We at ShiftersPress Collective are very excited about the upcoming release of our latest work: Read This Quickly (Or We All Die). We are so excited, in fact, that we couldn’t quite wait until the book is out and just had to share a bit of it with you. Enjoy the first chapter!
RTQ Chapter One:
My most professional apologies. The story you were expecting to read cannot be found in this book. Plot, characters, and syntax have all escaped via an inter-dimensional portal and have now become hopelessly tangled with reality (that, and we got blood all over the cover). Your only choice is to accept the good with the bad, taking the heroes with the villains. If you choose to shut this book and place it back on the shelf, simply pray that they do not find you.
We never meant to wreck the universe. Of course, nobody ever does. If you must blame someone, the vast majority of the fault lies with fantasy novelist Reese Richardson. She was the one, after all, who dreamed up the means for the creative world to suddenly flood over into this perfectly proper existence we call the twenty-first century. Thanks to her efforts, the villains are now running about, wreaking havoc in the streets and causing nearly as much damage as the protagonists.
Once more it is up to average people like you and me to don our grown up underwear and do what needs to be done—the very difficult task that nobody seems to want to do: wade laboriously through the uninspired writings of Reese Richardson and face down her poorly developed characters. It’s that or flee to an exotic beach somewhere and await the coming onslaught of terror with a drink in one hand and a sappy romance novel in the other. Your choice really.
Best of luck,
Chapter 1: Refutability
The letter glowered at Reese from the desktop across the room. She had set it there noncommittally, hoping to forget all about it in ten minutes or so. That was nine minutes ago and by now the doubt was so well burned into the back of her mind that she fancied the single and seemingly innocuous page, innocently double folded, was giving her a seriously cold stare.
After twelve minutes and twenty-three seconds, there could be no uncertainty. Reese slammed the laptop shut with a clack of ominous finality, pushed aside her empty teacup, and with her head in her hands, leaned over her computer and moaned four doom-laden words: “I’m a terrible writer.” The time was 9:57 AM.
Seventeen minutes later (three of which were unnecessarily wasted by a talkative elderly man intent on speaking to Reese about such common and mundane things as chest pain and shortness of breath—Reese had no time for these sorts of banalities), Reese Richardson stood before a café of the type that seems to endlessly attract every variety of creative riffraff. These hoi polloi sat here and there, notebooks, cassette tape players, and chunky laptops (large enough to have the stopping power of a brick if thrown adequately) cast astrew among the empty coffee cups. Every four-seat table was taken over by a single occupant set among copious cups, saucers, plates, and crumpled napkins. The appearance of each, the clothing, the hairstyles, suggested that there was some competition on for “most original looking person”. While they all looked perfectly engaged and occupied in their self-imposed creative enterprise, there was one thing Reese was certain they were not: productive. To Reese they were simply the flux that burned off as truly inspired minds were forged and shaped in the gritty fires of University Liberal Arts classes.
The man she had come to meet was already waiting for her. He sat at one of the booths near the back of the café, his chubby fingers closing about a massive sandwich. The man was wearing a dark suit, likely tailored to his unique form and not quite as pressed as it could have been. The blinds at his left partitioned his hairless face into a chimerical tiger skin. Two eyes, not fierce or keen or at all tiger-like, glanced up anticipatively.
“Gwemming unff Ffoffiber wiff habba wokk,” he said in his native language, which was currently Italiano (with the addition of a very strong deli mustard). Around breakfast this man could also speak excellent Danish. The sandwich frustrating his every attempt at communication, the well-upholstered man waited a moment. Eventually, he swallowed.
“Remmling and Shobisher said they will have a look,” he managed, finding that he had already taken a wearisomely long break from his task of obliterating his delicious comestible opponent. He was occupied then, for some moments, as Reese sat down.
“Thank you for waiting, Earl,” Reese cooed icily, ordering a cold coffee and an omelet—likely to be as cold as her coffee. The silence lasted until Earl had done away with any traces of his late culinary nemesis. If Reese were to be honest, it was not a fair duel in the least. Reese, who had known Earl for two years, cringed 0.7 seconds in anticipation before Earl commenced to licking his fingers. One, two…
“You have nothing to worry about, Reese.” Three, four. “These people don’t know what to look for. It will just take a bit longer than I thought.” Five, six… Reese preemptively handed him a napkin.
