Tables waited on her.On any given Friday night there would be at least three groups of people in the waiting area of Campell's Family Cuisine Kitchen who only wanted to be seated in Naomi's section.It was a bit of a headache for the Campells, because a lot of the other wait staff would quit because they weren't making good tips. Naomi was the gold standard, not that the Campells ever said that, and the other wait staff couldn't help but feel a little put off by her popularity.None of them actually hated Naomi, mind you. Everybody loved Naomi. You couldn't not love Naomi.She was sweet, she was patient, she was quick and never forgot anything that any customer asked for. When people thanked her for doing something nice, she always said "Oh, it ain't nuthin' that you didn't deserve." with a slight Southern lilt. And she wasn't hard on the eyes, either.Naomi wasn't a bombshell, she just had that pretty look that echoed purity and kindness. Men, women, and children alike all found her pleasant to look at. She had many admirers, and even one marriage proposal this year. But she always said that she preferred her quiet life of meditating during the day and waiting tables at night.I was in town for six months. I was originally hired as an efficiency expert for the local coal mine. But after four months of process mapping, financial audits, team meetings, cost analysis and market analysis, my job was now to figure out if they could file for bankruptcy and shut down for good. The two brothers who had inherited the mine had mismanaged the company's money so badly that they wanted to file the bankruptcy and walk away from the credit mess before the real trouble started for them personally.Once I finished all the audits and inventories in preparation for the bankruptcy filing, all my work would go to the lawyers and they would handle it.
I felt truly horrible some days knowing that I was preparing documents that were going to wreak some havoc in the lives of the people around me at the mine.The only attraction in town was Campell's, so normally I was there for dinner 4 or 5 nights a week. I'd meet a few of the locals, but I wouldn't get too close to them. I was the man auditing and inventorying them out of a job.I sat at the lunch counter, though, at dinner time. Being a single man, it would have been silly of me to wait in line for a booth in Naomi's section. So, I just watched her from the end of the counter. And it only took me the first weekend of sitting there to realize that something was amiss.Naomi, even though she didn't have a runner to bring out her food, always managed to cover more tables than everyone else and her tables got their food faster. When she went into the kitchen to get her food, she was always back out in 30 seconds or less. When she went to the drink station, she came back out with a tray of sodas and teas in 15 seconds. She was miraculous.So, on the nights I was there and she was there, I mostly watched her work. Pete Campell, the owner, was in the kitchen most of the time helping the cook. He would also serve the patrons at the lunch counter, which was only me. Everyone else sat at the tables, and most of them in Naomi's section.I brought the topic of Naomi up one night with Pete Campell. "She really brings in the business, huh?"Pete nodded, distracted and happy. "Yep, I hired her about six months ago and things have been great ever since. I met my wife through Naomi, got married almost immediately, redecorated this place, just found out my wife's pregnant, it's been great." This struck me as odd, but what could I really make of what Pete said? If Naomi was making his business better, then there was nothing else to say. The woman had something for her that just made everything better for everyone she interacted with.
Pete's wife, Rosie, was a lot like Naomi in several ways. She worked the lunch counter sometimes when Pete was busy. Like Naomi, she had a bit of Southern accent. This stuck out like a sore thumb in Pennsylvania, but most everyone liked Rosie. She also had a light about her that made her very well loved. She was no Naomi, but she was almost a toned-down version of Naomi. On one of the rare occasions she served me at the counter, I congratulated her on her pregnancy. She patted her stomach and said, "Well, thank you. I expect to be getting real big real soon." I thought that was a bit odd to say, but everyone had their own way of speaking. Who was I to judge?My bosses, the two owners of the company I was "making more efficient", also ate at Campell's a lot. They sat in Naomi's section, and they tipped her well. They joked and chatted with their employees, many of whom came often to eat at Campell's. It was as though Naomi was some sort of angel of good tidings. Everyone who had Naomi pulling for them seemed to be happy, well-fed, and content.And I began to think of Naomi as an angel, and therefore I began to make sure that I never crossed paths with her. I was about to help bring bad news to this town, even if no one knew it. Troy and Raymond, the owners of the strip mine, had told the employees that I was there as an "efficiency consultant" and that meant nothing to any of the mine workers. They were nice enough, but didn't really care about what I did. The ladies in the office regarded me with distant hope and suspicion. The "ladies," and that was how Troy and Raymond introduced them to me, knew that the two brothers were bad with the money. I was sure they didn't believe that the pair would hire an efficiency consultant, but they were probably hopeful that an outsider could save their jobs.I felt bad for them when Troy and Raymond decided to go the bankruptcy route, but not entirely. Somewhere along the line I'd just come to the conclusion that everyone decided their own fate, and that my role in their worlds was scripted by their decisions. If the closing of the coal mine caused these people harm, that really wasn't on my head. It was on Troy's and Raymond's. And if I wasn't hired as the efficiency expert, then someone else would do the job.
