Here’s a reading from my new book HE HAS MANY NAMES available on October 23 from Clash Books!
Here’s the same reading live at Killercon.
Here’s a reading from my new book HE HAS MANY NAMES available on October 23 from Clash Books!
Here’s the same reading live at Killercon.
Chapter 1: The Oralia
I’d been trying to get ahold of my agent for months. I was beginning to think she was dead. Then she called, at dawn, sounding like she’d run up a flight of stairs. “Noelle, drop whatever you’ve got going on tonight.”
Box wine and ramen, done.
“A publisher wants to meet with you at the Oralia Hotel. It’s super swanky and upscale. So doll yourself up.”
I hung up and spent more time putting my pitch together than my outfit. I got ready at the eleventh hour, ruined a zipper in my panic, and did my makeup in a series of swift strokes right before my Uber pulled up.
I scooted into the middle seat nervously adjusting my necklace in the mirror. It was a bib of emerald laurels mom had given me for just such an occasion. I have no idea how much it set her back, but it was priceless on waitress’s salary. And…I had it on backward. I unlatched the bib, flipped it around, and struggled to get it back on.
“You know what you look like with your good bag and cheap shoes?” I muttered in my best Hannibal Lecter voice. “You look like a rube.”
“What was that?” My driver squinted through the mirror.
“I was just wondering if you could go a little faster.”
The Oralia was hard to pick out of the skyline. Its bricks were so black it blended into the storm, but there was no missing the hotel when facing it dead on. Spotlights shot up the columns, like something off the poster for a silent film. The entrance was made of dark marble tiles separated by a grid of gold. A golden maze-like pattern ran up the side of the building. The balconies started on the third story.
I walked inside and a bellhop stepped forward. “Welcome to the Oralia. May I take your things?”
I handed him my umbrella and kept my briefcase to myself.
I strode past chandeliers that looked like pipe organs, gorgeous gargoyles, and a giant clock that assured me I didn’t have time to appreciate the art deco architecture.
It felt like I was rushing through the set of a Busby Berkeley film. Big buxom sculptures grazed my case, water fountains sprayed my forearms, and ballroom music beckoned me in.
The archway between the lobby and the check-in counter featured a gilded recreation of the entrance: a skyscraper lit from the bottom up. Behind the front desk was a smaller version of the same thing.
From the stained glass stars to the bright red carpeting, the lobby screamed Golden Age Hollywood. Even the name Oralia meant golden. I felt certain that this was one of the last bastions of elegance and class from an era when there was still tinsel in tinsel town.
I scanned the plaque on the counter to confirm my suspicions.
And… The hotel was founded in 2008.
The concierge didn’t notice me. She was face deep in a paperback. I leaned over to see what it was. I couldn’t catch the title, but I caught the hunk of beefcake on the cover.
At this stage of my career in publishing I was in the retail sector, working at an establishment whose name rhymes with Yarns and Global. The hardest part of my job was when I had to tear the covers off of the romance novels that weren’t selling. The publishers didn’t want them. They just needed to know we weren’t giving them away, so they had us send back the remains. I felt bad for the male models on the covers, all their bench presses gone to waste. I felt worse for the women on the back, smiling with their eyes so full of hope, yearning to be loved.
I daydreamed writing romance under a penname, giving single women the bearded billionaire bondage experience of their dreams. I’d like to say it was artistic pride that kept me from doing it, but really, it was fear of not being able to pull it off. Romance wasn’t my area of expertise.
The concierge felt my eyes on her. She buried her guy-candy in a drawer, folded her spectacles, and stood up.
“May I help you?”
I gave her a nervous smile. “I’m here to see Matilda MacDonald.”
The concierge pointed to a vampish figure on a couch in the corner.
Matilda wore a black pants suit that was all pleats and leather, with no undershirt. The Pradas she’d kicked up on the footrest were patent leather with heels that went on forever. She wore her jet-black hair in a pixie cut. Topping off her look was an armored ring that ran the length of her index finger.
Matilda swiped at a phone in an embroidered leather case. In her clutches, it looked like a forbidden text filled with spells for calling up the dead.
I extended my hand. “Matilda MacDonald?”
Matilda extended the hand with the armored ring. “Noelle Blackwood. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
I held my briefcase to my chest. “The pleasure is mine. Publishers never reach out to mid-listers. Who do I have to thank for floating my name in your direction?”
Matilda smirked and took her seat. She reached into her bag and slid a book across the table. “I trust you’ve heard of Barkley Carver.”
Barkley Carver, his name always made me think of trees, especially since there were evergreens on the covers of all of his books, including this one Out on a Limb.
Cover artists used tree lines as visual shorthand for shallow graves, which fit since all of Barkley’s stories started with hikers discovering a body. Barkley filled his fictitious funeral plots with the segment of the populace that made up his audience: upper-class white women; the same ones the media turned into saints whenever they went missing, say while jogging through the woods. This is why the mystery section of every bookstore looks like a forest mural.
Barkley took this theme a step further by working it into each of his titles: Fruit from the Poison Tree, Shake Like a Leaf, and A Tree Falls Silent.
I flipped the book over to find the same portrait Barkley Carver had used for the last twenty years. The author stood proud in his bomber jacket, full flight suit, and helmet. He leaned on the nose of a fighter jet and looked to the sky in big aviator shades.
Matilda signaled to the bellhop. He set a storage bin on the table, and flipped it open.
I peered inside. “What’s that for?”
Matilda nodded at my luggage. “Your briefcase, your coat, your phone, and a smart watch if you have one.”
I tapped my luggage. “What about my manuscript?”
Matilda drew a piece of paper from beneath the table. “Think of this meeting as less of an acquisition and more of a commission. Go ahead put it in.”
“Then I suppose you’ll want my Wi-Fi glass eye and fiber optic hair extensions?”
Matilda rolled her eyes. “Would you be so kind?”
Joking aside, Matilda wasn’t going to pass anything my way until I gave up my phone, so I did, and the bellhop left with the bin.
Matilda slid the piece of paper across the table. It wasn’t an offer. It was a nondisclosure agreement. I skimmed far enough to get to the part where I realized Matilda’s proposition wouldn’t start until I’d signed.
I drew a squiggle and slid the agreement back. “Why all the secrecy?”
Matilda swapped the agreement for a manila folder. “This offer is for you alone. Barkley and I, we’re not like other publishers. We don’t take submissions. We seek out talent and your name, Noelle, has come up several times. Your screenplay for The Identity Thieves just made the blacklist. Script readers gave it their highest marks, but do you know why it will never get made into a film?”
I shrugged. “Because it doesn’t have the words ‘fast’ or ‘furious’ in the title?”
Matilda nodded. “Because it can’t be retooled to fit an existing franchise, yes, just like your first manuscript couldn’t be softened into teen lit, and your last one couldn’t be sold as fantasy or horror. Your work defies traditional branding. Now that’s where we come in.”
I shook my head. “What is it with the royal we? I thought you only published Carver’s titles.”
“Oh we do, but we publish 5 Carver titles a year. We’d like to ratchet that number up to 15.”
“Those are James Patterson numbers.” I slouched into the sofa with an underwhelmed sigh. This was all starting to make sense. “You want me to ghostwrite for Carver. You know, serial killer thrillers aren’t really my forte.”
Matilda leaned forward and tented her fingers. “Barkley chose you because he wants to explore a new direction.”
I cocked my head. “He’s read my work?”
Matilda pushed her armored ring back and forth. “You know that paranormal investigations podcast you’re on?”
Ohhh. “So he’s heard my work.”
“We’ve listened to all nineteen episodes.”
“Then you know I’m just the token skeptic, there to make the show seem balanced.”
“Maybe that’s why they hired you, but you’re the star of the show. Every week you break down all of their supernatural pseudo science into simple psychology.”
Turning a screw into my skull, I quoted myself. “Stimulate the anterior insula and you too can see a ghost.”
“Of course. We’re hardwired to see faces everywhere.”
Matilda raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”
“I’ve seen them in wallpaper, marble tiles, even a chain length fence when the light hit it just right.”
Matilda cocked her head. “And you never flinched?”
I shrugged. “Our ancestors had to spot predators in an instant. So sometimes we see face where there are none, the Virgin Mary on toast or a cloud shaped like Donald Trump. It’s just a glitch in evolution.”
Matilda nodded recognizing this talking point from the podcast. “People don’t hallucinate that much, do they?”
I nodded. “Oh yeah. No need for drugs or schizophrenia. With enough anxiety people will see all sorts of things.”
Matilda leaned forward. “Are you speaking from experience?”
“About anxiety or hallucinations?”
Matilda tilted her head back and forth.
“On the podcast, when I said part of my writing ritual involved speaking to my characters like they were actually there-“
Matilda perked up. “Walk ins you called them; imagined figures that felt like they were literally in the room.”
“I was being hyperbolic to prove my point.”
Matilda feigned a smile. “Still, you’re clearly qualified for this, so much so that Carver is eager to lend you his name.”
I looked down at my boots, still wet from the walk. “Yeah, but isn’t that cheating?”
“It’s collaborating. He’s the architect. You’re the engineer. He draws the blueprints. You build the house.”
“And how extensive are Carver’s blueprints?”
Matilda tapped the manila folder with her pen. “He’s written a ten-page synopsis.”
“So it’s a sketch on a bar napkin?”
Matilda shrugged. “It’s bare bones, but think of how much freedom that’ll give you.”
I waved my hands in the air. “Yeah, but it’s Carver’s name on the building. How does that help my career?”
Matilda leaned forward. “Right now, your name, with your following in the paranormal community, might get you into a local bookstore. Carver’s name will get you that prime checkout counter space at a national grocery chain.”
“Were you a real estate agent prior to your career as a publisher?”
“I’ve been many things.” Matilda smiled and passed the manila envelope across the table. “This one little book will earn you royalties for the rest of your life. It’ll buy you time to get your own magnum opus in print.”
I shuddered. “I could always put it out myself.”
Matilda pursed her lips, feigning optimistic approval.
“It’s true, as a group, self-publishers are taking bigger bites out of the e-book pie, but as individuals most of you are starving. Anonymous reviews don’t have the sway of syndicated columns, podcasts don’t have NPR’s listeners, and trendsetters don’t have the influence of traditional publishers. Go ahead and throw your book at the wall, see if it sticks, but when readers have so many options they prefer established brands.”
I unbuttoned the top button of my blouse and let out a low sigh. “How does this bestseller factory of yours work?”
Matilda raised her eyebrow, knowing she had me.
“You’ll stay here, in the Oralia, until you’ve finished a draft. We’ll comp the room, the pay-per-view,” she tilted her head back and forth, “and room service within reason.”
I looked toward the concierge. “Why put me up here? Doesn’t Carver trust anyone to keep his secret?”
Matilda bit her lip to conceal her smile. “It’s something new we’re trying. Think of yourself as an artist in residence. The Oralia isn’t old, but it was built by people who remember when this town was filled with magic. Soak it in.”
I scanned the lobby of the creepy hotel that was to be my home.
“This is starting to sound a lot like a Stephen King story, one that didn’t end well for the author in it. Is there any kind of advance?”
Matilda produced an attaché case and took her time entering the combination.
The locks clicked open and she slid the case across the table. It was lined with stacks of cash. They were twenties, but more money than I’d ever seen.
Matilda slammed the case shut. “This will be in a safe behind the counter. Send us a draft in one month and management will be authorized to hand it over.”
“It’s how Carver wants it done. It’s in the contract. Think of it as a writing marathon.”
I reflected on my first semiautobiographical novel. I labored on it in my twenties, sold it for pennies, and watched it barely make back the advance.
I looked back at the cash. “All that for one month’s work?”
“When can I check in?”
