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The Summer of Love – and the end of the world. Haight-Asbury, San Francisco, August 5, 1967. Five hippies form a band they call Rock ‘n’ Roll Universe. All they want to do is get high, make love, make music – and get on the cover of the Rolling Stone. But when they encounter a Very Strange Fellow in the Golden Gate Park, very strange things happen, and mind-boggling forces propel the group into a cosmic battle for the very fate of the universe. Rock ‘n’ roll made them. And only rock ‘n’ roll can save them.


Rock 'n' Roll Universe

by Ken Rand

Rock `n' Roll Universe

by

Ken Rand

1

As soon as he saw him among the heads and chicks lining up for Digger's lunch in the Panhandle that sunny Saturday morning - August 5, 1967, the waning days of the Summer of Love - Twitchie thought of the guy as A Very Strange Fellow. Twitchie had pocket-picking in mind when he saw him, tall, stoop-shouldered and toothpick thin, an Army surplus backpack in one hand, the straps dragging in the grass by his dirty bare feet. The backpack looked bulky, the top flap half open. As he sidled into line behind the guy to size him up, Twitchie glimpsed the fellow's eyes as the fellow looked around. Something about those eyes. Twitchie re-treated from the pick-pocketing idea as an inner voice whispered caution.

The guy wasn't a narc. Too skinny. Narcs could be skinny, but not like this guy. Skeletal. He needed a meal. In his brief glimpse, Twitchie saw in the guy's bleary, sad eyes a look he'd seen more than once; patient desperation, a bum waiting for a handout, for food. Several men in the line had that look of stoic patience edged with genuine hunger, with sadness. Bums got that look, and Twitchie thought there might have been a time or two when he'd had it himself in the six months since he left Huntsville for San Fran-cisco and the Haight-Ashbury scene.

Leaves and grass tangled in the odd fellow's beard and shoul-der-length dirt-brown hair as if he'd slept in the park. And his eyes. Bloodshot and red-rimmed. Bum eyes.

Or he was stoned, the way he swayed, a droopy-lidded rub-ber-boned effort to keep the world from slipping away from under his knobby bare toes, and no narc ever got that glassy-eyed, at least while on duty.

The VSF wore dirty jeans, beltless, and a wrinkled red flannel shirt. No buttons, no feathers, no bells, no patches. No commer-cial-hippie folderol some narc might have thought he needed to add to his ensemble to blend in. Just a tired bum.

Just a tall, dirty, tired, stoned guy among thousands - hell, maybe tens of thousands - gathered in the Golden Gate Park Panhan-dle for Digger lunch and along the streets up and down the Haight-Ashbury district, getting high, grooving, enjoying the cloud-less sunny weekend.

Tourists cruised Oak and Fell Street, gawking, taking pictures, safe in their Buicks. Or on the Gray Lines Bus Tour.

The VSF was no tourist either. Twitchie checked his fingernails when the guy went to lift the backpack onto his bony shoulder and shuffle forward in the food line. Dirty, ragged. No, this guy didn't come from the burbs to gawk or slum. Like narcs, tourist had clean fingernails.

Twitchie chuckled, remembering one narc who wore black socks with sandals. He'd been laughed off the street.

"So, why hesitate?" he muttered aloud.

He added, "Shit" under his breath, to chide himself. Bad habit, thinking aloud, even when the air buzzed with enough noise to drown him out; the cacophonous but musical din of a hundred conver-sations, a dozen tinny transistor radios, a rock band gigging loud farther west and an impromptu drum circle heavy at it a hundred feet away. Especially when he had petty larceny in mind and some indefinable unease nagged him.

The band sounded like Moby Grape but they were too bassy, and Twitchie thought he heard chicks sing an off-key duet. Nah, not the Grape. He'd heard street talk; they'd play today, a freebie. He'd also heard Jimi and Janis would gig today in the park, together. Who knew?

On the tiny, tinny radios, Donovan, Country Joe, and Jefferson Airplane vied for bobbing heads and boogying feet with "Mellow Yellow," "Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine," and "Somebody to Love." Once that morning, he'd heard "Yellow Submarine" on two different radio stations at the same time.

Twitchie sighed and decided to cool his jets in view of that nag-ging feeling, maybe bypass this mark. Twitchie had gotten busted once, two months ago. That was enough. The Berkeley jail was no place to be even on a cold night, let alone on your eighteenth birthday.

He looked around through the milling crowd, disordered except for those in the food line and the group gathered around the drum circle, swaying and bouncing in rhythm. Mimi sat by a eucalyptus, toking up with four teenyboppers - two guys, two girls, all braces and acne and awkward, gawky giggles.

She gave Twitchie a clandestine glance. He did not return a sign: "I have a mark. Let's move." Still chewing on that sour taste of something amiss here. So she shrugged her smooth, sun-dappled shoul-ders, ample boobs jiggling under her halter-top, toked up, re-laxed, kept an eye on Twitchie, and waited. Mimi was a quick-thinker, and she'd be on the job when she needed to be.

A mild breeze fluttered the upper branches of the row of tall eucalyptus lining the park. The cooling breeze reached down to grunt level where it wafted intermittent scents welcome and not so; baked bread, cooked vegetables and meat, the sweet musk of pot and incense and the less frequent and less welcome rotten breath and body in need of a bath.

Twitchie had bathed that morning, with Mimi, as they did every Saturday morning, plenty of bubbles as usual - neither wanted to let body odor to intercede in their hobby this day. Bathing with Mimi. What fun.

Twitchie and Mimi enjoyed the occasional pocket-picking expedi-tion. A harmless hobby if done in moderation and carefully, and sometimes profitable. Twitchie learned not only was Mimi a quick-thinker, but she shared his uncanny sense of knowing when a bust loomed. When they'd first met, two days after Twitchie got to town in April, they'd discovered they had a mutual hobby, not count-ing screwing. They'd met at a concert in the park, had sized each other up as potential marks, realized what the other was doing, laughed, got high, and fell in love. So they teamed up. They were good together.

Picking pockets beat working. For income, they peddled The Berkeley Barb once a week, Friday mornings, and afternoons if necessary, on the steps of the Alameda County Courthouse across the Bay. It helped meet their rent for the pad on the corner of Page and Lyon they shared with the twins and Harold. Peddling the Barb didn't count as work either.

Twitchie's mouth watered again at the stew meat scent drifted his way on a steam cloud from a huge iron caldron behind the Dig-gers' serving table and he inched forward in the line behind the VSF. They'd skipped breakfast in favor of a longer soak in the tub and lacking much in the cupboard anyway. Dinner - Mimi called it lunch, her Beverly Hills childhood showing, and she called "sup-per" dinner - was **three minutes away; the line moved past the tables where Diggers volunteers served up free bowls of stew, bread, and apples. After you got your plate and bowl, you passed a paper cup under the spigot of a big pot of apple cider, hot, sharp, and spicy. Ahhh.

Twitchie's stomach growled and he tasted papery dryness on his tongue and again regretted not having at least something for break-fast, but one economized if one wanted to be free. Or if one wanted to soak an extra hour in the tub with Mimi.

Mimi was probably hungry too but she didn't show it as Twitchie did, and she didn't need to stand in line. She could butt in any time. Just bob those tits under her thin halter-top, rub those mar-ble-sized nipples up against some dude, and flutter those eyelashes and say, "pretty please" and she could crash any line she wanted to. She could see he was casing the VSF. She'd be there when and if.

He had seconds now, as the food line moved forward another few inches, to decide if he wanted to make a grab for the Very Strange Fellow's backpack, or some of its contents; grabbing the whole thing was out of the question. It was too big and too heavy; besides, Twitchie and Mimi were pickpockets, not purse-snatchers.

So, whatever unease Twitchie felt had to be faced down, fast or the opportunity would pass, and he and Mimi might spend the rest of the day looking for a suitable victim. It could be a long day, or he could cash in Right Now, right here, if he could get past his annoy-ing unease.

The VSF shuffled forward another notch, dragging the backpack along, loose-armed. He stumbled, or stubbed a toe, rather, in the stiff, trampled grass by the long table behind which Digger volun-teers labored selflessly feeding the poor as the Diggers of old did.

The VSF muttered something unintelligible as he looked down at the obstacle. Not a dog turd, but a well-chewed apple core; a few apple cores lay here and there in the park because today's Dig-ger-scrounged fixings included apples. Not all of the apple remains made it into the overflowing and battered green-and-rust-colored fifty-gallon trash barrels scattered all over the park, too few and far between.

The VSF kicked the soggy offender away with his bare toe, back still to Twitchie. A gull, alert to snatch scraps and dodge dancing feet, dived in, beaked the prize, and rose before he got trampled. Many dogs roamed the park, all kinds, which meant dog shit so you had to watch your step. The VSF hadn't been watching, but it was just an apple.

As the VSF kicked the apple core away, something, a small something jiggled from his backpack. A toothpick-thin joint. It fell to the ground; Twitchie gave a signal to Mimi, and went to work.

The joint cut through Twitchie's foggy unease like a chili fart. Where there's fire, he decided, there must be smoke.

"Excuse me," Twitchie repeated to the VSF a bit louder, and tapped his shoulder for emphasis. The guy hadn't heard with all the music, and people chattering. He turned at the shoulder tap and gave Twitchie a bleary, unfocused look.

Weird eyes, Twitchie noted, and bad breath. He'd checked them before, those eyes. Weird, yes, Twitchie concluded, but how weird - or rather, weird how, eluded him. He didn't have time to ask some-thing like, "What's wrong with your eyes?" The take was about to go down and Mimi was in motion.

"Eh," the Very Strange Fellow might have said, but his lips didn't move under the unkempt mustache and Twitchie didn't hear it well anyway.

Well, the lips did move, but they looked as if they were being pried apart with toothpicks from the inside. Another Weirdity. But no time to figure.

Twitchie could have just taken the joint and walked away; the VSF hadn't noticed he'd lost it, but that wasn't sporting - and he had to have more, didn't he? So Twitchie tapped him on the shoul-der, drew him into the game. To just walk away, not play the game, would have been unfair to Mimi who was on her way to join in.

"You dropped this." Twitchie smiled, held out the joint between forefinger and thumb, still wondering about the dead fish eyes, as Mimi stepped in for her part - she'd been thirty feet away when Twitchie gave her the "Let's go to work!" signal. She was lithe and quick when the need arose. The VSF looked at the joint and blinked grimy lids at it and at Twitchie.

"Oh." His eyebrows rose, a comical look, like in a "Laugh-In" sketch, and he reached out to take it.

This is when Mimi did her part.

"Oops." Mimi feigned a stumble, bumping her bosom into the guy's shoulder, hesitating there, giggling and fluttering her eye-lashes, and touching him, just a little, just a hint, casual, and another giggle, this time more throaty, for emphasis. The VSF twisted to get a better gander down Mimi's halter-top, bumping into Twitchie as he did so. His eyebrows raised another notch and his eyes bugged. No doubt his blood pressure rose, and likely his dick, as intended, so he didn't perceive the take go down.

"Gotta go." Twitchie turned and walked away.

When Twitchie spoke, the VSF turned glazed fish eyes from Mimi to him for a second. Mimi did her deft, snatchy bit, then said, "Gotta go," smiled pretty, and left. It all happened in the blink of an eye, normal or fishy.

As Twitchie turned to leave, the VSF gave him a bony-armed pat on the back, buddy-buddy. Odd, that.

Mimi brushed past the VSF, leaving boob skid marks on his side, and the VSF followed Mimi's ass as she swayed away, blend-ing into the crowd headed toward Oak. Mimi overtook and joined Twitchie a few steps later. When the VSF got around to noticing his dope was gone, the culprits would be long gone.

"Got it?" Twitchie asked, as they crossed Oak and headed east. The street was crowded.

"It's safe." She squeezed Twitchie's arm and leaned into him so he could look down her halter-top and see a fat lid lodged between her melons. He reached over to give her a squeeze, she slapped his hand away and pinched him on the butt, and they both squealed.

It was a nice day.

They went home to get high.

They got to the apartment door before Twitchie realized his wallet was gone. Somebody had picked his pocket.

2

Twitchie patted his pockets, fore and aft. "Damn." He dug his hands into each one, starting from the front left where he usually kept his wallet and working clockwise around his skinny hips.

"What?" Mimi said, alarmed.

Twitchie took off his glasses, buffed them on his shirttail, put them back on, and repeated the search counter-clockwise. He looked on the floor in front of the apartment door, then he walked back toward the narrow stairway to the street below, scanning.

"Damn," he muttered, eyes probing the stairs.

"Ringo," Mimi called after him, demand in her voice, and con-cern. She followed. He ignored her.

"Talk to me - Henry." Mimi called him Henry when she got peeved.

Henry Starkey took a lot of ribbing in high school because he shared a common last name with Richard Starkey, the Beatles' drum-mer. They called him Ringo when he was with his high school band, the Ladybugs.

"Damn."

"Henry Starkey, will you -"

The Ladybugs fell apart after school because the other members weren't as dedicated as Ringo to being rock `n' roll stars. Henry Starkey intended to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone.

"Damn," he said. They stood on the corner of Page and Lyon, not as much traffic here as closer to the Haight, and no wallet.

"Henry -"

"I lost my wallet," Twitchie confessed, a moan.

His parents pressured him to get a "real job" after he graduated, so he did to keep their nagging to a minimum. Several times. He futzed around in dead-end gigs washing dishes at A&W, frying potatoes at McDonald's, dropping in and out of Calhoun Commu-nity College, doing solo gigs as he could get them, trying and failing to raise another band, and protesting against the war in his spare time. Finally, bored, he said to hell with it and hitchhiked to San Francisco in the spring of 1967.

"Lost your wallet?"

His older sister Missy lived in Concord, not far from San Fran, where she sold cars for Sunset Ford, the company's only female car seller. They weren't close, Twitchie and Missy, but going out to visit sis did mollify his parents' concern about the venture.

All those hippies out there. You be careful. Wear a sweater, because they have fog. Keep your wallet in your front pocket, and don't talk to strangers. Keep a dime in your shoe in case you ever get stranded and need to call Missy. Or us. We love you, son. Write.

"Yeah, lost my -"

The real reason: If he was going to be a rock n' roll star and get his picture on the cover of Rolling Stone, he needed to be where the action was.

"Damn," Mimi said.

Immediately, he met and fell into the sack with - and in love with - Mimi Hollingsworth, tambourine and kickass vocals.

She called him Twitchie because he was ticklish. It stuck. Ringo was out and Twitchie was in.

Mimi had a sultry voice, not as gutty as Janis' or Tina's but not as flighty or fruity as Joan's or Judy's either. Something akin to Cher's but with more bottom, more range -

"Will you help me look for it? Please." He squeaked like a rup-tured accordion.

"You got a sexy voice," Twitchie said when he first heard her sing. They'd met at a park concert and discovered they had the same hobby; they'd caught each other trying to pick each other's pocket at the same time. They'd ended up in a pad on Castro Mimi shared with a gaggle of girls from La-La Land, the bunch in the early stage of creating an all-girl band to rival the Ace of Cups, those cuties from Mill Valley. The other girls were out for the night so Twitchie was in.

Bangity-bang, so to speak, a partnership was made on a stack of mattresses in the back bedroom, and sealed with a few hits from the ladies' communal bong. They went out before dawn and found some slumming frats still whooping it up in the park. They did well as a team. They hit the frats for a few wallets amid tangled, drunken bodies, and under the iffy park lights. A good take.

"So what if -" Mimi started.

"He could find us." Twitchie walked back up the stairs. Mimi followed.

Mimi picked up her things the next day, and left a note saying "bye." They moved into the Page and Lyon pad that afternoon, where they now stood, walletless.

"Find us?" Mimi retrieved the spare key from under the door-mat. "Reality Is For People Who Can't Handle Drugs," the mat read. "How could he - or anybody -"

"Our business cards." Twitchie followed her in and closed the door behind. "In my wallet."

Mimi's face went white. Business cards, with their address on them.

Not long after they got the pad, they began searching for the stuff to propel them on to the stage, front and center, at the Avalon and Fillmore, twin billing with the Doors, Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, and onto the cover of the Rolling Stone. Robbie and Bobbie, he and she identical twins from Wyoming, rhythm and lead guitars and Righteous Broth-ers-like vocals, joined the band. Harold, huge and hairy, the drum-mer - and damn good - came the next day. They had their band.

Now, they needed a few rehearsals and a little luck.

They rehearsed in the pad, the corner apartment on the Victorian building's third floor. The landlady was cool, and mostly absent, and so were the neighbors. Once a week, on Wednesdays, they re-hearsed in a Congregational Church basement in Oakland in ex-change for playing at their monthly teen socials.

Twitchie and Mimi stood amid guitars and all their gear stacked around the drums in the cavernous living room with the high ceiling. They stood, stunned, contemplating the implications of losing their business cards - with their address on them - to somebody who they'd just ripped off. Amps, cords, guitars, sticks, tambourines, cases, and a jumble of drums and stands in one corner.

The band got gigs - armory, frat parties over in Contra Costa County, some with help from sister Missy, a few high school hops and battles of the bands. It got them money now and then, not a lot but enough to keep belly button and backbone apart. It helped keep them from having to take on real jobs - peddling the Barb and Twitchie's and Mimi's hobby also helped - so they had time to re-hearse, which was a good thing, because, while they weren't getting good-paying gigs, they were getting better.

They called themselves Rock `n' Roll Universe.

The band had a unique sound, not like Moby Grape or the Dead or other psychedelic bands. People tried to compare them to those other bands but it didn't work. Maybe that's why, Twitchie often mused, they got few reviews in the underground press, and why, when they did, the reviews were bad.

They were different. Twitchie and his chums felt being different was the key to fame and fortune and the cover of the Rolling Stone.

They'd gotten, within the past week or two, to the point where they could start to think about auditioning for the Fillmore. They'd done a club gig - the Tethered Goat, a beatnik beer and sandwich joint on 9th at Howard - where they'd heard a rumor that a record exec had scouted them from the back of the room.

Mimi's stepdad was an exec with Chronos Records. They were on the outs - Mimi had just turned eighteen, and she had run away to the City of Love days before she met Twitchie - so the band wasn't ready to send dad a tape. Yet.

But they were close.

This is why they'd splurged for business cards. They each car-ried a handful when they went out peddling the Barb, shopping or shop-lifting, soaking up rays in the park, trying to score some dope, going to concerts, checking out the band competition, or whatever. They gave everybody a card. Club owners, bartenders, fans or poten-tial fans, disc jockeys, record and music store owners and clerks - everybody and anybody associated with Bill Graham or the Fillmore or the Avalon or anything else musical - they gave everybody a card.

"Rock `n' Roll Universe," the card read in psychedelic Day-Glo print. The cards had cost, but it was an investment, not an expense. "Dig the Universe's Hottest New Rock `n' Roll!" the cards read.

And the address.

No phone. That would be unhip. Just the address. For Serious Inquiries Only.

"Maybe you left your wallet -"

"No." Twitchie shook his head, loose bangs sweeping bottle-cap glasses like the wipers on a `49 Ford. "I brought it with me." Sweat dripped from his nose. "I figured, y'know?" He shrugged.

"Yeah, I know." Mimi carried cards too when she went out be-cause you never knew. Had a little compartment sewn inside her pants, in front, so she could reach down and grab one, hey-presto. She'd seen Jerry Garcia a few days ago in front of the Dead House but couldn't get across the street to give him one - a card, that is - but it had been close. You never knew.

They searched the stairway again, the foyer, and the steps out-side from the sidewalk to the foyer. They looked in the gutter at the corner. Nothing.

"He didn't get your wallet, Twitchie."

"If he picked my pocket -"

"We picked his pocket."

"I didn't drop it, Mimi. And if I didn't drop it -"

"Okay, okay." If Twitchie hadn't dropped it, somebody had picked his pocket. If the VSF had done it, he had Twitchie's busi-ness cards and their address. And he was weird.

"I wonder if he has friends as weird as him," Twitchie muttered. He clenched his teeth, as if about to get hit, and his jaw hurt. He shook his head to loosen tight muscles, and Mimi gave him a shoul-der rub. It helped, a little.

They stood on the corner, looking back toward the park where the traffic noise didn't blunt the cacophony of music. The party never ended.

"Maybe I'm just paranoid." Twitchie said.

"Yeah, sure." They both scanned the street for a head bob-bing above the crowd, the VSF.

They scanned for cops. "We should go back inside," Mimi said and she tugged on Twitchie's arm. A bath would be nice.

"Yeah, let's," came a voice from behind them. They jumped. It was Harold.

"Sorry," Harold said. "Didn't mean to scare you."

"Whatever."

Harold's face went serious under his massive black beard and he looked around for eavesdroppers, then he whispered, "Did you guys score?"

3

"When in doubt, get high."

The twins usually split the phrase, one starting it, the other finish-ing. Now, when one twin started it and other band members were there, they all finished it. Then they got high.

This is what they prepared to do now, Twitchie, Mimi, and Harold. Sometimes, getting high was a place they went just to relax after a hard day loafing. Sometimes, things got so weird in the real world that getting high was the only way to cope. Sometimes constricted and stifled synapses got loosened and cosmic insight oc-curred spontaneously. Later, when sober, those brilliant insights often proved to be bullshit.

Mimi lit sandalwood-scented candles around the room - one on the box seat by the window overlooking Page Street, another on the narrow ledge above the fake fireplace, and two on the small brick-and-board bookcase by the kitchen. Harold cleaned out the communal water pipe, fulfilling his self-imposed role as group house-keeper, as he listened to Twitchie tell his story about the Very Strange Fellow. Mimi helped in the narrative.

Harold didn't look at the baggie Mimi tossed onto the battered Salvation Army brand coffee table until they'd all settled. Besides a couple of old pillows, they had no other furniture. A large, multi-colored oval rag rug, also Salvation Army, covered the floor.

Curtains and windows were closed; the apartment was warm and comfortable. But the pervasive hum, rumble, and roar of city life, punctuated with a siren here, a horn honk there, and the con-stant tinny radios drifting in and out, seeped through the cracks. James Brown competed with Paul Butterfield.

"Wow," Harold said as they finished the story.

He nodded as he ran a pipe cleaner up one mouthpiece of the four-tube water pipe. Each three-foot-long rubber tube extended from the central bowl that could hold an ounce of pot. Under the bowl was a water reservoir. You made bubbles when you toked up. Blubblubblub. Supposed to get you higher. It gave Mimi the giggles. It sat on an ornate Persian wooden pedestal. Three feet high. Mimi had bought it at a yard sale in Walnut Creek.

Harold passed the pipe cleaner to Mimi who cleaned her mouth-piece with it.

"We can see weird stuff in the park any day." Mimi passed the cleaner to Twitchie.

"Like today," Twitchie added.

"If he comes," Harold said, "we exit the back way." They had discussed this "fire drill" many times. "Rendezvous at the church." The one in Oakland where they rehearsed.

"Sure." Mimi and Twitchie nodded. They gave a nervous glance at the locked door.

Harold's calmness helped alleviate Twitchie's twitchiness. Harold stood six-five, seven inches taller than Twitchie, had wrest-ler-huge arms, ox shoulders, and he dressed like a biker in motor-cycle boots, black leather jacket, and chains. Wiry black beard and shoulder-length black hair made him look bestial and demonic. When he wore sunglasses, and he always did except when he slept or bathed, you could see only the tip of his potato nose. You knew he was smiling if the hair on the lower half of his face tended up-ward at the cheeks.

Harold was a pussycat, introverted, generous, clean, and soft-spoken. He panhandled now and then, just an occasional hobby, and he often gave the change he got to bums who hung out at the library and along Market.

When the subject of the war came up, he became morose and silent. After a time, he'd go to Nob Hill, alone, at night, and slash tires. He carried a wicked-looking knife in a hip holster that he used for slicing oranges and apples and opening packages.

Harold vented an infrequent long-winded philosophical rant when he got high. Twitchie and the others liked to hear Harold; he had a deep mellow voice and a musical lilt to his narrative, however esoteric. Too bad that he couldn't sing worth shit.

