Ideomancer Featured Author Tim Pratt answers a few questions from fellow writer Greg van Eekhout.
Greg van Eekhout : You wear a bunch of different hats related to the creation of fantastic literature. How about giving us a quick rundown of your various endeavors?
Tim Pratt : Where to begin? Fiction writing, of course, is supposed to be first and foremost, though in practice it often gets shoved aside in favor of other endeavors that have deadlines attached. I also write poetry, though not as much as I used to — I’m trying to concentrate on fiction since it’s at least possible (if not likely) to make a bit of money doing that. For my day job I work for Locus as an Assistant Editor, which means I sweep, clean out the gutters, carry heavy boxes, etc. (all true!) — in terms of actual work on the magazine, I do a lot of the layout, some of the news stories, many of the obituaries. I’ve been there for two years now, and I’ve been getting more and more writing responsibilities. I also review books for Locus; mostly horror, sometimes poetry collections, occasionally first novels, sometimes books with genre elements that aren’t marketed as genre. I try to catch the stuff that might otherwise slip through the cracks. Every once in a while I write reviews for other publications, like Strange Horizons, usually when there’s a book I want to spend more than 500 words talking about. I edit Star*Line, the journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, which comes out 6 times a year — that’s great fun, and keeps me involved in the poetry world. My fiancée Heather Shaw and I just started a slipstream ‘zine called Flytrap, which should debut this fall. We’re taking turns on the editing. For issue one, she chose the fiction, and I chose the poetry (though we consulted with one another a bit, naturally). For issue two we’ll switch roles, and so on from there. Oh, and Heather and I do a holiday chapbook every winter, with a collaboration and some original work from each of us. We send them to friends and family as gifts, and sell the ones we have left after that. That’s about it, I think, and I’ve made myself a solemn promise not to take on any more responsibilities for a while! Though if some really fun opportunity came along…. I guess that wasn’t a quick rundown, but it was comprehensive!
GV : You’ve described yourself as a writer of mythic fiction. What do you mean by that? Is mythic fiction something different from the commercial genre we call fantasy?
TP : I say that I write “mythic fiction” because I’m not above stealing from my betters. Charles de Lint coined the term (as far as I know, anyway) to describe his own work, which has variously been called “contemporary fantasy,” “urban fantasy,” “North American magic realism,” etc. The problem is this: if you tell an average person that you write fantasy, in all likelihood they think elves, quests, kitchen-boys-with-destinies, magic rings, a faux-medieval setting, all that Big Fat Fantasy, secondary world stuff. I’ve read and enjoyed some of that sort of thing, but it’s not what I write.
Almost all my fiction is set in a recognizably real contemporary world into which magic intrudes, or in which magic exists hidden from the majority of the population. Is it “urban fantasy”? Well, not the ones that are set in rural North Carolina. Is it “contemporary fantasy”? Sure, but that’s a bit unwieldy and certainly inelegant. I prefer “mythic fiction” — I think there’s some poetry to the term, and it has enough assonance to sound like a contrast to “literary fiction” (which it is). And I do draw on the old myths (and folklore, and legends — those terms aren’t synonymous! They’re three different things!), and try to find elements that resonate with my contemporary characters. Like most “literary fiction” my stories are predominantly concerned with human relationships, and with Faulkner’s famous “human heart in conflict with itself.” The magical elements exist in order to highlight certain aspects of those characters or their situations. The magical elements also exist because I think they’re cool, and I’d rather read a story about an aging, pot-bellied, self-loathing deity having an affair with a young nymph than read a story about an aging, pot-bellied, self-loathing English professor having an affair with a young student, even if both stories are about roughly the same themes.
Of course, if I tell people I write “mythic fiction” they just look at me blankly, but at least they don’t come into the conversation with a lot of preconceptions.
GV : You recently attended the Rio Hondo writers’ workshop. Talk to us a little about what Rio Hondo is and what you took from your experiences there.
TP : Rio Hondo is a week-long professional writing workshop, not unlike fabled Sycamore Hill — though Rio Hondo has fewer participants, more naps, and better food, or so I’m told. Walter Jon Williams and Leslie What run it, and they kindly invited me to attend this year. The workshop takes place in June, in Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico, about 10,000 feet about sea level. Each of the twelve participants brought a story, and each morning we critiqued two, the usual go-around-the-table-and-comment sort of style. Afternoons were for naps (which are necessary when you’re up that high!) and hiking and writing and reading and whatnot. Every evening we had a gourmet meal, prepared by various particpants. I didn’t cook, but I did act as sou-chef one night, and minced garlic and so forth. The most striking image of the workshop was seeing Walter Jon Williams tenderize a leg of lamb by beating it vigorously with a full bottle of wine. After dinner each night we drank, played cards, chatted, watched bizarre movies (Crazy Safari! Mr. Vampire!), and argued about writing, probability theory, free will vs. determinism — the usual.
It was a rather remarkable experience, actually, sitting around a table with writers I’ve been reading for years, people I consider brilliant – Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Ray Vukcevich, Maureen McHugh, and on and on, and being included among bright new lights like Daniel Abraham, Ken Wharton, and Susan Fry. I had many wonderful conversations, got marvelous feedback on a new story, made some friends, and ate more fine meals in a week than I’d had in the year previous. I hope I can go again sometime. Best workshop ever, since there was no doubt whatsoever that each participant had the chops to back up their criticisms.
GV : Okay, let’s talk about your proclivities and idiosyncrasies. When you sit down to write, do you have to wear a special hat? Begin with seventeen push-ups? Wait for the chimes of midnight? Eat a soft-boiled egg? Where, when, and how do you do your best writing?
TP : See, here’s where I’m boring. I’ve always had a certain admiration for writers who bring a little sympathetic or contagious magic into the writing process, but I’m not one of them. I write wherever — on subway trains, in coffee shops, at the kitchen table, at the keyboard, on the deck at work during my lunch breaks. I don’t use fancy notebooks or special pens. I pretty much just sit down, try not to succumb to the many shiny distractions in my life, and start writing.
That said, I probably do my best work early in the morning. When I can get into a good routine of rising early and writing a few pages every day, I’m very productive. Of course, life sometimes intervenes to make that impossible, in which case I just squeeze writing time in wherever possible.
