The Nameless Evil
by Mizu Ash
Part Two of Two
They all huddled together, miserably. They were standing on a huge rock column in the middle of a desert. It was hundreds of feet in the air. It was only a few square feet in size, and little pieces of the rock kept crumbling off. They clung to each other for dear life.
"Could you please write a bit faster, mister writer man," Kate asked the heavens, "this is not a fun spot to spend a lot of time."
Wind blew, harder and harder.
A storm seemed to be brewing in the north.
A giant hand, at least twenty or thirty feet long, appeared out of nowhere and held an index finger cocked against a thumb, ready to flick them off the rock.
That's when they started screaming.
"Screaming? We do not scream! We are not the sort of people who scream!" Kate said indignantly. "I object!"
"And again he left the solution open," Nat said. "Writing the second draft will be a lot of work if he leaves so many scenes open. It's sloppy work."
"And that giant hand," Stuart said, "he'll have to attach it to something, or to explain why it was there. You can't just have a giant hand flying through the sky like that."
"And we had already had a storm, you know?" Michael said unhappily. "You can't have the same sort of thing happening again. If he wants bad weather, he should go for a hurricane or something, or maybe scorching heat, anything but a storm!"
Lily opened her mouth and…
They had just eaten: fruit and greens Stuart and Michael had picked, and a partridge Kate had caught in her trap. She'd even skinned it herself, and taken the entrails out, all the while humming a happy tune. Nat recognized it: it was the elephants' song from Jungle Book. Nat had built the fire, after he and Lily had gone into the wood to collect enough firewood. They'd roasted the fowl, and even put some bulbs that looked like potatoes in the fire to get something like jacket potatoes. The meal had been good, the first good one since they'd gotten off the rock in the desert so miraculously. They were all leaning against tree trunks. Kate had broken off a few very small twigs to try and use them as toothpicks.
Stuart looked around the group and said, "It would be so much easier if we had some magic, you know, to survive around here. It's not fair, other fantasy characters get some kind of magic, well, usually they do."
Kate turned to him, "Well, I think Lily has some kind of magic. The tiles, remember, and the mermaid-thing?"
"Well," Stuart said, "I think it is time we help our writer a bit. I say we give ourselves some magic, that'll help him write the story."
Nat looked bemused. "And how are you going to do that?"
"Exactly the same way as we do in the roleplaying games I used to do, you know, in the real world. With dice. Let chance decide."
He patted himself extravagantly, as a magician at a children's party would. "Now, I happen to have about my person, one fine dice. But where, oh where, is it?"
Lily was giggling like mad. Stuart seemed to notice her for the first time and said, "I think I need a volunteer from the audience. Yes, you, miss, would you like to come here and help me?"
Lily went to Stuart, and he made a show of patting her too, and trying to find the dice behind her elbow, and in her hair, all the while tickling her until he found it behind her ear.
"Ta-ra, here it is! Let's start the show. Lily, what would you like to know about what you can do here?"
She was waving her hands in front of her in excitement. "If I can talk to little rabbits! No, wait, if I can talk to squirrels! Wait!"
She had a look of supreme concentration on her little face. Her hands were tight little fists in front of her, and she was staring at nothing. Then her face brightened. "I know how to ask the question! I'll throw the dice now, I know how!"
"Well, here is the dice, Lily-dear. Good luck!"
She took the dice in her small hands, and then bent her head to her hands. She spoke to the dice, very slowly and clearly.
"I would like to know - if I can understand - small furry animals - when they talk among themselves…"
She threw the dice on the sandy ground, and followed it when it landed a bit farther on. She peered down intently, and gave a shout of joy.
"A five! I threw a five!"
"Well done, little one, well done! We'll call you when we need to talk to any small rodent. A five indeed, congratulations!"
Michael was standing to one side, too shy to put himself forward, but clearly eager to try the experiment himself. Stuart beckoned him and gave him the dice.
"Careful what you ask, and careful how you throw, young man," Stuart said in his best teacher voice, which set Lily off giggling again.
The boy's face became a mask of concentration, just like Lily's before. He was muttering to himself, but Nat couldn't understand what he said.
"No, no!" he said suddenly, and thrust the dice back into Stuart's hands. He strode away and disappeared between the trees. Everyone was taken aback. Stuart turned back to the others.
"Well, anyone else while Michael thinks things through? Nat?"
"Well, I don't know. Let me think. What about: will I recognize the inevitable?"
Stuart raised his eyebrows. "Nice one, Nat. Here's the dice."
Nat threw the dice in front of him, just a few inches, and they all looked down as it fell.
"Oh, shame, only a two. That's too bad!"
Nat shrugged. "Never mind. I'll get another magical gift, I suppose. These things are usually divided up pretty evenly in fantasy, among the main characters, I mean. Maybe I'll be a dragon-fighter in the end!" and he brandished an imaginary sword in front of him. Lily was jumping with excitement.
"Yes! And the dragon has caught a beautiful princess, and he wants to eat her, but you save her, mister Nat, and then you marry her and you are the king and you get a golden crown!"
Nat, Kate and Stuart smiled at each other. "Whoa, steady on, little one," Nat said, "I haven't even got a sword yet! I wouldn't like to fight the dragon with just my love for the beautiful princess as a weapon!"
Michael suddenly came back from between the trees. Nat was surprised at the way he looked, the way he held himself. He suddenly seemed to be more of a fantasy character than a regular American teenager. He held himself straighter, for one, and he walked in a purposeful way. He looked like a man with a mission. He came closer and took the dice from the ground without speaking. He shook it while he asked his question, in a loud and clear voice.
"Tell me if I can fly into battle with the wild flock," and he threw the dice over his shoulder. It landed quite a bit away, and Michael turned around and looked for it.
"I've got a six!" He suddenly looked like a kid again, instead of the enigmatic elf-like stranger they had seen throw the dice.
Stuart laughed. "Congrats, and now tell us: what on earth does it mean?"
Michael shrugged, still smiling that radiant smile. "I honestly wouldn't know. But I knew I had to ask it, like that, you know?" His voice was back to normal.
"I like it. It will be exciting finding out what it means. Well, Kate, what about you?"
"Yes, I know one, a useful one. I'd really like to have this one. OK, here goes: will I be able to recognize danger once it gets close to us?" She took the dice from Michael, who had picked it up, and threw it down.
"Ooh, bad luck again. The young ones seem to be hogging all the luck today. Only a two."
Stuart wanted to pick up the dice, but Kate beat him to it. Her eyes were blazing, and with a sinking heart Nat realized she was once again furious.
"What crap. I can throw the dice any time and up my score."
She shook the dice quite violently and threw it. But it didn't land: it kept floating at about three feet from her, turning all the while so she couldn't count spots on one particular side. She tried to grab it again, but it danced just outside her reach. Stuart was shaking his head.
"You don't understand about playing fair, do you?"
She turned to him, in all her fury.
"What the fuck is so fair about being caught in a bad dream? What's fair about dragging a kid of nine across a swamp where she can die?"
She grabbed her backpack, and kicked sand on the embers of the fire. She took Lily by the hand, and she started down the path in the wood they were following. Nat and Stuart looked at each other, helplessly.
"Let's go. No need to linger here."
Nat took his backpack and followed Michael. He looked around because he couldn't hear Stuart. He saw Stuart looking down at the dice on the ground, with a strange expression on his face. Then he picked it up and followed the others. Nat didn't have the heart to ask Stu what he'd asked the dice.
But suddenly the wood seemed less welcoming, more dangerous, more threatening.
And very huge indeed.
And then it became a jungle.
About a week later, Kate sat with her back against a tree and stared into the fire. The others were asleep. The night air was warm, a bit too warm even, but fortunately it wasn’t nowhere near as warm as it had been during the day. She listened to the sleepy sounds of the jungle. An owl hooted somewhere. She thought about Nat. Was this the moment? She saw him lying there, asleep. She was going to talk to him, now. She’d wake him gently and talk to him. She started to get up and
“No,” said Kate. She turned around very quickly and sat down with her legs and arms wrapped around the tree. She hooked her hands together, and her legs, to secure her grip. She held on for dear life.