Reese had thought the story a brilliant concept at first—something new and not at all to be compared with the infamous and shoddy writings of Gwendolyn Fairweather’s Clash of a Thousand Days—an obviously hastily penned story of half-blood fairies who went around poisoning people.
The clock struck 10:32. At that moment, the open document on Reese’ laptop, which was docilely sleeping where she left it in her apartment, had been in existence for exactly 3, 708 hours. This meant that after passing from the “what a great idea!” stage lasting for the first fifteen minutes of conception, the words she had written had already aged through the “I don’t know…” phase of being (which occurs at 1, 250 hours), and exactly then was entering the “perhaps this wasn’t the best story I’ve ever written” stage. The second hand moved once, the laptop binging to life briefly before resuming its slumber, timed precisely by the little breathing light on the front of it.
“Perhaps this wasn’t the best story I’ve ever written,” admitted Reese, looking at the small mustard-flavoured stain on the until-then pristine manuscript next to Earl’s napkin. Reese wondered if Earl could consciously differentiate the two. The stain was quickly transferred to a sticky thumb and scrupulously licked up. “What do you think, Earl?”
“If you really want to know…” The economy-sized man paused. His attention was arrested by a seductive tray of cheesecake passing by. Reese waited expectantly. “Theodore is the one to tell you that,” Earl finished.
Reese sighed. But at the very least she could respect an agent whose only real talent was for, well, agenting.
Theodore Charles Adamson parked the entirely average, fuel efficient vehicle. Completely unadorned, fifteen-inch alloy rims scraped the curb, the wheel filing the newly-acquired markings carefully with its vast collection of scratches. To say the car appeared weathered would be on par with calling the Taj Mahal a quaint little get-away. The weathering of that particular mechanized carriage included rain, snow, sleet, desert-scorching sun, and possibly a smoldering bolt or two of lightening. The vehicle had given up any hope of ever being cleaned or maintained, and had cooperatively hunkered down to run reliably for the rest of its misunderstood and abused life span.
Two children screamed in the back seat, squeezing their juice boxes (meant to keep them busy but failing miserably in their appointed task) and spilling apple juice onto the too-cheap-to-be-real-leather seats. Theodore, or “Charles,” as he went by, cleaned his glasses methodically. This action was actually a studied bid at maintaining his sanity, his mind occupied for exactly 17 seconds with imaginings of warm beaches, cool drinks, and the sounds of waves, harkened from his relaxation tape. Theodore, or “Charles,” did everything methodically. According to family legend, Charles had also been rumoured to sort, compile, compartmentalize, and then consume his breakfast cereal by colour.
Charles then attempted to explain the reason for their trip to the most irrational and unthinking variant of creatures found on earth: a four year-old daughter and a five year-old son. Wild monkeys and tigers watched Charles from behind the eyes of the two small, energetic children.
“You get to stay with your aunt!” piped Charles. “It will be great!” was his attempt at convincing them. What he meant was: it will be great for me, having a quiet house all to myself for two whole days before I actually leave for my Grammatical Forms and Articulation workshop. But 4.243 years was enough for Izzy to know what daddy was really thinking at all times. His strategy immediately backfired when Izzy murmured her favourite two words, “Why, daddy?” in the most doleful of tones.
Charles said nothing further, whether by choice or simply making a wise decision to regroup his scattered forces at a less defended point. Intellect had failed in a battle of wits with two small children. Charles would now have to resort to the sheer size of his adult form to heave them out of the car, and his authoritative voice to convince himself that he was truly still in charge. Charles had heard once that a successful war campaign was grounded in deception; indeed Charles was already nine-tenths deceived that it was he who truly ran the show.
“You two will have a lot of fun, colouring and painting. Auntie is very artistic and always gives you a culturally well-rounded experience. Did you know she has a door she painted all on her own?”
