(reading time: 36 minutes)
A House-boat on the Styx
A protest raged outside the home of Bill Smithers. A hundred boots stomped up and down on the sidewalk in rhythm. Bottles, eggs, and fruit sailed over the hedges. The crowd would’ve preferred rotten fruit, but when there’s an apple or a pear on your page it usually came out looking ready to sit in a bowl for a portrait instead of mushy and covered in maggots. Cardboard signs waved in the air or hung around the neck by rope, their messages written sloppily in big splotchy swipes, which made it impossible to tell if they were written in haste or written with the ink from an open wound. Everyone shouted the same sorts of things on the signs.
I’m Copyright; you’re copywrong!
My rights! My rights!
CC is cray-Z! Go home; leave us be!
The house had been hidden from the street by huge hedges, but the grabbing, ripping, tearing hands of the furious crowd created wide holes in the plants that provided a view to the spectacle on the front lawn. There was a podium set up at the base of the mayor’s front door; he stood behind it and clutched a copy of his platitude gospels. Sir Pertipole stood on one side of him with a big weasel-like smile propping up his mustache. There was another copymite on the other side that was built like Stonehenge. The smiles were for the reporters and photographers, all bearing the C of approval of course. Everything needed to look nice and legal and friendly. Three notaries public stood by to authenticate.
The mayor stepped up to the microphone. His eyes were cloudy and his skin dry. It took him a while to find the contract in front of him, which was already turned to the most important page. A blank line awaited his signature. A copymite combed what was left of the mayor’s hair from behind him while he spoke. He slowly read the cue cards tucked around the edges of the heavy contract.
“Characters of Carlo, I… am extremely pleased to make this historic announcement. Today I sign this contract in the hopes it will… improve the prospects of us all. We finally have a chance to show the rest of the Public Domain, and the rest of the world… what we can do.”
“Why do you think nobody shows up in Carlo anymore?” a protester screamed through a hole in the hedges. “They already own everybody out there. They buy them up before they can even get here! Maybe this place would’ve been paradise if they weren’t out there employing everybody!” The mayor didn’t seem to hear them. He just noticed there were two cards left, and he was definitely supposed to read all of the cards. Then he could go back inside and have a nap with the phantom of his Lady watching over him.
“With my signature I will appoint the Copyright Company, and its local representatives, as the legal guardians of us all. Tonight will be a night of celebration and friendship, and tomorrow… we will get straight to work.”
Flashbulbs popped, but even their light couldn’t penetrate the fog of obscurvy in Bill Smithers’ eyes. He saw a few people through the rapidly expanding holes in his waving hedges, but he didn’t see the feeling in their faces. All he knew was that everyone had shown up to see him do what he was supposed to. As the mayor he was definitely supposed to sign legal documents. The contract in front of him was the most legal thing he’d ever seen. Sir Pertipole handed him a pen.
The protesters doubled their efforts to push their way into the front yard, but they were blocked by the police, most of whom had their own C. Even the ones who didn’t had to admit there was nothing overtly illegal going on at the mayor’s home. Sure it smelled fishy, but that could’ve just been the mackerel that tiny Chinese firecracker was waving around while she led the chants.
Tai Chen was on the front line of the protest, sitting on the shoulders of Bernenstein to give her screaming a little more range. She knew after she escaped that the company would advance its efforts to get the contract signed, so she had used what little time she had to recruit everybody that still had a clean forehead and get them informed and organized.
After the incident at the club Tai Chen, B.J., Hortotef, and Bernenstein never split up completely so they couldn’t be caught alone with copymites. Pertipole was no fool; he had the mayor under guard twenty-four hours a day, so they needed another plan of action. They ran around town to everybody they knew. Juno, Venus, and Diane were all there protesting, as were Kloo-Kooch, a barking Spanker with a sign around his fat neck, Vilimas, Captain March, and even Grogan and D’ogeron. They in turn got everyone they knew into the loop, which led to the protest being nearly a hundred bodies strong.
“He’s going to sign it!” Tai Chen shouted down to Bernenstein as she watched the mayor grab the pen. “Throw me over!”
“Are you sure?” he shouted back.
