That almost never happens."

I turned to Roxie. "Have you been letting him have sugar again?"

"Not this time," said Roxie, shaking her head slowly from side to side. "He really means it."

"He...really means that you need my necklace so you can make Barry smart...he teaches science, guys. Even if my necklace were some sort of magical artifact, he's not exactly dumb."

"He's not like he used to be," said Jeremy, and he sounded so damn sad...I didn't understand it. Only part of me, way down beneath my conscious mind, sort of did. That's why I didn't throw them out of my office. That's why I listened when Jeremy said, "Remember the class trip to the zoo, back in fourth grade? How you were totally cool with Barry all through the trip, but then you were mad for weeks, and you didn't know why?"

"Yeah..." I said, slowly. Things were beginning to rise at the bottom of my mind, like images seen in a dream.

"He used his memory-wiper-thingie on you. So you'd forget about the things you'd seen."

I eyed him. "What things?"

"Giant talking gorilla, warriors from another dimension, and Barry being so fucking smart that he could actually force himself to deny the existence of Oreos in order to focus on kicking horse-fucker ass," Jeremy said, promptly.

"Roxie...? I think Jeremy's finally lost his mind."

"I'm a Sasquatch," Roxie replied.

I stared at her. "What?"

"Sasquatch. Bigfoot. Piltdown Man. The great mystery of the North American woods. Size seventeen wide sneakers, greater muscle density, I don't float, Bigfoot." Roxie shrugged. "Barry domesticated me."

"I was a dinosaur once," added Jeremy, not to be outdone.

"...wow. You've both actually lost your minds," I said, taking a step backward. My ass hit the edge of the desk. I stopped. "Do I need to call security?"

"Didn't you ever wonder what happened to him?" asked Jeremy. "He used be moving constantly. He never stopped. He never even slowed down. He was smarter than all of us and you know it, even though he tried to hide it. And then it all just...stopped. Overnight, it just stopped. Didn't you ever wonder why?"

This time I stopped everything. For a moment, I even stopped breathing. Because what they were saying, I don't know how, and I don't know why, what they were saying...

...it sounded right.

My lungs remembered that they needed air. I took a breath, and, looking from Jeremy to Roxie and back, I asked one question: "What did he do?"

"Barry built a machine," Jeremy began, earnestly.

It all came clear from there.

*

BARRY WEEN: BACK TO BASICS.

*

Jeremy and Roxie came back about an hour after they left the first time, and this time, they had Sara with them; this time, they had Sara leading them, still in her work clothes, although she'd tucked her hair back behind her ears in a way that was endearing and almost childish, making her look like her own much-younger self playing dress-up in her mother's clothes. I stood hastily, shoving my half-finished sonnet behind a stack of bills.

"Uh, hey, Sara, hey, guys," I said. "I didn't know you'd be home so early. Or that you were coming back. Or...what's going on?"

"Get your coat," said Sara, heading for the bedroom. "Guys, I need to get my necklace, I'll be right back."

"Gotcha," said Jeremy, and grinned in my direction. "Y'know, I have always liked her."

"What the fuck is going on?" I asked, starting to get annoyed. "Come on, you two, I told you we had plans for tonight."

"And we told you you'd probably have to change them," Roxie said, in a matter-of-fact tone. "I already asked Sara if I could carry you if you resisted. She said sure."

"You lost your kick-ass kung-fu skills when you brought yourself down to our level," said Jeremy. "I bet she can take you."

"Kick-a...what? I never even studied kung-fu!"

That weird, sad look was in Jeremy's eyes again. "It used to be you didn't really need to."

Sara came running out of our room, having kicked off her skirt and heels, trading them for jeans and a pair of battered sneakers. The gold necklace I gave her when we started getting really serious was clutched in one hand, held up like a trophy. "Got it!"

"Good," Jeremy said, nodding firmly. "Barry? You comin', or is Roxie bringing you?"

I looked up at Roxie, who smiled in a way that was entirely not reassuring. "You fuckers have lost your minds," I muttered. "Group hysteria."

"I think that means I'm bringing him," said Roxie, still smiling.

