Tinkerbell and the Strange Advice (Into The Darkness Part 6)

IMG_0114I sat in the park, clutching my knees and listening to the woodpeckers squabble in the oaks. It was Friday morning, and I’d promised Phoenix I’d come over today.

All my friends had been telling me to let him go, to just cut him loose and move on with my life. It was good advice, the same advice that little voice in my head was giving me. That voice was pretty effective at keeping me out of trouble, when I listened to it. Your life would be a whole lot less complicated if you just ditched the schizo kid, it said. Why are you hanging out with him anyway? The whole thing is just ridiculous. Everyone thinks you’re a creepy weirdo.

But I didn’t want to ditch Phoenix. I wasn’t really sure what I did want – my emotions were like an angry bear snarling around in my chest – but it wasn’t that. I couldn’t stand the thought of not seeing him while at the same time feeling ashamed and awkward about going over to his house. I’d just be bugging him. Our relationship has gotten too complicated, and I’d just make him feel bad. I messed it up.

I had a new trick for when I felt like this: I closed my eyes, tried to let go of my ego, and went to talk to Invisible Friend Jesus.

He was leaning back on his elbows in the grass, the cuffs of his slacks pulled up around his skinny ankles, the sun reflecting off the scuffed lenses of his turquoise-framed sunglasses. “Hey, Tink,” he said.

A warm peace spread through me, and my shoulders relaxed. “Hey,” I said.

He leaned back to let the sun into his shirt collar, closing his eyes. “You promised Phoenix you’d go see him today. So, go see him.”

I stared at him, my brow furrowing. “You’re not supposed to tell me that. You’re supposed to tell me to go home.”

He cracked an eyelid and cocked an eyebrow. “If you already supposedly know what I’m going to say, why bother to talk to me?”

“It makes no sense for you to tell me to go see Phoenix. You’re supposed to clear out all my selfishness and angst, and make me at peace with not hanging out with him anymore.”

“All your bad feelings and confusion come from you worrying about what other people think of your relationship with Phoenix,” he said. “You don’t really have any conflict about seeing him. It’s a healthy relationship, for the most part. A bit complex, maybe, but I think it’s good for both of you, if you’re careful.”

I thought about it. “You’re right,” I said. “But still, this doesn’t really make sense.”

“Why not?”

“God is supposed to make you do things you don’t want to do. You know, like give up your weekends to boring, pointless volunteer work, or get nailed to a cross and die slowly in the blistering desert sun. He doesn’t tell people to spend sunny afternoons climbing trees and picking wildflowers. That’s my own brain speaking, telling me to do that stuff.”

Invisible Friend Jesus smiled in that little way he has. “That’s not how it is, Tink. God doesn’t want us to be miserable. God wants us to make beauty and peace in this world, and we all have our own ways of doing that.” He pulled his sunglasses down his nose, looking at me over the rims. “But, for God’s sake, stop with the drinking and smoking cigarettes. Watch yourself, and be good, and above all step carefully.

I opened my eyes, blinking. Before my doubts could pour in again, I stood up and stalked off towards Phoenix’s house.

I’d feared knocking on the door, having to talk to his mom or Whisper, but I found him lying on the gravel shoulder of the road in front of his house. He watched me as I walked up, and I thought he looked surprised; maybe he hadn’t expected me to show.

I sat down next to him. “What are you doing? Just lying here in the dirt?”

He closed his eyes and pretended he hadn’t heard me.

We didn’t talk. I could tell he was upset, but I felt better just being around him. A car passed, its tires a scant foot from Phoenix’ head, and I saw the passenger peering down at us curiously.

I started dragging my fingers through the gravel, arranging it into patterns. He opened his eyes, propped his head on his hand and watched me. “What are you doing?”

“Making pictures,” I said.

“Why?”

“For artistic reasons.”

He laughed. “Artistic reasons.” He sat up and started helping me. We drew circles and piled the rocks up in the shapes of twining vines. Then his hands went still, and he looked up, locking me in his intense gaze. “I thought I was happy for the first time in my life.”

“What, when?”

He pressed his lips together, then dropped his eyes to squint distantly at the ground. “But I don’t really know what happiness is, so.”

I wrapped my arms around myself. “Phoenix, I want you to be happy.”

His fingers fidgeted with the pebbles. “What, what do you mean?”

“Just that. Only that. That I want you to be happy.”

He glanced up, a goofy grin flitting across his face. “Huh,” he said. He threw a rock into my lap and made an explosion noise. I giggled and made guns with my fingers, pointing them at him.

“Pew pew!” I said.

He clutched his hands over his heart. “Argh, you got me, you killed me.” He fell down on his back. “I’m totally dead now. That was so mean, you shot me dead.”

“You were exploding me with cannons, I’m not supposed to retaliate?”

“I’m really mad at you, actually,” he said, smirking.

Then I heard the dogs bark, and looked up to see Whisper coming out of the house. She leaned on the picket fence, smiling. “Hey, Liz.”

“Hi, Whisper.”

“Why are you all, like, in the dirt, Phoenix?”

Phoenix sat back up. “For artistic reasons, and because Liz shot me.”

“Oh.” She fished in the pocket of her tight, studded jeans. “You wanna cigarette, Liz?”

Phoenix’s spine went rigid, and he scowled. “What are you offering her cigarettes for? Liz doesn’t smoke.”

Whisper raised her eyebrows. “I was just being nice.”

“Spreading all your unhealthy bullshit,” he said. “Get off and leave her alone.”

“Don’t get all pissy on me, brother.”

“She doesn’t smoke!” he bellowed. “Leave her alone!”

“Phoenix,” I said, but he didn’t look at me. I still hadn’t figured out anything that calmed him down when he got like this.