Kate started to get up and
“I said NO!” Kate said. Her legs were starting to let go of the tree, but she forced herself to get them around the tree again. Her arms felt as if they were being torn apart by a couple of wild horses. It was tough, and she gritted her teeth with the effort of it. She pressed her legs against the ground again. “I’m not getting up!”
Kate let go of the tree and got up to
“No, no, NO!” she shouted. She clutched the tree again, determined not to let go. She waited anxiously, not sure if she would be able to hold on if he tried again.
He didn’t. She let her body relax a bit although she still held on to the tree. So she wasn’t going to get up, good. But now what.
“OK, I want to talk to you.”
Nothing. It was quiet. No more hooting owls, or any other sound. It sounded like the stunned silence of someone who couldn’t believe what was happening.
“Here’s the deal. I’m on strike. I’m not going to let go of my tree, get up, walk through any more swamps, be bitten by any more mosquitoes in this jungle, and I am certainly not going to rip any more bits of clothing on conveniently inconvenient branches. Like I said, I’m on strike!”
She can’t do that!
“Try me.” The words sounded flat and very convincing. She was pleased with the effect.
“Come here, where I can see you.”
I can’t do that!
“Sure you can, just write yourself in the scene.”
He looked at the computer screen and wondered what it would be like to jump in it.
“No! No more ‘he’! It’s about you, damn it, you, as you are!”
I looked at the computer screen and jumped in it. I walked to the fire and saw Kate sitting there, her arms and legs still wrapped around her tree.
Kate saw a man in his late thirties appear out of nowhere and walk towards her, hesitantly. He stopped when he was still about ten feet away from her. She let go of her tree and started laughing.
“It worked! It really worked! You’re here!”
She got up and dusted the sand off her ripped clothes. He kept looking at her, his face still mostly hidden in the dark of the night.
“I didn’t know if it would work, if I could get you here. This is great!”
“But why,” he asked, “why would you want to talk to me?” He sounded bewildered, and a bit frightened, too.
With a sigh and a happy smile she sat down again and patted the ground beside her.
“Come and sit here, mister writer man, then we’ll talk.”
He hesitated, then came closer. He sat down next to her, very gingerly, careful not to touch her.
“You’re wondering why I want to speak to you? Well, for starters, feel my leg.”
He looked horrified and shrank back as she stretched one of her legs invitingly in his direction.
“No, sorry, come on …”
“Go on then! Feel the skin of my leg and tell me what you feel.”
She took his hand and put it on her lower leg. He moved his hand a bit and then withdrew it quickly, as if the leg was on fire.
“Well, what did you feel?”
“Nothing. It’s soft, it feels soft.”
“Exactly. Now have a look at my clothes.”
He looked at her very quickly before averting his eyes again.
“They’re ripped, a bit.”
“Well, you’ve been walking through the jungle for a couple of days now.”
“And how ripped are Nat’s clothes, and Stuart’s clothes, and the kids’ clothes, do you think?”
“Not so very ripped?”
“Indeed, not so very ripped. Very well put indeed. A bit ripped, but not so very ripped. Now look here.”
She raised her arm. Her armpit was visible through the rips. He looked for a second before looking away again.
“You don’t see much, do you? No hair there, is there? Just like my legs are smooth as a baby’s bottom, even though we’ve been walking through this jungle for days and before that we were on the pirate ship and …”
She stopped, confused. Pirate ship? Where had that come from? The writer noticed and explained, quietly.
“New idea I’m thinking about. I haven’t written it yet.”
“Anyway. The last time I had a bath, without facilities for shaving any body parts, I might add, was when you made us jump in that river! That was weeks ago. Nat and Stuart have grown short beards, even Michael has some tufts here and there, but I don’t have a single hair sticking out of anywhere. Except for my head and you know where, and even there I have a bikini line! Just for when the convenient rips of clothing get a bit more daring, don’t you know!”
He didn’t speak, he just sat there, paralyzed.
“Now could you please explain to me what possessed you to write me like this? Like a comic book heroine? Superwoman in the jungle? And why treebranches keep ripping off pieces of fabric of an outfit that was already quite skimpy to begin with? And I’m not even talking about those ridiculous sandals you made me wear!”
He didn’t answer. He kept staring at the ground in front of him, like a punished child.
“Come on then, don’t be shy. You’re the writer, you can read my innermost thoughts, you can undress me whenever you feel like it. The least you can do in return is give me some answers.”
He looked at her for a split second before answering.
“Well, this is fantasy. You know how it is with fantasy.”
“No, I don’t. I used to read Shakespeare. Go on.”
“Women in fantasy are often, you know, er, a bit flat. Attractive and all that, of course, but …”
“A male fantasy rather than a real woman, I see what you mean.”
“Well, I made you courageous, brave! Not all fantasy writers do that with their female characters, you know.”
“So now I have to be grateful that you didn’t write me into a simpering idiot? How magnanimous of you! Do you know that from the moment we came over from our world to the Kindred Kingdom …”
Again she stopped, confused, but before he could explain, she finished her sentence herself.
“Yeah, yeah, I know, new idea. But do you know I haven’t had my periods ONE single time since we came over? And I’m not pregnant! We’ve been here for at least a month, or maybe more. All that jumping you make us do wrecks havoc with our sense of time. But it’s a month minimum, that means having your period. Period.”
Still looking at the ground, he pleaded with her.
“But where would you find, er, you know? There’s no shop here to go for a box of, er, or a pack of, er, what you need.”
“Well, that’s for you to find out, isn’t it, not for me! You’re the writer! All I’m saying is, the story has become much more realistic over the weeks. At the beginning we didn’t feel thirsty, or hungry, we didn’t sweat even. Breathing heavily from shock was about the only thing we could feel. Now we eat, we drink, we are thirsty if we can’t find clean water, we get tired, exhausted even. But me, I’m not so realistic. It’s time you cleaned up your act, mister writer man.”
It was quiet for a moment.
She was taken aback by this answer.
“Okay. You’re right. But it is very, very difficult to write about a woman, you know.”
She heard him mutter under his breath. She could have sworn it sounded like, “I should have stuck with men.”
He sighed. He looked up at her.
“But don’t come complaining if I have to make you use moss or something like that for, for, er, to, …”
But she wasn’t listening any more. She was staring at his face, which in the flickering light of the fire was clearly visible for the first time.
“Well, not really, he is …”
“You’re Nat! Look at you! You're a bit older maybe, but that’s Nat!”
“Well, he’s based on me, I admit, but that doesn’t mean …”
“To give you credit, you haven’t made him much more handsome than you yourself are. Remarkable resemblance, really striking.”
A thought struck her.
“That’s why he understands things, like us being characters! He has your mind! Wait till I tell him!”
The writer shifted uneasily.
“Well, it’s been great meeting you in person, but I think I’d better get going.”
Kate got a steely look in her eyes.
“Well, before you go, there’s one more thing …”
Nat woke up and saw with a start that they weren’t in the jungle any more. Oh no, not another jump! They’d have to get used to new surroundings again, find new ways to find food and drink again. As if life here wasn’t hard enough without all that. He looked around. Well, maybe it wasn’t so bad. It looked like the meadow where they had slept the very first day, except there were no trees, and there was a babbling brook close by. The sun was slowly rising in the sky. It didn’t look dangerous, on the contrary, it looked idyllic.
“Morning, Nat. Did you sleep well?”
Amazed he looked at Kate. She was sitting in a white wooden deckchair, and she was languorously sipping from a fine china cup. Where did she get that deckchair, and what was different about her? And what was she drinking?
“Kate! Where did you get that outfit?” Stuart’s surprised voice rang out over the meadow. Yes, that was it! Kate was wearing gray cotton pants, and a light blue T-shirt with long white sleeves. She merely raised an eyebrow.
“Present from a close friend of mine, let’s say. Look at my shoes!”
She stretched her leg for them all to admire her strong, sensible trainers. All four of them went to her to see her new shoes. Where did she get them? She got up and smiled, eyes dancing happily.
