NOTE: This is final part of the 23 part series, The Cool War. Reading this part first is a very bad idea and will spoil a lot of the story.
The Sculptor walked confidently to the grimy wooden door. He turned the brass knob, then pulled the door open.
The Janitor sat in front of him, its arms crossed across its chest. The regular, dull wheeze of the gas mask buzzed throughout the cramped, dilapidated room. The Sculptor let the door swing shut behind him with a small metallic click. He smirked at the masked figure.
“Well? Am I The Critic Yet?”
The Janitor remained motionless.
The Sculptor’s smirk widened to a smile, teeth grinning at his new slave.
The Sculptor looked down, staring at his muddy, clay-encrusted hands.
He let his head swing back, wildly cackling at the roof, eyes wide open, ecstasy spilling from every pore of his being.
He had won.
“Up you get, Janitor. We’ve got work to do.”
The Janitor stood up, cape billowing out from behind it. The Sculptor turned to the door, ready to leave the fray victorious. He grabbed the brass knob, then twiste-
The Sculptor tried to twist the-
The Sculptor frustratedly rattled the doorknob, then spun around.
“Janitor, open this fucking…”
The Janitor was gone, a small pink walkie-talkie left on its seat.
The Sculptor looked around the room; he hadn’t noticed before, but there were no windows from which to escape. There were no air vents, there was no plumbing system. The only way out of the room was through the door or through the walls. A single, flickering incandescent light bulb glowed obstinately from the roof. The walkie-talkie buzzed, a feminine voice coming through.
“Hello Sculptor. I want to play a game.”
The Sculptor’s jaw dropped. He ran over and grabbed the walkie talkie, holding down the talk button.
“Fuck. FUCK. FUCK YOU, DIRECTOR. FUCK FUCK FUCKITY FUCK FUCK.”
The Sculptor released the button. The walkie-talkie released a sigh.
“See, that lack of creativity is why you’re here. You don’t even swear colourfully. What an utter absence of artistic vision. What a talentless hack you are.”
The Sculptor threw the walkie-talkie to the ground, stomping on it and snapping the cheap pink plastic. He turned and kicked the door, trying to gain some leverage. The broken device on the ground transmitted a laugh.
“No, you’re not getting out that way. Nor any other way, unfortunately. See, I at least have the foresight to plan for some contingencies.”
The Sculptor ignored the speech, driving his fists into the unyielding wood, screaming bland variants of the word “fuck”. The flickering light cast deep shadows along the walls, occasionally plunging the whole room into complete darkness.
“You’re going to want to turn around.”
The Sculptor ceased his assault, looking over his shoulder. A large wooden crate stood behind him, occasionally rattling. A muddy red substance was leaking out onto the ground. The Sculptor breathed deeply in apprehension, getting a pungent whiff of blood and shit. His face paled, his eyes widened. His life flashed before his eyes as he whispered a single word.
The Director cut in with a parting remark.
“I’d say it was nice knowing you. But it wasn’t.”
The flickering incandescent light bulb turned off for an instant. The Director held her ear to the walkie-talkie. A crunching of wood, a stifled scream, and then a final, echoing crack.
The Director pensively sipped her coffee.
“Joeeeeeeeey, I’m booooooored.”
Rita patted one of her invisible spiders’ bristles (or setae, as she knew was the formal name). She lazily lied across the back seats of the van; Overgang sat typing on his laptop in the centre (looking at the screen through his sunglasses, of course), while Joey and Molly sat in the two front seats (Molly being seated behind the wheel).
“Go downstairs, then. We’ve got some video games in there somewhere.”
Rita sat up, past over Overgang to reach the front seats. She frowned at him.
“Joey, this is a van. Vans do not have a downstairs.”
Joey stared back at her, raising an eyebrow.
“Hatch in the middle, watch your step.”
Rita spun around, furrowing her brow in confusion.
“Overgang, move your feet.”
Overgang shuffled to his right, making room for Rita to slide open the carpeted trapdoor. She sat and dangled her feet into the hole; with a quick hand gesture, her pet spiders all moved down through ahead of her. She grabbed onto the ladder, and started descending into the non-Euclidean room.