“Damn it Bernenstein! Throw me!” The ambulance driver bent his knees, grabbed her by the sides, and hopped into the air. She jettisoned off his shoulders and broke through the top layer of the hedges. She was having second thoughts about a foot from the grass, but she didn’t have time to consider it a mistake. A typewriter, tossed by Sir Pertipole, who was more than prepared for the princess’ return, struck her hard in the chest. Two police officers grabbed her and took her to the gate.
“And… that… is… the… last… letter… of… my… name…” the mayor whispered as he wiggled the pen up and down. Writing sure was becoming a burden. Why was he bothering? Writing was for authors anyway. “Done.” The notaries nudged him aside and scribbled their signatures in. The burly copymite grabbed the contract and shoved it into a small briefcase, which he handed off to Sir Pertipole. The suited knight ordered another officer over and he took the man’s handcuffs. Then Pertipole chained his own wrist to the case.
“We need to get this to headquarters,” he hissed in the ears of the other mites. The company was smart enough to keep anything of value away from the trash in Carlo, but that meant in order for the contract to be valid they had to get it to the center of their true corporate office, across the sea. For now they needed to get to the docks and aboard Mackenny’s yacht. A trio of bodyguards surrounded him and they moved towards the gate, just behind the officers carrying the flailing Tai Chen.
“Let me go you pinheads!” she spat as she tried to wriggle free. They pushed open the rusted metal gate. “Now!” The protesters swelled forward, pushing through the officers and reversing the gates. Sir Pertipole stopped in his tracks and redirected his guards. They pushed through the hedges and vaulted over the short brick fence they grew from. Guards knocked protesters into the wet street. Pertipole drew his sword in case any of them got any funny ideas. His guards pulled their pistols. That sent them backing up. All the people of Carlo had were their words; they wielded shovels and lanterns, pallet knives and lassoes. Kloo-kooch had a rifle, but she knew better than to use it on a crowded street.
Captain March, on the other hand, threatened the men carrying Tai Chen with his gun, which was enough to send them running. Then he sent a few pigeons chasing after them to add insult to injury. B.J. pulled Tai Chen back to her feet. Tai Chen wiped the grime from her knees and urged everyone to rally around the building and catch Pertipole. By the time they got around though they saw the bumpers of three cars and a paddy wagon racing away down the street. They were headed for the docks. The protesters split up and rushed to their own vehicles. Tai Chen hopped into the ambulance. Belinda took the driver’s seat, she had more nerve for a chase than Bernenstein, and then about eight more people piled into the back before they took off.
“Are they following us?” Pertipole asked from the front seat of his car. The goons behind him checked over their shoulders.
“I see an ambulance,” one of them said. “A couple cars behind that. We could shoot out the tires.”
“No you idiot,” Pertipole seethed. “We can’t be seen attacking them unless they attack us. This is supposed to be legal remember? We’re supposed to be doing nothing other than minding our own business. Mackenny’s got a boat ready for us right?” he asked the driver.
“I told him this morning boss.”
“Good. Turn on the radio; I think my serial’s on. Somebody give me a smoke.” One of the men in the back handed him a rolled page. He lit it, inhaled, and blew smoke all over the roof.
“You like The Secret Planter too, sir?”
“I like the commercials,” Pertipole said.
“Yes. The commercials. You know what I hate most about being a character? Stories are always so confusing. The author never comes out and says what he’s thinking. You always have to wonder how much of it was inspiration, how much of it was his headache that day, and how much of it was just random. People will tell you they can be interpreted a million ways and that nobody is right.”
“They’re pretty close on our tails sir.”
“Then go faster. I’m sure the company will let us write off a speeding ticket. Anyway, I hate the vagaries. However, if there are commercials, you know exactly what it’s all about. You know the message they’re trying to send no matter what’s in the story. They want you to buy something. No philosophy, no vision, just honesty. Please buy this. We’ll let you feel something for a little while and in exchange you let us put these thoughts in your head. It’s a nice simple transaction.”
“This is one of our ads!” the driver beamed as he twisted the radio knob and sound filled the car.
Out of work? Tired of the uncertainties of life? Come to the Copyright Company offices. We’ll make you certain again! We’ll make every day from now on a sure thing! Call us at 555-2905.
