THE MESSENGER WEBISODES–Episode 2.3: Wednesday, April 9, 2008

“What would the military want with my project?” Gregory asks.  Brilliant as he is, he possesses the same sort of tunnel vision that so many scientists do—they understand every aspect of the mechanics of their project, but they don’t see the sinister repercussions if it falls into the wrong hands.

“Imagine your device working perfectly.  You can manipulate it so it will send an object to any point in time that you specify.  You could send a weapon back to the twelfth century.  You could send a letter with very specific information about future events back to a time before those events happened, with the intention of preventing them.”

“And that’s bad?” he asks.

“It could be, if the wrong people did it.”

“So it’s bad to have knowledge of an event and work to prevent it from happening.”  I smell where this is going.  “Isn’t that what you’re doing right now?”

“We’re avoiding the more important issue, Gregory.  I’m not the wrong people.  I want to help keep you and your family safe.  Everything I know tells me that the military will threaten and even endanger you and your family if you don’t give ITTCh to them after Friday’s science fair.”

“Then I’ll give it to them,” he says simply.

“What?”

“It seems to be the easiest answer. If X leads to Y, and X-prime leads to Z, then X-prime is the logical path to take.”

“In an algebraic equation, yes, but there’s more at stake here.  When a powerful group shows this much interest in anything, you have to examine their motivation.  I’m concerned about what they might do with it.”

“Then I won’t enter the science fair,” he says, still sounding unruffled.

“Gregory, that’s not why I’m here.  If I were sent to stop you from completing your project, I would know.”

“So what am I supposed to do?”  Finally, the voice of the frightened boy appears.  In a way, it’s reassuring to me; it suggests that he does see the implications of this and that he may yet listen to reason.

I gesture toward a chair nearby him.  He sits, and I sit close.  “We’ll figure that part out.  Anytime I’m sent on an assignment like this, it’s because I’m able to make a difference and prevent the bad thing from happening.  I don’t always know ahead of time how I can do that, but I always know it’s possible.  If you’re willing to trust me and keep me with you during the science fair, I swear to you that I’ll do everything possible to keep you and your family safe.”

He thinks about it for a moment, scans my face, looking for tells—anything that will convince him that I’m sincere or dangerous.  “You don’t think I should drop out of the science fair?”

“No, I really don’t.  I have every reason to believe that what you’ve created could change the world in positive ways.  I don’t want you to miss out on that.”

“I’m scared.”

“That’s okay.  It helps you pay attention to important things.”  He nods in response.  “Tell me about the science fair.  What are we looking at on Friday?”

“Well, it’s held at a convention center downtown.  The winning projects from about seventy area schools compete for the countywide prize and a chance to go to the state science fair, and then regional and national.”

That’s not encouraging news.  As strong as his project is, he could likely win competitions all the way up to national; protecting him could turn into a full-time job for me.  Still, one thing at a time.

“Is there a central presentation of some kind in an auditorium, where each participant presents their project to an audience and the judges?” I ask.

“No.  Everyone sets their project up at a table, and the judges come around to hear the presentations and watch the demos of each project.”

I like this answer; it motivates the seeds of a plan.  “Hmm.  Gregory, how reliable is ITTCh?”

“How reliable?” he repeats.

“Can you get it to work every time you want it to?”

“Once I get the synchronizer calibrated, it should work fine each time.”

“Can you make it fail on command?” I ask.

The question throws him for a minute.  This is clearly someone not used to failing.  “I suppose if I deliberately misalign the harmonic resonances, it would fail.  But why would I want to do that?”

“Well, you want it to perform perfectly for the judges.  No reason to spoil your chances of winning this thing.  But when our friends from the military come around, I doubt they’re going to want to go out of their way to take something that’s defective.  Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yeah, I guess they wouldn’t, would they?”

“Okay, good.  Now, let’s get this thing working perfectly, so it will work imperfectly when we need it to.”

