Before Jeffrey Skinner saw Melinda Jacobs’ four texts, he saw the two girls.
It was a hot August night, late, on the subway going north toward Willowdale and where he kept an apartment… long past the rush hour, and mid-week, so far from crowded. In that car: just Jeffrey—an old man in grubby cargo shorts and sandals, who glared at his reflection in a window until he got off at a mid-town stop—and the two girls. They got on separately, one at Rosedale, one a stop later at Davisville. The second had yellow hair tumbling over a pink T-shirt with glitter… blue terrycloth shorts… pretty round face with a tiny doll-mouth and pale eyes under heavy lids. He didn’t notice the first girl until the second one slid beside her on the bench seat across from Jeffrey. The first one: brown haired, brown eyed, in a sea-green frock that draped over her narrow limbs like sheets. She might have been asleep until then, but when the second set beside her, she cracked a half-smile and slid a narrow hand to that one’s thigh, tracing a sine-wave with one red-polished nail to her knee. The first rested her head to one shoulder and lifted her leg so it crossed the second’s thigh. The second one’s eyes fluttered shut, and her lips parted. The first looked over Jeffrey’s shoulder to the window, as though studying her reflection in the glass.
How old were they? Jeffrey thought they might be in their late teens but there was a treacherous margin of error in that guess: old enough in one way, not old enough in another. Were they friends? There had been no words, they had not met one another’s eyes for an instant. And then he wondered the thing he always wondered, the thing he’d pondered the whole of his academic career:
Were these two even present, in a metaphysical sense? Were they aware, conscious of this moment? Or did they merely hear a voice, whispering commands to join, from one chamber of the bicameral mind to the other—and obey, neither thinking nor questioning? What manner of experiment might Jeffrey conduct on the girls, to determine which it might be?
Jeffrey could not look away, and when the train reached the terminus station he sat there for a moment after they each got up and left, separately, still no hint of recognition between the two of them.
Once he finally did step from the station into the midnight soup of north Toronto August smog, and his phone chirped with the texts from Melinda—Hey skimmer come 2 me / Brkthrough here in Polyphemus / Lamp Foundation grant doubled! / Chk yr email for ticket & itinerary—he could not help but think that the two girls, the four texts, and Melinda’s invitation were tied together. An erotic and neurological kismet, that if he were thinking more clearly he would have understood to be likely nothing more than a delicious lie.
August was no more merciful down south, or at least that’s how it was an hour and change away from the village of Polyphemus, at the airport serving the sweltering old city of Parvenu. The town was a city in name, but the airport was tiny: a few quonset hangars, a tall pole with an actual wind-sock half-staff, and a long low terminal building of cinder block and corrugated metal. Inside was only a few degrees cooler than the scorching tarmac—a nearly deserted promenade with a shut-down breakfast counter, a line of empty ticket counters, and at the far end near the doors to the parking lot, the beacon of the TruWheeler car rental agency.
The rental clerk’s nametag read Sally. It was clipped to the lapel of a crisp white blouse that did a poor job of containing her ample bosom. Jeffrey did as badly not looking.
“’You from up there?”
“I’m from Toronto.”
“Ah-ha. I’d have guessed New York.” Sally swept a curl of brown hair from her forehead, and appeared to consider. “But Canada, right? That’s up there too. Business or pleasure now?”
“Hard to say. Work. Studying. So—”
“Business.” She turned her attention to her computer terminal and squinted at the screen. “Look! Toronto all right. Lookin’ at your insurance record… You’re a pretty good driver, Mr. Skinner, for a student.”
“I’m not really a student,” he explained. “I’m doing a post-doctorate. In theory.”
“My my,” she said, one hand fluttering to her blouse—at first Jeffrey thought to do up a button. But her nails just brushed along the dewy underside of her collarbone. “That’s real interesting. What’s your field now?”
“A bit of a mix. Anthropology. Neurology. Applied psychology. I study the way people think,” said Jeffrey.
“So you think about thinking. Interesting.”
“I try to understand the way people think. What it means to be conscious, and whether consciousness is in fact real at all.”
“That’s the soul you’re talking about.” She squinted.
“If there is such thing,” said Jeffrey, and then caught himself. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“’Course you didn’t. But don’t fret. I got no use for them myself. Souls, I mean. Just get in the way of a good time.” Her tongue-tip emerged, touching her upper lip and she met his eye for just an instant as behind her the printer hummed and rattled as it toiled to deliver the rental agreement. She pulled the papers from the tray, attached them to a clipboard and gave them to Jeffrey to sign.
“What thoughtful place are you headed to in Parvenu, Mr. Skinner?”
“Not in Parvenu. I’m heading to Polyphemus.”
“Oh now.” A wicked little smile, and something else that Jeffrey couldn’t quite tell, crossed her eyes. “Polyphemus.” She pronounced it Paul-If-I-Must. “That’s not a thoughtful place at all.”
Jeffrey signed where he needed and swapped them for his driver’s license and credit card. She came around the counter and he followed her out the door and across the dusty lot to a cherry-red Nissan Juke that had seen better days. There was a long scrape along the passenger side door, which Sally noted was already marked on the chart, and a small, trailer-hitch-sized hole in the front bumper that was new.
