XVI

When Vanessa heard loud diesel engines outside the Red Cross shelter in Garden City, the first thing she wondered was whether she’d slipped a cog. Hardly any motor noises had been around lately. The cars that could get out of town had got. Hardly any more vehicles were coming in out of the west.

So what the devil was going on? Curiosity felt odd. She knew more about the people cooped up in room K- with her than she’d ever wanted to find out. She knew how they smelled: worse by the day. So did she. She knew how The Mill on the Floss came out. Knowing didn’t stop her from wondering why the Garden City school district inflicted it on defenseless high schoolers.

Some of the refugees passed the time by playing cards. That had already caused two fights. Money seemed like a joke when you couldn’t buy anything with it-till you started losing. Then, to some people, it stopped being funny.

And if Vanessa never saw another MRE… it was liable to mean she’d starve to death. Which was worse seemed less and less obvious.

The MREs did give her and her fellow inmates at the refugee center the strength to complain. They complained about the food, though nobody did the old Catskills shtick and added and such small portions! Not even the most dedicated complainer-and Vanessa was right up there-wanted more of the military rations. As far as she was concerned, they only proved GIs were heroes.

They complained about the accommodations. They complained about the stinking heads. They complained about having to go outside through the dust to use the stinking heads. (They complained even more about the idea of using a bucket behind a curtain in the room, not that there was enough space to set up that kind of niche anyhow.) Everybody complained about how smelly everybody else was.

They complained whenever somebody farted. Since they were eating MREs all the time, people farted a lot. Some were sound and fury, signifying nothing. Some could have cleared out Madison Square Garden. Clearing out K-1 wasn’t so easy. You had to flee into the dust. Farts were only noxious. That stuff was whatever came after noxious.

Pickles was out in it. She wasn’t the only one who complained about having to abandon a pet. Maybe somebody out there had taken in her poor, dumb kitty. She could hope so, but she couldn’t make herself believe it. Guilt gnawed at her.

One of the Red Cross people came into the classroom in the middle of the morning. That alarmed Vanessa the way a change in routine alarmed a guy halfway through a twenty-year sentence. It was different! Something had to be wrong with it!

“Grab your stuff, put on masks if you’ve got ’em, and come outside in a neat line,” the woman said, for all the world like a kindergarten teacher. But she added something a kindergarten teacher wouldn’t have: “We are going to evacuate the people at this center to a site farther east.”

“There is a God!” Vanessa exclaimed amidst the general hubbub the announcement set off.

A doughy, middle-aged woman gave her a disapproving look. “Of course there is,” she said, her voice a harsh Kansas rasp that sounded straight off a Depression-era farm. “Have you accepted our Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?”

“I don’t think Jesus had shit to do with the supervolcano, and I figure I saved myself when I got the hell out of Denver,” Vanessa answered. To make herself perfectly clear, she added, “You can do whatever you want with your own stupid religion, as long as you don’t dump it on me.”

When her father talked about religion, he described himself as a born-again pagan. His father had been a dour Baptist, but Dad got over it. Vanessa’s mother had messed around with various New Agey things without letting much stick. Her brothers were as pious as she was. Rob enjoyed getting into debates when Mormon missionaries came around. One memorable summer afternoon, Mahall tried a more direct approach: he turned around and dropped his pants. No Mormons-or even Jehovah’s Witnesses-rang the doorbell for a long time after that.

Ms. Doughface looked as if Vanessa had sprouted bright red horns and a long, barbed tail. “You’ll burn forever!” she said.

“Yeah, well, suppose you let me worry about that, too, okay?” Vanessa said. She pushed past the woman. She would have hauled off and belted her with any more provocations. None of the squabbles in K-1 had left anyone badly hurt, but everyone’s temper was frayed.

Vanessa wasn’t close to the front of the line. She also wasn’t close to the doughy woman, who’d ended up near the back. Serves her right, Vanessa thought.

