It is a curious quality of some particularly perceptive men that they can sense the state of things as if it wafted to them on the breeze; such men can sniff the air and catch a whiff of popular opinion tracing its way through the atmosphere, or incline an ear and note a change in the timbre of a conversation just as if they were hearing the second violin inadvertently play a few pitches out of tune. The Inventor happened to be just such a man, and at the moment, his senses were practically screaming that something was very wrong indeed.
Cufflinks had spent some time in medical care, being nursed back to health after his episode, with the added necessity of a priest and a psychologist both paying him regular visits to try and convince him that it was neither God's will nor a rational desire that he should voluntarily starve to death. The Inventor and the Bear had paid him a visit as well, but Cufflinks' already-tenuous mind seemed to have fragmented under the trauma, and the moment he saw them at the door, he began shrieking, "Devils! Demons! Agents of Satan," swinging his legs out of bed and scrambling unsuccessfully to throw open the window, evidently in an attempt to leap to safety. The Inventor and the Bear had quickly excused themselves from the building, and agreed with one another that it would be best if they not relate the story of Cufflinks' self-starvation - no need to bring embarrassment and shame upon the poor man. But in allowing Cufflinks to retain what remained of his dignity, the two friends had inadvertently sacrificed themselves in his place upon the altar of public opinion.Rumor is truly a swift-winged beast; even Vergil's many-eyed monster hardly seems to do the thing justice. Word of the incident at the House of the Way snaked its way through town at a breakneck pace, sinking its venom into the minds and tongues of those impressionable armchair journalists who did so enjoy the exotic flavor of topics beyond hats at their garden parties. The townsfolk were quite aware that Cufflinks had been a promising-looking new preacher, quite charismatic and well-dressed. They were also very keenly aware that the Inventor and the Bear had gone alone, met with him behind closed doors, and the next thing anyone knew, the preacher was hospitalized and yelling like a madman.
The local gossip artists spared no expense in fashioning a wild variety of truths from what they heard of the incident. The facts, such as they were known, were arranged like flowers and shipped off to friends and relatives across town; whether the arrangements were for a wedding or a funeral depended entirely on the gossiper's preconceived notions of the Inventor, the Bear, and Cufflinks.
Some said the Inventor and the Bear had gone to protest the sudden absence of the bakery and had such a vehement disagreement with Cufflinks that the preacher swooned in agitation. Others proclaimed that the duo had stormed the gates of a false house of worship, valiantly standing against a tide of lies spewed by the sinister arch-fiend within. And a very few whispers were heard that the Inventor and the Bear had more to do with Cufflinks' ill health than met the eye; that the inattentive masses of course wouldn't notice how the Inventor clearly had some kind of personal vendetta against Cufflinks, and that he had roped his large, obviously mentally-impaired friend into helping him, shall we say, resolve the matter.
The Inventor gave a rather heroic attempt at straightening the whole matter out. A local newspaper, tantalized by the thought of controversy in an otherwise dull town, agreed to publish his take on the story; the Inventor gratefully took the time to select his wording very precisely and meticulously craft a very fair and factually sound explanation. He wrote that Cufflinks had been ill prior to their encounter (carefully leaving the exact nature of the illness unspecified), that they had come to the House of the Way only to meet its new proprietor, and that the preacher had merely overextended himself beyond the limits of his weakened state. The Bear signed his name to the article as well, and true to their word, the newspaper ran the story exactly as written. But it was too little, too late. The detractors accused the Inventor and the Bear of lying; their supporters accused them of being humble, and the water on either side had already been poisoned against the truth of the matter.
The poisoned water soon began to boil over. Neither the Inventor nor the Bear were invited to any more garden parties. The Inventor's wife, who hosted a bridge club in the parlor on Tuesday evenings, received a note informing her that the bridge club would be meeting elsewhere, and that it was best for all involved if she take a brief hiatus from attending, I'm sure you understand, dear. The Inventor found business suddenly scarce, as more townsfolk decided they could live without a few mechanical odds and ends if it was a matter of principle.
But none suffered so severely as the Bear, who was awakened in the middle of the night by an unintelligible yell, followed by a loud crash. He leapt from his bed, stumbling in the dark into his parlor-room just in time to catch a glimpse of a child disappearing into the bushes across the street, framed by a ring of shattered glass.
The light of the moon, shining through the newly and forcibly remodeled window, danced among the broken shards on the floor. The flashing points of light transformed the parlor into a field of stars, as if the world had been inverted and the night sky thrown to the ground. Planted obstinately in the center of this small galaxy, like some malformed meteorite, was a crude brick, tied to an even cruder note. The Bear knelt, gently picking up the note with his giant hands, sifting through the scrawl of insults, his heart attempting to decide whether it felt more kinship with the window or the brick.
They have even turned the children against me, he thought, and wept.