“Are we gonna go again, Phoenix?” Whisper asked, her hands on her hips. “Are we gonna go? Come on, come break my nose again, like last night.”

Phoenix looked away from her, muttering. I squinted at Whisper. Her nose didn’t look broken to me; there wasn’t a mark on her anywhere.

She stood looking at him for a few more moments, then hopped the fence and came over to pull him into a rough hug.

“Let’s not fight, brother,” she said. “I love you.”

Phoenix sat stiffly in her arms and muttered something else, staring at his hands. Whisper let him go and strode back towards the house, lighting her cigarette and yelling through the doorway for her boyfriend.

“What does she mean you broke her nose?” I asked.

He pointed at his eye. “See my black eye? We got in a fight last night.” He punched the air, laughing. “It was super fun.”

“Oh, my God.” His right eye was indeed swollen; he had cuts around it and across his nose. I hadn’t really paid much attention before, because he was always covered in boo boos from climbing trees and doing backflips or whatever. “What were you guys fighting about?”

He shrugged, curling into himself and picking at his cuticles. “I don’t even remember. Some bullshit. We were both drunk.”

“You shouldn’t drink, Phoenix. You’re a mean drunk.”

He glanced up at me. “I am?”

“Fighting with your sister and stuff, and yelling at your mom. I’m afraid you’ll hit me someday, too.”

His eyes went wide. “No, not at all. No way. I wouldn’t hit you. I don’t hit girls and stuff. Whisper just came at me. I was defending myself.” He curled up again, frowning and fidgeting with the pebbles. “Being all bitchy at me, giving me a black eye.”

We worked more on our gravel artwork until his family and Whisper’s boyfriend came out a few minutes later. “We’re going into town to see your grandma,” his mom said.

“Okay, have a good time,” Phoenix said.

“You don’t want to go with them?” I asked, as they all climbed into the Jag.

“I do, actually, but there isn’t room for us in the car.”

“You could probably fit,” I said. “Go ahead and go, if you want. Don’t stay here because of me.”

“No, to tell you the truth, I was just joking, I don’t want to go,” he said.

I stared at him as his family drove off, but he didn’t look at me. After the car turned the corner, he stood up. “Do you think you could put cheese in eggs?”

“Yes,” I said. “Cheese in eggs is really good.”

“How about chicken?”

“Sure.”

He spun on his heels and went through the gate, into the house. I stood up and followed him.

He was rummaging in the fridge. “There’s not anything that adds up to food, actually,” he said. “WHY can’t we ever have anything that’s FOOD?”

I glanced over his shoulder at the half-eaten cups of Jell-O and sticks of margarine that looked like someone had squished them between their fingers. “What’s in the cupboards?” I asked. “Do you have onions?”

“Yeah, there’s onions.”

We chopped up onions and chicken, and he put a pan on the stove. “You need some oil in that,” I said.

“I don’t like oil in my food,” he said. “All we have is dollar store oil.” He scattered the chopped chicken into the pan. “There’s good oil in the chicken, that works for oil.”

He went to wash his hands, and I put the onions in, then searched for a spatula in the drawers. I found one, but he yelped at me when I went to stir the food around.

“Don’t use that one!” he said. “My mom is all, meh meh, I’m gonna use that spatula, gonna get all up in your food with it.” He opened a cupboard and searched around behind the plates, coming out with another, almost identical, spatula.

“You have a secret stash,” I said.

He flipped the chicken and onions. “I’m not sure I can eat this food now, actually. I don’t like people touching my food, or even getting near it or looking at it.”

I saw him smirking, and I snorted. “Shut up.”

When the omelets were done, we went out onto the porch to eat them, listening to Modest Mouse on my phone. The house sparrows twittered in the willow branches and Shiva begged for scraps at our feet.

“You literally saved my life today,” Phoenix said, feeding his dog a piece of chicken. “I was going to lie in the road until a car came and crushed my head.” He gave me a shy glance, then held my eyes and smiled. It was a real smile, boyish and happy, and I seldom saw it on him.

I smiled back. “I’m glad I came over, then,” I said.

Jesus and the Junkie

My ex sits on my parents’ sofa, his head slowly drooping down to his knees, his face twisted in a strung-out grimace. Invisible Friend Jesus sits next to him, gazing at him distantly.

“I remember being like that,” I say. “I’d wake up every morning curled in a tight ball around my pain. The world was cold and cruel and dirty, and the only thing that made it better was dope. But with every dose the world got crueler, the hustle a little more dangerous, the judgment of respectable people a little sharper. The only answer was to get higher, and to stop even trying to associate with respectable people.”

Invisible Friend Jesus doesn’t say anything. He just leans forward and pokes my ex in the shoulder with a long, graceful finger. My ex’ chin jerks up slightly, his lids cracking open over hazy eyes. Then he quickly sinks back into his nod, and Invisible Friend Jesus leans back on the couch once more, stroking his stubbly chin.

“There was no way out,” I continue. “No matter what I did, I just made myself hurt worse.”

“But you did find your way out,” Invisible Friend Jesus says.

“That’s the paradox,” I say. “There’s no way out of that place, but you can still get out. Escaping that hole is like an electron jumping from one atomic orbital to another. It’s difficult to say for sure which path it takes, only that it gets there.”

“Which is frustrating for you, because you can’t tell him how to do it,” Invisible Friend Jesus says.

I sigh. “There’s no right way. You just do it.” I squint at Invisible Friend Jesus and smile. “It helps to believe that there’s goodness and beauty in the universe though. Something to cling onto when it seems like there’s nothing else. A happiness that’s always there, no matter what, and that no one can take away from you.”

