Much to the collective’s surprise and disappointment, the world did not descend into chaos. Asher had misjudged humanity. Rather than reverting back to Pre-GCD madness, humanity now had a villain to demonize. The group was labeled “Spirit of Violence Crazies” by a hostile press, something Nico had little control over without risking the possibility of revealing her involvement. The beleaguered association decided to usurp the phrase by calling themselves “Spirit of Violence Believers,” taking advantage of the growing popularity of the label. While Asher admitted it wasn’t much, he believed it might help mildly muddy the issue in the minds of an uneducated public.
Raymond still didn’t actually believe in the Spirit of Violence, but he knew it was for the greater good when he publicly expressed solidarity; a united front in the face of mass hysteria. What he lacked in belief he made up for in his passion for change. He focused his creative energy on writing columns on future governmental and social structures in a world shaped by Chandra Sen’s monumental discoveries. Acting as a singular bastion for dissent, Modern Issue continued to pump out articles arguing the SVB case.
Though hacking attempts were frequent, their high-capacity servers and enhanced protection proved more than capable of handling any digital incursions. Anticipating a certain level of blowback prior to Chandra’s testimony, Asher hired an elite Russian hacker named Sergei777, an acquaintance from Moscow, to provide additional layers of security. Thanks to the valiant efforts of the technophilic Russian, Modern Issue remained active and intact.
While Chandra, Asher, and Raymond were all named and shamed “SVCs”, Nico’s affiliation with the movement remained a secret, allowing her to continue with her rapidly advancing Anacostia redevelopment venture. Her association with SVB ideals was a great liability for the young heiress, and she stressed the extreme importance of confidentiality to the entire group. They each solemnly swore to take every precaution to protect her identity. This presented a number of problems for Nico and Raymond’s relationship, but the idea that they were putting the greater good in front of their own desires filled them with immense personal pride.
Construction was now moving swiftly thanks to Nico’s decision to hire every firm in the metro area to complete the project by its September 1st public unveiling. Temporary housing for the displaced residents of Anacostia consisted of tasteful tower blocks. It was to these towers that Nico had convinced the vast majority of the district’s population to relocate. By promising luxury apartments and lofts at dramatically reduced rent prices, she ensured consent was abundant. But Nico’s passion remained the APACT, which would serve as the cultural anchor for the revitalized community when complete.
During the same period, Raymond was too busy to acknowledge the neurosis encroaching on his happiness. With Asher’s output further reduced by his anger at humanity’s response to Chandra’s revelation, the preponderance of work fell on Raymond’s shoulders. For the first time in their friendship, Raymond found himself consoling and counseling Asher while doing his work for him.
This blunder was Asher’s first consequential mistake. Chandra’s testimony and the subsequent announcements to the media had been penned entirely by Asher. Upon reflection, however, Mr. Rose realized he’d made huge mistake. Asher determined they should have let the information slip as an anonymous government leak rather than massive public press releases and op-eds in support of the Spirit of Violence theory.
Asher cried to Raymond that this was the method he should have used and his mistake had been, once again, overestimating the intelligence of the masses. Raymond empathized as best he could, telling Asher he knew how it felt to make a mistake of such a magnitude and that he’d also experienced the spiraling state of second-guessing that infected the brain in a bad decision’s aftermath.
“But,” Raymond continued to Asher, “At least one good thing came out of this boondoggle; we’ll never take humanity’s capacity for poor reasoning and decision making for granted again.”
Framing it as having increased their collective erudition did cheer Asher slightly; though he continued to struggle with content production. He questioned everything he wrote and felt a necessity to run ideas by others before publishing.
After hitting a low point in terms of readership prior to Chandra’s testimony, Modern Issue, as the sole voice championing the SVB cause, saw an uptick in traffic. Though the majority of their new devotees were part of the conspiracy theory and cult circuit, a number of prominent business leaders, philosophers, and scientists quietly voiced their support. This support was minimal, however, particularly after a leading journalist penned a pro-SVB opinion piece in a major newspaper and the paper’s offices and writer’s home were subsequently razed.
