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Best-Seller, Best-Seller…Hoping

A hard-fought journey to uncertain success…maybe…

Month

August 2015

Chapter 2: The Beginning

The click of a flashlight claps over the sound of pouring rain and white light dances on a sheet of paper floating in the dark. Clearing her throat, Jacqueline, her voice soft but eager, reads the lines of black crayon neatly written on the page:

“Once there was a little mime named Bandon. He was in the circus. The circus went all over town. All the people in the town came to watch the circus. Everybody liked most of the show. The people liked the lady walking on the tightrope. They liked to see the lion tamer put his head in the lion’s mouth. They liked to hear the clowns tell jokes. They liked to see the tattoo lady eat swords and spit out fire. They liked to see the strong man pick up rocks. And they liked to see the people swing on the trapeez. 

But no one liked the show that Bandon did. They thought it was too boring. All the mommys yawned. The daddys fell asleep. All the kids fell asleep too. And no one even clapped at the end. This made Bandon really sad.

Not just that but the other people in the circus were mean to him! They made mean jokes.

The lion tamer said, “No one ever claps for you. Your show does not have a lion.”

The clowns said, “Our show was better than yours. Everyone laughed at our jokes and not yours.” 

The strongman said, “I picked up the most heavy rock in the world. What did you do?”

The trapeez people said, “We swing up in the air. You don’t do anything but stand there.” 

The tightrope lady said, “The people love to see me walk. They don’t love you.”

The tattoo lady said, “I spit out fire. You don’t even have tricks.”

Then they all said, “Your show is stupid. You should just go away from the circus and never come back.” 

Bandon went to bed. He cried and cried and cried. The circus people made him feel bad. He wanted to be good. At last, an idea!

The circus had another show. All the people came again. This time, Bandon would be the best. He found sharp scissors. He cut the rope. And the tightrope lady fell. He found a needle on the ground. And he popped the strongman’s arms. He tied a knot in the swing. The trapeez trapeze people got stuck up in the air. He stomped hard on the lion’s tail. And the lion bit the lion tamer. He threw cold water on the tattoo lady. No more fire for her!

Finally, it was his turn…Finally, it was his turn…”

Jacqueline pops the end of the small flashlight in between her teeth as she flips to the next page, only to find herself back at the first, which reads:

The Sad Mime and the Circus

By Malcolm Bridges

Mrs. Moon’s 2nd grade Class

She thumbs through the pages again.

“Where’s the rest of it?” she asks.

“That’s it,” says Malcolm, surreptitiously wringing his hands in his lap – something he often does when his anxieties rise. Bandon’s story was one he didn’t care much for. It just wasn’t right. “That’s all of that one,” he continues, “but there’s another one in here…”

“You mean it ends? Just like that?”

“Pretty much.”

Despite his ploy to move her along, Jacqueline aggressively flips through the stack again, huffing. Malcolm can feel an energy of frustration raising her shoulders, bringing her knees up and lifting her head slightly from her once comfortable laying position, her head of dark auburn hair splayed beneath her in a pool of heavy curls. She thinks he is making fun. It is true that he has always been a bit of a joker but not this time – he is telling the honest truth. Her thrice over confirms that.

“That’s not fair, Malcolm,” she says, mumbling. “Not fair at all.”

“Jacq, I really can’t understand you with that flashlight in your mouth.”

Jacqueline removes the flashlight from her mouth and directs it accusingly at Malcolm, a handsome man in his late-thirties with soft, dark brown eyes and thick, black eyebrows. In the spotlight his forehead furrows with dark lines that stay even after his surprise fades. This certainly was not what he thought would come of their little trip into his past:

Monsoons had completely flooded the desert streets; typical of Tucson weather this time of year. Earlier that afternoon Malcolm had spied from his balcony window that someone, probably an out-of-town relative of one of his neighbors, had hydroplaned into a power line pole, knocking the electricity out for at least a square mile.

Since the Bridges live on a hill with only one narrow, winding road leading up to the house, Malcolm assumed it would take hours, if not a full day, to get power restored. So rather than spend the night absent the luxuries of television and florescent lighting or going over itineraries for the big reading of his latest best-seller tomorrow another ten times, Malcolm and Jacqueline ventured upstairs to the special room where he keeps his most precious belongings – thirty-three years’ worth of children’s stories. Hopefully they’ll find a few literary gems among the stacks for his next children’s book masterpiece.

“You left me hanging,” says Jacqueline.

“Well, I was in second grade,” he responds, his eyes squinting. A row of white teeth peeks out through his neatly-manicured goatee. “First grade, actually. I skipped, remember?”

“Yeah, yeah. So how does it end?”

Although Jacqueline is masked in velveteen darkness, Malcolm can just make out the playful smile spread wide across her face.

“Well, if you have to know, this one doesn’t have an ending.”

“Come on, all your stories have endings.”

“All of them but this one.”