"And look! I even have a sweater with a hood for when it gets cold!"
She held it up, and Nat noticed there was white lettering on the dark blue sweater. It read, Do not start with me. You will not win. He smiled at Kate's giggling. He loved it when she giggled like Lily.
“And if you’re ready, breakfast is served.”
Nat frowned. If they had jumped places again, that probably meant the food had been left behind.
“Do we still have those scrawny porcupine leftovers we had in the jungle? Did they get here too?”
“No sir, they didn’t. If you’ll be so kind as to turn around …”
With a wide sweep of her hand she gestured behind them. All of them turned around and gasped at what they saw. In the middle of the green grass of the meadow there was a nice wooden table, with a white linen tablecloth on top of it. Five wooden chairs were around it. But it was what was on the table that interested them: food! Real food: fresh orange juice and toast and marmalade and honey and yoghurt and croissants and scrambled eggs and bacon and fried mushrooms and hot waffles with whipped cream and fresh fruit and … what was that? Coffee! Real coffee! The smells were so enticing, and they ran to the table to look at all these wonders.
“Go on then, sit down, help yourselves! Courtesy of auntie Kate. Enjoy!”
Kate didn’t have to say that twice. They sat down, laughing and chattering, and tucked in. The plates and cups were all delicate white china, and the silver cutlery shone in the sun. There was even a little pitcher of chocolate milk just for Lily. For a while there was no conversation except for "Pass me a grapefruit, will you?" or "Yes, one of those pancakes, thank you". At last even that stopped, to be replaced by a contented sigh here and there, or a stifled burp. But even then they kept picking at delicious morsels that took their fancy.
With his mouth full of a last bit of crispy bacon which tasted particularly nice, Nat turned to Kate.
“What’s going on here? You look like the cat who got to the milk.”
“Well, when I was talking to our writer, I might have mentioned I thought we deserved a treat.”
All four of them turned to her, forks and spoons frozen in mid-action.
“When you what?”
“When I talked to our writer, last night. We had a chat, you know. Fine man, fine man, I must say. He looks a bit like you,” she said to Nat.
Nat was stumped. He looked at her as if she had lost her mind.
“In fact he looks a whole lot like you. A whole lot.”
She suddenly giggled again.
“You should see your faces! Never mind me, I'm just in a very good mood. The best mood ever, really. Well, what happened is, I wanted to have a talk with our writer, never you mind why, and I got him to come here.”
“Well, no, in the jungle. We were still in the jungle then. And he promised me these new clothes, and I suggested that we could all do with a little treat, after what we’d been through.”
“But it doesn’t fit in the story!”
“Well, that’s what he said. In fact he was quite insistent. I said that he could leave it out in the second draft, we’ll be more seasoned by then anyway. Or better still, he can invent a way of making it work in the story, making it a prize for getting a witch’s riddle right or whatever, I don’t care. We’ve had a nice breakfast, and now we’re getting a bath, and wash our clothes too. These fantasy writers have no concept of personal hygiene at all. I especially requested the babbling brook for all our ablutions and laundry needs.”
Stuart laughed out loud. He slapped Kate on her back as if she was a drinking buddy.
“Great work, Kate. I’d take my hat off for you if I was wearing one. And do we get to speak to the great man himself too? I’d love that.”
“At the end of the story, he’s promised to come over and talk to us about rewrites and sequels etcetera.”
Kate smiled. She turned to Nat.
“And he really does look like you. You’re based on him. That’s why you understand more than we do.”
Nat shook his head.
“That’s really weird. I was really proud of myself that I seemed to understand our writer quite well. No wonder. It’s just the other way round.”
Kate looked at Lily. She had a brown moustache of chocolate milk, and she was still licking her fingers which were covered with strawberry jam. There was a smear of honey on her right cheek.
“OK, little one, let’s go. We’re going to have a wash, you and I. The men can help themselves, I don’t think they need help scrubbing their back.”
Lily nodded and slid off her chair. Hand in hand they walked to the brook. Under a bush lay a bar of soap, two clean towels, neatly folded, and even two toothbrushes, still in the plastic wrapping. Kate looked at them admiringly.
“It’s a good thing I think of everything, Lily. A very good thing indeed.”
We're getting more seasoned even now, Nat thought, never mind the second draft.
After the day of the miracle breakfast, they had crossed a few hills and one small mountain with some difficulty, then come to a beautiful green valley which they had followed, and now they were walking on a big moor. Michael had become very good at finding water everywhere, and Kate caught quite an interesting variety of smaller animals in her trap. They had tried to catch some fish in the rivers they found, but that hadn't worked with bare hands. It had been fun trying, though. Michael and Stuart had learned which of the fruits and greens were edible, with only a few minor bouts of diarrhea as a result of the experiments.
Nat was actually enjoying their hike on the moor. It was very flat, and there were no obstacles anywhere. You could see in all directions, and you didn't have to climb anywhere. The sun was shining, but gently, it wasn't too warm. All of them were in a good mood, even Kate. Life could be good, even in a fantasy novel.
"Hey, what's that?"
"There, over there. Look to the right."
Nat looked where Stuart was pointing.
"I think it's a well. Look. An old well or something."
It did look like a well, Nat thought. He walked up to it. It was made of irregularly formed stones, and it seemed very old. It was overgrown with moss. Still, it was quite big: it was about four and a half feet high, and Nat guessed the diameter was something like five feet or so. It had a big wooden lid.
The others had come closer as well.
"Look, there's writing on the side," Lily said.
Nat bent down to have a closer look. He wiped the side with his hand, and tore off some of the moss.
"Hold on, it's hard to read. I can't really read it." It was an inscription carved into the stone. Nat scrunched his eyes and tried to make out what it said.
"Thou must stop at the wall and pay the price.
Thou cannot go on without one of thou dies.
From whence thou cam'st and whither thou go'st,
And I think line four stumped him. He's probably looking in a rhyming dictionary right now."
Kate laughed. "That's not very good old English, is it?"
Nat agreed. "It looks a bit funny, doesn't it? I think our writer has a trip to the library ahead of him. Shouldn't it be can'st, instead of cannot?"
She pulled a face. "Can't help you there. I should think that stuff is available on the internet, nowadays, don't you think?"
"Look people," Stuart said, "whatever the phrasing, it contains a message. And I must say it worries me a bit that it talks so casually about dying."
"Oh Stuart, this is ridiculous. There isn't even a wall, so what's going to stop us going on?" Kate asked.
"Correction, there wasn't. There is now. Well, almost."
They turned and saw that Stuart was right. Across the moor there was now an enormous wall, really huge, reaching into the distance to both sides. With a deep and rumbling sound it kept growing, until it got so high the top disappeared into the clouds. They burst out laughing.
"And is there a gate?"
"Yep, have a look."
"Is it locked?" Nat was craning to see, but Kate's eyes were better.
"You betcha. But it doesn't look as if it has a welcome mat with a key underneath"
"Never mind, it'll probably be hidden in the flowerpot then."
They kept laughing. It seemed so funny, this incongruous wall in the middle of the moor they had been walking just minutes ago.
They turned back to the well and squatted down.
"Look, the wording has changed."
"What does it say now?"
"Well, for starters, he's thrown out all the 'thou's'."
"That's good news."
"Yeah, but… Well no, it isn't really. It looks more ominous."
"Just read it, Nat."
"If travellers, you
would travel forth,
you need not think
of south and north.
Throw one of you,
down this well here,
the mighty wall
"Well, it's obvious, isn't it? I suppose it's a test again, to find an original solution to sell the story to the reader, so to speak. What do you guys think? Kill an animal, trick the well?"
"Clever solution, that's the ticket, clever solution."
"Hush! They're talking!"
Surprised they turned to Lily, who had cupped her hands behind her ears in fierce concentration.
"Hush! I want to listen!"
They all fell silent. The four of them were watching Lily, as she turned, slowly. She looked like a little antenna which had come alive. She walked away from them a bit, still craning her head slowly to the left, then to the right. Suddenly she stopped and turned back to the others.