Lines were also forming in front of the other overcrowded classrooms. A man’s voice floated through the air (so did volcanic ash people were kicking up, but Vanessa tried to ignore that): “Wherever we’re going, it’s gotta be better than this!”

Now there was something to say Amen! to. One by one, each classroom’s worth of refugees headed up toward the front of the high school. At last, a Red Cross man shepherded K-1 forward. Vanessa hoped with all her heart she never saw-or smelled-this miserable place again.

Some of the buses growling out front were commandeered from schools: they were bright yellow, with the names of rural districts stenciled in black below the windows. More were as military as MREs, and painted olive drab. All of them had big, fat, super-duper filters sticking out from their engine compartments. If you were going to go anywhere with all this shit blowing around-and it was-that was how you had to go about it.

The bus into which Vanessa climbed was a military model. That didn’t, and probably couldn’t, make it less comfortable than a school bus. The driver was also military. He wore desert camouflage and a gas mask.

He touched a door when the bus was full. The doors rasped shut. Vanessa, who was sitting not far from the front, got the idea they were supposed to hiss instead of rasping. You couldn’t put super-duper filters on everything. Even if grit didn’t murder the engine, this bus had a strictly limited life expectancy.

As long as it got her away from Garden City, Kansas, before it dropped dead, she couldn’t have cared less.

“Where are we going?” someone asked as the bus pulled away from the high school.

“It’s called Camp Constitution, sir,” the driver answered. Vanessa could hardly hear him over the roar of the bus in motion. Military specs plainly didn’t worry about noise inside the cabin. “As for where it’s located at, it’s between Muskogee and Fayetteville.”

Oklahoma? Arkansas? One of those states. The ass end of nowhere, either way. Why on earth would they dump-how many? — refugees there?

No sooner had the question occurred to Vanessa than the woman right behind her asked it out loud. “Ma’am, they briefed us on account of that’s where the dust from the volcano stopped falling,” the driver said, which made a certain amount of sense. He continued, “So that’s how come FEMA was tasked with setting up Camp Constitution there.”

By the way he repeated the name, he seemed to like it. Vanessa didn’t. To her, it sounded like some bureaucrat’s effort to make squalor and misery sound patriotic. Hearing that FEMA was running the place did nothing to reassure her, either. Had FEMA ever run anitt hadn’t screwed up? If it had, it wasn’t within her memory.

How many people aboard the olive-drab bus were having that same reassuring thought? At least one besides Vanessa: a man yelped, “How come the Army isn’t running this camp?”

“The Army can’t do that!” The driver sounded as shocked as anyone could through a gas mask. “It isn’t the military’s responsibility to run a civilian facility inside the USA.”

“But the Army might do it right. FEMA sure won’t,” the man said, which was exactly what Vanessa was thinking.

This time, he got no answer. The driver was concentrating on the Interstate in front of him. He needed to concentrate, because he was going through a pretty fair sandstorm. Less dust and ash floated in the air than right after the eruption, but more lay on the ground. The bus convoy stirred it up again.

The Army bus boasted air-conditioning. Soldiers traveled in more style than Vanessa would have guessed. What kind of fancy filters kept the A/C from overloading and crapping out? She didn’t much care. Breathing air that wasn’t close and moist and didn’t smell like too many other people felt wonderful, or whatever one step up from wonderful was.

Then there was a pop! outside. One of the windows on the left side blew in. At the same instant, or close enough, one of the windows on the right side blew out. So much for the air-conditioning.

Even as people were screaming and squealing and trying to get bits of glass out of their hair, the driver grabbed an M-16 Vanessa hadn’t noticed by his feet. He fired a burst out through his window. The din was horrendous, and set the passengers making even more noise than they were already.

Another shot from outside punched through sheet metal. By what would do for a miracle, it didn’t punch through any people. The driver squeezed off a fresh answering burst. He hadn’t a prayer of hitting whatever maniac out there who was shooting at them. Maybe he could make the asshole duck, anyway.