“You know how to get there all right?” she asked as she drew a facsimile of the puncture on the chart. “Been there before?”
“I have a map of the town. Otherwise, my phone’s got a GPS.”
She tucked the board under her arm. “That’s real nice. But out that way, some folks find a signal’s scarce. Scarce to nothing. Your map won’t update.” Sally drew a hand across her forehead, and made a face as she rubbed the perspiration off her fingers. Then she opened the passenger door of the car and sat down. “Let me draw you a route on the map.”
Jeffrey got in the driver’s side. The car was an oven. He started it, and blasted the air conditioning for half a minute before they both shut their doors. She took a road map from the glove box and unfolded then refolded it to the right spot, then set back, clipboard on her knee.
“Not many folks go by Polyphemus anymore,” she said, drawing a line. “Not even named on the map, see?”
“But it’s there. And you’ve been.”
“It is, and I have. Been about eight, ten…” she frowned, mouthed counting, “…no, nine years. Hot summer like this. My girls and me. We were sophomore year, heard there was a roadhouse there—The One-Eyed Giant.” Jeffrey laughed along with her at that. “Kind of place where they didn’t look too close at the year on the driver license. So Becks made up some story, took her ma’s car, and off we went. It was a hot one, just as hot as this one. But we were dressed for it.”
She undid a button on her blouse, and leaned back further—like she must have riding shotgun with Becks and her girls, bombing along some unlit concession road toward Polyphemus, to the mythical promise of the One-Eyed Giant. She’d slipped one shoe off, and propped a bare foot on the dashboard. That little smile came back and she put the pen between her teeth, clicked it in and out with her tongue before putting it back to paper.
“That night was the first time I sucked a man’s cock,” she said, and laughed. “I’m sorry,” she said, but Jeffrey made it clear she needn’t have been.
“I just get lost in that memory. There was something about that night—different from other times, you know? I mean, it’s not like I’ve sucked a lot, but I have enough. And I remember them all. But this one…”
“It’s different? More intense?”
“Mmm hmm.” She shut her eyes now, and her mouth hung open a little wider. “It’s like I left my body for it. When I think about it, I’m watching myself… I know what I was wearin’, even, a little pair of Daisy Dukes, my old black cowboy boots… a white-and-blue checked man’s shirt, tied up high. I was looking good.”
“You left your body?”
She nodded. “And you know, I’m not sure I ever got back in.”
She’d scrunched herself up sideways in the seat so her back was against the passenger door, and looked back at him and down at the map, the lines she’d drawn on it. “I think I made a mess of it.” She turned it sideways, and showed Jeffrey, and sure enough, she had. They were loops, around an invisible centre—roulette shapes, but weirdly precise.
“This won’t work,” she said. “Tell you what: wait here an hour ’til my shift ends.”
“What now?” He looked at the design on the map more closely. The lines were perfect… as though they’d been made by an old Spirograph toy. “You are a very interesting girl, Sally.”
“Also interested, Mr. Skinner.”
And just in case Jeffrey was confused about what she meant by that, Sally extended one bare foot across so her heel rested on Jeffrey’s left thigh, and her ankle—slender, smooth and beach-tan brown but where shoe-straps would have blocked the sun—touched on his cock. She only had to twist it twice before he was fully hard.
“I know a short-cut,” she promised, and he answered, “I’ll bet you do,” and that was that.
It was a road trip…with benefits, thought Jeffrey a few minutes later as he settled back to wait, looking again at her strange, impossible doodle on the map.
Benefits in every sense of the word.
“So bicameralism,” said Sally as she let him out of her mouth and took him in her hand, “is like Congress and the President.”
Sally had made him wait in the Juke for half an hour while she finished up her shift and changed out of her uniform into a yellow print sun dress and those strapped-up shoes that’d left the tan lines. Her hand went to his lap as soon as they came up to the Parvenu city limits, and her fist was wrapped around his cock when they passed the Y’ALL COME BACK NOW Chamber of Commerce billboard.
“Now be a good boy, Mr. Skinner,” she’d said, tugging lazily as he struggled to keep the Juke on the road, “and tell me what you’re thinking, about thinking.”
And he did, but he didn’t really do it well until he found a shut-down filling station and stopped the car. Sally didn’t interrupt. She couldn’t, really, with the other work her lips and tongue had found.
“It is like the President and Congress,” said Jeffrey. “To a point. But the two chambers of the brain aren’t a check and a balance on each other like the President and Congress.”
“Right. One part talks, and the other one listens—and obeys.” Sally looked up at him as she nuzzled the tip of his cock against her cheek. “So if you’re a bicameral mind, you hear voices in your head telling you what to do rather than deciding it yourself. Only nobody’s a bicameral mind any more ever since we evolved out of it.”
“You’ve been paying attention. That’s right. The theory goes that ancient people lived that way. That they weren’t fully conscious, the way we are now. The bicameral mind is thought to have vanished, replaced by… us. A singular mind that perceives itself as fundamentally conscious.”