Fortunately, Modern Issue’s own headquarters was known only to a few key government personnel and their loyal hired goons with security clearances. The Red Roof Inn was so far unscathed, much to the surprise of the collective. They’d anticipated the need to relocate immediately following the hearing, but had, so far, not heard so much as an ominous creak of the floorboards. Nico warned Nooroozeleff of the situation and assured him she would pay five times the value of any damages his business suffered.
Each member kept a go-bag in the event they needed to beat a hasty retreat, and Asher requested one of Nico’s temporary housing quarters to serve as a safe house. Nico flatly denied this request out of fear the tower would be the next target. Instead, the group purchased a few small, undistinguished houses scattered across Arlington and Alexandria. Their luck continued, however, and no one appeared to burn them out.
Beyond desperately producing content for Modern Issue while attempting to repair Asher’s bruised ego, Raymond maintained his weekly meetings with Dr. DeMasters. These meetings were increasingly focused on the topic Nico’s redevelopment plans, which highly concerned DeMasters.
The former civil rights activist acted as a counterbalance in Raymond’s life. Whenever the group made a decision, Raymond ran the idea through DeMasters and gauged his response. The naked ambitions of Raymond’s collective felt trite as it broke on the rocks of DeMasters’ intellect.
This troubled Raymond. Though he disagreed with Dr. DeMasters’ decision to abandon the world to the wolves, the man’s reasoning for doing so was sound. It was reasonable to assume, especially in light of Raymond’s recent experiences, that mankind was incapable of making intelligent, collective, long-term decisions. DeMasters held that only an absolute, enlightened dictator could solve humanity’s problems. However, as he’d spent his life fighting for freedom and civil liberties, DeMasters was adamantly opposed to dictatorship. When he’d agreed to join the collective’s proposed administration, it was with the assurance that they would only take power through influencing a democratic election.
The world needed to change, but humanity was incapable of changing on its own. DeMasters refused to support coercing the public into a desired behavioral pattern as he believed this would reduce humanity to chattel. These conflicting ideals forced DeMasters to resign his philosophy to nihilism, a stance Raymond rejected but understood.
The only remnant of activism remaining within DeMasters was his desire to protect those in his immediate surroundings; the people in Anacostia he’d mentally adopted as his brothers and sisters in suffering and inanity. These people were now at risk due to Nico’s meddling.
By mid-August, three weeks after Chandra’s testimony, the Anacostia Revitalization Project was nearing completion, society’s hatred of SVCs reached a fever pitch, and Demasters’ discontentment peaked.
At the conclusion of their previous meeting, Dr. DeMasters requested Raymond bring Nico along to the shabby apartment atop Francis Sublime’s Computer Exchange Warehouse. When Raymond relayed DeMasters’ invitation, she was hesitant, being fully aware of the man’s objections to her project. Raymond, however, insisted they’d only talk about ideas, and surmised they might come up with some novel strategies for implementation. Acknowledging how much she valued DeMasters’ opinion, she eventually agreed to come.
Nico chiseled out a two hour block in her schedule for an early dinner, shifting a meeting with her choreography team to the right. Raymond went ahead of her to the apartment to prevent suspicion that he and Nico Leftiè were traveling together. She arrived on time, twenty minutes after Raymond, at Francis DeMasters’s sparsely furnished abode. Walking towards the two men already engaged in conversation, Nico noted the gaps in the ill-fitting wooden floorboards and the shiver of the ceiling beams as tenants on the floor above performed their daily routine. She could make this better, she thought as she reached the conversing men and DeMasters handed her a bowl of cup noodles.
“They’re shrimp flavored,” he said unnecessarily. The bold, crimson block lettering emblazoned on the side of her bowl clearly stated the character of the sodium within.
“Thank you, Dr. DeMasters. I hope you’re not offended if I don’t eat. I’m currently in the midst of a strict training regimen for my performance at APACT.” Nico said as she placed her bowl on a nearby counter.
“You’re performance requires fasting?” DeMasters inquired as he motioned for the assemblage to take their seats on the lumpy, derelict furniture populating the room.