Matilda slid another document across the table. “Right after you sign on the dotted line.” Continue reading Book Excerpt: HE HAS MANY NAMES
A crisis of conscience
This too will pass
The bathroom tiles
Are doing that thing
Where they sink into the dark
Leaving only the towel rings
Gaze into the abyss
Like a lover unblinking
The abyss wants to know
“What are you thinking?”
So tell it
Go on proclaim
Lean into the void
And say my name
Speak of the devil
And I shall appear
I’m up on the ladder
With the ground to my ear
You’re just one Bloody Mary shy
One Candy Man from kingdom come
One Beetlejuice from party time
One name away from
Just say, “When”
Pop another bottle open
Now is not the time
To be making good decisions
The kitchen walls
Are doing that thing
Where a gash cuts through them
And they bleed all over everything
Thank God you got someone
Who cleans these sorts of messes
Who gets you out of jams
Who gets you out of dresses
Someone who never sleeps
Who catches you when you fall
Who answers to so many names
Who comes when you call
Speak of the devil
And I shall appear
I’m up on the ladder
With the ground to my ear
You’re just one Bloody Mary shy
One Candy Man from kingdom come
One Beetlejuice from party time
One name away from
Just say, “When”
Let me in
My chauffeur has trouble concentrating on the road ahead. He checks the gas gauge more than anything beyond the hood. He’s more concerned with keeping his vehicle in working order than getting anywhere. He drives down an empty highway well below the speed limit.
His eyes wonder to the mirror, not to check for cars, but to examine his irises. They’re swimming in so much red they look like they’re glowing blue. He’s so entranced by the effect he doesn’t notice me, guzzling motor oil from a paper bag, in the back seat.
We’ve logged so many miles together he’s forgotten that I’m even here. He flicks the high beams on, thinking it’s fog he’s seeing, and not the secondhand puffs from a smoker who refuses to crack a window open. He adjusts his seat, blaming the sharp stabbing pain on his posture, and not the boot heel I’m pushing into his rear.
I slip a plug into the cigarette lighter and rest an exposed wire on my tongue. My saliva sizzles. Each static jolt is sugary sweet. I want to see how much energy I can syphon before he turns around. When my chauffeur notices the dimming of the headlights, he pulls over certain that it’s a problem with his eyesight. Continue reading Backseat Driver
The following is a demon possession story with an unconventional outcome, a pitch black horror adventure with a whole lot of comedy.
I’ve written about how I’d like to see a fresh take on the exorcism genre and how I’d like to see my favorite exorcist, John Constantine, depicted on TV. Here’s an original short story that hits both birds with the same stone. It doesn’t matter if you’re fans of the comic, the show, the movie, or if this is your first introduction to the character; this piece stands on its own.
John Constantine in: Gambling with Souls
Ravenscar had been remodeled since my last bout of electroshock. The patients’ wing had been done up like a walk-in candy cane. The hall was a spiral of blood, streaking across the floor, up the wall, arching over the ceiling, then back down again. This paint job must’ve taken muscle, a steady hand, and a cadaver.
The hall stunk like a thawed out, abandoned meat locker. The smell intensified with every step, but the spiral beckoned me forward, a red carpet leading to the room at the end.
The door was ajar, daring me to step inside.
Fishing my phone out of my pocket, I set the flash to ON. Holding it into the unit, a chill moved down my wrist. Taking a snapshot, the flash revealed something at my feet. Recoiling, I felt the chill pass in an instant. Flicking my lighter across my thigh, I examined the threshold.
Turns out, I wasn’t the first mage in Dr. Huntoon’s rolodex. These sigils were drawn by an artist, someone versed in the mediums of salt, mirror shards and mercury. This was hybrid magic, a fusion of fringe spiritualism and esoteric witchcraft. It’s not unusual to find an etching of the Eye of Horus at the scene of a paranormal event, but it’s rare to find it accompanied by a nose and a mouth. This had Zed’s finger prints all over it.
Zed was a budding sorceress, rebelling against her evangelical upbringing by sticking her nose into these sorts of things. We’ve been riding each others coat tails ever since we ceased being an item.
Whatever lurked behind door number one hadn’t given me frostbite, Zed’s ward did. It was overkill, like using an EMP to take out the enemy’s communications, only to find you’ve disabled all of your weapons systems. This was arse about a face. Sure, it put up borders around bewitchments, but it was kryptonite for conjurers.
Here I was with a trench coat lined with magical trinkets. One step forward would render them useless, putting me at the mercy of Ravenscar’s latest tenant.
Ducking into the hall, I unloaded my arsenal. Pendants, potions, pentacles, rings, relics, runes, incense, ironweed, and insect repellant. What can I say? When I go in blind, I like to keep my options open.
The only things I kept in my pockets were a phone, a zippo, a pack of Silk Cuts, a tin filled with business cards, and a bottle of OxyContin I’d nicked from the doctor’s private stash. You know, the essentials.
Peeking at my phone, I saw what I’d expected: a tall lump beneath a sheet on the mattress. Expanding the image, I noticed something that didn’t sit right. If this was the bed, where were the pillows?
Pushing the door open, I felt Zed’s invisible fencing suck the magic from my skin.
“House keeping.” My voice echoed off the walls. It was a familiar sound, almost comforting, like coming home.
The lump under the covers remained frozen. My gaze followed the blood trail to a pair of legs beneath the bed frame: white orderly pants stained rusty brown. There were teeth marks at the ankles, exposing the Achilles’ tendon. Flies had colonized the bed. Here I left my insect repellant in the hall. The sheets dripped with black, brown, and yellow sludge. Whatever was living in here was nesting.
I wondered if Zed was so gobsmacked with the presentation, that she opted to just lock the bugger in.
Screwing a cigarette into my lips, I lit it up and took a puff, paying close attention to the direction the fire was leaning. Fire is attracted to two things, oxygen and demons. Let’s just say this flame wasn’t stretching for the door frame.
Clipping the zippo to my sleeve, I rolled my shoulder, cracking my neck to conceal my movements. Waving the cancer stick like a conductor, I hoped the ember would hold my audience’s attention. Inhaling as much as I could, I blew a smoke cloud overhead. Adjusting my coat, there was nothing up my sleeve, not even an arm. My fingers were up near my collar, ready to catch whatever life had to throw at them.
Reaching for the comforter with my free hand, I found a corner that had yet to be tainted by bodily fluids. Tearing the sheet away, I tilted my head straight up. I already knew where the pillows had gone. Raising my arm through my collar, I caught my attacker as she came down.
She fell right into my grasp. I flung her into her stuffed stand in. The pillows scattered. She landed on all fours, a cat with perfect balance. Her gown dripped with the same septic sap that oozed over the bed frame. You’d think smoking since primary school might spare my nose the smell. It didn’t.
The tenant smiled, revealing a face full of talons, claws in place of canines, a fine piece of skeletal transmogrification if I’d ever seen one. Her eyes were milky white. Her veins had turned black.
Digging her nails into the mattress, spittle seeped from her teeth. “Why can’t we read your mind?”
What is it with lesser demons and the royal we?
Shrugging, I took a puff, exhaling through my nostrils. “Because you’re illiterate.”
Zed might not have exorcized this demon, but at least she’d rendered it mind blind.
The tenant rubbed its eyes. “We read Dr. Huntoon’s mind. Did you know he has an ongoing fantasy about reviving Carl Jung’s sexual therapy? He longs to help push his patient’s traumatic memories down, deep down inside,” she cackled, “over and over again.”
I shrugged. “That’s just a lucky guess.”
The tenant shift her weight from shoulder to shoulder, a predator primed to pounce. “Are you one of his, or did your condition bring you to us like a moth to a flame? Maybe you suffer from some kind of savior complex? Either way, we can make the hurting stop.”
I chuckled, “‘Savior’ is not a word I hear that often.”
“So you’re not some Papist come to play Jesus?” The tenant squint, sizing me up with empty eyes.
I blew a smoke ring, “Nope,” I waved the nub of my filter. “although my meat suit does have the same initials.”
The tenant’s head cocked to the side, shaking like a maraca. “Your meat suit?”
Flicking the filter, I reached into my coat. “Oh yes, his name is John Constantine. John Constantine!” I flung a handful of business cards at her. “It would be remiss of me to rob him of a branding opportunity while he’s away.”
Leaning forward, the tenant’s hair fell into her teeth like floss. Her head bobbed up and down, tracing my aura from the floor to the ceiling.
The tenant shook her head, casting off dandruff. “If you’re really wearing this Constantine, why aren’t there any stretch marks? Why is their color in his cheeks? Why can we still see the light in his eyes?”
I pointed to her “There are puppeteers” then I pointed to myself, “and then there are ventriloquists. You know what you are.”
The tenant nodded. Pigs squealed in the bowels of her throat.
“We’re the devil.”
She spat brimstone at my feet, it sizzled on the tile, but I didn’t flinch.
I reached into my trench coat. The tenant perked up in a painful looking yoga pose. Its elbows bent the wrong way. Its bones stretched the skin. Her flesh was ready to rip right open.
Rolling my eyes, I tapped my phone. The tenant’s forked tongue tasted the air. I raised a finger, signaling for the demon to hold on a second, before flipping the screen to face her.
It was on a freeze frame from The Exorcist. It featured young Regan tied to her bed, skin pealing, her pajamas covered in pea soup. I tapped play.
Regan’s demon voice shouted, “The devil!”
Setting the phone back in my pocket, I ran my fingers through my hair. “Linda Blair circa 1977. There was an actress, you on the other hand, I’m not impressed with. Who’s your agent?”
The tenant smirked, giggled to itself, a child busted for lying. “Why does a fellow traveler need to know our name?”
I cracked my knuckles. “I don’t want your name, you walked into someone else’s home and started eating their food. Your name is Goldilocks. I want the name of the one who told you where to find the free lunch. Give me that and I’ll leave you with a limb to limp home on.”
Smiling, Goldilocks’s jaw sagged, like melted putty, revealing a second row of teeth behind the talons. Leaning forward, she was primed to bite my head off. “Oh, you’d be so merciful.”
She snapped at my ear, grazing the skin, ran her nose across my forehead, sniffed my brow, then snapped at the other one. I’d been knighted by demon. Blood trickled down my earlobe. She’d barely pierced the skin, but the pain was fleeting.
I grit my teeth. “The limb offer is off the table. Cooperate and I won’t reroute your intestines to fill your genitals with bile,” I shrugged, “or don’t cooperate, I’m feeling creative tonight.”
Rolling her head back, Goldilocks spewed a geyser of oil at the ceiling, spreading an inkblot across the tiles. Exhaling, Goldilocks elbows bent back into place, she fell into a heap on the mattress.
Lightning flashed. Thunder struck. Squealing pigs echoed down the hall behind me. I lit another Silk Cut and checked the time.
“Doctor?” Goldilocks’s voice had lost its bite, she sounded human. “Who’s that under the bed? What’s wrong with his leg? Why isn’t he moving? Oh my God, is he?…”
This was Angie. The wee lass Dr. Huntoon thought might benefit from my unique approach to therapy.
Angie backed into the wall, huffing and puffing, panic wrought. “You’re not Dr. Huntoon. Who are you? Are you real?”
“I try to be.” I swatted the flies out of my face.
The air was thick. It stunk of rotten eggs and charred cinder. A clammy sensation traveled from the small of my back, up my spine, coiled around my neck, and settled on my scalp.
Sucking down my Silk Cut, I gave the poor girl my best poker face. In a game with stakes this high, empathy is the enemy.
“Is it gone? Did you get rid of it?” Angie’s gaze followed the claw marks on the ceiling.
Sweat dripped down my face, pooled in my palm with a white sticky residue. It smelt like hair product. I felt my spikes to find they’d drooped down into bangs.
“Is it safe?” Angie dipped her foot on the floor.
Grabbing her wrist, I checked her forearms for black tracks, ink bubbles riding the ventricles.
She did as instructed. Her tongue was solid again. Her teeth had returned to normal. Her gums showed signs of gingivitis, but that’s not my area of expertise.
