Friday, May 21, 2010


In submission to the May Greater Friday Challenge, "The Land Before Zip Codes." Inspiration came too late for me to work up what I would write to change science fiction history, so we're left with Mr. Scribbler's crummy piece.

UPDATE July 2010: A reworked version of this story was bought and published in
Stupefying Stories, Vol. 1 "It Came from the Slushpile"! You can purchase the short story collection from Amazon.

I glanced up as I typed the salutation line, then looked up again, idly drawing my eyes over the papier-mâchéd surface of the wall as the metal heads of the typewriter struck ribbon and paper.

There were seventy-nine of them, posted there on the wall before me. I had tacked up the first in defiance of its criticism, determined that within a week I should be able to face it triumphant and call it a liar. Instead, it was joined by more like it: first a dozen, then two, then more. Each was tacked up in the same haphazard orderliness that governed my small city apartment, random at a glance but organized in discrete sections according to publishing magazine and extent of criticism. I saw them as a challenge, a symbol of the adversity through which I would persevere, a source of resolve and occasional self-pity that would evolve into the motivating energy of righteous anger, assuring myself that one day I would clear them all away and in their place post an acceptance letter, the first of many.

But at the moment they still hung on the wall, puffing out like ruffled feathers on the neck of a strutting pigeon, each letter mated to a failed story. And this one would fail, too, I thought. So is the lot fate has given me.

The thought came unbidden, and hung in the air like a tossed bedsheet, the sudden snap of its movement nearly causing me to gasp out loud, and then it softly drifted down and blanketed my shoulders, head, and even the typewriter with weightless oppression. The ribbon continued to jump steadily with each strike of a key, and my hand moved with fluid and practiced ease to slide the spool back after each line, but the hopelessness could no longer be denied, and it marched quickly in time with the drumbeat of the typewriter directly into the waiting arms of despair; then the emotions spilled out onto the page without reservation.

I concluded the cover letter with morbid finality, and next I knew I found myself in my coat and locking the door to my shabby apartment, my manuscript still inside by the desk and the letter still scrolled into the typewriter. Pocketing my keys, I headed quickly down the narrow streets of South Bronx.

I needn’t cross so far as to be over the water, I reasoned, just to the tower, at which the height was sufficient. Soon enough, though not too soon for my legs to have grown tired and my breathing to have become audible, I came within sight of my destination: the Hell Gate Bridge. I walked along the edge, glancing over the side as I went to continually gauge the distance to the ground below. Heights did not bother me like the water.

The tower rose up before me, and soon its brooding shadow blotted out the warm spring sun. I steadied myself against the smooth concrete while gazing over the grounds below and the river further beyond. The subdued coolness of the tower’s shadow seemed to heighten the intensity of the green of the grass and trees, the baby blue of the sky, the deep red of the bridge, and even the sickening brown of the water. I put the toes of my shoes over the edge and willed myself to spread my arms and fly, but my hands stayed by my side at the end of limp, unresponsive limbs. The resolve I had built up pushed feebly against the deeper, unconscious drive of self-preservation, with as much effectiveness as a palsied elder pressing against a boulder. I sighed and sat down, dangling my feet over the edge.

An hour or so later, a train brought me back into my thoughts, its immense passage causing my teeth to rattle and ears to ache. I walked the lengthening shadow of the tower and headed back to my apartment.

In the hall, I hardly noticed the familiar tapping sound until I stood in front of the door. It sounded odd, distant and muffled as it was by walls and wood, rather than directly before my face as usual, accompanied by the smell of electricity and ink. Confused, I looked to the metal numbers on the door. 714. I did not have the wrong door. Yet the sound of typing continued steadily from within the apartment. Is this how my neighbors perceive me?

I quietly slipped my key into the slot, gritting my teeth as the lock turned with an audible click. I held my breath. The typing continued unabated on the other side of the door. I heaved open the door, letting it slam into the wall as I burst into my apartment to confront the trespassing typist.