Rita got to the base of the short ladder, and looked out at the vast space she had entered. She appraised the place as she descended a staircase into the well-illuminated foyer. Some walls were brick and mortar, some built of bright plastic, some of glass or Perspex, some of metal. It was an eclectic mishmash of materials and design, with huge marble columns sitting adjacent to enormous Campbell’s Soup cans, both supporting a twisting, unevenly-shaped roof. Rita walked along the closest wall, glancing into different rooms. Pantries, a dining room, bedrooms, an enormous entertainment room with a television filling an entire wall. Rita couldn’t stop grinning.
An impossible mansion was hidden beneath the floor of their van.
Rita saw Overgang drop down through the hatch and walk over to the dining room table, holding his laptop in one hand and typing on it with the other. Joey followed, walking into the pantry and grabbing an apple, crunching off a mouthful. He threw Rita another apple; she caught it and took a bite. She pursed her lips, wincing softly as Joey chuckled to himself.
It tasted like lemons.
“So what do I do with you two?”
Agent Green sat across from The Painter and The Builder. The Painter had dried blood around his mouth, with dark splots of it across his chest; The Builder had deep bags under his eyes from stress and sleeplessness. Agent Alcorn was watching a video feed from the other room.
“On the one hand, the pair of you are threats to society at large. You’re near the top of the largest group of anartists this side of the equator. You’re dangerous. Admittedly you’re both comparatively incompetent, but still dangerous. If we were doing this by the book, you’d both already be dead… sorry, ‘terminated’.”
Green stood up and started to pace in the cell; the pair of anartists looked down at their knees.
“At the same time, you know things. Your brains are potential assets. As such, I am reluctant to do any damage to them.”
Green turned and sat down.
“Luckily, I’ve found a solution to this problem. Would you like to know what it is?”
The Painter looked up at Green, spitting in his face.
Green wiped the saliva off, smiling condescendingly. He pulled out a long, thick syringe from his pocket, a brown, uneven mixture swirling inside. Green walked around behind The Painter, who was still sitting bound to the chair. The Painter started to struggle, anticipating the worst.
“DON’T FUCKING TOUCH ME!”
Green stuck the hypodermic needle into the back of The Painter’s shoulder, pushing the liquid in. As the last drop was squeezed from the chamber, The Painter shuddered slightly, then let his head fall limp onto his chest.
“Only dreams now, Robbo.”
Green walked to the other side of the table, looking into The Builder’s tired eyes.
“As for you, Bob, you get a few more precious minutes of consciousness before we pump you full of barbiturates.”
The Builder gazed dully back.
“Ah. Chemically induced coma. Well, at least I’ll be able to get some sleep.”
“Quite. Anything to say before we put you under? Some piece of valuable advice? A nice, profound little phrase on the subject of the human condition and art? Anything useful at all?”
“No. No, I don’t think so.”
“I don’t think so, either.”
And then The Builder’s world was nothing.
Ruiz Duchamp was dead.
A lot of invitations were sent out, regardless. Some to academic professionals, some to world-renowned artisans, some to homeless people, and some to people believed to have been long since dead. The source of the invitations was indeterminate; it was as though the letters simply popped into existence on the insides of the mailbags. That was, of course, impossible, and therefore exactly what was happening.
Most of the recipients had never heard of Ruiz Duchamp.
Most of the world had never heard of Ruiz Duchamp.
Most of the world did not care about Ruiz Duchamp.
Three people in the world cared that Ruiz Duchamp was dead.
And even then, they didn’t care that much.
Rita danced across the rooftops, grinning happily to herself. She threw neon-coloured smoke grenades into the alleyways below, carried and shielded by her cadre of invisible arachnids. Molly and Joey sprinted up the rusty outer staircase, carrying briefcases filled with art supplies. Rita pulled out her phone, shouting over the gunfire below:
“O.G., roof! Corner of Fourth and Second!”
Molly passed her briefcase to Joey, then pulled a slingshot from her pocket, firing high-velocity jellybeans at the GOC agents chasing after them. The building started to shake violently; Rita looked over the edge of the building, watching Overgang drive their van vertically up its side. He reached the top, the van shot upwards, turned parallel to the roof surface, and then came crashing down with a violent thud. Overgang pressed a button on the dashboard, and a long, multi-jointed robotic arm burst from the side of the vehicle. It weaved out and latched solidly onto Joey, grabbing him by the back of his belt and pulling him into the vehicle. Molly continued shooting jellybeans; Rita rode her spiders into the vehicle and down into the hidden mansion through the centre trapdoor. Overgang pushed down on the accelerator, turning in an arc that moved just behind Molly; Molly, in turn, shot a final bean into the chest of a well-armoured soldier, then jumped into the van.