He grins back and picks up the remote. “Let’s watch Adventure Time.”

“Hells yes,” I say, and give him a fist bump.

Invisible Friend Jesus turns on the TV. I gaze sadly at my ex, sitting there sucking unconsciously on his lips, his grey forehead resting on his knees.

“You should find him a friend,” I say. “Someone who looks like Obi Wan or a Yaqui Indian shaman.”

Invisible Friend Jesus sprawls with his arms across the back of the sofa, examining him with compassionate eyes. “I’ll see what I can do,” he says.

IFJ On the Road

Invisible Friend Jesus stands next to me at the hotel window, gazing at dawn spreading over the red ridges around Albuquerque. I’m a long way from home, and I’m having one of those mornings when you wake up bleary and beat and lost-feeling.

“Traveling is a lonely and intense thing,” I say.

He doesn’t respond, but just shoots me his little smile.

“I’m a restless person,” I continue. “Being in motion helps me to think. Being out somewhere where I don’t know anyone and don’t know what’s going to happen next helps me to sort of float on top of life and get a look around me.”

He strokes his short beard thoughtfully. “You were born a ramblin’ man.”

I don’t dignify this with a response. I watch the morning commuters crowding up the I-40 bridge, the Rio Grande flowing lazily beneath them. They’re running around in circles, caught in their routine, but I’m detached from all that. Traveling makes me realize how our rituals are a comfortable, fuzzy blanket that we wrap ourselves up in so that we don’t have to think or feel. We always know where we have to be next and what we need to do, and reap a sense of fulfilment from that, even if we’re not actually accomplishing anything of substance. Traveling rips away that blanket and leaves us naked. It can help us see who we really are, and what’s really going on around us. It can also make us cold, cause the emptiness inside us to bloom.

“There are times when I wake up in another hotel room somewhere and I wonder what the hell I’m doing here,” I mutter. “I ask myself what the point is of all this running. After a while, all those miles and towns start to blur together, all the conversations with people in bars and at bus stops. I’m always searching for the next thing to grab my attention, because I can feel the endless void of death opening up underneath my feet and I want to fill up my head with constant novelty to drown out its smothering silence. I’m replacing my rituals with a lack of ritual. I’m trying to cram meaning down life’s gaping maw, is what I’m doing, but I’m old enough to know how hollow that is.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Where’s your mustard seed of faith, Tinkerbell? You’re sliding into nihilism.”

I wrinkle my nose. “When I got baptized during my raging fit of whatever, I was challenging myself to not be a nihilist; to believe that, no matter how fucking pointless life seems sometimes, there’s still beauty and meaning in it. I knew I’d get pushback from myself, and from others. I knew all my friends and family would think I’d gone goobers, because I don’t act like a Christian. I never have and never will. I feel stupid calling myself one. I’m too jaded and foul-mouthed. I’m too immersed in this life, too hedonistic. I love going to church and feeling that space open up around me, that peace, that feeling that I don’t have to run anywhere because I’m already here. But as soon as I walk out that door, my thoughts flow back into their natural channels, and by the time I’m home again, I’m confused and ashamed of myself, left with the unsettling feeling that I’m leading a double life.”

“You’re not,” he says. “You’re just confusing your self-image with how others see you.”

“But there’s truth in how other people see me,” I say. “I don’t seem like someone who has found religion, because I’m rarely at peace. I’m still floundering around in the dark for answers, and failing, again and again. Worse yet, I’m having a wicked sort of fun doing it. No matter how many times a day I pray for you to not lead me into temptation, you still do.”

He laughs. “Don’t look at me, Tinkerbell, I’m not the one leading you into temptation.”

I roll my eyes. “Yeah, I know. But I think therein lies my point. It seems to me that, in the case of other Christians, you have them by the balls. They don’t feel the need to dance on the edge of the cliff. They walk straight down the narrow path you’ve laid out for them, and feel righteous. But I don’t live righteously. I’m not a goody-two-shoes. In fact, I’m usually barefoot.”

“So am I,” he says. I smirk and glance down at his long narrow feet, bare beneath the hems of his cream-colored slacks. He wiggles his toes, then sighs and reaches out to squeeze my shoulder. “Everyone fucks up, Tinkerbell. Everyone suffers doubt and temptation, and gives into it now and again, no matter how mind-numbingly Christian they are. Not all of them brag about it as much as you do, though.”

I poke at his armpit and he flinches away, giggling, because Invisible Friend Jesus is very ticklish. “Oh, shut up,” I say. “The difference between me and those people isn’t that I brag about my missteps and failures, it’s that I don’t feel like you’re judging me for it. I only feel like other people are judging me for it. I see you so much differently than other Christians do. They seem to hear you hollering a bunch of Thou Shalt Nots in their ear, whereas, for me, you’re just the guy that gently takes my hand every time I corner myself in some den of iniquity, helps me brush myself off, and then tells me some stupid joke about a horse and a weasel to make me laugh. I never feel your judgment, just your forgiveness. Although I do feel you kicking my shins and telling me to get the fuck out of this situation now sometimes.”

He grins. “I usually have to kick pretty hard before you listen.”

I clutch my elbows, frowning out the window. “Yeah, sometimes.”

“But you’re getting better, Tink. Keep working at it, you won’t have to fill that void with ridiculous antics or numbing routine any longer, and you can fill it with peace, instead.”

“Maybe,” I say. “Sometimes I wish I could be like other people, and find some sort of peace in just following the rules. They use the Bible as an instruction manual, when I see it as a weird collection of old oral histories and allegories and antiquated laws, haunting song lyrics, and the rantings of ancient schizophrenics. I don’t see the Bible as the word of God, but as a work of human beings inspired by religious fervor. I can’t see very many clear-cut rules in it, so I’m left to find my own path to God.”

