THE COPYCAT INSPECTOR’S return-with-a-Warrant, despite all the build-up over the past few weeks, was underwhelming.

 

 

By the time he and I walked back from that field where we chance-encountered one another, into the smoke and wreckage of Dodge City on the verge of being officially deemed a Cult, the focus or locus of attention had shifted.

 

 

It appeared he’d missed his moment and, since I was associated with him at that point, I felt I’d missed mine as well. Like everyone had already acclimated to life as a Cult and discovered that the fundamental crisis of their lives was something else.

 

 

The scene in the town square reminded me of a trip to Morocco I took when I was nineteen (and may have sprung straight from those memories):

 

 

 

There were chicken, tea, and cake vendors set up in a 1:1:3 ratio, and a bonfire, and Widget, the nine-year-old Detective who’d been given his first case in determining the origin of the 7 Shed Skins found in the street after last week’s melee, was holding forth.

 

 

 

The Copycat Inspector and I looked askance at one another, like this loss of fanfare was surely the other’s fault, a waste of a winning hand.

 

 

 

He peeled off into the crowd, hunching his head down into his neck. I had the impression that I wouldn’t see him again until he’d become a regular in town, some middle-aged guy toting his gym bag up and down the sidewalks.

 

 

*****

 

Though I’ve never liked him, I feel bad to see this be his fate. I can dig the story of coming to town as a relatively young man with an urgent message cued up and ready to unveil, and seeing it get absorbed into the general warp of things like like nothing new.

 

 

 

The foundations of this town (now: Cult) have always been soft and game enough to suck down fresh toxins without a burp.

 

 

 

I PAY FOR THE CAKE I apparently just ordered, and try to map my attention onto what’s happening in the center of the square, which is:

 

 

 

Widget has collected 7 children about his age (until now, I’d never seen any around town), and strung them up with ropes, clamps, vises (my throat gags on the terminology here), suspended a few feet above a pool, into which some body-fluid is dripping.

 

 

 

Everyone gathered here, watching what becomes of the bound children, reminds me of the scene last fall with Stokoe Drifter, where an old man’s protruding intestine got inseminated while we all watched … and I can tell everyone else is thinking the same thing.

 

 

 

In fact, I wonder if anyone is taking in what’s happening now, or if we’re all using it as a portal to relive what happened then.

 

 

 

Charged with new urgency, I resolve to be the one person who actually witnesses the present, so I put Stokoe Drifter to bed in my mind and lock in on:

 

 

 

Widget with a crank or remote control in his hand, rhythmically juicing the 7 children, who groan and shiver in their bindings.

 

 

 

I shiver too, alone in my attention.

 

 

 

I’m too late to catch the first part of his address to the Cult of Dodge City, so I can’t tell if his rig with the 7 children here is directly or symbolically connected to his investigation of the case of the 7 Shed Skins … or, perhaps he’s been turned from a Detective to a Copycat, since the Skins of these children look pretty close to falling off.

 

 

 

Perhaps, I’m thinking, his solution to the origin of those original 7 Skins is to produce 7 new ones, so as to illustrate how it might be possible for 7 Skins to appear.

 

 

 

More liquid drips out as Widget turns them, rotisserie-style.

 

 

 

” … and so,” he’s saying, “only after all the Internet has been drained from their young bodies — full lifetimes of absorption, don’t forget –and mixed together in this pool, will we be able to begin gleaning … ”

 

 

 

I picture those children in a state of constant Internet-absorption since the moment of their birth, and pick a pustule on my forehead and feel the liquid running down past my eyes, wondering whether that, too, chemically speaking, is made of Internet.

 

 

 

I try to look at the children’s faces to see how the draining feels, but it’s so far along by now that they’re are collapsed like rotten mangoes, full of seeds and hairy pulp.

 

 

 

I realize I can’t even tell whether I’m looking at the fronts or the backs of their heads.

 

 

 

The distinction is moot, anyway, since my attention is soon diverted:

 

 

 

Behind the draining contraption hangs a small but bold banner with a logo I recognize:

 

 

 

INTERNET FREE AMERICA.

 

 

 

Those people I got involved with a few months ago when I was desperate for a way back to my novel. A genuine Cult if anything ever was.

