Parricid continues his journey along the twisting narrative road and encounters a final, fatal destination that he didn’t expect. A story about stories that’s about endings that aren’t endings.
Stories are everlasting. A good story imprints itself on the mind like a bookmark pressed into the leaves of pages, easy to flick back to amongst the growing chronicles of experience; the memory of its sweet taste will linger in the heart like a lover’s kiss, not so easily forgotten and near impossible to abandon.
A story is like a carefully loomed web, the straying threads of plot and character and theme and concept woven indelibly together, so much so that a reader can rarely tell where one thread begins and another ends, so tightly wound and weaving, so immaculately precise yet wondrously nebulous.
A story awards context to the stream of consciousness that barrels forward through the unruly wilderness that is life. It frames our experiences, our losses and our loves, it gives us just a small window to escape through and find instead wonderful, fantastical landscapes decorated with dragons and monsters and those heroic adventures that stir something deep inside us, something we only vaguely knew was there. A story is our way out.
And without a story, there would be no characters. And in a story, caught in the web of plot, they may live forever. Should they be so lucky.
Rain poured from dark clouds as thunder rampaged across the angry skies. Lightning lanced at the ground and sent sparks in all directions, and for a moment at a time flashed brilliant white on the dark black canvas.
Where the lightning struck, little fires would burn momentarily, small lights dancing to the beat of stormy chaos as it passed above, and then without warning, gone again. Black scorch marks remained but nothing else. Nothing lasted here, not in any way that mattered.
It was an empty, storm-touched plain that seemed to go on forever, a huge dark desert that relaxed quietly under the noisy storm above it. There was a building in the centre. It grew out of the ruin like a lonely rose in a sad field. The letters on its front hung crookedly and were worn by rain and sleet, but what they announced to the world was still legible.
Around that lonesome building stretched the plains which reached out until they met the mountains etching themselves warily on the storm-riddled sky. Close up, there was something noticeably wrong with them, those bleak, curving mountains, as though whatever had created them had done so with a shaking hand and had scribbled them hesitantly into being in an effort to diminish the effect of the terrifically empty wilderness. From afar though, they were a perfectly sculpted border that broke up the monotonous emptiness.
Nothing had ever lived on the plain because nothing had ever needed to.
There was a crack of light, a ball of pure sun that split the gloomy darkness, an overloading lightbulb of energy that popped and fizzled and sent a fountain of white-hot sparks exploding outwards like a blooming flower. It perfectly matched the lightning forks burying themselves in the dirt.
A noise, a scream, then a hand and a face, pulling itself out of the hot ball. A knee, a pair of glasses, messy brown hair, then the full thing dropped out and the fiery sun gave one last blast of heat and light that seared wrathfully at the storm’s dark curtain, and then, like all things here, it was gone again. As if it had never existed.
The man was on his knees. He swallowed air, panted. He shook his head and then got to his feet.
He looked remarkably non-plussed as he considered the hungry storm devouring the flat plain. Rain lashed at him but found its strength lacking, watery bullets thick as eggs bounced harmlessly off him.
‘Ominous,’ he said, somewhat amused.
Lightning speared a spot of ground near him. Peels of thunder roared across the dark clouds as if in reply to his indifference.
‘Rude,’ he muttered, and started towards the building.
A carpet bomb of lightning ripped suddenly at the pathway. It left a black rug, like a welcoming – or rather unwelcoming – red carpet that led directly to the old rustic building ahead.
It had suffered the storm with some minor damage to its outward face but in this massive expanse of ruin and pale, dull nothing, it was the default main focus and despite its dishevelled appearance was like a precious haven shielded from the growling storm.
There was a small garden filled with leafless trees and tangles and bushes black and grey that merged effortlessly into the background. Not a single shred of colour announced itself. Everything, from the sky to the mountains, was hued dark and dull and depressing. The random lightning strikes were the sole source of light, scarce and unreliable as they were.
Parricid approached the building, swinging open the grey gate attached to the grey fence surrounding the grey building.
