VIEWS: 25 PAGES: 47 POSTED ON: 7/2/2010
The Bachman Shining brow liner
Everybody knows my name. I have long since reached that position of dubious honor. Everybody, from the critics to my greatest fans to the lottery-jockey who wouldn‟t recognize one of my books if it chased him ten blocks and mugged him in a blind alley, they all know my name. Of course, that is due to more than just my books. The movies that were made from them are certainly part of the blame for my widespread recognition among those who don‟t subscribe to Book-of-the-Month Club. Let me admit at the outset, Constant Reader, with due respect to the film-makers, that more than a few of those movies were not so great. A couple of them were out-and-out clinkers. When I watch them, it‟s like seeing some dearly departed loved one resurrected in zombie form by some impish but powerful force, like Louis Creed‟s unfortunate son in Pet Sematery. The walking dead always look more or less like they did when they dwelled among the living, but there‟s always some tell-tale missing element in the eyes. Just like George Romero‟s movie zombies, the characters in the movies based on my books don‟t get around very well compared to the novel versions. They seem to lurch and gimp, trailing bits of themselves like rancid candies from a broken piñata. Annoyingly enough, I could never quite pin down where the movies got it wrong, at what point those familiar characters began to lurch and grunt like zombies, leaving essential character developments and plot details lying around the cinema-scape like rotted fingers and toes. Someone once told me that my books didn‟t translate well to the silver screen because it wasn‟t the stories that made them great, but the life that was breathed into the characters by the author. That was a compliment, I‟m sure, but it made me feel lousy. It made me feel like a wretched parent pimping my gifted children, treating them like monkeys collecting change for the grinder. I won‟t try to tell you I didn‟t get a neat thrill every time I saw one of my characters get up and walk and talk on the big screen, but I will tell you it was a numb thrill, like that first whiff of ether at the dentist‟s office. And just like the dentist‟s ether, when the thrill wore off I usually found a strange empty socket where something else used to be, something that had been a part of me. But I digress. Lately I‟ve been kicking around the idea of retirement. I don‟t usually tell this to people. When I do, the response is always the same: theatrical incredulity followed by hearty, well-meaning denials that are half encouragement and half scolding. To some extent I suspect these admonitions are merely an effort to stroke my pride. The temperamental literary primadonna, they think, has to feed his ego monster somehow. And this, I am ashamed to admit, is not entirely untrue. But the people who say these things are my friends, my family. Deep down, they know that eventually the old story mill may just shut down and I‟ll stop writing no matter how many books I‟ve sold or how many reviewers have said that the writer is “still at the top of his game”. When and if that were to happen, most of those people would continue to be exactly what they are to me now, what friends and family are to any regular kinda guy. But then there are the others: my readers, the members of the Official Fan Club, the people who pay the exorbitant fees to hear me speak at the occasional (as occasional as possible) writing seminar. I‟ve learned not to talk about retirement with them. On the surface, their response looks the same as the response I get from my friends and family, but only on the surface. There‟s something under their unfamiliar but intimate gazes, something in the sheer, impersonal force of their anonymous numbers, an under beat that reminds me unsettlingly of Maurice Sendak‟s Where the Wild Things Are. When Max, the little boy in the wolf costume, made to leave their island, the Wild Things (if you‟ll pardon the analogy) roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws, and they cried, “No, no, please don‟t go, we‟ll eat you up, we love you so!” I know that it isn‟t very polite, or even fair, of me to think that way. Constant Reader has proved very generous and loyal to me in the years since I finished Carrie while hunkered down in a nook between the washer and dryer of a rented trailer. But I feel it nonetheless. It‟s been a few raucous decades since I came to the land of the Wild Things, since I tamed them with the magic trick of staring into their yellow eyes and not blinking once until they proclaimed me the wildest thing of all. It‟s been one long, Wild Rumpus. Still, I am beginning to feel that the time has come for me to secretly hop back into the boat that got me here and hope it still knows its way back. After all, I‟m not really the wildest thing of all. I‟m just a little boy in a wolf suit. The trick, just like Max knew, is to get away before the real Wild Things figure that out. But why, (the inner interviewer asks, taking off his glasses in a let‟s-get-down-to-brass-tacks-manner, and in my mind he always looks like Charlie Rose on PBS) why stop writing at all? It’s fun, isn’t it? It’s profitable. And really, can you stop? Is it even possible? Good questions, every one. Many readers have pointed out to me over the years how many of the characters in my stories have been writers. From The Shining’s Jack Torrance to Thad Beaumont of The Dark Half to the beleaguered hero of the short story Word Processor of the Gods (one of my personal favorites) someone recently informed me that, at last count, I have written stories about forty-seven fictitious authors. Frankly, I think it‟s more than that. And there is a simple reason for it. The fact is that, to me, the bare act of writing, of watching people and events and worlds scroll spontaneously out of a plain old keyboard, is one of the most singularly mysterious and inexplicable tricks imaginable. It is a form of magic, but the difference between a stage magician and the word magician is that the stage magician won‟t tell you how the trick works. The word magician would tell, is sometimes paid very handsomely to tell, but he simply and honestly doesn‟t know. I wrote a story once called The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet. It was one of my earlier novellas and it was, to be honest, a little flabby. The essence of the story, however, still haunts me now just as much as it did a few decades ago when it was only a seed of an idea rattling around in my head. The story is about a writer who actively confronts the mystery-magic of his typewriter. Baffled by his success and the sheer enigma of fiction, he decides that the actual creative work of writing is, in fact, accomplished by a tiny magical elf that lives inside his Underwood typewriter. He called the elf a fornit. In the end, a little boy “kills” the fornit, and the writer, driven to the point of ragged insanity, bites a bullet from his own gun. Over the past few decades I have occasionally lain awake at night wondering how close I had (or would) come to making that story autobiographical. The attendees of those writing seminars I infrequently speak at have asked The Dreaded Question more times than I can count. You all know The Dreaded Question, right? Let‟s ask it together: Where do you get your ideas? My publicist put together a neat little website that answers questions about me for the world (more questions than I am sincerely comfortable with, but enquiring minds want to know, I guess) and he has devised a tidy answer to that awful, insidious question: Where does the author get his ideas? Very simply, the author has a very active imagination. Ha ha, I told him, that‟s a good one. But it isn‟t really an answer. It‟s just another way of asking the question. The reason I hate The Dreaded Question so very much is that I simply don‟t know the answer myself. Like Pharaoh seeking the meanings of his prophetic dreams, I would pay a modern day Joseph grandly if he could answer that riddle for me. Thad Beaumont, in The Dark Half, said it was like having an invisible third eye. The third eye saw things that other people couldn‟t see, and what it saw he simply wrote down. Perhaps more simply, writing stories is like being a conduit. The stories somehow want to be written, want to be channeled through the conduit to the paper, where they become real. I think most writers, if they are honest, will tell you: the stories surprise you sometimes. They twist and writhe as they reach the paper, as if hand-written with a live snake dipped in ink. Characters say things you didn‟t expect, events spin off into directions you hadn‟t planned, happy endings invert on you and turn ugly and bitter (and vice versa). And in the end, no matter how much you may want it to roll out the way you plotted, fighting the story only makes it weak. Sometimes it kills it altogether. A good writer, fundamentally, is merely the conduit who has settled back and offered as little interference as possible. A good writer lets the story write itself. But the conduit, which starts out sweet and intoxicating, a good trick to impress people with at parties, grows. It gets fat and bossy. In time, you realize it has mastered you more than you it. It‟s like the old junior high joke about the two homosexuals who pick up the straight hitchhiker. You‟ve heard this one, right? The first guy, the driver, passes gas: pfffft. The second follows in kind: pfffft. The straight rider, wanting to be personable, musters himself and lets one rip as well: ffBLLAAT! The homosexuals look at each other smugly and pronounce in unison, “Viiiirgin!” Yes, it is a crude old joke, but it makes a rather uncomfortable analogy. In the literary sense, in the sense of being the conduit, it‟s been a long, long time since I was a virgin. The thrill, as it were, is almost gone. That fact, more than anything, has been the thing needling me to consider the possibility of retirement, of packing up the old word processor and scratch books for good. Fornit and all. I was thinking about these things as I drove to a meeting three weeks ago. The meeting was with a pair of producers and my agent. The producers were planning a television movie based on a screenplay I had written. Screenplays, I might mention (if you‟ll indulge me), transfer better to film much better than do the fully developed novels, probably because they start out being exactly what they end up. Nothing needs to be condensed or summarized or lopped off to fit them into their ninety minute time slot. When I see them as finished works, I don‟t just see all the bits and details that didn‟t make the final cut. Ultimately, they may be no richer than the book adaptations, but at least they are as rich as they were ever intended to be, for better or worse. They don‟t make me feel like a bastard‟s father. The meeting was in a little town called Hanford. The producers had chosen the town as the setting for their film and I, having at least some creative input in things like location and casting, had planned to meet them there to give it a once over and grant my rather ubiquitous okee-dokee. My agent was flying in to handle the official stuff. I hate the official stuff. That‟s what I pay him for, and he richly deserves it. The trip to Hanford took three and a half hours by car. I used to fly to appointments like this, even though I hate flying, but those days are pretty much over. Being something of a literary household name, even now, doesn‟t mean that I have an immediately recognizable face, regardless of how many versions of it have graced (or marred) the backs of my bestsellers. Airports, however, as even the least literate know, are places to bring a book. The newsstands there are full of paperbacks of my stuff, being just the sort of apparently meaningless brain candy that I suppose is perfect for a long flight or a long wait between flights. I can still walk an occasional mall and not be stopped by anyone with that crazed look of star-struck recognition (even perfectly delightful people can look like toothy stalkers when the recognition sets in, I am unhappy to say), but I can‟t seem to navigate a single airport anymore without at least one person surreptitiously comparing me to the photo on the back of a dust jacket, as if they were verifying a killer again his most-wanted poster. So now I drive. And I like it. I stop sometimes and jaw with the attendants when I fuel up. We chew the fat about the weather and the price of premium unleaded and the Patriots playoffs chances. Small talk is a lost art these days, outside of gas station mechanics and fuel jockeys on the flat stretches of New England‟s highways. And I‟ve never met a one who recognized me (or gave a flying fart if he did). I drive and I listen to classic rock (the hits of the seventies, eighties AND today!) Or an occasional jazz station on the radio. Sometimes I turn off the radio and just think. Very often, in the old days, it was in that companionable lull, with the road thrumming dreamily away beneath me, that the Story would drop by. Don’t let me get in the way, it would say affably, I’m just gonna set up over here in my usual spot in the corner. Tinker a bit. You know. And in the old days I would let it. I would watch. My wife, when she rode with me, would see it on my face, and in the long bouts of silence. Later she‟d say “You were working on a story. I didn‟t want to interrupt you.” and I would smile and nod. It was nice to be known that way. But I wasn‟t really working on the Story. It was more the other way around. As I drove to my meeting, I could feel the conduit‟s opening: fat, more invasive than it used to be. The Story tried to come, more confident these days, but I stopped it at the door. I didn‟t tell it I was closed for business. Not yet. I just told it to come back later. I arrived almost two hours before my meeting. Leaving early, almost obsessively so, is a habit I have developed in recent years. I always allow myself extra time; time to stop for a burger and a beer, time to browse an interesting junk shop, time to jaw with the gas station joes. Less serendipitous but perhaps more probably, while under the influence of the Story, I have been known to forget where exactly I am supposed to be going. More than once, while engaged in the voyeuristic Tinker toy constructions of other worlds and other lives, I have not only driven straight past important exits, but have continued merrily on for some miles before even realizing it. Uncharacteristically, none of that had happened that day. As I passed the sign which turned U.S. Highway twenty-four into the “Business District” of Hanford, I coasted to a leisurely thirty-five and checked my watch, musing about what I was going to do with myself for the next few hours. Hanford was an almost absurdly typical small town. At its furthest edge, just past the fast food joints and a Red Roof Inn (which always cluster just outside of small towns like this, like reluctant big city transfers refusing to mingle with the local-yokels) there was a Sunoco station which doubled as a used car lot, followed by a Moose lodge and an elderly L and K motel/restaurant. There was a dutiful looking IGA and a Rainbow Bowl-A-Way and a Rusty‟s Corner Barber shop. After a mile or so, the businesses gave way to large, meticulous houses which tucked their crew-cut yards about them like the skirts of old southern debutantes. I passed a high school with a group of kids playing scratch baseball on the back diamond, then progressed more slowly into an area of tightly clustered world war two tract houses and enormous, overgrown trees. Cars lined the road this Sunday afternoon, their owners most likely sequestered away in their living rooms watching Sportscenter, drinking beer, avoiding yard work. I checked my watch again, reminding myself I had time to kill. Spontaneously, I decided to drive on a bit further, find some nondescript roadside greasy spoon where I could grab some lunch and read the paper, or maybe the book I had brought with me. Hanford began to break apart and trickle past me as I sped up, then, just at the farthest, wind-burnt edge of the town, a small bar cropped up. It wasn‟t a particularly welcoming place, merely a squat, cinder-block box with a few dark windows buzzing neon. The gravel parking lot had half a dozen cars scattered around it. It wasn‟t the sort of place that I‟d had in mind to stop, but I found myself steering my Navigator in nonetheless. It was the name of the place which hooked me. It was called “The Mellow Tiger.” The name was painted in cracked, black