The GOC agents’ bullets ricocheted off the van, leaving small dents and loud metallic dings wherever they hit. Overgang hit the accelerator, shooting the van off the roof. For a few seconds, he was weightless, freefall grabbing at him; then the van hit the ground. If it weren’t for the intricate anomalous dampening system he’d installed in it the previous week, they’d all be dead. He grinned from the adrenaline, glad that it had worked perfectly the first time.
"I met a wise man, once. I climbed great mountains and crossed vast chasms, and found him sitting in the centre of the world. I asked him who he was, and he told me he was a student. A student of who, I asked; a student of the only teacher, he said. Are there other students, I asked; we are all students, and in turn, we all become teachers, he said. I asked him who he was. He told me he was the Buddha. Unfortunately, a different wise man told me this: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him."
The Snipper spun around, grinning.
"So, of course, I slit his throat."
There were no corpses. The corpses reminded him of the dead, and the dead reminded him of his brother. His brother was dead. Ruiz was dead.
What a fucking spoilsport.
“Where are my corpswitzers? Let them guard the door.”
Such a disappointment.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Then why think?
“Why think indeed.”
Here I speak plainly.
“To you, dearest brother, to you.”
Pico walked to the wall, picking up a bottle of vodka and pouring it into his open mouth, speaking and sputtering through a stream of alcohol.
“What’s the purpose? The meaning? The ‘raison d'être’, I would say, if I wanted to be obnoxiously condescending and unforgivably French.”
I’m beginning to sound preachy, here.
“Good morning, living earth.”
Pico took the bottle and smashed it onto the ground.
“What did that mean, I wonder? What, what, what…”
We’ve been over this. The meaning of things is in the thinking of their meaning.
“Meaning needs people. Without people, there is no meaning, and the world is nothing.”
The world is nothing.
“Have you ever tried… killing yourself?”
“What was it like?”
It was not… comfortable.
“I expect not.”
Then you expect correctly, figment.
Figment. A figment is all you are.
“Hah. You would know better than I would.”
I certainly hope so.
“A good figment, though? A pretty little fragment?”
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
“You stole that from me.”
You stole that from me.
“Well, what do you think?”
You stood on the opposite side of the room, staring at the madman talking into empty space. You wondered who he was talking to; that is, you wondered who I was, or perhaps am. Past continuous verb tense is a tricky business, is it not? The Snipper Speaks:
“That it is.”
And you respond with silence. Or do you? How would you react, how did you, how do you? Would you kill this man?
I place a knife in your hand; Pico Wilson offers his throat. The decision [was/is/will be] left to you.
Agent Green took a deep breath, puffing smoke out into the street. He idly rubbed his teeth with his tongue, watching cars speed by from his seat outside the café. He stubbed out his cigarette into the ashtray, then picked up his cup of tea and began to drink.
Agent Alcorn pulled out the seat across from Green, sitting down and pulling out a cigarette of his own. Green offered his lighter; Alcorn waved his cancer stick across the flame until it took. Alcorn raised the cigarette to his mouth, breathed in a warm lungful of noxious fumes, then blew a stream of grey across a similarly grey city. He turned to Green.
“You’re shit at your job.”
Green stared into his reflection on the surface of the tea.
Alcorn took another drag from his cigarette.
“Better than I’d be, though. Better than most.”
“The problem is people.”
“Everything’s people, Green. The problem and the solution. You’re the closest solution we’ve got to a shitty, shitty problem.”
Alcorn threw his cigarette to the ground, putting it out with a twist of his shoe.
“Man. Fuck artists. Fuck artists and fuck art.”
Green continued staring into his cup of tea.
“Have you ever tried… killing yourself?”
“What was it like?”
It was exhilarating. Everything up until then was just… nothing. I stood in the fresh breeze of a wintery July. The coarse gravel crunched beneath my sandals, my legs ached from the long uphill walk. The night was dark, as nights tend to be. I was twelve at the time.
“Twelve? A touch too young.”
Too young to be a part of the world, yes, but not too young to hate it. The world is rotten, fragment. My world, at least. Yours is a touch more pure.
