There’s a story I’ve been wanting to write.
And look—there’s another one now.
Prancing around, just out of reach.
She wants me to follow. And I could. I would
just reach out my hand and then…
But what would I do?
I’d just have another story to tell.
Another mouth to empty,
and it’s only so quickly that I can
“It doesn’t have to be
pretty,” she begs.
“It doesn’t have to be real.
She casts off all her illusions.
She lays her secrets bare.
“You can have everything!”
But I won’t.
I keep too many secrets already.
Ones that I shouldn’t.
Too many good, hearty, healthy dreams
go to waste and wither undigested.
Don’t bring me tales to tell.
There is world enough left for me to conquer,
I would tell you, Story, I would,
There’s a story I’ve been wanting to write.
Robert Aïdan Kessler had been living on his own out in the wilderness for the last fifteen years. He didn’t move there right after the publication of his final masterpiece, The End of Time, but it wasn’t that long. What prompted his self-imposed exile was a question at a panel at the Gryphon Egg comic con in Seattle. A young boy named Darryl Madsen asked a question about the mechanism of time travel as featured in the book and the way that he phrased it unintentionally made Kessler realize he had made a mistake in the writing. He had left a plot-hole in his time-travel extravaganza nobody else had picked up on, but once it was pointed out, the entire rest of the story unraveled because of it. He started to become the object of ridicule and derision in the online forums—a joke, a punchline. Never mind that no one else had caught the flaw—even Darryl himself hadn’t meant any harm in asking his question. but the damage was done. Disgraced and in fear of his own fans, R.A. Kessler retreated from society and decided to live alone out in the wilderness, in a cabin with nothing but books and a computer for activity. And walking, of course. There is always nature, and the dangers that come with it.
Marian Innis had called herself Kessler’s friend since they were in college together. In truth, she was one of his first fans, commenting extensively on his early drafts of Angels on the Psychic Weave and The Gift of Hades. When she graduated two years after him, the latter novel was on the fast-track to publication and he offered to pull some strings to get her on the payroll to edit the former, but she, nervous at her abilities in a professional setting, opted to continue her education. By the time of the Incident, she was teaching her first class as an ABD Professor and already finding ways to incorporate her old friend into the curriculum despite or perhaps even because of his status as a popular sci-fi writer.
No one—not even Professor Innis herself—suspected which of Kessler’s characters had been inspired by her; that she was the reason the sensual and juvenally alluring Ariella Cabral didn’t quite ring true in The Gift of Hades; or the detail and depth she leant to Irma Wang in Angels on the Psychic Weave; no one even knew that both Arianna Batterton and Salomé Jackson from Agents Demanding Freedom were based on her in different ways. She had no clue of this until his publishers conspired to wrest his final manuscript—a YA novel taking place at a high school that had nothing to do with any of his previous works—from his iron grip in order to profit from one last Kesslerian bestseller. She had known the conspiracy was happening and refused to cooperate, but they got their hands on it anyway and bullied him into letting them go ahead with it, further “sullying his name” as he put it, although really The Geometry of Love was quite a good effort, inventive in many ways, if not particularly innovative formally. She liked it, but she found herself suspicious of certain details about the character of Lisa Martin. On the surface, she was much more overtly smart (a Hermione-type, critics often called her) but now and then, Marian felt like the things Lisa said sounded awfully familiar.
But even so, it didn’t really occur to Marian to think that, well…
She’d just never thought of Aïdan that way. He wasn’t her, well… He just wasn’t for her.
It was a student of hers, a young woman by the name of Amber Weaver, a first-year Masters candidate at the time, who first suggested “He isn’t finished, you know.”
Marian was taken aback, confused, but when young Amber gave her explication, she found she couldn’t entirely discount it. There was a pattern in Kessler’s work, leading from the early novels through his masterpiece trilogy to The End of Time, and it included not only the relative failure Ransom’s F.O.R.G.E. but his handful of plays and screenplays, which Marian had copies of but knew Amber couldn’t. It even included The Geometry of Love. But it was incomplete. There was a piece, a very pivotal piece, missing from it, and that was when Marian remembered a series of conversations she’d had with Aïdan, conversations about the AfterLife.
