Steve was in his hospital bed, in his khakis and black T-shirt. He wasn’t having a good time, as he felt an agonizing pain in his guts. Steve suspected it was the DZD. Does DZD splatter your guts?, he wondered.
All of a sudden Steve’s cellphone rang. Steve dug into his khaki pocket like a shovel into quicksand and retrieved the phone.
Steve looked at the caller ID. “Jeff King”, it said. Steve pressed the button. “Hello?”, asked Steve.
“Hey Steve, it’s Jeff”, said the boy who had just called him.
“Say, Steve, you know how you have DZD?”
“And you know how I have King TV?”
“Yeah?”, Steve’s voice continued in a lingering tone, as if waiting for Jeff to get to his point. DZD – King TV. That rhymed, Steve thought.
“Well, grasp this. I can have the anchors at King TV do a feature on DVD, and make YOU the POSTER BOY!”
Steve’s lower lip turned into apple sauce. He was so overwhelmed by the possibilities that he could barely think straight.
“Jeff, I’d – I’d – I’d love to”, said Steve.
“I’ll get my crew to come over to the hospital tomorrow and we can do a shackstick presentation!”
“Yeah!”, said Steve in a high-pitched voice. He felt nothing short of giddy.
“Later.” And the cellphone dinged.
Steve tried to catch some Z’s, but he was now too full of adrenaline to be able to. The call with Jeff kept racing through his head again and again. He could think of nothing but how famous he could become by being featured on King TV.
For the next hour and a half, Steve’s mind raced like this and then calmed down again. He was still going to die when all was said and done . . . right?
“You have company, Steve!”, Zoe announced joyfully.
Could this be? But Jeff had said tomorrow!
Steve looked, and who was it, but Jocasta and her boyfriend Adrian?
“Hey, Steve!”, said Jocasta.
“Steve boy!”, said Adrian. “Jo girl and me are here to talk to you about religion!”
Steve’s eyes widened.
“Hey, Steve”, said Jocasta. “If you died tonight, are you 100% sure you’d go to Heaven?”
“No, because I’m not 100% sure Heaven’s real”, Steve said bluntly.
“Well, I know Heaven’s real”, said Jocasta. “It’s just around the corner for true believers. Inspired Mother Teresa. Don’t you want to go to Heaven when you die?”
Steve frowned. “If that means I’m going to grow wings and play a harp all day, I’d rather be stuck in the ground.”
“Steve, Heaven isn’t like you see in cartoons”, said Jocasta. “It’s . . . it’s beautiful. Imagine eating red velvet and not having to worry about calories. Imagine beautiful girls. You see, to us Christians, death is like a relief. We’re going to be with all-good God for an eternity and beyond!” She spread her left arm out as she said “eternity and beyond”. “Don’t think of the pain – just think of the afterlife! Everything after death.”
“I’ll leave behind Rochelle . . . and Richie . . . and Peter . . . and Jessica . . . and my brother Brad . . . and my sister Vanessa . . . and even you!” Steve began crying.
“Steve. Steve.” Jocasta spread her left arm out to comfort him. “We may be worried about leaving people behind or we may not like the idea of the pain involved in death, but the aspect of dying itself seems very attractive.”
“How will I manage when I’m spending decades waiting for Rochelle to join me?”
“Heaven is so beautiful that a hundred years on Earth will be like an hour for you.”
“And what if Rochelle’s found some other guy? Would she be willing to try polyamory so she can have me again in the afterlife?”
“In Heaven, everybody loves everyone equally. So there’s no jealousy, no who-loves-more-than-whom.”
“Wow, that sounds almost like Karl Marx!”
“Yep. Let me quote from Revelations 21:4: ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away’. You like your life?”
“I don’t”, said Steve. “I’ve got Diamond-Zuckerman, I’m going to leave Rochelle behind, Sharon’s AALL card has been stolen, the AALL card thieves are after me . . .” By now the thoughts of telepaper glory were far away.
“Oh, you mean those four guys? They caught one.”
“They caught one? Seriously.”
“Yep. It was on the telepaper.”
“The Hispanic one.”
Jocasta laughed. “You have a lot to thank God for! I know your life is rough, Steve, but Heaven offers . . . like a resort spa, a refuge away from it all!”
“But Jocasta, you like life, don’t you?”, asked Steve. “Parties . . . boys . . . grinding . . . leather . . . and gymnastics . . .”