“And you believe this.”
“Unlike a lot of people, I take it seriously.”
“And that’s why we’re going to Polyphemus.”
Sally’s brow creased and she nodded as she slid the tip of Jeffrey’s cock down to nestle in the soft warm crevasse of her bust line.
“You think they’re all bicameral in Polyphemus?”
“Maybe. Maybe something else. I’m going…” He squeezed his eyes shut and gasped “—to help find out.”
“Huh.” Sally extracted a wet-nap from her handbag. “Yeah, from all I know of Polyphemus… I think you might just be in luck.”
* * *
The road twisted up a hillside for a few miles, then straightened out as they passed chain-link fence and rock and old rusted mine-heads, and big signs warning against trespass. Then trees grew up and they plunged into forest on either side. It was late enough in the day that the light fell golden on the road in front of them. Houses emerged from between the trees… not in awful condition, not really—but only just barely maintained. Moss hung from porch-roofs. Grass grew long.A big German Shepherd, chained to a swing-set, regarded them silently as they passed another. Three children, two boys and a girl, danced and sang to country music that dopplered high and low. At a point the woods cleared back from the road and they came to a crossroads where there were a few stores, a filling station and a town office. Up the cross street to the left was an old motel, and Sally asked if they were going to stay there.
“No,” said Jeffrey. “I’m meeting a colleague here. She’s already got a place.”
“She?” Sally gave a look of more than mild concern.
“Melinda Jacobs,” he said. “We worked together at the university for a few years before she… had to leave.”
“Work. That all you did?”
“No, that’s not all we did.”
“So she was what, your girlfriend?”
“Something like that.”
“That’s a nasty way to put it.”
“Uh huh. Fuck-buddy.”
“Nearer than girlfriend.”
“Were you going to tell me about her?”
“I’m telling you now.”
They looked at each other in silence as the Juke idled at the crossroads of Polyphemus’ downtown. It was just past six and the streets were empty but for them. Sally looked out the passenger window, arms crossed. Jeffrey had to look closely to see her head shaking, and he did look closely.
“I’m told I have trouble communicating,” he said finally, and she said, “You got that right Mr. Skinner.”
“Call me Jeffrey,” he said, and Sally laughed.
“Maybe later.” She turned back to Jeffrey. “All right. I’m in. Let’s go meet Professor Fuck-Buddy. Melinda Jacobs. This should be interesting.”
“This should be interesting,” said Melinda Jacobs.
She had been waiting for Jeffrey on the porch of the little clapboard bungalow the Lamp Foundation had rented for her, tilted back in an old steel-and-plastic kitchen chair with her feet on the railing, a little jam jar with a finger of bourbon nested in the fingers of one hand while an unlit cigarette twirled in the fingers of the right. When the Juke pulled up the drive, she kicked up from the chair and stood to her full, considerable height. It had been years, but as Jeffrey got out of the car and regarded her, it seemed that none of them were marked. She was naturally slim, then and now, a brunette whose hair curled when she didn’t pull it back in a pony tail, with a long and narrow nose and large eyes that had always seemed to look on the world with a mix of guileless curiosity and seasoned disappointment.
As she looked at Sally stepping out of the car, Jeffrey saw that really nothing had changed.
“How d’you do, Professor Jacobs. Sally Coltraine,” said Sally, marching up and extending her hand to shake. Melinda took it, but looked at Jeffrey, one dark eyebrow raised.
“We met at the airport,” said Jeffrey.
“Sally knew a short cut.”
“Of course she did.”
“She’s also interesting, as far as the things you’ve discovered.”
“And interested!” Sally chimed.
“And interested,” said Jeffrey. “You going to invite us in?”
“You, yes,” said Melinda then turned back to Sally. “Miss Coltraine, could you give us a moment?”
“Whatever suits.” Sally brandished her cheer like a knife.
Jeffrey went first through the front door into the house, and through there into a living room now cluttered with the equipment of their trade—two computers, a card table stacked with filled out Lamp Quiz forms, the old Lamp-modified chaise longue and accompanying apparatus—guided by Melinda’s hand at the small of his back.
“What the hell is this, Skimmer?”
Skimmer was the nickname she’d picked for him when they first met at the Robarts Library that crisp autumn morning—a dumb joke, made after he explained that he’d only skimmed Dawkins’ God Delusion—and using it now might seem to undercut the harsh, low tone she spoke into his ear.
He led Melinda to the far end of the room where it opened into a little dinette with a kitchen, so they were far enough away from the front window that Sally wouldn’t overhear, and then he did his best to explain.
“She’s a link,” he said, and told Melinda Sally’s story of blowjobs and astral projection at the One-Eyed Giant.
“A link you picked up at the airport,” said Melinda, “who invited herself along. Too convenient, Skimmer.”
“There’s more,” said Jeffrey, and he reached into his back pocket where he’d stuffed the road map, and pulled it out and unfolded it and showed Melinda the doodle. “She drew this freehand, while thinking it was a route to here.”
“Anomalous,” sniffed Melinda.
