Monthly Archives: September 2011

Nostalgia

Nostalgia

By Joel Allyn

8/3/2011

3,700 words

In a world of only remakes two writers from different generations discuss their craft over games of chess.

                                                        


“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

– Ernest Hemingway

“So essentially it’s King Lear with a cast of talking dogs, British dogs,” said Rob. Just give them what they want.

He felt sick as the words left his mouth and then shame as the man at the head of the table nodded approvingly and spoke aloud to the rest of the writers gathered around the table.

“See that’s how we do it. We’ll just film some dogs, edit it and throw some well known voices over it speaking the Barb’s words.” Bard, thought Rob, a headache had bloomed behind his eyes. “We’ll make back ten times what it’ll cost to produce.” Mr. Bay said. He smiled at Rob. “Great job as always Rob, the rest of you could certainly learn from Townsend here. Alright I’ve heard enough from you guys today. Let’s get back to work, come up with something to take to the backers.”

Rob slunk back to his desk, doing his best to avoid both the supportive comments and the scornful looks. Half his co-workers wanted to write like him and were always asking what his secret was, where his ideas came from. He often wanted to say they weren’t even worthy of the term ‘ideas’, that they were bottom of the barrel mindless jokes. Instead, he just nodded with an obligatory empty smile. The rest of the office wanted him gone, minimal if any effort was made on their part to conceal this fact. They were sick of looking bad, and if it wasn’t enough that they despised him for that they also blamed him for contributing to the degradation of storytelling in general. As far as most of the older – and in their own opinions wiser – scribes were concerned Rob Townsend was not a real writer at all. If they only knew…

There was only one real writer left though, and Rob had managed to find him. Their meetings were his secret and his salvation, and the thing that kept him writing. Hell, by this point it was the thing keeping him alive. Over games of chess in the park they’d talk for hours, and the old scribe known as Lovey Rigg would beg Rob to share the ‘ideas’ that had been pitched recently. Eventually Rob would give in and once he’d heard the proposals Lovey would just laugh and laugh, but behind the laughter in his eyes the younger writer would catch a glimpse of sadness, and perhaps fear. As Lovey’s hands had started to shake worse and worse and he had grown gaunter Rob had become worried but knew better than to intrude into his personal affairs, he had learned that lesson early and easily. Mostly Rob would just listen, absorbing everything – he could always sift through it all later.

He loved hearing Lovey speak of the days before NOSTALGIA even existed, when writers would come up with original story ideas instead of just altering remake after remake. It sounded like some fairy tale land to Rob. For as long as he could remember it was just a steady stream of the same safe films disguised behind the mask of scarcely altered characters or approaches, but Lovey Rigg remembered a world before the one devoid of originality that Rob knew.

History books can be altered, but to hear Lovey tell it these original great movies –classics, he fondly referred to them – held some sacred truth, some sort of magic. The way he put it was that it was about finding the truth within the lies. Then over time parts of remakes started showing up in the newer films, cloaked under the guise of an ‘homage’. Lovey said he himself was guilty of this but hadn’t been too concerned at first. Eventually however he’d had enough and founded and led a campaign against the rising tide of mediocrity, and was daring to call these ‘homages’ plagiarism.

His groups platform was based around the feeling expressed best in the Times editorial Lovey Rigg authored where he wrote, ‘If one does a near shot for shot remake of an already existing film, or even a portion of it, how is that any different than rewriting a classic book line for line, changing the characters to dogs and calling it your own work? And furthermore, why is one any more acceptable than the other?’ Due to the man’s renown the article was widely read and many people felt Rigg had indeed made an excellent point: If people could get away copying films why not slightly altered books as well? He had handed his enemy their best idea to date.

Three months later a classic work of fiction was reprinted and released with one noteworthy change – they’d added zombies. Lovey said he’d laughed that butchery off, as he had the awful vampire stories involving day-walking vamps that sparkled like glitter; until both books skyrocketed up the bestsellers list in the very same publication his editorial had been run. Several adaptations, sequels and knockoffs followed, and people couldn’t get enough.

“That,” he said, “was the beginning of the end. Within a few years more and more remakes popped up and kept selling well so the studio heads and publishers took fewer unnecessary chances and focused their backing solely on apparently failsafe, well-worn favorites. They began to refuse paying talent what it deserved and opted instead to hire amateurs who would do the job happily for little more than a pat on the head. Television shows from decades prior were suddenly exhumed and put on the air with new casts, some were even turned into films, yet people still just kept eating it up. It’s not any one person or group’s fault though; things were getting rougher for everybody and as the entire global economy was melting down people were just looking for an easy laugh or a quick simple murder mystery, and I get that. What few clever writers remained were so scared of not working that they simply towed the line in silence. A few years more and it was so bad that they resorted to actually turning board games into films, and people paid for the privilege.” Rob had laughed at that, but the sour look upon Lovey’s face made him cease at once.