I enjoy writing in coffee shops, because there are lots of yummy things to drink, I don’t have to wash dishes, and there is often pie.
GV : Do you remember the first story you wrote?
TP : For years I always told people I wrote my first story in fourth grade. It was called “The Weirdo Zone” and I thought it was a novel, though it was only about 25 pages in a bright yellow wide-ruled notebook, along with various crude illustrations (“crude” being the height of my artistic talents to this day), mostly of bipedal alligators and a human head with spider legs. The plot was stolen in equal measure from Judy Blume’s Superfudge and from an episode of The Muppet Babies. I actually remember working on that story, sort of, and I still have the notebook. It was about a bratty little kid who gets abducted into an alternate dimension, and his long-suffering older brother who goes to save him, with Hilarious Results.
Then, a couple of years ago, my mother showed me a story I’d written when I was 8 years old, in third grade, that had actually been “published” in a county-school creative writing competition. It was called “A Day in the Life of a Spider.” It was about a pet spider that escapes from his terrarium and has Wacky Adventures. From textual evidence, I’d say I stole most of the plot from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I don’t remember writing it at all, but there it is. Anything earlier has disappeared into the mental mists of antiquity.
GV : Okay, when you’re a hale and hearty man in his late nineties and you look back over a successful career, what have you accomplished?
TP : I’ve crushed my enemies, seen them driven before me, heard the lamentation of their women….
Okay, really, in a perfect dream world, I’ll have a big bookshelf of 70 or 80 published books and filing cabinet full of ‘zines I’ve edited and chapbooks I’ve put together. That’s it, really. Jonathan Carroll has a nice quote, about “writing for the shelf.” Basically, writing isn’t about winning awards, or about book tours, or conventions, or fans, or any of that, because that stuff isn’t going on every time you sit down to write. The important thing, day to day, is the writing itself. Ultimately, you write for the shelf, and whatever else happens, you have that shelf, and the things you wrote, lined up on it. That’s all I need. That’s more than enough.
GV : What’s the latest news on Little Gods, your upcoming short story collection?
TP : Ah, the first book, all my own, for the aforementioned shelf! It’s being published by Prime Books, and should be available at World Fantasy Con, with the official release date in November. I got a look at the finished cover for the hardcover edition recently, and it’s beautiful. The trade paperback will be released simultaneously. The collection has 15 stories and 4 poems, and it’s the best work I’ve done, including a Nebula-nominated story, a story that was in a couple of Year’s Best anthologies last year, and a never-before-published novelette called “Pale Dog,” which is one of the coolest things I’ve ever written. Michaela Roessner provided a wonderful introduction, and I wrote an only-slightly-self-indulgent Afterword/Story Notes thing, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream. I’m immensely proud of this book, and grateful to Sean Wallace at Prime for publishing it. My first book. It stuns me. I just hope it’s the first of many.
Tricky beasts, sequels. Very few of us walk into a cinema expecting a sequel to be better than the original, and the examples are very rare: Toy Story 2, French Connection II, Sophie’s Choice II…. But when it comes to novels, we usually expect sequels to be better. After all, it can be a number of years between books, and surely the writer has been practicing their craft in the meantime, right? (Obviously I don’t mean those delightful Phat Phantasy trilogies that clog up the bookshelves like the literary equivalent of cholesterol; I mean genuine sequels to genuine singletons.)
Which is why it’s always such a disappointment to pick up sequels: they rarely are better than the original, as if whatever spark of inspiration that fuelled the initial telling has been lost once the author comes back to play in established territories. When it comes to sequels, familiarity really does breed contempt.
Which is why it was such a relief to pick up Shadows Bite, the sequel to Dedman’s very good novel The Art Of Arrow Cutting, and find that not only was it better than the original, it took the characters and settings of the original novel and reinterpreted them in new and surprising ways. It’s obvious while reading the book that Dedman has spent time with his characters ‘off-stage’, hanging out with them and getting to know them better. This deeper knowledge of his characters has resulted in a story with greater depth and realism, as Dedman’s confidence has enabled him to stretch the action and plot to a larger degree than in the first volume.
A key ingredient to this is the change of lead character: Mage Magistrale, hero of The Art Of Arrow Cutting, is rarely sighted here, and then only as somewhat reluctant sidekick to Charlie Takumo, the much more interesting and fun movie stuntman and martial arts expert who so regularly upstaged Magistrale in the first novel. While Magistrale was the driving force behind the first book it was clear that he was a limited character in many ways: his story was told with the telling of The Art Of Arrow Cutting, and by choosing to follow Takumo into the second book Dedman allows the scope of the adventures to open up much further, as he deploys the far greater range of attributes Takumo has as a character. Takumo is fun, a rock-em-sock-em adventure character in the grand Hollywood mold, ready with a snappy stunt move or a witty one-liner in equal measure, and Dedman has an enormous amount of fun with him. If this were a movie, and Dedman writes in a furiously fast-paced and enjoyable movie style, Takumo would have been the perfect role for the late Brandon Lee.
Another key to the success of Shadows Bite is the subject matter. Dedman is a vampire freak, a connoisseur of the non-Western undead in the tradition of Lafcadio Hearn, and while his short fiction has delved into these traditions over the years it is in this novel that he allows himself the time and space to really work with the underlying concepts and myths surrounding vampires, particularly the notion that for many, being a vampire isn’t a bad thing at all and is in fact something to be wished for. The vampires in Shadows Bite are very human, with human desires and motivations, and much of the power in the book comes from watching as they choose to embrace their vampirism or struggle to retain their humanity. Unlike so many writers who work in these well-turned vampiric fields, Dedman never loses sight of the fact that vampires are more than bad Christopher Lee cutouts, and his creations retain their power to fascinate and repel us to the very end.
Like all good authors Dedman understands that to keep readers coming back to your work you must give them enough that is familiar for comfort, but you must also surprise them with new and wonderful things. And there are plenty of new and wonderful things in Shadows Bite, enough to make it an exciting and entrancing read. And enough to look forward to the mooted third volume in the series, and coming from someone who firmly believes that anything with a number as high as 3 in the title cannot possibly be good, that’s saying something.