I do. The ground crunched beneath me. I stood at the top of the hill; the train station was below. The bells and lights and everything flashed. Ding ding ding ding… and the train was gone. I stood in star embroidered pyjamas. I looked up at the sky and there were no stars. Too close to the city, to light, to massive stadiums of glorified idiots. The people of the earth got in the way of the world. They didn’t deserve it. They didn’t deserve me. I didn’t deserve them.
“You sounded like me.”
Perhaps I was; though where you are gleeful and free, I was bitter and entrapped. Trapped in a world that didn’t think, couldn’t conceive, or comprehend. I walked down the hill and tripped. Small rocks stuck to my hands and palms and fingers. I picked them up and dusted them off and my skin turned a little red. I walked to the road and looked from side to side.
Safety first. A car would not be certain. The key here is efficiency. I crossed the road and crossed a bridge. The people from the last train were leaving. You would think, perhaps, I would be stopped. That one of those ‘people’ would kneel down and say hello, or ask who I was, or where I was going, or remark on the handsomeness of my star embroidered pyjamas. But none did, and so I kept walking.
“People don’t notice what doesn’t concern them.”
True, and people are never concerned. Everything is alright. Everything is always alright, everything is always under control. I walked past the horde of zombies and down to the station. The lights were on, you see, but nobody was there. I walked to the edge and dangled my legs from the side. The people left, and so I dropped. The gravel crunched beneath my sandals as I hit the ground. I walked to the metal tracks, then lightly hit the side with my foot. It felt more real than anything. That single piece of track was the only thing that could do anything for me. The only thing that could save me. I lied down across the tracks and prayed for salvation.
“And did G-d hear?”
He heard and did not stop the train.
Rita sat at her computer, tapping absent-mindedly at the keys. She had already seen everything that was new on the internet for today; she was getting no new messages via phone or email. She had entered into a strange kind of feeling. Rita wanted to do something, and yet, nothing seemed particularly interesting. She lied at eternity’s gate, waiting for the doors to open. They never even moved. She rested her head on its side atop the wooden table.
Nobody was sitting at the table beside her, and so she started speaking to him.
The man who was once called Tangerine raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“You aren’t supposed to remember me.”
Rita tapped her skull, expression vacant.
“Eidetic memory, locked in for life. No forgetting your stupid shirts.”
“It’s just a hat, Tan. No more magic or omnipotent than anything else we do. Smoke and mirrors.”
Nobody pulled the hat from his head, running his fingers through his unkempt red hair.
“You may be right at that.”
“So what do you want?”
“Nothing in particular.”
“Why are you here, Tan?”
“Keeping tabs. Checking up on old friends.”
“Why are you here, Tan?”
Nobody frowned at the girl sitting across the table.
“Am I not welcome?”
“No more or less welcome than anyone else. Just curious is all.”
“You know what they say about curiosity and the cat.”
“Something something I hate Mondays.”
Rita stood up and walked over to the refrigerator, pulling out a can of grape-flavoured soft drink. She flicked up the tab, cracking it open with a hiss of escaping gas.
“The question stands, Tan. You get nothing until you answer.”
“What is it that you’re doing then, Rita? Why are you here?”
Rita took a gulp of bubbling purple fluid.
“It’s more interesting than the alternatives.”
“These people are more interesting than the other people.”
“So you’re driven by interest?”
“Then that’s my answer too.”
Rita sat down at the table again.
“Okay. Okay, Tan, it’s like… okay. What’s the worth of a person?”
Nobody rubbed his chin, making dull scratching sounds against his stubble.
“The potential of their contributions, I suppose.”
“The sum of their parts, then.”
“Alright, then. Let’s say we’ve got two people, right?”
“Completely identical in every way except one: one of them has a different, unique offering to reality. A differentiator of worth.”
“They can both go off and do the same thing. They’d get paid well for doing what they can. But that one with the potential offering never gets to show it. That potential dies.”
Nobody said nothing.
“I’ve got lots of stuff that I can do better than everyone else, right? I’m a genius, Tan. You pick any job, and I can do it better than anyone else can. But that’s meaningless, that’s not the point, that’s not my worth, right? The worth is in uniqueness. And that’s why I’m not sitting in a classroom, doing easy little sums, learning how to spell. I’m doing stuff that only I can do, and above that, I’m doing it because it makes me happy, usefulness be damned. You get it?”
Nobody placed the hat back on his head.
“What about obligation?”
“Obligation to who?”
