In my endless cascade of open browser tabs I found this post by author Pamela Redmond Satran on Novelr. It’s called “Reinventing the Novel” and I think I didn’t bother reading it before “Clean Out Browser Tab Day” because every week there’s another slate of ‘reinventing the ____’ stories that I open, skim, and close. But there was actually an idea in this one that really struck me:
…my husband, after watching the DVD of American Gangster, [told] me he found the movie good enough but ultimately unsatisfying. “It was a movie,” he explained, “so you knew from the beginning that everything really interesting was going to happen to Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and that it was going to build to this big climax at the end.”
That was the problem with conventional novels too, I thought. They were predictable, limited and finite in form and scope. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to write – and read – a novel that unfolded in a way that was both more leisurely and more compelling, the way TV shows like Mad Men and The Wire did?
Yes! Totally right. Even as I was writing The Collective, my goal was to tie up the ending in the way that felt right. In other words, that would resonate with readers as the appropriate ending. (I won’t tell you what that is.) But that was because I wanted to fit into the format of the novel. Now, one could write a format buster – a novel in episodes (like If one a winter’s night a traveler… or Cloud Atlas) or one that subverts the reader’s expectations (and probably leaves most feeling unsatisfied). But then you’re looking at a slimmer audience.
But what about new formats? In the way that The Wire (and The Sopranos and others) took the “television drama” format and the “movie” format and melded them together into something exponentially longer and exponentially more interesting?
Satran’s attempt is called Ho Springs. It’s an online novel. And I was too excited about this initial idea to read through it before posting, but I’m going to be checking it out.
Any other examples out there you guys know of?
UPDATE (one minute later): Now I’m thinking about the worlds of video games. Robin convinced me over the holidays to buy Dragon Age: Origins, the first video game I’ve bought in about ten years. He sold me on it because the story was so dense. Maybe the format buster of the novel is something more along these lines?
I think we all sort of assume that personalized news is coming whether we want it or not (thanks in no small part to Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson). But during SXSWi I saw someone in my Twitter stream complaining that Twitter’s new local focus for trending topics had eliminated all the SXSWi hashtags. That got me thinking about national conversations. Isn’t part of news to give us a shared experience? What will the national consensus of our history become? Will it be a future composed entirely of Texas Board of Education fights? What in the world will blue state liberal kids talk to their flyover state conservative relatives about?
This has already happened hasn’t it?
I am ridiculously proud to see the video from my buddy Jane McGonigal’s TED talk: “Gaming can make a better world”. But additionally – I was super-inspired by her talk! Why do we spend so much time playing games? We do it for the epic wins! So, Jane asks, can we create epic wins for saving the REAL world?
One real gem in here is her anecdote from Herodotus about the ancient people of Lydia who played dice to forget the hunger of their famine. And then after 18 years of escapism through gaming, they set out on an epic quest to find themselves new lands! (Talk about the plot of an RPG.)
(Bummer, I was going to embed the talk here – but I couldn’t get the code to work. Here’s another link to it.)
It’s not online gaming, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how Settlers of Catan shifts the board game from bloodthirsty competition to forced cooperation. The game is brilliant in that no player is “out” before the end of the game. No one gets conquered and no one gets eliminated so the game stays fun for all involved until the very end. Also, since everyone’s focus is on building/development you must find ways to work with your competitors.
Along the lines, I love Jane’s idea about creating more epic wins. (MOAR EPIC WINS) Especially if we start talking about shifting the definition of “winning”. Unlike in chess where to win is to obliterate/eliminate/eviscerate your opponent, we could see more games like Settlers where to win is to be the better builder/developer/cooperator.
Go check out Jane’s new project and sign up! Evoke: A crash course in saving the world.
This is the fifth in a series of six short stories being written for a Kickstarter project called “Andrew vs. The Collective.” In it a writer (Andrew) must find a way to work in all of the suggestions of the backers (The Collective). If you want to sign up to give a suggestion for the next story, you can check out the project over here. This story is also available as a PDF here: Story 6-Possibility. In this HTML version, the submissions from the project’s backers are in bold and you can roll over them to see who submitted what.
The corn stalks trembled in the breeze off the mountains to the north. It was supposed to be late into summer, but that wind had a chill to it like Dwyer the snow god was just stretching out his icy tendrils in anticipation. Isla didn’t care about the chill, she was just happy to be out of the house, happy to be away from her stepmother and the endless cycle of unnecessary chores.
Isla was in her favorite secret spot in the village’s acres of crops. When she was out here she knew no one could find her. And that’s what she wanted today. Normally she came out here to write in her notebook. She wrote about anything that came to her mind. As long as her pen was moving she didn’t have to think, didn’t have to worry about chores. But today she wasn’t writing, she was experimenting.
There was something strange about her notebook. Or maybe her pen. She had another pen and another notebook just to be sure. Maybe there was something wrong with her.
Isla’s stories were always very visual in her mind. She saw the tales she was spinning play out in front of her. A griffyn would battle a Pegasus among the stars. A prince would sweep his love onto the back of galloping horse on the field of battle. The tiny mouse hero would outwit the bumbling canine villain. These little scenes played out in her mind among the green stalks of corn every day. But yesterday, it was a little too real. There was a baby dragon who was set to be boiled in the soup of the evil witch queen and this leading to a particularly foul mood, he had clamped his little baby dragon teeth down on her thumb. She giggled watching him do it. Giggled right up until the pain shot through her hand. The she screamed and dropped her notebook and the little dragon and his waiting cauldron disappeared. But right there on her thumb was the purple oval of the bruise the size of a baby dragon’s mouth. She rubbed her thumb. It was still there today.
So she was going to try to make it happen again. Maybe with something with duller teeth like a gerbil. Or a friendly cat. But the problem was that now Isla had writers block. She was sitting here as the air grew chilly, pen tapping her lip, and she had no idea what to write. She tapped the pen again. Maybe a mysterious old man in a wide-brimmed hat. He’d be wearing purple robes. She tapped the pen again, the scene coming together in her mind.
The stalks before her parted to reveal a tall man in a wide-brimmed hat. His beard and hair were long and white and his robes were charcoal. Isla looked down to her blank page and up to the man. “You’re supposed to be wearing purple,” she said, puzzled.
“You are Isla of the village of Gwyndyr,” the man declared.
She rose from the ground. Her wild black hair didn’t come near to the tops of the stalks and she gazed almost straight up at the man. “That’s me. Did I imagine you?”
“No, I am quite real. You can call me Xeno. We need to leave this place.”
Overhead the sky was growing dark. A peal of thunder echoed across the valley. The air had grown cold. Isla cocked her head and looked at Xeno. “Where are we going?”
“It is a different place, another world.”
“How will we get there?”
“We’ll just step sideways into it.”
“Thank you but no thank you, Mr. Xeno. My poppa says I shouldn’t go places with strangers, and there’s a storm coming, so I should probably get back to my house.”
Xeno took his wide hat off, his long white hair dangling down on either side of his face. He stooped to her height, holding the hat to his chest. “Young lady, I have much to tell you. First, this is no ordinary storm that’s coming. It will destroy this place. Not just your village, not just this valley, it will destroy all of this world.” A freezing droplet of rain hit Isla on the nose making her wince. “It’s too late for this world. But for the many millions of worlds the storm has not yet touched, some of those can be saved.” He reached his hand out to her shoulder. “But only you can save them.”