But being around Naomi several nights a week, seeing her shine and light up the room, I felt guilty. I never looked at her when she passed the lunch counter, and I made sure that she never caught me watching her.
When I was about three weeks away from finishing my work, Pete Campell asked me a question while he was serving me the beef stroganoff that I usually ordered.
"So, are you really going to save this place?"
I looked at him, trying to not react. "The restaurant?"
He scowled slightly. "The town. If you save the mine, you save the town. Everyone knows that Troy and Raymond play fast and loose with the money, but hiring you could really turn things around. If you make things more efficient, there will be plenty of money for everyone."
I took a bite of the beef stroganoff, savoring it and buying myself time to come up with an answer that wouldn't be a lie. I'd never lied to anyone while I'd been there. I always said that I was there to straighten things out. I always said that I was going through the books and putting everything where it should be. And that really wasn't a lie. The mine should have been closed a while back. The brothers had taken out so many loans, lines of credit, and formed sub-corporations to write off certain assets by "divesting" them to the sub-corporations and then leasing them back to the main business that no one could keep it straight.
"Pete. I'm going to put everything back the way it should be. That's all I can do. The rest is up to Troy and Raymond."
He nodded. "Yeah, well, do the best you can, chief. I guess the brothers must be serious about making some changes if they hired you."
He was right. Not in the way he thought he was. But, he was right. So I nodded and he left me alone.
It was as I was finishing my iced tea and slice of peach cobbler that night when Naomi took a seat next to me. "You never sit over in my section."
I turned to look at her, admittedly startled and probably showing it. "I'm just one guy, and Pete can take care of me just fine. You're quite busy, anyway."
She smiled at me, but in more of a sarcastic way. "Pete can't even take care of himself. And, you see how I work, but you're not impressed. I've seen you watching me."
She had me dead to rights there. But, I was getting a really, really weird vibe off the conversation. She wasn't as friendly with me as she seemed with everyone else. I wanted her to leave me alone. "I'm impressed. I really am. But you've got plenty of people waiting for you to serve them. I'm fine here."
"Yeah, you seem to be." She looked me up and down. "What are you doing here?"
She raised an eyebrow at me. "I mean, what are you doing in town?"
"Setting things straight at the mine. Helping Troy and Raymond clean up their act."
She got up from the stool. "I think it's way too late for that. I suggest you save yourself some trouble and quit while you're ahead," She started to walk away.
"I don't know if I'm really ahead or not, at this point."
She looked over her should and gave me a wry smile. Then she turned back to her packed section of tables and began to work her magic on the masses seated there.
Another week went by, and I was consumed by two issues. First, there were some numbers in the accounts at the mine that didn't make sense. There was just cash that the brothers were using, but I couldn't account for it on the general ledger. Every expense since I'd been there had been posted to the ledger, and so there should have been no cash available. But the brothers took money out, so there had to be money there to withdraw. Every deposit was accounted for to the penny, so the cash had to be falsely represented in the expenses.
The second issue was Naomi. Her presence in town bothered me the closer I got to the end of my job. After she talked to me in the restaurant, I felt like even more of an outsider. I felt like she knew the real reason I was there. I was afraid to approach her again, but I was curious about her seeming perfection. This town was hanging on the brink, and I think everyone knew it in their subconscious. And Naomi always made them feel at home and at peace. All was right when you were with Naomi.
Except me. I was not all right with Naomi.
Monday night, once I'd left he mine offices, I took my rental car out on Route 52. I'd heard that Naomi lived in a trailer out there, and I wanted to find her. The restaurant was closed on Monday nights, so I thought she'd be home.