“You cannot imagine what it was like to see so many great writers’ ideas go unrecognized and fade into obscurity while the three thousandth redo of Romeo and Juliet (this time with gnomes) made a fortune. Every time somebody watched one of these atrocities, I swear a book killed itself.”

Somewhere out of that rising cesspool of mediocrity came one pioneering company – NOSTALGIA – which arrived seemingly fully formed and with the dominance of Cthulu. The company’s founders were at the helm of all of it, recognizing the lasting worth of rehash after rehash long before the rest of the industry fully caught on.

“They’ve poisoned that word.” Lovey had said more than once, and Rob couldn’t argue. After all, the company’s job was to trick people into buying the same product over and over based on nothing more than the feeling itself, so the name was quite apropos but no less poisonous. When asked what had ever become of his league of like-minded scribes – The Scribblers, they’d called themselves – Lovey would say simply, “All dead now.” Adding, “We managed to hang in there for a bit though, still writing original stories as they came to us, if only to read for each other around a fire. But I’m the last Scribbler now, and any day I’ll be reading my own epilogue.”

He let out a slight chuckle at that, Rob did not.

“So why bother to write at all then if nobody-”

“Reads it?” Lovey cut in.

“Well, yeah. I mean, I’ve had a few ‘great’ ideas but never bothered putting any of them to paper because I know they’d never go farther than that.”

“Then I suppose NOSTALGIA has won, boy. Your ideas, at least the ones you’ve shared with me, are great but if you need somebody to tell you that then you’ll always have a place at NOSTALGIA, where they’ll praise you for those stories you’re ashamed to speak of.”

“Well Lovey, we can’t all be Scribblers.”

Lovey peered across the chessboard into his eyes. “Maybe not son, but you could be.”

That had flattered Rob to no end and he’d done his best to hide the red flush that he felt creeping up his neck and spreading warmth into his cheeks and ears.

He walked his normal route after work, looking forward to seeing Lovey, and holding out hope of maybe even winning a game this time. His whole life he’d written, and since he picked up a pen he’d heard the name Lovey Rigg whispered everywhere with words like legend attached, though all his books and films had been wiped out with the rest before Rob’s time. Whenever he inquired to the whisperers he’d always be told that the great writer had become an introvert and passed away years ago, but when he couldn’t find a burial site he started looking among the living, and was shocked at how easily he’d found the man.

“Most folks don’t bug dead men,” he said once, “not like you.”

To Rob’s surprise it hadn’t taken much convincing to get Lovey to talk with him. In an odd sort of way it seemed he’d been sitting there waiting for someone, not Rob surely, but somebody. Rob had brought a chessboard to help break the ice and Lovey’s eyes lit up when he spied the board clutched under the boy’s arm. Rob had managed to come across a quote from one of Lovey’s old fellow Scribblers that stated, ‘If Rigg didn’t have a smoke or a drink, a pen or a woman in his hand he had a chess piece to be sure.’ So Rob had dug out his board at once. The set they’d played with since was hand carved by Lovey himself and put Rob’s flimsy set to shame, as did the legend’s uncanny ability to end a game in under a half dozen moves.

Each time he got to the table in the park Lovey would be sitting there, waiting and smiling with the board set up. Once, Rob showed up over thirty minutes early only to find his friend waiting with folded hands, a smile upon his face. He turned the corner and there was their table, chessboard setup and Lovey smiling at him.

“One of these days I am going to beat you, at least to the damn park.”

“Good luck grasshopper. Not likely however with all that, ahem, work you do.” Lovey’s smile widened.

“Hey, somebody has to ensure the remakes aren’t completely terrible. I do my best just in hopes of making them tolerable.”

“Part of the solution-”

“Or part of the problem. I know, I know.” He cut in. “Too bad being part of the problem pays so much better.”

“Then I suppose I’d be better off giving this to someone who would make better use of it.” He tapped a lengthy black finger on a small wooden box resting beside the board. “Who am I kidding you’re all terrible nowadays, ha.”

“What’s in it Lovey?”

“Later. You ready for a lashing boy?”

“Maybe, but Maybe I got some new tricks I’ve learned.” Rob had grown weary  of the embarrassment of having his ass handed to him every time they played, and had since read through several strategy books as well as losing sleep practicing against the computer. So heading into this match he felt cautiously optimistic.

The first game Lovey took in six moves, the second on the other hand was an improvement, it took him only four. Rob’s frustration was poorly concealed.

“You think and think and think,” He smacked his palm hard against the stone table and Rob jumped, “but you never do. You’re always reacting, always on the defensive. It is past time you went on the attack, boy.”