"They say it's dangerous here."
"Who says it's dangerous here?"
"The bunnies, mister Nat! I can understand them!"
"Oh yes, of course you can."
"Yes, but I only got a five, so I don't understand everything. But I understand most of it. They are worried, they don't like it here. They come here because there's good things to eat here, but they feel the danger."
She was quiet for a while, trying to get the rabbits' thoughts into words. Finally she looked up at them. Nat noticed with a chill that she didn't just look worried or frightened. She looked petrified.
"It's red," she said, "very red."
Nat held his hands up.
"Okay, it is dangerous here. I'm starting to feel it myself. Let's sit down and have something to eat first."
They all sat down and without speaking and opened their backpacks. They found some food and their flasks with water. They shared and started eating under the black clouds, the brooding sky. Stuart looked up and laughed.
"That's a bit cliché, isn't it? Dark clouds when it gets a bit risky?"
Suddenly it was sunny again. They all burst out laughing. Nat was the first to speak.
"It's obvious this is a bit more dangerous and difficult than what we had to go through before. That's to be expected: we are getting closer to the ending of the book. Our writer is working towards a good climax, probably the last but one. So we'll need a good solution here."
"So we need to trick the well into believing one of us has jumped in it. Correct?" Kate asked.
"I think so. Any ideas?"
"Mm. Assuming it's not the most clever well in the world, it needs something to decide a human being has died in it. What would that be? Blood? A pulse? Heartbeat?"
"No, it's not going to be as easy as that, otherwise we could just throw an animal down. The well has to believe it is one of us."
"So it has to be alive, or look alive, to the well, and it has to pass as one of us. Mm. Tricky, this one. What about magic?"
"If it's done well, I suppose."
"Voodoo comes to mind, I don't know, a doll or an animal with blood from one of us, and then an incantation or something. Like an effigy that we could bring to some sort of life. The thing could even talk for a bit, before we threw it down. It would need quite a lot of blood, to make it a bit more dangerous. We'd think the person bleeding on the voodoo-doll was dying, because it took so much blood, and we'd be very frightened."
"We'll have to read the little poem again, it's important how it is phrased," Nat added. "Often there's a loophole in the phrasing, and we can use that. For instance if he just talks about going down the well, we could bring that person up with a rope. Just like you said, Kate, it'd have to have some additional dangers like an enormous centipede at the bottom, a real monster with a taste for human flesh."
"Yeah, well, he'll probably have changed the poem again by tomorrow morning, so there's not much use analyzing that now. Besides, it's not as if the fate of the world depended on it."
"Well, what if it did?" Nat asked. "That's an important question."
"What do you mean?"
"What I said. What if the fate of the world depended on what we did here?"
"Maybe. And maybe it isn't. And what if it isn't? Don't you want to think about that?"
"Nat! You're being silly. Of course not."
"So how do you know?"
"Which of your actions is important, and which is not? So which is the action you should pay attention to, stand true, be brave, and which action you can do whatever you want?"
"I'm not a coward."
"I didn't say you were."
"And besides, it's not like that. Nat, be rational for a second, even though you are a science fiction fan. You do hundreds of things a day; you can't stand up and be a hero every time you pop a slice of bread in the toaster!"
"I know, it's not that. But if you never think about what you do, why you do it, if you just go with the flow, what kind of life do you lead?"
"You're telling ME I go with the flow?"
"Kate, you're not listening. I think it's important once in a while to make a stand. To take responsibility, even if it's inconvenient for yourself, or dangerous even."
Kate sighed. She pulled out a stem of grass to chew on while talking. It was a habit she had picked up from Lily.
"Look, I read Shakespeare, and you know what happens to his characters? They die. Whatever they do, however they try to circumvent fate, they can't. Fate cheats them. Othello dies, Hamlet dies, Macbeth dies. And you know what?"
"As far as I understand, that's what happens in real life. You can't win. Life cheats you, and cheats you again, and again, and again, and then it kills you. And all you can do is spit it in the eye, once in a while."
"Look, but what if life gives you chances, opportunities. I'm not saying they're easy ones, they don't come for free, but you get them. Choices. You get a chance, you get a choice. And that choice makes a difference. That's what happens in fantasy."
"Maybe it's as true in its way as your way of thinking."
"Listen, Nat, that's all very well, but you're not seriously thinking about throwing one of us down the well, even if you can save the world doing it?"
"Of course not! I just think it is important to think about what is the right thing to do, once in a while. Isn't that heroism? I don't know, I think it is. Rushing into a burning building, that's instinct, I think. You either do it, or you don't. But being in a tough situation, having to make a tough call, and then just swallow and do it, do the right thing. You have the time and opportunity to say no, to walk away, but you choose: you say yes."
They were quiet for a bit, and then sighed at exactly the same time. They laughed. Nat got up and looked around to see where the others were.
Kate joined him. She said, "Well, we might as well sleep on it. It's like you said. Suppose we found the perfect solution, and he'd change the little poem tomorrow morning, we'd have to start all over again anyway. I, for one, am not prepared to work double shifts for our lord and master. I'm a character, not a slave!"
They looked over to where Stuart, Michael and Lily were sitting. Lily was teaching Michael and Stuart clapping games. The three of them were singing the simple songs that went with the games. Nat smiled at the scene, and he saw Kate do the same. He felt it; they belonged together.
He and Kate went over to them.
"Okay troops, we're going to give our writer some time. Come on, time for beddybyes."
They lay down, and it was night.
Stuart waited until the others were asleep. It took a while, but finally all of them were sleeping. He got up quietly and looked at them with such love in his heart. He turned around and walked to the well.
He knew that he understood what this meant, and they didn't. It wasn't a game. This was what life was about. All the rest of his life had been a preparation for this. He had just been playing to be ready for this moment. Michael couldn’t understand; he was just an unhappy kid whose biggest worry was not to stumble over his own words or his own feet. Kate, well, she still had a lot to learn. A lot. Even Nat didn't understand. Or maybe he did understand but he didn't want to face the consequences. It was a hard choice to make, unless you made it for yourself. Stuart had a sneaking suspicion Nat would be the one to confront the evil in the end scene. He was their leader, after all, even if Nat only half realized that himself. In fact, the only one who understood about all of this was Lily. Children understand about death; it's adulthood that muddles that basic knowledge. At the hospital he'd seen sick children die with much less fuss than adults.
He felt so alive, more alive than he'd ever felt in his life. He wanted to live, but he chose to die. Because it needed to be done. Because to balance all that is bad in the world, love is needed. He was going to die in a few minutes, and he felt frightened beyond anything he had ever felt in his life, but he was at peace. He was going to die out of love for Nat, for Michael, for Lily, for Kate. For humankind, for the world. It didn't feel like a sacrifice, it was love.
He had come to the well. He pulled the lid off with some difficulty. His heart was pounding in his chest, and he felt little drops of sweat running down his back, his forehead. He turned around one last time, to see what he was doing it for, who he was doing it for. He gasped: one of them was awake. Small figure: Lily. Slowly, hesitantly, she raised both her hands and waved a bit to him. His heart almost broke seeing her, and he waved back. She lay down again. Stuart was glad. He didn't think he would have the courage to do what he had to do with the little one watching.
He got on the small wall of the well and stood up. It looked so deep, so dangerous. He got dizzy just looking down. He bit his lip, and looked at the trees, swaying softly in the breeze, underneath a small sliver of a pale moon. He felt so sad at having to miss all that. He'd always enjoyed life, to its tiniest details, and now it was over. He breathed in, very deeply, and slowly out again. He crossed his arms and tucked his hands under his armpits, so that he wouldn't inadvertently try to grab something to save himself. He looked at the moon one last time, tears in his eyes, and he jumped.
Nat woke up with the lingering feeling of a bad dream. He'd had, not a nightmare exactly, but a strange, uncomfortable dream that made his skin crawl. He felt sweaty, uneasy. He sat up, rubbed his eyes and opened them. The sun was already up, low at the horizon. It promised to be a clear day, no clouds to be seen.