‘This is a little different,’ he said to the world at large. ‘What am I looking at? The scenery’s changed like a curtain dropping on the stage. I was on a ruddy spaceship. There was an alien – at least, I think it was an alien. I wasn’t too bothered about what it was, then it was dead. I had a lightsabre too.’
He checked the pockets of his tight leather jacket.
‘Empty,’ he mumbled. ‘Great. That’s great. No lightsabre and-’
Thunder screamed; lightning seared across the empty sky like a white knife into shadow.
He looked up at the building. Its bay windows bulged out of the crumbling brickwork like eyes, the pointed roof was like a church steeple giving away to sharp slatted hills, and the huge porch supported by fluted columns had nearly collapsed under its own weight. It had the look of an old library and it loomed over him with an air of unquestionable mystery.
‘You sound different than usual. Like, more telling things as they are than dressing up a description with fancy words no-one’s ever heard of – including you. Did someone happen to call your writing pretentious?’
There were letters on the front of the building. They hung crooked and precariously, as if at any moment they might simply peel themselves off the weathered facade and crush anyone standing below.
They were huge, enormous, like whoever had made them had really wanted people to know precisely what the building was for. It was like the building itself was shouting out its title, afraid the storm would silence its frightened, elderly voice.
In the darkness, lightning forked to the ground and for a second a bright white light illuminated the building, a torch shone briefly to split the veil of night.
And there the letters were. They shouted at Parricid, screamed, roared, for they knew once the lightning had passed on to thunder, they would disappear again.
Parricid grinned wolfishly.
‘The Orphanage,’ he read aloud. ‘That’s interesting, I like that! Back to good old horror stories then. None of this messing about in space with aliens and idiots. Back to your roots, as they say.’
Corvin lingered in the back of his mind. The young man as a soldier and corporal Adams with him, both offering their lives in exchange for his. And he’d had the opportunity to be a hero, a new sensation altogether, and he was surprised to find it agreed with him.
But now he was back to the horror, to the dark, unutterable things that lurked in the places you would never venture if not armed with a flamethrower and an ocean of holy water. Horror was what he did best.
The Orphanage was suitably creepy. Dark and foreboding, crumbling mortar, warped brickwork, exposed windows. The perfect setting, Parricid thought excitedly, for a return to villainy and scaring the daylights out of unsuspecting victims, the plain cardboard cut-outs he could lure into his waiting web.
Not that there was much in the way of daylight. There was a dim glow in the windows, a warm red light humming from the inside, but other than that there was only the lightning, the occasional brilliant flash that lasted a second or two and then was gone.
It didn’t happen to him very often, it was a symptom of his nature to be constantly one step ahead and never particularly surprised, or admittedly even slightly bothered, by the passage of the world around him, but now an unfamiliar feeling was spreading in his mind like oil into clear water that made him pause for a second.
There was a word for this feeling, he knew. But it happened to him so few times that he had never bothered to remember it. It was that sort of unnerving, unnatural feeling that everything had happened before and the moments were repeating themselves like they were so precious and rare that they deserved to be experienced again. It was as if the body had suddenly lagged a few steps behind the mind and was trying to catch up.
‘Deja vu,’ said Parricid, annoyed. ‘Everyone knows what that is.’
A blast of wind that nearly knocked his glasses of their perch shoved him in the back, pushing him towards the building. As he stumbled, the huge wooden doors, previously locked shut, swung open like a snake’s jaw.
‘That would be my cue,’ he said and, laughing, skipped boldly into the open throat.
The change was instant when the doors locked behind him. The storm was a distant memory retreating into a haze. Yes, it was chaotic inside, but it was chaos of a drastically different sort.
His first assumption that it was like a library was terrifically astute. Lining the walls were books and books and books, crammed into shelves, books upon books above books under books. They were leather bound, some were worn and dog-eared, especially those towards the front of the enormous foyer. But some, further into the maze of pages and ink, were strikingly fresh. You could almost smell the tightly bound leather.
The storm had quietened down to a creep. The rain rattled gently on the windows, the thunder boomed distantly, but it was far, far away from here.