Five year-old Benton paused. He wasn’t sure what a culturally well-rounded was, but he was very certain he did not need one. Izzy seemed to agree as the rest of the apple juice found Theodore’s entirely tawdry (but no longer tasteless) buttoned shirt. Charles sighed, as he often did. For you see, Charles was not a man or a father, merely a large sentient calculator that found itself one day in possession of arms, legs, and two children. He tried to push aside thoughts such as INVALID QUOTIENT, or SYN. ERROR that seemed to occur so often around his children.
Instead, Charles contented himself with the reminder that at least his job made sense. Charles had gotten into editing as a means to pay the bills and feed a family, and he found the work quite linear and manageable. Stories, characters, and the indomitable magic of narrative were entirely lost on the man. He simply rearranged words, punc-ed uations, and pressed the little button that put numbers on every bottom corner. His latest project was a novel by moderately well-known fantasy author, Stella Cadenza. He did not mind that he had read the same book five times in the past month, for Charles had an objective way of picking apart sentences that allowed him to progress through the entire “book” without absorbing one iota of “story”. It would not have mattered which story was set in front of him or if someone swapped the manuscript mid-way through—Charles would have continued his work without pause. Perhaps if he paused, he might remember the title, which was “Blue Moon,” and if he described the plot it should have sounded something like, “well, there’s this guy and a girl, and I think they’re immortal. But not quite. Or. They can’t be together for some reason. And they have to stop a thing that will turn the world evil, and of course he’s rich and she has communication issues, and yeah.”
Charles approached the old house, two recalcitrant children in tow. An uncanny shade of door yawned expectantly.
It was not an ordinary train ride across town for Reese. However, it presented sixty-four normal sixty-fifths of an uneventful commute, excepting one very awkward minute when an ill-coordinated man in a smoky suit spilled his suitcase of drug money on a man entirely not bristling with concealed weapons. Slightly embarrassed, an off-duty narcotics officer coughed loudly and politely got off one stop early, feeling dizzy at the thought of all the paperwork that could have ensued, particularly since his pen had run dry at quarter past noon.
“Very sorry. Seven, eight, nine… hundred thousand. All here. Thanks, my good chap,” the man muttered, collecting the dirty folds of cash. The mugger was entirely too surprised to do anything save stutter, “goodness me”, and help the poor fool.
Reese noticed none of this because she sat two seats forward. In her mind, publishing agents in drab suits had tied her career to a rough wooden chair and were dousing it with entirely more accelerant than necessary. An old-fashioned interrogation was about to begin, the kind performed in a dark room with a single dangling light bulb. The kind where “thug 1” and “thug 2” nibble matches and massage large caliber firearms in the corner. The smell of gasoline would soon permeate the room and one break of the single bulb would prompt an explosion that would make a nuclear melt-down appear a small spark, eliminating Reese’ career and leaving not the slightest evidence of its existence. The anxiety did not subside as Reese stepped onto the train platform. Had a match struck within her hearing, she may have entirely broken down then and there.
Two more city blocks were traversed in relative uneventfulness until Reese arrived at the towering offices of Harbour Darlings Publishing—a rather audacious falsification of a name since the “Harbour” was made of concrete and situated in a green-space as man-made as the bricks forming it. Right on the waterfront, the building offered a voluptuous view of the sultry shoreline for all the trite and desaturated businessmen and women who never credited it one thought. A vice-publishing secretary had looked out a window once, in 1952.
The air in the building smelled of dated carpet and false hardwood, because who ever walked on the real stuff and left significantly more productive and satisfied than before they entered anyway? The entire lobby décor seemed timeless, as if the architect had known thirty years ago which drab patterns and moldings would, in thirty years, remain utterly innocuous. Perhaps the company had sought to avoid the need to remodel. Heels clacked periodically across the lobby, and boring neckties undulated meanderingly about as they preceded their various owners. Reese was sure that many of the solid coloured neckties had more personality than their slightly less bold human counterparts. Reese’ mind chambered a thought, priming her focus on the present.
The Elevator creaked open. Inside, a man stood with a folded docket of papers. He was tall, thin, and clad in a graying suit. In his unoccupied hand the man held something that looked rather like the offspring of a union between a loudspeaker and a cinderblock. It twanged insidiously.