Sitting, Nico explained, “Well, in the dance world the shape of the body is of vital importance. Each movement and motion is dependent on the lines and forms my body takes. So crafting your body into a precisely desired shape is crucial for success.”
“That sounds like a clever excuse to accept body image abuse and eating disorders,” DeMasters said, “Isn’t each performance unique? Doesn’t each performer bring a distinct presence to the stage? Conforming the body to a defined aesthetic standard detracts from the character of the performance.”
“In some cases I can see your point, but fine art has always required…” Nico began.
DeMasters cut her off, “Nothing. Nothing in Art requires anything. I would rather see healthy, whole human beings express their feelings and ideas through a creative and talented performance than cookie-cutter automatons adhering to the narrow definition of ‘Art’ promoted by an inbred sect of historical elites. Though who can blame them; they’re desperate to use their cloak of ‘high culture’ to mask the lack of creativity and innovation rampant within their cloistered caste, high in their unassailable towers of aesthetic privilege. From their vantage point, they look down on other forms of art and culture with disdain, occasionally taking well-funded colonial trips outside their hallowed walls to commandeer the talents and motifs of some exotic external wildlife to prove they’re revolutionizing ‘Art.’ When African Art is merely art made by people from the continent of Africa, it’s primitive and compartmentalized. But when African Art is claimed by these erudite souls serving the lord of high aesthetic sensibilities and incorporated into their designs, it becomes extraordinary and world class. ‘A brilliant amalgamation,’ fusing their sacred ‘Art’ with themes of exoticism. As the arbiters of appropriate taste, of course they know how to wield African Art better than plebian African creators. ‘Thanks for the ideas, savages; now we don’t need you.’ It’s the same story that’s been told countless times since the first men looked at one another’s skin and decided one had a superior pigmentation. “
Following the lecture, the room fell into an uncomfortable silence. Nico spoke after waiting with frustration for an ambivalent Raymond to respond, “I see your point. But did you really ask me here today to talk about the obvious faults found in the art world and how it impacts my body image?”
“No, just making small talk while I finish my noodles,” DeMasters joked as he drained his bowl, “I asked you here today to beg you to stop your revitalization project. Stop right now and leave Anacostia.”
Both Nico and Raymond were shocked. It was Raymond who recovered his voice first, “Dr. DeMasters! What do you mean? The project is practically finished. How could we stop something that’s already done?”
“Just leave. Anacostia is used to half-finished, abandoned buildings. We’ll manage. What we’re not used to is imported culture and unwanted media attention.”
Nico shook herself free from her stunned expression. She knew this argument and was prepared, “Dr. DeMasters, I understand you’re sensitive to the idea of gentrification and cultural imperialism, but I’ve gone through a very rigorous and thorough process to guarantee the excesses of gentrification do not affect this district. I own almost every piece of property and I’m the one who decides the rent prices and businesses I allow. I’m preparing to make the citizens of Anacostia the entrepreneurs of each and every business.”
DeMasters countered, “And I understand the precautions you believe you took. But that does not change the fact that you’re still importing an outside culture that’ll dominate and destroy the local culture of Anacostia.
“What local culture?” Nico fought back passionately, “Any local culture Anacostia had was already destroyed by a lack of capital, the gutting of every local business, and the systematic repression inflicted on this community. How does the local culture survive when one out of every three males expects to go to jail? How does it survive when an entrepreneur can’t secure a bank loan because no bank lends to this zip code? I’m not replacing the culture; I’m revitalizing and empowering the citizens with the capacity to choose the direction of their own life.”
“Well aren’t you just the beautiful savior of us poor black folk then,” DeMasters mocked.
“No, I’m not a savior, but I’m committed to helping. And if that means accepting your scorn and the label of imperialistic bitch with a savior complex, than I’m perfectly willing to accept it. But I believe the people of this district will be better off for my contributions.”
“Not if you bring the anti-SVC forces down on their heads!” DeMasters growled at her, exposing his true objections to her presence.
Nico was halted mid-utterance. Raymond responded in her stead, “Dr. DeMasters, no one knows Nico is an SVB. And she really isn’t even; she’s just like me. We just support Asher and Chandra.”