letters between two Coca-Cola logos. The Mellow Tiger is a particularly odd name for a bar. Even odder, it is the name of the bar on the edge of the fictional town of Castle Rock, a place I know well, a place I have done a lot of romping and caused an awful lot of mischief. Hugh Priest, cutting work early from his city job, would spend most of his nights in the old Mellow Tiger, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and kicking the jukebox when the Hank Williams records skipped. It was the place where Homer Gomache met his VFW buddies on Wednesday nights for pinochle or poker. It was also the place where Billy Tupper and Henry Beaufort were shot with poison dipped .45 bullets on the night all of Castle Rock went succinctly to hell to the tune of Mr. Leland Gaunt‟s fiddling. The Mellow Tiger is a weird name for a bar. That‟s why I made it up, why I tacked it in red neon letters to the front of the tiny bar on the square lot at the corner of Route 16 and the Old Castle Road. It is a weird enough name to be believable. It is somehow too fictional to be fiction. Feeling a mixture of amusement and pique, I locked the doors of my Navigator and headed in. Apart from the name, the place bore only a fitful resemblance to the bar at the edge of the fanciful (and deceased) town of Castle Rock, the sort of resemblance that all small town watering holes seem to share. And like a lot of those small, squat establishments, the Tiger seemed quite a bit larger on the inside than it had from the parking lot. The comfortable blue smell of old cigarettes smote me as I came through the tiny breeze way. Dim booths lined one wall, separated from the bar by a scatter of tables and chairs. Behind the bar, liquor bottles sat against their mirrored reflections, casting back the brilliance of the neons, and the glow of the domed Budweiser premium with the Clydesdales marching inside it, pulling their beer wagon perpetually around a tiny, circular track. A small television mounted over the bar warbled and flashed, dominating the bar with its presence and partially drowning out the sounds of Frampton on the juke. There were seven or eight people drifting in the mid-day gloom. The barkeep hovered near the TV, watching football with a rheumy-eyed patron and his beer. “Shit.” commented the barkeep to the TV. He stuffed a rag in a mug and pumped it around. His glasses flashed electric blue from the light of the screen. I took a stool half way down the bar from the TV and clapped the book I‟d brought with me onto the counter. The barkeep turned at the sound and approached, still swabbing the mug. “Can I getcha?” He asked amiably. “Got any Olympia?” I asked back. It‟s a standard response of mine. Hardly any bars stock Olympia beer anymore. The barkeep flicked up the metal lid of a cooler under the bar. Cold air hissed out over a short forest of bottlenecks. “One Olympia,” the barkeep said, dealing me a coaster and clapping the mug from his other hand onto it. The bottle slid next to it with a soft clink. “Anything else?” “You serve lunch here?” I asked, surprised and pleased. “Sure, long as you like burgers, wings and fries. What‟ll you have?” “It all sounds perfect,” I told him, “But I think I‟ll work on this a bit first.” “All right. Give me a holler whenever you get hungry or when that empties.” The barkeep drifted back to the end of the bar and went to work on another mug. I looked at the bottle in front of me, then, ignoring the mug, took a long drink from it, emptying a third. The beer was smooth, cold and good. When I lowered it, satisfied, I saw my face in the mirror behind the bar, peeped through the bottles of Wild Turkey and Southern Comfort. Next to the mirror, sectioning it, a polished wooden panel was hung with plaques and newspaper clippings- sections of the Daily News sports page and the local daily; Home-Town-Boy-Makes-Good sort of stuff. One showed a grinning, impossibly handsome kid in football pads, standing on the sidelines. Something about his haircut and the cars lining the field in the background said early seventies. I smiled. Caged history. Somebody‟s glory days. I cracked the book I had brought with me and laid the bookmark (a Hoyle joker with two dog-eared corners) aside before taking another, smaller sip of the Olympia. I had decided not to mention anything to the barkeep about the name of the establishment. The fact is there isn‟t anything terribly unusual about a fictitious name appearing on a real storefront, or anywhere else for that matter. As I long ago learned from my first trademark attorney, you can‟t copyright a name. As if to illustrate that, there were at last count no less than thirteen Needful Things antique stores and junk shops. There are also six You Sew and Sews, two Emporium Galoriums, and perhaps best of all, one adult bookstore and sex toys shop in Poughkeepsie named Gerald‟s Game. The list of those businesses came to me as a birthday present from my current trademark attorney. I had never before visited any of the establishments that bore those familiar names, and although I usually subscribe to the idea that imitation is among the sincerest forms of flattery, I have also been just a bit secretly disturbed by it. It is strange to think that what started out as a mere whim in my head is now, completely independent of me, a concrete reality. It makes me feel like something of an accidental god, and I have come to recognize that feelings like that can become dangerous. No matter who one is, any blurring of the lines between fact and fiction is, I think, an invitation for delusion. Which is why I had pulled into the Mellow Tiger in the first place. Among that list of what my attorney had called “entrepreneurial homages”, there was not a single listing for a Mellow Tiger bar. Perhaps it had recently come under new ownership, resulting in a subsequent name change. More likely, perhaps it was not listed with any official agencies at all, for reasons that might not be very surprising. I sipped the Olympia again. Ah hell, I thought, who am I to quibble with the mediocre name choices of Mr. Cold-Beer-On-Tap? Or, for that matter, his choice of inspiring reading material? Which reminded me of the book I had carried along, sitting open on the bar in front of me. I glanced down at it, starting to read at the point where I‟d had it book marked. The top of the left page began: to be construed as purely rhetorical in the context of inarguable dimensional pluralities and at least questionable intercises of ambient literals. There is an inescapable statistical probability (necessity, in fact) that in a multi-universe of infinite dimensional strata... I stopped reading, a mildly puzzled frown creasing my brow. This wasn‟t the book I had been reading the night before. That book had been Crashing California by G. Norman Binkley - a mildly farcical dark comedy about a depression era family who own a San Francisco mortuary and do a remarkably, suspiciously good business with the local crime families. I was just finishing the chapter in which Uncle Otto and Sally Hammer set up the dons of two feuding mobs during a back room poker game. At least that was where I‟d left off the evening before. Until that point, Binkley had made no mention of any inarguable dimensional pluralities or intercises of ambient literals. I glanced incredulously at the first sentence again, then flipped the book over on the bar. The cover was black clothbound with frayed edges. Gold embossed letters, blackened with age, were pressed into the cover: Diametric Translations in the Craft of Literature or The Myth of Fiction By Feodre F. Rumon I frowned again at the cover. As far as I could recall, I had never seen this book before. Of course, that didn‟t mean a whole lot. My own bookcase is stuffed with volumes, both poetry and prose, fiction and otherwise, whose origins I would be hard pressed to recollect. A writer collects books the way a grandmother‟s refrigerator collects magnets: a few serve a carefully defined purpose, many are gifts, most just seem to arrive there, drawn in from any number of directions and convoluted means. But even if I had grabbed the wrong book when I‟d left that morning, how could I have picked up this particular, strange volume? I remembered scooping the book from the top of the pile on the bedside table. That pile, as is the case for any avid reader, is strictly reserved for the current top five, the old bedtime reading hot-list. This book, Mr. Rumon‟s work on the Myth of Fiction, even if I did own it, had certainly not been part of the current hot-list. Across the floor behind me, a gust of air and light accompanied the sound of the opening door. I heard the sound of a heavy figure tromping boots on the mat. The barkeep muttered something ascerbic at the TV and briskly wiped the counter. The juke paused between songs, clicking and whirring tiredly. I flipped the book back open again. Incredulous and bemused, I began reading where I‟d left off. There is an inescapable statistical probability (necessity, in fact) that in a universe of infinite dimensional strata, one of those stratum will contain an historical event which is, in the present literal stratum, a merely fictional contrivance. In other words, that which is one dimension’s “fiction” is by necessity another dimension’s reality. Let us, for instance, examine the well known “fiction” of Herman Sclybovski’s classic tale The Lost Colony. Though clearly regarded as a darkly fanciful and outright fantastic story of the imaginary 1640's settlement of Roanoke, West Virginia, we must assume, in accordance with the laws of simple statistics., that in some other dimensional version of our world said account is an historical, if mysterious, fact. Perhaps just as convincing, in our own slice of reality, do we not see embedded in history some events which would, were they not true, make extremely popular fiction of a whimsical or even a horrific nature? The partial accounts of the early 1930's English town of Chthulu provide a prime, if morbid example - perhaps even a convincing argument for the very supposition. The question which then asserts itself upon this realization is this: Does the relationship between the author's fiction of one dimension and the historical reality of the other exist only as an example of mathematical probability, or is there another, more nebulous connection? Analogously, as the true psychic can “see” distant events in this world via some extra-natural perception, does the author perhaps unknowingly “see” events outside this world, from some neighboring dimension, which he then translates to paper as fiction? I propose succinctly that the actions which we call story telling, and in a higher form fictional novelization, imply not necessarily an act of creative invention, but an inter-dimensional relationship between the writer and the story which imbues the one upon the other. The issue, which I shall address commencing in the next chapter, is one of ultimate origin. Does the writer create the story, which is then somehow triggered in another dimension? Or, conversely, does the reality occur elsewhere and then cause the writer to record it as story? Does the story, in some unforeseeable way, want to be told? When framed in this way, the classic question pendulums away from How does the writer get his ideas? to the possibly less ambiguous How do the ideas get the writer? I stopped reading again and pushed the book a few inches away. It sat there, open on its spine, looking incongruous on the bar top. I stared at it for a few long moments, my brow slightly furrowed. In the alley between the bar top and the liquor shelves a thin, clickety sound emerged. It tracked along the bar's length and stopped and whined at the barkeep's feet. The barkeep ignored it, his glasses still opaque blue in the light of the television. The clicking resumed around the corner of the bar and stopped at the feet of another patron. Someone mumbled a monotone at it and raked their stool on the wooden floor, reaching to pat it on the head. Where in God's earth had that book come from? I let my eyes drift upwards from it and met my own gaze again between the glinting bottles along the back mirror. The look on my face was unsettling. I smoothed my brow and felt a growing pulse in the base of my skull, a tension headache throttling up. I made a mental note to ask the barkeep if he had any Tylenol. My eyes fell on the book again and my hand curled loosely around my beer bottle. Where in God’s earth...? It read like an undergraduate philosophy textbook, the kind put into service by particularly stubborn professors with no respect for the attention handicaps of a generation weaned on MTV and Dawson‟s Creek. I was a professor once, of sorts, and I had required the reading of some rather chunky texts myself. Not particularly good texts, I had to confess, at least to my wife, but necessary texts. Time consuming texts, if you know what I mean. Perhaps Mr. Rumon's work on the Myth of Fiction had been something I had acquired during that particular career. It was possible. Not that I had necessarily purchased it myself, nor used it in my class. It had the feel of something that might have been a gift from a student. Creative writing students, regardless of their grade or their level of actual writing ability, share certain idiosyncratic traits, not the least of which is the tendency to have inflated, willfully arrogant ideas about the importance of "the craft." It occurred to me that the claims and suppositions I had just read in Mr. Rumon‟s book amounted to no more than the final end of that sort of arrogance. And yet... And yet it did ring with a sort of reluctant, tantalizing plausibility, didn't it? Alternate dimensions are, frankly, the bread and butter of the horror writer. Much as with science fiction, even good science fiction, horror usually depends upon the conjuring of any sort of creature from the realm of the fabled other side, whether that be outer space, the spirit world, the afterlife, the past, the future, heaven, hell, mind, soul, or even that great granddaddy of them all, the Beyond. Where did the creature from the Black Lagoon come from? Where did the Phantom of the Opera disappear to? What's the address over the door of the house of the Werewolf and the Vampire and Jason and Freddie and the Gray and the Green and even that perennial all-time home run hit The Blob? Call it the Twilight Zone, or the Outer Limits, or the Dark Side, it all amounts to the same thing. Alternate dimensions, say science (or at least meta-science, which is good enough for an old hack like me) are all around us. They lay over and below us like a giant sandwich, layer upon layer, perhaps infinitely. Barely discernable one from the next, they say. A hundred billion earths with a hundred billion subtle differences. What differences? Maybe you had tuna for lunch yesterday instead of roast beef. Maybe Elvis didn't die on the throne. Maybe the Nazis won the big dubya dubya eye eye. Subtle differences, but perhaps reaching differences. Maybe the Werewolf lives in one. Why not? Maybe the Vampire, maybe The Blob. When you get right down to the sticking point, it's more than a philosophical experiment. It's like being kids around the campfire listening to ghost stories, soaking in the old yarn about the hook on the door handle or the chainsaw maniac. It's scary and it's fun, but only until the part about how the chainsaw killer was never caught and that he roams these very woods to this day. Only until you get back to your cabin and find some joker has gone and hung a metal hook on your door knob, ha-ha-very-funny. That's when it stops being fun. That's when it‟s just scary. Where... ? Because Mr. Rumon's rather fantastically titled book didn't leave off where it stopped being fun, or even where it stopped being technically sane. And the scary thing was the fact that it made a certain giggly sense. If, in some other layer of that giant dimensional sandwich, the story, every story, is true, is it a coincidence? How could it be? How could it not be? The stories, like I said earlier, they writhe as they reach the page. Like writing with a snake dipped in ink. They writhe. Impulsively, I reached out and closed the book in front of me. I closed it on its cover, so that the blank back plate stared up at the dim ceiling. My head was gently throbbing, swishing hotly in my ears. My adam's apple felt like a steel marble in a kid's fist. I took a large, deliberate swig of the Olympia and stifled a belch on the back of my hand. The dog (in my mind I wanted to call it Raider for some reason, but that didn‟t make