Not surprisingly, it's too big for one item.
Make Way For Ouroboros: Commentary on the Year That Was
A Guide to the Last Twelve Months of "Time Falls Away", Literary Masterpiece and Chick Magnet
As Evidenced by the Agents, Who Were There, Kind Of
In What Will Hopefully Be An Amusing Meta-Commentary
And Not Further Evidence That I've Lost My Mind
But I'm Not Getting My Hopes Up
"Is it me or does the air smell heavily of self-indulgence?"
"Let's try to keep this relatively painless, shall we?"
"You have such a delightful way of making that sound just like a threat. Did you know that?"
"I'm simply saying we should stick to our mandate, so we can get out of here fast and go back to doing things we'd much rather be doing. Make some pithy comments on the chapters, try to make some sense of them, point out continuing themes and how it all connects."
"Sounds good for you. I'm just going to make fun of the stuff that doesn't directly involve me. I hope that's okay."
"I'm not at all surprised you said that."
"Hey, maybe I'll even wind up being poignantly and accidentally insightful. Thus once again showing the power of outright mockery. Take that, constructive criticism."
"I can see that you're already warmed up. Shall we start then?"
"Sure, whatever. Go for it. Why are we doing this, anyway? I thought he wanted Harold Bloom."
"He was, I'm told, indisposed."
"Ah. He threatened to spoon out his eyeballs again, didn't he?"
"I'm not in the habit of spreading rumors."
"So it's true then."
"It could be said that utensils were mentioned."
"I knew it!"
"And anyway, we're more familiar with the source material."
"And we're suckers."
"All right, let's get this over with, then. How are we going to do this then? Can we just grade stuff? We'd be done in thirty seconds."
"He wants a recap and some comments and maybe some pointing out of key passages. It isn't too many chapters. He's not the fastest person in the world."
"Yeah, but they're so long! I've been trapped in shorter prison sentences. Okay, we might as well buckle in and go. Bring on the first chapter!"
"Actually, it's chapter two hundred and-"
"The first chapter, I say! Pronto!"
Two Hundred Forty Six
September 2, 1997
Recap: While drinking from a cup of coffee, Rick has an imaginary conversation with Kimberly while also remembering a past conversation with Jacob about the dynamics of the Koplan family. Also, he appears to recount a dream he has about stumbling upon a vaguely defined hole that everyone keeps falling into.
"How the hell many things are going on in this chapter at once? I swear, when people complain about how incomprehensible most of this thing is, this will be the chapter they use to make their case."
"I don't think he's consciously thinking about all of this at once. It's more like layers. How one thing reminds him of something else, the attempt to create the illusion of movement through static."
"I think he just wants to overcomplicate things."
"There's probably some aspect of showing off, that tends to happen on the chapters that end extended breaks from the story, like he's trying to prove something. He's also trying to move and setup several plot threads at once."
"Yeah, I got that. Rick here is planning something involving his girlfriend, or ex-girlfriend, or whatever the hell she is. Are they even together by this point?"
"I honestly couldn't tell you. They rarely appear in the same chapter anymore."
"Maybe they make out in between chapters. And the bit with Jacob is probably working to contrast how Jacob has moved from the head of the family in 1987 to being unable to stop anybody in the present day, commenting on his own impotence. Poor guy. Nobody ever winds up making out too well in these things."
"I think the dream is supposed to signify his increasing sense of isolation after Ranos sucked a bit out of his memory."
"You're probably right, but this is the thing for me, any of these sections on their own would make a fine chapter. But instead he takes three of them and shoves them together in order to . . . what? Make it look more complex? Like anyone is impressed."
"The sections are designed to sort of play off each other, I think."
"I suppose we should demonstrate that. Roll tape!"
“So, you like my daughter, don’t you?” Mr Koplan had asked him, finally. Thankfully, he had waited at least for Rick to set the coffee down. He managed to spill some anyway, his hands jerking at the question. Tiny pools, errant shapes. The mind tries to make sense of them, even as the contours constantly shift.
‘I do that, getting into my car. Maybe not my car, maybe it’s someone else’s. We’re walking anyway, running alongside. The streets are fluid and paved, the town’s pulse, the bloodways residing. That barely makes any sense. I don’t know where we’re going but the people with me, running besides, we’re all in a hurry because we desperately need to get somewhere. We pass all the perimeters, the park, the library, the place where the ice cream stand used to be, before it burned down. I’m not tired, running all that way. I’m dreaming and I’m running and I can’t wear myself down.’
He might have repeated the question more than once. Taken by surprise, Rick had lost all his hearing. He laughed at it now, silently, thinking about it. What would her father say today, in this situation. He had already said, that moment in the hospital, before things went strange. Run away, he told Rick, in his haunted way, go and don’t come back.
I’ve got to think, because we’re drawing lines on the beach. I woke up today and for a second I didn’t recognize anything. I can’t go through life like this, with my life being stripped of everything familiar. I’m looking for a path in the dirt, where the rain washed it all away. There’s no grooves to fit my thoughts in anymore, and my head is starting to burst. Everything is swelling, climbing, rising. I’ve got the pressure but no outlet. Do you even understand what that’s like?
Rick didn’t know what was outside anymore. His backyard, perhaps. In the fading dark it could be anything. Pressing your face closer only distorted the image, infected it with your own personal gravity. Warping the proceedings. Everything in his memory might not be true. That everything that remained in your brain was only the things that you told yourself were worth remembering, manufactured or otherwise. The rest could sink and go and not be worth the trouble at all.
But he did know that Mr Koplan had asked him a question, one that deserved an answer. An honest one, at the very least. The man watched him through fumes, through fingers of steam. The vapor from his own mug seemed to rise out and reach forward, seeking a sort of confluence. The types of war, the strange dances that occurred when no one else was around. He had never told Kim any of this and when it finally fled from his brain it would have never existed. Except maybe in her father, in his own skewed perspective.
That’s why I have to decide for myself what to do.
Because no one else is going to decide for me, least of all you.
‘We’ve gone across town, me and the mystery gang, running since morning. It’s afternoon at that point, although nobody can really tell, all the light looks the same, from every angle. They’ve got a car next to me and I see them going, they’ve gotten ahead. I don’t know who is driving but they’re so damn fast. I’m running and I can’t catch up, all I’m inhaling are fumes and flames. It’s getting darker and the gap is growing wider.’
And it should be an easy decision, but it’s not. Even with the extra hours of thinking I get because I don’t sleep, I still don’t know.
He had to answer, then. Politeness demanded it. When a man let you into his home and shared a drink with you, it was foolish to pretend that you could accept all that and give nothing back in return. Rick threatened to take everything away, just by being there. So he had to give the whole answer, he had no other choice. It was so simple that now he wondered why it had bothered him at the time. One path instead of two.
You just have more options, that’s all. And I’ve got two that are rapidly becoming one. Falling and fading.
To Mr Koplan, he said.
‘That’s when I see them go down, way up ahead. The back end of the car tips and goes up, that’s how I see it. Just like that, without a sound. They don’t even slow down or try to swerve. One second and gone. Down. I stop trying to run faster.’
But they’re not going to merge into a compromise, or become something magical. It’s going to turn into something ugly.
“Yes, sir, I do. I like your daughter very much. As much as I’ve ever liked anyone, maybe more.” That could be what he said, to the man. But nobody around remembers that day.
‘I reach the edge of a hole just in time to see the last glimmers of light, someone in there was smart enough to try to apply the brakes and I saw them. Two tiny red lights, winking at me. Two lights.’
And nothing that anyone will like.
‘Blinking at me, all the long way down.’
"That must be some coffee he's drinking. I guess he's trying to do for beverages what Proust did for cookies. Only, more pretentiously, if that's possible."
"This may sound strange but I think the focus of this chapter is less Rick than Jacob. There's a line where he says something like, 'My wife, she never needed me, she could go away right this second and be fine' and later when he says Ian could do whatever he wants. The point is more is to illustrate how the family is before the story even starts."
"They're already sort of collapsing."
"So the rest is just window dressing. Oh, but wait! There's a cliffhanger!"
"Oh yes, the mysterious note."
I’ve got a team, and what do you have? You had me and not even that. All of us together, we’ll overpower. All of us.
‘Which is how it ends, with me alone and lying still, unable to get help. Or help myself. At the edge of something I’ve defined but can’t understand. And everyone else, gone down into the dark.’
All of us.
‘Left by myself.’
With a sigh, Rick reached for the cup again.
A light knock on the door, a scuffle, interrupted him.
Dogged by a fog he didn’t even know existed, he moved, stumbling, all the furniture somehow in different places. Bumping and dodging, he moved in a slow time. Hardly time for words, if at all.
“Because I think he’ll do whatever he wants.”
The door flung open, with the morning’s brief moist breezes fluttering in. He almost fell out, such was momentum. No one there, not immediately. No one there at all, a second later.
“Whether or not anyone else wants to get involved.”
Rick’s gaze fell, drawn by gravity. A piece of paper, barely held in place. Reaching out, he took it, smoothed it out. There was writing on it, of course. There always was.
Maybe it’s time you had someone else to talk to, the note went, simply.
"This wouldn't seem as exciting if we knew now that it would take him nearly twenty chapters to follow up on it."
"But given we're on nearly page five thousand at this point I imagine any potential audience is used to slow payoffs."
"If they're still around. But who leaves notes at five in the morning? That sure is some dedication to stalking."
"It may be later, it's not clear how long he's sitting there staring at his coffee. Which is a constant problem with the story, trying to figure out how long things take."
"Problem for you, maybe. I just don't think about it and things get much easier. Anyway I give this chapter a C-plus, only because I'm a sucker for ambition."
"We're not grading this."
"Try and stop me! Come on, try!"
"Just bring up the next chapter."
Two Hundred Forty Seven
September 2, 1987
Recap: Jacob gets up for work and finds Ranos back in the house. After some discussion, he offers to let Ranos stay with them until it's all over.
Ah, but he felt better already, getting away. Maybe he and Bill could take a long lunch today. Meet the family, get everyone out. Like any other special day. With a hand on the railing, Jacob knew all the steps, could do them with his eyes closed. Every day, without fail. The texture of his living room, always the same, sanely familiar. The carpet, perhaps needing a cleaning. The lamps, a wedding present they never bothered replacing. The end tables, which he picked out and matched only by some slim miracle. The couch, big enough to hold all of them, and then some. The cloth draped over the couch, in the same old spot.
Oh. Wait. Jacob stopped, eyes not closed.
Cloth draped, fitted around a man.
Wait, no. This is, wait. No.
A man on the couch, in cloth, tattered.
Hey, wait, no wait, this, no. On the stairs he stopped.
In cloth robes, all tall, filling them. Bald eyes like.
You, wait, this all, can’t wait, not we thought.
Jacob wasn’t moving forward. This is, no, it’s not.
Somewhere in his head, a gear jammed.
Sitting, bald skull, just plain as. The eyes, staring.
Oh Jesus, what are you, where the hell did you.
On the couch, the man nodded. Oh so politely, he.
Jacob didn’t so much find his voice as eject the word. “You . . .”
“Jacob,” the man said, as calm as this stalled day. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“Ranos,” Jacob hissed in response, just to hear the word.
"I do give him credit for not making Ranos' reappearance as the cliffhanger. Any time you can conserve chapters is okay with me. Though is this the last time they're going to find Ranos? Because this is like, what, the third time?"
"Getting him back in the house is a step in the right direction. We knew that he would be staying there again eventually so at least there's a sense of the plot moving forward again."
"Which is ironic because most of the chapter is really the two of them quoting exposition at each other. Wasn't my use of the word 'ironic' masterful, just there?"
"It was very well placed."
"I thought so. It's funny too, how Ranos tends to talk so elaborately in these chapters, in all these portentous sentences and phrases. He doesn't do that around us."
"Mostly, he's not coherent around us. How people act when we're around is probably not the best benchmark, all things considered. He talks much the same around Tristian."
"I think he's less chatty though, like because he's younger here he feels a need to explain every little thing he does, because he has no idea what the hell he's doing."
"We don't really have much to compare it to, at this point."
"Yeah, good job with turning him into a vegetable. You're going to undo that at some point, right?"
"It's not really up to me, now, is it?"
"Okay, that got just a little too meta for me, right there. Let's have some more of that highly dramatic dialogue. Ranos, my boy, bring on the cheer!"
Ranos leaned forward, his eyes far away. “I got the best of him, briefly, somehow. We fought, and the house caught fire. I tried to bring the floor down onto him, the entire house but I could barely manage . . .” his fists were clenching and unclenching, the knuckles gone white. He took a deep breath and stopped himself. “It collapsed, regardless, and he was in there.”
Battles writ large, the black and white letters on paper becoming real. Jacob felt his stomach drop out, the way it did when you saw a tank rolling down your street and you realized with a cold certainty that the war had reached your town and nothing was going to be the same. And nothing would escape without being damaged. Without a hole punched in the fabric, and a wound being risked while trying to slip through the jagged edges. “This has to stop,” was all he said, uselessly.
“It will,” came the reply, without elaboration.
“No, Ranos, this is insane, you have to-“
”It is insane!” Ranos thundered, his words coming out with all the force of a wild storm, the shape of it barely in check. “Do you think I don’t know how to recognize it, after all this time . . .” he was speaking quickly now, intently, “. . . understand this, Jacob, I am a man used to acting and now I am reduced to merely defending myself, expending everything that I have merely to hold my own ground.” He bowed his head. “It is not a state I am used to, or particularly enjoy. Tonight I stood in a roomful of men and watched them all die, while I survived. Not because of any skill or fortitude, but because of chance and whim and . . . and maybe because those men distracted him long enough that I could get out alive.” He pressed his hands together, considering this, maybe for the first time. Jacob had never seen anyone look so tired, or so strangely alone. “And even with that, he’s not dead. I know it.”
“Then, then you have to go tell the police,” Jacob said, leaping to his feet. “You have to go and tell them what you know and . . . and maybe then-“
”Maybe then more of them will die,” Ranos shot back, his words a derisive slash. “Tonight, you saw how well they did, did you not?” Jacob couldn’t answer, but he suspected Ranos knew all the same. “Blood and chaos and death,” the man continued, weary. “A slow motion joke, that’s all they are to him. The best thing they can do is get out of his way. The best thing any of us can do is get out of his way, and hope that his bloodlust finds another target.” He didn’t look at Jacob as he said it.
"I don't know what people are talking about when they say this story isn't uplifting. Clearly, they must not be reading the same stuff."
"We're supposed to be getting the impression that something terrible is coming. And with the time shifts something terrible has already happened, so we're merely waiting for the event to occur. Which has simultaneously transpired and yet not occurred."
"I know a lot of languages and I didn't recognize any of them in what you just said."
"That's because you're very linear."
"If the alternative is sounding like that then color me linear all day. I guess the biggest thing is that we know the Bad Thing that eventually happens goes down while Ranos is back in the house. Thus when he wasn't there, everyone was kind of safe and now that we know he's back, there's nothing really stopping it from going full speed ahead."
"Does it make you want to warn the characters?"
"I really don't want to go into the implications of all that, as a character myself. I think we'd be violating some unspoken law. Plus, it's more fun this way. I thrive on drama!"
"The biggest hope is that the story won't shy away from the fracture it drives into the family. It's not just the first visit replayed, or even the third, because now they've all had a chance to make up their minds about him, so that's going to in theory affect how they react to him."
"As evidenced by the really, really nervous way Jacob calls his wife downstairs."
"Yes, well, I can't imagine he was looking forward to it. And it does mark a slight shift in the story's dynamics, finally. You could accuse it of treading water for quite some time, but here it appears to be moving again."
"If only there was some way to immediately follow up on this riveting action without switching to a totally different plot. Oh, how I wish that were possible."
Two Hundred Forty Eight
September 2, 1987
Recap: Ian and Kimberly sit at the top of the stairs as their parents argue in the living room about letting Ranos stay. Ian's thoughts become disjointed as Jacob holds off Kerri and leaves for work, leaving her home with Ranos. She tells the kids to get ready for school.
"And hot damn, wishes can come true apparently. Though shifting perspective to the kids was a nice touch. Frankly, the little kid freaks me about a bit. You keep thinking he's going to start unveiling magic psychic powers or something, and he doesn't. He's just weird."
"Part of it is probably the author attempting to get inside a child's perspective and get across the point that they process things differently. It becomes easier if you think of it as something three dimensional, where in the foreground rests-"
"Whoa, stop right there. You're getting that look in your eye again and I'm really not up for another lecture. I'm not completely dense here, I get what he's trying to put across. The conversation between the parents is fragmented because the thrill of being able to sit upstairs and put one over on Mommy and Daddy is more important than what they're actually saying. I get that, honest."
"You actually don't like that there are ten things going on at once again."
"No, actually, no. That doesn't bother me because it's a little more natural here. The only bit that seems jarring is Weird Literary Trick Number Forty-Five."
"Ah, yes, the rearranged sentences."
"Can we get that one on the board!"
“What are they talking about?” Kimberly whispered, nearly leaning against him in an attempt to hear anything. The bottom of the stairs held nothing but the bottom. There wasn’t even a lamp on down there. Ian thought he saw part of his mother’s hair, just off to the edge and out of his view, but of her and his father there was no real sign. Shadows perhaps, blending, head into head.