“Maybe,” said Jeffrey, “but maybe not. It sounds to me that she’s exhibiting the same behavior that you’ve been observing in this little town.”
“I think she’s exhibiting the same behavior that you always liked,” said Melinda, and her eye fell to Jeffrey’s trousers. She couldn’t have seen any evidence; they’d cleaned up with wet-naps from Sally’s handbag, and anyway, most of the jizz had ended up on Sally. But just as Melinda hadn’t changed, neither apparently had Jeffrey’s tells.
“It’s the same thing,” said Jeffrey, and he rhymed off the list that Melinda had sent him along with the invitation: the Sunday school class that spent the morning drawing crosses as described to them by Jesus in dreams; the somnambulism outbreaks that seemed to match a lunar schedule; and the Hootenanny. Particularly the Hootenanny.
“She’ll contaminate the research: she’s outside the study sample,” said Melinda, and at that, Jeffrey laughed.
“You’re one to talk about study samples and contamination,” he said, and then reminded Melinda of his old nickname for her:
* * *
Melinda brought out one more jug of bourbon after dinner, which all told added up to a lot of bourbon. But Sally seemed to be able to hold it, and Jeffrey wasn’t about to be outdone. He made a point of chewing down an end of a WonderBread loaf before he touched his glass though. It had been a long day, and Jeffrey needed to keep his wits about him.
He wondered if Melinda might not have been wise to do the same. She spoke at length and in detail about altogether too many very sensitive things:
Like the Lamp Foundation’s Bicameral Project.
“Yes,” she said, “that Lamp—Harvey Lamp, the pharmacology Lamp. The King of San Antonio. His company funds a lot of fucked-up research and so holds a lot of fucked up patents. The Foundation is where he puts money for pet projects. The seriously fucked-up research. Like the Bicameral Project.”
“Which is basically you,” said Jeffrey, and Melinda added, “And you now, darling.”
“And me now too,” said Sally and raised her glass. “What’s he trying to find? The soul?”
“The opposite of the soul,” said Jeffrey. “Remember our conversation?”
He felt her toe climbing up his shin as she nodded. “No souls. They just get in the way.”
“He’s trying,” said Melinda, “to find what we might have thought were souls, back in ancient times. He wants to find a working bicameral mind. Outside of a psychiatric ward.”
“Bicameralism as Julian Jaynes described it is similar to schizophrenia,” Jeffrey explained.
“Because schizophrenics have no souls?”
“None of us have souls dear,” said Melinda.
Sally topped up Melinda’s glass.
“So you’re here doing tests for schizophrenia,” she said.
“Not quite.” Melinda sipped bourbon. “Mr. Lamp is looking for something… more than that.”
“Uh huh,” said Sally.
And then, abruptly, Melinda moved from the secrets of the Lamp Foundation to another sensitive subject.
“Jeffrey and I used to fuck,” she said, as Sally’s toe moved along the inside of Jeffrey’s thigh.
“You don’t say,” said Sally.
“I do say. I taught him everything he knows about the clitoris.”
Sally blinked prettily. “Does Jeffrey know about the clitoris?”
“Oh yes. He’s quite agile, or he used to be.”
“Jeffrey and I haven’t gotten to the clitoris yet.”
“I’m sorry, dear,” said Jeffrey, but it was too late. Sally’s foot retreated to the floor.
After that, Melinda asked Sally if she had any more questions, and Sally said that she sure did. She wondered: “How do you test for bicameralism? You got a machine for telling there’s no soul?”
“No,” said Jeffrey, and Melinda said: “Kind of.”
“I don’t use a machine,” explained Jeffrey.
“Jeffrey doesn’t use one, but we do have one,” said Melinda, and she drained her class. “Portable fMRI. You haven’t seen anything like it. One of Lamp’s patents.”
“It doesn’t say there’s no soul, or that there is one.”
“Got it, Jeffrey,” said Sally. “What’s it do then?”
“Reads minds,” said Melinda, and she divided the rest of the bourbon between Jeffrey’s and Sally’s glasses.
Sally downed hers and slammed her up-ended glass down on the table. Jeffrey thought that the next thing to come out her lips was the whiskey talking, but as it turned out, it wasn’t.
“Fire it up then,” was what Sally said. “Y’all’re hot to start experimentin’ on me. Let’s get to it. See what my potential might be.”
The device didn’t take long to set up; by the time Sally was in the chaise longue, unclothed, the electrodes attached and the electromagnets in position, it was still dusk outside and Melinda was only working on her second mug of black coffee. That was the only stipulation that Jeffrey had managed to make stick—that Melinda would at least try to sober up before they took readings on Sally.
“So do I have to go to sleep?” asked Sally.
“It’s great if you do,” said Melinda, “but you don’t have to. Just let your mind wander. Daydream. Fantasize.”
“So this machine’ll read my fantasies as well as my dreams?”
“Not literally,” said Jeffrey. “It measures brain activity in pretty fine detail, and from that we can deduce with fair accuracy the images and ideas that your mind is forming. It’s a young science.”
“A very young science,” said Melinda.