Rob was on the losing end of a half dozen more games before they took a break to eat. The well known favorite sandwich of Lovey Rigg was a simple BLT with mustard instead of mayo, so Rob had made a habit of packing a couple every time they met. The last couple times however he’d barely touched his food, and when Rob mentioned it Lovey’s answer was an ominous one. “Eh, a lot of things I used to love I don’t even like anymore.” Confused Rob had asked if the sandwich was bad but had only gotten, “It’s fine, thank you boy.”

They resumed their game but Lovey seemed distracted, and after a few matches that took Lovey over a dozen moves to win, Rob actually managed to land Lovey in check, which was a first. When it happened Rob looked up expecting either praise or admonishment but Lovey didn’t even notice, he was too caught up staring down Condor Avenue, home of downtown’s cinema district.

He was looking in the direction of the marquee over the Crossroads Theatre, which displayed the films ‘Trading Places…Again’, ‘Good Cop, Rad Cop’, ‘Parody Movie’, ‘Jack and Phil’, ‘Princess and the Pizza’, ‘Super Monkey Space Adventure 9000’ and one Rob was shamefully responsible for, ‘Piglet’ which was naturally ‘Hamlet’ on a farm. There were more but they all followed what had become the same basic formula for success:  Find something familiar. Tweak it slightly. Reheat and serve.

“What next?” Lovey murmured

K-9 Lear Rob almost said to try and make him smile, but didn’t. He instead asked if Lovey wanted to play one more match.

“No… No, I think I’m done Rob.”

He never calls me Rob.

He helped Lovey pack up the pieces the elder writer had shaped from birch and maple. Wordlessly Lovey placed the small wooden box in front of Rob.

“What’s in the mystery box?”

“A writer never tells son, he shows.” Rob clicked the box open and stared wordlessly at its contents as Lovey continued. “Just something I want you to have. You’ve got a gift boy; you just need to have the balls to use it.”

“Lovey it’s beautiful, but…I…I can’t…I mean” He still just stared at it, then miraculously broke the spell and looked up to meet the frail man’s gaze.

Lovey Rigg had tears streaming down his dark face.

“Lovey…?”

“I knew you’d appreciate it boy, you see its worth, I knew you would, but it’s worthless without a hand to wield it…” he trailed off. His voice was a weak croak when he went on. “I can’t write anymore, Rob.”

That admittance, what Rob had suspected since the beginning – since he’d seen the blank page in the typewriter with dust on it – broke him, and he felt a lump rise in his throat as his vision blurred. Lovey picked up his bag and Rob got on his feet to thank the man properly. Lovey hated hugs, Rob knew, so he tried to hand the box back as they went to shake hands but Lovey shook his head, said, “I’m out of ink, Rob.” He said, and that was that.

They parted with small talk and a big handshake, but Rob felt something off in the ritual. Then Lovey flashed that infectious smile and Rob couldn’t help but reciprocate. Every time they parted Rob dreaded it might be the last time he’d ever see him and searched to find the words to convey all he’d learned from the man, how he’d been inspired to be first a better writer, then a real writer, all due to Lovey. Yet each time he came up short, and there’s no worse torment for a writer than being at a loss for the perfect words. So the younger scribe said all he could seem to muster up at that moment.

“Thank you, Lovey.”

“Thank you, Rob.”

He watched Lovey Rigg make his way down Condor Avenue, until he vanished around the corner, and Rob had not failed to note the shake of the head as he passed by the marquee sign. Grumpy old bastard. One of Lovey’s tales had been how at twenty-one he’d gone to that very theater to see his first book’s theatrical adaptation. He’d said that he was anxious to see it and how at first it was magic seeing his tale breathing off the page, but that after that initial awe wore off he was simply bored because he said he knew what was coming. Now they’re playing the abominations I help create, but no more. Done. Time to get started. When Rob got home he placed the wooden box over the hearth, and then sat on the couch staring at it until sleep overtook him.

“I…I don’t get it Townsend,” Mr. Bay said. “What story is this based on again?” His words had been the first to break the silence that followed Rob’s pitch.

Careful now. “It’s um; it’s based partly on ancient Greek mythology. You know how well fairy tales and myths sell sir; it’s like that, just modernized.

“I mean it’s a great idea Rob really, as always, but it just doesn’t feel familiar enough, you know? I mean if I didn’t see the source material clearly in it, the backers certainly won’t.  We just need it to be more recognizable, and more than just an old man and young man playing chess. Where’s the familiarity, the classic catch phrase, or the romantic interest? Where’s the nostalgia?”

Think Rob, come on. “Yes sir, but it’s actually inspired by the very famous scene in The Seventh Seal, where death is the chess opponent. It’s been used several times before to great success, and was actually one of the original homages.”