any sense) whined from its place at the end of the bar. I heard its clickety footsteps as it crossed the bar and melted into the shadows, probably to curl up under a back table or in the corner behind the juke. The stool it had been sitting under raked the floor again and I became aware of its occupant, presumably the individual who had come in a few minutes earlier. Out of the corner of my eye I could see him gathered on the bar stool, one heavy foot propped against the rung at the base of the bar. He was a big one, hunkered on the bar stool like a bear on a tree stump. I wanted to turn and look at him, but didn't. The construction of most bars implicitly suggests the polite anonymity of those gathered around them. Men gather at bars like they gather at urinals: stare straight ahead -- tend to your business. But I could see his frame in the corner of the back mirror, through the reflecting bottles and the buzzing of a Schlitz neon. He was wearing a heavy avocado satin jacket with official patches on the upper sleeves; obviously a representative of the local law. His head was lowered so that I could only see a crown of dark, curly hair. He appeared to be studying a notebook or ticket-pad, making small tick marks here and there with a stubby red pencil. I switched my eyes away from him, meeting my own reflection again between the marching bottles of the back mirror. The cop had looked familiar. I stared at myself unseeingly for a few moments as I tried to place him. Nothing clicked. I took a small swig of beer and was about to motion for the bartender to rustle me up some lunch when the cop spoke. At the sound of it, the beer in my throat tried to turn into a gasp of surprise and hitched there, uncertain which pipe to go down. I coughed and my hand spasmed away from me, knocking my beer over with a clatter. Two shallow slops spilled out of the mostly empty bottle. Instinctively, I grabbed The Myth of Fiction from the bar top before it could get stained. Still coughing, I reminded myself that I didn't care if this particular volume got dropped into a bonfire, let it fall back on the counter (still out of range of the small beer puddle) and righted the Olympia. Out of the corner of my eye, I could feel the cop staring at me, his eyes mild, like heat lamps at half-strength. I pretended not to notice. There was a water-stained napkin dispenser a few places down from me. I swiped a few napkins and used them to mop up the spill, trying to look natural, noticing the interesting way my hands shook, almost vibrated, as they performed the small task. Behind the bar I could make out the shape of a green metal wastebasket half full of newspaper and crinkled wads of greasy wax-paper. I lifted a shot at it with the balled napkins. They struck the back cupboard and dropped in, nothing but net. "Three-pointer" I muttered, as if to myself. The cop was still staring, probably asking himself small town cop questions, like has he ever seen me before, do I look nervous, suspicious, dangerous, anything he should be concerned about. Of course that was what he was thinking. That was his job. Or maybe he was thinking that I looked strangely familiar. Not quite like someone he's met before, maybe some guy he gave a drunk and disorderly to last month or somebody from his wife's reading group. No, more like somebody he (dreamed about) saw on TV, or maybe on the back of a book or something. After a few seconds his gaze swiveled away. I felt it leave me and an inexplicable relief swept in. A cold relief, however, overlying something dull and nagging, a sort of mental white noise. It was more than familiarity I sensed about the cop. Everything about him nagged at me, set off tiny alarm bells deep in the dark spaces of my gut. I had never met him before, I was certain of that. But I knew him nonetheless. I had almost grasped it when he spoke. "Coffee tastes like it was brewed with a blow-torch, Ken." he had said, and it had been his voice that had done it. I turned my head slowly, not even aware that I had meant to do so. He was studying his notebook again, turning the narrow pages slowly with one hand, the pencil tapping the bar top in the other. His face was a profile against the light of the TV. I couldn't make out the features. On his hand was a scar. It wrapped around the outside of the base of his thumb like a crescent moon. He got that scar at his grandparent’s house when he was eleven, I heard myself think. He got it running his arm through the lower storm window of the screen door on the porch. He did it during a lightning storm, back when he thought they were exciting and fun, like giant parties in the sky. His wife called it Mr. Smiley on the second night of their honeymoon. He rubs it sometimes without knowing it. People think he's twiddling his thumbs when he does it, sitting behind the big desk in his office with the shoplifting posters (Free Ride in a Police Car!) on the corkboard and his service holster on the blotter. He doesn't think lightning storms are parties in the sky anymore. He still sits on the back porch of his own house and watches them sometimes, but nowadays his brow is furrowed when he does it, making a storminess of its own. He tells people that he's seen it all, but he doesn't really believe it. In reality he knows that the things he's seen are only the tip of the iceberg. He knows that ninety percent of that sucker is still hidden under the ocean, and perhaps more importantly, he knows there may be a lot more in that ocean than just (Frank Dodd) icebergs. My eyes were drifting downwards to the sleeve of his jacket, to the official patches just below the shoulder. I caught myself and jerked back to face front, pressing my lips together and reaching instinctively for something to hold onto. The reflection in the mirror met my gaze again, eyes bright like dimes and lips pressed into a pale line. A sort of breathless fright fanned out in my veins, settling in my stomach like bad alcohol. For three or four seconds I had been in the grip of a bizarre, irrational certainty. A certainty I did not want to admit to myself, much less entertain. I dropped my eyes to the beer, which was beginning to feel sour and busy in my stomach, and then to the book. I concentrated on it, surprised and unsettled at how hard it was. The book. It wasn't sane, not at all. Especially not to a person like me; not to a lifetime writer of freakish tales. It was full of all the wrong kinds of ideas, and while they were the sort of ideas any third grader could refute, they were also just the sort of ideas that fit all too perfectly into the hidden sockets in the back of a writer's mind. Giving a book like this to a writer like me was on the verge of the criminally irresponsible. It was like putting matches in the hand of a would-be pyromaniac; like giving a mirror to a schizophrenic so he can talk to himself face to face. My eyes drifted again to the cop. I could just see him out of the corner of my eye, just enough to see he was looking at me out of the corner of his. Or maybe I was just imagining that. That's what guys like us do. If life isn't exciting enough, give it horns. To guys like me, the glass isn't always just half-full, it's half full of premium Kentucky's Finest in a murdering debutante's hand. Or turpentine. Or sulphuric acid. Maybe all of the above. The thought that struck me next did so with very little fuss or drama. It presented itself as mere academic curiosity, brightly and calmly: is this what it feels like to go crazy? Everything in my head stopped for a moment, as if to listen. My eyes roamed over the bottles along the back mirror, then lit again on the framed newspaper clipping, the smiling crew-cut kid in the football pads. Car Accident Sidelines Local Favorite the headline ran. There was some fancy rolling iron behind him, parked jauntily on the edge of the field. The kid had probably wrecked one after a few Friday night beers. Coach probably told you to stay away from the alcohol, kid, ya shoulda listened. Is this what it feels like to go crazy? And then it struck me. It struck me with the perfect, simple clarity that always comes with the revelation of some nagging question that you had forgotten, for the moment, to agonize over. I remembered where the book, the Myth of Fiction, had come from. An enormous relief swept through me. The face in the mirror across from me had a look of comical stun on its face, eyes intently on nothing, mouth slightly ajar. Then the look melted into a secret smile, the sort of look Sherlock Holmes, in all his proper English restraint, was probably able to mostly conceal upon the solving of every great mystery. The book had, in fact, been a loan. It had not come from a student, however. It had come from another writer, one who had, at one time, shared the same agent as me. It had to have been in the early sixties, when unusual intellectual characters were nearly a dime a dozen on any college campus. Otherwise he would have been more immediately memorable. An intense, stocky, down-turned sort of fellow with wiry black hair and thick glasses. His name (I half closed my eyes and dug deep into my memory) was Howard Pope. He was a writer of what he called horror-fantasy, as if it were all one word. Only, as I recalled, he took it far more seriously than that. To Howard Pope, his genre was a cross between science and religion. He fancied me to be a compatriot of sorts, and I had always been too polite (or too gutless) to tell him otherwise. I remembered him approaching me in the outer hallway at my New Jersey agent's office, wearing his standard issue long black coat and turtleneck. He had a book under his arm, a book he said I should read. He said it wasn‟t a gift, just a loan. He would need it back, he insisted, as soon as I finished. I had not in the least asked for such a loan, had not even heard of the book he was proffering (not to mention that I was a bit perturbed by his obvious lack of trust in the matter of the loan) and I suggested that if the book was so valuable, perhaps I could simply write down the title and get myself a copy. He coughed and shuffled his feet, suddenly looking like he was in a hurry. There were very few others in print, he explained quickly and loudly, and his eyes had been even weirder than usual as he said it, swimming in the bowls of his enormously thick glasses. I couldn't remember what I had done with the book from that moment on. Probably thrown it in the back of the Vega I was driving then, and from there it had simply floated along with me, the way ever so much useless flotsam floats with one through life. This meant, I suddenly realized with a pang of useless guilt, I had never returned it to him. Suddenly I had to pee. Normalcy rushed in with that urge, and I was thankful for it. I slid off the barstool and, widely skirting the cop on his own stool, glancing over only long enough to see the back of his dark, curly-haired head and see that he was no longer paying attention to me (not that I'd notice if he did, he was a cop, and even small town cops were stealthier than that) I rounded the bar toward the twin restroom doors. I banged open the one marked “Gents” and found the urinal around a painted cinder block partition. There was someone in one of the stalls. I could see the toes of his black cowboy boots poking out from the accordioned legs of his jeans. I could hear him, too, puffing out a strained hiss and cursing under his breath. And oh, yeah, I could smell him, too. Ah, the total sensory experience of the public men's room. I unzipped and commenced to relieve myself. The wall before me was cinder block, painted a dim version of mint green. There was the traditional assortment of graffiti, etched and spidering on the wall over the urinal, more colloquially informative than the local paper. My eyes breezed idly over the proclamations of white power and the subsequent intellectual rebuttals, the offers of ten buck titillation every Tuesday behind the Howard Johnson, the limericks and amusing, anatomically ridiculous drawings. Here I sit all brokenharted, came to shit and only farted I found myself rummaging in the old storage cabinets of my memory for some reference or clue about whatever had become of ol' Howard Pope, partly because I owed him a book, partly out of plain curiosity. He hadn't been a greenhorn writer when I knew him. While we were approximately the same age, he had been publishing books and stories for years. He had no delusions of the big time, I recalled. “Never gonna be the next Tolkien,” he said once. “Wouldn‟t wanna be. Too pricey to deal with stuff that big.” His forum was the pulp magazines and the drugstore paperback rack, the one that stands in the back corner between the Swisher Sweets and the end of the magazine counter where the magazines have metal faceplates leaning against their lurid covers. I was more than a little familiar with that corner myself. Most of my early stories (and a few of my later ones) ended up there as well. For Pope, of the long black coat and the grungy turtleneck, it was his bread and butter, and he ate it like it was the food of the gods. He was a positively voracious reader of the stuff as well as writer of it. He drove a Gremlin and I remembered passing it in the parking lot once on my way to drop off a manuscript. The interior of the car was full of magazines and paperbacks, and I don't use the word “full” lightly. What space was not required for his chunky little body to sit in was packed with layer upon layer of dingy gray newsprint, dog-eared paperbacks with the page edges dyed red or yellow, gaily vivid cover art of women in shredded dresses unconscious in the arms of what appeared to be corpses with gigantism, and notebooks. Dozens of notebooks, fat and rumpled with use, stained with coffee and dirty (or chocolatey) fingerprints, and packed, margin to margin, top to bottom, with tiny, dense handwriting. These were Pope's stories, and that was exactly how he turned them in. Pages of loose, packed handwriting, frayed edges where they'd been torn from the spirals. The agent we shared was named Morrie Greenfeld. He told me one evening after a coupla-three beers that Pope even turned in his books that way. Hundreds of pages stuffed into a binder or still in the spirals. Morrie employed an old woman that lived on his block to type them for him. It was well worth it for the sheer volume of work Pope produced. He wrote an average of five short stories a month, and a book every six months. It was all absolute drivel, Morrie assured me (and my writer's ego, no doubt) but it was good drivel. Drivel that sold. And Morrie told me a story that night, after I mentioned Pope's car. He said that he, Morrie, once had one of Pope's stories returned to him by a particular magazine publisher. Usually this magazine was a sure-sell. They specialized in back-corner-of- the-drugstore fantasy and sci-fi. This time, however, they didn't feel that the story worked. The characters were all too alien, the editor explained. Aliens are great, aliens are gorgeous, as long as there is one good ol‟ red-blooded, square-jawed human to go up against them and blast them to smithereens (in day-glo color). Nobody wanted an alien hero in their stories, no matter how much character development backed it up. Nice try, the editor had said, but no thanks. Morrie was stunned. Not so much because of the loss of the sale; he was worried about how Pope would react. Authors have, as I may already have indicated, typically delicate egos. Pope was an author who was accustomed to selling, who never even gave selling a second thought. That was one of the things about him. His books sometimes came back with a list of editorial suggestions, but sooner or later, they sold. They always sold. And it was usually sooner. Morrie dreaded telling Pope about the rejection. When Pope showed up in the office, Morrie told him that the publisher had passed this time, but not to worry, there were other avenues. Pope shook his head dismissively and said no, no other publishers. What was the editor looking for? Morrie took the question to be a rhetorical complaint of the don't-they-recognize-quality-drivel-when-they-see-it variety. He attempted to downplay the rejection again, but Pope simply cut him off. What are they looking for? He asked, and Morrie realized the question was literal. He considered it. The editor had, in fact, chatted with Morrie about some upcoming themes they wanted to explore. Vampires were always a big draw, he had said, but they were looking for a new approach to the old standard. Forget the widow's peak and the black cape and the cobwebbed