“It’s you and your notebook. You have a rare gift. You’re a storyteller.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’m one myself. And I knew your mother.”
No one knew Isla’s mother but her father. And her stepmother made sure he never talked about her. Some nights, late, after a few pints of mead he would mumble about her mother’s dark curls and green eyes. But it didn’t matter how many people in the village Isla asked about her long dead mother, they all professed ignorance.
A sheet of freezing rain swept across their nook in the corn. Xeno grabbed her hand. “Let’s go, there’s one thing we need to do before we leave.”
They ran through the rows of corn, Xeno’s free hand batting back stalks that stood in their way. At one point they came upon Louis Flaherty and his tent and campfire. “How did you find me?” he cried. “No one can find Louis Flaherty at the center of his maze!” He was the village attraction, the wise man at the center of the maze no one could solve.
“Things change, old man,” Xeno said as he leapt over the ashes of the campfire.
“Hi Mr. Flaherty!” Isla called behind her as she was dragged back into the stalks.
They emerged at the edge of the village to find a flurry of activity. Isla’s neighbors ran around their houses chasing down livestock and lashing them to the buildings. The winds from the approaching storm sent the occasional shingle clattering off toward the forest. As they approached Isla’s house, she saw Esmerelda her stepmother struggling to bring Hector the mule into the shed.
“Isla! Where in the fires of the damned have you been, girl! Get over here and take Hector!”
Xeno turned to her. “Ma’am, where is your daughter’s dog?”
“She’s not my daughter. And who the hell are you, old man?”
At the doorway to the house, Isla’s father appeared. “It’s you,” he whispered.
“He wants to know where Herald is!” Esmerelda called.
“Xenophanes. You’ve come for her, haven’t you?” Isla’s father’s eyes were wide and his voice, usually harsh like a thrown cube of granite, was soft like a boy’s.
The old man stepped toward him. “Belatedly, I am sorry for your loss.”
“You told us it would happen.”
“I did.” Isla’s father looked like he was about to cry. “I’ve come for Isla. But I also need to find Herald.”
“Sera’s dog. He’s an old and necessary friend.”
Esmerelda had tied the mule to his hitch and was approaching menacingly. She was a woman who did not like to be ignored. “Listen old man, you’re not taking that little girl anywhere. She’s got chores to do.”
Xeno raised two fingers in the air before her. “Silence.” He muttered a few strange words. “Where is the dog?”
Though her face was red and bespoke confusion, Esmerelda’s lips spoke: “He’s with the chess player. They’re behind the house.”
Xeno brought his fingers down. “Thank you.” He reached his hand out to Isla’s father. “She did love you. She loved you more than any man she’d ever seen throughout the centuries.”
Now Isla was dragging Xeno along, pulling him around the rough-hewn wood of the house that had until now defined her entire world. Coming around the corner they found a tall boy with a slight build scratching at a grid in the dirt with a stick. “Dalan!” she cried. “What are you doing with Herald?” Beside him sat a patient-faced dog with thick black fur.
The boy looked up. He was unfazed by the clamor of the growing storm around him. “He was helping me with a chess problem,” he said.
“He’s a dog!” Isla said. “He can’t speak, and he sure isn’t going to help your endgame.”
“Xenophanes.” Herald the dog said. Isla turned to him, gawking.
“Herald my old friend, it’s been many years.”
“If you’re here then it’s time, isn’t it?” Herald rose to this three legs. His stump tail wagged a little.
“It is time, we must leave this world.”
“Very well. Dalan the chess player. Will you join us?”
“He’s coming?” Isla protested.
“Herald told me I may need to prepare to leave this place.”
“Let us leave it then,” Xeno said his fingers already waving in the air.
As he muttered beneath his breath Isla leaned to Dalan. “How long have you been talking to my dog.”
“He’s been talking to me. He wanted to make sure I beat you at chess.”
Isla whirled on the now-smiling dog. “Herald!”
“It’s time,” Xeno said. Before him was a shimmering doorway. Sunlight poured through it, bright in the stormy gloom of the village. Behind them sounded a scream and a crack of splintering wood. Isla closed her eyes tight and stepped through the doorway.
The doorway led to a hot, loud place. The waves of sound were a cacophony Isla had never imagined. Hundreds upon hundreds of voices, and great guttural bestial sounds that came from the metal monsters that stalked by on their circular feet. Things here looked faster, more dangerous. As a reflex, she looked back to the doorway, hoping for a last glimpse of her village, but it was gone now.
Xeno, next to her, now appeared in a different sort of robing. He wore a form-fitting tunic with a strip of cloth hanging from his neck. Next to him Dalan looked bewildered by his new blue leggings and gray tunic. She too was in different wear, quite suddenly and surprisingly. “We’ve got to blend in,” Xeno explained, looking around them to see if anyone had seen them step through their invisible doorway. “We’re in a different world now,” he explained.
“So I’ve noticed,” Dalan said, sounding unimpressed.
“This is my original world,” Xeno continued. “It’s the easiest for me to get to. But it’s changed quite a bit since I was here.” He pointed out at the rushing beasts before them. “That, for example, is what has become of the road. In my day, roads were for leisurely strolling and talking with your colleagues. Today they’ve filled them with these things they call automobiles. This city particularly is filled with them. It’s called Los Angeles.”
Isla started to see the order in the space around them. It was like a really big, really different village. The road was in front of her. She stood on top of some sort of rocky ditch and behind her were houses, or maybe merchants’ houses.
Dalan was regarding the world around him dispassionately. Isla knew he always did that. Every scene to him was just another chess board, a different combination of positions. It was that single-minded obsession that had made him the champion in their parish. He turned Xeno. “What are we doing here, Xenophanes?”
“You can just call me Xeno, Dalan of Gwyndyr. And we are here to find a very old woman.” He turned and pulled open what looked like a door made of transparent glass as if it were a window. “Why don’t we sit down and eat and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Isla had her two hands fully wrapped around a warm tube of food wrapped in some sort of flexible metal like chainmail. Xeno called it a “burry toe” and it made her mouth feel like it was burning but it was delicious. There were many other people inside of this merchant’s house and regularly one of the merchants’ servants would yell out their names and then hand them sacks of food. It was novel, Isla thought, that there would be one merchant in a village who would cook all the food for the villagers, instead of everyone having to spend time cooking for themselves. She watched a thin young man in a white shirt pick up a bag for “Ben Falk”. He smiled at her as he passed by their table but Isla had taken another bite and all she could think about was the flame burning in her mouth.
“There is a small fraternity of those of us who travel between worlds. In my world, in this world, many thousands of years ago, it was a small group of friends called The Philosophers’ Club. They were older than I and passed their teachings down to the rest of us. It involves a story. Telling a story about a world you want to be in. Certain people have the power for their stories to take them there.” He turned to Isla. “I am one of those people. The power flows weakly in me. It is only effortless for me to return to this world. And then I must find other to open windows for me into other worlds.
“In some the power flows unimaginably strong. Your mother, Isla, was one of those. She could not just open windows, she could create worlds. Now some argued that new worlds could not be created, that all possible worlds already existed, but your mother seemed to defy them. Like she was spinning new worlds out of her words.
“But there is another, whose face I’ve never seen, who seeks to rend the pathways between worlds. To tear the worlds themselves apart. It was he who destroyed your world. We must bring his plans to a halt.
