Freelance writer Melanie Stroub was happily trashing webevangelist Wilfred McQuarry’s weekly rant about angels when she got it, and ended up fixated on angels. It was like that for everyone: whatever you were doing when you got ‘Burnout Fever’ was carved into your soul. Following a free-ranging conversation was no longer possible, and everything had to be translated back to your fixation. For some, it made little difference; for others, it spelled disaster.
Barry Lieber knew all about it. He’d watched helplessly while Melanie succumbed one morning over breakfast, and it drove him into joining a grassroots effort to find a cure. His activist friend Derek had good contacts in D.C., even in Congress. But there were others who looked at Burnout Fever as an opportunity, and when McQuarry incited a religious war over the victims, it stopped being just a health issue.
Nobody was safe. Every promising lead turned sour. The righteous, the wealthy, and the powerful all sought shelter from the madness, from the logic-defying pattern of contagion that stymied even the Centers for Disease Control. It defied explanation, but without a cure, the Earth would vanish like a bad dream. And time was running out.
The Nook edition of my third novel, “Burnout Fever“, is now available for $2.99. Here’s a taste…
Barry Lieber absently backed open the shop’s glass door, momentarily lost in the fluttery ‘A’-shaped swirls atop a pair of mocha lattés. When it unexpectedly swung free, he nearly lost his balance. Deftly negotiating around the surprised woman who held the handle, he managed to rescue the drinks, but at the expense of the floating art show. “Damn. And he nearly got it nailed this time.”
Melanie Stroub, a bit older than Barry at 30, looked up from the events section of the West Seattle Weekly. Although her hair was the same mousy brown as Barry’s, she treated it like the home note of a chord, adding rust and gold streaks. “What?”
He wove through a clutter of vacant ceramic-topped sidewalk tables and handed her a drink. “The logo. You’ll have to take my word for it, though. All there’s left now is a jumble.”
She peered briefly at the chaotic surface swirls, and smiled. “Thanks. It’s nothing to get that cute Semitic nose out of joint about, though.”
October had begun asserting itself, and the cloud deck over West Seattle was about to swallow the warming sun. Barry stood for a while, gazing past the Puget Sound at the still-glistening Olympic Mountains before joining her for their Sunday morning ritual.
“Ritual,” he muttered, grinning privately at the thought. Theirs was an accepting town, but he wasn’t too sure how some of his neighbors would react to learning that there were a couple of witches in their midst. But then, with Samhain — or rather Halloween — around the corner, you could get away with most anything.
Roused from reverie by the soft burring of Melanie’s watch alarm, he turned just in time to see her spill coffee on both her breakfast and the newspaper while reaching to open the cover of her palmtop.
A few months earlier, when they’d discovered that their favorite sandwich shop had installed a wireless Internet hub, the two started a local fashion by breakfasting over coffee, bagels and a sort of Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of Dr. Wilfred McQuarry’s webcast sermons. At first it was just the two of them out for a lark, but after a few weeks, a small crowd of regulars joined the fun.
“It’s a good thing McQuarry’s holed up in that backwoods commune near Shasta Lake,” Barry said as he joined her at the table.
She looked a question at him while mopping the spill.
He smiled. “What? Come on, Mel. It’s not like he’s got a sense of humor or anything.”
“Give me a break, Barry. If I had a guardian Angel, do you think she’d put up with spilling coffee on a garlic bagel? Now that’s sacrilege.”
Lieber looked up.
It was Ronnie, one of the regulars. He spun a nearby chair around for his partner, and slid in beside Melanie. “Are we late?”
She grinned. “I suppose that depends on your point of view.”
“And your preferred definition,” Barry added. “Did you mean deceased… or tardy?”
“Take my word for it,” Al said as he set a cardboard tray down and eased into the empty chair, “Ronnie’s not dead.”
Ronnie crossed his arms with a melodramatic flourish. “And here I thought you liked delayed gratification.”
“Guys, guys!” Melanie chided. “Can we get some focus here? It’s time for our guest of honor to arrive. Gather ‘round and let the fun begin.”
While the others bunched their chairs for a better view of the palmtop’s display, Melanie brought up McQuarry’s website and clicked into the webcast page. Soon, a tiny window opened, with the group’s winged ‘A’ logo flapping in the digital breeze.
A woman with a French Canadian accent ran through the preacher’s familiar boilerplate introduction spiel. “From the mystical lake at the foot of scenic Mount Shasta, welcome to the Reverend Wilfred McQuarry’s weekly sermon. Today’s talk…”
“I should sue them for stealing my design,” Al snipped, brushing the similar design on his t-shirt with a thumb. “After all, I’ve been wearing these wings longer than he’s been on IP.”
“Besides,” Ronnie lilted, eyeing his partner, “it looks a lot better on you.”
Melanie giggled. “Now there’s an image I think I’ll suppress: McQuarry kicking back after a grueling day on the lecture circuit, rumpled logo t-shirt stained with beer, and a gaggle of psycho-fants fawning over him.”
“I think your spell-checker needs an overhaul,” Barry said sagely. “Your favorite word for suck-ups doesn’t start with a ‘p’.”
“So p-sue me!” she said, splattering him with cream cheese.
While Barry grabbed a napkin, the logo on the display faded into McQuarry’s pudgy face, and then the camera pulled back enough to reveal just how overweight he really was.