Route 52 had, years ago, been the original mining road into town. This was the road that every early miner and merchant had followed to seek their fortune in this town. Now, it was just the old way over the hills to Silverdale. A newer road had been built in the 1970's on the other side of town that led out to a state highway that, in turn, led to the Interstate. Route 52 was just a twisty, barely lit excuse for a road. As I moved along the road at a moderate pace, I looked down each dirt road offshoot for a mobile home that might be Naomi's.
I was about give up after looking down about twenty dirt roads when she was just there. I had turned my head to look down a driveway that had a mailbox at the end, and when I turned my head back to the road she was standing in the middle of road. I slammed on the brakes, and my rental came within inches of her kneecaps.
While I caught my breath, she came around to my side of the car and ripped open my door. I thought she was going to reach in and grab me, but she just held the door open and stared at me. She was dressed in her waitress outfit from the restaurant, and she looked pissed.
"I don't know what you are. But let me just tell you, you... you are NOT going to take them away from me! They are mine!"
She slammed my door so hard that I flinched and closed my eyes in case the door glass shattered. It didn't. But when I looked back to where she was standing, she wasn't there. She wasn't anywhere to be seen. She was just gone as quickly as she appeared.
I shut the car off and got out. I listened carefully around me, but there was no sound of footsteps in the woods. If she was out there, she wasn't moving or wasn't making any noise. I looked around me carefully, but she was nowhere to be seen. With nothing else to do, I made my way slowly back into town to my hotel room. I spent the night trying to fall asleep, shaking a bit from the odd confrontation, but just pondering what she'd said to me. Who did she think I was taking from her? Her customers? Yes, if the mine closed, she would lose a lot of customers. But I wasn't taking them from her. If anyone, it was Troy and Raymond who would destroy this town. The only way I could sleep was to finally write off the experience as an illusion. I convinced myself that I waited longer than I should have to get out of my car and follow where she went. I know that didn't really answer all the questions, but it let me sleep the rest of that week.
That second to last Friday of my tenure at the mine, I hesitantly went to Campell's, having avoided it on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. And, I had my usual beef stroganoff, iced tea and peach cobbler. Naomi ignored me, and the crowd waiting in line for her tables seemed larger than ever. But, what really struck me as odd was something that Pete said to me when he brought me my food. "You know, you're really my best customer. This one's on me. I don't want to lose you."
I looked at him, but he just smiled and turned away. He brought the peach cobbler later without a word. In fact, when he brought the cobbler, he was staring over me and looking out at the dining area absentmindedly. There was such a fervor of joy in the restaurant that night that you'd think Pete would have been happy. He just shook his head and then meandered back to the kitchen.
That weekend I ate canned soup in my hotel room. I didn't go out into town that weekend. I just worked on the numbers, trying to figure out why there was cash when there shouldn't be. The only possibility was that there were false entries in the general ledger. But that doesn't make sense. The ladies in the office seemed to all be honest and straightforward folks. Troy and Raymond knew next to nothing about computers, so I knew it wasn't them. I went through each month, looking at everything that was posted against the accounts: every bill for every supplier, every utility payment, every loan payment, every insurance premium, every petty cash withdrawal, and every paycheck. I couldn't find anything that looked strange.
On Monday, I spoke to Troy about the cash. His answer was what I expected it to be. "Hey, man. If there's money left in the account at the end of the month, then that's profit. And profits are for spending. If it's not right, then it's your job to fix it."
But, I didn't like it. I didn't like it at all.
It took me until late Monday night to figure it out. I had always looked at everything month-by-month. Instead, I started looking at it by the type of expenditure. I looked at all the insurance premiums, and they were the same amount for each month. This wasn't necessarily abnormal, but at some point the six months at least one policy should have renewed with a new rate. But every thing remained level.
Then, I went through the utility payments. They were all posted for the same amount each month. Electric usage and heating oil should vary by month. I looked at the invoices to see if they had "balanced billing" agreement with either utility where they would just pay an average cost each month, but I found no sign of one. I was surprised the lights were still on and the heat still worked.
Then I looked at the paychecks posted to the ledger. They were also the same amount for each week, week after week, for six months. There should always be variables in paychecks from week to week: people took unpaid time off, people quit, people got hired, people got fired. Payroll is never the same exact amount each week when the majority of your workers were paid on an hourly basis. The only checks that varied each month belonged to Troy, Raymond and the bookkeeper, Lois. Their checks varied enough that the monthly payroll totals looked different enough at a glance, but it was only their checks that varied the total.