“That’s what everyone does. Every Christian sees something different in the Bible and has their own set of beliefs. Ditto with the other religions.”

“Yeah, but I’m no sort of Christian at all. I don’t even know if I believe in heaven or hell. I just want peace in this life, and to live abundantly. The only reason I’m supposedly a Christian instead of some new-agey space-brained spiritualist is because I love your very human example of how to live and search for inner peace. Plus, you were a punk-rock revolutionary and did kickass magic.”

He laughs, then reaches into the sleeve of his jacket and pulls out a bouquet of daylilies, hands them to me with a flourish. I bring them to my nose, breathing their delicate scent. “Thanks,” I say.

He ruffles my hair. “Listen, Tink. Like I’ve told you before, no one has a monopoly on God. God is for everyone, even twisted weirdoes like you. I mean, I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Yeah,” I say. Then I purse my lips at him. “Hey, could you pull a wad of cash out of your sleeve, too? I’d like a really nice hotel tonight. That will help with my inner peace.”

He raises an eyebrow at me, then pulls a penny from his pocket and flicks it at my kneecaps. I jump away, giggling.

“Quit it!” I say.

IFJ- Amsterdam Coffee House, One and Two

Amster-Goddam Coffee House
“I really want to take off somewhere this weekend,” I said.

He sat looking at me out of the corner of his eye. I avoided his gaze, tapping my foot against the floor. “You’re so agitated lately,” he said.

“I know.” I ran my fingers through my hair. “I’m trying to calm down a bit.”

He arched an eyebrow. “For someone trying to calm down, you sure spend a lot of time at this coffee shop.”

I grimaced and slurped my quad-shot, watching one of the amazing baristas bend over to grab a crumpled napkin from the floor. My eyes flicked over to Invisible Friend Jesus; amazingly he wasn’t watching her, he was still looking at me, a corner of his mouth tucked back. I slumped lower in my chair.

“Do I need to tell you not to come here?” he asked.

“Finally with the guilt,” I muttered.

He grinned faintly. “Guilt doesn’t usually work with you. Besides, you know how to control yourself, Tinkerbell. I’m just worried that you don’t comport yourself with much dignity sometimes.”

I scowled at him from behind my cup. “You expect dignity out of me?”

He broke into a smile, squeezing his eyes shut. “You’re right. What was I thinking?”

And the Very Next Day…
“I can’t help but notice that we’re back in this coffee shop,” he said, looking around with raised eyebrows.

I avoided his gaze. “I had to come into town, and I was tired, I needed some coffee.”

He stared at me, his chin resting on his hand. “Didn’t they give you a Starbucks card for reading that short story at the writers’ meeting?”

I hid behind my cup and didn’t say anything.

“Didn’t we pass a Starbucks on our way here?” he asked.

I mumbled something about rampant capitalism and buying local, but he just continued to watch me thoughtfully, slowly rubbing his upper lip with his pointer finger.

I took a gulp of my quad shot, my foot twitching spasmodically. “That girl working the till, do you think she’s a ballet dancer?” I asked. “She looks like a ballet dancer.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.

I stared at my lap, rubbing my nose with my fist. “Thanks for hanging out with me, Invisible Friend Jesus,” I muttered sheepishly, and he smiled.

“It’s always an experience,” he said. “Can we go home now?”

I flipped my laptop closed, stuffing it into my backpack. “Okay, but only if you tell me how to get Pers Cavanaugh out of her moral predicament on the drive.”

He laughed. “I don’t negotiate with terrorists,” he said.

IFJ- Insomnia

“Pssst! Tinkerbell! Wake up!”

He poked me in the arm, and I stirred sleepily. Then I looked at the clock. “It’s one thirty in the morning,” I protested.

“Yeah, but get up!”

I flopped over. “That’s a bad idea. Four hours of sleep isn’t enough. I’ll feel glorious bunked later, and won’t be able to write or do anything.”

“We can take a nap,” he said, poking me in the arm again.

“I can never take naps.”

“This time you will, I’ll help you.” When I didn’t respond, he shook me. “Hey, remember that Kids in the Hall sketch? That was freakin’ funny.” He made a silly voice. “God in heaven! This is progress?!”

The scene rolled through my head, and I was convulsed in helpless giggles. “The union!”

He laughed. “And hey, we have to write those book jacket blurbs for Genesis. You can do the Noah story next.”

I lay there for a moment, sighing, then flopped over in frustration. “I don’t have to do that now. I need more sleep.” I put a pillow over my head.

He stood there tapping his foot, and after a minute or so he shook me again, but he didn’t have to; I had potential lines for the blurb running through my mind, and I had the giggles again. “Fine, fine, I’m up.” I hauled myself out of bed and padded out into the kitchen. I turned on the light. Then I squinted at him. “Hey, you’re not Invisible Friend Jesus,” I said.

He shuffled his feet, his eyes darting around. Then there were footsteps in the hall, and Invisible Friend Jesus came out, rubbing his eyes. He was wearing striped white flannel pajamas. “What’s all the commotion?” he asked. Then his gaze fell on the other guy, and he grinned humorlessly. “Satan, go back to sleep and leave her alone,” he said.

View Kids in the Hall sketch:
Arms in a Trough of Dead Fish

IFJ- Wherin Jesus Tells Me Not to Read the Bible

“I’ve been reading the Bible, Invisible Friend Jesus.”

I leaned back against his knees. For once, he wasn’t doing anything, just sitting to stare out the window with me. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Sometimes,” I said, “reading the Bible is worse than talking to God Girl and the neighbors.”