“I don’t know,” Ian admitted, frowning. “I don’t think it’s us.” Any time his parents were discussing anything that he wasn’t present for, he figured it was because they were talking about him or his sister. After all, why talk when they weren’t in the room otherwise? He had a feeling it wasn’t the case here, though.
“. . . know that’s not what I meant . . .” his father’s voice came up like the shredded parts of a storm, searching for part of a center. “You’re not even letting me talk.”
“Good,” Kimberly said, without conviction, without looking at him. Ian shifted a half-inch over to give his sister more room.
“You can talk, but you need to have something to say, first.” His mother’s voice was even stranger, oddly colorless and rigid. If words could tremble, Ian could believe hers were doing just that. “So far, all I hear is you going in circles.”
C anIdoi tjus tati nypu shan dIcanb eo nm ywa y
“It’s not just them,” Ian muttered, causing Kimberly to look at him sharply.
“What are you talking about?” she hissed at him.
Ian blinked, looked confused. “I don’t know,” he told her, shrugging in an attempt to deflect the question. “It was the right thing to say. I think it was.”
Down below there was the sound of pacing and stomping, of a hole being worn in a floor. “How long has this been going on?” his mother said, all speech gone circular. Ian got a sense of her back, the spine pressed outward, a foot gone in reverse. A view down a mineshaft, seen from two different and contradictory angles. The vault of the head, filled with all the wrong merchandise.
“I told you,” his father said. “I told you already. This morning, I came down and it was like this. Just like you saw, I mean, do you really think I’d be hiding-“
”I heard you. I heard what you said, about staying. Were you planning on hiding him somewhere, taking him to work and letting him sleep in your car.”
“That wouldn’t be necessary, you know that wouldn’t-“
”Because you were so sure I’d agree to this? Why? Why would you even think that?”
“Kerr, listen to me, just listen, you’re acting crazy, just take a second.” His father sounded like a man faced with an endlessly rising cake and not having the faintest idea how to make it stop expanding, before it took over every single space and suffocated him completely.
“How am I crazy?” A strange laugh that didn’t sound like his mother at all. Like a radio station missing a channel, attempting a masquerade. “Unless I’m in some other world where family doesn’t mean anything, where safety doesn’t mean anything.”
“It’s not a safe world. You know that. You saw.”
“And this is supposed to help exactly how?”
Ati nysw itcha ndIc anm aketh emfo rget
Kimberly fidgeted, her body positioned awkwardly. “They’re talking about last night, I think.” Her voice held a small quivering of residual fear.
Ian stifled a yawn, barely. “So what?” Next to him, he felt her shiver. In the summer, that just wasn’t possible. “It’s over, it was last night. Why are they still talking about it?”
She hit him on the shoulder, not painful but surprising. Ian turned to look at her but she only stared back at him, as if demanding him to say something else. “Someone got hurt,” she told him, like he hadn’t seen. Like someone who wasn’t him had been there instead, amidst all the yelling.
“Because we’ll be doing something finally, something definite, instead of just sitting back and cowering, waiting to die.”
“Is that what we’re doing now? I thought we were trying to stay alive. I thought I had made a suggestion that might keep us safe.”
“Running is not being safe.”
“But it’s not being dead, either.”
"There doesn't appear to be a particular reason to make it that complicated, unless one is trying to make life even more difficult for the dyslexic."
"I knew a man once who claimed to have stared at the page for so long that he wound up seeing eternal salvation in the spaces between the words. That, my friend, is dedication."
"That's also not true at all."
"Ssh! The good stories never are. But yeah for anyone with half a brain it's not that hard to figure out that they're just normal sentences with bizarre spacing. And italics. Are we supposed to comment on the use of italics? Or is that too technical?"
"We're not supposed to perceive them, I think."
"Oh. Right. Still, it does what it has to do, the kid is somehow tapped into Ranos' head, or Ranos is tapped into his, so what he hears is like shouting through a rubber tube at somebody. It's just gibberish."
"More or less. Though is he speaking through the kid right at the end there? When everybody starts talking at once?"
“They’re not alone down there, Ian. There’s someone else with them.” Her back up, against, hands going out to shield. Stopping what? He was only a river, flowing downhill.
“And they’ve got two ways out,” Ian rasped. “Two ways,” he pressed, his hands not attached to his body. Maybe her lips were moving. Sound was hardly essential here, in the hollow places. The halls of elemental shapes.
Do ntdot hisdo ntm akemepl eas eyoud ontu nders tand
“Don’t trust him, then. Trust me.” A plea? A command? A statement of how it had to be. Nothing was true.
Down in the lower zones, shadows vyed, bent.
“Ian, get back-“ just sounds, stripped of anything else.
“And then? And then what?”
“The one way,” he said with his lips, all tongue gone, the very fibers straining, “we’ve seen already. That’s what they ran from.” All voices were static, sparks in the empty air. The electricity between the gaps. “Outside to find the other way.”
“He won’t harm us, he promised me that. Once.”
“Ian, someone is here. He’s back, it’s him, he’s-“ What is there to even listen to?
“It’s the wrong direction, though, the wrong one,” he slurred, stammered, right on top of her, until the wall was nothing more than another member of the audience, a spokesperson having said it all. She might have been shouting at him, everything was just too right, coiled in the cushions. “They don’t realize that I’ve been . . .”
“It’s not him I’m worried about,” and she sounded odd and thick and strangely cold. “It’s what he might bring.” Was that the sound of a door closing?
“Ian, get off, he’s . . .” tears slightly torn, tears beset by dryness. So precious here, don’t waste, here let me-
“Inside,” he nearly spat at her. Too much a waste.
“That’s not good enough, Kerri.”
“I know.” Oh, all too softly.
“The whole time,” Ian cheered, nearly slapping her.
"That was my guess. Though what purpose that might serve is beyond me. Other than dramatic license. We've been seeing Ian and Ranos linked in some kind of way but I think it has more relevance to the 1997 portions of the story."
"Here it's just kind of weird."
"Do you think Jacob is being a bit of a jackass here? I mean, okay, he trusts Ranos and all that but after arguing with his wife over letting the guy stay, he gives her a lame 'I have to get to work bye!' excuse and bails on her. Seriously? Leaving her and two little kids in a house with a stranger?"
"Perhaps it's indicative of the stress he feels he's under, or what his intuition tells him about Ranos. Or competition for the Father of the Year award wasn't as harsh this year, so he feels he can slide a little."
"Look at you being all snarky. I like it on you, like when you dress all in sparkles."
"I have never dressed in-"
"Right, it'll be our little secret. Kerri does buckle down relatively easily here, not that her ass of a husband gives her much of a chance."
"Could be a sign that she trusts him, despite all other appearances. Or reason, for that matter. Ranos hasn't done anything yet to prove himself worthy of that trust."
"The next sets of conversations between everyone involved here should be fun. But that’s for the far future. What I’m more concerned with is the immediate future. Specifically the next chapter.”
“Yes, well . . .”
“Do you have to recuse yourself from commenting? Because, coach, I am all ready to go solo.”
“Come on! Just give me a chance!”
“Can we move on?”
Two Hundred Forty Nine
September 2, 1997
Recap: Agent One, still in Ranos’ psyche, continues to try to find the man within his own mind. Entering a city in a desert, he encounters various aspects fleeing from him before finding one who will talk to him. They first go to a marketplace and from there enter the center of the mind, where they find Ranos. In the course of the conversation, Ranos brings in what he calls the embodiment of his arrogance and asks for the Agent’s help in eliminating it. The Agent almost agrees before realizing that he’s been speaking to a false center and that he was nearly tricked into an elaborate suicide attempt. Eradicating all other distractions, he prepares to finally speak to Ranos.
“I think what I most admire about this chapter is how you did all of your own stunts.”
“I’m going to pretend I don’t hear you.”
“This is probably the first of these sequences where I don’t feel like he dropped a large amount of illegal medication before sitting down to write it.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you were there. A hundred different versions of Ranos running around? It was like someone cross-bred him with a funhouse mirror.”
“It’s coherent for once. Well, except for all the bits with the guy outside the city. Those are begging to not make any sense.”
“There were some interesting instances of surrealism at play here, trying to bring across the conflict in his own mind.”
“I like the parts where you have no idea what’s going on. The expression on your face is simply priceless.”
“Can you hear me, Ranos?” Agent One flung the question into the room. He took a step closer, one foot crossing the doorway. Immediately he heard cursing and stumbling, strides crisscrossing, falling over each other, falling down
“Are you even listening-“ with a quick, smooth motion, Agent One went completely inside, making a sharp gesture and flushing the room with light. Instantly he saw a group of people, all of them refusing to loook back, scrambling to make it to a door across the room.
“Here . . .”
“He’s . . .”
“Just keep going . . .”
“Just, oh he’s . . .”
“You can’t keep doing this, you can’t keep running,” Agent One barked, rushing forward just as the last person went through in a tangle of shapes and robes, the door slamming behind him. “Eventually we’re going to have to come to . . .”
He ripped the door off the wall but stopped moving when he realized that it opened out into empty air. “. . . terms,” he finished softly, looking out and down, seeing the city spread out like a discorporate patchwork below him, the sense of bodies drifting to earth like clouds. A brisk wind slid past, ruffled his hair, but he barely felt it.
“It’s frustrating, isn’t it?” a voice said from behind him.
Turning, he finally got a chance to take a good look at the room. It was sparse, the walls a drab earth-color, with nimble cracks running from ceiling to floor like broken rivers. A single table sat in the near-center of it, with two chairs, one across from the other.
Ranos wasn’t sitting in the chair. But someone not unlike him was. It was a nondescript man, perhaps not quite possessing Ranos’ full height, having his face but not the full beaten angularity of it. Not so much younger as different. Off, somehow. It barely mattered, in the end Agent One was only speaking with different aspects of the same coin.
“Excuse me?” Agent One said, letting the door close behind him. Immediately after something heavy rattled against it.
“Trying to talk to them,” the man said, one leg crossed over the other. “They keep running away, no matter what you say. After a while it’s hard to resist the impulse to do something unspeakable violent to them, if only to get a reaction that isn’t flee in terror . . .” his voice rose on the last three words in a way that Ranos’ voice never would.
“You’re talking to me,” Agent One pointed out. “Or are you about to run as well?”
“Ah, well, see, that’s the thing,” he said. At some point a pencil had appeared in his hand and while he was talking he kept sketching uniform squares across the tabletop. “I’m a bit of an odd man out around these parts. I don’t get much of a different reaction than you do, honestly. The others are skittish no matter who else they talk to, even on the best days.” After a good sized grid had formed on the table, he started to fill in every other space, his voice loose but his face intent. “Unfortuantely, I think you’ve stirred them up to some extent, which doesn’t make it easier.”
“Good,” Agent One said. “Things needed to be stirred up.”
“Now, normally I’d agree with that,” the man said, ceasing sketching for a second to cast up a glance at him. Outside bodies ran past, footsteps out of time with their movements. The shadows came by a few seconds later, as if trying to catch up. “But you’re thinking like someone used to being surrounded by water, where the little gritty bits that are buried rise to the surface once the pool is disturbed.” His drawing was precise, going right out to his perfectly straight lines. “In the desert, all you have is sand. And when you stir up sand, all it does is make things sink deeper.”
“So what are you saying? I’ve made things worse?” He didn’t sound especially sad at that prospect.
“Oh no, not quite.” The man gave the Agent a gentle smile and stood up, tucking his pencil into a sleeve of his robe. The table was now covered in an exact checkerboard pattern. “At this point it’s probably near impossible to actually make matters worse than they already are, how the entire strata hasn’t cracked in two is completely beyond me.” He slid his hand along the table, causing one of the dark squares to move with it. “But you are doing two things that may or may not be good.” With steady hands he was rearranging the squares on the table, moving all the darker pieces toward the center, with the lighter ones forming an outline. “You are causing all the active elements to withdraw further, anything that hasn’t become too set in its ways and isn’t totally sedentary has either hid or pulled back ahead of you.” Raising an eyebrow, he added, “But I’m sure you figured that part out already for yourself.”
“It had occurred to me,” the Agent said, without smiling.
“The thing is,” the man continued, biting his lip and moving a few more dark squares, then changing his mind and putting them somewhere else, “what you’ve also done is given the whole zone a bit of focus that didn’t exist before. Things were starting to settle into a sort of paralysis and your presence has certainly awakened certain elements that had gone totally moribund.” He chuckled a little, to himself. “Granted, most of those elements awakened to experience stark terror but we can always sort that out later.” The entire center of the table was now filled with dark squares. Rubbing his palms together, the man ran a hand over the table, apparently smoothing the surface.
Then, with a quick gesture, he appeared to reach into the edge of the dark pattern and lift it up, so that the entire dark area opened like it was hinged. From beyond came a bit of sideways sunlight.
Agent One watched this all without comment. The man meanwhile had jumped up onto the chair, one foot placed on the edge of the table.
“Well,” he said, holding out a hand to the Agent, “aren’t you coming?”
“I like that guy. Why couldn’t he be Ranos instead?”
“He was, in a way. He was simply the personification of all the logical aspects of his-“
”Yeah, yeah, I still like him anyway. And he took you shopping, which was nice for the first date. Strangely, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the chapter might not be surreal enough. All the weirdness just seems kind of . . . weird, and not really grounded in anything.”
“It hangs together oddly, especially with the constant cutting back to the beatings outside the city and the person eventually getting dragged in. Without a sense of the topography of the place, there’s no real drama. You have no idea where he is, so you can’t feel any tension.”
“So whose idea was your little over the top tantrum in the marketplace? Is that what happens when you don’t get the toy you want?”
“It certainly wasn’t my first choice on how to play it. But I guess it’s meant to represent my frustration over how long this is all taking. My way of venting, as it were.”
“Why did you come here, Agent?” the man asked him, the crowd between them. People unleashed furtive glances, the Agent’s shadow appearing to scald them, ferment a different kind of heat. “Was your need truly that great, to place this much stress on the fundament?”
“You don’t even know,” the Agent said over the heads of the passerbys. “You can’t even begin to understand.” The crowd was departing, the stands were being abandoned, the voices dissipating. Some buildings were taking on the appearance of a cracked mirror, melting inwards. But not at the center, at another place. Leather on glass, blood cramming the pores.
“Still, I can’t believe I didn’t see,” he continued, clutching the fan tightly in one hand and wading right into the crowd, the masses parting and jostling. “You even explained it to me and I still didn’t realize.” He pointed out past the marketplace, to the walls that curved upwards, sundrenched and baked, the lip of an infinite cup. “The walls weren’t designed to keep people out but to keep all of you in.”
He was in front of the guide now, who was hanging onto the pole with both hands, his fingers gone pale and his arms shaking, as if the merely loosening might yank the support away and bring the whole structure down. Slowly, the man wet his lips before speaking. “Often the deepest zones are not the most . . . open.” Standing up a little straighter, he added, “You’ve seen the other zones and what they contain, the surface thoughts, the grove of past conflicts, the mazes where we lose the unwanted.” His face had taken on a sickly pallor. “The mind is made of compartments and not all memories are equally stored.”
“But they aren’t stored here, they’re locked away,” the Agent said. “The ones he can’t bear or deal with, he hides them here, doesn’t he? He tucks them safely away and forgets about them.” Agent One’s face broke into a wide grin as he stared above, into the sky over the now empty marketplace. “Ranos, you bastard, you’re far cleverer than I ever gave you credit for.”
“It’s not just memories,” the guide suddenly gasped, causing the Agent to glance at him with a raised eyebrow.
“No?” The area had gone silent, even with their voices.
“Look around you,” the man said, throwing out one weak arm to indicate the emptiness, the city itself. “Do you see anything in this place of Ranos’ deliberateness, his self-control, his calnness in the face of resolute violence. His resolve and his steadiness? Do you see any of that here? Has anyone you encountered on this level at all reminded you of the man you’ve come to know, that your host knew?” He was breathing heavier now, his legs barely able to hold him. “He’s taken, he’s exiled the pieces of himself that he has no use for into this place, to sharpen what remains. Sharpen and harden.” He wiped a sheen of sweat off his forehead, stretching to reach out to the next pole, nearly throwing his weight across the gap. The motion turned into a shuffle, a bare struggle. “But with the crisis fracturing the strata, the whole base is weakening. And I told you, the walls are cracking. Everyone is shifting around in a panic, but a contained one.” He looked out to the edges of the city, where the pressure gathered in different guises. “If the city bursts though, the damage will be incalcuable, and perhaps irrepairable. He’ll be diluted in a wash of his own rejected fragments and recovery may be impossible.”
“What are you saying?” the Agent asked, but already he knew. “Don’t, don’t do this . . .” he said evenly, pointing a finger at the guide, enough power to simply push and poke a hole in the world. “Do not make this my problem.”
“The whole landscape, rewritten,” the man said, his voice a deadened thing. “The entire topography of what he used to be, reshaped.” The land was hollow with just the time of them present, voices rising, water straining against the dam.
“I’m telling you, I won’t help him. This is not my fight.”
“And everything you might want, Agent,” the man said, his gaze gone pale, “will be lost and buried and gone.”
Agent One stared at the man for a few seconds, finger still extended, his jaw working but no sound emerging. “Dammit,” he whispered, finally. It was a storm, a hurricane gathering weight. “I should have,” he said, his words smoldering, catching. He took a step toward the guide, and amazingly the man was able to hold his ground until near the last second.