“Oh okay I get it. Yeah, I can see that…” He clearly couldn’t. “But even then, in your story you said death keeps winning?”

Death usually wins, last time I checked. “Yes sir, but only until the twist ending.”

This was always Rob’s de facto weapon when he was cornered trying to sneak in anything even remotely unique. The backers at NOSTALGIA were always excited to market a twist on the ending of a classic, even if it was cheap or nonsensical.

“Well, we’ll have to see what the backers say. I mean I get it Rob, but you know how the money can be sometimes. Probably best to get going on something else in the meantime.”

After the meeting the looks and compliments came from the opposite groups as before but he was still equally indifferent. He knew this story would go nowhere, and it was the first of his since being hired that wouldn’t, but he wasn’t upset. Perhaps the next story would do better, or the next, or the one after that. He just needed more practice; he found creating ideas from scratch was so much harder than simply altering someone else’s. It was no wonder storytelling was in such a dire state. What had been in the box Lovey gave him had helped his writing tremendously. He couldn’t wait to tell Lovey, ever since he’d left him the week before he had been bursting with ideas and wanted to pour them out not only on a page, but to Lovey as well. He felt as though he’d finally tapped into some eternal well of tales all worth telling.

He took the usual route to the park, and was running ten minutes late. Who knows how long he’s been waiting there. But when he turned the corner – fully expecting to see that infectious smile pulling tight the deep lines carved there – their table was empty. He felt no joy at finally arriving first and waited another hour before leaving, heading to the house nearby where he’d found the old writer the first time.

He rang the bell several times with no answer, so he opened the screen to knock. As he pulled the creaky door open an envelope dropped at his feet. When he looked down he saw the chessboard there as well, and his heart sank. He bent down and retrieved the letter; he saw his full name printed across the front. After a moment’s hesitation he took a deep breath and tore the envelope open quickly, then pulled the dusty piece of paper out slowly, not wanting to read its contents; he knew how it was going to end. He unfolded the paper, saw the message had been composed on an old typewriter, and read.

Dear Rob,

You were a friend to this old misanthrope when I needed one most, the precise moment I’d concluded I no longer needed one. I am more grateful than I can say, and a simple thank you falls far short of what I’d like to convey. You’ll have to forgive me though, this is after all the first thing I’ve written in a great while.

No need to come inside son, just call the clean-up crew when you get home. I hope you know you restored what little faith I had in any future for writers. Take care of yourself. I’ll leave you with wiser words than my own.

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.

-Benjamin Franklin

Your friend,

Lovey Rigg

P.S. Find yourself a young writer to play chess with, you could use the practice.

He got home, somehow. His eyes were still sore and red and he had trouble getting the door unlocked. Once inside he went to straight to the hearth, took down the small wooden box and set it down on his desk. He sat down and pulled out a white blank page, then opened the box, took out Lovey Rigg’s fountain pen, and wrote at the top of the page: The Scribblers.

Maybe nobody would ever read the story, but that’s not why he wrote. Not anymore


Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction

Precursor to Tragedy

By Joel Allyn

9/22/2011

1,600 words

 

On the eve of his death, a man reflects on being rescued by a stranger when he fell from a train platform sixty years ago and debates whether or not others died because he lived. The surreal discovery involved with the identity of his rescuer and that of his father’s killer leaves him wondering if all these odd coincidences hold some hidden meaning.

 


 

None of my brothers made it past their teenage years, and just a short while before my father’s life was taken I nearly lost my own. I have thought at times what a blessing it was that a stranger took the trouble to pull me from the cold embrace of the abyss that day in 1865, for thanks solely to him I was able to marry, see the birth of my two daughters and that of my son, whom I named for my father. And yet, certain occurrences which have taken place since what should have been my death have led me to question whether it was in fact a good thing I lived at all. You must excuse me, but I feel quite ill this evening so I shall move my pen with the greatest of haste, for I have already put off the telling of the start of these odd events for over sixty years already and refuse to procrastinate one day more. So though my body tells me to jump ship now, I shall put down all as I remember it, and then I shall retire.

 

I do not recall if I had already left Harvard or if I was just on a break, but it was near enough to the end of my academic career that it matters not. I do remember clearly that I found myself in a train terminal in New Jersey. It was extremely busy that evening and on the platform with me was a great many people all crowding and pushing towards the waiting train car. The whole lot of the passengers were attempting at once to purchase their sleeping cars from the conductor, who stood on the station platform at the entrance to the car. The platform itself was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. I had managed to make my way to the front of the unthinking horde when I felt the group crowding in against me. I looked down and found I had reached the edge of the platform, and was rather frightened to find the toes of my shoes jutting just over the lip.