Everyone had gone home for the night, so I went looking through the files that Lois kept. In her files, I found the bank reconciliations. And what I found there amazed me.
Only three people had cashed their paychecks in the last six months: Lois, Troy and Raymond. The money that Troy and Raymond were calling "profit" was actually the payroll money for all their other employees checks.
I was mad and annoyed. How could none of these people, many of whom I'd seen at Campell's every Friday night spending a lot of money on big dinners for their families, have not cashed a check?
Furthermore, I realized that all the money coming into the accounts was just a transfer from one of the sub-corporations that the brothers had set up. Lois posted it as though it was a payment from the mine's primary (and only) customer. But the money coming was from inside the company, plain and simple. There were no profits coming in.
I had been lied to. I had been told by Troy and Raymond not to worry about the A/P and A/R because Lois and her team had it all under control. The company was doing something very strange, and the employes were in on it. However, it didn't make any sense. The employees needed their pay. They couldn't have afforded to work here every day for free. And, why was there an account set up to pay fake bills and make it look like a profit?
I sat at my desk wondering what to do. What was my moral obligation? Should I call someone at the state attorney's office? Should I confront the brothers? Should I just pack up and leave? I knew I needed to hit this head on, but confronting Troy and Raymond head on would probably get me nowhere. The employees had to be living on some kind of money, but it wasn't from the company's main payroll account. Were they being paid out of sub-corporation I wasn't aware of? Why was Lois hiding it? Why would the brothers do that?
I found myself pacing the halls of the offices as it got later and later. I thought about just leaving. I seriously thought about making anonymous phone calls to federal and state agencies.
I went down to the time clocks where the workers clocked in and out every day. I wrote in large letters, on several pieces of paper: "IT'S ALL A CONSPIRACY. THEY ARE GOING TO FILE BANKRUPTCY. THEY ARE PAYING YOU WITH FUNDS FROM THEIR SAVINGS. THERE IS NO CLIENT PAYING THE BILLS ANYMORE." I posted them all over the time clock area and in the locker rooms.
And then I took my laptop and papers from my desk and left. I was the last person in the building that night, and no one was around to see my signs. I wasn't coming back tomorrow because apparently there was nothing for me to get ready for the bankruptcy filing. Apparently, this was some part of some larger fraud scheme that I couldn't even figure out. Where was all the mined coal going from the daily production? I saw the men working, and I saw the trucks leaving full everyday. Were the brothers paying back massive debt by giving the coal to someone else? Were they stockpiling it somewhere to create a shortage and, therein, create increased demand and higher prices?
Then I realized that I hadn't seen my own consulting checks on the accounts payable check roster. Had they been paying me at all lately? I hadn't even checked my account in a few weeks. I had just been using my business credit card for all my billable expenses. Since I spent all week here, and never went home, everything I did was a billable expense.
I drove back to my motel room and tried to log on to the internet to check my bank balance. But the "free wireless access" that they had in this little 13-unit motel didn't seem to be working. I called my bank's 24 hour automated customer service line, but the automated voice apologized as their systems were down for periodic maintenance.
I gave serious thought to packing up and leaving town right then and there. But, it was late, and there was snow predicted for this part of Pennsylvania overnight. I'd be driving through mountains and hills in the late night hours. It didn't make any sense to risk my life tonight. But I needed to be out of town in the morning, or Troy and Raymond might have me lynched. Not that anyone would take their side, but they could come after me personally. I set my cell phone alarm for 5:00am.
I passed out on the mediocre hotel bed that I'd been sleeping on for almost 6 months. I had a seemingly endless series of dreams. When I woke up, I was sweaty, twisted in my blankets and yet cold. It felt like the heat wasn't on. I got up, walked to the bathroom. The light switch didn't work. No light came on.
I went back out to the bedroom and tried the lamp there, but that didn't work either. I went back to the bathroom and peed in the dark as best I could. I was successful, and when I went to flush the toilet the bowl emptied. But no water fed into the tank to refill the bowl.
I thought maybe there had been a power outage, but the town should still have water pressure. I had fallen asleep completely dressed, so all I needed to do was get my cell phone, pack my suitcase and get out of town. It seemed like there was some daylight coming through the curtains, but not much. I thought it must be early in the morning.