He yawned and looked around. Michael was still sleeping, and so was Kate, her mouth slightly open. Lily was the only one who was up already. She was sitting hunched over, probably drawing in the sand.
And then he saw it. His heart stopped. No. This could not be true. It could not.
Lily was not drawing in the sand.
She was crying.
She sat in the sand, almost bent double, completely forlorn, crying, rocking back and forth.
She was sitting next to Stuart's bedroll. It was neatly rolled up and held together with the leather belt.
This was not possible.
This was wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.
Nat jumped up and looked around, wildly, spinning around. His heart was hammering in his chest. Stuart must have woken up early, and gone into the wood. No, there was no wood, he must have gone for a walk. But everything was flat here, surely he'd see Stuart walking, returning. There was no way he could not see Stuart, you could see for miles here, that's how flat it was. Maybe he fell and hurt himself. They had to go and look for him, find him, he was their friend.
They had to find him…
And all the while he knew it was no use. He knew what had happened. Had known it from the second he realized Lily was sitting next to Stuart's bedroll and crying.
It could not be true. Just COULD not. COULD NOT.
He brought up his hands to his head, grabbed his hair, looked up at the sky and screamed. Screamed at the sky, howled, screamed Stuart's name at the top of his voice over and over again. He knew he was hysterical, one cool part of his mind still realized that, but he couldn't help it. Stuart was gone.
Stuart was gone.
He let his hands fall to his side, and sank to the ground. This couldn't be true, it couldn't be happening. He was still whispering his friend's name. And then he stopped saying it.
It was no use.
Stuart was gone.
For good. Forever.
Stuart was dead.
He looked up and saw Kate and Michael standing a few feet away from him, looking around, dazed, bewildered, trying to understand what was happening. They looked at him. He looked back at them, and then closed his eyes, not wanting to meet their eyes when realization set in. He just stretched his right arm in the direction of the well. And then he heard Kate whisper, "No…" He heard her running to the well.
It was quiet now. Just Lily's sobs, that was the only sound he heard.
This is it. This is the end. I can't go on any more. We're not even a group any more, we're just four people thrown together. Look at this, it's pathetic. Four completely different individuals. We're not heroes, we don't even belong together. And I'm supposed to be the leader? There isn't even a group to be leader of. I didn't see this coming. I did not see this coming! Stuart chooses to kill himself over a stupid doggerel, and I don't see it coming. Well done, Nat, well done. Congratulations on being the worst leader in the history of the world.
He tried to stop the thought before it came, but couldn't.
Besides, I should have died. If it was necessary for one of us to die, I should have made the sacrifice. If I'm supposed to be the leader, I should have died instead of Stuart.
And even as he was thinking this thought, his mind shrank away from it. He couldn't imagine himself jumping down that well, dying, being dead. He didn't want to be dead. But he felt he had failed Stuart, just the same. And the others, he'd failed them too.
Slowly he opened his eyes. He looked at Michael, noticed the boy was rooted to the spot, white as a ghost, mouth slightly agape. Eyes big as saucers, staring at the well. Fierce red spots high in his pale cheeks. Nat turned to see Kate coming up to him, slowly. She seemed smaller somehow, shrunken. They looked at each other, all words lost. She had to look away before she could speak.
"I thought you guys said none of us was going to die? We were safe in a fantasy novel, only minor characters would die?"
Nat didn't answer. Not because he didn't want to answer, but because there was no answer. They had thought that, and now Stuart was dead.
He saw Kate gritted her teeth and looked at the sky. She was going to speak to their writer.
"Bring him back. I mean it. Bring-him-back Now."
She wasn't yelling, but there was an icy inflexibility in her voice that made Nat shiver.
"You write this crap. You killed him. You can bring him back. Do it. Now."
There was silence, a leaden, heavy silence that pushed them all down.
But nothing happened.
Nat expected Kate to go on. He hoped it really.
But she turned around and walked away. Nat kept looking at her, growing smaller and smaller in the distance. She never completely disappeared out of his sight. It was flat here…
In the end it was Michael who took care of Lily, holding her, hugging her, rocking her, crooning soft songs to her, until she fell asleep in his arms. He stayed like that, sitting there, rocking the little girl gently to and fro.
Nat had something else to do. He walked up to the enormous gate in the wall. It was open. He could walk through it, and back, he could cross as many times as he wanted. It stayed open, looking very peaceful, even inviting. He even tried pushing the big doors back to close them, but they wouldn't budge. He kicked them, but only hurt his toes.
Hours later Kate came back, just when Lily was slowly waking up. The four of them took some food out of their backpacks, drank from their flasks, all in complete silence. It wasn't an angry silence, Nat thought, not even from Kate. It was an exhausted silence. After the spare meal they got up and without speaking started getting their stuff together. Nat took Stuart’s bedroll; he could carry that without trouble. The backpack was another matter. Michael and he started taking everything out and dividing it over their own two backpacks. There was nothing to do but leave the empty backpack here; it was too impractical to take. But two small hands took it out of theirs. Lily put her smaller Harry Potter backpack into Stuart's bigger one, and put in on her back. Her little face was still dirty and tear-streaked, as she stood up straight with the too big backpack on her little girl's shoulders. Her lip was quivering, but she didn't cry. She looked at Kate, and Kate nodded. The woman and the girl started walking towards the gate, and through it. Nat and Michael hoisted their own backpacks to their shoulders, and followed.
No one had said a word since Kate spoke to their writer.
But all of them knew they didn't want to spend the night here.
They walked well into the night before Kate finally called a halt in a wood. When they looked around, they couldn't see the wall any more.
And that was fine by them. But still they didn't sleep well. At all.
The days following Stuart's death passed in a blur, turned into weeks which also passed in a blur. They kept going, with a new urgency, a speed that hadn't been there before. They didn't even bother setting traps any more. They just ate what was in the backpacks, picked berries and nuts. Sometimes they came across small wild fruit trees, and Kate climbed in the trees to find a few good pieces of fruit among the many sour pieces.
Sometimes Nat turned around to tell Stuart something before he realized there was no Stuart to tell something to. Those moments were hard.
If there were problems they solved them, ususally without talking much. They had to cross a stream which was too wild to just walk through. Michael got rope out of his backpack, threw it to the other end, and made a makeshift crossing. Nat didn't even know how he'd done it. At one point all of them got thin green-black worms in their hands, crawling under the skin. It itched like mad, but all of them reacted indifferently until Kate found you could make the smallest incisison in the skin and carefully entice them out with a bit of bad meat. The little wounds healed.
Kate was the one taking care of Lily's little body: washing her if there was water, combing her pigtails, handing her choice bits of the little food they had, filling her water flask. She went about the job as if she was doing maintenance on a small robot, Nat thought: efficiently but without any warmth. Michael was the one in whose arms Lily slept, now. Nat didn't often hear them talk, but he heard Michael sing to the little girl a lot. Once he went a bit closer to hear what the song was, and was surprised into a smile. The song Michael was singing was 'Smells like teen spirit' by Nirvana, but sung sweetly, slowly, without words, just humming. Over the next days Nat recognized more songs by Nirvana, Metallica, and a few he thought were Michael's own lullaby-versions of death metal-songs.
One day Kate surprised Nat by suddenly turning to him and asking, "Do you think the writer killed Stuart as revenge, for what I did? You know, interfering with his writing?" She looked in his eyes, fiercely. Without waiting for an answer, she turned around just as suddenly and said, "Of course not. Forget it. Stupid question." He started to say "Kate…", but she answered quickly, "Never mind,” warning him with her tone not to say any more. She was gone before he could even think of anything to say.
Slowly they started talking to each other again. Not much, and never about Stuart, but still, it was a start. One day Lily, who was walking in front, made them all stop and whispered, "Look!" In amazement they watched a small group of beautiful, graceful deer in a clearing in the wood, and for the first time in weeks all four of them were smiling at the same time. A slim sliver of happiness in these dark, sad weeks. No, not happiness, Nat thought. Gladness. But it was a start.