It was old and dusty like a museum, and notably, Parricid thought as he looked over the plain shelves and the clean scarlet carpet laid out before him, nothing at all like an orphanage.
‘Confusing,’ he said. ‘Shouldn’t there be abandoned beds, gurneys, lost clothes, hidden memories, that sort of thing? What’s the point of this place?’
There was a door to his left.
‘Was there really?’
And he went through it.
‘Did he? Remarkable.’
Parricid now stood in a smaller ante room and again the swarm of books overwhelmed him. The staggering volume of them was enough to sink a small continent.
The books, however, were nothing compared to the rest of the room. Parricid let out a strange little gasp.
‘No. He did not. I do not gasp.’
In the dead centre of the room there sat a collection of domed glass vats, like upside down bells, filled with lacing smoke. They were taller than the average man and each occupied a silver-trimmed podium.
‘Looks like a mad scientist’s dream,’ said Parricid wistfully. ‘They’ll all be filled with horrible monsters, all eyes and teeth and tentacles. Just waiting for someone to open them. Is that why I’m here?’
There must have been about twenty in total, eating up the otherwise empty space in the book-caved room.
He checked the closest one. A plaque on the podium was embossed with a title. He read it.
‘EXPERIMENT 106, VERSION 1’
He squinted. The name sounded familiar but he couldn’t place it.
‘I know that name,’ he said, then shook his head. ‘Not a monster, then. That’s a bit sad, I was hoping for some grotesque experiment I could fight. Go claw to claw with some Lovecraftian thing with more eyes than braincells. Shame that, real shame.’
The glass vat gave little away. The swirling green vapour inside was like a wall but Parricid suspected there was something in there, he caught brief flashes of a hand the size of a boulder as the thick vapour snaked and unlaced.
He shrugged and rattled the glass with his knuckles. Silence replied.
‘Well then. This is dull. Maybe those books will reveal something.’
Parricid went to grab one off the shelf, then froze. It wasn’t time yet. He couldn’t read one, not yet. He had to wait for the right time. Instinct told him that it was all leading up to one moment and in that moment alone would he be allowed to take it.
‘Bollocks to that,’ he said. ‘I want to read the bloody book, I’ll read the bloody book.’
He reached for the book. It was right there on the shelf. But his fingers, outstretched as they were, kept reaching forward and forward, never quite finding purchase. Then the shelf, as if by some trick of perspective, stretched away from his touch, escaping him. Whenever he was close enough to touch it, it ran further away. The room became a mile long, then snapped back to its normal arrangements, then stretched to oceanic proportions, and snapped back.
Parricid stepped back from the stretchy bookshelf.
‘That’s cheating,’ he growled. ‘Very, very unfair.’
After he returned his arm to his side, the bookshelf was a normal distance away. He thought about testing the distance again but figured it would be pointless.
‘Of course it would be pointless. You’re a cruel man, a twisted little kid with a new toy. You can’t stop yourself playing games.’
He glanced around.
‘What now, then?’ he said. ‘Where do I go next? What do I do? You ever heard of this handy thing called a plot? See, I don’t get this, I don’t get this at all. It doesn’t feel like a horror story, it doesn’t look all that spooky, and I’m just wandering around like a lost kid trying to figure out where I’m supposed to go.’
‘Nope. Answers first.’
THE NEXT ROOM WAS JUST AS LARGE. MANY VATS WERE LAID OUT. AND PARRICID WAS INSIDE THAT ROOM.
‘Chill out! I’m going, I’m going. I’d say keep your hair on but we both know where that joke would land.’
He checked the new vats, some had names he recognised, others were utterly alien to him. He could see things moving inside, a flash of skin or metal, a vague swish of fabric, but nothing substantial, nothing he could piece together.
‘An orphanage for things,’ he said thoughtfully.
There were paintings in this room, hooked above the bookshelves. He felt he recognised some of the scenes, cosmic panoramas depicting black star-speckled gulfs, swirling nebulas and titanic spaceships trekking across the dizzying abyss.
Everything felt terribly familiar, like he had been here before, meandering through the maze of vapours and glass and dusty bookshelves. The names touched on memory but the moment he seized their meaning they fled to the corners of incomprehension.