“Damn you, dammit, dammit,” the Agent snarled, grasping the pole brutally, not even caring if the guide was in his path anymore, grabbing the support and yanking it, tearing it away and apart in a single savage motion. “I should have done it.” The pole remained stuck in the ground for just a segment, snapping in half with a vivid crack, the canvas above that it was helping to hold up ripping, folding and fumbling, folding inwards as it started to come down. In his hands it broke and bent, splattering wood fragments all over the ground, the tarp falling in a slow motion cloud, shadows seeping all over the wrong angles, tumbling to earth and finding new contours as it settled over what had been the marketplace.
“Damn it all.” It had taken mere seconds, and all the time that remained. The Agent didn’t breathe, and he was breathing heavily, staring at the guide. The other man said nothing, waiting. “You,” and he wasn’t speaking to the man present, not in any real sense. He had both shattered ends of the pole in one hand, at his side like a broken spear. “I should have killed you a long time ago, and saved myself the trouble.” With an angry snap of his wrist he tossed the fragments away. The palms of his hands were covered in blood, none of it his. His words went out and settled over the area like old rain.
“You told me,” the guide said calmly and hesitantly, “that I couldn’t even begin to understand.”
Agent One blinked, stared like he was seeing the man for the first time. Seeming to shake himself, he said, “No. No, I guess you can’t. I shouldn’t expect you to.” He appeared to be talking to himself, looking elsewhere. “You’re only doing what comes naturally to you, to all of you. Perpetuation. It’s the nature of it.” He was walking away, footsteps leaving no impression in the sand.
“Damn, that’s some weird pacing. And hey, here’s a fun drinking game for the people playing the home version of this, take a shot every time he uses the phrase ‘old rain’. It’s more often than you might think.”
“That’s an odd phrase to reuse. It’s not as bad as some of the dialogue I get saddled with, however.”
“I particularly enjoyed watching you trying to wrap your lips around phrases like ‘corporeal but segregated’ in the middle of a sentence that requires inhuman breath control to say properly anyway. Has anyone ever tried to speak this stuff outloud? It must be a treat.”
“We can chalk it up to my superior nonexistent lungs. But it does get us to finally talking to Ranos, after a fashion.”
“Were you really fooled by that, though? I never thought you were that dense.”
“Perhaps I was simply very focused on the task at hand? What did you think of my delivery of the ‘What exactly are you afraid of’ line?”
“I felt chills, I tell you. Delicate and poignant and ever so tough, that was you. I was more paying attention trying to figure out if the black streaks appearing overhead were supposed to represent a clumsy attempt at foreshadowing or not.”
“I think they were.”
“Are we going to get the payoff this year?”
“Mm, I don’t think so.”
“Bah. It’s all too slow. I did shed a brief tear when your guide bit the dust. That was nicely done. Even if the whole screen from nowhere sequence made absolutely zero sense. Even for surrealism that was asking a bit much.”
“After like five chapters in his brain, I sort of just go with it by now.”
“Oh hell, let’s show the scene anyway. For the children!”
But Ranos was already moving, the dagger out, coming around and the fore, catching the wrong sorts of ambient light, from angles that never existed. “You’ll get it finally,” he might have said, grabbing the back of the man’s head and wrenching it back so that his throat was exposed. “The end you always wanted.”
The Agent’s gaze snapped up, locked. “Wait, what did you-“
The blade flashed. All motion shimmered, froze.
All at once, a screen burst up from the floor, sliding between Ranos and the Agent. It bulged out on both sides, a figure pressing against it, the voice emanating from it a crushed and spiralling thing.
Then, it tore, ejecting a man.
“You can’t-“ the man shouted, an odd momentum propelling him the short distance to Ranos, grabbing the knife arm with both hands and flinging the two of them away with his own weight. It took the Agent a second to realize that the new man was his guide, hardly revived but moving, the limbs under his robes thin and wasted, barely strong enough to keep him standing.
“This, none of this is right,” the guide said, his breath an expulsion of dust. The two of them fell together, the knife somewhere between them, wrestling with arms. “You don’t understand, everything he said, everything-“
His voice broke off suddenly as Ranos jerked upwards, the guide’s eyes widening and then half-closing. “Ah,” was all he said at first, staggering back, tearing himself apart with a brisk burst of strength. His hands were wrapped tightly around an object rammed into his midsection.
He fell back until he hit the nearest screen, the soft fabric somehow holding his weight. Shadows appeared above it, split, watching down, overlooking. Blood was oozing thickly from the wound in his stomach, finding its way around the dagger jammed there.
“It’s . . .” the guide said, his face thinned out, hardly himself anymore. “It’s not true, nothing he said was true.” The men were moving toward him as one, arms out to silence him. The man on the floor was curling up, trying to make himself small.
While across, Ranos stood, breathing heavily, a splatter of blood striped diagonally on his face. “Don’t,” he said only.
“Every word,” the guide said, nearly panting with the effort of getting the words out. “It was never true, he’s . . . I didn’t realize until he separated us and then . . .” he squeezed his eyes shut, hands still clutching the buried knife, “ah, I barely got back. Just in time, I got back.”
The Agent had reached him by now, standing close, bent so that his face was near. “Sh, you did. Sh.” Still facing the guide, his eyes sought Ranos, asking a question of both of them. “So what is this all about, then?”
“The false center,” the guide gasped out, the words nearly broken on leaving his lips. Ranos stood without expression. “You wouldn’t know, so he, he almost had you . . .” he swallowed thickly, eyes opening just a fraction. “I’m the only one here who would know, because of what I am, I’m . . .” he laughed, grimacing in pain. “. . . the last bastion of logic and reason in this-“
”I know, I know,” Agent One said gently, putting one hand on the dagger, trying to pry the guide’s hands off it. His skin was nearly stained crimson, soaking into his robes with barely any reaching the floor. “You stopped it, you did. But what did you stop?”
“I couldn’t let him,” the guide said, his breath coming in shorter bursts now, his knuckles white around the knife, holding onto it as if it might be his only anchor left for existence. Suddenly he turned his head and opened his eyes fully, staring at the Agent with clear vision. “It couldn’t end like that, the way he wanted. I couldn’t just let him stop like that, and go.” His eyes grew hazy again, longed for distant shores, the kind that he could never reach even in the furthest acres of his imagination. “If he ended, you never would have seen . . .” he laughed, sighed, sagging against the Agent, “oh, you barely saw anything, there are corridors so beautiful . . .”
Eyes still open, he stopped talking. The Agent held him for a minute, waiting for the guide to speak again. When it was clear he wasn’t going to, the Agent reverently arranged him against the screen, letting it bend gently under his soft weight.
Then, with a slow push, he let the body topple backwards into the screen, the folds of it parting like curtains, billowing and taking him and leaving not a trace behind.
The silent men stood frozen, all identical, hands still outstretched. The room smelt faintly of stalled violence.
“Dear me, how did you channel all that pain? All this time and you’ve been keeping that inside of you? Ah, come here you big lug, it’s time somebody told you they cared . . .”
“Get away from me . . .”
“There, there . . .”
“Get us out of here!”
Two Hundred Fifty
September 2, 1997
Recap: Julis and Renia walk back to the village, discussing combat theory (directly) and Tristian (indirectly). While she’s out, another village attempts to pump Julis for information on Tristian, which he barely deflects. With Renia back, a boy shows up, claiming to want to learn from them.
“Is this the first chapter after Renia and Tristian become, shall we say, intimate?”
“It might be, it’s certainly the first time that Julis is seeing her after she spends the night at the house with him. Which makes a nice contrast between his quivering sexual tension and her complete lack of it.”
“Yeah, he’s every guy who can’t work up the nerve to tell the girl that he likes her, only twice as awkward. You would think it would be easy, given that the village really has no real social conventions. I mean, without any societal pressures, you can say whatever you want.”
“Perhaps it’s simply more complex than we realize.”
“Or he didn’t bother fleshing it out. I really can’t get a handle on these people, to be honest. I’m really tempted to make the joke that you can tell that any scene involving Renia, Julis and Tristian, with or without the sexual tension, is written by someone who is been single for longer than he’d like to admit. But, oops, I guess I just did.”
“The characters do feel slightly off, and always have from the moment they were introduced. We know we’re on another planet but it doesn’t really feel alien. The most alien thing is Tristian, which may be the point. And he’s not even in this chapter.”
“The interpersonal relationships are so gnarled that it’s hard to keep track of who is dealing with who, plus every few chapters we get new people introduced, simply to forward another aspect of the plot. Everyone wants something else and you have to figure out who wants what and how badly they want it. Or who they’ll use to get it.”
“If you even care by that point. Which depends on your tolerance for circular dialogue and vague motivations. Julis’ almost panting desire for Renia is almost refreshing in its plain honesty. Someone at least knows what they want, even if they haven’t the faintest clue how to go about it.”
“He’s coming a little late to the party anyway.”
“Yeah! Tristian finally becomes a member of the human race! If he were here I’d so high-five him.”
“The big question in these chapters is the effect that Tristian is having on the normally pacifistic villagers, raising issues of whether they should learn how to defend themselves when they’ve never really had to. All the conversations here revolve around it, whether it’s Tilin trying to determine Tristian’s actual intent, or the boy showing up at the end wanting to learn how to use a sword, or even anything else Renia and Julis talk about. It’s always there.”
“But do we get any momentum from it? I mean, there are so many characters trying to do so many damn things that it all kind of becomes static after a while. Even the stream of consciousness sections, which return here, just sort of muddy things up.”
“It’s a different kind of clarity but . . . why are you looking at me like that?”
“Oh. I’ll step aside, then.”
Taking the hint, he gave her a polite tip of an imaginary hat, spinning on his heel and going on his way. He found himself moving faster without her present, his thoughts somehow sliding free. This day, what of it? Renia had been right, the times were changing and he was noticing it more now, the typical times bleeding into each other was gone and now he didn’t know what to expect anymore. All he knew was that he couldn’t remain still, or else risk getting left behind, a slice of glass coming in between the way things were becoming and the way things were, with him trapped on the wrong side. Beating and beating, but a sword couldn’t cut the flatness, and he was realizing now that he barely knew how to use his. Once he had been better than Renia and it never made a difference to him or her. Change, though, change. It was in the footsteps, marking the same path but different steps, the way the sun rose at a new angle every day, the way she came back from a place that he knew and still somehow altered, made into another, a woman he knew and who had left him behind already, even before the next move came. Was it that easy, to leave him? Even if he hadn’t arrived? Which was the mistake, then, which of them were doing the right action, fumbling about in the daylight, finding new routes when the old ones had sufficed. Cutting an old path, the edges grown hard. The house, and teaching. Once more, one more time. With him, he, him, was it that simple, to just bring this man in and pretend that he had always been there. When he fights, he’s so cold. Detached and gone, the uncomfortable slither. Imagine stabbing him and hearing him never make a sound. Imagine any kind of stabbing, all too easy, the better you got. The exercise of it, the need to not lose it, to keep the skill up. Was that the way? When the practice no longer worked, to bring it into the real. The blade never had blood but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a sword and he didn’t know how to fight. He did and so did she but was there a level above? To defend, maybe worse. To struggle and progress, flinging yourself like a gamepiece gone wrong against all enemies, the ones present and the ones extrapolated, all tangents ejected. The grim array. It couldn’t be the way, the only proper recourse. Her hands, with a smile. Oh, not right. It was never what he wanted, to just become better and be content with that. With her. No, it was never meant, yes. With her. To never test, and be secure. To know, without showing, to show without demostrating, just by a walk, a stance, a motion. All of you back away and leave. It’s just us, the ones who teach. Clear a circle and make way. His sword and the magic of it, so rough. But, oh, she wasn’t frail. She’d had him up against the wall many days, breathing with sweat and he’d known. But it was never true. You can do what you like, when nobody can stop you. Everything was true, the words kept saying. The fight, the slash, the boundary he couldn’t cross. What, what if? This was as good, right here. The barest flick, this errant reaction, the quickest peel? Was that as good as he had, as it was. Yes. She could be better. Not he, but with him. Teeth on the throat, on the shoulder, the spine, nails on skin, little marks, the dots of blood. Tiny swords, scraping into the night. This wasn’t, don’t do this. Don’t please. One night already lost, leaves slipping down a river, one by one past the furthest gaze. All images intrude into this expanding game, with a sideways violence of their own. Vision gone black, just this sudden flare, intertwined and still, all swords erased. Where you’re gone, where we’ve gone, you won’t need weapons. The sight alone is all the declaration anyone will need. Against the window, breath grown stale, circles of condensation, catching the cries, keeping them hidden and in. Standing there and what do you see. No, the grace, think of it, all motions fluid. Like he and him. Is that your fondest goal, to be a poor copy of what he could be? What good would that do, when that already exists, when she has that beyond all motive? The day sparks change, and you have to change with it, without becoming what the rest are resolving into. A different focus for a new tactic. Draw her near, all of them, all the staggering sane ones, just close enough to feel the vital point, hardly an indent, breaking the skin enough to pull out the smallest sliver. Then, they’ll. What? What of it? That’s right. How what you’ll find won’t be any different, and it won’t any longer be the same.
“You could have simply warned me. But, see, it’s all very confused and compressed into a very limited amount of space.”
“I don’t know, the village politics aren’t exactly my favorite parts of all this. Renia can’t be the only eligible person in the village, right? I can’t imagine Julis being too picky, though if he was on Earth I can see him spending a lot of lonely Friday nights in his bedroom listening to Cure tapes.”
“That’s not really very fair.”
“Life’s not real fair, sorry. I suppose I’m just biased toward Tristian, is all. Rooting for the home team and all that.”
“Except he’s trying to kill everyone.”
“He’s still our boy. You gotta support your boy.”
“Speaking of, the boy who shows up at the end, is that the same one Tyrias was talking to in another chapter.”
“Oh, probably. How many boys with swords can there be in this place? Just more competition for Julis.”
“At least it points to some kind of direction.”
“Yeah, just not one involving any of these characters. Tyrias and Tristian are squaring off, but they’re nowhere in sight. That’s just weird.”
Two Hundred Fifty One
September 2, 1997
Recap: Tyrias visits Tristian at the house and tries to convince him to become an instructor for those looking for sword training. He’s not successful but does manage to surprise Tristian by revealing he knows about him and Renia.
“Oh, that’s why. They’re off in another plot entirely.”
“This does show Tyrias as a bit more of a manipulator than we’ve first seen. He’s clearly trying to steer Tristian into teaching at the old school, though we don’t know exactly why.”
“You mean show him as a bit more of a bastard. He pretends that he knew Renia was shagging him all along when he really only found out ten minutes before because the kid let it slip.”
“All she did say was that Renia stayed there, he figured the rest out. Give him some credit. Although his complaints about getting old wear thin after a while.”
“It’s just another drinking game. By this point if you haven’t starting hitting the bottle, you’re a better person than any of us. More weird little kids, though. What is with this guy?”
“It may be that they only seem weird because it’s from an adult’s perspective, so it’s not possible to totally follow their train of thought. Plus she’s clearly absorbing what’s around her, all the talk of swords and fighting.”
“Or, she’s just weird, like I said. Don’t make it overcomplicated, please. Meanwhile, the story is giving us hints that the old guy isn’t so kindly and whatnot. Because we’ve been able to take everything else at face value so far.”
“I think it’s more showing how he made a difficult decision and is still trying to come to terms with whether he did the right thing or not. That’s what it might be saying underneath all the meaningless verbiage, that is.”
“You know, I think you’re meaner than I am, you’re just more subtle about it. But we should let the audience decides that for themselves, hm? Hm?”
“Ah, practicing is something you can never stop, I’m afraid,” Tyrias said sagely. “Once you’ve started, it’s a path you have to keep going down, no matter what.” Jillan looked at him as if she didn’t completely understand. It’s the nature of life outside the moment that you can’t grasp yet. Things are here and gone, without connection or loss. The only permanence that existed in your life is gone, has been gone. “Now, I want to have a few words with him, so go along and find your brother. I’ll talk to the both of you later.”
With one last swipe at him with her impromptu sword, Jillan scampered off, her body swishing the grass but hardly leaving a mark. Tyrias watched her go, without expression, until the foliage swallowed her entirely. Then, with a heavy breath, he turned and kept walking in the opposite direction. I’ll never know how it will work out for you, in the end. A bit more warmth had crept into the day, but the morning’s chill had not entirely dissipated yet. The talk with the child had wearied him, for some reason, laced him with strings of weights. He had to stop and rest more often these days, leaning on the stick, on whatever force would support him. But not on others. All the time, all day, it was just him, the rest kept aside and separate, not understanding, not wanting to, not even willing to take the first step. They had understood, in this grand house, but even then not completely. Tyrias thought he had a seen a glimmer of it, in their fading lights. That night here, blood streaking the floor, the oldest form of writing. What it really said, he’d never know. All the ways to spell murder. Murder and another strike. The first body on the stairs, his chest pierced, a trickle still seeping from the muscle inside. Sprawled in midstep, hardly anywhere at all. Bodies and blood and bodies. The air thick with the scent of soaked sweat, a kind of crystalline silence that hurt to even cause to shiver. The night drawn tight, slit and holding. A discarded sword, rammed through a face, the eyes still registering surprise and maybe a little disgust. The taste of it, metallic and sweet. How would you know? Nobody had made any noise that time, their footsteps like quiet breaths, the inhalation that never relaxes. All of them. How many? After all this time keeping count just wasn’t important. Spreading left and right, water across a flat hill, trying not to step on what was left behind. Shouts in the distance, new places found, he had ignored all of it that night. It had just been the two of them. The body, his body, lying on his side. In front of the childrens’ room, maybe? Or had that been her, propelled by a calculated, desperate final instinct? He remembered the eyes being open, reflected in the crimson pool. Glassy understanding, or at least a partial revelation, finally. The sword still gripped, the glimmer of metal the only real illumination, refractions of another source. He may have been still breathing, a little bit, the rest of him already gone. What did you say to him, Tyrias, what final words sped him away. It wasn’t important. All the memories in the world, of that night, of all the segments in between. Walking amongst the carnage as the only man left alive. The men, prone and still, one’s head nearly severed at the neck. The stains lingered now, even now, the grim unfolding trail. Oh, that night. That sodden and broken evening, when it had all come together. Just walking by brought it back, in fragments, in all the nagging splinters, the kind that stuck in the palm, forcing you to scratch and scratch in an effort to release them, to provide some relief. But you never found the source, all you did was bleed.
