In the Temple of Zetoxis

The first question that must be addressed by anyone setting out to discuss the life and philosophy of Zetoxis of Delos, is whether or not he ever really lived. Over the centuries, scholars have debated the likelihood of his existence, with many of them coming down on one side of the debate before switching to the other and then sometimes back again. The search for Zetoxis is a difficult enterprise because the sources for both the man and his philosophy are fragmentary, contradictory, and, almost without exception, of dubious provenance.

The most reliable evidence of his existence can perhaps be found in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laërtius. Diogenes did not write a biography of Zetoxis himself, but he does mention him in three places. The first of these is in his entry on Pythagoras where he says, “It was at this time that Zetoxis of Delos was exiled from Croton, for, following a disagreement with Pythagoras about the nature of infinity, he declared, ‘I eat your mother, I eat your father, I eat your grandmother,’ and so on, while tossing one bean after another into his mouth, a mouth that was known throughout Italy for its riot of crooked teeth.” The second reference can be found in the essay on Empedocles where he writes, “It was Zetoxis who convinced Empedocles that he was a divine being, and that to prove it he must throw himself into the fires of Mount Etna.” Finally, Zetoxis is also briefly mentioned in the biography of Plato: “One night, while Zetoxis and Alcibiades wandered drunkenly through the streets of Athens, looking for trouble, they spied Plato, whereupon Alcibiades shouted ‘Look! It’s the perfect form of an ass!’ and Zetoxis pelted him with some rotten cabbages that had been dumped in the road.” 

The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers is a dubious source for various reasons, principal among them being the fact that the book was written in the third century AD, hundreds of years after the events described in it. Also, Diogenes is known for favoring interesting stories over the truth, and students of the pre-Socratics have questioned the validity of these excerpts based on internal inconsistencies. They ask, for example, how Zetoxis could have been a presence in the lives of both Pythagoras and Plato when the two men were born 140 years apart. This disparity led some Victorian scholars to posit the two-Zetoxis theory, although fashionable modern opinion rejects the Platonic Zetoxis out of hand and holds that there was, at most, only one. A few historians doubt the existence of even the earlier pre-Socratic Zetoxis, however, claiming that he is an entirely fictional literary character, used by ancient philosophers to represent opposition and hostility. Regardless of whether one or more of the references to Zetoxis by Diogenes are false, and despite his origins in Delos, it is clear that if he existed he was influenced by the mystical forms of philosophy typical of the Greeks in Southern Italy and embodied by men such as Pythagoras and Empedocles. This is confirmed by the fact that he is thought to have sometimes strayed from the purely philosophical into divination and prophecy.

Heraclitus of Ephesus, also known as “Heraclitus The Obscure,” may have referred to Zetoxis in one of his aphorisms where he wrote, “Consider the Delian, the wise man and the fool reside in the same fluctuating body.” Unfortunately, there is no way to be certain that the Delian being referred to by Heraclitus is Zetoxis, although he is considered the most likely candidate by those who have studied the matter. The question may be moot, however, as this quotation is widely considered to be spurious and is generally omitted from published editions of the sayings of Heraclitus.

In their extant writings neither Plato nor Aristotle ever mention Zetoxis, either to endorse or refute him, but he was at various times claimed by the Skeptics, the Stoics, the Cynics, and the Epicureans. He was also, at other times, condemned by all of them. In the early Christian era his books were frequently burned as blasphemous, although many of the anchorites of Asia Minor were said to have walled themselves into their caves with nothing but Christian scripture and copies of Zetoxis’s ethical and metaphysical writings. In a footnote to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon claims that Simon Stylites read The Meditations of Zetoxis on the Infinite Soul while sitting atop his column in Syria. According to Gibbon, Simon enjoyed the book so much that he decided it must be sinful, and he threw it from his perch in disgust. No scholar since Gibbon’s time has been able to verify his source for this story. 

Zetoxis is believed to have been particularly interested in time, and Saint Augustine quoted him as saying, “Well you may ask what time is, for it is a river of perplexity. A fish swims in water, but does not know it is water, so we swim in time. A worm burrows in the soil, but does not know it is soil, so we burrow in time. The wise man rises above both water and soil, and breaths the air.” (This quotation appears in some of the earliest printed editions of The Confessions of Saint Augustine, but it is now generally considered to be an eighth century interpolation and is included in modern editions of the Confessions as an endnote, or not at all.)

Because none of his books survive intact, almost all that we know of Zetoxis’s thought comes from quotations by other ancient writers, some of whom are hostile to him and may have deliberately misrepresented his work. He appears to have been interested in natural philosophy, ethics, and metaphysics, but because of the fragmentary nature of his existing writing, it’s hard to find any sort of organizing principle in his thought. The following are a collection of some of his more comprehensible aphorisms: 

Thales said that water is the universal element from which all matter is composed. Others have said fire, air, or nous. But they are all wrong. The fundamental element is time.

A man is a disturbance of water and soil, presumptuous mud that walks as if it had somewhere to go.

Tantalus was cursed to forever hunger, and never be filled. He was cursed to forever thirst, and never be quenched. In other words, he was cursed to the common fate of mankind.

Of all the things men desire, the strangest is fame. Why seek to have a life in the minds of others? A life of your own should be enough. It is an empty pursuit, and time will swallow all regardless of the statues we carve and the words we write. And yet, I am compelled to admit that I hope my railing against fame will raise me to it.

You cannot travel from there to here without also travelling from then till now. The difference is that you can choose to travel from there to here, but are compelled to travel from then till now. Time is the eternal tyrant.

The art of accurate divination is easy: foretell disaster.

*

In 1953, a palimpsest, long lost amid the jumble of old records at the monastery of Saint-Jean-le-Berger in Provence, was discovered to contain what was believed to be one of Zetoxis’s lost works. Raoul Dupont, A professor of medieval history at a minor college in Narbonne, was combing through the monastery’s documents when he came across the small book which at first glance appeared to simply contain a pedestrian list of the monastery’s housekeeping records. He soon noticed, however, that beneath the vellum’s two hundred year old layer of writing in Occitan, a dim layer of much older writing in Latin could still be read. At the top of the first page the partially effaced older writing said, “The Meditations of Zetoxis on the Infinite Soul.”

Dupont was well versed in the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and he immediately understood the significance of his discovery. In his hands he held an important work of Greek thought, a Latin translation of a book that had been utterly lost for two thousand years. He spent months carefully going over the manuscript with all the methods available at the time. He scrutinized the text with a magnifying glass, exposed it do different kinds of light, and even treated the vellum with ammonium bisulfate. In the end, he was able to read and transcribe almost ninety percent of the text that hid beneath the newer writing superimposed upon it. When he had finished, he took his work to a colleague in the philosophy department and showed him what he had discovered.

The colleague began reading the text with intense eagerness. Here are the first six lines he read:

He who sees all creatures in the self
And the self in all creatures, knows no fear.
He who sees all creatures in the self
And the self in all creatures, knows no grief.
How can there be painful delusions
For one who sees this universal oneness?

The look of excitement on the face of Dupont’s friend vanished as he read and was replaced with confusion and then a sort of gloom. The gloom deepened as the man continued and Dupont’s heart fell as it became clearer that something had gone wrong. After a few minutes of reading the friend looked up at Dupont with amused sympathy on his face, and said, “I think you’ve been had.” 

“What do you mean?”

“This isn’t Zetoxis. All of this stuff, except for the title, appears to be from the Upanishads.”

“What?”

“The ancient Hindu scriptures.”

“I know what the Upanishads are!”

“Well, that’s what it is, with all the explicitly Hindu words, such as ‘atman’ removed and replaced with more European sounding analogs. It seems that somebody has also tweaked it in small ways, perhaps to make it more acceptable to Christians. Someone has pranked you.”

“But that’s not possible! Why would anyone do this?”

By reading the manuscript side by side with a copy of the Upanishads, however, Dupont was able to determine that his friend had been correct. Some idiot of a medieval monk had scribbled the title of Zetoxis’s great lost work on a manuscript and then copied fragments from the Upanishads beneath it. It made no sense. Dupont felt humiliated. As he’d been transcribing the text he had noticed that it sounded a lot like eastern philosophy, but he had never studied Hinduism or read any of its major texts and he placed the thought aside as a connection that could be explored later. 

Although it hadn’t been written by Zetoxis, the palimpsest was still an important discovery because it proved that the Upanishads had been known in Europe much earlier than had been previously thought. The document soon faded into obscurity however, when historians, philosophers, and religious scholars simply refused to believe in its authenticity. When Dupont died, only one person in the world was still interested in the Berger Palimpsest, his granddaughter Mireille. 

*

The watchman waved Mireille onto the site, which was closed for the holiday. As she got out of her car, he asked, “What are you doing here? It’s Christmas, you should be with someone you love!”

“I’m here with you, aren’t I?”

He laughed, “I wish! If I were a young man it would be no joke, I’m telling you.”

“Who says it’s a joke now?” She smiled. The flirtatious banter between the thirty-nine-year-old woman and the seventy-one-year-old man was a standing joke that they both enjoyed.

“You shouldn’t come here so often. This place, it drives some people crazy. Coming here on Christmas Day, that’s not a good sign.”

“You’re here on Christmas.”

“But I don’t want to be! That’s an important difference. Not wanting to be here is a sign of good sense.”

“If you want, you can go home and I’ll make sure nobody blows the place up for a few hours.”

“You joke, but there are people who would do just that.”

“I know it.”

“I’ll let you through the gate to the temple. If the rock is safe with anyone, it’s safe with you.”