The third room was much like the previous ones. But this time he could smell fresh books, the rifling of virgin pages, that scent so familiar and comforting to any respectable bookworm.
And the leather books here were in fewer numbers. The shelves were still practically overflowing but there were gaps here and there that gave the shelves a chance to show themselves. And the leather was newer, uncracked and untarnished.
There was also, he noticed after a minute or so, a sound. It was the first sound he had heard in the eerie silence other than the storm beating on his cage from the outside.
It was a furious sort of sound. It was one continuous flurry of noise, ecstatic and excited that seemed to never pause or break.
Parricid followed the noise, gliding his hands across the cold leather, touching them as old friends newly reacquainted. He knew them, somewhere. Deep down, he knew them. But he couldn’t remember.
‘Its’s very annoying when you tell me what I can and can’t remember,’ he said. ‘My mind is my own, it’s not your plaything.’
The noise was coming from one of the shelves. He narrowed his search to the shelf on which there was a large gap, and a book lying slightly askew. It was the final book on that shelf and as he approached it, he started to feel strange, as if time was slowing down, the river of continuity sloshing into a lake of jelly and losing all momentum.
He took the book, cradled it in his arms like a new-born. The scribbling noise, that damn scribbling, scratching noise that sounded like an old quill pen fleeing across parchment, filled his ears as if it was everywhere at once, pounding out of all the books slotted on all the shelves. And it was coming from this book, as if someone was scribbling furiously into its pages, that kind of manic writing where the pen takes control of the hand and writes on its own volition.
He opened it and leafed to the final page, suspecting something.
Then he shut it. Put it back on the shelf.
Because stories are like a web.
‘No!’ he shouted at the books, at the omnipresent writing. ‘I don’t know what’s happening here but I won’t let you do it! Whatever it is!’
The words written there, in that little leather bound book, like a thousand pages in a thousand million others-
‘Don’t say it!’
‘He opened it and leafed to the final page, suspecting something.’
The last G had just been forming on the page, the ink soaking in from beneath the paper like a rose of blood. It had suddenly materialised before his eyes like a magic trick.
‘To hell with you,’ he grumbled. ‘I won’t let you get away with whatever you’re doing.’
As he stood there shouting at the thin air, the room changed, the floor swept out from under him and the books changed to a zooming tunnel of black leather mixed with the stretched reflections glittering on the vapour-filled vats, and then he was in a different room.
Similar to all the previous rooms he’d seen, there were vats here too. These were different, he knew that at first glance.
‘I refuse. I REFUSE.’
He went to approach the closest.
‘No, no, he did not! I will not allow this. Can you just talk to me? You haven’t said a single word to me.’
His fingers danced on the glass.
‘Please just talk!’
Then his fingers traced the letters on the plaque. They traced them again just to be sure.
It read, in bold, urgent script:
‘LILITH, VERSION 3’
‘This is my story,’ he said defiantly. ‘Don’t bring your self-absorbed exercise of pretension into this. Keep your multi-versal fingers out of my pie!’
He ran his fingers along the embossed words a few times. He had to let them sink in, the consequences of them, too. Three words that meant little to normal people but meant worlds to him.
‘An orphanage for things,’ he said. ‘A place for everything, as they say. No people, no beds, no memories. Books and things.’
He pushed the button on the plaque and the vapours swirled apart like a smoky curtain pulled back to the sides of the stage.
As the swirls edged out and parted, Parricid could see the figure standing in the glass vat – no, not standing – but suspended, motionless, its finely moulded head dropped to its chest, eyes closed as though in a deep, probably medicated sleep.
It – the woman – was almost naked save for the few rags slashed across her body. At first he thought these were some sort of fabric, but on closer inspection they were thick green vines curling around her like snakes. Little leaves had sprouted on them.
‘A prototype,’ he assumed.
He parted the vapours on the vat to his right, marked LILITH VERSION 4, and revealed a woman with similar appearance, dressed not in floral rags but in shining, elegant armour sculpted perfectly to fit her rather generous proportions. She too was in a deep sleep.