“We’re waiting now for a woman who lives in this neighborhood and who will open the next doorway for us. Her name is Elena.” The door to the hot outside world opened and in walked a thin dark-haired young woman. “And here she is. Elena!”
“Is that you, Xeno?” They embraced. “I’ve just had the most arduous journey! I woke up in Bratislava and I’ve only just got home, but by way of Mexico first. Have you ever been to Oaxaca? Delicious tacos. That’s actually why I came here today, I missed them.”
Xeno’s warm smile had fallen from his face. “We need your help.”
“Of course you do. Where to this time? Who are your friends?”
“I need to bring them to the Philosophers’ Club. This one,” he gestured to Isla, “Is Sera’s daughter.”
Elena’s eyes widened. “Really? And you’re seeking out the Philosophers?”
“The time has finally come.”
“Where can I find them?”
Elena laughed, “I have no idea where they are. The only person who knows is the great witch Tule. But I don’t even know where she’s ended up.” She looked around. “The best I can do for you is send you to Ghana. Gorgias is there, maybe he’ll know.”
Xeno groaned in a low menacing rumble. “Gorgias? Surely there’s someone else.”
Elena rolled her eyes. “Xeno, get over it! You know there were plenty of philosophers after Greece? You guys should all band together or something instead of fighting these old battles.”
Elena insisted on bringing them back to her house to open the gateway. Both Isla and Dalan gaped at the size of the settlement they walked through. The villagers’ houses towered above them as tall as three or four men. And the road that Isla had assumed was the only one of its kind in the village turned out to just be one of a network of many. The two out of place teenagers stepped with trepidation in this unfamiliar world.
Inside Elena’s home there was a shining box that emitted light and sound. Both Isla and even Dalan were drawn to it. Upon it a picture, a painting of some kind kept changing and moving. “Cartoons!” Elena called over to them. “Aren’t they so ridiculous? That truck driver’s name is Rudy Rucker and he’s supposed to be fleeing murderous clowns.” Isla had no idea what she was talking about. The little drawing of a man, with diagonal slants where his eyes should be, was riding a massive beast down a road made of some sort of cream.
“Listen Xeno. Be careful.” She winced. “Sorry, my stomach is killing me. As I was saying…this is a culling of worlds.” Suddenly she doubled over with a scream.
“Are you okay?” Isla asked.
“Fucking Oaxaca!” Elena cried. Her fingers came up in the air and she began to mutter through gritted teeth. A shimmering line appeared in the wall and stretched itself open as her fingers worked in the air. Through it Isla saw a dusty land and a far-off gray building. “I’ll be fine,” Elena moaned. “Though I have no idea where I’ll end up next.” She waved at them. “Go! Get through it!”
Daedalus had escaped Gwyndyr at the final moment, hovering above his maze in the corn lashed by wind and watching the hovels collapse and splinter. He was furious that that fool Xenophanes had swooped in and foiled his long-sought goal of destroying Sera’s daughter in the world in which she was conceived. After 14 long years of waiting as Louis Flaherty, only to lose her at the last moment. Alas. But at least he’d made his maze and brought that world to an end.
If each world was a story, Daedalus just wanted to put a chapter break behind it. Close the cover. As he would do in this dusty plain he trudged through now.
If Xeno was building a little army to thwart his plans, then Daedalus would need to do some recruiting of his own. Little Isla wasn’t the only unsuspecting savant scattered across the dimensions. He just hoped he wasn’t too late, as he was so unfortunately many times.
They called this land the Plains of Despair, a barren empty space with exactly one attraction: The Traveling Carnival of Enamor. A faraway emperor ruled this land, but Daedalus was sure he’d never set foot on these plains. No delegation would ever come here unless they came to see the traveling carnival which had not traveled out of these plains in a generation.
Daedalus stepped up to the top of a small rise and there it was: the carnival. It was a paltry affair. More like a sleepy village composed of colorful tents and circled by gypsy wagons. A way-station between two places never visited.
He entered the carnival with no fanfare. He was hawked to along the empty thoroughfares as if he was just one of hundreds of carnival-goers, not the lone one stalking along in the dust. He found the young girl he sought in the makeshift stables tent behind the rodeo. Her name was Penny, conceived, born and come of age in the carnival. She was its premier breaker of Despair Plains horses, and of the hearts of every man of age. She was beautiful and had been desperate to escape this place since she was 10, when Daedalus first met her. Every path she took out of the carnival had only brought her back. Daedalus was about to offer her the first one that would truly let her escape.
She stroked the nose of her favorite horse as she listened to him. “The forces of chaos are at work in the universe,” he told her. “Only you can stop them. Only you can restore order.”
He could’ve told her ice cream was melting in another dimension, she didn’t care. She just wanted to leave. She bade her lover good-bye and as he protested she told him, “Look, I’m made of broken promises. Then they walked out through the tents.
“Anyone ever visit my maze anymore?” Daedalus asked, gesturing to the high plywood entrance inviting visitors to “The Labyrinth”.
“No one’s ever found the center.”
“Of course they haven’t,” he smiled.
The heat of this new place was more stifling than the last. Isla felt like she could barely breathe, the way you might on only the hottest day in five summers. The moment she stepped through the shimmering doorway her skin was filmed in sweat. And she looked back she saw Elena fall to the ground behind them. The doorway snapped shut.
“What is wrong with her?” Elena asked Xeno.
“Don’t worry, she’ll be fine. She has been for hundreds of years.”
“Will she not die?” Dalan asked.
“Oh she dies all right, but then is reincarnated in the same form. She just has no control over where that lands her. She’ll meet her demise in Los Angeles and then see the sunrise in Tokyo.”
“Are we in Tokyo now?”
Xeno laughed, “No this is Ghana, in Africa.” Isla looked at Dalan who shrugged his shoulders. He must have given up trying to keep track already. Typical.
Before them was a building with a small sign advertising itself as the Food Research Institute. Xeno pressed a small button beneath the sign and sighed.
Inside they were surrounded by silent silver machines. Gorgias, a tall salt-and-pepper haired man sat on a table across from where they stood, relaxed in his domain and not expecting them to stay long. “Things are good here,” he was telling Xeno. “The Africa of this world is the breadbasket of the entire globe. It’s a prosperous land, known for its stability, wealth and generosity. The techniques we develop here for food processing I bring to other Africas, many of which are in desperate need.”
“I’m happy that you have found a place that satisfies you old friend.”
Gorgias didn’t break his smile. “Don’t patronize me Xenophanes. You look down on my practical pursuits. Most of you do. This doesn’t bother me. I am making a real palpable difference across worlds. This satisfies me.”
“Things are shifting, Gorgias. The balance is tipping, many worlds are in danger. We need your help.”
Gorgias laughed. “Seriously? You don’t know a world in danger, my man. I see them every day.” He shook his head. “It never changes with you. Why don’t you get someone else’s help? Like Latecia maybe?”
“It’s a great idea but she is in Kathmandu and quite insane. Look, if you refuse to accompany us, may I ask of you only to send us along to the next place? We are trying to find the Philosophers’ Club. And to find them we need to find the witch Tule.”
“No one knows where the Club is anymore. They probably don’t even exist. And Tule is a thought I haven’t had in quite some time. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
“You would have us stay here?”
Gorgias laughed. “As good as it is to see you,” he said with no small amount of irony, “I would not want you kicking around Ghana. I’ll send you along to the Philosophers’ World. There must be someone there who can help you.” He whistled to the door behind him. “It will take me a few hours to prepare, so why don’t you sleep here this evening. You all look exhausted. My assistants Frank and Mary can set you up in our dormitory.”