A young man with short, curly brown hair sat at my desk. His fingers continued to fly across the keyboard, heedless of my interruption as he peered through rectangled reading glasses that rested on his large triangular nose. I gaped at him. He was wearing a pair of my slacks and a wrinkled shirt from my closet. My clothes hung loosely about his thin frame.

He reached the end of a page and pulled it out of the typewriter, laying it facedown on a surprisingly thick pile on the desk. He glanced over to me as he reached for a blank page and began spooling it into the typewriter. “Couldn’t go through with it, huh?” he said. “Can’t say I’m surprised.”

“Cripes, man!” I stared at him, dumbfounded. “What on earth do you think you’re—”

The young man shushed me, holding up a finger. “Don’t make me lose my place. This is the last page.” He then continued his work at the typewriter, not giving me a second glance.

Feeling somewhat awkward standing at the open door, ignored by this complete stranger tapping away on my typewriter in my apartment as I stood with my knees bent and arms spread wide like a football player preparing for the play, I sheepishly shifted myself to close the door and then looked again on the young man, trying to decide whether or not I should call for the police.

“Ah, there. Finished it.” The young man pulled the sheet from the typewriter and added it to the stack on the desk. He turned and smiled at me, leaning the chair back onto two legs while resting his arms on the back of his head. “Congratulations.”

“Congratulations? What in—congratulations for what?”

“For your first successfully published story, which also happens to be the greatest piece of science fiction in history.”

I stared at him. “What are you going on about?”

The young man let the chair slam back forward onto all four legs, clapping his hands against his thighs. “This calls for a toast. Hey, grandfather, you got those drinks ready yet?”

I jumped a full foot off the floor in surprise as an older man entered the room from the kitchen. His white, curly hair was pulled back in a shoulder-length pony-tail. He too wore clothes from my closet, though my brown tweed suit flapped loosely across his frame. He smiled genially, as if perfectly understanding of my reacting to his entrance as if he were the bogeyman, and handed me a glass of Scotch. He pulled out the near chair at my dining room table, apparently meaning it for me because he then seated himself at the other side and sipped from his own glass as he gazed out the window.

I stared back and forth between the two intruders. “Who—who are you people?”

The young man smiled. “I guess the most honest response is that we’re travelers, though seeing as how we’ve raided your closet, pantry, and liquor cabinet, I suppose it’d also be fair to call us Bandits.” He stood. Picking up the manila envelope in which I had placed my recently completed story, he pulled out the manuscript and tossed it into the wastebasket.

I cried out in protest.

“Oh, it was rubbish, anyway, and you know it, as your cover letter so clearly proves.” The young man picked up the papers he had typed and put them in the envelope instead. “Anyway, I hope you won’t be miffed by our presumption upon your living space. In my opinion, it’s all a fair exchange for the history that will be made in your name.”

He sealed the envelope and set it on the desk, then returned to the wastebasket. Reaching in his pocket, he brought out a matchbook. He struck a match.

Feeling protective over my creation, even if one that had nearly caused me to toss myself from Hell Gate Bridge, I rushed to set my drink down on the table and stop the young man, but it was too late; by the time I reached him, he had already dropped the burning match.

My face grew hot. “Now, wait a minute! What right do you have to—what do you think you are doing? That hasn’t even been submitted yet!”

“And it won’t be,” said the old man at the table, still staring out the window. His voice was gravelly and quiet. He took another sip from his glass.

I felt the heat as my manuscript took to flame. I dove for the wastebasket.

The young man held me back. “No, no, friend, you’ll burn yourself. Don’t worry about this flaming heap. Instead, we’ll be submitting your pièce de résistance, which I just typed up for you. It’ll forever change science fiction.”

“That…you just…typed?” My body began to shake, most like as a physical expression of the complete and utter confusion I was experiencing psychologically. “What…what do you…what is…?”

The young man patted me gently on the arm as the flames licked up the last of the contents of the wastebasket. He steered me over to the table and sat me down, pushing the drink back into my hand.

I pushed it aside and looked over to my addressed and stamped envelope in which the young man had put his papers. “Do you mean to say that in that envelope is a science fiction story that will finally be accepted?”

“Not only accepted, but pivotal in your writing career,” said the old man.