castle. How about a vampire for the times? Morrie explained this to Pope, and then, in a burst of inspiration, provided a rough example, something that had simply popped into his head during his phone conversation with the editor. What about a female vampire? A foxy vampire in hip-hugger jeans and a black leather jacket? Maybe she can stalk the streets of some big urban scene, chauffeured around by her undead minions in a black muscle-car with custom plates. After all, in a place like Manhattan or L.A., where weirdos are the rule, who'd really believe the babe with the long canines and the vanity plates that read “bloodlust” was really a vampire? Her very brazenness would be her best disguise. Pope listened intently for a minute, then interrupted Morrie without explanation. He swept out of the office, his ridiculous black coattails flapping, leaving Morrie in mid-sentence. Half a minute later, from his window, Morrie saw Pope emerge from the building and throw himself into his Gremlin. Figuring Pope was leaving in a fit of affronted rage, Morrie sighed, gathered his own coat, and prepared to leave for the day. He was at the door and reaching to turn off his light when Pope reappeared in the hallway. He had a stack of two or three pregnant-looking notebooks in his hand, which he offered to Morrie without speaking. "They contained a story called 'Blood Drive'," Morrie told me that night, his eyes glazing ponderously over the cleavage of the girl sitting around the corner of the bar. "It was about a six-foot female vampire with raven black hair and a predilection for knee-high leather boots and fast cars. She was finishing up a road trip, looking for new digs. A road trip that ended in Las Vegas. Vegas, baby, it was perfect. She was driven, if you can believe it, by a zombie teenage hood she called Frankie. He drove a black Trans Am.” Morrie noticed his beer as if for the first time, took a deep pull of it and wiped his mouth. “It was just in his car. I described a story to him and he just happened to have one almost identical to it in that shit-heap of a car. That was weird. Fuckin weird.” Smiling at the memory, I zipped and turned around to the sink to wash my hands. The hot water didn't work and the plastic dispenser next to the mirror was out of soap. I contented myself with scrubbing under the cold tap. From the stall I heard the rattle of the toilet paper dispenser and the scuffle of boots. More graffiti limped across the stall wall to my left. I flicked my eyes over it vacantly. What had ever become of Howard Pope? If I visited the back corner of the Hanford drug store I could probably find out. His name would probably appear on at least one of the paperbacks on the revolving bookrack, between The Happy Hooker and the Late, Great Planet Earth. There was something needling me about those old memories. I pressed my lips together, trying consciously to make the connection. It was all wrapped up in Howard Pope (never wanna be the next Tolkien; too pricey to deal with stuff that big) the Myth of Fiction, and the cop out front. It nagged at me. I flicked off the water with the back of my wrist and swiveled to the cloth dryer attached to the wall. The spindle inside ratcheted noisily as I yanked the loop of slightly damp cloth through it, looking vainly for a dry spot. The toilet flushed behind me. I heard the occupant's belt jangle as he pulled up his pants. I felt weird. Slow, somehow. I'm standing in the Mellow Tiger, I thought disconnectedly. How odd that I'd be standing in the Mellow Tiger with a book like the Myth of Fiction out on the bar, under the Budweiser premiums and the newspaper clippings. Was it only a coincidence that I'd been thinking about old Howard in the black coat and the outrageously packed Gremlin with the surplus of stories? Or that I hadn't immediately recognized the familiar car (Accident Sidelines Local Favorite) with the maliciously grinning bumper in the newspaper clipping over the bar, sunlight daggering off its black-and-white chrome grill? Or that, on top of it all, I'd bump into somebody like that cop out front, with the familiar scar and the dark curly hair; the cop that looked so very, hauntingly much like- And then my eyes, still roving idly over the graffiti packed on the wall, lit upon three tiny words scratched into one of the mortar lines. Three words that were a dark epiphany to me. Three words that made my guts turn hot and loose. Three, simple, meaningless little words: do you love? I couldn't take my eyes off them. Even as I heard the door of the stall behind me open and knew that it would be best for me to go, to go then and to go quickly, I couldn't take my eyes away from them. For some reason, I simply refused to believe they were there, and insisted on resolving them into something else, some other meaningless bit of tripe. Why would anyone write those words on a bathroom wall, so tiny hardly anyone would ever notice them? Why would anyone write those (Pricey) words at all? Anywhere? I should have known, but I didn't. And it wasn't the first time I had asked myself the question. The figure that had been in the stall was moving behind me. I was partially in his way, if he meant to wash his hands. I knew that he didn't, but he was waiting anyway. He wanted to get a look at me. I turned, very slowly, my eyes craning and wide. Ace Merrill stood in pegged jeans and a scuffed leather jacket before the mirror. He was leaning over slightly, his eyes upturned so he could see himself as he smoothed his hair back with a black plastic comb. An unlit cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. "Is that your ride out front?” He said, his eyes slitting at me momentarily, flicking me up and down, and then returning to the mirror. It was Ace Merrill, resident badass, nucleus of an amorphous gang of the mean and the stupid. I would have expected him to be, somehow, more than what I‟d created, but he wasn't. He was exactly as I had seen him, the way he had been the very first time I had met him, decades earlier, when he showed up at the door of the conduit in my mind one night, complete and perfect, sneering with dumb arrogance, blind cunning, and affable hatred. "I asked you a question, didn't I?" Ace said mildly, slipping his comb into his back pocket. He checked himself again in the mirror and then turned to me. I couldn't respond to him. It was completely insane. Ace Merrill didn't exist. And then, surprising myself, I spoke the first words that occurred to me. "Where are your buddies, Ace?" My eyes were bolted to his face, begging for a response. My heart felt like it was pumping maple syrup at approximately twelve beats a minute. I felt it sing sluggishly in my ears. Ace? Who's Ace, asshole? Say it. How hard can it be? Four little words. Punch me in the face. Knock my teeth out. Bust up my car and steal my wallet, just say it. Say it. Say those four, simple, cheap little words. A look of easy contempt settled onto his face, but there was something hard and sharp underneath that look. Something like murder and something like fear. "You oughtta know." He said, and took a small step backward. He reached behind him with a lazy, liquid movement, heading for a back pocket, the one that wasn't holding his comb. I spun away from him and scrambled for the door. My shoulder thunked hard against the cinder block partition that separated the urinal from the door, throwing me off balance. My feet skated on the wet tile floor and I barely mastered them, hurling myself around the partition to the door. The door was inexplicably missing. I smacked against the wall with a flat thud, twisting my wrist and banging my knee. "Where you going?" Ace asked casually. I could hear him approaching around the partition, his boots knocking hollowly on the floor. "We aren't through talking yet." My knees turned suddenly watery, threatening to unhinge. I scanned the wall uselessly, frantically, then, in a burst of inspiration, spun around hard enough to feel my eyes bulge at the force of it. The door was behind me, further down the partition, behind where the urinal was. I knew I hadn't come in that way, but there it was, peeling brown paint, tarnished hand plate and all. I lunged for it, knowing the switchblade Ace was fingering behind me, ready to hear the soft snick the blade would make as it shot out like a six-inch cat's claw. I stumbled out of the restroom and immediately butted my thighs against a small, round table. The centerpiece, a candle in a knurled red jar, danced off the edge and fell harmlessly to the floor. There were two people seated at the table, staring suddenly up at me. Carietta White, her cheeks waxy in the dim light, her hair beautifully straight and divided over her shoulders, and Tommy Ross, his hand clutched loosely around the curves of a glass of Coke. Carrie had an enormous corsage of lilac roses and babies' breath on her wrist. They were both dressed for the prom. They both smelled vaguely of smoke. I righted myself, and threw myself backwards, away from the pair. Their eyes followed me with bewildered interest. Tommy reached across the table and covered Carrie's hand with his. Ace came out of the restroom and I backed hard into him, nearly throwing us both back inside. He gave a great, wiry shove and sent me back into the bar, following quickly. George Bannerman's voice came easily over the sound of the juke. "Ace, who's your friend?" I whirled toward that voice, saw the cop on the barstool stand slowly, slipping his notebook back into the inside pocket of his jacket with thoughtless grace. His eyes settled over me again like weights, easily, professionally. "He's no friend of mine." Ace drawled, shrugging the shoulders of his leather jacket back and cracking his neck. “Just some asshole I bumped into." I staggered toward the door, but the bar was all wrong. The door had moved, and the booths were on the other side. The jukebox glowed like a yellow moon in the shadows, a Rockola now, its lights shifting over the faces of the tables. The glass eyes of a dozen stuffed trophies, from coyote to moose, presided from the high shadows over the bar, looking down from their places of dusty honor. Billy Tupper stood in front of the taps, swabbing a mug and looking at me for lack of anything better to do. Velvet twilight could be seen outside the tall, narrow windows framing the door. The bar was The Mellow Tiger now. Not exactly the way I had always envisioned it, but I had the awful certainty that the differences represented areas where I had gotten it wrong. Somebody heavy bumped me from behind, knocking me off my path to the door. I wheeled around and saw Hugh Priest turning away from the Rockola. The lights of it gave his features a jack-0-lantern glow in the shadows. “Goddam thing stole my quarter.” He growled at me. His breath was rank with Pabst Blue Ribbon and beef jerky. “Always steals my fuckin quarters.” He half turned to the machine and dealt it a solid kick with a Redwing work boot. "Hugh!" Henry Beaufort called from behind the bar, "I'm warning you!" Jack Torrance looked up at me from a table between them, a look of half-humorous comradeship on his face. "So many interruptions," He murmured to me, or past me. "Hard to concentrate.” On the table before him was a half glass of bourbon and a Smith Corona typewriter, black as an anvil. The bar was suddenly full of people, full of weirdly familiar faces. I could see the door, and I pressed toward it. Even as I watched, more people came in: a group of two followed by three more. The bar was filling up as if for a Friday night concert. George Stark sat down at the table with Jack Torrance, caught my eye and hoisted a conspiratorial grin. He was wearing a light blue, short-sleeved shirt under which could be seen the ghost of a strappy tee. Several Mirado Black Warrior pencils protruded from his shirt pocket. The woman in the third chair at the table followed George's gaze, turned, and saw me. Roberta Anderson smiled and raised her beer in friendly salute. Come on over and have a seat, the salute said, We’ll talk, the four of us writer types. We’ll talk story versus plot, compare the relative merits of The Buffalo Soldiers and The Red Shirt Man. We’ll discuss The Craft. It looked like a psycho's version of one of those author murals at Barnes and Noble. I turned away, surprised at how hard it was; surprised to find I had actually been considering the invitation. Louis Creed sat vacantly at the bar with his son Gage on his lap. Leland Gaunt was seated next to them, looking overdressed and showing Gage a card trick. Somebody whooped hectically to my right, setting my teeth on edge. "C'mon ladies! We gonna hunt the bitch!” The voice cried giddily. I turned to the sound of it as I went, unable to stop myself. Of course, it was Ronnie Malenfant, his face a pocked moonscape under his glasses and lively, greasy hair. He was dealing to a table in a drab corner, a table littered with beer cans and ashtrays and little plastic baskets full of greasy wax paper and orange chicken bones. Ray Garraty looked up at me from the table. His eyes were like the tips of spikes driven into his head. Tom Cullen reached through a forest of brown bottlenecks to scoop up the litter of cards Malenfant dealt him. "M-O-O-N, that spells bitch." he muttered to himself. Todd Bowden told Malenfant to shut the fuck up as he studied his cards, slapping two onto the table in front of Garraty. I forced myself onward, feeling a sickening mixture of fascination and revulsion. My feet felt numb, like cinder blocks somehow sewn to my flesh. I had to get out, had to find help. I could feel the flexible bullet worming, working, seeking its mark. A guitar riff jarred through the room, and then a hiss of feedback, "Test, one. Test, one." A voice with an edge of Bronx in it called. It was Larry Underwood on the small stage, adjusting a microphone, a guitar around his neck. Stokely “Rip-rip” Jones sat beneath the stage, his back to it, his crutches leaning against the table. He raised his eyes, saw me looking, and gave me a disinterested middle finger. On his face was either disdain or a suppressed smile. Henry Bowers and Frank Dodd stood shoulder to shoulder by the door, Bowers giggling, glancing occasionally over his shoulder and out the window, Dodd wearing his deputy badge and khakis, idly watching the football game on the TV over the bar. Kurt Dussander, a.k.a. Arthur Denker, was slowly hanging a long, dark coat on a wire coat hanger. His face was a pall of miserable resignation. He was dressed in a cheap, costume Nazi uniform. I tried not to look at them. It was madness to look at them. But they seemed to want to be seen, all of them. And perhaps even more obviously, they wanted to see me. After all, in a very real sense of the word, I had already seen all of them before, had already been inside their heads, already walked a mile, as it were, in their shoes. This was the first any of them had ever actually seen me. I brushed past their shoulders, heard snippets of their conversations, conversations I hadn't written, but would have written, had I a mind to. And then at the door, as I shoved desperately past Dolores Claiborne in the company of what could only be a teenage version of Charlie McGee, just as I could smell the cool mist of night beyond the cigarette smoke and pulsing heart of the Mellow Tiger, a thick hand grasped my shoulder, stopping me bodily. “Wait just a minute, there,” A round, pleasant, female voice said, and the babble of voices, the steady thrum of two dozen conversations, dulled to a hush. “I know who you are,” The voice continued. "You write all those marvelous books!" And the hand pulled me back, away from the door, into the perimeter of the crowd. The hand turned me around and I was face to face with her, staring into that expression of distracted concentration, of idolic solidity, that dull, vapid look of crevasse. She breathed into my face and smiled sweetly. "I'm your number one fan," She chided dreamily. I tore from her grip, terror finally assuming control, filling my head like sand. She stared after me. They all did, a sea of familiar, dead, almost-knowing eyes. I flung myself at the door, felt it give before me, and plunged into darkness. Cold engulfed me like a maw. A dank and still mist hung in the air, coalescing in the glow of the neon and making greasy nimbuses around the arc-sodiums in the lot. I stopped dead on the decrepit sidewalk and suddenly knew with a certainty that was as solid and unforgiving as a January gravestone that I wasn't crazy, I wasn't crazy, oh shit oh Christ if only I’d just been fucking crazy! My knees stopped