Archive for November, 2008
This is a continuation of the story which begins at Ten of Hearts: Double You
I lean against the wall of the corridor and close my eyes for a few moments; trying to take it all in, trying not to let the tears out. I’ve been wishing for Cat to magically reappear for a year and a half, and now that the dream has come true ten times over, I don’t know how to feel. This is the dream of a sleeper, a disconnected, nonsensical dream.
Maybe I’m really dreaming, but I feel more awake than ever. Maybe I’m in virtual reality too. Maybe there is no reality.
I open my eyes to let something like reality in. The dark hallway isn’t enough to chase away the thoughts. I flick on the flashlight and scrutinise my surroundings for anything that would betray its fakeness. There are none of the tell-tale signs I can see in my own VR software. Something else catches my eye, though. There’s another door, further down the passage.
I dread what I might find there. Another ten Cats, older than the one I knew? Younger? I have had far too many surprises for one day, but I can’t help checking.
I turn the handle and push the door open slowly. For a few moments I stand there with the flashlight aimed at the floor, afraid of what I might see if I move it. I hear whispering.
The sibilant darkness is suddenly more scary than anything else I was imagining, so I shine my light across the room.
It’s me. Me from a few years ago apparently showing a few other mes what he could recognise of the VR suit. Me squinting at the light of my torch. Me trying not to start crying. Me looking at myself in shock.
“Holy carbonara… how many of us are there?” says one of the mes who was examining the suit.
“How did you get out of your suit?” asks another.
“Did you make these?” says the me from a few years ago.
I can’t speak. I shine the light around the room, carefully counting its inhabitants. Twelve, of different ages; more than enough to match the Cats in the other room. I know that I could never have substituted one of those Cats for my Cat, but it still hurts to know that there isn’t one left over for me.
“Hey, you… I mean me,” says a young teenaged version of myself. “Do you know what’s going on?”
I sit down with them, afraid that my legs won’t support me. “I wish I did.”
“Everything was perfectly normal up until a year and a half ago. Then some old guy… maybe it was granddad… he came and killed Cat and tried to kill me, but I killed him first.” Those of me who are old enough to know Cat gasp.
“Ever since… well, of course nothing’s been normal. I’ve just been living in here trying to make sense of it all. I guess I could have left, but I don’t feel ready to face the real world yet, and maybe be accused of murder. But then, there was this power cut… and the access control on the doors is shut down. So, out of curiosity… stupid curiosity… I came down here and found…” I try unsuccessfully to hold back a sob. It’s a strange feeling, being self-conscious when the only people watching me are myself. More self, more conscious.
“Yeah, we know the feeling. At least you got to open a door to find us. I was in the middle of taking a piss.”
I involuntarily look towards his crotch, wondering how such bodily functions work in whatever virtual reality system they were in. I look away in embarrassment, then wonder whether I should be embarrassed about looking at my own fabric-covered nether regions.
It seems like I’m in a stop-motion, each absurd thing that happens shocks me into inaction for a while. Eventually I recover my train of thought. “I mean… I don’t mean… you’re not the only ones.”
The other mes are not immune to being stunned.
“There’s another room… with ten copies of Cat.”
We stare at each other, wondering how to put our thoughts into words, and wondering whether we need to. I need them to. These people were living normal lives, living with Cat, or living in the lesser, ignorant bliss of never having met her. These people have spent several hours together, learning how they are the same, how they are different, how to behave with each other. I am a stranger in a crowd of myself.
A younger me breaks the silence by giggling. “So what are we waiting for? You should go see your giiirrrlfriends!” he chides. I remember that time. The thought of having a girlfriend was so disgusting, embarrassing, and enticingly mysterious.
“He’s right,” says a me about four years younger than myself. “I want to see her. Do you know how to disconnect these cables?” He jerks his head upwards to indicate the cable attached to his head, making it sway lightly.
“I don’t know. Looks like it’s going straight into your brain. I guess if there’s no power going through it anyway, we could just cut it. But I can’t guarantee I could repair it if you want to go back in. You know I’m not that good with hardware.”
“Do it,” he says. “I think I’ve had enough fake reality to last a lifetime. I want the real thing.”
It is only when I’m back in the corridor on the way to get wire cutters that I remember Cat’s pain relief. The retreat is pretty well stocked with medicine, to avoid unnecessary contact with the high-tech outside world. We haven’t needed to use much of it, but it’s reassuring to know it’s there.
There’s no power for the computer which would have dispensed just the right amount of this or that drug. No power for the lock holding the machine closed either. I open it up and see the neat columns of capsules in their sterile plastic compartments.
