AFTER A WELCOME TROUGH OF ACTIVITY following the Blood Drive, we get shaken up by a group Email.

 

I’d just reached the end of a two week free trial of a popular pay-as-you-go scam called Internet Free America, which promised to “reintegrate my top-shelf attention into my so-called life and re-situate my subjectivity in my given body,” so I was checking my inbox with a genuinely feral hunger, like that which Kinski and McDowell harbor for one another in Cat People, when the group Email came in.

 

“Dear People of Dodge City,” it began.

 

“Your communal Blood Drive results have been analyzed by me and a couple friends of mine, and we have determined enough overlaps in plasma-type and DNA-structure to suggest that you are more closely related, ideologically speaking, than is considered safe for the citizenry of a town of your size to be. If anyone would like to see my sources on this, or the results themselves, just let me know and I’ll forward them to you.

 

“The upshot here is that tomorrow I’m going to pay you all a visit and examine your ideas, one by one, in private. If you can convince me that your ideas are, in all ways that count, meaningfully distinct and antithetical to one another, I’ll leave with no further ado, and you’ll be free to go on calling yourselves a town.

 

“If, however, as I suspect, your ideas prove more convergent than divergent, collapsing and narrowing down toward a single fiercely held belief, unalienable at the expense of all others, it will be my displeasure to demote your status from town to cult.

 

“Lastly, just so there’s no misunderstanding when I show up, I am an impersonator of the Inspector whom you all hosted on your streets about a year ago. I am a copycat-Inspector by trade, but, make no mistake, this only bolsters my authority; it in no way undermines or invalidates it. I am such an exact copycat, indeed, that you will be unable to distinguish me from the Inspector himself. You may tell yourselves now, as you read this Email, that you’ll absolutely remember, that nothing can fool you or pry you off your certainty, but you’ll see when I show up …

 

You will treat me as the Inspector himself, and I will know very quickly whether Dodge City is in fact a cult.”

 

THE FIRST THING I DO, after reading and deleting the Email, is delete all my correspondence with Internet Free America (all physical letters, naturally, since they deal in clients cut loose from Email), motivated by some medium-grade fear that my entanglement with them is connected to the coming of this copycat Inspector, or that I might at least be accused of this, Witch Trial style, if Dodge City ends up being declared a cult …

 

Which possibility, I think, as I shower off the sweat I worked up shredding the letters, seems a mile or two less than remote. I don’t know exactly what the fallout from being declared a cult might be, but it’s easy to imagine some harsh tax penalty or mass emigration or, more fearsome still, immigration, if we come to be seen in that light.

 

I towel off, shave, and lie down, trying to think what my ideas are, aware that, first thing in the morning, I’ll have to head down to Dead Sir and ditch them all. I can picture everyone I know down there, purging and trashing their entire mental collections like a mass drug dump on the eve of an historic raid.

 

Whatever the truth of Dodge City actually is, I don’t want to be the one to convince the Inspector that it’s a cult. I shiver as I recognize the potential commonality of this idea — if he catches us all thinking this when he comes, I think, he’ll know we’re a cult for sure.

 

It’s rough going as I flip through everything in my head. The combination of withdrawal-agony and cleanse-ecstasy that Internet Free America stimulated the past few weeks returns now, severalfold, as I endeavor to gut out my whole deal, ball it up into some huge, weird boulder and roll it down through the streets to Dead Sir when the sun comes up.

 

I envision myself like the last survivor of a stricken family during the Black Plague, rolling my dead on a cart through the streets of some skanky French village, shunning eye contact with my fellow survivors as we head grimly to the pit or the incinerator.

 

*****

NEXT MORNING, the scene at the diner is madness. Everyone’s nervous before the trip to Dead Sir, trying to eat a heartening breakfast without ordering the same thing as anyone else, lest there seem to be a morning ritual.

 

Infantile cries of “I ordered it first!” and “He’s copying me!” squirt out everywhere, and the kitchen scrambles to combine ingredients in new and, ideally, random ways, to keep from seeming to have a signature dish or even a menu determined by consistent taste.