“The world, I suppose.”
“Capability does not equate to obligation. I’m not indebted to anyone.”
“Don’t you feel guilty?”
“I’ve done nothing to warrant guilt. The world owes me nothing, and I owe the world nothing. Obligation is bullshit, Tan.”
Nobody smiled faintly.
“Perhaps it is.”
And then Nobody went off and did something else and Rita did nothing and sat at the table tapping the keys on the keyboard until she fell asleep.
“Have you ever tried… killing yourself?”
“What was it like?”
It was morose. Everything up until then was just… nothing. I stood in the cool breeze of a wintery July. The coarse gravel crunched beneath my sandals, my legs ached from the long walk. The night was dark, as nights tend to be. I was sixteen at the time.
“Sixteen? A moody teenager, then.”
Nothing of the sort. By then I was a wise man. I was… disillusioned. The world had become boring again. I had already died once, in a way of sorts. But it hadn’t taken well, so I took to taking my life again.
“Resolute in the decision?”
I was resolute the first time. By the second, I was simply going through the motions. I guess… I was driven [by/to] insanity. Doing the same thing over and expecting a different result. So I walked across to the old building, tall and wooden and long since condemned, and yet nobody wanted to waste the time to knock the thing down. I’d always loved the house. It seemed… mysterious. Otherworldly. If there was anything interesting on the face of the planet, it would be in that house. And then I went inside.
“And was there anything interesting inside?”
Nothing but me. I made my way through a window; locked, but it was an old lock, and not hard to pick. I cut myself a little on the frame. Old paint made its way under the skin; it would have become infected, if I lived beyond that night. The place was interesting, of course. The floor was textured hardwood; I took off my sandals and walked around. The texture beneath my feet was unspeakable, and yet, the happiness was hollow. There was a table, some chairs. Three floors tall in all.
“And the death?”
The death was morose. I walked up the creaky staircases, looking through every room. I coughed from the dust; I brushed aside a cobweb. A spider jumped from the web and bit my hand. I crushed it and threw its body to the ground. I got to the top floor, then kicked out the rotten handrailing. The impact was not a certain death; I took my pocket knife and slit my wrists, my legs, my ankles. I slit my throat, then fell forwards. As the wind rushed past my face, I prayed that I was wrong, that this was a dream, that the world had meaning. I was trapped in a world that understood the symptoms but not the cause. A transient physician, not one that offered a cure, merely blind treatment. One that didn’t care. All there was to do was hope and pray.
“And did G-d hear?”
He heard and did not stop the fall.
Ruiz Duchamp was dead. The funeral was short, boring, and Catholic, though two of those adjectives are redundant.
Funerals, normally, are attended by those closest to the deceased. Ruiz, having been an abrasive asshole for the majority of his adult life (and the entirety of the time before that) had never found much time for ‘friends’. Acquaintances, yes; Ruiz knew a lot of people, but the difference between acknowledgement and acceptance is… hmmm. Not as much as you’d think, really. Simply a matter of opinion.
He did extract a sort of grudging respect from most of the people he mocked. He wasn’t really a good artist, or at least he wouldn’t think so himself, yet somehow, through a strange series of coincidences, he’d convinced an astonishing number of people into thinking he was. Perhaps he was just a really, really good liar. If only he’d gone into politics.
Of course, for every lie Ruiz told, there was some truth. Nothing comes of nothing; the web of lies caught glistening segments of the ‘real’ him. A million shattered pieces, intricately refracting a single source, reflecting a presumably coherent whole.
Or was it?
Of course it was. People are, after all, just people. After all the condescension and mad artistry and utter insanity, there was a thinking, living, breathing human being, seeking validation through the only source he could. And when validation ran out, there was nothing left for him.
His eulogy didn’t really mention any of this. This was because Ruiz wrote and delivered his own, recorded as always with a banged up Betamax recorder. When it was left to Ruiz to sum up his own life, this was what he said:
“Greetings friends, enemies, frienemies, enemiends, cyborgs, wizards, dogs, cats, mice, flies, microbes, virii, supermarker cashiers, and other subjective existences potentially living in a comparatively relative future. Best regards from beyond the grave!
“CUT. Alright, I’m going to record this bit a few times. When you’re, y’know, actually airing this, just pick whichever one seems… valid, the most. And then everyone will be all like “woah, he was psychic or something, amazing!” and everyone will think I was a cool guy, or psychic or something. Okay? Okay.