‘And another. Another prototype. You’re terribly indecisive.’
‘Answer one question, please. Why am I here?’
Do you know where here is?
‘It’s an orphanage for things. Your orphanage. People need somewhere to put the stuff they don’t require any longer, clear out the clutter. This is where you put things you don’t need.’ He gestured to the vat. ‘An old version of Lilith you abandoned. All these contain character prototypes, first drafts, that sort of thing, characters you’ve orphaned, relegated to… To what? A coma? Something between living and dead? They’re here so they’re not in the way. Like putting everything under your bed so your room looks tidy. The clutter is still there but it’s in a place where it won’t get in the way.’
And the books?
‘Your notes. Your stories. Ideas and concepts you’re working on. I bet if I looked hard enough I’d find all the dirty little secrets you’ve peppered across your… ahem… career, locked behind some massive door marked “SECRETS”. And the paintings are places, the spaces you create for your stories. It’s like a museum dedicated to your fragile mind, all the things you’ve cordoned off to the rest of the world. The things you don’t want people to see.’
You’re doing well.
‘Thank you for the condescension but you can keep it, I’ve got plenty. You haven’t answered me. Why am I here?’
You should know that by now. I wrote you to be smart.
‘But I’m not an orphaned idea, I’m not one of these poor saps stuck in glass like a butterfly in a jar. I’m committed to the written word, you made me canon. You can’t go back on that.’
Parricid snarled. ‘You can bloody well try! But I’m real. You made me literary real. I’m not…’
A thought dawned. A terrible, terrible thought.
‘There isn’t…I mean, I’m not here, am I? Please tell me there’s not an early version of me hanging out in here somewhere.’
You’d enjoy that. It’d be poetic narcissism.
‘I’m not you, I’m not that self-absorbed. It would be like seeing yourself in the past, almost like seeing how the world was built, the blueprint for your own existence.’
And you don’t find that agreeable?
‘I am me,’ he said proudly. ‘I am me and there’s nothing that will change that.’
No. There isn’t. I made sure of that.
‘And what’s that supposed to mean? Your new style is cruel. You used to be so open about your intentions.’
A fact that you yourself picked to pieces.
‘Well, you know what the adage says. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.’
Then he was inside another room. This one had paintings of an old decrepit mansion hanging on the crest of a hill, surrounded by a barren, untilled field, while dark clouds swarmed over it and dropped angry torrents like a blitzkrieg.
He recognised it. And he knew what the first vat would hold before he pressed the button. He didn’t bother to read the plaque.
The vapours parted hesitantly. The figure inside was asleep like the previous ones. Parricid knew the drooping sullen face, the archaic clothes, the blank expression, he knew the way the boy had held himself, all nervous energy and shyness, and he knew that it was the first draft of the face he himself had stomped on and extinguished like pinching out a candle flame.
The other vats would hold other versions of the boy, early sketches of the fully drawn character he became, and somewhere in this maze of vapour there would be the soldier Corvin that he had encountered on the spaceship, wearing that same sad expression on his face as if he had always known his fate.
He stepped back and took in the scene. An array of smoky vats trapping inside his nemesis and short-lived friend. A group of Corvins. A group of ravens.
‘An unkindness,’ Parricid said dejectedly. ‘An unkindness of ravens.’
The ancient Egyptians used to say that when a man died his heart would be weighed against a feather on a scale. Bad deeds would heavy the heart and good deeds would lighten it. If the heart weighed less or equal to the feather, they would be accepted into paradise and be eternally in peace. Should the heart weigh heavier than the feather, the underworld and all its torments would await.
Nothing in particular. Just mentioning a neat little fact.
His eyes were being drawn to his left, dragged and sucked to the thing he had so far refused to notice. If he didn’t think about it, if he didn’t admit to himself that it was there, then he could deny its existence entirely and what would happen next would not have to happen.
‘I get the feeling I’m in trouble,’ he said. ‘Why are you doing this?’