I attempted to push back against the great body to my rear and as if I had attempted to fight a strong river current I was forced forward again, this time I was pressed directly against the car body. As I waited, balanced awkwardly over the small gap for my turn and some relief the car gave a sudden forward jerk.

My heart sank, and I followed down after it.

The motion of the train caused me to lose my balance; I was twisted off my feet and began to drop into the space between, where I knew I would become an unrecognizable corpse beneath the great iron horse. I descended, personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. I turned around to thank my rescuer and upon doing so looked directly into a face that was well known to me, a great actor I knew by name; it was that of Edwin Booth. I conveyed my gratitude best that I was able in such a shaken state, and then we parted ways never to cross paths again.

 

A short time after my own deus ex machina had appeared my father was shot and killed. I had already lost my brothers Edward and William before this tragedy struck and Tad would follow suit six years later, leaving only mother and I. Losing two children so young had done irrevocable damage to her mental health, but I believe now it was losing father in such a violent manner that finally pushed her beyond the precipice, and nobody could simply yank her back to sanity by the collar.

The name of the shooter was familiar to me but so common a name it was I didn’t dwell on it for a moment. It was not until I read the man’s biography in the paper later that I fully comprehended the tremendous weight of the coincidence. The man who shot my father dead was named John Wilkes Booth, brother of the actor who had saved my life such a short time before the assassination.

I collapsed more than sat, and then read the words over again out loud to make sure I was not mistaken. I read them again after. And again. And again. It was staggering and I kept searching for some great meaning in the precursor to the tragedy, then after some long while came to accept that there was none to be found. Though as more time passes and I dwell on the situation further, I wonder…

 

As I have stated I am far from sure that it was in fact good that I did not perish that day. Perhaps my death could have served to keep my father alive by keeping him home in mourning, far away from the Ford’s Theater. I was not nearly so close to the man as my brothers, and my most vivid image of him is still how he looked as he packed his saddlebags to prepare for his travels through Illinois, but the distance between us is much greater now.

Before I go further let me make clear I don’t believe in curses, bad luck, or any other ridiculous notions of the sort, but I must admit my being alive has proved lethal to more presidents than just my father. Call it coincidence, but at President Garfield’s invitation I joined him at a train station in Washington D.C. in 1877, where he was assassinated in front of me. It had been over ten years since Edwin Booth’s brother John had shot my father, and then ten years after Garfield’s death there was another incident. This time the year was 1901 and the presidential invitation came courtesy of William McKinley. I was at the Pan-Am Expo in New York and – thank you for small mercies – was not actually a witness to the shooting, though I was present and later could not help but dwell on this fact, much to the distress of my wife. I shouldn’t have been there you see, just a like a year prior to McKinley’s shooting I should not have had to bury my little boy Abraham as I had buried his namesake. I should not have had a son at all for I would have been long dead were it not for the heroic actions of the actor who then shed his own mortal coil in 1893. I heard later that poor Edwin Booth was deeply distraught over his brother’s actions, I had always meant to send him a correspondence, but time and again I failed to do so. I only hope he knew somehow who he had saved that day on the train platform and that the knowing provided him some peace before the end.

 

Feeling I had the blood of three presidents on my hands I henceforth politely declined all future presidential invitations. I even responded once after repeated requests were sent, stating that ‘No, I’m not going, and they’d better not even ask me, because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.’ So I said no, no and no again, at least until 1922. I received news that Warren G. Harding would be dedicating the recently completed Lincoln Memorial along with former president Taft, and they wished dearly for the last living Lincoln to be in attendance. So against my better judgment I accepted, and though nobody was shot Harding ended up dying in office, barely half-way through his only term, he passed fifteen months and one day after the dedication ceremony. Taft had been fortunate enough to no longer be president when he made my acquaintance and therefore has survived to this day.

That dedication was four years ago, and I have kept away from presidents in the interim, just to be on the safe side. The only president I visit now rests in Springfield, Illinois and I can do him no further harm. I am relieved to have finally put down this odd tale and have set down with it a large weight, yet I notice I feel more ill than when I first began. Before I take my rest however I must state my feelings as I look back over this confession of sorts. Had I or some other writer put all this down under the label fiction, many would dismiss it out of hand as far too fantastical and unlikely to be believable at all, as it stands they may simply insist it to be an apocryphal tale. No matter what any other thinks however, it happened, all of it, and I have no doubt if there is any meaning hidden in such a strange series of events it shall elude me to my death.

 

Robert Lincoln

July 26, 1926

Vermont


Between Kindling and Ashes

Between Kindling and Ashes

By Joel Allyn

9/7/2011

 3,300 words

My answer to the question all storytellers try not to ask themselves. Where do the ideas come from?