DeMasters continued, directing his comments towards Nico, “No one knows for now, but what would happen to this grand project of yours if they did? You’ve put your name and label all over Anacostia. As you said, ‘You will revitalize and empower the citizens’. You. This is the Nico Leftiè district now. It will be the first thing that burns if you’re outed.”
Nico looked pensive, considering DeMasters’ words, so Raymond continued, “Well we’ve been exceedingly careful to distance ourselves. We’re not together publicly, we travel separately, and whenever I assist her with her project, I only work with her closest staff, other SVBs, and people she trusts. There’s no reason to believe she’ll be outed.“
“You’re naïve. Haven’t you been paying attention to what’s going on in this nation? Exposed SVBs are being thrown into the street and publicly lynched, figuratively. Their entire lives are destroyed by these rampaging mobs. It’s an insatiable frenzy that’ll continue to consume until there’s no one left to destroy. People are angry and confused and they can’t use personal violence to vent. Once they run out of the most obvious targets they’ll begin searching. You’ll be found.”
Raymond remained optimistic, “Chandra’s the ‘Reverend Mother of Violence,’ or whatever that silly label is, and we haven’t been found yet. She’s the most obvious target, but no one has betrayed us. We’ll find a way to turn this situation around.”
“It’s just a matter of time,” DeMasters warned.
Nico finally broke her silence, “I can’t think like that; why would we think like that? I’m sorry you failed in trying to achieve your vision, Dr. DeMasters, but not everything fails. We’re doing everything possible to protect ourselves from identification, and I believe it will be enough.”
DeMasters grew angry, his volume rising, “It’s not just your project or yourself you’re risking! You’re putting every person who lives here are risk! People who never asked you to come in and meddle will be punished, losing what little they have, because of your arrogance.”
“I think I’m finished talked about this. Thank you for expressing your concerns, Dr. Demasters. Any further questions can be directed to my secretary or relayed through Raymond.”
Nico walked out, leaving Raymond alone with his hero.
“You have to convince her to leave, Raymond. You can’t risk all these people,” DeMasters implored him.
“I…I can’t,” Raymond said, “I don’t know if you’re right. I understand and agree with you…I think. But I also think Nico’s project is good and important. If it’s successful we can use it as a pattern to redevelop…”
“Get out. If you can’t see the harm you’re doing you need to get out of my home. You’ve proven you only pay lip service to those ideals you blabber about. You’re just another white man.” DeMasters turned his back on Raymond.
Unsteadily at first, Raymond left the apartment feeling as if his soul had been ripped from his body.
Blind to direction, Raymond stumbled through the steaming summer alleys. It’d been months since Raymond last wandered alone, absorbed in his own thoughts. Modern Issue and their collective schemes had kept him busy, and the need for secrecy in his relationship had prevented him from participating in his beloved after dinner strolls with Nico.
Anacostia was unrecognizable. The dilapidated, rotting structures had been replaced by new-wave art deco influenced buildings. “Nostalgia for the future” as Nico had described the architectural motif. Raymond observed the stark modernity of the edifices latticed with enough frills and ornamentation to embarrass William Van Alen. He remembered the crumbling buildings and barren retail landscape from just a few months prior. Maybe this was better. When he acknowledged he felt a certain charm in the authenticity of the dilapidation, thinking so made him feel like an intolerable tourist. Progress comes from all directions and an incalculable variety of sources. He told himself he shouldn’t discount Nico’s plan due to aesthetic qualms or his stereotypically imperialistic desires to see “The Natives” in their natural habitat. DeMasters, as much as Raymond loved and respected the man, was wrong. He’d given up hope of progress and settled into his own obscurity. He’d lost his vision, and therefore only saw Nico as a threat to his personal indolence.
Raymond rounded a corner in his justifications and found himself in undeveloped territory. This was a street waiting to be destroyed and made anew.
Experienced in the context of the sheen varnishing the rest of the district, the houses here felt more human. Flickering streetlamps illuminated cracks and crags scarring the buildings, giving them each a grotesque uniqueness that leered out towards Raymond as he ambled by. They were the hands of Metropolis to the mind Nico had created. “Was he the heart?” Raymond asked himself, immediately feeling pretentious and foolish. He reminded himself he was looking at run down crack-dens that would soon be demolished to make way for something reasonable people could inhabit.
