An Attack of Conscience

by Marissa Lingen

I remember how it started quite clearly: Terri was late, as usual. I got us a table and looked at the menu, trying not to fidget with it. I expected her to be late. Always. And when she came in, she was radiant, charming the waitress and waving at me from the door. Her hair was freshly dyed a deep crimson, and she wore just a little make-up. Her purse looked new.

"How have you been?" I asked redundantly.

"Fabulous!" She sat down, blushing. "Oh, Jon, I can't believe how wonderful my life has been lately. My parents are doing well. Casie's got a steady job, finally. And I'm seeing this guy...."

Many of my worst days have begun with Terri saying, "I'm seeing this guy." "Great. What's he like?" I asked.

"Oh, he's great. He's very sweet. Dark hair, blue eyes, sensitive mouth. He loves reading Lorrie Moore, people like that. Doesn't watch TV at all."

Whereas I had a five-day-a-week Simpson's rerun habit. Terri's last guy with a sensitive mouth had been a vampire. "What does he do?"

She twisted her mouth around a little bit, staring at the menu. "You're going to get the way you get."

"Terri. What does he do?"

"Oh, he does some dance, and he has monologues about the vapidity of American culture. And he sucks people's brains. It's a performance art thing," she said, all in a rush.

"He's a performance artist who sucks people's brains."

"It's so effective, you wouldn't believe how the audience responds. They're quite...affected by it."

"Has he sucked their brains, too?" I asked.

"Jon!"

"It's a reasonable question."

"No, that would spoil the show. And it is not a reasonable question. He has some professional ethics!"

"Professional brain-sucker ethics."

"You always make things sound so nasty."

"I don't think this one needs any help from me."

She went back to the menu. "He just needs someone to pay attention to him. He's got all kinds of really fabulous ideas."

"Did he suck them out of other people?"

"No, honestly, Jon! He's really brilliant. And I'm sure when he starts to make his big break, he'll move away from the brain-sucking thing. I mean, you have to have a gimmick or no one will pay attention. He also does other things."

"Writhing around wrapped in SaranWrap, that kind of thing?"

"Well...the last time it was throwing bags full of pig dung at rotating blades. Get it? The shit hits the fan?"

"Ha," I said.

"But that's not so good for an indoor performance, you know? We're working on his act."

"I'm sure that's interesting," I said. And the thing is, they always are. For awhile. In the time since I've known her -- since we were juniors in college -- Terri has dated a vampire, a weretiger, a dark angel, a necromancer, a fifth realm demon, a god of chaos, and two different blood sorcerers. I mentioned this to her.

"Oh, come on," she said. "Zeke wasn't like that."

"I did forget about Zeke, and I am sorry," I said. "Power-crazed faith healers who cause psychic cancers are indeed a class unto themselves, and I should not have made such a generalization about your boyfriends. My sincere apologies."

"You just need to have an open mind," said Terri. "Albert is perfectly sweet. He just needs --"

"His name is Albert?" Who named their kid Albert? Brain-suckers, evidently.

"He just needs," she continued determinedly, "to get a few issues taken care of, and if I could have help with that...."

I closed my eyes. "Help with that. And I suppose that's where I come in."

Terri smiled pleadingly. "It would be really great of you, Jon. I'd appreciate it so much."

I was Terri's designated witch friend. I had been enlisted to charm, heal, ward, and fix up the losers Terri kept bringing home. She would have been better with a class-three white-magic sorcerer, but none of those had gone to college with us. Leaving me.

"What, exactly, do you think I can do for, ah, for Albert?"

"I knew I could count on you!"

"I haven't promised anything," I reminded her. "I just asked what you wanted. I don't even know if I can do it."

"I just want you to give him a wee tiny little aversion to brains, is all."

"A wee tiny little aversion to brains. Do you know what that'll do to him? He'll be trying to scoop out his own skull!" A nasty thought occurred to me -- I knew nothing about brain-sucker anatomy. "Unless he has none of his own, in the traditional sense."

Terri looked stricken. "No, I think he's got brains. I think."

I try to date people whose skulls can be assumed to have the normal contents, but that's me. "Well, then, you don't really want him to be averse to brains. Maybe if he was -- no, it wouldn't work if he was averse to other people's brains, either, because then he couldn't come near your head. I could make him averse to sucking."

Terri turned red. "We'll think of something else."