 

 

The old man had forgotten where he was again. He studied his surroundings as he came out of his daze. The man remembered he had been staring into a roaring fire, which was now no more than a few glowing embers beneath a mound of red-lit ash. Overhead the pale moonlight was illuminating the clouds which lay over it, like a child’s flashlight through a sheet. Surveying the horizon he could only make out darker silhouettes that blotted out the stars, rolling along the pinpoints of twinkling light like solid waves rising above the flat packed earth. I’m back. A breeze cut through him and he felt a chill wrap around his heart and tighten its grip. He pulled his dingy blanket tighter around him but it did nothing against the wind’s insistence. Struggling to rise, pistons went off in his kneecaps and he felt a terrible strain on already sore muscles. It was like bending metal but he managed to get to his feet with a great effort.

Before searching for more kindling the old man wanted a drink, wanted more to feel the water wash through him, a great monsoon flooding the desert in the peak of a dry summer. Looking around in the darkness and remembered that he had no water. He‘d in fact forgotten the last time he’d even enjoyed the blessing of a drink, or a bite of anything for that matter, though hunger was not anywhere near the foreground of his desires. A river came into memory and held out hope he might stumble upon another when he moved on at first light. He would have to be content with that hope and ignore the grainy, pasty feeling that filled his cracked palate.

The barren plain stretched in all directions to the mountains on the distant horizon. As he began his search he regained his bearings some, at least enough to recall he had scavenged this desolate landscape before and had found little and less then, and none of it would burn.  Then where did the fire come from? I had a fire, I did. I remember the warmth of the flames on my face and…wasn’t there somebody else here with me? Hadn’t they been the one who helped build the fire? He couldn’t be sure, but it sounded right. More importantly it felt right; there had been someone else, somebody who’d been drawn to the flames. So where had they gone and where were they now? Yet that seemed not to matter, the only thing he could do now was try to keep walking, keep combing the earth with his boots for anything that could burn, anything that would feed the ravenous flames he yearned for. The memory of the yellow beast’s bathing warmth kept him going but not for long, and eventually – though he knew it meant he would most likely freeze – he returned at a crawling pace to the soft glowing embers before they blinked out completely. He barely made it, and then collapsed beside the dying glow at its heart in a shivering pile of fitful coughs.

Sitting there for a great while with his head hung, he felt like weeping. But he knew there was not enough water left in him to waste on even a single salty drop, and so he instead let out a long low moan. To his own ear he sounded like a dying animal going into that eternal darkness with an exquisite slowness that bordered on torture.  No help was requested from The Great Above, he knew the stars were indifferent and the cold distant moon would not be moved by his suffering. He rocked back and forth and pulled the blanket taught around his aching body, and kept making that low moan. The sound droning on and on and on into infinity until he could catch up with it there.

He couldn’t remember much that had come before and didn’t bother to waste what little precious energy remained on that task. Instead he searched his mind for a single tale, one that would last him until he gave out. It wouldn’t need to be a very long one. Memories returned of listening to stories, telling stories, writing stories. Tales that would come to him whole and breathing out of the abyss, and he just had to keep pace with his pen. Stories had power and real magic in them, they made him feel alive and they had never left his side no matter how wretched or honorable he had been, and he’d been his fair share of both.  The old man wanted so desperately to have just one more now, one more to take his mind off the pain coursing through his brittle rotting form. They could warm him and comfort him even as the embers grew cold and blinked away entirely. One more. That was when he heard approaching footsteps crunching through the silence right in front of him.

*          *          *

The cloud over the moon had been shoved aside by that bitter wind, and the moonlight had returned to bathe this stranger in a soft white glow. The silhouette of a man now crouched down on the opposite side of the circle of stones. In one of the stranger’s hands were small dry branches, and in the other he held one of those silver lighters where the top popped open. Those particular lighters had always reminded the old man of an execution he’d witnessed, a botched decapitation left a criminal’s neck held on by just a sliver of flesh and muscle; it hung there bouncing against the torso for a moment before they snapped it back on and finished the job. He couldn’t even make out the man’s size clearly, but that silver rectangle shined in the lunar light. Until the man dropped the kindling branches over the red ashes, the old man feared he’d only imagined them.

“You don’t mind if I join you, do you, old timer?” A toneless voice said.

The man tried to say yes and thank you, to offer his name and get one in return, but when he opened his mouth he found nothing came out but that awful moan again, now more like a dry croak, but managed to nod. At least he’d die a little warmer thanks to this stranger. What a wonderful mercy.

“All right then, friend,” the stranger said.