"Hey!" I put up my hands. "Don't touch me, I'm coming. Jesus. Press-ganging motherfuckers..."

"That's us," said Jeremy, and led our weird little processional out the door to the car waiting by the street. This was madness. This was sheer and utter madness. That, or they were just fucking with me. But either way...why was I suddenly so scared?

*

"You have to understand, this was the only way. It was this or lose my mind; it was this or hurt them in ways they'd never recover from. Maybe this is gonna kill me--I don't think so, but I didn't think my teleporter would turn into a fucking time machine either, so who am I to say--but if it does, at least it'll be over. They won't be looking out on whatever I managed to blow up before somebody took me down and wondering if they had a chance to stop it. They didn't. They never could have. But I do. Right now, I do.

"Don't blame me for your life, whatever you may have done with it since you stopped being me. Thank me for letting you have it. We could have ended this with a bang, but sometimes...sometimes mercy comes in with a whimper."

*

JEREMY RAMIREZ: TOO MANY MONKEYS.

*

Barry walked to the car on his own, which was good, 'cause I didn't want him too pissed off after we zapped him back to normal. Dude kicks ass like Hefner bangs blonde chicks, and my ass doesn't take kickin' all that well. Plus it'd probably stress Sara if the first thing he did after we, I dunno, put him into whatever Frankenstein's-lab-type machine we gotta use to turn his brain back on was come out and kick all our asses from here to Bizarroworld and back again. Not exactly a good way to ease her into the whole "we've been keeping secrets from you since we were all kids" side of things. Not that we were being all that gentle to start with, but shit, space slime was coming to eat the planet. No one was screaming or running in circles, and that was gonna have to be good enough.

Nobody really talked much during the drive. Barry was sulking and Roxie was looking out the window and Sara just closed her eyes and leaned back in her seat and looked like she was waiting for this whole thing to be over. Me, I drove, which is why we went through the drive-through at the Krispy Kreme, because nobody, but nobody can be all bitter and angry at the world when they're pumped all full of hot, greasy sugar. Only it turns out that my friends are nobody, because they all managed it. Roxie was the only one who even ate one. Barry just kept glaring, and Sara just kept pretending to be asleep, and that's why we got a speeding ticket, because who the fuck expects me to obey posted speed limits when I've just eaten fourteen Krispy Kremes? The cop was nice, though. He cut the ticket in half when I gave him the last ten donuts.

I was starting to feel kinda sick, anyway.

Barry always had a lab close to home--under the house where he lived as a kid, under our dorm when we were in on-campus housing, under the basement of the apartment building we lived in during our sophomore year--but those were generally, y'know, temporary. He built them to unbuild them, so he'd have a place to work without going too far from where people expected to find them, but when we moved, he'd just take 'em apart again. No fuss, no muss, no evidence. At the same time, he needed a place he knew wasn't going anywhere, where he could do the really long-term experiments. I never understood most of 'em, which just proved they were probably totally awesome and would change the world in some huge and fulfilling ways. Like the Internet, and Internet porn, and Oreos. Anyway, he bought this chunk of land like, half an hour outside the city limits, he hid the deed under eighteen double-blind corporations and non-profits and private owners, and then he built his real lab. The one that was supposed to last, well, forever. Whether he was there or not.

We drove all the way to the middle of nowhere before I parked the car and led the way into a little clump of scraggly trees that just, well, happened to be scanning us for weapons and vital signs and recognized brainwave patterns all the way through our approach. I asked Barry what would happen if the trees didn't like our scans, once, and he said, "Remember when the Ents marched in Return of the King? Like that, only without the censors stopping them from ramming roots up your ass." So I was pretty much in favor of pleasing the trees. We walked through them, and they didn't attack.

There was a shed in the middle of the little grove. The door was locked when I put my hand on it, and unlocked itself a half-second later, as it read my fingerprints. Only Barry didn't know any of this shit, so he was starting to look pretty pissed. "You fucked up my date to drag me to visit the Farmer in the goddamn Dell? What the hell is wrong with you pe--"

"Barry, please," said Sara. He stopped, giving her a wounded look, and she...she just looked away.