Passing one of the peeling structures, Raymond noticed a light coming from within. Momentarily forgetting how inhibition felt, Raymond left the sidewalk to investigate. He’d always fancied himself an urban explorer limited by the realities of race, crime rates, and his own neuroses. But removing the prospect of violence from the equation freed him and expanded his exploration potential. Raymond would see something he knew to be authentic.
As he ascended, he happily noted the broken steps of the stoop and fractured concrete archway. The door was open. Of course it was, Raymond thought, why would it be locked? The rest of the world buys locks to keep these types of places out. What do these decaying corners of humanity try to keep out?
Walking into the darkened entrance, he was met with the stench of urine and mildew. The air was choking, forcing him to breathe in measured bursts. He struck a balance between his brain’s need for oxygen and his senses revolt against breathing the foul air. His diminished oxygen intake left him slightly light-headed and confused, adding to the surreal feeling engulfing him. He was watching himself watch himself creep forward, aware of his own awareness; his out-of-body experience observed by an in-body perception. This made him hyper-conscious of each movement and thought, reacting and adjusting to the real-time judgments he knew he was making about himself.
The floorboards, reminding him of DeMasters’ small room, creaked, threatening to break and plummet his body into the unlit terror he’d find below. He supposed it was of some comfort to know he couldn’t be hurt and die, but he wondered if he could become trapped. That sounded even worse. He shuddered and advanced as quietly as the tenuous wood allowed.
Raymond wondered why anyone would still choose to live in this filthy hovel given Nico’s offer to accommodate the entirety of the district in her well-furnished temporary towers. But he figured the murkier side of life always sought appropriate surroundings to conduct its business. Though, Raymond thought bleakly, these places contained only trivially tragic instances of personal destruction.
The real horror in life is decided over expensive conference tables or thousand-dollar-meals. That type of destruction is too systematized to ever be considered as classically tragic as the broken down souls haunting civilization’s varied ruins.
He supposed these universally told morality tales served an important purpose. Humans need the destruction of others in order to define their own happiness. It’s like how the economies of supposedly developed societies are built on outsourced exploitation; they tell themselves someone has to suffer so someone else can survive, and they do survive so well. The definition of survive they’ve come to accept as a minimum standard lacks the important qualifier “to survive at a higher comfort level than someone else.”
An individual can be helped or despised or mourned, but humanity is incapable of doing the same for itself for the simple fact that it’s incapable of considering itself a consolidated entity. It’s all just tribes and levels of separation. When human beings decide they’re individualized entities, it allows for the contextualization of their personal suffering in the shadow of the suffering experienced by someone they consider an “other.”
Instead of taking restorative steps to address communal suffering as a shared experience and shared responsibility, this act of cognitive delineation graciously affords the privileged a modicum of happiness and relief. The separation acts as a veil to create illusory relational happiness, and contentment becomes impossible without this comparative context. So the sweat shop worker not only serves as a drone to mass produce to meet the consumption requirements of the wealthy, but also exists as a benchmark from which a civilized nation can define its relative happiness.
Raymond’s mind was wrenched back to perceive his present surroundings by the hiss of whispered voices slinking down to him from the second floor.
“Thou cans’t be sure, Constantine. Mine eyes hath seeneth a law enforcement official,” an unknown voice hissed in a nasally tenor.
“And Thou art a coward. I shall findeth the causeth of thy trepidation mine own self,” a second voice, one Raymond assumed belonged to Constantine, replied tersely.
Feeling a flicker of fear, but instantly angry with myself for allowing this irrational and probably racist impulse, Raymond stood at the base of the dry, wooden staircase. Footsteps approached the top of the structure and began to descend.
Constantine saw Raymond through the darkness at the halfway point and yelled in a startled voice, “Whoeth arteth thoueth?”
Raymond responded in a way he hoped sounded respectful, polite, non-judgmental, casual, and friendly, “Hello again! Do you remember me? I believe we met a few months ago in a store. I’m Raymond. I hope I’m not disturbing you.”