“But the last time I sat down at the controls of one of these things—it’s been awhile—it was amazing what we could see.”
“We do this, you’ll know my deepest fantasies.”
“Broad strokes,” said Jeffrey, and Melinda said, “That’s right.”
“Good,” said Sally, and wriggled her shoulders one last time before her eyelids fluttered shut and she lay still, as she’d been told. Melinda and Jeffrey stepped into the dining room where the monitoring station was set up next to an old china cabinet. As the lights dimmed and the machine powered up, Melinda whispered in Jeffrey’s ear:
“It’s been awhile since you’ve used this setup, Skimmer. There have been some improvements.”
“Look,” said Melinda, pointing to the central monitor—where the spirograph doodle emerged, and then dissolved into a starry sky, a dark line of trees along a road, and then a glowing neon sign at the end of a parking lot packed with cars and trucks:
THE ONE-EYED GIANT.
“Convenient,” said Jeffrey, lifting up one of the two headsets to his ear. “We talked about this place on the way out.”
“Of course.” Melinda reminded him: “She’s awake, and knows what she’s doing. She’s literally giving us a piece of her mind.”
* * *
There had been improvements all right. The images were better than Jeffrey had seen on the prototypes he and Melinda had tested all those years ago in Toronto. Then, it was blurry, grainy and when a face emerged it would shift gender and age and even skin color as the processors struggled to interpret the brain activity.
This was nothing like that. The pictures, of three young girls, were sharp and clear as they swayed across the gravel parking lot to the black-painted double doors, to a rhythm of a song was the one thing from Sally’s fantasia that the device could not simulate. Was one of these girls Sally? Jeffrey thought the girl in the middle, daisy-duke shorts riding nearly over her cheeks and a tied shirt exposing a lithe midriff, red leather cowboy boots brushing the calves with which Jeffrey had recently become intimately familiar.
One of those friends was probably Becks, who got them their ride, but how to tell which? The girl on Sally’s left was wearing a tiny leather skirt and denim jacket, hair in a ponytail that bobbed as she bopped; the girl on her right, tight dark jeans and a top that was literally indeterminate. As Jeffrey watched, it seemed to morph from a peasant blouse to a T-shirt, its neckline stroking up and down her throat and back, first a constricting turtleneck, then an off-the-shoulder number. “Make up your mind,” he whispered, and Melinda’s mouth cricked up in a tiny smile.
“Does our Sally have a twin?” she asked, and Jeffrey said no, and as they watched the girls push through the doors and into the smoky, cavernous floor of the One-Eyed Giant, he explained that Sally’s memory of this night was always dissociated: that she always saw herself watching herself. Melinda thought that was intriguing, and pulled her knees up under her chin as Sally and her girls walked up to the bar. There was a man there, very tall. The neuro-graphic processor had a hard time finding form with him—at first, he had no face at all, just a ruddy pink expanse of skin above the black T-shirt that clung to his impressively muscled shoulders. His eyeless face seemed to watch the girls—at least it tracked them—as they leaned on the bar, and the ponytailed one raised a fist in the air in the universal sign for “shots.” Sally laughed and turned, looking directly at where the camera would have been—at herself?—and then laughed, bent over. At something she heard? The audio was murky, just as it had always been… but Jeffrey thought he could hear a voice—masculine, rumbling, deep. Melinda heard it too, and frowned, adjusted knobs on the audio board.
“Is it that guy?” wondered Jeffrey. The processor did seem to be getting a handle on the tall man. He had blond hair that curled down nearly to his shoulders, and a wide, toothy smile, and… still no eyes. Melinda didn’t think that he was.
“This has happened before,” she said. “With others.”
Melinda put a finger to her lips and Jeffrey shushed.
There were definitely words, but they didn’t seem to be English, or not entirely in English: Loftlorne. Milkoneo. Pathroof. Trilanthomesh. Bobbletron. Sheforthe. Jeffrey grabbed a pad and wrote them down. Sally meanwhile had approached the tall man, who, Melinda was right, was clearly not the one speaking.
The voice went quiet. The girls were downing shots, and the tall man had stood up from the bar and come up behind them. He was nearly twice as tall as Sally… given her height, that would put him at close to nine feet. He extended his arms, putting a hand at the waist of each of Sally’s friends. His torso blocked Sally entirely.
Melinda looked at the words Jeffrey had transcribed.
“When was she last here?”
“She said it’s been almost a decade.”
Melinda handed Jeffrey back the notes. “I’ll have to check, but three of those words or something like them turned up in at least two other sessions.”
“With people from Polyphemus?”
“Yeah. Pathroof, Loftlorne. And I think…” she checked a clipboard “… Trilanthomesh.”
“Does she have friends here? She must have friends here.”
“I dunno.” Jeffrey got up to go to the living room, thinking he might just ask—but he stopped short at the doorway. Sally was pleasuring herself, one slick hand at her shaved pussy, another working her nipple as the device tick-tick-ticked its tallying of brain activity. Clearly she wasn’t asleep. She was entranced, though. And so, really, was Jeffrey.