 

 

 

The logo incites in me a coming-together, like a vision of compatible pieces that I hadn’t until now seen as more than random shards:

 

 

 

Something about Dodge City’s underwhelming reaction to the Copycat Inspector … and Widget’s inexplicable election to the front ranks of the police force … and the emergence of 7 children in a town that had had none … and now this work of draining out their Internet with the support of Internet Free America …

 

 

 

Some grand perspective is almost clear to me when I make the mistake of opening my eyes.

 

 

 

*****

 

WHAT I SEE jolts both wheels of my mind fully off the track we’d been on:

 

 

 

The square is abandoned. Pigeons are feasting on leftover cakes, and there’s a smell of spilled gas.

 

 

 

The pool of Internet drippings in the center shines with an emerald glow (I hate that phrase, but it seems unavoidably true of certain liquids in certain lights), and the 7 children look pretty dead where they hang …

 

 

 

Widget is gone. Now, four very elderly people are slipping naked over the lip of the basin, splashing one another, washing their faces and hair and gargling with Internet.

 

 

 

 

The whole square starts to moan with that familiar Ghost Porn crackle, which I haven’t heard since last summer.

 

 

 

 

I want to move, go home, get out of here before these old folks go too far in front of me, but I’m frozen in place, thanks either to a flaring neurosis or to some chemical property of the Internet.

 

 

 

 

AT FIRST, it seems like the old folks bathing in it have a Fountain of Youth agenda, trying to soak some Internet into their loosened skin, but the orgiastic qualities of their behavior — a bonafide four-way at this point, arms and legs protruding from an undifferentiated and slowly grinding torso-mass — force something else from the bottom to the top of my mind:

 

 

 

 

A story that Big Pharmakos told me about a local boy whose parents divorced, and, instead of allying with their jilted and blameless son or daughter, the four grandparents banded together into a sort of collective to raise the boy communally, under one roof.

 

 

 

 

This started out like you’d expect, but then went kind of far:

 

 

 

 

THE GRANDPARENTS seemed to feel called upon not only to reboot their sexuality in the context of this new arrangement, but somehow to consummate a four-way marriage and then conceive the boy anew, even though he was there all along, as a five-, six-, and seven-year-old, watching them through keyholes and under doors.

 

 

 

 

It was as though they believed the reason for the divorce was that the boy had not been conceived and born in the right way, and so it was their job as guardians to give it another try.

 

 

 

 

Things in that house got increasingly extreme as all permutations of numbers and genders came into play (and the grandparents kept aging, perhaps even more quickly than they would have otherwise).

 

 

 

 

The last straw was when the two grandmothers tried to nurse the boy — now 7 — insisting he suckle from one of each of their breasts, and treat the two of them as his one and only mother.

 

 

 

He escaped.

 

 

 

 

And (this is the part that’s only occurring to me now), that boy must’ve gone on to join the police force as its youngest-ever Detective.

 

 

 

 

I look up now, trying to see the grandparents’ orgy as Widget would’ve seen it as a child, but the crackling of Ghost Porn is overwhelming. They’re churning it up from deep in the Internet, loud and angry.

 

 

 

 

I turn around to clear my mind and see a face I haven’t seen since last summer:

 

 

 

 

Internethead.

 

 

 

 

We acknowledge one another. “Strange, the lengths people’ll go to,” he says, a stock icebreaking line, and I nod.

 

 

 

 

MORE PEOPLE surround us in the dark square, and, after some confusion, I recognize them as the camera crew for Unholy Family, the TV show that the Night Crusher watches when he’s too depressed to do anything else.

 

 

 

 

Makes sense that they’d turn up here. It appears that Internethead is on hand as a consultant for this episode.

 

 

 

 

The old folks are so conjoined, in each other and in the Internet, that they don’t seem to notice the floodlights and elaborate camera equipment … or else they do notice but there’s no change they can afford to make.

 

 

 

 

“Help out?” Internethead asks, handing me a mic cord.

 

 

 

Absentmindedly, I take it and start clipping it in places.

 

 

 

 

The last thing I notice before I get lost in my work is that the Skins of the hanging children have come almost fully off them, dangling down all the way to the Internet basin, totally dry and veiny now that they’ve bled out.

 

 

 

 

They look like massive wings, and serve as curtains around the old folks, partitioning off their sex-act into a spectacle considerably more understated than the kind Unholy Family tends to go in for.

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