He looks at me strangely, reminding me that I’m nowhere near qualified to work on this device.  “I may not be a physicist,” I remind him, but I know my way around a tool box.  I also follow orders pretty well.  So you focus on the software, and I’ll quite literally tighten the nuts and bolts.  We have two days to defy the laws of nature.  That’s really not much time.”

THE MESSENGER WEBISODES Episode 2.2: Wednesday, April 9, 2008

I follow the school principal through the sparsely populated hallways of Horizon High School.  Most of the students have already left for the day, as have some of the teachers.  There’s a bit of awkwardness in my arrival, which leads to a welcome silence as I am shown the way.  On the first floor, in a corner of the building, she takes me to a room marked PHYSICS LABORATORY and opens the door.  I don’t know quite what to expect inside; the details of the assignment didn’t include that level of specificity.  What I see is quite surprising.  Inside is a single person, young, rather small, focused on a clear box that sits upon a table.  The box isn’t very large, just a couple of feet on a side; surrounding it is a wealth of electronic equipment—computers and meters and dials; the stuff of a modern-day mad scientist’s lab.

The principal speaks to the room’s lone occupant.  “Gregory, you have a visitor.  This is William Hauptmann from the National Science Foundation.  He’s here to work with you over the next two days, to be sure your project is ready for the science fair on Friday.”

The student gives me a cursory glance and then returns to his work.  Dr. Carson says, “Well, I’ll get out of your way and let you get started.”  With that, she exits the room, leaving me feeling woefully underprepared for what’s to come, in the extremely likely event that this science genius needs any degree of help from me whatsoever.

I need to break the ice.  “Hello, Greg,” I offer, hating it immediately.

“Gregory,” he says.

“I’m sorry?”

“Gregory.  I don’t go by Greg.”

“I’m sorry.  I …”

“Can you hand me a Lazlo meter?” he asks.

I look around the piles of instrument for anything that could possibly match that name; nothing obvious leaps out at me.  “Where did you leave that last?” I ask.

“You’re not really from the National Science Foundation, are you?”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because there’s no such thing as a Lazlo meter, and someone from the National Science Foundation would know that.”

“I was told you were smart.  I should’ve known.”

“So, who are you, and why are you here?” he asks, still working on his project with part of his attention.

“My name is Tristan, and I’m here to protect you.”

This pulls him away from the device to face me.  “Protect me from what?”

“On Friday, at the science fair, people from the military are going to find out about your project, and they’re going to want to use it for their own purposes.  If you resist them—and from what I know, you probably should—you and your family might be in some danger.  So I’ve come here to help keep that from happening if I can.”

“Are you from the future?” he asks, as casually as if the question ended with “Iowa” instead of “the future.”

“No.  I just get glimpses of it sometimes, and I’m called on to keep bad things from happening.”  I have his full attention now.  “Somebody has decided that you are worth protecting.”

“That’s good, I guess.  Although, right now I wish you were from the NSF.  I’m having a problem with my project, and another scientist would be helpful.”

“Well, maybe I can help.  Lazlo meter mistake aside, I’m pretty smart, and sometimes an extra pair of eyes is just the thing.  What seems to be the problem?”

“I’m having difficulties calibrating the interstitial synchronizer,” he answers, and in this moment, I relive every instance in my life when I was sure I’d know the answer but absolutely didn’t have a clue.

“Uh … huh. Those can be … tricky.”

“It’s okay if you don’t know what that is. Only about six people in the world do.”

“Suddenly I don’t feel so stupid then.  I suppose if I’m going to do my job, I should know what your science project is.”

He steps over to the clear box on the work surface and says, “It’s this. This is ITTCh.”

“And what exactly is … ITTCh?”

“It stands for Interstitial Time Travel Chamber.”

A look of astonishment comes to my face. “Time travel … as in … travel? Through time? You can do that?”

“Not if I can’t calibrate the synchronizer. There have been a lot of theories over the years about the possibility of time travel, using general relativity, special relativity, wormholes, black holes, faster-than-light travel. One area that’s always been overlooked, until now, involves the interstitial time matrix. There are holes between seconds, each a tiny fraction of a second long, that have a specific harmonic frequency that can be measured, located, predicted, and identified. I wanted to create a device to link these holes, these interstices, and find a way to transport a specific photon to a precise time, based on that link. That’s what ITTCh does. It makes that link.”