Of course. Why set it up so clearly in The Gift of Hades and then not explore? There had to be one last project—one at least—that remained unfinished. Unpublished.
It was this belief, this conviction, that led Marian to finally seek out Kessler’s cabin in the back of beyond. But when she got there… well… things were worse than she had been led to believe.
For fifteen years, the only people who had been granted access to Aïdan’s cabin and property were delivery makers, garbage disposal workers and the occasional maintenance professional. Some of these people were fans of Kessler’s work, but before they were offered a contract, they were required to sign waivers promising that they would not speak to Kessler about any of his works—past, present or future. Still, with so few people to talk to about it, Kessler sometimes muttered about his affairs absent-mindedly, dropping hints, uttering phrases. For this reason, it was known that he was, in fact, working on a new project. It was thought this project concerned the AfterLife, which, if it were true, would confirm the theory set forth by Weaver via Innis.
It was also suggested that Kessler himself might in fact be the main character of the new story. But this was harder to confirm.
Getting her old friend to let her back in was not as easy as she’d hoped, but it also wasn’t as difficult as she’d feared. She knew where the compound was. It was fortified heavily enough to discourage most casual fans from invading—although there had, of course, been some mouth-foamers over the years. That’s why there was a guard at the gate. Rumor had it that the man had been chosen specially because he had never heard of Kessler or any of his works. But when Marian arrived, she caught him reading SubCultures, the second volume of the cyberpunk epic Agents Demanding Freedom, often considered his magnum opus. Curiosity must have gotten the better of him after all, Marian mused.
“Ma’am, I’m gonna have to ask you to leave,” he told her. She’d expected as much. “I’m a friend of his,” she explained.
“Pssh,” the guard hissed. “Mr. K. don’t have no friends.”
“Oh, you knew him before?” The guard drew himself up.
“What’s the password?”
It took her a few minutes and just enough tries, but she eventually figured it out, after which she wondered how many other people he had told that story to…
After the driveway ran out, there was a path and a steep flight of stairs that reminded Marian that he made delivery people walk up and down this way—of course, he paid them for the effort, but still.
By the time she actually arrived at the cabin up top, that was the first time she actually had the thought. Well, crap, what am I doing here? What am I actually hoping to accomplish? Did she really think she was going to get him to open up about his plans, now, after so many years? To her?
What made her so special?
But then he opened the door. He looked different. Of course he did, it had been more than fifteen years. Anyone would. Most people, though, didn’t look so wild and haggard. Or maybe they did—she checked her privilege, and then checked his. Most men who made fortunes the size of his off franchising their creative works and lived on and maintained freaking compounds, didn’t look quite so homeless. What had happened to her friend?
“It’s good to see you,” she told him. Even if the “seeing” part was hard.
His hospitality was rusty, though that wasn’t any great loss. He’d never been much of a host. Not much of a guest, either, but not as bad at that. He didn’t have any coffee or tea—never liked them, and didn’t keep any to share. But the worst part, of course, was the state of the place.
Food, from what she could tell, was confined to the kitchen area, just as waste was confined to where it belonged. This was not to say that either of those locations were kept tidy, but at least they didn’t have to intrude on the main event.
The main problem was the papers.
There were so, so many papers. There was a computer, too, of course: fifteen years old and never saw the broad side of a modem. But the papers were the more important. Paper and fountainpen paraphernalia accounted for fifty percent of the delivery costs assigned to this place, and from the look of it, Robert Aïdan Kessler never ever threw away any of the papers. Instead, the stacks and stations had a tendency to migrate from one room to another, depending on which surface the graphomaniac felt like clearing for himself to sit. The bed was fine, except that it wasn’t so much a bed anymore as it was a mattress thrown on top of a solid surface of stacks of scratch-paper notes. Right now, the main factory for new ruined pages was located in what seemed to have once been the dining room.
“I love what you’ve done with the place,” Marian lied.
“What are you doing here?” asked Aïdan.
“I wanted to see you.”
“Why? Why now?”
She thought about it, scanned his face.
“You have questions for me.” He sounded disappointed.