Would you notice if I was replaced by an alien?” your girlfriend Heather asks over her Greek salad.
You’ve been dating for eight months. Surprises in the relationship are rare now, but this catches you completely off guard. “What?” you say.
“Like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
“You watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers?” Heather is not a fan of the genre. It’s the only thing the two of you don’t have in common.
You mouth a piece of souvlaki. Your financial aid check finally arrived allowing you to splurge for lunch at Kostas Greek Café. You savor the taste knowing tomorrow you’ll be eating peanut butter and jelly.
“I had to watch it for sociology,” says Heather. Her hand fondles the pendant you gave her at six months. As she twists the pendant it catches the light and glows almost imperceptibly. You’re pleased that she wears it every day. “Professor Jarvis is a real sci-fi nut. For extra credit we can do a report on the one about the giant ants.”
“SF,” you begin to correct her, again, but then you realize she was teasing when she said ‘sci-fi’. She knows all your buttons. “Them,” you say around your souvlaki. “The one with the ants, it’s called Them.” You make a mental note to fit sociology into your schedule next semester.
“So, would you?” Heather asks again.
You think about it for a moment. “That depends. Are we talking about your body inhabited by an alien or an identical copy of you?”
“Is the alien acting normal or Stepford-y?”
“Definitely normal. If you didn’t know me, there’d be no way to tell there was something different about me, almost an exact copy. Could you tell it wasn’t me?”
You think if she were an exact duplicate then by definition you wouldn’t be able to tell — oh wait, this is one of those ‘relationship’ questions.
“Of course I’d know it wasn’t you,” you say with more conviction than you feel.
But Heather doesn’t let you off easy. “How?” she asks.
“Because I know everything about you.” An argument crystallizes in your mind. “I know how the rhythm of your footsteps is different in the morning than at night. Right now, I can perfectly imagine the scent of your pillow and how it differs from your favorite sweater.” Her bashful smile gives you confidence. “I can tell which prof dared to give you a ‘B’ by your tone of voice. I know by the way you move your head whether we should go someplace noisier or quieter.”
“But those are all physical things,” counters Heather. “Theoretically, they could all be duplicated.”
“Yes, but what I’m trying to say is the sum is greater than the parts. All of those things, and more, add up to an awareness of you. I would feel the difference.”
“Exactly,” she says. Her smile is now catlike, and the sharp look through her narrowed eyes tells you that your mission has just been compromised.
For us, it has nothing to do with existentialism or morality, as much as these problems had troubled the first pioneers in the field of reincorporation. These days, we dispose of the original corpse for purely pragmatic reasons. Customers have more difficulty getting their mind around the original philosophical problems: how can my son be lying, seventy-two hours dead, on a metal slab in a refrigerated morgue, while my son is also standing, ninety-eight point six degrees, with a smile, right in front of me? Is he my son, or is my son dead?
Then, there were the fluke cases when reincorporated patients would insist on confronting their old selves. I suppose they were socialized into thinking that such dramatic gestures — patients taking their old crania in hand and crying, “Alas!” — were worth their while. Of course, psychological harm is inevitable in those moments, and such harm is legally actionable.
Now, when your contract is filled, only a small sample is kept on file, a matrix taken from various organs. A vial with a number. Not even your name. Because, really, who can think that little Timmy is a floating glob of tissue labeled 14322-B?
But as anyone who’s ever done anything important can tell you, there are always, always, problems.
When I saw Michael Alstrom for the first time, the left side of his body looked as though it had been hit by a truck — which indeed it had. On his ride over to County, the paramedics had spent a good fifteen minutes trying to pick the fragments of three ribs out of his lungs and left ventricle, while simultaneously managing to shatter two more through their ham-fisted efforts at CPR.
Not that a virtuoso performance would have made much difference. By the time they had reached the scene of the accident, Alstrom’s neurons had made their last feeble flashes of lightning across synaptic gaps — probably saying “Fuck that driver” — and he was quite certainly dead. The hospital doesn’t do resurrection. Which is why Alstrom was sent downtown to our facility.
The first thing we check is the brain. Contusions, lesions, and, of course, more serious trauma, are all enough to get a patient tossed off our docket and sent down to the morgue, with a form letter to the bereaved — “We’re sorry, but please try Lazarell Corporation again should the need arise. Remember: without Lazarell, you’re just plain dead.” Or something like that. I haven’t seen any paperwork since I got my employee benefits package.
We checked his brain and it was fine — as intact as his body wasn’t. So, we took the usual DNA samples from his organs and gametes, and had a counselor get on the phone with Alstrom’s wife. Once the forms were signed, the old body was sent to disposal, the samples were given a number and put in a cooker, the neural patterns were scanned in, and I went home for dinner.
When I saw him next, was it Michael Alstrom I saw? Or was it 88729-A? Lazarell has an official policy that staff cannot, amongst themselves, refer to a potentiality by name. Officially, then, he was to be called Two-Niner Alpha. Right. Michael looked as though he was asleep: his chest rose and lowered rhythmically, his eyes twitched beneath their lids as if dreaming, and occasionally his body gave a slight start.
Mrs. Alstrom had paid for the premium plan, and that meant that a doctor, not a technician, would oversee her husband’s entire reincorporation. Really, it was a bad idea for everyone involved, except maybe Lazarell’s shareholders: doctors have better things to be doing, and counselors are trained at helping patients cope. Normally, a nurse and a shrink do a better job than a doctor — but apparently customers think otherwise.
I checked the screen with Michael’s vitals, and nodded to the nurse on hand. “Okay, you can proceed.”
Michael didn’t even flinch as the hypo went under his skin — but Marianne had stuck so many people by now that she’d made an art of it. A few moments later, Michael gave a jolt, and his eyes flew open.
“Good morning, Michael,” I told him, extending my hand. He stared at it for a moment, then cautiously extended his own, and gave mine a weak-gripped shake. “Today’s the twenty-third. How are you feeling?”
He swallowed and closed his eyes, hard, not just a blink, and then rubbed them. He swallowed again. “Okay,” was the uncertain answer. “Do you have some water, or something?”
I nodded to Marianne, who passed him a small paper cupful. He downed it in a gulp.
