All the greatest stories, so it has been said, are seamless blends of truth and artifice. Forgeries so exquisite, and so detailed, that in the end they become genuine. The watcher, the reader, and the listener all find an immersion – yet not quite an escape – in tales cannibalized in different measures from life and imagination; where strange syncretism has created beautiful and believable deception. When ended, as the watcher’s mind turns outward again, and the narrative fades, a part of it still holds. It holds not at the center, but at the edges, and there is a transference.
“That’ll be fifteen dollars.”
“For the orange juice; ten plus Five buck-a-roons.”
“Seems a bit pricey for a glass of orange juice, doesn’t it?”
“A pot of orange juice, sir, and it is a particularly fine brand. All hand squeezed by purpose built machines. I’m told that getting the hands right was something of a breakthrough in cybernetics.”
“Still, that does seem like rather lot of money.”
“I don’t set the prices, I just enforce ’em. You know, we do warm the pot first, in the customary fashion.”
“Okay … how much for coffee?”
“Great, I’ll have a coff–“
“With every pot of orange juice.”
“I can’t just order a coffee?”
“No. But you can have as much as you want, so long as you order our ‘juice-pot-special’.”
“Alright, I’ll get the orange juice with coffee. Can you just hold the juice and only bring me the coffee, though?”
“Of course, sir, that’s no trouble at all. The Edge of the Map Grill and Gourmet Eatery prides itself on sterling customer service. Can I also interest you in a Sandwich? The ‘Curio Eduardo de Ouro’ is very popular.”
“Just the coffee-juice, thanks.”
“No problem, we aim to please. That’ll be twenty dollars.”
“I thought you said it was fifteen?”
“The beverage substitution carries a five dollar surcharge.”
Max was too tired to argue, it had been a really long trip, and this small city had been very difficult to find. Curiously, it seemed to possess no name that anyone could recall, nor did it seem to appear on most maps. This had made the dealings with his travel agent more troublesome than usual, as he’d initially had to ask for a return ticket to nowhere. Max handed over the appropriate amount of money.
“Thank you, sir. I’ll bring it over to your table. Are you sure I can’t interest you in one of our delicious sandwiches?”
“No, I’m fine sandwich-wise. How much is it for access to your wifi?”
“Hahahaha, oh sir, you have quite the sense of humor; no civilized business charges for wifi access anymore, even out here. It’s also complimentary.”
“With every sandwich purchased.”
Max ordered something called ‘The Bald Woman’, and went to find somewhere secluded to sit.
In all the time he had been working for the Whimsilist Gazette, the story that had brought him to this city had become one of the most bizarre. It wasn’t because it had taken unanticipated turns – he was quite used to the original story transforming organically into something unexpected. Like the time when he had been working on a local interest piece about lentil farming, and the story had transmuted into an exposé on the political economy of small-scale agriculture. There was also the time he had started work on a puff-piece about pet-grooming, which had turned into an examination of human/animal communication, interconnection, and transcendence. But this story was different from the others; the turns taken in those cases seemed like reasonable mutations of the original idea. No, this was a beast entirely ‘other’ to that with which he was most familiar.
In fact, this story had not even been his idea, it had been his editor’s. Although it is not so unusual for a writer to have to follow an editor’s brief, it was a very rare occurrence for Max, who was pretty much permitted to do as he pleased. It wasn’t even supposed to be that complicated, just a quick five hundred word thing on ‘modern concepts of the hero’. “What could be easier,” his editor had said, “just watch a couple of movies based on successful comic book franchises, use a few fancy words, and there it is.”
Initially, it had gone much as his editor had suggested it would. He’d traced a quick history of the hero as soldier – trampling enemies beneath the hooves of his war horse – to the modern ‘selfish-hero’ who must work, reluctantly, with other selfish people for the benefit of a public they only seemed to care about superficially. He’d even managed to get a little symbolic analysis into the piece, riffing on notions of gender and hegemony. Male heros, he had said, were ‘lantern-jawed’ because their words shine patriarchal lights of truth and justice on the world. The modern heroine, on the other hand, shines light from different body parts, with a very different meaning. The analysis probably wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny, but ‘Whimsilist‘ wasn’t a ‘highbrow’ publication, so it wouldn’t need to.
Max wasn’t one of the fastest writers on staff, but he’d finished the ‘hero’ piece quicker than usual. Not quick enough that his editor could suggest he undertake another assignment, but fast enough that there was more than the average amount of time left before the next edition went to press. (It had always amused Max that the Whimsilist Gazette ‘went-to-press’; to the best of his knowledge, it had always been an online publication.) One of the reasons that Max was normally left to pursue his own stories, without editorial interference, was because he was the only employee that seemed to know anything about maintaining the Whimsilist’s website. It wasn’t that he had a deep knowledge of things ‘webby-spready’, more that he’d had to learn a bit about it as a necessity. As younger writer, before he could even legitimately identify as one, he’d had to self-publish everything. The best way he’d found to do this, was to set up as a website entity; in technical terms, he’d had to create himself as a ‘donkey’. (The ‘lizard’ or ‘grape juice’ were also options, but semantically less viable.) Through this process, he’d learned a few tricks, it was one of the reasons he’d managed to gain his current employment. Perhaps it was the primary reason, as his writing seemed to be made of rubber in those early days. At least, that was the only way he could account for all ‘bounce’ that had seemed to happen on his own site. Finding himself with a completed story, and some free time, Max turned his attention to Whimsilist’s digital backend.