“That’s true, I do like life”, said Steve. “I LOVE life! It’s fun. I enjoy every second of it, since I’m only on Earth once. And Heaven won’t be the same as Earth . . . you know? But even if you love life, you can't help but notice that the world is horribly horribly broken. The Christian Heaven promises an eternal existence that is not broken, but filled with only Love.”
“Wow.” Steve didn’t know what else to say.
“Yeah. So find God, and with him . . . ”, Jocasta began. She stopped, and then whispered. “Find everlasting life.”
Steve thought about that. He had encountered the famous passage John 3:16 before, but he wasn’t sure if it was real. But then, he thought, shouldn’t Steve answer that question? Shouldn’t Steve think about it enough to have a conclusive answer as to the reality of God and the afterlife? And what if the afterlife is just sitting in the Elysian Fields and eating lotuses . . . or something?
Steve’s head was arace with thoughts once again. But then he saw Adrian step up to the plate as Jocasta walked backwards.
“Hi, Steve boy”, said Adrian.
“Hi, Adrian”, replied Steve.
“I know you’ve got lots going on with your life. The disease, the AALL card bag, I heard you talking about all this stuff with Jo girl. I know how you feel.”
“Thanks, Adrian”, said Steve, interpreting it as if Adrian were just trying to be polite.
“No, Steve boy, I mean I really know how you feel. I have bad stuff happening to me all the time. Like when I get a hangover. Or that time I puked on Shar girl’s floor . . .” Adrian trailed off, and then laughed. “Remember that?”
“Or when I listen to the radio for an hour and they don’t play any of the songs I like.”
“Can’t you just type in ‘Sulfur Pie’ into Pandora?”
“I guess, but I really love KRTC.”
“Yeah. Great station. Now, the Dragonflies, I don’t like the Dragonflies. So, in short, sucky stuff happens. But you know what?”
“I’m a Buddhist. I understand that life consists of suffering. That’s the nature of it, Steve boy.”
“You could be a Buddhist too?”
Steve thought. He had studied Siddhartha Gautama in lyceum, but did not know the real nuts and bolts of the religion, let alone its mystical mystique. “A Buddhist? Really? But I don’t know where to begin.”
“People suffer because we crave things. Like I crave beer and Mongolian beef. I just love Mongolian beef. And getting stocious is a lot of fun too. Remember that time we were at a party together and I did an impression of President Zuniga?”
“Yeah . . .”
“Well, Steve boy, no matter how much beer I drink, I can never get all the beer I want. I can never get that orgasm, that light shining upon me, that perfect thrill, that . . . that . . . that . . .”
“What’s a frisson?”
“It’s like a chill going down your spine.”
“I’ll just be reincarnated in the next life, and go through the same thing. Until that day . . . that one day . . . that I achieve nirvana.”
“Hey, I know what achieving nirvana is, it’s finding enlightenment.”
“Kinda. You know how you get angry about things?”
“Oh, do I ever!”
“Well, life is basically being angry. And imagine not existing anymore. You don’t crave things that will never come in a million years, and you don’t get angry, because you’ll never live again. Doesn’t that sound great?”
This was too much thought for Steve to handle at once. He frowned, and averted his head from Adrian.
“You look like a Buddhist, in your black T-shirt”, said Adrian.
Steve looked over. Adrian was wearing a black T-shirt too. Then something occurred to Steve. “Adrian, I don’t want to just stop existing”, said Steve. “The world needs me. I need to save other people. You know, Sharon’s still missing her AALL card.”
“I see. So you want to become a bodhisattva instead of reaching nirvana.”
“Explain bodhisattva-ism to me.”
“You see, a bodhisattva is kind of like a buddha – someone who’s achieved nirvana – but they still have the craving for helping and saving other people.”
“I’ll look into it”, said Steve. “Listen, Jocasta’s come over proselytizing Christianity to me and I still don’t know whether to be a Christian, a Buddhist or a Scientologist.”
“Scientologists are kunk”, said Adrian.
“It’s all coming at me so fast and I’m not getting any better. Now do you mind if I lie down again?”
“Not at all, Steve boy.”
So Steve lay down on his hospital bed and Adrian and Jocasta walked up together, holding hands. “See you later!”, they both said. Then Jocasta kissed Adrian on the lips as the two walked back out of the infectious disease floor.
It was the morning of April 26. Steve was lying helplessly in his bed, with his boxer shorts on. As he sat with his head cradled in his hands, he knew the news crew would come over today to interview and film him. Steve put on his khakis and his button-down shirt. It was a white long-sleeved shirt with a breast pocket on the left.