And then one evening Nat told them, "Tomorrow we are going to meet the Nameless Evil." Kate and Lily looked at them without any surprise on their faces, and Michael even nodded. They knew it too. They didn't look scared, exactly. Apprehensive, that was the word. Nat breathed deeply.
"Kate, Lily, Michael."
Another first. This was the first time he had said all their names out loud, together, since Stuart had died. It was the first time he tried to see them as a group.
They all looked up at him. His carefully rehearsed speech stuck in his throat. Gone were all the words about how they did belong together, and how even Stuart still belonged with them, and how they had to stand together now, for the evil they were to face tomorrow would be truly awful, truly terrible. And how he loved all of them.
He couldn't say it.
So he just shrugged his shoulders and smiled at them.
All of them smiled back at him, and came a bit closer. Lily was the first to hug him, and then Michael put his arms around both their shoulders, one higher, one lower.
And Kate stepped into the one empty place, sighing.
"I suppose if you lot want to look like the world's most unlikely baseball team hugging before the game, I'd better join you. Go team!"
She planted a juicy, smacking kiss on three different cheeks, and said, "Now run along, all of you, and get me some firewood. Water too. I got some birds' eggs for just such a special occasion. Hardboiled eggs for everyone tonight!"
And after this unexpected treat, they went to sleep, and Nat noticed they all looked happier, more relaxed than they had in weeks. They'd need this feeling, tomorrow.
In the morning they ate slower, more carefully than usually. They said each other's names more, but last night's smiles hadn't returned. They knew this was the day.
After breakfast they broke up camp. Kate threw some sand on the embers of their fire, while the others packed their few belongings. They didn’t speak a lot: a few words, half a sentence, about the things they were doing. Kate was snappy again, Nat noticed. Michael was even more quiet than he usually was, and he looked pale, too, even under the tan he’d gotten over the last few weeks. His hands shook a bit. Lily was biting her lip, and looking around at the three grown-ups, anxiously. She looked as if she wanted to be patted on the head. Nat himself felt queasy. His palms were sweaty, he felt nervous. This was the day, and all of them knew it.
They left, without speaking another word. They just fell in behind each other: Nat first, then Lily, Michael, and then Kate at the rear. It didn’t take them more than maybe ten minutes to walk out of the wood and get to the field. And there it was.
It was huge.
It stood in the middle of the field. Even at this distance it looked enormous. The nameless evil.
But Nat couldn’t have described it to save his life. Was it a colossal animal, some prehistoric monster perhaps, a giant, a building even, what?
It was what it was. It was its size. And it was evil.
They had stopped, and still without saying anything they were now standing next to each other, close together. Nat felt a little hand creep into his: Lily. The little girl spoke, whispering.
“It mocks the stars …”
They all felt its evil, its strangeness too. Its inhuman nature, its cruelty.
And then it was closer.
They hadn’t seen it move. It hadn’t taken any steps; it hadn’t flown or crawled or jumped. It was simply closer than it was before.
And it had plans with them. Bad plans. They all felt it. Lily sidled closer to Nat, almost as if she wanted to disappear. She whimpered.
The nameless evil towered over them, threatening them, chilling their blood. Nat felt so small. His heart was beating so hard he felt it would jump out of his body. He was more afraid than he’d ever been in his life. And he knew, he was absolutely certain, that he was the one to deal with this menace, that he was the one who had to conquer this evil. For the whole world, for the salvation of the universe? Possibly. Maybe. But he was sure he had to do it for these people, this little group, for their four souls. Five, counting Stuart.
And he didn’t know if he could do it.
He gently pried Lily’s hand from his, and turned her towards Michael. He was now standing on his own. But he couldn’t even put one foot forward.
He looked to his right, over the two young ones. Kate was watching him. She sensed something was wrong.
“You know what to do.”
It wasn’t a question she was asking. It was a statement. She knew.
“You know what to do, and you won’t do it! You can stop this bloody great thing and you’re not doing it! You absolute and utter woose, this is what Stuart died for!”
She was furious now, and she wasn’t trying to hide it. Her eyes were two slits, and there was such contempt in her voice. Nat swallowed with difficulty.
“It’s not as easy as that.”
“So you do know what to do! I knew it! You’re just too much of a coward to do it! It’s not even like you’re going to die, you told us yourself!”
Nat looked at the others. Suddenly he missed Stuart so much. Michael was standing there, worn out, tired, still bleeding a bit on his leg where a big branch had hurt him. The little one, frightened of Kate’s shouting, was leaning against Michael, and his arms were around her in a protective gesture.
“You wimp. Stuart was twice the man you are. Afraid of an evil that hasn’t even got a name.”
For the first time since she’d started in on him, he looked straight at her, right into her eyes.
“It’s not that thing I’m afraid of…”
He turned around and faced the nameless evil again. His heart was pounding. He took a few steps forward.
“I love Kate.”
“What?” That was Michael’s voice, in a small whisper behind his back. Nat took a few more steps towards the things.
“I love Kate. I’m in love with her. I would love to touch her, to stroke her hair. I would love for her to be close to me, for my arms to be around her. I dream about her. I think she is so beautiful when she smiles, that little lopsided smile. I love her passion for things, her fierce reactions. I wouldn’t want her to be anything else than she is, how she is, who she is. When we go to sleep, I turn so that I can watch her when she falls asleep. It’s the best part of the day, just watching her fall asleep. I love her, I love Kate.”
“Oh my God”, he heard a breathless whisper behind him. That was Kate, he guessed. Nat took a deep breath and raised his voice.
“I love Kate. I love her gray eyes, I love her thick reddish-brown hair, I love the way her eyes dance when she is laughing. I love the way she walks, so determined, so quick, as if one second is a valuable commodity not to be squandered by dawdling. So you, evil thing, recognize this for what it is: a real feeling, a true feeling.”
He was shouting now, full of a fury against the evil, against everything that was bad in the world, against dying and unhappiness and lost loves. He raised his arms and thundered the words.
“Die, for I gave you a true feeling. This is my weapon of choice: my true feeling, my secret feeling. I lay it here for all to see. Die, as evil must when faced with the best a man can offer. I love Kate, I love Kate, I love Kate!”
He had expected the nameless evil to disappear in a spectacular way, evaporating in a hiss of steam, maybe, or slowly melting, or maybe exploding in a burst of silver stars. But the nameless evil just popped out of existence, like the last image on an old black and white TV. Oh well, there was always the second draft to put these matters right.
He turned around, suddenly drained of all energy. He looked at the others. He felt a stranger, naked, left to their mercy. He wanted to say something, anything, to draw them close to him, but he didn’t know what to say. They stared at him. His skin crawled.
And then Lily broke away from Michael and ran to him, shouting.
“Mister Nat, mister Nat! You killed the bad thing!”
Nat grinned and scooped her up in his arms. She was laughing loudly.
“You killed the monster, you killed it! You’re a real hero!”
And there was Michael, grinning from ear to ear, and hugging him and Lily, together. The boy was still tongue-tied, but happy as a clam and at ease. Kate came closer as well. She was still looking at him with such a serious face. His heart broke just looking at her. He knew what she was going to say. He put Lily down. Michael looked at Nat and at Kate, and gently took Lily’s hand. They went away, so as not to overhear the conversation.
“Nat, I didn’t …”
“No, you know, it’s just …”
“I know, Kate, it’s alright. Honestly.”
“I didn’t know, Nat. About you …”
“I know, I know.”
She bit her lip. He knew what was coming.
“Look, I …”
“Yes, I know. It’s …”
“I’m sorry, Nat, I really am.”
He had known it would be like this, but still he couldn’t help the sinking feeling in his stomach.
“This is so strange. I mean …”
“Yeah, I know.”
She suddenly came closer. He smelled her hair, it made him dizzy.
“Listen, Nat, I want you to know, I like you a lot. But not, you know, like that.”
“I know. I always knew.”
“You did? And still you told that … that thing? That must have taken guts.”
“Yeah. Told you I wasn’t afraid of that thing.”
“Why did you do it? Why did it work? I expected you to fight it, I don’t know, with magic or something like that.”