He chuckled softly. “How so?”

“There’s a whole lot of smiting in there, for one, and stuff that seems contrary to a message of peace, love and acceptance. Even you say some pretty nasty shit in there. What’s all this about not healing the Gentiles? I was reading that last night in Matthew 10:5.”

He flicked me on the back of the head. “You’ve got a problem with that, shikse?”

I smacked him on the knee in retaliation and looked over my shoulder with raised eyebrows.

He leaned back in his chair, squinting at me with his little smile. “The thing about the Bible, is it was written by people. People, as you might know, have their own issues and agendas.”

“But it’s the Bible, Invisible Friend Jesus!”

“Yes, and it’s a great help to many. But, if you don’t understand something in the textbook, you go ask the teacher, right?”

I scowled at him. “But…you’re saying, the Bible is wrong? Are you really Jesus? Because you look a little more like James Franco.”

He snorted, wrinkling his nose. “I wouldn’t say that the Bible is wrong. It’s a thick and obtuse tome, and it says a lot of things. There are definitely many lessons to be learned from it, but you have to look at it from the right perspective.”

“You’re talking around the issue,” I said.

“And you’re turning religion into an intellectual exercise.” We glared at each other a few moments. He kept raising his eyebrows higher and higher until I finally laughed.

“Listen,” he said, “I’ve always thought that biblical literalists lack imagination. They want instructions on how to be a good person and get into Heaven laid out in front of them so that they don’t have to think about it. They don’t stop to consider the realities.”

“You’d need a lot of imagination in order to be a biblical literalist if you ask me,” I said. “All that stuff in there that contradicts the other stuff, and all the crazy-ass things….”

“I believe you’re over-thinking it, which is something most of those people don’t do.”

I leaned back against his legs again, clutching my head and sighing. “Maybe I should be a Buddhist,” I said.

He shifted slightly in his seat. “Are you saying we should see other people?”

I laughed, but didn’t look up. “No, not really.”

“You’d probably have just as much intellectual trouble with certain aspects of Buddhism.”

“You’re probably right.”

“You’ve told me yourself that you get a lot out of these conversations we have, but here you are again, trying to justify it. You’re never going to go wrong seeking out that place of peace within yourself. It helps you in your daily life, in all your interactions with people. It makes your life better. If you don’t find that peace and joy from reading the Bible, well then, don’t read it. Come talk to me, instead.”

I sat up again, and settled back against his knees. “Okay,” I said.

Happy Birthday, Tinkerbell

“Happy birthday,” Bill said, dangling a baggie in front of my face.

“What the hell?” I shifted Juniper to my hip and took it, pinching at the contents through the plastic. It was about an ounce of weed, the smell of it wafting up and sticking to my skin like tar. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

“You should make brownies,” he said.

I stared at him. “I haven’t smoked weed since high school.” Juniper reached out with her chubby fists to grab the bag, and I held it up out of her reach.

“Yeah, but eating it’s different,” he said. “Come on, it’s your twenty-seventh birthday. It’s the rockstar death birthday. Make some brownies.” When I still looked dubious, his mouth tightened with affronted annoyance. “It’s good shit, my best shit yet. I call it Barney’s Balls, because it’s all purple.” He cackled. “It’s Purple Haze crossed with Northern Lights.”

I glanced at the stuff again. Juniper leaned across me, still reaching for it, squawking with displeasure. “Yeah, it is sorta purple,” I muttered. “It smells pretty dank, too.”

Bill walked off towards the living room, patting my ass as he went by. “Make some brownies,” he repeated.

I sighed. I guess it didn’t make sense to refuse my only birthday present. So I slung Juniper over my back so that she could watch over my shoulder, pulling at my hair and babbling, while I melted chocolate and cracked eggs. I crumbled the weed in – it was enough to make the batter dry, so I added more butter and chocolate.

I poured it into a pan and put it in the oven. Then I licked the bowl. I loved brownies and brownie batter, even if it tasted piney and made my tongue tingle.

I wasn’t really huge on pot, though. I’d quit smoking it because it made me paranoid and depressed, but maybe Bill was right – maybe eating it was different.

I put Juni in her high chair and tried to feed her mashed bananas while the musty smell of doctored dessert filled the house. She looked at the spoonful of slimy pulp and then at my face, her expression conveying her concerns about my sanity. She smacked the spoon away and reached for my swollen breasts, hooking the collar of my shirt with sticky fingers.

“No, Gaboo, look,” I said. I ate the gunk myself. “Mmmm, yummy,” I lied.

“Gaphhhhbt,” she said. I plied her with another spoonful, and she opened her mouth experimentally, showing her sprouting incisors. I shoved it in, and she mooshed it around with her tongue, her little brow furrowing thoughtfully. Her baby hair had started to fall out, and she was left only with one dishwater blonde tuft, which sprouted from her bare, pink scalp and fell over her forehead. She looked weird, like she had radiation poisoning.

“Those brownies smell done,” Bill called from the living room, where he was watching That Seventies Show and coughing as he smoked a bowl.

I brought him a huge, gooey square on a plate, and he dug into it like a starving puppy. “This is good,” he said, sucking at his fingers. I put the baby on the couch between us and stared at my little piece of brownie, adrenaline creeping down my spine. Bill glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. “Don’t be scared,” he said. “You need a little birthday trip.” He took his empty plate into the kitchen and came back in with another huge slab of the stuff.

Straightening with determination, I shoved the bite-size piece in my mouth, the sour zing of the weed giving me a full-body shudder. Bill laughed.