“Thank you. It means a lot to me. I come here on Christmas because it gives me some time alone with the rock, and that makes me feel close to my grandfather.”

The watchman unlocked the gate and it swung open without a squeak. Mireille thanked him and continued up the paved path to the site, the Temple of Zetoxis. She stood just outside the ruin for a moment and looked, yet again, for some kind of significance in it’s layout. No new inspiration came to her. 

The temple had been built when the Greeks controlled southern Italy, and it had stood for eight hundred years before it was deliberately demolished during the Dark Ages. It’s connection with the pagan past had been used as an excuse for the destruction, but the locals living in the nearby village had also been motivated by a desire to steal the stones it had been made of. Religious violence frequently has secondary motives. Many of the older homes in the area still incorporated incongruous chunks of marble that had been torn from the temple and then used repeatedly as stone houses were built and then toppled down again over the long centuries.

The foundation of the temple was visible, as were the pedestals where its columns had once rested. In the center of the structure a huge granite stone still stood where workmen had placed it well over two thousand years earlier. It was this monolith that Mireille had come to see. 

After his discovery of the Berger Palimpsest, Mireille’s grandfather had become obsessed with Zetoxis. Over the years he convinced himself that the palimpsest wasn’t just proof that some monk had put the wrong title to an ancient manuscript all those hundreds of years ago; he thought that Zetoxis had done it himself, that he had traveled to India long before Alexander the Great made the trip, and had acquainted himself with Eastern religion before returning to the west. He had been alone in this belief. Even Mireille, who loved her Grandfather completely, could not bring herself to accept these ideas, but she did pick up his obsession with the philosopher, and when she was only eight years old she would sit next to him in his smoky book-lined study and read ancient texts, in French at first, but soon in Ancient Greek and Latin as well.

She went on to become a professor of Greek literature, and she continued to nurse her obsession with Zetoxis. Early in her career she wrote several papers on the long forgotten philosopher, all of which were ignored.Nobody cared. 

Things had changed dramatically when a farmer working his field in southwestern Italy discovered the rock. Rather than exciting him, the farmer had only been annoyed by his discovery. Italy is crusted with a thick layer of history, and over the centuries priceless artifacts have grown across the topography like barnacles on a sluggish whale. After his plow struck the stone (which had been buried by the silt brought by a series of floods in the 1300s) the farmer tried to dig it up so he could get rid of it and go back to growing wheat, but as he dug he quickly realized that it was simply too big and he could never move it unless he smashed it to pieces first. He was tempted to do so, but couldn’t quite bring himself to commit the crime. So he simply avoided the immovable artifact, letting his sea of wheat grow around the island of stone. 

He kept the rock a secret for six years, dreading the swarm of preservationists, bureaucrats, and archeologists that its discovery must inevitably bring. But keeping a secret is hard, and eventually he told two or three people about it, then they each told two or three people, who also told two or three people, and the secret leaked out at an exponential rate from there. Soon, all that he had dreaded had come to pass. It turned out the stone wasn’t merely one of the many minor archaeological discoveries that are made in Italy on almost a daily basis; it was unique and important. Teams of archaeologists swarmed his land, a portion of which became property of the state, while the stone and the remains of the temple were painstakingly excavated over the next couple years before becoming a tourist attraction.

The monolith was excavated first. It was a huge piece of charcoal-black granite that had been shaped and then lugged from a quarry hundreds of miles away. It was a seven foot tall cube and each side of the cube bore the same inscription in Ancient Greek: 

These are the words of Zetoxis of Delos. I have written, and whispered, and screamed many words, but these are the words that matter most. After a lifetime of travel, gathering the philosophy of all the ancients from Egypt to Babylon, after learning from and arguing with the greatest thinkers of my age and every age, and after listening to the wisdom of nature itself, I have sent this stone to bear my words to the men of the future. I wish to share my knowledge with them, and to tell them that the purpose of existence is . . .

And there the Ancient Greek text ended and was replaced by a series of mysterious symbols. There were triangles, circles, and crescent moons. There were crosses and squiggly lines. There were shapes that almost appeared to represent men or animals, and there were shapes out of a mad expressionist’s nightmares. Some of these symbols appeared only once, while others were repeated several times. 

The Rock of Zetoxis captured the public imagination. People were intrigued at the way the rock seemed to be addressed to them, “the men of the future.” It felt eerie to receive so direct a message from a man who had lived so long ago. Also, the haunting hubris of Shelly’s Ozymandias emanated from the stone. The rock was clearly the product of a tremendous ego, and the fact that it had been relegated to oblivion gave it a sweet flavor of irony. And finally, what really caught people’s attention was the strange series of symbols. It was clear to everyone that this ancient philosopher had written them a message in code, and puzzle enthusiasts from all over the world rushed to crack it.

Mireille had been brought to the site before the message was revealed to the public. Once the stone’s connection to Zetoxis had been discovered, calling upon the knowledge of the world’s greatest (and only) expert on the man just made sense. Mireille had been electrified by the discovery, and she had relished the opportunity to have the first crack at breaking the code. She had spent hours staring at the string of symbols,and traced many of them to their origins in Egyptian hieroglyphics and various lost ancient languages (although many of the symbols appeared to be entirely unique). She had searched for clues among the scraps of the writings of Zetoxis that had survived the passage of centuries, and she developed one theory after another only to have to reject each idea in turn. She failed to crack the code.

Then the writing on the stone was shared with the public, and a large chunk of that public was fascinated by it. Every newspaper, magazine, and news website ran a story or two and for a solid month everyone on Earth seemed to be talking about the stone and its mysterious message. After the initial furor died down, a core of enthusiasts dedicated themselves to cracking the code. Websites and social media pages sprang up as places where obsessed nerds could share their ideas and list every possible meaning of each individual symbol. It was said that the code-breakers at the CIA and the NSA would occasionally divert computing power from national security issues to try to solve the code using theories proposed by important government officials. Two tech billionaires made a public bet as to which of them would figure out the message out first, and then they dumped resources commensurate with their egos into the project. Cults were born, mad street prophets screamed their interpretations to passers by, and students of ancient philosophy spent about fifteen minutes every semester having a professor drone to them about the message.

Some people hoped that the mysterious passage contained information on how to live a long life. Maybe there was a reason that Zetoxis had lived from the time of Pythagorous through the time of Plato. The stone itself was believed to have healing power, and people came to the Temple of Zetoxis in the hope of being healed of everything from athlete’s foot to Alzheimer’s. 

Mireille wrote a book about the rock and it became a bestseller. Aspiring code-breakers from around the world viewed it as their bible, and would refer to it in almost spiritual terms. Mireille was surprised to watch her book get translated into 27 languages, and gratified by the pile of money she earned from it, but what she had really wanted was to provide the spark necessary for an answer. She hoped that her expertise in Ancient Greek, philosophy, history, and Zetoxis himself might provide some mathematical genius with the necessary tools to solve the mystery. She ached to find an answer. But years had passed and it still hadn’t happened. The riddle had become a permanent throbbing pain in her psyche, a spot that had been rubbed raw with agitation. 

And now Mireille was back, staring at the rock again, wondering. She whispered, “Help me figure this out, grandpa, if you can hear me, help me figure this out.” But there was no answer to her prayer, and the rock sat as it had for over 2,000 years. Immovable. Mocking. 

*

Although the old man was still conscious, his great mind refusing to shut itself down and accept the mystery of death, the room already carried a hint of decay. Philo was relieved to find his friend alive and he sat on the floor next to the straw mat where the aged philosopher rested. Zetoxis seemed to be asleep, though he was not. His eyes were closed and his face was relaxed with an almost-smile giving a slight curve to his pale lips. His beard and hair were both full and white, and his leathery face looked like it belonged to a man who was taking his last breath before being sucked under an infinite drift of snow. The brown eyes opened.

“I think you look a little better today,” Philo said, lying.

There was a dry rasp like the sound of a breeze blowing through dead leaves. Philo interpreted this as an attempt at a laugh. “I’ll be dead before the day is over,” Zetoxis said in a dry and shaky voice.

“Nonsense!”

“You’re right. That is nonsense. I’ll be dead within the hour.”

Philo didn’t like talking about his friend’s imminent death, so he hurried on to another topic. “I have just returned from your temple. It’s construction is complete, and the rock is just as you asked.”

“Please don’t call it my temple. I’m not a god. Proof of my mortality will not be long in coming.”

“You may not be a god, but your words are divine. Building this temple, this monument to your work, has been the great task of my life.”

“And I thank you for it,” Zetoxis said as he placed his cold and bony hand on his friend’s forearm. “I have always been a difficult man, a tempest wrapped in skin and hair, and I thank you for all you’ve done for me.” This speech seemed to drain him, and the gnarled fingers slipped from the forearm.

“I just wish you would let me embellish the temple a bit more. It should have fine statuary! It should have gold leaf! The pediment should include dramatic reliefs depicting scenes from the Trojan War!”

“No. I wouldn’t have you waste your money on such trifles.”

“I’m a rich man. It would be my pleasure.”

“I know it would be your pleasure, but it would be a foolish pleasure all the same. The central stone is all that matters. Anything delicate will be smashed, anything valuable would be stolen, but the rock, the rock is a ship built to sail through time, to bear my message to a distant generation living in a world we cannot even imagine.”

“All your words have been carved, to a great depth, in the stone. Only the final secret sentence remains. Are you ready to share it? To share the purpose of existence?”

“Yes, here it is,” Zetoxis said as he rummaged under his blanket and retrieved a sheet of parchment. 

Philo reached for it eagerly and snatched it from the withered hand. He scrutinized the jumble of symbols and then, in a burst of exasperation, asked, “But what does it mean?”