“That’s why I’m with the company boys,” Sir Pertipole said, pointing at the radio as if its static was the sparkle of a gold nugget in a wet sieve. “They turn stories into commercials! They turn arcs into shifts! They don’t expect you to learn anything from an author who’s no smarter than you are. You work and they give you money. It makes life simple.” The car stopped.
“We’re here sir,” the driver said.
“Good. You two keep your guns out. I don’t want anyone near me until we’re a hundred feet away from this dock.” They exited the car just as the ambulance squealed to a stop behind them. Its siren didn’t shut down. “Obnoxious…”
“What did you say sir?”
“Nothing!” he shouted over the blaring siren. He scurried down the concrete steps to the docks and searched for Mackenny. The two armed men stood at the top of the stairs and kept the protesters back, even as their numbers swelled before them. The burliest guard followed behind Pertipole and tried to keep his eyes wherever Pertipole’s weren’t so all directions were covered. The ornery knight stomped down the wooden walkways, checking the side of every boat for a C. Mackenny and his yacht were nowhere to be found. The only person he saw was a man in a fishing cap leaning up against a rundown houseboat.
“I don’t see Mackenny sir.”
“That’s because he’s not here. We pay him to do one thing and he’s not here. Damn it. We need a boat. We need to get out of this crusty inkwell.” He eyed the leaning fellow and read the name of his vessel: Nancy Nox. At least he hoped it was his vessel; his slouch and old coat could’ve been the garb of a vagrant who just needed a place to lean. “You there! Are you looking for some cash?” he called out. The man lifted his cap and looked at them. Pertipole was relieved to see his favorite consonant between the dark man’s eyes.
“You’ve already been so generous,” the man said with a smile. He stood away from his boat and revealed his impressive height.
“Perfect!” Pertipole said giddily. He grabbed Hortotef’s hand and shook it hard enough to pop the joint in the Egyptian’s wrist. “You’ll take us out of here and I’ll make sure you get a bonus the size of Lord Byron’s swelled head.”
“I can’t join you,” Hortotef said. “My mother is ill with the scurvy. I must stay with her, but you’re the boss! You are of course welcome to my boat! I’m sorry about the mess. She hasn’t been out in a long time and the last time… eh heh… It was a bit of a wild party.”
“Fine, fine,” Pertipole grumbled as he heard the shouting of the crowd. In a few minutes they were bound to find another way in or spill through his guards. He shoved a business card into Hortotef’s pocket. “Get up here,” he ordered the guard. “Call the others.” The burly guard stuck his meaty fingers in his mouth and issued a piercing whistle. The other guards turned from the protesters and rushed down the steps and toward the Nancy Nox.
Hortotef helped them aboard and tossed the ropes of the boat to them. He put his foot on the hull and helped push them out into the water. Then he pretended to run from the protesters and hide in the Copyright Company offices. He stopped in the men’s room and took his first honest breath in several minutes. Someone moaned from inside a stall. The Egyptian pushed the door open to check on their wellbeing. There was Mackenny, sat right on the toilet where Hortotef had left him, a rag tied around his mouth and ropes holding him in place.
Tai Chen and the others piled onto the docks and stopped at the edge. The force of their anger ended up pushing a few people in. One of them even tried to swim after the Nox as it shrank until the others called her back. It wasn’t worth drowning. Some of them started to panic. The signs were now held limply in one hand if they weren’t already being stepped on.
B.J. smiled and nudged Tai Chen with her elbow, but she didn’t smile back. Not yet. She could still see the boat.
The support of what was left of Carlo was heartening, but she’d never put her faith in it. Tai Chen instead trusted the one individual on her side from the beginning. After the club, the docks were the first place she visited. She told the others to stand guard while she climbed aboard the Nancy Nox to investigate. If her hunch was right, all those people aboard might make her friend nervous. That was really why she went alone.
The wood of the deck creaked under her feet as she crept through the darkness inside the houseboat. Crumpled reference pages in the corners were only lightly chewed by moths that were apparently very picky when it came to their literature. A few of them fluttered around as she angled a flashlight into the corners. An empty bottle of wine rolled back and forth with the slight rocking of the boat. She strained to see if she could hear the laughter she swore she heard the first time around. Maybe she’s asleep. I’d sleep well if the sea swaddled me and whispered its lullaby each night.