If only he hadn’t turned his attention thusly. If only he’d skived off to the pub early – on the pretense of doing some last minute research – how differently things might have gone. Instead, he was here, reflecting that the only bald thing about his sandwich, was the shaved ham in it. If only he had not been so interested in that ‘ghost page’, the one that seemed to be getting more views than Whimsilist’s legitimate onsite content.
Of course, Max was no stranger to the phenomena of ‘ghost pages’; he’d had to accept many permutations of them in his life before gainful employment. In general, they were pretty harmless, normally reflecting some kind of referral spam, but not doing anything malicious on the site, nor causing the spread of malevolent activity from his own digital platform. One of the general theories about their existence, was that some unknown entity, somewhere, was trying to spam some search engine or another – although he could never quite wrap his head around how that worked. Through arcane technical art, you could get behind the page to see and track the URL to it’s source. He never clicked the links so revealed – BECAUSE YOU SHOULD NEVER CLICK THOSE LINKS – but it had become a fun game-cum-learning opportunity for him.
Mostly, because these spectral pages were so mind numbingly common, Max rarely gave them much thought anymore. But this page caught his interest because it had an unusual title. Unlike others that he had seen – which had a web address, or simply a letter, for a label – this one had a question. It was a good question too, one he liked to ask himself just for kicks. The question was this: Don’t you think you’ve forgotten something very important? Max was sure that he probably had, but it wasn’t a common occurrence for a backend-interface to remind him of it. It was even less usual to find, after arcane technical practice, that the page’s sneaky URL wasn’t revealed, which had been the case in this instance. Still, he mused, it did occasionally happen that a ‘URL revelation’ was beyond his skill set, no need to wind up the claxons on account of his shortcomings.
In any case, he had some time to kill, it might be fun to play a quick game of ‘I’m definitely missing something here’, so he commenced looking intensly out of the window as an outward reflection of his internal state of deep contemplative attention.
As usual, he could come up with no trace of anything he’d forgotten, although there had been the hint of something at the edge of his mind, just slightly out of reach. It failed to materialize, however, and Max decided that the pub seemed like a pretty good idea now. Just as he was about to log off, and take himself to The Sleepy Freelance for a pint (he was definitely in the mood for a few India Pale Ales), he noticed a new phantom haunting his administrator screen. This one was not a question, but an answer: You have forgotten that tricksters are heroes all. Max thought this oddly coincidental, but as he was by now very thirsty, he went to have a drink anyway.
Try as he might, Max just couldn’t get the ‘question’ and ‘answer’ pages out of his head. They seemed to echo off the walls of his skull like a bad movie effect: tricksters… ers …s, heroes… oes… s… oes. It had positively spoiled his reflections on why IPA’s were named such, as they were neither particularly pale, nor did they originate from India – not in the beginning, anyway. It had been completely distracting as he attempted to discover whether ‘hipsters’ were really a ‘thing’, or more like celebrity: just sort of made up. In the end, he gave in, and turned to Wikipedia for some answers.
Tricksters seemed pretty interesting from a folkloric, or mythic, perspective; archetypes that embodied deep cultural values, taught lessons, and turned events to positive outcomes, even when that had not been the trickster’s intention. They were ‘kind of’ heroes, he supposed, insofar as they might be considered culturally heroic. But they were not really the ‘underwear-on-the-outside’ sort of hero he had wanted to address in his article. No, this was just paranoia, brought on, no doubt, by an excess of slightly-below-tepid-flat-beer.
As he was signalling to order another drink, Max’s phone ‘dinged’ a message notification at him. Probably his editor, suggesting that Max might want to consider a more robust symbolic analysis for this week’s edition. But it wasn’t from his editor. It was from… well, he wasn’t sure who it was from, but it was written as a rhyming couplet:
In a place where once was a tree, that’s the town where you may find me.
An atrocious rhyming couplet – if Max was any judge – one which made no sense at all. The phone went off again.
In Narratives and Articles you must seek, but answers there not for the meek.
Not only was the extra message giving Max an uncomfortable feeling in his stomach, it also seemed to contain nothing in the way of actual information. It didn’t seem to mean anything at all, in fact, and Max decided he was not going to engage. But, as he was about to turn off his phone, another message came through. No rhyme, just a directive:
He still can’t be sure why he did it; perhaps it was merely because searching the internet on his phone was Max’s favorite thing about the Twenty-First Century, but perhaps not. Whatever the reason, Google Max did, a variety of combinations of the words from the messages. The only thing he could find that seemed peripherally relevant, was some blog written by an eccentric character of dubious ontological status. There was a city in many of the posts, one of the entries explicitly said that there used to be a tree there. Could this be the place referred to in the messages beamed, as it appeared, directly from the the ether?