 

No one knows when the Inspector will arrive.

 

I order a bowl of powdered sugar and, much as it pains me to skip my coffee, a cup of cool lemon tea, as if that’ll deter the Inspector from seeing me as I really am.

 

Gottfried Benn works the tables, trying to shake people down for his usual $60, but no one will acknowledge him, noxious as his presence is.

 

He gets folded into the procession to Dead Sir, everyone tramping out of the diner without paying, the manager too flustered to call us out.

 

We lurch through the streets and into the woods taking care not to march or in any way fall into step with one another. This reminds me of how, in Dune, everyone always had to walk totally without rhythm across the desert so as not to alert the slumbering sandworms to human passage overhead … thoughts of Dune lead naturally to thoughts of Lynch and Jodorowsky, which lead to …

 

NO.

 

I stop myself here, before I get any more carried in the direction I don’t want to go.

 

I try to focus, totally purging my mental space. I picture it like a room filled with boxes and clothes and suitcases and busted furniture all tipped over and piled crooked. Then I start warming up a mental wrecking ball, swinging it in power-hungry arcs just outside the window.

 

*****

I’M WAIST DEEP IN DEAD SIR, along with everyone else in Dodge City — all the Cavernous, the Editors, spitting out the parts of my novel I’ve stuffed them with (so much for editing, I suppose), and Gibbering Pete, Rigid Steve, Fiscal Steven, Professor Dalton, Internethead … literally everyone.

 

I keep losing track of what I’m doing here, looking around at everyone else, ambiently dreaming of checking Email.

 

Cultish forces circle me like hawks, waiting to swoop down and take a bite of where I’m softest.

 

Just don’t stop purging, some way-inner taskmaster commands. Open your mouth, fat boy.

 

I do, and feel my whole collection blasting itself out, spewing up my throat and over my tongue and into Dead Sir (whose name I’m soon to forget), filling in the watery brine around me, thickening it and upping its temperature.

 

Last thing I see before the purge overwhelms my optical nerves is everyone I know ceasing to be everyone I know, becoming scarecrows in some bath that’s getting so hot their skin turns red and starts to bubble.

 

*****

“… right, exactly, they’re all just standing here in this, um, sort of outdoor tank, like a pit they must’ve dug and filled in, and it’s kind of, I think you’d have to say, fulminating all around them …”

 

My eyes drift open and I can see it’s late afternoon and we’re all in the water and someone I don’t know is standing on the shore, talking into an iPhone.

 

I can tell I won’t be able to move until some external condition changes, so I stand where I am and listen:

 

“… totally vacant expressions, that’s correct sir, like dead cow, or sub-cow, eyes, and kind of swaying at the knees and hips … thoroughly entranced. A few are looking in my direction, but I don’t think they can really see me. I told them I was coming. You’d think they’d make at least some effort to disguise their ritual, but I guess not with these folks. Pretty baldfaced cult, gotta hand it to them.”

 

The Inspector — somewhere way back in myself I remember this is his name — continues, “And some are mumbling repetitive sounds like ‘vu vu vu vu’ and ‘tn tn tn tn tn,’ along those lines. And this thing they’re standing in is making sounds too, like a call and response. Uncanny to behold, sir. I don’t like it. They all look similar too, like they’ve taken pains to make themselves outwardly identical. Probably all respond to the same name too, not that I want to know what it is.”

 

I have an instinct to do something erratic right now, anything, just to shake things up, remind me that I’m me and stick my foot in the door that I can see is about to slam shut on all of us, but my body won’t respond. I’ve purged too much of what made it tick.

 

“Any further questions, sir?” the Inspector asks. “I really can’t see any ambiguity at all in this case … great, well I’ll book them then. I’ll let you know once the paperwork’s filed. Speak soon, sir … yup, you too. Give my best to Raquel, and … um … oh yeah, Henry. My best to Henry too.”

 

He hangs up and looks directly at me and our eyes stay locked like that until he turns away, opening his briefcase to extract the paperwork and a pen.

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