Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
Rasmussen. Engel. Skelligton. Those are the three names I used when I reached California for the first time. None of them were my original names, and I’m still not so sure I can use Rasmussen as a first name without people looking at me funny. It was the best option at the time. First and last don’t matter so much anyway. Everything about me is crammed into the middle name. This current one, I had to ditch the old one because it was burnt out, sounds so much like angel.
There was a time, just after I hit the golden state, where I felt like one. I had the new names, so I needed a new home to avoid suspicion from any other middlers. California wasn’t a conscious decision. I took what rides I could get and aimed myself in the direction of the wind. Whenever I woke up, sleeping in some random woods in my little ripped tent, I was always facing the same direction.
This is a long story for me, I rarely ever write, so forgive me if I can’t keep the energy up, or if I lose confidence as to how real something was. I’m a middler, so the middle part of the story will probably be the best and the closest to the truth.
I arrived with nothing but my boots, the clothes on my back, and my pack. That turned out to be an excellent disguise in the small town next to the desert. There were packs of us roaming around, some tourists and some homeless. Some were one thing but said they were the other; I learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t the most honest place, but also not hostile in its dishonesty. Mostly I noticed the heat.
My old home, back when my three names were Julie Dark Moore, was mostly snow and moaning trees. I hit California extremely vulnerable, and it hit back. Cracked lips. Sunburn. Scalded feet. I didn’t know asphalt could get that hot. Worst of all was my middler chain. Its copper links got so hot around my neck that I had to take it off and keep it intertwined between my knuckles any time I was outside. I still had my old names on that chain, in case I ever wanted to recycle them, but as I said, I felt like an angel. I was going to hold onto that middle name as long as possible.
The stone at the end of my necklace isn’t the important part. I change it out every now and again, usually with some ordinary rock or pine cone I’ve found on my travels. At the moment it was a rock with small fossils in it. Nothing exciting. The impressions of sea shells, looking like tiny shoots of bamboo, from a place that was flooded millions of years ago. It still caught his eye.
His three names were Andrew Rhodes Collier. We were both in line at a street festival. The cart at the end sold frozen lemonade slush swirled with other flavors. The flavor swirled in didn’t matter to me; I intended to hold it to the back of my neck until it all melted together anyway. I only turned around for a second to see how long the line had gotten. It was enough for Rhodes to spot my necklace and identify the little fossils in it.
“Bryozoa I think,” he said. At first I didn’t realize he was talking to me. I’m not a talker. Or a socializer. When I know things I know them intimately. I like to catalog, get close, and become part of the definition of that thing. It makes me a really good middler, if not a happy one. I had already turned away when he made a throat-clearing noise, trying to shrug off my cold shoulder. I whipped back around, hitting him in the face with my hair.
“Oh, were you talking to me?” I asked.
“Yeah, sorry. I just noticed your necklace. Bryozoa. The fossils look like sponges. I’m Andrew by the way.” He wasn’t; he was Rhodes. It was forgivable, for it was an error most people make. I could tell there was very little sadness stored in his middle name. He would have to suffer far more just to understand how much it could hold. To understand that it could be pressed and hardened into actual material. Made into a chain that goes around the neck.
“I didn’t know,” I said, as I had nothing else to say. I did manage to pull out a smile. When we made it to the front of the line I ordered raspberry and so did he. After that came a conversation, one that got so involved that neither of us paid attention to the rest of the festival we waded through. Talking is hard for me, the anxiety, but it was slightly easier with him. Even writing this story feels worse than talking to him, for while it is my own words, and I have all the time in the world to write it, I won’t be there when somebody reads it. I can’t sneak in any corrections. Every chapter of this tale is another pound of anxiety I get to carry for the rest of my life.
Rhodes was brilliant, kind, and a little less shy than me, so I could convince him to do most of the human interaction stuff. I didn’t even tell him that I had nowhere to live until our third date, when he tried to drop me off somewhere. I blanked and told him to leave me at the nearest fire hydrant. He took me to his house instead.
It was a little like going back to the forest. He had stacks of plastic containers everywhere, filled with small reptiles, amphibians, and desert insects. Some of them were pets, but most of them were research material. Rhodes was a scientist, a biologist, and he had a grant for finding a new way to harmlessly track small animals. He was working on a chemical coating that could be painted onto a skink’s tail or a tarantula’s abdomen. The idea was that scanners, placed every few miles, could track the harmless radioactive signature of the coating.
It was all very interesting, and with that many animals he was actually in need of an assistant. I wasn’t qualified, but I had his affection and his pity. I wasn’t too proud to take them. It was fun, learning to do that kind of work. All the animals had names. The pets got real ones, but the research animals only had their taxonomic inheritance. I learned as many as I could, tried to sense power in those names. I wanted to see if they had driven me towards California, but there was no sign of the energy that had pulled me when I slept. It hadn’t come from Rhodes either.