“Good morning,” the postage stamp preacher squeaked. “I’m so happy that you could all join me for today’s sermon.”
“How about McQuarry the weatherman?” Ronnie said suddenly, pointing at features on an imaginary keyed-in map.
“—continue with the series I’ve been doing,” McQuarry was saying. “Last time, we talked about the big picture, about how the social and political movements of the past were really stories told by the community of Angels on a stage called Earth.”
“Here it is,” Melanie said, tapping the coffee-soaked reviews page. “McQuarry’s Angel Repertory Theater, currently touring with a road show version of ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’, performed entirely with meat-puppets.”
“Today,” the tiny image said, “we’ll discuss how our Angels give us all the stage directions we need to play our parts in these stories.”
“Hey,” Barry whispered conspiratorially, “if we’re the actors in these things, shouldn’t we all get union cards?”
As if in response, McQuarry raised his hand into frame and flipped through a sheaf of paper marked ‘Script’. “Now, these stories are not written out beforehand like a movie or TV show, but there is a kind of creative conference that happens behind the scenes. That’s where our Angels decide what parts we’ll be playing, and how they’ll coach us.”
“Anyone got a bell I can ring?” Melanie asked in mock seriousness. “I need to speak with my coach.”
Al raised a finger and opened his mouth, but relented when Ronnie quickly said, “That’s not what she means.”
“What about free will?” Barry asked.
Melanie smiled. “The movie whale?”
McQuarry lowered the prop. “Different groups of Angels have been in charge of different stories. The Angels guiding the Renaissance, for example, were a different group than the ones behind the military dramas played out during the 20th century.”
Ronnie struck a pose. “Did he just say that some drama queen Angel had its hand up Hitler’s jacket?”
“More likely,” Melanie shot back, “somewhere a bit lower.”
“Now that’s a nasty thought,” Barry said.
The camera pulled closer. “They talk to us in our sleep. They whisper to us through our heads and our hearts. Some of us listen; others do not. We may understand what they say, or get it twisted and hurt people we were meant to help.”
“He’s right,” Melanie agreed. “Actors can be so hard to work with.”
“But what I want you all to understand today is this. Your Angel knows more than you do about why some things are in your life. They know that there’s a greater purpose, a higher reason for all of us taking part in their stories.”
“You bet!” Barry said. “Ratings. If they don’t keep the big guy amused, he’ll pull their funding. Then where’ll they be? Whoever said that hell was a badly written sitcom was right.”
“Besides,” Melanie added, “how do we know we should trust these Angels, anyway? For all we know, they’re setting us up to be the patsy in some product placement scheme. I can see it now. The world gets into some kind of crisis, and then just when you think the world is going to blow itself up, there’s this…”
She just sat there for a while, staring at McQuarry’s tiny image, frozen in mid-gesture.
“Mel? You okay?”
“Yeah,” Ronnie whispered. “Did you lose your place or something?”
Ignoring their questions, she slowly lowered her arms, her usual look of amusement displaced by an odd seriousness. She leaned towards the palmtop.
Barry gently laid his hand on her shoulder. “What’s going on, Mel?”
She shushed them. “Keep it down, huh? I’m trying to hear this.”
Ronnie slid his chair back. “I think you ought to take her home, Barry. Something definitely doesn’t seem right here.”
“Yeah. I’ll… I’ll let her finish the sermon first, though.”
McQuarry wrapped up his stagecraft metaphor, and moved on to the many ways in which his Angels try to get through to us.
Barry hardly breathed, for fear of shattering whatever fragile spell she was under. He shivered from the freshening wind, helplessly watching her profile against the backlit cloud deck. She was rapt; her eyes fixed on the tiny video image, her flighty fingers resting calmly on the table. It was eerie.
When the lecture was over, Melanie sat back, took a deep breath, and turned to Barry, a broad smile across her face. “I’ve never really appreciated his insights before. If you don’t mind, I’d like to catch McQuarry’s talks from home after this. I can get a better picture on the main system, and I won’t have all these distractions.”
He looked at her for a while before nodding in reluctant agreement. Then he shut the palmtop, bussed their table, and joined her on an uncomfortably slow walk back to their rental house.
I’ve also written these short stories about characters in “Burnout Fever”:
- 1. “Motivation” — When I figured out how to write this story, I realized that it had to be told with some characters from my third novel, “Burnout Fever”.
- 2. “Peace Initiative” — Melissa Fox’s new friends had made a game of redesigning the government, but they were after something much bigger.
- 3. “Ping fa” — Before you can do something, you have to think it.
- 4. “Symbolism and Intent” — Everyone is a learner, a doer, and a teacher. Pay attention.
- 5. “Hidden Baggage” — What do you bring with you into a situation?
- 6. “Double Agent” — What do you do when ‘right action’ conflicts with your job?
- 7. “Wobbly Premise — Your next great idea just might by hiding in the heart of darkness.
- 8. “Unheard Voices” — Who are you speaking for? Or to?
- 9. “Limited Hangup” — What would you do with an illicit video?
- 10. “Vocal Threat” — How closely do you scrutinize the purpose of the job you’ve been tasked with?
(If you don’t already have a Nook reader, you can also read it with the free Nook app.)