“ONE. This one you air if I die of old age, or by accident, or something boring. This is basically the generic one. So when you’re clipping all of this together, start from here:
“So I’m dead now. I bet I went out with a bang, no? Some enormous fiery explosion got me, most likely, while saving a sack of kittens and orphans. I went out bravely, unwavering in my convictions in the strength of the human spirit, or something.
“CUT, and TWO. This is for if some asshole kills me. Start from here:
“So I’m dead now. And I’ve got a confession to make… I know who murdered me. Spooky, no? That person, in fact is sitting in this very room. The police will be along to take statements shortly, and probably kill the one judged guilty.
“CUT, and THREE. Alright. This one… well, this one’s for if I see myself out. Starting:
“So I’m dead now. I’ve ragequit reality and left the lot of you morons behind.
“CUT. Yes, I know, it’s short, but fuck it. Nobody likes funerals. Hell, who’s to say I’m ever going to die anyway? Dunno why I’m even bothering to record this. Okay, from now until the end, just keep it all in. Well, I mean, not this bit. After I finish this sentence.
“So here’s my eulogy to you, people of a boring planet, insignificant blobs of pus and flesh with delusions of importance and grandeur; may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. May you sit and be entertained in masturbatory bliss, may you rot forever in your filthy sty. I cannot live to hear the news from England, so burn my mail for me while I’m away.
“Good night, dead society. The rest is silence.”
The church, of course, didn’t have a Betamax player, and so nobody heard the eulogy.
“Have you ever tried… killing yourself?”
“What was it like?”
It was frightening. Everything up until then was just… nothing. I stood in the freezing breeze of a wintery July. The coarse gravel crunched beneath my sandals, my legs ached from the long downhill walk. The night was dark, as nights tend to be. I was twenty at the time.
“Twenty? Tired of stacking shelves, perhaps.”
Quite the opposite. All I wanted was simplicity. I had long since given up on choice, I had long since given up on hope, I had given up on life and love and everything. Self-preservation is not an emotion. Fear, yes; fear of death is emotional, but the drive itself is not. Nor is it logical. The drive to keep existing is common among things that exist, simply because that which lacks the drive does not exist for long. Even bacteria try to live, but not for fear of death. They do so because they must.
I do. The ground crunched beneath me. I stood at the bottom of the hill, the beach stretched out in front of me. Salty sea air ripped against my lips, flaying my skin in the lightest of blows. I took off my sandals, sinking my feet into vaguely damp sand. I wiggled my toes, working tiny granules behind my toenails. I walked towards the ocean. Such a powerful thing; waves crashed down unrelentingly. I took my phone from my pocket and threw it far away, unable to hear a splash above the constant roar of wind and water.
“I’ve never seen the ocean.”
It is a thing to see. As, I suppose, all things are. Raw, unharnessed energy, tearing out the ground from underneath. I walked through, goosebumps up my arms, shivering from the wintery gusts, breathing shallow breaths and still placing one foot in front of the other. The icy water hit my legs and I fell over from the shock.
I stood up again. I kept moving, striding through the fear. It needed to end. It had to end. I just wanted to cash out, I needed to leave the table. I had all the chips, why was the game still going? When you win, the game is over, and you move to another. But the universe likes this game, and it makes me keep playing. I scooped a handful of seawater and threw it in my mouth. The cold numbed my taste buds, but not enough for the salt to shine through. I walked more, and then the wave hit, and I collapsed. I opened my eyes; again, the salt stung, but I did not mind. The water pulled me out, the currents kept me down. I breathed in and felt heavy and full. My body matched the ocean’s density. I was one with it, at its mercy, and soon, ideally, to pass. And so I prayed that this time would change. That anything would be different.
“And did G-d hear?”
He may have heard, but Poseidon won.
Carol gave Sandra Paulson and Felix Cori their beverages, then walked back behind the counter. Felix blew softly across the top of his cup of coffee, then raised it to his lips and took a tentative sip. Sandra closed her eyes, rubbing her forehead with her palms, grumbling a query.
“Does it really matter?”
“It kind of does.”
“You’d know more than I would. Gallivanting around like a pair of idiots…”
“We know ‘something’ happened. All communication gets cut, stops living in the gallery, and, y’know, actually releases wowwee to the public.”
“So glad you’ve thinned it down to ‘something’.”