“It is meaningless: a puzzle without a solution, a riddle without an answer. Some will enjoy trying to decipher it, and others will be driven mad by the impossible search for meaning.”

Philo scowled at Zetoxis for a moment and then he burst out laughing. A moment later his laughter was joined by the sound of a breeze blowing through dead leaves.

In the Temple of Zetoxis

End of the Lines

“I have failed, and will never succeed,” he thought as a sense of relief began to glow inside him. “Nobody will ever really read anything I write, so I’m done writing.” Noah had been writing for over 30 years, but as he hiked through the leafless winterized scrub oak in the hills near his home, he realized it was over. 

It had all begun with poetry when he was a high school freshman. He’d gotten a D in that class, and it had been a well earned D. He hadn’t done his homework; he hadn’t studied for a single test, and after one chapter of A Separate Peace he had realized that the novel assigned to the class by Mrs. Hollister simply wasn’t for him, and he wouldn’t be reading it. Instead, he read lots of poetry in his free time, along with history books and novels by writers ranging from Louis L’Amour to Henry James. As a reader, he had always been a ravenous omnivore, devouring everything except what was assigned to him by his teachers.

He wrote a poem for that English class, a comic, self-deprecating poem. As his dog, a friendly German shepherd, sniffed a matted patch of rust-brown leaves in the middle of the trail, Noah tried to remember the words of the poem, but they wouldn’t come. He also tried to remember why he had read it to the class. Do freshman English teachers in mediocre suburban high schools make their students write poems and read them to the class? It was just cruel enough to be plausible. He knew that he had read one, although now the only word he could remember from it was, “beast,” maybe, “smelly beast.” 

The poem had gone over surprisingly well. In fact, an attractive Italian exchange student with big brown eyes of astounding softness and depth had asked, in her charming accent, if she could have a copy of it. He gave her a copy, his only copy, on the spot. He now suspected that she must have liked him, but in the moment he’d thought, “Huh, I guess this poem is pretty good.” He hadn’t realized it at the time, but this poem was to be the greatest triumph of his literary career. Attractive Italian girls with bottomless brown eyes hadn’t asked him for a copy of anything he had written since.

He continued writing throughout high school. He wrote lots of poetry, long journal entries, short stories, and comic sketches. He performed some of his sketches with friends in his drama classes. During his junior year, a girl with Down syndrome asked him to write a scene for her (his first and only commission) and after she corrected the spelling errors in his manuscript, she had performed it to polite applause. He’d taken a creative writing class his senior year, and submitted a story and a poem to the school’s literary magazine. The story had been rejected, but the poem, another work of supposedly comic self-deprecation, had been published and maybe read by a half dozen of his classmates.

In college he began his first novel, but he abandoned it after fifty pages. Then he started a second novel, but abandoned it even quicker. In fact, the past two decades of his life were a junkyard of abandoned books. He submitted stories to his college literary journal, and they were all rejected, but as a sort of cosmic consolation prize he got some poetry in. Twenty five years later thoughts of his five page T.S. Eliot ripoff still had the power to inflict a throb of shame.

He wrote one book per year while he was in law school, which may help explain why he was in “the top 75th percentile” of his graduating class (the politest way to describe the fact that he had narrowly missed graduating in the bottom quarter). The first of these books had been a 325 page comic novel set in a fictional high school exactly like the one he had attended; the only difference was its name. The school was populated with the friends of his teenage years wearing only the thinnest of disguises. The love interest, an intelligent, amusing, beautiful blond who played tennis and the cello and was slightly taller than the protagonist, was clearly Noah’s high school girlfriend with added layers of selfishness and whimsicality. It was a romantic comedy about a young man who falls for the daughter of a retired CIA agent who had been responsible for every right wing coup in Latin America through the sixties and seventies. The father uses his dirty tricks to get his daughter to drop the hero, but when she starts to date someone even worse, father and hero join forces to get rid of her new boyfriend.

Noah knew that this novel, The Colonel’s Daughter, wasn’t great, but he was proud of it. He thought the story idea was a good one, and out of the book’s thirty chapters at least two worked. He asked friends and family to read it, but when he pressed them for their opinions later, the response was a lot eye shifting and suspiciously vague praise. Clearly, nobody had made it all the way to page 325 of The Colonel’s Daughter. Since he hadn’t had any illusions about the quality of the novel, Noah wasn’t upset by this.

He went to law school at U.C. Hastings, an institution located in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. It was a great neighborhood to get a cheap and delicious banh mi sandwich, buy a used book in a foreign language, or be stabbed while trying to sell heroin. As he walked to school on his first day, Noah saw a man squatting on the sidewalk, clearly trying to empty his bowels while crowds of people passed by. The homeless man was placidly reading the newspaper like some dad in a nostalgic film about a happy family in the fifties. The neighborhood was a rich source of material, so Noah’s second novel was about a law student who drops out of school to avoid an awkward conversation with his wife and then becomes homeless in the Tenderloin. It only took a couple months to pound out the 135 page first draft of a novella that wouldn’t ever have a title, or any readers. Noah didn’t bother showing this one to friends and family because he knew it was bad.

His third novel was about a young man from a well-to-do family in San Francisco who is forced to attend a terrible college in rural Wyoming. The book was nothing but stitched together chunks of three abandoned novels, but despite the Frankenstein origins, Noah was proud of the result. Evelyn Waugh had used similar methods to put A Handful of Dust together, and Raymond Chandler had stitched his way to two of the greatest crime novels of all time. Again, Noah shared his work with friends and family, and again received a lot of evasion. But for the first time he actually believed in something he had written, and he tried to get it published.

The attempt at getting it published consisted of purchasing a copy of The Writer’s Market, combing it’s pages for likely agents and publishers, and then sending them whatever piece of the book they asked for, along with a self addressed stamped envelope they could use to send a rejection in reply. Over the next few months, the mail in Noah’s mailbox, which until then had been nothing but bills, junk, and copies of The New Yorker that would likely never be read, was spiced up with a liberal dash of self addressed stamped envelopes bearing bad news.

Next he wrote a mystery set in a small town in the Utah desert, then a comedy about a young man who gets a job at a bogus diet pill company, then a children’s novel called Quoth the Sandpiper about a small bird who solves crimes, then a crime novel set in Mexico, then a children’s novel about a couple girls who save their dad from a witch, and finally a novel called The Unpublishables, about a man living in a world populated almost entirely by unpublished novelists. Finally, he spent a year writing short science fiction stories with a philosophical bent, despite the fact that his knowledge of both science and philosophy was as shallow as his success as a writer. 

A strange thing happens with failure and rejection. At first, each rejection is a slap. It hurts. But over time individual rejections lose their sting. The sharp occasional stabs dissolve into a pervasive and ever present dull gray numbness. Throbs of disappointment are lost in a general ache. Every single one of the forty-two rejections he had received for his first novel had been painful, but each time he had received an emailed “nope” for his more recent science fiction stories, he hadn’t felt a thing. 

Now, in one burst of thought, Noah accepted his failure, and immediately felt better. The ache simply disappeared. He was surprised by this, but as he considered the matter further, he realized that he shouldn’t be. He’d always found a sort of joy in admitting that he was wrong about something and giving up a position that had become untenable. Sometimes, when he argued with people he would see them dig their heels in as they realized they were wrong, fortifying their weak arguments, even self-evidently wrong arguments, with anger and bombast. But he liked being proven wrong because it meant that he could stop arguing. It meant he had learned something.

When people change their views on important issues they are frequently lambasted as back-peddlers and wafflers, and no doubt many changes of opinion are based on nothing but political expedience. But Noah believed that waffling should be seen, in general, as a good thing. If you no longer have the ability to change your opinion, then your mind has narrowed to complete closure. You have ceased to be a reasoning being and have devolved into a robot. To change your mind is the essence of being human.

There is a pain in holding a position in which you have lost faith, and letting go of the position relieves you of the pain. The worst part is the moment right before you let go of your mistake, and the best is the moment after. He had just let go of an enormous mistake that had been dragging him down for three decades, and he felt wonderful.

As he thought about this, the trail led him out of the thicket of winter-dead scrub oak and into a meadow strewn with large limestone boulders where the green grass of spring was just begging to poke through the matted yellow grass of winter. On his right he could see his hometown spread out in the valley below. It hummed quietly. On his left he saw the mountain steeply sloping up towards the sky. At that moment, a gray blanket of cloud slipped from the sun and in an instant the meadow was flooded with warmth and a light that made the limestone gleam.

Noah couldn’t help but laugh (he’d always been a quick laugh) at the corny symbolism. It was the sort of thing that only a terrible writer would have committed to the page. But he really had stepped out of the forest, and the meadow really had been flooded by warm light, in the moment he had finally let go of the idea that he was a writer.

He was filled with a new energy and began to jog. He had to get home quickly. The hike had given him an idea for a story, and he needed to get it on paper while it was fresh in his mind.

End of the Lines

What Desi Meant

“Excuse me, young man, but I can’t help noticing that you have been repeatedly, and disconsolately, reading that note in your hand for the past forty-five minutes.”

Rory glanced at the person who had just spoken to him. He was an old man with a long, white, and pointed beard. His pale blue eyes radiated kindly wrinkles and he was wearing a bowler hat. The hat, together with his archaically Victorian suit, would have marked him out as a hipster if he hadn’t been so old. “I’ve actually been ‘disconsolately’ reading this note for two hours.”

“Ah, I’ve only been here for forty-five minutes myself. You’ll excuse my mistake.” The two were sitting at Rory’s neighborhood bar with one stool between them. It was dim and quiet, and except for a couple whispering to each other at a table on the opposite side of the room, they were the only customers.