Malcolm reaches to take the story from her, but Jacqueline jerks it away. Even played with a loved one, “cat-and-mouse” is not a game he enjoys very much, as he always becomes the mouse, toeing the edge of escape, never finding the hole in the wall.

Jacqueline turns the flashlight back to the page. Resting beneath the handwritten title sits a rather impressive drawing of Bandon—a scrawny child dressed in befitting mime attire: white gloves, black suspenders, a red-and-white striped shirt, and black top hat. Bandon’s simple face, streaming with round, black tears, is off-white with two black dots for eyes and a sloping line for his crestfallen frown.

“Poor little guy,” Jacqueline murmurs.

“Yeah. Poor little guy,” Malcolm says unenthusiastically, going for the page again.

Jacqueline pulls it away. Meow, Malcolm thinks to himself sadly.

“What do you think about finishing it now?” Jacqueline asks, holding the picture up so Malcolm can see it fully.

“I’ve thought about it once or twice before,” he responds with reticence, “but no. It’s not really something I want to revisit.”

There is a sharp rustling of papers beneath him as he begins to dig through a large box resting at his knees.

“I wrote something much better afterward that I’m sure you’ll really enjoy,” Malcolm continues. “We just need to look a little deeper in the box here. Why don’t you shine that light down here so I can find it for you?”

Instead of granting his request, Jacqueline keeps the light on the mime.

“Malcolm, in our twenty years together I’ve never known you to not take up a challenge when it’s put in front to you, especially if it deals with making something up. You can’t just stop right at the best part.”

“Everyone’s stopped things, Jacq,” says Malcolm. “Some things have to be stopped.

Jacqueline fixes the light on a phrase written in red ink in the lower, right hand corner of the page.

“Please see me. Ms. W?” she reads aloud.

Jacqueline turns the flashlight back to Malcolm who has noticeably slowed pace in the search.

En route, through glinting dust particles hanging in the air, the light exposes the rather severe amount of clutter Malcolm has amassed over the years: nearly one hundred flimsy brown boxes, of all different sizes, most brimming with papers and barely held together with strips of silver duct tape, sit in handmade, wooden bookshelves along bare walls marked with a year, a word, or a phrase like “1985,” “Stuffed Animals,” “Study,” “Children’s books.” But most read, “Malcolm’s Stories.” A stickler for cleanliness and order, Jacqueline has begged him repeatedly to find a better way of storing his memories, never afraid to offer her expertise on organization and home renovation each and every time.

In fact, every week or two for the past year, she has burst into the room, bucket and paintbrush in hand, and said, “This room needs to get with it.” And Malcolm would respond, “It’ll get without it.” In Malcolm’s view, his method of storage is perfect. He built those shelves himself; it took him three days, but he did it all on his own. And now that he has stocked them and developed a system to find everything, it shouldn’t be disturbed. The light ends its journey at Malcolm, his head hanging rather low.

“Peachpie? ‘Please see me. Mrs. Moon’?” she pushes.

Malcolm has always been a sucker for her pet names. “Peachpie” is one she invented just the other night as they were finishing dessert at some expensive downtown restaurant he can’t recall the name of. She described it as “scrumptiously delicious.” Malcolm was now “scrumptiously delicious” like that pie—quite the honor as she said, she had never tasted anything so good.

Against her million for him, there is only one name he uses to express all the love he holds for her—Beloved. He admits it is rather academic — more adult, one could say — and coming from him, with his particularly childish modus, it probably sounds like some foreign phrase. However, Jacqueline is an actress: She studied acting in university and had even gone to conservatory for it — and Shakespeare was her forte. And as a lover of the silver-tongued writer and the bronze-tongued Malcolm, Jacqueline cherishes the name.

“What does this mean?” Jacqueline asks, referring to the note from Mrs. Moon. Malcolm leans into her.

“You didn’t think the story was a little bit…violent?” he ask after a long moment.

Jacqueline pauses a moment, collecting her words.

“Well, I would say it was different. It was interesting in its own way.”

Her words carry the same tone of reluctance as his.

“Interesting, huh?” he responds, amused.

“I liked it, really ,I did! I was just waiting for the twist that was going to make it not so…yes, it was a little violent, now that I think about it.”

Malcolm laughs out loud.

“Man, that was a tough year,” he says, scratching at his head.

“Is that why she wanted to see you?”

He inhales deeply before answering her.

“She just wanted to talk to me about why I wrote it. It was only a couple of weeks into the new school year, so, if there were any problems I was having with any of my classmates, she wanted to nip them in the bud before they turned into something serious.”

She thought it was violent.”

“For a six-year old…a little bit. She asked me if the circus people represented anyone in my life.”

“Did they?”

Malcolm wrings his hands.

“Sadly, yes. I guess you could say the other children didn’t take much of a shining to me for some reason or other.”

“What?” Jacqueline asks. “How could anybody not love you?

“Well, there was this one little boy who didn’t find me all that lovable. He is name was…uh…what was it…? Rodrick Gillies…ugh…he hated me.”

“There had to have been someone in your corner though, right?”

