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In addition to co-presidents, Ismail and I were also the only members of the Coexistence Club, so we would just sit in Ms. Scarra's room after school on Thursdays, she would bring doughnuts, and we would talk, occasionally about issues connected to religion. I think we had been doing this for six weeks or so when she brought up the epiphany machine.

Not that the machine was an entirely random topic to bring up at the time. This was the fall of 1995, and the second Rebecca Hart killings had occurred the previous June. Even those who considered Adam Lyons nothing more than a huckster now felt the suspicion in the back of their necks that the man was touched with genuine black magic. Other kids' parents who saw me at the grocery store looked at me like I had somehow cheated death, which was not something done by a trustworthy person.

"Venter," Ms. Scarra said after she had said the words "epiphany machine" to me for the first time. "Your mother used the epiphany machine. What's your opinion of it now?"

"It's something that people resort to when they're lonely, gullible, and numb," I said. "That was my mother. Some people who are lonely, gullible, and numb are also capable of murder. That was not my mother."

"I don't think it's much of a coincidence that the two women were named Rebecca Hart," said Ismail. "The second one happened to be crazy, too, and she was probably obsessed with the first Rebecca Hart and decided to be just like her."

"But then," Ms. Scarra said, "how did she get the same tattoo?"

"I'm sure that whatever he says, this guy Adam Lyons will give you whatever tattoo you want if you pay him enough."

Ms. Scarra gave Ismail a pitying smile that I found weirdly erotic. "That's the skeptic's perspective. Which is only one among many."

"It's the correct perspective," Ismail said.

"A lot of people who aren't crazy and who aren't stupid have used the machine," Ms. Scarra said. "John Lennon used it. You don't think John Lennon was lonely, gullible, and numb, do you?"

"I have no idea what John Lennon was like," Ismail said.

"You don't think there's any reason why people who are not lonely, gullible, or numb, but are as wise and full of feeling as any of the three of us, might realize that it's in human nature to be self-deceiving, to not see important things in our own lives, and so seek external guidance to correct that?"

"I'm not self-deceiving," Ismail said. I could see in Ms. Scarra's eyes that she thought this was naive, but I admired how confidently Ismail had spoken. I said that I wasn't self-deceptive either, though I may have stammered a bit.

Ms. Scarra retreated to her desk and picked up a manila folder, from which she produced two photocopies of two chapters from an idiosyncratic 1991 book called Origins and Adventures of the Epiphany Machine, written by a reclusive writer whose real identity was unknown and the subject of much speculation, but who went by the name Steven Merdula.

"Only the Desert Is Not a Desert is Merdula's masterpiece," Ismail said. "I read it last year and loved it. I hear this one is crap."

"Just read what I photocopied," Ms. Scarra said. "I'm going to get some coffee."

I had been firmly forbidden by my father and grandmother from ever reading this book. But I was ashamed now of having complied, and I certainly wasn't going to let myself look cowardly in front of Ismail and Ms. Scarra. So I read the strange and mutually contradictory chapters, feeling as I read each sentence as though I were being pulled by something malevolent into the sea.

This excerpt ends on page 22 of the hardcover edition.


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