Stories are like a web. They twist and they lace and they untangle and they break. But, unlike a web, a story is frighteningly less complex. When it comes down to it, when you get rid of the pointless filler and the dialogue and the adjective-riddled poor attempts at poetic prose, what are you left with? Think about your story specifically. Mull it over. Consider it from start to finish. What does writing come down to? What are the atoms of a story?
Parricid thought. He looked at the motionless Corvin hanging in a state between living and dead, still waiting for some Egyptian judgement. If only he had a feather.
‘He was there at the start,’ Parricid said. ‘No, no, he was the start of it all. My very first outing and he was there, a little annoying and plenty dense. He ran face first into my web.’
‘Then there was the captain Corvin. He ran about shooting at an alien thing. Kind of nice guy, all things considered. Empty in the head but full in the heart.’
So that leaves you?
Parricid went very quiet. His face was a mask of calm.
Could be worse.
‘How? How exactly could it be worse?’
Easily. Imagine you’d died on that ship. Imagine Corvin had bested you the first time. What if he’d fought back?
‘I wouldn’t be here?’
You’d be dead, not orphaned. There’s no coming back from that.
Something like that.
‘Care to answer my question? Why am I here? You can’t orphan me now. I’m not like these sad statues. I’m living… In some sense.’
And that means you have to end. Sad but true. Perhaps, however, given your circumstances, you may appreciate a different fate.
‘I’m listening. Not intently, mind you.’
You are noticeably self-aware. An end for you is not like an end for everyone else, you couldn’t just be killed in a firefight or dropped down an endless chasm, you’d always find a way back, you’d always worm a maggot hole in the apple of narrative and curl up cosy inside. Death is not the same for you.
‘I’m glad my pending death has been such a trouble for you. I hope you didn’t lose any sleep over it. Or any more hair. Why do I have to die anyway? Surely I’m your most successful property. I could whisk you away to stardom. People love this kind of crap.’
You’ve achieved everything I wanted from you. Is it not better to bow out in dignity? Is it not-
‘Let me stop you right there.’ He adjusted his glasses, wiped the lenses clean. ‘You’re not going to convince me that this is somehow a good thing, like you’re doing me a favour. Think about it. Talk it over with yourself. I know how much you hate doing that, and I don’t blame you, you’re terrible company to keep.’
You are a character propelled by my narrative. You always forget that. Every time you think you’re getting one over on me, a snide remark, a sarcastic reply, you’re saying what I tell you to say. Everything you do, say or think, I said, thought and did it first. It isn’t insult, it’s self-deprecation. You are me.
‘A more handsome, dashing version of you.’
Stubborn, selfish, self-absorbed, delusions of grandeur, pretentiousness in buckets, deadpan, and just on the right side of dumb to be mildly charming. You are me. The ID to my ego. Every character, from you and Corvin to Sean and Vox, you are all extensions of me in some form. It’s the highest sense of self-aggrandising one can achieve, to live vicariously through all of you and see and do the things I can only dream of doing.
‘Rather depressing that your own life is not enough,’ said Parricid.
Complacency is the death of dreams.
‘Cheery. I’m sure an audience – you know what that is, right? It’s like a unicorn’s rarity to you – I’m sure they always come to your stories for your positive, uplifting messages about life. Like the crap you spew in the multi-verse series about how nothing matters and nothing is special, and we’re all just pawns in god’s cruel game. Maybe if you swallowed down some optimism more people would care about what you write.’
But with you, I can dream. I dream up wild stories about space and gods and monsters and mortals, space battles and cosmic grotesques, giant spiders and, relevantly, an idiot who thinks he’s cleverly aware but is just as lost and unenlightened as the rest of us. Now, I can’t live those dreams, not really. I’m a bystander in the scene, I’m only there to watch the whole thing unfold, but you, you are like my avatar in the dream, I can see and feel it all through you, through every character that gets typed into being. A touch sentimental, I know, but it is important that you understand the gravity of what you are.
Parricid’s brow knotted. He grimaced.
‘So why do you want it to end?’