Malcolm gives a chuckle and a shrug.

“Peachpie,” Jacqueline says. “You never told me about this. Was there nobody there for you?”

“It’s kind of funny really and definitely a bit childish…” Malcolm says, returning to the box of papers; more to keep his hands occupied than to resume the search.  “At the time, my best and only friend was…” with a smile, “an imaginary desert lizard named Mr. Healey…or was it a mad cow named Mr. Figg, or a hairless polar bear named…Mr.…something. Mister. Gosh, he was always changing, finding some new way to get my attention. I could barely recognize him half the time. I eventually grew out of all that, so…”

As Jacqueline pushes herself up to sitting, the light jerks from wall to ceiling and back to Malcolm. She moves in close to him and places a hand on his cheek.

“So the little mime was you?” Jacqueline asks.

“Yes.” Malcolm closes his eyes and sinks into her soft palm. Her touch. If he could, he would be purring. “That sad, voiceless kid was me, the worst part of me.”

“Oh, those mean boys and girls were picking on you,” Jacqueline coos, drawing her face closer to his.

Malcolm sighs.

“They were mean. Took my glasses.”

Jacqueline kisses him sweetly on the lips, sliding her slender body into his. At the same time she transfers the flashlight from her hand to the bend at her elbow. Malcolm holds her tightly in his arms, falling deeper into her. It’s amazing how she can still make him feel like a teenager, even after all these years. Fit with everything he could ever ask for — beauty, a kind heart, unwavering ambition, and most importantly, true love for him—he wonders how he ever found a woman so perfect.

“But that doesn’t explain why you threw the story away,” Jacqueline says, bringing the tender moment to a close. Malcolm continues to hold her to him.

“Well, Mrs. Moon was a very smart cookie. She sat me down and told me: Any story I write has to teach a good lesson. Make the reader grow to be better. I decided to take her advice from then on.”

“So what kind of lesson were you teaching here?”

“A bad one: full of anger and revenge. After speaking with her and reading it over again, it left me with a real pain in my head and a sick feeling in my stomach. So that’s why I had to let it go.”

“And you kept the beginning…?”

“As a reminder, I guess, of lessons that shouldn’t be taught.”

Jacqueline takes the flashlight from the crook of her arm and shines it on the brown box beside them. “Malcolm’s stories 1981” is written along the side in black permanent marker. Taking a final look at Bandon, she gently places the story inside. Maybe it’s the light mixing with shadow that makes the mime’s frown seem all the more gloomy and his tears that much more pained. Malcolm is putting this unfinished story to rest for a second time.

Jacqueline turns the light back to him, staring deeply into his eyes.

“I suppose one bad little story couldn’t hurt,” she says.

“It hasn’t,” Malcolm says and embraces her again.

Only the sound of rain falling lightly on the roof is heard now. Lightning and thunder had fallen silent a few hours prior, signaling the two-day surge would soon be at an end. Malcolm is especially fond of this sound — the rain; he finds it so peaceful. As well, the rain is the best maid his allergies could ask for, arriving just in time to sweep the air clean. And the knowledge that he is indoors – safe, sound, and dry — while the rest of the world wades in the deep makes him feel somewhat special; like a small boy sharing a big hug with a sweet-smelling, heavyset woman.

“I think the rain is slowing down,” Malcolm says after a moment.

“Finally, thank God,” Jacqueline says. “You think Seth will have a hard time getting up here tomorrow?”

Seth Wagner, their personal driver, is almost as meticulous as Jacqueline when it comes to Malcolm’s busy schedule. With standard GPS and his propensity for always arriving early, Malcolm is sure he shouldn’t have a problem.

“Hmm,” says Jacqueline, weighing the possibility. “I’d better give him a call just to make sure.” Jacqueline pauses a brief moment. “I should go over the directions and the itinerary with him, too.”

Malcolm chuckles to himself.

“Remind me to do that before we go downstairs,” she goes on.

“I will,” Malcolm replies sarcastically, as he already knows he won’t have to. By the time they’ve set foot on the first stair, she will have already done it.

Her iPhone, ever-aglow, in her right hip pocket is more than just a cell phone; in recent years it has become an actual appendage, a second brain that keeps her contacts, dates and plans organized. Malcolm still has trouble working the coffee maker.  Yet, reliance on the clever gadget only goes so far. Thankfully, her first brain remains the dominant machine and is solely managed by her heart, which makes her an expert at mixing business with pleasure — she works with and for her husband, publicist for one of the world’s best children’s book authors.

“I still want to show you the one I wrote afterward. Maybe it’ll be the next best,” Malcolm tells her.

“Next best seller,” Jacqueline replies.

Jacqueline hands the flashlight over to Malcolm and stands.

“Where are you going?” Malcolm asks.

“Bathroom.”

Malcolm turns the light on her, catching her in the middle of a stretch. She is wearing a light blue button-down, one of his, with fitted khaki shorts. The sleeves are rolled up to the elbow and the bottom corners are tied together at the waist which, along with her raised arms, exposes her toned midsection. Malcolm takes his time to watch her, waiting to speak.