Prying her eye open, I checked her iris for signs of dilution, but it was something in her pupil that demanded my attention. Seeing my reflection, I spotted a row of fingers on my forehead, bat claws digging into the skin.
“He’s still here.”
Spinning on my heel, I scanned the room for reflective surfaces. Zed had to have gotten those shards from somewhere. There were mirrors on both sides of the wardrobe, one had been shattered, while the other was still intact. Stepping into view, I got a good look at the monkey on my back.
The little bugger looked like an abstract artist’s interpretation of a demon: an emaciated monkey’s body, with a ribcage so sunken it left no room for lungs. Goldilocks’s shoulder-blades were so pronounced they cut through his skin. He had lopsided bat ears, talons for teeth, and the contours of a man’s head.
A crown of bone jut out from a wet gash in his scalp, bleeding down his face like a mask.
His tail hung between my legs with links of exposed vertebras, wagging with amusement. Goldilocks was having himself a piggyback ride. If he’d suspected a vacancy in me, he’d have slipped inside already. He was testing me.
Angie dug into her gown, watching the shadows for signs of movement. “He’s been following me since I burned down the chapel. It wasn’t until you came along that I realized he was the Devil.”
I chuckled, blowing secondhand smoke at Goldilocks’s perch on my back. “A demon calling himself the devil is like a clerk calling himself the manager. Lesser demons invoke the name to inflate their stature. This mug is just a common imp trying to live beyond its means, using the majestic plural to compensate for something.”
I felt Goldilocks’s claws dig into my skull, stopping just short of my brain. I had to drive it back into Angie if I was ever going to stand a chance.
Taking a deep breath, I said, “He’s an enforcer sitting in the boss’s chair, a tapeworm pretending to be a python, a barnacle on a whale’s back, thinking it’s the king of the ocean. It has no grand ambitions, no role in the apocalypse. It’s up here hiding, soiling its knickers at the thought of being dragged back to hell.”
That got the weight off my shoulders.
Angie’s eyes rolled into her skull. She arched her back, cracking it. Lightning flashed. Her shadow transformed. Spikes shot out of her lips again.
Shaking the pack of Silk Cuts, I realized I was down to the last one, the final link in a chain of smokes.
Goldilocks crawled forward, staring me down with empty eyes. “Who are you?”
Puffing on the Silk Cut between us, I let the embers flare. “I’m the one whose porridge you’re gobbling. Since Ravenscar was established, I’ve peaked in, nibbling on an obsessive compulsive here, a paranoid schizophrenic there, never taking more than I needed, never announcing my presence. Then you came along and shined a big bright light on my operation. Now my buffet is at an end. Soon they’ll have priests on retainer, buckets of holy water in every doorway, and crucifixes as far as the eye can see.”
Goldilocks’s tongue shift from cheek to cheek, then from eye socket to eye socket. “If that’s so, then we’ll step out of your way. You can have this one’s soul, our treat. We’ll stand guard as you suck it dry.”
Goldilocks raised a finger, “But if you can’t, if you’re not the demon your swagger says you are, then we reserve the right to pick your meat puppet clean.”
I nodded, “Deal.”
Flicking her wrist, Goldilocks slammed the door behind me. When I turned back from the sound, I found Angie scurrying away.
Goldilocks had called my bluff.
Tears streaked down Angie’s cheeks. “Just make it quick. The things it shows me… The things it wants me to do…to people I care about… I can’t go back.”
A breeze passed through Angie’s hair. The strands hung in the air. This time Goldilocks wanted me to know exactly where he was standing.
I could’ve grabbed a shard of mirror, sliced Angie’s throat, and hoped that Goldilocks would sod off out of it, but that would be a draw and I was looking for a win. That’s when I remembered the prescription in my pocket.
Sighing, I put my hand on Angie’s shoulder. “The only way to spare you from his torment is to transfer ownership. His is the realm of venial sins and mine is the realm of mortal ones.”
I pointed to her, “Mala Prohibata,” then to myself “Mala in Se. He deals in sins that are forbidden by man, like playing with matches. I deal in sins that are forbidden by the divine.”
Cupping my hands around Angie’s, I left her with the bottle of OxyContin.
“He will fragment your personality from your memory, turn one aspect against the other, until your soul is a snake eating its own tail. You will devoir yourself. He’s a petty demon. He doesn’t collect souls, he collects tragic outcomes. You’re just another notch on his belt.”
I pointed to the pills. “Come with me and I will hurt you. I will devastate you beyond your comprehension, but I will let you retain a semblance of your identity. This I promise you.”
Angie struggled with the childproof lid. “Who are you?”
My smile flattened. “The true lords of hell do not go by names. We go by numbers, and I my dear, am the first of the fallen.”
If I couldn’t sell the lie to Goldilocks, I’d have to sell it to his target audience.
Angie muttered a prayer.
I shook my head. “With everything you’ve done? No. God’s turned a blind eye and a deaf ear. Your damnation is a foregone conclusion, but you still have a choice in which hell you’re going. Go with Goldilocks, and he’ll pass you around the prison. Go with me, and you’ll be mine alone.”
I practically put the capsules in her mouth myself.
She swallowed them down, and the staring contest began. While Angie searched my eyes for traces of humanity, I searched her hairline for signs of movement. Angie was Goldilocks’s link to the land of the living. Would he go down with the ship or wait for another to come along?
As Angie’s eyelids shut, her hair went limp. I felt Goldilocks’s demon grip on my shoulders. All he had to do was slip into my scalp, possess my body, and he would’ve won, two souls for the price of one. Instead, he leapfrogged over me, looking for a place to hide until the next sad sap wandered in.
The wardrobe creaked.
Walking backward, I cracked my knuckles. Turning to face the mirror, I saw Goldilocks in the reflection, gnashing his teeth, his forehead perpetually bleeding. We stared at each other head on. He won that contest. I couldn’t help but wink.
“Here’s to seven more years of this.” I drove my fist into the mirror. It shattered, trapping the little bastard there.
Leaping onto the bed, I felt Angie’s neck for a pulse. It was fading, worse still she was barely breathing. There were only a few capsules left in the bottle, but I’d underestimated their effect. Gambling with Angie’s life, I delivered her soul to the genuine first of the fallen, tossing her out of the frying pan and into the volcano.
Scooping Angie up, I carried her across Zed’s invisible fence. Panicking, I ran past my arsenal of enchantments. I had one last option.
Kicking the door open, I announced our presence.
The electroshock chair was already occupied. The patient seized up in the throes of his session.
A nurse shot up from behind him. “We’re in the middle of a procedure!”
Laying Angie’s lifeless body on the floor, I said, “So am I.”
Plucking the electrodes from the patient’s head, I made a makeshift defibrillator. Cranking the dials up past I eleven, I yelled, “Clear!”
When Angie came to, she spent the first few minutes staring daggers at me. Even after they fit her with an I.V. full of Buprenorphine, she kept her gaze fixed.
“So, are we in hell?” She asked.
I gave her a so-so gesture. “Not exactly.”
She exhaled, filling the air with tension.
“You told me to kill myself, to commit a mortal sin. You persuaded me to play an active part in my own damnation. You told me you were the first of the fallen.”
Making my way to the door, I shrugged. “Listen love, I say a lot of things.”
For more on the adventures of John Constantine check out my review of the pilot episode for the Constantine TV Show.
For more of my stories on demons and possession check out:
Eviction Notice – The tale of landlord tasked with tossing out a tenant possessed by a demon.
The Great American Tell Off Speech – The story of the hiring manager from hell interviewing a genuine demon.
Terms and Conditions – The story of an artist who tries to steal his inspiration back from the devil.
For my thoughts on the role of exorcisms in modern fiction, check out: Horror Clichés in need of an Exorcism.
Stealing Reference Material
The bridge was a tunnel of chain length fence. It rattled with every step, a giant slinky bouncing. Waves rippled through the diamond patterns. Industrial lights swung from their hooks. My goggles turned them into spirit orbs, ghosts of urban explores who’d fallen through the gaps. With a GoPro mounted to my helmet, I struggled to maneuver around them.
The miner’s cap was heavy enough already, the camera made it dig deeper into my scalp. It hurt, but nothing chafed like the breathing mask. Tracing my muzzle, its straps cut right through a cushion of facial hair. The apparatus recirculated this morning’s coffee with every breath.
Seventeen stories beneath me, the river raged. This rickety structure was all that kept me from diving into it. I threaded my fingers through the rusty wires, incase the boards weren’t up to the task.
When a swarm of mayflies filled my headlight, I knew I was getting close to the other side. Something gleamed up ahead. It took a moment to recognize the grated treads of a step. The stairway felt even less secure than the bridge. Stretching for three city blocks, it creaked back and forth with every step. My oxygen tank slapped against my back. My bolt cutters hammered against my thigh.
Buried under all this gear, I was feeling claustrophobic already, the sewer pipe at the top of the staircase only made things worse. Someone had lined the mouth with glass. Brushing it aside with the bolt cutters, I leaned in. There was a crunch beneath my kneepad. The path sparkled before me. The last guest must have excreted shards on his way in. From elbow pad to kneepad, I bore the brunt of each of them. My palms pressed the walls, while the oxygen tank scraped the ceiling.
Unscrewing the vent, I lit the basement on the other side. There was a bed of nails waiting for me. Someone had taken a page from the Home Alone school of building security. Too bad they didn’t realize the sewage vent made the perfect platform for an intruder to stand on.
Hopping off the makeshift step, something crackled beneath my boots. There were grains of salt as big as pebbles sprinkled around the entrance. Someone sure didn’t want any of those spirit orbs getting in.
The room was hot and clammy. Sweat trickled into my goggles, pooled at the bottom of my mask, and dripped down my breathing tube.
Chemical stalactites hung from the pipes. Paint chips rolled off the support beams, wedged into cracks in the foundation. The concrete lining the walls had turned to gravel. Twinkling in the air, fibers spilled through a gap in the ceiling. My beam stretched all the way to the roof, where there was a flutter of panicked batwings.
An unholy trinity of toxins were in the air: asbestos, lead, and radon.
Scanning the walls, florescent tags glowed in my beam. There were no words, no gang signs, only esoteric symbols. These ones were unlike any of the charms I was familiar with. There were none of the traditional spiral hands, helms of awe, or grand pentacles to ward off demons.
These symbols were far more intricate, patterns stretching from the floor, up the brickwork, arching over the ceiling. They had impossible symmetry, resembling the complex exoskeletons of marine life, like corals growing on the wall. Their spray painted tentacles didn’t stretch toward me. They stretched away.
This wasn’t a protection spell. It was a binding.
Ever the Boy Scout, I reached into my satchel. With the flick of the wrist, my extendable baton doubled my arm span.
The tentacles led to a spiral staircase. I had some good material, but the footage I’d come for was somewhere up there. The climb did my back no favors. The GoPro forced me to go up hunched over. This put me at eye level with the rusted bolts, rattling with my every step. I felt compelled to push them in every time I looped around.
Half way up, I heard a creaking, followed by a loud crash. Looking down, I saw the stairs collapse beneath me. I ran the rest of the way. Hitting an edge, my helmet got knocked sideways. Sparks flew off my oxygen tank. Nearing the top, I spotted a row of hypodermic needles with their points ready to stick me. Kicking them away, I slid onto the ground floor. The last step fell out from under me.
“A little redundant.” I addressed the facility, “If you didn’t get me with the glass or the nails, what makes you think you’re going to get me with another trap on the floor? If anything you should be trying to get me from…”
It occurred to me to duck. There was a twang. A trip wire snapped. A jackhammer came down on the GoPro, knocking the helmet clean off my head. The light tumbled end over end into the dark. The pummeling pendulum whooshed back and forth.