"I'm so fucking sorry, dude," I said, almost under my breath, and opened the shed door.

Inside, everything was white. Gleaming, glowing white. I stepped into the shed, Sara behind me. Barry froze, looking like a deer caught in the headlights of a semi. He'd warned me this could happen, back before he fixed his brain. That part of him might remember, and not want to go back. "Roxie?" I said, and she half-nudged, half-lifted him over the threshold, into the room. The door slammed shut. Everyone jumped. The lights went out. Some people probably jumped again, only I couldn't see 'em, 'cause the room was dark.

"...identifying..." said the pleasant voice of the lab A.I.

"What the hell is Angelina Jolie doing in here?" demanded Sara.

"Welcome, Sara Tan," said the A.I.

"It's the computer," said Roxie.

"Welcome, Roxie Ramirez," said the A.I.

"Hey, Angie," I said. "We're here to turn Barry's brain back on. Put us down, okay?"

"Request confirmed," said the A.I., still pleasant, even as the floor dropped out from under our feet and dumped us into freefall. Best fuckin' rollercoaster I have ever been on. There's never a line, you don't have to pay admission, and if somebody hurls, the vacuums clean it up before the gravity-basket at the bottom of the three-story drop catches you. Barry always said the tech he used for that thing wouldn't be widely available for another eighty years, which kinda sucks, because dude, everybody should have one of these things.

Sara stopped screaming when we hit the gravity basket, but Barry never started. He didn't even start as the lights clicked on all around us, revealing a ginormous space that made all those geek wet-dreams about Area 51 look totally candy-ass. He just stared around us, white-faced, and shook his head, and trembled.

*

BARRY WEEN: A RIVER IN EGYPT.

*

Oh, fuck, I've dreamed this place...

*

SARA TAN: KEYS TO THE KINGDOM.

*

To be honest, I didn't believe all the way until the computer that sounded like a male wish fulfillment fantasy turned off the lights and dropped us a quarter-mile into the ground. Once that happened, I started believing. I started believing a lot. Doing anything else would have just been stupid...or desperate. Barry clutched for my hand as we followed a wildly chattering Jeremy across the floor, and he clung to me like a drowning man trying to survive a storm. That's when I stopped believing. That's when I started to know.

Jeremy led us to a thing that looked like a cross between an armchair and a home entertainment center. "Here," he said. "Barry? You gotta sit in the chair, okay?"

"This is...how did you set all this up?" asked Barry.

"Barry, sit," I said, very quietly. He gave me a betrayed look, and kept looking at me that way as I pulled my hand free and stepped away from him. "You have to."

"I don't want to."

"I know."

Barry sat.

The screen turned on as soon as he was seated, and a calm voice announced, "Retinal scans confirmed: Barry Ween...DNA scans confirmed: Barry Ween...fingerprint scans confirmed: Barry Ween...brain scans confirmed: procedure has been a success. Please insert data key to begin. Please insert data key to begin. Please insert..."

"The slot's back here, Sara," said Roxie.

Giving Barry one last look, I walked around to where she was pointing, and dropped my neckace into the waiting hole. It was a perfect fit. The voice cut off mid-word, and the screen flashed black before beeping, twice, and a video began to play. I bit my lip to stop myself from gasping, because that man, that boy, that person on the screen...that was Barry.

And oh, God, I'd missed him. I didn't even know it, but I did.

"My name is Barry Ween," announced the video, "and you'd better fucking believe that I am of sound mind and body..."

*

"If you're watching this, if you're seeing this, something's gone horribly wrong. Jeremy and Roxie, they know not to bring you here if there's any other way. So I'm going to tell you the one thing I didn't tell them, because you have to choose knowing what it means: this was a one time offer. Your life, your mind, all of that? Is the result of me performing brain surgery on myself. That surgery can be reversed--I think--but it can't be done a second time. The mind resists what it's already experienced. If you turn yourself back into me, you don't get you again. All or nothing.

"Choose."

*

BARRY WEEN: WHAT A STRANGE TRIP IT'S BEEN.