We fell in love somewhere between his fifth and sixth prototype for the coating. We had a small handful of friends who were really just his friends, but it was nice. He wanted to call me Raz, because of the name Rasmussen and the raspberries present when we met, but I told him not to. I preferred the middle name. Engel. We compromised. He called me Angel. He really did make me feel like one. We swooped down into the desert and rescued dehydrated animals. We even got paid to do it, because anything rescued could wear a fresh coat of our radioactive paint. I was his angel too, keeping him from staying out all day and getting heat stroke. No matter what I tried his lips were always cracked. He forgot the sun was full of harmful rays. He forgot how big the desert was. It was all just information to lose himself in, the same way I get lost in the names I’ve cataloged and added to my chain.
We lived like this, in his tiny house, for more than a year. The work was close to being done when he disappeared. I woke up that morning and burst into our kitchen wearing nothing but underwear and silly novelty sunglasses. I was only silly with him, and when I didn’t get the laugh I expected it was strangely painful. I wrapped myself in my own arms, threw on some clothes, and looked for him. He wasn’t home. There was a note on the fridge saying he went to collect some dawn-loving insects, but it also told the lie that he would be back soon.
In order for you to believe the panic I felt when he wasn’t home by dusk, I have to explain all the strange things I’ve glossed over so far. How I changed out my names. What my chain can do. Why the middle name is the most important, and why I was homeless.
We’ll start with the middle name rather than the first. Most people have noticed the embarrassment surrounding the middle name. People keep them to themselves and question their purpose. I know their true purpose, as do all middlers. The middle name is where people put all their misery. It’s the nature of ‘the middle’ of anything. It’s the body. The substance. The more you suffer, the more you think about your suffering, and the greater your understanding of the ‘middle’, the closer you come to wielding magic.
It’s the raw desire to break through that misery, through reality, and find a middle not obscured by the false happiness of beginnings and endings, of first and last. The more middle you are, the more potential for magic you have. I was a middle child, always the neglected one, with a long and silly middle name. I graduated in the middle of my high school class, and my middle income parents were middling in their pride.
I learned to wield my middle name first as an incantation, then condensed it to material, like copper, and used it as a blade. I had no teacher, so I learned every magical emotion the hard way. When I wielded my name it wasn’t a name. That caused a small hole in the soul. Now I know, after two ill-conceived attempts on my own life, that the dark storms that preempted them were just the holes of my middle name being in the wrong place.
So I collected names and made a chain. That way I always have one while I’m using the others. It’s not magic the way you think of it. I can’t produce fire or ice. I can’t control people’s minds. It’s more subtle than that. It’s like the difference between air and the heated air that wiggles just above asphalt. I can perceive magic. I can use invisible forces to make my point, or become part of a point. It’s about willpower, about misery loving company even if I didn’t.
For most of my journey to California I had a theory in the back of my mind. Once Rhodes went missing I had to accept it as the truth. It isn’t just human middle names that harbor magic. The state of California has one. Rhodes’ home and his desert of choice were in the middle of the state. I wasn’t drawn in by him and our eventual love; it was the discontent brewing somewhere in the middle. I called this place, where the magic was souring, the Forn. After the ‘Cali’ and before the ‘Ia’. That was what brought me.
I can’t explain it to someone who’s not a middler, but I knew he hadn’t gone missing for normal reasons. He never would’ve left me. He was too smart to get randomly killed by the desert he’d roamed for more than a year. Some magical agent of the middle had taken him. There was only one other clue. One of our lizards was missing from its container. No ordinary human kidnapper would take one man and one lizard from a tiny house in the middle of nowhere.
The lizard was a relatively unknown venomous species. It went by the names Heloderma, Rhodia, and horridum. It was commonly called the sour venom skink, though it wasn’t a skink at all. Rhodes’ father had discovered it, realized it was just separate enough from the Mexican beaded lizard to have its own names. He included his. The middle one. Why? Perhaps he’d been a middler like me.
I was so worried for Rhodes that it nearly shook me apart. I couldn’t keep my hands still, or my cries in my mouth. He was trapped somewhere, if he was still alive, and no ordinary person would be able to find him. My first instinct was to rush out and follow my senses to the exact middle of the Forn, somewhere in our desert, but I had to resist. This needed to be played smartly. I was dealing with lizard names and state names, not human ones.
The magic of the middle is complex and varied, but it becomes less flexible the longer you’ve worn and used its individual pieces. If I wanted a new act of magic, a weapon tailored to this situation, I needed a more transient name, something not glued to me individually yet. There was only one supplier I could think of, and he wasn’t exactly a friend.