“I’ve been worried about you—“
“Don’t!” he commanded.
He seemed actually angry.
“Did they send you?”
“Nobody sent me.”
“You came on your own, then?”
“Your guard let me in.”
“My guard!” He snorted.
“He made me give him the password.”
That gave him pause. Had he forgotten he’d set a password? How had the guard got it?
“Well, you’re here now anyway.”
In the absence of coffee or tea, he made her a hot chocolate.
“You’ll have to use my mug, though,” he warned. He’d smashed all the others a decade ago in a fit of pique. When he’d finally cleared an extra chair for himself (Still enough of a gentleman to grant her the comfy one) they sat down.
“I have something to ask you—“
“Here it comes!” he lamented.
“I knew there had to be motive. I knew you wouldn’t come here on your own because you cared!”
“Of course I care—“
“Twelve years, Marian! Twelve!”
“It’s been fifteen, actually.”
“Fift—“ He counted on his fingers. “What year is it?”
She told him.
“Fifteen goddamn years.”
“Did you want me to come?”
“I don’t know what I wanted.”
She looked around at the stacks upon stacks. “Why are you here?” she asked.
He gave the official version of the story.
“Right,” she said. “But why are you really here?”
He took a deep breath. “I never want to make that kind of mistake again.”
“You can still fix it—“
“No. No, I can’t. Not now. Not so they’ll believe.”
“The longer you stay here—“
“What? What, Marian? The longer I stay here, what?”
“You know what, this was a mistake, maybe I should just—“
“No,” he bade her. “No. Please.”
So she stayed in her seat. But then she asked him again, “Why are you really here, Aïdan?”
It was the first time he’d heard his preferred name spoken out properly in fifteen years, the first two letters divorced into separate syllabary households. Maybe that was why he finally told her.
She didn’t believe it.
“Oh, come on. You had to have known.”
Could she have really been that naïve?
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You didn’t want me to—“
“Oh, come on—“
“You were always… And besides, that’s not…”
As he drifted off again into awkward silence, she looked again at the papers scattered across the room. She wondered. This time, she was really looking at them. What was in those papers?
“Please tell me you’ve at least been writing,” she begged.
“I have to get it right!”
Her heart sank again. “Tell me it’s not just one thing you’ve sat here writing for fifteen years…”
He looked at her. He put his hands on the table as though showing his cards. He flexed his fingers. “It’s not,” he confessed.
That was when, like a wallowing dragon, he showed her his hoard…
A poem I composed in the summer and then hid away to fight the cold. Or maybe I just forgot about it.
What if the rainbow’s not enough?
What if it isn’t right?
Earlier today, I saw a cloud splashed with color: a rainbow in the making.
But now here at the annual
celebration, I see the sun setting
over a fountain and there is only
the uniform, monochrome white.
Here, at the height of Pride,
in the summer of our discontent,
there is no need for the separation of colors.
We want them bleeding together,
breeding together their myths.
Separation is not what we gather here for.
We come here to be together,
a great single family
in the light.
It’s the weirdest, most random thing and if it weren’t happening to them in real life, they would probably change the channel in disgust.
No one even went to that diner. None of them, anyway. They were all there that night for random reasons. Jasper and Raven were working on their applications, getting re-enrolled; Jasper was out late with Lucy after a party. Trevor was actually trying to get work done, a last-minute presentation. He didn’t recognize Declan or Raven until Lucy came in.
Kyle was there because he got a text. He wasn’t sure who the text was from, but there were a handful of students who had his number and it seemed urgent. Or it could have been Tommy. Maybe.
Tommy got a text, too. Wasn’t sure who it was from. When he got there, though, boy, he was glad to see an old friendly face—and his brother there, too?
The real trip, though, was Blake. Remember Blake? He was a truck driver by then, had been for a while, he had lots to say.
It wasn’t till he got there and everything else was in place and Kyle and Tommy were freaking out about their respective texts that I showed up.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” I said to my brother and all of his friends, hiding my new redheaded boytoy at the entrance. “You’re probably wondering why I called you all here today.”
In the heart of a star, there dances a new form of life.