“Forgiven.” Rory looked back at the note, but he could no longer make out individual letters. The words blurred before his eyes. He didn’t need to see them anymore anyway; the note wasn’t long and in the past two hours he had committed it to memory.

“It’s bad news I take it.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry. I hope you don’t mind me butting in like this, but it’s been distressing me to see how unhappy you are.”

“Sorry to bring you down.”

“Oh! I don’t mean it like that! My concern is entirely for you; I assure you! Do you mind if I scootle a bit closer? I feel like I’m forced to practically shout to be heard across the tremendous distance between us.”

“Sure, do what you want.”

“Thank you,” the old man said as he took the seat next to Rory, “I know that this might appear to be terribly presumptuous of me to ask, but, would you like to tell me about your problems? About that dreadful note of yours?”

“Why?”

“Because I might be able to help you.”

“How?”

“You might feel better if you unburden yourself, for one thing, and for another . . . well, there might be other ways I could help. We’ll see.”

“There’s not much to say. I got home from work and found this note on my kitchen table. It’s from my girlfriend. She’s packed up her stuff and left. I can’t understand the note though. I don’t know what I did, where she’s gone, or if it’s possible that I might get her back.”

“The note doesn’t clarify things?”

“Not really.”

“Ah, words tend to tease us into voids of confusion.”

“Yeah.”

“I often wonder why God would even have bothered with confounding the language of man at the Tower of Babel. Even when we ostensibly speak the same language we still manage to misunderstand one another with shocking regularity.”

“That’s the truth. Sometimes it feels like Desi takes everything I say the wrong way.”

“Desi is your girlfriend?”

“Was. Or maybe is. I don’t know. Yeah.”

“This is an old problem. Herodotus tells a rather tragically amusing story of this kind of confusion. Have you read Herodotus?”

“No.”

“Well, there once was a man named Croesus. . .”

“The famously rich guy.”

“Very rich indeed. Croesus was the king of Lydia, a kingdom that existed long ago in territory that is now part of Turkey. He was tempted to go to war with his equally rich neighbor, Cyrus, the ruler of Persia, so he sent messengers to Delphi to ask the oracle there if he should attack. The oracle told him that if he attacked Persia, a great empire would fall. Croesus was excited at the news, and he went to war against Cyrus, certain that he would crush the Persians. Cyrus fought back, quickly destroyed the Lydian army, and took Croesus captive. You see, when the oracle said “a great empire will fall” she was talking about the Lydian empire, but Croesus, proud and arrogant as he was, interpreted the message in the way that a man such as him was bound to. Our language is full of dangerous ambiguity, and all of us are in the same boat that Croesus was. We take our texts and we fit them into the frame of our preconceptions. We can hardly do otherwise.”

“Yeah.”

“You know, people have dreamed of creating a perfect method of communication where misunderstandings would be impossible and issues in the sciences and philosophy could be quickly resolved by the pure logic of language. This would never work, of course, because humans are machines for creating confusion. We would take that perfect language and twist it in all the usual ways. Every person would evolve his own version of it. Do you ever pause to think about the fact that you don’t speak the same language as any other person.”

“I speak English. And a bit of Spanish.”

The old man chuckled. “Of course you do. But you speak your English, and it’s not the same as anyone else’s. You didn’t learn your English in school, or at least not much of it; you learned it in life. The first time you heard each word it carried with it a certain tone, a certain shade of meaning. You have incorporated these shades into your language, and you have also invented some of your own. The meanings of the words in your vocabulary are subtly different, and sometimes not so subtly different, from the meanings of the exact same words in everyone else’s vocabulary.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’ll give you an example. Think about the word ‘war’ for a moment. What does it mean? You don’t need to tell me the definition, a definition is only part of a word’s meaning anyway. But think about that word. What does it mean in a literal sense, and also, how does it make you feel? Will you take a second to think about it?”

“Okay. Sure.”

They were quiet for a moment, and Rory forced himself to think about war. Then the old man spoke again. “Now, if I asked you the definition of war, you would probably say something like, ‘War is an armed conflict between nations or between groups within a nation.’ If I asked anybody, they would give me a similar definition. But would they really mean the same thing? Have you ever been in combat?”

“No.”

“Did you ever serve in the military?”

“No.”

“Have you ever been a civilian in a country that is an active battleground?”

“No.”

“Do you imagine, then, that ‘war’ means the same to you as it does to someone who has saved his comrade’s life, or accidentally dropped a bomb on a school full of children? Someone who has seen his friend step on a landmine? Someone who has wandered through a field of bodies looking for a son or daughter?”

“Of course not.”

“On the surface everyone has the same definition, but some people are unfortunate enough to understand war on a deeper level, although, even on this deeper level it isn’t the same. There are as many meanings of a word as there are people who know the word. I’ve chosen a particularly powerful example, but it’s the same across the language.”

“I never thought of that before.”

“It’s even a little worse than that, because every word in your vocabulary is connected with every other word. If I asked you to write a single page essay explaining what you understand “love” to mean, you would doubtless do it by using other words ranging from “duty” and “consideration” to “affection” and “lust.” Each of these words must have its own definition. Essentially, each word you use is built on a mountain of other words, in an infinite regression of definitions. And, worse still, all these definitions are shifting all the time within yourself. Not only is there no unity in language between people, there is no stability in language inside your own mind.”

“So, you’re saying that understanding this note is going to be impossible.”

“Under normal circumstances, yes, it would be impossible, but these are not normal circumstances. I am here to help. I know it’s intensely personal, and I’m a stranger, but would you mind if I take a look at your note?”

Rory didn’t see any harm in it, so he slid the note across the bar. The old man picked it up and read:

Dear Rory, 

We have gotten to a place in our relationship where it’s time for a change. I hope you know I love you, but if dawn isn’t on the way, then it’s going to stay night forever, and I don’t like living in the dark. We’ve never had an airport moment, so I’m not sure what can be done. I’m just a little feathered thing that has decided to fly back to the nest. I can’t talk to you right now, so my phone is going to be off. I hope you know how I feel about you.

Desi

“My goodness!” the old man said, “I can see how this note would leave you confused!”

“So, you don’t understand it either?”

“No. Although, clearly all is not right in your Garden of Eden. She writes even more cryptically than I had anticipated. Only poetry, philosophy, or insanity can do so much damage to the plain meaning of a sentence.”

“She writes poems.”

“Unfortunate. That’s the worst of the three.”

“Well, thanks anyway.”

“Now, hold on young man. All is not lost. There still might be something that I can do for you.”

“What?”

“I have created a sort of device that might help interpret this letter.”

“You’re an inventor?”

“I’m a type of inventor, I guess you could say. Although, members of my specific trade are generally known as ‘fabricational wizards.’”

“You’re a wizard?” Rory didn’t believe him, but he didn’t have the energy to add a doubting tone to his voice.

“A fabricational wizard. I can’t cast spells, make potions, or shoot blasts of plasma from my staff to incinerate my enemies. What I can do is fabricate magical objects.”

“Oh.”

“And I have created one particular magical object that may be of service to you right now.” As he said this he pulled a leather bound book from the canvas satchel that was hanging from the chair next to him and he put it on the bar. The cover said, The Universal-Personal Dictionary.

“Huh.”

“You’re not demonstrating the appropriate level of awe.”

“I’m sorry. It’s just, I don’t want to sound rude, but I don’t believe you.”

“No. I suppose you wouldn’t. Here,” the old man said as he handed a silver coin to Rory, “touch the mountain on this coin with the tip of your index finger.”

Rory stared at the coin in the palm of his hand for a moment before touching the image of the mountain, just to humor the old man. In an instant he vanished from the bar in the United States and then rematerialized on what appeared to be the top of a mountain. It was nighttime wherever the mountain was, and in the moonlight the ocean of white peaks that surrounded him looked like waves frozen in a violent tumult. Wherever he was, it was cold, and he noticed that he was starting to get light-headed as well, probably from a lack of oxygen. The crusty snow creaked ominously beneath his feet. He tapped the coin again and immediately rematerialized in the bar.

“How was your trip?” The old man asked as his eyes twinkled with the joy of the mischievous.

It took Rory a moment to collect himself, and then he said, “cold.”

The wizard chuckled, “I should think so.”

“Where was I?”

“The Himalayas. One of the shorter peaks that people don’t generally bother to climb.”

“So, what can this dictionary of yours do for me?”

“That’s the spirit! There’s a small pouch in the back of the book, all you have to do is tuck your note into the pouch and the dictionary will do the rest. There is a link between the woman and her writing, and my book will tap right into Desi’s essence, her memories, the events that shaped the words in her own personal language. The note will then be translated and explained in language that can be easily understood by the person holding the dictionary.”

In the minute that had passed since his trip to the Himalayas, Rory had already slipped back into his skeptical frame of mind, and he tucked the piece of paper into the pouch with more doubt than faith. Once Desi’s note was in place he opened the book to a blank page.

“Just wait a moment,” the wizard said. “It takes a few seconds.” And then, just as promised, words began to appear across the page as if written by an invisible hand. Rory was surprised for a moment, but quickly readjusted himself to the reality of magic and began to read.

