Charlie Arbuckle woke up and was still alive; God hadn’t answered his prayers.
He raised a dirty hand, shading his sore eyeballs against the sickly rays that passed for sunlight, while his other hand scrabbled through the damp newspapers that made up his bed, searching for the cool, smooth feel of glass. Ah, there it was. He unscrewed the lid, thanking God–he could do that here: thank God–he’d put it back on before passing out the night before. Hadn’t lost a drop.
Charlie brought the quart jar to his chapped lips. The fiery liquid trickled into his mouth. He swished it around, killing the god-awful taste, and swallowed. Esophagus blistered, stomach scorched, his mind came fully awake.
He pushed up on his elbows, feeling the cans and bottles and garbage and Lord-knew-what-else shift beneath the padding of newspapers, and inched his way backward until he came in contact with the greasy side of the dumpster that had been his home for the past two weeks. A little more wallowing about and he was sitting up.
He took another small sip from the jar of homemade whiskey, then replaced the cap. Had to conserve it. Didn’t know where he’d get the money to pay John Graywolf to smuggle in another.
Milky sunlight gave way to thick, greenish-gray clouds. A smattering of dirty snowflakes drifted down. Cold speckled Charlie’s face. And he remembered: today–or maybe tomorrow, he wasn’t sure of the exact day–was Christmas. Didn’t matter, though, not anymore. It’d been years since Christmas had been celebrated, years since candy canes and Christmas trees and snowflakes had been strung between the light posts along Main Street.
A blast of frigid air found its way inside the dumpster, rattling the newspapers. The cold whipped through Charlie’s tattered camo jacket. He shivered. His bladder needed emptying.
Time to crawl out anyway. It wouldn’t do for Sayyid to find him sleeping here. The old brownie would rant and rave in that devil tongue of his, and Charlie’d have to find a new home–and homes were getting scarcer and scarcer to come by.
He tucked the whiskey jar in a corner beneath a thick cushion of newspapers. No more until nighttime, no more until the stores closed up and the streets emptied.
A human cry rose above the faint drone of traffic. Recognizing the call to prayer, Charlie scrabbled to his feet. He should’ve already been long gone.
His worn boots smacked the concrete, jarring his skull. He ignored the pain, eyes scanning his surroundings as if he were on patrol back in Egypt. Or Iraq. Or Syria. One of them heathen places. His mind tended to mix them up anymore.
All clear. Just one lone brownie out on the street, down on his prayer rug. And he was facing Mecca, not him.
Charlie turned his back on the alleyway that ran from the back of Sayyid’s store to Main Street, unzipped his fly and let loose. Blessed relief.
The snow started falling harder, spattering Charlie’s unkempt brown hair like oversized flakes of dandruff. Head bent, he watched his stream of urine splash against the side of the dumpster, while listening to the cleric from the mosque five streets over calling the faithful to prayer. But his thoughts were elsewhere; Charlie’s mind had traveled back nearly fifteen years, to his mother’s kitchen.
He’d been home for barely a week following a two year deployment in Egypt, and still hung over from the night before, had been slumped at the kitchen table. Ma shoveled up a plate of ham and eggs and grits and plopped it down in front of him, her eyes on the tiny TV on the kitchen counter.
On the TV, chaos reigned. Riots in front of the White House, protesters whacking cops with their “Blood for Oil” signs, the cops falling back, then striking out with their batons.
“Look at that, Charlie Dean,” Ma said. “Stupid college kids, don’t know nothing. They want us out of Egypt, want us to stay here with our thumbs up our butts and do nothing while the fanatics take over.” She snorted. “And mark my words, that mealy-mouthed president’ll cave in. He’ll bring all the soldiers back and leave them that have any sense to the mercy of a bunch of crazies.”
Charlie hadn’t been paying much mind to the TV; his head hurt too bad. No, he hadn’t been listening to the beginning of the end.
A soft voice snapped him back to the present. “Excuse me.”
Now he’d done it. He’d hung around too long and the brownies had noticed him. He stuffed himself back inside his jeans and turned around.
A white guy–not a brownie–stood a few feet away. Dressed in a black pinstripe suit, black overcoat, black fedora, with tasseled black wingtips encasing his feet, he looked expensive.
The man held out his hand. To shake? Did anyone shake hands anymore? He smiled, showing perfect white teeth. “John Smith, and you are . . .”
Charlie raised his hand, saw the scabs and smears of dirt on his pale skin, and dropped it. The guy’s hand was so clean he was ashamed to touch it. Then shame turned into suspicion. He was a white like Charlie. How could he afford to dress so fancy?
Charlie thrust his cold hands deep into the front pockets of his jeans. “What do you want?”
Mr. John Smith’s grin didn’t falter, maybe even stretched a little wider. “To offer you a job.”