He used his thumb and in one fluid motion partially decapitated the lighter and spun the wheel, it struck against the flint stone and birthed a beautiful golden dancer which floated atop the cold chrome. The stranger lowered it to the dried branches and dead grass, as he moved the flame slowly around at the base they took almost at once. After catching initially they burned much slower than the old man expected, as if waiting for something. Though the light was brighter now, the strangers face remained shadowed, concealed behind a thin veil of night. He began to speak and the old man noticed his voice change gradually from toneless to that of a younger man, a man no older than maybe thirty at the outside. The old man listened, soaking up the words and the small fire’s warmth.

“Strange bumping into somebody else in the middle of nothing. Yet that seems to be how it happens time and again for me. Was crossin over the plain by night to avoid that bitch of a sun, I ran outta water a day ago and couldn’t take no more travelin under it. Saw you, well saw a shadow actually, just bumblin around teeterin this way and that. Figured I’d take a rest and burn what little I’d gathered from beyond the southern hills there.” He threw his thumb over his right shoulder in the direction he’d come. He poked at the burning brush with a branch he hadn’t yet sacrificed and the old man saw the flame burning steadier now, and damned if he didn’t feel just a bit better. The stranger continued on with telling first where he’d been and that led to where he was going, what he’d seen and what he wanted to lay his eyes upon.

The old man noticed something odd, as the stranger recounted his story, his face had come into sharper focus. Odder still, as his features became more defined, so too did his voice. It was a big voice now, and the man now noticed the slightest inflection of a southern drawl as the stranger started dropping all his g’s. It was only then that he realized the kindling, which alone should have burned up in minutes, had only then really got going – disappearing into a growing flame. Must’ve been fighting the wind, that’s all. What else? Pushing the thought aside he tried to focus on the man’s tale, which he could tell was nearing its end, and it had been an interesting little tale too. Odd though it was the old man now felt as if he knew and understood the man before him as well as any friend he’d ever had, despite the fact he didn’t yet know his name. He was also surprised to find he felt a little better, a little stronger. As the small flames reached higher into the sky he felt less and less pain and fatigue. He only wished he had a drink to offer his new friend to repay him. Just one drink. That was when he heard from the east an encore of the sound of an approaching stranger.

*          *          *

The two men around the fire turned, as out of the eastern shadows a dark figure appeared on a pale horse. Squinting, the old man made out that the figure had already dismounted and was now fidgeting with some bag on the side of his horse.

“Hey guys, you mind if I joined you?”

And as if running into yet another person out in this vast nothing was the most natural thing in the world to him the first man replied, “Fine with me, but you gotta ask old timer here, it’s his fire.”  My fire? It’s your kindling. His mouth was too dry to speak but he wouldn’t have said anything had he been able. Somehow he knew what the first man said was true – it was his fire, but they were feeding it – just as he’d known there had been someone here with him before, was sure of that now. A prisoner?  He still couldn’t remember anything else and accepted he probably wouldn’t.

“Well, mister?” the figure inquired with a more defined voice – a younger and more timid voice- than he had first spoken with. The frail bundle in the dirty blanket simply nodded again and that was enough for the new arrival. “Okay then, here,” he said. “I got something for you, hold on a sec.” He turned and walked back over to his horse. A few moments later he approached the circle again, now with a double armful of small logs cut to size for firewood. Both of the new men saw the old man’s eyes fill with excitement and they shared a laugh.

“Well then, look at that old timer,” the first man said. “I bet you’re glad you invited him now, huh?”

The old man knew he was just kidding, but couldn’t help thinking briefly that he hadn’t invited either of them, despite how grateful he may be. The young man who came on horseback had seemed almost to hear this thought and just stood momentarily beside the dying flames.

“Whelp toss em’ on then, friend. Meager fuel supply was just finishing up here. Timing’s not half bad kid, name’s Mike Hansel by the way, what’s your handle son?”

He extended his thick hand, and for a second the kid –who had his arms fool of firewood-, looked flustered. Then after quickly placing the new logs into a standing pyramid shape over the wilting fire-flower, the newcomer dusted off his hands on his jeans, took the strong hand in his own and they shook.

“I’m Billy…well William, Bill Richardson. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Hansel. And what’s your name mister?”

Bill looked to the old man, his eyebrows arched for an answer. The old storyteller saw this detail, even though he still couldn’t quite make out the new strangers face in the low light. He tried hard to provide an answer to the newcomers query, only managing to wheeze out something that sounded like wind whistling through an ancient keyhole before going into a fit of painful coughs. Bill looked to Mike with furrowed brow.

Mike waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “It’s fine, you got more outta him than me. Take a seat, kid. He just needs some water, best I can figure. Wish I had something for him.”

“Well I can help out there,” the kid said. A little less toneless with each sentence that passed from him, “Filled up my skins on the east bank just this morning.” The old man couldn’t believe his luck.