I stared at him, incredulous.

“Oh, sure,” said the younger man, “it’s a bit odd in its unconventional first-person point of view, and it’s ridiculously dull, mostly being the record of a conversation in a failed writer’s apartment, but the ideas that it expresses will forever alter the course of history.”

“The course of history?” I repeated in stupefaction. “How in the world can you say that?”

“When you’ve lived to be my age,” said the old man, “you’ve seen a lot of history. Some of it twice. History repeats itself, you know, but doubly so when you run a loop.”

I looked back over at the younger man. “And you expect me to believe this history-shaking piece of fiction was just written by you the few hours that I was gone?”

“Well, no. I memorized it beforehand, so really all I had to do was type it out just now.” He laughed at my dumbfounded expression. “Careful, at this rate your face will freeze like that.”

I simply shook my head.

“Here, let’s see if I can’t explain.” He walked back over to the desk and dragged the chair up to the table, then sat backwards on top of it, straddling his legs as if on a horse, his elbows leaning on the back of the chair. He helped himself to the glass of Scotch I had thus far neglected, and exhaled with satisfaction.

“I picked up a science fiction anthology as a child that had your piece in it,” he said. “I found the premise fascinating, so I never forgot about it. Later, when it became more of a big deal, I was already familiar with it. Now I know what you’re about to say,” he continued, when I started to speak up. “If I read the story as a child, doesn’t that preclude its being published now by you, but it doesn’t, because it hasn’t been published or read by me yet. Won’t be for another couple of decades.”

I blinked at him. “Are you saying that you are from the future?”

“See? That’s the mind for the fantastic that made you famous. You’re not as stupid as your baffled looks would imply.” He grinned at me.

I frowned. “I don’t—this is some sort of a scam.”

“No, no! Here, let me show you.” The young man emptied his glass down his throat and leaped up to run over to the desk. He pulled two blank sheets of paper and a pair pens, then returned to hand me a set.

“Write anything. Anything at all! Make sure it’s got some length to it, not something simple with half a dozen words or anything. I’ll be over at the desk facing the other way.”

I watched him sit down at the desk and begin to write. I considered for a moment, then wrote down. Seventy-nine rejection letters in mated pairs with my stories; so robbed of my dignity, why should I not be robbed in my apartment by lunatics, too? I fear they took my sanity while I was out.

As I finished scrawling the note, the young man spoke up from across the room. “Finished? OK, let me read it aloud to you.” Then, looking at his sheet, he spoke what I had written verbatim.

I stared at him. “I, uh, think I need that drink now.”

The young man nodded. “Grandfather? Nobody makes them like you do,” he said with a wink, “and I’m afraid I stole our esteemed host’s drink. In addition to his sanity, that is.” He grinned, obviously pleased with himself.

The older man nodded and raised himself up from the table. I guessed him to be at least in his seventies, though he looked healthy for his age. There was an obvious resemblance between the two. It did not take the old man long to return with another drink, nor for me to drain it and require another, which he also politely got for me.

“How did you do that?” I asked the younger man, after I had taken a gulp of my refilled drink.

“It’s no parlor trick,” the young man said, returning to the table. “I only knew what you were going to write because I had read it thirty-eight years from now in the story you will publish this year.”

“How is this possible?”

“OK, roughly fifty years from today, mankind will begin to make breakthroughs in time travel, largely through the efforts of a company financed by grandfather, here.”

The old man nodded. “Expensive investment, but a lifetime of an unbelievably consistent ability to invest in startup companies that become Fortune 500s will make me wealthy enough to undertake it. When it finally came down to developing time travel, the biggest hurdle to overcome was finding a means to specify the targets of travel. Eventually a solution will be reached involving DNA signatures and nanotechnology—”

“—tiny robots—” inserted the young man.

“—that will allow specific individuals to travel through time. Unfortunately, the process will prove unstable, because the nanorobots will replicate outside the timeline and outside our control, pervading humanity in an instant, and then simultaneously firing indiscriminate of destination. The end result? A population of six and half billion scattered throughout history.”