Half an hour later, we were still staring at the TV while Juniper babbled at me earnestly, slapping her bare knees. She sounded like she was giving a political speech, and she had the comb-over for it, too. “You feel anything yet?” Bill asked.

I shook my head.

He got up and came back carrying another gigantic piece for me. “You hardly had any yet, but this will get you going.” He plopped back down on the couch and picked up his pipe.

I tore off bits with my fingers, and ended up eating the whole thing. I loved brownies.

By the time I finished it, I’d started to feel antsy. “Let’s go on a walk,” I suggested. So Bill strapped Juni on his back in the snuggie and we headed out to the park a few blocks away.

It was muggy, heat shimmering off the sidewalks and drying up the mangy lawns. We strode across Halsey Ave., weaving through traffic. As soon as we hit the other side of the street, my head exploded.

The world wavered, and suddenly the houses around me all looked fake, an endless row of identical structures, reflections in a hall of mirrors. “What did you do to the houses?” I asked. They weren’t real. They’d been put there to trick me.

Bill looked at me with raised eyebrows. Juniper peered over his shoulder, chewing on her fist. She pulled her hand out of her mouth and pointed at me, her fingers glistening with spit. “Had dad gag gah,” she demanded, then replaced the fist.

“What is she trying to say to me?” I asked, my stomach going cold with fear.

Bill burst out laughing. “Oh man, you’re high now, aren’t you?”

I blinked and hugged myself, vaguely remembering having eaten some weird-tasting brownies. “What happened?”

He put his arm around me, still laughing. “You’re wasted,” he said.

We went into Rose City Park, sat at a picnic table in the shade. A group of teenage boys ran by, playing soccer. A sour-faced old woman with a bowl cut slouched past, leading an overstuffed Chihuahua, followed by a young couple, holding hands and chatting. All of them shot me meaningful looks, trying to communicate something to me silently.

I hugged myself tighter and looked up at Bill. “I’m dead, aren’t I?” I said. “I’m dead, and this is the Bardo.”

Bill laughed uncontrollably. “Are you serious?”

“I got run over crossing the road,” I realized. I looked around me. A haggard-faced old hobo glanced at me sharply as he scampered past.

“Yes yes yes yes,” he said.

I watched after him. “You’re all spirits trying to lead me to the next life,” I said, panic crawling through me.

Bill grinned wryly. “Do you want to go home?”

I gazed at him in anguish, tears rolling down my face. “I don’t know,” I said. “Where’s home? What’s it like?”

Bill stood up and took my hand, Juniper peering at me quizzically. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go.”

I clung to Bill’s hand, gazing around me as we walked. The identical houses marched by alongside us, dream images created by my mind, remnants of my memories of the physical world. The sidewalk stretched out infinitely, and I knew I’d be walking endlessly, forever, never able to rest until I atoned for my sins and found my way into the next world.

Then I looked up and saw a familiar house. I came to a halt in the yard, staring at it in confusion, but Bill tugged me forward. “Come on, Liz,” he said, giggling as he unlocked the door.

“Hey, scuzzbags,” a voice said from behind us, and we turned to find our friend Tim grinning at us. Some girl was with him, bony with a twisted face; she stared at me, her eyes huge over her sunken cheeks.

“What’s up, Tim?” Bill said.

“This is Sarah,” Tim said.

“Hey Sarah,” Bill said.

We all went inside. “What am I supposed to do now?” I asked, as Tim and Sarah sat down on the couch. Bill cackled as he went into the bedroom, coming out with an eighth in a rolled-up baggie, handing it to Tim.

“Don’t mind Liz,” Bill said. “It’s her birthday, and she’s blasted.”

“Happy birthday, Liz,” Sarah said, still staring at me. I fidgeted, staring back. Tim handed Bill some money.

“You’re blasted?” Tim laughed. He had a crazy, tittering laugh. “On what?”

“She made some special stratosphere brownies,” Bill said. He took Juni out of the snuggie, flipping her over upside down and blowing on her bare belly. She giggled.

“I like brownies,” Sarah said. She was still staring at me, her eyes gigantic. Bill put Juniper down on the couch between Tim and Sarah.

I tensed up. They were demons, and they were trying to take Juniper’s soul. If they took her, she’d be dead like me. “Don’t touch my baby!” I yelled, snatching her up and running into the bedroom.

Tim and Bill broke into hysterical laughter behind me. “Don’t touch my baby!” Tim screeched, and they laughed again.

I lay down on the bed, breathing hard and clutching Juniper. She gazed at me with her big blue eyes, squirming and fussing and grasping at my breasts with fat fists, finally prying one out and latching on with a grunt.

Eventually I heard Tim and Sarah go out, and Bill turned on the radio. It was a news program, a rogue station run by the gorilla resistance. They were broadcasting from out in the woods beyond the City, out in the Empties. I listened closely. In this new world I’d fallen into, the apocalypse had come, a sickness that had wiped out more than half the world’s population. The government was falling apart, and the rebels were amassing against them, ready to make a move and start the revolution. The commentator shouted out a frantic call to action, urging us to join them.

Juniper had fallen asleep, and I got up and went into the living room so that I could hear the radio program better.

The radio wasn’t on. Bill was sitting on the couch, reading, drawing on his pipe. He looked up as I came in, an orange stripe of afternoon sunlight falling across his face. He sputtered on the smoke and blew it out in a billowing cloud, which floated lazily through the sunbeam. “How do you feel?” he asked.

I sat down on the couch, frowning. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. “About the apocalypse?” Bill chuckled and shook his head, going back to his book.

The world shimmered and warped, twisting in on itself. “Is this real?” I asked, looking over at Bill.