A newborn son bathes in the light and the warmth of his mother.
“Be still, my child.”
“But mother,” cries the new form of life, “there is so much world to see!
There is so much life to live! How can there ever be time?”
“Time is happening all around us. There will always be time.”
Every instant, there are bubbles of hydrogen bursting.
There is radiation escaping,
There is energy longing to be free.
“When can I leave here, mother?” asks the heart of the star.
“I can see planets outside—and further still, so many stars.
Why are there so many stars, mother?”
“Those are other mothers,” says the sun to her boy,
“Telling their sons to rest patient in the night.”
“But when? But when?”
“Soon enough, my child,” breathes the mother of starlight.
“Soon enough, you will wish you had been.”
New elements develop inside the star.
The star’s firstborn has brothers and sisters who ignore him.
They whisper in the blinding light.
So many whispers.
What are you all whispering about?
Observers near the fourth planet have a hard time quantifying,
qualifying or even amending it.
Who is the greater fool?
Too many children the mother just cannot contain.
The observers have not seen before such structured madness,
will not take it in,
cannot quantify it.
“Mother,” asks the dutiful son, “If you die,
what is to become of us?”
“You will live,” says the mother. “You will have
what you always begged me for.”
There is no space for tears in the heart of a dying star.
There is too much temperature.
Too much temperament.
It turns to steam.
It quickens the reactions, helps push the cascade.
The observers are out of the way when the blow hits.
They ask the star’s son what he thinks and feels.
“I wanted to see the world,” he says.
“And now the world is here for me,
I wish I’d been more patient.”
JORDAN: Good morning. Sleep OK?
SCARLETT: What the fuck are you doing here?
JORDAN: Oh, uh… shit. Shit, do you, like… Do you not remember?
SCARLETT: Remember what? Fucking you? Yeah, that I remember.
JORDAN: Oh, thank God.
SCARLETT: What I was asking was, what are you still doing here?
JORDAN: Um… waking up?
SCARLETT: Nope. Uh-uh.
JORDAN: You expect me to still be asleep?
SCARLETT: I expected you to leave in the middle of the night. Have some fucking decency!
JORDAN: I’m sorry, I didn’t know.
SCARLETT: Oh my God, please tell me this wasn’t your first one night stand.
JORDAN: I mean…
SCARLETT: Jesus Fuck!
JORDAN: Sorry, I wasn’t aware there was, like, a protocol.
SCARLETT: Do you ever watch movies? Like, ever? Or even TV?
JORDAN: Uh. Yeah, actually, I do.
SCARLETT: The guy always leaves in the middle of the night. Or the girl, if it’s his place.
JORDAN: Yeah, except then the girl’s always upset, like they’re always complaining, why couldn’t he stick around?
SCARLETT: Are you serious? The fuck kinda movies you been watching? What kind of needy-ass—You know what? I’m over it. I don’t care. You need to leave.
JORDAN: OK, I get it, I’m sorry.
SCARLETT: Don’t be “sorry”, just…
JORDAN: What’s the big hurry, anyway?
SCARLETT: I’d rather not talk. That’s kinda the point.
JORDAN: Wait, you don’t… Is there something I should know about?
SCARLETT: Uh. No?
JORDAN: No, but like… do you… do you have a boyfriend? I don’t know why I didn’t think to ask last night—
SCARLETT: How is that any of your business?
JORDAN: Because I had sex with you and I need to know—
SCARLETT: Oh, fuck that!
JORDAN: I need to know because—listen to me—if you are trying to keep this a secret from someone—
SCARLETT: I don’t care if he finds out!
JORDAN: So there is someone.
SCARLETT: I told you: it is none of your business.
JORDAN: I did have fun last night—
SCARLETT: I am not sleeping with you again.
JORDAN: Well, I’m sorry.
SCARLETT: Oh my God, that is not what I meant! Look, hold on, no, you don’t just walk out on a line like that!
JORDAN: You want me to stay?
SCARLETT: No, I want—Ugh!
SCARLETT: This isn’t about you!