“What is that?” Reese asked.
“Just came out. It’s a mobile phone. Mr. Johnson insisted I have one.”
“But it hasn’t any cables,” Reese objected.
“Quite right. I just can’t see them catching on. Like carrying a yappy Chihuahua.” The man frowned depreciably at the dastardly device.
The Elevator made no comment. It simply DINGed again with signature smugness, secure in its keen technological foresight. It also considered the occupants of the building disinteresting and certainly obsolete, and quite longed to move up in the world.
Reese Richardson did not leave the elevator. The woman who stepped out of the elevator and strode confidently onto the twenty-fifth floor was known as Stella Cadenza, fantasy sci-fi romance writer of moderate caliber in the literary world. She had eleven titles to her name, all published and arranged on a shelf in her apartment. Among these were various other books she had enjoyed, as well as a very haggard and hole-riddled Holy Bible. Stella considered it her most holey book, and also the one that had seen the most mileage.
Taking a deep breath, Stella strode into the office where she was convinced her career would shortly become an incendiary catastrophe. She could almost hear its cries for mercy emanating from behind the door just before she opened it.
The room failed her grisly expectations. Instead of a lone light bulb there were several, arranged in brass-implying wall sconces and one overly pretentious chandelier. The false brass shone cheaply in a halogen glow. There was no sign of Thug 1 or 2. Perhaps they were out for more matches, gasoline and 11.4-millimeter bullets. Rather, behind a dark brown desk sat Thompson, the Supreme Executive Dancing Monkey himself.
“I’m sorry, Stella,” said Thompson, an elderly man with a white, droopy moustache who had long since lost any vestige of insight regarding the interests of the present-day reader. “We signed on for your last series, but now that you’ve killed off your main character, that contract has expired. We just can’t take a chance on something unprecedented when we have several very clever and not very creative authors, who continue to write more of their familiar stories again and again. That is what people want, Stella: more of the same. My father once lost the key to a lock. He had the smith make him a new one, but a week later he found the old key. Do you know which he kept?”
The rhetorical question came bouncing back from the opposing wall.
“Of course he kept the old key, it already had a heavy following in a very competitive market. Anything new or different will only put off readers. Perhaps you could change your last draft—it’s still with your editor? Keep your hero alive for one more book, eh? Maybe two? We would certainly back that.”
Stella was sure that this villain had, through the oft-times used expository monologue-ing, just exposed his plot for dominating the written world, and that after a scathing interrogation, her future would be unceremoniously flung from the window. From there, blandly attired minions and secretaries (with stark lipstick and fake eyelashes, not to mention other fake bits) would fill the world with the same book, over and over. It would be bound in every colour, branded under every title, yet it would remain constant. Thompson would win and claim hundreds of millions of dollars. He would, of course, buy a large, impractical car with a tacky hardwood dash and a built-in car phone that sounded the car horn when it rang. Literary discretion would slowly die an ignominious death at his hands, and the citizens themselves would slowly degenerate into mindless zombies.
Yet no hero burst in to stop the tirade and rescue Stella (nor her ill-fated new novel), and Thompson continued. Stella had created many heroes, some traditional, some tragic, and a few… ironic? Bionic? One of the two. She now realized that they were all very rhetorical, only diced vegetables that still taste like the can from which they came. Nobody was going to save her or her literary work, she realized with a dour, perfectly-executed pout.
Stella suspected Thompson was still talking; his moustache wagged as his mouth presumably articulated coherent phrases and words; the intermittent jiggling of his second chin was a staunch additional hint. However, Stella had ceased to heed his ramblings. Indeed, she was beginning to realize that those four words she had despairingly uttered were proving to be true after all.
Twenty-two minutes of cold refutability hence found a very downcast Stella Cadenza returning to the street. As if on cue, a cold drizzle started up from the gloomy heavens, the clouds toying with the idea of snow. It seemed a most uncanny coincidence, something that would only happen in a badly written screenplay or paperback: Exterior, Street, Day: Conditions: rain. Enter heroine, screen right. Stella wondered how, in one week, she had gone from her role as reputable author to playing the part of her own down-and-out, misunderstood anti-hero. Celebrated author to rejected wanna-be in seven short days. Perhaps she ought to write a How-To book on that, she mused.