Dear Rory (That’s you), 

We have gotten to a place in our relationship where it’s time for a change (things have staled and she’s thinking about trading you in for an upgrade). I hope you know I love you, but if dawn isn’t on the way, then it’s going to stay night forever, and I don’t like living in the dark. (She is not sure about the viability of your love for each other. You need to bring some new light and life to the relationship, or it’s going to be over for good). We’ve never had an airport moment, so I’m not sure what can be done (she likes romantic comedies, and she particularly likes the bit in those movies where the scorned lover runs to the airport and publicly humiliates himself in some grand romantic gesture. You need to do something like that if you want to win her back). I’m just a little feathered thing that has decided to fly back to the nest (The “little feathered thing” is an Emily Dickinson reference. It means she still has hope for you. The “nest” she refers to is her family’s cabin near the Pine Meadow ski resort). I can’t talk to you right now, so my phone is going to be off (this means that she has literally turned her phone off). I hope you know how I feel about you (She hopes you understand that she still has embers of love, and she’s waiting for you to fan them into flames).

Desi

Rory felt life and happiness flood back into him as he read this interpretation of Desi’s letter. There was still hope! All he had to do was give her that grand romantic gesture that she craved, and all could be put right.

“Well,” said the wizard, “it seems that things aren’t as bleak as they first appeared!”

“Thank you so much! I’m going to go patch things up with her right now; how can I repay you?”

“As a matter of fact, what I would like is to see you execute this gesture of yours. Could I tag along? I promise I’ll clear out as soon as your hearts are soldered back together. The last thing you’ll want is to have a third wheel on the scene, gumming things up.”

“Of course you can come!”

“And what are you going to do exactly?”

*

The trip to the cabin in the mountains took a couple hours. Rory was driving while the wizard sat shotgun. The old man was trying to keep a conversation going but Rory’s mind constantly turned away from whatever he said to thoughts of the task that lay ahead of him. It had taken twenty-four hours to come up with a plan, gather the necessary supplies, rehearse, and get on the road. Rory had hardly slept the night before, but there was no danger that he might fall asleep now because his whole body was buzzing with a fierce excitement.

They were travelling in a van that Rory had rented. The back seats of the van were crowded with the members of a mariachi band. Each of them was dressed in a brown and red suit that glittered with gold braid. Their enormous sombreros were piled one on top of another like stacked paper cups on the front bench where they were belted safely into place. The conversation coming from the back of the van was a cheerful one that led to frequent bursts of the kind of laughter that can only erupt from a joke told in Spanish.

The van was towing a trailer that contained several Greek columns made out of wire. Rory had rented these from a florist’s shop. When festooned with flowers these columns made a lovely and dramatic backdrop at weddings and other celebrations, and Rory knew that once they had been decorated with the huge pile of red roses that was also being towed inside the trailer, they would be the perfect set for the performance of his gesture.

*

Desi’s cabin was a log structure with a long covered porch. It was tucked back in the pine trees, but had an open lawn and a wide view of the canyon below. When they pulled up in front, it was immediately clear that the cabin was occupied. Somebody had recently shoveled snow from both the driveway and the walk that led from the road to the front porch. Pinewood smoke trickled out of the chimney. If Desi had driven up in her Subaru, it was hidden in the garage.

They hoped to arrange the pillars on the road in front of the cabin and decorate them without being noticed. While setting up, Rory repeatedly glanced at the building’s windows to make sure that nobody was watching, and each time he did the cabin stared back at him, dead eyed. He worried that nobody would be home, or that somebody other than Desi would be there, but there would be no certainty until they knocked on the door. It was too late to back out now anyway, he had committed himself. He was going to prove his love the way so many men tried to prove their love: through the power of an objectively absurd demonstration.

It was profoundly cold in the mountains and snow covered the landscape to the depth of three or four feet. The pine trees sagged under the weight of it. The members of the Mariachi band helped to set up the flowers, apparently not minding that such work wasn’t part of their contract. They were simply enjoying a chance to give a boost to a man in love. The cold seemed to freeze the flowers even as they were positioned, and red petals occasionally snapped off and drifted to the ground where they looked like little puddles of blood on the snow.

The mariachis had loaned Rory an outfit that belonged to an absent member of the band. It was a bit tight and seemed to do nothing to provide warmth, but he thought it would add greatly to the whole effect. A gust of wind blew through the thin fabric of his clothes and threatened to steal his sombrero, but he grabbed it in the nick of time and screwed it down firmly atop his head. 

The wizard seemed as excited as Rory was as they set up the last of the flowers and positioned the Mariachi band for the performance. But unlike Rory, the old man wasn’t suffering from nerves. He clearly had supreme confidence in his magical translator, and he wasn’t the one with his heart on the line. When everything was ready, the wizard went to the porch and knocked on the door. There was a pause, and Rory began to fear that all his work had been for nothing, that the wizard was an insane old man and his trip to the Himalayas had been a hallucination, when the door opened slightly and Desi’s beautiful face appeared in the crack. The wizard said something and then stepped out of the way to make sure she had a clear view of the Corinthian columns of roses, the mariachis with their glittering instruments, and Rory.

The band knew its business, and as soon as they saw Desi they began to play. Rory felt himself choke up a little, and he was worried that he wouldn’t be able to sing, but when the moment came, the words poured out of him.

Amorcito corazón
Yo tengo tentación de un beso
Que se brinda en el calor
De nuestro gran amor, mi amor!

Three years before, when Rory and Desi were a new couple, they had taken a trip to Cabo San Lucas. It was their first vacation together, and on their first night in Mexico a mariachi band had serenaded them with this Pedro Infante song while they snuggled in the moonlight on the beach. He hoped the memory of that moment would remind Desi of how she had felt about him back then. 

Rory surprised himself with how well he sang. As they left his mouth, each one of Infante’s romantic words touched his heart. He felt their power, and he was certain that they must be having a similar effect on Desi. She was getting her airport moment, her great and foolish demonstration of love. He closed his eyes for a few beats of his heart and imagined taking her in his arms as soon as the song ended, pulling her warmth to himself, and kissing her soft lips that usually had a fruity hint of her flavored lip balm.

When at last the song ended, and the sounds of guitar, accordion, and trumpet faded in the chilled air, Desi took a step forward and said, “What are you doing? Are you insane? I dumped you! What part of my note didn’t you understand?” Then a man, a quite handsome, well dressed, and tall one, stepped out of the cabin and put his arm around her. The two stared at Rory angrily for a moment and then went back into the cabin together, slamming the door behind them.

Rory stood there in shock while members of the mariachi band looked at their feet. The wizard walked somberly back, patted Rory on his shoulder, and said, “Understanding other people is a difficult task. My book got the cabin right though, and that’s pretty good, don’t you think?”

What Desi Meant

The Unregarded River

“I’ve already seen your marketing materials. I’ve watched the ads and read your online brochure,” Margaret explained, “but I still have some questions about how your service works. I hope I don’t sound stupid.”

“Of course not, Mrs. Jordan,” Mr. Stanley said, “we know that the concept of squaring your life with the principles of authenticity can be a difficult thing to wrap your mind around, but we are here to walk you through it, every step of the way.”

Margaret was intimidated by Stanley’s office, which had been designed to impress visitors with his trustworthiness, intelligence, and importance. The walls were cluttered with diplomas and awards in the way a dictator’s uniform is spangled with medals. There were also a few tasteful works of  abstract art, and photos of Stanley standing next to important people as they smiled together, sharing the secret happiness of the truly successful. “I know,” Margaret continued shakily, “but my questions are so basic. I mean, even after reading the brochure. . . what exactly do you do? How are you going to help me live a more authentic life? What does that even mean?”

Mr Stanley looked like a man who knew what he was talking about. This was mostly due to the fact that his face featured a black mustache of imposing authority. It was a mustache that demanded, and received, the trust of everyone who saw it. His dark hair was combed with conservative precision, and his deep eyes were blue Pierian springs of wisdom. “Have you ever heard of Jean Jacques Rousseau?” he asked.

The name sounded familiar. Was he that French actor who’d been in that movie with that actress she liked? The handsome one with the cute accent? The movie was about space travel or WWII or something. But the more she thought, the more she suspected that Jean Jacques Rousseau wasn’t the name of that actor (if, indeed, such an actor even existed). Margaret didn’t dare to hazard a guess, so she swallowed and admitted that she hadn’t heard of him.

“Don’t worry about it.” Stanley said, “I don’t think they teach much about Rousseau anymore. He was a philosopher from Geneva in the 1700s.”

So, definitely not the actor. She was glad she hadn’t made a guess.

Stanley continued, “He’s probably most famous for saying that ‘man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.’ Can you see what he was talking about?” She couldn’t, but she nodded vaguely anyway, assuming, correctly, that Stanley would continue explaining no matter her response. “He was saying that we are born to nature. We come from the womb free to be ourselves, but as the years pass we are twisted out of our natural shape by school, religion, social pressure, media influences, and even our parents who were themselves twisted up in their day by fools in old style hats and coats.” Stanley was satisfied to see that Margaret hadn’t caught his literary reference. She blinked a few times and then Stanley asked her, “Do you ever feel out of place?”

“Yes.” 

“Do you sometimes feel awkward, like you don’t belong?”

“Yes.”

“Do you sometimes have trouble making decisions?”

“Yes.”

“Do you ever suspect that you could be achieving more than you are?”

“Sure.”

“Do you ever look in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘Who the hell is that?’”

She paused, and Stanley could tell he had gone too far. Clearly, she never looked into the mirror and asked herself who the hell her reflection was. He pushed on, “You can sense that you are out of step with your authentic self. Do you mind if I quote some poetry to you?”

“No,” she said, although he could tell she did mind.

“There was a poet named Matthew Arnold. He lived quite a long time ago, but he got this. He understood how people can stray from their authentic selves. He wrote:

Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.”