“How well did you know him?”
“Pfffff, not at all. Only met him after he sent that stupid video. You?”
“I knew him a bit. We went to school together, see. I think he might’ve had a crush on me or something for a while? I dunno. I’m not good with things like that. Fuck, he definitely wasn’t.”
“What was he like back then?”
“Pretty much the same.”
Sandra cracked her knuckles, then picked up her mug of green tea. She sipped it, swilling around the bitter liquid in her mouth.
“He stopped taking his pills.”
The pair of them looked towards Carol, the disingenuous smile common to food service workers plastered across her face. She slipped out from behind the counter, sitting at their table and resting her elbows on its surface, her chin in turn resting in her opened palms.
“He used to come in here around midday, order a few coffees, then drink with a handful of pills. The last few weeks, he’d still come in here and order the same thing, just never taking anything with them. It was almost as though he had completely forgotten, because of ‘something’ happening. Like someone made him forget… but that’s just silly, isn’t it?”
Carol continued smiling blankly, tapping the side of her knows. Sandra and Felix glanced at each other, Sandra uttering a question they both wanted answered.
“And who are you, again?”
Felix spat tea all over the table, drawing the attention of people seated nearby. Sandra froze, processing the new information, comparing it to what was known previously. Carol continued.
“I could have drawn that out longer, but there’s no real point in hiding it.”
Felix pulled some napkins sitting in a holder, wiping the table clean while posing a query.
“Can you prove that?”
Carol pulled out a dark black gas mask from behind her apron; Felix stared at the object with the same feeling of awe and fear that it forced in anyone who looked upon it. A cheap trick, arguably, but one that served the position well. Carol dropped the mask into the front pocket of her apron and Felix felt a weight lift off his chest.
“It’s just a mask and a meter, though it would disagree. That said, housekeeping. The only remaining members of our shady little cabal are sitting at this table. Everyone else is either predisposed or dead. We are looking for new members.”
Felix raised an eyebrow, Sandra still occupied in thought.
“I kind of quit.”
“You didn’t quit. You took a break. Now you’re coming back.”
“If you say so.”
“I’ve composed a shortlist for your perusal. Nibman and Aldon are probably the best bets at this point, though the final decision rests in your hands.”
“I’m not the one who makes the decisions. It’s your club, I’m just the cleaning lady. By the way, one of you has to be The Critic now, so-”
“Not i… damn it.”
The Critic sipped his cup of coffee.
“Then that’s resolved. You need three new members in the next week. Titles are up to you, as is everything, when it comes down to it. You’ve got my number, of course, and I’m normally in here if you just want something to drink.”
Sandra returned to the original topic.
“What about Duchamp?”
“He’s dead. The suits didn’t kill him, but they gave him the rope to hang himself. Your actions would not have changed the outcome regardless. There’s little else to say on the matter.”
“If you say so.”
A familiar customer walked through the door, cigarette smoke still trailing behind him.
“Why are you working at a coffee shop, though?”
Carol stood up, smiling the same emotionless smile.
“Because I like coffee.”
“Have you ever tried… killing yourself?”
I have. Many times.
“What was it like?”
It wasn’t like anything.
“Nothing was alike?”
No, everything was alike. It felt like anything else.
“And what was that feeling?”
Nothing. Everything up until that point was nothing. And yet, what followed was nothing too. Nothings on nothings on nothings.
“Nothing comes of nothing, live again!”
Mister Redd walked.
Mister Redd had been walking for a very, very long time. His shoes, once clean, shiny, polished and black, were tattered, scuffed, soleless and a dusty, non-reflective grey. His socks had worn through hours after the soles fell out. The skin on his feet had taken days, but in time, it too fell through. Mister Redd walked, leaving bloody footprints along miles of forests and freeways.
It had been years since he’d been home.
Mister Redd could not quite recall what had made him decide to go home, but then, he could not recall things well at the best of times. He shoved his fists in his pockets; his right hand brushed against the paper of a forgotten invitation, and he remembered why he was going home. He pulled his hands from his pockets and promptly forgot. All that was real was walking. The raw flesh of his feet on the hot tar of the road. Walking and walking and walking. Fists into pockets, out of pockets, into pockets. Day into night into day into night into weeks of walking through fields of broken glass with nothing to eat or drink or do but to walk and think of nothing but the walk.
