There was an ad in the Star last month. I get the Star every morning, along with the Times, the Herald and the Daily. It’s amazing how much reading you have to do to stay normal. The papers splintered out years ago. Each one found their audience and started saying the things the audience wanted to hear. But I know all about echo chambers.
My brain some days sounds like one big echo chamber, so loud and hollow I can’t even tell where real voices stop and the echoes begin. So I read every paper every morning. It piles the voices up for me, muddling them all out before the obsession can ring through.
Recovery’s never a straight line. You slip and backslide and get turned around until the little tricks they teach you become your new bad habits. That’s what happened last month. I was scanning the Star as I usually do, soaking in the thoughts the normal folks trade in, drinking up that banality and distraction. On page four, there was a story about a dog who dialed the phone to save its owner. On page five, reviews for restaurants I’d never go to. Mental clutter. Memetic insulation.
Then the ad hit me. A full color blow-out, gloss shellacked over two thin pages. “GET READY, INDIANA!” it promised in huge red letters. “NASCAR IS BACK.” Underneath sat an artist’s sketch of the new race car track they were building, just four miles out from the ruins of the old.
My first tell was the scent of burning rubber. It hits every time I’m on the brink of an episode. It poured up my nostrils, equal parts meaty and artificial. With it came the sound of roaring engines and panicked crowds. The foodie ramblings and hero dogs melted away. In their place was a voice, what I sometimes fear is the only real voice inside me. And that voice was shouting, “Sunday, Sunday, SUNDAY!”
Flare ups like this were always bad, but I didn’t panic. Instead, I called my sponsor. Each number chirped as I punched it in; each chirp struggled to drown out the sounds of NASCAR, to complicate my echo chamber. Soon they gave way to a voice on the other end of the line. Derek, my sponsor, saying “remember what the Space Brother said.”
There it was. An old echo, but a powerful one. I thanked him, hung up, and ran those old words through my skull. They came in the voice of the Space Brother- the real Space Brother, not that imitator they’ve got in the White House nowadays. They came the day he melted my hand. The day he said, “I sure hope you’re better than this.”
That day turned my life around. For the better, though I didn’t know it at the time. That was the thing about the real Space Brother, Ted Truitt. He’d stomp you down hard, but if you wanted to get up after he’d be ready to help. So long as you were willing to walk on your own two feet, anyway.
Don’t get me wrong, here. We know now more than ever that Truitt was no angel. He’s a symbol of a better time, sure- certainly a better time than now. Used to be, if you had an Other-natural infection and it was sending you out of control, HOMEFRONT had to either kill you or fix you, and so long as you didn’t really push ‘em, they’d fix you. Maybe that meant counseling, maybe that just meant getting your infection suppressed so you could think clearly again.
That’s what folks don’t realize about being a Strawman, see. A lot of us are just good folks who need help out of the confusion. It’s not like you wake up one day and decide, “hey, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looks like strong hostage material.” You don’t just start out by taking control of the Indy 500 and declaring all races will now be to the death. These things start small. You might live with an infection for years before you even start to go Strawman, and once you do you won’t notice ‘til you’re too far gone. So let me break down how it works for you a bit, so we can raise some awareness.
If you haven’t caught on yet, then congratulations- you’re talking to Indiana’s most feared laughing stock, the Accelerator of Death, the head of the devil’s pit crew, the one and only NASCARnage.
Before I continue, let me say this: I know. I know it all sounds stupid. I know it sounds goofy. I know it sounds crazy. You know why?
Because I was crazy. I was sick. I had an infection in my mind, and it made me do things and think things I get embarrassed about now that I’m better. And you know what? Crazy will always be right there, waiting to take my life over.
Maybe something will trigger a flare up like the ad last month, only I won’t get help in time. Maybe something bad will hit me and I’ll be too weak or depressed to keep up my care. Even now, sitting here on my porch defending myself in a diary to who-even-knows, my powers suppressed by the newest generation of sigils available, I can hear a tiny voice wondering what Dale Earnhardt III’s home security looks like.