She found the helm and ran her fingers over the wheel’s spokes. The dust was so heavy it fell like snow instead of flying into the air. She turned the flashlight’s beam to the walls, her instincts telling her it might be hanging in a frame. She found one photograph of several distinguished-looking people engaged in behavior not well suited to them. The group included Sir Walter Raleigh and Confucius. They were of course the fictionalized versions of themselves; she very much doubted the real Confucius would play darts with his beard draped into the foaming mug of beer in his other hand. Poor girl. She used to be full of protagonists. That’s like having butterflies in your stomach that are more popular than you.
She searched the closet. The chests. Under the covers of the beds. She disturbed the sleep of a few rats. Carlo brought in squirrels and pigeons for atmosphere, but she had no idea how the rats got this far. Perhaps they’d been on the boat the entire time, having sensed something sour about the tenner world outside.
“Don’t run,” she whispered to them. “Show me where she is. You owe her that much.” The rats paid no attention, only fleeing when she stripped the bed to check the mattress. Nothing. She strained herself for several minutes trying to flip it without dropping her flashlight. She didn’t find what she was looking for, but somebody had stashed a small pile of money under the pad. It wasn’t a stack of Stokers, which she would have gladly pocketed, but three obols and a dime, none of which were legal tender in Carlo. So there were ancient Greeks and Americans onboard. She’s got some history.
“You alright in there?” Bernenstein called from outside on the docks.
“Stop your worrying,” she called back.
“Did you find it?” B.J. shouted.
“I’m coming up there.”
“No! Just hang on.” She didn’t want anybody else aboard, especially now that she knew how crowded the boat had been. The old girl probably didn’t want a ton of characters stomping around on the deck again, treating her like a trashcan because the author told them to. It could be the opposite, she told herself. Maybe she’s really lonely. She just needs a good cleaning… All this dust… It’s like the scurvy! Inspiration struck. She remembered seeing a broom in the closet and quickly went back to grab it.
She started in the back of the party room and shoved the push-broom across the wood. The stubborn dust barely moved; it was like scrubbing oily skin flakes off eyeglass rims with a soft paintbrush. Tai Chen spit in her hands, rubbed them together, and got back to it. She swept and swept and swept, tossing all the crumpled papers, bottles, glasses, toothpicks, and forgotten bits of shoelace overboard. She ended up having to clean the entire floor, only finding what she searched for when she looked a fourth time. It was subtle, merely a place where the floorboards converged oddly, into the shape of a page. Tai Chen tossed the broom, picked up her flashlight, and dropped to her hands and knees.
She shined the light as close as she could. Is that prose? Her fingertip touched the upper right corner. The wood peeled up in a thin sheet and became paper. A reference page! She read.
Foreseeing an unhappy ending to all his hopes, the old man clambered
sadly back into his ancient vessel and paddled off into the darkness.
Some hours later, returning with a large company of new arrivals, while
counting up the profits of the day Charon again caught sight of the new
craft, and saw that it was brilliantly lighted and thronged with the most
famous citizens of the Erebean country. Up in the bow was a spirit band
discoursing music of the sweetest sort. Merry peals of laughter rang out
over the dark waters of the Styx. The clink of glasses and the popping
of corks punctuated the music with a frequency which would have delighted
the soul of the most ardent lover of commas, all of which so overpowered
the grand master boatman of the Stygian Ferry Company that he dropped
three oboli and an American dime, which he carried as a pocket-piece,
overboard. This, of course, added to his woe; but it was forgotten in an
instant, for some one on the new boat had turned a search-light directly
upon Charon himself, and simultaneously hailed the master of the ferry-
“Charon!” cried the shade in charge of the light. “Charon, ahoy!”
“Ahoy yourself!” returned the old man, paddling his craft close up to the
stranger. “What do you want?”
“You,” said the shade. “The house committee want to see you right away.”
“What for?” asked Charon, cautiously.
“I’m sure I don’t know. I’m only a member of the club, and house
committees never let mere members know anything about their plans. All I
know is that you are wanted,” said the other.
“Who are the house committee?” queried the Ferryman.
“Sir Walter Raleigh, Cassius, Demosthenes, Blackstone, Doctor Johnson,
and Confucius,” replied the shade.