As Bill went to his pale horse and untied a skin the older man noticed that the wood was not catching as fast as it should. Again the flame crawled over it with the speed of molasses as if waiting for its cue. When Bill handed the old man the water skin it was so heavy that he almost dropped it. After an embarrassing and fumbling performance he failed to even bring it to his mouth. Looking almost shamed to do so, Bill took the skin and tipped it to the man’s mouth for him, and let the water slowly flow. The man sucked at the skin greedily and kept swallowing until his belly ached, but he didn’t care, the wondrous elixir ran through him and filled every crack and every pore with waking life again. When Bill took the skin away, pulled it away, the elder man let out a huge belch. The two men who’d joined him looked at one another again for the briefest of moments before both started laughing.

“Nice one, old timer” Mike said. Wiping tears from his eyes, “So you got a name for us now, friend?”

The elder man cleared his throat then swallowed. It felt spectacular to feel saliva in his mouth again. He took a breath in and spoke hoarsely, not able to recall the last time he had spoken anything aloud. For a moment he had to search his mind, but quickly found what he was looking for.

“Oswald” he said. Then after another quick scan of the attic, “Thornton. I’m Oswald Thornton,” he repeated again, as if reassuring himself it was correct.

“Okay then, Ozzy,” Mike said. “Nice to finally make yer acquaintance properly friend, that’s on me for not spillin my handle earlier. To be honest though, wasn’t sure you’d even make it long enough into the night to remember it tomorrow. You lookin loads better now though. Little fire an water work wonders apparently, huh.” It wasn’t a question.

And the story, your story, “Feeling better, thanks.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Thornton,” Bill Richardson said. He handed his skin to Mike and took a seat.

Bill told them both of his journey from the east and similar to before, as Bill’s tale unfolded the flames engulfed the wood he’d brought. His face came into sharper focus as the pyre –and Oswald- grew stronger. Oswald saw now that Bill really was just a kid pushing fourteen, maybe. When the kid was done the three of them sat in silence, watching the flames as they ate through the timber unmercifully.

Oswald’s belly started to cramp. Now that he had water in him again his bellyache seemed much more substantial and the hunger he had been able to ignore out of hopelessness came back with a fury.

As if reading his mind, Mike said, “Don’t imagine you got any food kid, huh?”

“No sir, sorry.” Bill said.

He actually sounded sorry, as if he felt he had failed his dear old friends of all of twenty minutes by only bringing them firewood and the first water either had drank in days.

“I came across the water by chance,” he said. “But no fish and I ran out of food myself what, three days back I think.”

As if on cue the boy’s stomach grumbled loud enough for the other two to hear, and then Oswald’s answered even louder in kind. The three of them broke up over this, it hurt Oswald tremendously to laugh but it felt great as well. The three men only stopped because they heard a noise just to west of them.

*          *          *

The woman from the west –Beverly Marsh, they later found out her name was – came out of the dark without apprehension and with food enough for all of them, “ But no water.” she said, so they shared what they had and she did the same. As she started to relay her journey to them her blonde locks came into focus, then her piercing blue eyes, her lips, one thing after the other glowing  clearer and more defined in the growing firelight. Halfway through her story, Oswald felt the best he had in recent memory. Beverly was of an age somewhere between Mike and Bill’s it seemed, and her face had a hard kindness in it. Mike took out a flask and passed it around, handing it to Beverly first. Then he grabbed a few smokes he had apparently been saving for later and passed one around to each of them, taking the lighter’s head off once more to spark them. The three men smoked on full bellies, and listened to the girl’s tale.

When the tale was told a silence, not at all uncomfortable, rested between them. Oswald looked from one former stranger to the other and back again. He saw all of them clearly now in the roaring firelight, and it was only then that Oswald was able to truly see and appreciate Beverly’s rough beauty, Mikes stubbled, scarred but ever-smiling face, and innocent young Bill’s flawless features in all their glory. As the flames rose higher and higher, glowing brighter and brighter, it was then he finally put it together.

It’s the stories… feeding the fire, lighting the darkness… their stories.  He cracked a huge smile and lay back against the ground with his hands folded behind his head, and before he knew it he had drifted off in that quiet.

 

He awoke again in a sort of daze as the stars came into focus, remembering at once the three new friends who’d joined him, and fueled the flames with their tales. In his excitement he sat up eagerly to share his epiphany with them, and his smile vanished. The mighty blaze had died down to wilting embers below ash, and his new friends were gone, but his renewed strength remained. Another cloud had rolled over the Moon which was now far removed from its former place in the sky – there was no sign of the sun. He leaned back upon his elbows and the smile slowly returned, growing even bigger than before.

Between kindling and ashes, the stories are born.

Oswald Thornton has come to this far seeing place before and he will come again, as long as he can remember how to get back. He sits eagerly awaiting the next group of characters to come to him whole and breathing from the abyss, to tell their tales, to come, and feed the fire.