My cell phone wasn't on the night stand. The charger for the phone wasn't plugged into the wall. My suitcase wasn't on the folding stand, and my clothes weren't hanging in the closet. My briefcase and laptop were not the desk.
Had I fallen asleep in the wrong room? The motel hadn't had a lot of tenants. Had I just wandered into another room?
No, I realized, that I had tried my laptop and phone last night. I had seen my suitcase on the stand last night. Something was profoundly wrong.
I opened the hotel room door. There was six inches of snow all over the parking lot, and the sun was setting in the west. I had slept all day. Oh, and my rental car wasn't there. There weren't any cars in the parking lot at all. I reached in my pocket, but the big plastic keychain from the rental company wasn't there. All I had was my wallet.
I looked at the number on my door, which was number seven as it should be. I trudged through the snow past rooms one through six to the office. The lights were out in the office, and the sign on the door said "Closed." It looked dusty in the office when I peered in.
I walked a little further up towards the road and looked up and down. A lot of buildings were dark, but not all of them. Campell's was still lit up down the street, and there were some, but not all, street lights on. All the other stores were dark.
With nothing else left as an option, I made my way over to Campell's. My head was fuzzy, and I tried to figure out how I'd slept all day and who had stolen all my belongings while I'd slept. But that thought didn't feel right, either. I knew they weren't stolen, but where else could they have gone? I saw one county sheriff's cruiser in the parking lot at Campell's, and I figured I could talk to the deputy inside.
I didn't hear a generator running when I got closer, but the restaurant definitely had power. The word "Cuisine" was unlit on the sign, making it "Campell's Family Kitchen." The place looked a little darker and dirtier, I noticed, without the lights from neighboring stores and all the street lights. I recognized other cars in the parking lot: Troy's Chevy pickup, Raymond's Cadillac CTS, Lois' aging Subaru station wagon, Pete's old Grand Wagoneer, the new Subaru Forester Pete had bought for Rosie, and about 20 other cars that belonged to folks at the mine.
I might be walking into hell.
I was right, but not in the way I thought.
I opened the glass door and entered the wood-paneled hallway that fed customers to the hostess station and waiting area. The smell that hit me was foul, and there were no voices. All I heard was a sound that I could only interpret as a suckling sound. Then, I heard a voice that sounded like Lois' say "Pete, who just came in?"
I walked quicker to the end of the hall and rounded the corner. I wished I hadn't.
Pete stood almost in front of me with a spatula in his hand. There was a panicked look on his face. Lois was two steps behind him, and she looked pissed.
"Get out!" Lois shrieked.
When she shrieked, the two things in the middle of the dining room turned their heads toward the sound.
They were huge, naked piles of flesh. The larger one of the two actually covered most of the dining area from beverage station to the tables that were normally Naomi's section. The smaller of the two was in the corner, but reached almost from the lunch counter to the remaining set of tables.
And the townspeople were all over them. They were just lying, face down on the bloated creatures and suckling from them on nipples that seemed to be all over the bodies. Troy, Raymond, the mine supervisor and just everyone was there. The smaller of the two creatures used a hand-like appendage to pluck one of the people off its body and then put the person's neck to its mouth. It started to suckle on the person's neck.
But the larger of the two things had its blue eyes fixed on me. When it spoke, I recognized Naomi's voice. "What is HE doing here?! Who is he really?!"
Lois ran at me then, but she was old and small. I stepped to the side, and stuck a foot out. She tripped and fell onto the floor. She landed head first. She must have knocked herself out, because she didn't get up.
I looked back up at Pete. "You want a piece of me too, Pete? What the hell is this?"
"No... no..." He backed away from me a bit.
The Naomi-screamed again. "Pete! What is he doing here?!?! He caused this! They're all leaving town!!!"
Peter looked over at it, and then back at me. "I'm so sorry. I tried to keep you out of this. I kept putting the stuff in your food so you wouldn't notice."
"Pete!" The Naomi-thing screamed again. "Make him go away! Why can't you ever make him go away?!"
"You know why I can't!" Pete yelled over his shoulder. "He is inevitable!"
The Naomi-thing's eyes glared at me, widened and then snarled. The sharp incisor teeth in its mouth were bloody. "Kill him!"
It was my turn. "Pete, what the hell is going on? Who.. what are these things?"
The smaller of the two things spoke up from the corner. I recognized Rosie's voice. "He doesn't get it. He doesn't know what he is."
