Child's Play

Publisher: Amaris Media
SKU: # 9780578132198

About the Book


TIME: Fifty years in the future. Religion has been banned. 

LOCATION: Sisco Heights Mental Health Facility 


– A seer who has delightful conversations with tattoos, electric shavers, and janitorial supplies 

– A wannabe superhero, complete with shower cap, goggles, and bath towel cape 

– A prophet who sees 20 seconds into the future 

– A janitor who every night burns lists the patients have 

written of their daily shortcomings 

– An amnesiac who opens a fortune cookie and reads: 

“You are my favorite child. God” 

Careful to avoid state scrutiny, these quirky characters begin to explore the amazing possibilities if such a statement is true. The thinking soon infects other patients and the government must tighten its noose until it is met with some startling surprises. 

A quick and fun read, this first installment of The Last Fool series will make you chuckle while pausing to think. 

Child's Play

“In the inner wine cellar I drank of my Beloved, And when I traveled this entire valley, I no longer knew anything, and lost the herd I was following.”
St. John of the Cross

Chapter One


Before we get going you should probably know you really can’t trust anything I’m going to say. Nothing. Zip. Sorry. If you haven’t heard, I’m a loon, a nut- case, an entire side of fries short of a kid’s meal. Come to think of it, I’m probably missing the burger, soda, and action figure, too.

Is that clear? I hope so ’cause I sure don’t want you to be expecting too much.
Even though you might have heard the rumors, I have to tell you it was not the tattoo’s fault—at least according to the salt and pepper shakers. And I’m not talking those boring, institutional salt and pepper shakers. No siree. I’m talking about the cool, donkey ones my old roommate bought in Puerto Rico and left behind. The ones whose accents are so thick you can barely understand them—especially when the coffee mugs start going. Those coffee mugs, I tell you, give them two cups of leaded and they get to jabbering all night.

But I digress—something I do a lot of, so please accept my apologies now before we get started. Max, my best friend and roomie, says it’s because my mind is full of such fantastic thoughts, they just keep bubbling over and spilling onto each other. What a guy. You’ll love Max. But we’ll get to him in a few minutes.

The point is, and I’m sure I had one, our little pod of less than a dozen patients (Nelson would know the exact number) had already stood in the med line where Nurse Hardgrove served the hospital’s holy sacraments, each dose carefully measured out according to our unique brand of craziness.

From there we headed to the cafeteria and breakfast, where we grabbed our green food trays, white plastic spoons and white forks (they don’t trust us with knives, not even plastic ones) and moved along the counter, our white tennis shoes squeaking on the freshly waxed linoleum.

You’d like our place, Sisco Heights Mental Health Facility. You may have even seen us on the news. Lots of times the State brings people through to show off what a great place it is. I’ve lived here most of my thirty-five years and love it. You would too, I mean if you were, well, you know.