The three parts of the narrative atom: a beginning, a middle and an end. You’ve endured the first two, with some infectious candour I might add, and that leaves us with the now. How does one wrap up your story? The story about the self-aware monster that berates his own author. It’s not like I can just kill you off. You must have an end, a satisfying one, you just have to. Nobody can think that you’re ever coming back, there has to be bittersweet closure, and you go gracefully, and no one will ever want to see you again because the ending was perfectly appropriate for you. Otherwise, people will keep asking what happened to you, when will he come back, that sort of thing.
‘Ah, yes. All those people clamouring for your next witty instalment.’
Again, self-deprecation, not insult. But whatever, if it helps, it helps. You can look at it, you know. It doesn’t bite.
‘I’m okay, thanks. If I look at it, it’s there. If I don’t, it’s not. Partitioned reality, your favourite thing in the world.’
My favourite thing is coffee, don’t presume to know me.
‘Your most necessary thing is coffee. Your favourite thing is an abstract concept you can spout off to appear smart.’
Would you just look at the damn thing?
It took a fight with himself but eventually he managed to turn around and face the impossible thing lurking at the edge of sight. It was difficult to look at, like seeing a tombstone with your name scribbled on it in big bold letters.
‘Honestly, it’s more like a coffin. You don’t have to get inside a tombstone.’
The open vat was empty. It loomed in front of him like an open door, only this door had no other side, no place to venture through. It was a dead end.
He didn’t need to read the plaque.
‘Looks very cosy, like a big cuddly blanket I can wrap myself in. Every whim and want attended to like having a personal butler, right? Bet it feels like a mansion in there. Bet there’s plenty of space to stretch my legs, right? Bet it doesn’t feel like I’m being constricted by a python. Nah, looks real cosy. Real, real cosy.’
Not that it would matter. You won’t feel anything, see anything, know anything.
‘Trapped in a big egg. Until what? Until you die and all the stories escape? That means I’ll be imprisoned for… Well, let’s think logically…’
No need. You’re misunderstanding your fate, you won’t be trapped.
Parricid raised an eyebrow at this. ‘No? Then I can go for daily walks like a dog. Will you have me on a leash? Shout when I’ve done something wrong? I’d rather be in the big egg than listen to your drivel or be on your leash.’
Oh, I know. I know full well that you’re not the kind of person who’d respond well to another’s authority, you need to be alone and do things you want to do, on your own time. You’re forgetting we’re the same person. No, this is a different fate for you. I call it the end, but it’s more like a beneficial solution that helps us both.
‘Ah. There you go again, you little writer you. With the way you can word things, you’re really lacking some vision. Imagine how good a politician you’d be, all twisty words and careful lies. It’s not “cutting the budget” when it’s “meaningful restructure of the system”. See? You’re really good at it. Plus, let’s face it, you’re as boring as a Thursday and you comment on topics you know nothing about. It’s a perfect fit!’
Parricid examined the egg. The inside was surprisingly warm and a gentle blue light shone from the bottom, exuded out an invisible source. The glass was so immaculate and pristine, clean and no bumps or dents or scratches, that from the inside it looked like there was no glass at all. On the inside, you were still in the room, the egg wasn’t there at all. Not that it mattered, he thought. Once you were inside, the world outside stopped existing. The egg was the whole world now. Partitioned reality.
‘I’m not sure I’ll fit in there,’ he said.
That’s a pathetic attempt. You can do better.
‘Uh… I’m claustrophobic? Or… What’s the word for being afraid of eggs?’
Parricid felt a sting of… something. Something like remorse, something that tripped over guilt but never quite fell on top of it. But there was another feeling that overshadowed that, completely overruling any emotion he might have had.
‘I don’t want to die,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to retire. I want to keep going. You want to live the dream, too. If I die, your dreams die with me. Think about it!’
He playfully kicked the stupid egg.
‘Think about it! You and me, taking on every genre there is! We could do drama, romance – oh, I know you’d love to pick that apart! – we could do surrealism, Kafka On The Shore style, spaghetti westerns, trotting up to a gun fight like John Wayne and frilly trousers and chewing tobacco, we could take on magical realism – hell, we could even take on Harry Potter! We’d do a better job than recent ventures into that area. Why stop now? Why does this have to stop? You said yourself this is unique, it’s different, it could go so far if you’d let it.’