“You sure you don’t need this to get there?”

“It’s across the hall. I can manage.” She winks, holding up her cell phone which glows with an enchanting blue light. “Besides, you’re the one who can’t sit still in the dark, remember?”

“Low blow,” Malcolm kids, though her statement is very true.

He needs the flashlight. He needs it; not because he has anywhere to go, but because he is afraid of the dark. Closed spaces, too. Both of them, the annoying little phobias they are, have plagued him since his elementary school days. Over the years though, through a progressive series of voiced and unvoiced meditations – the repetition of the phrase, “No more” – medications, and motherly reassurance, he has learned to control his thoughts and keep these fears at bay. Looking back now however, those times don’t seem so long ago; he can clearly remember when fear was a debilitating part of his life.

It all began on a crisp winter afternoon when classes had ended for the day. A distraught, six-year-old Malcolm was forced to retrieve his glasses from the storage shed at the end of the soccer field that had been conveniently left open. The summer before school started, Rodrick Gillies, the chubby, flat-faced boy that tormented him every day, had perfected his slapshot technique and wanted to show it off…using Malcolm’s glasses as the puck.

Rodrick was two years older than Malcolm and one year older than the other students. Lack of interest in anything school–related had kept him held back.

For twenty minutes, Malcolm, crying and half-blind, chased Rodrick around the school grounds to the end of the soccer field, where the bully sent the red glasses skidding into the deepest recesses of the open storage shed. Venturing after them, Malcolm found his now crooked spectacles lodged between a large sack of baseballs and the carcass of a retired bleacher just before the door was slammed shut and locked behind him.

Rodrick’s laughter burrowed like drills through the inch of poorly-painted wood. It stung Malcolm’s eardrums like acid before fading into nothingness. Rodrick had left him there. Alone in the dark.

For the next several hours, Malcolm banged on the door, screaming for help. When Mrs. Moon, a fellow teacher, two police officers and his mother finally found him, he had cried all the tears his little eyes could cry and was curled in a tight, shivering ball near the door. In the days to follow, Rodrick was punished accordingly, as well as the groundskeeper who had been enjoying a pint of whiskey for the better part of the day. School policies were radically changed. His mother’s “don’t take no mess” tactics awarded Malcolm and his family some compensation. Nevertheless, though it has lessened with time, Malcolm was never quite the same.

Malcolm shines the flashlight on the door and Jacqueline quickly follows the glowing path. Just as she is about to disappear, Malcolm stops her.

“Jacq,” he calls.

She turns back to him. The light refracts almost angelically off her flowing curls.

“Hey you,” he whispers gently.

“Hey you,” she responds with a warm sigh. Then, with two blown kisses, she slips away.

Malcolm allows the light to linger on the doorway until he hears the bathroom door close — a most gentlemanly gesture, he would say. Then he turns his attention back to the box in front of him. Placing the flashlight between his teeth, he resumes his search.

The box contains hundreds of graded assignments, handouts, poems, sheets of colored paper he had doodled on during an uneventful morning — a mouse in Renaissance clothing stands out—along with the many stories he wrote at the time. He even comes across the legend of a language he had created called Piitree. Nice. After a few more moments, he finally removes five dusty pages.

“Wellson the Curious Cat,” he mumbles gleefully, the flashlight still firmly held in his mouth.

He sweeps away the dusty debris from the front page and takes in the picture: an ill-proportioned caricature of a black cat wearing a red collar with a gold tag. A red boulder cap floating a few inches above his head.

Now this was cool, Malcolm thinks to himself. At the bottom a phrase in red ink reads, “Great job. A very good lesson. Ms. W” with a smiley face beneath.

Malcolm flips the page and reads aloud:

“Wellson, the cat, was a curious cat. 

He wore a red hat. And he didn’t chase rats. 

He would swim in the lake. He would roll on skates.

He would try to make cakes. He would watch outer space.

He would run in the street. Pick up bugs with his feet.

Anything he would eat, especially sweets.

He went to the woods, where the animals are not good.

No other cat would, but he thought he should.

The other cats would say, “that’s a place we can’t play.”

And they all went away but Wellson, he stayed…

He jumped over logs, he played with the frogs

He ran like dog, but he got lost in a fog.

He was in the forest all alone. His tummy went GROAN.

He started to moan. He wanted to go home.

He…

A sudden creaking in the floorboards cuts the narrative short. Malcolm immediately shines the light to where the noise came from—behind him, on the other side of the room, opposite the door. The flashlight, still in his mouth, moves with his eyes, tracing a snakelike pattern toward the ceiling. The gentle rain that once kept him so relaxed is slowly beginning to lose its seductive power. He sits in silence, waiting for the sound to come again.

There’s nothing there, Malcolm, he tells himself after a moment. Just a bunch of shelves, just a bunch of boxes. Ironically, he suddenly wishes that he had not covered the windows with them—what a system, huh? Jacqueline was smart to leave him with the flashlight; unexpected noises in the dark always make him jumpy.