I’m barely able to follow along.  He patiently explains the process that he and his physics teacher came up with for isolating subatomic light particles and manipulating them within something he calls the time matrix.  This teenage boy’s mind is operating at a level that I could only dream of achieving.  It’s a good thing I’m not here to help him with the science, because I’d be useless.

“So when you asked me if I was from the future, the question wasn’t just out of left field.  You thought that a future incarnation of yourself had succeeded to the point where you could send someone back.”

“That was my hope, anyway.”

“How likely is that?”

“I don’t know yet,” he answers. “At the moment, I’ve got it to work with photons, but not with anything solid.  The second round of tests would be on an object.  A pencil, an apple, a piece of paper.”

Those last words trigger a realization in me.  “A piece of paper.  Could it have writing on it?”

“I … I guess so; I haven’t thought about it, but yes, I suppose it could.”

“So you’re saying that if this project succeeds, you’d be able to send a written note—a warning—back through time.”

“Yeah, I guess I would.”

“Gregory, now I know why the military wants to get its hands on this project.”

THE MESSENGER WEBISODES Episode 2.1: Wednesday, April 9, 2008

For someone who prefers not to fly to these assignments, I find myself on an airplane disturbingly often of late.  This wouldn’t be necessary if I weren’t being sent so far away each time.  Chicago.  Am I to believe that there was no one else available between Illinois and Maryland who could take this on?  Or have I been so exemplary in my work that I’m the ideal person for the job?  Flattering as that thought is, I’d just as soon have let somebody else take this one.  Once again, I’m called upon to protect a child; well, not a child exactly.  He’s sixteen.  But young enough to make the word accurate.  What bothers me is who I’m protecting him from.

If the details of my assignment are to be believed, Gregory Tallungan is on the verge of being targeted by the United States military in a bizarre black-ops maneuver to control—of all things—his high school science project.  I don’t know exactly what his science project entails, but I suspect it’s something beyond the usual boozing up of white mice or the effects of diet cola on teeth and chrome bumpers.  Knowing our beloved military machine (no offense, guys), I’m going to suspect weapons of some sort.  Though I have to wonder, what self-respecting high school science teacher would let a student experiment with weapons sophisticated enough that the military would want them?

Although the details of the project itself aren’t clear, the antagonists’ intentions are.  At the Cook County Science Fair on Friday, two high-ranking intelligence officers will be there, checking out the students’ projects.  They’ll be all smiles and sunshine, suggesting that a career in the military after high school is an excellent start for today’s new batch of young scientists.  But when they see Gregory’s project, things will take a turn.  They’ll take interest in it, too much interest.  Then they’ll take interest in him, realizing that without him, they have nothing.  Everything would be fine, if he were interested in buying what they’re selling.  But young Gregory has other ideas, and as a result, I’m sitting in an airplane, with a half a can of ginger ale and a small bag of salted pretzels in front of me.

Safely landed at O’Hare Airport, I rent a modest, nondescript car and make my way to a small hotel near Horizon Science and Technical High School on the city’s northwest side.  As I bring my suitcase into my room, I can’t shake the uneasy feeling I’ve had ever since I received this assignment last night.  Beyond the physical pain that always accompanies each new mission, this time there’s a feeling of dread.  My father always taught me to respect the government, respect the military; they’re keeping us and our country safe.  To have to treat them as a threat, as an enemy, feels disturbing.

Then there’s the practical issues of an assignment like this.  How do I, a single man in his thirties, insinuate myself into the life of a high school student?  Schools tend to frown on strangers walking in and chumming up to their students; not surprisingly, the students aren’t too keen on it either.  Hence the need for—and I can’t believe I’m using these words—a disguise.  I open my suitcase and pull out the necessary materials: a bogus photo ID, a file folder, and even a white lab coat.  Until this is over, I am William Hauptmann from the National Science Foundation, here to help young Gregory finish his science project before the fair on Friday.  And yes, for the record, it makes me feel simultaneously very stupid and very transparent.