A young couple appeared and it was very obvious they were lovers. Gorgias leaned in, “Sweetest couple I’ve ever met. Never seen anyone more in love. They came down from Morocco a few years ago.”
Penny the horse-/heartbreaker had caught on quickly, which Daedalus was thankful for. She was a worldly girl in her own way. He couldn’t imagine the trouble Xenophanes must be having with that little brat and the skinny egghead chess player who wouldn’t be able to tell a story anytime in this lifetime. He took a sip from his smoky whiskey and looked over at Penny. She was perusing the back of the bar’s menu eyeing the armory advertised.
The bar was called “Boom Town” and its owner’s name was Jack Rabbitt Slim. It was on a Caribbean island in a world that had all but forgotten the islands existed. Jack Rabbitt Slim had opened this bar, tucked into a verdant island mountainside, primarily to serve to his friends. The place attracted all manner of pirates, cutthroats, mercenaries, and island-hoppers. The menu offered local fish and seafood, and on the back, a panoply of weapons. It was a place for people called villains, but they all knew they were working just as hard as anyone else. Daedalus was seeking a single patron who went only by Sophie, though her whispered reputation rarely included her name.
As Penny looked at the specifications of the AR-15, Daedalus bought a beer for one of the regulars who introduced himself as Dangerous Dan. He was pirate, Daedalus surmised, with a thick black beard and electric blue eyes. When asked how he came by his name, Dangerous Dan said only “I used to be a vet” and then winked with a bright wide smile. Daedalus thought he might also have been a Navy man at some point. He squinted, trying to make out the erased tattoo hiding under a mottled scar and an island of eczema on his arm, but could only see what might have once been a cursive name.
Dan was complaining about his erstwhile partner The Careful Cat. “Contrary to popular belief, given my background, he is in fact a man. But he’s a catburglar, see. And his tendency to be careful has turned into certifiable OCD. It’s enough to drive a good pirate insane.” Daedalus could only nod and wait for his chance to steer the conversation. But Dangerous Dan was quite the formidable captain.
“It was the worst on our last job. We took an ultralight plane to this mansion. But The Cat, see, refused to get back in it after the job because it didn’t have a full tank of gas. Okay, I said, I can be flexible. So we jumped down a canyon to the ocean, tying, as tight as I could, the longest of the braided yellow ropes to the propeller I secured the silk wrapped parcel inside the vest. I swung downwards through the grey stone fissure. When we got to the bottom the Cat wanted to see the loot. And I swear, this guy, what a triple checker. So we open up our sack of diamonds and six weighty green stones glinted and winked at us as we stared down in disbelief! Emeralds! Now I’m not a picky man. I did some dog trading on Gorilla Island in my day, and one time, just as an example of my flexibility see, one time I came up short: chickens instead of dogs. Did I cut and run? Hell no. I walked right into the Banana Bar and I held my chickens out to the gorilla man, one brown and one black, gorilla seated on his patio chair taking aim, cougar by his side and defensively sputtered, ‘it’s not a dog it’s a chicken, and it’s beautiful.’ That’s what you get from flexibility. But not The Cat. That dumb sonofabitch took those emeralds and gave them back!”
Dangerous Dan spun his weaving tales of complaint for what seemed an eternity. Finally, as Penny played darts alone in the corner, their talk turned to Sophie. “She sells scarves now, you know. She opened a shop on the other side of the island.”
“Her knitting has finally started to pay off?”
Dan winced. “Most people don’t know what they’re buying. But occasionally some vodou lords come to buy those bone scarves. They’ll pay anything to wrap their necks with the warmth of the dead.” Sophie, a knitter, was perhaps more famous as an assassin. As long as Daedalus had known of her she’d worked only in this chaotic world. But she was famous far beyond it. It was her personal touch. Each victim would be deboned, or only a single limb if she was pressed for time. Those bones would serve as her knitting needles. Daedalus planned to offer her the chance to knit with an old long-haired man and two hillbilly kids.
“How do we get there?”
“I can send two of my boys as guides.” He whistled and a pair of lanky twins ambled over. “These two are my spies in the military, just fantastic at espionage, trained in online role playing games.” He pointed to introduce them, “Andrew and Dean, brothers by blood, and now pilots in the Air Force, never thought their hours playing video games would pay off like this! Boys, take this fellow around the island to Miss Sophie.” They nodded eagerly.
Isla found herself in another strange and noisy place, but couldn’t quite focus on her surroundings. It was as busy and loud as Los Angeles, but people here were dressed differently, with long white sheets draped over their bodies. Many of the men had long hair like Xeno and the women wore short hair that made them look more like young boys than women. Xeno had named this place “Chicago”, but Isla wasn’t really listening. She was trying to puzzle out a dream she’d had last night.
A bearded man with thick curly hair had walked with her over lush green hills. She rode next to him on an old enfeebled donkey while he told her a story in song about the horsemen who ruled here, who thundered up and down these hills. He strummed a lyre and sung of wise queen who ruled the horsemen, though none of them ever saw her. She ruled from a modest cabin nestled in a small copse of trees at the foot of a rocky hill. The man showed Isla the place and then the donkey turned its head and with a wink told her she and the woman had much in common.
While Isla tried to sort through her dream – what could it mean? – Xeno walked them through a door. Before them was a room of white clothed tables surrounded by passionately gesticulating men and women in draped sheets of the same hue. At the back of the crowded room sat a lone man, nearly exact in appearance to Xeno, sitting alone at a large table. He waved them over.
He introduced himself as Parmenides, a “very, very old friend” of Xeno’s and he had been expecting them. He apologized they’d had to come such a long way and suggested they all eat while they talked. He called out to a man passing their table: “I’ll have the pasta rosa with the sauteed raisins and pine nuts.”
“You still love the Italians, don’t you?” Xeno asked.
“In our world they had an empire, but in this world they only had their food.” He turned to Dalan and Isla. “You two are just learning about the different worlds, aren’t you?” They nodded. “Well, Xeno and I are from the same world. Many of us now travel between the worlds. This world is one of our favorites though. In this world, our culture never died out. In this world our culture has flourished for millennia. It’s very comfortable for some of us.” He smiled kindly and turned to Xeno. “So, old friend, you’re at an impasse, aren’t you?”
“The destruction of worlds has begun,” Xeno said, his voice lowering.
“No need to keep a secret, man, it been on the news here for days.” Parmenides gestured to a box in the corner within which moving pictures of a singing chorus seemed to be recounting an accident. “No one cares that much about it though, compared to the renaming of the Sears Tower. Hmph. The Ronald Reagan Memorial Spire. Ridiculous. Antidisestablishmenterianism groups in this city have grown far too powerful, in my opinion.”
Xeno’s brows knotted. “Parmenides, this is serious business. We’re talking about the existence of millions, billions of souls wining out into nothingness.”
Their host poured himself a tall glass of red wine, nodding his head. “You don’t have to tell me. I saw a world fall apart before my very eyes just the other day. That’s how I knew you were coming.”