Not everyone who’s infected gets identified right away. If your power is super strength, you’ll know as soon as you carry in your groceries or try to open a jar of jelly. Some of us aren’t so lucky. My infection let me transform people into NASCAR commemorative plates. Not exactly something that comes up a lot in one’s day to day, you know? Which meant before I even knew I was infected, it was already too late.
All I really knew at first was that I needed to be surrounded by NASCAR memorabilia. This was before my powers manifested, before I had any idea something was amiss. I started collected racers’ hats, commemorative plates, posters, toy cars anything I could get my hands on to scratch the itch. From there it moved like an addiction. I’m told that’s pretty standard.
Once you start going Strawman, you covet something connected to the Other-petal that powers your infection, and then you get pickier and pickier about the things you collect. Something- human obsession maybe, or perhaps the infection itself, starts upping the ante. It gets harder to calm the urges. After a few weeks, it’s no longer enough to just buy every commemorative NASCAR plate you can. Pretty soon the only thing that’ll do is one that you’ve stolen from Jeff Gordon’s own kitchen. Not long after that, the only commemorative plate that will suffice is one that’s actually drawn a driver’s blood.
That’s when things usually go bad. See, pretty soon you start to realize it’s not about the stuff anymore. The memorabilia is just something to focus all of that need and energy that’s burning inside you. It’s your body’s first response to the fact that you are helplessly, ruthlessly about NASCAR now to the exclusion of all other things. That’s usually when you make yourself a stupid costume.
You ever hear of that disease, toxoplasmosis? Folks with cats can get it. It’s a parasite. The little critter needs to be inside a cat to reproduce, and the best way to get inside a cat is through a mouse. So the toxoplasmosis parasite wiggles up into the mouse’s brain, flips a few switches and pretty soon that mouse is running up to every cat he can find, practically begging to be eaten, all so toxoplasmosis can make more of itself.
Once you’ve made the costume and given yourself the stupid name, that’s when you’re the come-at-me-mouse working as a gonad for the Other-Force. When it stops being about stuff and starts being about identity, or more accurately, when the stuff defines your identity, that’s when you become a Strawman.
Strawmen account for more mass infection crises than any other cause. Once you go Strawman, you’re a puppet of the Other-Force. Learning that helped me come to grips with all this. Now I understand it wasn’t just me that did all of those things. I was being manipulated. Puppeted by… well, by whatever the Other-Force actually is.
There was a time at least when HOMEFRONT understood that too, and I’m lucky to have done my crime in such an enlightened era as that. Early on, when all I’d do was interrupt the occasional NASCAR game and maybe threaten a few folks until I got my hands on Richard Petty’s hubcap or some petty shit like that, they’d actually try and recruit me. Even a limited infection like mine has crazy possibilities if you’re clever enough. HOMEFRONT thought maybe they could get me some counseling and turn me into an asset.
I had to go and fuck that up, of course. I regret it now but at the time it felt so right. Felt like I’d play those HOMEFRONT goons for the suckers they were. Felt like I could, ought to do whatever I wanted, and whatever I wanted was to force every man, woman and child witnessing the Indy 500 to race to the death.
Being a Strawman feels great. Your brain balloons with outlandish ideas and you never feel a moment of self-doubt or low confidence. You ‘know’ you can do it. You ‘know’ that you deserve to do it. Consequences, ethics, logistics, none of it enters the mind except as a fragment to be dispatched. You’re clean. Clear. Correct.
At least, that’s how it feels until Space Brother flies in and obliterates the nuclear force holding your hand together and pretty soon you’re watching flesh fly off the stump of your wrist, your own carbon atoms irradiating your skin from the sudden change in the local laws of physics. You’re collapsed on a small pile of wrecked racecars and commemorative plates that used to be people. You’re puking your guts out and still you think, what kind of fool could hope to defeat me?