“So, let’s take those IV’s out,” I told him, as I waved Marianne forward, “and get you something to eat.” He gave a slow nod and jerked slightly as the IV’s came out. Marianne quickly applied a swab to the drops of blood that welled up, then put a Band-Aid over the pricks.
Before she did, however, Michael’s eyes were fixed on the crimson beads rising out of his body, and his face had the slack expression of a man who does not even know what it is that he’s forgotten.
“Come on,” I told him. “Let’s grab a sandwich.”
It takes about three days for implanted memories to settle back into place. Until then, patients suffer from an acute sense of cognitive dissonance. When Lazarell brought Autumn Augusta back from her first fatal drug binge, she wrote:
Born with body already full-
grown, heads filled with memories
unlived, we are strangers
to us and at once
self and not-self and
Our new hearts are all arush
with alien emotions.
Needless to say, I imagine she got used to the ordeal after the third or fourth try. But Lazarell always makes sure that we read her poem in the little packet they give us before handling a patient. It makes the executives feel important to think they were referenced in a laureate’s work.
Right now, Michael’s mind was full of “memories unlived,” but I was much more concerned with getting his stomach full of a sandwich and a Coke.
“I bet that hits the spot,” I said, pointing to the half-eaten sandwich. He looked down to where I pointed, as if asking, “Mayonnaise? Ham? Where did this all come from?”
“Yeah. Well. I wasn’t so hungry. Just thirsty.” He pulled a hard drag on his straw, slurping the last of the soda up. He pushed the straw aside, and knocked a few ice cubes into his mouth.
“You can have another, you know.” I gave him a reassuring smile. What a joke of a job.
He shook his head. “No, I’m all right. I guess. It’s just, my head. Right here.” He pointed to his forehead. What a diagnostician he would make.
“You were in an accident, Michael,” I prompted. “It only makes sense that you’d be feeling a little shaken up. For now, the best thing you can do is relax, and try to answer a few questions.”
I nodded. “Very simple ones. For example, can you tell me your birthday?”
“What?” he asked. Then, after a pause — I said nothing to ease the silence — he nodded. “Yeah, of course. May fourth.”
I nodded. “So tell me about turning twenty-one.”
Again, the blank, expressionless face. The pause. Lips mouthing words, as he repeated to himself facts that made no sense. It was all part of the process of helping his mind internalize the memories we had implanted. They needed to be referenced and stored — the key ones, at least; after them, the rest would fall into place — or they would never properly become his own. He would, forever, be an alien to himself.
“I…” He opened his mouth, and then his eyes, very wide. Then, abruptly, the look of confusion vanished from his face entirely. “I never turned twenty-one,” he told me, as matter-of-factly as if we had given him that ourselves. “I was born today.”
And that, as far as the legal department would be concerned, was the moment when 88729-A proved faulty enough to demand replacement by 88729-B. I knew it, and I harbored no particular moral qualms to the contrary. Judges, politicians, and philosophers had settled the question for me — or for Lazarell, if nothing else: for the three days before a personality becomes established, the clones we produce are not people. They are potentialities who may, once their memories either settle or fail to do so, develop into people. But as long as they have no fixed “self” they have no interest in continuance of being. So, for three days, Lazarell has the right to study them, determine if they exhibit aberrant behavior, and terminate and replace them if so.
Cloning a living person is, after all, illegal. If 88729-A were ever allowed to become Michael Alstrom — or, whomever he decided he was — Lazarell would have no recourse but to return his wife’s money and explain that the procedure had failed.
Lazarell returned bodies to life, not money to wives.
I had returned Michael to his room and asked the nurse to provide him with a sedative. Despite his newfound confidence, he remained quite pliant, and put up no protest. Of his revelation in the food court, I said nothing to the nurse, or to anyone else.
I had two days to render a decision. Michael was not displaying the sort of behavior typical to a botched insertion; moreover, I had pride in my work, and my work on Michael’s brain had been perfectly acceptable. A typical abnormal patient displays a sort of dyslexia with his memories, is confused, often violent, and usually cannot form new memories. Never, in fifteen years, had a patient displayed perception of his true condition. Nothing had been said in front of — or even near — Michael to suggest to him the truth.
He would be terminated the moment an executive heard of his condition, which would no doubt become apparent shortly. But I had two days to study him before he needed to die. If I was going to play nursemaid, I might as well get a paper out of it.
I told my wife I wouldn’t be home for dinner, busy at work, and so on. But I wasn’t busy. For the next hour I sat alone in my office and stared blankly at the monitor of my computer. I scrolled through articles as if I were reading them, but I wasn’t. There was no reason to: none of them had any research even remotely related to Michael’s condition. It was unprecedented.
Eventually, I pulled myself away and went to the cafeteria, got myself a tall coffee, downed it, and headed over to Michael’s room. He was still sleeping, of course. The sedative wouldn’t wear off until the next morning. Meanwhile, electrodes ran from a bank of computers on the wall to the receptors still imbedded in his scalp. It was a standard reinforcing procedure which fed and sequenced images — not just visual ones, but the full range of sense — in his sleeping brain. I wondered though. What was he seeing? No system had been developed to decode the data passed from brain to computer back to brain: we simply had faith that the process worked, and the evidence had more than borne that hypothesis out.
It took about five minutes for me to realize what a pathetic figure I cut: hungry, tired, staring hopelessly at the sleeping face of a simple anomaly. Sometimes an infant is born albino. Sometimes snakes are found with two heads. Sometimes an abnormal potentiality says something surprising. And who spends time gasping over it all? Morons and intellectual midgets, for whom freaks contain the last sordid mysteries that might give their lives meaning. Not me.
I turned off the light, closed the door, left Lazarell, and drove home.
Dinner was waiting for me in the oven.
When the phone woke me up the next morning, I felt like I hadn’t slept at all. By the second ring, my eyes were open, though my vision was blurry, and the glowing red numbers of the alarm clock said it was only six. The phone rang for a fourth time.
“You getting that?” Lisa mumbled beside me.
With a sigh, I picked it up. “Hello?”
“Dr. Morgan?” A woman’s voice, but my mind was far too bleary to sort out whose it was.