At 3:15 p.m., I check in at the main office of Horizon High, introducing myself to the secretary as an NSF representative.  I am, of course, met with surprise and confusion.  They’re not expecting me; how could they be?  I barely had time to get my disguise together.  In no way did I have time to contact the school and tell them I was coming.  So I make a joke about bureaucracy in action and hope that my credentials look authentic enough that they’ll let me in.

“They told me Gregory’s project is quite remarkable,” I offer, “but he’s having a few challenges in getting ready for the science fair.  The Foundation believes there’s great promise here, and they want me to help your school continue its tradition of excellence in education.”

The words sound to me like total bullshit, but after years in big business, I’ve accumulated quite a vocabulary when it comes to telling people what they really want to hear.  The secretary excuses herself and goes to ask the school principal what to do.  The principal looks up at me from her desk and then converses with the secretary some more, before rising and approaching me.  “I’m Dr. Carson,” she said.

“William Hauptmann, National Science Foundation,” I reply.  “Sounds like the notification of my arrival didn’t reach you.  I’m sorry about that.”

“So you’re here to help Gregory Tallungan with his project, is that correct?”

“Yes, ma’am.  The NSF is reaching out to the most promising science students in America, supporting their studies.  We won’t do anything that compromises the integrity of the project for the fair; we understand it needs to be the student’s original work.  We’re acting in an advisory capacity.  I was informed that he spends time in a science lab here at the school each afternoon, working on the project.  I’m here to offer assistance during that time.”

Dr. Carson looks at me and then at my credentials, deciding that I am who I say I am, though I most certainly am not.  “Let me take you to the lab where he’s working.”

THE MESSENGER WEBISODES

Episode 1.4: Tuesday, January 1, 2008

At the sound of my voice, the four of them turn and look at me.  The children, obviously conditioned to respect an authority figure, do pause in their progress toward the river.  The woman, less keen on taking one-word orders from strangers on a park bench, moves toward the children, putting herself between them and me.  It’s exactly what I would do, if I were in a position to do such a thing.

“What do you want?” the woman asks me, her voice like a can of mace held up against me.

“The river’s not safe for sledding,” I answer calmly.  “Ice isn’t thick enough.  It’s best if the children don’t take their sleds out this afternoon.”

She looks at me carefully, most likely trying to discern my motivation. “Do you work for the parks department?”

“Yes,” I reply, hoping that lends credence.

It doesn’t.  “You’re not in uniform.”

“It’s a holiday,” I tell her.  Feeble, but it’s the best I’ve got.

“Do you have identification?” she persists.

“No, not on me.  I’m not here in an official capacity.  I’m just sitting by the river.  I saw the kids with their sleds, and I spoke out in the interest of their safety.”

I watch as she thinks over my words, looking at the river, the children, me, back at the river.  She looks intelligent, so it baffles me why she would even hesitate.

One of the boys looks at her and says, “Mom, can we go or not?”

“The temperature’s been below freezing for three weeks, and there’s a solid sheet of ice on the river,” the woman says to me.  “They’ll be fine.  Go ahead.”

“Don’t go!” I warn the kids, perhaps more sternly than I should, but she’s getting on my nerves.

Clearly, the feeling is mutual, as she tells me, “Don’t you speak to my children that way!  I don’t care who you are.  It’s their day off from school, and they want to go sledding.  You step out of the way and let them go, or I’m calling the police.”

“Call them.  Call whoever you want.  Let’s get a consensus going here.  But don’t you let those kids out on that ice until you get one.  Because what I’m telling you is that if they go out there on those sleds, they’ll get maybe ten or twenty feet, and then they’ll go through that ice.”

“Mommy …” The little girl sounds scared now, which is perfectly fine by me.

Bizarrely, the woman persists.  “These are the safest sleds money can buy.”

The privileged rich.  Sometimes they make me sick, even though technically, I’m one of them.