The whoosh of the toilet flushing down the hall offers some relief and Malcolm exhales, now realizing he had been holding his breath for the better part of thirty seconds. This is an old house—it was nothing more than the wind. He turns his attention back to the page, backtracking to the place where he’d left off.

“He started to moan. He wanted to go home. He…”

The creak comes again, this time closer, louder than before; almost as if someone had pressed a foot against the floor.

Malcolm snaps his neck so hard and so fast that his entire body twirls after him, sending the pages of the Wellson story scattering about the floor. It takes very little to put him on edge. Again he faces the high rows of boxes and shelving. Their curious corners send his mind to dark places, leaving him unsettled. Yes. To describe the feeling himself in this moment, he would definitely say he feels grossly unsettled.

“Maybe I should move those boxes now, yes?” he whispers, then nods, answering his own question.

He drops the flashlight from his mouth to his hand, determined to get up and let some moonlight dissolve his crippling uneasiness. Unfortunately, he lacks the skill and coordination of his wife, and the flashlight bounces out of his hand onto the hard floor, rolling a few feet away. Really, Malcolm? Really?

The flashlight comes to a stop facing another corner of the room where it casts light on Malcolm’s favorite childhood toy – Teddy. He sits plainly outside of any box upon an old but well-maintained, wooden chair in a corner next to the closet. Too much love and time has left the teddy bear not as furry as he once was. His black marble eyes and plastic nose have lost their shine; small lines of stitching mark where stuffing had come out at one time or another. Yet, despite the bear’s wear and tear, Malcolm still makes time to play with him nearly every day.

“Was that you making all that noise, Teddy?” Malcolm asks, leaning over to take the flashlight. Teddy’s expressionless face offers him no real answer, so as usual, Malcolm makes one up for him. “I didn’t think so, little buddy.”

Like Wellson and Bandon, Teddy too has his own story hidden in one of those boxes—a tale of adventure, danger, narrow escapes, even a damsel in distress. It is a story Malcolm is particularly fond of.

Reaching, the pads of Malcolm’s fingertips brush the end of the flashlight, pushing it farther away from him. Although he is a very tall man, his arm is not long enough and he falls over onto his side. Really, Malcolm? Again. Really? Pressing his clammy palm flat against the floor, he pulls himself toward it.

For a third time the creaking comes: this time long and deliberate. He chokes, feeling as if all the air in the room has been sucked out and replaced with freezing ice water; it stops him cold in a pushup position. Slowly he turns his head back to the dreaded corner. The rain has stopped.

Either his eyes are playing tricks on him or he does see something this time—a face, a thin gray face frowning at him with two dark eyes that reflect the light of his flashlight. He can make out a small body beneath it: tracing a line from its willowy shoulders and torso down to its wiry, gray hands. There is even the outline of a high black hat.

“Is someone there?” Malcolm asks, a lump growing in his throat. His voice is low, slightly louder than a whisper.

The face offers no response, only stares back at him with a palpable baseness.

The room suddenly feels smaller, cramped. A foul smell permeates the air. Malcolm is back in that shed, a little boy again, crying for someone to rescue him from the stifling darkness.

Hand trembling, Malcolm grabs hold of the flashlight, gripping it tightly. Then, like a green officer of the law drawing his first pistol, he snaps the light upon the mysterious figure, ready to fire whatever imaginary bullets he has at it.

But the space is empty.

To his relief, all is as it should be. There is no figure standing there, looming over him in the darkness. In fact, the dark eyes are merely the bells of an oversized, cartoonish-looking alarm clock. They sit above a black corduroy vest conveniently hung below it; the gray hands are just bundles of newspapers peaking out from a box on the floor. The tall hat is actually a tall hat, sitting on the top shelf.

“What are you doing down there?” Jacqueline asks from the doorway.

Malcolm turns the light on her. She stretches out her hand, objecting to the light in her eyes.

“Malcolm!”

He snaps the light back to the corner. Though the evidence offers sound account of what he’s just seen, he is not satisfied. What was making that noise? He wonders, circling the space on the floor, waiting for that creak to come again. It has to come again.

Then, to Malcolm’s delight and his dismay, it does; one final time, like a wooden plank the second before it snaps. “What is that?” Jacqueline asks.

“So you hear it too then? I can’t figure out what it is. I don’t know where it’s coming from exactly, but it sounds like—”

Suddenly, the bottom of the corner shelves snaps, sending four enormous boxes filled with toys, paper, and art supplies hurtling toward the far wall then crashing down to the floor. Both Malcolm and Jacqueline jump at the sound, Malcolm to his feet.

They stand in silence for a very long time. Malcolm surveys the devastation with the flashlight, bashfully biting his lip. The confidence he once had in his craftsmanship has suffered a serious blow. At least the duct tape held for most of them; the cardboard casualties were few so clean-up wouldn’t be all that time-consuming.