"This Very Strange Fellow," Harold said as he opened the bag-gie and sniffed, "could be a government agent." He passed the bag-gie to Mimi, who sniffed the contents, like a wine connoisseur, grinned and passed the baggie to Twitchie. "A new breed, because we've gotten used to the regular narcs."

Twitchie inhaled the pungent fragrance of fresh pot.

"Ah." He passed the baggie back to Harold. "The government? You think they feds are getting smart? Sending a guy who looked like that?"

Harold started to take out a generous pinch of weed between his thick forefingers and thumb.

"Wait a sec," Twitchie said.

Harold did.

Twitchie smiled, did a magician flourish, and produced a joint in the air.

Mimi laughed like a kid at a balloon birthday party. "You snatched the joint?"

"I got nimble fingers too," Twitchie said.

"Ah," Harold said. "You got the baggie," he said to Mimi, "and you got this itty-bitty toothpick joint," he said to Twitchie.

Twitchie frowned at the put-down, tossed the joint onto the cof-fee table next to the baggie, and changed the subject. "Govern-ment agents don't roll this good."

"They're recruiting foreigners. Pakistani, Eastern European." Harold picked up the toothpick joint. Mimi put the baggie back be-tween her boobs. "People we don't recognize."

"Ah." Mimi nodded. "We see them as foreigners, not as narcs."

"Exactly." Harold put the joint between his lips. Mimi handed him a Bic from the little drawer in the table. "We get -" Harold had raised the Bic to his lips when they heard noises in the hallway and froze, listening. Not paranoid. Just cautious.

On the door, shave and a haircut tapped.

Twitchie sat closest to the door and he rose to check it out. He peeked through the peephole, and then undid the locks.

The twins came in, carrying large, full, grocery bags.

"We've been shopping, man," Robbie started.

"We got some -" Bobbie continued.

Then, just inside the door, they saw the water pipe on the coffee table.

"Cool," they said together.

They chattered non-stop as they often did, on their own natural high, thin and reedy folk, all knees and elbows. They never needed sleep, making up for Harold's laid-backness with their speedy, hy-per demeanor. They told their day's adventures as they put away the groceries in the cupboards in the tiny kitchen - spaghetti, oregano, stewed tomatoes, French bread, and a bottle of Thunderbird. Harold had promised to cook that night, and everybody liked his spag-hetti.

"So, you guys, like, scored - " Robbie.

"- in the park, huh?" Bobbie.

They sat together, cross-legged, knee-to-knee, as usual.

"Tell us about it, dudes," Robbie said.

Bobbie was Roberta and Robbie was Robert, the Underhills. He was four minutes older, both born on a wintry night in October 1948 at Sweetwater Memorial Hospital in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Odd ducks from the start, rock `n' roll and the advent of the Summer of Love saved them from dreary exile in a too-tiny town.

"Yeah, do tell," Bobbie echoed.

Bobbie was gay. Soon after they met Mimi and Twitchie, she made moves on Mimi. Robbie, bisexual, made moves on Twitchie. Both rejected the advances but not with rancor. They all had a good laugh when they got it sorted out, as if in a sitcom with Marlo Tho-mas, and ended up fast friends.

Music bonded the group like duct tape. The twins had the voices of angels, and when they sang, Twitchie and Mimi took support roles, awed as they listened to the pair. Their incredible talent might have been a blow to a lesser ego, but Twitchie and Mimi un-ders-tood. They complemented each other well, everybody in the band.

When Mimi stepped up to do a ballsy Janis-ish tune, everybody stepped back and let her shine.

Behind them, Harold's inexhaustible machinegun drumbeat kept it all grounded. A team. Rock `n' Roll Universe.

"Wow," they'd say after a good rehearsal or gig. As excitable as the twins got and as prone to gabbing for entertainment sake alone, "Wow" was often all they needed to say.

"We got this." Mimi pulled out the lid from between her boobs and passed it to the twins, who sniffed appreciatively.

"Wow," Robbie said.

"And that." Twitchie nodded at the toothpick joint stuck in Harold's beard.

"Wow," Bobbie said.

"I got my wallet lifted," Twitchie admitted.

"Wow," the twins said together.

"Tell the story again," Harold said.

As Mimi and Twitchie told their story, Harold touched a Bic to the toothpick and inhaled. He held his breath, and passed the lighter and joint to the twins.

They toked up and passed Bic and joint to Mimi. They had a ritual. Even where each sat around the table was part of it, a familiar, family thing. No shoes. Knees touching. Cleaning the pipe with a pipe cleaner. Passing the Bic, whether for a joint, water pipe, or bong. They all agreed ritual helped the high.

"These new foreign narcs," Mimi said, "supposed to fool us?" She toked up and Harold nodded and exhaled blue smoke. She handed the lighter and joint, now a third gone, to Twitchie.

"Even more trouble, then." Twitchie toked up and handed joint and Bic to Harold.

"Unless I'm full of shit." Harold grinned; you could tell he grinned by the way his whiskers shifted up on his cheeks.

Twitchie lost it at Harold's sudden shift, expelled a violent gust of smoke, coughed, throat raw, and laughed.

"The man," Bobbie said, taking the Bic and joint from Harold, and Robbie finished "cannot hold his smoke." The twins giggled.

Harold started laugh-coughing too.

Mimi grabbed the Bic and joint, now burned down to half its original length, from Bobbie. She started laughing too.

"Hey," Harold said. "This is righteous weed."

That's when Twitchie saw something at the window. A shadow played against the half-drawn, plain, taffy-brown shade.

"What's that?" he said, still giggling.

Mimi turned to look, as did Harold and the twins, at a vague round shadow, a small, milky cloud.

It was a clear day.

The shadow moved, became more distinct as if pressed against the window outside, three stories above Page Street.

It made a rubbery creaky sound, like a balloon rubbing against glass.

In the window, a face looked in under the blinds. The face had beady, sad, red-rimmed, ball bearing eyes.

The Very Strange Fellow.

4

Twitchie rose and strode to the window. Halfway there he thought he should head toward the back stairs and the panic rendezvous point across the Bay, the Congregational Church in Oakl-and, or anywhere else. He should run away, not toward. The alarm system that warned him when he'd cased the Very Strange Fellow failed him now as his feet moved forward, and his legs pro-pelled his body this way instead of that.

A step away from the window, he wondered if the unease he'd felt an instant before he decided to pick the guy's backpack related to his missing wallet -

No, wait. He felt that feeling the minute he discovered the wallet was gone. So what was he feeling now?

Nothing. Zip. Doodly squat.

His internal danger alarm had shut down, and he pictured a little green-skinned gremlin sneaking into his head, cackling with manic glee, and sticking a wad of Double-Bubble Gum between the alarm bell and the clapper so the clapper couldn't hit the bell. The little clapper whacked at the bell, like in a Roadrunner cartoon, but noth-ing happened.

He knew he should be scared - as he reached to grab the shade and lift it up so he could see better - but he didn't feel scared.

He'd think about it - later.

"Yeah. Later."

But now -

He grabbed the cord to raise the shade, at knee level now so he couldn't see the shadow-thing a few inches away and below him. The shade slipped from his sweaty fingers and the coiled ratchet thing jerked up, flappityflappityflap. There hovered the Very Strange Fellow's head, inches away from Twitchie, looking at him. The head blinked sad little red-rimmed, ball bearing eyes, a bewil-dered look on the long, scraggly-bearded face.

Twitchie yelled and stumbled back from the face looking in the window - bobbing there, a balloon with no body attached.

No body.

The alarm bell tried to sound, but it didn't engage.

Twitchie stumbled back from the face and fell when the back of his wobbly knees hit the coffee table. He fell over backwards across the low table and windmilled one arm to steady himself, the other hand clutching his glasses. He knocked over the water pipe. It clat-tered to the floor, and Twitchie fell off the table onto his butt.

For a second, Twitchie thought he might have fallen on some-body, or smacked them with his flailing arm, might have hurt some-body, but no. Nobody was in the apartment.

Everybody had been scared and they'd all fled out the back way as soon as they saw the bodiless head in the window. They were now, no doubt, half way to the church in Oakland.

Twitchie didn't remember hearing his roomies scream, run, or slam the back door to the alley stairs. The front door, he saw, was still locked from the inside.

He had heard a scream. His.

Heart racing, Twitchie looked back at the window. Nothing there. He went to the window again and looked out. A yellow bal-loon on a string caught on a telephone wire across the street fluttered in a mild breeze.

The gum wad between the clapper and the alarm bell gave way, popped out his ear and clattered across the floor like a marble. He heard sirens, loud. A police car passed, its rooftop bubblegum lights flashed Kool-Aid green, green, green, heading west on Page.

Twitchie straightened up and shook his head, the alarm bell making him dizzy. It took him a second, which time lag he blamed on the righteous weed he'd just toked - just one toke, imagine - to decide the police cruiser lights should have been - what?

"Red? Yes, red. Definitely not green."

He looked out the window again at the cop car; four horses at full gallop pulled it. It still had minty green lights on top, and its siren wailed...

The cop car siren wailed not the warbly "here-come-da-pigs" announcement, but rather like a Moog synthesizer with a backbeat under it - a version of "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag."

The yellow balloon on the telephone wire across the street bobbed in time with the siren tune, and it smiled.

Twitchie stood away from the window again, sighed, inhaling window-wash ammonia, pot, and sandalwood-scented candles.

The pot caused these hallucinations - only one toke. That, quoth the lizard, and nothing more. Twitchie had done dope, all kinds, but he'd never freaked out.

The band had a rule. You get disoriented, freaked out, or scared, you head for the church. Hunker down, and wait for rescue.

Twitchie hallucinated, as he never had before, no doubt from the weird pot he and his buddies had just toked. The thing to do was to head for the church across the Bay and wait till he came down.

Besides, everybody else had gone so he'd go too.

Outside, the James Brown siren faded under a distant bassy rhythm, catchy but indistinct, from a band in the Panhandle. Sounded familiar. Moby Grape?

Which thought comforted Twitchie; while part of his mind halluci-nated like a VW bus full of day-trippers, another part was still rational enough to remember things he'd heard this morning.

Twitchie went to the back door, just past the kitchen at the end of a short, narrow hallway, to lock it. He suspected his roomies had not locked it when they'd fled the terror peeking at them through their third-story apartment window, had not even closed it.

The door was locked.

From the inside.

He turned and walked - if gravity had decided to make a sudden U-turn, he was ready - into the living room where he paused, righted the water pipe, and put it on the coffee table. It was okay. Where was the baggie?

He found the baggie under the coffee table where he'd knocked it after he fell, or where Mimi had dropped it before she ran out the back door.

Locked. From the inside.

Twitchie put the baggie in the coffee table drawer, added the inch-long toothpick stub he found on the table too, and went to the front door.

Locked, from the inside.

Why not? He'd locked it.

From outside, the bassy rock `n' roll beat from the park reached in, still indistinct but familiar.

Twitchie wiped sweat off his forehead under his bangs, undid the locks, stepped into the hallway, turned, and walked, as if through a minefield, down the hallway to the stairs. The light was as before - well, before - and nothing else Alice in Wonderlandish occurred as he walked, one hand on the stair rail, to the street.

Twitchie focused on his footing as he descended, concerned he might slip and fall, but more concerned he might see something that didn't make sense. Like Very Strange Fellow heads in the air, or four-horse police cars with green lights and soul-boogie sirens, or grinning balloons.

When he got to the sidewalk, he found it was still a nice day - mid-afternoon. A cool ocean breeze had risen from the west.

The breeze also blew the soap bubble family around.

"Mashwa de freen." The father soap bubble smiled and doffed his hat to Twitchie as he ushered his charges - wife bubble on his soapy arm, two toddler bubbles, and a baby bubble in a soap bubble baby buggy papa pushed.

"Sorry," Twitchie said to the papa bubble.

"Billish fwops."

Heads and freaks, narcs and teenyboppers, dealers and dopers, tourists and townies, checking out the Haight-Ashbury scene, taking in the sights, having a good time on a nice late-summer weekend. Besides several soap bubble families, a dwarf blue buffalo herd chatted in French on the opposite street corner, all wearing orange galoshes, and a gaggle of well-dressed green geese, win-dow-shopping at Uncle Donald's Used Ducks and Swans store half a block down Page, and kangaroos in business suits taking each other's pictures. The Gray Lines bus eased by, its many crustacean legs churned carefully to avoid the rattlesnakes shaking tails in boo-gie rhythm, dancing a conga across the street.

Of course.

Twitchie sighed. "I guess I'm not in Kansas anymore."

Or maybe he was, given the cornstalks atop a Volkswagen bus waiting for the light at the corner to change to pink. The Volkswa-gen ate from a giant box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers, sharing from the box with a sunflower stalk in a miniskirt also waiting for the light to change.

Twitchie wondered if he'd be able to make it to Oakland.

He wondered if, in this hallucination, there was an Oakland.

He started out, determined, focused on one rational thought - go there. It was something to hold on to as the world shifted under him - the sidewalk had grown peach fuzz, it smelled peachy and felt furry under his bare feet, and a lavender lamb grazed on fuzz in the gutter where it grew inches thick.

Who knew what the Bay Bridge would be like?

Twitchie headed north. He'd hitchhike at Oak across from the park, and walk east as he did so.

At Lyon and Oak, across from the Panhandle, the crowd thick-ened, jammed elbow to appendage. A concert was going on, Twitchie saw over bobbing heads, horns, antlers, hats, antenna, hel-mets, and other cranial accouterments. Not Grape, Janis, Jimi, or the Dead.

Different.

But familiar.

The din of blue buffalos bantering, soap bubbles bobbing by, licorice lions, tinsel tigers, and boogying bears faded under the rising tones from the band wailing eighty yards west and across the park closer to Fell Street.

The surging crowd of people, animals, objects, and animated - things - pressed Twitchie across the foot-deep, orange Jell-O-filled moat when the light changed - from tangerine to itchy-scratchy - to the park proper - if you could call anything "proper" anymore - where he listened. Fascinated.

He glimpsed the band over bobbing heads and things, four mem-bers, on an ordinary raised stage, with ordinary amps. They faced west; he couldn't see them well but he could hear well enough.

"Wow."

The sound - rock `n' roll, but not quite. More like - what?

"What's that sound?" Twitchie asked a trash can-sized French's mustard jar next to him, shouting over the band and crowd noise.

"What?" the jar responded before it changed into a collie.

"Never mind," Twitchie said, but not loud enough for the winged goldfish to hear. It didn't matter.

The sound was - different, distinctive, incredible, fantastic, unprece-dented, fantabulous, wonderful, different -

"Hell, I'm repeating myself."

But somehow familiar.

Twitchie had to have that sound, had to take it back to the band when he came down. He had to remember it so he could reproduce it again.

This was it, he decided.

"This is it," he muttered.

It.

"It?" a butterfly as big as a sombrero lid fluttered by his left shoulder said, buzzing, smelling rootbeery.

"Yeah," Twitchie told the butterfly, who wore a flashing neon Hubert Humphrey button. "It, with a capital I."

"Wow," George Washington said, eating the butterfly.

"Yeah," a lobster agreed, nodding its two heads. "Like, groovy, man."

Across the park, Twitchie thought he saw Harold. But it was only a flying purple people-eater.

5

Stoned and without a watch, Twitchie had no idea how much time had passed since he started listening, really listening, trying to remember what he heard, to break it down so he could relate it to his pards when he came down. It might have only been minutes but the sound was so - entrancing - it might have been hours.

Twitchie moved here and there in the crowd, as congestion and traffic flow and whim allowed or dictated, listening to the band from several angles. He got close to the stage and found the group looked and acted like any other rock `n' roll band, which may have helped explain his nagging sense of something familiar.

One guy, who looked like Robbie, all knobby elbows and knees, played lead guitar, and a frantic, hoe-down fiddle on one tune, and sang. Not English, not any language Twitchie recognized, but every-body and everything in the audience dug it.

A drummer kept the beat, almost as good as Harold, Twitchie thought, and gave a sweaty, hair-and-arm flailing solo that got the crowd cavorting and cheering.

Two others. A guy on bass and a girl who sang pretty fair, and did tambourines and mouth harp and harmonica. Cute, but not as cute as Mimi. Human. Maybe.

Once or twice, Twitchie thought he saw Harold in the crowd. He even thought he saw Robbie, but it was the Puff the Magic Dragon eating an ice cream cone.

The sun, in this hallucination, didn't seem inclined to set soon.

In time, Twitchie felt sure he'd got it. The sound. He could share it with his pards back in reality.

If he ever got back to reality.

He made his way to the edge of the park where it was a bit less congested. He crossed Oak at Masonic and walked eastward down the far side of Oak, walked a block past Lyon, thinking, toying with resuming his journey to Oakland, but decided against, at least with-out checking at the apartment.

So he circled back and approached the pad from the east.

Walking west on Page, half a block from the pad, things started getting back to normal. People stopped changing into zoo animals. The buffalo changed into hippies. Soap bubbles stopped talking and turned into ordinary soap bubbles. The yellow balloon still tied to the wire across the street from the pad was a yellow balloon, not a smiling head; and it didn't bob to the police sirens, now only sirens, and streetlights were green and red, not sugary and fuzzy.

It was late afternoon, the sun behind wispy clouds to the west.

He stopped in front of his pad, and looked up and down Page. Ordinary traffic, cars, and people. Ordinary sound too. A band in the park, playing indistinct rock `n' roll, but not the Grape or the Dead or anybody he recognized. Different, but -

Twitchie shook his head. He took off his glasses, wiped them on his shirttail, wiped sweat off his brow, shook his bangs aside, and walked up the stairs.

The key was under the mat, where it was supposed to be. He hadn't taken it with him when he went out.

Hadn't taken his wallet either. The Very Strange Fellow had stolen it - he'd had his pocket picked, goddam it.

The VSF: Twitchie hadn't seen him or sensed him in the park after he went out to hallucinate. The music had so entranced Twitchie that he'd forgotten about the VSF.

Twitchie pressed his ear to the door and heard familiar voices. His buddies. No need to hitchhike to Oakland. Besides, he had come down, back to reality.

He tried the doorknob - locked - then tapped out shave and a haircut - and waited.

Chains and locks rattled, the door opened, and Mimi was there. She gave a squeal, jumped into his arms, pressing firm boobs into his bony chest and kissing him full and wet on the lips. He squeezed Mimi's butt and tried to disengage himself from her clutch but he didn't try too hard. She felt warm and fleshy. Real.

"Where have you been, man?" Mimi's voice rose to an uncharacte-ristic squeak as she pulled him inside.

"Yeah, did you see -" Bobbie joined in as Harold locked the door.

"- the cool band in the park?" Robbie continued.

The twins danced as if they had to pee.

"- all those strange things and -"

"- there was this bubble family -"

"- and blue buffalo showed me a cool dance -"

"- a toaster peddling the Watchtower -"

"- the band and the sound, man -"

"- what a groovy sound -"

"- like us but different, you dig?"

Twitchie broke in, "Like us?"

The babbling stopped and the band looked excited, waiting for Twitchie to get it.

That was what felt so familiar about the band. "Like us?"

"Yeah," Harold said. "It took a while before I got it, but -"

"You were in the park?" Twitchie said, head reeling.

"Yeah. And Mimi, and the twins."

"I thought I saw you," Twitchie said, "but you turned into a poodle with mud flaps."

"Yeah, dig it, and I thought -" Robbie started.

"- I saw you," Bobbie continued, "but you turned into -"

"- Donald Duck."

"Wait a minute," Twitchie demanded. "Just. Wait. A. Goddam. Minute."

They waited.

"Let's sit." Twitchie's try for calm cut into the electric excite-ment in the room, but only a little.

"Like us," Twitchie said. "Sounded like us -"

"The `us' we're trying to be." Harold nodded. "Close but still `out there.' That's why it took me so long to get it."

"It was that joint," Mimi said.

Twitchie saw it now, the lid they'd stolen from the Very Strange Fellow on the coffee table, like some trinket displayed for parlor visitors to admire, like in the old days when people called on one another for social visits.

Oh, my, so you have a lid of super-hallucinatory cannabis? How lovely. Did you have any, um, super-hallucinatory experiences with it? Please do tell me all about it.

The roach was in the coffee table drawer.

"So," Twitchie said, "you guys had the same trip. And that," he nodded baggieward, "is what done it." He sighed and went to the bathroom to take a leak.

When he got back, his pards were in an animated discussion.

"- government stuff they mixed in a secret lab to break up the revolution -"

"- heard Timothy Leary cooked up some new shit that makes acid look like banana peels -"

"- we could smuggle this into the water coolers at city hall -"

"Wait a minute," Twitchie said, trying to calm everybody down - to calm himself down. "Let's mellow out, okay? We've all had a hard day -"

"Right on to that," the twins said.

"- and we need to think about -"

"Yeah, we -" Mimi said.

"- to think," Twitchie raised his voice, just a little, to get their attention. It worked. They listened.

"So, we meet this Very Strange Fellow in the park, snatch a lid and a joint. It's pot, but not your ordinary cannabis sativa. It's - different, right?"

Nods.

"In one toke - of this -" again, he nodded at the dope, "- we're all not just hallucinating, but having the same hallucination. Any-body heard of that?"

Silence.

Harold grunted. "The government says `mass hallucinations' explains UFOs, but that's bullshit."

"And the music," Mimi said. "Did we all dig the same sound?"

"Yeah, and we all -" Bobbie.

"- all got high on it -" Robbie.

"- so we could come back here and -"

"- share it with you all."

"Let's try it." Twitchie picked up his bass. In a second, he nod-ded his head to an internal beat, as he got it, and picked out the tune.

Harold and the others gathered their gear and joined in. Soon, they all played the same tune, a tune they'd heard the hallucinated band play in the hallucinated park. The audience had demanded an encore, so they'd heard it twice.

Mimi tapped her tambourine rapa-tapa-tapa on her thigh, bob-bing her head and shaking her assets as Bobbie hit a screaming riff. She hit the end note, stretched it out and under, Harold gave a snare riff, and Mimi came in on cue, did a sexy, gutsy solo harmonica ditty and gave it back to Twitchie who came in with a fluttery bass riff that would have made Jack Bruce green with envy.

They played the intricate instrumental through and ended with a complex drum sequence and dramatic cymbal crash exclamation, all as if they'd rehearsed it for days.

They stood, silent, sweaty, not daring to breathe. Awed by what they'd done.

Outside, a siren wailed somewhere in the city, a normal siren. A horn honked. A normal horn.

"Wow," Bobbie and Robbie whispered together.

"Did we get it right?" Mimi said.

"We got it," Harold said. "But what have we got?"

"That was us, man," Twitchie said. "Rock `n' Roll Universe. What we been after."

6

They talked into the night, none of them sleepy or horny. They talked about the Very Strange Fellow and the VSF weed and the trip band and that sound and what to do about it.

"This is what we've been trying to get to," Twitchie said. "That's why it sounded familiar."

"Yeah, man," Bobbie and Robbie said.

"They're already there."

Dim yellow light from sandalwood-scented candles flickered and soft shadows danced on the high walls. Beyond the drawn shades, the world turned as usual in its late night rhythm.

Twitchie sat up. "We need more."

"We should go back?" Mimi sat up.

"Get more sound?" Bobbie and Robbie said.

The group punctuated their thoughts with grunts, head nods, and "hmms."

"We're all fagged," Harold said. "We can't do it tonight."

"In the morning." Twitchie said. "Robbie and Bobbie, you go back with your tape recorder and tape the band -"

"Cool, man."

The twins had a cheap, portable, battery-operated, reel-to-reel tape recorder to tape rehearsals. It was bulky, made in Japan, the speakers tiny and the sound tinny, but it would do. They'd get it all.

"- and me and Mimi, we'll stay on this side of reality and see if you can find out where that Very Strange Fellow got off to."

"I don't know if -" Mimi started, tone apprehensive.

"It makes sense," Harold interrupted. "You two know what this guy looks like. We don't."

"Except what we saw in the window," Robbie said.

"And that was just the head -"

"- and just a glimpse."

"Be careful," Harold said, "if he's a narc. From the way you described how he acted, he might be an `it,' a robot or android."