The throbbing numbness in his legs warned him that he had been standing too long. This place, it occupies me, Tyrias thought. It threatens to inhabit me. Right in the shadow of it, he was there with no one around. Just like before. No, not quite. He swayed a bit, wanted to lean against the house for some brief support. No, he decided against it. He wanted as little contact with the place as possible. I’ve done well, he told whatever spirits might still be watching, woven into the wood, the liquids frozen in between the fibers. You have to give me that, at least. Nobody answered, of course. Nobody did then, either, on that forgone night.
Seeing no other choice, he kept moving. At the end, he could rest. At the very end, if there was still time.
Tyrias heard the man before he saw him. Or rather, he sensed him, felt that strange humming that somehow got right under the skin, a knife of sound. As the girl had said, the man was in the back of the house, where the grasses grew tallest and the forest trees watched like sentinels. Watched or guarded, it was hard to say. He was practicing with his own weapon, swinging it in loose circles, deceptively slow, making a few prepatory motions before darting out and pivoting, cutting down the air with an intensity that Tyrias almost expected it to bleed. The man kept switching from two hands to one hand, seemingly comfortable with either grip, the blade gleaming even in the brazen light of the early day.
There was no breathing to be heard. Even the silence was subdued in its way, the only noise was the whisper of his passage through the grass, the contant churning hum of the sword as it passed over and through and down. The ground near his feet was littered with the severed tops of the nearest plants, neat and even. Life with no jagged edges. No matter at what angle he stood, the man was a blur to Tyrias, his smoothest movements somehow stretched, his form oddly liquid. It was his eyes, his damned old eyes. But the man, ah. If you had been here years ago, I wouldn’t have had to. In the dark he had nearly slipped on the first pool of blood, almost twisting his knee. Back then, in the other times. The house always did this, dislodged what the day had been, the errant sequences. They’re not learning, there needs to be more. The father, wavering. Give it time, just a little more time. All the great steps forward and they all quailed. Children, frightened of the shadows, preferring to pretend that the darkness just wasn’t there, that the day was always present and the night was just what happened when you blinked for just a little too long. In time, they’ll come, and they’ll see. Nobody was sure which was the wound that killed him, exactly. So many, like chopping down a tree. Chip away and eventually it will fall. The old phrase again, hidden in taut coils.
Tyrias settled back, putting nearly all of his weight on his walking stick, watching the man. His style was so different than anything Tyrias was used to. More graceful, a darting and weaving type of near-dance, able to shift into a brutal simplicity without warning, the point driving toward the most vital places with all efficiency. Moving the way he did, Tyrias could believe that he could hold a patch of land no bigger than what his two feet occupied, and do so indefinitely. If you had been here, it wouldn’t have. The two of them staring at him, alive and wondering how they could outnumber the willing. The slow and the sure. All numbers can become overwhelmed, unchecked growth and the need to move forward, against all wishes. He tried not to remember where she had died. He had probably found her as well, despite all efforts otherwise. For some reason, he thought they had broken her jaw, before it had gone down. The pieces of a man’s slit stomach, mixed in with her own violence. That was how it went, when you couldn’t back away. Tyrias could never imagine the man backing away, or down. Whatever place he held, wherever he stopped, that was the line and the only way he could move was forward, and through. Anything was less than an option, a place that couldn’t be approached because it simply didn’t existence. The edge of a cliff, in all its finality.
“Tristian sure is pretty though, isn’t he? In a latently violent sort of way. No wonder why Renia wants every inch of him.”
“He does complain a lot though.”
“He always did, even when he had his memory. I don’t think he’s happy unless he is.”
“This is probably the only time that Tyrias gains the upper hand conversationally, though.”
“Gains, or someone lets him get? The comment at the end about the bodies in the woods says otherwise.”
“We don’t even know if we actually says it, the story remains cagey. Remember, Tyrias spent a lot of time thinking about bodies just before this, so he might just imagine it.”
“Do you really think that?”
“Oh, no, it’s rather obvious but I figure I’d try to be nice again. Something is obviously up, the plot is definitely moving once more.”
“But the chapters keep following the pattern of two people talking to each other, the few times you have more than two people in a chapter only two of them are in a frame at the same time, with the stuff in between separated by some guy staring at a blade of grass and having it bring up pages of boring memory. Is this story about stuff or people talking about stuff? Or can he not handle that many speakers at once?”
“You’re asking the wrong person. It’s possible the story is simply settling, trying to relax itself as much as it can before it snaps back into action.”
“Oh and maybe Santa will bring us everything we want this year, like a toy truck and a pony!”
“How much more do we have of this?”
“Oh, honey, we’re just getting started.”
Two Hundred Fifty Two
September 2, 1987
Recap: Back at work, Jacob tries to keep the office functioning in an environment where everyone is just going through the motions. He talks to Bill, Brian, and Nicole, but everyone’s thoughts are on the slowly unfolding carnage around them. At the end, the phone rings.
“I don’t get the corporate stuff at all, I’ll be perfectly honest. Keeping it vague might have been a good idea in the beginning but by now it’s clear he has no idea how an office environment even runs, let alone one in the mid-eighties.”
“Nobody is doing lines of coke in the bathroom. There’s a period detail missing right there. I want to see reams of greed but it’s not happening anywhere. Jacob works in the most boring office imaginable. And he’s still following the damn pattern. There are four people in this chapter but only two of them ever talk to each other at once. That’s a little frustrating.”
“Does the instance of supreme weirdness in the beginning help assauge that any?”
“I was hoping you weren’t going to mention that. I have no idea what the hell is happening there. I never get those parts, is that the narration talking to itself, or bleeding through the story or has everyone just gone nuts? Wait, see for yourself!”
The bodies, they’re hard to look at.
Someone will move them, it’s okay.
It’s just, it’s like they keep staring, staring right at-
They’ll go. In time. Hush. Everything is fine now.
Every morning the number of people walking in became less and less
But it’s not. At the walls you can hear them, can’t you? Scraping and tugging and battering. Always outside, trying to get in but the problem is that when they get in they don’t know what to do. So they wander and wonder and hurt. Surrounded by all that beauty, all they can do is destroy. That’s sad. It’s so sad.
It’s fine. They come, and they go back. Just like always.
The walk to his desk was a stroll down a cemetary lane
It’s different this time, do you hear-
Nothing, all right? It’s nothing. Just close your eyes, okay? Close them and don’t be scared.
The grim hum of phones, the soft murmur of disguised voices
Everyone is so brave. Everyone. Except for-
Sh. All right? None of that. You’ve been magnificent. Just be still and don’t fear.
And he came in, and he sat there, without knowing what to do.
It’s all going to go anyway, isn’t it? Despite everything, they won’t be able to hold it together. And it’s all going to go away. All the wonderful gardens, the painted corridors, the day, do you remember the day when the sky was made of glass, and how the sun caught it and whatever the light touched, it turned into jewels. She picked one for you, that day, and brought it over. She was so shy about it, asking us, do you think he’ll like it? Will he like it?
Those days will come again. They are not gone, just sleeping.
What happened to her? On the last day she was in a tower, from the window she was so calm.
Waiting for someone to give him work, or maybe a reason not to work.
The tower came down, of course. All things fall. She knew that as well as anyone. But down is the risk of going up, in order to finally see.
She was nice, everyone has been so nice. It’ll be a shame when it . . . wait, do you hear? Did you hear that?
But he realized after a while that wasn’t what he really wanted.
Sh. It’s safe. Still your fear and let it be safe
But you do hear them, they’re right at the-
What Jacob wished for was that he could be woken up
At the door, hammering, the door is breaking
Sh, sh sh sh, don’t
and be immediately told what the hell he was supposed to do.
all of this is just about
“Oh boy, that was sure a good time. And so utterly necessary to the plot. Though I do rather enjoy Jacob quietly freaking out about Ranos staying at his house. It’s not like he doesn’t deserve it.”
“I do like how he and everyone he knows are the only people showing for work still, even as bodies are literally being found in the streets. Which means they will probably all die at some point.”
“I think their demise is almost assured, I haven’t seen a crowd this doomed since Custer decided to go attack a bunch of Indians. Strangely, the vague sense of foreboding involves everyone but the characters. Still, do you enjoy Jacob and Brian trying to decide if they should compare penis sizes or hug as much as I do?”
“The conversation between the two of them may be the most interesting thing about the chapter, as slowly we’ve being shown Brian in a more humanizing light, without really changing the fact that he’s a jerk, which is a weird balancing act.”
“Right, he’s still an asshole but one you feel a little bit bad for because he’s kind of expendable. He’s also out of his depth, which may be a metaphor for the entire story.”
“The conversations where he discusses not being able to contact an invisible upper management have a quiet surrealism to them, where everyone is working but they don’t really know why, and they don’t know what else to do. It doesn’t make up for the fact that once again people are talking about stuff instead of doing anything-“
”Jacob almost has an affair! Right in his cubicle! This guy does have a lot of weight on him, between keeping his family together, trying to convince his wife to have a third child, dealing with work and secretly wanting his new coworker. I can see why he rarely has time for the plot. I’d be too busy, too.”
“See if you can guess exactly what Jacob’s job is or what his company really does. All we ever see him do is run reports.”
The conference room was empty and dark at first. “Here,” Brian said, switching the light on. It made the room colder somehow, giving it an expansive chill. The chairs weren’t neatly pushed in, but sprawled at varying angles away from the table, like the last crew in here had been forced to leave abruptly, without time to straighten. The table was clear of even crumbs. “Spread that out and we can start going through it. Did you arrange it sequentially or in clusters?”
“Clusters,” Jacob replied, tearing the sheets apart and setting them up in a grid fashion. “I figured it’d be easier to keep organized, sometimes with the sequential stuff you change one bit of it and it winds up snowballing, altering all the values. This will give us a little more room to play.”
Brian frowned. “It’ll have to be tightened up at the end, though.”
“If it was done right the first time that won’t be a problem, the changes will be pretty minor,” Jacob replied, already taking a pen out and resuming where he had been working before. A woman walked past the door, her steps apparently aimless. When she saw them her pace increased, the clack of her footsteps close together even after she passed out of sight. Jacob looked over at Brian, who was already deep into his section, a pen tucked behind one ear, his eyes narrowed and searching. “Brian, what does management think about any of this? Are they going to do anything about it?”
Brian didn’t seem to hear him at first. In my house he looked at me and said this is the way it has to be and it was a question and it wasn’t a question. If there was, I don’t remember it. I don’t remember answering. Kerri, what did I tell you? Why is he staying? Because it has to end one way or the other. Then he laughed dryly, not taking his eyes off the report. “You kidding me? Jake, I can’t even get in touch with them lately. Memos come down and tell us to keep doing what we’re doing and make sure all the projects hit their deadlines. I call back and I try to get somebody to tell them what it’s like down here but . . . they don’t answer.” He snatched the pen and made a small notation, biting his lip. “It’s just me, Jake, holding this floor together. And I’m not doing that very well, I think.” In the frosted light his hand might have been shaking. The dry laugh again, a little more shriveled. “I mean, you’re the only person doing any real work here and that’s not because of me. You said, you don’t even like me.”
Jacob made a noise that indicated he was listening but otherwise said nothing else. It was easy enough to become immersed in the numbers lined up and down the paper, to delve so deeply into them that he could forget about every other circumstance swirling around him, around his entire life. The slow shaving of the city, life by life, his growing dissolution, the stranger in his home who wasn’t a stranger. We’ve met before and you’re back and I can’t say why. We need to talk so you can tell me but I let you stay anyway. You were hurt the first time and that was why and now. Now I don’t know. Is it right? It could be.
But Brian kept talking, almost like he had no choice. “It’s funny, Jake, they gave me this job, they promoted me over you because they didn’t feel you had the balls for it. I didn’t think you did either.” Jacob glanced up at the other man but Brian wasn’t looking at him, lost in his own stack of figures and numbers, his voice acting independently.
He didn’t want to continue this conversation and yet he spoke anyway. This company was a dark box sometimes, impulses came in and reactions went out but you never had any idea of how they were processed. And it was tempting to just get a glimpse, once in a while. “So you think they made the wrong decision?”
“Oh, hell no,” Brian snorted. His pen almost skidded off the paper, such was the strength of his response. “Not in a million years. I said you have more balls than I thought you did, but that doesn’t mean you’re any good at ordering people around, at organizing and delegating.” He pointed at Jacob with the blunted end of his pen. “You have no idea how to get people to listen to you, so you’ll just wind up doing it all yourself, to make sure it gets done. You’re a good worker, man, but you’re no leader.”
“And you are?” An entire row checked off, aligned perfectly. Jacob could get lost in this and forget about the creeping entropy outside, the dissolution of rationality, the puzzle bits of the world that not only were refusing to fit together but were beginning to engage in open conflict. He could do this and pretend the day was normal, his life was typical. And yet, but. You made a promise once. You did. I want to know if it still stands.
Brian looked up, clearly about to answer, but just as suddenly stared down again, furrowing his brow over another column of figures. His pen darted down, spearlike, scritching along. “I’ll be level with you, Jake,” he said, his words slow at first, as if he were trying them on for size. “I really don’t know, I honestly . . . I’m not sure. I want to think that even if I’m not one now, I’ll be one some day, if I do this long enough.” He stopped writing, putting the implement down, running a hand along his forehead. “That’s why I got picked over you. Out of the two of us, they thought I was the most likely.”
“You believe that,” Jacob stated flatly. He shrugged imperceptibly, marking off corrections in tight, nimble checkmarks. “I guess I’ll take your word for it.”
“You have a better explanation?” Brian shot back, for a second looming as the arrogant bastard that Jacob had first grown to dislike. “Do you?” He was almost flinging his words forward, scraping across on broken legs to reach Jacob, begging him to follow them back, blunted harpoons desperate to pin him down.
Jacob thought about it for a moment. “No,” he said finally, tapping the pen against his cheek. “I guess I don’t.”
Without looking he could feel the other man staring at him. It wasn’t the same as a stranger’s gaze. I should have known when I came down the stairs this morning. Right then, the house felt different. He thought he heard Brian muttered, soft-voiced and indeterminate. It was only a matter of time, of course. All things were inevitable in fractuous time. Eyes other than his had seen it go off a cliff, flickering and screaming. No sounds, just screaming. That’s all you had to look forward to, beating on broken glass, smiling through the blood and the scars. The scares and the hair. Little threads, wrapped right around your tiny throat.
“Don’t you care?” Brian asked, quiet but forceful.
“Maybe the company’s job is to just generate reports, all the time. So the main dilemma in 1997 will be that the world has run out of paper and it’ll all be Jacob’s fault. That’s a much more daring direction to go in instead of the serial killer stuff.”
“Or the corporate affair?”
“He’s not going to cheat on his wife. This story is complicated enough already without dragging that into the mix. Besides, Kerri would kick his ass from here to the sequel.”
“If she found out.”
“Hello, they are living with a dude who reads minds for kicks. It’s not a question of when but a question of when he’d find the best moment to break it to her. I’d read that story. Jacob and His Amazing Cubicle Ruminations? Not so much.”
“The line about the beast scraping up against the door is suitably ominous, however. Especially as it comes right before the phone rings.”
“It still took us a zillion pages and three conversations to get to that point. Is the story going somewhere or is it just killing time until the main event later in the day? When a ringing phone is your pulse pounding cliffhanger, sonny, something definitely has gone wrong.”
“That’s your brilliant theory.”
“That’s a law, son.”
Two Hundred Fifty Three
September 2, 1987
Recap: Ranos, alone in the Koplan house, thinks about his best plan of attack for Belmodeus, before calling Jacob at work to explain to him exactly what is going to happen. Then Kerri walks in the door.
“This breaks the pattern.”
“Oh sure, now instead of just two people talking we have one talking to someone we can’t hear. This is supposed to be progress?”
“To be honest most of the chapter really consists of a long winding internal monologue from Ranos. Which is what the story does best most of the time, showing the exact texture of thought in all its nuances and digressions. Unfortunately it’s also the worst thing the story does because it tends to go on for pages and pages.”
“Well, we knew we weren’t signing up for a breakneck action adventure, although the scenes between Ranos and Belmodeus might have tricked us into thinking otherwise. Remember when he set the guy on fire in the school gym and then knocked him out into the street? Oh man, those were the days. Good times, good times.”
“Things have become much more entrenched now. People have been wounded to the extent that nobody is bothering to lash out anymore. They are all considering their actions very carefully.”