“Yeah.” I cleared my throat. “Yes, this is Dr. Morgan.”
“This is Ellie. I’m…”
“The new nurse. Yeah, right.”
“I was going to say that I was sorry to have woken you up.” Somehow, her voice didn’t sound very contrite.
“Yeah, me too.” After a brief pause, I yielded. “Well?”
“When I went in to check on patient 88729-A, I noticed that his transfer cables had been decoupled, and, well, the records said that you were the last one to leave last night.”
A longer pause. I blinked my eyes and tried to clear my head. Beside me, Lisa stirred. “Honey, can’t it wait?” Yeah, honey, I was thinking the exact same thing.
I suppose Ellie got tired of hearing me breathe.
“Well, I was calling to ask whether you had unplugged him.”
“What?” I finally asked. My mind had just about caught up with the conversation, and was starting to warn me that something was quite wrong. “No. No, obviously I didn’t unplug him.”
“Okay, but then how…?”
Yeah, thanks, I need you to remind me the story’s far-fetched.
“Maybe a cleaning crew came in and knocked them out. Maybe he rolled over?” But by this point, I was fully awake, and out of bed. Lisa looked at me once, inquiringly, then rolled over and pulled a pillow over her head.
“So I should plug him back in?” Her voice was gratingly polite.
“No,” I told her, finally pulling myself together to speak in my neurosurgeon’s voice. “Didn’t you check his records? He’s on the premium plan. If you tamper with his treatment, it would be an obvious breach of contract. Come on! I know you’re new, but not that new.”
This time, the silence was on her end.
“I’ll be there in half an hour. Don’t touch a thing, and don’t wake him up.”
“So you unplugged them yourself?”
We were alone in his room. Though I had banished Ellie, the shades were pulled wide open, and the bright morning sun made our discussion seem less clandestine than it was. I hoped that Michael suspected nothing, but as our conversation had gone on, I couldn’t help but feel there were secrets hidden inside his head. “Okay.” I rubbed my tired eyes and swallowed. “Why?”
Finally, I got something like a reaction out of him. He jerked his head toward me, startled. “Why?” echoed inside him. “Why?” was precisely what we were told never to ask potentialities, though it was a question they asked incessantly. The metaphysical “why” lay precisely in their gap of “self” and “not-self.”
That one word was enough to get him to stand, and begin pacing. “Why?” he repeated, more to himself than to me. I quickly checked the door — it was locked, as I had left it. He rubbed his hands together. “Dr. Morgan—” he began.
“Call me Richard,” I reminded him. The response was as reflexive as Pavlovian slobber: Lazarell’s crash training courses in counseling had been effective.
“Richard, listen. I just woke up, and, well, there were these wires in my head. I mean, I didn’t remember, I can’t say — are they normal? Everything is, I don’t know, just fuzzy, screwed up. I just hardly remember anything, like the last time I was in a hospital…there weren’t wires then, I don’t think. So why now? And then you ask me, ‘Why?’ Come on, doctor, if you had wires in your head, wouldn’t you…?” He looked at me imploringly, his empty eyes stretched wide open.
“Would I pull them out myself, rather than buzzing a nurse?” That was enough of an answer. Immediately Michael was deflated, and sat back down. “Something more was bothering you, wasn’t it, Michael? You’re a reasonable man — not prone to taking medicine into your own hands, right?”
As Michael stared at me, his eyes lost their vacant glaze and seemed to focus. It was unsettling, unnatural for a potentiality to show such clarity and confidence. “I was having nightmares. Very vivid ones. Then, I woke up, and there were wires running into my head. What is going on here, doctor? Richard?”
I nodded. “You’re confused. You suffered a terrible accident. A truck hit you and caused a lot of damage, especially up here.” I tapped the side of my head. “They sent you here for special treatment.”
He stood again, and clenched his hands into fists. “Why are you lying to me! I can see it in your face, and I know it, inside of me. Something’s not right. I…I was…I feel like I was just born. But not…”
“You suffered a serious concussion. Obviously you are upset, and things don’t feel right, Michael.” At his name, he seemed to flinch, and spun toward me.
“Michael! You keep calling me that. But you might as well call me Howard, or John, or Alan.”
“You answered to Michael when I called you that yesterday,” I reminded him. But he wasn’t listening by then. He was pacing again, his fists white-knuckled and straining at his side.
“Just because you called me that, because you were looking at me. I don’t think that’s my name. Don’t you think I would know if it was my name? That it would mean something to me?”
He paused for a moment. Panic was obviously gripping him, but I was feeling it too. My unique Michael, so different from anything I had seen before, was degenerating into another textbook abnormality. “Does Claire mean anything to you?”
In a breath, he had crossed the room and his hands were on my shoulders. “Claire!” He pulled back and ran his hands over his face. “Yes!” And then, “No!” He spun and kicked the chair. “Yes, she’s in here, in me. She’s beautiful and she’s singing. We’re dancing at a ball. I’m making love to her. No. Michael’s making love to her. Your Michael. Not me. And she’s not my Claire, not my love. You put her in me, with those wires!” He pointed at the cords hanging out of the computer on the west wall.
“You know that’s not true, Michael. If you didn’t love her, you wouldn’t be so angry.”
My words seemed to touch something in him — perhaps I was cut out for counseling after all. His shoulders slowly slumped and his hands unclenched. He let out a sigh and sank back into his chair, defeated.
I couldn’t help but sigh as well. I would terminate him in the evening, unless he seemed likely to normalize within the next day. Whatever had prompted his shocking outburst during the previous day’s lunch was gone, replaced by the paranoid schizophrenic’s rantings. No paper, and probably another round with a new Michael. “I’m going to leave you with Nurse Ellen for a few hours, Michael. She’ll handle some basic therapeutic treatment, and then we’ll meet for lunch.”
He nodded listlessly.
“Well, I’ll see you at lunch then,” I told him, as I stood and opened the door. I glanced over my shoulder to see if he had any answer; he didn’t. Oh well. Maybe next time around he wouldn’t be so petulant.
