Johnny America


My Treat


Illustration of three guinea pigs.

“It’s so nice of you to show me around, Grace. I’ve al­ways liked Smithville, but that was from dri­ving through. Once I got trans­ferred here and moved in­to the apart­ment, it dawned on me that I don’t know where any­thing is. I feel a lit­tle silly.”

She stared at me blankly. “What?”

I didn’t know her ei­ther, of course, oth­er than her be­ing my neigh­bor in the new build­ing, and thought she might be hard of hear­ing. “Thank you,” I said, be­ing sure to enun­ci­ate clear­ly, “for show­ing me around.” Sud­den­ly she seemed to get it. 

She was an odd-look­ing duck, that was for sure, though that wasn’t a very nice thing to think. Her red hair was coiffed nice­ly on one side, while the oth­er one was wild and un­kempt— like she’d for­got­ten to fin­ish the job. And her shirt, I no­ticed even­tu­al­ly, was but­toned in the wrong holes. We had toured the down­town area, where I’d marked the gro­cery store and a phar­ma­cy I could use, and a lit­tle shop that was full of the knick-knacks I go for. I would def­i­nite­ly spend an af­ter­noon there one day. We crossed the main street, chat­ting, but when I got to the far curb, she wasn’t at my side. I found her in the mid­dle of the road, look­ing lost. The light had changed and traf­fic was com­ing. Rush­ing in­to the cross­walk, I grabbed her hand and dragged her the rest of the way. “I’m so sor­ry, Lisa,” she said, flus­tered. “Some­times I lose my bearings.”

“Clio,” I cor­rect­ed. “And that’s quite alright.” 

Now we’d reached the town park. I’d be spend­ing some time here too, I de­cid­ed; it seemed like the per­fect place to en­joy a nov­el. There was a gaze­bo, a pond, lau­rel bush­es and maple trees, and a walk that snaked through it all with pret­ty wood­en bench­es. “What did you say you did for a liv­ing, Grace? You work in a lab, is that cor­rect?” She’d men­tioned that she was go­ing there lat­er, and I’d imag­ined that she was a tech of some sort.

“Oh, I don’t work there,” she said. “I go there for tests.” Sud­den­ly she lit up. “Oh, look! It’s my friend!” On a bench ahead of us was a young man about her age (thir­ty or so I guessed), in jeans and flan­nel, his long hair tied in a pony­tail be­neath a black base­ball cap. The cap was adorned with an in­tri­cate, mult-col­ored star de­sign I’d nev­er seen be­fore. He had his head back and was star­ing at the sky. I couldn’t help glanc­ing up my­self, but didn’t see a thing. 

“Hi, Dud!” said Grace bright­ly. “This is my new neigh­bor, uh, I’ve for­got­ten your name already.”


“Yes, that’s right. Dud, this is Clio, my new neigh­bor from across the hall. She’s a teacher in the gram­mar school. Clio, this is Dud­ley Smirff, my good friend.”

He re­moved the dark glass­es. One of his eyes was pur­ple and puffy, like he’d been slugged. “Not my re­al name, of course. You can’t be too safe.”

“Mind if we join you?” asked Grace. We sat down on the bench. “Dud and I met in the base­ment of the YMCA. He was at­tend­ing a gath­er­ing there, and I came in to use the pow­der room. I have to go all the time late­ly, and the door was locked, so —”

“A meet­ing of the Un­der­ground,” said Dud, his eyes tak­ing on a gleam I didn’t much care for. Fever­ish, I guess you’d call it. “We ex­change in­for­ma­tion and dis­cuss strat­e­gy. About the Web.”

“Ah. So, you’re in­ter­est­ed in computers.”

“No, no,” he said. “Not that web, the oth­er one,” and his gaze drift­ed sky­ward once again. This time I didn’t take the bait. 

Sit­ting be­tween us, Grace seemed to be day­dream­ing. “I’ll need to go to the bath­room soon.” 

“Well, don’t let us keep you, dear. If you have to go…”

“No, thank you, that’s O.K. I’ve got­ten very good at hold­ing it. It’s one of the side ef­fects.” She smiled at me, and I no­ticed that one of her teeth was miss­ing. A canine.

“Are you tak­ing medication?”

Her friend snort­ed. “Poi­son, is what she’s tak­ing. What is it called again?”

“Tur­bonil,” said Grace. “No, wait, that was last time. This one’s Zadgart. Or maybe Apre­trak. I don’t al­ways get the names straight.”

“It’s a won­der you get any­thing straight with those tox­ins in your sys­tem.” He spoke to me. “She vol­un­teers as a hu­man guinea pig. They pay her to take this swill to see what it does to peo­ple. When they get the for­mu­la down, they’ll give it to the rest of us. Put it in the wa­ter, or the milk. Ba­by food. You don’t drink the wa­ter, do you?”