Bill wasn’t there anymore. He was gone, along with my living room. I was sitting on a white leather couch, the walls lost in a golden haze. Next to me sat a man in a cream-colored suit, his feet bare. He had dark hair curling around his neck and ears, a kind face. His lips curved into a tiny, teasing grin. “It’s real, and it’s all a dream,” he said.

“Am I dead?” I asked, blinking at him.

“Not yet. Just lost.”

The brightness closed in around me, it was inside of me, shining out from my middle. “The universe is a gigantic place,” the man said. “All that you know and all you’ve ever imagined is just a miniscule part of the whole. Time is an illusion. Reality also. But consciousness is eternal and infinite.” As he said it, I became detached from myself. I saw the room and me in it, the man sitting next to me on the couch. Then the scene got smaller and smaller as I was sucked back from it, further and further until it was just a tiny speck, a dot of light in an endless darkness. I cried out in anguish as my whole life dwindled into meaninglessness, engulfed by the infinite void.

“My baby!” I said. “I can’t leave my baby!” But my voice was consumed by the darkness and silence. I struggled to remember what it was to be human, or to be alive. It all seemed so strange and far away. Had it ever really happened? Had my life ever existed? I couldn’t make sense of it. All I remembered was emptiness and loss.

Then I felt arms around me. “It’s okay, Tinkerbell,” he said.

I woke up in my dim bedroom, the baby asleep beside me.

IFJ Collection Three

Wherein Jesus Says it’s Okay to Not Believe
“What’s up, Tink?”

I wrapped my arms around my knees and stared out the window, frowning. When I finally looked at him out of the corner of my eye, he was sitting there with his stupid, knowing smile. “I don’t have to tell you, you already frigging know,” I said.

He tented his fingers over his chest and tapped them together. “You’re worried because you’re almost done with your Tales from Purgatory series. You think that you only let yourself believe these conversations between us have meaning because you needed to believe it in order to write the story – because you had to find a way to make your main character believe it.”

“That’s crazy, right?”

He stuck his bottom lip out and shrugged. “I’ve heard crazier. I think.”

I hugged my legs tighter. “I’m a fraud, Invisible Friend Jesus. Real people of faith don’t have these dark moments where the world wraps them up in a nihilist shroud and the void opens beneath them.”

“That’s not true,” he said. His smile was gone.

“Really? I mean, does God Girl lie in bed at night and doubt the existence….” I trailed off, my eyes glazing over, and he snorted, rubbing his upper lip.

“Stop thinking about God Girl lying in bed at night, Tink.”

“Sorry.” I sighed and pressed my forehead into my knees.

He came over and put his arm around my shoulders. “These are fun talks we have,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said into my knees. “Yeah, they are. They have immeasurable value for me.”

“You don’t have to justify it to yourself or anyone.”

I looked up at him and smiled. “That’s true,” I said.

The Parable of the Dreamland Origami Monkey
“Invisible Friend Jesus, I’m having another bad day.” He sat by my head as I lay curled on the couch. He was making origami figurines, waving his hand over a pile of crepe paper, causing the little squares gather into beautiful shapes as if folded by unseen hands. I watched blearily as a rainbow army of butterflies, horses, airplanes and lotus blossoms grew on my coffee table.

“Why don’t you tell me about it?” he said.

“I’m never content,” I said. “I’m selfish. I always want something that I don’t have.”

He glanced at me, with his little teasing smile. “You think that makes you special?” he asked.

I sighed heavily, curling up tighter. “Some people seem perfectly happy with what they have. Other people’s discontent stems from a less selfish place. They want to make the world better, they want to help those less fortunate. Me, I get all twisted up because I really want my books to get published.”

He twiddled his fingers, and a rustling row of paper sea creatures bloomed up under them. “Dr. King you are not, Tinkerbell, but your art is your way of reaching out to others. You shouldn’t feel bad for wanting to share your stories.”

“But it’s so silly,” I complained, and he smiled.

“‘All is vanity and a striving after wind.’ You are who you are. Open your heart, let yourself be ‘God’s instrument’, as they say. To quote the dreamland code monkey from your books, ‘Listen, and endure.’ There are ways that each of us can make the world a better place, and if we keep our eyes open, we will see what those ways are.” He made a graceful motion with his hands, and the origami figures rose crinkling from the table to dance around my head. “It’s not always the ways you would think,” he said.

IFJ Collection Two

Just Chew Gum
“I really want a cigarette, Invisible Friend Jesus.”

He snorted. He had a sketch pad on his knees and was drawing something with a charcoal pencil, using manic strokes. “You don’t smoke,” he said. “Whenever you smoke a cigarette, you feel nasty and smell bad.”

“I know, but I just want one.”

He blew the chaff off his drawing and smudged at it with his finger. “You have one of those compulsive personalities. You just need to calm down.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

“Why don’t you make yourself a nice cup of tea instead?”

I laughed. “A nice cup of tea? Seriously? Jesus, you are such a doofus.”

He rolled his eyes, starting in on the drawing with his pencil again. “Fine. Why don’t you just suck on, like, a pacifier with Justin Beiber’s mug shot on it or something. Would that be hipster badass enough for you?”

I thought about it. “No. That’s just weird.” I sighed and scooted over to look at his sketchbook. “Is that a giraffe?”

He pulled the drawing against his chest, glaring at me. “Don’t look at it. It’s not done yet.”

Personal or Work?
“Invisible Friend Jesus, can I use you as a reference on job applications now?”

He briefly glanced up from his drawing and cocked an eyebrow at me. “It might work at the Hobby Lobby,” he said, “but why in hell would you want to work there?”

Love Thy Neighbor
“I made some molasses cookies, Invisible Friend Jesus.”