working and without realizing it I folded into a penitential kneel on the border of the sidewalk and the gravel lot. The crotch of my jeans was hot, damp and I very distantly felt urine running freely down my legs. My eyes bulged, the skin of my face tightened as if someone had grabbed my ears from behind and were cinching them slowly, painlessly towards the back of my head. My jaw had fallen open and I was grinning a dog's meaningless, stupid leer. It wasn't that Hanford itself was gone. It was there, and it was just as it had ever been. I could see the road humping over shallow dips back into the rusted industrial glow of the outskirts of town. It was that Hanford wasn't alone. Realities crowded in, flickering like images in an old Movietone news reel. There were a dozen Hanfords, easily recognizable, almost but not quite perfectly overlaying each other. The road into town was a slow, sickening flux: divided highway, two-lane blacktop, packed and rutted dirt, pavement disintegrating to gravel, all emerging and receding into each other without moving at all, defying the eye. Cars, trucks, people moved along the road (roads) seemingly at normal speed and with no reference to each other, but with sudden blinding lunges, like film being run through a machine with loose cogs and missing teeth in its gears. The city that swallowed the road bulged and heaved, a dozen versions, a hundred versions, most nearly identical, but some, at the edges of vision, making my eyes water, wildly different, alien and boggling. I turned my head, tore my eyes away, and nearly vomited as rippling realities swam before me, leaping up, darting into my head like spikes, and then retracting again, shuttling past in a ratcheting blur like pegs on a wheel of fortune. Time became plastic and in that moment, each reality introduced itself and read me its biography, and I catalogued each one. They piled up in my head like a waterfall dumping into a shot glass. I clutched my head, not aware I was rolling over, huddling fetal on the sidewalk, my eyes watering behind clenched lids and my teeth grinding. With my eyes still closed, the pain in my head lessened. It was dreadful, but manageable, and getting better with surprising speed. Slowly, very cautiously, I slitted my eyes. It was better. I could see my Navigator, its headlights winking dark facets back at me through the fog. I focused on it because it was familiar and known, wonderfully normal and solid in that heaving dark sea of madness. It looked like home, like safety, like maybe I could still slip away, out of this ... this whatever it was, this hole or rift or nexus or whatever the hell you tried to call it. None of it fit, because there was no word for it, because it hadn't happened, it couldn't happen. Nothing I could imagine sanitized it, nothing I tried to compare it to stuck. So what do you do, I thought, well, you just get back in the car and you retrace your steps. Yeah, that's all. Go back the way you came, because you just stumbled into something and by golly, you can just stumble right back out of it the way the lucky stiffs from flight twenty-nine stumbled back through the asshole of time and escaped God's cleaning crew, the Langoliers, back there in reality 23,702, it can happen, as hard as it is to believe, it sure to by God can, sure can, sure ca- I clenched my eyes and pinched my cheeks hard enough to make the blood sing in my ears. It did the trick. The yammering in my head cut off with a nearly audible zip, like a record needle torn along the face of a spinning 45. I giggled at that, then bit my lips, holding it in desperately. I rolled onto my butt and backed myself against the bar's cinder block wall slowly, slitting my eyes bit by bit. The worlds had somehow resolved themselves, focused into an almost seamless tableau that I could begin to make sense of. The Navigator was still there, a seemingly solid shape swimming in a tide of not quite settled but overlapping wheres and whens. I stood up slowly, supporting myself against the cold wall of the bar, keeping my eyes on the Navigator in the parking lot as if it might vanish if I glanced away. I tried to move toward it, and I began to succeed. As I crept out of the shelter of the Mellow Tiger, I sensed four primary worlds settling swiftly, resolving themselves around me like points on a lunatic compass: South is the world of Captain Trips and the Walkin’ Dude, white against black, death like an invisible cloak over a blinded, goggling, ghost-earth; East is world upon world of Maine, hundreds of Castle Rocks, Derrys, Salem’s Lots, Havens, Little Tall Islands, state after state where the locals say "Ayuh”, the summer people come and go, and secrets never stay buried; North is chaos and insanity, deceptive calm over a thin crust of psychic permafrost, under which lies nothing but madness, gibbering, leering, giggling, with blood leaking from its eyes like teary mascara; and West, ahhh the West is true north, binding, its single polarity drawing all and ordering it within itself, it is the first and the last, it is a beautiful flower on a poisonous cactus, and yellow desert sand like talcum powder, and sandalwood pistol grips hot in the palm, and iron tracks embedded in ancient, dead byways left like ten thousand mile long totems for those who come after to puzzle over. It all turned about me, swam about me, and watched me. As I moved into the gray mist of the parking lot, as the gravel began to grind under my feet like a thing in pain, I heard it, them, all the worlds and worlds within worlds, like a chorus of whispers, and all else was utter silence. I moved toward my Navigator sitting no more than thirty yards away, just outside the soft glow of one of the Mellow Tiger's two security lights, and knew, knew then with a sick, bleak certainty, that I would never reach it. With every short, weak step, things began to swim up out of the gray mists around me. Dark shapes that settled and descended, not so much arriving as simply revealing, like shapes under a mortician's sheet slowly, slowly pulled back. Out of the South came the sound of worn boot heels clocking on pavement, each step hitting the air and falling dead, echoless, and the feeling of a smile, a wide, shit-eating, aw-shucks-folks grin, baking out of the darkness like chimes from a broken bell. I didn't see the owner of the grin, but I knew he was there, and he knew I knew. From the West came the sound of complicated clacks and a choppy pneumatic hum, the sound of a machine both large and ancient, with slipping gears and threadbare circuits buried in a clogged, spider-infested carapace. A mechanical-biological bastardization with thousands of years of recorded nothingness cramming its memory banks and hundreds of chaotic, fizzing, thoroughly insane ghosts in the remains of its positronic brain. I saw myself as it saw me, a green, rasterized shape with a trip-hammering red bulb in its center. I felt the whining hum and clunk of its many-jointed legs, the heat-lamp pulse of its dark, hot eye. In the gathering gloom of the East trickles of dank water ran out into the light of the parking lot like mercury fingers, and a silhouette moved. Large, screamingly yellow shoes splutted in the water. I willed myself not to look at It, and succeeded, although I could feel Its fingers worming into my head, clutching blindly, as if my mind were a prize in one of those mechanical claw games. There was also a grin here, but there was no humor in it, only death and hate and something enormously, unapproachably alien. And even though I succeeded in not looking with my eyes, in my mind I saw It, unsheathing from the mist, and shockingly, It was wearing a paper cap between the tufts of Its stage-wig, and written on the cap were the words Oatley Tap. But worst of all, out of the North (surprisingly) came a bone-numbing cold push of air and the throaty rumble of a 350 cubic inch Golden Commando V-8. Headlights, four of them in two side-by-side clusters, speared the mist and pinned me. The grill was the first thing I saw, acres of silver chrome with a glinting V in the center. The car pushed through the deepening mist just beyond my Navigator, facing me with those heatless silvery lamps. The bumper leered with its inverted grin and when the car revved - quick, ecstatic pumps that unzipped the night air - the entire front of the car dipped slightly, nodding at me. Come on old friend, let’s play some it said to me without speaking, and I could feel the welcoming, hungry throat of its front seat, wide enough and deep enough to swallow my poor little Navigator whole if it wanted. I could sense the warm, green-gold glow of its dashboard, where every station on the old chrome-knobbed radio played Buddy Holly and Fats Domino and the Wolfman spun the vinyls non-stop all through the night. It’s been so long since we rode together, but I can tell you’ve never forgotten me, and you know what, my love? Even though you’ve been untrue, I can forgive you. You and I know that there’s something special about the first time. I can forgive you because I know you’ve never forgotten. Because once you’ve had chrome, you never go home. And I wanted to go to it, wanted to climb into that front seat (four doors on this one, because even though they never made a four-door fifty-eight Plymouth Fury in my world, they did in the world where the Story had happened) to slip into that golden-oldies glow, get behind the huge, hard, knobby ring of the steering wheel again, and become one with (my love, my unending fury) the past. It was Christine, she of the murderous jealousies, she of the vengeful, delicious, eight-cylinder rage, and I wanted her, as only I knew that she wanted me. Because, she had been my first, in the only way that really mattered. I had killed with her, ridden in the driver's seat wearing a thin death's-head mask (Viva ze bool) by the name of Lebay. Had no one else ever even suspected that it had been me? Had they not really? Secretly (maybe even not so secretly, as anyone who has read the book more than once would most likely sense) I had rooted for Christine. I wanted her to win, delighted in her merciless mayhem and unstoppable bloodlust. Of course, in the end, I had gotten out of the driver's seat (reluctantly!) and killed her; smashed her to bits and crushed her into a meaningless cube of red metal and glittering chrome. And that was supposed to be it; it’s been fun shweetheart, but I got a wife back home and 'sponsibilities, so sorry, I know you’ll understand. But that hadn‟t been it. I couldn't let it be it. A week after I thought I'd finished it, I pulled the manuscript for Christine back out of its box, almost unable to do otherwise. The Fornit in my typewriter was screaming for it back, so I rolled another sheet into the old Smith Corona and guess what, Constant Reader, as if you didn't already know? She came back. She came back. And when I collected those final 22 sheets of double-spaced paper and read through them, it was as if I hadn't even written them. I grinned as I read, and I suspect it was a grin that looked eerily similar to that dead leer on Christine's steely bumper. I can forgive you, Christine whispered to me across the lot, as I walked past my Navigator towards her cold, cold lights, as her driver's side door clicked open welcomingly, Because you’ve never forgotten me. We can make it like old times, me and you, only better. And I know just where to start, oh yes, yes I do... "Arnie! Hey Cunningham, you four-eyed fag! Over here!" Someone was calling (my name? Was that me? Everything was vague, strange, disembodied) across the short waste of the parking lot, calling with something like annoyed urgency, the way a parent might call after a two-year-old caught exploring the potted fichus with a sandbox shovel. But it didn't matter. I wasn't Arnie Cunningham. My name was Lebay or something, and I was going to go for a ride. I was going to- "Hey!" The voice called, and now its owner was right behind me, moving across the lot swiftly. "I'm talking to you, and I know you aren't deaf! Look at me! Turn around and look at me, godammit!" It wasn't the voice that made me stop and turn. It was the sight of another car, a squat, prissy little rust-bucket parked crookedly in a dark corner of the lot, the security lights playing on its filthy windshield and hood like swamp-fire. It was the Gremlin. His Gremlin. I could even see the dump-zone of the back seat in the murky depths of its interior, hamburger wrappers with petrified cheese on them, soda cans, and unruly heaps of bloated notebooks crammed with tiny, back-slanted (he was a lefty, I remembered) handwriting. There was a faded bumper sticker in the gloom beneath the left headlight. Don’t ask me silly questions, I won’t play silly games it read. I turned around. He stood there in the parking lot looking ridiculous and dour, with his hands stuffed into the deep pockets of his long black coat and the bony glow of Christine‟s headlights painting the lower half of his body. He shook his head slightly as he looked at me, as if confirming to himself something annoying and pathetic. "It was the car, wasn't it? The blasted Gremlin." He said flatly, not really asking. His eyes held me and studied me, then they flicked away, ticked around the parking lot and the shifting murk beyond. "I should have guessed. You always were a sucker for inane symbols. Stupid thing barely runs, burns oil like a bastard, but to you it's the fuckin Rosetta stone. C'mon, I need a drink." And he swept around, his coat flapping limply around his skinny legs. There was no question of my following him. The spell, if that was what it had been, was broken, and seeing his car had indeed been what did it; a car for a car, I guess you could say, yuk-yuk. Feeling stupid and sheepish (not to mention surprised and cautiously relieved) I did follow him. I expected Christine to howl in rage, to throttle and maybe even charge, but no sound came from behind me. I glanced back once, and the red car looked dark and dirty. Its headlights had turned to tarnished coins in the gray fog, and its right front tire was mostly flat. In the murky gloom, it would have been hard to recognize what make it was. There were no sounds coming from the dense mist around the parking lot now. Our footsteps crunched on the gravel and fell out of the air dead. He glanced up as he approached the Mellow Tiger, reaching for the metal handle of the door and heaving it open. "Somehow you always knew there'd be a bar at the bottom of this thing, didn't you?" He muttered. I followed his gaze as I moved toward the glow of the neons and the sound of the jukebox. The bar was taller than I'd remembered, ridiculously so. Its top soared upwards hundreds, maybe thousands of feet, the cinder-block walls melting into dark stone bricks which diminished upward in a blur of perspective. Turrets and balconies hugged the face of the tower, narrow windows marched around its circumference, spiraling up and up, vanishing into a cauldron of sluggishly heaving clouds. And then it was all gone as I moved through the door, and I had to force myself to lower my head, feeling dazed and vacant and serenely dizzy. The bar was back the way it had been when I first entered, mostly deserted and lazy in the mid-afternoon gloom. The barkeep stood at the end of the bar polishing mugs, still watching football on the wall-mounted television. The cop (sheriff, he was the sheriff) in the avocado satin jacket was gone. The Myth of Fiction, by Feodre Rumon, was still on the bar, backside up, as was my glass and the mostly empty Olympia. We moved to the bar, and he of the long black coat and the oil-burning Gremlin got there first, heaving himself onto a stool and turning to look back at me. "You'd think you'd have learned a few things from working with your buddy Straub, at least." He shot at me as I moved gingerly back onto my stool, wrapping my hand around the bottle of Olympia as if for support. “„Do not begin things when you will get too flustered to remember how to finish them.