“Are you willing to bet your children’s lives on it?”

She doesn’t answer, but I see doubt creep into her expression, and for the first time, the doubt is about the wisdom of letting these children out on the ice.

She changes tactics on me.  “Who are you?”

“Someone who wants to help.  Someone who means you and your children no harm at all.  Someone who, all things being equal, would rather be at home where it’s warm, reading a book or watching a football game.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Because if I weren’t, somebody could get hurt or killed.”

“Somebody?” she repeats.

I point to the children discreetly.

“So you’re saying you came here on your day off—”

“It’s not a day off.  I don’t work for the parks department.  I said that in the hope that you’d believe me.”

“So you came here because you thought somebody might come out to this particular stretch of the Charles River and fall through the ice.”

I sigh in frustration.  Contradicting her again will only strain the already strained belief she barely has, but I’m in this now, and it’s time to show all my cards.  “No.  I came here—I was sent here—because those children, your children were going to go out on that ice, and they were going to fall through.  Not might.  Were.  Unless I came here and told you this.  Now, if you want to call the police or the parks department or the weather guy from channel 2, go ahead.  I’ll even lend you my phone.  But if you let your children go sledding, I can’t go out there and rescue them.  All I can do is stay here on the bank with you and watch them drown.”

Like the fragile ice itself, I watch as her suspicion begins to melt.  “Who are you?” she asks.

It’s a question I never relish answering.  In a few minutes, she and I will never see each other again, so my name carries no relevance.  “I’m a messenger, and this was my message for today.  Somebody wanted these children to live, so I was told to come here and do everything I could to make that happen.”

“Do I … owe you anything?  Is there something I have to do?”

“That’s between you and whatever you believe in.  If there’s somebody or something you want to thank, you can do that.  Right now, the only thing you need to do is get the kids back in the car; maybe find a nice, safe hill somewhere they can sled down.”

With that, I turn to leave and take a few steps toward the car.  The difficulty I faced in performing this simple task leaves me feeling frustrated.  To my surprise, she calls out to me.  “Wait.”

I turn and face her again.  She says, “You just saved the lives of three children.  Why do you look so unhappy?”

All I can tell her is the truth: “If I knew why I look so unhappy, then I wouldn’t look so unhappy.”

Now my mission is over.  I get to return my rental car, fly home, and wait for the next jolt of pain to disrupt my life.  And three children get to go to school tomorrow.  Happy New Year indeed.

THE MESSENGER WEBISODES

Episode 1.3: Tuesday, January 1, 2008

As I’m driving the streets of Boston, on my way to the Charles River, I pause and realize—for the first time all day—what the date is.  It’s January 1, the start of a new year.  Last night, millions of couples stood together, counting down the seconds until the end of 2007, and at the stroke of midnight, they kissed, ensuring, so the legend says, a year of bliss together.  I was asleep at midnight last night, alone in my room.

Studies show that depression worsens around the holidays, which I’m sure is true.  Only I’m not depressed.  I’ve reached a state of Zen with my circumstances, including the solitude that comes with them.  Would I love to be draped with beautiful women—or, more realistically, reasonably attractive woman?  Sure.  Wouldn’t say no to that.  But the absence thereof doesn’t leave me beating me chest, shouting, “Pauvre, pauvre moi!” (Which I don’t know why I’d do, as I don’t speak French.)  Most of the time, I’m just Tristan-all-by-his-onesies.  And that’s okay, particularly given the nature of what I have to do.

As I drive, I watch people enjoying their day off.  Most look happy, but I also see some couples who look extremely put out at the thought of being together.  I can’t read their thoughts, of course, but if I could, I imagine some of them would be thinking, How did I get stuck with this person?  It’s a shame, really.  Starting with a love that’s strong enough to unite two souls, and watching it dissolve into such bitterness, such animosity sometimes; I barely understand it.  A thin line, indeed.