He studied the red liquid in his glass as he spoke. “I was in a world dominated by Russian mathematicians who only communicated via short bursts of online information.” He turned to Isla and Dalan. “Online means on the internet…well…you know what, never mind. They spoke through magic. Anyway I’d heard one of them by the name of Pyotr Stepanovich had finally cracked the secret of invisibility. I was looking for his equation, I thought it was based on a simple epimorphism. I was rooting around deep in one of their libraries when the destruction began. I held and ancient tablet computing device and I fingered the soft, almost diaphanous leather pages that made up the small book. The writing appeared legible even though the inky writing was too worn in places to see, was it Russian? There was only one name that I could decipher, Dmitri Dmitriyevich. It wasn’t mathematics after all, I realized – it was a symphony! A beautiful symphony of Shostakovich. But then the faded pages began to shift and the words dissolved. The machine returned to it’s nascent state, every page reading: “This short story TM and C Royal McGraw; reproduction or distribution without permission of copyright holder prohibited.” Then suddenly the world’s emergency Internet broke through and I saw a flood of messages with the phrase #hellstorm. By the time I was outside the sky itself was splitting in half; I barely escaped in time.” He shook his head trying to dispel the emotion of the memory and looked up at them with damp eyes. “I’ve told my fellows here, but people assume that there are so many millions and billions of worlds in Possibility that the danger could never come here.” He turned to Dalan. “But I know that’s not true. Right, Dalan of Gwyndyr?”
Dalan had been sketching a grid in the tablecloth with his fingernail. He looked up surprised. “What’s not true?”
Parmenides laughed caustically and rose his glass in a toast. “To the innocence of youth!” And then he drained it back. His face grew serious. “Xenophanes, there is a time bomb bouncing around between worlds. And it’s inside of this slim young man’s breast.”
Dalan’s eyes were wide and his finger was frozen on the tabletop. “Tell me young man, did you spend much time in your home village with the man in the maze?”
The boy answered hesitantly, “Louis Flaherty? I would see him nearly every afternoon. He taught me chess and told me stories.”
“Ah yes, Louis Flaherty. Xeno, you and I would know him better as Daedalus. The builder of labyrinths.”
It was Xeno’s turn to look shocked and confused. “The man in the maze was Daedalus?”
“It seems we weren’t the only ones watching young Isla here. Daedalus is bringing worlds to their end, Xeno. He’s the force behind the storms gathering at the ends of Possibility. For centuries he has building labyrinths without end in these worlds. They undo the story that builds each world. The story loses itself in the labyrinth. The story ceases to be.
“Inside of this young man, Daedalus has built his most intricate labyrinth yet. The stories he told you Dalan, with those stories he was building his maze inside of your heart.” He coughed, taking a sip of wine. It can only be assumed that it is inside you, growing stronger and more powerful everyday. And soon, from the center of you, the realms of Possibility will begin to unravel.
The table sat in stunned silence as Dalan looked at his own chest, as if through the white cloth that covered it he could see the weaving pathways of the maze that spelled his destruction. Isla looked at him, thin and trembling. He was all she had left of home. “What can we do?” she asked, trying to make her voice sound strong and brave.
“The question is what can you do, young lady.” Parmenides’ voice was even, his smile was flat. “Your mother gave you a great gift that you’ve only just begun to realize. At the center of every world is a story. Old hands like Xeno and I, we can tell stories we’ve heard before. That’s how we find our way from one world to another. You, my dear, are very different. You can tell new stories. You’re going to need to tell the story that saves all the realms of Possibility.”
“How will I be able to do that?”
“There are only two people who can teach you that. One of them is centuries-gone missing. The other is your aunt, the great witch Tule.”
“We’re trying to find her,” Xeno offered.
“Yes but you have no idea what world you need to get to.”
“That’s right. We thought you might know.”
Parmenides leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Unfortunately not.” And he cocked his head at Isla. “But I bet you know, don’t you darling?”
“What do you mean?”
He leaned toward her, steepling his fingers. “Why don’t you tell us about your dream last night. You and the rhapsadoi?”
Isla began speaking, describing the green rolling hills and the rocky hillside with the cabin beneath it and as she did she felt something shifting in the air around her.
“That’s right,” Parmenides encouraged her as Xeno watched with wide eyes.
“And there are two trees that stand right next to the house like twins and they kind of bend toward each other at the top and they…” A shimmering image appeared before her in the center of the table, a perfect portrait of the scene she was describing. From behind it, Parmenides leaned around. “That’s your gateway, dear. You better hop through it fast.”
Daedalus kicked over the husk of a candle, startling a hiding rat whose sudden appearance made Penny shiver visibly. Sophie, a short, compact, meaty woman with thick fingers like little sausages made no move. The elegant velvet shawl draped off one shoulder and down her back revealing a scar didn’t stir a centimeter. It would take more than rats to startle her and she was intent on her mission. The catacombs beneath Paris in this world were a destination for picnickers with a sense of the macabre. They left their empty wine bottles and disheveled cheese rinds littered across the cold stones down here. Not for much longer, Daedalus thought as he absent-mindedly scratched the outline of a maze into the dust and cobwebs on the wall beside him.
Sophie was rooting around amongst the bodies, picking over brittle bones and tossing them behind her where the exploded into dust with a pop. Penny, though uncomfortable, didn’t complain. Daedalus was proud of her, his charge. She’d told the story that had opened this doorway all on her own. She was becoming quite the traveler, and just in time. When they left here they would go by different paths, her with Sophie the killer and he along a circuitous route that would allow him to complete works on several dozen labyrinths before he met with them again.
Sophie made a little noise of triumph. “This is it!” She held up a bone, the humerus of a skeleton. “This world’s Xenophanes. I just need to sharpen this to a point and then we can depart.”
Daedalus smiled. This was coming together perfectly.
Isla knew this place was called Terrandar. She knew it’s verdant hills and dusty plains like a nursery rhyme from her infancy. She knew it’s secrets: the nectar of the razor tree which would harden one’s skin to steel for a day and the warning shriek you heard from the were-lizard right before it fell upon you as a reptoid man with its claws flailing. She’d never seen these things with her own eyes, but Isla knew their story.
She stood flanked by Xeno, Dalan and Herald before the cabin between the twin trees. Wispy puffs of smoke escaped the chimney like the breath of a sleeping beast. Xeno walked up to the door and rapped his knuckles against its wood three times.
The door opened to reveal a handsome woman with her black hair back in a long braid. Among its twines were streaks of gray. Isla thought she looked at most 50, but knew her to be one thousand years old. She also knew her name was Tule.
“As I know your name is Isla,” Tule said.
“You know my name?”
The woman teared up, not seeing Xeno, ignoring Dalan and the three-legged dog. Her gaze was only for Isla. “Of course I do, darling. You’re my beautiful niece.”
Tule the witch queen of Terrandar made them all cups of soothing tea and pulled her chairs and the bench from her dining table into a semicircle around her hearth. If anyone tried to help her she tutted them out of the way. Tule the witch queen of Terrandar couldn’t be bothered to let anyone do any work for her. When they’d all sat, Tule placed herself next to Isla whom she looked at adoringly.
“The last I saw your mother,” she said, “she was the happiest I’d ever seen her. Thanks to your father.”
“You’re her aunt?” Dalan asked.
“I am. Are you from Gryndyr as well?”
“Yes,” Dalan was shy.
Xeno spoke up, “Parmenides told me Daedalus had been in their village building a maze for years.”
“I’d suspected as much. He’s been building mazes all across Possibility.” She waved her fingers in the air and a window opened onto a dark and stormy scene. They saw a castle astride a hill illuminated by flashes of lightning. “We tried to imprison him here, building a labyrinths within a labyrinth within a labyrinth.” As she made the slightest sweeping motion with her hand, the sky began to heave lighting and flame at the palace, causing an electric inferno that spread like a plague across the surrounding city and countryside. She pulled her hand up sharply and the window closed. “He escaped. He’s wily.”