Jabbing at the dark with my baton, I tried to follow the trajectory of the helmet. I spotted a faint glow. The helmet must have gotten some air before it hit a wall. It cast just enough light to let me see my goggles fill with cobwebs.
Dusting off the helmet, I screwed it back on. I couldn’t help but smirk, thinking about how cool the footage was going to look. That’s when I saw that the floor and the ceiling were covered in the same coral markings as the basement. These florescent tentacles lead toward an empty corridor.
I spoke to the facility, “Your traps say, ‘Go-go,’ but your symbols say, ‘Stay-stay.’”
Someone exhaled beside me. I turned to find a shirtless emaciated figure. His frame was all ribs and hips. His skin was pale enough to glow. His cheeks were littered with cysts. His nose had been broken, the bridge curved like a face in an abstract painting. His eyes had sunk in. The pupils were washed out, nearly gone. When he opened his mouth, a layer of skin streaked across his lips.
He looked to the extendable baton, “Is that your probe? Are you an alien?”
Anticipating my response, his boney shoulders shifted back and forth between fight and flight.
I cocked the baton back, “It is, and I am.”
I put my money on flight. Lunging at me, he bet against the odds. With one swift blow, I called him. He went down like a house of cards, waving his arms, fluttering to the floor.
Blood spurt from his temple, shooting across my boot, painting it red. Then it did something unexpected. Dripping down my toe, the blood left no sign that it was ever there. Running around my ankle, it merged with the other droplets, swirling with the magnetic pull of mercury. Ignoring a dip in the floor, the blood seeped upward along the tentacle patterns. A serpent with a long red tail, rounding the corner into the corridor, weaving from crack to crack. The blood wanted me to follow.
A strange calm came over me, as if the sight of animated blood was soothing. Turned out the encounter had me huffing down the oxygen. I’d have to ease up if my supply was to last through the night.
At the end of the corridor, the blood snake slipped beneath a pair of black doors. I knocked. There was an echo. Whatever was on the other side of this threshold was massive.
The doors creaked open, revealing a field of candles, a vigil the size of a hangar. Stepping into the room felt like walking onto the cosmos. There were no boilers, no vats, and no aircrafts, just a vast garden of light.
Whatever the facility was built for, it had been repurposed. Spinning around, I took in all the footage I could.
Mesmerized by the candles, it took a while to realize there was something wrong with the walls. From a distance, the brickwork appeared to be made of nothing but headers. Stranger still, the courses between them were stacked in intersecting lines, not the strengthening patterns common to buildings of this height. Approaching the wall, I saw that it was riddled with holes and rivets. Not holes, but sockets. Not rivets, but teeth.
These were not bricks. The walls were made from skulls. The facility had been converted into a grand industrial charnel house. There were too many skulls to count, more than enough to account for every missing person in the state’s history.
Wind swirled around me. The candles flickered in a circular pattern, spiraling out to the walls. The room quaked. The skulls rattled. I feared they’d come crashing down on me.
A chorus of voices boomed, “Who dares disturb our slumber?”
The force knocked me to my knees. Candles jut through my fingers. My legs were drenched in a puddle of wax. Struggling to my feet, I gulped. “Drew Chial, aspiring author.”
Their teeth rose and fell, “Why have you contaminated the purity of our domain with your presence?”
“Purity?” I muttered, “Did you see the guy wandering the corridor? You lot must have a lax definition of purity if–”
The room quaked.
I cupped my hands over my mask, “I needed reference material.”
“Reference material for what?” The walls echoed.
I tugged at my breathing apparatus. “A blog entry on how atmosphere can enhance a writer’s scenes.”
“What is this atmosphere of which you speak?” Their voices rang.
Brushing off my knee pads, I raised a finger. “I’m glad you asked.”
Creating Atmosphere on the Cheap: The Ed Wood Method
As a former script reader, I can’t tell you how many screenplays I read that had zero description of their settings. The most the screenwriters would give me was: EXT. CEMETERY – NIGHT, then it was straight to six pages of dialogue. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a radio drama with faces. Film is a visual medium. Give your audience something to look at.
Learning a scene took place in a cemetery, my internal set designer just slapped something together.
Sliding blue gels over the lights, he cranked up smoke machines, dumped dry ice into every nook and cranny. He called for cardboard headstones and Styrofoam angel statues. Teamsters nailed shanty mausoleum facades together. The night sky was reduced to stage lights glowing through black sheets of cheese cloth. The clouds were just colored clumps of cotton.
The landscape my internal set designer threw together was serviceable, but it lacked fine details. It had all the atmosphere of Plan 9 from Outer Space. That’s why I call this the Ed Wood Method of story telling, because it forces the reader to come up with a slapdash backdrop that brings down the value of the rest of the production.
Cemeteries are scary, but you can’t just set a scene there and expect instant fear from your reader. You have to earn your audience’s anxiety by setting up the ambience. Show us something that doesn’t immediately come to mind. Something that tells us you’ve been there, that you know the lay of the land. Something that sets this cemetery apart from all the other ones.
Working for Your Atmosphere: The H.P. Lovecraft Method
H.P. Lovecraft had a talent for staging scenes, warping entrails into pagan symbols in the Antarctic snow, dressing lost cities with tomes of forbidden knowledge, glyphs that hinted at what was coming. He littered The Mountains of Madness with all kinds of evidence, long before letting the reader catch a glimpse of the dark presence.
Lovecraft was an architect building tension, mounting dread. He left empty spaces in his cavernous ruins, dark places for his readers to fill with nightmares. Rather than burn his audience out on confrontations with creatures, he chilled them with atmosphere.
Lovecraft’s favorite word was “indescribable.” He’d lead you to the terror below, describe its tendrils in a blur of movement, and leave you to put the rest of the pieces together. He knew that the best horror stories were a collaborative effort between the writer and the reader. He knew that the audience’s imagination was not a screen to present events, but a canvas filled by the reader’s interpretation.
Lovecraft isn’t known for dialogue or characterization. By all accounts, he was sparse on both fronts, but he was a master of description. Give him a house and he’d fill the walls with rats. Give him an attic and he’d fill the air with things swimming on sympathetic vibrations. Give him a cave and he’d fill it with the remnants of a lost civilization, and the very creatures that did it in.
Building Your Story on the Atmosphere: My Method
When a premise escapes me, I’ll write a description-centric story. When it hits a wall, I’ll describe the scenery. When I’m all out of life events to reference, I’ll mine the places I’ve been. The narrative that opens this blog is a combination of spaces I’ve seen urban exploring. I grafted the chain length fence from St. Paul’s Island Station Power Plant onto Stillwater’s Tall Bridge. I linked a sewage pipe from White Bear Lake to the bowels of the Walker Art Center. I borrowed the dilapidated ceiling from an abandon apartment complex.
I think of these pieces as studies, like list poems, they’re workouts to keep the creative juices flowing. If I have nothing to say, I’ll just interpret the details of something. It might seem like a waste of time, but it keeps me writing. This method is a great tool for chiseling a sculpture out of writers’ block.
Sometimes atmosphere building can develop into plot structure. The combined settings reveal the stages of a journey. They compel me to go back and plant more evidence along the way.
I Dare You: a Challenge for Writers
In Screenwriting 101 we weren’t allowed to write dialogue for the entire semester. Speech was a story telling crutch, the professor wanted us to build up our descriptive muscles.
He tapped a dry erase marker against his palm. “Every week I want you to go somewhere you feel out of place and write about it. I want you to exit your comfort zone and enter the great unknown.”
The first week I downed two pints of Guinness and stumbled into the Church of Scientology to get myself a free personality test. After learning I was depressed and in dire need of an audit, I begged my way into their bathroom. The tester waited outside the door, just in case I wandered off and started taking pictures. I already had all the mnemonic negatives I would ever need.
The next week I explored the deadly Mississippi cave system, where local gangsters hid during prohibition.
The third week I went to a lesbian bar called π. Turned out, I wasn’t all that uncomfortable (not for the creepy reasons you’re thinking). They played good music, had an inclusive vibe, and welcomed me into a dance off.
Every week I added new wings to my memory palace, finding new venues to play out my little dramas. I found the perfect dark alley to stage my crime scenes. I found a water tower that looked like it was built by the Knights Templar. I found a seedy night club, complete with its own bondage dungeon.
I dare you to do the same. Go exploring. You don’t need to find an abandon asylum to get the job done. If your true fear is social situations, get into one. Your alienation will make you a better observer. You’ll notice things others take for granted.
Think about all the aspects of your location that you couldn’t come up with on your own. The ones you had to be there to see, the ones that have the potential to make a setting feel unique. This should teach you which details are redundant and which ones are essential. Don’t let your descriptions read like police reports. Don’t overwhelm your reader with an orgy of evidence. Plant just enough to give them a bad feeling. Their imagination will do the rest.
Have you ever had a job interview that went to hell? This one goes there literally. When I say I write Twilight Zone fan fiction, this is what I’m talking about.
The Great American Tell Off Speech
Wind blew through the office. Lunging after a stray envelope, a mail clerk tripped over his cart. There were no walls to stop it, only pillars. The floor was arranged like a banquet hall, with a series of long tables. There were laptops in place of plates, phones in place of silverware. Sitting with the other applicants, Stewart felt like he was waiting for a reservation, not an interview.
Without walls, this was a hive with no honeycomb, a swarm that never sat still long enough to be a colony. The worker bees were at a constant hum. They buzzed into phones with fingers in their ears. Some fashioned borders out of folders. Some marked their perimeters, putting their hands up on their cheeks, and angling their elbows. Others ducked under tables.
Clicking buttons, they mistook each others’ mice for their own. Passing reports, they made bumper cars of rolling chairs. Waving their power plugs, they played musical outlets, jabbing at each other for juice.
Stewart leaned over to peak into a conference room. A facilitator hopped back and forth, armed with a set of markers and a smile. Pointing to someone out of view, the facilitator leapt up, spun around, and wrote a bullet point on the whiteboard. Giving a thumbs up, he jotted down the word: COLLABORATION. Employees raised their hands, kindergarden students waiting for their turn.
Stewart scanned his cover letter. Words like DISTINCT, INDEPENDENT and SELF-RELIANT stood out.
Giving his outfit a once over, Stewart found his yellow tie full of creases. He struggled to smooth them, only to find he was smearing ink down the length. Checking to see if any of the applicants were watching, he licked the silk clean. The nearest door was made of tinted glass. Stewart stuck his tongue out at his reflection. It was black. His cowlick stood straight up. Spitting into his hand, he tried to weigh it down.
The door opened to reveal a linebacker in a pinstripe suit, square-jawed and broad shouldered. He wore two bluetooth earpieces. They jut out like a pair of tusks. His brown hair had a reddish tint. It clashed with his silver eyebrows. His cheeks were tan and moist, a mannequin brought to life.
“Martin Williams.” He extended his hand, a catcher’s mitt full of class rings.
Stewart wiped the spit on his pants before offering his hand. “Stewart Smith.”
“Of course it is.” Martin winked.
The man had a vice grip. Stewart felt it in his arm socket.
Before Stewart could reclaim his fingers, Martin went in for a second pass. Giving the applicant’s palm another good squeeze, Martin tilt his head, a dancer singling for his partner to follow. Stewart squeezed back, quickly relinquishing his grip. When he withdrew his hand, it was clammy.
Ambling to his desk, Martin positioned himself to sit. Bending his knees, he froze.
Stewart mirrored Martin’s position in the chair provided. They were in a game of chicken over who’d be the first to sit. When Stewart’s footing shift gravity made the decision for him.
Martin raised an eyebrow at this development. Smoothing his blood red tie, he took his seat.
Stewart’s chair was anything but ergonomic. It dictated his posture at a ninety degree angle. With his hips shifting out of the seat, he became painfully aware of the position of his limbs. He crossed his legs, rather than sit spread eagle. He crossed his arms, rather than let them dangle like an ape.