Constantine looked suspicious, “Art thou a member of the band of folk purchasingeth the whole of this hereth Anacostia?”
Raymond briefly oscillated on the proper response to this question. On one side, his brain told him he had to distance himself from Nico and couldn’t take the chance of their relationship becoming known. Alternatively, lying to this man would be disrespectful and condescending. Dr. DeMasters’ words rang in his head; he’d just be another white man trying to take advantage of the ignorance he assumed this poor black man possessed. Alternatively to that, however, were his thoughts as to whether it was racist for him to view this conversation in terms of race in the first place. Wasn’t he just a human being talking to another human being? If he didn’t lie to the man, it would actually be more racist and more condescending because he was treating Constantine differently than he’d treat a white person. But at the same time, if he did try to view this as just a human-to-human interaction, he’d be ignoring the long history of repression and subjugation black people had suffered.
Raymond was rescued from his dilemma by Constantine’s memory, “Now I remembereth thou and thy ilk. Twas your lily soul in the company ofeth two wealthy Orientals. The She-Oriental iseth the one changingeth our humble Anacostia, iseth she not? She hath sought to purchaseth my abode…but I shall not sell as long aseth I draweth breath!”
Raymond sensed a sensitive issue; something this man took pride in taking a stand on. He proceeded with curious caution, “That is understandable. You shared this home with your partner, didn’t you?”
Constantine looked at Raymond in disgust, “Doeth not attempteth to empathize with mine self! Thine manipulations will not availeth thy objective. Thou canst leave andeth telleth thy mistress my position remains unchanged,” he turned to ascend the stairs.
Raymond, panicking as he realized how this visit must appear to Constantine, hurriedly offered his apologies, “No! No! I’m sorry! I’m not here representing her. I’ve nothing to do with that project. I was just walking and wandered in here. I wanted to see…”
Constantine stopped, “Dost thou haveth money?”
Raymond grabbed his wallet, “I…I’ve got like $50.”
“Handeth it over andeth thou canst ascend and partaketh.”
Raymond was confused but too embarrassed and desperate to distance himself from Constantine’s previous interpretation of Raymond’s character to refuse. He handed the bills to the gaunt hand and followed him up the stairs.
Down a fetid hallway with rotting plaster walls into a room barely lit by the yellow gleam of streetlamps seeping in from the only non-boarded-up window and a small desk lamp with a base shaped like the twisting form of a hula dancer, Constantine led Raymond. Sprawled on the floor was a small, wrinkled, dark-skinned gentleman with frayed and frazzled wiry grey hair. This new man looked at Raymond in fright and, still on the ground, backed himself into the darkest corner of the room.
“Who hath thou brought, Constantine? Whoeth iseth this man?”
“Calmeth thy manner, Solomon. He hath paid his way andeth will joineth our indulgence.”
“Though hath takeneth yonder snowflake’s payment? Whateth if he be police?”
“I hath knowledge of the man,” Constantine insisted dismissively while grabbing a soiled plastic bag containing a small number of white cubes resting near Solomon, “Dost thou knoweth thy way?”
Raymond’s eyes grew wide when he saw the bag of crack cocaine. He berated himself for filling the role of naïve dilettante. If he was seen as an outsider at this juncture he’d never be allowed to connect to these men in any meaningful way. If Raymond wished to fully immerse himself in this experience, it wouldn’t be enough to talk to these cracked-out fellows from his own perspective; he needed to make them feel that he was one of them. They needed to believe he understood their lives and that he wasn’t just some white, imperialistic tourist. He was a human being who fully empathized with their personal suffering.
But Raymond really did not want to do crack. The most extreme drug he’d allowed himself was marijuana a few times in college. Though he enjoyed the experience immensely, he was also aware of the prohibitions on drug use within the proper society that jealously guarded the gates of power. He’d made the conscious choice to abstain from using substances altering his perception of the world. While Raymond appreciated the perspective a different chemical composition might give him on life, he felt an intense desire to remain clearly cognizant in his original frame of reference. He simply could not justify the personal indulgence of chemical bliss when child soldiers were being pressed into the service of genocidal warlords in the Democratic People’s Banana Republic Presents the People’s Choice Nation of Haiti.