“This room needed to get with it,” Jacqueline says. It was the closest thing to I-told-you-so she could manage without saying the words.

“It can get without it?” Malcolm replies with a shrug.

The flashlight begins to flicker. The batteries are running low.

“All right, Mr. Bridges.” No more pet names tonight. “After our big day tomorrow and the power comes back on, we’re going to get this all cleaned up. Let’s get you to bed.”

Malcolm joins his wife at the door and slips his hand in hers. Notwithstanding all his loathing of the dark, with her at his side, even the blackest pitch seems bright as day. He loves that she can affect him that way; her touch, her very presence making everything all better. Assuming that she is heading toward their bedroom, he moves to leave, but she remains still.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” she asks.

Malcolm turns the flashlight toward the ceiling, illuminating both of their faces. Jacqueline gives him an array of underwhelmed facial gestures, none of which give Malcolm any clue as to what she’s talking about. Then:

“Oh! You need to call the Seth and make sure…”

“I already did that,” Jacqueline says, cutting him off completely. “I sent an email.”

Of course she did, Malcolm thinks to himself.

“The story you wanted to show me?” she says.

“Oh, right.”

With mild reluctance, Malcolm heads back into the darkness to collect the pieces of Wellson the Curious Cat. The final page of the story lies in the “1981” box, and upon retrieving it he finds himself face-to-face with Bandon once again—the terrible lesson he never wanted to teach. The little mime looks back at his maker with heartbreaking eyes like an orphaned child reaching out to the father that abandoned him. For the former, it is a painful ceremony. Sorry little mime, Malcolm silently tells him. Then, finding the lid to the box resting nearby, he closes the story inside, only to release him when another blackout rolls around.

“Good night, Bandon,” he whispers.

Malcolm stands. He readies to head back to his wife, but to his shock, his feet do not budge. It is as if they’ve been planted in hardened cement. His heartbeat quickens. Though he had seen it with his own eyes, he still cannot escape the haunting feeling that there are more than just boxed-up memories in that corner. 

A dark chill shudders up his spine as he once again feels the sting of base eyes at his back. There’s nothing over there, Malcolm. You know that. But the urge to take one last look, to make doubly sure, is inescapable.

Malcolm looks back over his shoulder, leaving the light to shine on the box. The empty darkness is dauntingly quiet, dauntingly pitch. In his experience, fear always has a clever way of making the least possible nothing into the worst possible something. And despite his efforts to resist it, the image of the gray ghost floating in the dark begins to manifest before him once again. There are the frightful eyes staring into him, the gray hands reaching out.

He quickly turns away, bringing his gaze back to the illuminated box at his feet. No more, he commands silently.

The decree instantly frees his feet, and he moves with livened steps toward Jacqueline.

On his way, he is struck with an idea: With even more pep in his step, he walks to the corner opposite the disaster and snags Teddy from his dismal residence. Taking the stuffed animal underneath his arm, he rejoins his wife at the door.

“Ready,” he announces, eager to retreat to the safety of their downstairs’ bedroom.

Jacqueline gently tugs the little bear’s ears with both hands, smiling adoringly.

“Oh, Peachpie,” she says, “it’s going to be one of those nights?”

He nods silently back to her.

If Jacqueline was Malcolm’s peace, Teddy was most certainly his security, his protection from the worries that occasionally marked his dreams at night. He’s slept without him for many years now (Jacqueline nestled sweetly in his arms, of course). The events of tonight, however, have left him a bit shaken. He will need their combined powers to get through till morning. They will keep his dreams happy.

Jacqueline kisses Malcolm gently on his cheek, then taking him by the hand, leads him out of the darkened room and into the hallway. Closing the door behind them, Malcolm takes a final look back.

“No more.”

Chapter One: The End

Heaven and earth were illuminated as a ball of light burst from the ground and shot through the dark clouds. With a thunderous crack it split open the sky as it hurtled towards the horizon — an endless stretch of twilight that burned at the edge of the outlying fairytale lands.

Stars lingered in its wake, and their obsequious echoes twinkled upon the cold desert floor. They brought light to the thorny, dead brambles there; to the rolling dunes of black sand; to a life quite removed from those distant, happy places.

The Maker Of All This, the Great Creator, was hard at work.

A small figure, a boy in size, but something more than a boy – a fable – stood upon a hill, watching the light as it escaped the dead land. He was bony and frail, clothed in a simple red-and-white striped shirt, black pants fastened with black suspenders, and a curious, black top hat — the indicative garb of circus mime. He stood motionless, as sturdy and straight as a fine porcelain statue.

Despite his frailness and the thinness of his wears, the fable did not shiver from the bitter cold; nor did he blink through the unforgiving gusts of sand that had turned the air as gray as ashes.

Imbued with great powers at his birth, and even greater at his rebirth in this world of decay, the fable stood impervious to it, protected from it.

The Maker should be thanked for these abilities…

No, not him, the fable told himself. Never again…him. 