The fog of bourbon and white-bread was fading, and Jeffrey became thoughtful as he observed Sally on the chaise longue. She was so at-ease in her own nakedness—in a way that gave lie to the modest tan lines that showed the pale flesh starting at her upper thighs, barely more than a T-shirt’s plunge at her throat. She clearly hadn’t worn those daisy-duke shorts she was dreaming the whole summer long.
She’s awake, Melinda had said. She knows what she’s doing.
But did she? Jeffrey wondered. She hadn’t known what she was doing when she doodled the spirograph on the map. Her decision to come with him was impulsive at best. Had it been a decision at all? Was she simply listening to the giant’s voice, and interpreting—Loftlorne. Milkoneo. Pathroof!—to mean: go with the stranger to the town you remember, pleasuring him on the way, and then to strip off your clothes and pleasure yourself while the stranger and his old lover observe in the other room. Trust in them. Maybe, trust in the voice.
Was Sally even in there?
Did Sally know anything that voice didn’t tell her?
Was she a proper bicameral?
Melinda caught his eye, snapping her fingers and drawing his attention back to the screen. Jeffrey stepped around the table and sat down, just a bit too delicately.
“You’re hard,” Melinda observed.
“Uh huh,” said Jeffrey. He lifted the headphone to his ear, and stared.
The scene had shifted while he was gone. Now Sally and her two friends were in a larger space—it seemed like a barn, but with most of it in shadows, who knew? The giant was with them. He was lying on his back, Gulliver-style, while the ponytailed girl squirmed on his face, his tongue sliding between her ass and her navel like a loose-tied saddle. The other girl was curled in the crook of his left arm, making a mewling sound as his enormous forefinger casually penetrated her.
Sally lay flat against his thigh, her toes brushing just below his kneecap as her tongue and hands worked his cock—itself a bit longer than her forearm.
As they watched, Melinda’s own hand slid across his lap and started caressing Jeffrey’s cock, and Jeffrey’s hand strayed to the top of Melinda’s jeans, which, of course, were undone. She spread her legs and shifted, and he found her clit, wet and swollen, right where he’d left it those years back. And so they worked each other, as late teen Sally and her girls worked their giant.
Melinda came the first time, as precome dribbled out the tip of the giant boy’s penis and Sally lapped it up. Jeffrey held on through that, and brought Melinda to her second orgasm, this one louder than the first, which had been barely a squeak, as his middle finger squeezed past her labia, and onscreen Sally straddled the giant’s cock, both knees propped on his hip-bones, and slid slick up and down as he shuddered and brought the girl under his arm to a screaming climax. Melinda gasped and cried out, and as she did wriggled out of her jeans entirely. She climbed atop Jeffrey as Sally came, collapsing on the giant with her ass in the air and fingertips reaching just a little higher than his navel. Jeffrey slipped inside Melinda for the first time in many years—and as the picture flickered a moment, Jeffrey finally came too. He didn’t withdraw though; he was kept hard by the images on the screen, which now shifted, the giant taller still, a single eye staring down at the girls—Sally, who writhed on his belly in pools of jizz, another who crawled down his arm to nestle in the palm of his hand, now as big as a bed—the third, who tumbled off his cheek to whisper secrets in his ear then scamper down his chest, ponytail bobbing behind her, to join Sally in the bath of come…
“Shame on you two,” said Sally as she stepped behind them to watch the display on the screen. “This sort of thing is why you’ll never get tenure.”
Jeffrey looked over his shoulder. Sally was naked, glistening with a thin sheen of sweat, her cheeks flushed red and her eyes bright. She stood behind the chair, face to face with Melinda.
“That’s why you got kicked out of University, isn’t it? You and Jeffrey carryin’ on in the lab, even drawing an undergrad into it all. Tsk tsk, professors.”
“Post-docs,” said Jeffrey, frowning. On screen, the orgy continued: the blond, giant cyclops tossing squealing girls to the rafters and catching them as they fell…
“I know,” said Sally. “You were doin’ a post doc, but Melinda was tenure track. But y’all really should’ve run the LSD session past your ethics board.”
“How do you know about that?” snapped Melinda. She swung a leg behind her, tapping the edge of the screen, and stood facing Sally. “You just met—”
“Now,” said Sally, “here you are, foolin’ around with folks heads… and still, foolin’ around.”
Jeffrey tapped his finger on the screen. “Sally—” he said, but Melinda interrupted him.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
Jeffrey got up, and sidestepped back to the doorway, so he could see the chaise longue. There, lay a youngish man… blond hair cropped short and a beard two shades darker on his chin, naked to the waist, laying back with a half-wise grin and eyes only one-half shut, peering right back at Jeffrey. There were two eyes, and the hair was short and there was that beard, but otherwise, there was no mistaking. But Jeffrey asked it anyway.
“Who are you?”
His name was Delroy. He lived up the way at Lotus Road and Sticks Creek with his dad, who was another Delroy. He stopped by, he said, because he’d heard that Sally was back in town and he remembered her fondly from that time at the Giant. He’d been meaning to come by anyway, because he’d heard around town that Melinda Jacobs was quite a lady with her interesting questions and fancy machinery and exotic Canadian origins and all.