Anyways, I’d just entered the cafeteria line when I overheard the two-headed dragon that was tattooed on Darcy’s forearm arguing with itself:
“Idiots,” the head with one eye complained. “They got the AC cranked up too high again.” He threw in a little shiver for dramatic effect.
The other head, the one with two eyes said, “It’s the middle of June, fool, what did you expect?”
“I expect I’m going to fire up and add some heat to this place.”
The second head sighed, “Please . . .”
“What you sayin’? We still got a few rights around here.”
I could tell things were getting kind of tense between them so I glanced around to make sure it was safe before trying to calm things down. The two attendants, Biff and Britt (or is it Britt and Biff? I can never keep them straight.) were leaning against opposite walls, doing a pretty good imitation of being awake. The others were scattered around the couple tables and already digging in—except for cute little Chloe. She reminds us all of Peter Pan. I mean if Peter Pan was Asian. And if he was a she. Anyway, Chloe was behind me trying to make up her mind whether to have the overcooked stewed prunes or the undercooked refried beans, which, for the record, looked and tasted about the same.
“I’m a tad curious,” the second dragon head said. “How is it that you do that?”
“Do what?” his partner asked.
“Get your lips flapping so fast your brain just gives up and throws in the towel.”
They kept going at it, getting louder and louder, until I lowered my head to Darcy’s forearm and whispered, “Excuse me? Fellas?”
One-Eye looked up at me and sighed. “What you want, chubby boy?”
“You know what they think about disagreements around here.”
“You tellin’ us you’re a Peace Monitor now?” “No, of course not.”
“Then take your crazy someplace else. How ‘bout that nice little light switch over there? She’s lookin’ kinda lonely.”
Of course I know sarcasm when I hear it, and for the briefest second I thought I should file a Hate Speech Complaint. But Darcy was a friend. Well, sort of.
“Duck!” Chloe shouted.
Of course, Chloe is as nuts as the rest of us, which meant I smiled at her politely before ignoring her completely.
“You remember the last time you fired up?” The second head was practically shouting. “How all them overhead sprinklers came on?”
“They disconnected them. ’Sides, it wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t got our big butt in the way. Making me shoot around it totally ruined my sense of perspective.”
“You’re a two-dimensional character. You don’t got perspective.”
Darcy broke in. You can’t miss her voice. It’s smoke cured from years of cigarettes and, I imagine, lots of cigars. “What you doing, freak?”
I looked up to see her frowning down at me with those lovely, lavender-caked eyes, complete with missing eyebrows and bald head.
“Oh, sorry.” I straightened up. “I was just, uh.” I motioned to her arm, which I’ve got to admit, is way more muscular than mine. “Your dragons, what are their names again?”
“Listen, perv, I told you I catch you talking to my arm one more time and I’m doing some serious rearranging of your—”
“I wasn’t talking to your arm,” I blurted. “Honest. Besides, they started it.”
“Let’s go, Bernie.”

I turned to look across a steaming pan of watery oatmeal or watery scrambled eggs, which also look and taste the same, and saw Winona. She’s a volunteer food server from our pod who wears aluminum foil around her neck and wrists. She also has white, Einstein-like hair and an IQ to match.

“Certainly you are cognizant how nervous she becomes around men of the male persuasion?” She motioned to Darcy. “And your intimate discussion with her tattoos . . .” She shook her head. “On my planet, a verbal exchange with tattoos is the final step in consummating a physical relationship.”

Without missing a beat, Darcy answered, “On my planet, it’s the last step before sneaking into a perv’s room and setting him on fire.”

I looked at Darcy and swallowed nervously. She looked at me and stared blankly.
As usual, the tattoos paid no attention. Instead, I heard One-Eye taking a deep, wheezing breath. I looked down and, just as I feared, he was filling up. The other head swore as he ducked under Darcy’s elbow. It was pretty clear he was going to barbecue everything in sight . . . including Darcy, so there was only one thing I could do. I didn’t mean to be fresh, but I reached over and covered Darcy’s arm with both of my hands. Better to fry my hands than set the place on fire.

“Muwaff ma muf are mou moing?” One-Eye shouted.
“Get your perverted hands off me, you perv!” Darcy shouted.
A third voice chimed in. “Hey, Freak!”
It was Jamal. Jamal the Jihadist. Jamal the joy-killer. Jamal the purveyor of pain. He’d shown interest in Darcy the first moment she joined our pod. Not that she gave him the time of day, but that didn’t stop Jamal. As far as he was concerned, she was his property, whether she cared to acknowledge it or not—and he had the broken nose and bruised ribs, courtesy of her martial arts training, to prove it.
She didn’t exactly need his protection, which explained why, as I turned to him, seeing my lame little life pass before my lame little eyes, I felt the pain of Darcy’s food tray smashing into my skull. I should have listened to Chloe. But that didn’t stop Biff and Britt (or was it Britt and Biff?) from leaving the walls they’d been holding up. Even as I collapsed to the floor, slipping into unconsciousness, the two orderlies rushed in, Tasers firing like bug zappers at a bug convention. But not at sweet Darcy. For some reason, the guys weren’t real fond of Jamal. I don’t remember how many shots it took to put him down, or how many kicking boots it took to keep him there. I was too busy drifting into darkness, grateful that once again, I’d managed to save our home.