“He found a way to open a tiny door from his prison into the glass fish tank of young boy named Nick. Fish tank – a prison within a prison, see? The boy and his mother were distracted by the last of Daedalus’ allies at the time, an insect. The mother, right after installing the fish tank heard her boy cry out. She turned and saw him squatting, diapers peeking out from his yellow shorts, as she approached she asked, “Whatcha looking at Nick?”; he looked up with his chubby cheeks and big dark eyes and with his tiny finger pointing at the stink bug, replied…”That’s the biggest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever seen!”. And indeed it was. He couldn’t know it of course, but inside that insect were a dozen separate worlds.
“Daedalus banked on entropy. He assumed the forces of gradual chaos would eventually conspire to destroy that fish tank and he just waited. Sure enough, over ten years later, the young boy Nick’s father borrowed the empty fish tank for an experiment. He filled it with water, placed it on a table, set up a few slow-motion videocameras and then shot a bullet through it from the biggest gun he had. Glass sprayed in every direction and the force of the blast broke the table in half. And with that Daedalus was free. All the boy’s father did was stand there picking glass out of his forearms and say ‘I’ve got exactly $2,913.12 left in my bank account, which should probably get me to Sterkfontein by tomorrow night…, but where would I possibly get an 8 ft. long fish tank on a Sunday?’”
“Daedalus came here to Terrandar to try to destroy me. It was during the Festival of Flight. The prince at the time, Waylynn, had to defend his title against the half-men-half-Pegasi from the other side of the Shimmering Sea. Waylynn knew the Jötunn would never win; he had his Hera and was determined to ride off into the night just like Charlie Sheen in The Wraith.” She turned to Xeno. “You ever see that movie? I lost a lover to that movie in your world. Blew his mind. Last I saw him he sat there, waiting for the bus, wondering… wondering how much there is to know.” She shook her head. “Sorry, my story. Daedalus. He figured out pretty quick he couldn’t kill me here in my own realm, but he set out to make sure I knew he was here. Symbols left by disturbances. Waylynn was outflown, for example. His Hera dropped to the earth of exhaustion. Waylynn’s sister, the princess Kleatra, was duped by the maze-maker into a promise she had no reason to agree to. Once he dumped her in another world, she found herself with child. It was a non-binding resolution but she knew it would be dishonorable not to keep her word. If her baby boy was born in St. Louis, his name would be St. Paul Sandwich; if he was born in Louisville she would name him after The Greatest — Cassius Marcellus Clay.” Tule laughed ruefully. “I know from personal experience that you can lose a lot of things in bed–marbles, teeth, your virginity–but no one in the history of this world or any other has ever lost that before!! Somewhere out there in some world is a poor kid named St. Paul Sandwich without a dad or a hope ever making sense of that name of his.
She paused, looked at them sternly. “Daedalus is dangerous. Far moreso than a few nasty magic tricks. But that’s not what he’ll have in store for you, no. He doesn’t just make mazes, he treats life as a maze. Talking with him is to follow him into twisting corridors.” She looked at Xeno. “How do you expect to stop him?”
“We don’t know. That’s why we need to find the Philosophers’ Club,” Xeno said.
“Those old kooks?”
“I think they’re the only ones who can stop this.”
Tule laughed. “Xeno, I love you, but your misogynistic Greek partiarchial prejudices will be the end of you. You’re right, you need to find the Philsophers’ Club. But not for the sake of those foolish gray beards. You need to find my sister.”
“Another aunt?” Dalan asked, looking at Isla.
“That’s right, young man. Though to look at her you’d hardly think she was an auntie.” She turned to Isla. “Xeno’s beloved friends have imprisoned your aunt, as an eternal infant, in their cabin on Sugar Island. They say it’s for the good of all Possibility, and though I believe them, it’s always made me a bit cross.”
She regarded them all in turn with an eyebrow cocked. Her eyes finally settled on Isla, who thought she was offering her aunt a determined face. Tule sighed, “Very well, I can tell you how to get to Sugar Island. Isla, you will have to tell the story to find the place.” Isla nodded. “And be careful. I suspect Daedalus or his agents may already be there waiting for you.”
The cabin they stood in was not that different from Tule’s. But instead of a mismatched collection of chairs, the center of the single room was dominated by large round table. Around it sat five bearded men. None moved, none spoke, none acknowledged the slabs of meat between two slices of bread placed before each of them. The strangest part, Isla noted, was that none of them made any move to comfort or console the infant in the center of the table while it wailed and cried and waved its arms about.
Isla’s aunt. Her name was Rena.
One the other side of the men, with eyes only for Isla, stood a girl a few years older than her. They stared at one another impassively. Finally the girl stepped around the table. “I’ve been waiting for you. You’re Isla.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Penny. I’m here to stop you.”
“What do you mean?”
The girl named Penny looked at their ragtag, exhausted group. Herald cocked his head at her. “You are chaos bringers. You seek to create more chaos throughout the realms of Possibility. I am here to stop you. To help preserve order.”
Xeno’s eyes widened. “You are an agent of Daedalus.”
“That’s right Xenophanes, you old coot.” Daedalus stepped through a shimmering window across the room. None of the five philosophers at the table looked up. “Penny’s with me. She can open gateways and by the time I’m finished teaching her she’ll be able to close them forever.”
“This is murder, Daedalus.” He turned to Penny. “He’s teaching you to undo the existence of billions.”
“I’m teaching her to maintain a little order in this accursed universe, Xeno. Sure you and your gray beards and your triplet sisters love to just add to Possibility with wild abandon. I’m trying to streamline things a little bit. I mean, c’mon, is it fair for there to be a world full of unicorns and dandelions just because this little tyke thinks there should be one?” Isla felt chills looking into the fiery eyes of the man she’d once known as crazy old Louis Flaherty. “So I put my best maze in her little boyfriend’s heart. And that maze is just about to be complete.” He turned to Dalan. “Young man, I’ve got a little story to tell you.”
Xeno whipped around, “Don’t listen, Dalan. Plug your ears!”
“Fuck you, Xeno.” Daedalus spit. “Now, Sophie!”
From behind the old man a shadow twitched and then suddenly a bloody needle of bone sprouted from his midsection. “You can’t, this won’t hurt me.” He gurgled.
“Ah,” a grating whisper behind him purred, “unless it’s from another possible you. Then it will fold your reality in on itself and erase you from Possibility.”
Xeno chuckled ruefully, “Alas…I always dreamed I’d have a little poetry and whiskey before I died.”
Daedalus lunged at Isla, yelling a string of foreign syllables and then suddenly she was falling backwards.
She fell into soft cold snow with a starry sky above her. She could see walls of packed snow extended upwards. Above her appeared a young man with a permanent-looking smile. “Are you here for the Oscars? Do you know how to get out of this place?” he asked, still smiling.
Isla stood up slowly, warily, brushing snow from herself. “Who are you?” she asked.
Isla nodded thoughtfully. Of course, another of Daedalus’ mazes.
“I don’t know how I got here,” Seacrest said. “I just remember Lil Wayne, Willie Nelson, and a $240 worth of pudding and then I was here in the snow with no shoes and a slingshot, a handful of jellybeans, and Paula Abdul’s panties in my pocket. I think this is somewhere in Russia; there are these little midgets I see with burritos every now and then and it sounds like they’re speaking Russian.”