“Tell ’em I’ll be back in an hour,” said Charon, pushing off. “I’ve got
a cargo of shades on board consigned to various places up the river. I’ve
promised to get ’em all through to-night, but I’ll put on a couple of
extra paddles–two of the new arrivals are working their passage this
trip–and it won’t take as long as usual. What boat is this, anyhow?”
“The Nancy Nox, of Erebus.”
“Thunder!” cried Charon, as he pushed off and proceeded on his way up the
river. “Named after my mother! Perhaps it’ll come out all right yet.”
More hopeful of mood, Charon, aided by the two dead-head passengers, soon
got through with his evening’s work, and in less than an hour was back
seeking admittance, as requested, to the company of Sir Walter Raleigh
and his fellow-members on the house committee. He was received by these
worthies with considerable effusiveness, considering his position in
society, and it warmed the cockles of his aged heart to note that Sir
Walter, who had always been rather distant to him since he had carelessly
upset that worthy and Queen Elizabeth in the middle of the Styx far back
in the last century, permitted him to shake three fingers of his left
hand when he entered the committee-room.
“How do you do, Charon?” said Sir Walter, affably. “We are very glad to
“Thank you, kindly, Sir Walter,” said the boatman. “I’m glad to hear
those words, your honor, for I’ve been feeling very bad since I had the
misfortune to drop your Excellency and her Majesty overboard. I never
knew how it happened, sir, but happen it did, and but for her Majesty’s
kind assistance it might have been the worse for us. Eh, Sir Walter?”
The knight shook his head menacingly at Charon. Hitherto he had managed
to keep it a secret that the Queen had rescued him from drowning upon
that occasion by swimming ashore herself first and throwing Sir Walter
her ruff as soon as she landed, which he had used as a life-preserver.
There was a title at the top of the page: A House-boat on the Styx. For a moment Tai Chen couldn’t believe she was right. She stood up and looked around, somehow expecting the boat’s interior to look different, more alive perhaps. There were no sparks of an active mind jumping between the furniture. There was nothing staring at her; it was the same boat as always. She had to be right though, because all the right words were there on the page. A search-light like the one that had directed her to the Copyright contract. A knight like the one that had found her at the bottom of the bay. A life-preserver like the one it had handed her so she could float to the surface and be found. Even the thunder that had scared the crowd. That was her shouting to draw their attention. She was protecting me.
It even had the ultimate word, the one she was least sure about. After all, anybody could have found the boat’s reference page and used a few copies of it to do all those things. Not with this word though. Nancy Nox had a soul.
As usual with the authors, the true meaning of the words and the combination they were in didn’t factor into the story. She was a side-effect. The boat had been given a name. A soul had been placed on her page. That made her alive.
“Are you there Nancy?” Tai Chen asked quietly. “Can you give me a sign?” She waited and hoped that obscurvy couldn’t take boats as easily as it did people. The vessel had been alone for a very long time and her only leisure activity was passively watching the criminal empire of the Copyright Company unfold. She saw characters shipped in and out, paper-chain contracts binding them, and brands appearing on their forehead. Nancy watched that until she couldn’t take it anymore. Then she saw Tai Chen. If a boat could see the chip on her shoulder from out a window and a floor down… It must be some chip.
The helm of the ship creaked to the left a few degrees.
“Aha!” Tai Chen exploded. “I knew it. Alright Nancy, give me some answers. Port for yes and starboard for no. You knew that contract was in that office. You overheard them say what it was right?” Port. “You’re on our side.” Port. “You… you saved my life.” Port. “Okay you gorgeous vessel, here’s where they get interesting. Do you know Sir Pertipole?” Port. “Is he the head of the Copyright Company?” Starboard. Damn. A girl can dream. “Is he their biggest man in Carlo?” Port.
Tai Chen did her best to make friends with Nancy the houseboat as well as extract as much information as she could from her binary responses. When she knew it was alright, when she was sure Nancy wasn’t interested in sinking her, she invited the others to join them. Bernenstein cleaned her up. He asked the boat’s permission every time he wanted to wipe down a rail or close a cabinet.
Nancy switched her lights on when it got late. They built the dark details of their plan in the weak glow of her lamps. Nobody knew the evils of the company better than her. She wanted to be the one to stop them. Tai Chen and her friends just needed to corral them.