It was the Great Gifelderelm, the Maker’s tree of purpose that deserved the credit. Salvation had come from its seed, the incredible germ from which all fairytale life begins, and that seed alone. And it was the fable’s quick thinking that had made it possible: Had he not thought to steal it before coming to this place, he would still be sleeping in the ground, doomed to slumber in the wilderness forever. Growing with the passage of time, the seed too became a great tree and exhumed him from his dark grave. It had brought him back to life.

He stared harder at the ball of light, his shining, gold eyes swimming with fresh tears.

Not this time, he told himself, quelling the impulse to move. He would not go chasing after the light this time. Thirty-three years of chasing was enough.

After all, it hadn’t done him any good. The lights flew far too fast for him to match, their origins were always unpredictable and quickly disappeared after their departure, and then the Wall…the impenetrable Great Divide was always too high. Crafted by The Maker of All This to increase itself should one wish to venture into that other world, the stone barrier remained impossible to breach.

And besides, even if he were to reach the place where the two worlds meet, the Maker’s warden, Sentury, The Allegiant, would never let him pass.

I am trapped here, the fable confessed with wide, diluvial eyes. And for the first time in all these years that irrevocable fact settled in. In this place, his story was one that would never be heard again. I will never go home.

He caught his first tear on the tip of his finger. It stained his white glove a dark, penetrating blue – a color he hadn’t seen since before his banishment, in a time where the darkness had no meaning. There is so much darkness here.

Then, suddenly consumed with nostalgia, he wept. He wept until he grew numb and the sadness was gone, until the crude layers of dried, white paint that caked his unfledged face cracked and flaked. Now left with only deep, unassuageable rage another color spilled out of him: From the red of his lips, the blush of his cheeks, and the red stripes of his shirt vengeful and calescent red rings leapt from his body and began to spin in dervish circles all around him.

They spread out in every direction, growing wilder as his fury grew. His anger magnificently personified, they throbbed with the beating of his broken heart and rippled the air with the rancorous fire burning inside of him. They became razors that carved deep, unhealable wounds in the hillside and bows that whipped flaming arrows after the absconding ball of light, now a dying ember at the horizon.

Don’t leave me here alone, the fable’s heart cried, but it went unheeded. The light vanished into the quiet blue.

It was in that moment however, when all hope seemed completely lost, that an extremely peculiar something stole his attention. Though the hill the fable had been roosted upon crumbled away, his powers refused to break his focus, and he remained, hovering in midair. For in this place stilled by death what had found him was instilled with life: a butterfly.

It was black and white, the size of an oak leaf. Face to face with the creature, the fable’s rage subsided: The rings diminished, and his mood lifted. Then, with intense curiosity, he watched the butterfly dance – a beautiful waltz on the wind. Most baffling about the display, beyond the butterfly’s sudden and implausible appearance, was how little the desert gales affected its movements. Apparently, it too had powers.

Did The Maker of All This make you? The fable wondered, searching its face for a pair of sparkling, golden eyes. Did he force you here too? Are you an exile, like me?

The butterfly fluttered passed him, then halted. Hovering, waiting, as if perched on an invisible flower on a windless night.

No, you’re not. He resolved. For his visitor had no golden eyes and therefore no fable roots to tie it to the other world. You’re different.

The butterfly flipped over in reply, as if it had sensed his query and agreed with him. The move beckoned the fable closer. Could it be this strange creature wanted him to follow?

But where to in this vast wilderness The Maker of All This called The End? For The End had no ending; it only began and went on, never-ending — a deep expanse of nothingness he had struggled to discover the limits of too many times before. With every venture he always found himself no further from where he started.

Again, the butterfly somersaulted, requesting his company. Perhaps, with such a guide as this one — a guide who, like him, could stand the rigors of The End — he might just find the escape he’d been seeking all these years, or at the very least, gain a new companion on the journey toward it. He wouldn’t be alone anymore.

Convinced, at least for the moment, the boy floated nearer to the butterfly, set to follow the winged chaperone.

The two flew together for a long time — days it seemed. They drifted very near the ground for a good part of their flight; not for the sake of following breadcrumbs only the butterfly could see, but for the sake of the second disciple in their midst: a twisted tree, the dispiriting color of soot, which traipsed zealously after them upon a bed of wooden tentacles. It was the fable’s treasured liberator – The Black Gifelderelm.

Digging its claws into the coal-colored earth, it struggled to keep up. Its leafless branches caught the brunt of the wind and slowed its dutiful march. There had been no sun or rain here to nurture its growth, to make it strong. So the fable took to riding upon it, his powers able to overcome the wind’s angry pull.

They marched on, together: shuffling through fields of discarded quills and inkwells; swimming through dark valleys littered with yellowing paper; scaling massive hills of sand and smoke. Not a word was shared between the three of them, only a hushed sense of determination, a rising hope for some prize up ahead.

The End had become a flat plain of fractured rock and ice when their journey came to a pause. The fable’s lone endeavors had never taken him beyond the ashen mountains that, to his befuddlement, had completely disappeared from the skyline. They had come to a place he had never been before.