‟ That was the Great Herbie Butter, AKA Coleman Collins, magician. That is to say, something of a kindred spirit. Never a truer word was spoken, although I'm not sure it‟s an exact quote. Collins tells me he can't really remember saying it at all. He was drunk.” And he measured me with a dark look before finally turning to stare into the forest of bottles behind the bar. "First off, don't kid yourself into thinking none of that really happened. It did, and it wasn't a hallucination or a flashback or any of that goddam, half-baked, existentialist are-you-a-part-of-my-dream-or-am-I-a-part-of-yours shit. The people you saw in here a few minutes ago- Ace, Bannerman, Carrie, the whole lot- they're all just as real as you and me. Not that that means a whole lot, but if the word „real‟ has any meaning at all, they fit in the same category as you, me and this bar top.” He rapped the bar for emphasis. "There is one difference, although it‟s pretty technical, almost meaningless. Still, it‟s the sort of difference that makes old hacks like the two of us shiver and reach for a notebook." I settled onto the barstool and looked vaguely through the marching bottles in front of the mirror. I heard my voice, sounding perfectly normal and casual, ask "What difference is that?" He looked at me sideways. "They're all dead. I thought you'd have guessed that." "I think I just needed to hear you say it." Pope looked sideways at me for a long, flinty minute, his eyes like the twin bores of a sawed-off shotgun. Then, ponderously, he lowered his head into the depths of the collar of his coat and sighed an enormous, quaking sigh. Without raising his head again, he spoke. His voice was a quiet, resigned monotone. "You didn't even read the book, did you." I reeled my mind in for several seconds before remembering The Myth of Fiction, lying there on its cover on the bar top to my right. I looked at it dully. "Of course not." He answered himself, a disembodied, annoyed mumble from the cave of his collar and hunched shoulders. "Why should you? Crazy old Howard Pope hands you some crazy old collection of paranoid ravings printed in gods knows what backwater dimension, what do you do? You humor him. You take it, you tell him no sweat hombre, I'll crack it open and read it with my morning bowl of fuckin Special K, hell yeah. You go out to your car, you shake your head and smile with all the smugness of a sewer rat dining on a dead cat, and you toss the book into the back seat and thirty years later you sit there blinking like nobody tried to clue you in." He paused while his hand wrapped around the base of his bottle of beer, hoisted it into the worn batwing collar of his coat. He swallowed a third of it and exhaled wearily. "Screw you." He finished mildly, putting the bottle back down. I waited. My thoughts were like unhitched boxcars, rolling in no particular order and not always in the same directions. I knew this wasn't a dream. When I tried to venture off that knowledge in any other direction, my mind met trapdoors. Several minutes swam by and Pope didn't move, giving me time to calm down, to pull some sanity together. The mind is a muscle that can move the world. I had written that once, and I heartily believed it. The mind, the imagination, is a dangerous tool to play with. Perhaps mine had short-circuited on me a bit, but now I was coming back from that, recovering slowly, returning to the equilibrium of the rational. There's a reason that most people who make a living tapping into the moon-pool of imagination are a little odd at best, and often completely bugshit crackers. The fuse box of the creative force is a powerful, indiscriminate thing. The human mind isn't very well insulated against its force. I had been a conduit for a long time. I shouldn't have been surprised that my own wires might turn out to be a little stripped here and there. All the more reason to give serious consideration to the idea of hanging up the old typewriter once and for all, I thought. That was it. The whole affair, the entire hallucination; it had been a warning, like the one the Doc gives the lifetime smoker when he tells him if he doesn't quit now he might as well start teaching his kids how to take care of his prize rhododendron. It made sense, it was neat and symbolic, and hell yeah, I like the symbolic. So sue me. I realized that Pope was moving slightly next to me. His shoulders convulsed slightly, rhythmically. Was he sobbing? Was it Pope at all, or had he just been part of the delusion? Maybe it was just some old rummy in a Salvation Army coat. I started to slide off my barstool quietly, reaching for my wallet to slap a ten on the bar top and make my escape, when I realized that the big guy next to me wasn't sobbing. He was laughing, a completely humorless, cynical laugh, like chuffs of steam under the lid of a boiling pot. He stopped me when he spoke. "There's a reason that most people who make a living tapping into the moon-pool of imagination are a little odd at best, and often completely bugshit crackers," He said and laughed a hard little bark. I slowly settled back on the barstool. "All right," he said on the exhale of a resigned sigh. "So you didn‟t read the book. I tried to warn you, or at least prepare you, and you blew it off. It really would have been no big deal, I suppose. I mean really, there are thousands of people doing what you do who have no idea how it works or what the cost might be. Hell, that's true of most people who get behind the wheel of their car everyday. So maybe I didn't really try very hard. Maybe I feel a little guilty myself even. But hey, guilt's the price we pay for getting out of bed every morning. You aren't here to get dressed down by the likes of me and I'm not here to give you my confession. We both know, really, why we're here." He stopped and took a smaller drink of his beer. I felt myself think I don’t know what he’s talking about, I thought I was here to get a beer and kill a little time, but I was looking into my own eyes in the mirror across the back of the bar and the eyes told me different. I didn‟t know for sure, but I had a strong feeling. It stood up in the back of my mind like a stranger in a cheap suit in the back row of a family funeral. I felt surreally calm, as if things had quietly but utterly swung out of my control and all I could do was keep my hands inside the car at all times and hope that the ride would be over soon. "We're here to talk about retirement." I said flatly. Pope stared ahead, his expression frozen and inscrutable. He didn‟t speak for almost a minute, then he said quietly, "Do you ever wonder where it all comes from?" I frowned and thought again of every book signing and writer's workshop I had ever attended. That same Dreaded Question with no answer. Where do you get your ideas? "We all wonder that." I said. I glanced again at the back of the book on the bar top to my right. "Not quite all of us." Pope said in that same, quiet, calm voice. I glanced at him, not out of surprise, because that was exactly the sort of runic comment I expected him to make, but because I sensed he was rousing himself, preparing to say something that he maybe didn't really want to say. He noticed me looking, pressed his lips together into a taut little line, then turned his head and looked full at me. "You know why the movies they make out of your books suck so much?" He said, clipping each word like he was trying to bite it in half. "Because when you boil the stories down to neat little ninety-minute sound bites, they're all pretty silly, frankly. You ought to hear how it goes when somebody asks somebody else about that book they're reading by that creepy author. You ought to hear how dopey the stories sound when people try to describe them. A haunted car. Local yokel vampires. Giant space spiders in the sewer. The movies stink because the stories get bled dry in order to be thin enough to fit onto a screen. The format can't contain them. Some things can't be expressed that way. Some ideas are cheapened simply by being caged in words." He turned away and looked along the length of the bar. He looked like he was trying to find somebody else to take over for him. He spoke again without looking back at me. "What I'm going to tell you now is like that. It's going to be cheapened by the words I put it in. It'll sound stupid. Even worse, it'll sound harmless. But I am going to tell you anyway, and then it‟ll be yours and you'll have to do with it whatever you think is best. I'm going to tell you where the stories come from." I waited. The bartender still stood at the far end of the bar swabbing mugs, his head turned towards the flickering blue of the TV. The jukebox paused between songs, making elderly whirs and clicks, then it began to play a scratchy recording of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” for whoever might be listening. There was a subtle feeling of lull in the air, as if the entire world had gone on autopilot. Then Pope began. "Have you ever noticed that almost every other language in the world ascribes gender to what us postmodern types like to think of as inanimate things?" He said, turning his mostly empty beer bottle around idly on its coaster. "I don‟t know if it says more about them that they do or about us that we don't, but there is a good reason for it, one that the modern world has mostly ignored. The fact is that life is infectious. We come to give a name to our car or to think of our house as a she, and we think that we are just being sentimental. We believe different though, don't we? We all understand it in the core of our hearts. Humans create their own psychic, emotional weather, and everything picks it up, like radio signals on dental fillings. Things absorb it, adopt it, turn it into a habit. Things catch live. They learn personality by osmosis. Dolores Claiborne talked about it, so this isn‟t a new idea to you. She said houses have a life of their own that they take from the people who live in „em. She was more right than even she knew. Old buildings get it. The trees and rocks get it. Dirt gets it. Stonehenge got it, and nobody wants to know what it thinks about. Stuff catches live. Not all of it wants to, or likes it, but it doesn't have any say in the matter. Frankly, it usually takes eons, centuries at least. But sometimes it can happen almost instantly in extreme situations, if the circumstances are just right." He flicked a hand toward the book on the bar top. "'Instant psychic fossilization' as old Dr. Rumon calls it." Pope turned his head half toward me distractedly. "There‟s even a textbook example of it in there." He said after a considering pause. "I suspect you would be interested in it. It's the Titanic.” I wasn't quite tracking everything Pope was saying, but my brain caught up to what he had just said and I blinked. "What are you... are you saying that the Titanic is..." I couldn't think of any other way to say it, "alive?" "Not alive,” He answered quickly, dropping his gaze to his restless fingers. "Quite. Aware, maybe. Conscious, at least. Here's the crux of the matter: the same rules apply to emotional energy as to any other kind of energy, and that means that it cannot be destroyed. It has to go somewhere. It usually just dissipates into other people the way lightning is grounded by striking a tree. We all walk through and are influenced by micro emotional weather systems everyday. Relatively speaking, very little of it gets absorbed by the environment, since humans are such good conductors of that kind of energy. But the Titanic... the Titanic absorbed the dying terrors of thousands of doomed people in the dead center of the Atlantic ocean. The survivors on the surface weren't enough to absorb that energy and there was literally nowhere else for it to go. The ship itself took most of it in one nuclear bright moment of psychic implosion. Every rivet, every iron plate, every light fixture and porthole was flash-born into screaming nightmare consciousness even before it crashed into the waste of the ocean bottom." Pope had lapsed into what I thought of as his writing voice, using words like "doomed" and "implosion". And yet, I was morbidly transfixed. "So what's it like?" I asked. Pope glanced at me, as if surprised I was there, then shook himself. "What would you be like after a century of slow decomposition in a sensory deprivation chamber a thousand miles across with nothing but the memory of terror and death rattling in the tomb of your mind? She's cold and raw and very, very mean. That's what she‟s like." He paused and I considered. "Is it - she – dangerous?" Pope raised his eyebrows slightly. "On some level. Sure. Because the psychic pulse goes both ways. Things get it from us, and if it's strong enough, we can get it from things. Anyone who‟s been on the dives to the corpse of the Titanic knows, on a subconscious level at least, that they are picking up her signals. I can't say for sure, but I can imagine it. I suspect it's like a ringing in your ears, only it‟s in your heart, your soul. Something numbing and cold and deadened, masking something swarming and insane. That sort of consciousness would be alien and awful, more than any human mind could contain. If subjected to too much of it, a human mind would bend and break. But that's just for those few people who have gotten down close to her. The Titanic is too deep and too relatively small to be felt much from the surface." "What if it could be?" I wondered aloud. It felt like the first itches of the sorts of musings that turn into a Story. "What if something had happened that was so terrible and huge that it affected the area for miles and miles around, even from the bottom of the ocean?" As I said the words, they suddenly didn't seem like my own words, but words written for me by someone else. They hung in the air like shapes made of incense smoke. Pope looked at me sideways again, his face taut and slightly shiny in the neon glow of the bar. His jaw muscles worked as he studied me. "Think Atlantis." He said very quietly, his mouth barely moving, his eyes pinning me like a butterfly on a corkboard. "Think Bermuda Triangle." My eyes watered slightly and I was unable to look away. A slow shiver shook me all the way to my knees. I couldn't speak. Finally, Pope dropped his eyes to his beer again and I exhaled. "All right," Pope said dismissively. "That's the long and short of it. You following?" "Things catch live." I said, trying to make the connection he expected me to be making. "Inanimate elements in our world, exposed long enough or dramatically enough to our life energy, pick it up, turn live, turn animate." "Not animate." He corrected quickly. "Aware, that's all. Buildings, rocks, ships, whatever, they can't move. It just isn‟t in their nature. Bodies, now. Those are different. Bodies are used to moving." "Bodies." I repeated. The word tasted weird on my lips. "You mean corpses? Dead bodies?" "You think this is you?" Pope said, backhanding my arm lightly. "This is just an accumulation of dirt and water you wear around because you need it to be able to eat hot wings and boff your wife and watch the Patriots on TV. Bodies are just more inanimate matter. The only difference is that the contact they have with life is much, much more intimate. What do you think ghosts are?" I raised my eyebrows and pursed my lips. It made a screwy kind of sense. I ventured, "Like when Gramma used to say if I didn't take off my pants and wash 'em, they were gonna get up and walk to school all by themselves.” Pope glanced sideways at me and smiled crookedly, nodding. "Yeah, that's good. You always were good with the analogies. There's a story in that, ain't there?" I didn't look back at him, but he was right. I couldn't turn off the machine in my head. There was a Story in it. In fact, everything about this conversation, about this bar and the world cranking on slowly outside the windows, felt like a Story. It was eerie, but not entirely unpleasant. Pope went on again. "Yeah, that's where ghosts come from, just like the pair of pants gramma warned you about. They‟re whatever‟s left of bodies that caught life a little too well. Most of the time they‟re harmless, just shapes of dust, like all your friends here in the bar a little while ago. But not completely harmless. It all depends on how life inhabited the body. Or stopped inhabiting it. Sometimes when a corpse catches live it can be a very unpleasant thing." He pressed his lips together again and heaved a quick, brisk sigh, as if he considered confronting the manic undead about as unpleasant as chasing a badger out of his garden. For all I knew, he did. "But that's none of our concern tonight. It's just sort of interesting. At least to morbid story pimps like us. All of this is just the background. A little primer to get you up to speed on how the machine works before we crank the handle and set it into motion." I didn't like the sound of that. If this were my story, that would be the sort of statement that was immediately followed by something truly unpleasant and pivotal. "What do you mean, pull the lever?" I asked. "Don't worry." Pope said, hoisting the last of his beer and downing it in a gulp. He clunked the bottle back down