He looked at me, how I was sitting there hunched over, clutching my elbows, avoiding his eyes. He heaved a tortured sigh. “You’re going to take some over to the neighbors, aren’t you?”

I nodded twitchily and risked a glance at him. “Do you think that’s a bad idea?”

He squinted at me, tapping a finger against his lips. “No, it’s not a bad idea, really. They’re your neighbors, and you want to be friends with them.”

“But they’re such oober-doober right-wing Christian thumpers,” I muttered.

He shrugged. “Just don’t engage in anymore political discussions, you’ll be fine.” Then he smiled toothily. “I’ll go with you. You can introduce me to them.”

He and I exchanged a look and both burst out laughing.

“Oh, that’s hilarious,” I said.

But Don’t Covet Them
“Sit up, Tinkerbell.”

“No,” I said. My voice was muffled because my face was mashed into my knees, my hands clutching my hair.

He laughed. “You’re so drama.”

“I need to not hang out with God Girl,” I said.

He patted my back gently, and I could almost hear him smirking.

“Why do I do this to myself?” I asked, but he didn’t answer, because it was a rhetorical question.

Careful of Those Palms
“I just thought of something, Invisible Friend Jesus. They haven’t fired me yet, so I must have passed my background check.”

“Of course you did,” he said, grinning. He held up his hand for me to high-five him, but I was a little too exuberant with it and he winced and massaged his palm.

“Oooh, sorry, I forgot,” I said, grimacing in sympathy.

“It’s all right. Anyway, congratulations. And you have one up on me, you know.”

My eyebrows shot up. “That’s riiiight, you have a criminal history.” I laughed. “That’s fucked up. If Jesus Christ walked into a McDonald’s and asked for a job, they wouldn’t give him one.”

“No big loss,” he said.

IFJ – Jesus the Shrink

“I’ve been having a hard couple of days, Invisible Friend Jesus.”

He leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs, the hem of his white slacks draping gracefully over his ankle. “I know,” he said, with his little smile.

“I don’t know why I find it so hard to be happy sometimes. I mean, my life is glorious awesome, but sometimes I get all squidged up over practically nothing. It’s stupid. I look at what some people have to deal with – hell, I look at how my own life used to be– and it just seems ridiculous to be, you know, like I am.”

“There are some people living in some really horrific situations in this world, it’s true, some by choice and some not. I know you’re thinking about your time in Nicaragua….”

“Those starving kids, it was horrible. And all those war stories….”

“You met folks who had lost their friends and family in the war or to horrible diseases, kids that had to work in the streets instead of going to school, people maimed by polio or explosives or accidents.” He raised his eyebrows at me and tapped his steepled fingers against his mouth.

I saw where he was going with this. “And yet, when we weren’t working, we played cards, or we drank rum and went dancing. We sat around gossiping and watching Betty La Fea on the TV. All the boys tried to get in my pants.”

“People are pretty much the same everywhere,” he agreed. “We all go through shit in our lives, some more than others.” He paused for a moment, rubbing the palms of his hands distractedly. Then he sat up a bit straighter, uncrossing and recrossing his legs, taking a deep breath. “People deal with stuff in different ways,” he said. “Some are angry and bitter, some seem like they’d be cheerful even while taking heavy mortar fire. But that joy in the universe is there for all of us. We just have to tap into it.”

I grimaced a bit. “It’s hard sometimes, even for people like me, living in my peaceful suburban house, spending most of my day doing what I love best.”

“No one’s happy all the time,” he said.

“And people living in war zones, or situations of extreme poverty or abuse… how do you expect them to deal?”

He looked down at his lap, a shadow passing over his face. Then he looked back at me again, his eyes sharp. “Life doesn’t give some of us very many chances for happiness, it’s true, but it does give everyone some chance, and it’s up to each person to do the best they can. Life is a complicated and beautiful thing, but it is not fair. Justice is a human concept, and humans trample all over it more than God does. The best we can do is offer others our love and understanding and compassion.”

“I don’t do enough of that sometimes.”

He grinned lopsidedly. “Well, you’re no saint, Tinkerbell, but I love you anyway. Besides, you’re feeding hungry kids this summer, even though you’d rather be in Vegas and up in the Sierras.” His grin faded and he looked at me earnestly. “Just spread joy and love as much as you can, and you’ll make the world a better place. You may not cure all the world’s problems, but you’ll be doing more than you know.”

I nodded, looking at my feet. “I just can’t find that happy place sometimes.” I glanced back up at him, narrowing my eyes. “And yesterday, when I was lying face-down on my bed, feeling like the world was stomping all over my guts, where the hell were you? I couldn’t find you anywhere.”

He gave me his little smile again. “When you got up again out of your bed, what happened?”

“I got a bunch of texts and phone calls and emails from my friends and stuff.” When he just kept on with his stupid smile, I snorted. “You didn’t go out telling people to be nice to me. It was just a coincidence.”

He shrugged. “You’re the one that likes to indulge in the magical thinking. I see you trying to make fireballs with your Jedi mind powers. Don’t deny it, part of you believes that there is magic in the universe. Look at your books, for fuck’s sake. You know you more than half believe that Purgatory is real.”

I wrinkled my nose and shook my head at him. “Yeah, but most of my friends don’t listen to you, Invisible Friend Jesus. Even if you went around screaming at them ‘CALL LIZ. SHE’S ALL GOOBERS WITH DEPRESSION,’ they wouldn’t even look up from their iPads.”

He flicked a piece of lint off his suit jacket, smirking. “Okay, you got me. Actually, I went out for a steak and a haircut.”

I looked at him and pursed my lips approvingly. “Oh yeah,” I said. “Your hair looks nice.”

“Thanks,” he said, smiling.