“What’s he doing?” a woman howled. Vanessa thought it was the gal who had a personal savior. That didn’t make it a dumb question, though.

“Some people are kinda unhappy we’re evacuating from west to east, and on account of we’re taking folks out of Red Cross shelters first,” the driver answered with commendable calm.

Kinda unhappy, here, meant something like pissed off enough to try to commit murder. Vanessa had no trouble working that out. She wasn’t so sure about her fellow refugees; she’d never been one to underestimate the power of human stupidity.

Then she imagined herself on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific instead of in a freshly ventilated olive-drab bus that all of a sudden stank of cordite. She imagined some poor bastard treading water as the boat went by. It wasn’t going to stop for him and let him climb aboard. If he had a gun, wouldn’t he use it?

No wonder the guy out there in the dust started shooting. Vanessa supposed they ought to count themselves lucky he only had a varmint gun, not an RPG. For whatever reason-maybe his car bought a plot right away-he was stuck in the middle of the dust. How much longer could he, or anybody else, last here?

How many more like him were scattered from Nevada to here? How many of them would be able to get out? How many would die of one lung disease or another, or else starve because the continent-wide food-distribution system suddnly had a hole you could throw a few states through? Bound to be hundreds of thousands. Millions, more likely.

How many acres of corn and wheat and soybeans were dying under the dust? How many cows and sheep and pigs and chickens? They weren’t going to evacuate livestock, not when they didn’t have a prayer of getting even a fraction of the people out.

Which meant… what, exactly? It means I’m goddamn lucky to be on this bus, Vanessa decided. That was obvious, and made obviouser by someone in the blood-warm water with the circling dorsal fins opening up on her.

Less obvious, maybe, was that, if things kept on the way they were going, pretty soon an MRE would be something to fight over, not something to swear at. That might have been the scariest thought Vanessa had had since the supervolcano blew up.

The man from the National Park Service and the man from the U.S. Geological Survey nodded in jerky unison. “Yes, if you want to do this you have to sign all the releases,” the USGS guy said. “You have to acknowledge in writing that you are doing this at your own risk, that you know it is dangerous, and that the federal government is not liable if you are injured or killed. We have a little too much on our plates right now to worry about nuisance lawsuits.”

“Yeah, just a little,” the National Park Service guy agreed.

Kelly was ready to sign on the dotted line. Kelly was, in fact, eager. She wouldn’t have come to this meeting if she weren’t. A chance to fly over the supervolcano crater, look down, and take pictures? She thought she would have signed away her immortal soul for that, let alone a chance for her heirs and assigns to take a bite out of Uncle Sam if something went wrong.

And something was liable to. She hadn’t told Colin about this little jaunt, for fear he would call her ninety-seven different kinds of idiot. If the supervolcano so much as hiccupped while they were over it, they’d be toast-to say nothing of toasted. They’d fall out of the sky and go into the magma pit. Three-quarters of a million years down the road, they’d be part of the next big show. A tiny part, but part even so.

She signed on the dotted line. She signed, repeatedly, on the dotted line. The government’s attitude seemed to be that anything worth doing was worth doing in quadruplicate. Several other grad students and a couple of profs also indited their John Han-cocks in all the requisite places.

What did it say that more graduate students than faculty members were willing to risk their lives for science? That people who’d got tenure had more brains than those who merely dreamt of it? Or that profs lived a better life than grad students and didn’t want to chance throwing it away? Was all of the above an acceptable choice?

One of the other intrepid grad students asked, “Do we know it’s safe for the plane to take off?”

“Son, we don’t know the sun’ll come up tomorrow,” the USGS man answered. “It may go nova between now and then, or the Earth may quit rotating, or whatever the hell. What I do know is, when the plane takes off I’m gonna be on it. I’ve already signed all this bullshit paperwork. If that’s not good enough for you, I don’t know what else to say.”

No one seemed to have any more questions after that. The National Park Service man said, “Be at Oakland International by five a.m. day after tomorrow. Airport security will be in place for our little jaunt.”