“Maybe too carefully, to the point where nobody does anything. They just talk, or think, or think about talking. I mean, look at this bit . . .”
Four followed him down, future ghosts, picking him up and pulling him back, all direction shot and gone, up and down merely existing as opposites of each other. Each breath he inhaled was suffused with the clashing portions of their contributions, fraying even now with their absences. Even the hint of their going away was too much. I said I’ll save you. I’ll stay and make you safe. A promise without pay, maybe for the first time. Even unheard, he was surprised at himself. Or maybe not. It had been coming to this. Shoes clack, feet scuffle and slide, a door can never quite creak the same way twice because you are not the same person who breaks it each time. The task turning from pure survival to assault, to attack. In the end perhaps his problem had been that he no one to fail but himself and he could care less whether he lived or died. The swinging hinge of his mind refused to close and it wouldn’t stop. Carpets gone evergreen, hands rustling on crinkling shirts, her hands on his stomach, the top of his hip, beams of light seen from the wrong angle, until they were just dots rushing closer, hanging jewels and broad colors, faces changed into shards, mouths elongated into caverns, all that laughter stretched out so far that it became first a sneer and eventually a plea for help.
Was he even in the kitchen anymore? It didn’t feel that way, but the way that it felt didn’t make sense. A solid ocean, the children baked of sand, a place where Time ran backwards the longer you stared at the clock, as if a hand could truly make it so. He had to go out, it was certain, but he had to come back this time as well, and that was less certain. He’s still out there. That didn’t start or finish anything, but said it had to continue. The movements of his fingers made tiny lines in the air, memories were solidifying, becoming soft and porous and present. A baby’s cough, the slick innocence of their drool. Don’t let his head hit the table. Toys in the path, just like lives, discarded and useful while they were upright. He was trying to stand but his boots kept sliding, the house bending and caving. It was the reaching out that he needed to do, finally. The refusal to back away, to press forward. He’d been passive and defensive for too long, focused on maintaining himself for another second, another day. But he didn’t care, not about himself. That was the key, to find the icy center and not forget. To fling himself thusly and finally discover an end to this.
Belmodeus, I made a mistake. Detached, he could stare at the cabinets and see whole worlds reflected, the contours deepened in decorative colors, shifting and altering as the sky darkened outside, as the sun rose and set, the line between day and night shifting, going out and coming back. Years and years. Towns and countries, just the way he knew, too small to see, captured in the overlapping folds of the mind. Armies and soldiers, all without blood, men against men, banging and clashing, because everyone had to win some day. Oh, but the blood wasn’t a choice now. He felt it, the first time it stained, and the time it stopped staining. That overwhelming consequential joy. I can’t keep reacting to you. We tried that and it didn’t work. It won’t bring about an ending, only a continuation. And neither of us want that anymore. But that quieter undernote, the one that he could barely hear, poking up with only the faintest presence. Of wanting to change the number, to take it and bend it and somehow make it something other than it is. The sense to leave and the sense to stay and notion that it was all falling apart. Giggling under the sigh, or perhaps the other way around. The house smelled like a vacuum and the lack of nothing never had any other flavor. Ranos was finding the crevices in the smooth wall, the way he had done it in the desert, grain by clinging grain, inching the way forward even as the sun exerted its pressure, fighting to reach the top of your own retreating shadow, destined to never touch the blank face of it and having no choice but to follow. Belmodeus, you can slip away and I can tighten my grip. Distance by distance, gap by gap, the struggle quivering his muscles, the ceiling so far away. But the ceiling wasn’t his goal, he had set his sights lower. He had been in this house and he had never been here before. What was it, the crushing yearning to leave? Fought and fighting, crisscrossed with the bars, the space outside. You know what this means, and it wasn’t clear who he was addressing anymore, flinging his thoughts out to whoever might listen. But nobody could listen, not on this world. All aspects had gone silent, no memories spoke. His gritted teeth, the way he held her, firm and loose, giving her enough freedom to bolt but just tight enough, as if afraid she might actually leave if given the chance. He had given her the chance, had given her so many, the vomit running down invisible gutters, cries mingling like broken sirens, morphing into brightly colored balls and new grass, dancing in parallel lines. We don’t have a choice anymore. We have to turn this town into our battlefield, and lash out against each other. I can’t defend, I can only be a shield.
Palms flat on the wall, he was finding the shutters one by one and closing them all down, erasing all sensation, making him into a cold thing, blood gone into nightsand, the gritty bed he made for himself each longago day, all heat retained inward and hidden. The house was slipping away, all their long voices, glistening and beckoning and begging. They weren’t here and he was, but he had to lock them out so he could leave. It was hard, it was their home. All the escaping vents were being sealed, nothing in and nothing out. His face had gone still, not even a muscle flickering as he continued to climb, unfolding all the distance, robe hardly touching the floor now, pulling himself up through will and stress. I’ll find you and it won’t be the same as you finding me. Before I was only trying to blunt you, but it’s different now. Before, killing you was my last option, when all had failed and I needed to survive. It’s the first option now and the only one. Upright, even. The last few openings, going. Just thoughts now, was all he had. A few stray voices, all context removed. Hellowhere. Control, was what he needed, what he had. That would see him through. The house becoming a hosue again. The family, just another clan. Not his part, not his. His clan had died, so long ago. The bodies and the bodies and the bodies. Too many, Belmodeus, it stops. The bits of them that remained were scraps, cloth that hung too close to the slamming door, the pieces that tore and were left behind as a reminder. He could hold them up to his face and bring about the smell and remember. But it wasn’t his and could never be. The chalk kept screeching against the board. Eliminate it all and stand, Ranos. Come up to your plan. I’ll go out, you see. It won’t be like before. I’ll come to you and we’ll have to enact this.
Up. Going. His eyes level again. The final click couldn’t even be heard in the right frequency. Ranos stood without wobbling, back in this home, this place that didn’t belong to him. But he was going to stay here until it was over. That much had to be true. Did you see this coming? Of course he didn’t, but if he had, it was possible that he might never have started. Never have left the desert, or even his mother’s womb. Died there and avoided all of this. But what life was that? Did you see this coming. What else could you possibly see, in the end?
“This gets us to a whole lot of nowhere, really. What is this story going to be about, in the end? It’s just too much violence and action to be a pure ‘let’s all reflect’ kind of story but at the same time we have huge stretches where literally nothing happens. It’s like waiting for a bus and realizing that it’s a holiday and the bus is never going to come so you talk to the bloke next to you but he’s not really listening. You’re passing the time but you don’t need to be, you could be somewhere else. Is it that hard a concept to grasp?”
“The big thing is that the chapters are generally leading up to events that do move the plot forward but you have to wade through a good number of other . . . stuff, to get to those moments. Here, we’ve clearly waiting for the phone conversation with Jacob, so we can lead into his eventual conversation with Kerri. It’s really that simple and yet it’s not presented as simple.”
“Which leads to the question, is it this fancy because it needs to be or because the person writing it can’t conceive of doing it in any other way. You have Hemmingway write this stuff and it would be about a tenth of this length. And it would have more guns and sex, too. And people saying, ‘It was good’.”
“And that’s an improvement?”
“At this point I really don’t know. Listen, there’s plenty here I want to like . . .”
“The phone conversation?”
“This . . .” he wiped at his forehead, was not surprised to see sweat on the palm of his hand. “Jacob, this . . . it is not an easy thing we do here, any of us. To let me stay here, it . . . it is generous of you and your family but I think you do not realize . . . do you realize, Jacob? Tell me, do you . . .” his sucked at his teeth, eyes distant. “Yes, that is . . . it is the simple version. Yes, that is what I said, it . . . I will explain, I am trying to . . .” his fingers tightened around the handset. “That is what I am trying to say. You may all be in danger if I . . . yes, you are, everyone is right now but . . . stop, please. For a moment, please stop. Jacob. I am asking you to . . . very well, very . . .” He wanted to pull out a chair and sit down but for some reason he felt that breaking his connection with the wall would detach him from the house completely and the cord would not be enough to keep him here. Do you see what is coming? From any vantage? “Answer me this, what do you think I am here to do? What do you think it is that I do?” He paused, perhaps listening to faltering words. How to describe? The closest word he knew didn’t encompass. “Do you . . . you know what a mercenary is?” Longer pause. Ranos didn’t even need the phone anymore, or the need to project. “Yes, that’s right, that’s exactly . . . that’s what I do and normally, yes, for money . . . yes, I’ve . . . yes, Jacob. Yes.” He had closed his eyes now, weary, head resting against the wall. “It is not important, all we have is here and that is where matters become . . . complicated. It was, yes, that was the job in the beginning, to . . . exactly, to stop him. Kill him, yes.” So easily said. “But I’m far now, Jacob, you do not understand how far I am from where I started and no matter what happens now, I am not going to get paid. I know this, as much as I know anything else. And yet, this has to stop and I need to stop it. I know that, as well. They are both true things, in their own way.” He wanted to laugh, but he didn’t. Instead he just sighed, unable to do anything else. “No, I do not know exactly how. But I have . . . I want to tell you, I am not here to recover this time, Jacob. You have to understand that. I am not here to recover. I have done that, as best I can and what happens now is . . .” his eyes snapped open. “Yes, that is one way to put it, I suppose. The attack starts. It starts. I am here and I have to attack and my fear is you do not know what that means, what it will entail.” Scattered and shot, Ranos wished he could reach in and reveal what he wanted to say. Intangible hands and the notion. You don’t understand. You’re a noble fool who will never realize. You are no longer the front line but the battlefield itself. “Do? What I said. I am going to go out and I am going to try and kill him, in the hopes of ending this. You . . . did you think I would be able to magically take him away, or sterilize his presence like he is a kind of sickness . . . do you know anything about me at all, what I’m even capable . . .” he stopped, sagged a little. “Of course, you don’t. I am sorry for the outburst, we are all under some strain, yes, I know, the days have been . . . yes. But, listen to me, Jacob, I . . .” say it plain, man, and bring it down, “it will not be an easy task, to do this. I am going to try and kill him, and I suspect he will not let me.” The last words were barely said. What are you saying? You are not saying all.
You are in the war now, but you cannot be a soldier. And you feel I will make you one. But that is not true. “That is . . . there is risk. There is always risk, but now. The difference, the difference is . . . before, he was not looking for me and now . . . now he will be,” it was torn out of him and yet, not. “Yes, like that. Yes.” I promise, you will all be safe. Was that belief, or hope? He hated this device and the distance it imposed. But this house was so valuable. If not for the family it would be perfect. But in some matters compromises had to be made. In war there are no people, only tactics. “I will draw attention to myself but I . . . I have methods to keep . . . understand, I will be the prey here. Roused, he will not want you. But the risk is still . . .” Nobody, none will get in. Not while I have breath. But are you even listening, caught in your own dream? Does your wife tell you about her dreams? “Will it be worse if I didn’t . . .” his eyes sought parts of the wall that weren’t in phase, “nothing is certain, Jacob. But I like to take every advantage and here . . . this is an advantage.”
“You know what? Sure. Sure. Because at least it’s trying something different, we’ve had phone conversations before from one angle, in fact that’s all the story has done, but this actually feels integral to the plot, with Ranos starting to open up to Jacob, figuring that if he’s going to put these people in danger, he might as well give them a heads-up.”
“Even then he’s not completely open, becaus he doesn’t want to get kicked out and have to start over again. The problem with taking this chapter by chapter is that you don’t really see the big picture.”
“I’d need eyeballs as wide as my ego to see the big picture. Printed out, this thing could cover a small town. And it keeps going. There are marriages shorter than this.”
“But what I’m saying, if you’d bother to listen for a second, is that the meat of this is the juxtapositions, the comparisions between the 1997 and the 1987 characters and the way everyone deals with the same incidents in different ways. How Kerri reacts to something now and how she’ll react in ten years. Ranos has something resembling a conscience here. With Tristian that may not be the case. The intersections between people are hideously complicated and we’re only seeing pairs of it at a time. The rest we have to piece together.”
“I’m just questioning whether it’s worth it. Or if it even has to be that way.”
“Maybe it does. To me, it’s either overshooting or taking on too much. That may end up being part of its ramshackle charm but it’s too hard to tell at this point.”
“Like a cute puppy that keeps pissing on the floor? You want to swat him for being bad but he’s, aw, he’s got those big eyes. Or big paragraphs, in this case. I don’t buy it.”
“I don’t completely either. On the plus side, the chapters are becoming somewhat linked, so it feels like momentum, although you can decide whether there is any or not.”
“You know my vote. But maybe I’m just biased. Can we go back to your hissy fit when you wrecked the marketplace. That was classic. I’m going to replay that one for the Naxgul. They’ll get a giggle out of it.”
Two Hundred Fifty Four
September 2, 1987
Recap: Kerri, coming back to find Ranos still in the house, attempts to intimidate him into leaving by threatening to call the police. He calls her bluff, and they argue, not really coming to any conclusion before he vanishes.
“Have they argued in every room of the house yet? Because the story seems to be heading in that direction.”
“Wouldn’t it be funny if Kerri came in to find Ranos making long-distance prank calls? Now that would be comedy. Instead, they just bitch at each other until they run out of stuff to say, at which point he pulls his ‘by all the gods’ act and disappears.”
“That is starting to get a bit old, I’ll admit. But it’s a common trick in this story, when it’s lacking for a dramatic development, just have someone look panicked and vanish. You did it fairly recently.”
“Yeah, but what stinks is that you don’t find out where they went for like a hundred pages. Between me vanishing and reappearing later, how many chapters were in between that? Fifteen? Really?”
“That’s the peril of writing your plot twists six months apart.”
“In fact, I’m pretty sure the thing I’m reacting to isn’t the same reason I’m actually shown reacting to. Talk about changing horses. Geez.”
“Ranos is clearly becoming more open here though and we finally get a dialogue where people are talking to each other instead of just exchanging monologues.”
“Well, Kerri hates his guts, so she has no reason to be polite. Ranos does threaten to walk over this chapter by being a big windbag though. Who really wanted his description of what it like going to school? Give some air time to the rest of the cast, buddy.”
“Someone does once again get the conversational upper hand over Kerri, which doesn’t bode well for her.”
“Well, in this case, as much as I hate to admit it, Ranos is right. He’s being an absolute bastard here, but he’s right. Everyone is yelling at him but he’s spent the last handful of chapters trying to stay alive. That might make me a bit testy, too.”
“But to what extent is he manipulating her because he sees it as the only option, or is he just making his life more convenient. He doesn’t need to stay at the Koplans, but he really doesn’t want to go through the effort of setting up shop somewhere else if he doesn’t have to.”
“I do like how he gives her the same speech he gives Jacob about not being at the council meeting, but it’s pretentious in a different way. Lighten up, buddy, they aren’t that helpless.”
“He feels trapped, because he really would rather move on but he can’t bring himself to and he sees the rest of the town as fairly useless. And there’s no Tristian to call on, or Time Patrol or anything along those lines. He has no conception of them. So it’s just him.”
“Or cuddly cosmic beings, for that matter. It’s amusing watching him flip the hell out though on Kerri. He’s used to Jacob simply agreeing with him because he’s Mysterious Wanderer Guy and this plays into all of Jacob’s rocketman fantasies. Kerri keeps actively questioning what he’s saying and it’s starting to piss him off. Go girl!”
“Even if is he right on the merits, there’s no real reason to trust him.”
“I left here, days ago, to save your son,” Ranos said, seething, and she wasn’t hearing the words so much as feeling them, bullets right into the body. Ian, what are you talking about? Thud after thud after sickening thud. Like a body, constantly falling, nailing every floor on the way down. “He was in danger from him, and it drew me out. And then, I could not make my way back, I didn’t know how, I know nothing about this city . . .” his eyes were flashing, desperate and caged, she could see the walls erected in his brain, growing closer every time he moved. “And he found me, and trapped me in a home he had secured.” The words weren’t real, this wasn’t the world that she lived in.
“Why would he do that?” Kerri said, pressing further back into the wall. The kitchen was too small, the house contracting with each extra person. He wasn’t staying and she couldn’t make him leave. The brightest day was nothing safe at all. It all still hid in the shadows. “That makes no sense, why would he kill all those people and leave you alive?” She wanted to laugh, to throw his story back into his face. His eyes stopped her, his face holding back a fury that threatened to crack the edges of his skin, held in check for too long. The table was rattling as the air became solid.
“You don’t know,” Ranos said, and Kerri couldn’t be sure if it was a statement or a question. He gave no clues, as if the ultimate answer itself was meaningless. “I was hired to kill him, originally.” His voice dropped out as he turned his face away. “How long ago now?” He had moved from the table, arms crossed over his chest, his body turned sideways. Ranos was looking at her and she didn’t dare move. In my house, I can’t move in my house. “And we’ve been fighting, the two of us, it’s not even a job anymore, it’s . . .” he stumbled a little, one arm on the table hard, bracing himself. “You’re not a challenge to him,” he said, almost gasping. “None of you are. He and I, we’re locked into a game that neither of us can walk away from.” Maybe she was shaking her head, dislodging all nuance. He was trying to explain it all to her, and not a part of her would listen. What does Jacob hear, when you talk? Kerri wanted to run across the room and clap her hand over his mouth, scream at him that he was crazy and throw him out of her house. Maybe in front of a passing bus. No, no, that wasn’t her. She never used to think like that. These times were infecting her, with all the loose blood on the wind. “The rest of you are little more than diversions, keeping him amused, a way to pass the time. You saw tonight, it’s not a matter of if but when. And how. Unopposed, he’s not a question, but an inevitability.”