Isla had no idea was this man was speaking about, and was very confused by why he smiled through his little speech as if the freezing temperature had forced his mouth to retain that shape. “I love burry toes,” she said, repeating the only familiar thing she’d heard.
She had to figure out how to get out of here, away from this deranged man. Daedalus’ maze would be impossible to solve, there would be no true center, not that she would be able to find. She just had to tell the story of Sugar Island to get back. But it couldn’t be that simple, could it? “I’m sorry Mister Seacrest, I’m not going to be able to help you.”
“Please! I’ve already lost three toes to frostbite!” His smile was frightening.
She began to murmur about the swaying pines above the philosophers’ cabin. And she fell backwards.
She fell into a room with a strangely curved ceiling. It was a dome, but made of flat shapes. A man’s face appeared above her. “Hello young lady. Are you here to see the yogi”? This was not the possibility she’d sought. She continued her story: talking about the five silent philosophers, their beards. Then she was falling again.
She fell into the archway leading into some sort of holy building. Around her the walls were made of little containers. She could make out that they read “Pringles”. A man in a red and yellow robe leaned into her frame of vision. “Are you here to stroke the mustache?” he asked. Again, not the place Isla wanted to be. Daedalus’ maze was more than a collection of snowy walls, it was maze through Possibility itself. She began to describe her infant aunt, her tiny arms flailing in the air above the round table. And she fell again.
And there she was, back on Sugar Island, laying on the floor where Daedalus had pushed her down. Next to her lay the crumpled and bloody form of Xeno, her guide and she supposed, her friend. On the other side of her, Daedalus knelt muttering atop Dalan, pinning him to the floor with his knees. Beside him Penny held Herald by his collar above the ground and away from her body as he snapped and bit at the air. Sophie was reaching across the round table toward the wailing infant.
Was she back? Was that really the extent of Daedalus’ maze through Possibility? Isla looked about for something, a weapon of some kind and settled on the spike of bone protruding from Xeno’s slowly diminishing robes.
She leapt to her feet, the bone needle in her fist. Daedalus’ eyes swept to her, interrupting his low murmuring. “You!” he hissed. “You escaped my labyrinth so soon?”
Three turns of the maze and here she was back.
Sophie stepped around the table toward her, murder in her eyes. Isla didn’t have much time.
It was such a simple puzzle.
Isla leapt at Daedalus with the bone needle. His hands went up from his knees defensively, as if he were about to pitch her on a farming venture, but her boot met with his chest, knocking him back on the ground. Wincing and closing her eyes, Isla brought the bone needle down fast and true into Dalan’s breast. She took a breath and glanced down, wincing to see his familiar eyes look up at her in horror.
And then she was falling again.
She fell through the floor of the two temples and through what felt like a caress from the snow bank in the dark, past the surprised face of the permanently smiling man. And then she was lying on the floor of the cabin again. Beside her Xeno was still bloody and shrinking in on himself. On the other side of her, Dalan lay stunned and beside him was the bloody form of Daedalus.
For the first time, the five philosophers noticed them and the ruckus they’d caused. They quickly set about working. One cradled Isla’s infant aunt, one consoled Penny in quiet tones, one bantered with Sophie. One sat with Isla and Dalan. “These things happen every couple of millennia,” he explained. “We’re lucky you came along this time. Last time it was a disaster.” He gestured to the wailing baby.
“What do we do now?” Isla asked.
“Our world is destroyed isn’t it?” Dalan murmured.
“Did you really want to go back there?” the philosopher smiled. They both frowned and shook their heads. “The good news is, you can go anywhere you’d like. Anywhere you’ve already been or anywhere you can imagine. All of Possibility is spread out before you. You can live in the best of all possible worlds.”
Isla scratched her finger on the floor and then took Dalan’s hand. “You know, I think I’d like to try Los Angeles out. I really like burry toes.”
What’s the recipe for an epic story?
Mix in one part mythology, two parts heroism and a healthy spoonful of everyman…
I’ve come to the final story of Andrew vs. The Collective, which I plan on writing over this weekend. I want this one to be an “epic” story. This is how I described it to the backers when I asked for their submissions:
A young unassuming rural resident will be visited by a mysterious older gray-bearded man possessed of strange and unexplainable powers. Said resident will be told that the world as he/she knows it is in grave, grave danger and only he/she can save it. This will begin an epic journey that will culminate in the ultimate battle of good vs. evil.
I feel like this is the way every great contemporary epic story begins (The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, the Wheel of Time series). But I need to figure out the rest of the elements before the weekend. What makes a contemporary epic?
(Also, PS – if every you’ve wanted to sign up for some crowd-sourced fiction, you have just about 48 hours.)
This is the fifth in a series of six short stories being written for a Kickstarter project called “Andrew vs. The Collective.” In it a writer (Andrew) must find a way to work in all of the suggestions of the backers (The Collective). If you want to sign up to give a suggestion for the next story, you can check out the project over here. This story is also available as a PDF here:Story 5 – Penultimate. In this HTML version, the submissions from the project’s backers are in bold and you can roll over them to see who submitted what.
It’s mid-afternoon and the sun is turning amber, but the devil is in a foul mood. He slaps the rental car door shut with a sound like a steel thunderclap and then stabs at the keychain remote with his thumb until the car’s alarm gives its two alarm beeps of protest. The devil surveys the suburban landscape of driveways and cars. He supposes that the people of this town like this springtime weather, but he despises it. The devil far prefers the wintertime.
The devil’s temperament is foul because it turns out if you want to get to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, you’ve got to fly into Minneapolis (which is in an entirely different state, the devil will have you know), rent a tiny compact car with exactly zero pick-up, and then drive for two accursed hours. No one hates to have his time wasted like the devil.
Inside, Michael Hastings has been watching the devil’s arrival. He’s not pleased to see the devil in a temper. When you want to ask the devil for a favor, you never want the devil to be laconic. Michael Hastings’ skin gives a shiver that he’s sure the devil, with his superhuman perspicacity, notices.
Hastings invites the devil in, offers him a seat and fetches him a glass of iced tea. The devil is in jeans and a t-shirt covered by a leather jacket. His hair is long and brown and extends from his head like an explosion. He’s thin and pale and sips his iced tea with a poorly-masked impatience.
“I assume you’re about to implore me to amend the terms of our deal,” the devil says. “You feel life ebbing from you. You know the twilight approaches. This is your penultimate natural year, and by the terms of our agreement, this is the year I take you.”
“I wanted to ask for just one more year.”
The devil rolls his eyes. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“It’s not so much to ask, is it?”
“You have your Fields Medal, don’t you? You had your gravy train thanks to me? Life ends, Hastings! Hell needs its mathematicians!” Their deal, struck twenty-five years ago when Michael Hastings was a disgruntled and discontent doctoral candidate, said the devil would ensure Hastings’ receipt of the prestigious Fields Medal for his paper: “An approach to the study of the nonasymptotic distribution of prime numbers through abstract analytic number theory in multidimensional mathematics.” The devil did his due and Hastings spent several years in a coveted post at Cal Tech. In return he’d promised his gifts to the legions of darkness. Who else would map the topology of hell and permutations of its punishments?
“I’ve fallen in love,” Hastings says tentatively.