“No thanks. Ain’t interested.”
“I haven’t told you what the job is. How do you know you’re not interested?”
Charlie’d had enough years ago of cleaning up after brownies and not even earning enough in the bargain to get by. “Because I know what kind of job you’d offer someone like me.”
Pellets of sleet joined the snowflakes; the two cousins of winter joined hands and danced the icy wind.
“Someone like you?”
“Yeah . . . a white guy.” Charlie shivered inside his layers of tattered clothing.
John Smith spread his arms wide and beamed his sunny smile. “I’m a white guy.”
“So I noticed.”
“I have a good job that pays very well. So can you.”
Charlie laughed. “Who do I have to kill?”
The white guy’s grin slipped a bit. “I beg your pardon?”
“A joke. I was joking.” Charlie’d had enough. He was cold and he was hungry, and standing around here wasn’t taking care of either problem. “I think I’ll pass.” He turned and walked away.
“What if I can guarantee that you’ll never know hunger or cold again?” John Smith asked.
Charlie’s feet slowed.
“What if I can guarantee that you’ll have anything your heart desires if you come with me, right here, right now?”
Charlie came to a halt. What he was being offered was too good to be true. It had to be a trick. Yeah, the brownies were trying to trick him. But that wasn’t their way; they just took what they wanted right up front. Maybe he ought to see where this was leading.
Anything his heart desired . . .
There was one thing.
Charlie turned around. “My Ma . . . she’s in this home for old people–Christians. It’s crowded, she’s sick and needs medicine.”
John Smith’s smile returned. Hands in the pockets of his overcoat, he ambled over to Charlie. “We’ll take care of her for the rest of her life. All you have to do is accept the job I’m offering you.”
“And just what is the job?”
John Smith’s hand closed over Charlie’s arm. “I’ll tell you about it on the way.”
Charlie had to step fast to keep up. The white guy seemed to be in a hurry now that he had Charlie’s cooperation. He zipped them up the alley, and as his wingtips hit the broad sidewalk flanking Main Street, a white stretch limo nosed up to the curb.
John Smith opened the rear door. “After you Mr. . .”
New-leather smell wafted out of the limo’s innards. Charlie glanced inside. Pristine white, and as soft-looking as a cloud. His rail-thin body could almost feel it, sinking down upon its yielding skin. “Uh . . . Charlie . . .”
A hand upon his shoulder. “Time is of the essence. ” A nudge toward the open door.
Something in Charlie’s brain balked, sent up a red flag. But what did he have to lose? An hour of his time? He had plenty of that, more than he knew what to do with. And if it panned out, Ma would get the medicine she needed, and if it didn’t, well, she’d be no worse off than before.
He ducked his head and slid inside. Mr. John Smith followed, bringing with him the scent of—
Well, I’ll be damned, English Leather, Charlie thought. Didn’t know the stuff was even made anymore.
He felt a small prick to his thigh–Damn bugs–and glanced down at his leg. John Smith’s hand was moving away. And something was in that hand. A needle?
Charlie looked up into a row of grinning white piano keys and knew he’d been had. He had to get out of there. Now!
He tried to move, tried to raise his arms, and couldn’t. Then the whole world bled to black.
“Charlie . . .”
A piece of paper floated up out of an ashen fog, hovered in front of his face. “Sign this, Charlie.” Upon its surface, incomprehensible black squiggles swam in and out of focus.
Charlie squinted. “What is it?”
“It’s for your mother, authorizing us to move her.”
“Huh?” He was having trouble waking up. Must’ve drunk too much last night.
“As soon as you sign the paper, we’ll move your mother to a nice little place in the country. Her own house. A private nurse.”
That’s right–the white guy was going to take care of Ma, get her out of that place.
With tremendous effort, he raised his arm. A pen appeared in his hand.
“Here.” A finger pointed at a wavy line.
Charlie scrawled his name.
And darkness cast its sooty blanket over him once more.
Charlie heard unfamiliar noises: ticks and clicks and chirps, a soft babble of voices. Then he noticed the smell–or more accurately, the lack of smell–and realized he wasn’t in the dumpster behind Sayyid’s store.
His eyes slitted open. Two people dressed in white stood with their backs to him. His eyes panned right. A wall of machines–computers–blinked and blipped. Farther right, to an old brownie stretched out on a table, tubes running into his mouth and nose and chest, his shaven head bristling with wires that went . . .
His eyes followed the wires, up to the ceiling, through a bracket that held the snaky-looking clump up high, then across the room and into various ports in the bank of computers.
He didn’t know what the hell was going on, but knew he didn’t want any part of it.
Charlie attempted to sit up, but couldn’t; something held his arms. He glanced down the length of his body. Straps! His arms were strapped down! His legs too!