Two columns are almost empty. I don’t want to think about why. It’s too much. I’m just going to take these last few painkillers to Cat, and worry about the rest when my life has regained some sanity.
To be continued…
A cellphone vibrates ineffectually against unfeeling skin. One last rivulet of blood slowly oozes down the wall as it dries. The rest of the room is still.
The floor is littered with toiletries. Slivers of soap fissured by scratches. A quarter-full bottle of shampoo, open, ending a trail of shampoo drips. A toothpaste tube sliced open, with smears of blood over an almost invisibly thin layer of blue gel. A pool of cough syrup and blood surrounds a smashed bottle. A toothbrush tipped in blood lies next to the toilet.
A man lies back awkwardly on the toilet, head wedged between the cistern and the wall. His eyes do not see the gruesome manuscript scrawled over the white wall.
The writing starts in neat ridges of blue toothpaste:
I woke up in a winning mood. My birthday… and why not celebrate it? Getting old is a victory against death. I had no deadlines to meet, no reason to stay hunched over my keyboard, pouring my blood and sweat into a new story. I went for a walk by the lake to relax.
As I let my mind wander, pieces of a dream came back to me. The devil was at my bedside. Just a much darker shadow in the dark room. I knew it was him in the way you sometimes know things in dreams, a mixture of switching perspective and intuition. He told me that he would give me all the best cards. I remember thinking of all the movies I’d seen where people make deals with the devil. Somehow I knew before I asked that I would not have to give my soul in return… just sacrifice other souls somehow. That must have been when I woke up, or went into a deeper sleep.
It was just a dream, but it was a good enough excuse to ask some friends around for poker. I called Jack and we got together a posse. “Good to see you’ve decided to celebrate your birthday, you old bugger,” he said.
The evening started off badly, but soon I was wiping the floor with them. I knew they’d never let me win just because it was my birthday. It was all luck.
“Hey, you know it’s funny, I had a dream last night that the devil would give me good cards.”
“Well, you never had much of a soul to begin with,” Jack teased. “Speaking of souls, when are you going to write the world’s greatest horror novel?”
I smirked. “You know how I feel about horror.”
At this point, the narrative is obscured by soapy smudges, with smears of faeces. It continues in blood.
I felt suddenly very tired, so I took my winnings and went to bed, leaving my friends to finish their beers and let themselves out.
A loud thump woke me in the middle of the night, kick-starting a thumping headache. I was contemplating getting up to see what it was when I heard a voice.
“I hope you enjoyed your luck tonight,” it croaked.
“Who are you?” I demanded. “Is that you, Jack?”
“You know who I am.”
A chill went through me, followed by a wave of nausea. I thought I could see shadows shifting against the darkness.
“What do you want?”
“Do you remember the deeeeal?” said the voice in a permanent death rattle.
“There was no deal. That was a dream. I was just lu…”
I jumped as the voice interrupted me loudly. “I am not in the business of making dreams! We made a deal.”
“Okay, okay, whatever you want. You want my soul? I warn you, it’s not in tip-top shape.”
“Your pitiful soul already belongs to me, and I’m growing weary of keeping it alive. It’s time to put it to use.”
I tried to respond, but my mind and body were paralysed.
“You will win more souls over to the side of evil. Enough with your inspirational human interest stories,” He drew out human as though it were an insult. “You will write a horror story that will draw your readers to me through the one thing that truly interests them. Fear.”
“But th…” I cut off my own babbling when I found my mind had not caught up with my quivering lips. Far away, the church bells started to chime.
“It’s midnight,” said the voice, “You have until next midnight to write it, or else you die.” He was gone before the last chime was silent.
I lay still for a few minutes, unable to make my hand move to the light switch. Every slight noise made my body spasm with fear.
Eventually I managed to turn on the light. The shadows dispersed, and I was briefly reassured by the normality of my bedroom. I searched for evidence of the intruder. My relief was shattered when I saw his calling card. The four of clubs: the devil’s bedpost. Bad luck was in store.
I couldn’t sleep after that. But there was no use worrying. ‘I’m a professional writer,’ I told myself. ‘I can write whatever I’m assigned to write, for the right price.’ And this price was the ultimate. So I put my clothes back on, went to my desk and turned on my computer.
Nothing. No startup chime, no fidgeting hard disk. I riffled through my drawer for a pen. Found a red pen and scratched away at a scrap of paper, embossing without writing. I found five more pens; all were out of ink. A broken pencil and no sharpener. Finally, I found a marker which worked, and sat back down to begin writing.