So my plan for the rest of the day was simple. I would spend the morning looking over a few patients who were in for routine check-ups, then I would take a break and call Lisa to apologize for being home late and for leaving early. Then, to recover from her grumbling, I would grab a coffee, read the paper, check out the crossword. Finally, I’d pick up Michael, determine that he was a bust, and pass him along to be terminated. I’d order up a new body, double check the wiring, draft the paperwork on the failure of 88729-A, go home early, pick up some wine, and smooth things over with Lisa.
Until halfway through talking to my wife, I got another call from Claire Alstrom. “Listen, honey, I’ve got to run. A customer is calling on the other line.” Click. “Yes, Mrs. Alstrom?”
Could she see her husband yet? No, she could not. But everything was going well? Internal assessments were favorable, I explained, but of course no timeframe could be estimated. None? Well, perhaps a week, I assured her. And then, the kicker: “So you’re with him right now?” No. Genius. That’s why I was a goddamn surgeon, not a PR man. That’s why I dealt with operations, not with customers. “But I paid for you to supervise the whole process!”
A sigh, an angry voice, an apology, a threat to talk to my supervisors, and a conciliatory promise later, my break was ruined and I was on my way to see Michael again.
Some days start bad and get better, at least, that’s what they tell you. It certainly never happens to me. When the phone rang that morning, I should’ve picked it up and dropped it on the hook. I should’ve called in sick. A bad day looks bad from start to finish.
Waking up at six was unpleasant. Claire Alstrom’s call was unpleasant. I could’ve cut my losses there, and had Michael sent straight to termination. Instead, I opened the door to his room and found Ellie sprawled on the floor, with Michael sitting next to her, a pen pressed up against her throat.
Bad days only get worse.
“I knew you’d come by sooner or later, Dr. Morgan,” Michael said, without looking up. “But it’s early for lunch, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I told him. “It’s only ten thirty.”
“I thought so, but my sense of time… well, you know how I’ve been feeling.” Did I? There was no trace of the doubt in his voice, no tremor, no wondering at the why of it all.
“Why don’t you put the pen away. Even if you stabbed her with it, we’ve got a pretty good intensive care unit here, and she’d probably be all right.” It was me who shook as I spoke, my voice that cracked.
But he listened, and let the pen fall out of his hand. He looked up. “Like one of those Gordian Knot toys Michael had as a kid,” he said softly. “You know what they are, of course. You might’ve even invented them, just like you invented Michael.”
I sat down in the same chair I’d used earlier that morning. I gestured for him to sit in his, but he gave no reply. “Michael —” I began.
“Don’t call me that.” His voice was now a whisper, but it wasn’t doubt or fear that quieted him. Even I could hear the pain.
“What do you want me to call you?”
He shifted slightly, and pulled a folder out from under himself. In my handwriting, across the front: 88729-A. “You tell me, doctor.”
“Your name is Michael Alstrom.”
“His name is Michael Alstrom!” the man cried, hurling the folder across the room. Sheets of printed papers — the biographical notes Lazarell had prepared for me — and photographs sprayed out. Landing at my feet was one of Michael — many years younger — dressed in a tuxedo. A pretty woman leaned in close beside him. I picked it up.
“Claire?” I asked, even though I knew.
“Why are you doing this?” he pleaded.
“Doing what?” I asked. “Is it so surprising that we would file you under a serial number? We serve many patients, and alphabetical sorting isn’t always the easiest. You had a concussion, and the resultant trauma impaired your memory. We have been working on…”
“You’re going to kill me.” His voice was practically inaudible. The hum of the computers and monitoring devices in the room almost droned him out.
“I can hear it in your voice. And you won’t look at me. You keep calling me Michael because he’s already dead. Or did you forget that his death certificate was in that folder? You’re calling me Michael so that you can kill me and think that I was already dead to begin with.”
“You’re being ridiculous,” I told him. I slowly gathered up the papers scattered near my feet. “I don’t blame you, of course. You wake up, uncertain, alone, in a strange place…”
“Please,” his eyes met mine, “don’t do this to me. Let me at least know why.”
I sighed, and looked everywhere but Michael’s face. The monitor banks all flashed with error messages — apparently Michael had been meddling with them after he knocked Ellie unconscious. She hadn’t moved on the floor, but I could tell she was breathing. Sunlight still streamed in through the windows, onto her, onto him, onto me.
“You answer something for me first, Michael. When we got lunch yesterday, you told me, ‘I was born today.’ Why?”
“I …” He, too, glanced at the window. “I felt like I knew something. There was something inside me, something you hadn’t put there. It was me, and it was new, and I … and it’s gone.”
“I’m sorry,” I told him. “His wife loved him, you know?” I rubbed their picture between my fingers. “Loved him enough. Or too much.” From the documents in my lap, I took out a picture of Claire — a recent one. She smiled in it. I passed the photo to him, and he took it in trembling hands. “You remember her?”
He nodded. “He remembers her. You gave me that.”
“Could you have let her go?”
“He couldn’t have.”
So I nodded. “When I leave the room, I’m going to need to call the orderlies.”
In his eyes, I could see that he understood. He looked back at the woman in his hands.
“Just make sure,” he said, empty, tired, “that he loves her. That he really loves her. Because, otherwise, otherwise, why did I, why am I…”
It always came back to why. I nodded.
Even the general staff at Lazarell is covered under the Employee Policy, but the doctors and the executives had full family plans. In my desk, I still had the paperwork I had signed the first day: the medical waivers, the consent forms. Other places offered life insurance policies, but not Lazarell. When I was sure I had all the papers, I called up accounting, explained what I was sending over, and that I wanted the policies terminated. I expected that I would wind up talking to a boss about it, and, of course, I was right. He explained how it would look — one of Lazarell’s own who rejected reincorporation. I told him I understood. He offered a nice severance package. Lazarell had deep pockets. I accepted.
When I went home that night, 88729-B was sound asleep, plugged into an array of circuits and wires that flashed with the memories of the now twice-dead Michael Alstrom. I tried to convince myself that I had only ended a potentiality, one with no interest in the development of his self.
In the end, all I could do was kiss Lisa, and then apologize, and then explain, and cry, and make love, and go on living the rest of the life I had been given.
Cory found a note on his refrigerator, written in a dead woman’s hand.