He tried to raise his head and felt a band across his forehead. Heart slamming inside his chest, he rolled his eyes back, searching for–and oh God, there was a nest of wires hanging over his head!
“I see you’re awake.”
He twisted his head to the left. Arms crossed over his chest, Mr. John Smith smiled his toothy smile. And Charlie remembered the limo, the needle. Fear stabbed his runaway heart. “Wh–what’s going on here?”
“Oh, just the job we spoke of.”
“I didn’t agree to this . . .” Charlie rolled his eyes. “Whatever this is.”
“Yes, you did.”
“I’m not a Muslim, but I still have rights. You can’t–”
“Yes we can, Charlie. You signed your consent.”
Charlie vaguely recalled signing a paper. “But that was for Ma.”
John Smith uncrossed his arms and approached. The grin dropped from his face. “No, you’re mistaken. What you signed was your consent to this procedure. You see the gentleman there on your right? That’s Ayatollah Ibn Samir, I’m sure you’ve heard of him.”
Who hadn’t? He was the most powerful man in America. “Yeah, but what’s it to me?”
“Ayatollah Samir is dying. But you’re going to save him.”
Charlie didn’t see how he could do anything for the old brownie, even if he wanted to–which he didn’t. “I’m no doctor.”
“We don’t need a doctor, Charlie, we need a donor.”
Charlie’s stomach curdled. “You want an organ donor? You’re going to take a piece of me and put it in him?”
“No, not quiet that. We’re taking Ayatollah Samir’s mind, and putting it in you.”
Charlie felt as if a bomb had gone off inside him, tearing his body into stunned pieces and blasting his brain into a mess of shocked mush. “How? Not possible.”
John Smith pointed at the snarl of wires over Charlie’s head. “That makes it possible. We’re going to upload the ayatollah’s mind into you.”
Charlie sensed movement on his other side, near his head. His eyes turned in that direction. In his peripheral vision, white fabric stirred, then he saw hands. The band across his forehead tightened. Terror settled deep in the pit of his stomach and took up housekeeping. “You can’t do this to me. I’ve got rights.”
John Smith chuckled. “You signed away what little rights you did have.”
He couldn’t understand it. He just couldn’t understand it! “How can you do this to your own kind? For God’s sake, man, you’re white like me.”
John Smith leaned over Charlie. No smile on that face now; a contemptuous curl of his lips had replaced it. “I am not your kind, you drunken, lazy infidel. Allah cares not for the likes of you, so why should I?”
Charlie felt something cold and wet smoothed over his skull and realized it was bare; his head had been shaved while he was unconscious. Then pressure here and there, as if someone were lightly tapping a fingertip on his scalp. He strained against his bonds. He could barely move his body. His head not at all.
Again, material rustled next to his head. He looked up and to that side as much as his trapped head allowed. Above a white mask, brown, bloodshot eyes met his then skittered away.
“Don’t do this,” Charlie said.
The eyes returned, caught his once more for a tiny fraction of time before turning away. But in that sliver of a second, Charlie had seen flecks of pity swirling in the brown. And it gave him hope.
“You know it’s wrong,” Charlie said to the dark-eyed man’s back. “For God’s sake, don’t do this to me!”
“No use fighting it,” John Smith said. “Allah’s will will be done.”
Charlie guessed Mr. John Smith was right. Allah, or Someone’s will, was going to be done, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.
But he didn’t have to like it.
“You’re crazy,” he said. “You and every person who thinks they know God or Allah’s will better than He does Himself, is fucking crazy.” He took a deep breath. “Go ahead, get it over with. Kill me.”
“We’re not going to kill you,” John Smith said. “We’ll simply take you out, keep your body functioning until the ayatollah is inside, then well . . .”
“Take me out?”
“Two people can’t share one body. It’d be chaos. You’ll have to be erased, Charlie.”
Charlie heard tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap; fingers on a keyboard. He heard the chittering of a hard drive.
Hopelessness came to visit, plopped its lard-butt down upon Charlie’s chest. Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes. “Will it hurt?”
“You know, I haven’t the faintest idea,” John Smith said. He moved out of Charlie’s limited range of vision. “But if it does, at least it won’t last long. Once we’ve started, the actual download and subsequent upload will take only a few minutes. Just think of it, Charlie, you’ll be a prototype–the very first body used to extend a human life.”
The hard drive’s metallic stuttering became a continuous crackly voice. The key strikes more rapid.
Charlie closed his eyes. His lips moved: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside . . . beside the still waters, He restoreth my. . . soul. He leadeth me . . . in the paths of . . . of . . .”