*

It felt like the air was made of chewing gum. I could barely breathe. I glanced toward Sara, and then Jeremy, but their eyes were on the screen, and they looked...God, they looked like they were seeing proof of fucking Santa. They looked just about as excited as I've ever seen them, and they looked that way because of somebody I gave up being.

"What kind of selfish pussy was I?" I asked, and eyed the screen. "How the fuck do I turn this thing on?"

"Command recognized," said the voice Jer said was the computer.

And then I really didn't care anymore, because I was too busy screaming.

*

ROXIE RAMIREZ: AND I ALONE AM LEFT...

*

I was always the "outsider" in our weird little social group, because Jeremy and Sara both loved Barry a whole lot more than I ever could. I guess that's why this part of things is mine. I'm the only one outside enough to tell it.

The screen went white and this cap thing popped out of the back of the chair and slammed down on Barry's head before anybody could move. And then he was screaming, and I had an arm around Sara's waist and my other hand on the back of Jeremy's collar, holding them back, because they would have gone to him, they were trying, and from the way that thing was crackling, I'm pretty sure somebody would have gotten hurt.

The whole thing lasted less than thirty seconds. The whole thing lasted for a goddamn lifetime. And then Barry was opening his eyes, and taking the helmet off his head with shaking hands, and he turned toward us, and that...that scary, blazing fire was back, filling his face from top to bottom. "Where?" he asked, in a voice that was raspy from screaming.

"Out near Pluto," said Jeremy. "Barry, I'm sorry. I--"

Barry nodded. Just once, just like that. "You three stay here," he snapped, and he stood, striding across the lab and vanishing through one of the doors in the wall. I don't know where he went. I don't want to.

The screen turned itself back on.

"...Sara?" For the first time, the Barry on the video looked, well...unsure. "Sara, every probability I have says you're still standing there. So please. Listen?"

Sara turned toward the screen. She didn't say a word.

"I know I didn't tell you any of this. I know you had no idea. And I promise, if you've gone through this, if you've helped bring me back...I won't wipe your memory this time. I can't do that to you again. I hope. I hope you'll still look at me the same way after this. I hope you'll understand this is who I've always been.

"I love you, Sara. That's all."

The screen turned off, and Sara's necklace dropped into a slot at the bottom. She hesitated a moment, and then walked over, picking it up by the chain, as gingerly as if she thought it might break apart in her hands.

"I love you, too, you asshole," she said, and put it on.

"Now if Barry can just keep the slime from eating the world, maybe it'll be okay," said Jeremy, happily.

After that, there was nothing I could do but laugh.

*

BARRY WEEN: EPILOGUE.

*

It's been six months since I saved the goddamn planet, again, from the fucking space goo from nowhere. Because I needed that sort of aggravation. I was retired from the world-saving business, you nanocellular fucks; I didn't exactly ask to get dragged back out onto the battlefield just because you needed something to break down into its component atoms. You don't like being rendered inert and then pitched into the sun? Then stay the fuck away from my planet. Assholes.

Things were bad between me and Sara for a while. I won't lie. I wanted to wipe her memory--even though I know I said I wouldn't, I know--just so she'd stop looking at me that way. That bad, different way. But see, I remembered being with her when we just about the same, and I had to mean what I said. I had to let her choose.

She chose me. I always knew that girl was a motherfucking genius.

So here's the thing--here's the icing on the massive cake of shit that this could've been. See, I was right when I said the surgery couldn't be performed twice. Too delicate. And I was right when I said it could be undone. But I didn't anticipate everything; in my hurry to get it done with, there was something I just didn't take into account.

I forgot to calculate for brain damage.

I'm as smart as I ever was--that's all fine, my IQ still breaks the fucking tests, the inventions still come too fast for me to slow down, and I don't sleep anymore--but I'm not getting any smarter. I abused my head too much, and this is how it's punishing me; for the first time, I have limits. I may never grow a bacterial sun, or create my own universe. And I, quite frankly, don't give two shakes of a dead rhino's dick. I'm not gonna go crazy. Limits? Fuck 'em. From where I'm sitting, the possibilities...

The possibilities are fucking endless.