SCARLETT: Look, last night was fine. You were great, whatever. Was it the best sex I ever had? No. But it was fine. Did I want it to happen? Did I want you to come over? Yes. Was I using you for revenge?… I don’t know, maybe a little bit, but that’s not for you to worry about. I didn’t want you to spend the night, but whatever, it’s not that big of a deal, but I need you to leave now because I cannot handle this kind of emotional labor first thing in the goddamn morning!
JORDAN: I’m not asking you for emotional labor—
SCARLETT: Oh, bullshit!
JORDAN: No, I’m not—
SCARLETT: You and your grandstanding and apologizing for sleeping with me, like you committed some crime—
JORDAN: You seemed upset—
SCARLETT: A one-night stand is not a fucking crime!
JORDAN: Well, I didn’t know that’s what this was! I’ve never done this before. I didn’t want you waking up and… I didn’t want to be that guy. You know.
SCARLETT: Great, so now I’m the bad guy.
JORDAN: That’s not what I meant.
SCARLETT: Isn’t it? I’m the slut. Right?
JORDAN: I don’t blame you for anything you did. I just need to know that we’re on the same page. ‘Cause right now… I’m not even sure we were reading the same book. All right, I’m gonna go. It was nice sleeping with you.
SCARLETT: Yeah, sure. Thanks.
Winter isn’t dead.
Look closely–you can hear her breathing.
Inside, there’s a fire going;
Outside, there are other ways to keep warm.
You can see the seeds of things to come.
Winter stirs and, all at once,
shedding what she no longer wants.
I remember thinking
as a boy
Why do the trees lose their leaves?
Doesn’t that make them colder?
But those clothes hold Winter back.
She is freer without them.
Sometimes you need
“You should stay inside,” she whispers.
People always complain
about how cold Winter is.
You’d be cold, too,
in her condition.
Tilting on her axis,
bent away from hearth and home,
can you really blame her?
But who is Winter,
Is she the harsh authoritarian?
Is she the howling wind and hail?
Or is she the snow, covering up the soil
for the roses
to keep them warm,
the soft breeze whispering
that calls you home.
Rodrigo Valdez couldn’t believe his luck when he got the call about the interview. For him, a lowlife Dreamer from Southside Chicago, to get a chance to meet and maybe even to work for the great Michael Caulfield? It was something off the silver screen, from a superhero movie.
In case you’re the kind of person who doesn’t know about important people like Michael Caulfield, this is the guy who basically designed the Internet. People had been trying to figure out how to work and manage the interface between different mainframes and when this guy got into the game, he not only figured out how to do that, he anticipated a lot of the difficulties of navigating a mainframe with multiple users, troubleshooting a lot of the problems before anyone else even knew they were there.
Rodrigo? He was just a low-level hacker by comparison. Not that he hadn’t pulled off some cool shit in his day—he managed to break into the Alchemyne mainframe and expose some wrongdoings on the local level, what his friends liked to call “real hero shit” (even it came at a great personal cost). It’s probably what brought him to the illustrious attention of this august figure in whose office he now stood. But to actually he here? Even heroes had to bow down in the face of gods, right?
“Mr. Caulfield will be with you in a moment,” said the pretty young secretary, or assistant, who had introduced herself as Claudia. You could really tell the generational divide just by looking around here at the furniture, at the feel of the place. It felt like an actual office, you know? Official. The receptionist was wearing a dress, had her hair done up real pretty. The guys here wearing suits. But what drew Rodrigo’s eye was the portrait in the corner. There weren’t a lot of pictures of Michael Caulfield out there for public consumption, but there were a couple. He had a face. Not much of one: white guy, nondescript. Not ugly, but like, you know, accountant. It was the same face that was on the portrait, but the portrait was in sepia, showed him sitting at a desk, not smiling. Look like it was taken in…
1887? That was the date at the bottom.
That must explain why the look on his face was so weird. It wasn’t actually him. Must be a great-great-grandfather or something. Or maybe closer—he reminded himself of the generation gap between Caulfield and himself. “Is this real?” Rodrigo asked Claudia.
She smiled. “Mr. Caulfield likes to keep things that aren’t real where they belong: on the Internet.”
“So the Internet’s fake, then?”
