Some of my earlier writing exercises. I may revive this at some point.
It started out small.
I was at a restaurant, waiting for my chicken or whatever to show up. The place was one of those modern joints built into a turn-of-the-century building: wood and steel, high-efficiency lightbulbs and exposed brick. Seated near the window, I was absent-mindedly rubbing my fingers along the mortar holding the wall together. I felt the smallest of snaps, like breaking the arm off a porcelain ballerina, and suddenly I was rolling a piece of mortar between my fingers.
It was small, y'know? It wasn’t until I got home to my cramped little efficiency that I realized I was still carrying this piece of mortar. I put it down on my little Ikea desk and stared at it for a while before I went to bed.
For the rest of the week, I’d get up, go to work, come home and watch TV or whatever. But every time I’d go to bed, I’d look at this little piece of mortar, and I wouldn’t know why.
When I went back to the restaurant like three weeks later or so, I by chance got seated at the same table. And waiting for my pasta or whatever, my hands found the spot where the mortar used to be. And there was fresh mortar.
And then it hit me: I stole a part of the building.
The worst ideas are the ones where you can’t tell if it’s the worst idea or the best idea. But that night, the mortar on my desk was joined by a loose piece of wood from the windowsill.
I was eating at that restaurant three times a week now. I’d just take a little of whatever was falling apart. Bits of brick, mortar, wood, linoleum. A fixture was loose in the bathroom. A bolt was loose on a bar stool.
Pretty soon I had a duffel bag full of detritus in my apartment. I wasn’t sleeping. Eight hours of staring at this bag, then right back out the door to catch breakfast and a hunk of loose marble from the bartop. And every time I thought I took something too big – a doorknob, or a light fixture – it would just get replaced. I was a bacterium, really, eating bits and pieces, and this building was healing itself.
The leg of a chair broke off. That Thursday morning it was in the trash. That Thursday night it was in my overflowing apartment. My apartment looked like a construction site, but I knew where everything belonged. I had long since memorized the restaurant. But I finally realized why the junk wouldn’t let me sleep; it was homeless.
Soon I was too. Turns out, eating out all the time gets really expensive. I was wheeling crates of building around, looking for a home. What I found was an abandoned lot with a 1000ft spool of stiff steel wire.
I built a wireframe. I knew where everything belonged. Everything. Light fixtures hanging on wire, brick and wood tied to the frame. Chairs, and bits of tables. Empty liquor bottles stocking an empty bar.
It took two days to flesh out the wireframe. And now I can see it – the full, original restaurant, here, 70 blocks away from where it was born. Waiting for me to finish. My Sistene Chapel. My Ark.
If you replace every part of a boat, is it the same boat?
If I steal this building, won’t mine be the real one?
"I'm not sure I understand."
Perry smiles and takes a deep breath. "I know I have forever to explain this to you, Quentin," he says, "but I'd rather not take it."
Quentin chuckles as the pair look out on the fractured landscape, great glaciers of obsidian glass undulating as would the pistons of a great engine. "I don't mean to be daft, just having a bit of a hard time with the concept. Where is this place?" Perry shakes his head. "You're still using the wrong adverbs, chap. You are not in a place, you are at a time. Or an untime, rather."
"Well how did I get here? Or, now, I suppose?"
"I thought it would be obvious. You've time travelled."
"Yes, you said that eariler, and I maintain that the thought is just as ridiculous as when I first heard it. I am not a scientist --"
"Well that much is apparent," interrupts Percy.
"Yes well, glibness aside, that merely proves my point. If I am having such a hard time fathoming what has taken place, how can I possibly have the wherewithal to travel through time itself?"
"That's a rather good point," says Percy, thoughtfully tapping his pipe against the heel of his shoe. "perhaps you hit your head on the way in and have forgotten you were a brilliant astrophysicist. Or instead got incredibly drunk and fell into a passing wormhole."
Quentin pretends to contemplate this for a moment. "Untime?" he continues.
"Yes. Well you know time travel is impossible, of course."
"But you said--"
"And this is when impossible things go."
Quentin lets the grammar of that sentence wash over him as a flock of sparrows bursts fully formed from a rotted apple in the distance.
A star explodes in my brain and I'm awake. In my nostrils, the smell of steel; in my mouth, the taste of copper. White-hot light sears my eyes; my ears scream as blood rushes through. My joints snap like splintered wood, fingers crackling towards the sky, as wet coughs escape my dry throat.
I'm alive. Fucking Christ, where am I? Cold metal on my back, dry plastic on my legs... I'm naked. Fucking autopsy table? I touch my chest, but there's no incision, no stitches. They didn't cut me open.
What happened? I was at a bar... Sadie's... Meeting someone? The fucking deal... I remember dim lights, damp tables, shitty beer and that cocksuck Guillerme with his yellow eyes and shit-eating grin.
That motherfucker. He poisoned me. Deadly nightshade. "You cross us, you wish you dead, eh?" Now I know what he meant. Nightshade induces paralysis, slows the metabolism, stops the heart. A mask like unto death.
Right. Step one: pants. Step two: beer. Step three: find Guillerme and stab him in the dick.
I try to move and fail, falling off the table and landing in a bloody, naked heap. Every part of me screams out in pain, and under my curses and gasps I hear a sound like wet leather ripping. My insides shift and I grab my side. It's wet with blood, and my head lurches with nausea like the fucking SS goosestepped on my crotch.
For some reason, I think of the day I got my driver's license.