He said all that very matter-of-factly, and when Jeffrey asked him how he came to enter the premises so quietly and just take Sally’s place, Delroy just shrugged.
“Like you do,” he said.
Melinda and Jeffrey excused themselves a moment and repaired to the back bedroom to buckle their pants and talk about this development in fast whispers.
“You didn’t tell her, did you?”
“About the Acid Test? No. I didn’t even tell her we were kicked out.”
“So how’d she know?”
“You think I’m lying?”
“You lied about that.” Melinda smoothed her shirt and peered out the window. There were headlights on the road, a line of them. “I believe you though.”
“She might have called ahead,” said Jeffrey, thinking it through. “Warned Delroy that she was coming. So he could meet her here.”
“Maybe,” said Melinda. “But I’m betting not. At least not on the phone.”
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing.” Sally stepped into the bedroom. She’d pulled her dress on, but it clung to her hip and thigh where the damp was too much. She tugged it down. “I didn’t call Delroy. Wasn’t even sure that was his name, when Mr. Skinner and I decided to drive out.”
From behind her, Delroy agreed that that was so but said it didn’t go both ways.
“I knew Miss Sally’s name sure enough,” he said.
“She was that memorable?” said Melinda and Delroy said that she was, but that wasn’t why.
“Became pretty clear that you were bringin’ folks down here,” said Delroy. “From Canada. This fellow here, am I right? So we all remembered Miss Sally and thought…”
He trailed off.
“Your research project’s really compromised, ain’t it?” said Sally brightly. “Not for the first time.”
“All right, Sally,” said Jeffrey, “as long as we’re compromised: how do you know all of this? Were you an official welcoming committee?”
“Not as far as I knew,” said Sally. “I did trade for that shift, it’s so, and I did perk right up when I met you. But you’re a handsome fella, and you talk nice, so truth be told it was no chore tagging along when you asked.”
“I didn’t ask,” said Jeffrey, and Sally blinked innocently.
“I thought your talk about bi-cameral minds and ancient folks hearing words from gods when it was really themselves talking, I thought that was interesting too,” she continued. “Thought there might be something to that. Sometimes I hear a little voice myself, telling me right from wrong or just something I might enjoy. Mostly that last thing. So sure. I got here and turned out you had a machine for makin’ a movie out of my thoughts, I’d do as you ask and jump right in.”
“We didn’t ask,” said Melinda.
“I think I showed you two a pretty little story from inside my head,” said Sally. “But I heard some things too. I heard a lot of things. And you know something? I’ve figured it out for y’all. Your bicameral mind, it’s not so. It might seem so but it’s not. It’s a…” her eyes got a faraway look and she made as to snap her fingers.
“It’s more an Athenian mind!”
That voice—an old man’s voice—came from the front of the house, as the porch door slammed open.
“Lester?” said Melinda, and then more loudly: “Lester?”
Jeffrey must have looked panicked, because Melinda put her hand on his arm and explained: “Lester Willoughby is the landlord here. He’s got a house in the middle of town. He’s good people.”
“Athenian’s good,” said Sally, as Lester—an older fellow, with a long white goatee and darker, even longer hair hanging to his shoulders—bent over and poked at the magnet ring on the chaise longue. “Your bicameral mind, that’s meant to be like the legislature. One half telling the other what it can’t do. But the Athenian mind—”
“Everybody gets a vote!” said Delroy, who was helping Sally peel away the dress from where her juices had stuck it to her.
“Just like in ancient Athens,” said Sally. “All the folk who’re citizens come together and make their decisions as one. And they all know one another’s heart and they come to the conclusion that’s most reasonable and best for everyone, every single time. Sometimes they don’t even have to talk about it. They just know.”
Jeffrey didn’t think that was how Athenian democracy had in fact worked, but he didn’t interject—not at first. He was distracted.
The house was filling up with people now, streaming in through the front door and crowding the kitchen. Outside the window more folk stood, some with little flashlights floating in front of them like fireflies. There was a murmuring of conversation, but the funny thing was that it didn’t for a moment drown out Sally’s words as she continued her description of the Athenian Mind:
“The Athenians could talk so fast they’d tell the whole Iliad in a night, and all who heard would have it memorized before the Odyssey started up the next. If there was one Athenian who was off in a boat fightin’ Spartans, why the Athenians could talk him through it, it was so strong.”
Jeffrey met eyes with Melinda, and he thought that Athenian democracy definitely didn’t work that way, but there was another, more basic democracy that did, and without speaking Melinda nodded, and said aloud:
The mid-day heat October heat in Polyphemus was a little better than August, but it was only a matter of degree. Jeffrey thought he was finally getting used to it when he and Melinda sat down for their first debrief interview with Harvey Lamp.
He’d set up his field office in the old One-Eyed Giant roadhouse on Lotus, which had been shut up for a couple of seasons now and was in no great shape for anything. But based on the hours of readings that they’d sent him, Lamp said he didn’t want to work out of anywhere else, and based on the condition it cost a song to lease—certainly compared to anything in nearby Parvenu. But his disappointment was obvious.