“I thought of fantasy. There’s always fighting and spells and curses etcetera, but what it boils down to is being true. Facing your worst fear. For me that was saying what I said. I suppose in the second draft I’ll have to do some fighting to go along with the words, maybe with a magic sword or something like that, but that’s just window dressing. The true feeling is the real weapon. Look in Tolkien, look in the Dark Tower series, everywhere in good fantasy fiction really.”
“That’s not like Shakespeare at all. But you know what it reminds me of?”
“Medieval literature – you know, quests and such? They described it differently, you know, the pure heart and so on, but it seems similar.”
“Yeah, that’s logical. That’s where fantasy comes from.”
“It’s a lovely thought. Honesty can save us all.”
“Just in fiction, though.”
“Oh, Nat, I’m so sorry.”
He looked at her, afraid she’d come closer, and hoping she would at the same time. Just to hold her in his arms, once, just once.
But she didn’t.
Nat was the first to speak again. “Look, we need to speak to our writer, about the rewrites and the sequel and so on. But would you mind if I spoke to him for a minute, alone, before we talk to him together?”
“Sure, no problem, I’ll take the kids to the place where we camped last night, you know? It’s not far. We’ll get a fire going and you can come a bit later.”
She didn’t ask why he had to speak to their writer alone. In fact, she seemed eager to do something, anything, for him. She also seemed glad to get away from him, Nat thought wryly. He could understand it, this conversation must have been hard for her, too, but it hurt. She turned and walked to Michael and Lily. They picked up their stuff and started walking in the direction of the wood again. Michael was still limping a bit.
“You can come out now.”
Their writer was getting used to being summoned by his own characters. When Nat turned around he was already standing there, beaming, looking at him.
“Nat, well done, congratulations! You did great, I didn’t know you were going to do that until I was writing it, you were …”
“Cut the crap.”
Their writer seemed shocked at these words. His mouth fell open and he stared at Nat.
“You KNEW I was in love with Kate and you KNEW she didn’t love me. Why the FUCK did you write us like that? Was it too much to ask to have a bit of happiness at the end of the story? Wasn’t losing Stuart enough?”
“I didn’t …”
“Did you enjoy writing that scene, did you? Was it fun for you? What did you think? Oh no, let’s not have a happy ending, that is so cliché, isn’t it? No, far better to have some unrequited love, a bit of a surprise ending. Far better starting point for a sequel, too, keeping your options open. Don’t worry about Nat, he’s just a character, he can’t feel a thing.”
“Nat, honestly, …”
“Have you ever lost anyone really close to you, like Stuart? You haven’t, have you? You wouldn’t have made him jump down that well so readily, would you, if you’d ever lost someone so dear to you as Stuart was to us! Lily still has bad dreams about losing Stuart, did you know that? She’s had nightmares almost every single night since we lost Stu, and I worry about her, I really do. Me too, I miss Stuart something terrible. We all do. And now Kate …”
He stopped, exhausted, angry, lost for words. All he could do was look at the writer, more furious at him than he had even been at the nameless evil. This one was responsible for everything.
“Don’t you think I miss Stuart?”
Nat looked up sharply at these words, spoken so quietly.
“I miss him too, you know. I honestly didn’t know he was going to jump, he took me completely by surprise.”
“You must have known what was going to happen, you wrote the bloody scene!”
“I know, I know, I don’t understand it myself. I wanted you guys to sleep over it and find a solution in the morning. I even knew the solution, I had it all worked out! It had to do with Lily understanding the rabbits. I wanted you to find out that the rabbits understood Lily too. And then Lily would take over the mind of one of the rabbits. I even knew what would make it difficult: she is a little girl, she wouldn't want to hurt a bunny. But Kate would convince her and the rabbit would go down with Lily's mind in it. And she'd pull her mind back just in time. And you'd all think you'd lost her, for a moment, to build suspense. That's what I'm saying, I had it all worked out. But then Stuart got up and did, you know, what he did. I think he was right, but I didn’t like it any more than you did.”
“It’s true. Stuart understood about life and fantasy better than you or me. He knew it was necessary. He was a hero.”
“Yeah, that’s true enough.”
“And about Kate …”
“What about Kate?”
“I wanted the two of you to get together. I started with you disliking each other, a bit of friction, make it a bit interesting. I was going to do even more of that in the next draft. But the plan was for you two to fall in love after that, first you and then Kate.”
“But she didn’t.”
Nat sensed there was more to it than just no.
The writer hesitated. He looked at Nat, unsure of himself.
“Go on then, spill the beans.”
“Kate … she was someone I was in love with.”
“She’s based on a girl I loved.”
“And was she in love with you?”
Nat started laughing. This was too much, it really was. He couldn’t stop, he was laughing and laughing. He knew he was laughing hysterically, but it did feel good. His sides ached from laughing so much. Through the tears in his eyes he saw the writer had started laughing too. Finally the laughing tapered off.
“So let me get this straight. I’m based on you.”
“And you based Kate on a girl you couldn’t get.”
“And then you try writing Kate to be in love with me and you’re very surprised when it doesn’t work that way?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
Nat wiped the laughing tears from his eyes.
“Oh man, you still have a lot to learn about writing, don’t you?”
At this they both burst into laughter again.
“Yes, I guess I do. But with the help of you guys I’ll learn, I’ll learn.”
“Do you need help, do you ever need help.”
“I know. But the second draft will be better already, I promise.”
They fell silent, both of them lost in their own thoughts. Nat spoke again.
“I don’t want to go through Stuart dying again.”
The words sounded strangely flat. They looked at each other.
“I think that scene is all right, I’ll leave it as it is.”
“You do that.”
The writer was quiet for a bit.
“I don’t even like rereading that scene. It seems such a waste.”
“Yeah, it is.”
"Come on, let's go."
Slowly they walked in the direction of the path in the wood. They were silent now, with so much in their minds to think about. They came to the clearing in the wood, where Kate already had a fire going. It wasn't so cold they needed it for warmth, but Nat was glad she'd done it anyway. It seemed to warm his soul after everything that had happened today. He looked at their writer. That one seemed happy, in a way, in spite of everything. Probably because he had finished the first draft of his novel. Their writer rubbed his hands and spoke to all of them.
"I would like to congratulate you all on a job well done. I know the thing needs a lot of rewrites, but I'm confident it will work. The story works, and that is largely thanks to you guys. And that's why …" (They were suddenly standing with a glass of champagne in their hands, except Lily, who had a glass of fizzy pink lemonade with an orange umbrella and a purple straw in it) "That's why I would like to propose a toast. To all of you, and to Stuart." Their writer raised his glass, and they all followed his example. "To Stuart," it sounded from four mouths, while one little voice said: "To mister Stuart."
They all drank. It tasted wonderful. Nat thought it had its advantages to be a writer. You never had to economize on the luxuries of life, you could always write yourself the best.
He felt good, he really did. He had worked hard, and even though the thing still needed a lot of work, he knew it was going to work. He felt a bit tipsy, whether from the fictional champagne or the heady feeling of having finished the first draft, he didn't know. He was sitting against a tree. Michael came closer, hesitantly. He gestured for the kid to come closer.
"Come here, my boy, come here. Have some more champagne. Or something else, maybe, what shall I write you? A cigarette maybe, or a good old reefer? Would you like that?"
The boy seemed horrified at the thought. He had the look of a kid who sees his dad at a party with a lampshade on his head, doing the lambada. He supposed he was Michael's father, in a way. He laughed at the idea.
"So, what can I do for you? Any ideas for the next draft? Or for the sequel, even? I think this thing needs a sequel, maybe even two. Nice trilogy, don't you know? That's the good thing about fantasy, you know. None of your slim volumes which need to make up in pseudo-literariness what they lack in story and length. No, 11.99 for a paperback of 600 pages, that's what I call value for money."
The kid looked as if he was trying very hard to remember where he had left his tongue. But he breathed in deep and took the plunge.
"Well, I told the others before, so you must have heard. Erm, are there going to be more characters? Because it's still, you know, so empty, and quiet? Nobody but us. Erm, couldn't we have some elves, and you know, dwarves, and …"
The writer sighed.