And that’s when he makes all of the air around you super susceptible to gravity, so it’s literally piling at your feet and you can’t get enough suction from your lungs to drink them in because the air is just too damn heavy, and after you pass out from oxygen deprivation you wake up on a Twin Saints restraining table wondering why all of your chakras are sore.
Keep in mind, I was one of the lucky ones.
There was prison, of course. A regular prison, or at least a mostly-regular one. None of this Error Zone crap. Space Brother himself paid for my lawyer. He got them to reduce my sentence as long as I agreed to mandatory power suppression, regular psychiatric evals and community service. I was over the moon. Space Brother understood I was human under all that pomp, and that I needed help.
Folks nowadays want to look at the man’s politics. It’s hard not to, given what followed. Even before we saw how bad Bigley would really be, Space Brother’s endorsement was a shocker. Keep in mind, the guy had stayed out of it for years. You could always tell where he stood- he was a Kansas boy, fond of his little church, fond of the soldiers. But before Bigley he tried to keep his mouth shut about these things.
Maybe he liked Bigley’s swagger, or, God forbid, some of the man’s actual opinions. Maybe he hated the guy, and figured ‘his team’ needed the boost when running such a weak candidate. Everyone has their theories. Nobody knows for sure.
A few folks actually tried to drag me into the whole mess. I guess a few years before he saved me, Space Brother went up against this fella by the moniker Chainlink, a Latino strawman with some kind of chain fetish. Similar story to mine, but that time around Space Brother didn’t stay his hand. Chainlink got atomized.
Was it an accident? Maybe the guilt from the death got to him so bad he swore to find a better way next time- my time. Plenty of folks thought it might have been a warning sign. They could be right. It could be that Space Brother just didn’t care about folks like Chainlink as much as he cared about folks like me. It wouldn’t be the first time God made a man kind and brave, only for that man to forget all that goodness around folks he never learned to really see.
But I figure, I can leave it for other people to worry about that. Truitt’s dead, I’m alive, and frankly I have a hard time arguing that’s a more just state of affairs, even if I do have all the ‘right’ opinions. There’s other people out there doing real work who can criticize, maybe. People who don’t owe him anything.
I’m Christian, now. All us ex-Straws started a special bible study while I was in prison. You’d laugh, but there was a couple years there where every Sunday I’d sit between Captain Aneurysm and The Crimson Mist, trying to get a better grasp on Paul’s letters to the apostles. I think some of us were hungry for forgiveness. All of us missed that feeling of being part of something greater.
Saw a shirt last week. I guess the kid-punks are wearing ‘em now, ever since that Quran-burning scoundrel joined HOMEFRONT. Years ago he was burning one and it transformed into this young woman, still burning but peaceful as can be. The pastor ended up tackling her (which Captain Aneurysm has a great rant about on his radio show) and she just disappeared into this cloud of ash and paper. Good ol’ Pastor Dan got some 3rd degree burns and a potent infection out of the deal.
For the first time that day, I noticed there was some Arabic writing on the bottom of it. I’m a much shyer guy than you might expect, but for some reason in that moment I had to know. Redemption makes you a little hungry, maybe a little crazy. You start hoping every small mystery might hold the key to your purity.
The kid was a little taken aback, of course. I don’t think he recognized me, but I’m a burly dude and I probably looked a touch manic. You know the look- Scrooge leaning out the window, hassling passersby about dead geese. Still, the young man helped me out and I’m grateful.
I didn’t get the perfect absolution I needed, of course. Just in the week since, I’ve written three more apologies to the Gordons that I know I’ll never send. Three more drafts of something that can never erase the memory of what happened in that kitchen. But the quote’s helping me get my head around things a bit more. Not just the stuff I did, but the stuff Space Brother ended up doing- and not doing.
The kid stretched the cotton shirt out at his waist. “It’s what She said as she whispered in the pastor’s ear,” he explained. “I don’t think it’s from the actual Quran.” White light glared off of black vinyl in an ocean of red fabric. “God doesn’t forgive,” the kid read to me slowly, translating the Arabic to English in his head. “He understands.”