Nonsense, Stella told herself. If I were in a book, my life would certainly benefit from better pacing. Life isn’t a story, and I am on my own.
The voice barely penetrated the veil of self-induced gloom that enveloped Reese. She looked up, for a moment alarmed.
“Yes?” she responded.
Before her stood a young man in clean, sharp clothes. His long, dark hair was restrained in a ponytail, and his dark eyes gleamed with something that could easily pass for friendliness.
“So it is you,” the young man went on in a silken, rich voice. “What a coincidence. Did you know, I have here one of your works?” The young man produced, from a very dark and very long coat, a brand new book. In its condition, Reese doubted that the copy had been given time to get comfortable on the shelf. The title, The Penultimate Graeling, glinted forth in faux gold leaf of a very low cost and slightly less durable variant.
Reese, out of mere habit, held out her hand for the book. She knew what came next: the endless torrent of “sign this for my aunt,” or “say something to my darling nephew,” or even, “write it in the ancient Graeling tongue!”. (For such occasions Stella always carried in her wallet a genuine Creative License to be used without restraint.)
But what happened next was none of these things.
“What can I write for you?” asked Reese, the book in hand. The virgin spine made a sickening, nerve-grating CRINKLE as Reese opened the cover for the first time. The young man laughed, as if Stella had just related a vaguely inappropriate joke.
“It is far too late to write in this book. Say what you will. However, I trust you have a happy ending in mind for Duchess Alina, now that Prince Azalion has defeated all of her potential suitors and rescued her safely from the Isle of the Maiden-devouring Mandibles.”
Reese paused. She eyed the man curiously. She did not like to discuss storylines with fans, yet she had the faint foreboding that this man did not quite belong in the ‘fan’ queue.
“I haven’t thought about it yet. To be honest, I haven’t started writing the next one.” That wasn’t, even in the stretchiest, spandex-clad sense of the word, true, of course. The manuscript was well past the cursing, agonizing, heartbreak and exhilaration of writing. It was, in fact, presently in the hands of Reese’s editor, having been reviewed by the publishers and given a limited stamp of approval—a judicious editing was needed according to Remmling—with all the best parts to be surgically removed, without benefit of anesthesia.
As it happened, Reese had, in a rather adolescent show of rebellion, killed off the fans’ most beloved main character—a rather seductive and poutingly charming prince Azalion. This was not something Reese ordinarily did, of course—she hated killing her favourite characters. It had been a decisively strategic move on her part: if the popular series was brought to an end (and what more definitive way to conclude it than to kill most of the main characters?) then the publishers would be forced to look at Reese’ other works. Wouldn’t they? Reese sighed. Not according to Thompson. She supposed she would have to consider a severe revision of her work and let the poor prince live if she wanted to pay her rent…
“And does it not burn you, Cadenza,” the youth went on, pulling Reese away from her self-inflicted morass, “to live without knowing what has befallen your most dear, if not fully material, friends? At any rate, thank you. Please do take care. These are strange times.” With his long coat fluttering, he snapped the book shut and turned to walk away. Reese had absent-mindedly scrawled something along the lines of “best wishes, tell your uncle to get well soon, don’t be afraid to dream, Alex- wait what?”
“I didn’t get your name,” Reese inquired. She offered her hand, though still holding the pen, and the young man shook it.
“You are not mistaken. I did not give it,” the young man grinned. By the time the boy had disappeared around the corner, Reese’ mind had thawed from a lethargic confusion. But in her hand, where the pen had been only a second earlier, she now held an exquisitely formed black rose with a sickeningly sweet pink smell. The rain wet her face with cool kisses as she walked slowly back to the train station, considering the rose, its fragrance heightened by the moisture in the air.
It was certainly true: Reese’ life was not well-paced. She proceeded to dejectedly and despondently droop home and in fact, spend the next five hours unhappily watching her television set. She only had to tweak the rabbit ears twice in that time to stabilize the picture.