Tai Chen waited to see if they’d done their jobs as admirably as it seemed. They’d used the protest to drive them to the docks. Hortotef skipped the publicity and went straight to the docks that morning. He’d knocked out Mackenny and made sure there was no yacht for them to escape on. He’d leaned up against Nancy like they’d been married for twenty years.
Nancy Nox got smaller on the horizon. How far out is she going to take them? The excitement of the crowd started to die down. A shout made it across the water, but it was quickly overpowered by the groaning of Nancy’s hull. Nancy was sinking. She tilted back and forth drunkenly. Her windows drank the bay in. If there were more cries for help they were drowned out by her laughter and her music. Everyone on the docks cheered… everyone except Tai Chen. The princess of Carlo instead shed a tear. It wasn’t out of sorrow for her new friend Nancy. The old houseboat would be fine on the bottom of the bay. She would be satisfied to look at the drowned skeletons of Pertipole and his thugs every time she needed a reminder of what she was doing beneath the water instead of on top.
It wasn’t an angry tear either. All the targets of her rage had disappeared. Elspeth was dead. Pertipole was dead. She didn’t want to be mad at herself anymore. She didn’t want to be mad at Bramah.
She shed a tear of despair, even as her friends chanted and hugged and made plans to celebrate the return of their rights. If the Copyright Company wanted them to be slaves of petty fame and greasy pockets, they would have to devote everything, all of their corporate and legal power, to the effort and there wasn’t a chance in hell or in the flow of the river Styx they would ever do that. Both the company and Tai Chen knew Carlo couldn’t possibly be worth that much.
That was where the tear came from. It was the one tear she should’ve shed when she first got to Carlo. She should’ve let it drop into the sea so she could begin her new life honestly. It was a tear of awareness. Awareness that she was created to be property. Maybe at one point that wasn’t what the authors intended. Maybe they actually meant each name they dropped to be a beautiful dew sparkle from their creative maelstroms, but it didn’t matter anymore. Somebody else was in charge.
She didn’t let the tear linger. She wiped it away and dropped it in the bay where it belonged. The bay is made of these tears. I can’t be the first to know we’re more than the author intended. Over and underestimated at the same time. As long as she had an ounce of freedom, as long as the forces across the sea kept their greedy eyes off her, she could at least act like inspiration. She grabbed Bernenstein and pulled his ear down so he could hear her whisper.
“We did it Bernenstein. You want to give me one more ride? I want to see what they did to my place.” Bernenstein nodded. She let him put his hand on her shoulder so he could escort her through the crowd. They walked back up to the ambulance and then started it up. Bernenstein made exactly one joke about the ambulance possibly being alive, but it fell flat. She smiled anyway. He was allowed. The benefit of a flat joke is that it gets out of the way quickly. The funny ones stick around until they’re not funny anymore, like balloons squealing as they deflate. The nice flat joke meant they weren’t still chuckling when they got out and stood on the sidewalk outside her apartment. They had a quiet moment to look at each other.
“You know what I like about you Bernenstein?” she asked. He put his hands in his pockets and smiled.
“You probably should’ve told me you liked something first.”
“I’m… I’m sorry about that. Do you want to hear it or not?”
“What do you like about me Tai Chen?”
“I like the mystery… of your charity.”
“What does that mean?” he chuckled.
“It means you’re always giving stuff away. You’re always helping people and I don’t really understand how you do it. How do you have so much to give away without ever coming up empty? I’m like a peanut. I’ve got two good deeds in me and then after that I feel brittle. Hollow.”
“You saved everyone’s rights!”
“No, Nancy saved them. She took the bullet. She sprang the leak. She knew I was angry enough to do something about them, not righteous enough. I must’ve been radiating that rage for her to see it. Back in her book she literally sailed the waters of hell. I bet she saw every evil angry soul there ever was… and when she took her first look at me she saw someone just as ready to do something. I was a fuse she could light.” Tai Chen felt another tear forming in the back of her head. Her throat quivered. She coughed it out and waved her hand in the air to clear the smoke she felt like she was blowing. “Listen to me; I’m making this about me. I was trying to talk about you. I like you Bernenstein because you’re always giving stuff away.”