Delirious from the pain, I wrap the plastic sheet around me like a towel. I'm leaving bloody handprints everywhere, my gut drooling like a St. Bernard. I find a clipboard attached to the bottom of the table - my last name, blood type, a bunch of fucking acronyms, and what I'm lookin for: OR5. I grab something steel and sharp looking from a caddy and bleed my way into the hallway.
There's arrows and maps on the wall, but I can't make sense of it. I'm losing blood fast, and with it, my balance and my patience. I stumble into what I guess is a break room to the sound of a girl screaming and a mug of coffee breaking. I point whatever it is I'm carrying and bark, "OR Five! Now!"
And she's nodding and walking, and I'm grabbing onto her and bleeding.
And the operating theatre is treated to a crazed, naked, blood-soaked lunatic shoulder-checking his way into surgery. As I point at the lump of meat in the surgeon's hands, I realize it's time to update my plan.
"Give that back!"
Step zero: Retrieve my liver. I'll need it for step two.
My mother says, "Close your eyes." She waits a moment, then adds, "Push it to the top of your mouth, and exhale slowly."
She says, "Let your mind relax."
I try. I drown out the clinking of glasses, taking of orders. The couple two tables to the right just got engaged. The guy at the bar buying a round just got promoted.
Drown them out.
Another moment, and she says, "Now tell me."
I concentrate, moving the lump of food to the left, to the right. Images zoom past, a memory zoetrope, herbal rolodex, and...
I tell her, "Salt, obviously. Black pepper. Cumin, oregano, and vinegar." She says, "And?"
I inhale slightly, a few more images popping up. "Onions and garlic? No, it's milder than that. Shallots. And scallion."
"Um... Something lemony. Not sweet enough to be the juice, not flowery enough to be lemongrass. Lemon oil?"
I move the food a millimeter backwards. My tastebuds pick up on the bitterness. "Lemon peel."
I hear her thinking; the sound of an inked nib slicing checkmarks into a sheet of parchment. She asks me, "How?"
I've exhausted this forkful, so I swallow it and procure another. "Concentrate," she says, in that nagging authoritative tone. I move small pockets of air back and forth through my nostrils, trying to discern everything that happened to every ingredient, every thought of the chef. The way my mother talks about it, you'd think you could tell a person's life—past, present, and future—through taste alone. Something mystical.
It finally hits. The slight scent of smoke. "Faintest hint of caramelization. He cut the peel, flexed it to release the oil, and fried it with the shallots and scallions." A moment later, I add, "In grapeseed oil."
She says nothing for a while, so I open my eyes, and ask, "Can I enjoy my meal now?"
She smiles and says, "Not yet. But you're getting closer. Now dig in."
I was fifteen when I died.
She came to me, radiant gossamer beauty, and gave me a choice. And because I was afraid, I said no. She didn't say anything, but Her disappointment killed me as I watched Her smile, and fade to nothingness, leaving me alone in the wood-brown living room of my parent's house.
I didn't know it then, but that's when I died.
I soon saw the others on the news. Champions, they said. Righting wrongs, striving for good. I shit you not—one of them actually pulled a cat out of a gaddamn tree. And as the years went on, sixteen, seventeen, I admit, I became jealous. Jealous of the attention they received, the spotlight I walked away from.
I was nineteen. I didn't know it then, but that's when I met my wife, Virginia, blond pigtails and green plaid skirt bouncing to the pop stand. Of course, it'd be two years till we sat next to each other in the lecture hall at university that she'd even know I existed. It'd be a year after that, when I comforted her after that asshole Eric dumped her for Kathy Ferguson, that she'd start to have feelings for me. It'd be another year till after graduation, when we'd sit on the hood of my beat up '75 Camaro, when we'd consider a life together. All the while, feeling hollow and unfulfilled, useless. I learned how to fake a good enough smile, and—God bless her—Ginny never questioned why I'd leave the room when the Champions were on the 6 o'clock news.
In another year, when I was twenty-four, the Forty Year War would break out. The Champions were on the news again, but broken, bloodied. Beaten again and again as Malevolence spread. Month after month, Ginny's belly grew under an advancing cloud of fear. Year after year, the Champions— those that remained—fought to keep our family safe. Year after year, fewer Champions, more Malevolence, and Ginny still never knew how close she had come to seeing me in the papers. Instead of fear, I felt regret. The Champions were losing, and y'know, you wonder, "Would I have made a difference? Just one more?" Regret turned to shame pretty quickly. Ginny would worry and ask, and blame herself, and I couldn't even lift a finger to comfort her.
When the last Champion was shown this morning, limp body broken over the rubble in what was left of Rotterdam, searching for more blood to leak, and the world's nations grew silent to hear the words of Malevolence, I was in the living room. That same damn living room I'd inherited from my parents, chambering a .38 round. I knew then, finally, at sixty-four, that I had indeed died when I was fifteen. I decided it was time to make that feeling a reality. I was so far gone I couldn't even hear Ginny screaming for me to stop as I jammed the barrel deeper under my chin, finger slipping on the trigger as the tears fell hard and fast. I couldn't hear her as I pulled the trigger.
I couldn't hear the click. Or the bang, or the sound of bone fragments raining down on the polyester sofa. I couldn't feel the bullet pierce my skull, or the recoil yank my arms down.
Come to think of it, I couldn't feel the gun in my hand any more. I could only feel a warmth that I had only known some fifty-nine years before. She came back to me, standing exactly where She first stood. Poor Ginny must've been kickin' her jaw it'dve dropped so far. Standing there, She gave me the same choice now. This arthritic, defeated, sixty-four year old shell, She gives the same choice. Become an instrument of good, of light. Become strong. Be what this world needs.
What the fuck do you think I said?