The only ideas that came were more horribly clichéd than horrific. I’d not read much horror, but what I’d read was mostly a thick coating of gore over a flimsy excuse for a story… like pornography, but with gore instead of sex. I idly wondered whether I could replace one character in a porn film with a zombie and make a passable horror, but decided it would probably still be porn.
A sharp pain in my stomach brought back the real horror of the day. I dashed to the toilet, slammed the door shut and got to the toilet just in time to release a horrifying eruption of shit.
I felt a lot better after that. After waiting twenty minutes or so for aftershocks, I pulled my pants up and went to the door, realising what I’d done as I reached toward it. The inside handle had come off a few days before, and until I got around to replacing it, I had been leaving the door slightly ajar. Now it was firmly closed, and would not open without a handle. I poked around at the mechanism and managed to get a razor handle stuck in there.
There isn’t much room for a run-up in this bathroom, but I ran as fast as I could into the door. At the last moment I repositioned myself to avoid being jabbed by the razor, and my head smashed into the door instead.
I regained consciousness some time later, head and shoulders throbbing. It took me a few minutes to remember where I was, and another to gather the sense to observe that the door was still firmly closed. I sat there, dazed, for I don’t know how long, until I was roused by the sound of Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. I hate that song, and that’s why I configured my cellphone to wake me up to it. There was no way I’d stay comfortably in bed with it playing.
8:30 already. I had to get out of this bathroom and start writing this damned horror story. And the solution was in my hand. I’d call Jack. He had a key to the house, so he could just come in and open the toilet door.
I dialled his number and waited for the ringback tone. Click. “Your call can not be connected, because you have insufficient prepay credit. To recharge your…” I hung up and threw the phone at the floor in frustration, then stuffed it back in my pocket with a twinge of guilt. Surely Jack or somebody else would call me eventually. I sat there trying not to think about my predicament.
I almost dozed off, and the voice of the devil came back to menace me in my semi-lucid state. I may be trapped in a bathroom, but things would be much worse if I didn’t write a horror story by midnight.
It occurred to me that I was living as bad a horror as I could come up with, so I resolved to write the story of the last few days. Easy enough. But what with? I’d left the marker outside. I pillaged the medicine cabinet, and was close to giving up when I saw the half-full toothpaste tube by the sink. I swear I heard an angel’s chorus when I saw that toothpaste. I was saved. If I applied it carefully with a toothbrush handle, I could write fairly well on the wall.
All went well for a while. I even found myself giggling at the thought of my eventual rescuer seeing a wall covered in pasty horror. But the toothpaste ran out much sooner than I’d hoped. Why couldn’t I have written a shorter story?
Again I ransacked the cupboards. I tried to write with shampoo, but it was useless, too liquid and too transparent against the wall. I only managed to clean off some of what I’d already written. I threw it at the door, half hoping that it would miraculously punch a hole in it.
Next I tried scraping into the soap with a razor. It could barely stick to the wall, and didn’t show up against the white. I needed something darker. Suddenly I wished that I hadn’t flushed all that perfectly good shit down the drain. Fighting a sudden nausea, I dipped my toothbrush into the trails on the side of the bowl and tried writing on the wall with it. This was too much. I coughed up some very un-inklike bile and flushed it all down.
After some more contemplation, I turned my attention back to the toothpaste tube. There was surely still some toothpaste in there, wedged near the top where it couldn’t quite be pushed to the opening. I tried slicing it open with a razor, but sliced open my thumb instead.
The shock of the pain was soon followed by the thrill of seeing a dark liquid. I could write with this. Ridiculously macabre, but how else does one write for the devil? It’s not as if I’d have to bleed to death. The cut was already starting to heal. I cleaned the end of my toothbrush as well as I could and dipped it into the cut. It didn’t take much blood to write a few letters. I felt a strange delight in writing those first few words in blood. I was in the mind of a killer. I could write horror like this.
My phone bleeped midday. I still had twelve hours. Surely somebody would rescue me in that time, but I had to continue just in case. The devil is not to be played with… another reason why I don’t usually write horror.
Whenever I stopped too long to think, my thumb would heal over and I’d have to tear it apart again. Eventually I had done it so much that the pain was unbearable. I was feeling a little lightheaded, but I convinced myself it was from pain and lack of sleep rather than blood loss. It didn’t seem like any more blood than I gave to the blood bank every time there was a donation drive. I bandaged the poor thumb and rested a little before making a clean cut in my forearm. I continued like this for hours, periodically bandaging a wound and opening a new one.