“You never did have the guts for this job, Rachel,” said a dapper man in a dark suit.
“Don’t put that blame on me, Rich. I have been here for you through the thick and thin of it, and all I get…” the woman drew up her fabulously colour-coordinated rain jacket, long blonde hair shying her eyes into shadow. She stifled a daintily affected sniffle.
“And you’re all right with never knowing what we could have had if we stuck it through?”
“Rich, I’ve stuck through quite enough. Not knowing is the greatest thing you could give me now.”
To preserve a flow of narrative, and offer Reese a semblitude of privacy, these five hours shall go undocumented.
Earl hung up the phone. The offices of Remmling and Shobisher, known citywide for punctuality and promptness, were not answering. He sighed. It was a heavy sound, disdainful of even the smallest disturbance in the daily schedule that had been so nicely laid out.
Earl had been in contact with them that morning, two minutes after Reese had left her apartment to meet him for their delayed breakfast (or early lunch). It had been agreed that the next morning at eight, Earl and Reese could meet with their people to discuss a publishing arrangement. Earl found no trouble dismissing the trivial matter with which he had just called. He rose from his large, leather desk chair. The wooden desk shifted moodily as he stood.
The gravity was amiss in Earl’s house. He found that, no matter where he started from, he could always bank on being slowly drawn to a single square meter next to the fridge. It was here that Earl opened a white door and withdrew, from the frigid depths, a plate of cold ham and potatoes. Following this, a sandwich, some soup, a soda pop and a bag of chips (Earl believed that flavour molecules, like water, expanded when cold). He made his way to a large sofa that undeniably slouched in the middle. It gave utterance to an Atlantean groan as it struggled to hold up its burden. It had once met a handsome young sofa, and tricked it into taking on his role. The scheme had worked until the clever devil had said, “you’ve tricked me fair and square. So just hold Earl for one minute while I adjust my cushions and prepare for an eternity of be-burdenment”. The ancient couch was still stiff over the matter of falling for a trick he had seen before.
One remote control sat on the glass coffee table. The buttons had seen constant use for months, not to mention the incident with the pet rabbit (which had chewed off the “off” button). Earl had been grateful the rabbit had not damaged anything important.
A warm glow absolved Earl then of all doubt, all thought, and the need to do anything but bask for several hours in the televised radiance. He told himself: oh well, the meeting will proceed as planned in the morning, and this book will be a success because…oh gosh, we’re down three oh already.
While the meal took merely two minutes, the game accounted for Earl’s next hour and a half. Earl did not have a conscious thought for the duration of either.
The television obstinately ceased to hold a clear picture, apparently having better things to do with itself. Reese turned it off and walked to her apartment balcony. No clouds in sight, and certainly no thunderstorm. Reese was not very distraught by this occurrence; she had watched nothing but poorly written soap operas and game shows, and now she was ready to do something else. Besides, they all seemed so very depressing, even the romantic comedies. Why should she watch people falling in love when the real thing eluded her? The characters were all so shallow, and despite their mistakes they were always preserved by a miraculous fate and granted happiness for the most superficial of reasons. For Reese, her writing was not the telling of a story, but mere wishful thinking. Her unspoken quest, deep down, was to write and refine the perfect hero. However, Reese knew that no matter how strong, or how gentlemanly, these characters would never be more than just that. Even her best heroes seemed pale and hollow in the light of the past two days. Real people, she concluded, had real problems. Non-people would never be able to help her.
Thus it was 7:24 PM when the phone rang. Reese lifted the receiver casually, in fact a little too casually. She could not know it then, but that single phone call had just set in motion a string of events that had the potential to change her life forever. The Voice of Destiny called out to Reese from another world.
In a carefree feminine voice, it said: “Hey Reesey, were we still going out tonight?”
Reese responded to the Voice of Destiny with all the pomp and ceremony it warranted: “Uh, sorry. I kind of forgot you were going to call.”
Destiny covered its face with one palm and tried to salvage what was left of the situation.
“Still up for dinner then?”
“Um, of course. I’ll just get dressed.”
“Ok. I’ll pick you up shortly.”