He made this last sound ac­cusato­ry, and I wasn’t sure what to say. “Well, I —”

“I mean city wa­ter, out of the tap, from a drink­ing foun­tain, like that.”

“Well, at the school some­times, I —”

“And I’m not a guinea pig, Bud. I’m a clin­i­cal tri­al vol­un­teer. It’s very sci­en­tif­ic. You’ll have to for­give him, Flo­ra. He gets so enthusiastic.”


“Yes, that’s right.”

“They poi­son her half to death with this ven­om. Gives her hives and swelling in the glands. Headaches, blurred vi­sion, insomnia —”

“Bud is a po­lice­man, you know.”

I tried to smile. “Is that what the star on your hat is for?”

He tore it off and glared at it. Re­vealed was a sil­ver skull cap that looked a lot like — tin foil.

“No, no, this is a hex sign. I’m a cross­ing guard. Grace saw me with the vest on and got this idea in her head —”

“Oh, he’s too mod­est, Lori. He’s un­der­cov­er. That’s his badge right there.” She in­di­cat­ed the ob­ject that was hang­ing around his neck. It was a dark blue glass disc with a lighter blue de­sign inside. 

“I think that’s an evil eye amulet,” I told her.

Her friend stiff­ened. “How did you know that?”

“I — I saw it in a TV show. A trav­el doc­u­men­tary, on Greece. Or maybe it was Turkey.”

“Ah-ha! Now you change it!”

“No! I’m just not sure, is all —”

Three boys came run­ning down the path. Nine or ten, they might be among my art stu­dents when the school year start­ed. The last one stopped and stood star­ing at Dud. 

“Yeah? What is it? What do you want?”

“What kind of hat is that, mister?”

“For­get about it. You wouldn’t understand.”

“Aw, that’s what my dad al­ways says. He thinks I’m stupid.”

“Maybe he’s on­to something.”

I smiled at him. “And how old are you, young sir?”

“I’m nine. But I’m go­ing to be ten.”

“Do you go to gram­mar school here in Smithville?”

“Uh huh. I’ll be in the fifth grade.”

“Well, my good­ness. Do you like to draw?”

“Uh huh. I like to paint, too. With wa­ter­col­ors. When I get home, I’m go­ing to paint a pic­ture of this guy with the beanie.” 

Dud­ley bris­tled. He put the cap back on over the foil. “It’s not a beanie, kid, it’s spe­cial pro­tec­tive gear. Now, get out of here. You both­er me.” He half-rose from the bench, and the boy took to his heels. 

“Now, Bub,” said Grace, “don’t be mean. He’s just a child.”

“Yeah? How do you know? Maybe he on­ly looks like a child. They have agents every­where. Collaborators.” 

Grace gig­gled. “You po­lice­men are so sus­pi­cious. So. Do you have an­oth­er meet­ing tonight? At the SPCA?”

“Not tonight,” he said. “We have to find a new venue. We’re pret­ty sure they’re watch­ing that one.”

It popped out be­fore I could stop my­self. “Who are ‘they’?”

His eyes widened. “You mean to tell me you don’t know? And you a teacher!”

I shook my head. “No. Honest.” 

“Why, The Broth­ers! The Co­terie! The In­ner Cir­cle! Now, do you understand?”

An­oth­er shake.

He sighed with frus­tra­tion. “You’re as bad as Grace! They’re known by many names, of course. The Ma­sons. The Bilder­bergs. The Il­lu­mi­nati. The Glob­al Web.”

I had to be care­ful. He seemed so tight­ly strung, and I didn’t want him to fly off the han­dle. Af­ter a pause I said, “Oh, I see. So you’re wor­ried about, uh…”

“Mass hyp­no­sis! Flu­o­ride! Fake snow! Chem­trails —” He shot a fin­ger in­to the air. “There! See for your­self! What do you think that is?”

I looked again. There was a jet fly­ing over, way up high, with a white plume be­hind it. “You mean the trail? That’s wa­ter va­por, frozen in the up­per atmosphere —”

“That’s what it used to be, but not any­more. They lace it now with heavy met­als and mold spores and who knows what else. Sick­ness breeds weak­ness and weak­ness breeds mind con­trol. Then they take out the lead­er­ship with tar­get­ed strikes —”

“I have to go to the bath­room,” said Grace, some ur­gency in her voice now. 

“I’ll go with you. I could use a drink of —”

“Not wa­ter! Don’t drink the water!”

“Or­ange juice,” I clar­i­fied. “Or maybe a screwdriver’d make more sense at this point. Come along, dear. I saw a bar up the block. They’ll have a re­stroom. My treat.” 

“Bye, Ned,” she said to her friend. “See you at the UCLA.”

“You won’t rec­og­nize me. I’m hav­ing my face re­done. In Mexico.” 

“Good think­ing,” I said over my shoul­der. “You can’t be too safe.”

Filed under Fiction on October 7th, 2022

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