Faith, Madness and Spontaneous Human Combustion

The other morning, I had one of those Dagwood moments. In the rush to get out of the house to clean the car in order to get on the road in time to get to the airport to fly off to Suffolk (where I really did have some trouble with a car rental company), I ran through the front door. In my haste, I barreled right into the lad from down the street. You remember him, the one whose name refuses to stick in my head.

"Sorry there, Timmy," I said as we both stood and brushed away snow.

"Oh, I'm all right," he replied. He helped me to begin clearing the car. Let me tell you, imaginary people have no snow removal skills. It was almost as if he wasn't there at all.

"What are you doing out so early?" I asked.

"Research," he said. I only raised my eyebrows in response. He probably couldn't see this gesture, though, because I had accidentally put on the Brunette's winter black had instead of my own winter black hat and, to be totally honest, I was starting to understand what it must feel like to have a face lift the hat was so tight. Wee Jimmy continued, "You lived in Scotland once didn't you?"

"Aye," I said, investing that affirmative syllable with all the brogue I absorbed from two years in the shadow of the Campsies.

"Do they have ants in Scotland?" he wanted to know.

"Ants?" I actually paused to consider the question carefully. "I don't remember, to be honest. Why?"

"Mostly because I don't want to do Africa," he said.

This made everything so clear that I was forced to squawk: "Midges!"

"What?" he said.

"Midges, boy. Midges live in Scotland. Some kind of evil cross between mosquitoes, horse flies and gnats. Terrible."

"Do they ever go crazy?" Sean asked. "I mean, like, totally insane?"

"Uh," I said. "They drive people crazy, I guess? What are you on about?"

"Well, I've been reading this book." He held it up. It was called Faith, Madness, and Human Combustion. "The author talks about these ants that act normal sometimes except at sunset when they go absolutely mad."

"Go mad?" I said. "What?"

"Yeah, it's like they usually stay on the ground, right? But sometimes when it's getting dark, they go crazy and climb up on the stalks of grass. They bite down, right? And they sort of just wave in the wind until a cow comes along and eats 'em, or until the sun goes all the way down. If they live, they go back down to the ground and act normal again."

"Weird," I said.

"Yeah. And the scientists think that the ants aren't crazy, really, they just got infected by this bacteria that grows in cow stomachs and needs to go back into cow stomachs to breed."

"Kinda like salmon," I said. "So now you want to be an etymologist?"

"I think you mean entomologist," he said. He laughed as if he'd just made a joke, but I didn't get it.

"Ok, whatever," I said. "You want to study bugs now, yeah?"

"Not really, what I want to do is write a science fiction story based on people who act crazy, but aren't really crazy, they just have some bacteria in their brains and this is useful for aliens or something."

"Oh. Well, good luck on --"

"Do you want to hear what I've written so far?" he asked.

"Um, well, I have to catch a --"

"Good. Listen: " He started reading from his notebook.

The Orkneys having been designated a laser-drive-free-zone due in part to designation as a region "of special cultural interest" and in part to the general orneriness of the local population, I was forced to arrive by ferry after an interminable train ride up the Scottish coast. (I begin this way in order to (1) identify an exotic locale early and (2) indicate that the story takes place in the future.) I stood on the quay with my notebook and backpack. The remainder of my equipment and provisions would follow later, but I preferred to arrive with bare essentials. I also preferred to travel on my own, with few distractions aside from my reading materials, so I had made no acquaintances on the journey.

So, my backpack and I stood still on the landing, while a small wash of disembarkers and welcomers flowed about me. There was no obvious information desk and God help me if I was going to ask a stranger for direction, so I stood motionless as those around me made contact and moved on.

Eventually, I was nearly alone. At the parking area, I spotted a lone pickup truck. The driver -- an older woman with wide shoulders -- watched me but made no move to hail me. As all the alternatives had disappeared into the light fog, I summoned enough courage to approach the truck and ask -- "Mrs. Galloway?"

She gave a quick nod that ended in a tilt indicating the passenger seat. I climbed in and enjoyed a conversation-free ride to the Galloway Guest House, my summer lodging. Mrs. Galloway asked no questions, told no stories, had no apparent interest in hearing any from me. We exchanged not a single word in the thirty-minute drive to the cottage.

I felt like I was coming home.

He stopped reading and looked at me. I nodded for him to continue, but he merely closed his notebook.

"Is that it?" I asked.

"So far," he said. "I have lots of ideas about how he'll become more gregarious and stuff, but I never get around to writing anything more."

"Some people are good starters," I agreed. I looked up when I heard the Brunette come out of the house. She was going to drive me to the airport. When I looked around, Jamie was gone.

"Who are you talking to," the Brunette asked.

"Nobody," I said. "I'm not crazy, you know."

"No," she carefully agreed.

"However," I said, cheerfully, "I might be infected."

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