Martin scanned him, a curator appraising the authenticity of an acquisition. His finger hovered over his speakerphone. “Would you like a coffee?”
Stewart didn’t care for what the chair was doing to his bladder. “No. No thank you, I’ve had too much already.”
Martin raised his eyebrow a little higher. “Let’s get right down to business. Your resumé says you’ve been out of work for sixth months now. The next guy coming in has the same qualifications. The only difference is he has a solid job. Why should I hire you instead of someone who’s stable?”
Stewart found his attention drawn to the waste basket at his feet, overflowing with 5-Hour Energy drinks.
He shift his butt in his seat. “Because I’m not stable.”
Martin raised his chin. “Care to elaborate?”
“No, but I will.” Stewart’s seat creaked as he moved to the edge. “Anyone can maintain a nine to five job, but it takes a particular type of person to hold out until they find a place where they’re needed.”
Martin rubbed his chin. “Needed, you say?”
Stewart scanned the bookshelf: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Steve Jobs’s autobiography.
He nodded. “Absolutely.”
The wall was filled with certificates, an Entrepreneurship degree from Columbia, an International Business degree from Harvard, and a slip certifying the completion of a weekend seminar in something called, “Neuro-Linguistic Programing.”
There was a photo of Martin covered in mud, a general whose army conquered a wall, letting out a battle cry. Ropes dangled over the side. Climbers grit their teeth, struggling to catch up with their agile leader.
Plucking the bluetooth tusks from his ears, Martin set them on the desk. Fishing a hand grip tool from a drawer, he gave his wrist a workout. “And what is it that makes you so vital to our business?”
On the desk, a pendulum drew figure eights in a Zen sand-garden. Stewart flicked it. “I’m here to change the flow of things.”
Martin quoted Stewarts cover letter, “And just how does an ‘independent’ ‘self-reliant’ ‘freethinker’ go about doing that?”
Martin slipped his copy of Stewart’s cover letter across the desk, a monologue waiting to be performed.
Stewart slipped it back. “I know what it says, it’s what it doesn’t say that matters.”
Setting the workout tool down, Martin smirked. “What, like the notes a musician doesn’t play?”
Stewart tilt his chin, committing to neither shaking his head, or nodding. “It doesn’t say that I’m a people person. It doesn’t say that I thrive in groups. Nor does it say that I’m passionate about communication, marketing, or social media.”
Martin pinched his pendulum to a stop. “You do realize the position you’re interviewing for is Brand Ambassador? It doesn’t get anymore social than that.” He wiped the Zen-garden down, making sure every grain was right where it belonged.
“You’ll learn that when it comes to emerging markets, none of us are as smart as all of us.”
Martin pointed to the group portrait on the wall. The staff stood in the parking lot with their arms outstretched, gnashing their teeth, lions eager to be fed. No one was smiling. No one was saying, “Cheese.” This was a warring army preparing to charge the enemy.
Stewart leaned forward to break Martin’s sightline. “You have too many initiatives competing with each other.”
“Life is a competition.” Martin blurt out.
Stewart nodded, as if that was a rational response. He took a deep breath. “The firm seems to think that if it throws a bunch of advertisements at the wall, some of them will stick. They need someone like me to offer users something worth seeking out. Someone who knows the difference between begging and branding, between panhandling and marketing, between crowdsourcing and true inspiration. It doesn’t take a village to represent a brand. It takes a delegate, someone to keep the message simple and consistent, someone to embody all the traits the customer is looking for.”
Standing, Martin wiped the last grains of Zen-garden from his hands. “I’ll be frank, you’re not it. I knew this before you even crossed my threshold. I feel like I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t tell you why.”
Martin circled to Stewart’s side of the desk.
He made a square with his fingers, a director framing a scene. “Your posture tells me you’re closed off. You look like a marionette laid to rest, legs crossed, arms over your chest. You have none of the bravado to back up your selling points.”
Uncrossing his ninety degree angles, Stewart stiffened up.
Martin nodded to himself, confirming his assumption. “I knew it the moment I felt your slimy handshake, with your ring finger shorter than your pointer, this isn’t the man I’m looking for.”
Scooping up the workout tool, Martin slipped his finger through the loop. He spun it like a gunslinger.
“From then on you kept confirming my instincts. Staring at the bridge of my nose to avoid eye contact. Not taking the coffee. Being easily distracted by the pendulum on the desk. You do realize that was a test, don’t you?”
Martin squeezed the hand grip, like he was ringing a neck.
“But really, I knew all this the moment I spotted your yellow tie. Yellow is the color of cowardice, of betrayal, sickness and disease. A man who wears a yellow tie to an interview doesn’t want the job. This makes me wonder why someone with no confidence is trying to sell me on his penchant for insubordination. You’re running some kind of unemployment scam, aren’t you? I ought to offer you a mailroom position just to fuck it up.”
Stewart bit his lip. His face went cold. The pendulum began swinging on it’s own, drawing a shape in the sand. Stewart squint. Guided by an invisible force, the pendulum traced a glyph; the hook of a question mark, the zigzag of lightning, and the three points of a pitchfork.
The certificates shook. Photographs slipped out of their frames and slid across the floor. Standing, Stewart stepped on Martin’s muck ridden portrait.
“I too would feel like I was doing you a disservice if I didn’t tell you something.” Stewart’s voice echoed through the building, a message delayed by a loudspeaker system.
His cowlick shot straight up, followed by the rest of his hair. The brown follicles turned bleach blonde. Smoke spiraled off the bangs. Stewart’s loafers grazed the carpet. Levitating off the ground, his posture corrected itself.
Rolling over his computer, Martin ducked for cover behind his desk. With the flick of the wrist, Stewart sent it through the wall. The screeching of its feet trailed off until it crashed. A sheet of dry wall collapsed into a pile of pebbles.
“Now it’s an open office.” Stewart’s voice boomed over the screams of panicked workers.
The Zen-garden came down in a heap. The hand grip tool spun end over end, landing in the dirt.
Martin hugged his rolling chair, a shipwrecked surviver with a floatation device. Making a pinching motion, Stewart plucked it free. Catching it, Martin rolled it back. Stewart found himself playing pantomime tug of war. Tugging the chair, he made Martin face plant into the Zen-garden. Whatever he’d slathered his skin in, gave every grain of sand a surface to stick to.
Stewart rose until his shoulder blades dug into the ceiling tiles. The chair rolled into his shadow. Coming in for a soft landing, Stewart took his seat, an emperor on his new throne.
Stewart crossed his legs, blowing the sand off the armrest. “Now that’s more like it.”
Pinching the air, Stewart pulled Martin up by his tie, forcing him into the modified cobra position.
Stewart glanced over his shoulder. “Of the four conference rooms on this floor, you’ve filled each of them. That’s half of your workforce passively listening, while the other half tries to pick up the slack.”
Through the window behind him, Stewart saw the facilitators poking their heads out, their smiles had flat lined, the pep had gone from their steps. Some of the staff stood frozen, while others ducked down, turning the spaces between the tables into foxholes.
Snapping his fingers, Stewart closed the blinds. “Punctual as I am, I had an opportunity to listen in on these meetings. Rather than tell your employees to respect the speaker, the facilitators asked for suggestions on how to do so. The meetings couldn’t start until the group stated the obvious: put your phones away, wait your turn, and stay on topic. The facilitators spoke the least. They drew out answers by asking questions. They confirmed nothing, offered no conclusions, and came to no ultimate ends.”
Twirling his finger, Stewart raised a tiny tornado from the remnants of the Zen-garden. He flung it at Martin.
“I actually knew Socrates, and there was a lot more to his method than that.” Stewart shook his head. “Whenever an employee realized the only way to get the ball rolling was to answer every question, the facilitator stopped calling on them, shutting out the very people who should be leading these meetings.”
The fluorescent lights flickered. Bulbs burst. Martin covered his head as glass rained down. Stewart cracked his neck. There was a flash of lightning, followed by a series of pops trailing off into the distance. The only lights that survived were in the exit signs.
Martin cupped his hands in prayer. “Oh Jesus, oh sweet baby Jesus on Santa’s lap, protect me.”
Stewarts eyes turned white. Sparks flowed from his gaze. His voice rattled the windows. “This company needs my omnipotence to look out for its interests. It needs me to sniff out the time thieves that schedule these meetings. You see, I eat waste. I devoir redundancy, and I am very hungry.”
Quivering, Martin tried not to look at the deity that had invaded his office. Stealing a glance, white streaks washed through his hair. Looking away, he saw the wheels rise off the floor. The rolling chair ascended.
Grains of sand took orbit around Stewart like rings around a planet. He sat in the lotus position. “Employees can only maintain social relationships with about one-hundred-and-fifty coworkers. This team has one-hundred too many. My belly growls just thinking about it. I’m here to pick the group-thinkers out of the herd, whether they’re grazing the carpet or standing watch from a corner office. I specialize in team dismantling.”
Martin groveled. “I didn’t mean to insult your tie, my lord, my-my master. Had you led with this level of confidence, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“But we are having it.” Stewart’s voice echoed from all sides. The rear window shattered.
Martin’s hands shook uncontrollably. His skin was awash with moonlight. Turning to the open window, he found a trinity of orbs floating in an unfamiliar sky.
Glowing neon yellow, the orbs pulsed with Stewart’s words. “With all the blood that passes through these teeth, I would never wear something so garish as a red power tie.”
Martin turned back to find Stewart’s tie had grown longer. With Stewart floating in the air, the tie hung down past his ankles. It stretched toward Martin, bobbing back and forth, a silk snake hypnotizing its prey.
Stewart’s big white eyes turned gold, “Yellow is the color of cowardice, and I’ve made you cower before me. Yellow is the color of sickness, and I am the plague that eats excess. Yellow is the color of treachery, and I am the knife that cuts the wheat from the chaff.”
Martin teetered back and forth, afraid that at any moment the tie might strike. “Please dark lord, spare your humble servant, and he shall make sounder assessments in the future.”
Raising his chin, Stewart sneered. “A worshiper once mispronounced my name whilst offering tribute. I squeezed his wrist until it burst.”
Extending his arm, the hand grip tool flew from the sand into Stewart’s palm. Working it around in his fingers, he reduced it into twinkling specks of dust.
“Do you really want to experience the full strength of my handshake?”
Martin shook his head. Tears streaked down his cheeks. Snot bubbled from his nose. Drool spilled from his lips.
The yellow tie coiled around Martin’s neck. Wedging his fingers beneath the silk, he couldn’t stop it from lifting him off the floor, up to Stewart’s eye level. The deity gripped the air. Invisible talons dug into Martin’s torso, offering slight relief to the strain on his neck. Stewart pulled him closer. The hiring manager and the applicant were face to face.
The whites of Stewart’s eyes filled with downward line graphs. “Your earning reports prophesied the fall of your profits, yet you continued to employ the same methods. You did the same things and expected different results. Lacking inspiration you tried to spark creativity through brainstorming.”
Martin struggled in his silk bonds. “But it’s a democratic process, we defer criticism, we welcome all ideas.” Martin kicked the air. “Quantity breeds quality.” He cried.
Stewart waved his finger, an animal tamer commanding his pet. The tie looped through Martin’s armpits, crisscrossing over his chest. Stewart would see him mummified for his mockery.
Stewart’s eyes filled with a pair of slides featuring a college campus. “In 1963 a group of research scientists, at the U of M, were asked to brainstorm, first together and then on their own. They produced better results when they were left to their own devices. They found that even in a welcoming environment, the fear of judgement persists. The outspoken dominated the conversation, while the soft spoken kept their ideas to themselves.”
Stewart blinked. His eyes filled with a landmass Martin didn’t recognize.
“I could’ve told them this. My followers in the Mediterranean tried to pool their resources to meet my blood sacrament quota. When they failed to deliver every last drop, I sunk their island to the bottom of the ocean.”