I tried to grapple through the fog of my shock and confusion to understand this revelation. “And you two get sent back together to 1960?”

The old man shrugs. “As I said, the program was designed specific to an individual’s DNA. It’s not surprising that we’d both end up here together. As to the year, well, that’s a result of random chance.”

“And then you broke into my apartment? Why?”

“Traveling through space and traveling through time is equivalent.” The old man ran a finger slowly across the surface of the table. “You can’t travel through one without passing through the other. In fact, the first successful time travels were actually attempts at teleportation.”

“OK, say all of this is true. What does this have to do with me successfully publishing a story?” I asked.

“This event is the inspiration for your story; it tells about two men from the future visiting you in your apartment,” said the young man. “Which means your story will predict the fallout of humanity’s timeline half a century before it occurs.”

“How is it my story if you wrote it?”

“I didn’t write it,” said the young man, rolling his eyes. “I just memorized it and typed it out for you.”

I stared at him blankly. He continued, “It ends up being published, but mostly ignored for the first couple of decades, not really garnering any attention until after some events take place which it predicts with uncanny accuracy, such as the giant leap of mankind in walking on the moon, the assassination of the President of the United States in the same year as a prominent black pastor, and the clay army in China. After that, some people begin to wonder to themselves, ‘What if this story isn’t fiction after all?’ The idea particularly grips sci fi geeks and nerds on the internet.”

“The int—”

The old man coughed. “Er, think of it as a telephone system using television sets.”

I took another swig of my drink and tried to picture that concept, but it failed to make any sense to me.

Meanwhile, the young man had become excited with recounting the historical impact of the story, his eyes alight and a big smile on his face. “The idea of modern humanity scattered across timeline gives a strange amount of sense to a lot of the fantastic mysteries of history, you see. Cave paintings of airplanes, that human footprint inside a dinosaur print, as well as fabled personalities like Merlin and the Greek gods. The speculation regarding the theory will begin to grow and take shape, eventually gripping a significant portion of the population.”

Flipping the piece of paper on which I had written the note, the young man drew a straight line across its entire length. He then scribbled darkly over both ends, leaving only a small segment in the very middle. “You see, the greatest portion of the population will be instantly killed: sent too far back or forward in the timeline, they’ll land in a period of history during which life on earth is unsustainable—if they land on earth at all. The remainder will also be disadvantaged, probably landing in hostile localities or situations resulting in their deaths.” He bisected the small segment and put a big X through the right side. “Half of those will end up in the post-apocalyptic world that will necessarily follow the sudden timeline disappearance of all humanity in 2012.”

Then, with obvious relish, he slowly circled the remaining inch of the line. “But a tiny fraction of the population will land in the historical timeline. And of those, the ones that survive to leave a historical footprint will largely be those who prepared for the event. From that realization, those who believed your story to be a truth stranger than fiction began a frenzied search of history, hoping to find a clue their future self will leave in the past so that their past self can prepare for their future destination.”

The young man sat back, obviously at ease as he prattled on. “I know one guy in our user group who was convinced he would be Genghis Khan. And I’m rather certain myself that that short Italian I met was Napolean—how else do you explain France’s biggest general turning up from some nowhere island? And everybody was hoping that they would give birth to twins in the year before the event, so that they could claim to be the parents of Romulus and Remus.”

I found myself losing focus on the young man’s words, whether from disbelief or disinterest in such posturing I couldn’t say. Outside the sky was beginning to fade into pinks and purples, while the sun’s reflection burned brightly across the rooftops. Writing normally kept me up late into the night, so my drowsiness couldn’t be on account of the hour. I sniffed and shook my head, then finished off my drink and brought my attention back to the young man’s words.

“Of course, all of these historical speculation shenanigans are poorly received by society at large; most of them regarded us as lunatics on par with UFO abductees. Our community’s avid interest in preparing the skills we expect to need in the past ended up getting us labeled as a cult. Then Catholic and Protestant clergy became particularly hostile after someone speculated idly that in all the infinite possibilities for destination combined with the unique DNA of a child in the womb could feasibly end up with at least one babe transported back into a virgin’s womb.” He snorted. “He was mostly trolling for trouble at the outset, but it certainly was a terrible blow for our already-weak PR.”