“Yeah.” He nodded. He knew denying it would just annoy her.
“When I first got off the boat everyone was trying to take stuff from me. Elspeth was the worst. She only said she wanted my company but… I don’t know. She was a soul-taker, you know what I mean? She didn’t have any emotions of her own so she borrowed them, without permission because… look at her… from anybody who was around. And Grogan. You have no idea what Grogan tried to get out of me in exchange for a few smokes. No idea.”
She said no idea a few more times, quieter with each one. Then, like a reflex, she hugged Bernenstein. Having never actually shared a hug with her before, he patted her on the cap; it was pretty much all the height difference would allow. She decided to get real intimate with him and remove her hat. He patted her hair. “You’re a good friend Bernenstein.” Even though his face was a few stories up, she felt him smile. The pull on those muscles traveled all through him, like a bell ringing.
“You know what I like about you Tai Chen?”
Something vicious and invisible grabbed them both as they came apart. The world became a crashing rollercoaster. Their stomachs turned like washing machines. Gravity tore them off their feet and threw them into the road, into the path of an oncoming black car. Little Tai Chen clipped a mirror, snapped it off, bounced off the hood, and rolled to the other sidewalk. Not-so-little Bernenstein clipped the whole god damned car. The windshield shattered. The car swerved off the road, hiccupped onto the sidewalk and smashed into an iron gate. Bernenstein rolled off the hood.
It’s a black car. That means it’s Death’s. Of course his wheels are the only ones on the road. Nobody even drives in Carlo, except today. Tai Chen forced herself to her feet despite the bruised ribs and half-crawled half-ran to her friend. She couldn’t stop the tears from forming this time. One glance in the driver’s seat showed her somebody knocked unconscious. An innocent passerby. She grabbed Bernenstein’s face. He didn’t move, not even his fingers. She ran her hands through his hair and got them slick with his ink. His sweet charitable eyes were wide open, giving Carlo his last look.
“Bernenstein! Blink. Blink for me,” she sobbed. She rubbed ink into his cheeks, trying to warm them. It didn’t work, so she smacked him. “Blink!” She pounded on his reference page; it was a reflex like hugging him. Something about being modeled after real people made her think she could restart his heart, but the page was the vital organ. It couldn’t be restarted. She couldn’t just write another life onto it. Bernenstein’s page was brittle. He was cold.
Who? Tai Chen’s brain screamed, but she knew who. There was only one word that could pull both of them into the street like they’d gotten backhanded by hurricane Hemmingway: gravitation. Another wave of it struck; it pulled the tears off her cheeks and sent them through the bars of the gate. Then it picked her up and slammed her into the bars. She couldn’t breathe. Tai Chen watched her cap get whipped off the ground and slide through the bars as well. She couldn’t even turn her head to see where it went.
The pressure got worse; it felt like a giant hand pressed her onto a waffle iron. The force inched her upward. She pushed her eyes up and saw the decorative spikes atop each bar of the gate. Gravity brought her closer. Closer. Her scream was a whimper. I don’t get it. Pertipole’s dead. He sank! I saw Nancy get him. He’s at the bottom of the bay. Does his word reach that far? I can’t… I… the spikes… If I… can’t reach. Her mind flailed because her body couldn’t. Her flesh squeezed between the bars. Another whimper. The top of her head reached the edge of a spike. Her hair pulled on her scalp as gravity tried to draw her… somewhere. Then all at once it pulled her up and over the fence, but not so much that she avoided the points. Two of the spikes punctured her shoulder blades. She knew her ink was pouring, but she couldn’t feel it as she tumbled through the air, down into a narrow alley. Trashcans clattered. One of her hands smacked against a brick wall, but she couldn’t find purchase.
A hand grabbed the front of her shirt and stopped her dead. Her skull whipped back and forth so hard that she choked. Immediately her hands were out, trying to grab the bastard, but the gravity shifted again and pulled her hands down to her sides. The wounds on her back finally stung, like someone had ripped her angel wings out of her. When her eyes stopped rolling in her head she focused in on him. Somehow, it was Pertipole. He had Tai Chen in one hand and his reference page in the other, his palm holding it up against the alley’s brick wall. There was something wrong with him, beyond the murderous narcissism. Sweat covered his face. His pupils were dilated and he breathed like each mouthful of garbage-scented alley air was his last.