I pulled my satchel from the passenger seat and crawled out. The tiny employee parking lot was surrounded by woods and covered in cold, drizzly fog. I shut and locked the door, blaming the cramped, micro-hybrid for the ache in my hip and knees. For the thousandth time I dreamed of my sister’s invitation to join her at the retirement village in Arizona with its dry air and sympathetic heat. But it was only a dream. I was too much Alpha male to put my brain out to pasture and watch my body turn to pudding and toothpicks. Though between the early morning chill and yesterday’s reaming out by Division, it almost sounded appealing . . .

“Don’t misunderstand us, Doctor, we all appreciate your sensitivity and we all are on your side.”
Of course there had been no us or we in the glass-walled office of the Public Service building. Just the young man with a spattering of fresh acne across his cheekbones. He was a third my age and wore a suit twice my weekly pay. But I’d never signed up for the money. I had Navy retirement for that. I was here to give back to a country that had given so much to me.

“I’ll grant you your rehabilitation numbers are high, but the Department has taken great care to outline specific responses to specific infractions.”
“I understand,” I said, “but some patients take more time. Some need a more personal approach to—”
“Our rules are not arbitrary, Doctor. They’ve been tested and approved by professionals with far more experience in the field than either you or I.”

I resisted the urge to ask Junior how much field time he’d put in outside the office, not counting the golf games and squash courts. But with age comes wisdom. Instead, I chose to sit silently and count his latest crop of pink and white pustules . . . and call myself a coward the rest of the day and on into the night.
Now, just before dawn, I did my best not to limp as I crossed the parking lot and started up the fifty-six worn concrete steps leading to the equally worn three-story hospital. If there had been a handrail, it was long gone. Old timers said this part of the city was almost as good as before the Uprising.

“Almost as Good.” It had become our mantra. Nearly half a century had passed since we’d quit tearing ourselves apart with the Religious Wars— kicked off by the half dozen dirty nukes simultaneously detonated in major population centers. Of course that was only the beginning. Retaliation led to retaliation, all the way down to the state and com- munity level. Then came the economic collapse, along with a couple pandemics also courtesy of the conflict (think drug resistant smallpox and MARV in the hands of the devout). It had taken a long, long time to return to almost as good. Well, except for the heightened surveillance. For whatever reason, Uncle Sam always had money for that.

As I worked my way up the steps, my mind drifted back to yesterday’s dressing-down. “Besides your own malpractice suit, you are no doubt aware that the victim’s family is suing the Department for reckless endangerment.” I nodded.

“And now that the press has picked it up . . .” He let the phrase hang in the air. I didn’t touch it. “We’re simply left with no alternative than to put you on six-month probation.”
I took a slow, steady breath. “And my patients?”

“Oh, don’t misunderstand us, Doctor. You’ll still make your rounds to the hospitals. But there will be no action or diagnosis on your part that we in the Department will not first review and approve.”
In one sense, I suppose I was lucky. If there had been more psychiatrists with my education, let alone passion, I would have faced suspension. But I had the fancy initials after my name, and no one doubted my commitment to the cause. History would never repeat itself. Not on my watch.

Sometimes, to this day, I wake up in the morning, my heart racing, my sheets damp from memories of them pounding on my father’s door in the middle of the night . . .

“Ibrahim! Ibrahim, come out!” It was Reverend Johnson. Over the months of building tension, he’d handed me several religious tracts. “You’re too handsome a lad to burn in hell,” he would say.
Of course I always gave the pamphlets to Poppa who disposed of them, always with a prayer for Allah’s vengeance to fall upon the infidel’s head.

“Ibrahim!” More pounding. “We know you’re in there.”
“He is not here!” Momma cried. She threw a pleading look to Poppa, begging him to remain silent. But that was not how Poppa lived. Despite her pleas and her clinging, he threw open the door. They stormed in, five or six of them, cursing, shouting, accusing the men from our mosque of the slaughter of several Christian families—men, women, children. And, sadly, they were probably right. Though it could just have easily been in response to an attack the Christians launched, or the Jews, or even the Buddhists, Dharma bless their pacifist hearts. That’s how ugly things had become. Though, in the years to follow, it was merely a prelude.

That night Momma covered my eyes as she screamed, begging for mercy. I remember the sound of scuffling, men yelling, someone shouting praises to Jesus as Poppa pleaded to Allah. I remember them dragging him out the door and Momma following them into the street, still screaming, still crying.