“You’re making this all up,” Kerri stammered, when she finally found her voice again. It was so small, to hear herself. Her children would laugh and wonder where their mother had gone.
“Why would I do that?” Ranos thundered, and the only reason the neighbors didn’t hear him was because all the windows were sealed shut. The heat outside was nothing, all the haze drawn inward, focused and sharp. “Do you think I want to stay here, with no hope of finding more work, on a world that couldn’t care less about anything beyond their own skies? With all the worlds to roam, I’d stay here? To linger and die, in this house? Tell me, then, what reasons do I have for coming back and staying, while the corpses pile up and the dangers come faster each night, if not to finish what was started, one way or another?” Deadly, he was right in front of her. He hadn’t moved an inch. Kerri found her face turned away, her body taut, the only sound that could come out a near whimpering. IdontlikeyouIdontlikeyou Idontlikeyou. “Can you tell me that, if I seem that obvious, or so base? Can you tell me why I’d risk myself for mere convenience, or a lie?” So whispersmooth, just right close. Near. “Tell me, please. By all means.” Secondsplease. Liftsharp.
“I don’t know,” Kerri said, telling herself that it didn’t come out as a wail. What she saw of the world was blurred, nothing that she recognized anymore. How much time had gone by? Only seconds, stacked and slowed. “If you’re right then what the hell does it mean?” For my kids, for me. “Do you think I like believing that this is all some kind of sick game? Is that what you want me to think because . . . everyone is dying around us and . . .” she had slid down a few inches, hands in her hair, “I don’t want you here and I want this to stop and . . .” the friction wasn’t enough, not here, “somebody make this stop, please.”
Ranos’ face flickered, twisted a bit. He watched her silently, a bit of air gone out of his body. His boots resounding hollowly, he crossed back over to his original side of the table. “It is a sick game,” he agreed, his voice subdued. It didn’t matter, she had no desire to listen anymore. Let him stay, and let it all dissolve into chaos. “But I fear it’s a game he’s growing tired of. It . . .” he stopped, seemed to consider. “Last night, when he ran from the meeting, he drew the police with him, back to where he had me. He thought I was unable to act, that the police would surprise me and kill me.” Ranos tapped his fingers on the table, his only external thoughts on the event. “Instead, we all wound up fighting, burning the house down in the process. He was in there, when it collapsed, but I knew it would only delay him.”
“Oh God, I saw it,” Kerri said, pressing her hands against her ears. If she closed her eyes he would vanish but no matter how much she dug her nails into her skin she couldn’t wake up. The pain was just pain, stripped of all meaning. “I saw it on the news.”
“Then you know,” was all Ranos said.
“No, I don’t. I wish I did, but I don’t,” she said, crouched and buried, the house all gone sideways. “Why are you doing this? Why are the two of you like this?”
“I told you, it’s a game to him. He kills, and that’s all he knows-“
”But you,” Kerri insisted. “What is it to you?”
He looked away. “At this point,” he murmured, “I’m not quite sure anymore.” Pivoting on his heel, his face serious, he said, “Somewhere between a job and a mission, perhaps.” With an effort he lowered himself back into the chair. “Or maybe something else entirely.” He sounded so tired, she wondered if he had slept in her house overnight, or had just sat there as the sun came up, waiting for one of them to come down. “My gambit bought me time, but I fear it may have changed the character of our conflict.”
“Before, I was able to plan, while now I believe I will be forced only to react.” It was a sigh that slid out of him, almost accidentally, and for a second Kerri could believe that he would take being trapped in this house forever, if it meant never going there again. You think you know what’s going to happen. But none of us have any idea.
“But what does this mean?” Kerri asked, forcing the words through dry lips, doing her best to rise up, to quell her own shaking. It was so hard, the weight too steady, unrelenting. “You’re here and what does this mean for us?”
“For me, it means that I have to be quick and final, because any second might bring about the end of this.” He was choosing his words carefully, but it wasn’t enough. She knew what the hidden meant, even before it was said. “It means that we may see more death and worse death before it is over.” She had asked, and didn’t want to hear any of this. Make it finish, get out of my house and leave. My family and my children, you’re here and you’re ruining everything. “And it means that your house has gone from being a refuge, to a command center.” The last, said so low that it might have passed right under her. She crumpled a little more, seeking to get away. No matter what you do, I’ll never forgive you.
“Tell me, then,” and she opened her eyes against the gravity somehow. He was so thin from this angle, and high and he was watching her like she could vanish at any second. Like that vanishing would be the most terrible thing in the world. “Will my family be safe? My kids?”
“In this climate, nobody is truly-“
”No!” she shouted, scrambling up halfway, stopping there and ignoring the burning screams of her muscles. “No, Ranos, that’s not good enough. Answer my goddamn question. With you here, are my children going to be safe?”
But he didn’t answer. And that was everything.
“You bastard,” she whispered, nearly falling again. Oh, away. The smooth, slipping surface. “What are you going to do?” She was trying to throw him without touching, trying to get him out.
“Kerri,” it was a warning, and a gunshot of its own.
“No, tell me,” she said, flung. “What have you done? What is going to happen to us now?” Screaming and bodies and blood. This is my life now. All of our lives. Because of. It was so hard to see. She couldn’t see. “Dammit, Ranos, we saved your life, you owe us this, you owe us . . .” she had never talked like that before. She wanted to immediately rinse every sensation of it off herself.
“He’ll kill everyone, Kerri,” he said, voice warped and so far away. He was trying to get through, and the storm was so thick. “Everyone. With or without me. Do you understand?”
“Promise me they’ll be safe,” she growled back. “Tell me that the kids are going to be fine. Can you promise me that?”
“Oh, but you can’t, can you, Ranos? Cue dramatic music.”
“It’s notable that he doesn’t really give her an answer before he pulls the vanishing act.”
“There’s probably no answer he can give. I think he just uses that to avoid any awkward moments. That must be a hit at parties.”
“Have they ever established how Ranos knows exactly about these danger spots? Is he tapped into some kind of weird defense system and tracking Belmodeus’ movements, or does he just know when someone dies violently.”
“Now, you’re ruining the mystery of Mysterious Wandering Guy. Do you want everything explained?”
“I just think it’s a valid question-“
”Why do you hate fun?”
“Let’s move on.”
Two Hundred Fifty Five
September 2, 1997
Recap: Kimberly takes a walk around campus and maybe ends up in the wrong class.
“You know, I’ve forced myself to read this like six times now and I have no idea what the hell is going on. I mean, aren’t the chapters featuring the Koplans supposed to be more normal? Between this and Ian’s amazing expanding head and all the ghost-hunters crap, the chapters they stick you with are positively lucid.”
“She’s back on campus but I have no idea why it had to be so utterly opaque. I presume it’s an attempt to make things more interesting but there’s only so much you can do with a walk.”
“Especially since the walk is rendered in exciting stream-o’consciousness-vision, never the most visceral of presentations. Let’s face it, I like the girl and all, but we’re not dealing with anything real deep here.”
“There is an underlying tension to it, as the chapter goes on, but whether that’s honest or because he’s just trying to manufacture something resembling drama is anybody’s guess. As is what is actually going on.”
“The best test for any chapter is asking whether you can take it out of the story or not and the story will still make sense. In this case, the answer is sadly, yes. Maybe this leads to something vital later, but if we skipped this and went right to the next sequence, nobody would really notice.”
“Unless the musings of a heartstick college freshman are what you really want. Too bad this takes place in 1997 or he could totally go blogtastic on this. With bad font colors and poetry and everything.”
“Is ‘blogtastic’ a word?”
“It’s in the ‘blogossary’.”
“Oh, well, that definitely settles it.”
“I think, and I’m going to stress this because it’s better than sitting here twiddling my thumbs and saying damned if I know . . . but I think she sees her boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, whatever he is, on campus and that sends her running off.”
“Right, if you have the patience to read between the lines, then it makes more sense. What follows all that is more up for grabs, though. Where does she go?”
And all the students. How many of them had been down the path? The building, with its path. Out that door and then it vanished. Oh that’s not true. Now you’re just being silly. But it was a dead end. At the end of the grove, all quiet and hallowed. Trees interlocked, keeping the world out. Damn curiosity. Why did you keep walking? The future kept beckoning you forward, when all you wanted to do was stop. It was deceptive, to think that it would someday be improved. Who believed that history was a spiralling journey to somewhere better, instead of events merely happening, messy and incoherent and utterly without reason. What improved? The grass still died every winter and grew back in the summer. It still rained on the days when you least wanted it to, when your body ached to be out and all you could see through the window was grey sheets, the air sliced to ribbons, thin streaming paper. A girl didn’t know what to say to a boy, because the words still didn’t exist. Isn’t that why you went down there, Kimberly? To find a definition, or a place where one wasn’t necessary? The path not broken down into squares, but placed as an unyielding unfolding line, dragging without end. More people in the room now, more groups, more clusters, the seats filling up. No familiar faces, but that was okay. She’d talk to the first person who sat near her. Make a joke about the weather. That would break the ice. Or maybe about the time. Can you believe it’s been ten years since? But oh, how could you not. They marked it. They carved it down and forgot about it.
The slow beast on the path. Not even a squirrel, just a presence. She came down there because. No, because. Just a figure, in the distance, it probably wasn’t even but you went anyway. You ran. Strolledranwalked. Fasttime. Quicknecessity. I have nothing more to say. And yet you left and that said everything, too much. Forgotten on the side, cool and quiet. Go right to the end, maybe steal a peaceful moment. It was impossible in all this growing chatter, voices smashing into each other without melding or merging, a rain of soft bees, falling upward, unable to conceive of the impact. She could turn off soon, once class started. Switch off and listen and not have to think for ninety minutes. In her head the path was so much longer. All other sounds stilled. That was what struck her the most, trapped in a foliage encrusted tube. The stillness. All vibrations smothered. Nothing drew breath, as if afraid. She walked so slowly, step after step after inevitable step. Not like these children, nearly stumbling over each other. Laughing, words like clashing chimes, moving just out of time with the elongated shadows on the walls. Kimberly laughed as well, perhaps at a misheard joke. These people, she was just like them. She fit right in. That’s why she was running toward this and embracing it. The clipped concept embodied on the first day. The first day of every day. She could get used to sitting among the students and letting them wash over her. The people and her books and the men talking at her thoughts. That’s all. No other faces but. But it had no faces.
Every clambering footstep made her want to turn around and she didn’t. Lights gone low, maybe not. Was the watch moving backwards? No, just her head. Just the place it resided, shifting and simple. Even if she had stopped walking it would have taken her there. After a certain point you no longer have a choice. Nestled in the end, at the fringes of shadows. No, they didn’t. They didn’t put. Someone had kept trimming the branches, after all this time. All of this is just avoiding, you see. It moves nothing forward. These students near the front, all sitting proper, backs straight, hands folded, notebooks out and pens poised. Are you those people, or are you becoming something else. Here in the back, waiting. Avoiding? Waiting. If you never talk to him again you’ll never be able to tell him. Already a day gone by, this class a block of fragments. Her, yes. Shake it to hear the pieces rattling inside, shards striking the interior, making all the tiny terrible cuts. You don’t hear it, because the wounded parts are so soft. They just bleed out and slowly you get paler and paler, sagging imperceptibly and some time some day someone will touch you and the hollow parts will just collapse and all they’ll have is the skin of what you once were. We’re holding our own shapes by force of will, but force is fading. Will is going. It’s getting so hard when you can’t face the people you know and you won’t stop walking. It wasn’t him that made her walk, nothing he said could make her run. But she went anyway and left and found. Found what? You’re not thinking. About and. What are you not saying? The pen bent under her curled fingers, straining. Would she even see, when the talking started. The two girls that were three seats away weren’t even paying attention to her. She wasn’t listening to their conversation, it was passing through her, gamma rays on their way to a better place. Not to her ears, or mind. She was elsewhere, even here. Here?
Here, yes. Unfolding rattling. Voices consumed, back down the tunnel. Did they follow me? Nobody would ever find you in this place. Because, because. You see why, at the very end of it. When you reached the point where you couldn’t go any further. I didn’t see anything. I took a walk around the campus and came to class. Except that cut on your hand. And your knee, what does it look like under your pants. Sore, perhaps. Bruised, maybe? It wasn’t that way before, when you were just walking. At the end there, what was it. Closer, maybe, closer. Why did you keep moving forward? Oh, it’s so human. That’s why they love us, in between the words. Every single act of breathing takes you one moment closer. Sometimes you can lay there and listen, the dark stripping all colors away, taking away all sense of shape or form or motion, and you can hear someone inhaling and exhaling, and feel the planet spinning and whirling and plummeting. Right into the center of tomorrow and whatever rested beyond.
But inside. Already in and. Is class starting? It has to be soon. No, right at the end, you see. She saw, that was the thing. The little alcove. The problem with moving forward is that the forward motion has to end some time. It did there, when she stopped. But you did stop or did the world stop you? Can you even tell, in the midst of the inertial mess? The dark patterned, eyes adjusted. They didn’t follow her. Because they didn’t bother or because they didn’t see. She was in the back now, right near the door. Passerbys could tell by the flip of her hair. Find me, then. Let’s get this over with. What to say? That’s the problem, nobody to talk to and nothing to say. Just there in the center, the tiny little space. The space all tiny and out of the way. Down there, avoiding. You weren’t hurt yet, not outwardly. Inside wounds, the flesh gone sore, partially pulped. Taking it all in, to make the healing go by. But the healing only happens when the forward occurs, and if you stop moving then the hurt can’t finish. Running the course, what was the name of this course? Introduction to a day. No, not the first. She had been somewhere else before here, to learn a lesson. It was still present, burning down through layers in her head. The smoke of her hair, seeping from her tracks. Follow the trail and this is where she was, where she wound up, after she might have possibly seen a man who didn’t have to be there and not see her. Right in the center of the names.
“All that text just hurts my eyes. Like, ow. I think I see where you’re going with this. She runs into a memorial of some kind, right?”
“That’s my best guess, as weakly supported by the text as it is. But if it’s a memorial for people killed by Belmodeus, and that would be the only thing I can think of, is it just a general memorial or one for people who were killed on campus?”
“Look at you, making this more dramatic than it actually is. But why can’t the story just come out and say that? Why do I have to wade through monotonous blocks of text to get there?”
“And there’s probably some significance to the fact that the memorial is hidden down an overgrown path and nobody seems to take care of it. Is it because nobody remembers or nobody wants to remember?”
“Symbolism, just like a real story? At least the memorial doesn’t start talking or something. There’s only so much I can take. And she winds up in the wrong class. What the frig? What is that supposed to mean?”
“She’s distracted, I guess.”
“Oh, at least that’s simple.”
Two Hundred Fifty Six
September 2, 1997
Recap: Kerri, back at work, tries to sort out the mess of their files disorganized by her absence, and finds evidence that Ian has been talking to them about Ranos. While calling Jacob about it, Wes and Jan walk in.
“Ah, the ghost-hunters, I’m sorry, parapsychologists. Always my favorite part of this story. It would help if it seemed like he did any kind of research as to what parapsychologists actually do.”
“You have to give him some credit for not making them mystical types or otherwise sensational. They do come across as rational people doing research into something that they don’t quite understand.”
“I most certainly do not have to give him any kind of credit, thank you very much. That’s all well and good but what are they doing in this story? When we got the throwaway line about how she worked withi parapsychologists, did anyone really beg for them to get their own plot thread. We don’t even see them until nearly two hundred chapters into the story!”
“They have dubious relevance at this point but being the Koplans, especially the parents, have so few people to interact with in these portions of the story, maybe that is their ultimate purpose.”
“And there’s no ghosts! Anywhere!”
“That would change the entire point of the story, really.”
“Then why are they here? Can somebody tell me that?”
“There are ghosts, technically, there’s just other explanations for them.”
“Let’s not go into the whole ‘story is breaking down’ nonsense. I can go beat my head against a brick wall for the same effect. At least they aren’t self-consciously quirk, which is some saving grace. They do seem somewhat like normal people, which makes them an oddity in this story.”
“Keep in mind that the people involved have no other explanation for anything that’s happening, other than to fall back on the usual superstitions. In this context, insisting that it’s all caused by ghosts makes as much as sense as anything else. In a world of men with psychic powers and alien beings and magical glowing swords and the like, why not ghosts?”
“Maybe because we know better, unlike anyone here. I do get something resembling a chuckle seeing Kerri trying to sort out all the various ghost evidence into different categories.”
An unplugged radio briefly plays a snippet of an old show from the thirties that his grandmother used to love. Oh, tricky. Auditory? Too obvious. But it fit, regardless. Only the shadow of the street sweeper would appear, and a faint noise, but never the machine itself. What the hell? That one was going in the miscellaneous pile. Kerri was trying to keep that stack as small as possible because once you started it was hard to quit. No holes for the pegs. It made her uneasy sometimes to be making these decisions unilaterally, without anyone checking her, but at the same time a second opinion would only complicate matters, introduce too much debate. It needed a firm hand, and no hesitation. She wondered if that was why Wes and Jan rarely did it anymore. Perhaps they disagreed more than they let on. It was more comforting, to be able to shuffle it all into its own groupings, as if by classifying the events they somehow became more real, taken out of the realm of the theoretically supernatural and into the solidly plausible. A man appears in a house one night even though all the doors and windows were locked. The family has never seen him before. That one wasn’t true. It wasn’t among the missing. The paper became blurred, briefly, and Kerri had to set it down. She tried not to notice that the edges were crinkled.