Turning down offers for harder drugs had been fairly easy in the past; he’d justify missing the life experience by telling himself he was having a much more unique moment by hanging out with heroin addicts while not actually doing heroin himself. Who else could say that? Raymond would think. His short lapse in judgment during his dark days waiting for Nico and his decision to take lithium had only served to strengthen his position on the issue.
But this was not the same as turning down the trust fund brigade when they offered their drug of choice; these were real people and this was a genuine experience. If he were to turn Constantine down, they’d see Raymond as the stereotypically conservative, inexperienced white amateur Raymond feared being labeled above all else. In their eyes he dreaded being viewed as another moon-eyed, know-nothing imperialist dabbling in the idea of “slumming it.” Raymond was horrified at the thought, but still really, really didn’t want to do crack.
Thinking quickly, Raymond stumbled into a solution, “Oh…oh shit. I…I know I paid, but I really shouldn’t. You know…my family had a bad problem with the stuff…my sister she…” he trailed off deliberately.
Constantine looked at him skeptically, “Thou are’t from a family of addicts?”
Raymond continued “It got really bad and my parents kicked my sister out before she…It got really bad for a while…I don’t think I should.”
Lowering the bag, Constantine looked at Raymond sympathetically, “If thou art cleaneth, thou should’st stayeth so. Mayhaps thyself twoulst benefit mosteth by exuenting from mine presence. I haveth not the will nor desire to stoppeth mine own habit.”
“Oh, actually I think this is a good test for me. It strengthens my resolve. I want to be able to endure being around the stuff without giving in.”
“If thou insisteth. Solomon and myself wereth in the middleth of preparations foreth a new session beforeth thy intrusion. Telleth us thy tale as we partake.”
Raymond grimaced, but did not deny their request. And so while Constantine and Solomon smoked and hit their short bursts of highs, pacing around the room, sometimes making small, strange noises before sitting down again and twitching as they settled into an uneasy rest, Raymond told them a mostly fake story of his life.
He patched together a tragic narrative using details and knowledge he had gleaned from a variety of books, films, documentaries, and news reports detailing the effects of cocaine and the unfortunate events that often accompanied its use. To these facts, he attached long-suppressed memories of a home he’d left in anger and shame. On more than one occasion, Raymond wasn’t sure if he was lying.
While he was lying, his mind grappled with the implications of his decision. In deceiving these men, was he acting like a condescending imperialist by believing he could deceive the simple, child-like natives? Though the specter of this thought haunted him, his belief in connecting with all human beings on their own terms superseded this particular concern on this particular occasion. Throughout his tale, Raymond made sure to cast what he believed were longing glances at their billowing crack pipes before pretending to force himself to look away. By the time he was describing the month he spent turning tricks in Phoenix, Raymond had settled on feeling guilty for misleading the men. He justified the guilt as a pragmatic necessary evil with the conviction that it was the only way to gain their acceptance, allowing him to learn their true nature as they revealed to him this hidden side of life he‘d never experienced before.
When Raymond felt satisfied with the conclusion of his story, he looked to his companions for their approval.
“Thou hast had some experiences,” Constantine spoke in a jittery stutter.
“That’s just life though, you know?” Raymond nodded sagaciously, “So, what sort of stuff got you here?”
“Twas a simpleth series of hardships,” Constantine began, “Ineth Anacostia, one is ofteneth born and suffereth through life untileth death. Tis no moreth thaneth thateth. Mine predilection foreth thiseth substance offerethest a moment ofeth ecstasy and freedom ineth thateth world. Howevereth, the choice doth inflict a greatereth intensity of suffering ineth the end. Mayhaps mine dichotomy iseth false, buteth it seemeth we chooseth between middling, extended suffering and the extremes foundeth within thiseth pipe.”
Raymond lapped up each syllable with an insatiable lust for their authentic and unadulterated realism. This moment, this was real. This was life. This is what real life looked and felt and sounded like. All his theories and philosophies and deeper meanings went right out the window. They meant nothing here in this room with these real human beings. A state of nirvana began to settle on Raymond’s psyche as he sat there in Constantine’s crack den. He nearly considered himself a genuine person.