Stanley had recited the scrap of verse with a deeper timbre than normal, clearly enjoying the sound of his own voice as he declaimed. “You see, we tend to change our identities, involuntarily. Life has a way of pushing us from our true selves, of making us false to ourselves, but all the time that river is running deep inside. That river is your authentic being. We help you find it, and then leave it up to you to follow it.”

Margaret listened, perhaps not understanding what Stanley was saying to any great depth, but getting the gist of it. She was quiet for a moment, considering her life, the life she had built on top of the river of her true authentic self. She was a housewife with one child, a boy named Richard who was in the fifth grade. Richard was a good kid who got good grades and never caused trouble. She drove him to baseball practices and games; she took him to piano lessons. Sometimes Richard’s friends came over. They were surprisingly quiet and polite for fifth grade boys. Her husband was also named Richard. The only reason to name a child Richard these days is that his dad is already named Richard, but it’s still not a very good reason.

Richard, her husband, was a decent man. He had a job in an office where he did things that bored Margaret terribly when he told her about them. They liked to watch television together. He watched The Bachelor and police dramas for her, and she watched sports for him. She did the cooking for the family and was capable of making six different dishes: pot roast, spaghetti and meatballs, baked macaroni and cheese, grilled pork chops, chicken stir fry, and lasagna. A different dish for every night of the week, and once a week they went out to dinner.

Margaret was active in the PTA. She was a member of a neighborhood book club that mainly read teen vampire romance novels. She went to church once a week, dragging the Richards along with her, and then went back to never thinking about religion for the other six days. They went to Myrtle Beach every summer, and to the Florida Keys every winter. She went to the gym four times a week and ever since she turned 30 she felt like she had been on a constant diet (and yet continued to make lasagna and macaroni and cheese every week).

She wondered what her river was like, her true self, deep down under the crust of meaningless activity that had formed over it.

Stanley spoke again, “Much unhappiness is caused by the failure to live an authentic life, but people don’t even know what their authentic life might be because they lost sight of it so long ago, usually long before adulthood. They find themselves living in mauvaise foi without knowing how they got there. What we do is strip away the nonsense, get down to the true you, and paint a picture for you of what your authentic life should look like. And if you can live your authentic life, you’ll finally feel fulfilled.”

“How do you do it?”

“A combination of technology and skilled human assets.”

“What kind of technology? What human assets?”

“We will monitor you for one month. Most of that time we will be using only technology. You’ll put this patch over your heart.” He handed her something that looked like a circular bandage. “It will measure what your heart is doing as you face everyday life. And these,” he handed her a pair of diamond earrings, “will track what your brain is doing. They’re powered by your body’s own electricity, so you don’t need to charge them. We’ve made the brain scanners to look like earrings so that you can avoid questions and comments. Just live your life as normal, and we will search for moments of inauthenticity that rub your psyche the wrong way.”

“Okay. And the human assets?”

“We will send an actual person to watch you from time to time. Technology is important, but so are human observations. You will not be under constant surveillance, but we will be watching you for a few hours every week. Only when you venture out in public.”

“And after a month, what?”

“We give you a complete report on our findings, and soon you’ll be living the full, authentic, life of your dreams.”

She looked troubled and he asked her what was on her mind. “Well,” she said in a halting voice, “I’m just worried, you know, all this talk about ‘authenticity,’ it kind of feels like at the end of the month you’re going to tell me to cheat on my husband, join a cult, or become a hippy.”

He laughed, sending his serious mustache into an out of character quiver of amusement, “It’s true that our system has resulted in more than one divorce, but nobody ever becomes a hippy. It turns out that nothing is more contrived than becoming a hippy.”

“And you won’t tell me to join a cult either?”

“Of course not. Let me be clear, we will not tell you to do anything in particular. Our motto is, ‘become what you are having learned what that is.’ We are in the business only of discovering who you are; you bear the terrible weight of your own freedom to choose what you will do with that information. The ‘becoming’ is up to you.”

*

She left Stanley’s office wearing the diamond earrings in her ears and the circular bandage over her heart and walked home to plug herself back into her everyday life. Because she knew she was being watched, at first she felt an impulse to do something more exciting than usual, maybe go rock climbing or… or what? Play laser tag maybe? No. She couldn’t do anything like that because she had been told to act normal. Plus, she didn’t want to go rock climbing or play laser tag. What she wanted to do was watch the Hallmark channel, so that’s exactly what she did. And if she was being monitored through the devices she had been given or by a “human asset” she’d just have to accept their judgment of her.

She lived with the peculiar feeling of being watched for the rest of the day. When Richard Jr. came home with a friend, the two played with Legos for a couple hours and then the friend went home. When Richard Sr. returned from work she made lasagna and the three of them ate at the table in the kitchen. Richard Sr., searching for a compliment to give his wife, said that the lasagna seemed particularly meaty. (The lasagna was, of course, exactly as meaty as it always was.) He didn’t notice the earrings. She had known he wouldn’t.

The evening passed with more television, a paperback in bed at 9:00, a chaste goodnight kiss on her husband’s cheek at 10:00, and then deep sleep by 10:15.

The next morning was a Friday and when Margaret woke up she put the diamond earrings on and then forgot about them. She cleaned the house for a bit, went on a walk with her friend who lived next door, ate a ham sandwich in her quiet house, and then spent the rest of the afternoon watching game shows.

Friday night was date night, so she and her husband went out to the Olive Garden where he ordered spaghetti and meatballs and she ordered macaroni and cheese. While eating, she noticed a man sitting a few tables away, eating by himself. She might not have noticed him except that he was wearing a three piece suit topped by a bowler hat and he was pointing a device that looked like a megaphone (though only one third the size of the average megaphone) in her direction. He was trying to be sneaky about it, but he was not skilled at sneakiness.

The month passed as any other month did. She always felt vaguely conscious of being watched, but only rarely noticed the human asset. Always the same man. Always wearing a three piece suit and a bowler hat. Sometimes pointing the little megaphone in her direction, sometimes not. The people she was with never seemed to notice bowler hat man, and she supposed that the only reason she did was that she’d been keeping an eye out for him on that first day she had seen him.

*

Stanley was sitting behind his desk, relaxing in the shade of his mustache, when Margaret was ushered in by his secretary. He half stood in a feint at chivalry and gestured towards the chair on the opposite side of the desk from his own. “Have a seat! The month sure went by quickly, didn’t it? Seems like you were just here yesterday.”

It did seem like just yesterday, although Margaret knew she had made four lasagnas since the last time she saw him. She agreed with his observation and he continued, “I hope the earrings and heart patch weren’t uncomfortable?” He was hinting that he wanted them back now, so she removed the earrings and slid them, along with the patch (which she had not been wearing) across the table in his direction.

“No. Not at all uncomfortable.”

“And the surveillance wasn’t too awkward I hope?”

“No. It was fine.”

“Did you ever see anyone watching you?”

“Bowler hat.”

Stanley rolled his eyes. “Paul was not born for surveillance work. But don’t worry. Noticing him doesn’t affect the outcome.”

“And what was the outcome?”

“Well, let’s see,” he opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a manila folder, “Here it is. Your case was actually particularly interesting.”

“Interesting how?”

“It’s interesting because out of the thousands of people we have profiled, you’re the only one who is actually living her authentic life.”

She was dumbfounded. “What?”

“As far as we can tell, everything you do is authentic. Every single action you take is an expression of the core of yourself. When you make the same six dishes every week and go out to the Olive Garden every Friday you are expressing the essence of you. When you watch game shows or Hallmark movies all afternoon that is you following the river of your life. When you kiss your husband on the cheek at exactly 10:00 and then immediately go to sleep, that is the very definition of Margaret Jordan. Driving Richard Jr. to little league: you. Listening to advice shows on the radio: you. Eating sad sandwiches every afternoon in a quiet house: you. Constantly complaining about your diet without ever actually following your diet: you. Never getting out of your comfort zone: you. Never doing or saying anything that is even remotely interesting: you. Congratulations, you are the first truly authentic human being I have ever encountered.” He was sincere in his congratulations. He thought she would be pleased and he handed her the manila folder so she could take a look at the evidence.

She accepted the folder, but didn’t open it. She was shocked. This was not what she had expected. Most people hope that there is something more to who they are than what other people see, or even what they can see themselves. We are a world of Harry Potters waiting to be told we are magic, and Luke Skywalkers waiting to discover that we are Jedi Knights. We cling to the hope that there’s some untapped potential in us somewhere, but now science had shown Margaret that she was nobody but herself, and, worst of all, she suspected that science was right.

Margaret stood up, unsure of what she was doing.  “If all this is who I am,” she said as she tossed the folder back at him, “then who is doing this?” She slapped him across the face, then grabbed Stanley by the tie and pulled his mouth to hers for a violently awkward kiss on the lips, before dumping him back into his seat. She glared at him for a second as he sat slumped in his chair, his mustache looking like a disheveled hedgehog caught in compromising circumstances. He looked so pathetic that she considered apologizing, but instead she turned and left in a whoosh that seemed to take all the room’s air with her.

The Unregarded River

Infinite Darkness

 

Doctor Samuel Thomas didn’t think of the Ahab as a spaceship anymore; he thought of it as a debris field. It was a cloud of junk spreading over a spot on the plane of the ecliptic about half an AU short of Saturn. The Ahab’s mission had been to explore Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. Doctor Thomas now knew would never get there, although he supposed that a few fragments of the debris field that had once been the Ahab might crash into Enceladus over the next few months. The field included smashed fragments of the hull, a machine for boring holes in ice, space suits, a moon buggy, and three astronauts. His crewmates were all out there somewhere, bits of them anyway, drifting at 30,000 mph in directions that would one day take them all the way past Pluto, through the Kuiper Belt, and out into the Oort Cloud. Eventually they would go interstellar. Unfortunately, no glory would accrue to them because it doesn’t count as exploring when you’re a frozen-solid corpse.