"We'll be careful," Twitchie said.

"What will you do?" Mimi asked Harold.

"I'm going undercover."

"Huh?" Bobbie and Robbie asked.

Harold looked left and right, as if there might be creepy ani-mated balloon heads, android hippies, giant mustard jars, or intelli-gent soap bubbles spying on them, before he leaned forward.

"When we leave the apartment," he whispered, "we'll make noise, let anybody spying on us know we're out. You go about your business. Me, I'll go incognito, sneak back, and case the pad from across the street, see if anybody tries to break in, or see if we've been staked out. I'll be inconspicuous." He scratched his beard.

Mimi looked awed, her jaw dropped. "Shave?"

"A sacrifice, but I think it's worth it." He shrugged again. "If this guy is bad news. Haircut too. Maybe."

Harold's friends gasped.

Harold didn't discuss his past. He said he came from Port Chicago, a little town up the bay, outside Concord. He didn't seem to have relatives. They suspected he'd been in Vietnam, but he wouldn't say. He got angry about the war, silent angry, shoulders hunched and fists bunched. He'd brood, silent; then he'd go off alone to slash tires on Nob Hill. Then he'd be all right for a while.

"We'll rendezvous at the church in Oakland," Twitchie said, "at, say, six o'clock tomorrow."

"What about that?" Mimi nodded at the VSF dope.

Twitchie put the baggie in the coffee table drawer. "Harold will be outside."

Harold nodded.

Twitchie and Mimi described the VSF for Harold and the twins in case they saw him. They ironed out details, checked the batte-ries and tape in the recorder. Robbie and Bobbie stashed extra tape and extra size-D Ray-o-Vacs in the recorder case. They were ready.

They planned to sleep, get up, and eat a good meal - they had a busy day ahead. Robbie and Bobbie would toke up at nine and they'd all leave together.

"What about long-range effects of that stuff?" Mimi asked.

"We're prepared -" Bobbie said.

"- to take that risk," Robbie said.

Like Twitchie, and many heads, the twins had popped a pill or two offered by strangers on the street or at a concert or in the park, rationalizing they'd more likely get mugged than get a bad dose.

They decided to leave fast, even as the twins still held their breaths with smoke, not sure if the twins might disappear before their eyes. They had no idea how anybody might react to it, or how it might affect their missions, or how it might affect the VSF, if the VSF watched, wired into the weed's effect through some ESP link or - or whatever.

"Hell," Twitchie said, "none of us knows what's going on."

7

Twitchie and Mimi dropped onto their mattress bed and tried to sleep, both still wound up, hyper but not horny. When Mimi nudged Twitchie awake, he felt as if he'd hardly slept at all.

"You slept five hours," she assured him. "It's past nine. The twins are showering."

Bobbie and Robbie had showered together for seventeen years, a leftover from growing up in a big family and living in a singlewide trailer, dirt poor. Maybe somewhere on earth, somebody thought it weird that teen-aged twin brother and sister would shower together, but not here and not the twins and not Harold or Twitchie or Mimi. The twins' hygienic rituals didn't merit comment or notice.

"Where's Harold?" Twitchie rubbed sleep-caked eyes, yawned, and scratched his balls. He didn't wear underwear. Didn't own under-wear.

"Making pancakes."

Twitchie's stomach growled. He pulled on jeans - he owned two pair - and a shirt, the short-sleeved Hawaiian, not too wrinkled. Laundry day was Sunday afternoon, and this was - what? Sunday morning? Laundry later today, then.

Maybe.

"Gonna be a long day," he muttered as Mimi gave him a bear hug.

"Nookie tonight," she promised as she kissed him, tonguey but brief. "Even if we have to do it in the road."

They followed coffee, fresh pancakes and Karo Syrup odors into the living room. Harold added the last four palm-sized cakes to a pile on a plate on the coffee table next to a pan of steaming syrup and a plate with a margarine stick on it. Plates and forks already in place.

Twitchie poured himself a cup of coffee in the kitchen, sugared it, grunted hello to Harold and took the mug into the living room.

As he sat and started to eat, Mimi at his side, the twins appeared from the bathroom and joined in. They wore white towels around their hips and towels over their wet hair like turbans. Harold contin-ued to putter in the kitchen for a minute before he sat and ate.

Presently, Harold rose to take away dirty dishes. Twitchie and Mimi went off to brush their teeth and Bobbie and Robbie got dressed. They all swapped places, bathroom to kitchen to living room to bedrooms - the twins had one bedroom, Twitchie and Mimi had the other, and Harold slept in the big used-to-be-pantry off the kitchen, his feet sticking into the hallway - as they did their morning ritual cleaning and puttering.

Harold finished first and sat cross-legged at the table. He tapped out an air drum solo on his knees.

The group came to order, morning ritual done. Mimi opened the coffee table drawer to get out the lid.

"Let's finish the joint," Twitchie said. "We're almost out of papers."

Mimi shrugged, put the baggie back in the coffee table drawer. She took out the inch-long toothpick roach and a Bic.

"Papers," Harold said. "It's on my shop-lifting list."

Mimi handed the roach to Bobbie who put it between her lips, looked cross-eyed at it, and nodded to Mimi, who flicked the Bic and held the flame to the roach tip.

Bobbie inhaled, held her breath, cheeks and eyes bulgy, and passed the roach to Robbie.

Robbie took a hit, nodded, breath held, snuffed out the roach's coal between spit-dampened thumb and forefinger, dropped the roach into the drawer, and closed it. They headed for the door.

The twins had already put the recorder by the front door. Bobbie grabbed it as they left and Harold locked up.

In the hallway, Twitchie led the troops down the stairs, Mimi and the twins followed - the twins exhaled smoke at the same time, with a whoosh - and motorcycle-boot thumping Harold brought up the rear.

When Twitchie stepped on to the sidewalk, blinking into the bright morning sun reflecting off the apartment across the street, he turned to Mimi. "I think we should split up. I'll go -"

"Where are the twins?" Harold said.

The twins were gone.

So was the street.

Not pavement. Jell-O. About a foot deep, in which swam tat-tooed goldfish. Wearing propeller beanies.

8

"I didn't see them go." Mimi's voice rose and quaked. "Where would they go?"

"To the park." Twitchie's voice squeaked too. He moved aside to let a soap bubble family pass.

Twitchie, Mimi, and Harold clutched each other as if for protec-tion from the animated, circusy Dali landscape. Before they'd opened the door, the street had been your basic, ordinary Page and Lyon in the Haight of Summer of Love, 1967 San Francisco, U-S-A, but not anymore.

Soap bubbles, blue buffalo, aardvarks, animated garbage cans dancing congas, a Winnebago chatting at a Crackerjack stoplight with a pink Ford Econoline van with a German accent and a cigar clutched between radiator and bumper. The goldfish playing hockey and the hairy balloons and -

"Does anybody recognize this?" Harold said, loud, nervous.

"The blue buffalo," Twitchie said.

"Soap bubbles," Mimi added.

No entity in the circus noticed the three.

"I saw that jar of mustard." Twitchie pointed to the roller-skating jar. "French's."

"Yeah," Harold said, "Me too, talked with him. Her. It."

"At least the sky is blue," Mimi said, "and the air is breathable."

"Weird smells though." Twitchie sniffed. "Candy cane. Broom-stick. Harmonica."

"This looks like yesterday," Mimi said. "Same hallucination."

"We're back," Twitchie said. "The twins just got a head start. I'll bet they're in the park." He tipped his chin northward.

"I don't hear any music," Harold said. Bubbles bubbling, Volkswa-gens kissing, two-headed cows grazing on rubber parking meters, and carp in a bathtub Rambler singing a Christmas carol, yes, but not rock `n' roll music from the park two blocks away.

"Maybe they're on a break," Mimi said.

"Maybe so," Harold said. "It looks more crowded over there." Harold had seven inches over Twitchie; he looked northward toward the park.

"Do you see the Very Strange Fellow?" Twitchie asked. Harold's beard smelled soapy, good old familiar soap. Harold and Mimi refused to change shape, or sound different. Solid to the touch. Twitchie clutched both so hard it must hurt them, and Mimi clutched him and Harold just as hard, as if afraid that the sidewalk would open and gobble them down any second. He released his clutch on Harold's big arm. Harold didn't notice, or if he did, he understood and made no comment.

Mimi released her clutch on Twitchie, leaving marks.

"Uhn-uhn," Harold said. "I don't see the twins either."

"Let's go as planned," Twitchie said. "The twins may not know we're here. They'll get tape and head for Oakland. If we don't show up there, they'll be freaked."

"If there's a there to show up at," Harold said.

"We'll split up." Twitchie gave a decisive nod. "Me and Mimi'll go look for the VSF guy; you change into your disguise and hang out here. Try for the church tonight. If Oakland is still there. If not - well, come back to the apartment."

"If we see Robbie and Bobbie?" Mimi asked.

"Leave the twins to their work," Twitchie said. "They'll concen-trate on taping and they won't notice us."

Harold turned and walked away. "Have fun," he said over his shoulder. "But be careful."

Twitchie and Mimi wormed through the crowd toward the park. Music, something more coherent than the radio and street corner or doorway jam and drum session, started to float through the carnival air. Somebody tuning their bass, a few riffs on a kettle and snare drum, and a ragged electric guitar riff topped it off, but distant, indis-tinct, and muffled.

Twitchie stepped around a candy-striped fire hydrant in a top hat selling the San Francisco Oracle.

The foot and hoof traffic thickened on the sidewalk and spilled into the "street" as they reached Oak and Lyon, across from the Panhandle. There, Twitchie and Mimi decided to split up. Mimi would cross to Fell and walk west on the sidewalk opposite the park, while Twitchie would walk west on Oak. They'd rendezvous at Stanyon Street, the east entrance to the main park grounds.

Back home in Twitchie's reality, a pleasant collegiate-looking fellow would appear at a cozy little shrub-lined grassy arena a few dozen steps west of the park entrance. He appeared most every week-end, stood on a plastic milk carton, and talked through a bull-horn, the kind they used at protest rallies. The guy just chatted. No routine, not agenda, no hype, no rant. Just chat, for hours. Whatever he wanted to talk about, and people would lie on blankets or on the grass and listen.

Sometimes dialogue occurred. People would ask him questions and he'd answer, and a general discussion might follow. Sometimes somebody among his listeners - never more than a dozen at any one time - would take his bullhorn and rap for a few minutes, but he did mostly monologue.

Twitchie and Mimi had often sat listening to the guy - Ashleigh Bril-liant, that was his name.

"We'll rendezvous there," Twitchie said, and Mimi agreed. Since at least the general structure of San Francisco - the streets, their names, and so on - seemed the same in this hallucination, so far - at least they could fix on the site, and get started.

They set out on their search for the Very Strange Fellow.

It took Twitchie almost an hour to reach the glen in the park; the street was crowded, and an interesting hallucination distracted him - an octopus sat on the stoop blowing a two-headed saxophone. Pass-ers-by tossed coins - ordinary, American money - into a hat. Helmet. World War One, German, the kind with the spike on top.

Double-headed sax. Gutsy, bluesy, African.

For the seven blocks between Lyon and Stanyon, the band's gutty bass and lead guitar high notes, way east now in the Panhan-dle, bounced off the walls flanking the streets. Twitchie couldn't hear the sound well, except to note that it was indeed the one he'd heard in the previous hallucination and the one his band sought.

He hoped the twins got it down.

He scanned street and Panhandle as he moved along but didn't see the VSF.

When he got to Stanyon, the crowds had dissipated. Many people - and many things - drifted into the park, leaving the Haight-Ashbury Mardi Gras atmosphere behind for the deeper park tranquility. Even here, in this hallucinated Wild Kingdom, Twitchie sensed a semi-arbitrary DMZ - the line between the vast Golden Gate Park interior proper and the Haight. Tourists turned back east at Stanyon to resume touring Haight, but locals wandered, unim-pressed with the Haight, thank you, into the park, on your basic weekend family outing.

Twitchie sensed the difference between locals and tourists in this hallucination, just as he could in the real world. As he sauntered through the lessened crowd toward the glen just inside the park, he tried to spot narcs, a habit.

The talking straight, straight-talking guy wasn't there, nor was his milk carton, which, if it was there, meant he was off on a pee break and would be back in a minute. Still, people lounged around the small, bowl-like grassy arena.

People. Things.

If there was a hallucinatory talking guy here, Twitchie didn't see him. And, he congratulated himself, he hadn't panicked. Yet.

Mimi hadn't arrived yet, but Twitchie hadn't expected to see her because she had a longer route down Fell.

A soap bubble family played on a blanket. The family - a papa bubble, a mama, and twins five years old and a baby - all sat on or bobbed above a blanket. Baby brother giggled along with his sibl-ings as they tossed and caught him.

Twitchie wondered how he knew the twin bubble's ages, and how he knew it was baby brother the bubble family tossed like a featherweight beach ball. He wondered, but not much. In the past hour, he'd encountered things that might have freaked out anybody and he'd been okay. Don't push it, he told himself.

But he toyed with the idea of pushing his mental panic button anyway because it might feel good to scream. As he did so, the an-tenna that kept him from getting busted when we went pick pocket-ing told him the papa bubble was a narc. Along with that knowledge came the feeling that he had no need to fear. He eased off his mental panic button. Curiosity won.

The bubbles were as translucent as your basic, ordinary soap bubbles, but they talked like any picnicker family. They changed sizes now and then, from goose-egg-sized to volleyball-sized as they floated and fluttered over and on their spread-out blanket. The family occasionally dipped into a punchbowl of brackish, frothy water, giggling. The bowl was the family lunch; the bubbles dipped in it to refresh their thin skins.

Just your basic, normal, ordinary bubble family.

Whose papa was a narc.

Papa bubble toted no gun in his sock or behind his back. He didn't have clean fingernails, or black socks, or clean underwear or phony-hip accouterments or a badge in his wallet. Hell, the bubble family had no arms to toss their kids with or mouths to giggle with - yet they tossed and giggled. Just your average soap bubble family, three kids, picnicking in the park on a groovy weekend.

An ocean breeze had crept in to cool things down, and Twitchie was pleased to know an ocean was there.

"Are soap bubble narcs different than real narcs?" he wondered aloud.

This time, he didn't bother to curse himself for talking aloud. Instead, he drifted over toward the soap bubble family, a casual smile, relaxed.

As he got closer, the mama bubble noticed.

"Flibbly dippity doop," she said, smiling.

"I'm sorry," Twitchie said. "I don't speak Soap Bubbleish."

The soap bubble papa reinforced mama's words, adding "Dipplop-pity flob," and the twins looked up and smiled, giggling. They gestured for him to sit. Twitchie sat on the grass - ordinary grass - next to their blanket, and joined in.

9

Twitchie sat cross-legged, juggling the twins and the baby in the air, when Mimi showed up.

"Twitchie," she said, from behind him, "what are you doing?"

Twitchie stopped juggling - he didn't drop the kids, but he knew, since he'd played with them a while, even if he did, they wouldn't burst, as a reality soap bubbles might. He laid them on the blanket, where they floated over to the soapy-water bowl, and re-dipped themselves and floated over to mama for soapy hugs.

Mimi stood between Twitchie and the near-noon sun. Not until then had he thought to wonder how much time had passed since he'd sat down to play with the narc soap bubble and his family.

He patted the grass next to him. "Join us."

Mimi sat, and made greeting gestures to the Bubbles, Ma and Pa. They nodded and smiled back, chattering in what sounded like Vietnamese to Twitchie.

"Getting along, are we?" Mimi asked Twitchie.

"Yeah. This is -" he pointed to papa Bubble, and hesitated. "I don't know their names, because they speak Bubblish. They're friendly. Even if papa Bubble is a narc."

"A narc?"

"Yeah, he's -"

"How can you tell?"

Twitchie shrugged, blinked, took off his glasses - the twins had earlier become fascinated with his glasses and they started chittering now, begging him to let them wear the glasses again.

"I can tell. Like I can tell that, even if he's a narc, we don't have to worry."

He surrendered his glasses to the twins. "See?" The twins tum-bled about on the blanket, giggling as they tussled over the glasses. Mama and Papa tossed baby between them like a puffy beach ball, watching. They smiled and chittered in Bubblish, gesturing and pointing at Mimi and Twitchie.

"I see," Mimi said, "and I hear, but they don't have mouths or voice boxes or -"

"You want logic in a hallucination?" Twitchie asked.

"So, did you see anything?" Mimi asked.

"Saw hide nor hair, so to speak. You?"

"No, but I did see the twins - our twins, I mean." The Bubble twins floated in mid-air, bouncing off each other like slow motion bumper cars. "They're getting tape."

"Okay." Twitchie picked up the discarded glasses and put them on. "We should go."

"We'll go back down Haight. You take the north side, I'll walk the south."

"Meet at the apartment."

Twitchie looked at the Bubble family. "Well, folks. It's been fun." He started to stand, but Papa Bubble frowned - Twitchie had gotten used to detecting facial expressions on soap bubbles who had no faces - and babbled something that sounded like concern. "Gob-ble de freole?" which was maybe, "Do you have to go? We were having fun," in Mandarin.

Mimi rose to her knees and offered an apologetic smile to Mama Bubble, who also chattered in Bubblish, "Flippoppity bloop," which probably meant: "Oh, please stay and play some more."

"Sorry, guys," Twitchie said, on his knees, "but we have this mission. It could be dangerous." He frowned, serious-faced, to rein-force his point. "Maybe a government conspiracy or drug lords. CIA, FBI, Republicans, who knows."

The faceless Bubble's facial expressions grew more concerned.

Mimi stood, smiled to the Bubbles, holding Twitchie's hand, while Twitchie remained on his knees, trying to disengage from his hosts. He felt awkward, as if he'd done something that, in Bubblish culture, might be impolite. The Bubbles had been nice to him; he felt compelled to be nice back.

"Frumpish fry-tie diddlyshit," Papa Bubble said, and mama nod-ded and added, "Diddlyshit," frowning.

"We have people depending on us," Twitchie said. "Harold and the twins. Civilization itself."

Blank expressions on faceless faces.

"Look, you're a narc, even if you aren't a bad narc, which is weird, but what isn't weird today?" He gestured at the people and things - blue buffalo, flying pigs, hot dogs selling singing popcorn, four-legged mustard jars, furry fishsticks, and monkeys on bicycles built for two.

"Well, never mind. You're a narc, so you dig. Duty."

Twitchie sighed and stood; his attempts to mollify the sad family would not succeed past the language barrier. "We have to go."

The Bubbles rose to the feet they didn't have and bowed heads they didn't have.

Mimi looked across the glen eastward toward the park entrance. "Now," she said, "if I was a Very Strange Fellow, where would -"

Behind them, rapid-fire babbling Bubblish erupted, and they turned.

Papa Bubble, as big as a goose egg, expanded to softball-sized, bobbed over and hovered a foot from Mimi's nose and said, in Eng-lish but with a Bubblish accent: "Very Strange Fellow?"

"Whoa," Twitchie said, "you understood -"

Papa Bubble gestured and babbled at Mimi and Twitchie in high-pitched, rapid-fire Bubblish, interspersed with "Very Strange Fellow," and concern in his voice.

"Look, Papa," Twitchie began, "I don't know what - bloop."

Bloop.

The narc soap bubble shot into Twitchie's mouth at the "ah" of "what" and lodged there, with a soapy bloop sound, embedded be-tween Twitchie's upper and lower jaw.

"Mmph?" Twitchie said. Papa Bubble was inside his mind. It felt -

"What the hell -" Mimi said, more startled than frightened.

"I said," Twitchie spoke, not in his own voice at all, "please tell me what you know about the Very Strange Fellow." Twitchie's jaw worked around the words, and Papa Bubbles contracted and ex-panded as Twitchie's chin rose and fell as he spoke. It felt like chew-ing on a balloon. Papa Bubbles tasted lemony.

- having a soap bubble inside your mind. It felt -

Twitchie's jaw worked, vocal cords vibrated, but Papa Bubbles spoke through Twitchie's windpipe, manipulating his tongue, jaw, lips, teeth, and palate to say what Papa Bubbles wanted said.

Twitchie tried to respond, but could not. Papa Bubbles had his throat. He pantomimed as much to Mimi, who, startled, eyes a-pop, jaw-agape, took a few seconds to figure it out.

- it felt like -

- like falling into a bottomless pit, but before panic set in, the soap bubble inside his mind did - something - and he relaxed.

"We - we -" she started, but her mind and tongue weren't in the same groove. She stopped and took a deep breath and restarted. "Very Strange Fellow, yes. We're - we're looking for him, yes. What -"

"He's a wanted criminal," the soap bubble narc said through Twitchie's mouth, "and I was going to bust him right here."

In his mind, Twitchie sighed, resigned, and let the soap bubble take over.

"You may have blown my cover."

Suddenly, the bottom fell out of his mental bathtub and Twitchie's eyes went wide behind Coke bottle lenses. He blinked, eyebrows abob, and he waved his hands like somebody drown-ing.

-it felt -

"Twitchie, what's wrong?" Mimi clutched his flailing arm.

"Oh, no," Bubble said through Twitchie. "I think your Twitchie is going to -"

"Twitchie?" Mimi cried, clutching him, near hysteria herself.

It felt like falling.

Twitchie's arms flailed, he started to hyperventilate, he tried to speak. Then -

- then he vanished.

10

Startled, dizzy, Twitchie took a step back. He bumped into the coffee table behind him, his knees buckled and he toppled back-wards -

- onto Mimi.

"Hey, watch it, bub." She'd been sitting on the coffee table edge and he'd knocked her off when he fell over the table, along with the water pipe. They sprawled on the floor, tangled legs and arms, and the table tipped on its side.

"Wuuuffft -" Twitchie started to say as Mimi pushed him away.

Nobody hurt.

Papa Bubble still lodged in Twitchie's mouth like a bubblegum bubble ready to burst.

Twitchie sat up, wide-eyed, and said, "Where are we? Are we in your reality?"

As if outside himself, watched over his own shoulder, Twitchie observed the soap bubble in his mind do its soothing control thing again, his vertigo eased, and Twitchie surrendered to the seductive mental bubble bath.

"Twitchie?" On her knees, Mimi extended a finger toward the bubble in his mouth.

Twitchie batted her hand away. "Please don't touch. I don't expect I might burst, after Twitchie played with Molly and Bally, and little Bob, but I'm a bit freaked out."

"Yeah, yeah." Mimi took deep breaths to take the edge off what looked to Twitchie like her own panic attack starting. Twitchie felt semi-relaxed but he had the feeling that Papa Bubble teetered on the verge of panic too. Papa Bubbles used Twitchie's lungs to breathe.

"My name is Sam Bubbles." Twitchie shrugged as he listened to himself talk to himself.

"I understand your unease, Twitchie," Sam said. "Please under-stand this is how we may communicate. We need to talk. We have problems. Big problems."

Twitchie righted the coffee table and Mimi put the water pipe back on it. He sat, cross-legged on the floor. Mimi joined him, fac-ing him, holding his hands in her lap.

"As you guessed, Twitchie, I'm a narc. I'm Sam Bubbles, Inspec-tor First Class, Federal Dimensional Border Patrol. As you also guessed, I am no threat to you."

"Call me `Sam.' "

"Sam," Mimi said, "Uh, what brings you -"

"Ah." Twitchie held up a finger. "The Very Strange Fellow. You see, he is the most dangerous criminal of all time. When I heard you say the name -"

"How did you understand the words?"

"Because, my dear Mimi," Twitchie said, voice lowered, "in this or any reality, Very Strange Fellow translates with the same nega-tive psychic and spiritual connotations."

Mimi frowned for a second, deep in thought. "So this Very Strange Fellow we call him VSF - is a bad guy."

"The worst. I was waiting to catch him. I think you blew my cover. But now -"

Twitchie looked around the room as if seeing it for the first time. "So, this is your reality?"

"We keep it clean," Mimi said, indignant. "Harold, our room-mate, he cleans. We help."

"You do have running water?"

"Sure, we - what are you doing?"