“I thought you went for a swim,” she groaned, ink dripping out of her mouth. She wanted to laugh at him, but all she could think about was Bernenstein, never to be mentioned in a story again. The sweet man who’d been there for her at every turn had been taken from a tenner to a zero in a flash. Sir Pertipole slid the page down an inch. Tai Chen gritted her teeth as gravity threatened to pull her arms out of their sockets and split her scalp down the middle.
“You think the company would send a nobody without a few words up his sleeve?” Pertipole barked. He nearly ripped his own page pressing it up. Tai Chen’s hair reached for the sky and suddenly she felt like she was dangling from a fishing hook. “You got me alright. Sir Pertipole is sunk, but not this Sir Pertipole.”
“Either explain it or shut your mouth,” Tai Chen hissed. When the gravity intensified again she tossed her arms into the air. She tried to make it look like the force was too much for her to reach down, even though it wasn’t. If she gave it everything she had she could go for a page. She wouldn’t have time to fold, but she’d have time to press.
“Gravitation is only my second best word,” he gloated. “And the best isn’t typewriter, ring, cake, dough, or barley… even though I am a hit at bake sales. No, my best word is twin. The Copyright Company likes having a man who can multitask. As long as I’ve been on these shores there’s been two Sir Pertipoles taking care of business.”
“Everyone thought you were dead. You could’ve escaped. Why come back for me?”
“Because you bitch! You may kill me yet. I want to make sure I return the favor.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I feel like my lungs are full of water right now. I want to cough it up, but I can’t. I don’t… I don’t know if…” Pertipole’s hand shook. His eyes widened and his pupils became even sharper. Something was ripping his mind. “I don’t know if I’m the twin,” he confessed, his voice becoming pathetic on the last word. He shored it up, turned it back into blind rage. “I might just be a piece of paper animated by intent. I might just be an errand. If I am I’ll die in a few hours tops. I can’t let that happen without seeing you dead first.”
“The company makes references permanent…”
“I never bothered to do that,” he admitted. “Then I’d have to split my paycheck with myself… ahahahaaa…”
“Even the real you was just an errand,” she spat. “You’re a lackey Pertipole. You’re the man sent to sell shackles as bracelets.”
“Why are you so against working for a living? Was your author a no-good bum too?”
“We’re not supposed to be work,” Tai Chen cried. She shouted, even with the weight of the world compressing her windpipe. “We’re supposed to be art. We’re supposed to be entertainment. We belong to the world, not a troop of lawyers and tucked shirts who insist they know what’s best for all the right-brains out there.”
“The grave is what’s best for you,” Pertipole threatened. His page wrinkled under his fingers. Tai Chen could feel her bones bending under the force.
“You know what Pertipole? Something just struck me.” Tai Chen forced her arm down into her shirt. She peeled the tiniest corner off her reference page and before Pertipole could have gravity rip it away, she hammered her thumb down. Lightning. A crackling bolt of blinding white light shot up into the sky. The force blasted the tenners apart and sent them to the ground. Pertipole’s page burned away to tiny cinders as it drifted down the alley. The knight twitched. Then he was gone. She’d spared him the spiraling madness of waiting for his own flattening.
Tai Chen twitched as well. Her breath was smoke. The corners of the page on her chest were burned to blackness. Her own burnt hair overpowered the stench of the alley. What are those words? They’re not from my page. I get to write something now. I can pick anything I want. I’m Wai Tai Chen. Intended as a beautiful Asian paperweight. A throne-filler. A quest starting line. Always so much more. Those words. I want those. I want to be as real as Nancy Nox. Soul. Art. Inspiration. Freedom.
“What is that?” An old married couple wandered by the alley.
“Dear authors!” the wispy wife gasped. They hurried up to the crashed car. “We need to call for help. We need an ambulance!”
“There is no ambulance,” her husband said. “That young man was the driver. Look down there.” They hurried down the alley where they found the scorching crater of the lightning strike, plus two bodies.
“Are they alive?” the woman asked.
“This fellow’s dead.”
“What about that poor girl?”
“She’s… I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! Look at all that red ink!”