The devil laughs loud. It’s coarse and angry.
“Her name is Hilda.”
The devil sighs like a bored teenager. “I know, I know. Hilda von Stricker, your yarn-obsessed dominatrix and next-door neighbor. How many balls did she knit you inside of before you decided it was true love?” He checks his watch. “Fine. I’ll tell you what. You’re my second to last appointment today and I’m early for the next one. Keep me entertained for a little while.”
“And you’ll give me my last year?”
“Sure, fine, whatever.” The devil puts his glass down on the coffeetable, ignoring the stack of coasters. “You get six chances. Six stories and then I’m off.”
Hastings slips a coaster beneath the glass. “What do I have to do?”
“I just want to enjoy one story,” the devil said.
Michael tries to think of his best story, best in that way that people have their stories that they tell at parties to fill the awkward silences. “I had this dog, right? When I lived in Pasadena. He was a short fat dog, chubby chubb Mcchubberson. That wasn’t his name of course. His name was Laplace. But he died.
“And when he died the house felt lonely. I thought about getting another dog, but I wanted an animal that was going to live as long as me. So I got a parrot. Bought him from a former colleague. Fournier, the parrot that is, had learned pi. And he would stay up all night reciting it. And I would lay there, sleep deprived, as he would count off digit after digit.” Michael raises his finger. The punchline is coming.
The devil cuts him off. “But the seventh digit was wrong. You’ve never been able to correct him.”
Michael’s finger is still in the air. “How did you know that?”
“I know all of your stories, Michael Hastings. Don’t think you can entertain the Fallen Prince with your pleas for polite party laughter.”
Michael Hastings puts his finger down and swallows hard. He thinks about Hilda, about the loving caresses of her knots of yarn as they constrict around him. This is going to be harder than he thought.
“I will tell you a secret then. I traveled once to India to find myself. Like people supposedly do. At the end of it I was in Goa, on the ocean. But I didn’t feel like I’d come anywhere nearer to finding myself. I’d wandered an entire subcontinent but I’d spent the entire trip inside 64 kilobytes of memory of my Game Boy playing Tetris.
“I found myself in a birthday party on the beach. It was the birthday of a famous man named Khagendra Thapa Magar. Revelers laid across the straw mat floor surrounding a cake with a tiny man standing upon it. It was the likeness of Magar, a tiny man himself, famous for being the world’s smallest.
“There were a few Americans in the group including a young olive-skinned man there on a film shoot. He thought all the other Americans were hippies and kept saying to them, ‘Hey, get me in on some of that hugging action!’
“Before we cut into the cake, every one of the man’s family had to give a short speech. I found myself envying these sentiments. Something touching, personal, or nice. I listened and I wanted a family at that moment.
“And then a young boy walked up. He spoke a clipped schoolboy’s English. His eyes were puffy from crying. He put his fists against his hips and said, ‘Uncle Khag, you promised chairs for every village. But in my village, we have no chairs. The people they say that you have spent your money on expensive clothing and rings. I had no heroes, and then you let me down, and now I have negative heroes!’ Then the boy began to cry.
The devil is looking at his watch. “And that’s when you realized you didn’t want a family. The expectation and responsibility was just too crippling for you. I’ve heard this all before like a tune out of Stroh’s violin. Give me something unique like, ‘And from that day on, they used chairs for money.’”
“I will tell you a funny story then. A few years ago I attended a music festival in San Francisco. It was held on Treasure Island, the landfill island in the Bay between the city and Oakland.
“I know it, I’m building a casino out there.”
“Density. It’s an old joke. My density was too great. Anyhow, I was standing in line for the Ferris Wheel. I’d waited for fifty minutes in a boustrophedon-like line and was finally at the front. Just when they brought its rotation to a halt, a large African-American man pushed his way past me. He wore a thick gold chain around his neck and he demanded his own basket. My basket. He was a famous actor so the attendants were quick to agree. I offered to share with him but he told me his feet were far too pungent for that proximity. He said: ‘I pity the fool who has to wash my feet. I got this real bad athlete’s fungus that actually grows mushrooms on my toenails. If I don’t do something fast it’s gonna spread and eat up all the gold off my chains sucka!’
“Unhappy, I demanded to speak with a manager. The burnouts working the line responded ‘We are currently unavailable’ as if they were some collective. But it was too much for the gold-chained man. He flew into a rage. He rushed the supports. ‘TIMBER!’, he yelled.” Hastings stops. That’s the end. He takes a sip of his water.
The devil nods his head. “You told a half-truth. You attended this festival, but Mr. T wasn’t there.” The devil yawns and looks over his shoulder at the darkening evening. His eyes follow a petite young mother as she crosses the sidewalk. “The ending sucked, Hastings. If you’re going to dedicate a story to name-dropping, at least make it compelling. Have Mr. T wrestle some bear and lose and he can say, “Stupid bear” or “I pity the bear.”
“Very well,” Michael Hastings said. “My next story takes place in Jordan, in a qanat, sheltered from the shifting sands outside. Inside squats a scientist. An evil scientist. He’s holding a device that could destroy the entire world. He is muttering to himself, “Worked hard all my lifetime no help from my friends.” His device will bombard the Earth with an electromagnetic pulse that will destroy the telomeres at the end of every strand of DNA, causing them to unravel. The end of life itself.”
A car careens toward the entrance to the qanat. As it skids to a stop, large black forms pop out of the back. Twelve obese ninjas were jammed into the car. Their leader rushes toward the scientist and hurls a throwing star through his device. There is a thunderclap. The sky begins to darken. The gathering storm looms ever closer and as he gazes up at the towers of midnight, he knows that from this moment on all he will be left with is a memory of light. The second-in-command ninja runs to his side and yells, ‘What have we done?’ But the lead ninja is confident. It was pre-destined. He whispers, ‘All will be spared except Kathmandu.’
The devil’s face is impassive. “Hastings,” he says, “that story barely made any sense. Are you wearing out? This is your second-to-last chance. Your penultimate story.”
Michael Hastings rubs his palms on his jeans and then raises them both like he’s about to pitch a movie. “Okay, a short one. On Thanksgiving, Tiger Woods was driving his Escalade away from his house. His wife was chasing him with a golf club.”
“I know this story, Hastings. I read Gawker.”
“Of course you do. Okay. So what was Tiger’s wife trying to do with his club?”
“I don’t know, the investigation was inconclusive.” The devil sits forward in his chair. “Surely you don’t know, Hastings? Was it murderous intent?” What was she doing?” The devil is a notorious gossip hound.
“Well,” Michael Hastings smiles coyly, “she was trying to hit his balls!”
The room is silent. From the garage Michael Hastings thinks he can hear another recitation of pi. The air conditioner kicks on in the back bedroom. Its low hum is ominous.
Suddenly the devil’s lip curls. He gives a brief, single chuckle. Then they come in a series, like bubbles erupting from his midsection. The devil kicks his feet up in the air, falling backwards into the armchair in full guffaw. When he recovers his breath he exclaims, “Hastings! That was a terrible joke! And it was hilarious!” Michael Hastings smiles. “Very well,” says the devil, righting himself in the seat. “One more year it is. But I still get one more story.”
“Of course you do. Don’t worry, this one’s going to be epic.”
I’m in the middle of reading (and loving) Team of Rivals about the Lincoln Cabinet. This only heightens my appreciation for this awesome book trailer for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Anybody want to make one of these for Andrew vs. The Collective?