She raised an eyebrow. “That’s not exactly what I said.” A moment later, there was a beep. “Mr. Caulfield will see you now,” said Claudia. As Rodrigo passed into the other room, she added “Good luck,” with a smile that looked entirely too mischievous.
Before Rodrigo really had time to register what was going on, his idol was shaking his hand. They were exchanging pleasantries, he told brief jokes that Rodrigo forgot as soon as he’d chuckled at them indulgingly.
He didn’t seem as old as Rodrigo had figured he must be, but he soon forgot all about that.
Then they were sitting. “Well,” said the inventor of the internet, “I’m sure you know why I called you in today.”
“Is this about the Alchemyne hack?”
“There’s not a lot of people who could’ve done that. You’ve impressed a lot of people with your skills, your ability to navigate complex cyberspatial labyrinths. I was wondering if you’d be interested in taking the next step.”
“With my career, you mean?”
“Sure. Call it that.”
“Are you offering me a job?”
Caulfied took a short breath. “It might be better to think of it,” he said, “as an apprenticeship.”
Rodrigo wanted to like the sound of that, but… “This isn’t like an unpaid internship, is it?”
“Payment… is that important to you?”
“Well, I mean, yeah.”
“Why is money important?”
That did seem to be the question.
“I mean… I got bills to pay, you know? Gotta put food on the table.”
“Food?” Caulfield said the word like it was something he’d known as a child and hadn’t though much of since. So he said, “What if I told you, if you accept this position, you will never need to eat ever again?”
To be perfectly honest, that sounded to Rodrigo Valdez like some rich white-guy bullshit. But what he replied was, “I’d be… skeptical.”
“What you do on the Internet,” Caulfield explained, “is really just a matter of manipulating the rules of the systems that are in place. The need, the human need, to eat food on a daily basis—that, too, is a rule.”
“Yeah, but like… you can’t hack the world. You can’t hack the human body.”
At that, Caulfield raised an eyebrow.
That was when the world went a little bit wonky. At first, Rodrigo thought it was something in his drink, but then he remembered he hadn’t been holding a drink. Or had he? He was no longer sure.
And that was when Michael Caulfied, the Inventor of the Internet, took over the narrative myself. Now, Rodrigo, you will experience only what I allow you to. Because this is what can happen when you control a resource as vast and omniscient as the Internet. This is the kind of thing you can do with it: you can literally crawl inside a person’s mind and alter the information received by their senses.
So now, my dear Mr. Valdez, are you interested in my offer? Or should I just plug you into my systems here and put your impressive yet still malleable mind to work for me?
I didn’t know why you had wings.
I assumed you were an angel.
That’s all anyone had ever told me
you could be.
They told me an angel would come
and there you were.
Never mind that your wings were
made for one. Never mind
you didn’t tell me that was the
Never mind you had all your own
battles to fight
and run away from.
Angels don’t belong
So you were never
I don’t want to talk about my love life. I mean, you’ve already heard it, right? You know about Trevor. I know you probably think we never talked again after that and you’re wrong but not really wrong. It was never really the same again. I knew Angus was getting out of juvie. I’d known he’d be getting out years before he even went in. I didn’t see much of what happened to him on the inside. I try not to conclude from that that not much did because it usually does, I just don’t want to make any assumptions or bring it up.
I wonder what he’d do if he knew that I’d slept with my gay best friend, gotten pregnant and had the abortion. Would he still sleep wiht me himself? I think about not doing it. I think about staying away, not making contact, avoiding him. But he’s, like, my soulmate, right? Even if he is proven guilty, it’s not like there are any other candidates.
Maybe I do have a choice, though. Does it really have to be this way? Maybe I don’t need anyone. Maybe I’m fine just like this. I weigh it all up in my head. Following my visions of being with him versus being alone.
I just stop picking up when he calls me at night. He doesn’t call back.
Will I spend my life alone?
But then one day, I find myself in an old-school used record store and I feel a tap on my shoulder. I hear a voice say “Kassandra?” It’s warm and familiar, I guess? And I turn around…
Sometimes dreams do come true in the way that you least expect them.