“Wit. Run that by me again,” Kelly said. “We sign all this stuff saying we know we’re risking our lives, but they’ve got to make sure nobody’ll hijack the plane and crash it into the crater? Where’s the sense in that?”

The USGS man grinned at her. “Hi! Welcome to Catch-22!” he said. “It doesn’t have to make sense. It’s government policy. Those people may pay me, but they don’t pay me enough to lie for them.”

And so, at a few minutes before five in the morning-well before dawn, in other words-Kelly sleepily put her cell phone and laptop in a tray and took off her shoes. She passed her little bag through the X-ray machine. “Can you open this, please?” a stern-looking black woman said when it came out the other side.

When TSA people said please, they didn’t mean it. Kelly unzipped the bag. The woman pawed through her meager stuff, then grudgingly nodded. “What was wrong?” Kelly asked.

“Your bagels looked like something they weren’t supposed to,” the black woman answered.

She told the story of the bagels of mass destruction to the other geologists waiting to go out to their chartered Learjet. They gave back the mixture of laughs and groans she’d looked for. “What else do you expect from a system designed by very sharp people for very dull people to work?” one of them said. Kelly hadn’t thought of it like that; when she did, the rituals of airport security made more sense.

She’d never been on a private jet. Having enough room to stretch out in her seat made her want to abandon Southwest, American, and United forever. “I could get used to this,” she said as the plane taxied toward takeoff.

“In that case, what are you doing studying geology?” asked her chairman, who had the window seat beside hers. Geoff Rheinburg was gray-haired and pudgy, but more than plenty sharp. “You should have gone into programming and turned into an Internet billionaire. Then you’d have a jet for every day of the week-two for Saturday, if you wanted.”

“I spend more time doing geology than flying,” Kelly answered after a little thought. “And I can use computers, but I’m not much for making them sit up and beg. This is more fun.”

“Then you may possibly be in the right place after all,” Rheinburg allowed. Was he old enough to have started out on a slide rule, back in the days before pocket calculators? If he wasn’t, he came close.

The plane shot down the runway and zoomed into the sky. Air traffic here and most places in the USA was still screwed up, with flights way, way off their usual level. Maybe that tough black gal had checked out the bagels for no better reason than that she was bored stiff.

“This is the pilot speaking.” The Learjet’s intercom had better sound quality than a commercial airliner’s. The man’s voice didn’t sound as if it were coming through a tin-can telephone. He went on, “I am going to give you the usual advice-keep your seat belts fastened at all times. I mean it more than usual, though. We will be flying over the crater at forty thousand feet. Look for turbulence all the same. That sucker is enormous, and it is hot. Hot air rises-why do you think old politicians float away and never get seen again?”

That won him a few startled laughs. Kelly wondered if he’d ever flown for Southwest. She hated the seating stampede, but enjoyed the way the crew sometimes spoofed the usual instructions about seat belts and exit rows and oxygen masks.

“My brother-in-law told me I needed my head examined when he found out I was making this flight,” the pilot went on. “I told him I needed some help with the down payment on a house I want to buy… That doesn’t necessarily make him wrong, you understand. What’s your excuse, folks?”

“He ought to be doing stand-up,” Kelly said.

“We can’t throw things at him when he’s behind that locked door,” Professor Rheinburg said. “Too bad, isn’t it?”

They flew on. The engines… sounded like engines. Kelly approved. There was still a lot of dust and ash in the air, and the supervolcano’s afterbelches-major eruptions on any normal scale, but the scales weren’t normal now, and wouldn’t be for a long time-kept adding more. The planes that were flying needed much more frequent engine overhauls than anyone had dreamt they would.

From Oakland to Yellowstone was about an hour and a half. No, not to Yellowstone: to the supervolcano crater. Yellowstone was gone, dead, off the map in the most literal meaning of the words. Yellowstone had either fallen half a mile toward the center of the earth or was buried deep in lava or pyroclastic flows or volcanic ash. Yellowstone was screwed, blued, and tattooed, not to put too fine a point on it.