I really didn't need to think about that. "What about an attack of conscience?"

"That's perfect!" She bounced in her chair. "Thank you so much, Jon."

"Yeah. My pleasure."

It took two full pounds of Manx cat toenail clippings to work up the spell. Among other things. It was my pleasure, but I was going to make sure it was Terri's expense. I called her up to confirm the bill.

"Oh, yes, that's fine, whatever it takes, sweetie," she said. "Can you drop by with it on Friday afternoon? He's got a performance Friday evening, so, you know...."

"I work," I explained patiently. "I need to be at work on Friday afternoon."

"Oh. Thursday evening, then?"

I sighed. "I'll rush to get it done by then. For you."

"Thank you so, so much!"

I signed off, reminding myself of Terri's many fine and charming qualities, and returned to work on the spell component. Do you know how long it takes to boil cat toenails?

I thought not.

At any rate, I managed to finish off the spell and have it condensed into a turquoise powder. It would be up to Terri to slip it into Albert's drink -- after the powder was delivered, I washed my hands of the whole affair.

At least, that was the plan.

Albert answered the door when I knocked. He was wearing a black turtleneck and black slacks, marred only by hair from Terri's bichon frisť, Eskimo. He had a domed forehead and tiny little glasses. "Jonathan," he said. "Terri's told me so much about you."

"Oh, likewise," I said.

"Come on in. Terri's making drinks."

I stopped through the kitchen to give Terri a hug and slip the packet of powder into her back pocket. She was chopping strawberries and bananas for an elaborate smoothie concoction. Albert and I took opposite chairs in the living room and waited.

"Terri tells me you're a performance artist," I said.

"Oh, yes! Have you made it to any of the shows?"

"Not yet," I said, smiling insincerely. "There's always so much to do."

"And what is it that you do?"

"I'm a consultant," I said. It's my safe answer. Sometimes I consult about witchcraft and sometimes about marketing strategies. And I've heard all the jokes there are about that, thanks.

"Well, I can see why that would keep you busy." The man was blatantly insincere, and his mouth was weird. I kept trying not to stare at it, but what can I say? It was just plain weird. It was too round, for one thing. His lips didn't have corners like most people's lips. And at first I thought he was wearing lipstick -- but no, his lips were just that bright a red, there was no telltale lipstick glare.

Terri was dating a human lamprey.

Actually, I didn't know if he was human or not.

Terri entered with a tray of drinks, posing in the door for a minute so that we could see how cute and domestic she was. She served Albert his smoothie first and then handed mine to me. It was a little too sweet for my taste -- Terri leans a little hard on the honey -- but I drank it anyway, smiling at her and Albert like an imbecile.

"And how has work been?" I asked Terri.

"Oh, fine, fine. Still working on the Tinderman project, but it's just sucking the life out of me." She looked stricken, but Albert didn't seem to notice.

"Good," I managed. I took another big drink of my smoothie. Whatever Terri wanted out of this, she wasn't making it clear to me. Was I supposed to hang around talking until he started weeping and spilled his guts and swore never, ever to suck brains again?

"I was talking to Albert about an idea I had for his act, but he didn't like it."

"It was passť, my dear," he said. "Practically everybody throws darts at pictures of their mother with their asses. It's been done."

"You suggested that he...?"

"Well, the butt thing was not my idea," said Terri. "Nor, actually, was the mother thing. I was thinking of more a public figure, someone like the --"

"Boring, boring, boring," Albert interrupted. "My statement on American culture is much clearer, especially in the television bit."

"Tell me about the television bit," I suggested. I squirmed. Perhaps I shouldn't have done this in the first place. Surely Terri could convince her own boyfriend without having to resort to trickery. It wasn't a very good thing to do.

I began to wonder who had had which smoothie.

Terri was eyeing Albert, and so was I. He'd drunk a good deal of his smoothie, and the spell should have been kicking in at any moment.

"I have a set of volunteers for my show -- people who, for whatever reason, are not happy with their lives the way they are. After my show, they find that the world no longer bothers them as it used to. Minor annoyances are as trivial as they ought to be. These people want a change."

"Where do you find them?" I interrupted.

"Oh, anywhere, really. Anywhere from the corporate CEO's office to the soup kitchen." He paused and got an odd, thoughtful look on his face. Terri leaned forward. I think we both believed that he was having an attack of conscience, as promised, and would now start discussing the ethics of it.