Steve had gotten Richie to deliver his music over. Steve put on his headphones and listened to some Purple Kohlrabi. Then he listened to some Ethan Milian. He felt nothing but happy thoughts as he listened to his music with his eyes closed and imagined the camera crew visiting.
When Ethan Milian’s album came to a close, Steve put away his iPod and lay there in rapt anticipation. He began singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” to pass the time, but he found himself basically just mumbling the words after the first three verses.
“Steve!”, said Zoe. “You have visitors!” Could this be?
It turned out to be Richie and Sharon. “Hi, Richie”, said Steve.
“Hi, Steve”, Richie replied.
“Hi, Steve”, said Sharon. “We all did this for you! We knew you’d like it, so we got King TV to videotape you.”
“Aww, thanks, guys!”
Five minutes later, Jessica came waltzing in.
“Jessica!”, said Steve. “You made it!”
“Yes, we did”, said Jessica. “Don’t worry; more of us are coming!”
Over the next several minutes, Kevin, Kio, Adrian, Jocasta, Peter, Tenisha, Avery and Tae-yeon joined Steve.
“Group hug!”, announced Sharon.
Avery hugged Tae-yeon, then Sharon hugged Richie and Tae-yeon hugged Kevin. Then Richie approached Steve with his arms open and, upon cue, Steve embraced his friend. Before long, everyone was hugging each other and Adrian almost had Steve in a stranglehold.
“Dude, where’s Rochelle?”, asked Peter. “She should be here by now.”
Speaking of the Devil . . . Rochelle walked in. “Hey, guys!”, she said. “And girls.”
Could this be? The love of his life? A profound smile grew over Steve’s face. “Rochelle!”
“Steve!”, Rochelle shouted.
Richie recalled that when he had spoken with Steve last night. the latter had told him that he was concerned Rochelle was going to lose him and that would be the end of their romance. Richie began thinking about this, incited by the sight of Rochelle. Steve was Richie’s best friend. Sharon had gotten Steve together with Rochelle at her party. Steve would soon die and be separated from Rochelle, the thought thereof leading to heartbreak for Steve. Sharon was Richie’s girlfriend. Richie’s girlfriend Sharon had set his best friend Steve up with Rochelle and set Steve up for heartbreak!
“Well, it looks as if Rochelle won’t have my best friend after all”, said Richie angstily.
Sharon understood. “I’m sorry, Richie. I thought they’d be good together.” She took another look at his glaring face. “If only I had known . . .”
But by now Richie was staring off into space, his face at an oblique angle from Sharon.
“Well, if it isn’t them –“, Peter began.
Jeff walked in, along with two anchors from King TV.
“Hi, I’m Larry Brown”, said the male anchor. Larry was a dark-skinned lad in his late twenties, with a chinstrap beard. He approached the hospital bed. “You’re Steve, right?”
“Right”, Steve replied, and displayed his palm.
“My name’s Lindsay Ritter”, said the female anchor. Lindsay was in her thirties, with long, silky blonde hair and brown eyes. “Nice to meet you, Steve. Larry and I will be sharing your story with the world.”
Sharing my story with the world, Steve thought. That had a nice ring to it.
“Now, it looks as if you have an assortment of other people here”, Lindsay said. “Are these your friends?”
Steve nodded. “Yes. My friends.”
“It’s good to have friends. Is everyone OK with being videotaped here?”
“Oh, sure!”, said Jessica.
“Most definitely”, said Kevin.
“Sure”, said Adrian.
“Why not?”, asked Sharon.
Larry and Lindsay obtained everyone’s permission. As soon as it was clear that everyone was willing to be taped, the two went ahead filming Steve.
“So your full name is Stephan Bruise?”, asked Lindsay. “How do you spell it?”
“S-T-E-P-H-A-N”, said Steve.
“And then Bruise like a bruised ankle?”
“And how old are you, Steve?”
“And what city do you live in?”
“The same as Jeff King!”
“Now, Steve, I understand you have something called Diamond-Zuckerman disease,” said Larry. “Tell me a little bit about how it feels like to have it.”
“I feel quite off”, said Steve. “It feels as if my body parts of bursting inside of me. There’s a splattering kind of feeling. And the dizziness . . . I’ve felt dizzy a lot. And I can’t remember what I want to remember.”
“You forget things?”