“This is nothing like the pictures you sent.” Lamp was wearing a pair of cargo shorts and a yellow golf shirt that didn’t do anything for him, highlighting his fifty-ish gut and stork legs. He perched on a bar stool and invited them with a wave to belly up. “Of course it wouldn’t be, would it? It’s all a young girl’s memory, mixed up with Gulliver’s goddamn Travels.”
“More than that,” said Melinda, and Jeffrey added: “It’s everybody’s memories.” and Melinda clarified: “And fantasies.”
“Right. The ‘hive.’” Lamp frowned, looked down at his tablet and tapped it a couple of times like he was trying to get the picture right on an old TV.
“You know, Mel, I’ll be honest: I didn’t really expect anything out of you from here. That’s the nature of pure research. You don’t expect anything, not necessarily. But sometimes…” he looked up and set the tablet on the bar beside him. It shone the blue-green light of the screen on his shoulder for just a few heartbeats before falling into power-save and going dark. “…sometimes you find a thing you’re not looking for.”
“A hive mind.” Jeffrey and Melinda said it in unison, and laughed. That was happening a lot lately. They made after-you-Alphonse signs at one another for an instant before Jeffrey took over.
“It’s a kind of hive mind,” he said. “People in this community are…”
“…in tune with one another,” said Melinda.
“It’s a Goddamn utopia,” said Lamp, and he sighed again. “A parasitic utopia.”
“Or viral,” said Melinda.
“Definitely venereal,” said Jeffrey. Lamp gave him a look.
But Jeffrey was right. The jury was still out on what mechanism exactly caused the connection, but over the months since his arrival at Polyphemus, Jeffrey and Melinda had gone through the interviews with the townspeople again, and conducted some more with more pointed questions… and in that, and also certain insights delivered from their clarifying mind, developed a working theory that so far had stood the test.
Polyphemus was ground zero for an outbreak of an infection—Jeffrey wanted to call it Triple X, but was overruled—that was recently spreading with a widening vector, but appeared to have been active within the relatively isolated community for many years prior. There were stories about magical connections between lovers and close family, going back to the 1930s when young Albert and Sue Smiley changed their names to the Mysterio Twins and left town to join the Twillicker and Baines Circus on its penultimate tour of the dustbowl. But the phenomena exploded a decade ago—which coincided with the state legislature enacting a bill mandating “abstinence only” education, and banning the sale of contraceptives.
Now, it was safe to say that nearly everyone in town had caught the bug. And owing to the popularity of the One-Eyed Giant with the youth of nearby Parvenu, and the likely side-effect (this being Sally’s contribution to the theory) that the bug also juiced the libido in its hosts, to help it spread… there was a good chance that everyone there, of a certain age with an interest in and aptitude for anonymous flings had it too.
So Sally Coltraine had it. Jeffrey had it. Melinda had it.
Harvey Lamp could probably get it if he wanted to.
But he really didn’t seem to want it at all.
“I’d been really hoping for bicameralism,” he said.
“It’s a kind of bicameralism,” said Melinda hopefully, and Jeffrey noted: “We hear a voice, seeming that of a deity—”
“Or at least a Titan,” Melinda noted.
“Right, a voice arises, that instructs us on action,” said Jeffrey.
“It’s just a question of that voice’s source,” said Melinda. “This one is the voice of the collective consciousness, not the right hemisphere.”
“The hive,” said Jeffrey.
“But consciousness,” said Lamp. “Consciousness remains.”
“It does,” they both said in unison.
“Shit,” said Lamp. “Shit.”
“Not what you had in mind?”
“The point of this,” said Lamp, “was to see if we might discard consciousness. A bicameral mind might be capable of great things—great insights, mathematical proofs that would stifle within the self-doubt of conscious thought. A bicameral soldier would be unstoppable.”
“The theory of bicameralism was always up for debate,” said Jeffrey.
“This is just a tweak,” said Melinda, and Jeffrey said: “A twist.”
“A twist.” Lamp squinted at Melinda, and then Jeffrey. “So tell me, o Hive. What happens if I cut off your funding today?”
“To be honest,” said Jeffrey, “I—we don’t think it matters much.”
“We’d like to keep the device,” said Melinda, and Jeffrey said that was true.
“The device is useful, and to be honest a lot of fun. But really, I think we’ll be okay. We hit a… an…”
“An explosion,” said Melinda, and Jeffrey added: “As in Cambrian.”
“The Hive is pretty big now,” said Melinda. “It’s calling home its far-flung members. Sally was one of the first. And like her, these ones are bringing friends.”
“And honestly, we couldn’t have done it without you,” said Jeffrey: “Or at least us, here. The mind… the hive, didn’t really have a way to understand itself. It had no theory of mind. Until the Lamp Foundation paid Jacobs, and then me…”
“To clarify,” said Melinda, “the existential stuff.”
“But seriously,” said Jeffrey, “if you want out, it’s okay.”
“We got it,” said Melinda, speaking for everyone, “from here.”
© David Nickle, 2016