Martin’s face turned purple. His eyes bulged out. “You want blood?” He coughed. “The Red Cross is a client. They’re overflowing with donations. I can get you blood.”
Stewart’s irises returned long enough to allow him to roll his eyes. “I have been summoned by your overlords, called across distant shores, to make an example for your fellow employees. All of you hear me now.”
The building quaked. The staff cupped their ears. Blood trickled through their fingers.
Stewart addressed his flock, “I am the lord of layoffs. The father of phasing out. The demigod of downsizing. I make Anubis look merciful. I make Hades look like a humanitarian. I make Satan look sympathetic in comparison. There will be no bargains. There will be no mercy. I know all your sins. St. Peter doesn’t have shit on me.”
Stewart’s eyes filled with a set of scales. One rose, the other descended. “I find you guilty of tearing down the borders between cubicles, of running meaningless meetings, of over simplifying the Socratic method, of flooding your boardrooms with brainstorming sessions, of misreading micro expressions, of making assumptions based on the shape of an applicant’s hand.”
Pillars of lightning crashed around them, blasting holes through the marble tiles. Smoke shot through the gaps. Shrieks echoed through the building. The room shook as the floor fell out beneath them.
Stewart pressed his finger into Martin’s chest. “Indeed my pointer is longer than my ring finger, and it’s pointing at you now.”
Stewart breached the pinstripe coat. Martin’s flesh sizzled. Smoke billowed up his collar. His red power tie caught fire. His spray-on tan dripped down his cheeks. Hair product bled from his bangs. The yellow tie tightened around its prey. Cinders sparked through the gaps. Ash spilled from Martin’s cufflinks.
Stewart raised his eyebrow. “I deem thee unworthy.”
Unhinging his jaw, the applicant made a lasting impression on the hiring manager.
The rain came down in needles, then nails, then bullets. Droplets rose as others fell. The water churned with frothy green foam, the color of grass.
The storm drains were clogged with placemats and Styrofoam doggy bags. The parking lot had become a pool. Waves crashed against the cars. They splashed over the fenders, leaving leaves, like flyers, in the windshield wipers.
The owners of the vehicles in the shallow end might have been able to hydroplane their way out, to slip down the water slide of the highway, to glide to their destinations, so long as they were heading south. As for the rest of us, we’d need boat motors.
“We’re rained in.” I stated the obvious from my place between the blinds.
The front door swung open. The entryway filled up fast, setting the papers and travel maps afloat. The next door creaked against the water’s weight.
The welcome bell let out a piercing ring.
The door yawned open. A tidal wave brought the mat inside, followed by cigarette butts, and the stink of a dozen dead worms. The water ran over the checkered tiles. My pals had to lift their backpacks up into the booth.
The diner was flooded in an instant.
I splashed through the puddle until I found myself wading through it. My skinny jeans felt skinnier as I drudged on. I was up to my knees by the time I’d made it to the threshold. My thighs took the brunt of the second wave. The smell made me feel like I’d fallen into a toilet.
The diner was at one of the lowest points in the valley. Now all the sewage was converging on us.
My pockets were too small for my phone, which meant it was gargling water through its headphone jack.
“God damn it.” I said, damning Poseidon specifically, even if rainwater was outside of his jurisdiction. Poseidon responded by tilting the rain sideways, to pelt me in the face. My bangs trickled down my forehead and into my eyes.
Outside, the sign wobbled, a drunk in the wind. It bowed its head. Letters flew off it. They sliced through trees like throwing stars.
Leaves rained down from the roof, followed by the shingles, then the gutters. The gutters rolled across the sidewalk and into the maelstrom. They floated away.
Across the street, the cliff side eroded before my eyes. Fountains shot out of the gravel. It would be Swiss cheese by the end of the night, if it was anything at all.
A branch fell out of the sky and onto a big rig. It crushed the windshield and planted its roots into the hood.
I reached for the door. The handle swung away. I tried to press on but my pumps didn’t give me much traction.
Lightning struck a tree on the cliff above, reducing it to splinters. The pieces flew up into the air like confetti. Then they swirled around. I knew the makings of a funnel cloud when I saw one.
The grey mass grew quick. It looked like it was sucking down the moon. It moved over the cliff and descended into the valley.
I grabbed the door handle, clutching it if only to keep my footing. Another wave of rose to my waist, and I really liked that belt. I pushed the door, but it pushed back.
“Should we help her?” Caitlin said from the comfort of the booth.
Sam’s combat boots splashed into the water. His keys jangled from his wallet chain.
There was a digital click from the booth behind me. Jake must have been taking snapshots.
Sam said, “Dude, Teresa’s got this.”
It occurred to me that it was Jake who got up, and Sam who sat there taking photos. I’d reversed their roles in my head. When something’s in your blind spot, you only see what you want to.
I fished my pumps out of the water and cast them aside. The balls of my feet weren’t getting the job done. I had to put my heels into it. I grit my teeth. I pushed all my weight against the door. My tongue pressed the metal retainer between my lower mandible canines. I had to make every inch count. My biceps pulsed from the resistance. Downward facing dog had nothing on this.
The door gave. I shut it and flipped the padlock. Debris bumped against the glass. The entryway took on an aquarium quality. I caught my breath as a school of bottles floated by.
Applause echoed through the diner.
I spun around to give my mates a bow. “Did anyone see where my shoes went?”
Their phones flashed at me.
Caitlin turned hers sideways to align her shot. “The water ballerina in her natural habitat, so elegant, so graceful.”
I drudged toward the booth. “I need to see those before you post them.”
Sam set his phone on the table, “You’ll have plenty of time. I’m getting dick for reception down here.”
Jake slid back into the booth, “You get dick for everything.”
Sam shrugged his broad shoulders, “I’m easy to shop for.”
The diner’s lone waitress emerged from the janitor’s closet with a mop in hand. When she saw the extent of the flooding, she dropped it in. Then she fished a pack of cigarettes from her apron and lit one up. There was no one around to enforce the smoking ban. We were waterlogged. As far as we were concerned, this waitress was the law.
Jake said, “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em kids.” Then he lit one up.
We followed suit. Sam shook the creamers out of the bowl, revealing the ashtray it was always meant to be.
Sam lit a match, drove it into his thick lips, and puckered until his cigarette was lit. He exhaled out the side of his mouth, putting the flame out with the smoke. His cherry crackled as he sucked it in. Smoke shot out his nostrils. He said, “I take it we’re not gonna see those caves we came all this way for?”
I made a so-so gesture, “Not unless we’re snorkeling.”
Jake stood up on his seat. He held his phone toward the ceiling. “If one of us can get a signal, we can still find a spot to do some urban exploration.”
Caitlin adjusted her thick-rimmed vanity glasses, “We’d have to be someplace urban to do that.”
Jake raised his phone too high to see the bars. “Whatever, ‘rural exploration’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
Sam pointed his cigarette to the entryway. “We could go analog.”
I shook my head, “No can do. All the tourist maps were lost in the flood.”
Caitlin tugged Jake by the suspenders that hung from his waist. He fell back into the booth, a dog on a choke chain.
Jake found a pair of straw wrappers on the table. He folded one over the other until he had himself a paper spring. Then he unwrapped his silverware. We smoked in silence as he twisted his napkin into a stem. Then he wrapped it around the top of his thumb to create a flower. I was relieved when he left it on his side of the table.
Jake reached for my silverware, “So I take it we’re trapped here then?”
“Looks like.” Sam nodded; too cool to draw attention to the smoke ring he had blown.
Jake unrolled the napkin from my silverware and smoothed it out in front of him. He glanced up, “You know, there are so many Twilight Zone episodes that start out with a group of people trapped in diner just like this.”
Caitlin adjust her flat lenses, “You mean that show with Forrest Whitaker?”
Jake shot her an angry eyebrow, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.” He folded a corner of the napkin to form a triangle, then he tore away the rectangle beneath it. Jake shook his head, “You know, we’re going to run out of cigarettes, right?”
Everyone exchanged looks. The situation had gotten serious.
The waitress wrapped her nails against the table. Every vein showed through her skin. Her hair was tumbleweed that had settled on her head, a thinning bun dyed fire engine red.
Crow’s feet cut jowls through her cheeks. Skin dangled beneath her chin, like a turkey’s wattle. Her nose was crooked and white whiskers marked her muzzle.
She was a cautionary tale, a warning for anyone who stayed in this town too long.
Her cigarette peaked out her mouth, red with lipstick. “You kids want anything other than coffee tonight?”
We turned as a unit to exhale in her face.
She squinted as the smoke rippled through her hair. Then she exhaled right back at us. “Well, all right then.”
The waitress splashed away, with the water soaking into the panty hose at her ankles. She climbed a stool and sat cross-legged on the bar. She fished the pack from her apron, and lit a fresh cigarette with the butt of the last one.
I followed suit. One smoker’s bad habits have a way of justifying another’s. Triggers are contagious. It’s kind of like yawning. One person does it and those of us with an empathetic eye do it too. I wasn’t addicted. I was emotionally in tune with our waitress’s feelings.
Sam ran his hand down his five o’clock shadow, “What was her name again?”
I shrugged, “The hell if I know.”
Lightning flashed. Thunder boomed. It rattled the windows. Jake bent the neck of his origami swan. Sam shuddered. The cherry broke off his cigarette and rolled across the table. Caitlin raised her glass to stomp it out. Sam grinned. He gave her that big dimpled smile of his, flashing both rows of teeth. Oh how it reminded me of Ewan McGregor.
Caitlin returned the smile in kind. They held eye contact until she blushed and looked away. She found me staring. I shifted my gaze.
Thunder struck. It kicked up the bass like a subwoofer in the sky. I fell out of the booth and into the water. It soaked through my tank top and half of my bra. Now I was lopsided.
I scrambled to find my footing, only to fall back to the floor. My bare feet didn’t give me much in the way of traction. I braced myself, expecting to feel a hand on my shoulder, a good strong grip to help me find my balance. It never came.
I turned to find Caitlin lighting Sam’s cigarette.
Lightning flashed. Thunder boomed, and Caitlin’s spark was the only light left in the room.
I fished my phone out of my pocket, only to find it wouldn’t turn on. Water dripped out of the charging port. There was a back-up in a cloud somewhere, but this cloud, the one bearing down on us, just took my phone out.
My friends held their screens up high.
Jake saw me there, wallowing. “Whoa, do you want a hand?
I did, just not his.
Jake squint, “What?”
I wrenched myself up, pressing my phone into the tile, drowning it even further. “What, what?”
Jake’s eyes shift back and forth as he tried to process something. He leaned forward, “I thought you said something.”
I said, “Okay,” drawing out the ‘Y’ with an upward inflection. It was Jake’s turn to feel awkward. I’d done my time for the evening.
The table dimmed before me. Sam and Caitlin had shifted their phones to light each other’s faces.
“Are you all right?” Sam asked her, oblivious to the hot mess sitting right beside him.
Caitlin’s head was frozen in the middle of a nod. Her eyes never strayed from contact.
You know when you choose not to recognize a pattern until it becomes a whole?
“No, I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” Jake said to no one in particular.
I glanced up to find he was talking to me. I pointed to my mouth, “Were my lips moving?”
Jake shook his head. He tongued his molars like he was trying to get a popcorn kernel out. He looked over his shoulder. He shined his phone into the empty booth behind us. Then he stood back up on the seat. He shined his light on the ceiling. “Do you think the speakers for the jukebox are on a different circuit than the lights?”
Sam chuckled, “You think the circuit flipped at the same time the lighting struck? That’s a hell of a coincidence. No dude, the line is down.”
Jake scanned the bar with his phone, the waitress sat frozen like a cat in the dark. The truckers were scattered throughout the booths. They whispered. Then Jake cast his light on me.
He tilt his ear up to the speakers, “I wouldn’t rule out the circuit, just yet. I know I heard something.”