Twitchie walked to the kitchen and turned on the tap. He touched the water with a finger to check the temperature.

Then he grabbed a soap bottle and read, "Hm. `Lux Liquid Dis-hwashing Detergent. New & Improved. Lemony fresh.' Le-mony?"

"It's like -"

"Never mind. I got it from Twitchie's memory."

Twitchie unscrewed the cap from the bottle, tipped his head back and poured a dollop of detergent onto Sam's rounded surface, poking from Twitchie's open mouth. Twitchie felt Papa Soap Bub-ble shut down his gag reflex as it formed. He lowered the bottle, lowered his head, put the bottle back on the sink edge, tipped his head back up again, and gargled.

When he finished, he bent over the sink and spat residue around Sam.

"Ah, much better," Sam said, and Twitchie smiled around the pink bubble. "I feel like a new bubble." He wiped his chin.

"Right. About this VSF -"

"Ah, yes." He grabbed Mimi's hand and they returned to the living room and sat. "He is wanted in my reality - which is your hallucination - for escape from protective confinement. Our protec-tion, not his. He's a danger to everyone around him and can-not be allowed -"

"A danger to -?"

"Ah, too late." Sam's voice edged with pain, regret.

"What's too late?"

"He's here." Sam looked around the room through Twitchie's eyes. "So am I. Both bad." He padded to the window, parted the closed blinds, and looked out.

"Stop talking in riddles." Mimi pulled his arm and he turned to face her. "It's scary. I'm not stoned anymore -"

"Not good either."

"- so quit - bubbling - and speak English. What's going on?"

"I'll explain, but I don't think it'll -"

Bloop-bloop. Bubble-popping sound, times two, as from largish soap bubbles. Twitchie/Sam flinched.

And then, thumpity-thump. The twins appeared in the air from three feet above the kitchen floor and fell. They held the tape re-corder above them, as if crossing a river, to keep it from damage in their fall.

"Wow," they said in tandem.

11

The twins stood, dazed and shaken. They staggered into the living room, the tape recorder between them as if was the Crown Jewels, or the master of the Stones' "Got Live If You Want It" al-bum. They grinned.

The were so hyped over what they'd taped and they wanted to talk about it right now, but Twitchie and Mimi's dazed expressions and the bizarre bubble in Twitchie's mouth dampened their enthu-siasm and they lost their grins.

"It's the VSF cat -" Bobbie said. He laid the tape recorder down and sat.

"-isn't it?" Robbie continued. "You found him?"

"No," Mimi said, "but we did meet a nice soap bubble -"

"Pleased to meet you," Sam said.

"- who is a narc, but not our problem -"

"He's a -"

"- and he's after our VSF, who is -"

"- also your VSF, and a danger to us all," Sam finished. "It may be too late already."

"What do you mean?" Mimi asked. "Too late for what?"

"You shouldn't have gone to my reality." Sam said.

"This groovy music -" Bobbie and Robbie started, but Sam shushed them with Twitchie's raised finger.

"I shouldn't be in yours. The fabric of interdimensional integrity has been compromised."

"Okay," Bobbie said, "it sounds bad -"

"- but what are you talking about?" Robbie finished.

"Yeah," Mimi said. "Explain."

"When you said `Very Strange Fellow' in the park in my reality, I had to know what you knew, because we've been expecting him - the VSF - to appear so we could recapture him. We got a tip, the FDBP - that's the Federal Dimensional Border Patrol. My partners waited nearby to jump him -"

"What about your family?" Mimi asked. "Would your bust endan-ger them?"

"Nah." Sam waved Twitchie's hand. "They're trained in Joe Gin Gumbo, bubblish judo. They can handle themselves. Anyway, when you said `Very Strange Fellow,' I thought our cover might have been blown so I had to investigate."

"By diving into Twitchie's mouth?" Mimi asked.

"Nobody else is supposed to know about the Very Strange Fel-low. When I got in you - that's how we communicate interspe-cies, but I guess you do things differently in this dimension -"

"Back at you," the twins echoed.

"- but the point is I needed to find out what you knew about the VSF - a threat to us and to my family - to everything."

Twitchie sighed. "But." Then he paused, picking at a frazzled cuff on his jeans. "Twitchie blooped here. Surprised me. Why would I suspect you came from a different reality? It's not supposed to happen. As soon as I felt you were about to go interdimensional, with me in your mouth - it was too late. So here I am -"

"I think you missed -" Robbie began.

"- missed a few steps," Bobbie finished.

"What's the big deal?" Mimi said. "We went interdimensional. You did too." She shrugged. "So?"

"It's not supposed to happen. Didn't I say that? Yeah, I said that."

"Explain," Mimi said.

Sigh. "Dimensions are separate. You groove in your reality, I groove in mine, and no entity grooves between. Get it?"

"No." All.

"The barrier between dimensions has been breached. Your intru-sion into my reality proved it, as I observed in the park just before you blooped back here, with me along for the ride. Blooping back here, me with you, it complicates things. Not only did you guys go over to mine, but you've been into my reality twice. You all, not just Mimi and Twitchie. So - counting my passage back here - you coming back here, I mean, and my coming here once -"

"Skip the math," Mimi said, "and get to the point. You're start-ing to scare me."

"Starting?" the twins said.

"Don't you see?" Sam's voice cracked, and Twitchie pulled at his hair.

"No."

"Breach of inter-dimensional barriers! Destruction of all reality! The end of everything! Finis! Kaput!"

Twitchie's four friends sat still for a long moment before Sam spoke again.

"I must go back," he said.

"Go back?" the twins said.

"A breach has occurred. Your reality doesn't even know about the problem, let alone how to fix it. I'm not sure it can be fixed. I must go back."

"You'd go back," Mimi said, "how?"

"Toke the interdimensional substance, just as you did when you breached the barrier to come to my reality. I don't want to do it be-cause every unauthorized interdimensional transit widens the breach a little more - like a blanket frays with each wash - and if the breach gets too wide, the wall too thin to hold -"

"Well, what?" Mimi asked.

Sam shouted and Twitchie threw up his arms. "Didn't you hear me? Reality - the entire universe - gone. Ka-fucking-put. Got it?"

Mimi and the twins shook their heads, silent, awed by the out-burst.

Sam made Twitchie sigh. "I have to share this with the authori-ties in my reality. They must be warned. Maybe -"

"The Man?" Mimi.

"Well, do you know what to do?"

Blank looks.

"Thought not."

"B-but," Mimi stammered, "what about -"

"Oh, hell." Twitchie leaned over and kissed her on the mouth.

Sam popped from Twitchie's mouth - flop - and into Mimi's.

Mimi blinked, backed away from Twitchie, slapped his hand, crossed her eyes to look at the pink blob in her mouth. Twitchie sat back and blinked, shaking his head as if coming out of a trance. He sputtered at the lemony aftertaste.

"There," Sam said. Mimi's cheeks expanded and contracted around the pink bubble as Sam used her to talk. "Do you get it now, what's at stake here?"

"What the -" the twins began.

"Sam trades memories," Twitchie explained in his own voice. He massaged his jaw. It ached, as did his tongue and lips. "Mimi knows now what I do and almost as much as Sam does, about what's going down."

"Serious stuff, huh?" Bobbie said.

"It's the music, man," Twitchie said as much to himself as to Bobbie. "Who'd have thunk it? Rock `n' roll holds it all together. Not bluegrass or polka or country and western. Rock `n' roll, the music of the spheres, the heartbeat of the cosmos. Holds the walls between universes up, keeps them from spilling into each other. Play the wrong note and the walls come tumbling down. Man."

"Then maybe we should -" Robbie began, but Sam cut him off. Mimi leaned across the table and kissed Robbie. Sam flooped from Mimi, who sat back, blinking, gasping, startled - "What a rush," she said - and Robbie's eyes popped open and his jaw worked, bub-ble-full.

Robbie kissed his sister, Sam moved to Bobbie - flop - and everybody - got it.

They all remembered now what Sam remembered, what every entity in his dimension knew: Long, long ago, the Very Strange Fellow had created the universe and all its dimensions.

And the barriers between them: rock `n' roll. Not polka. Not bluegrass. No country and western. Rock `n' roll.

No two dimensions had the same rock `n' roll. The difference kept them separated.

There came a time that the VSF grew restless, as creators often do, and bored with his creation. So he decided to tear it all down and start over again -

"Wow," Robbie said.

- but the people of Sam Bubbles' dimension got wind of his scheme and schemed on their own. Through an intricate and clever subterfuge that would have been the envy of any god or goddess, they captured him and confined him -

"But the fucker broke out -" Twitchie said.

"- and he's here -" Sam said.

"- which means his plot to tear down the walls -" Mimi said.

"- is underway," Sam said.

"Can he be stopped?" Twitchie asked. "I mean, if he's, like, the creator -"

"He's not god," Sam said, "like you mean in your reality. After all, we did capture him and -"

"- but he escaped -" Twitchie said.

"Too late, too late," Sam said through Bobbie's mouth.

"And if he's here?" Twitchie felt odd using his own voice to express his own thoughts. "If the VSF plays his dimension's rock `n' roll on this side of reality -"

"And if that destroys reality as we know it -" Mimi continued the thought.

"- we'll never make it to the cover of the Rolling Stone, man," Robbie finished.

Mimi reached for the transdimensional lid in the coffee table drawer.

It wasn't there.

"No baggie." Mimi's voice quaked. "Twitchie, is this yours?" She held his wallet out.

Just then, from the bathroom - bloop. And crash. Harold had come back.

12

Twitchie, Mimi and the twins dashed into the narrow bathroom when they heard Harold bloop and crash. Harold swore and stood, dazed. Everyone crowded in, helping him stand. They all talked at once, except Bobbie who had a bubble in her mouth.

"- are you all right -"

"- where have you been -"

Harold looked around, eyes frantic, but he didn't look at the group around him, human and soap bubble. His eyes passed over them, inches above the tallest head, Twitchie's, and tried for the itty-bitty frosted window, and then the door to the living room. He grunted, pushed past his partners, and stomped out, bee-lined to the window, parted the blinds, and looked out.

The gang followed him, but kept their distance.

"What's up?" Twitchie asked.

Harold gasped, took a deep breath, let the blinds fall back into place, and sat back against the wall. "I think I got away from -" He pointed over his shoulder with a thumb. "From them."

"Them?" Robbie.

Harold nodded. He frowned. He took off his sunglasses and leaned forward. "Bobbie, why are you blowing bubbles?"

"Oh, this," Sam said, and Bobbie crossed her eyes to look at the soap bubble. "I'm Sam." Bobbie pointed at Sam. "This is Sam."

At Harold's baffled look, Bobbie sighed and kissed the big man somewhere in his beard. Twitchie wondered why Harold hadn't shaved after all. What happened to his plan?

Harold was startled at first, but in a second, he reached out, grabbed Bobbie by the back of her neck, and returned the kiss with soggy passion, pulling her off onto his lap. Then he let go, his eyes popped open, he said, "flloobh?" and Sam was in his mouth.

Bobbie scrambled to her knees, panting, after Harold dropped her as the narc soap bubble literally captured Harold's interest. The group bent over Harold/Sam. On his face indignation changed to perplexity, to horror, then to understanding, and back to horror and chagrin, back and forth like a streetlight on speed.

"Now do you get it?" Sam said.

Harold nodded. "Buffle doosh chee zhumng -"

"Shit," Sam said, and Harold kissed Twitchie, who squirmed, too late, beard-to-beard, and Sam transferred to his original host.

"Harold has news," Twitchie/Sam said. "It'll work better if I'm not between his tongue and lips."

The group sat, grim-faced, and Harold told his news.

"When I left you two," he began, nodding at Twitchie and Mimi, "after the twins disappeared, I headed to the gas station at Divisidero and Hayes. I planned to cut my hair with my jackknife and maybe do some damage to my beard, to disguise myself. Change clothes - off with the leather jacket and boots, hide them behind a dumpster. T-shirt, jeans, and barefoot, like any hippie."

Harold shrugged. "Then I planned to come back and watch the apartment and see if the VSF would show up. When I got a block away, I decided I didn't need to cut my hair after all. I'd passed a three-headed dog, more blue buffalo - the whole circus. I fit in.

"So I turned back. Then I saw a yellow balloon in front of the apartment. The balloon, it had longish, matted hair -"

"Sounds like our guy," Twitchie said.

"- casing the apartment. I snuck up on it, real close. Then I saw the VSF across the street. I almost bumped into him. Headless. Bare feet, backpack, scruffy shirt and old jeans, like you said?"

" Yep," Mimi said. "Our guy."

"The VSF crossed the street and the yellow balloon head moved away from the front window. It bobbed around the corner, up to-ward Haight."

"Head and body split up?" Twitchie asked.

"Yeah. I followed the head around to the alley and it started toward the back door. It deflated itself, slipped under the door, and re-inflated itself inside - I could see through the crack - and bobbed into the living room. The VSF banged on the front door waiting for its head to let it in.

"I broke the door down, so I could go in and - well, deal with it. Just as the door gave way, I saw them - it, he, whatever - go out the front. I ran after them, but I stopped as I saw the coffee table drawer was open."

Twitchie gasped, and so did his companions.

"Yeah." Harold nodded. "He took the baggie but he left the roach. Didn't see it, I guess. He left your wallet."

Twitchie held up the wallet.

"He didn't take anything else. I looked out the window and I saw him, head reattached, headed toward Haight. I went out the back, figured I'd nail him, but the street was crowded. Slowed me up, so I tailed him. He didn't see me. He crossed Buena Vista Park, crossed Market, and went into a bar. Moses Eisley's Canteen and Tattoo Emporium. Harleys parked out front. Roy Orbison on the jukebox. `Pretty Woman.' "

Everybody shuddered in sympathy with Harold.

Sam asked, through Twitchie, "Then what did you do?"

"I didn't want to, but I started to go in. I'd just crossed the street when - when -"

Harold turned and parted the blinds and peeked through the two-inch gap.

"Then what?" Mimi prompted.

"They came."

"They?"

Harold lowered the blinds. "Yeah. Guys came out of the bar."

"Guys?"

"Yeah. Guys. Nazi teddy bears armed with long Viking axes. They chased me. I ran into Buena Vista, then -" He shrugged. "I blooped and thumped. Here I am."

13

"The Very Strange Fellow is still at this place?" Sam asked.

Harold nodded. "With the Nazi teddy bears."

"In my reality, or yours?"

Shrug, and nervous glance at the blinds.

"There's a Moses Eisley's Canteen and Tattoo Emporium in our reality," Sam said. "Bad place."

"There's a San Francisco in both realities," Mimi said, "and a Haight-Ashbury -"

"So, are you saying -" Bobbie began.

"- that this VSF cat -" Robbie continued.

"- is here, in our reality?" they finished together.

Twitchie/Sam stood and paced. "The wall between dimensions is falling down."

"Those teddy bears could come here?" Harold's deep voice cracked.

**For a second, Twitchie dismissed Harold's concern. The second passed and Twitchie sensed some deep-rooted fear haunted Harold.

"We're screwed," Sam said, slumping. Then he straigh-tened. "No, wait. Twitchie has something to say." Twitchie kissed Mimi, passing Sam to her.

"Maybe we're not screwed," Twitchie said. "Somebody can go to this bar in both realities. Check it out. You, Sam, you go to your reality and check your bar. You guys," he nodded to the twins and Harold, "you go to our bar and -"

"Us?" the twins said.

"If you don't mind," Harold said, looking sheepish, "I'll stay home for a while, take a bath, read a little..." His voice trailed off and he glanced at the blinds but restrained himself from parting them. He shuddered.

"What's the use?" Sam moaned through Mimi.

"Don't give up," Twitchie said. "The VSF didn't get the roach." He knelt at the coffee table drawer. "So we have -" He held up the roach between forefinger and thumb.

"Damn," Sam/Mimi said.

The roach was a sliver, half an inch long. A single toke.

"Huh?" all echoed.

"That's not enough," Sam said, dejected. "That'll get me back to my reality." Mimi put the sliver-roach back into the little drawer and closed it. "But -"

Twitchie nodded. "Somebody will have to toke up and go with you because -"

"Because I don't have any fingers to hold the roach with," Sam/Mimi said. "Or light it with, or lips to hold it. Here, I'm just a bubble, unless I'm in somebody's mouth. Somebody would have to come with me back to my reality. Even if I find the VSF -"

"Could a person get stuck over there?" Twitchie finished. "Whoever's mouth you're in?"

Sam nodded Mimi's head and Twitchie remembered: Sam had a family.

Silence ensued and hung in the air like smoke from a bong on a lazy day.

"Here's what we should do." Twitchie said. "We check out this reality first since we're here now. If we find the VSF, we'll deal with it - somehow. Maybe no need to cross dimensions."

"Too late, too late," Sam said.

"We don't know that for sure," Twitchie said.

"Well, I can't help you," Sam shook Mimi's head. "If the VSF sees me in somebody's mouth -"

"Don't give up, man," Twitchie said.

"Can somebody run me a bath?" Sam said. "I'll just soak up and wait here."

"I'll do it," Harold said. "And I'll stay here and keep guard."

"You have to go with your people." Sam said. "Take them to the bar."

"Why?" Harold whined.

"Because somebody might have to go in," Mimi/Sam said, "and these others would attract too much attention."

Twitchie felt frustrated at Sam's defeatist attitude. The soap bubble narc was wrong. He knew it. There had to be something they could do to save the universe so they could get on the cover of the Rolling Stone. Had to be. He'd find it. Going to the bar, finding the VSF - it was a start.

But he saw Sam's point. The twins looked emaciated, like teeny-bopper pop star wannabes. They looked too much alike; they'd at-tract attention in a druggy bar-tattoo parlor. They'd get the shit kicked out of them.

Harold looked at Twitchie and snorted.

"What?" Twitchie's irritation refocused from Sam to Harold.

"You'd get creamed on general principles," Harold said. "And Mimi, well -"

"Tits?" Bobbie said.

"Pretty conspicuous," Robbie said.

"If you're going to do this," Sam said, "you'd better get going. I'll wait in the bathtub. You do have bubble bath?"

Harold ran a tub for Sam, loading it with half a bottle of Johnson & Johnson Baby Bath. Twitchie kneeled over the tub, splashing water to churn up more suds. Harold leaned on the bathroom door-jamb, shifted from foot to foot, wiping bubbles off his beard. Watch-ing Twitchie.

"What do we do if we find this VSF?" he asked. He sneezed.

"If you find him," Sam said, "I doubt you can do anything. But don't let him light up anyway."

The bathroom filled with steam and bubbles, and in a moment, Twitchie turned off the water.

"What if we, like -" Robbie began.

"- have trouble getting back?" Bobbie finished.

Sam shrugged Mimi's shoulders. "We'll fadoodle that barshook when we get to it."

"What about the tape?" the twins said.

"Right," Sam said. "We'll deal with that when you get back. Right now, it's better here than -" Mimi pointed over her shoulder at the street outside, "- out there."

Sam said, "Good luck." Then he blooped from Mimi's mouth, floated to the bubble pile spilling over the tub and onto the tiled floor, and settled in, one big bubble among many.

They left through the back door. Twitchie closed the door but the lock didn't engage because Harold had broken it. Even closed, the door looked as if a huge hippie had kicked it open.

The group clomped down the stairs to the alley and headed south on Lyon. They walked in a tight cluster, silent and grim.

Outside, it was a nice day, mid-afternoon, not too hot, a nice breeze. Sunny, normal.

Sirens wailed, a normal sound. Horns honked. Normal horns.

On the sidewalk, they passed hippies, cops, tourists - every color and kind. Except for a few dogs and one cockatoo on a guy's shoulder, all human. All normal.

14

"I want to get it straight," Twitchie said as the group stood in a tight huddle on the north side of Market at Castro, not on the side-walk but farther back in the park, under the shade of an old syca-more. Under another tree a few feet away, a white Richie Havens look-alike sat on the grass abusing an old six-string, bellowing out "Eleanor Rigby." Passers-by tossed coins into a battered, open gui-tar case.

"Go for it." Mimi said.

"Each reality has its own rock `n' roll," Twitchie said. "If their rock `n' roll ever happens in our reality, or ours in theirs, the wall comes down between the two and the realities mix up, until - until everything becomes nothing."

"We'll burn the tape -" Bobbie said.

"- when we get back to the pad, man." Robbie said.

"And the dope?" Twitchie continued. "Concentrated rock `n' roll? How do you concentrate rock `n' roll to smoke? I don't see that Sam knows how it gets done - look around in his memory - but who is doing it, I see that. Do you?"

They all nodded grim-faced. Twitchie smelled bubble bath and sweat among his friends. They searched their memories - Sam's memory, now theirs' too - and saw the truth.

"Goddam," Harold muttered. "Goddam."

"Tear it down," Twitchie muttered. "Start all over again. Talk about anarchy."

"Maybe Sam's right," Harold said. "Maybe it's too late to stop - whatever's going down."

"We can't just give up," Twitchie said. "That would be - irresponsi-ble."

They stood huddled together, across Market Street from Moses Eisley's Canteen and Tattoo Emporium, where a jukebox playing tinny Buck Owens' "Act Naturally" jostled with the white Richie Haven's gutty guitar. Twitchie had the feeling he and his crusaders were -

"Hesitating," he said.

"What?" Mimi said.

"Thinking aloud, again. We know what's at stake, but here we all stand -"

"It's my fault," Harold said. "It's those - teddy bears. I know I have to go in there and - well, do what has to be done."

"Nah," Twitchie said. "Anybody would hesitate. This is big."

"I have to go in." Harold bunched his fists and his shoulders hunched. "Me." He faced across the street. "My reality. Right or wrong, but my reality." Then he started out.

East-west traffic on Market was bumper-to-bumper as cars turned onto and off Castro. Harold had to wait for the light. His dread held him back and a feeling of responsibility - "my reality," he muttered - propelling him forward and he hopped from foot to foot as he waited. When the light changed, he charged across, a bear, fists bunched, hair bobbing as he jogged, toward the noisy bar where he'd seen the VSF - and ax-wielding Nazi teddy bears.

The band watched Harold dodge between chrome-flashy and leather-adorned Harleys parked at the curb and on the sidewalk. At the bar door, he looked over his shoulder at his friends, nodded, and pushed in. The door shut behind him.

Seconds passed. "Eleanor Rigby" changed to "Boots of Spanish Leather" and "Act Naturally" changed to "The Battle of New Or-leans."

Soon, Twitchie heard a sustained howl, a challenge or a charge, from a dozen voices inside the joint across the street. The group around him tensed.

The sound rose, and people on the sidewalk near the bar door glanced at it and hurried by. Twitchie imagined Percy Faith's Cho-rus and Orchestra on acid, melodic but insane.

And furry.

"Furry?" he said.

"Yeah," Mimi said, "Furry. Sounds like -"

The bar door burst open and slammed against the wall with a woody thunk, and Harold dashed out, running full speed. He leaped over a motorcycle without breaking stride, and ran straight into the street, not looking left or right, running all out.

"Furry -" the twins began, and finished: "Oh, shit," as, across the street, right on Harold's heels -

Wearing itty-bitty Nazi storm trooper uniforms with spiked World War One helmets, armed with long-handled, wicked Viking axes, and screaming like rebel soldiers, a teddy bear squadron chased a terrified Harold.

15

Harold got lucky. The light had changed and east-west traffic had started across the street, so he made a clean getaway. Traffic and irate drivers impeded the teddy bears' attempt to follow.

Harold hesitated a moment when he got near Twitchie and the others. "He's still in there," he shouted, "and he's got the back-pack." Then he ran north.

Pandemonium erupted again at the street corner as the teddy bears formed a flying wedge and dashed into traffic - horns blared, people cursed, and teddy bears howled in martial triumph as they jumped over car hoods and trunks, shaking their long-handled axes, heading after Harold -

- and, Twitchie realized with alarm, them too.

"They're after us, too," Bobbie and Robbie said, turning to run right behind Harold.

Twitchie and Mimi turned to run, murderous teddy bears on their heels.