Reese struggled to find something appropriate to wear. Meeting her oldest friend, Macy, took a rather disagreeable amount of energy. Reese found that some people had an unlimited inner spring of optimism and drive. Reese generally found these people quite annoying, and now knew to avoid these sorts at all cost. It was a lesson learned the hard way but a friendship that has weathered the murky, winding, teenage-angst riddled trenches of high school is not lightly cast aside. By now Reese was quite used to her friend’s animated way of talking. In fact, Reese often thought that a monkey in an energy drink factory would have a hard time keeping up with Macy.
Reese picked out a plainly dark, yet subtly affectatious dress. In a few minutes she was at the curb below her apartment, watching her friend’s small car pull up. In a collision with a shopping cart, Macy would no doubt find her 5.5 hp econo-hatch entirely obliterated. It seemed to Reese the vehicle had been created by someone who had never actually seen a wheel.
“Hey there!” Macy smiled, lighting up instantly.
“Hi Mace,” Reese replied.
“How was that meeting? Knock ‘em dead?”
“Would that I could,” Reese replied drearily, having a sudden mental picture of Thompson’s expression if suddenly handed a primed grenade. It had been an awful week, comprised almost solely of ineffective writing followed by ignominious rejection of said writing, and Reese wondered if she would wake up tomorrow in a dismal gloom and kill off one of her favourite characters out of sheer bitterness.
Reese almost felt badly, being unable to match Macy’s level of cheerfulness. Some people are just born with optimal levels of happiness, and using any of that up on someone as negative as Reese might upset the balance. Reese often wondered if she could, without meaning to, discourage someone as unshakeable as Macy, thus reaching an ominous critical mass that would tip the entire world into a pandemic of despondency.
“Aw, no worries. Dinner’s on me,” Macy purred. Reese decided Macy had definitely remained unfazed, and wondered if anything could truly dampen Macy’s indomitable optimism. Raining fire, scorching famine, and rivers of blood were the only things that seemed remotely able. Regardless, for now, universal laws remained upheld.
“Don’t you dare cheer me up,” Reese threatened.
“But it’s so easy!” laughed Macy.
True to her word, Macy treated Reese to a wonderful dinner while they talked—or rather, while Macy talked. Macy related a date with Mr. Thisandthat (whom she would never see again on account of his lack of genuine affection and commitment), a job interview that ended in embarrassment for all, and best of all, the grisly demise of her late microwave oven—evidently Macy did not succeed in loosening a metal ketchup lid by heating the entire bottle, cap included. Reese was astounded that her friend could flawlessly articulate an endless stream of verbiage, all the while devouring her savoury pasta plate. The food seemed to simply disappear as Macy monologued in perfect syntax and rhythm. Reese wished her writing flowed as smoothly, and said comparatively little.
“How about you, Reese?” tagged Macy, waiting expectantly. Having just awoken from a glazed, blank void, Reese vaguely inferred that it was finally her turn to articulate. The topic was likely fairly beside the point, as was usually the case with Macy.
“I don’t know. I had this idea of where I’d be by now, and this isn’t quite it. I don’t feel like I’m any good at what I do. I don’t feel like I’m any good at anything.”
“But of course you are! I adored the book about the magical prince! I’m still just waiting for him to burst into my life and whisk me off, you know. I can’t believe he died like that. I mean, a thousand arrows. Wow. One will do it good enough, you know? That Duke really overreacted. I mean, I’d only torture someone for say four years, not a full decade!”
“That’s what I mean. It’s just not GOOD writing. Really, if my life were a book, I hope someone would put a lot more effort into it than that.” Reese stopped, her thoughts trailing off in a foggy… whatever it was that fog usually occupied. It was too late. Macy dropped to her level of frankness. Her sudden change in demeanor had the same effect as the aftershock of twenty warheads: crumbling remains of conversation in a perfect silence.
“You know, when I met Parker, I thought that life was this big, cosmic story and I was sure that the bad part of the story was over. But maybe it’s more than that. Characters in a story don’t change or adapt, they just are. But we people get to learn—we’re not as (sorry) but … fake. Canned.”