People worked on laptops or fiddled with the sensors and other instruments that were the real reason for the flight. The pilot didn’t make the usual announcement about electronic devices. The geologists might have lynched him if he had. Without electronic devices, they fell all the way back to the start of the twentieth century, or maybe even to the nineteenth.

After a while, the pilot did come on to say, “Folks, we are getting close. I’m going to do what I’m supposed to do when turbulence is likely. I’m going to tell you to make sure you’re in your seats with your belts securely fastened. Don’t be dumb, now. If there isn’t turbulence flying over this critter, then there’s no such animal. We don’t want to have to scrape you off the ceiling-or off your neighbor’s lap.”

Geoff Rheinburg gave Kelly a wry grin as he checked his belt. “No offense, but the only gal I want on my lap is my wife,” he said.

“Okay by me,” she answered, tightening her own a little. She knew he was happily married. Nice that somebody was. She figured Colin would get up the nerve to propose one of these days before too long. She also figured she would get up the nerve to say yes when he did. What happened after that was a crapshoot-as far as she could see, just like every other marriage since the beginning of time.

“Three minutes till we reach the edge of the crater,” the pilot said. “Welcome to the biggest goddamn roller coaster in the world.”

Kelly peered out. Unlike a commercial airliner’s, the Learjet’s windows were big enough to give even somebody in an aisle seat a good view of the wider world. She’d looked down into active volcanoes before. She’d gone to the Big Island of Hawaii: yeah, work as a geologist could be rough. But the volcanoes there, which went off pretty much all the time, were as different as you could get from the Yellowstone supervolcano. The supervolcano was like the little girl saving up more spit. It saved and it saved and it saved till its igneous cheeks couldn’t hold any more. Then-

Then it went and trashed half the continent. And that was only the first act. The follow-up, which did a number on the whole planet, was just getting started.

Even in the wide-windowed Learjet, she leaned toward happly married Professor Rheinburg to see better. He didn’t wince, so she hadn’t forgotten her deodorant even though she’d crawled out of bed at some heathen hour. Lots of gray and brown down below. Nothing green, not any more. Life would be trying to reboot down there. It had likely already succeeded in a few tiny spots, but not in a way you could see from eight miles high.

Or eight and a half… The edge of the world fell away, down below. As soon as it did, the plane started bouncing in the air. Yes, the crater was heating things up, wasn’t it? Oh, just a little.

Here and there, the floor had already crusted over and looked like, well, bare rock. One of these days, one of these centuries, it would form the bottom of the new caldera that would take the place of the one at the heart of Yellowstone. They’d need to give it a new name. Kelly wondered whether they’d still speak English when they got around to it.

Lava still boiled and bubbled in between the congealed places. It wasn’t as impressive as the stuff in The Return of the King. For one thing, that lava was CG. For another, you were looking at it up close and personal, not from forty-odd-thousand feet. Kelly, who’d first read The Lord of the Rings when she was nine, wondered what would happen if you dropped Sauron’s dread creation right into the middle of this. She expected it’d be gone for good. Hell, if Mount Doom happened to sit on top of a supervolcano hot spot, one of these days it would have been gone for good. That was why there was a big stretch of the Rocky Mountains without any mountains.

“Some of those patches of molten rock are miles wide,” Rheinburg murmured, most likely to himself.

Even if he wasn’t talking to her, it was a useful reminder. The scale of this thing was… ridiculous was one of the words that occurred to her. Then the Learjet did some up-and-downs she devoutly hoped it was designed for. As urgently, she hoped the bagels of mass destruction would stay put.

“For anyone who needs the reminder, you have airsick bags in the pockets of the seats in front of you,” the pilot said. “If you need them, I do hope you’ll use them. We don’t want the next batch of passengers to think we were playing Vomit Comet, now do we?”