The teddy bears had trouble negotiating the crowds, thicker on the north side of Buena Vista. The crowds on Haight caught on to the disturbance, cutting through their lazy-day revelry like a fart in church. Dense crowds parted to let the freaks run through but condensed in solid masses behind them to slow the teddy bears.

"Narcs!" somebody yelled.

Twitchie took it up; the cry had galvanized the crowds, mostly hippies. "Narcs!" he yelled.

The hippie crowds took it up and teddy bears started to stumble and fall, axes flying from their furry little grips and spiked helmets popping off their furry little heads. Guttural Germanic teddy bear and hippie curses rose and merged in a cacophonous tumult.

Twitchie and his mates ran through the crowd, across Haight. As they headed downhill on Lyon, Twitchie slowed to look back.

"Wait," he called out. They halted and re-gathered on the side-walk. Across Haight, hippies assaulted teddy bears who re-gathered in a tight circle, weapons aimed outwards at their taunters, who had circled them but kept a cautious distance.

"They see them too," Twitchie said. "Everybody does."

"Which means -" Bobbie.

"- the wall is coming down, man." Robbie.

"We've got to get back to Sam," Harold said, anxious, voice cracky. "Hide. Or something."

"Where's Mimi?" Twitchie looked around.

"Gone ahead?" Harold said.

The teddy bear phalanx began to blunder its way forward across Haight in a tight mass. Traffic snarled, horns blared, shouts and curses flew, and from somewhere, sirens wailed.

The group dashed down the hill and rounded the corner into the alley behind the apartment before the teddy bear squad broke free yards behind, and built up pursuit speed again.

"Hide here." Harold ducked behind several battered and fragrant garbage cans just inside the alley. Harold and the twins scooted into the narrow space behind the cans. Twitchie, a tad slower, had to jump in one as the teddy bears passed the alley mouth in a howling dash. He pulled a tinny lid over his head just in time and watched through an eyehole-sized chink in the can.

Twitchie held his breath as the teddy bears passed the alley en-trance and down the street, headed toward Page. The can smelled of banana peels, coffee grounds, soggy newspaper, and something dead-fishy.

He felt a sneeze building. He wiped his nose, got something moldy and putrid on it, and his urge to sneeze intensified.

One teddy bear had stopped to check out the alley as the others ran on. Through the eyehole chink, knees folded up to his chin, amid unidentifiable detritus, Twitchie saw teddy bear shadow creep up the alley, saw the long, sharp-bladed ax stab at some cardboard boxes ten feet away.

The urge to sneeze grew but Twitchie didn't move.

The teddy bear muttered and shook his ax at the boxes. He jabbed at the boxes and a cat yowled and darted out, leaving cat-skid marks as it dashed away, startling the teddy bear who jumped two feet in the air and dropped his spiked helmet clattery to the ground. He swore in teddy bearish and waddled to retrieve the helmet.

It had rolled up against Twitchie's garbage can.

The urge to sneeze grew. Twitchie tasted moldiness as he pinched his nose between thumb and finger to stifle the sneeze and he started to see spots.

He held his breath.

"Ahhh -"

Couldn't hold it.

From a block west, from the park, an explosion sounded like thunder.

"- chooo!" But the explosion had covered the sneeze.

The teddy bear turned at the sound, helmet in paw. It popped his helmet back on his head, grunted, and dashed after the sound.

Relative silence followed the pitty-pat of furry feet, headed to the alley mouth, the source of the explosion in the park, and the weird world beyond.

"Bless you." Harold reached into the can to help Twitchie un-fold and get out.

"What was that?" Twitchie waved a hand toward the park.

"Fireworks," Bobbie said.

"Concert starting, man," Robbie said. He'd trotted over to the alley mouth to look around the corner. He trotted back as Twitchie brushed - stuff - off his pants and shirt. Harold dusted his back, then wiped his hand off on his boot.

"The teddy bear dudes are splitting up, searching for us," Robbie said.

"Let's get inside and clean you up," Harold said. "You stink."

"The VSF is still back there?" Twitchie asked Harold as they jogged up the stairs.

"He's still got that backpack. I tried to snatch it, but he had eyes in the back of his head. Those - teddy bears - they saw me."

"We've got to go back," the twins said as they got to the top.

"Maybe it'll be easier now the teddy bears are distracted," Twitchie said.

"Sam might know what to do." Harold jiggled the back door handle.

The door squeaked open and ragged raw wood flakes fluttered to the floor along the broken jamb where Harold had broken it.

"Mimi?" Twitchie called as he padded into the kitchen.

No answer.

The twins went into the living room. "Not here, man," they said.

"Mimi?" Twitchie shouted.

From the bathroom, Harold called, "Hey, Sam is - floop."

Twitchie and the twins went into the living room. "Where's Mimi?" Twitchie asked nobody in particular, voice near panic.

Suddenly, Harold, with Sam in his mouth, ran in from the bath-room, tackled Twitchie to the floor, and clamped a hand over his open mouth.

"Wuuth thuu fuuth?" Twitchie mumbled between Harold's fin-gers, glasses askew.

The twins stood back, jaws agape, stunned, as Harold held Twitchie down, probed his front pocket, and hauled out his wallet. Indignant and in pain, Twitchie started to giggle anyway - he couldn't help it - as Harold tapped a ticklish spot.

His protest, with an unconscious giggle under it, when Harold let loose and stood, wallet in hand, froze in his throat. Twitchie raised himself on his elbows on the floor, looking at Harold who had removed his sunglasses. He caught in Harold's eyes a glazed, manic look - a crazed killer look. The look was undiminished by the fact that Harold made a shushing gesture, finger to his lips, with a soap bubble in his mouth.

Twitchie understood. Serious stuff, even if he didn't know what stuff. But serious.

Shush? Twitchie nodded. Yeah, I can do that.

Harold opened Twitchie's wallet and removed an ear from it.

"What the -" Twitchie began, as did the twins.

"Well," Harold yelled, as if into a hidden microphone, "every-body's here, including Mimi. Twins, Twitchie - good to see you. Mimi, doll face, come give Harold a big old titty-hug."

Then Harold made loud lusty grunts as he tiptoed to the bath-room, holding the severed ear like a dead mouse. Twitchie rose, wobbly-kneed, and he and the twins followed, baffled.

In the bathroom, Harold tossed the ear in the toilet and flushed it. He handed the wallet back to Twitchie and heaved a long, re-lieved sigh, as if he'd just defused a bomb.

"What the hell -" Bobbie.

"- was that all about, man?" Robbie.

"They were here," Sam said. Harold lowered the toilet seat and sat, knees gone to jelly, droopy-shouldered. The twins sat on the tub rim and Twitchie leaned against the door.

"They?" Twitchie said.

"The teddy bears. They came here. After you left, I heard people-trying-to-get-in noises from the back door, not motorcycle boots and not human feet. I heard me teddy bear pitty-patty feet."

"What did you do?" Twitchie asked.

"Well, what could I do?" Harold said in a sarcastic, petulant whine as he anchored fists on his hips and cocked his head. "I'm just a soap bubble and they've got knives - this big." Harold held out his arms to each side, nearly knocking Twitchie in the crotch with his left hand.

"I stayed in the tub and listened. I understand teddy bearish. I heard them say, `We have the recorder with the other-dimensional rock `n' roll so we can -"

"The tape!" The twins darted from the bathroom, and Twitchie barely avoided being trampled.

"It's gone," they groaned from the other room. The twins re-turned, eyes teary, jaws agape.

"Why did they -"

"How did they -"

"That ear." Harold pointed at his crotch and the toilet bowl he sat on. Sam said, "Twitchie, when the VSF picked your pocket while you picked his -" Twitchie flinched, remembering, "- he put his ear in the wallet so he could spy on us."

"Huh?" the twins said.

"I heard it from the teddy bears. He had the business card, knew where to go to get his dope back. When he did, he left your wallet behind and put his ear in it to see what he could hear."

"He put his ear in my -"

"He heard about your plans at the bar. Harold didn't have a chance. He used you guys. While you tried to get to him and the dope from his backpack, he sent teddy bears here."

"How could he know I wouldn't open the wallet -"

"Well, I don't know, do I?" Sam/Harold's voice dripped with sarcasm. "He's smarter than I am, okay? I guess he figured you wouldn't find it or look. Whatever. If it was my wallet - and I don't have a wallet because soap bubbles don't have pockets, not like you humans, but I guess not all humans -"

"He put his ear in my -"

"To listen. He'd know what we planned and he -"

"How could he put his -"

"An entity," Sam raised Harold's voice, "who could take off his head and float it around like a balloon can take off his ear and stick it in a hippie's wallet."

"So you heard this -" Bobbie.

"- from the teddy bear cats when they took off -" Robbie.

"- with our tape recorder?"

"He's smarter than all of us." Sam groaned deep in Harold's throat, like a trapped-animal. "When he heard talk about going after him at the bar, he changed plans. He knows there's a FDBP agent after him and now he intends to play that tape in this reality so -"

"- you said that if rock `n' roll from one reality gets played in another reality -"

"- everything breaks down, yes, and reality won't be like in the good old days and everything -"

"Will go ka-fucking-put," Twitchie said.

Harold nodded. "He'd first intended to get enough heads in this reality to toke up some of his concentrated other-reality rock `n' roll, but now -"

"He doesn't need the dope now because he has the music." Twitchie said.

"You got it." Harold's shoulders slumped.

"The explosion in the park -" Bobbie.

"- the cat plans to play that tape at the concert, man -" Robbie.

"- which is just starting," Sam said. "We're doomed."

"I wish you'd quit -" Twitchie started, then gulped as he remem-bered. "Where's Mimi? Is she at the bar?"

Harold nodded.

"Damn, she shouldn't have done it," Twitchie muttered between clenched teeth. He started for the back door, fists bunched. "I've got to go."

"Shh," Sam said. "Listen."

From out back, a rhythmic woody clomping, as if somebody running full-tilt up the stairs.

"Mimi?" Twitchie said.

"Teddy bears?" the twins said.

Harold groaned around Sam.

16

Mimi dashed through the back door, gasping, face flushed, one halter-top strap had come loose, and her left tit bobbed free, pale and sweaty. She gave a quick glance out the back door and shut it. It didn't close all the way.

She held a backpack and as she turned, she bumped into Twitchie's embrace.

"Mimi," he cried, voice muffled against her neck, "I thought -"

"Don't think." Mimi dropped the backpack to the kitchen floor. "Kiss me."

Lips and tongues met, and a sloppy, heart-felt kiss followed until Twitchie broke the embrace with a yip when Mimi stroked his tickle spot.

Harold/Sam and the twins joined the warm, fleshy huddle, then pushed the pair into the living room with the backpack.

Mimi tossed the hefty bag on to the tabletop and she and the others sat.

"We need to tell Mimi -" Bobbie started.

"- what's going down, man." Robbie finished.

Harold kissed Mimi. Sam flooped into Mimi's mouth, her eyes popped open, she said "flusshh?" and then she kissed Twitchie.

Sam flooped into Twitchie's mouth and he sat back, as did Mimi, gasping.

"Okay," Mimi said, "I get it."

"Let us in on -" Robbie started, and Mimi cut him off with a kiss.

Robbie then kissed Bobbie, who said, "Wow, man," around Sam.

"So what do we do?" Mimi asked nobody in particular.

"I don't think there's anything we can do," Sam said, despair just as heavy on Bobbie's slim shoulders as it had been on Harold's. Her voice cracked. "That VSF is smarter -"

"No, wait," Twitchie said. "Maybe here is."

"What?" Mimi asked.

"You say this guy is some kind of god, right?"

Sam nodded Bobbie's head dismally. "But not like you think of a god. He did create the dimensions and the rock `n' roll that separates -"

"You guys caught him and put him in jail, right?" Twitchie saw the memory Sam had put in his head of that long ago event in his mind. The capture had been clever, the details, too intricate to fol-low, but -

"You caught him so he can't be smarter than you."

"But he got away," Mimi said.

"Yeah, but -"

"He can take off his head," Robbie said. "And his ear."

"He's got these teddy bear body guards," Harold said.

"But why?" Twitchie asked.

He got puzzled looks in response.

"If he's so tough, some sort of god -"

"You can't impose your Sunday school theology on -" Sam started.

"I'm not. He has hench-bears, for hell's sake. If he's some kind of god -"

"I told you -"

"- what does he need hench-bears for, huh? He needs to spy on us and steal our music? He's vulnerable, somehow."

Sam shook Bobbie's head. "He's immortal. Can't be killed."

"We don't have to kill him," Twitchie said. "We have to stop him from playing that tape."

"Makes sense," Mimi said slowly.

Harold nodded.

"Well," Sam/Bobbie shrugged. "Maybe."

Twitchie stood and the others followed. "We'd better hurry."

"What about the dope in the backpack?" Harold asked.

"You stay here and guard it," Twitchie said. "We'll get rid of it later. We'll get to the park and stop the music."

"Wait," Mimi said, "I think you all need to know what I know - about the VSF."

"Mimi, we don't have time," Twitchie said.

Sam understood Mimi's urgency and passed himself around the group, first Robbie, then Harold, then Mimi, then back to Bobbie, and finally Twitchie. Sam used his marvelous instant memory trans-fer facility - an ability any superhero would give his X-ray vision to have - to tell the band what happened to Mimi at the bar.

"Wow," the twins said.

"All right, then," Sam said from Twitchie's mouth. "We'll have to watch out."

Harold closed and locked the front door behind them.

Twitchie replayed Mimi's adventure in his mind again as they left the apartment. It felt like his memory, as if he'd experienced it.

#

Hearing the guttural martial howls from across the street, from inside Moses Eisley's Canteen and Tattoo Emporium, Mimi sus-pected something wrong and she tensed, ready - to run, to hide, to attack. The sense that often saved her from getting busted while pick-pocketing, a sense she shared with Twitchie, said Harold was in trouble. She prepared to go rescue him when he busted out, hair-flying, running full-tilt, dashing into traffic. The teddy bear Nazis followed, yahooing.

Harold could outrun a stubby-legged teddy bear squadron. Even though he looked more frightened than she'd ever seen him, Mimi's first concern was that he didn't have the backpack with him.

When he flew past his mates, hardly slowing, to say the VSF was still in the bar, Mimi knew she had to get the backpack. The end of the world was in it, and she was too young to die. Besides, she'd promised herself and Twitchie some nookie tonight.

So she broke off from the chase as soon as she thought she could get away with it unobserved. The teddy bears ran a dozen steps be-hind them on the sidewalk through the park. Mimi took advantage of the thick crowds as one large woman waddled by abusing stretch slacks beyond warranty, and ducked off the path and behind a syca-more and some hippies passing a pipe on the grass.

The teddy bears, as Mimi hoped, were so intent on chasing Harold, the other band members might have diverged away from the chase and gotten clean away. They didn't, Mimi thought, because they were so startled - maybe scared - they didn't consider the teddy bears were intent only on Harold.

Or they stuck with Harold because they loved him and assumed his danger as theirs and without a thought had run away with him.

She didn't know if anybody saw her duck away from the chase. They were all busy fleeing.

When Mimi reached Market across from the bar, no evidence of a recent disturbance remained among the crowds going about their Sunday business. She crossed the street.

At the door, she hesitated, wondering what to do next.

Go in, find the VSF, grab the backpack, and leave.

"Some plan," she said aloud.

She took a breath, pushed her shoulders back, and walked into the bar.

Marty Robbins sang "The Battle of New Orleans" on a jukebox. The door swung shut behind her, and she looked through smoky-blue haze. The bar smelled of beer, popcorn, pot, and sweat.

Marty Robbins continued to blow the heads off alligators to save America as several bikers looked up. Maybe two or three dozen bikers were in the low-ceilinged, dim room. Light came from over a green-felted table where a group played pool and from another table where another group played cards and from neon signs along one wall and behind the bar. Other groups sat around tables here and there and held up the long bar, behind which glasses and bottles were stacked and a fat, bald bartender with a massive handlebar mustache frowned at Mimi.

"Hey, we don't -" the barkeep started, probably ready to say his fine establishment didn't serve unescorted ladies. Mimi might have responded with something like, "I ain't no lady, you moron." She didn't because she saw the VSF across the room, and she yelled, "Hey, you!" The VSF walked fast toward a door marked "bath-rooms," and "exit."

Mimi ran through the barroom; nobody stopped her.

As she got to the door, she realized the VSF wasn't break-ing for the back alley. He headed for the bathroom in the long, dark, pissy-fragrant hallway next to the exit. The VSF had to piss.

Mimi slowed as the door to the Guys ROOM - No Food Aloud Inside, Pleese! squeaked open. She froze, one foot back in the main room, the other inside the dark hallway, where she expected any second some gap-toothed, Brilliantined biker with a boner to accost her. She was ten feet from the VSF, who closed the bathroom door behind him. Mimi faced one of those decisive moments, like the Gulf of Tonkin or losing one's virginity. The VSF hadn't noticed her, so she made a decision.

She figured the VSF had, a second before she opened the front door, started for the can. He had his back to her as she adjusted her vision to the dim bar. Marty Robbins, chattering drunken bikers, clattering pool balls, a dingy-clangy pinball machine and clinking glasses and bottles kept him from hearing her.

Now, she dashed straight to the men's bathroom door, holding her breath against the stench, and pushed the door open. It squeaked on rusty hinges and Mimi stepped in.

The VSF pissed into a wide porcelain urinal, the backpack on the dirty floor behind his foot.

Mimi pulled his pants down around his ankles.

The VSF swore loudly as she grabbed the backpack and headed out. The VSF took a step, fell over the pants around his anlkes, and she dashed for the back door.

She burst into abrupt daylight and a narrow, cluttered alleyway. She took a breath of clean air. Then she ran past cardboard boxes, garbage cans, and a dumpster with a bum in it.

She'd run twenty steps down the street, headed east, when she heard pursuit, but she felt sure no one - teddy bears or normal enti-ties - could catch her. She'd outrun indignant pick-pocketees be-fore; being young, healthy, determined, and sober gave her an edge.

Pursuit noises diminished as she dodged from the alley onto Hartford. She jaywalked at 17th, slowed to a trot on Noe to avoid drawing attention - "Alert! A young, semi-naked large-breasted woman with a backpack is running down the street -"

At that point, Mimi wondered why she hadn't seen teddy bears in the bar, why none had chased her when she'd snatched the back-pack. The bikers hadn't been disturbed to have crazed teddy bears in their midst before she'd showed up.

Well, she thought, as she trotted along, maybe they had seen the teddy bears, and dismissed them as your average, ordinary hallucina-tion, "too much Ripple." The bikers hadn't acted alarmed, as she might have expected in any crowd where "Did you see that?" and "Jesus H, what the hell just happened?" might have been com-mon chat fodder, current affairs.

Or maybe the VSF created the teddy bears to chase Harold - created at the door and not inside the bar.

No, Harold had been inside, and the howling had been teddy bears howling and Harold had run out, lickety-split.

This meant the bikers had seen the teddy bears. Yet they hadn't reacted worth diddly. Which, she realized as she broke into a dash for home, meant they looked up when she entered and thought, "Oh, here's another hallucination. Big deal."

But that also meant - Mimi dropped all pretense and ran - the breach between dimensions had become so broad that a bar full of bikers took the hallucinations - her and the teddy bears, and maybe Harold - in stride and thought nothing of it.

#

Replaying Mimi's memory, it occurred to Twitchie that Harold and Mimi were lucky to get away so easily.

So easily?

A chill crept up Twitchie's spine and he shivered, clutching Mimi harder. For comfort.

17

"I can't believe that son-of-a-bitch set us up," Bobbie said. They shuffled parkward in a tight huddle, amidst a thick crowd also drift-ing parkward.

"Yeah, man," Robbie said.

"Spending all that time -"

"- chasing the dope in the backpack -"

"- when he planned to steal our tape recorder in the first place."

"He was going to use the dope, that's my guess," Sam said. "He did bring it over to this dimension, after all. But when his ear learned we'd taped the music from my dimension and that we had it in the apart-ment -"

"I think he let me snatch that backpack," Mimi said. "I got away too easily."

"Figure it out later," Bobbie said. "Music first."

"Yeah, man," Robbie said, tone bleak, visions of getting on the cover of the Rolling Stone dashed.

A bassy, electronic din rose from the park, on the other side of Masonic; band warming up.

"S'cuse me," a blue buffalo in chartreuse hot pants and match-ing go-go boots said to Twitchie as it stomped by.

"Did you see that?" Sam asked Mimi and the twins.

They pushed forward. People and things complained at the an-noyance in various manners, not always verbal - Twitchie sensed an indignant itchy-scratchy and a petulant blue-violet from two farm animals.

Nobody noticed Twitchie had a pink bubble in his mouth.

Blue smoke floated by and he smelled pot. Well, people had shit-eating grins and glassy, blood-shot eyes and they were in Haight-Ashbury, and this was the Summer of Love, 1967.

"Dig the cat with the soap bubble in his mouth, man."

"Oh, yeah? I'm seeing giant flamingos in tuxedos. Beat that, man."

As they crossed Oak at Masonic into the Panhandle, the band had started to play.

"We're too late," Sam said.

They weren't. The band was the Ace of Cups, the all-chick band Mimi and her girlfriends from LaLa Land had wanted to emulate five months ago before Mimi met Twitchie.

The band played a raunchy, energetic, but off-key version of the Seeds' "Pushin' Too Hard."

They huddled at the edge of the massive crowd, bigger and more packed than any Twitchie had ever remembered, including when the Doors, the Dead, and Jefferson Airplane played the Avalon on the same bill back in June.

"Maybe he'll try to play the tape on their PA," Sam said. "If we find the sound system or the generator and shut it down maybe we won't have to fight the VSF. Anybody see him? Or teddy bears?"

They looked over the crowd but saw no sign.

"We'll split up," Sam said. "Head for the power behind the stage. Shut it off. Mimi and I'll go that way -" he pointed to the northwest, "and you guys," he touched Robbie and Bobbie, "you go that way," he pointed northeastward. "If you find the VSF, don't let him see you. Shut down the sound."

Sam/Twitchie and Mimi reached Fell Street, across from Ash-bury, by swinging farther west where the crowd thinned. They then walked back east on the opposite side of the eucalyptus along the street, stepping out into the street to move faster. They crept up be-hind the stage. They couldn't see the band on the raised stage be-cause of the tall amps and plywood and muslin screens in their way. The sound, though, from their vantage, was muffled and indistinct but still loud enough to shake the ground.

A battered `64 Ford Econoline van painted in psychedelic Day-Glo letters on the side: "Ace of Cups," parked behind the stage next to garbage cans and Port-a-Potties. The van's driver and passen-ger side doors were open, as well as the back and side cargo doors. From the van, wires and cables spilled onto the ground and snaked toward the stage backside. Inside and near the van, a dozen hippies with clipboards and headphones milled around and fussed over electronic devices, mixers and amps and pre-amps and a gaso-line generator - and a sewing machine cleaning its fingernails with a two-foot-long file, and a manual typewriter with a bad haircut.

"Do you see the VSF?" Mimi shouted. She squeezed Twitchie's arm and she spoke two inches from his ear. They'd moved so close to the black refrigerator-sized amps blasting on the stage, thirty feet away now, that their stomachs shook with the bass beat. Their ears would ring later - if there was a later.

Twitchie/Sam looked around. "I don't see him," Sam shouted, not sure if she heard or not, "or the teddy -"

Suddenly, Twitchie saw the VSF's head above the crowd. He gripped Mimi's arm and pointed. Mimi nodded.

Over the VSF's shoulder the tape recorder hung on a strap. The crowd around the VSF parted for a second, enough to reveal a dozen Nazi teddy bears guarded the VSF.

18

Twitchie/Sam started to say, "I'll distract them," but quick-witted Mimi had already sprung into action.

"Get the recorder," she yelled into Twitchie's ear. She dashed straight at the teddy bears.

She surprised them - what Nazi teddy bear expected attack from a crazed hippie chick? None saw her coming. She grabbed a long-handled ax from a teddy bear and jerked it away before he knew what hit him. Pace unslackened, she ran into the crowd, dodg-ing and dancing as she ran, ax held high above her head. The enraged teddies gave chase.