"Oh, God, Pete. You're married to one of them? It's going to have your baby?"
Pete kind of turned his head at an angle and shook it back and forth, making it look like an affirmation and a disavowal. He stepped back a bit, really looking panicked. "Lois brought them to me. They looked human then. She told me the mine was about to shut down, but if we let them feed here, that the town would be okay. They would keep everyone satiated and feeling all right. They would keep the mine operations going while she looked for a new owner for the mine. As long as people fed off of these two, they'd feel okay and wouldn't notice that they weren't getting paid. And they gave me some of the... stuff they secrete to put in my stroganoff. I've been feeding it to everyone else left in town. One dose a week is enough to keep everyone docile... but not you."
"Not me? Why not me?"
"You're not.. you're..."
The Rosie-thing spoke again, putting the person it was feeding from back on a nipple. "Peter, darling, I'm almost ready to birth our offspring. We need this town a little longer. Get rid of him."
"I can't... I can't... he's not... oh, God..." Pete looked ready to cry.
"It doesn't matter. He's got a body, you can kill him." The Rosie-thing picked up Raymond from her body and started to feed off his neck a little bit.
"It's too LATE!!" Pete cried out and burst into tears, dropping his metal spatula. "He already posted stuff at the mine. People are waking to reality! Half the usual crowd isn't here tonight... they're realizing they haven't made a dime in months, and that.. and that
At that sound, a lot of the people stopped suckling on the creatures. A brownish fluid dripped from their lips. It looked like the sauce from the stroganoff, and I got sick.
Troy spoke up from where he was on the Naomi-thing. He had tears in his eyes. He looked bewildered. He stared at me. "Pete, who is he? Who is he? I... Where am I?"
Pete rubbed his eyes for a second. "Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God."
I walked right up to Pete and pushed him. "Pete!! What are they?!?!?"
"They were normal when they got here!!! I don't know!! Lois found them!!" He pointed to Lois' passed out form on the floor. "She did it! She told me it would be okay!! She said if we could feed them long enough, the town would prosper again and the babies would grow up to work the mine. They only need a year to be full grown!!" Pete was shrieking now, every word increased in pitch. "We just needed to keep the town alive for just... long enough for other people to become hosts for more babies...." He sobbed and drew in a big breath. "Just a few more months and some of their people from overseas would have bought the mine!! We just needed everything to look okay so Troy and Raymond didn't file bankruptcy and have the banks shut it down!!"
Then, Pete came back at me hard, fists swinging. But Pete was old and slow, and after a very brief wrestling match, he slumped in my arms.
Troy got up from Naomi, still looking confused. "Pete... what the hell.. who is he? I remember hiring him, but I don't."
"Your efficiency expert doesn't know what he is, Troy. I didn't know either." The Naomi-thing began to shrug off the people who had stopped feeding on her, and was starting to inch away from us. The Rosie-thing did the same, inching toward the emergency exit. Troy looked at pair as though he'd never seen them before, and he looked mortified.
"Pete!" I yelled in his face "Are you serious? You and Lois did all this?? The mine was already dead before I got here?! You brought me here?!"
He shook his head, and stood back up. "No, you were just inevitable. I just tried to keep you from seeing. I had to stop you from seeing why you were here and what you were."
"What I am? I am..." Then I realized that I didn't know. I didn't know who I was. It hit me that no one had addressed me by my name in six months. I didn't have a name. I didn't have a name. Why didn't I have a name?
The Naomi and Rosie-things had reached the emergency exits and were trying to squeeze through. "Peter!" The Rosie thing yelled. "Forget him! It's over! Help me! Your babies!!"
"Pete! Is all of this true?! Did you do all this?!" I demanded.
"Pete! Who is he?! Who is he?! What happened to everything? What is this?" Both Troy and Raymond were overlapping their questions at Pete.
I felt warm, on the verge of something.
"Did you do this? What is my name?"
"Who is he? What is this?"
Pete covered his ears.
"Is this all true?" "Who is he?" "What is this mess?" "What is my name?!" "Is this all true?" "Who is he?" "What is this mess?" "What is my name?!" Troy, Raymond and I surrounded Pete, each of us raising our voices.
Finally, he screamed an answer to us all, but did not uncover his ears.
"IT'S THE TRUTH!!!"
And then I knew. And then my work was done.