With a aborted sigh she pushed herself away from the desk, moving in a crooked counterclockwise spiral. Her eyes were now used to the lighting and it wasn’t so dim anymore. It was cold, maybe, somehow. As far as she knew the room didn’t have air conditioning but the wood of the structure held onto the wisps of winter and kept it circulating. A lot of times Kerri used to bring a jacket or a sweater but today she had forgotten. It hardly seemed to matter, she wasn’t sure another layer of clothing would even help. Rubbing her bare arms, she walked away, trying to clear her head, trying to inject thoughts that she could deal with, that were bent to better days. The future, maybe. She hadn’t thought about that in a long time, all the angles of her thinking were captured in other lenses, warped backwards, always staring in the wrong direction. Her kids, what were they doing? Kimberly was in college now, but after that? What did she even want to do? What was Ian going to do? Did any of them even know, or were they just plodding along, step by dull step, keeping ahead simply by momentum and not bothering to see where the path would lead, or if another branch might even be better. A more scenic route, draped in its own kind of beauty. Kerri felt caught in a strange zone, between the past and the present, unable to shift the inch out of phase to move forward again. It was so hard to get away, that’s why Ian was right, why they needed to bury this finally. Get it out and move on, that’s what he had been saying all along, even since he was old enough to comprehend what it really meant. He was so far ahead of them that all they could do was attempt to catch up, one legged and limping, even as the dusk came down and it became hard to see.
The shadows of the room crawled, sat and shuffled. Her own gravity bent them, causing them to become shapes the eyes couldn’t grasp. The walls of the entire place were lined were filing cabinets and display cases. Most of them needed dusting and for a brief mad second Kerri was tempted to write messages in the deep seated dust and then claim when they came back that the words had appeared when she had left the room. Except the two of them probably wouldn’t be surprised, just examining it and checking it off to be filed with all the others. Neat lines, exceptional handwriting, simple physical manifestation. No message to impart. What would she even say, in notes to herself? You should have stopped it. You shouldn’t have let it go. But stop what? She was even cryptic in her own imagination. Wandering, her fingers traced smooth lacerations in the dust, revealing the objects sitting placidly in the cases. Many of them meant nothing to her, others had helpful index cards with neat notes sitting next to them. A glove lay flat, the tips of the fingers half curled. June 14, 1983. Unexplainable motor involvement. No action taken. A picture frame, the dimness disguising the photograph under the grass bisected by a lengthy fault line of a crack. Atmospheric influences ruled out. Kerri imagined it going right through someone’s face, and then did her best to stop imagining. Broken glass had never been her favorite sight.
There was a stillness here that she couldn’t define, a calmness that refused to relent, that her own house had lacked for years. Even when her home was empty the tension remained, somehow, still sifting through the vibrating air, as if the pieces had fallen so far up that some were still descending. Cleaning and finding a scar in a cushion that she hadn’t remembered, the edges still raw. The dust goes in and the dust goes out. Kerri liked coming here because it felt like this was the one place in the world that couldn’t possibly be haunted. Ghosts dissolved under the lens of study, and this room was constantly bathed in a revealing sunlight, drenching everything in visibility. Nothing could exist here that wasn’t real. This place reminded her of all the moments that were, while her house simply resonated with missing Time. Seconds skipping by, off to spend themselves in a more productive home. It needed to lurch forward again, all of them in step, at the same time, leaving this board for another. Her own face watched her eyes against the dirty glass, as if she might be the reflection, one warily waiting for the other to strike. Nobody could reach, or reach out. Her features were draped over a pair of baby shoes, with a note stating that every night they would spontaneously become moistened with a substance that, when tested, was not unlike human tears. This happened long after the child had died. It didn’t say that, and yet it did so plainly. Who didn’t make it, scrawled in your specks of blood? I’m not doing work, I have to do work.
“The thing is, we don’t know if any of this is true or not. Kerri is surrounded by hypotheses, ideas of things that might be real but she has no way of telling. In this office they are all just static objects to be sorted out and cataloged.”
“You have a soft spot for these for some reason. And yeah, I’ll agree it’s all very interesting, but it has nothing to do with anything. Okay, fine, he wrote one that has someone standing in one place actually has some feeling of movement to it. Yes, the ghosts bits are clever and for once not suggesting some kind of insanity. But let’s face it, can we face something?”
“By all means.”
“The real purpose of this is to just kill time until she finds Ian’s report. Then it’s cliffhanger time and we realize we’ve wasted forty pages on something that could take two.”
“It is a vaguely threatening cliffhanger though.”
“But do you even care by the time you reach it? And do you know that for a while some theories existed that the old couple was just us in disguise? Please. I’d probably disguise myself as a potted plant or something. I could use the relaxation.”
“I thought you’d suggest something a bit flashier.”
“He never describes backgrounds or scenary, so I’d blend right in. I guess that was uncalled for. Nah.”
“It was a tad on the rude side.”
“I just calls ‘em as I sees ‘em, son. Fortunately it’s not really a long chapter, or a vital one, so we get to leave the land of ghost-hunting finally. I’m so relieved.”
“Er . . .”
Two Hundred Fifty Seven
September 2, 1997
Recap: Wes investigates the claim of a ghost in a house. Talking with the owner, the man describes the deaths of the people who lived in the house ten years before by Belmodeus. Thinking outloud, he surmises that someone must have stopped him who didn’t live in town, and Wes realizes that Ian might know.
“Dammit! Why didn’t you warn me!”
“You were on such a roll I didn’t see the need to cut you off.”
“More of this crap! I swear, who asked for this? Who?”
“It does seem a bit tangential, until you get to the end.”
“Which is a near throwaway line that makes Wes think that Ian might be onto something, or might know more than he’s letting on. But do we have to wade through all that description to get to it finally? How much of this couldn’t be folded into another chapter?”
“Apparently people can’t get enough of their investigations. At least this one isn’t very long. I think it also serves the purpose of increasing the body count without having to devote more chapters to showing Belmodeus killing random people, so that you get more of a feel for the spree.”
“But it’s ghosts. More friggin’ ghosts.”
“They don’t give much credence to the guy’s story though, even the owner seems to indicate he made it all up because he wanted to share his research into the murders with somebody. It’s telling that for all their research, Wes and Jan have never seen an actual ghost, just physical objects that may or may not be acting mysteriously. Suggesting that everything has a rational cause, even people with psychic powers and seemingly invincible serial killers.”
“You know what, I’m just going to get out of the way so we can show the only part that I’m even vaguely interested in, the descriptions of the murder. Take it away, excerpt!”
“She was thirty-one,” said the man suddenly, and they weren’t talking anymore and they were talking about the same damn thing. “He was a year younger.” He had turned away so that he was facing his own kitchen table, both hands wrapped around the back of the chair. There was no sign of his glass, but maybe his body was hiding it. His fingers were tapping out of time with his words, the jittery heartrate of the day. He could have been sweating, or it could have been the light. “Just married a few months before, living in their first house.” taptap taptaptap tap taptaptaptaptaptaptap tap “They found the house together, while driving around. It hadn’t even gone up for sale yet, but they asked the owner anyway, because they had a feeling. You know how it is, when you sense that things are changing. That held breath in the air.” Wes had no idea, his life had always been continuous, without phases. A single unbroken line. Jan had always been with him, before they ever met.
“She liked to write songs, sometimes. Just words, she had no idea how to play an instrument. But she had a nice voice, high and clear, the way a flute sounds right after you clean it. She’d sing them when she was by herself, she was too embarrassed to sing them in front of everyone else. Her husband always begged her to, but he tried never to push it. I think he resented it a little bit, like it was the one secret place inside her that he could never get to. That he would never know her completely without knowing that and she refused to let him in. But they never fought about it. It never seemed worth it, to fight.”
How do you know this? That was the wrong question. Wes had learned a long time ago that the most direct queries were always the worst. The better direction to take was: who told you this? But he said nothing, just watched the man, and what he did. What he did was not move, even as his face constantly twitched, a thousand insects running just under the skin, probing, seeking, searching for the way out. The way out was history, the direct path through Time. The hole poked that took you right through.
“At dinner they’d talk about having kids, because it didn’t seem the right kind of talk for the bedroom. At night the two of them would lay together, one resting on the other, and just not speak. It was an agreement they had. Don’t talk when the lights go down. Say what you had to say during the day, because the night was for a different kind of communication.” He was reciting and making it up as he went along. There was no difference between fact and folklore in these strung out days. The world was rewritten each morning, each hour. The bits put together made up the mosaic but the pattern was frayed, not only at the edges. “Two kids, maybe. She wanted three, because she hated even numbers. Even numbers could always be divided but you couldn’t break up the odd ones. They couldn’t be taken apart, because you wouldn’t know where to find the joint.” He was sweating, a dark stain on his back, not unlike the mark a claw would make, if it tore down. Like he was trying to keep the story under control and if he let it stay in for much longer he was going to burst.
“They were happy,” and his lips didn’t even move that time. Or maybe Wes blinked. “It was a good town, they liked their neighbors, if it was possible they would have stayed here forever. The two of them, here, and maybe more, some day. It was a nice place.”
The man turned around suddenly, with a violence inherent in his motion that suggested the air surrounding him was soaked in spinning blades. Wes didn’t even budge, he wasn’t impressed by dramatics anymore. Just the facts, and the true things that lay past them somewhere. It’s all real, from the right angle. The boy would talk about a man who was a stranger and now was still with him. It had nothing to do with anything and this was the story that they knew.
“It was in the kitchen that he found her.” His eyes were watery, suffused with too much liquid. It wasn’t even clear what he was seeing, or if he even was anymore. “Her husband was working late but he’d be home soon, so she was making dinner. She was probably worried about him coming home but it wasn’t unusual for him to be late. He had just started the job and wanted to make a good impression. Everything was fine, with everything going on they were fine. They always would be.”
He licked his lips in a long, lopsided motion, his face suggesting it was a painful act. “He found her in the kitchen.” Nobody told you this. You can’t make it true simply by wanting it. The house remained silent, except for voices. None of it screeched or said. “She had locked all the doors and windows, like the police said. Left all the lights on. And he got in anyway. Maybe he had been hiding in the house the whole time, waiting.” Somehow he was standing in two places at once, the pursuer and the betrayed. “She was cooking and he came in, he was there. Nobody heard a thing. The neighbors later said that there was never any sound. Perhaps they never talked.” He had one hand on the stove, and Wes still wanted to stop him, even though the device was cool. Natural instinct, all the hints the adults told you. Don’t touch the hot implements. It leads to scars and scars mark you as forever stupid. Telling your story even when you can’t. When you aren’t capable anymore. “She must have ran first, just to try and get away. Out the front door, out to the street.” He winced, in future time. “He hit her with the frying pan. The edge of it, the solid part. Swung hard enough and it must have been like getting hit with a car.” It was in his hand, invisible and formidable. “Two steps maybe, she took, and he hit her. Right in the back, on the ribs. Three of them cracked right then. She was brave and she ran and he struck her. Two more steps and he got her in the face. It left a mark that went right up to her eye, probably broke her jaw. Nobody had ever hit her that hard, I’m sure.” How did it feel? Someone had once described to Wes that getting shot was not unlike getting punched, except the fist stayed inside your body and kept hitting you. All those tender organs, protected by what? These too fragile bones.
“He probably didn’t mean to kill her then.” His eyes were flat spheres, gravity compressed to a hollow point, deep inside the vision. “Or maybe he did and she was moving faster than he thought. She got away, she left the kitchen. He discarded the frying pan then, just left it on the floor. One of her teeth was embedded in the metal, that’s how hard he hit her. She should have died then, but she kept running.” He was walking, tailing the trickling lines. All the nimble paths. “But the way he hit her, the shock of it, she . . . she wasn’t thinking. So she went to the one place she shouldn’t have gone.” Daylight is the way the night preserves a sense of self. His voice had gone dead, all color removed. “Somehow, for some reason, she went upstairs.”
The view shifted, changed to a place Wes couldn’t go. Neither of them were going to leave this room, he was sure of that, the same way he was certain that cats would always trigger his allergies and that a lone handprint left on a wet pane of glass never truly faded, but stayed invisibly, marking it for all the time. That was his job, partially, undercovering the fingerprints that we don’t realize we leave behind and deciding what we were attempting to say. The mournful scales hidden in the whorls of your face, the loops of your eyes, the rigid texture that can only be you. The moment he knew he would stay with his wife forever was at a party. The power went out and in the dark he found her, and he knew her without seeing. Just the contours, the shape of her breathing, the way she smelled even after a night of being in a crowded room. That was love to him, finding someone even when all the other senses had been removed. As if you had no other choice but to go, and find.
“He must have not followed quickly, because she made it all the way into the bedroom. Chances are he probably knew, that there was no escape at that point, that everything that was left was merely following matters to their inevitable conclusion.” He was fiddling with his own hands, left and right and left again, one finger interlocking into the others, fidgeting, mimicking. “She must have tried to lock the door, she had enough sense left to think of that.” He bit his lip, the only emotion he could spare. “He kicked it open while she was still in front of it, with enough force to create a crack in the door that went across and nearly all the way through. Without a running start, he did that. The impact broke her nose, and her wrist, and she must have gone tumbling across the room, maybe landing on the bed.”
The man stopped for a second, as if seeing her final, fatal arc being replayed in his mind, a leaf plummeting in a soft breeze, drifting down in extended slow motion, the way life dilated as it raced toward its conclusion. Why are you telling me this? People were confessing all their details lately. The boy, standing outside and accusing himself of being haunted. The kind of ghost that splits, comes in fours, spread so thin that you can’t tell what it touches because the borders of it have gone transparent. Just the faintest touch. A brush and a whisper and suddenly you’re bleeding. Don’t look away. But who has that kind of bravery, anymore?
“He wasn’t in a hurry but he didn’t seem inclined to torture her either. He was never clean, but he was efficient. She must have struggled even then, because the mirror was broken, and one drawer was torn out of the dresser, and all the clothing scattered. One of the glass shards was in her stomach, although not all of the blood on it was hers.” His lip twitched, and he smiled and it was like paper rustling. “I think. I like to think she got at least one shot in. One good one.” His voice had gone hoarse, but his water remained out of reach and untouched. “He probably killed her some time after that, broke all of her ribs, and her chest. She probably died as all the blood in her body surged into the places it wasn’t meant to be. He beat her and she died and it was that simple.” He pressed his hands together, closed his eyes tightly. The only sound for the next few seconds was someone else’s breathing, rapidly fading. The colors in the kitchen were all wrong, belonging to another face. The past is bleeding through. No, no, it’s hemorraghing. It’s coming through and the pressure’s dropping and nobody can stop it. All compartments flooded. But how do you escape from the ocean, when the ocean is already your escape? Ian, you need to.
His eyes snapped open, sunrise strained. “And at some point during this, her husband came home.” There wasn’t anything left to surprise him, all the elements were relegated to their proper places. The story, if it was such, could only end in one way. The linear maps, line by line by line. It’s just going through the paces, until the paces run out.
“She might have been dead by then,” the man intoned, all traces of himself removed. The past wasn’t leaking through, he was bleeding back. Wes remained firm and grounded. He needed nothing from the pastdays other than distance and study. To be seen through reversed telescopes, where clarity became greater the more miles that were put in between. Too close, and the scene became blurry, all the memories blending together, one on one on the other. Only with separation could they become distinct. Only then could the false be split from the true, if divides that like even existed anymore. Everything might be true, given enough Time. “Or he might have just finished. Either way, he came in and immediately went upstairs, perhaps because he didn’t see her and assumed that’s where she was. He had to notice when he reached the top of the stairs. The door was wrecked and that had to be the first clue. He didn’t run, then. He could of, maybe, just to get out, and he didn’t. Maybe he wanted to see her, even if he already suspected. Just the tiny sliver of a chance, that he could salvage this, still.” He ran a hand along the wall, finding perhaps the miniscule lumps in the wallpaper, marks that hid bone fragments, pieces of hope, the shattered crust of solidified rain, falling indoors, falling in rigid lines. Embedded and sunk, without decay. He ran his hand along it, trying to read all the words. “This world doesn’t have heroes, it has people who succeed, and those who don’t. No matter how minor the goals, it means nothing if you don’t finish.” The fingers went up, tracing. “He wanted to save her, and it wasn’t possible.” Down, following. Down, because that was the way. “For all his wishes and his will, he didn’t succeed.” You’re not talking about him, or us, or anyone. Can you tell me what you’ve failed at?
“It must have gone quickly, after that. After he went up. It doesn’t matter if she was dead already, or not. It doesn’t matter.” He wasn’t trying to convince himself. Just saying, because it needed to be said. All your outcomes, cramming into the space. The horrible spaces between what you say and what you feel, the bits of darkness that exist between the words, where you can’t see and you have no choice but to leap. To take the jump and land and hope you’ve conveyed. At the party that night he grabbed her in the dark and she knew, she told him later that’s when she knew. But he had no way of knowing if that was true. All he had were her words, and the pauses beneath. But it couldn’t matter, in a way. Knowing was enough, to sustain. “It had to be over fast, either way. His legs were broken, just below the knees, in almost the exact same spot.” Fingers tightened, pointed. Stabbed. “He must have moved so quickly.”