Doctor Thomas knew that he wouldn’t survive his crewmates by much. The world was losing one of its greatest scientists, and that was the real tragedy. He understood astrophysics better than any man alive, or who had ever lived. If he had not yet thought his way to any discoveries on par with Einstein’s, this was simply because the great discoveries had already been made before he had a chance. But from the smallest subatomic particle to the largest galaxy, he understood the physics of the universe with a clarity that no one had ever achieved before. He had also developed an ability to communicate this knowledge to his fellow men, who, as a rule, possessed only a very rudimentary sort of intelligence in comparison with his own.

His ability to cram knowledge into the minds of the unintelligent is what had made it possible for him to come on this mission. He had built himself into a celebrity with his books and television programs dedicated to explaining the universe to all those nitwitted human stumps. They loved him for it. They even loved his obvious snootiness which was at its most evident when he issued detailed take-downs of the so-called “science” incorporated into every science fiction movie. His fame and popularity had propelled him into contact with important people at NASA, in Congress, and even the White House. He had leveraged his popularity to get himself a seat on the Ahab, and now, it appeared, he was going to die on the Ahab, or on a chunk of it at least.

Yes, it was his popularity that had killed him, and since his popularity was nothing but the natural result of his high intelligence it was ultimately his own mind that had killed him. How ironic. The clods would doubtless blame the meteoroid that had torn into his ship, shredding, ripping, and smashing its way through the Ahab’s hull, but he knew the truth. It was his magnificent brain that had launched him into space and doomed him.

The proximate cause of his death would be asphyxiation. He was sitting, if a floating person can be said to sit, in the Ahab’s forward airlock. This was the lone piece of the debris field that was still airtight and he’d been lucky to get in before being taken by the vacuum of space as the ship fell apart in the wake of the meteoroid strike. Now his lungs were working their way through the meager supply of oxygen trapped in the airlock, and steadily converting it to carbon dioxide. He was effectively poisoning himself to death. This was a relatively small space, just big enough for two astronauts in full gear to squeeze into. It didn’t hold much air. Doctor Thomas crouched with no spacesuit on, waiting to die.

He stared out the small window in the exterior hatch. His chunk of the Ahab was spinning with surprising gentleness. That was something to be grateful for, he supposed. The impact could easily have sent the ship into a violent spin in addition to tearing it apart, and if that had been the case he would doubtless be vomiting right now. But no, it was spinning softly, giving him a view of deepest space one moment, and of the sun and Earth the next. The Earth appeared small from this distance, just one more blue tinted star.

As his airlock window swept past deep space, Doctor Thomas thought he saw something moving. What exactly? Well, it had to be an optical illusion. But when the same area spun back into view a few seconds later, he saw it again. What was it? A blue cloud? A glowing cloud of light? Strange. It had to be something to do with the ship’s reactor. It must have been cracked open and pushed into space by whatever had struck the ship . . . but no, that didn’t make sense. If the reactor had been smashed out of the Ahab by the impact, then the reactor would be moving away from the ship, not towards it, and, as the blue light swung into view again, it was definitely getting closer.

Doctor Thomas found that the approach of the light cloud was making him nervous. This was an absurd reaction, he knew, because he was going to asphyxiate within the next hour or so regardless of what any blue cloud of light did . . . but still, the light seemed unnatural, weird, and out of place. The Ahab completed a revolution every fifteen seconds, and every time it pointed in the right direction, the light cloud was closer. He soon realized that it must be truly massive. Could it be a nebula? That was ridiculous, a nebula couldn’t just appear in the Solar System out of nowhere. Could it be the ejecta of a supernova? That didn’t make sense either; it was moving too slowly. It must be something new. Something mankind had never seen before, or even suspected the existence of. Whatever it was, its discovery would probably have won him the Nobel Prize if he wasn’t about the die.

And then the light was there, first enveloping the Ahab, and then entering it. The light cloud was warm, so, maybe it was some kind of radiation? But no, it was something else, it was . . . the light cloud was slowing, and then stopping, the rotation of the ship. The Ahab came quickly, but gently, to a complete stop. It had slowed from thousands of miles per hour to a dead stop in seconds, without harming Doctor Thomas. No known force in the universe could produce this effect. It was astonishing.

Though the tiny window in the exterior hatch door, Doctor Thomas saw pieces of the debris field that used to be the Ahab hurtling towards him. How could this be happening? Did the light cloud have a gravitational field? One powerful enough to pull scraps of the ship from miles away? No, that was absurd, it couldn’t have that kind of mass. Could it have a magnetic field?

The doctor’s thoughts were interrupted when he heard sounds clanging through the remains of the ship and into his airlock. The Ahab was being stuck by these fragments of itself. No. That wasn’t it. He looked through the small window in the interior hatch of the airlock, and he saw that the ship was being reassembled. Tears in the hull were being pulled together, equipment was floating back into place, being bent back into shape and somehow returned to working order as it moved. The lights came on inside the wreckage, which was no longer wreckage. Air was being pumped into his little space again. The light cloud was fixing his ship. He finally understood; the light cloud was an alien life form. A moment after he made this realization, the creature communicated with him.

No words were exchanged between man and light, the alien simply accessed Doctor Thomas’s mind and flooded it. For a few seconds the Doctor understood . . . what exactly? Later he wouldn’t be able to tell what his mind had contained in the moments the creature of light had occupied it, but he would say that it was glorious. For a moment his mind held more intelligence than any human had ever known before. But his brain hadn’t been built to absorb another being’s consciousness in this way, and the light cloud, realizing this, quickly withdrew, leaving a tremendous sense of loss behind.

As the warm blue light receded into the blackness of space, Doctor Thomas came to himself again. His head hurt abominably. He popped the interior door on the airlock and let himself into the ship proper, where he floated aimlessly. He could hear the radio crackling a message from Earth. He ignored it. He just lay there and stared at the gun metal gray ceiling.

He realized that every man exists in a bubble of light of his own making. We are born into a universe dark with ignorance, and with hard work we can expand that bubble. With education, learning, study, experimentation, and experience, the light around us expands as we come to know ourselves, our world, and our universe. He knew that he was one of the smartest people in existence. He had built perhaps the largest bubble of all. But he now realized that the universe is infinite, and dark, and no matter how much the light around you grows, your ignorance remains infinite.

Ann Boren, the mission’s commander, floated into the room. “What happened?” She asked. Doctor Thomas wasn’t surprised to see her, and he didn’t answer. “I can’t account for the past hour,” she continued, “According to the computer we came to a complete stop and then returned to full speed in the course of a few minutes. But that’s impossible, and if it were possible, and had somehow actually happened, the G-forces would have crushed us all. Do you know what happened? The navigation system thinks we hit a meteoroid, which I guess means we were all killed.”

“We weren’t all killed,” Thomas answered, “just me.”

 

This is the first in a three story series I’ve written about ships that collide with meteoroids. I’m calling the series “The Rock Cycle”.

Infinite Darkness

Imitations of Immortality

To fail to be human would mean to slip into nothingness. What man is and can become is a fundamental question for man.                                                                                                                              — Karl Jaspers

 

“But what about God?”

“God?” Dr. Ramirez tried to keep the scoffing tone out of his voice, but he wasn’t entirely successful. 

“Yes. What do you think God thinks about all this?”

“I’m afraid I must confess that since I don’t believe in God, I don’t think he thinks anything at all about it.”

This response gave Laura a moment’s pause. She had been a believer for every one of her 81 years. Her faith had supported her through hard times; it had defined her, and she had clung to it while the belief of so many people around her seemed to crumble under the corrosive influence of modern life. She still assumed that everyone she met was a believer, even though this assumption usually led to disappointment.

“Oh. Of course. I suppose most people are atheists these days.”

“I have the greatest respect for religion,” Ramirez lied politely, “but if you want to talk about the theological implications of transferrence, you’ll have to speak with our corporate chaplain. Or perhaps one of our therapists.”

“I’ve spoken to your chaplain and I must admit that it seems strange to me that a corporation would even employ a chaplain, but he’s so far removed from the process, while you deal with it every day. When I look at that thing,” she gestured towards the inert humanoid machine, sitting in a chair like a living person, “I have a hard time believing that God wants me to put my soul in there. You’ve seen it happen. You’ve seen souls move from bodies to machines. When this happens, do you . . . do you . . . do you sense the approval of God?”

Ramirez felt a wrinkle of irritation rise on his mood. He paused for a moment, smoothing it out carefully, before speaking.  “Again. I don’t believe in God, and from my point of view, I don’t deal with souls at all, unless by ‘soul’ you mean a person’s consciousness, his memories, sense of humor, beliefs, and way of thinking. I have watched hundreds of times as everything that makes a person a person moves out of their old bodies and into new machines. It is always a powerful moment.” 

“That machine seems like an awfully cold place for my soul to live.”

“There’s nothing wrong with inhabiting a piece of machinery. Your own body is really nothing but a very complex and inefficient machine running on electricity and chemical processes. And we could get you a more human looking body if you’d like.”

“No. The human ones look worse. Cold steel is somehow better than the weird rubber mannequins I see pretending to be human on the streets these days.”

“But they are human. They may not look quite right yet; I have to concede that they are stuck in the uncanny valley, but they’re getting better and one day you won’t be able to tell the difference. And they are most definitely human.”

She didn’t contest this, but he could tell that she wasn’t convinced. “If you think it’s such a great thing, why haven’t you done it yet?” she asked.