Twitchie marveled for a moment at her graceful stride. As she disappeared in the crowd, she slowed enough so the teddy bear horde could keep up. Graceful, yes, but Twitchie worried she might trip and be overrun.

Sam gave a mental nudge, bringing Twitchie's attention back to the VSF, now unguarded. The tape recorder was a just dozen steps away; the chase had distracted the VSF as it had Twitchie.

Twitchie/Sam moved closer toward the VSF, dancing between, over, and on legs, arms, and tentacles.

By the van, the VSF stood with a hippie, a tall guy with scruffy beard, headphones, and a clipboard. The VSF gestured at the bears, leaned in close to the hippie, yelling in his ear. The hippie shook his head, tapped his earphones, then pointed to the van's rear. Twitchie was now five steps away. He feared the VSF would see him.

Without Mimi, Twitchie would have to improvise. Maybe Sam had a plan. In his mind, Twitchie felt the soap bubble shrug. Sam didn't have a clue.

He closed to within an arm's length of the VSF who still hadn't seen him.

What to do? Push him down? Snatch the tape recorder, wrestle it away, and run? Again, Sam shrugged in Twitchie's mind.

Twitchie's heart pounded as he reached forward, fingers inches from the recorder.

The VSF turned abruptly toward him. Twitchie froze. Sam thought: "Oh, shit."

The butterflies in his stomach took off at once and dive-bombed his kidneys, as the VSF looked right at Twitchie.

But the VSF didn't see Twitchie, seemed to look right though him. The VSF brushed past him, graveyard stench in his wake - zombie, Twitchie thought - and walked to the van backside. His back again to Twitchie, he engaged a hippie tinkering with a tape recorder; the inside of the van looked like a military radar station.

Feeling faint, Twitchie gulped air, re-gathered his courage, and moved on rubbery legs again toward the VSF. As he did so, the VSF started to take the recorder off his back.

Twitchie/Sam was again a step from the VSF when the sound went dead.

"Hey," the sound-tech hippie with the VSF said in the abrupt quiet, "what the hell?"

When the sound died, the VSF turned away from the sound-tech hippie and looked toward Twitchie, an arm's length away, just as Twitchie's hand extended to grab the recorder. But the VSF's shift swung the recorder strap away from Twitchie.

This time, he saw Twitchie. The VSF's jaw gaped, and red-rimmed, glassy eyes bugged out.

There goes the universe, Twitchie thought.

Somebody or something behind the animated corpse bumped into him and the VSF fell backward, landing on the sound-tech hip-pie inside the van's back door.

From then stage, a chick's tinny voice announced a break, some-thing about powdering our noses or seeing what's wrong with the goddam sound.

The sound-tech hippie fell under the VSF, who lay atop the re-corder.

"Hey, what the -" the sound-tech hippie complained, trying to push the VSF off him. Wiry electronic equipment entangled him.

Twitchie had danced away from the falling bodies; he tugged at the recorder jammed under the VSF's shoulder.

"He's a narc," Sam cried out to the sound-tech and another hip-pie nearby, this one with a wide tie-died tie, neat goatee, and granny glasses, "and he stole our tape."

"A narc, huh?" The sound-tech and his friend tried to push the VSF one way and Twitchie tried to pull him the other.

Suddenly, Mimi was there, trying to help tug the recorder free. "Yeah," she said, "he stole our rock `n' roll."

"Mimi," Twitchie/Sam said, panting, "where did you -"

"Ditched the bastards," she said, grunting and tugging. "Cut the sound -"

"A narc, huh?" The sound-tech extricated himself from under the stiff corpse who now clutched the tape recorder in both arms with bulldog tenacity.

"Yeah, he's a narc," Twitchie said.

"Narc! Narc!" Twitchie and Mimi chanted.

"Narc?" and "He's a narc!" people nearby started muttering, angry.

Twitchie gave up trying to tug the recorder to him and tried to lean over the VSF and tug it away from him and toward Mimi, which didn't work - no leverage. The corpse from dimension X smelled graveyard foul.

"Yeah," Mimi said, still tugging on the recorder strap, "and he has our rock `n' roll on that tape -"

"Stealing our music?" a chick's voice rose above the general muttery and chattery. Several women formed a tight circle around them. The women fell on the struggling bunch on the ground in a scream-ing frenzy - maybe Ace of Cups, maybe their fans or roadies, didn't mat-ter. They fought to free the recorder with impressive vicious-ness.

As Twitchie scooted on the grass to avoid getting hit or crushed in the melee, he resolved to treat Mimi and other chicks with greater respect in the future.

Twitchie scooted under a shaggy cow in hip waders watching the fray with the cheery enthusiasm of a soccer fan. Mimi stayed in the struggle with a half dozen hippie chicks, who all looked like blonde, skinny, white teeny boppers from Marin County. They all looked pissed.

Twitchie lost sight of the VSF and the recorder as he tugged on cow pelt to gain his feet. The cow paid no heed, focused on the girl-fight, shouting encouragement.

As he rose, Twitchie saw the teddy bears charge from the east by the Digger lunch line. Mimi had given them the slip but they were back now. They scattered people, critters, meal trays, and cups left and right as they dashed, axes held high. Coming right toward them.

"Mimi," Sam/Twitchie yelled, "we've got to get out of here."

The melee had escalated to include the crowd facing the stage and a park-wide riot seemed on the verge. Those that the teddy bear squad pummeled rallied and charged after their disturbers. All con-verged on the van behind the stage where hippie chicks, Mimi, and hippie sound-techs tried to get the recorder. The VSF clung to it as if it was part of his odiferous skin.

Full-scale riot ensued.

Twitchie became concerned about him or Sam being trampled. A jab at his back, a sudden jolt, propelled him off his feet. He almost spit out Sam as he went onto hands and knees; he crawled for the van, to get under it.

He made it under the van and bumped heads with Mimi who had reached the shelter a second before he did.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

"Are you -" Mimi started to say at the same time.

The sound-tech and the tie-died other hippie, who were both disheveled, and sweaty, also hid under the van.

"Hey, man," the sound-tech said, "do you know you have a soap bubble in your - ow." He'd tried to raise his head but hit the greasy rear axle. There was no head room and all lay flat on their stomachs.

"This narc," the tie-died hippie said, "he, like, stole your sound, man?"

"Yeah." Mimi said. "Our tape recorder." Her hair hung a stringy curtain before her eyes, and a halter-top strap had broken and her boob swayed loose.

"Hey, babe," the sound-tech said, smiling, "you wanna ball?"

The four faced each other a foot apart and beyond their feet, riot ensued. Shouting, scuffling, thumping on the van sides. A siren wailed James Brown "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag."

"How would you like a knuckle -" Mimi began.

The tie-died hippie interrupted, "Is this yours?" and scootched forward the recorder over the grass between him and Mimi.

Mimi's eyes lit up. "Thanks, man. We owe you one."

"A blow job?" the sound-tech asked, eyebrows dancing, grin shit-eating.

The van started to rock.

Twitchie saw teddy bear paws at the side of the van, close, rising up on their collective toes and grunting in unison. Trying to turn the van over.

"We've got to get out," Sam yelled.

Twitchie and Mimi scooted toward the van rear. Mimi had the recorder gripped in one elbow, dragging it behind her.

As they scootched out from under the back bumper, Twitchie heard the two hippies behind him.

"Did you see a guy with a bubble in his mouth and a chick with big hooters wrestling a corpse?" one said.

"Yeah," the other said. "Did you?"

Twitchie grabbed the van's back bumper to pull himself up and Mimi pulled herself up on his arm. Jostling bodies pressed them against the van back door.

"We've got to -" Sam started again, but gave it up. Mimi couldn't hear, and her darting, wide-eyed glance told him she too wished she could fly over the crowd back to the apartment.

Suddenly, iron-hot pain stabbed at Twitchie's right shoulder, where his shirt was torn. He screamed, almost popped out Sam, and turned to see, inches away, the dirt-encrusted, dead VSF eyes look-ing into his. A pus-yellow cloud billowed from the corpse's mouth as it opened as if to speak or bite. Twitchie gagged at the carrion stench and almost fainted.

Would have too, if Mimi hadn't been there.

Mimi gave an incoherent shout, shoved at the VSF, and tugged Twitchie away.

Twitchie/Sam rallied and pushed at the VSF's clutching claw-fingers, but it had an iron-hard deadmans grip on Twitchie's arm. Twitchie's eyes teared in pain.

"They're after our women," Bobbie and Robbie shouted to-gether, a few feet away.

"Where have you guys been?" Mimi shouted.

"Later," Bobbie said.

"Aliens!" Robbie shouted. "After earth women!"

The iron-grip threatening to crush Twitchie's arm abruptly released. Through his starry-vision, further blurred by dirty glasses, Twitchie saw frantic hippies, all men, attack the teddy bears and the VSF.

"Ha," Sam said, "attack our women, huh?" The VSF disap-peared in a hail of pummeling fists. If not dead already, Twitchie thought - and he is - he soon would be.

Bobbie and Robbie dragged Twitchie and Mimi to unrioted ground. The teddy bears had their paws full with rioters bent on saving Earth's chicks from alien molesters, and the VSF was down.

The group made it into the clear, wended their way past the Dig-ger kitchen and food line, and drew their retreat to a halt by the euca-lyptus along Oak and across from Lyon.

They stood panting next to some overloaded city trashcans. Be-hind them the riot continued.

"What's that?" Mimi pointed back west into the fray. She held the recorder clutched tight to her chest, as she'd hold a baby.

Above the tangled riot, equal parts human and hallucinatory combatants, giant orange butterflies formed and circled in a dense cloud, like dive-bombers.

Sam groaned. "The air force is here. It's the end of the world."

20

"What do you mean -" Bobbie.

"- the end of the world, man?" Robbie.

"They're here to help the teddy bears," Sam said.

"We'd better hurry." Mimi handed the tape recorder to Robbie so she could help Twitchie move.

"You look done in, man." Bobbie held Twitchie up by the other arm, opposite Mimi. Twitchie's left ankle hurt, the pain white-hot. His ribs ached too, like the ankle. His lungs burned and he sweated buck-ets, hair matted over his dirty glasses.

They crossed Oak at Lyon, dodging traffic. They pushed their way up the sidewalk toward the apartment, the recorder clutched in Robbie's hands.

"They're coming," Bobbie and Robbie shouted as the group reached Page.

Twitchie ventured a look over his shoulder as he hobbled along, but he saw nothing but smudges. A buzz filled the air and the now-familiar military teddy bear cry rose. Twitchie sensed rather than saw that the teddy bears, with their butterfly allies, had escaped their hippie tormentors in the park and had taken up the charge again, close behind.

"Hurry," Sam said. Twitchie's voice had gone rough, his throat hurt, and he barely heard Sam in his own mouth.

A half block behind them, the teddy bear's armed and mobile picnic pursued up Lyon. Rounding the corner, above and ahead of the teddies, a giant orange butterfly cloud fluttered and dove at the group like something out of a World War Two movie.

Bobbie squealed as one butterfly grabbed her hair as they opened the apartment building front door. Robbie swatted at the attacker with a balled fist, connected with its bulbous thorax with a thoomp, like he'd hit a large marshmallow.

The attacker disengaged, grumbling in butterfly talk, the group gained the foyer, and slammed the door behind them.

One butterfly got a foot of leathery wing caught in the door jamb when it shut. It howled and tugged and Robbie couldn't get the door shut until he opened it a crack, unjammed the wing, and then slammed the door.

From without, a gazillion wings fanned a rotting apricot odor. As they crossed the street, the teddy bears' yowls rose above indig-nant drivers' shouts, horns honking, a goat Mariachi band, and si-rens now blaring Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire."

With help, Twitchie limped up the stairs, panting like his compa-triots.

Harold appeared on the landing, shouted something Twitchie didn't get in the din - clomping feet, hoarse panting, sirens, horns, goats bleating, shouts, and alien butterfly wings beating - and his own raspy breathing and thumping heart. Nonetheless, Twitchie felt he weighed ounces, not tons. He marveled at the feeling for a second before he realized Harold carried him, arm around Twitchie's skinny waist.

"Thanks, man," Sam said. "Twitchie's paid out."

If Harold responded, Twitchie didn't hear. If he heard, he didn't care. He was paid out.

Inside the apartment at last, somebody slammed the door shut and snapped the locks. Twitchie fell to the floor by the coffee table, Mimi at his side. She smelled sweaty. Everybody did. Him too. He plucked park grass from his beard and mustache.

"Thanks," Sam thought at him as Twitchie plucked a weedy strand from between Sam's bottom edge and Twitchie's lower lip.

The apartment walls and closed doors cut the outside noise to an indistinct, muffled cacophony. The butterflies buzzed in a bassy undercurrent, and the teddy bears battle song rose in choral harmony above it all.

Twitchie wanted to just sit and breathe, clean his glasses, relax, take a bath, with Mimi or without - something nor-mal.

"Harold," Sam said, "I need you."

His body under Sam's orders, Twitchie reached for Harold, who knelt at his side. Twitchie kissed Harold, Sam flooped into Harold's mouth, his eyes rolled and bobbed, and in a second, he nodded.

"If this is going to work," Sam said through Harold's mouth, "we got to work fast." The twins knelt on the floor and un-did the elaborate snap-fasteners of the faux leather tape recorder case.

Mimi came in from the kitchen. "Back door's jammed shut."

From downstairs, heavy banging echoed up as manic teddy bears tried to batter down the door.

"Check the front window," Sam said, and Mimi checked it.

"Bring the tape here," Sam told the twins. They nodded, opened the box, and removed the tape reels from their spindles. They held the two reels between them like nitroglycerine.

Mimi returned from the window and sat by Twitchie. "They're out there. Do you think they'll try to fly through the window?"

Twitchie looked toward the window; fluttery shadows played on the drawn shades.

"Would you?" Sam said.

Mimi didn't answer.

The twins laid the two tape reels on the coffee table and took their places around the table as if ready for dinner.

Downstairs: banging, rhythmic, insistent, heavy, loud, like Twitchie's heart.

Harold took out the baggie from his leather jacket pocket. "You guys rip up tape," Sam said. "I'll flush this." He hefted the baggie of concentrated other-dimensional rock `n' roll and stood. "What the hell. It might work."

"Won't it get into the water supply?" Twitchie asked.

Harold/Sam turned toward the bathroom. "Who knows?" he said over his shoulder. "I don't know shit."

From downstairs, wood-banging gave way to splinter-ing and louder shouts. Wooden clumping rose from the stair-well.

Butterflies buzzed outside the window and iside Twitchie's sto-mach.

"Get to ripping." Twitchie's voice cracked with urgency.

One seven-inch metal reel on the table had a few inches of tape on it, the rest bundled around the core of the other reel. Twitchie tried to pry the reel apart but he only bent it; the tape still coiled around the reel core. Mimi pulled off a few feet and tried to tear the stubborn tape. It stretched before it snapped. Robbie and Bobbie reeled off a few feet of tape and grunted as they stretched and tore.

"We could use Harold's pocketknife," Mimi said, tugging.

The teddy bear picnic had reached their front door, and the first loud, woody thump rattled the locks and chains.

"Harold," Twitchie hollered, "we could use your -"

From the bathroom, the toilet flushed. Twitchie heard it because it was the only sound. No horns honked. No shouts, buzzing, thump-ing, clomping. Nothing, normal or hallucinated.

Silence.

"That did it." Sam/Harold stomped from the bathroom. "You were right, Twitchie." He headed toward the window.

"Harold, we could use -" Twitchie started as Harold stomped past. Harold tossed his pocketknife and Twitchie caught it.

"Flushing the dope," Sam said. "Who could have thought it would be so easy?"

"Maybe we better cut up this tape too," Twitchie said, "just in case." He'd been holding his breath, listening to the sudden silence that ensued when the Baggie of Doom flushed. They'd all stopped tearing tape, breaths held, listening to the silence.

"Yeah," the twins said. "Just in case."

Harold's knife was sharp; Twitchie sliced through the tape still on the reel core like it was paper, and brown tape strips accumulated quickly in a pile on the floor. He sliced through the last few inches of tape as Harold/Sam sighed and came back from the window.

"I don't see any butterflies out there," Sam said. "Or teddy bears." Harold sat, cross-legged. "I don't hear diddly. Do you?"

The twins shook their heads, looking pensive, Twitchie thought. They ran fingers through the tape confetti. They'd recorded the mu-sic, the ticket to getting on the cover of the Rolling Stone. Twitchie wanted it too. But the twins' grim demeanor - and Mimi's and Harold's - told him they too understood saving the universe trumped stardom.

"Not a sound," Mimi said.

"Well." Sam sighed. "We did it. We saved -"

Ka-thump. From the front door, heavy, woody, insistent. Then: Ka-thump. Chains and locks rattled.

21

Ka-thump.

Twitchie's heart jammed in his throat again.

With the return of the ka-thumping on the locked front door, also came the fluttery shadows at the window, and butterflyish buzzing from outside. Nothing else.

"I don't get it," Sam said.

No other sound.

"Do you hear it?" Twitchie said.

"I hear those damn teddy bears -" Bobbie said.

Ka-thump.

"- and those butterflies," Robbie finished.

"You flushed the dope." Mimi's voice rose in protest. "Why aren't they gone?"

Harold went to the window and peeked out.

"No street noise," Harold said. "No horns, no sirens."

"The teddy bear dudes aren't yelling," Robbie said.

Ka-thump.

"What the -" Bobbie started.

"Shush." Sam put Harold's finger to his lips and cocked his head. Harold stood between the window and the coffee table where the group sat in a pile of brown spaghetti tape.

Ka-thump. This one had a raspy, wood-tearing accent to it, Twitchie thought, gulping stomach butterflies back down. A dent had formed in the upper panel and the chains rattled.

Another sound rode under the bigger one. A slight, crafty scrat-ching, like somebody trying to pick a lock.

From the back door.

Harold dashed through the kitchen to the back door and the oth-ers rose to follow.

Mimi had jammed a broom handle against the door to keep it shut.

The back door had once had a small glass windowpane in its upper panel, but a previous tenant had papered over it with a Pogo cartoon, and the group had left it.

A vague head-shaped shadow played on the Pogo cartoon as they huddled in the narrow hallway between kitchen and backdoor.

"It's -" Twitchie started to whisper, but Harold shushed him.

Twitchie and his compatriots held their breaths, as Harold reached out for the broom handle. The back door knob turned before Harold touched it, like in a Hitchcock movie, and Twitchie wanted to scream. Harold froze.

The ka-thumping from the front door had stopped and the entire universe went silent except for a tiny metallic squeak as the back door handle turned.

Harold jerked the broom handle away, the door flew inward, and the VSF fell into the hallway onto the floor. He - it - gave a muffled grunt as it hit the tiled floor and the group, except for Harold, stepped back. It smelled graveyard foul.

Harold tossed the broomstick aside and grabbed the VSF by the back of his dirty shirt and hefted him from the floor like a garbage sack - fragrant, over-ripe garbage - and dragged him - it - to the living room.

Twitchie, Mimi and the twins got out of his way.

In the living room, Harold pushed the VSF over on its back, knelt over it, and grabbed a handful of shirt at its throat in a bunched fist, lifting it off the floor. He raised his other fist back as if to hit it.

Outside: silence.

"Now, what the -" Sam began, but he stopped when the VSF's head fell off.

"Oh, shit," Twitchie heard somebody say. Maybe him. He stifled an urge to throw up.

"Jesus H," Mimi muttered.

Harold dropped the body and sat back, panting. "This body is just his headquarters," Sam explained. Harold's sunglasses had come off somewhere in the last few minutes and he looked around for them as he spoke. "When he came over to this dimension, he found a dead bum in the park and animated him."

"A zombie." Twitchie handed Harold his sunglasses. They had fallen under the coffee table. "I saw it in his eyes in the park."

"With a detachable head?" Mimi gave a skeptical twist to her tone.

"You're an expert on zombies?" Twitchie matched Mimi's tone.

"Part hallucinatory," Sam said. "Every hallucination is based on the observer's mind. For instance -"

"Did you go to Hippie University, man?" Robbie asked.

"Yeah," Bobbie said. "You said this was all new to you too."

"After we flushed the dope," Twitchie said, "I thought the teddy bears and butterflies would disappear."

"But everything else did," Bobbie said.

"Disappear, like," Robbie said.

"We still have this corpse," Mimi said. The corpse twitched. "So the breach isn't healed?"

Harold held up his hands in a warding gesture, and Sam said, "We gave it a try, didn't we? My guess - I'm the resident expert on interdi-mensional behavior, remember? - when we flushed the dope, it lost most of its hallucinatory grip on this reality, but not all of it. We closed the gap -" Harold held his finger and thumb an inch apart, "- that much. But not all the way."

"So the gap is still there -" Bobbie said.

"- and if it's still there, man," Robbie said, "it still could go, uh - poof?"

"More like ka-plooof!" Sam said.

"Wait," Twitchie said. "We might still be able to close the gap. This guy could be the key."

"He's all dead, man," Bobbie said.

"Yeah, and headless." Robbie said.

"Put his head back on," Twitchie said. "See what he knows."

"Oh, man -" Mimi started.

Harold/Sam interrupted. "Get me some tape." Sam knelt over the stiff body and gripped the head by the stringy hair, holding it out like David with Goliath's head. The VSF's eyes blinked and looked around as it dangled in Harold's outstretched hand, chin bobbing, tongue lolling like a thick sausage. Drool seeped from its purple lower lip.

The twins handed Harold handfuls of mangled tape.

He pressed the head back onto the neck and wrapped tape around the head and shoulders. The twins helped. In a few seconds, the VSF had a brown tape scarf over its head, under its armpits, and around its forehead and under its chin.

Outside - silence.

Satisfied the head had been reattached to the VSF body so it wouldn't come off again, Harold slapped the corpse's gray-skinned cheeks with his open hand. The head lolled to the side, righted itself, and the eyes blinked, the jaw bobbed.

"Ycch," Mimi said.

"Why are you here?" Sam shouted at the corpse, six inches away from its nose.

The corpse started to make a noise. "Nnnn. Nnnuh. Uh."

"Speaka England?" Sam said.

"God nushing to shay."

Harold slapped it across the bony cheek, harder, and spittle flew.

"Ycch." Mimi again. She handed Twitchie his glasses, scooted a few inches away from the corpse and buffed with a gnarled tissue at her belly.

"Wound nah shay noshing -" Harold's beefy slaps muffled the VSF's defiance.

"You got some on you." Mimi reached over to wipe dead bum spittle from Twitchie's ribs with a tissue. Twitchie squirmed away from Mimi's swiping, and gave a little squealy giggle; she'd hit his ticklish spot.

"That's it," Twitchie said.

"What's it?" Mimi said.

"Tickle it."

"He's dead. How -"

"Trust me," Twitchie said. "No entity can resist."

Harold probed and poked along the corpse's ribs and sides.

Mimi joined Harold's efforts. She was an expert tickler, as Twitchie knew.

"Torture," Sam said. "Against your Geneva Convention and my Schlockinstern Accords."

The corpse struggled, but Harold had its arms pinned and its skinny legs pumped in the air without effect. Its gray face contorted around a pending giggle - Twitchie recognized the symptoms, even on a dead man - as Harold found the ticklish spot.

The dead bum burst into a giggling fit. Tears oozed from blood-shot eyes and coursed down stiff cheeks. It banged its heels and hands against the floor and made strangling noises amidst hic-cupy giggling.

"Talk," Sam demanded. Harold gave it another tickly-gouge, which produced a spastic giggle.

"- planned to t-tear it all down - he-he - start o-over he-he-he - ag-again."

"How? How did you plan to do it?"

"The con-concentrated rock `n' - he-he - roll. Get p-people here to smoke it and -"

"We flushed it. We still saw butterflies, and teddy bears."

"He-he-he -"

"And the tape. We destroyed it."

"- all a r-r-ruse, a-a -"

"A what?"

The corpse shook its taped-on head, and clenched its jaws.

"Talk, damn you," Sam shouted, and Harold dug in.