Strolling and retaining. Wes followed without leaving. The rooms were receding, crossing the backwards days. He expected all the walls to be bleeding any minute, not tears but parallel lines, the grids of the years. Marking out our Mercator dreams. The distance seen is not the distance sought. The island, never quite as big as the drawings make it appear.
Brows came together, picturing. No, remembering. Were you there? Did you do all this? How much blood could you have on you, that it might change your shape completely? “He dragged him, probably, through the shattered door. Right to the stairs, to the top. He struggled, he had to, there’s fingernail marks in the walls, broken slashes. She was dead by this point, definitely.” This seemed to bother him most of all. A sister, maybe? A former lover? Or maybe you just liked the way she used to sing. How the world gets empty when a voice goes silent. Winter, a half-second too early. The chill you’re not expecting. You can bundle your jacket up but it’s too late, the cold’s already gotten inside. “They were at the top of the stairs.” He had folded his hands together, resting somewhere near his stomach. His head wasn’t bowed, but staring straight ahead, at endlessly repeating patterns. “I want to think he did it right away, because he was in a hurry and didn’t want to waste time. That he didn’t give her husband time to know. Or to understand.”
A facetwitch. Mouthline slit. You don’t know. “Just before he threw him down the stairs.”
There were times when he was small that he would dream about being flung from great heights, the ground rushing up in silent motion. He always hit, right at the end, the world bouncing up and over. Nobody else ever did, in their dreams. He would wake up and his brain would be brusied. Wes knew that, somehow. Maybe the whole time it was the dreams of another, all the ones for who gravity enacted a final, fatal price.
“He went down, hard enough and fast enough that he hit the front door. His head slammed into it, leaving a streak of blood about six inches long. I don’t think anybody heard. I hope they didn’t.” For the first time a hardness came to his face. “It was summer and all the windows were open, so they would have heard, if there was someone to hear. None of this had to be quiet. He didn’t care about quiet. That was never the point.” No clenched fist on the day. This was how it went, and how it went down. “It’s possible he was still conscious after he hit. He definitely wasn’t dead, the blood was smeared, bits of his fingerprints hidden inside. And on the stairs . . .” he couldn’t go on and he had to go on. All your little alternatives, melted in the hazy heat. The menagerie of hideous colors. It looks like nothing but a mess. Which it can be, in parts. “Tracks and marks, the steps were full of them.” Pressing his fingers on the corners, the sharpest cuts. “And the marks all thinner as they went up, like a paintbrush on the wall.” His eyes went left and right and didn’t see Wes at all. “He dragged him back up the stairs. All the way to the top.”
Scrapesigh. All your little broken grins. “And once there, he tossed him back down again.”
Leaning, then, the story all spent. His voice was paper, sealed away and still fading, locked away and hardly safe. Touch it to crumble. It won’t become history any other way. Time has to destroy, in order to make you permanent. “I don’t know how many times he did that, at least two more times, I imagine. Throwing him down, dragging him back up and doing it again. By the time he was finished, nearly every bone was broken.” Nails on skin, the way she’ll grab when you has every reason to believe you may yet go away. What she’ll never realize is that it’s not up to any of us, in the end. All our departures are never planned. Can you say it, then? Can you finally say? It’s not possible for him to haunt you unless you knew who he was. “Nobody could have heard.” It was important that this was true. “And because nobody did, maybe he had all the time in the world.” The up stairs could still go down, if you tackled them just right. “So he left him, a bag of shattered glass, at the bottom of the stairs. Went out another way, and left. He killed the two of them and kept going and it didn’t end. Not just then.”
“That’s the part you like? I was hoping you’d go more for the whole ‘past is bleeding through’ metaphor a little earlier. You’re not normally that visceral.”
“When my patience is starting to fray I’ll take any meat they throw at me. This is the closest to action the story has gotten in a while, even if it is one guy telling a really long story, at least something is happening, even if the level of detail is absurd. I don’t care how good your research is, that’s pretty exact.”
“We don’t know how much he’s embellishing, to be honest.”
“Sure. But even with the metaphors, how much is going to get dumped on this story? It’s a bridge with too much weight on it. The ghosts and the past bleeding and the crumbling mandate of fiction and whatever else he can cram in, what does it all mean? How many times do I keep asking them before you get an image of me standing on an empty street in the rain shouting ‘Why?’ at the sky?”
“However clumsily handled, he’s trying to get a scope of the murders, how the stuff that the characters do affects areas they can’t even conceive. This is all Ranos and Tristian and Belmodeus’ fault, but they are nowhere in sight. And without them to explain, everyone has to rely on their best guesses. That’s what these chapters are, the best guesses.”
“But nothing is our fault?”
“I was trying to be polite.”
“Sir is too kind.”
“But it does push the plot forward because people are starting to put the pieces together. What it all means when the pieces come together is another, perhaps more vital question, entirely. If people find out, so what? Ranos is nowhere in sight and Belmodeus is long gone. The murders are ten years old and at best all the Koplans have done is maintain their own privacy. So I’m not sure where it’s going with this.”
“Just tell me the next chapter isn’t more ghost madness.”
“You may want to close your eyes.”
Two Hundred Fifty Eight
September 2, 1997
Recap: Jacob, assuming that Kerri is in danger at her office, races there ready for a fight. He’s surprised to find that Kerri agrees with Wes and Jan’s research and wants to help add their own information, to help Ian. Jacob, opposed to this, storms out, but not before hitting Wes on the way out.
“Okay, I looked for the part where he sucker punches the old man. Real classy, jackass. But it’s about the closest we’ve gotten to action so far.”
“This does herald the return of the weird line formatting, which hasn’t been that missed. I never quite saw the point of them myself, unless it’s just an attempt to make things look different.”
“More arty tricks, that’s all. All we have is Jacob thinking he’s racing to the rescue and there’s some brief ha-ha moments when he bursts in thinking he’s saved the day, only to find that everything is okay.”
“Not just okay, but they’re all against him. He’s been opposed to the idea of the funeral for Ranos from the start.”
“But this is the first place where he admits that he thinks Ranos might not be dead, finally touching upon the trons showing up to take the body. Which lead to us taking the body. What are we doing with it now?”
“I’m exploring the psyche in what feels like a completely different novel.”
“Right, right. At least you get a plot, I’m reduced to making glorified guest appearances. Maybe I should hire myself out in the downtime. I can do drama, comedy, romance, I’m real versatile. Authors, don’t make up your own characters. Just use the ones sitting around here!”
“You’re getting vastly off-topic.”
“Fine, truncated lines. Jacob thinks that he’s some kind of hero. We’ve been through this already, I want the story to say something different about it, not rearrange the pieces and tell me that the puzzle has changed.”
“Some plots do tend to take precedence over others and that means the rest lie fallow while waiting for the important ones to catch up. The pacing becomes slightly off. I think the decision to run several related chapters in a row was an attempt to bring a feeling of momentum back to the proceedings.”
“It sort of worked, if we didn’t spend so much time debating the nature of the supernatural. This is somewhat of a change of pace and Jacob always had the most interesting stream of consciousness sections, even if they were the most latently violent.”
A tower rising, snarled in the memory. A place that you couldn’t see, somewhere past vision. Even he barely knew the contours. Maybe the other man had tried to tell him in those last moments, his empty eyes pointing to the blank spot in the sky where it lurked. There, do you see it. It’s there and its laughing at us. All fingers counting down, the men up above holding all motion, trying not to be seen. Ragged shouts and nobody believed. He had never believed truly, but you never do until it comes up and hits you in the face. I’ll do that, I’ll break my hand on their foolishness. One by one they take you up, and you’re just gone and nobody sees you again. You’re taken past secret laboratories where the screaming never stops, creatures without lungs, handprints on the glass without names, zones where language is broken down and a weapon. Shards of words, finally wounding. A noun slitting your throat, verbs in the blood, and oh, the adverbs. Nobody talks about the adverbs, because its just so terrible. Past gardens gone black, foliage that drinks in your despair, that takes all of you, all the pieces of you that matter. And you become nothing and you forget, turn pale and forlorn and don’t even remember why you were even brought there. They drain you and use you and turn you back out into the wasted world, unable to function. That’s how it went, wasn’t it? They caught you and broke you and you were never the same man. Then you persist and exist until you catch a look at your demolished expression in the mirror one day and finally get the nerve again. To erase and decay. He wouldn’t let it happen, not a second time. My hands aren’t shaking. He was trembling and not scared at all. My hands are not shaking.
It was just her voice, bringing him, pulling him along. Still, talking, even though he couldn’t listen anymore. She’d be stalling them, waiting for him, giving them just enough information to hold off the final move. They’ll break you and take us and hide us in your shattered pieces. Scatter us all and we’ll never be seen. Under the tower, its shadow was over him, a chill bisecting his spirit. Rolling, the wheels churning. Past the placid parks, the comfortable breeze of the quiet trees, a boy sitting on a bench waiting for the birds to come. Shadows like patchwork, the world turned into checkerboard. Your move your move your move. Did they know what he was capable of, with a running start. He’d hit the ground and been off, no time to even think. He didn’t need to think because he was operating on pure instinct now, guts and charm and the way it feels to wrap your hands around a man’s throat and squeeze until the tube narrows, and starts to yield.
“Cripes, that’s disturbing, at least in terms that this is supposed to be a normal family guy. Is this how he sees the world? Because I don’t think I’d want to live there.”
“It takes a while to get there though. Any tension runs the risk of dissipating after twenty straight pages of unrelenting thought about what might happen. You just go numb after a time.”
“You can apply that to the entire story, really. What chapter are we on again? I thought so.”
“We get to see Jacob and Kerri go at it, which is a boon to those who want painful memories of their parents divorcing brought back.”
“You know, I liked when Kerri sassed back to Jan and told her to mind her own business. It’s a nice change of pace from her being yelled at or not listened to.”
“I think that’s the point of the switch-up though. In 1987, everyone was listening to Jacob, either because they had no choice or because he never gave them a chance. Now he’s the helpless one, and everyone is trying to tell him what to do. Or worse, if he doesn’t go along, they’ll just go without him.”
“He sees Ranos leaving as the point where he starts to lose control, which is why he wants the man not to be dead. Or maybe he just needs to be right about something.”
“Ten years ago, a stranger came to your house,” Jan said, pulling the history out of him. It was an effort just to keep his skin on. “Ten years later, he came back to die.”
“That’s not why he came back-“
”Then why did he, Jacob?” Jan pressed.
“I don’t know!” Jacob shouted back, casting a glance toward his wife, trying to find some sense of rescue. But she had pulled back all the boats. She was watching, not sure where to jump in. They got you anyway, didn’t they? You never realized, but you were never on my side. “Does it matter? You’re asking me these questions and . . . does it really matter, why he came? He was here and now he’s not and what else is there?” He had his arms up, as if fending off startled birds. Jan stared at him but no other motion. Slowly, he let his arms drop, his voice followingc. “Why can’t we just let it be, finally?”
“It’s not the same as missing a piece, because that implies you knew it was there to begin with. It’s more like a part of you that was always there and you never paid attention to suddenly breaking off and it wasn’t until it broke off that you knew how vital it was to you.” She was reading off the piece of paper now, tossing the words out like an incantation. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Kerri biting her lip, fingers curled up on the desk. “Its an empty feeling, like whatever I had was my way of helping interact with people. Or my way of avoiding having to interact. And now that it’s gone, I don’t know how to reach out anymore. Like a part was just scooped out and what’s left is just tumbling into the void. The only way I can even tell you this is because I’m pretending that I’m not talking to anyone. That I’m just reciting to the empty air.” She stopped, finally. Jacob didn’t feel himself shaking, it wasn’t possible in this place. On this long summer day.
“He said that?” Jacob asked around the dryness in his throat.
Jan’s only response was to hold the paper out. The words danced before him, begging him to let it all be revealed. But he knew it was like a shark’s skin, touch it the wrong way and you’ll wake up to find your hands covered in blood. They’ll get you that way, eventually, from a hundred different slices.
“He’s, he’s just a teenager,” Jacob said, taking a step back. The cliff, so near to his heels. Why did you have to come back? Why couldn’t you just avoid us, and let it go? “He’s reacting, that’s all, kids they . . . it hit him really hard when, when he died. It’s grief, that’s all it is. He’ll get over it, eventually. He has to.”
“Maybe so,” Jan said, a twitch of her eyebrow indicating how she felt about that. “But something here isn’t right, Jacob, you’re saying that there was nothing unusual about this stranger either time he visited you?” Oh but you already, don’t you? And you’re just baiting me. He refused to look at Kerri. What else did you tell her? It never had to be a secret but we all agreed never to say. “Nothing at all?”
“And what are you saying?” he demanded. It wasn’t hot or cold or anything in the room. He was just existing, separate from himself, trying to find a way out of a room where all the doors bled inward and every step took your further inside. Fractal fractures, the way that cracks in the walls could open into a whole new world. Putting your eyes to the mess to see the little moving shapes inside. They have diamond mines outside the range of all vision. It’s how they fund the fantastic, and make the sky shine. “That this man somehow got into my son’s head, that they’re somehow . . . linked? Is that what you’re saying?”
“I told you already, I don’t know,” Jan said. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out. Ian seems to think so but we have to look into it further.”
“My son isn’t going to be your research project.”
“Your son asked for this.”
“It’s not completely up to him.”
“Aren’t you the least bit curious, Jacob, about why he feels the way he does?” Jan was staring at him slightly sideways, as if trying to find an angle on him that she could relate to. A place that might look familiar, drenched in the right kind of light. “It’s not just about him, you know. This man, he interacted with all of you . . .”
“And he’s not here anymore,” Jacob said, coldly.
“Ian doesn’t remember much from back then, Jake,” Kerri said quietly, trying to slip herself back in. I came to save you and you’ve only pulled me in further.
“Ian remembers more than he lets on,” Jacob replied, not looking at her.
“So do you,” Jan nearly accused. “Kerri says you were the person who talked to this man the most, you’re in the best position to give us the clearest picture-“
”The only reason for that was because you never liked him,” Jacob snarled back, his voice arcing past Jan, trying to get to his wife, trying to burrow in deep. He couldn’t believe this, they were dredging up facets of his life he hadn’t thought about in years. It was insane, he was letting him pull him apart. It was over, and done. The door had shut long ago and all they were doing now was shoving his ear up against it to hear the people inside banging on the barrier, screaming for him to let them out. But there was no way out. His family had been the last ones to slip out, before the shutters came down and the portal sealed. There was no knob on this side, and no hinges. A floor that slanted downward, and all you could hear was bodies hitting the wood, one after another after another. It never stopped. “You never trusted him for a second and you left me to-“
”I don’t want to argue over this, Jake,” Kerri said, trying to cut him off. Her voice was tired, and the desk appeared to be her only crutch. “Please. I don’t know what’s going on with Ian. I just want an explanation, hell . . .” she gave a ghostly laugh, one that still didn’t fit in this vaulted place. “I don’t even want one of those if he’ll go back to the way he was. I’m just . . .” her body was sagging, and what he saw in her eyes was the woman he had fallen in love with, the woman who had listened to his bravedo-laced invitation to dinner and a movie, cocked her head to the side to consider, and had decided to give him a chance. “I don’t know what’s happening to us. Ian isn’t right, Kimberly isn’t right, and . . . you were never like this, either.” It pinned him, to see her so weary, it rooted him right to the spot. Even after she had given birth to Kimberly, the first time he saw her in the hospital bed, she had looked so drained, like she had given all she had to let her child loose. He had been scared for her a little, then, but never wanted to admit it.
“And you?” a gentle probe, the way he had touched her once the notion she was pregnant finally sunk in, like he might become too excited and break his own child. “What about you?”
Kerri only shook her head, biting her lip again.
“Who was he, Jacob?” Jan asked softly, standing further away from them than before. “Help us fill in the blanks.”
“Penned in from all sides, it’s no surprise he lashes out. He can’t counter the arguments without revealing too much and in the end he’s only going on faith anyway, clinging to something that may not even be true. Ranos isn’t dead, but he doesn’t know that. Nobody knows that.”
“Because you’re running his brain through a cheese grater.”
“More or less.”
“But his whole family is turning against him and he’s either got to change with the times or let the times trample right over him. Faced with those options, he takes the cowardly third option and just avoids the problem completely. I do have to briefly applaud Jan becoming badass and manipulative, even if I hate her profession and can’t explain why she’s even in this story.”
“The sort of blackmail was a nice touch, although she was probably bluffing because she can’t stand Jacob. And she knows about the funeral anyway, so he’s outmanuevered on all fronts.”
“Except he throws out the revelation that the body was taken before bailing on them, raising even more questions. You know, a lot of plot gets crammed into here.”
“And you finally have a sequence where more than two people are talking.”
“Hey! You’re right. Maybe things are looking up. Funny how all this ghost crap finally pays off with a bit like this. The beginning really isn’t even necessary, it hardly relates to what comes later.”
“It does, but is it vital? That’s the bigger question.”
“Too late to answer that one. Now, after setting this all up nicely what are the chances that nobody is going to come back to this for hours and hours?”
“Probably pretty good.”
“Geez, it’s like this story is just aching to shoot itself in foot. It’s like a hyperactive child. A very large, slow talking hyperactive child. Who made up his own language in clay that nobody understands.”
“That . . . I don’t know what to say to that.”