"Yeah, I know what you mean. But it's hard to invent new characters, as a species, I mean, and we don't want to plagiarize Tolkien or anyone else, do we? And you wanted more background too, didn't you?"
The kid was nodding vigorously.
"Yeah, absolutely, mountain ranges, red deserts, lakes, vineyards and jungles and little hamlets. Deserted cities. Tundra, prairies, pampas. You know, as if you were drawing it? You can't just have people having adventures, you need landscapes, too. We're always stuck in woods, and you're not even telling what sort of wood it is."
The writer was a bit stung. "Well, I don't know that much about woods. It's only a first draft!"
Michael went on, "Like at the beginning, the empty place? I thought, well, …"
He seemed to have lost the courage to finish his idea, and he looked at the writer helplessly.
"Go on then, I won't bite. Tell me!"
"Well, erm, it could be a crystal city, you know? All the buildings in crystal, glass, and the prison, where we were, would be outside, so we could see all the people and everything, and the sun and the clouds, and they could see us, the people I mean, not the clouds, but we'd be held back by a shield put there by this powerful wizard, see, who worked for the glass king…" Unsure of himself, he trailed off.
"That would look great. Would look good in a movie, too, but what about the engineering of such an idea? I don't think a crystal palace would be such a strong place to live, would it?"
"But it doesn't matter, in fantasy, I mean. Well, I don't think it does…"
"Michael is right, mister writer man. Why worry about how strong a glass city is if you are going to write about impossible adventures in the first place?"
They both turned, surprised, to see Kate sipping her champagne, completely at ease, leaning against a tree. The writer got the distinct idea this one still blamed him for, well, for everything, really. He thought that if he said 'white', Kate would say 'black' in a heartbeat. And stick to it, too.
"Well, it's important for the credibility of the story. There's a lot of scientific people out there who want the facts right."
"Let them read science fiction, is what I say. I mean, we have to save the world or possibly even the universe from all kinds of dangers, and you're worrying about engineering? I vote we have a glass city to escape from. Let's have some robed witch-priests following us just to make matters a bit more exciting. Nat! Nat!"
Nat, who had been talking to Lily, came closer to them. The little girl followed him.
"What do you think? A crystal city at the beginning, invisible prison walls, glass floor, maybe even see-through?"
"Sounds good to me. Better than that nowhere place where we were in the first draft. Good idea, I must say. Congratulations, man, you have a wonderful imagination."
He nodded to the writer, smiling. The writer was starting to feel just a bit rattled. This was all going a bit fast for him.
"No, it wasn't me who thought of it. It was Michael. He was also telling me there should be elves in the story, but quite frankly, I don't want it too Tolkienesque."
Nat and Lily sat down with them, cross-legged on the grass, and even Kate joined them. The writer smiled to himself: who'd have thought that one day he'd be sitting in a circle with these characters he'd first thought up that night in the car when he was driving home after an office Christmas party with a bit too much punch and not enough snacks to stop him getting just a tad lightheaded? Well, this was a better party, that was sure. Better booze, for starters, and better company too. Kate woke him from his daydreaming.
"I know, I know! They could be elves who can turn into, I don't know, animals or trees, or birds. Not just at random, just the one change for each elf. Yes, that's a neat idea. Lots of story possibilities. Tall, slim, fair hair. And Celtic names, that sounds best. Oh, I used to know lots of Celtic names. Er, let me think. We could meet Fechin, for instance, I think that means 'raven'. Oops, no fair hair then, he'd have to have black hair. So, he can turn into a raven, he's tall, slim, has black hair, long obviously. Brave, strong, wise."
The writer looked at Kate, completely baffled. Where did all that come from? True, he'd been interested in the meaning of first names for quite a while; he'd even made up a list of 'possibles' for his stories, but that was something like two or three years ago. He didn't even remember all that, so how could she? And not only that, but he could tell she was halfway falling in love with this elf she was inventing on the spot!
"And Cadan, that could be his younger brother. That means 'wild goose'. So he could have lighter hair, but still long, he's an elf after all. A friend for Michael maybe. Michael could do with a friend."
Kate's explanation was stopped short by a joyous shout of Lily. She was jumping up and down, pointing at the sky.
"Look, miss Kate, look! You did it, you did it this time! There he is! He's flying over us!"
They all got up, quickly, and looked where Lily was pointing. And indeed, high above their heads flew a lone wild goose, determined and quick. Even from this distance they could see it was a magnificent animal. The writer looked at Michael, who had gone as red as a beetroot. He was staring after the bird with so much longing in his eyes that the writer suddenly realized something: Michael was gay. And this elf who could turn into a wild goose was going to be his lover. It would take a sequel, or even two, before he got that far, but that was what was going to happen. He sighed. It would be so hard, so difficult to write that love well, to make people believe in Cadan and Michael's love for each other.
But he looked at Michael again, and he knew there was no other way. He sighed again. He'd start by having Michael lose that baseball cap. And he'd make his shoulders a bit broader in the sequel.
And then he wrote them all to sleep.
It was unavoidable, really. They were talking too much, giving so many suggestions and ideas and criticisms that his head felt as if it would explode. They'd questioned his spelling, given him worried advice on how to get published and talked pointedly of all the work left on this draft alone. Kate had even complained he'd made mistakes against the point of view: jumping from one character to another in the middle of the mermaid-scene and the breakfast-scene.
Who'd have thought that characters you invented yourself would be so hard to control? They had minds of their own, and they used them way too much. So he wrote them to sleep. And even then Kate was muttering in her sleep, so he had to add she was sleeping a dreamless sleep to shut her up.
Ah. This was more like it. Peace and quiet. A nice patch of grass among the trees to sit, and the soft song of the wind rustling through the leaves, so soothing. He'd even written the birds to sleep. Peace and quiet, at last.
He knew what he wanted to do. He just wasn't sure he could do it.
Stuart came out of the wood. He wasn't floating or anything, he walked. But where his feet had been, there was no print in the soft ground. He looked shimmery, as if you could look right through him if you tried hard enough. He came closer. I got up and waited, heart beating fast.
"I didn't know if I could get you to come."
"You wrote the scene."
"I'm so glad to see you."
Stuart didn't answer, but just looked at the writer.
"Sorry you had to die."
"I did that myself."
"In a way, yeah, I suppose so. But, you know,…"
"You feel responsible."
"I do, yes, I definitely do. I should have seen it coming."
"I don't think you could have."
"Maybe not. Still, it's too late to change all that now."
"I don't regret doing it. I'd do it again."
Stuart just nodded, and his eyes lit up. He smiled at the writer. The writer couldn't help it, he smiled right back when he saw that kind smile, that smile that showed that Stuart might just be the most human character he'd ever written. That smile was about life, not about death. So now he dared ask.
"Look, I've been thinking. Er, you know, in fantasy, people who've, er, who've died, sometimes come back. You know what I mean. Someone goes into death and gets you out, or a wizard can bring you back or whatever. Would you like me to try that for you?"
Stuart's shook his head, still smiling that slight smile. The writer sighed.
"No, I didn't think so, really. You're not one to fall for that sentimental crap, are you? Thought as much. It is a bit cheap, I know, I know…"
He looked Stuart squarely in the eye.
"It's just, they miss you, and so do I… It would be nice, you know, if we saw a bit more of you."
It was quiet for a bit. The writer just watched Stuart, glad to see him one more time. He tried again.
"Look. One thing. Maybe you won't mind one small thing. Sometimes you could be a small voice at the back of Lily's mind. Not in this one, mind. In the sequel. That's all."
They looked at each other and smiled at the same time. The living writer and the dead fictional character. Stuart seemed to be thinking it over very seriously. Then he nodded.
"OK. Thank you, Stuart."
"That's alright. Bye for now."
Stuart walked away into the wood.
The writer closed his eyes. When he opened them he was sitting at his desk. The computer screen had jumped to the screensaver. He moved the mouse until he saw his text, and happily added:
© 2005 by Mizu Ash. email@example.com