"He-he-he - thought you'd come after m-me. He-he. Thought I could get you and y-your s-soap bubble narcs dis - he-he - dis-tracted, o-over he-he-here."

"Distracted?" Harold bunched his other hand into a fist ready to pummel the corpse under his knee, and Twitchie thought the gesture might have been unconscious, as Sam still ran Harold's body.

"He-he-here," the corpse said. "R-run around, chase after o-o-oregano - that's wh-what you call it he-here, and the tape. You chased it, t-too. He-he. While I st-stayed -"

Harold dropped the VSF-corpse with a thump back onto the floor and stood.

"What?" Mimi said, and the twins, bug-eyed. Harold began pac-ing, stomping, pulling at his hair.

"I've been sent on a wild frumpt chase. The real threat is back home. While I'm over here -"

"This guy is a decoy," Twitchie said. "Right, Sam?" He paced with Harold/Sam.

Harold's shoulders slumped and it looked as if the big man with the soap bubble in his mouth was going to cry.

22

The corpse made feeble attempts to rise after Harold dropped it. It beat its heels against the floor and tried to raise its tape-entangled head and push knobby gray elbows under itself. It flopped back, spent.

"Twitchie?" Mimi stood. "Sam? A wild frumpt chase?"

The twins looked on, eyes scared-wide.

On the verge of sobs, Harold paced four steps one way toward the window and four back to the coffee table, breathing like a steam engine. Twitchie got out of his way.

"It's back in my reality," Sam said. "All this -" He gestured at this reality with a contemptuous wave and almost hit Twitchie in the head. "- just a ruse. While we chased around your reality, it's back in my reality doing whatever it planned in the first place."

"That's why it was so easy to get the backpack," Mimi said.

"There was diddly in it," Sam said. "And a dumb decoy guarded it, not the real enemy."

"What about the tape?" Bobbie asked. "If it played that music, or if we played it ourselves, later -"

"We got the tape," Robbie said. "Right? I mean, we tore it up and the hallucinations stopped -"

"And we flushed the dope at the same time," Mimi said.

"Oregano, not dope. And how nice for you that everything is mellow in your dimension," Sam said. He made Harold give a little bow. Harold swore and stepped on the corpse with his foot as it tried to raise, a vain escape attempt. The corpse sank back, tape-wrapped face down, with an airy grunt, legs and arms splayed.

"So when he dropped that joint -" Twitchie said.

"- and we snagged the lid," Mimi said, "that was no accident?"

"He let us do it," Twitchie said. He sighed. "He knew somehow. We wanted a pocket to pick and he wanted somebody to pick his pocket."

"But we smoked it -" Mimi said.

"The toothpick joint," Sam said. "The lid was oregano, the joint was real. To get you across to my dimension so I'd know the dimen-sions had been breached and I'd follow you back. Remember, we waited for him in my park? Well, he must have known. So he let you steal that toothpick, which sent you guys back over -"

"- and when you saw us," Twitchie said, "from beyond your reality -"

"Well, he didn't plan for me to floop into your mouth and go transdimensional anyway. We just inadvertently helped his plan. Maybe. Hell, I don't know. He's smarter than me -"

"Don't be so hard on yourself," Twitchie said.

"Yeah," Mimi said, "we're still guessing. Maybe he's still here."

"Nah." Sam sighed and Harold's massive shoulders slumped. He slipped down the wall, melting. "If he was, we'd be knee deep in hallucinations now. He's back home. If he succeeds there, it don't matter how nice it is here, we're all still screwed."

"How," Twitchie asked nobody in particular, "did he get his hench-consciousness into this reality?"

Harold raised his slumped head, so abruptly that Twitchie flinched. "Shit," Sam said, Harold's fists bunched as he stood. "We're wasting time."

He kicked the corpse hard on one knobby shoulder and the head popped from its entangling tape, rolled across the floor and plopped against the VSF's backpack.

Bits of dead flesh slopped onto the floor in gooey lumps in the head's wake.

"Ycch." Mimi made a face and scootched away, although she was farthest from the mess.

"I've got to get back to my reality," Sam said and Harold paced again.

"Harold, look what you did." Mimi pointed at the corpse head, its rubbery eyes staring at the floor.

"I've got to find a way -"

Mimi grabbed Harold's shoulders. "Hey, Harold," she yelled at him, six inches from his face. "Are you in there? You made a mess."

"Sorry," Sam said. "I'm just - concerned - right now."

"Let's dump the body," Twitchie said. "Then figure what to do."

They rolled the body in the rug and dumped it in the big green dumpster in the back alley. Nobody saw them except a nervous cat.

"We got to toss the head too," Twitchie said.

"I see a homicide investigation," Mimi said, "and I'm not ready for jail."

"I want to be on the cover of the Rolling Stone -" Robbie said.

"- not the Police Gazette." Bobbie.

"I am in a hurry," Sam said.

The group tromped back inside the apartment.

"Put it in the backpack." Twitchie touched the head with his toe.

"What's in here?" Mimi held up the VSF's backpack.

"Clothes," Sam said. "Me and Harold searched it. Just bum clothes. A broken transistor radio. No ID, no dope, no money."

Robbie and Bobbie knelt and took out clothes and tossed them aside in a pile beside the bum's head.

"Wait a minute." Sam crouched and looked over the twins' shoul-ders. "That transistor radio. Let me see it."

The twins dug out a banana-yellow plastic box the size of a ciga-rette pack with black dials and buttons along one edge and a wrist strap at one corner.

"You said you already looked at it, man." Robbie handed it to Harold.

"Yeah, well." Harold twisted the radio in his hand, fiddled with it. Twitchie leaned over his shoulder. Mimi and the twins watched over the other shoulder.

Something clicked and one side of the radio popped up, like the lid of a high-tech spy miniature tape recorder. Inside the compart-ment, two teensy-tiny spools of tape nestled amid masses of tiny wires and plastic gizmos and electronic components.

"Oh, shit," Twitchie heard somebody say. Maybe it was him.

23

"It's from your reality," Twitchie said. "Isn't it? It's a -"

"It's a tape recorder." Sam held the thing in Harold's hand. "From my reality."

"That's a tape recorder?" Bobbie's skepticism twisting her lip.

"It's so small." Robbie frowned.

"The cat came here to tape record the rock `n' roll of this real-ity," Twitchie said, "so he could go back and play it in that reality -"

Harold flicked a button on the other-reality tape recorder and a tinny but distinct "Brown Sugar" blared from a tiny speaker.

"Ace of Cups," Twitchie said. "A tad off key. From the park, an hour ago."

Sam flicked a switch and the noise stopped.

"Maybe this was plan B," Sam said, "or C."

"Dig, this one didn't work either -" Robbie said.

"- because we got the tape, man," Bobbie finished.

"We aren't done yet," Sam said. "Let's toss that head. It stinks. Then we need to talk."

Harold picked up the head by a handful of tangled tape and pushed it into the backpack. He stuffed bum clothes atop the head.

He didn't bother to try to close the backpack top; dirty socks and tattered and stained Fruit o' the Looms poked out. He hefted the backpack by its shoulder straps and turned to the kitchen and the back door beyond.

Twitchie followed in his wake, his friends pressed close, silent.

At the porch, Harold stood over the waist-high rail and looked down on the alley three stories below at the dumpster twenty yards east, downwind. He heaved the backpack over the rail. It hit the dumpster, rolled off the far side, and against the adjacent apart-ment building amid detritus and effluvia and stuff treasure-hunting cats and dogs had redistributed.

Harold wiped his hands in good riddance and plowed back into the apartment past Twitchie and the others.

As he closed the back door behind him, Twitchie thought about putting the broomstick back in place, to lock the broken door shut, but decided not to. It was too late for - whatever. Invader Barbie dolls from the X-plus Dimension? Alien trick-or-treaters? Lady Bird Johnson robots?

He sighed and followed into the living room. The group stood around as if in a waiting room, waiting for somebody to give birth. Or to be executed. Harold stood by the window, facing the drawn shades, arms crossed, head bowed. To Twitchie, it looked as if he was praying, and again, Twitchie wondered about Harold's history.

Then he realized Sam controlled Harold's body and the pensive, or maybe reverent, gesture might be Sam's.

Tense. Everybody.

Harold turned. "You all better sit," Sam said. Twitchie saw no expression behind Harold's sunglasses or under his beard. No tone in his voice either.

They sat around the coffee table.

Harold kissed Twitchie and Sam flooped into Twitchie's mouth.

"Mimi," Sam said, wagging Twitchie's mouth, "is that tooth-pick roach still there?" He nodded to the drawer under the coffee table.

Mimi slid out the drawer, looked in, and nodded.

"Take it out, please," Sam said.

She put the fingernail-sized white twig on the coffee table.

"Now," Sam said, "you know what we need to talk about."

"Going -" Mimi stopped, cleared her throat. "Going back."

The others nodded.

"Nobody has to go," Sam said.

"Leave you stuck here?" Bobbie said.

"You got family, man." Robbie said.

"Besides," Mimi said, "we ain't safe yet."

"We may not be able to stop him anyway," Sam said.

"We got to try," Harold said. "Can't not try."

Twitchie knew what had to be done; to go to the other reality, the other-dimensional rock `n' roll-saturated dope had to be smoked - but he had managed to not think about it, until Sam had forced the issue.

Now, he looked at the little roach and suppressed a shudder. Somebody would have to light it and inhale the smoke so Sam could go back. Whoever did it would have to go back with Sam, would share the same smoke and the same hallucinatory trip.

But that person might not be able to return to this reality. That was the nine-ton pink jackalope picking its nose in the living room. For whoever made the trip, the door between realities swung only one way.

Sam knew this and had passed that knowledge - or the mem-ory, Twitchie realized as his understanding of the process moved a notch further along a line from "huh?" to "I got it" - to everybody when he'd been in their mouths and minds.

Now a new knowledge - memory - reached Twitchie's fore-brain: Sam didn't want to force the issue. He was just as reluctant to face the choice as the five humans were.

No, that wasn't exactly it. Yet another insight surfaced, and a more profound one: Sam knew they all had to make up their own minds. Whoever does this, Twitchie thought, has to want to.

Whoever.

Somebody had to toke up because Sam couldn't smoke the roach. Sam had to go back to find the VSF, who had some "Plan D" at work to break down the walls between dimensions.

"You know how it gets done, right?" Sam said.

Nods.

"You also know -"

"I'll go," Harold said. The twins and Mimi looked at him. Mimi reached out a hand to touch Harold's elbow, but said nothing.

No, Twitchie thought at Sam, not Harold.

"Why you?" Sam asked Harold, level and cool, as if Sam had asked why he wore leather jackets in the summer, and sunglasses. Just curious.

Twitchie sensed that Sam had left Harold to enter Twitchie's mouth as they sat down so that Harold could say, "I'll go."

Harold bunched his fists, lips compressed in a tight line.

Not Harold. Twitchie screamed inside his head at Sam, We all go. Don't you see?

"Why you?" Sam persisted.

"Dammit," Harold hollered, "you know why, you bathtub fart. You've been in my head and you damn well know."

Silence.

We all go, dammit, because -

Suddenly, Twitchie remembered something Sam had fed into his memory, something Sam had "borrowed" from Harold's mem-ory. Sam had passed that part of Harold's memory around to the others, so they all knew.

They all knew what Harold so feared in the other reality, the reason he wanted, needed, yet feared going over there.

The teddy bears.

"Oh, my god -" Mimi said, a hoarse whisper.

- because we're all -

The twins paled and gripped each other's hands.

Mimi reached for Harold, to touch him, but withdrew her hand as if burned when Harold growled deep in his beard.

- because we're family. You understand family, don't you, Sam? You have a family. Well, we're a -"

Sam abruptly released Twitchie's mind and Twitchie felt a mo-mentary vertigo. He recovered quickly and stuck his hand over the coffee table, open, palm up.

"We all go," he said. "Because we're family."

"Yeah." Mimi put her hand on Twitchie's. "We all go."

"Yeah," Bobbie said. She put her hand atop Mimi's. "We all go."

"Family." Robbie put his hand atop his sister's hand.

Harold hesitated. Then he sighed, nodded his shaggy head, and reached out a ham fist to enclose his friend's clenched hands in a tight circle.

24

Mimi opened the little drawer and took out tweezers and a Bic. Bobbie tried to pick up the tiny roach but it slipped from her fingers. Mimi lifted it with the tweezers.

The twins and Mimi lit candles and sandalwood incense.

Harold sat, brooding.

Twitchie handed each their musical instruments, passing out muskets to the militia, lead and rhythm guitars to the twins and tam-bourine and harmonica to Mimi. He grabbed his own bass and wondered what to do with Harold's drums.

Sam induced Twitchie to hand two drumsticks to Harold.

Harold nodded, and tucked the sticks into his jacket.

Twitchie then retook his place with the group, all in their ritual spot around the coffee table.

Mimi stuffed her harmonica down her halter-top and held the tambourine in one hand. She took up the tweezers with the roach and held it up for the twins. They nodded to each other and flipped a mental coin. Bobbie won so she extended her lips and Mimi placed the roach to Bobbie's lower lip and held it there.

Robbie lit the Bic, leaned in close, and touched the flame to the roach in his sister's lips.

Bobbie inhaled.

Twitchie and the others leaned in and inhaled the smoky scent of sandalwood and marijuana - and other-reality rock `n' roll and -

- outside their pad, a siren wailed. Chuck Berry. "Promised Land."

Cheers rose from the park, something indistinct shouted over a raspy PA system, and horns honked, and street traffic swooshed and rumbled. Buffalos boogied. Elephants yodeled.

"We're not in Kansas anymore," Mimi said.

They all rose to go, but some vague apprehension froze Twitchie at the door. For a moment, it felt like the warning itch he'd felt in the park when he and Mimi had copped the dope from the VSF. But he shook off his trepidation as his compatriots bunched behind him ready to go and he led them out.

At Page and Lyon, they found cacophony and chaos. Animals, people, and aliens - scaled, furry, wallpapered, dressed, naked, and semi-naked - walked, slithered, bounced, and flew toward the park.

Entities pressed together in a swirling mass. It would be diffi-cult, Twitchie thought, to get to the park let alone the stage.

"I got an idea," Sam said. He pointed up with Twitchie's finger.

Ten feet up, waiting for the streetlight to change to brassy and blunt from funky and foggy so they could cross, a balloon family hovered. The balloons, red, orange, green, and blue, had strings on their bottoms attached to a metallic cylinder like a modernis-tic garbage can with dials.

Twitchie looked closer. It was vending machine. "Balloon Fam-ily, One Hearn," a sign on the machine read.

"Got change for a hearn?" Sam asked.

The group shrugged.

"S'cuse me." Harold pushed Sam/Twitchie aside. He hugged the machine in his huge arms and lifted it. He jiggled the machine, shook it from side to side. The machine rattled and a high-pitched whine started inside and smoke - lavender, and it smelled like buttered popcorn - seeped from gaps in the machine's hide.

"Okay, okay," a mechanical voice said, "for you, a freebie."

Harold sat the machine down. "Thanks." He grabbed the strings extending from the machine to the hovering balloon family.

"Grab on," Harold said, but Twitchie had already got it and had a solid grip around Harold's waist with one hand while he clung to his bass with the other. Mimi pressed between Twitchie and Harold, and the twins gripped him and the balloon strings from his other side, guitars slung over their shoulders. They floated skyward. The street light changed from polka-dot to golden-giddy and the balloon family bobbed across, above two-headed kangaroos, a `48 Hudson with a crocodile tail, and monkeys on bicycles two by two. All headed for the park and the concert about to get under way, a con-cert that, Twitchie knew, if it happened, meant the end of the world.

From twenty feet above the crowd, Twitchie tried to see where they were going.

They saw giant butterflies here and there, but they seemed to be in a non-menacing mode for the moment.

Sam used Twitchie to look for his family. He didn't see Sam's family, and he felt Sam's fear. Sam looked for his undercover Bor-der Patrol buddies. Didn't see any. They were alone.

No sign of the VSF either. What would he look like? Twitchie thought at Sam.

You'll know him, San thought back. You'll feel it.

Once on the other side, Harold tugged at the strings and the bal-loons squealed, as if they'd been poked in the ribs. They looked down at their cargo, indignant. Twitchie was far past wonderment that they had expressions when they didn't have faces. The group settled down to the grass - ordinary crushed and abused but hardy, green park grass - and the balloon family tugged their strings away from the hitchhikers with much huffing and scolding.

A siren wailed Howling Wolf's "Smokestack Lightnin'" and car horns a block east tooted "Happy Birthday" to a pregnant Volvo. Smoke filled the air, and the feel of maple sugar and the smell of Sunday afternoons hung heavy. It was Sunday afternoon, Twitchie recalled, in both realities. Here, it smelled that way.

"Try to get to the stage," Sam shouted over the noise. "We'll split up. You -" he nodded to the twins, "- go that way," he pointed with Twitchie's head to the east, and "and me and you," he nodded to Mimi, "will go that way," he nodded west.

"What about Harold?" Mimi shouted.

"I got me my own mission," Harold said.

Twitchie followed Harold's gaze and uttered a gasp around Sam; Mimi and the twins gasped as they saw too. Harold looked into the crowd facing the stage fifty yards away at a loose Nazi teddy bear flock. The teddy bears bobbed from side to side in a communal dance, a guttural chant accompanying their martial boo-gie.

Harold growled, dark eyes hidden behind his sunglasses but clearly fixed on his adversary. His fists bunched and the cords in his tree-trunk neck stood out like the cables on the Bay Bridge. Harold's biceps, already as big around as his thigh, bulged, threatening to tear his jacket at the seams.

Harold said something as he took off his sunglasses and handed them to Twitchie without taking his sniper-sharp gaze from the teddy bear dance. It might have been "It's show time," but Twitchie didn't hear it.

25

As Harold waded toward battle, Mimi shouted, "We should help him."

"No," Twitchie/Sam said. "It's his battle." They'd all shared Harold's memory. "We should get to the stage."

Four hippies took the stage, ready to play, the same bunch that had been on stage in Twitchie's and Mimi's first visit to this reality, whose music the twins had taped then.

Harold was a dreadnaught pushing through animated rubber duckies toward the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Twitchie and his friends steeled themselves for their own attack. "Cut the power," Sam shouted, "or destroy the amps, or take out the musicians."

At the look of horror he got from the twins, the same horror Twitchie felt at attacking a rock `n' roll band, Sam amended. "Never mind. Just shut the sound off."

The gang disbursed. Twitchie wondered if this was yet another diversion while the VSF enacted Plan F, going to KPFA radio in Berkeley to air a recording to a broader audience.

But no. That apprehensive itch nagged at him again and his dread amplified another notch as he recognized it. It felt like the VSF, as if he was here, somewhere. As Twitchie charged northwest-ward, guitar held across his chest, dodging bodies in the thinner spaces at the west side of the crowd, he passed a thought to Sam. If we see the VSF -

Dunno, San thought back. Taking out the sound is the only game we got right now. They pressed on through the crowd toward the stage, fifty yards away where the drummer tapped out a warm-up riff and the bass guitarist started tuning up.

"Time is running out," Mimi shouted.

The crowd was thick, like Bay Bridge commuter traffic on a Friday afternoon. Desperate, Twitchie used his bass as a crowbar, pushing it between wedged people/entitles, prying them aside, and pressing into the gap.

Even at the fringe to the west, the crowd was dense. Twitchie thought about walking on their heads, and whatever else sat on their shoulders, those who had shoulders, but he saw another gap and tugged Mimi through it.

At Fell Street, as they'd done before, they stepped into the street to move faster, they dodged cars, and a licorice sailboat with a bad temper, as they moved forward.

On the stage, now fifty feet away, a song started. Twitchie heard the Ace of Cups influence on the band's take of the Seeds "Pushin' Too Hard," the way the bass held a note to start and the lead came in a tad too soon.

"How did they know -" Twitchie began.

Never mind. Twitchie sensed Sam's impatience. Stop the music.

Sam gave Twitchie an instant memory flash. Twitchie flinched, as his vision went burning white, then paled to a red-hot shimmer. Corpses withered to husks, buildings melt like butter, dust and de-bris rise in a gigantic mushroom. He heard a rumble so deep it might have come from inside him. His teeth rattled and Sam vibrated like a cobweb in a storm.

The vision. The fall of the walls between dimensions would not be painless. It would be noisy and messy. It would be Armageddon.

A sudden amplified feedback squeal rose from the amps and the band stopped a dozen notes into the song. The lead singer went to the mike, said something Twitchie didn't catch, and some in the crowd laughed and cheered.

Twitchie shoved an old bag lady aside and dodged her pointed umbrella jab as he moved forward toward the stage, as fast as he could move, Mimi right behind him.

Too late, Sam thought inside Twitchie's mind. The band started again. Too late, too late.

From the crowd south of where Twitchie/Sam and Mimi were, a raucous many-voiced teddy bearish howl and a metallic clash erupted. Teddy bears were attacking a giant, hairy warrior, a nor-mal-dimensional hippie. Giant butterflies circled overhead. A space in the dense crowd cleared, a wide circle, for the combat to play out.

Louder than the crowd, louder than teddy bear screams, another more pronounced battle cry rose. Harold's.

The band stopped and the bandleader guy took the microphone to speak, a garbled complaint that Twitchie didn't hear. Harold had pro-vided a diversion; he and Mimi took advantage and charged, knocking down and jumping over bodies.

Twenty feet from the stage, Twitchie saw the twins had reached the opposite side of the stage and struggled with two hairy octo-pussy security guards who tried to keep the twins from mischief.

A van sat behind the stage, like at the Ace of Cups performance back home. From Twitchie's vantage, it looked as if the twins were closer to the van, but it also looked as if this reality had a lot more secu-rity than his own, and the twins didn't stand a chance of reaching the van.

The twins, Twitchie observed, had realized this and had chosen to attack the not-as-close but less-well-guarded amps on their side of the stage. For a moment, Twitchie felt relief that the twins had found a solution to shutting down the sound, namely toppling the amps, and that he wouldn't have to do anything. But the twins weren't going to win. The two octopussy guards who intercepted them had the upper hand - tentacle. The twins went down under a mass of suckers and flailing rubbery appendages.

It was up to Twitchie and Mimi and Sam. That nagging sensa-tion of dread hit Twitchie again, but more intense this time, like an electric jolt. Sam felt the jolt in Twitchie's mind and asked: huh? Twitchie responded with a mental shiver.

The crowd hollered, swayed, forced to and fro by the teddy bear-hippie battle in their midst. The guy at the microphone bel-lyached in other-dimensional vulgarities, voice a whiney falsetto, and Twitchie and Mimi reached the stage in a final dash.

The stage platform rose three feet off the ground, genuine good ol' Ameri-can plywood. The black refrigerator-sized amp, with a half-dozen smaller amps stacked beside and behind it, sat a half-foot in from the stage edge. The main amp rose above Twitchie's head, so big he could hardly get his arms around it to tug it off the stage as he'd thought to do.

Twitchie handed Mimi his guitar, not looking at her as he did so. He concentrated on the box and what he intended to do next.

As he did so, something in his mind screamed at him to run away.

Gritting his teeth against the almost physical feeling of dread, as if he was about to grab a live wire and electrocute himself, Twitchie grabbed a lip of the big amp and pulled himself onto the stage, where he stood in the six-inch gap between the amp and the stage floor outer edge. He put his arms around the beast box as far as he could reach and tugged on it. It was like trying to lift a piano.

A voice in his mind screamed at him to stop, to run, and it physi-cally hurt to ignore it.

Grunting and sweating, hair in his face, glasses askew and foggy, Twitchie tried to uproot the box. A skinny Samson trying to tear down a temple.

The crowd roared, watching the teddy bear war.

Twitchie leaned backward, pulling the amp toward him. The opposite side of the huge box lifted an inch and Twitchie began to rock it back and forth.

Mimi hollered from below him as he tugged on the box and she tugged on his pants.