and motioned the barkeep for another. "Yet." He added. The barkeep slid another beer onto Pope's coaster, deftly whisking the empty away at the same time. "S'the score." Pope asked without looking up. "World one, me zero." The barkeep replied jovially, taking a quick swipe at the counter. "Got that right." Pope agreed. "So that brings us to the crux of the matter, my friend." Pope began again as the barkeep drifted away. His earlier truculence seemed to have completely evaporated. If anything, he seemed almost energetic now. He swigged the fresh beer expertly and twirled it on its bottom. "Yes, I hope so." I said. The feeling of drone, of lull, was dissipating, and in its place I was beginning to feel some growing alarm. "You've told me a lot of interesting philosophy, but you haven't answered the question. You haven't told me where the stories come from." I thought the word "philosophy" would needle him, but he didn't seem to have noticed it. He was almost smiling now. I started to want to punch him. "All right, my friend," He chided. "I'll cut to the chase for you. We've established the basics. Things catch live, as it were. Buildings, rocks, ships, bodies, all of it, given enough time or intensity. But!” He prodded a finger at the air for emphasis. "They don't have souls. Only genuine born-in-the-grain life has a soul. Not having a soul has its advantages, I can imagine. None of the truck with the afterlife to worry about. No existentialist angst. No moral conundrums. Just pure being. The downside, though, is that as pure consciousness, things never die. Buildings burn, corpses decay, even the rocks disintegrate, given enough time, but the consciousness that was bound to them doesn't stop. Eventually, this aliveness is stripped of everything but the sum total of the experiences that made it. In its purest form, all the aliveness is left with in the end is..." Pope stopped and inhaled slightly, as if tacitly unable to avoid the dramatic pause. "the Story." he finished on the exhale. I waited to see if there was going to be more. Pope stirred on his barstool, adjusting his huge, ridiculous coat. The jukebox had gone silent, and the hole it left in the ambience of the bar was uncomfortably large. A bar needed the sound of the jukebox and the squeak and scrape of barstools on wooden floors. Anywhere could be a bar if it had those things and a couple of beers. I patted my pocket suddenly, impulsively, to see if I had any quarters to feed the jukebox, then froze in the act, staring down the length of the bar. The juke wasn't the only thing that had run down silent and stopped. The barkeeper stood at the end of the bar, still staring up at the television screen, but the screen was still, like a paused VCR. The barkeep held a cloth jammed into the mouth of a pilsner glass in his left hand, but his hands were perfectly motionless. I glanced quickly around the bar. There was no movement or sound anywhere, not even the muted thrum of traffic on the road outside. Silence pressed into my ears like small iron weights. Pope was watching me sideways, his eyes narrowed, a look of careful scrutiny on his face. The beer bottle resting in his pudgy, curled hand appeared to be full of amber jell-O. Every bubble was perfectly still, making a tiny golden constellation. He removed his hand from it and glanced down at the inert bottle. "The problem is not that the truth is so hard to grasp." He said, talking apparently to the beer in front of him. "But that it too easy." Suddenly he got up from the stool and surveyed the paused bar scene gravely. "In the end, all that remains is the Story, you see? Life happens in all dimensions, and that life spawns stories; delightful stories, horrible stories, strange and inexplicable stories. Those stories live for awhile in the things that embodied them, but eventually those host things are gone. The Story lives on, disembodied and displaced. And all the Story wants, desperately and elementally, is to be told. To live on in some form. In any form. No matter how crude or cheapened." Pope turned his head toward me, his eyes huge and watery behind his glasses. I willed myself not to blink, but it was difficult; the look on his face was religious with zeal and excitement and barely contained anticipation. I realized with some alarm that at least part of him was terrified. I knew what he was going to say a half second before he said it. I almost said it with him. “I‟ll show you.” He said. He turned suddenly and threaded his way purposefully through the tables toward the back corner of the bar. He was heading towards the restrooms. I got off my own stool and stood staring after him. Then, feeling strange and disembodied, I began to follow him. It was on my tongue to ask him why he'd chosen the restroom to be the setting for this mysterious revelation, but I could imagine his answer. He wasn't in charge of this at all. He was just another player in the story, used because he fit the requirements, and because part of him liked the role he had been given to play. The restroom wouldn't have been his idea at all. The restroom was just where it had really started, when I had met Ace Merrill coming out of the crapper and reality had begun to slip all its cogs. The circle would close there now. It was just the way it was supposed to happen. The way it would have been written. Pope stopped at the door marked Gents, put his hand on it, and looked back at me. His expression was taut, but unreadable. Then his eyes widened, as if he was remembering something important. He brushed past me and returned to the bar, grabbing the Myth of Fiction off the bar top. He curled it securely under his arm and, giving me a scornful little glare, came back. When we turned back to the men's room door, it had changed. It was darker and heavier, made of some solid hardwood that I recognized blandly as ironwood. Solid brass hinges gleamed mellowly. In the center of the door, at eye level, was an engraved inscription: Not He Who Tells. We both stared at it for several seconds, then Pope set his jaw, grasped the darkly gleaming doorknob as if he meant to arm-wrestle it, took a deep breath and opened the door. It didn't feel like stepping into a room. It felt like going outside, out of a known and into a vast, blank, alien openness. It was cold in a way that had nothing to do with temperature. For several seconds all I could see was the back of Pope's coat as he moved ahead of me, and then the door behind us swung closed and there was nothing but darkness. It seemed to me that many minutes went by. Pope said nothing. We moved in the vast space with no sound, no sense of boundaries or edges. Finally, Pope spoke, and as he did, light leaked into the air around us. "Welcome to the world between the worlds." He said with no relish. His voice was very small and flat. “You aren‟t seeing it as it really is, because technically there isn‟t anything to see. This is the void; the opposite of Something, which is not, as the unimaginative might suppose, Nothing. Nothing is just the absence of Something. This is the reverse side of the mirror, where Something comes out on the other side of Nothing.” The light grew, or my eyes adjusted to it. Around us, about the size and shape of large watermelons, were things like pods or giant eggs. The pods grew on fat stalks, each one rocking slightly, waving as if in a slight breeze, though the air (if that‟s what it was) was perfectly still. At first I could only see the ones directly around us, but the light spread out and there were more of them. Hundreds of pulpy, purplish pods nodding stupidly in the void. Finally, I could see there were countless numbers of them, stretching away into the blackness on all sides, an eye-watering gulf of mute, undulating shapes. "This is where the stories come from." I said, testing the sound of it. It sounded about right. Pope moved aimlessly among the pods and I followed. As my eyes grew accustomed to the strange light, I noticed what I assumed was a layer of rustling vegetation under the pod heads. I bent down to look and saw instead that the surface we walked on was covered in wrinkled, leathery husks; the remains of empty pods. I picked one of them up gingerly. Pope stopped and looked back at the dried sac in my hands, frowning slightly, then said, "That one made it out." I looked from his expression to the fairly unpleasant limp shape in my hands. It felt a little like the skin of a long deceased Halloween pumpkin, left to settle into itself in the weed bed next to the porch. "You mean it... became a story. It got written down. Recorded. Embodied, somehow?" Pope nodded slowly, still looking at the dried sac. "Not all of them make it, but some find the right conduit and get through. That one you have in your hands, do you know what it is?" "How could I-- " I stopped suddenly, squinting at it. I realized it wasn't entirely anonymous. There was something in it that suggested a shape to my hands. Or not a shape, exactly, but the memory of a shape. I stared at the thing, fascinated and vaguely repelled. There was something wrong with holding it, something I couldn't quite wrap my mind around. The shape the husk suggested was cold, hollow, and old, but those weren‟t the things about it that made my hands feel alien, somehow impossible. There was a chilling, growing sense of violation, of wasted places raped with icy blackness, packed, like the mouth of a corpse filled with motor oil. But there was something else, something almost intolerably sickening and pervasive, sluggish but utterly implacable. Huge. Massive. Titanic. I dropped it and lunged backwards away from it, barking a harsh cry of revulsion. For a moment I thought I was going to vomit massively. My stomach and throat clenched and I uttered a helpless, strangled “Hrk!” Then the feeling passed, quickly, as soon as the thing was out of my hands. I stared at it where it lay, limp and pathetic, then looked down at my hands, shivering. The thing had been cold, dead, and empty, but what had been fundamentally, shockingly wrong with it was that for several seconds I had held in my two hands several hundred tons of rotting, water-logged iron. Pope was smiling vaguely, ruefully. “How perfectly appropriate that you'd pick that one, hmm?" I rubbed my hands on my jeans, trying to scrub that feeling of cold, alien massiveness out of them. "But the Titanic... " I said hastily, unthinkingly. "There isn't any story written about the Titanic. That was real!" Pope didn't answer. He continued to look at me with that rueful half smile, as if encouraging me. And I remembered. It was one of those strange little factoids that people like me pick up and treasure. The book had been called Futility, by a retired British Naval officer. In the story, the ship was called the Titan. It was the world's largest, claimed unsinkable. On its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, the ship‟s crew attempt a record-breaking speed crossing. Halfway through its journey, the Titan strikes an iceberg, fatally wounding the ship. The Titan sinks quickly, leaving very few survivors due to a woeful shortage of lifeboats. My mind raced as I stared at the mysterious husk. "But Futility..." I muttered. "That was written fifteen years before the Titanic was even built." "Fourteen." Pope corrected me. "The Titanic is an interesting case. She still exists, to a degree, at the bottom of the Atlantic, but she loses bits of herself every day. Her disembodiment is slow and agonizing, I can only imagine. Her Story attempted to embody itself too soon, stretched itself right back into its own world, only to a point decades before its own creation. Perhaps it meant for Futility to be a warning, a way of saving the Titanic from its own fate. Convoluted, to be sure, but not impossible to imagine, for the likes of us." My eyes were riveted to the husk of the Titanic. It was crazy, but I was beginning to believe it. Really believe it. In an infinite number of universes, all stories are true. I straightened up, and looked around, awestruck. Millions, billions of Stories, spawned to life by the osmosis of messy human history, leaked into the world between the worlds, and now just wanting to live again. To be real. To be told. Billions of Stories, all seeking a conduit. A cold, quiet horror began to creep up my back, freezing me to the spot. I could feel them. The pods waved and nodded vaguely. Each suggested a shape, a place, a feeling, and they were communicating them to me. Not just some of them. All of them. They were tiny, but insistent. And hungry. Hongry! I turned my head slowly and looked at Pope. His smile was gone. "We'll be leaving soon." He said, and glanced around quickly. I hope, his expression and body language added. "There's one more thing we have to discuss." I began to walk again, idly, nervously. I tried to ignore the voices of the pods, but my brain seemed to be rebelling, tuning them in. Or maybe the pods were tuning me in, becoming aware of me, focusing on me. I tried to distract myself, kicking up some of the husks that littered the ground in various stages of desiccation. Each one I kicked released a puff of dry memory directly into my forebrain, and each memory was hauntingly familiar. A beetle-like taxi cab wrecked in front of a hospital, a woman’s severed head held in a doctor’s hands, breathing... a dead old woman lying in the dark, her grandson creeping towards her, horrified but duty-bound... a very tall man in a long, ugly coat, a hat hiding his eyes, a hand held out with implacable authority: come with me thon, I’m a poleethman... I stopped kicking the pod husks quickly and looked up. And stopped. There was a new shape in front of me. I blinked at it stupidly for several seconds, trying to make some mental connection that would explain it. I gave up, forgetting the whispered voices of the pods and the mystery of the way home from here. I turned to Pope, suddenly expecting him to laugh at me, as if this were all some extremely elaborate practical joke. "What" I said flatly, "the hell is this'?" Pope was approaching me slowly from behind, his eyes on the object and not on me. His hands were stuffed almost nervously in his pockets and he was fidgeting with them, making the tail of his coat bob and flap among the pods. "What does it look like to you." He asked very carefully. I turned back to it. I stared at it and nodded curtly, pressing my lips together. It was a pretty simple deduction. "It looks," I answered succinctly, "like a throne." It stood on a little platform covered in red carpet. The chair itself was rather ridiculously baroque, covered in flaking gilt. The seat was a purple velvet cushion. On the back of the chair was my name, engraved in large gothic letters. The letters were the only thing odd about the throne, which otherwise looked like a fairly cheap prop from the local Jaycees theater. The letters spelling my name seemed to shimmer, as if in a heat haze. I looked back at Pope again. Refreshingly, my primary feeling was annoyance. He was still looking at the throne intensely, squinting. "Yes," he said very quietly. "A throne.” I arched my eyebrows and waved a hand at him, interrupting his eye contact with the thing. He glanced up, eyes wide. "What's it mean?" I asked curtly. "How the hell should I know?" He answered, a bit shrilly. "It's your goddam symbol." I looked at the throne again, then back at him. Pope returned my gaze a bit desperately, sweating lightly, then to my surprise, he reached up, pushing his glasses up, and pressed a thumb and forefinger against his eyes, frowning and shaking his head. He looked diminished. His hair was greasy and disheveled. There were flecks of dandruff on the collar of his coat. "This isn't right.” He said to himself. It was almost a whine. "What?" I demanded, and took a step toward Pope, turning to face him. He jumped, jerking his head up to look at me, wild eyed. "I don't know this part! How the hell should I know!” He said in an accusing voice. "I've never been in here before. Or out here, or whatever the hell it is. I don't even know how to get back myself! Nobody is supposed to be able to get in here at all! It's one of the rules in the book!” He flourished the Myth of Fiction, clutched it in front of him and stared down at it. “This is ... this is really, really unusual!" He finished lamely. I stood there and looked at him, mentally replaying what he‟d just said. "Then why are we here? What's this about?" Pope looked miserable. He glanced around the undulating landscape again. When he spoke he wouldn't make eye contact. "They told me it'd be nothing terrible. They just wanted to