The refrigerator was stainless steel, restaurant-grade, as was the stove, and all the kitchen fixtures. He’d redone the whole kitchen when he took up permanent residence in the beach house, and he spent more time here than in any other room in the house. It was his haven, his artist’s workshop, his favorite space. Now he stood, looking at his blurred and ghostly reflection in the polished refrigerator door, staring at the note.
It was written in dark green ink on an irregular scrap of pink-purple handmade paper with pressed flowers embedded. A seagull-shaped magnet held the note to the door. Cory had never seen the magnet before; he didn’t have any magnets or menus or phone numbers attached to the door, preferring his kitchen to be clean and uncluttered.
He touched the paper, read the words. They were lines from the William Carlos Williams poem about plums in the icebox, so sweet, so cold; what Cory’s wife Linda had called the coolest, cruelest poem ever written.
Cory opened the refrigerator, thinking that he had no plums for anyone to eat.
The refrigerator was totally bare, metal shelves gleaming. The six-packs of imported beer he’d bought yesterday, the two bottles of white wine put in to chill, the cheese and olives, the fish and meat, all gone, stolen. All the ingredients for the love-feast he’d planned for Sara, the woman he’d met on the beach last week. Cory had been out walking, picking up seashells and tossing them into the sea, and Sarah had been walking her huge black dog, and they’d started talking. Cory didn’t like the dog, but oh, he liked Sarah.
Cory took the seagull magnet and flung it into the trash. He crumpled the scrap of paper into his fist.
His wife’s handwriting. On hand-made paper, which his wife had loved.
His dead wife. His dead, jealous wife.
Somebody was fucking with him. But who? Two years ago Cory had left everything behind, his whole life in Seattle, and moved to the coast of North Carolina. Now he lived in Kitty Hawk, near the graveyard of the Atlantic, where ships had smashed themselves to splinters for centuries against the outer banks. Cory had left friends, family, and job behind, come to start a new life of peace in early retirement. So who knew him, knew Linda, could fake her handwriting?
The answer was: no one. Which left him with few alternative explanations.
Cory locked his doors and windows, then took the car into town to get more food and wine.
Cory carried bags of groceries in from the dusk, heaping his purchases on the counter. Sara wouldn’t arrive until 8, so he still had plenty of time to prepare a good meal, a seductive meal.
He opened the refrigerator to put his groceries away.
A single pomegranate rested on the top shelf, split open, juice dribbling. The seeds had been scooped out, leaving only a reddish, messy pulp, like the inside of a wound.
“Fuck,” Cory said, and slammed the refrigerator door closed. He shivered, thinking of moss growing on a white icebox; of his wife Linda eating pomegranate seeds on a picnic in Big Sur; of openings to the land of the dead, and how you shouldn’t eat what they fed you there.
“Linda?” he said aloud, feeling like a madman, but compelled to speak. “Are you here?”
No one answered. Outside, a gull cried. Cory took a breath, opened the fridge, and picked up the pomegranate. He went outside onto the beach, the fruit dripping in his hand, and hurled the pomegranate into the sea.
Back inside, Cory began preparing food, slowly and methodically, concentrating on the task at hand. He chopped a lobster for bisque, and began marinating steaks; they wouldn’t be as good, with only two hours to soak, but he’d lost the steaks he’d left marinating in the fridge last night. The rhythms of cooking soothed him. Cooking had been his hobby for a long time, even during his marriage, though that had been rough going; his wife had been allergic to almost everything: shellfish, butter, mushrooms, eggs. She was lactose intolerant, too, and even mild spices gave her stomach trouble. She’d subsisted almost entirely on salads and fresh fruit. She couldn’t even share in Cory’s favorite pastime, so was it any wonder he’d seen other women, sometimes? Like he told her the first time she confronted him: he’d cheated for the meals as much as the sex. But Linda was delicately beautiful, and she’d stayed with him through the hard times when he was in law school, so he’d remained with her despite his growing lack of interest, despite the aloofness and superiority she wore like armor.
He’d stayed with her until she died. Gone missing, officially. But she’d died.
Sara came, and she brought her dog, to Cory’s irritation. The dog padded around his living room, a monstrous black mongrel unleashed, and began to sniff at his furniture as if looking for a place to piss. The room instantly took on the faint odor of briny-wet dog.
“Sara,” Cory said, and kissed her cheek; she smelled of lemons and chill ocean air.
“Thanks for inviting me,” she said, her voice like sea-smoothed stones clicking together. She wore a loose yellow sundress, and Cory thought she looked like a piece of dawn made human. “It’s always nice to meet another year-round resident. The tourists around here are worse than the hurricanes.”
Cory laughed. “Have a seat. I’ll get you a glass of wine.” He went through the swinging door into the kitchen.
There was a note on the refrigerator door, on pale ivory paper, coarse and heavy. Cory leaned forward to read the note, gritting his teeth.
“Along the melancholy shore of Acheron,” it said, in brown ink. That line was from Dante, he thought. Linda had loved Dante. She’d studied literature, the classics, and history, for no reason; just to feed her mind. She’d always enjoyed making Cory feel inadequate, uneducated. Sure, he was a lawyer, but he had no finer sensibilities; or so she always said. His love for gourmet cooking didn’t count, though she’d assured him he’d end up suffering in Dante’s third circle of Hell, the one reserved for gluttons. Cory had spent his days defending bad men in good suits, while she read, studied, refined herself. In their arguments, she would quote philosophers he’d never heard of…God, he got pissed just thinking about it.
He crumpled the note and threw it away, along with magnet that held it to the door, a lump of rough onyx backed by lodestone. This nonsense was meant to rattle him, and he wouldn’t let it. Whether someone was fucking with him, or if this was…something else (his mind skittered away from that prospect), he could deal with it. He’d get a security system installed next week.
He filled two wine glasses, checked the steaks, and went back into the dining room.
Sara was sitting at the table…and so was her dog. It sat in Cory’s chair, in his preferred place at the table, and stared at him with empty, obsidian eyes.
“We’re just making ourselves cozy,” Sara said. She patted the chair next to hers, across from the dog. “I hope you don’t mind Barry.” She nodded toward the dog. “He gets jealous when he can’t sit at the table.”