It’s 11:30 now, and I’m afraid that this story is not horrific enough for its audience. I’m worried that nobody has called me all day. I’m afraid that even if I succeed, I’ll stay trapped staring at this ghoulish wallpaper until I die of hunger.
I’m afraid that my latest cut won’t stop bleeding.
FUCK… I have to fix my wrist up. THE END. Happy now, Luci
“Hi, this is Ned Stokes. I’m probably writing or taking a bath. Leave a message.”
“Hey, Ned, it’s Jack. Written any horror stories lately?” Laughter. “Guess you’ve figured out it was me by now. Hope it didn’t freak you out too much. Nah, who am I kidding? You have to be freaked out to write horror. Anyway, I know you hate horror, but I reckon you’d be good at it. If you wrote something, send it to me, I promise I won’t tease.”
My laptop seems to have died this morning, so it’s very unlikely that I’ll post anything by midnight Sunday. I think my eMate still works, so I’ll type something up on that (for a writer, I don’t much like writing) but it can’t connect to the internet. I believe I still have the dongle and the software necessary to connect it to a modern Mac, but even with that I don’t think I can transfer notes from it, so everything will eventually have to be retyped, just as if I’d handwritten it the old-fashioned way on my Newton MessagePad (or paper, I suppose.) Still, typing something twice is easier than handwriting it and then typing it. If it were a poem, I’d have no problem with handwriting it, but I promised somebody I’d write a story this week. You know who you are. It’s all your fault.
I do not feel inclined to sit at work or in an internet café late on Sunday night when there will no buses to get me home, so you’re just going to have to trust me that I finished it on time, or trust that I didn’t twiddle the date stamps when taking a photo of the completed work just before midnight. Or you could just give me a break, I’m in mourning for a Mac here.
Right… now to come up with a plot.
If you pine for the mystery
before Noah’s ark
we’ve remade prehistory
at Juratron Park.
Come atoms, come molecules,
See what you were back then.
Come out for a frolic, you’ll
spin unperturbed again.
Those that wander can find
on our Memory Lane walks
they’re no longer confined
to a group of three quarks.
Before we were three
we were free from our tether,
and though we were free
we were closer together.
We loved antimatter,
we were one, nigh elation
to meet and to natter
’bout CP violation.
So come to a place
that’s more bright than the sun
where we’d meet face to face
‘fore they lost and we won.
Then back where you’re from,
bound together by force,
Go back to your com-
pounds, to never divorce.
We don’t all get on,
talk is charged and polemical
but each baryon
has its place in a chemical.
If protons complain
then you reach in and tell ’em, in
truth you all gain
when you’re each in your element.
You’re not vexed when you seek
But you know you’re unique
when divided, diverse.
Make the world have this aim:
make the world we’re in different.
The more we’re the same,
the more we’re indifferent.
For those of you who have been refreshing your RSS feeds in a panic, wondering why no Thing has been posted yet, I am still alive. I’ve been following the original Thing-A-Weeker Jonathan Coulton around England for most of the week, with very rare internet access and only a borrowed adaptor to plug my Mac into power (which I have returned to its owner, so I only have about two hours of battery life remaining.) It’s been great fun, I’ve been travelling with several other Jonathan Coulton fans I knew from the internet. Apart from being fun people to hang out with, who have great taste in music, they and my Thing A Week deadline have done a good job of convincing me that I should get an iPhone.
As planned, I got Jonathan Coulton and his opening band Paul and Storm to pick fives of clubs, and promised them to their faces that I would write something about their chosen cards by Sunday midnight. I think perhaps it’s bad luck to do such a thing. I thought I’d have some time on Sunday to write something, but we got waylaid (at Cadbury World) on the way back to London, and I ended up not even being anywhere with internet until 1a.m, and not having time to write anything either. I do have an idea of what I will write, but I’m going to have to do it next week. I suppose I could write something tomorrow on the train, and then write something else next week, but that would only result in two low-quality hurried Things. I think that considering who picked the cards, I really should write something that’s actually good, even if only by my standards.
Jonathan Coulton missed a few weeks of his Thing A Week, so I feel I’m allowed. Though admittedly, he took a week off after the smash hit Code Monkey, whereas I took a week off after a collection of random snippets held together with gluons. But as Jonathan said: I’ll refund a dollar to all you paying subscribers [as Tom Lehrer said: of which I have none]. The rest of you will just get nothing for nothing, which seems fair.