The box rocked more, now two inches off the stage floor, now three, now four, and Twitchie hazarded a quick, foggy glance down at Mimi. Her shout got lost in the warfare clash/near-riot/amplified bellyaching from the band-leader/siren wailing "Great Balls of Fire"/hammering of his own heart/hacking breathing/pain-filled grunts and something inside his head screaming at him to run away.

The box began to fall away from the stage.

As it fell, Twitchie got it, understood what had alarmed Mimi. As he fell, he realized that Sam too had tried to yell at him in his mind, to warn him of the same thing Mimi tried to warn him about.

The amp was falling on him.

On him.

Some part of Twitchie's mind found a nanosecond to wonder how he'd managed to ignore Sam's yelling at him in his own head.

And in the next nanosecond, he finally - too late - identified that voice in his head pestering him to run.

Not Mimi's. Not Sam's.

The Very Strange Fellow.

As he fell backwards off the stage with the massive amp clutched in his arms, Twitchie caught a familiar graveyard stench and saw in the face of the faceless amp four inches from his nose a pair of red-rimmed ball bearing eyes staring at him.

The VSF was in the amp.

The VSF was the amp.

Of course.

The VSF had occupied a dead bum, or part of his consciousness had. And inanimate objects in this reality - refrigera-tors, mustard jars, toasters - were conscious. And the VSF wasn't in the dead bum now, so where was he?

Right here, in my arms, right in front of my nose, screaming at me to run away so it can help amplify the interdimensional wall-crashing rock `n' roll and destroy everything.

Of course.

In the split second before he hit the ground, where he knew the box/VSF would crush his chest and kill him, Twitchie knew he'd failed. There must have been some kind of psychic or spiritual relation-ship, some link, he realized, between him and the VSF all along. From the moment he'd first sensed something strange about the fellow, it was as if they'd been drawn to each other. And before he died, Twitchie wondered if the VSF knew this and had used Twitchie's mental alarm system against him.

Twitchie took a nanosecond to regret.

He didn't regret dying. He had his views of an afterlife, reached through his own intellectual quest, mostly rebellion, modifying his family's starched-collar churchy tutelage. Nothing formal, nothing fancy, still in first draft. But his.

He didn't regret harm to Sam because in the same nanosecond he spared himself to review his life and list his blessings and regrets, he knew Sam would floop from his mouth and find another mouth to be in. Maybe Mimi's. Or he'd return to his home reality, float away to rejoin his family in their interrupted picnic.

But no. It didn't matter. The world was about to end. For Sam, for Harold, and for the twins. And for Mimi. For everybody and everything. And it's my fault.

He didn't regret not having one last bubble bath with Mimi. He and Mimi had had many baths together and it had all been good.

What Twitchie regretted most in his life's last nanoseconds was that Rock `n' Roll Universe would never get on the cover of the Rolling Stone.

26

Bright light burned Twitchie's eyelids. People who understood these things better than he did and with whom he'd argued often and at length, as much for entertainment as enlightenment, and usually while stoned, had told him not to walk toward the light.

He couldn't move. The light grew dense in the center as he squinted at it. Two darker shapes evolved from the light's core. The shapes coalesced into a dark, hairy, neckless ape with mountain-ous shoulders and long arms, and a shorter, softer-featured entity with enormous hooters.

Harold and Mimi.

"Where are the twins?" Twitchie tried to say. It came out "Whuu uh uu swhisch?"

Not because he had a soap bubble narc in his mouth. No, Sam had left him, was in Mimi's mouth, around which she tried to smile.

"He's okay, right?" Bobbie sounded anxious.

Twitchie couldn't see her. She must be standing behind where he - lay? On a bed.

"The cat sounds like shit," Robbie said. Couldn't see him either.

Where am I? His tongue tasted like the Oakland Tribune.

"He's okay." Harold stood over Twitchie, eyes hidden behind sunglasses and smile hidden under dense hair; you could tell by the way the hair curled up at the cheekbones.

"You're okay," Sam said. Mimi leaned over Twitchie, close, hair smelling of bubble bath.

I'm alive.

"Ing aligh - alive. I'g ogay."

Somebody laughed, little-girlish, hiccuppy and giggling, and clapped her - Mimi's hands.

He sat up, with help from Harold and Mimi. The room spun.

He sat still waiting for the room to finish spinning.

A room?

Twitchie reached to adjust his glasses. Not there. He blinked and squinted around the -

Not a room. An open outdoor arbor like he'd seen in Napa Val-ley where they grew grapes and made wine. The group had been there once for a high school prom, one of the band's first paying gig. Twitchie remembered the archway, a white wood slate latticework over the public entrance to a big winery laced with grape vines and laden with ripe purple grapes hanging in bunches. They'd stood in an arbor, in the dappled sun and shade and said "Wow" a lot.

"We won?" Twitchie asked.

Mimi kissed Twitchie, Sam flooped into Twitchie's mouth and Sam flooded Twitchie with memories.

Twitchie shook his head, waving his hand as if to ward off tsetse flies. "Nononono," he said around Sam. He tried to pluck the bubble from his mouth.

Too much, he thought at Sam. Too fast.

An abrupt memory slammed into Twitchie's consciousness, an awareness that hit as hard as if he'd been killed, crushed under a five-hundred-pound amplifier.

#

Twitchie hit the grass at the foot of the stage on his back, arms still clutching the huge amp above him - the VSF. The air left him with a whoosh at the abrupt impact.

But he hadn't been crushed. His head hurt, as if a teddy bear ax handle had whacked him, his glasses knocked off, gouging his nose, and he forgot about them as the pain in his head demanded attention. Then he lost consciousness.

When Twitchie hit the deck, the impact was so jarring Sam expelled from Twitchie's mouth, like he'd been shot from a cannon - Fwooop! He bounced off the black surface of the VSF/amplifier inches above Twitchie's chin, bounced again, as if in a pinball machine, then controlled himself and flooped into Mimi's mouth a foot away.

Mimi's mouth had been clenched shut at the time, teeth gritted in the effort to pull Twitchie out from under the monster box that had fallen on him. Her clenched jaw gave way to Sam.

Sam entered her mind. They both had the same idea - save Twitchie - so they worked together.

The huge amp hadn't fallen off the stage on Twitchie; it fell at an angle, and just the upper edge had come down. Now that Sam was in Mimi's head, Sam and Mimi could see the foot of the amp still clung to the lip of the stage three feet up.

Twitchie's head was under the narrower gap at the farthest end, the lower end, of the amp, and it looked to Sam/Mimi as if his head had been pushed an inch into the grass under the amp's weight. Twitchie faced toward Sam and Mimi, jaw agape, drool connecting grass to chin, eyes glassy and half closed.

He looked dead.

Mimi touched his narrow ribcage and felt it rise and fall. But his eyes looked vacant.

We've got to get him out, Mimi thought at Sam. She tugged on Twitchie's near arm, but he was jammed tight, head wedged be-tween amp and ground.

Cracked skull, Mimi thought. Brain damage.

Sam thought back at her, Let's get him out first.

She scooted back away from the tilted amp, and her man under it, to see the problem better.

A forest of legs and tentacles surrounded Mimi, the curious press-ing close, and for the first time since the amp started toppling toward Twitchie, she heard what was going on around her.

So intent had she focused at the critical instant the amp had started to topple that she'd managed to shut out everything else.

The band had stopped playing, and shouts and screams erupted in a cacophonous racket. Above it all, she heard a triumphant, hu-man roar, what Harold might make on defeating the inner demons he'd decided to face and fight - those Nazi teddy bears.

It pleased Mimi to hear he'd won. She wanted to hear about it, but later.

She had to move the amp. It was heavy, and its foot precariously propped on the stage edge three feet above Twitchie's feet, which stuck under the stage itself.

It was too big for Mimi to move alone, and it would be foolish to try. If it slipped, it would fall on Twitchie.

Even as Mimi looked around for stout arms and backs to help, Harold, the twins, and several hippies elbowed their way to her side. In a few seconds, an impromptu rescue team had lifted the amp and dragged Twitchie to safety.

Twitchie's rescuers had found a stretcher - even in this halluci-nated reality, they had Boy Scouts - and they'd carried him to a clear space behind the stage.

With the twins looking on, sweating, panting, and disheveled, an entity leaned over Twitchie's limp form. It didn't look like a doctor to Mimi, but Sam, in her mind, reassured her ambulatory sunflowers made the best doctors in his reality.

An ambulance backed up onto the grass nearby. Mimi had heard the ambulance as it approached down Fell, blaring "Jailhouse Rock" and flashing polka-dotted green and coconut lights. The attendants were efficient dogs, one a cross-dressing Labrador and the other a collie wearing granny glasses and a paisley bow tie. The ambulance took Twitchie to a hospital where his friends later joined him.

#

I thought the VSF has killed me, Twitchie thought at Sam. Why am I still alive? In answer, Sam fed him the memory of what the twins did when they saw Twitchie across the stage from where they fought with two multi-armed security octopussies.

Twitchie nearly fainted at the jarring sudden memory.

27

The twins couldn't hear each other, being so close to the stage and the monstrous, booming amp a few feet away from them, so they failed to coordinate their attack. Frantic hand gestures and body language didn't work, and while Bobbie made a lunge toward the cables snaking from the cluster of amps, intent on tearing them from their sockets, Robbie moved toward the big amp, intent on pushing it off the stage.

In the confusion and missed communication, unusual for the twins, the security octopussies intervened. They tossed them to the ground as two bouncers might toss drunks into the alley, strong and experienced in beating the crap out of skinny rowdies.

The twins lost grip on their guitars and didn't see them again until after the battle had ended.

Looking up from the ground where they kicked, punched, bit, wiggled, and tried to disentangle themselves from choking, twisted tentacles and rise and carry on, the twins saw Twitchie hop up on to the stage across from them and grab the big amplifier, like the one on their side of the stage.

The twins entangled in fishy-smelling, rubbery, but strong ten-tacles and couldn't move. Pressed into the grass, they expected to feel handcuffs clinking onto their wrists any second. Who would have thought calamari could be so strong?

Face down against the grass, with a two-hundred-pound fish on his back, Robbie saw through legs, tentacles, paws, and hooves be-tween him and the far side of the stage Twitchie was about to pull the big amp on top of him.

He'd be killed.

Robbie didn't know what to do, didn't even know if he could do anything from where he lay. But he had to do something.

He found inside him a desperation-fueled Harold-like strength and he lunged upward off the ground with a mighty grunt, loosening several ten-tacles gripping him. He pressed up on knees and elbows and surged stageward.

Bobbie also found her own strength and will to save Twitchie. She too had escaped the encumbering fishy clutches and had lunged to the stage.

Their eyes met in an instant, the same instant they both realized what they had to do.

Even if they could hear each other over the raucous racket on the stage floor they crawled across on hands and knees, they didn't need to say anything. At the same time that they got free from the security hippie octopussies, at the same time as the amp was about to topple and crush Twitchie twenty feet away, they both saw one snaky black cord that stretched across the stage was attached to the big al-most-toppled-now amp. If they pulled the cord, they might - just might - keep the amp from falling on Twitchie.

They both grabbed the cord as the octopussies grabbed their ankles and started reeling them back like escaping carp. They tugged on the cord with all their might, trying to keep the amp from toppling.

They only partially succeeded; they kept the amp from sliding off the stage. It was enough. The cord kept the foot of the amp on the stage, kept it from falling all the way over. If the twins had expended an ounce less pressure - or if they had gotten to it a second later - Twitchie would have been crushed like a watermelon dropped off the back of a pickup on the freeway.

The two octopussies rallied and dragged the twins off the stage and were about to handcuff them. Then they vanished.

The twins suddenly found themselves unencumbered. They leaned against each other for support, panting and sweaty.

Had they saved Twitchie? They started out to check.

As they took their first step, a howl arrested their attention and they stopped.

As did everybody else. Faces, snouts, beaks, and mugs aimed back into the crowd core, where something interesting happened, something they could not see.

Even as they tried to see what the fuss was about, they realized two things. The howl was Harold's, though they'd never heard him howl like that before, which is why it took a second to realize it. A warrior's victory cry. Since it came from where they'd last seen Harold headed for mortal combat with a dozen teddy bears, the gen-eral direction the crowd faced, they concluded Harold had won.

The second thing they concluded as they interrupted their dash toward Twitchie was the entities around them were vanishing.

Floop-oop, a blue buffalo and his dancing partner vanished in mid-boogaloo.

Plip, plip, plip, three winged pigs hovering ten feet above them ceased to exist.

Ka-ping, poop, a bearded mayonnaise jar disappeared.

Ploop, ploop, two gigantic hippie calamari security guards left the menu.

The commotion diminished - fewer voices to make it - and the twins heard Twitchie groan fifteen feet away.

They joined the rescue squad digging him out from under the fallen amp.

Later, they found their guitars under the stage. Broken.

28

Before Twitchie could ask, and to finish the twins' story, Sam gave him an image of kindling with strings. Twitchie winced.

And Harold's okay too, Sam remembered back at Twitchie. It didn't surprise Twitchie that Sam was a step ahead of him. As an interdimensional border patrol agent, Sam had experience running up and down alien neural pathways. He had the Big Picture. Sam fired into Twitchie's memory the tale Harold had told the group as they gathered after rescuing Twitchie.

#

Harold had once been a smoker. Marlboro filters. In the red and white box. But he quit.

There came the time in Nam when he'd gotten separated from his squad while taking point on a night patrol and he had to hunker down in a ditch while VC snuck around him, only feet away. They were coming back from their own patrol and he'd heard a fire fight not half a click behind him; he'd been cut off.

There they were, creeping fast past him, toting their injured. He hunkered down in the shallow ditch, cursing the moonlight, trying not to breathe, praying the VC didn't look under their feet as they retreated, praying they were in a hurry.

Remembering the faces of two buddies who he'd watched die days before.

It took hours before the last VC passed. He stayed put; there might be a straggler and he'd stand up in front of an AK-47. He lay unmoving, heart a jackhammer in his throat, sweating. Dehy-drating. Hallucinating.

The last two VC grunts Harold saw go past him, five feet away in the tall grass, bodies flitting in and out of moonlight and dappled shadow, looked like grotesque versions of a teddy bear Harold once owned. They chatted, those last two VC - in German, Harold de-cided. They wore antique helmets and they carried weapons that looked un-rifle-like in the feverish, super-heated nightscape.

His own patrol found him asleep in the ditch just after dawn, stiff, sore, and dehydrated. They ribbed him about it for the last three months of his tour, how they'd caught him napping. Worse, he'd shit his pants.

So he knew how to suppress a gut-wrenching fear that threat-ened to turn his knees to rubber and press him into a cringing, whim-pering fetal position, as the threat of facing those teddy bears - those goddam sonsabitching teddy bears - did.

"I'll go," he'd said in the apartment, the exact words he used on that night in Nam, volunteering for point.

He had to face the teddy bears. And his fears.

Sam had understood that Harold needed to face the teddy bears. Maybe Sam had his own teddy bears.

So it came to pass, standing near the crowd in the park as the group and Sam worked out their strategy for stopping the band on the stage from playing the music that would cause the universe to non-exist, Harold looked for the teddy bears.

Saw them.

Attacked them.

His legs did not go rubbery as he pushed through the crowd, thick waves of saw grass, between him and the teddy bear squadron. Adrenaline pumped to his shoulder and arm muscles, turning them into iron.

The teddy bears were on break from mayhem now, leaning on their axes, watching the band, like every-entity else, and didn't see him barreling toward them till too late.

Harold hit so fast, had punched the first teddy bear snout he saw so quick, the others had no time to wield their axes to defend them-selves. The next teddy bear he took with a foot in the chest. It flew back with a grunted whoosh and knocked over two comrades. Spiked helmets and axes scattered.

As Harold lifted another teddy bear by the neck to toss him into his fellows, he felt a teddy bear ax jab his right thigh. He dropped the teddy bear he held over his head, turned quick as lightning, and grabbed the attacker's ax.

Harold jerked the ax from the surprised teddy bear's hands. He swung it at the furry little beastie squad that had rallied and gathered in a rough circle around him. Spectators screamed and jostled to make way. A circle formed, facing inward. Shouting, cheering - giving Harold and the eight standing teddy bears room. Four furries lay on the ground, groaning, nursing wounds.

Harold brandished the ax in a wide circle, keeping the fuzzy fiends at bay. They poked at him with their axes, but withdrew when he swung or jabbed back at them.

One teddy bear charged from behind Harold and grabbed the ax. The attack held Harold steady for a second, long enough for the others to charge.

With a savage, teeth-gritted, Goliath grunt, Harold raised his ax and its clinging teddy high into the air. He propelled the now terri-fied critter into four of his fellows.

In a few seconds, Harold added the last three to a furry, tangled heap. Most were unconscious, the others groggy. One tried to creep away on all fours, but Harold aimed a boot at its plump tummy and it yipped like a kicked puppy as it arched over the watching, cheering crowd, stubby arms and legs flailing.

Harold looked back at the fuzzy tangle and counted bodies. He'd tossed four into the crowd and seven lay before him, unconscious-.

The last one had almost succeeded in belly-crawling between the legs of a giant rubber ducky when Harold spotted it. He picked it up by its neck and held it up. Its stubby legs kicked, and its arms flailed and it cursed and then went limp, whimpering.

The crowd cheered as Harold tossed his victim atop the teddy bear pile and took out the drumsticks he'd concealed in his jacket. He held up the sticks and the crowd cheered again.

Harold had planned to spank the teddies, to humiliate them, but suddenly the gesture felt petty.

Images of Nam, and of that other war - of that teddy bear, that father, that argument, that incident at his fifth birthday party - gushed through Harold's consciousness in a dizzying flash. With a lung-rattling roar, he threw his drumsticks over the crowd.

Harold had no interest in the crowd's cheers. A commotion, people and entities doing something frantic near the stage, drew his attention. One of the twins ran in front of the stage, but he couldn't tell which. A dignified sunflower with a stethoscope bent over some-body on the ground under a gigantic amplifier.

Harold ran.

29

Twitchie sipped glacier-cold water from a glass Mimi had handed him. It soothed his parched throat.

He looked around him. A room. The Congregational Church in Oakl-and?

No, not the church he recognized from his reality, but one like it in the hallucinated reality.

"It's got no roof," Twitchie said aloud. Sam hovered near Mimi's shoulder, floating in the air like - like a soap bubble. "It's all open -"

"Some things are different here," Sam said. "Some are the same. San Francisco is still the City of Love. Haight-Ashbury, trolley cars, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Fillmore. It's still 1967. But there's no war and no FBI."

"- and there's still rock `n' roll -" Bobbie said.

"- like, Elvis," Robbie said, "he's here, man, but he plays the bagpipes -"

"And choices." Mimi.

The group gathered around Twitchie as he sat up in what looked, felt, and smelled like a hospital bed in the roofless sun-speckled grape arbor. They looked at Twitchie, the twins with tentative smiles, Mimi ditto, and probably Harold too, but who knew what he thought or felt behind his beard and sunglasses when he wasn't smiling?

"Yeah," Bobbie said. "Choices."

"Yeah," Robbie said.

Choices?

Somebody cleared a throat, and it took Twitchie a moment be-fore he realized Sam had done it.

"We defeated the Very Strange Fellow," Sam said. "But there are still -"

"Wait," Twitchie said. "We won? But I thought I was killed. What happened?"

Choices?

Sam sighed. "Last time." He plooped into Twitchie's mouth.

He plooped back out again a nanosecond later, mission accom-plished.

The others waited, as Twitchie blinked and gasped as he wan-dered down new neural pathways Sam had induced in his brain, remembering new memories. He felt dizzy under the onslaught but he did not faint.

"Damn," he said.

#

Twitchie lost consciousness as he fell from the stage so he didn't know what happened next until Sam induced the memory in him.

The VSF usually moved his consciousness around from host to host as needed, rode other entities as people rode cars or bicycles. He had no real physical self, but those with an affinity for such things could sense his presence in whatever guise he assumed, which is how he'd gotten caught and imprisoned before. Dimen-sional border agents like Sam had such an affinity.

So did Twitchie. But he didn't know it. He assumed his sixth sense about avoiding getting busted when pick pocketing was what tipped him to the VSF in the park. The ability was something he might never have known even existed if not for the VSF. It was what caused him such a tangible itch of trepidation in the minutes before the Battle of the Panhandle.

But the VSF had also missed something. Twitchie had powers the VSF thought only he was privy to, and even though Twitchie was unaware of those powers, they were so great that, even without knowing how to use them, they manifest, even as Twitchie lost con-sciousness, in the most unusual sensation the VSF had ever felt: trapped inside a host entity.

Till the last instant, the VSF expected to exit the falling amp and find a new host. He had no idea that Twitchie's attack would freeze him in the amp.

He was trapped inside the amp. Trapped.

Twitchie was unconscious so he couldn't hear the VSF scream in his mind.

#

In the park, right after the VSF occupied the dead bum as a host to help spread his dimension-wall-breaking rock `n' roll saturated weed, he'd found Twitchie's mind, tuned into it. It felt like finding a clear radio signal above the cacophony of random electronic noise. It felt to the VSF like find-ing his twin, his soul mate. In a twinkling, he arranged for the skinny hippie to pick his pocket of the toothpick joint while he snatched the hippie's wallet.

But what the VSF didn't realize, what Twitchie didn't know until he remembered it through Sam's induced memory, and what Sam himself couldn't have known till after the dust of battle had settled and these things could be figured out, was that Twitchie was to the VSF not as Robbie and Bobbie were to each other. They were not twins; they were mirror images of each other. Twitchie was to the Very Strange Fellow as white to black. Twitchie was the ulti-mate counterbalance to the VSF's nefarious plans. Without know-ing it, when the VSF selected Twitchie as the vehicle of his plot, he elected his own nemesis.

Without knowing how he did it, Twitchie had locked the VSF in his incarnation as a five hundred pound amplifier where he was stuck. Forever.

Sam induced in Twitchie the image of this reality's equivalent of Fort Knox, with the VSF-amp at its deepest, most secure center.

The Battle of the Panhandle had stabilized the walls between realities.

Twitchie's sigh of contentment turned into a hiccup as he re-called the word: choices.

"Choices?" he said aloud.

Twitchie opened up the box of memories labeled "choices" and poked gingerly inside.

Rock `n' Roll Universe - Twitchie, Mimi, Harold and Robbie and Bobbie - could go back to their own reality in a procedure that didn't threaten dimensional stability the way the VSF had, the same proce-dure the dimensional border patrol occasionally used when it was necessary. In his mind, Twitchie saw the process as a Julia Child recipe that included dynamite and peyote in the ingre-dients. Not to be used frivolously.

Yes, they could go back. As clear as glacier water, Twitchie saw the price tag.

"If we go back," his said, his voice gravelly, "we'd have to stop playing rock `n' roll."

No one spoke.

"Or," Twitchie continued, "we could stay here, and -"

Mimi squeezed Twitchie's hand and smiled.

"Stay or go -" Twitchie looked at Mimi and Harold and the twins and found the memory of their decision - which way do they want to go? - wasn't in his head. Sam had not shared that particular memory when he'd flooped into Twitchie's mouth a minute ago.

Because -

"Because you haven't decided yet," Twitchie said.

"We wanted to wait for you," Mimi said.

"Yeah," Bobbie said.

"`Cause we're a family, man," Robbie said.

Harold nodded.

Twitchie took another sip of water. He picked up his glasses. Someone had cleaned them and fixed a chip in the frame.

He put them on and looked around the arbor, at the cloudless, sunny day beyond, and the ripe, heavy grape bunches in the bower overhead. Heart-shaped leaves rustled in a gentle breeze. The air smelled fruity and clean.

Twitchie's friends waited for him to choose.

"Do they have -" he started, and remembered.

He remembered. They did have, over here.

"It's not called the Rolling Stone," Sam said, reading Twitchie's thoughts, as Mimi often did, as the twins did with one another so that the phenomenon scarcely warranted comment anymore. "It's called Rock `n' Roll Universe."

"Huh," Twitchie said. Then: "Will we have to change our name?"

Mimi grinned, and laughed, and kissed him on the cheek.

end


 

Copyright © 2007 by Ken Rand . All rights reserved unless specified otherwise above.


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