His names were Bentley, Arcross, and Whint. People called him Bentley and I called him Arcross, usually with a growl ingrained in the name. He approached me two months after I reached California. He sniffed me out as a middler immediately and tried to sell me some names without telling me where he’d gotten them. When I searched him out he was in the process of acquiring more in a ratty comedy club.
One of his clients, he told regular people he was a talent agent, was bombing up onstage, rambling a series of jokes about how women take their hair too seriously. A couple of drunk ladies at one of the nearer tables threw a tortilla chip at him every third failed punchline. Arcross enjoyed the man’s failure, smile big and bright under his sparse mustache like a tumbleweed ripped in half.
“Arcross, I need a fresh middle,” I said plainly when I took a seat across from him. He slid the peanut tray towards me, offering me one, but I slid it right back. “I don’t have time for manners. I’ve got three hundred bucks I can give you. Do you have a name for me?”
“Not on me,” he said, his eyes darting about, checking his own pockets just to make sure. “What’s the rush?” I didn’t want to say, but the weaselly man had a way of discerning these things. It was how he found his clients and victims. He convinced them to sign contracts, pretended to find roles for them on stage and as film extras, and convinced them to take stage names. Once they had he would sneak in, extract their real middle name now that it wasn’t holding their misery, and then drop them. Many of them fell into depressions that cost them their careers and lives, all because they couldn’t remember what was between the beginning and the end. Thus his supply of names and their relatively low price.
“Do you know where I can get one in the next hour?” I hissed at him. I could feel tears in the corners of my eyes. Talking to anyone other than Rhodes was always so hard. The words pulled the emotions out of me, and I couldn’t keep my desperation back.
“Something happen to your boyfriend?” he correctly guessed, then saw the answer rolling down my face. “Did you finally tell him you’re a middler?” He probed further, slowly cracking a peanut. Kruck-kiruck. Its tortured sounds punctuated each question. “Did you tell him that once that project of yours is over there won’t be a happy ending? That it’s all going to be miserable middle from here on out?” He moved on to a second peanut, without even consuming the center of the first. Kruck-kiruck. “No wedding… no kids…”
I slammed my palm on the table, my middler chain wound between my knuckles. Perhaps he would take it as a threat. I didn’t know how good of a fighter he was, but I had the advantage of caring a lot more about the outcome.
“Turn out your pockets,” I seethed, but I walked it back a little by placing the money on the table as well. “Turn out your pockets in exchange for three hundred dollars.” Arcross snorted and obeyed. He turned them completely inside out; they produced nothing but a crumpled map to the stars. I suspected he really wanted to get his hands on one of their middle names.
“See? I’ve got nothing Angel.”
“You don’t get to call me that!” I barked. Everyone would’ve heard if they weren’t already booing Arcross’s client. The man picked up a few tortilla chips from the stage and threw them back at his hecklers. “It’s just Engel to you.” The agent held up his hands to indicate he wasn’t interested in a fight. I wasn’t stupid. He had a middler something on his person somewhere: a shiv hidden in his sock, a copper tooth he could bite down on, or maybe even a tattoo inked from liquefied names sunk in bottles by their alcoholic owners. Even so, I was great with the chain and he probably talked his way out of most encounters.
The booing and throwing intensified. My back caught a few ricocheting pieces of popcorn. I tried to pretend none of them existed, to keep my desperate rage trained on Arcross like a laser beam, but something got between us. His client slammed his hands on the table, making it shudder far more than mine did. I pulled my chain out from under his palm. He ignored me and yelled at Arcross.
“What the hell kind of dive is this? I got the ladies’ night sloshed PMS crowd. They wouldn’t chuckle the moment they got a look at this beard.” He stroked what was really barely more than stubble.
“Hey pal,” Arcross said, hands still raised as he transitioned from one peacemaking attempt to another. Perhaps that hand-raising was a reflex for him now. “You have to start somewhere. Ladies are always going to be half your audience. You have to take the PMS into account.”
“We’re in the middle of something,” I told the man.
“And you think I give a shit?” was his shouted response. I lost it. I’ve never been good at talking to people, but I’ve always been good at shutting them down when I needed to. The crowd was so rowdy; several people danced on the tables now, celebrating the end of his set. They never noticed me hop up, wrap my middler chain around his neck, and pull him into a more humble position.
“Did you give this guy a stage name yet?” I asked Arcross while the man sputtered and grabbed at the chain. He knew nothing of the middle, so he couldn’t loosen it. Arcross shook his head, clearly unhappy that he was about to lose a mark to me.