Daylight is fading as I approach my destination.  Midwinter in Boston can be bleak, and today definitely qualifies.  A thick cloud cover paints the landscape in hues of gray, with snow threatening at every turn.  It is a grim and dismal place and time to die, so I really hope that I can prevent these three children from doing just that.

I get out of the car at the designated place and realize at once that there are no children in sight, let alone children on sleds.  I check my watch; still half an hour to go before the scheduled tragedy.  I confirm the location; this is the place.  I must have arrived before they did.  It’s a bit of a relief, actually, not having to race over and stop this from happening.  I can catch my breath, mentally go over what I’m going to say and do.  It’s crucial in this instance not to come across as a potential threat.

But how do I do that?  Rule one of being anywhere: look like you belong there.  Okay, lovely, but how does one look like one belongs at the edge of a river?  Looking around, I spot park benches close to the bank, and I move over to an unoccupied one that gives me a clear view of the exact spot I saw in my vision.  As I sit down, I still feel conspicuous, like this isn’t my proper place.  I feel like I need an activity, something to motivate and explain my presence here.  Reaching into my coat pocket, I find a small bag and pull it out.  The airline pretzels that accompanied the beverage service.  I hadn’t wanted them at the time, and now they might be just the reason I’m looking for.  I crumble them within the bag, open it, and slowly begin tossing the crumbs to the few nearby birds that lack the good sense to be someplace warmer right now.

A lone man on a park bench, feeding birds on New Year’s Day.  That’s … moderately less creepy than before.  We’ll go with that!

I scatter the crumbs on the ground and wait patiently, watching as sparrows and other small birds get brave enough to snatch them up and fly away.  To my surprise, the activity does have a calming effect on me, blunting the anxiety I’ve felt all day.  Could it be that I’ve had access to this soul-soothing activity all along and I just never knew it?

Several minutes later, on the verge of feeling truly tranquil, I see them arrive—three children and a woman in her early thirties.  They park an Audi in the parking lot, and the woman opens the trunk to take out three wooden sleds with metal rails; clearly designer-made and very cushy, with padded seats, so the young can plunge to their deaths in comfort.

No, no, stop thinking like that!  I’m going to save them.

As they go from the parking lot to the grass of the riverbank, the children are remarkably well-behaved.  They don’t dash forward, racing away from their guardian; they don’t shriek with anticipation.  They quietly and properly walk toward the river, two boys and a girl, just a few steps ahead of the woman who drove them here, each carrying his or her own sled.  The youngest struggles a bit with the bulkiness of the object and eventually puts it on the ground, dragging it by a short tow-rope.

They pause at the river’s edge, and still I sit on my bench dumbly—both in the mute sense and the stupid sense.  I suppose I’m hoping the woman will figure it out for herself, and I can supervise.  Come on, read the scene.  Look around you.  Diminishing daylight, temperature not that far below freezing, nobody on the river.  That, in itself, should be the clue that this is a bad idea.

But no.  She’s protective enough to adjust their coats and make sure their hats and gloves are secure, but after that, she steps back and gives her unspoken permission in sending them on their way.  My hopes of passive observation are dashed.  It’s up to me.  Standing up from my park bench, I look directly at the four of them and call out a single word.  “Wait!”

THE MESSENGER WEBISODES Episode 1.2: Tuesday, January 1,

THE MESSENGER WEBISODES

Episode 1.2: Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Well, fuck me.  There’s no way I can drive to Boston in less than six hours.

It troubles me that I’m given so little time for this assignment, particularly because driving is my preferred method of transportation.  Turns out, even in good weather, it’s a nine-hour drive, and winter on the Eastern Seaboard does not qualify as good weather.  With so little notice, this feels like an afterthought, or even as if it caught my overseers off guard.  Given my beliefs about who that is, I find myself more than a little surprised.

Fortunately, there is time for me to drive to Baltimore and catch a 2:30 p.m. flight to Boston Logan.  On the drive to the airport, I ponder the details of the assignment.  Three children, none older than ten years old, will go sledding on the frozen Charles River late this afternoon.  Frozen, but not frozen enough.  Unknown to them or to the woman watching them from the riverbank, they’ll encounter a thin spot on the ice, and they will fall through.  In the fading light of day, panic will set in, and they’ll be unable to find the opening they broke through.  Saving them isn’t an option; I have to be there in time to prevent this, or the three of them will face a cold, watery death.