“Oh, shut up,” Professor Rheinburg said under his breath. He looked green around the gills. Kelly suspected she did, too. She’d never been airsick, or even feared she might be. Now she discovered there was a first time for everything. She grabbed her bag, just to stay on the safe side. Next to her, her chairman did the same thing.

Neither of them needed to use theirs. Horrible noises from behind them and an acid reek in the conditioned air warned that someone hadn’t been so lucky. “Oh, dear,” Rheinburg said sympathetically.

Kelly kept her mouth shut-kept it clamped shut, in fact. That sour stink sure didn’t help her stomach. She tried her best not to think about it. Wasn’t lava fascinating? Sure it was!

Then they were past the great pockmark in the earth’s skin and over more devastation of the same kind they’d seen on the approach. The air smoothed out. Kelly’s insides relaxed-until the pilot said, “We’ll turn around now, and make our second pass over the crater while we’re heading for home.”

She’d been about to stuff the airsick bag back where it belonged. On second thought, that could wait till they got back to the Idaho side of things-although Idaho, or big parts of it, was an idea that had come and gone.

“What’s that song about how much do you have to pay to keep from going through all these things twice?” Professor Rheinburg asked.

“Beats me,” Kelly said. Whatever the song he was thinking about was, it came from his generation, not hers. She added, “What I keep thinking about is, we volunteered for this.”

“Proves the Army guys know what they’re talking about when they say that’s a bad idea, doesn’t it?” Rheinburg said.

A U-turn at upwards of 500 miles an hour took time and space to execute. They didn’t fly back over the supervolcano crater right away, then. They had a little while to brace themselves. Then the plane started bouncing some again. Kelly didn’t think it was quite so bad this time through; she might have been more ready for it. As she had before, she stared down at the broad expanse of what was as close as anyone was likely to see of hell on earth.

Beyond it lay the ash beds and stuff that would become tuff. “How many towns and farms and roads somewhere under there?” Professor Rheinburg said. “ ‘Vanity of vanities-all is vanity.’ ”

“Hey, no fair,” Kelly said. “You can’t not build something because the supervolcano goes off every 700,000 years. Besides, they built a lot before they even knew it was there.”

“They sure did-and it’s gone now, along with everything they built after they knew.” The gray-haired prof spoke with a grim relish that reminded Kelly of Colin. Then he switched gears and grinned at her. “Of course, looking at the bright side of things, you’ve got a straight shot at a tenure-track position. You’re one of the top experts on the world’s biggest problem for at least the rest of your life.”

“Well, sure, assuming there are any universities left once everything shakes out.” Kelly wouldn’t let anybody outgloom her without a fight.

“Yes. Assuming,” Rheinburg said, so he probably won that round.

Marshall Ferguson had long since stopped taking snailmail seriously. When you could e-mail or text or talk on the phone, mail with stamps on it that took days to get from hither to yon seemed downright medieval. And snailmail from the other side of the continent had got slower and more erratic since the supervolcano went off. To think they’d said it couldn’t be done!

He opened the box on the ground floor of his apartment building only every other day or so. He did need to check every so often, because some bills still came by snailmail. Corporations lacked a sense of humor when you forgot to pay for cable or your utilities.

Most of the rest of what he got was junk-spam on paper, spam that cost the senders a little something to print and mail. That had dropped off dramatically after the eruption. Paper was scarce and expensive these days, which made junk mail a losing proposition. Even the local restaurants had quit mailing out discount coupons, and that was a goddamn shame.

He almost chucked the envelope with the bland corporate return address unopened. Somebody back in New York City was trying to get him to do something he likely didn’t want to do. Whoever it was either had a stock of old envelopes or money coming out of his ears, because the paper was uncommonly fine.

The only reason he did open it was the off chance it might be a fancy bill. Otherwise, it would have gone straight into the recycling bin for paper. He unfolded the crisp sheet inside. It was stationery, with the same address as the one on the envelope. Below that…

Dear Mr. Ferguson, he read, We are pleased to accept your story titled “Well, Why Not?” for a future issue of New Fictions. A contract and a check for $327.00-the appropriate payment at our standard rate of eight cents a word-are forthcoming. I look forward to working with you on the story. Cordially, — and an editor’s scribbled signature below.