What I did was serious, but he didn’t seem like he deserved any more chances. I chanted my middle name under my breath. I unleashed a tide of tiny dark angels that nobody could see. They took out his middle name, Hest, and added it to my chain as a new copper link. Once it was done I pressed his face against the table, his cheek cracking ten more peanuts, and rushed out of there. He wouldn’t even know something was missing until much later. Maybe he would become a comedian, but one of the ones that died on the toilet with a porno mag in his lap.
I’d done worse things in my middling. I couldn’t focus on that now. Rhodes was all that mattered. I stopped at home and got some provisions: water, food, a tent… no phone. There was nobody to call if this went wrong. His research notes confirmed what I felt in the middle of my brain between my fear and fatigue. The Forn’s center was deep in the nesting grounds of the sour venom skink.
The hike took several hours and ended at the edge of a sandstone cave. Such caves were usually alive with reds and oranges, but these strata were dark and foreboding. This was where Rhodes had picked up the skink, intending to do nothing more than paint a little bit of isotope on its back. A thought struck me. He had done a bit more than that. In jest, I remembered now, he had painted his name on its back. I should’ve stopped him then, wiped it off and redone it while he was asleep. He’d thrown his name into the middle of something, and I was so star-crossed that I didn’t even notice.
Some angel I was. It wasn’t supposed to be him. I was the one drawn in by the Forn’s magic quicksand. Torturing myself came naturally, but that torture could serve a purpose. I needed to get in there, so I started swinging my chain back and forth to build up the courage. Ten paces took me into the darkness and around a natural bend.
The situation didn’t hide from me. Disguises and misdirection were for beginnings. Middles always stated things baldly. There was Rhodes, nearly unconscious, leaned up against the cave wall. His body was covered in the toxic lizards. The one with the painted name on its back sat on his chest. There was a single cactus growing from the dirt floor. It had to be some surreal manifestation of the middle, as there was no sunlight to make it grow. It followed the curve of the cave wall, crawling across the ceiling and holding needles over me like stalactites.
The lizards hissed at me. I let them surround me. I couldn’t fight them all with one small chain, not without taking at least one bite. I remembered what Rhodes told me about their toxins. Inflammation. Infection. Death. I let my chain go limp. One of them reared up on its hind legs and tasted the copper.
The lizards weren’t intelligent. The cactus wasn’t a regular plant. This was all the Forn, the exact figurative middle of California. A place that had eaten all the misery that tumbled into it, everything not dammed up in names. It had a will, but no spirit. Emotions and desires without reason to moderate them.
“Why do you have him?” I asked the lizards, the cactus, and the cave. They answered, but only in a middling tongue I cannot reproduce. I will offer an appropriately rough translation.
“He desecrates us with his middle name,” everything around me said at once. All the lizard mouths were wide open, showing their white gums, pink membranes, and purple tongues like hideous fleshy blooms. I knew what they meant, but it took me a moment to figure out the depth. The Forn was miserable, but at least it could be alone in its desert. Along came Rhodes, my sweet ignorant man of science, who laid claim to one of the lizards.
Its species was already forced to bear great magical misery with its middle taxonomic name. Most animals didn’t have those, but Heloderma Rhodesia horridum did. Worse still, the descendant of that middle name had scrawled it across the lizard’s back.
“I understand,” I told the Forn and its scaly servants. “A human came to you offering a name. No joy of a first. No respect of a last. Just more middle misery. You don’t need more of that.”
“Exactly,” the cave answered. The lizards closed their mouths, but the one on Rhodes moved to his neck, prepared to bite.
“Don’t!” I shouted. His eyes fluttered open and closed. He couldn’t think in the Forn, not being as ignorant as he was of the magic. It would all be a bad dream if I saved him. “I can give you something else!” I held up my chain. “Lots of names in here. They can all be yours. You’ll find one you like. It’s better than claiming his life. That gets you nothing.”
“That chain is not adequate. A teacher.” I knew what the Forn meant. The will wanted the ability to leave the middle, to find a beginning or, preferably, an ending. Here I was: a master middler. I could be its angel too. I had to be. There could never be a whole life with Rhodes, not with what I’d done to my body and mind, not with what I’ve seen through the threadbare fabric of the world.
So I stayed in that cave. In that desert. In the Forn, between the Cali and the Ia. I was drawn there because of the Forn anyway, not because of love. I’m sure Rhodes reported me missing to the police, but they had no tools for matters like this. If they tried to write it down they wouldn’t even get my name right.
I still see him doing his research. I’m in the desert sky now, really looking down on him. His angel. I’m teaching the Forn what I can, but they are lessons that will never end. I had to tell it it was a middler and nothing more. No opening curtains. No final bow. There was a handful of love I could spread across the surface of its misery.
Rasmussen Engel Skelligton