This knowledge sends a chill of its own through me.  This level of gravity should make the situation easy.  What parent, faced with this knowledge, would risk letting the children go out on the river?  But always comes the complicating factor, the question I can seldom answer truthfully: How do you know this?  In fairness, it’s a reasonable question, because the world doesn’t work that way.  You know the stove is hot because you touch it, and it burns your hand.  You generally don’t know the stove is hot six hours before you turn the damn thing on.

So I’m always left with two choices: honesty or deception.  I prefer honesty, but I’ve yet to find the ideal way of telling people that I receive visions about their impending death—without sounding like an escaped mental patient.  Sometimes I have to lie; I’ll make them believe I’m in some official capacity that would give me access to knowledge about an issue of safety.  It works occasionally, lending credence to my impossible tale.  More often than not, I don’t stick around to see if they listen, to see if my warning actually saves a life.   I know I should, but I think it would dispirit me too much if people ignored my efforts and died anyway.

I don’t yet know how today will play out.  It’s always difficult when children are in the equation, especially when a parent is around.  Thanks to our understandably suspicious society, a single man coming up to a parent and saying, “Hey there, you don’t know me, but your child is going to die horribly in thirty-one minutes,” is seldom greeted with, “Thank you, kind stranger!  Here’s tuppence and a shiny apple for your efforts!”  More often, the actions (and often the words themselves) are closer to, “Get away from me and my family, crazy person, before I use this pepper spray/knife/blunt instrument/handgun to alter your physiognomy in some unpleasant way.”

Call it chapter twenty-five of “Why Altruism Sucks.”  As a species, we have become so inundated with deception and selfishness that genuine care and assistance automatically triggers people’s suspicions.  They see no way for someone to benefit from an act of kindness, so the default question becomes Why is he doing this?  Followed closely by What does he want from me?  This is magnified greatly when a child is in danger.

Which brings me to my next valid issue: children are stupid.  No offense to anyone out there who has a child or, worse, is a child, but let’s face it—most of them are pretty dumb.  It’s a wonder they survive to adulthood in the numbers that they do.  Ever see a child run forward while looking backward?  No other creature on Earth does that.  How is that a biological ticket to success and safety?  Still, my employer must have a fondness for the poor creatures, as he’s frequently sending me to get them out of one scrape or another.

The flight from Baltimore to Boston is short, less than an hour and a half, and not expensive, as I’m not concerned about business class or any such foolishness.  Yes, it’s a business trip, but for eighty minutes, I can find comfort in coach.  With no checked luggage and no carry-on, I can bypass one hassle at Boston Logan, but there’s still the fun of obtaining a rental car.  After deplaning and making my way through the terminal to Ground Transportation, I look for the first company displaying a “Cars Available” sign, and they get my business.

I ask for a compact, something small and practical.  As luck would have it, they’re out of that class of car, so for the same amount of money, I’m given a new Mercedes.  Can’t complain about that, certainly.  Our acquaintance will be brief, but in the time it takes to get me to my destination, I’ll have no shortage of comfort.

I don’t know Boston very well, but the river is hard to miss.  The area I’m looking for is in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, in a park right on the river.  In my mind, I know what the three children look like—two boys and a girl, all carrying sleds.  Proper sleds, too, wooden ones with metal rails; not these glorified plastic bin lids they’re passing off as sleds.  Kind of ironic, really.  The extra weight of the proper sleds is likely what will cause these poor souls to crash through the flimsy ice layer.

Unless I have something to say about it, that is.

Webisode 1-1

THE MESSENGER WEBISODES
Episode 1.1: Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A gentle snow is falling on my hometown of Ocean City, Maryland. Not the kind of gray blanket that accompanies a Nor’easter, but rather a delicate glaze of flurries, borne aloft just a bit by a breeze off the ocean. I stand looking out my kitchen window at the stretch of beach that is my back yard. I watch the snow provide a downy blanket for the sand, and I feel a sense of peace in my soul.