Images bloomed inside Charlie’s brain: his mother’s much-younger face, love shining in her hazel eyes; his father laughing, running along beside him, steadying Charlie on his first bike; Doreen Fisher’s strawberry lips; his older brother’s flag-draped coffin. Then more and more pictures, faster and faster, like a slide-show on speed. A frame of utter blackness. Then light. Beautiful, dusky eyes; a vista of sand and scrub. He heard voices and music and gunfire. He felt a warm, dry wind. Hot sand beneath his bare feet.
His eyes rolled back in his head. His muscles twitched. Saliva ran from the corner of his mouth.
Charlie’s mind crashed.
Letters blasted into Charlie’s head, a mad alphabet jittering around him and through him, forming words: Charlie . . . Charlie . . . listen to me.
He tried to answer, tried to say he was listening, but his lips wouldn’t move.
Charlie . . .
He couldn’t see where the words were coming from. Fog was everywhere, thick as soup.
I am going to send you back, Charlie.
Send him back where?
A few flickering spears of green light pierced the mist, raced past Charlie, and disappeared into the gloom. Then more and more trails of green appeared, whooshed over him and around him and through him. A babble of ones and zeros accompanied the streams of light, and something about it all almost made sense.
When you get back, you have to take care of the ayatollah. If he ever speaks, it will be the end for both of us.
Then he remembered: Mr. John Smith, the needle, the wires, the computers, the bright-white room–
The room. Where was the room–any room? Where was he?
The mist swirled about him. Thin green shafts zipped by. Ones and zeros, ones and zeros.
Panic grabbed him with a sweaty fist. Where am I?
Words bombarded him. You are all right, Charlie. I have got you.
Got him where? Before the letters had a chance to form an answer, Charlie knew: he was in the computer. Panic mated with terror. Their savage offspring clawed at Charlie’s sanity. Oh, dear God.
Yes, you are in the computer. But you are safe. I did not delete you.
Charlie remembered compassionate brown eyes.
I am going to send you back. Somehow, you will have to get rid of Ayatollah Samir. Do it quickly. There is not much time. I am the only one here right now, but Mr. Smith will be back shortly.
Then Charlie was hurtling through the fog. Green shafts closed in on all sides, formed a tunnel of shimmering green fire and funneled him through the unknown. Again, snapshots of his life rattled by at breakneck speed. A dizzying palette of sounds and smells and tastes battered his senses. Charlie couldn’t absorb it all; he was going to explode.
Hold on, Charlie. You are almost there.
The tunnel spat him out into a gray void. He tumbled and tumbled, then slowed. Stopped. Bobbed like a fishing cork on the surface of a tranquil pond.
Stillness and silence.
He sensed a presence beside him, something weak and sick, flailing around in confusion, grasping for a handhold. Dry as desert dust. The ayatollah.
Charlie knew what he was supposed to do and it’d be a piece of cake, like squashing a bug. He reached out his mind and wrapped it around the old brownie’s feeble psyche.
Like squashing a bug.
But it wasn’t a bug; it was a human being.
Charlie pulled back.
I have to. If I don’t . . .
The old ayatollah’s mind withered, rolled in on itself. A little quiver, then nothing. A blast of light shot out of the shriveled lump. The beam rocketed upward, cutting a brilliant golden path through the darkness.
And Charlie was alone.
In the dark.
He felt emptiness all around him. A vast, dark space. He didn’t like it. It was scary. He felt as if the blackness just went on and on, never ending and he was trapped and would never get out.
Then a strange thing happened: his mind expanded, spread outward. Tendrils reached like curious fingers, found familiar places. Settled in.
He opened his eyes.
A swarthy face. Brown eyes.
“Allah be praised, you have returned to us,” his savior said.
Gratitude flooded Charlie. He opened his mouth to speak.
The brown-eyed man squeezed his arm. “There was a minor glitch and it affected your speech center. But do not be concerned. It is nothing that will not resolve itself with time. You are going to be fine, Ayatollah Samir. I will be at your side at all times. I will take care of you.”
Over the dark-eyed man’s shoulder, Charlie saw Mr. John Smith. Above his movie-star smile, blue eyes glowed with a feverish light. He bowed toward Charlie.
He believes I’m the ayatollah. And not just any old ayatollah, but the richest and most powerful one this side of the Atlantic. Hold on to your camels, boys. Changes, they are a’coming your way.
Not this Christmas, and maybe not for quite a few Christmases to come. But if he moved slowly and carefully, he could bring about change. He knew there was no way to bring back the America of his childhood; it was too far gone. But he could make it possible for Christians to once more practice their faith openly without fear, to rebuild their churches that’d been torched or torn down, to publicly acknowledge their God.
Charlie knew he couldn’t do it all on his own, though. But the smiling, brown-eyed man looking down at him told him he wouldn’t have to.