I lift my glass to my lips, “Let’s see if I can throw my voice while I drink this water.”
Jake shook his head as he sat back down, “It did sound like you. It was little raspier and a lot more confident.”
Sam shift his gaze from Caitlin, “You think it could’ve been the wind?”
Jake looked to the entryway, bolted and buried under water. He gave that a nervous laugh, “What wind?”
Caitlin smirked with confusion in her eyes, “What did this voice say? Did it tell you to do anything we should know about? You’re not about to flash us, are you?”
Jake gave that a diagonal nod, neither confirming nor denying.
Caitlin rested her hands on the table, a blackjack dealer who’s laid out all her cards. Sam mirrored her from across the booth. He raised an eyebrow toward Jake, still listening for that phantom jukebox. Caitlin sneered back. They were already speaking in code.
Jake slid back into the booth, “It said something about pattern recognition.”
Sam’s interest peaked, “So the voice is talking about complex cognitive stimuli? Do you think it’s a podcast, maybe a lecture on neurobiology?”
Sam couldn’t resist the urge to pile on the jargon. He whipped out his knowledge of pop psychology whenever he could. I’m surprised he didn’t name drop Malcolm Gladwell while he was at it.
Jake peered over my shoulder, “There it is again.”
Something has wiped the grin off of Sam’s face. He nodded, “I heard it that time. It faded in and out really quickly, but I heard it.”
I looked around the room. Some of the truckers took the outage as their cue to fall asleep at their tables. This sort of thing was old hat to them. Others leered at us. They knew we were up past our bedtime.
Their eyes hid beneath the shadow of their brows. I couldn’t tell if they were lonely or hungry.
Apart from Caitlin, our waitress, and myself, there wasn’t another woman in the room.
I said, “Do you think the voice might have come from one of their cell phones?”
Sam shrugged. Anything was possible.
Caitlin leaned forward, closing the gap between Sam and herself. She whispered, “It said something about Malcolm Gladwell. Did you hear it?”
Sam nodded. He believed her all right. I imagined this would be the first of many agreements between them.
Jake shot up, “‘The first of many agreements between them.’ Did you hear that?”
It felt like a foot had walked on my grave, then dropped a cigarette, and stomped the cherry out. I didn’t know what was going on, but it was driving Jake battier than usual. Worse still, it was driving Sam and Caitlin into each other’s arms.
That’s when I heard it too. A voice, much like my own said, “Into each other’s arms.”
I went white.
Thunder struck. A branch slammed against the window. The blinds shot up revealing a dozen spider web cracks in the glass. The window held, but it was clear that the branch’s trajectory was directed right at us.
I shook myself out of thought, “We should switch booths.”
Jake stepped out into the water. He nodded, “Yeah, reality is broken in this one.”
Jake had no idea how right he was. He froze in place. The water settled around his ankles. He turned to me. I was about to ask what it was but he shushed me. He cupped his hand over his ear, signaling the group to shut up and listen. He motioned for everyone to sit back down. I pointed toward the window, toward the branch that had nearly crushed us. He shook his head and motioned for us to sit.
Jake drudged through the water on his way to the bar. He looked over his shoulder to make sure that we were following the plot. He lift himself up onto a stool, then stepped onto the counter top. Spinning around to face us, he unbuckled his belt and pulled it through the notches, slowly.
The waitress smoked her cigarette, oblivious.
Sam whispered, “I think he’s going to go the full Monty.”
Caitlin and I turned to shush him. We turned back to find Jake had indeed dropped trou. His boxer-briefs had red stripes and a jolly roger printed on the thigh. The lines made his bulge all the more obvious. He paced the bar with his pants at his ankles. Of course, his gaze was fixed on me the entire time.
Jake froze. He looked up at the ceiling, or through the ceiling, up toward God. He pulled his pants back up, “You all heard it say, ‘He paced the bar with his pants at his ankles. His gaze was fixed on me the entire time.’ You heard that right?”
We nodded. We had.
Jake sat on the bar, his fly hung open. He bit his thumb and scanned the room, to hide the fact that he was zipping his pants. Jake said, “I don’t know about you guys, but I think we’re being narrated.”
Caitlin held her phone to the ceiling, scanning the edges with her light. “You think this might be some kind of reality show?”
Sam raised his phone to join in the hunt for the hidden camera. He said, “It could be like that show on Sci-Fi where they trick people into thinking they’re seeing something paranormal?”
Jake shook his head, “That show got cancelled.” He put his hand behind his back. I had no idea what he was up to. When his hand came back out he was holding two fingers up, then he spun them around to give me the two-finger salute.
“Then he spun them around to give me the two-finger salute.” Jake repeated. He pointed to me, “If it was third person omniscient. The voice might have seen the number I held behind my back. It didn’t. That’s because Teresa is narrating, from the future. That voice we all hear, that’s what she’s going to sound like after a few decades of smoking.”
Jake had gone from putting out a cigarette on my grave to moonwalking across it.
“Moonwalking across it.” Jake repeated, “What does that even mean?”
I held my hands up. I wasn’t dropping any weapons. Jake didn’t have any trained on me, but it felt like the right thing to do.
I said, “I have no idea what’s going on here, but I want it to stop.” But it wouldn’t stop.
Jake bit his lip, tried to shake the taste out of his mouth. He shook his finger at me. He said, “There, you just changed tenses. You said that you want it to stop. Then you said it wouldn’t stop.”
I raised my hands higher, “I just said that I wanted it to stop.”
Jake kicked off the counter and leapt into the water. His Carhartts would rest extra heavy on his waist tonight. He might actually need those suspenders. Jake raised a contemplative finger, “You said you want it to stop, in the present tense. Then your voice said, that it wouldn’t stop. What does that tell you?”
Sam put his hand on my shoulder. He said, “That she doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Jake reeled his finger around an imaginary fishing line, “But, but…”
Caitlin put her hand on my other shoulder, “The version of her that’s narrating does.”
Jake snapped his fingers, “She’s foreshadowing.”
It only took me a moment to catch up. My head was thick, but I caught on quick. “You know, I heard that.” I said to myself in the future.
The blinds shuddered. The wind spread the webbing through the glass. The window creaked. It bent inward. The shards were reaching out for us. Soon the window would burst and the storm would be inside the room.
I observed this with a cautious wait and see attitude, but something about hearing my concerns aloud gave me a certainty that they would come true.
I stepped out of the booth and into the water. It had gotten much colder as the night progressed. I shivered. My teeth chattered. The room went silent. Everyone was listening for the sound of my teeth.
I turned to find Caitlin shining her phone in my face. She was gratified to see that my description was accurate.
Caitlin shined her phone under her chin, “You don’t know that I’m gratified. I might just be concerned for your wellbeing. Did you ever think of that?”
I pointed to her phone with my index finger, then behind me with my thumb. She didn’t get the gesture, until she heard it narrated.
She lit my way down the aisle. I felt for coat hooks until I came to a booth in the far back. It was no storm cellar, but it would have to do.
I signaled for Caitlin to follow. She didn’t see the gesture, but she came once she heard it narrated. Either she really needed those glasses or she was an auditory learner. Sam followed close behind her. He slid into the same side of the booth, resuming his assigned seat. He looked to it, having heard it described, then grimaced at me.
I slid into the booth. “What if, this narration of mine isn’t the problem? What if it’s the solution to some greater problem? Did anyone bother to think of that?”
Jake tried to follow the ripples we left. There was a leak in the ceiling. Rain drops trickled in front of him. Our trail was wiped clean. He tried to listen for us, but all he heard was the sound of the Narrator narrating his attempt to listen.
Jake called out, “So your voice over is gonna tell us whether we should find shelter, or seek higher ground, right?
I called back, “Maybe. Maybe it’s telling us to hold tight.”
Sam tapped my head like it was a broken hard drive, “Maybe we can trick it into foreshadowing something useful.”
Little did he know, that with that gesture, I lost much of the affection I’d been holding out for him. His cool exterior was frozen through. There was an iceberg where his shoulder ought to be. If the narration was here to save any of us, he was the least of my priorities. If the room was about to flood, Sam better know how to swim, because I wasn’t dragging his ass out of the water. If he got struck by lightning, someone else better know CPR, because I wasn’t going anywhere near those lips. If Sam were impaled by falling debris, I’d be the first to say, “He’s done for.”
I covered my mouth, though I hadn’t spoken.
Caitlin scowled behind her flat lenses. Her mouth hung open like a nutcracker. She shut it the moment she heard it described like that.
Jake took his time sliding into the booth. He looked to Sam, to Caitlin, then to me. He tried to gage our reactions to the Narrator’s off the cuff remarks. There was no way he could do this without drawing attention to himself. He nodded at the Narrator’s observation.
Jake said, “You know if you close your eyes, it might just stop.”
I did. Caitlin sighed. Not a sigh of relief, but of annoyance. Sam joined in. They’d gone from mirroring, to echoing one another. Soon they’d be on the same cycle.
Jake slapped the table, “Okay, never mind. That’s not going to work.”
I opened my eyes. Sam showed me the shaved side of his head. He stared at the paneling. He didn’t want me describing his impossibly turquoise eyes, the way they seemed to glow in the dark. He didn’t want me noting his jet black pompadour, or his perfectly even sideburns, with the specs of silver already coming in. The last thing he needed was for someone to describe his lips, how they seemed to stay moist, even when they were chapped.
He raised his hand to cover his face, but it was no use. I had committed it to memory. Still, he couldn’t have me reading his expression, sussing out meaning, and bending it to suit my narrative. The more he resist the more he lived into the Narrator’s portrayal. He was a boy in a man costume, one that fit less and less as the night wore on.
Whoever Sam really was, he was not the man I’d fantasized about spending the rest of–
“Shut up!” I cried, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”
Sam winced. He scooted in until his hip hit the paneling. I touched his forearm. He shook it free.
He showed me his teeth. There were no dimples in this expression, just creases in his nose that I’d never seen before. He rolled his eyes at the Narrator’s description. Then he shook his head when it said he rolled his eyes. He scratched his nails into the table, looked up, and checked an imaginary watch, waiting for the Narrator to give him a moment to think.
Sam took a deep breath, exhaled, “Teresa, we’re hearing this because you thought, or will think, to write it down. So whatever excuse you’re about to give, you clearly don’t mean it.”
I gave one anyway. I said, “Sam, you’ve known me for a while, enough to know that whatever resentment I feel tonight will pass. The Narrator is being recklessly cruel for dramatic effect. That’s all. Conflict is the heart of drama. It’s stirring things up to keep the plot moving, but me right here, right now,” I pointed to the ceiling, “I don’t mean any of this shit.”
It was a bold faced lie, and they all knew it, or at least they did once they heard this narration say it aloud.
“God damn it!” Jake slammed his palms against the table. The silverware shook. He balled his fingers into fists, “The Narrator just acknowledged what it is and what it’s doing, in the past and the present tense. Soon it won’t even need to talk to us. It’ll just feed back onto itself.”
The thought had occurred to me. Then I heard myself acknowledge that it had. Then I heard myself acknowledge that it had acknowledged that it had. Then–
Jake leaned over the table to grab me by the shoulders. He shook me. “Stop thinking!” The boy spat when he spoke. He wiped his mouth upon hearing that he did. He shift his eyes back and forth from the ceiling to me, “If you don’t stop this, I swear to God, I’m going to throw you through the forth wall myself.”
Something in Jake’s tone confirmed my first impression of him. I could always spot the confrontational ones. The ones who would corner you and say, “What are you thinking? What do you mean by that? When are you going to know how you feel?”
I knew some girls who’d had classes with Jake. They said he was funny, mostly harmless, but deep down I knew that he was attracted to me. That he would try to bury it only to have it flair up from time to time.