My name is Tristan Shays, and I work for God. I’m not a priest or a missionary or even a church secretary. And to be perfectly accurate, I can’t even be sure that an immortal being is my employer; but somebody is controlling my life, and if it’s not God, I don’t know who else would want the job. I am, for lack of a better job title, a messenger. Periodically, and without warning, I receive in my mind, visions—detailed, vivid depictions of someone in grave danger. They might be in the next town or halfway across the country. Wherever they are, something very bad is going to happen to them in the next few hours or the next few days. I know where, and I know when.

And my job is to stop that from happening.

Perhaps you’re thinking, Oh, how nice. What a thoughtful man, to do such a thing for a total stranger. Much as I would like to accept that compliment, I should also divulge at this point that if I don’t drop everything and deliver my message of warning, I am all but crippled with a pain that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It always travels from place to place on my body, but it’s always there, demanding that I do everything in my power to keep this person alive and safe. It started about six months ago, and—at least for the time being—it’s what I do.

Fortunately, I have enough money to live on. My father helped invent the light-emitting diode, the LED as they’re commonly known, and after he died, I continue to get a fraction of a cent for each one put into anything worldwide. Last year, 47 billion were manufactured. So I’m doing all right for myself. I try not to let the money change who I am. Wealth can lead to dangerous mutation in the douchebag gene, and I swore to myself I’d never let that happen. So my money just … is. I live in a nice house—not a mansion. I drive a fuel-efficient, comfortable car, because so much of what I do now involves driving. And I give generously to worthy causes, because I can and I want to.

What I lack is someone to share it with. The nature of my calling doesn’t lend itself well to long-term companionship. I’m frequently gone for days at a time, and things sometimes get dangerous. Neither of these circumstances screams, “Let’s go steady!” Occasionally I’m courted by someone who gets inside the sacred circle of doubt and suspicion. Some of these are drawn to the bank balance; they betray that little secret in a hurry. Others are looking for something brief and physical; tempting as that sounds, I find it almost impossible to base a relationship strictly on sex.

So, for better or worse, I spend a great deal of time alone. I have a few friends, but they’re very busy people, so I don’t see them as much as I’d like. As the only child of deceased parents, there’s not much family to speak of. I have a couple of uncles and aunts, and I’m told I have some cousins, though I don’t think I’ve seen them since childhood. Have I? No, I guess not. I say all this not to evoke pity, just to provide an understanding of why things are the way they are. I suppose if I stopped for a prolonged period of navel-gazing, I could find reasons to feel sorry for myself. But you know what? Fuck that shit. (Oh crap, sorry, I should have warned you—I tend to swear a lot. Comes from being alone so often. If you’re offended, I won’t be upset if you switch journals. I believe there are some good ones from the Discovery Channel.)

Where was I? Oh, right—not feeling sorry for myself. I decided that there’s nothing to gain from it. Self-pity? “That and fifty cents’ll buy you a cup of coffee,” my father would say. Of course, he said that about twenty years ago, when fifty cents really would buy you a cup of coffee, in the days before twenty-ounce mocha-choka-latte-yayas. So I power through the pain, and I accept the assignments I’m given. (When I’m feeling particularly noble, I’ll call them missions.) And I get in the car, head out into the world, and sometimes I save lives. All things being equal, it’s not such a bad thing. I don’t know how long I’ll be required to fulfill this; it could be a week, or it could be the rest of my life. Whatever it is, as long as I’m physically able, I’m going to give it my best effort.

I’d better cut this short now, because it occurs to me that my right foot hurts. Really hurts, as if I’d accidentally filled my sock with roofing nails and bits of broken glass. I might find this unusual, except I’m also seeing in my mind that in six hours, three children are going sledding on the Charles River in Boston, and if I’m not there to stop them, they’re going through the ice, never to resurface. So I’d best be on my way. There’s work to do.