I was losing track. Certainly I need to understand all of this, I thought groggily, if I am to write about it. I pointed across the table at the young man, resting elbow on the table and propping up my head with my hand. “And you were one of these individuals? You knew you’d be sent back to my apartment today?”

The young man winked at me. “Of course.”

“And you’re happy with this?”

He pursed his lips. “Oh, sure, it would have been cool to watch the building of the pyramids or captain a pirate ship in the Caribbean. But in the end, I’m rather content with my assigned role in history. After all, it’s pretty cool to be the inspiration of the story that will alert humanity to their fate, which makes me nearly as instrumental as you, who wrote the story. Certainly everyone who will have learned of it—who are truly the only people of importance, in the end of things—will know of me, so I’ve made my mark on history, without even having to leave the era of modern convenience. Plus, it’s rather relieving to know that I’ll lead a long, successful life.”

The young man smiled at the old man. I frowned, trying to understand. My mind seemed to be growing duller by the minute. I rubbed at my eyes. “But, how does the story end up being published? I’m a failed writer, I can’t see why they’d pick up this nonsense and after rejecting all of my other submissions.”

The old man cleared his throat. “There’s some mystery surrounding its publication. It’s a known fact that you are extremely hydrophobic, yes?”

I nodded, but furrowed my brow. Long word, and I felt as if I suddenly had to grope in the dark for its meaning. Was I truly…whatever he said?

“How do you bathe?” the old man asked.

“Only standing water is bad,” I replied, blinking. “I just take showers and never fill the tub.”

The old man seemed to expect this answer. “So, when the hydrophobic writer is found drowned in his bath tub on Thursday, and his manuscript postmarked on the following Monday, there’s some strangeness afoot. Sure, the police rule it a suicide based on the cover letter in the typewriter, and people will later say some soft-hearted officer posted the manuscript, but you have to wonder, don’t you? Just like the rest of us will do: ‘What if it’s true?’ So, a certain amount of pity, combined with the calculated hope that the mysterious death will create a buzz of interest in the work, will lead to its acceptance by the editor, it being received posthumously and all.”

Somewhere in the back of my mind I screamed a warning to myself, but darkness and confusion drowned it out. Had I had too much to drink? Something was wrong. The old man looked grimly across the table, while I faintly felt more than saw the young man stand and haul me out of my chair. I looked blearily at the old man, whom I could no longer tell apart from the young man, with the world gone all fuzzy like it had, and I heard him saying, as from a distance, “…will haunt us for the rest of our life, but history must be made, you understand.”

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

One does not paint lilies

One does not paint lilies, or one their beauty erases,
Smothered away into stiffness, a splendor conveyed
With which even King Solomon was never arrayed;
Yet we take the beauty of walls and put them on faces.
A certain pride in appearance, no critique I impart:
Errant hairs aligned or clipped, teeth whitened, skin scrubbed and smoothed,
Form-fitting threads; likewise, on occasion, how marvelous
The effects of shadowed eyes and ruby lips in thumping heart,
Twist-turned curls turning heads.

Yet still, in the wont of men, we exceed limits and sense
Piling on the foundation of beauty with powders and creams,
Superfluous weight cracking where should be laid frames and beams;
For no house needs two foundations, aside from mere pretense.
Yet press we on, architects of our own master plan,
And stultify life's vibrancy with death, solid and white
From mercury and lead; what means to beautify buries
Our image six lengths beneath illusion desired by man,
And poisons and blinds instead.

The social spotlight shines none near as bright as actor's venue.
Why veil the spots where e'en the Sun yielded to desire and kissed?
Quite more thrilling true blush than the rouge that cause it to be missed,
To bring away memory of soft cheek than residue.
Allow me a rag, some oil, to gently remove the veneer
And unmask concealed beauty that my heart has been longing.
I beg you, I plead: Shed the layers, look into my eyes
And in their reflection see, as I daub away your tears,
There is no need.