I raced after them onto the porch, unsure what to do, frozen in fear and guilt. I watched as they punched and kicked my father, the scene lit by a burning house across the street. I remember the bursts of gunfire one block over, the distant wail of police sirens. I remember Momma pleading for mercy as they loaded him into a car, until she was struck hard with the butt of a rifle, bloody teeth flying from her mouth like pink pearls.

Yes, I know all about the dangers of religion. And I’ve supported every law that has freed us from its tyranny—the fines and penalties for hate speech, the deportation of militants, the incarceration and re-education of hardliners—until gradually, over the last several decades, the monster had finally been defanged.

That’s the primary purpose of the Department of Religious Affairs—not to outlaw religion. Other countries have tried that and have only succeeded in increasing religious fervor. No, our purpose is to remove the differences, any aspect that leads to separation, or the feelings of inferiority and superiority. And thanks to our dogged determination and brave legislators, we now have a state philosophy whose only goals are peace, reconciliation, and social harmony. That’s what we’ve achieved, and that’s what I’ve dedicated my so-called golden years to maintain.

I arrived at the top of the steps and took a moment to catch my breath. The fog, which had rolled in from the bay, stretched nearly to the tops of the trees. Although the hospital was in the middle of the city, on one of its highest hills, it was surrounded by just over an acre of woods.

I traipsed through the wet grass of a sloppily- manicured terrace to my office. It had its own separate entrance, though the room wasn’t much bigger than a walk-in closet. I unlocked the door and was greeted by the familiar smell of dust and mildew. I snapped on the light and turned on the little wall heater.

Was there still resistance to the Department’s efforts? Absolutely. But now we had the law on our side. Penalties were swift and substantial. And for those who tried to obey but couldn’t? For the mentally or emotionally unstable? Well, that’s where my division came in. Every major mental health facility in the state has a small ward, or pod, for those who struggle with such disorders. Men like . . . I opened my satchel and pulled out a file labeled: Maxwell Portenelli.

I opened the folder for a quick review. Not that I hadn’t studied it before. But after yesterday’s lecture, I’d leave no room for error. His daughter would be checking him in later this morning. Apparently he was a famous icon in the fashion world. Worth mil- lions. But success did not come easily. According to family members, he was consumed with work, often putting in ninety hours a week, neglecting relationships, sometimes sleeping in his studio, and having no social life outside of business. Eventually the stress and demands took their toll. Two and a half weeks ago, on his fiftieth birthday, he experienced a psychotic break that left him incapacitated for nearly seventy-two hours. During that time he claimed to have been taken to heaven where he had a lengthy conversation with god.
The episode generated an extreme shift in personality with serious consequences—retrograde amnesia, including the inability to recognize any family member, manic behavior, bouts of extreme giddiness, and a complete disregard for the company he’d dedicated his entire life to building. There had been some talk about a private institution, but since his issue was religious in nature, that meant State involvement and his eventual assignment here at Sisco Heights.

And the trigger for such a break? A power lunch with select members of his board at a local Chinese restaurant. Eyewitnesses said it was intense, heated, and demanding—typical of most Portenelli meetings. There was no indication of any problem throughout the course of the two-hour lunch, until he opened his fortune cookie and read the fortune.

Almost immediately he began to tremble. Soon after, he closed his eyes and, despite the calls and shouts of others, he entered a catatonic state.

He was transported to Mercy General where he was tested and kept for observation. Seventy-two hours later, when he regained consciousness and it was established there was no physiological or neurological damage, he was released in the hopes of a full recovery.

At home, although thoughtful and polite with family and household staff, he did not recognize them. Nor did he display the slightest interest in returning to work. Instead, he became fixated upon his experience, wishing only to talk about god.

And what was the fortune that brought about such a dramatic change in character? It simply read:
“You are my favorite child.”

I shook my head. Poor devil. To be at the height of his career and suffer such a breakdown. It was an unusual case, there was no doubt about it. But that’s why we were here. Whether his recovery took weeks or months, I would be at his side to help and serve.

That is my purpose. And, if you will, that is my call.