Solomon stirred and bleated harshly, “Shut thy gob, Constantine thy slob. Whyest art thou placing airs uponeth thy manner? Do not leteth yonder slattern confuseth thee, oh ye of little melanin, tis the man’s lust for cock that driveth him.”
“Quiteth thyself, cur. Thy cockmanship far outstrips mine own. Slattern? I name thee strumpet, a whore too loose foreth the inner sanctum of Babylon.”
Raymond was shaken from his rapture by their puerile debate. He attempted to steer the subject back to matters of import, “Solomon, what are your thoughts on the use of mind altering substances to deal with the horrors of existence?”
“Mine thoughts pertaineth entirely to the realm of sucking your cock andeth your payment ofeth $100 for the pleasure. Ifeth no arrangement iseth desirable for thee, thou canneth go fucketh thyself back with thy lightly colored brethren.”
“Thy blackmouthed blackguard! Whyest dost thou speaketh toeth yonder innocent snowflake with such a tone. Can’st thou not see the man shall payeth for high talk?” Constantine turned once more to Raymond, “Never thee worry, good sir, if thou be of a mindeth to continue afashion, I shall happily oblige. Twill be a bit more cash, however. T’wouldn’t be mine first talk job, I assure thee.”
Raymond shrunk within himself, “No1 I wasn’t here for anything like that! I…I came here to…I don’t know! But you’re real people!”
Constantine smiled at him seductively, revealing his mouth of darkened teeth, “We canneth be anything thou desire foreth the right amount.”
Standing now, Raymond trembled, pleading for them to understand his intentions, “I swear to you I’m only here to learn and experience! This is a part of life…I’ve known but never felt in person! I just wanted to see and understand…”
Constantine made a grab for Raymonds genitals, “Everyone wanteth it in their owneth manner. Payeth and thy desire shall be fulfilled.”
“I can’t…You…how do we understand?” Raymond cried as he turned and fled from the house.
Hours of wandering later found him home explaining his situation to Asher and Chandra. Asher laughed in delight and Chandra appeared confused. Raymond detached himself and watched his body laugh with Asher and heard his words agree with how absurd he was. He saw his form bid them goodnight and retire to his room. Joining once more with his own physicality, his consciousness lay awake, seething.
 This was Sergei777’s full legal name. His parents, Yuri32 and Ivana91, had been master hackers and had wished for their child to follow in their digital footsteps. Though accounting and dividends had always been Sergei777’s true passion, he was forced to take over the family business following Yuri32’s botched hack into the Foreign Intelligence Service’s database in search of information on the frequent pederastic orgies members of the Duma supervised and provided their own children as tribute during to sate the ever-expanding appetite of the Russian administration. After allegedly finding tapes of an alleged sexual encounter between the Russian president and prime minister’s infant son, Yuri32 and Ivana91 were allegedly killed by alleged government thugs, leaving young Sergei777 as a vengeful hacker orphan.
 A government leak would have made the news feel like a conspiracy and cover-up. Subsequent government denials would only further undermine the trust the people placed in the administration. Modern Issue could then deliver a stunning exposé on the government’s lies and record an interview with the courageous whistle blowing scientist working on the NFVS project, positioning themselves as champions of the people’s truth. That’s what Asher assumed would have happened, anyways.
 One of the strangest new converts was a man named Jake Tampala who, much to Raymond’s amusement and Chandra’s annoyance, began his own blog proclaiming Chandra Sen “The Reverend Mother of Violence;” God’s divine researcher manifested on Earth. The blog was attacked mercilessly, but Mr. Tampala’s faith endured and his martyr-like perseverance earned his denomination of SVB a significant following. He began sending frequent messages to Modern Issue’s email the day after Dr. Sen’s congressional outing. Asher had never replied or informed Chandra of this new admirer’s attempts to engage his savior.
 Prior to the realization that the collective’s proposed administration was not going to happen.
 Raymond was unsure if “People” was in the name twice, only before “Banana,” or only before “Choice.”