“Sure, it’s fine,” Cory said, laughing, unconvincingly even to his own ears. “Should I get him some wine, too?”
“He’d like that,” Sara said seriously.
Cory hesitated a moment, until he saw she wasn’t kidding. He put the glasses down and retreated back into the kitchen. He glanced worriedly at the fridge, but there was no note.
“That bitch loves her dog,” he muttered, then laughed. Bitch. Dog. Funny. Or he was shaken enough to think it was funny.
He opened a cabinet to get a bowl for the dog’s wine. His hand dropped from the cabinet door, and he took a step back. His heavy stoneware dishes were gone, replaced by sea-foam-green plates and bowls.
The dishes from the house by the lake, in Washington state, his and Linda’s house. But he’d sold those dishes, just as he’d sold the house and everything in it, after Linda died.
He closed the cabinet and opened another, taking down a cheap plastic bowl. He took that into the dining room, set it before Barry, and half-filled it with the cheaper of the two white wines. “Does monsieur approve?” he asked, in a snooty French accent. Sara didn’t laugh. Barry put his snout into the dish and lapped at the wine.
“Sit down, Cory,” Sara said, patting her chair.
He sat, smiling at her. She really was lovely. Maybe…maybe these were just hallucinations, brought on by repression, guilt; certainly he wasn’t happy about the way things had happened with Linda. And now, pursuing a woman for the first time after Linda’s death, all that nastiness was bubbling up. That had to be it. He could deal with it; get over it; move on.
“Tell me about your wife,” Sara said, leaning toward him.
Cory blinked, his brief sense of peace undone. “Ah. I’m not married.”
“I assumed you weren’t, anymore. But the other day you made a comment, on the beach — your wife didn’t like to swim, you said? She’d sit on the beach, but never go into the water?”
Cory didn’t remember saying that, but he must have; it was true, and how else would Sara have known? “Yes, I was married, for nearly ten years. Her name was Linda. She…disappeared, two summers ago. We were at our house on the lake in Washington state. She went out hiking one day….” He shrugged. “She never came back, and she was never found.”
Sara touched his hand. “Oh, Cory, that’s terrible.”
The dog lapped noisily at the wine.
“Well. I try to cope. I should get the bisque.”
In the kitchen, there was another note;,on red paper, in silver ink. “A strange, vicious beast, with three throats barking, doglike”. That was Dante, too, about Cerberus, the three-headed dog, tormenting the gluttonous in Hell with the ceaseless sound of his howling. The magnet was dog-shaped, a jaunty black Jack Russell terrier.
“Fuck this,” he said. “This is bullshit. I am so over this.” He filled two bowls — sea-foam-green, from the lake house, fuck it, so what? — with lobster bisque, and went into the dining room again. “My specialty,” he said, and set a bowl before Sara.
She pushed the bowl toward the dog. “I’m allergic to lobster. Didn’t I mention? I’ll wait for the main course.” The dog dipped its snout into the bisque. Cory stared at the animal as it fed, filled with a cold sort of horror. The dog lifted its head and stared at him, reddish bisque dripping from its chops.
Cory sat down heavily. “My wife was allergic to lobster, too.”
“Oh? It could kill me,” Sara said, brightly. “Though it might take a while for me to die.”
Cory nodded, hardly listening. Two years before he’d chopped up some lobster meat, very fine, and put it into a tomato sauce he was making. He’d seasoned the sauce with basil, oregano, and garlic, until he could barely taste the lobster…and Linda had a cold at the time. She didn’t taste the lobster at all, and she ate a whole plate of pasta and red sauce, one of the few non-salad meals she could stomach.
After she’d cleaned her plate, the allergic reaction had started, her throat swelling closed, and she’d suffocated there on the dining room floor. Cory hadn’t meant to kill her, only to make her sick, get back at her for some cruel thing she’d said, punish her with a night of puking. He had no idea her allergy was so severe; how could he have known?
But she’d died, while he watched. It took almost ten minutes for her to stop choking and clawing at her throat. They were in the middle of nowhere; he couldn’t have gotten her to a hospital in time anyway, not that he’d tried. And after, not willing to deal with the questions, the hassle, the accusations, he cleaned out their old white refrigerator and put Linda’s body into it, and wrapped the fridge tightly with chains. Then he wrestled the refrigerator out to the little pier on a hand-truck, the one he used to haul firewood. He shoved the fridge into the murky lake, into the green-black depths where he’d gone swimming a thousand times without ever managing to touch the bottom. He watched the water until the ripples disappeared
The next day he called in the missing persons report, invented the story about Linda going hiking alone. He went with the search parties, and talked to the police, and no one thought it strange that he had only a few coolers and a mini-fridge at the house. It was a vacation house, after all; why would he need a full-sized, coffin-sized fridge?
“I’d like more wine, Cory,” Sara said, and the dog growled, as if in agreement.
Cory nodded and stumbled into the kitchen..
His stainless-steel refrigerator was gone. A white fridge stood in its place; at least, it had been white, once upon a time. Now it was mud-streaked, moss-covered, and the chains wound around it were flecked with rust. Dirty water oozed from the bottom of the door, and it stank of rotting meat and lake-bottom. Cory gagged.
This time there was no paper, no magnet; the words were spray-painted, black, on the refrigerator door: “Through me find entrance into the city of suffering”.
Dante again. From the inscription above the gates of Hell.
Written right above “All hope abandon, you who enter here”.
The kitchen door creaked open behind him, and Cory turned. Sara stood there, Barry at her right hand, growling. And on Sara’s left, another woman stood, her hair moss, her face river-mud, her dress a sodden tatter. All three gazed at him.
The three began to howl, and it was not doglike at all, really; but that was the closest comparison Cory could think of, too, so perhaps Dante was not so far wrong. He covered his ears and whimpered.
Then the howling stopped.
“Open the door,” one of them said. Was it Sara, or the other one, the drowned woman?
“Open the door and enter,” one of them said, and the chains fell away from the refrigerator, startling Cory. He lowered his hands and looked back at the refrigerator door. Now the inscriptions read “Through me the way that winds among the lost.”
The three began howling again, as one. And because he could not go back, Cory reached for the refrigerator door and pulled it open, even knowing as he did what must lay beyond.