For the first time in his life – though, of course, he could not recall such – Mister Redd’s mind was focused on a singular objective. the lowercase AND UPPERCASE And The Friend Who Talked Like This withered away into dust, succumbing to the walking, the motion, subsuming themselves into an intensely coherent whole. Mister Redd walked for forty days and forty nights.
And then he stood outside the Wonderworks.
Mister Redd walked up to the chain link fence. He cracked his fingers one by one, then leapt up, grabbing onto the interlocking wire mesh. He shoved his flayed feet into footholds, staining the grey metal with red. He continued climbing upwards, then grabbed onto the roll of razor wire when he reached the top. Mister Redd silently grinned as blood dripped from fresh holes in his hands; he pulled himself up and over the roll of steel barbs, then fell in a crumpled heap on the other side of the fence. He felt his shoulder dislocate from the impact; smiling faintly, he stood and shoved it back into position with an uncomfortable crunch. Mister Redd stretched his arms into the air, blood dripping from his fresh stigmata.
Mister Redd licked his digits, grinning as his mouth filled with the taste of iron. He walked over to the building proper; as he approached, glass doors slid apart automatically for him. He moved into the empty lobby, dying the white marble floors crimson. The front desk was unmanned.
Mister Redd dinged the call bell sitting on the table. There was no response.
No matter. He turned and started to walk through the labyrinthine corridors of the Wonderworks, aimlessly stumbling past innumerable doors. The décor was consistently ‘shiny’. Polish on marble, polish on glass, polish on cases of thousands of toys. Everything was reflective. Mister Redd’s footprints echoed throughout the corridors.
Mister Redd turned around a corridor and found himself looking at a small army of corgis. They excitedly barked at each other, then dissipated, waddling off in every direction. Some of them walked past him; one of them stopped at his feet, sitting at attention. Mister Redd scowled at the dog, blood dripping from his hands onto the floor.
Jeremy barked helpfully, and started leading the guest to his master.
Mister Redd shuffled along behind the dog’s skittering little legs, keeping its eyes fixed firmly on its wagging tail. The dog weaved through passages, finally stopping at the large wooden doors of office of Isabel Helga Anastasia Parvati Wondertainment V, PhD. He turned to Mister Redd, barked a parting farewell, then left to take care of other business.
Mister Redd twisted the handle and pulled the door open.
Isabel Wondertainment had been rolling around on the floor while eating a chocolate bar. She heard the door open, then looked at the man standing there. The man was taller than her, which was unusual to begin with; furthermore, he had deep red strawberry ice cream all over his mouth, feet and hands. Why did he have strawberry ice cream on his feet? She shouted out to him across the large and open office.
“Why were you walking on ice cream?”
Mister Redd started walking slowly towards her, growling a query.
“Where’s your dearest daddy?”
“Dead! I think.”
Mister Redd stopped walking. Isabel watched him freeze up, then fall to his knees. He rubbed strawberry ice cream from his hands through his hair, then looked to the roof and started to scream. Isabel shoved her fingers in her ears and closed her eyes, wincing at the volume; then, the scream turned into great peals of cackling laughter. When Isabel opened her eyes, Emma Aislethorp-Brown was standing between her and the man who maybe liked strawberry ice cream too much for his own good. Mister Redd cackled, then fell to the side, lying on the ground while lightly convulsing.
And then it stopped. Mister Redd cracked his fingers again, then pushed himself up onto his feet. He rubbed blood into his eyes, then looked over to the woman standing between him and the girl.
“And who’re you?”
“Emma Aislethorp-Brown. Miss Wondertainment’s assistant. You?”
“Redd. A… ‘product’ of her father’s. As is she if you think about it. We’re siblings, after a fashion.”
Mister Redd grinned widely, bloodstained teeth poking out from between his lips.
“I did say I was coming. I sent a lot of letters.”
Emma stared plainly at the man standing across from her.
“What do you want?”
“Just saying hello. Thought I might ask the old man for some new toys. One of mine seems to have broken, you understand. I’d be looking for something new. If he’s not here, though, then I guess nothing can be done.”
Mister Redd stared past Emma, looking towards Isabel, who was still chewing her chocolate bar. The old man was dead. There was nothing left to do here.
Mister Redd was no longer angry. There was nobody left to be angry at. He smiled.
“I’m past my warranty regardless.”
He turned and shuffled out the door, trailing scarlet behind him.