We were surprised. "Terri, I have to tell you something," Albert said. "I've been keeping this from you, but I don't think I can any longer. My volunteer for tomorrow night's show is your sister."

"Casie?" gasped Terri. "You can't do that!"

"I'm afraid so," he said. "She volunteered. I'm sorry it upsets you. I'll try to be gentle, to make sure she feels nothing in the process of --"

"You can't."

"You can't stop me, I'm afraid. She was the best volunteer -- such a stage presence -- and we have all the forms drawn up. I'm sorry, Terri, sweetheart. But I think Casie will be --"

"Get out," said Terri.

"What?" Albert and I spoke in unison; I'd never seen her actually throw a guy out before.

"Get out of my house, and don't come back."

"Don't you think you're being a bit hasty?" he asked. "I'm sure we can talk this over."

"There's nothing to talk about, and you're not going to suck my baby sister's brains out. Get out of my house now." Terri reached underneath the couch, and she was pretty clearly going for a weapon. I was surprised that it was a crowbar, and even more surprised that she looked comfortable with it in her hand.

Albert scrambled to his feet and backed away, towards the door. "You're going to regret this."

"I doubt it," said Terri.

When the door closed behind Albert, I let my breath out. "Whew. Why do you have that thing around?"

She hefted the crowbar, looked surprised. "Oh, I don't know. A girl can't be too careful."

"Terri, you date the people a girl can't be too careful of."

"Yeah, well." She shrugged, trying to look tough. She failed utterly. Her face crumpled, and she started to cry. "He can't do this!"

I removed the crowbar from her hand, gently, and guided her towards the couch. "Did you ever try to stop him before?"

"Well, no." She sniffled. "But it wasn't Casie before!"

"So it's okay for him to suck other people's little sister's brains?"

She scowled at me through her tears. "No, of course not, that's why I called you in, but it didn't work, your spell...." She trailed off, looking horrified.

"What?"

"Your spell did work. He just doesn't see anything wrong with sucking people's brains."

"I'm sure he learned it at his mother's knee," I said. I don't think Terri even heard me. She was sobbing her heart out. I just let her cry on my shoulder until she was done.

"This is terrible," she said after a good long time.

"I know, I know, but he's gone now."

"You have to help me stop him."

I leaned back a little bit. "Me? Why me?"

"You're the witch. I can't do this kind of thing."

"Do you know what kind of magic brain-suckers use?"

She looked startled. "No."

"Me, neither. That's why I don't think I can help you."

"Isn't there anything simple you can do? I really need help." She looked at me appealingly. "Think of poor Casie."

I was thinking of poor Casie, to tell the truth. She was five years younger, ten pounds lighter, and light years dizzier than Terri -- but she had better luck with men, for the most part. Terri had tried to set us up once, convinced that Casie was the prettier sister. It didn't work out. I just couldn't see past the vacant look in Casie's eyes.

But the kid needed whatever brain cells she could keep, and I've always had a hard time saying no to Terri. "Okay," I said finally. "If we have to jump on the stage and attack him, I'll do it. But I hope we can come up with something better."

"So do I," said Terri.

"Why don't you call Casie and try to talk her out of it?"

"Jon, Jon, Jon," she said. "It's just not that simple."

"Give it a shot, okay?"

"All right, all right. But we have to have something else in mind."

I thought some more. "What can you tell me about his brain-sucking? I need specifics: where does he do it, what are the short- and long-term effects on the person, all of that."

"He sucks on their foreheads," said Terri, pointing dead center. "Right here. Afterwards, they can still talk and walk around and stuff, they just seem kind of dead inside. Numbed."

"Like people who've had a lobotomy," I said.

"Well, I don't know about you, but I haven't run into too many people with lobotomies," said Terri. "But it sounds about right, yeah."

"Are there any marks left on them?"

"Just a hickey-looking thing. Doesn't appear to be a hole or a cut or anything."

I thought about it. Magic was certainly involved in all the aspects of it. I had a thought for how we might remedy the problem, but I was going to want some back-up. "Think you can get that crowbar into the show?" I asked.

I didn't spend a lot of time with performance artists, so I had no idea how easy it would be to get into the show with whatever we wanted, especially since Terri knew the ushers, and they assumed she was part of the act. I didn't ask if she had been before -- she said that Albert hadn't sucked any of her brains, and beyond that I didn't want to know.