“I’m only 38 years old, but I plan to do it when I turn sixty. To tell you the truth, I’m looking forward to it. I save my mind every six months just to make sure I’m ready if there’s an accident before I get that old. You’re already 81, and you’ve never even bothered to save your mind until now. You’re living on borrowed time.”

“Yes. I am that.” She was silent for a moment.

“But now, you’ve saved your mind, all that remains is this last step. You’ll like your new body. You’ll have more strength and agility than ever before, and your mind will be stronger as well. I don’t need to remind you that with your heart . . .” 

“Yes. It won’t last much longer. I don’t need a doctor to tell me that. I can feel it. And that’s just the point. I can feel it. I feel the blood pumping in my veins, the air moving in and out of my lungs, I feel my bottom on this chair and the aches in my back and shoulder. Somehow, somehow, all these things make me human. I like being human. God made me human. I guess what I want to know is, when I move into that thing, will I be something else?”

A bit of the Bible he had learned at his grandmother’s knee as a child suddenly flashed into his brain, and Ramirez employed it now, “‘For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.’ God wants us to help ourselves, doesn’t he? This,” he gestured towards the creature of metal, plastic, glass, and ceramic, “this is the shape helping ourselves takes today.”

“The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose,” she responded with a grin.

“And an angel can cite Shakespeare for hers.” He knew he had her. 

Laura was stretched out on the table. Her head, with a Medusa-like chaos of wires flowing from her scalp, was strapped down. Though she couldn’t move her head, she turned her eyes towards the metal thing that sat in the chair against the wall. To Laura, it looked like a woman waiting for her appointment with the dental hygienist. How could that thing hold her soul? It seemed possible that such a device might help her to move physically, and even to think. But to feel? When she prayed to God from that body of metal she was certain that he would hear her, he was omniscient after all, but would she feel his response? Ramirez had explained that feelings were just a form of electricity moving through the nervous system, and that whatever a human body could feel, so could a machine. But that didn’t sound right to Laura. She thought there had to be more to it than that.

There was a humming noise, and she felt a tingling pull inside her head. It was as if her brain was a wrinkled lump of iron and an enormous magnet, like the one she had once seen at a wrecking yard, was tugging at it, trying to rip it out of the top of her skull. A switch flicked somewhere inside, and blackness took her.

The machine came alive, blinking in a human way even though it didn’t need to. It’s eyes could never be uncomfortably dry. The blink was an affectation, and the machine knew this. It was a trick designed to lend an additional modicum of credibility to the illusion of life. The old woman was dead now, or nearly so, the machine thought to itself. The soul, if there was a soul, had left her, or was leaving.

The machine looked into its memory and found pieces of Laura there. Her eight birthday, which had been a parade of pink. Her first kiss. The day her father died and she crashed her car into a fire hydrant because she couldn’t see through the tears as she drove towards the hospital. The birth of her daughter, Jane, who was in the waiting room at the moment, and her divorce from Grady, who wasn’t. 

The machine looked at Laura, clearly dead now on the table. 

Ramirez asked, “How do you feel?”

The machine said, “Alive,” and wondered where, after all, Laura had gone.

Imitations of Immortality

The Stalker Job

San Francisco is a classic city for private detectives. This is Sam Spade’s hometown, after all, a place of shadows and fog. Any city with a lot of money has a lot of things that bear looking into, and it’s detectives who often do that looking. Even so, I’d never actually met one before I hired one to look for Abigail.  

It pains me to admit it, but all my favorite fictional detectives are from Los Angeles. Sam Spade just isn’t as good as Philip Marlowe. I like Marlowe for his toughness and his brains. I like how he’s better at taking beatings than dealing them out. I like how he says cynical things like, “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away,” but also poetic things like, “I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars.” (I can almost hear Neil deGrasse Tyson clearing his throat as he prepares to object to the second quote, but Chandler was writing in more innocent times when we knew nothing about dark matter or dark energy.)

I was on my way to see a private detective, the first one I would ever meet in the flesh. The noir detectives from the 40s never did any divorce work, but the detective I was about to see, Roland P. Proctor, wasn’t so shy about destroying families. Right there on his website where he listed the sort of work he was willing to do for his clients, “divorce” was at the top in bold letters. Underneath “divorce” was the service I wanted, “missing persons.”  

Mr. Proctor had an office in a building on the corner of Leavenworth and Turk, one of the most unsavory corners in the entire city. Since becoming homeless I had spent a lot of time in the Tenderloin. I don’t mind a bit of seediness, but even for me Turk Street is a bit much. It’s a murdery strip of road with used hypodermic needles scattered across the pavement like confetti after a ticker tape parade.  

Proctor was not what I had expected of a private detective. First of all, he was a large man, physically unsuited for sneaking about. It is important for you to understand that when I say “large” I am not implying that he was muscular. He was large in a very soft and round way, and he didn’t look physically capable of performing the duties of a private detective as I understood them. For example, I couldn’t imagine this puffy man laying into a recalcitrant witness with a blackjack or the knuckle dusters. Such an activity would leave him sweaty and out of breath almost immediately. He was bald and had a shaved head, but he was not bald in the way that, say Vin Diesel or The Rock are bald. Action movie heroes are somehow able to make their bald heads look like powerful extra muscles. Proctor’s head, on the other hand, was fat and soft, like an overripe peach. He was wearing a gray tee shirt that had clearly been manufactured with a much smaller man in mind, and his greasy, loose flesh oozed out of it at the sleeves, collar, and belly. After opening the door and stepping aside so that I could enter his one room office (unlike movie detectives, Proctor did not have a sassy girl-Friday to let me in) he walked back behind his desk and slumped into a chair that made a wail of complaint as it was crushed beneath his mountainous girth.  

His office was a wreck. Newspapers were scattered around, mixed with what appeared to be files relating to his cases and eight by twelve photographs of husbands and wives being caught in compromising situations that would allow their spouses to grind them to bone dust in the divorce. He had motivational posters on the walls, the kind that say things like “Motivation: it’s what the future is made of” with a stock photograph of a one legged man climbing a mountain.   

Proctor saw the way I was studying his rat hole and he said, by way of explanation but without embarrassment, “People don’t usually come to my office; they just call me on the phone or shoot me an email.”

“Yeah,” I said as I nodded my head.

“Well, what can I do for you?” he held up a camcorder that looked even older than his decrepit computer, “Need me to make some videos of your wife for the divorce?”  He had a disgustingly lewd sort of smile on his face as he asked this question.

“No. I’m not married.”

“You want evidence of your girlfriend cheating?” he said with fading hope.

“Also, no. I want to find a missing person.”

“A girl?”

“A woman, yes.”

“What was her last known address?”

“I don’t know.”

“You got a picture?”

“No.”

“Have you gone to the police?”

“Well, no, you see, the truth is, she’s not really ‘missing,’ it’s just that I want to find her. I met her a couple weeks ago and we really connected, but we were separated before I was able to get her number and, well, you get it.”

The leer bloomed back across his face, “Ah, a stalker job.”

“A… a what!?”

“Stalker job. Not so unusual. Nothing to be ashamed of. You have a girl you like, she’s hiding from you, and you want to find her so you can stalk her. Fine. I’m good at that but I do have a legal document I need to you to sign.” I was too flabbergasted to defend my motives as he rummaged through his desk for a moment before pulling out a single sheet of paper and handing it to me. The paper said:

INDEMNITY 

I __________ (Client) have hereby hired the estimable Roland P. Proctor (Proctor) to find ______________ (Findee) and I certify that I have engaged Proctor for purposes that are entirely legal. I hereby warrant that I do not intend to kidnap, murder, rape/murder, grope, invade the privacy of, or send threatening love letters to, the Findee. In the event that Findee becomes deceased under mysterious circumstances or brings charges of any kind against Proctor, Client agrees to Indemnify Proctor for any and all damages including damages for pain, suffering, and emotional distress, and to confess to the murder or other crimes perpetrated against the Findee while leaving Proctor’s name out of it.

 

“You just sign it right there,” he said helpfully.

I was finally shaken out of my stupor and spluttered, “What is this awful document?”

“Look, I’m not going to judge you, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m somehow above doing a stalker job, but I’ve been bitten by these deals in the past so I need you to sign the release.”

“I’m not a stalker!”

“Sure, sure you’re not a stalker. Of course not. But I just need to make sure I have my bases covered for when you get caught in the bushes outside her house and the cops want to know how you tracked her down.”

“But I’m not going to be in the bushes!”

“Of course not. But I had a guy tell me that once, and then the girl I found for him went missing for real, and the cops somehow traced it back to me and they had a lotta questions. Luckily, things turned out okay.”

“She turned up safe?”

“No. They never found her body so they didn’t have enough evidence to bring charges against anybody. But now I gotta be careful, so, just sign the agreement.”

“Look, you’ve got this all wrong. I met a girl, we really clicked, but before I could get her number we were separated by circumstances.”

“Ahh, so it’s not a stalker job, its a star crossed lovers job.”

“Exactly!”

“I’m sorry, but ‘star crossed lover’ is just another way of saying ‘stalker’. You want me to find her, then you gotta sign the release.”

Well, when he put it that way it really clarified things for me. I did not want this man to find Abby for me. I wanted him to stay as far away from her as possible. The thought of this disgusting man breathing the same air as Abby made me sick and I wouldn’t have it. So I gave him an insincere, “I’m sorry I wasted your time,” and then stormed out of his office.

As soon as I left, he started looking for her.

 

This is an excerpt from my latest novel, The Unpublishables, which is available here.

The Stalker Job