The two were quiet then, for the first time that evening in a stillness that would have welcomed silence as a pleasant interruption. It was for this reason that they noticed the older man at the next table, and then were quite surprised that neither had noticed him up to that point.
The man held a vintage pipe, which he was currently packing with tobacco. A soot-stained sailor’s cap—the Shirley Temple sort—and a grime-encumbered jacket, buttoned in brass, were his most remarkable attire. He muttered to himself in an unending string of unintelligible sounds, punctuated here and there with a louder syllable.
Reese found that if she listened only to the edges of the words, it sounded something like the following:
“T’were naught lyk et.” The sailor’s strange accent mingled with the hot, buttered crab that dribbled from his mouth. “Ai, naught lyk et an de ‘ole see, me dear. Whirrin’ and a’glimmerin, heavin’ and a-shimmyin’! Lights of yon deerk ahbyss as the ole gal went daen a’twixt sea an’ t’under!”
Macy laughed. “I’ve never seen a better Mate McAnderly act!” she whispered to Reese. Reese rolled her eyes with a practiced grace.
“These fans find me wherever I go, just today even…” she groaned and left the remainder of the sentence up to Macy’s prolific imagination.
“At least you’re popular. A lot of people would kill for that. I mean, he’s even got that necklace from his Spanish love! The one he never did see again. A copper cross with the saviour on it—his is tarnished though.”
“Everyone has a hobby, I guess,” Reese deflected unfeelingly. The man was clearly, Reese thought, a little too lost in his books—her books. She wondered briefly if she ought to be a little more appreciative of that, but decided not. Some authors gained readers so easily, like the perpetrator of all those t-shirts that read “slightly colder weather will likely occur within the near future”. Reese couldn’t stand that type of mainstream crowd-pleasing, but then again, she never read a book unless the author had been dead at least twenty years, and possibly kicked out of the Christian church for no reason at all. Reese tried not to let her audience dictate what she wrote; if she had written a book for everyone, it would be very different and more than a little boring. She would rather write the book she wanted to read herself, at the cost of a little popularity.
Conversewise, Reese found herself at the head of a strangely fanatical following—people who actually immersed themselves in her characters as though they were real. Her stories did not attract the casual reader, but mainly the outlying obsessive types that devoted hours to decoding her Graeling tongue in poster-plastered basements of their parents’ homes. These fans would push up their large glasses, don a pointy wizard hat, and spend hours at small desks made of milk crates. Reese did not have the heart to tell these devoted followers that contrary to popular belief, there was no rhyme or reason to the elegant language she had made up—that bit of reality foist on the basement-dwelling, icon-t-shirt wearing, wanna-be linguist would be tantamount to kicking a puppy.
The man at the next table carried on, seemingly without noticing the two women eating dinner. In his buttery hand he grasped a rugged proto-pencil, sketching out something on the back of a pamphlet.
“Twas tha nite of da greet fure… ain’t ne’er der ben a fure lyk et. Yardarms ablaze wit all da furry a’ da pits! Blaiss ma baerd. In ‘is raight the gleaming amulet, an’ ‘is left a’grippin yon maightey sweerd. Fyre an waeter taek me, nae but fyurr ‘o blue.”
The two women giggled as they asked for their bill. Reese happened to glance over the man’s shoulder as they left the restaurant. He had drawn a strange tetrahedron, covered in symbols and hieroglyphs.
The man was silent then, and Reese could feel his gaze burning at the back of her skull. Macy did not seem to notice. The two left the restaurant, their stomachs full of high-priced pasta and designer cheesecake.
Reese was, despite her best efforts, thoroughly cheered up by the time she reached her apartment and once again feared for the cosmic balance of things. Macy went home, and the blackened city awoke in a gale-force flurry of scattered amber lights. The hazy glow, stymied by a low-flying cloud, boldly tinted the entire night sky a stomach-turning shade of starless mauve.
And in a darkly embroidered pocket, on a coat, on a young man, who was not too terribly far away, the signed copy of The Penultimate Graeling had begun to glow with a white heat. The book hissed a little as the black text burned a dull orange. The boy knew then, without checking his watch, that it was time. His pace quickened.