Albert appeared on the stage ten minutes after the show was supposed to start, wearing the same black turtleneck and slacks. The set consisted of some armchairs, a sofa, and -- in the middle of the stage, facing away from the audience -- a large television. Albert stood in front of the television, reading a series of commercials in a monotone. Casie and another person, a young man, sauntered onto the stage and sat down on the sofa, side by side but not touching. Albert kept reading the commercials.

"What if he goes for the guy first?" I whispered. "We've still got to try to stop him."

"He always goes for the girl first, if there's a girl," said Terri.

"But if he --"

"Sure, yeah," Terri hissed. "We'll take care of the guy, too. Whatever. We've just got to get Casie out of this."

"You did try calling her, didn't you?"

Terri glared at me. "Yes. And it didn't work."

I wasn't sure about rescuing people against their will, but it was too late to have a big argument about it.

Albert kept reciting his commercials. I glanced over at Terri. "In a minute, he'll start," she whispered. And he did, walking forward and grasping Casie by the shoulders. I jumped out of my seat and ran for the stage, just like Terri and I had planned.

"Stop!" Terri shouted. "This is not an act. This is not a statement on pop culture. He's really going to suck her brains out!"

I knew that wouldn't stir anybody up, and it didn't. They figured she was part of the show. They sat back and watched. Terri scrambled down the aisle behind me, carrying her crowbar. Albert, his eyes rolling in panic, attached his mouth to Casie's forehead and sucked swiftly, his cheeks fishing in and out. The guy stood there in utter confusion.

I splashed my potion over Albert's head. It trickled down into his eyes and nose, smelling like a fruit punch just starting to ferment. His face was covered in the burgundy stickiness, except for his eyes, which first narrowed in rage. Then he tried to let go of Casie to come after us.

He couldn't do it.

His cheeks started working the other direction, and from the expression on Casie's face, it looked like she was getting more brains. And then more. Terri stood behind me, holding her crowbar uncertainly. Albert kept spitting brains back into Casie's forehead. I had intended to reverse the process. I didn't realize it could be reversed indefinitely.

After a few long minutes, with the audience sitting in stunned silence, Terri got tired of waiting and stepped up behind Albert. She whacked him hard in the back of the legs with the crowbar. He folded; when he lost consciousness, he also lost his forced grip on Casie's head. Casie gripped her forehead like she had a headache. Terri whacked Albert again, and then again twice more.

"Okay, Ter," I said nervously. "Okay."

She hit his legs again.

"Show's over," I announced. "Due to unforeseen circumstances. The Amazing Albert will be refunding your ticket prices. Talk to the box office after tomorrow morning. Thank you. Good night." Most of them got up and filed out, grumbling and glaring.

Terri was looking down at Albert thoughtfully. I think she was considering moving up from his legs to rather more vital organs.

"It's okay, Terri," I said. "We got Casie back. We saved the guy here. It's okay. You can stop now."

"But --"

"The cops are going to be upset if you don't stop now."

"But -- the cops never cared before."

"But the cops never had people bitching about their money before."

Terri lowered the crowbar. Albert didn't move.

"That was a really brave thing you did," said a youngish man in the front row. He wore a tweed jacket and a scruffy T-shirt.

"Thank you," I said. But he was looking at Terri.

"Thank you," she repeated.

"Oh, shit," muttered Casie. I moved to support her if she should collapse. "No, no, I'm fine. I just -- do you know what it's like to get more brains? When you thought you were going to be lobotomized, and all of a sudden you can remember calculus and what Candide was all about and why Pope was so pissed at Colley Cibber? Can you imagine that?"

"Not really, no," I said. I was a bit nervous -- I'd never saved someone's personality without her permission before. Or with, for that matter.

"It's novel. Very novel. I'm not sure I'm who I was, but...well, that's a deeper question than I can solve in one night."

I relaxed a hair's breadth. If that was as upset as Casie was going to get, we were golden. Then I heard Terri's voice: "No, no, I think the struggle for public awareness of witches is fascinating. I'd love to hear more about it at your place."

A witches' awareness activist. She was entirely on her own with that one. I turned to Casie. "Want to try to solve all the problems of the universe over a latte?"

She grinned. "As long as none of them involve my sister's love life."

Even with a fresh set of brains, it's good to recognize our own limitations.

THE END

This story originally appeared in Neo-Opsis, Issue 3.