At the center of the plain laid around them sat a naked, perverted shrub. It appeared to have turned silver from its fight through the onerous layers of frozen earth. The butterfly settled on something unusual nestled within it. It was a stone, but not just any stone. It was one that surely had no business being there. Unlike the bricks of ice or clods of dirt they passed over along their way, the oblong sphere was remarkably smooth — eroded by the waters of some nonexistent stream.

The fable dismounted, hovering a moment before landing, then picked it up while the butterfly found its place a short distance away. He gently turned the discovery over in his gloved hands. Disappointingly, there was nothing of further note about it: no signs, no inscriptions, no changes in color with his mood. No surprises. Nothing, until he tossed it in the air: There came a laugh — a high-pitched, seemingly uncontrollable snigger — escaping the curious little stone as it fell back to his palm.

The fable’s eyes widened, fascinated. He examined it more closely, caressing it, squeezing it, testing its firmness, looking for the answers to what could be so funny. He got none of those, however. The laughter only grew more intense and more wild, practically mocking his efforts. Mocking him…making fun of him.

He grimaced, incensed. Flecks of white, like floating specks of paper, began to fall over his hands and the stone as the fable’s face paint split, this time forming two devilish claws that tore into his simple features. His eyes burned with ire and the crimson rings again poured out of him. That was until the butterfly interceded, once more stealing his focus with a single flap of its wings.

Again, the fable settled, his anger simmering. It was all he could do not to destroy the infuriating rock. He could throw it away at the very least – surrender it back to the dead, desert floor. And that he did: its ceaseless laughter dying as the cold wind stole it away. That would teach that giggling goad to make fun.

Suddenly, the Black Gifelderelm, startled by the action, bolted from a standstill and scrambled after the stone. The fable did not stop the tree; he only watched, puzzled. What was so funny? Perhaps the tree got the joke.

The tree had shrunk to a vibrating speck in the distance, when the fable once again turned his eyes to the butterfly. He was brimming with the notion that they still had farther to go, and his guide agreed. Indeed, there was still more to see.

So the fable took the air, all the while knowing the tree would find its way back to him as it always did. The two of them are connected in that way: The Gifelderelm’s darkness always seeking his fable light.

Another day’s flight brought them to a mound of undisturbed gray sand. The butterfly, hovering once again, flipped over twice. Dig. It seemed to say. Their unknown prize was just within reach now, in the ground beneath them.

The fable glared at the butterfly. In the ground. He had searched the ground thousands upon thousands of times before, burrowing holes so deep they took days to escape. Entire canyons were carved in the barren landscape as he hunted for the vanishing lights. What would make this time any different?

Perhaps he just hadn’t known where to look. Maybe it would take a different pair of eyes to see it.

Spreading his fingers wide, the fable raised a hand to the dusty hillock. His face tightened, his tiny muscles tensed, and his golden eyes burned, as his powers sent plume after plume of silt rising from the plot and swirling away in the wind. Once the desert floor was lifted, a deep hole remained.

He knelt over the edge of it, peering down into the darkness there, anxiously waiting for the hidden treasure to reveal itself. He hardly flinched at the stench of death and decay emanating from inside. He only stared harder. Waiting. Time seemed to pass slowly, like a snail pushing against a hurricane, which doubled, then tripled his anxieties. So he looked deeper, leaning in; so far in fact, his feet came to rest flat against the hole wall. Gravity shifted, and he now stood at the doorway, body fully upright, face to face with the unknown.

And suddenly there came a voice, low and hollow, almost crying out from the dark:

“It…hurt…”

The fable reeled backward. Gravity shifted again, bringing his feet back to solid ground. He looked in wonder at the butterfly, who flipped gleefully over and over again at the sight of him.

You have found your prize! It seemed to laugh. And now…my job is done. 

Abandoning its once direct line of flight, the sage butterfly escaped into the sky, spinning and twirling with sprite-like fanfare, then disappeared.

“It hurt,” came the voice a second time.

The fable stretched out his ink-stained hand once more, this time taking hold of something invisible ahead of him. He pulled back. Whatever was below was quite heavy, much heavier than he expected it to be.

He struggled hard to raise it, and his frustrations grew. Now that he has finally found something of worth in this forlorn abyss, it seemed the Maker had put yet another rampart in his way.

I am leaving this place, he told himself.

The crimson rings fell out of him again and began their violent spin.

Held firmly in his power, a dark figure, strong in build but lifeless, with the floppy, slender ears of some abnormal woodland creature, emerged — levitating before him, dust whipping wildly from its naked skin.

From behind him, the fable heard a soft snigger.

He glanced over his shoulder to find the Black Gifelderelm coming towards him from the distant plain, the stone cradled in two thin branches at its base. The tree seemed to stand taller, full of excitement now, a loyal servant awaiting the orders that would set some sudden plan into action. Then, for the first time in what had been a very, very long while, a smile, dark and malevolent, etched across the fable’s pale face.

At last, an idea.

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