He knew the chemistry wasn’t there, but lauded on the compliments all the same, hoping he might find the right formula. I took them, if only to let those awkward moments pass, but I never returned them. That would have been an invitation. Ours was a one-way relationship. Jake had all this love and I had no place to put it. He stockpiled it until it turned to resentment.
Now he was sitting on a powder keg that could go off at any–
“Shut up!” Jake and I shouted in unison.
It figures the keg had to go off on the last night I saw him alive. Behind every self declared ‘nice-guy’ was an asshole waiting to shit on everything.
Jake shot up, “Wait, what?” He stepped out of the booth, made the sign of the cross with his fingers and backed into the water.
I put my hands back up, “I didn’t mean to call you an asshole.”
Jake’s hands strangled an invisible neck. “I’m a tad bit more concerned about the part where you know how I’m going to die?”
Shaking my head, I put my hand over my heart, “I don’t. Future tense me seems to have an inkling.” I tilt my head to the ceiling, “Care to give us some clarity on that, oh vague one?”
The Narrator wasn’t there to serve us. As far as it was concerned all this had happened already. It was no help at all.
“No shit?” I said to the Narrator.
I snatched Sam’s silverware roll and chucked it at the ceiling. It hit the fan and burst open. The utensils rained down on Jake. He stumbled back, terrified by the glint of a butter knife.
I ran my hand down my face, “Why did you say, ‘I said?’ We all know that I’m the one who’s talking, or are we not your target demo here?”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Goosebumps ran down my forearms. You know when you realize the truth of a statement halfway through saying it.
Wind blew through my hair. The kitchen door creaked open. The restrooms unlatched. I looked to the window. By now, it was nothing but a wall of shards, but it was still there. I looked to the entryway. The water had risen, but the padlock held firm.
A breeze blew through my bangs. I turned, not toward an emergency exit, but to the darkest corner of the diner. There were walls there when we walked in. It felt like they had collapsed, like the room had decompressed. The storm hadn’t pierced our fortress, but something else had.
There was movement in the water. Not in the water itself, but in its surface. I leaned out of the booth to look at my reflection. The silhouette mirrored my movements. My head neared the water, but those weren’t my eyes staring back at me.
They were yours.
You squint as if you were rereading a sentence, as if you were having your own private epiphany. Maybe you were just mirroring my eyes. With enough empathy, even yawns are contagious.
A match sparked behind me. I blinked and you were gone. I sensed your eyes, but I couldn’t see you anymore.
Sam lit another cigarette, exhaled from his mouth, and inhaled through his nostrils. He was about to recirculate that smoke when he realized everyone was watching him do it. He shift the smoke out the side of his mouth and blew it into my face. I could still see that stained yellow smile with my eyes closed. With his pack a day habit, I couldn’t help but wonder what his tongue tasted like.
Then I realized he’d never give me the chance to find out.
Oh, how I had hoped that thought would pass by unmarked. It didn’t, and I couldn’t help but blush. The group’s attention shifted back to me. I had turned beat red.
Sam exchanged dirty looks with Caitlin.
Jake held his phone to my face, “You know, that wasn’t a hyperbole, you’re actually turning red.”
Tears swelled in my eyes. “I’m aware of that thank you.” I tried to sneak a sniffle, but the Narrator called me out. I flat out snorted. I figured in for penny in for a pound right? Whatever it took to distract Jake from his imminent death.
Jake backed further away from the booth. He shook his phone at me, “You’re a witch. You know that? A full on broomstick riding, purple monkey taming, witch.”
He was afraid, so I let his tirade go unmarked, mostly unmarked. If he only knew how close the grim reaper really was.
Sam elbowed the back of the booth. He cupped his hands over his mouth, “Quit foreshadowing, and just put out already.”
Put out already? There was a phrase I didn’t think was even in Sam’s vocabulary. He struck me as the type of guy that always walked a path that led straight to sex. Never figured he’d say something like that when he got stuck at a toll booth. With my heart-shaped glasses broken, I was starting to see him for the sleaze ball he really was.
I nodded to the ceiling. We were finally seeing eye to eye.
Caitlin set her vanity glasses on the table. She crossed her arms, “Put out’ is a really poor choice of words.” The girl wasn’t the ditz my damaged ego wanted her to be.
Caitlin gave the Narrator’s observation a sideways nod. It had paid her a backhanded compliment, but a compliment all the same.
Jake slapped his palm to his forehead. Then he looked up, “It’s called a ‘face palm’ you condescending bitch.”
I couldn’t fault Jake his anger, given his imminent execution.
“Well, that’s nice.” Jake put his hands on his waist in a power stance that didn’t suit him. Then he dropped them, hoping no one would notice. He said, “Just tell me how I’m going to die already.”
I sighed, “I don’t think it works that way. We can receive messages, but I don’t think we can send them back.”
Jake bit his lip. “You just have to remember to tell me from the future.”
I wanted to, but somehow I knew that wouldn’t work. The story had already cashed in all of its exposition explaining itself to us, to you. It couldn’t afford to give away anymore. The events would have to play out on their own.
Jake threw his hands up, “Really?” He kicked the water, “You know, if this was my story I’d tell it very differently.” He pointed his finger. “I’d say Teresa chose to be single, just to mock her suitors with her own loneliness. She used the halves of her broken heart to smash everyone else’s to bits. She didn’t need to know that we had our own needs, because we were just guests at her pity party.”
Jake waved his arms. He spun around and knocked the register over. It dragged the receipt printer down with it. Power cords straightened across the countertop. The till splashed into the water. The monitor and the printer dangled over the side. Then the power strip leapt up onto the counter and everything went for a dip.
Our waitress didn’t so much as bat an eyelash. The crossword section lay out in front of her. She chewed on a pen as she mouthed something from the question key, oblivious to the narration and us.
Jake kicked water up at me. He looked like he wanted to–
“Show don’t tell!” Jake shouted at the ceiling. Then he pointed to the truckers asleep in the dark. “If this was my story I’d use everybody in the room. We haven’t heard all that much from those highway hillbillies. They ought to have something to say about all this.”
They were sound asleep. Whatever refuge he sought in them had only made them drowsy. There was only the Narrator and his fate.
Jake’s shoulders sunk. He exhaled. He knelt down into the water, closed his eyes in a silent prayer. He was acting out the seven stages of grief and was coming up on the last one.
Jake winced at the ceiling, “That might be a good line, but I’m not accepting shit,” He looked to me, “and neither should you.”
Jake chuckled to himself, rubbed his eyes and sniffled. He said, “If this was my story and you were the one on death’s door, I’d have told you how much you mattered to me. When I first met you, I just wanted to get into your pants. That much was true. When that didn’t happen, I wanted to walk away, but I couldn’t. Something told me that my life would be better with you in it, that, expectations aside, I’d be better for having known you.”
There was no use holding the tears back. The Narrator would just tattle on me anyway.
Jake sighed. He’d said his piece. Now he was making peace with it. He smirked, “When you’re the version of yourself that’s narrating this shit. Tell her to give me a fucking break.”
As far as last words went, that was as good as Jake was going to do.
I shot up and shouted, “Get up on the counter. Right now!”
Jake sprung to his feet, drudged through the water and scurried up onto a stool. Sam and Caitlin jumped up onto the booth.
The exit signs buzzed to life, then the lights flickered back on. Sparks shot from the power strip on the counter. The monitor for the register lit up. There was a flash of lightning beneath the water. It continued to strobe as an electric current ran through the room.
“Will you look at that.” The waitress glanced up from her crossword.
The truckers convulsed in their seats as the water shocked their ankles.
Jake rolled up onto the counter, “The hell?”
I yelled, “Kick the power strip!”
Jake kicked the plug for the printer free, but only bent the one for the monitor.
The truckers went stiff as every muscle in their bodies tensed up. Their arms straightened and their knees locked. They stood.
Jake gave the strip another good thwack and the second plug ripped free.
The truckers fell forward. They face planted into their hash browns. Smoke rose off their beards. They were out, but they were breathing.
Jake fell flat on the countertop. He let out a long breath. The ceiling fan spun back to life. There was a pop over the speakers. It was followed by the opening piano melody for Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”
Jake cackled at the jukebox, “A little on the nose, don’t you think?”
He dug into his pocket fishing out a pack of American Spirits. When he flipped it open a brown sludge spilled out. He tossed it over the side. A hand set a cigarette in his mouth. He looked up to find the waitress with her lighter at the ready.
She winked, “Your coffee’s on me tonight, Hun.” Then she pointed our way, “Not theirs’ though. I didn’t much care for how your friend there described me.” She leered in my direction, “What did you call me: cautionary tale, a warning for anyone who stayed in this town too long? Words sting dear. They really do.”
Jake raised his eyebrow, “So you could hear all that?”
The waitress shrugged as she lit herself a cigarette for herself.
Jake cocked his head to the side, “And it didn’t faze you at all?”
The waitress waved the smoke out of her eyes, “Listen dear, when you’ve lived in Pilgrim Valley this long nothing like that phases you.”
“No shit?” Jake sat up. His feet dangled over the counter. He looked to the ceiling then to me, “What happened to our omniscient friend?”
I looked around, knowing there was nothing to see. I said, “I think she skulked off when her prediction didn’t come true. It was her turn to feel embarrassed.”
Jake ashed into the floodwater, “I can’t say that I’ll miss her. No offense.”
I shook my head, “None taken.”
Caitlin slid her phone back into her pocket. She tapped me on the shoulder, “How did you know?”
I nodded to the register submerged under water, “Jake was right. It wasn’t the storm that downed the power. It was the circuit breaker. Looks like one of our trucker friends thought to flip it back on.”
Sam breathed a sigh of relief. I turned to see him in the light. His face wasn’t as perfectly symmetrical as I had remembered. His eyes weren’t as blue. His dimples weren’t as deep. His jaw wasn’t as square, his cheeks weren’t as gaunt, and his lips weren’t nearly as soft. He was just a boy with his haircut like Elvis. That was all.
Sam smirked, it looked less like a cocksure grin than a facial tick, “Listen, I’m not sure what happened just now, but it wasn’t your fault. What I’m trying to say is, I know you didn’t mean any that nasty shit she said about me. That was just drama for drama’s sake, like you said.”
I bit my cheek, “Actually, I’m pretty sure I meant every word of it.”
Sam gave me a puzzled look. He’d extended an olive branch and I lit it on fire. I had a hunch this wouldn’t be the last time he’d gave me that look. My thoughts were back in my head again, and there was a lot about them he would never get.
Jake laughed to himself.
I turned around, “What’s so funny?”
Jake waved his cigarette through the air, “You’re still gonna have to write all this shit down. You’re still going to have to trick me into thinking that I’m going to die.”
He scanned his brow, “Or that I was going to die, I’m not sure what the right tense is. Anyway, the point is you have to tell the story, exactly like she did, or else you in the past won’t see the power cords in the water.”
Caitlin put her glasses back on. “So we figured out the why, but I’m still foggy about the how.”
Jake gave that an open palm shrug, “What do you mean how? I thought we’d already established it was witches.”
It occurred to me that the how was in the diner with us, watching me ring my shirt out. The lights hadn’t scared it away. It hovered over us like a camera on a dolly. My friends couldn’t hear the Narrator anymore, but it could. You could. You still can. You heard the Narrator before we ever did. You saw us in the diner and you relayed its messages. My messages.
Jake was right. Not about the witches, but about what I had to do. Situations like this didn’t resolve themselves on their own. The Narrator couldn’t just speak up when the time was right. You wouldn’t let her. She had to trick us. She had to air my dirty laundry to get my attention, to get your attention too. She had to plant herself into the narrative, or else her intervention would sound contrived.
Deus ex machina’s don’t just come out of the sky. Someone has to put them there.
My job was to get her words into your imagination, to borrow your mind to tell our story, to save my friend. I’m sorry if that makes you feel used, but it was for a good cause. Just think, there’s a reality where you’re a hero.
You can even see it, when the light hits the water just right.