He read it again, and then one more time. By the end of the third go-round, he began to believe it. “Holy shit,” he said softly.

Then he started to giggle. He’d sent out the story because that was part of his assignment. Hell, he’d written it because that was his assignment. If he hadn’t been in Professor Bolger’s class, he never would have done it. And now somebody wanted to pay him money for it? How funny was that?

A moment later, he said “Holy shit” again, on a different note this time. If he’d sold once, chances were he could sell more than once. Having some cash coming in that wasn’t straight out of his old man’s wallet would be nice, which was putting it mildly. He didn’t think you could get rich writing stories-eight cents a word wasn’t bad, from everything he’d heard, but it would never make you a millionaire, either-but that might set the stage for bigger and better (which is to say, more profitable) things.

He went up to his place and sent Bolger an e-mail announcing the sale. If that didn’t do good things for his grade in there, nothing ever would. Then he fished his phone out of his pocket and called his father.

“What is it, Marshall?” came the familiar growl. Of course Dad would know who it was-he could see the number on his screen, after all-and of course he’d be busy at the cop shop. He’d likely be surprised to get a call in the middle of the afternoon, too. Sure enough, the next thing he said was, “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” Marshall was just starting to realize how fine he was. Once the amazement wore off, what replaced it was, well, more amazement. “Guess what?”

“Chicken butt,” Dad answered, as Marshall had known he would. That had cracked Marshall up when he was little. Dad still did it, though. Did he do it with other cops, too? Marshall wouldn’t have been surprised. After a couple of seconds, Dad did add, “Well, what?”

“I sold a story.” Marshall couldn’t remember the last time he’d sounded so proud of himself.

“Sold?” Dad pronounced the word with care, as if he wasn’t sure he’d heard it right. “As in, for money?”

“As in. Three hundred and twenty-seven dollars of money.” Marshall was sure he’d remember the size of his first check as long as he lived, even if he hadn’t seen it yet.

“How about that?” his father said-one of the few phrases, as Dad himself noted, you could use almost anywhere. Then his voice warmed: “Congratulations, son. That’s something, all right. What’s the story called? What’s it about?”

“It’s called ‘Well, Why Not?’ I never know what to call things.” Marshall hated titles. He had no idea how anybody ever came up with a good one. “It’s about… a guy going to college while his folks get a divorce.”

“Oh.” Dad chewed on that for a little while. “They do say you’re supposed to write about things you know, don’t they?”

“Yeah, they say that. They say the opposite, too. The way it looks tme is, you can get away with anything when you’re writing, as long as you do it well enough.”

“Huh.” That didn’t sit well with Dad. Marshall had known it wouldn’t. Dad believed in Rules with a capital R. He wasn’t a cop by accident. As if to prove as much, he went on, “Just remember it doesn’t work that way in real life.”

“If I can get them to keep paying me, maybe writing will turn into real life,” Marshall said.

“Maybe it will.” His father sounded surprised at the idea. But getting paid resonated with him. “Here’s hoping-and congratulations again. Sorry, but I’ve got to get back to it.”

“I know you’re working. I did want to call and tell you, though.”

Marshall checked his e-mail. He had an answer from Bolger. WTG! the message said. I hoped somebody in the class would make a sale. Now you’ve given the others something to shoot for.

“Yeah,” Marshall said. How jealous would the rest of the class be? Bigtime jealous, that was how. They’d have to compete against a real, live published (well, to be published) author. And the girls in there would think anyone who could sell was freaking awesome. He could hope they would, anyhow.

In the meantime… In the meantime, Marshall rolled himself a doobie about the size of Pittsburgh. Even triumph went better with weed. He was happily wasted when the sun went down towards another ridiculous, gaudy, over-the-top beautiful sunset. Did dope improve that, too? He smoked some more to find out.

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