“Hello, are you Max?” It was one of the staff, the pretty young woman who was working her way through a university degree in interstitial studies.
“Yes,” answered Max, surprised not so much by the question, but by the look of puzzlement on the young woman’s face.
“Ummm, we just got a fax for you. It’s a bit strange, actually; I didn’t think it was plugged in, not since the nineties, anyway. Well, that’s what the boss said, it’s bit before my time.”
“Okay?” The nineties didn’t seem as long ago as all that to Max, but judging by the young woman’s tone of voice, it might as well have been the late Bronze Age. “And you say there is a fax for me, then?”
“Can I have it?”
“Oh, sorry, yes; here it is.” She handed it to him as though it might have been infected by some late Twentieth-Century virus, and moved off as quickly as she could without appearing rude.
It was just one sheet of paper. At the top there was a photo of Max sitting in his current position, with his name spelled out in ‘caps-lock’ yelling style underneath. Beneath his name was another message; a pair of rhyming couplets this time. “Oh good,” he thought, “more poetry”:
If unfortunate favor is to your taste, to this city you must make haste. On map’s edge you should wait, I’ll be there before it gets too late.
Accompanying the message was a set of numbers. Max assumed that these were GPS co-ordinates, but they could just have easily been the conversions of how the ten-thousand hours it takes to master something is rendered numerically in weeks and months. Probably they were co-ordinates, though.
And that’s how he had ended up out here, it was the numbers that had been the key in the end; both to the location of the city, and to his travel agent’s disappointment when she realized that there was no tourist package she could tack on to his ticket to boost her commission. His editor had agreed he could pursue the story’s new angle, so long as he logged in remotely to maintain the Whimsilist’s site; they’d just publish something from ‘Random Archives’ this week instead.
But now that he was here, it all seemed so absurd. Maybe he hadn’t gone to The Sleepy Freelance? Or, perhaps he had gone, but all of the messages he believed he had received there, were really just vivid dreams brought on by the IPA once he’d gone home and fallen asleep? Even the ghost pages could be explained away; they were probably just standard internet background noise, purely serendipitous coincidence. It could be, that he really needed a vacation, and the whole thing was an hallucination generated by his subconscious to force him to take one. Max wished his subconscious had chosen somewhere with a beach, and pineapple drinks.
Such was the substance of Max’s ruminations as his phone went off again, definitely his editor, he thought, he hadn’t had anything unsettling since the day this whole saga had started. Could also be the travel agent, of course, whose scrupulous attention to detail had uncovered some dolphin swim or another. Then he paused, his hand hovering limbo-like above the device. That hadn’t been the message notification ‘ding’. That had been the voice of Darth Vader telling him that he finds a lack of faith disturbing. To be sure, Max had onced use that as a tone, on his last phone, but he’d deleted it after it had begun to creep him out, and make him afraid of that essential life-giving gadget. A deep breath, and he picked it up to view the message.
Here you sit with bald woman’s bread, wondering if was all in your head.
Those blasted rhymes, they were seriously aggrevating. Now they even seemed to be–[ding]
Reading your mind? Not exactly reading it, but we can pretend like that’s what’s happening. Only, if you could just kind of ‘think-talk’ at me using quotes, that would really help out. Also, you really don’t like the rhymes? I thought they were contextually appropriate myself, I do so enjoy them, and I so rarely get the opportunity. Never mind, well just do it the boring way if you prefer.
“Who are you?” thought Max, in quotes.
Ah, I’m glad you asked, and I suppose it is time for an introuduction. I am…ahem… Witnimble.
“That’s it? You don’t have any other names; like a first or last name, for instance?”
I have many names, actually – these do include a first name, as it happens. I chose not to give that to you, though, as I think it would rather spoil the mystery. You’re actually more familiar with me than you think.
“Fair enough. But could you give me a little more, for my notes?
Oh, you’re taking notes?
“For the story, yes. I am a writer, after all. We often take notes – lots of holes in writer’s mind for facts to disappear down; best to get them in a notebook before that happens.”
Ah, that seems reasonable. Well, in that case you can call me… AHEM… Witnimble, the ghost in all the machines. … It’s a really good thing you didn’t get the orange juice.
Through involuntary reflex, Max started at this last message, and looked up from his phone’s optimized screen. The sight that greeted him had a very odd texture. All the eatery’s adult patrons seemed to be fast asleep, bodies cocked at odd angles, ears in food. Liquids were spralling with horror-movie viscosity across previously pristine surfaces. One man was even snoring into his nachos. The children, however, seemed to be very much awake, although there was something a little ‘off’ about them. Behind the counter, the two serving staff were offering feverish explanations – with a judicious amount of arm waving – to the duty manager. The duty manager seemed to be only half listening; he was more focused on sniffing a juice-pot with a look of great suspicion.
I almost forgot: Happy Birthday 🙂