“Like, the other day, I made a yellow pocket tee in my fabber. How could I forget that I hate the color yellow? AAAAAARGH!”
“Wow. What colors do you like?”
“I like white. And black. And khaki, brown, beige, cream, that kind of stuff. And blue. And . . . and . . . um . . .”
“And green!”, said Rochelle.
“That’s right,” said Steve. “I have a blue-and-green-striped shirt.”
“And you’ve got a red-and-white-striped T-shirt”, said Rochelle.
“Like mine!”, Peter said proudly, pointing to his own T-shirt.
“What kind of things do you like to do?”, Lindsay asked Steve.
“I like going to the parties”, said Steve. “And the coffeeshop. And, um, what else? Oh, yeah, I like skateboarding. And listening to music?”
“Have you ever taped yourself skateboarding?”, asked Larry.
“Do we have your permission to get the footage? Since I know you don’t skateboard in the hospital, so the footage must be of you on the sidewalk. Or at the skatepark or something.”
“Yes, you have my permission.”
Larry smiled. “Cool. What kind of music do you like to listen to?”
“I like Ethan Milian. And Thirst. And Purple Kohlrabi. And, oh yes, the Dragonflies. And the Shrine Kneelers too.” Steve went on listing artists.
“I see you brought your headphones and iPod along”, said Lindsay. “Now, I’d like to photograph you listening to music. Why don’t you put on some music you like? Maybe you can sing along?”
“My singing voice is stale”, said Steve, his voice turning down.
“Then just do whatever you feel comfortable with.”
Steve took his iPod and turned to the first track of the Shrine Kneelers’ album Hypnagogic. Then he put his headphones on and closed his eyes. Larry could get some good shots at a few different angles of Steve with his eyes closed. Steve let his mind wander as he was listening to the Shrine Kneelers. It all seemed so surreal: the chase with the AALL card thieves, the man sneezing on Steve, the trip to the hospital, his relationship with Rochelle, the King TV crew visiting.
After the third track, Steve opened his eyes and saw the crew and all his friends still standing there.
Larry and Lindsay interviewed Richie, Rochelle, Sharon and Peter. They made dinner-party conversation with Kevin and listened to Jocasta tell them about Jesus’ saving power. They also asked Steve if he could smile. Steve grinned to them widely enough for his braces to show. He had to be happy that he was getting all this attention, at least for a little while.
As the interview session wore on, Larry asked Steve, “So, Steve, are you afraid of death? What are your thoughts on dying?”
Steve sulked in his bed. “I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of dying . . . it’s just that I feel I’ve wasted my life. As if some higher power really had more in store for me. I date a girl, I break up with a girl. I date another, I break up with her. I work at the GAP and fold cargo pants, stack vests every day. Oh, and another thing, the people I’ll leave behind when I die. Richie, Jessica, my girlfriend Rochelle, my brother Brad and sister Vanessa, Peter, Sharon, Jocasta . . .”
“Sounds as if you have a lot of people in your life. Does that make it all the harder for you to come to grips with dying?”
“It does. It truly does.” Steve’s eyes and nose started to become wetter.
Dr. Thakkar was standing with the lot in the hospital room. For the next several minutes, Larry interviewed Dr. Thakkar about the science of Diamond-Zuckerman disease, as well as his observations of Steve.
Then Lindsay asked Steve, “Well, Steve, does that wrap it up or is there anything more you’d like to say to your global audience?
Steve had to take a moment or two to come up with a good answer.
“Always live free”, Steve said.
“Beautiful words”, said Larry. “It’s been nice working with you, Steve.” Larry held up his palm, and Steve held his own up. “And I wish you well. I’m praying for you.”
“Thank you! THANK YOU!” Steve didn’t know what else to say.
“Bye-bye!”, said Lindsay.
“And nice speaking with you, Kevin. And Richie, Rochelle, Peter, Ravi . . .”
The group said their good-byes, and did some more hugging. Sharon reached out her arms to hug Richie, but this time he didn’t respond to her affectionate cue. Richie was different. As Steve watched Sharon leave, he could notice that something on her face was off. After the last guest exited the infectious disease floor, Steve began crying again. Richie was his friend. So was Sharon. Was his life going to end with them split up? Maybe that was a thought for tomorrow. For today, Steve needed more sleep.
Steve lay back down atop his covers, but this time he couldn’t sleep. After twenty minutes or so, he pulled his covers over him, but still no ability to rest. Steve was a troubled boy with a troubled mind.