get you here; they wanted to see. They told me I could write about it if I wanted to. They said it'd be 'a unique experience'. I knew what they meant by that, oh yes, you better believe I did.” He raised his eyes now and looked at me plaintively, desperately. “I'd lost it, don't you see? My conduit was gone! You talk about it like you'd love to close it down, get rid of it! But you don't know what it's like when it's all you have! I was like one of those dead husks! I knew then that they’d been responsible for it, they'd cut me off, left me to go crazy scratching at it, trying to bring it back, writing meaningless drivel and getting claustrophobia of the brain! I knew they'd done it to me to make me agree to this job, but I didn't care! I was just so relieved that I could have my writing back! Nobody could blame me for that! Not even you!" My annoyance was turning to anger, but underneath it the terror was creeping and crawling. Pope almost seemed to be shrinking. Fear was coming off him like a stink. "Who?" I asked, almost kindly. "Who came to you? Who gave you this job?" Pope shook his head, dropping his eyes. He looked like a kid trying quick to think of a lie that would fit the same shape as the truth. Then he froze. His eyes were glassy and very still. Finally he raised them to me slowly, answering in a quiet, awed voice. "Low men in yellow coats." It was almost a monotone. I felt attached to the ground, petrified. "Is that what they told you to say?” Pope's eyes glistened. He didn't move. After a long silence I asked, "What was it they sent you to find out?" I wasn't sure I really wanted to know, but I was going to find out anyway. "What were they trying to see?" It looked as if Pope wasn't going to answer. I took another half step toward him and he jumped, as if out of a trance. His eyes jittered very faintly as he watched me. "All right, yes, I can tell you that. It's not a secret. It's just very, very ..." "Unusual." I supplied. "Yes. Very." He agreed quickly, looking at the throne again. "All right, you see now, don't you, where the stories come from? You know the basic truth. In a universe of infinite dimensions, all stories are true. Everything happens. Everything is real." "There is no such thing as fiction." I said. His eyes snapped back to me. "Yes!" He nodded emphatically. "Yes. Normally." His eyes unfocussed and he looked down at the book in his hands again, apparently thinking furiously. "Normally." He said again, less confidently. "Pope!" "There has only been one exception!" Pope stammered. "One completely original piece of fiction! One utterly raw creation! That's what I was sent to try to investigate! It shouldn't even have been possible, but it happened." By an apparently huge force of will, Pope collected himself. He took a deep, shuddering breath. When he looked me in the eyes, he seemed more himself. His voice was calmer, resigned. "It's you." He said, exhaling hard. "You made the fiction, and it's you." I digested this for a moment, running into what seemed to be some fairly obvious flaws in the statement. Pope clutched the book in one hand and held up the other in a placating manner. "Or not. Maybe it's the other way around." He said lamely. I shook my head slowly, watching him. Pope sighed again, exasperated. "It happened decades ago. You were getting your first taste of success as a writer and you wondered-" “Would I be able to do it all over again," I answered, nodding. "I know the story. I was there." "Yes. You wondered if you'd be able to do it again. So you decided to try. You invented another person, a name, and you wrote under that name for awhile. Several books, successful ones. Not necessarily your best works, a bit rougher around the edges if I recall-" I gestured impatiently and rolled my eyes. "Yes, yes, I read the reviews, too. It was a pseudonym. It was supposed to read differently, otherwise what's the point? Are you trying to tell me one of the books l wrote under the name-" "No!" Pope interrupted suddenly, with surprising vehemence. "Not one of the goddamn stories! The name itself! The name was the fiction! The first and only real fiction ever created in the cosmos! In the fucking multi-verse!" I opened my mouth, then shut it again. Part of me was ready to laugh at the notion, but another part of me wasn't laughing at all. Part of me wasn't even surprised. Pope boggled at me. "It wasn't just a pseudonym." He breathed urgently. "You created a character for the part. He has a history, a personality, a family. You weren't even trying, but you brought him into being. You made him happen, and he did happen! Out there, in one of those myriad other dimensions, hell, in millions of them, he lives and works! He was born, grew up, wrote books..." "And died." I mused thoughtfully. "No!" Pope rasped. "He didn't die! That's the point!" "But he did," I said, keeping my voice calm. I didn‟t feel calm. All of a sudden I felt about a billion miles away from calm. "I killed him. I made him and then I killed him. He‟d served his purpose." Pope grinned meanly. "No, that's where you're wrong, and that's where things get, to put it mildly, interesting. You tried to kill him off, but at some point after you made him, you stopped controlling him. He became his own. You tried to kill him and he decided not to be killed after all." Pope‟s grin cinched a notch tighter and became a rictus. For a split second, his face didn't even look like his own. "I guess you should've tried a little harder." He said in a suddenly chillingly strange, dead voice. Then the grin deflated and he crumpled inside his coat. A shiver thrilled down my back, shaking me. "So what's this to me?” I said hoarsely, looking around at the throne. My name engraved on the back, shimmering, hard to read. "I'm retiring anyway. If I can. And I do think I can, despite all of... this." "You still don't get it, do you." Pope said from beside me now. He sounded more himself, but shaken and tired. "You think it clears everything up that you feel real. That you are the truth and everything else is stage dressing and poster paint. It must be reassuring." I was looking at the throne, trying to read the name. "What do you mean?" l asked very slowly, my stomach sinking, my blood going cold. Pope looked aside at me. "Now, you‟re finally getting it." he replied softly. "Now you see why they've been so curious about getting a closer look at you. At both of you.” I stared at the throne. The name shimmered and pulsed. I knew what Pope didn't want to say, and it defied my mind, my heart, every shred of my being. I couldn't accept it. It was patently absurd. And I knew it was true. I had made him. And he had made me as well. "That can't be." I told Pope simply. "It's impossible" "Yes." Pope agreed instantly, nodding vigorously. "Impossible." "One of us is real. The other is a pseudonym. A fiction, an invention." "Absolutely. No question." He said with conviction. I turned to face Pope. His eyes darted from the throne to my face. He looked old. We were only a foot apart. I drew a breath and held it, terrified to ask what I knew I had to ask. Pope saw it in my eyes. "Which one of us is the real one?" I asked finally, flatly. Pope stared hard at me for several long seconds, then he began to move his head slowly from side to side in helpless negation, clutching the Myth of Fiction to his chest. He began to step backwards through the gently waving pods, and they moved aside for him. "By the gods," He said in a cracked whisper, his eyes nailed on mine. "We don't know. We don't... know!" And then things began to get weird. Time became a bouncing ball, arcing here and landing there in explosive lunges. I woke up and I was no longer in the world between the worlds. I was home, in my chair by the fire, it was snowing, it was Christmas, and the family was coming over. My wife answered the door and in I came carrying armloads of presents, all bearing tags with my name on them. I was a kid, growing up, going to school, and Pope was my English teacher, grinning a painfully tight rictus that didn't affect his eyes at all. He handed me my composition and it was covered in A-pluses, plastered with them in cramped, shaking red handwriting, completely obliterating my penmanship. I was Max, wearing my wolf suit, in the land of the Wild Things, taming them with my magic trick of staring into their great yellow eyes and signing copies of the Myth of Fiction. And at one point, near the end, I was back in the world between the worlds. Pope was gone, but I wasn't alone. Something was among the pods, rustling them, hiding in their undulating, pulpy secrecy, moving toward me and laughing under its breath. I stood before the throne, afraid to turn my back on the thing in the pods, but more afraid to take my eyes off the shimmering name on the back of the throne. I knew if it solidified into my name, I could sit on it and it would be over, gloriously over. And then, as I heard the thing in the pods finally stand up behind me, felt it reach for my shoulder to turn me, to make me look at it, the name did solidify. And I sat. Then there was just Nothing. Which as you know, is the blissful absence of Something. Nothing, to my surprise, was white. I awoke at two AM that night in my own bed. The house was empty, my wife having not expected me home for the night, was taking the opportunity to spend the weekend with her girlfriend in the city. I realized where I was, considered for several moments the mystery of how I had gotten there, decided it was the least of the mysteries of the night, and promptly fell straight back to sleep. It's three weeks later now, and despite some sleepless nights and the memories like fever dreams of that very bizarre trip, things seem pretty anticlimactically normal. To my rather tame surprise, the meeting in Hanford had evidently gone just fine. Nobody seems to remember much in particular that I said, but they seem to agree that it was a productive meeting. Apparently we had all decided Hanford was no good for the movie. "Too much like the real thing," I had evidently said during the meeting. They did remember that. And so Constant Reader, here, like it or not, is where this strange and perhaps unsatisfying tale finally closes. I wish it all made more sense, for your sake and mine. Let me end by saying that, number one, I still haven‟t decided if I believe everything that seemed to happen in Hanford or not. The brain has a very pervasive habit of developing blind spots towards the inexplicable. I have written it all down exactly as I remember it, for whatever that's worth. And number two, I am still not certain about my future. The conduit is always open, always letting in the Story. I seem not to have much to say about whether or not that happens anymore. But yesterday morning, coffee in hand, I went to my office, turned on the stereo, sat down at my desk, and stared at my Mac without turning it on. It stared back at me with its one big, blank eye, and for no less than five minutes we just watched each other. I've been thinking a lot about retirement lately. Thinking about putting away all my scratch-books and using the old computer for nothing more than the occasional email or to play some solitaire. I‟ve been thinking about closing down the conduit. I stared at the blank screen of my Mac, remembering the first days, when it was all new, mysterious, frightening, like handling live current that could either run the dream-machine or kill you dead and didn't care which. Back then, it was the hard, unforgiving teeth of an old Underwood typewriter under my fingers rather than the effortless whisper of the computer keyboard, but the walk was still the same and the hands, my own version of the conduit, knew the way eerily well. I could do it, I realized. I could shut it all down. I could get up and walk away from that blank eye without ever turning the damn thing on. Turn the stereo back off, go back downstairs, drink my coffee on the porch and... And I realized, with no real surprise, that I didn't want to do that anymore. Not really. Most of the time in life, I think people simply stumble into what they are, what they become. A high school kid gets his first job bagging groceries and fifty years later he's accepting a gold watch for his years of dedicated service as the district manager for six Piggly-Wiggly stores. The varsity quarterback gets handed a bottle on the day he loses the division playoffs and five decades later he's curled up in the bottom of that bottle like a dead mouse, rank, shriveled and defined only by his failures. A few of us try to steer the course ourselves, with varying degrees of success. And a very, very few, the luckiest and the unluckiest of us, find that one mother lode vein of pure potential that is the thing we were made to do, the thing we were hardwired for, the thing that once we've begun mining, we'd be crazy or stupid or suicidal not to keep mining. For some people, it‟s model trains. For some it's shooting three-pointers from downtown. For some it's putting numbers together like puzzle pieces until they connect and light up like the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza. For me, it's bringing the stories through. I could stop writing. I could retire. I stared down at the Mac's keyboard like a gunslinger staring at his gun, lying cleaned on the table, glowing in its metal with that mellow, watery inner light. I could just let it lie there and never pick it up again. Of course I could. But I still had a lot of bullets in my belt. A hell of a lot of them. And Goddamn it, that gun did still feel so good in my hand. Still just like the very first time I picked it up, back when I barely knew how to load it and was just as sure to shoot my own ear off as nail my mark. It still feels just like my hand was made for it. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that there isn't much in life that's finer. And maybe the gunslinger analogy is even more apt than it at first appeared to me. A gun is a conduit, too. For the holder as well as for who it's pointed at. So I powered up the Mac. I started a new story. I don't know how it'll end. I never do. And that's just fine. That's just right as rain. The keys under my fingers felt eerily like the hard old choppers of my first Underwood, and in my mind I heard the clackety-clack on the platen, and the ding of the bell, and the ratchet-clunk of the return, and the shudder of the table as it socked home. I discovered I was grinning; a hard, spit-toothed grin that would have probably scared my wife a little if she'd seen. She wasn't going to see it, though, nobody was going to see it, so I left it there on my face. It felt right, too. Right as fuckin rain. Because there is one more loose end that needs addressing. This morning, after shaving, I leaned over and just stared at myself in the mirror over the sink. Same old face, thinner now than it used to be (the result of the cancer, but I'm not complaining), but still recognizable. Still me. No flexible bullet. But still. He might still be out there, somewhere, on the other side of the world between the worlds. And if he was, I bet he was still writing. Writing and getting that same old giddy high off it and grinning like a homicidal loon as the keys clickety-clacked under his fingers. I had tried to kill him off. It had been on the jacket of Desperation, supposedly his last book. In a short bio (accompanied by an old photo of me at the typewriter, ha-ha) I had included the little note about his tragic death. Struck and killed by a van during one of his regular walks along a local road near his home in Maine. I had even written up a short story about the van's driver and some mildly humorous hijinks with a Labrador and a cooler of meat in the backseat. It had all been pretty neat. I shook my head at myself in the mirror. Like I mentioned, writers, especially those who deal in my kind of grist, can be pretty superstitious lot. But maybe it had been a little too neat. A little too easy. But I was still me. I was still on the throne, not some King. I stared into my eyes. Good old Rich Bachman, Richard to you, Constant Reader. Real as real. Solid as cedar. Just one more little thing to tie up. For good luck, let's say. Better safe than sorry. Writing is a conduit, like carrying a gun, and just like with carrying a gun, every now and then you have to pull the trigger. Because there's always another gunslinger out there, and his sights may be set on you. Next time I'll try harder. Next time I'll get it right. Next time I'll be thorough. Next time, it'll be more than a van.
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