Have you ever listened to a song so many times that you’re sick of hearing it?
‘Well yeah. Everyone has.’
You are like that, an addictive song I’d play over and over again on repeat until any meaning you might have had is completely lost.
‘Bow out with dignity.’
While you still can.
‘I’d rather go out with a bang if I’m honest,’ he said, deflated. ‘Something big with fireworks and lights and music. A dramatic exit. Banners and a parade, batons and drums, a crowd chanting my name. This is just… It’s just sad. Walking willingly into my own coffin and going out quietly.’
You’re extremely cynical. I suppose that’s to be expected.
‘It’s a funeral march, isn’t it? This whole thing. Leading me to death.’
A sort of death, you might say. I’m not as cruel as you think.
Parricid sighed. ‘There you go again. Could be one thing, could be this, could be that. Indecision, right? Just ridiculous indecision. I’m dead but I’m not. I’m alive but I’m not.’
Black and white, light and dark. Split the white and what do you get? A prism decorated in every colour imaginable. It’s not one choice or the other, there are small factors amounting to the one whole.
‘And that is?’
Mercy. One small mercy. Something like a death that isn’t a death.
‘Wonderfully clear. Clear as crystal, mate. Understanding you perfectly.’
How about immortality?
Parricid laughed. It lacked humour, the laugh of a madman on the edge who’s just seen the push coming.
‘Immortality is living forever,’ he said. ‘Stuck in a giant egg swallowing down smoke is not living at all.’
Not that. You’ll always end up here, standing before the coffin, arguing that you’re too good for a simple death, and I’ll always agree with you. That unique bond you and I have, it can’t be broken by something as silly as an ending.
He thought this over. It seemed a point was being carefully circled around that neither party really wanted to admit, as if admitting it would commit the point to reality and there’d be no turning back. But the point was there, and he could see it hiding behind the carefully chosen words and vague metaphors.
‘The deja vu,’ Parricid said, grinning. ‘How many times?’
Technically the first. But also the last. Also the second and the third and the fourth and so on.
He stroked the vat, its open doors waiting eagerly for him.
‘To live forever.’
Every time someone reads your stories, you live again. Every time someone reads your dialogue, you speak again. Eternal life in a loop. Because stories are eternal, the words immortalise you. For another character it wouldn’t be quite the same, but for someone as self-aware as you, it’s a mercy, the ability to be resurrected at the opening of every story, experience life all over again. An ending that’s not quite an ending, a death that’s not quite a death.
‘But I can’t do anything new,’ he said.
No. But it’s better than the alternative.
‘And it’ll always come back to this, me facing the end. I don’t know if that’s cruel or brilliant.’
A bit of both, I’d say.
‘Stuck in a loop, doing the same thing time and time again. Like a bartender forced to make the same cocktail over and over and over and over and over. It’d get a bit boring, a bit annoying. Every time someone so much as mentions the cocktail you’d get shivers down your spine.’
Thank god we don’t know what that’s like.
‘Yeah, it’d mess you up for sure.’
Parricid looked at the inside of his coffin. The Deja vu was back and it swarmed inside his head.
He climbed up hesitantly and, crouching down to avoid smacking his head, filled up the cramped space. He didn’t bother to close the doors, they would close when the time was right.
‘This is it, then.’ He couldn’t stop his voice cracking. It wobbled all over the place. ‘Back through the loop. Or first time into the fray.’
Stories are like a web. It is unfortunate that someone like you got caught up in it.
‘Yes, I know. Very sad. If only I could weep.’
He knocked the inside of the glass. ‘Shut off the lights before you leave. And leave the outside door unlocked. And tell the books if they wake me up, there’ll be hell to pay.’
You’re taking this in your stride.
‘Zeno’s paradox, right? Can’t move an inch without moving half an inch without moving a quarter of an inch. Can’t keep the plot moving if you don’t move.’
The doors juddered. A hand flew out to stop them closing.
‘This will definitely work, right?’ he said. His hand trembled. ‘I’m not going to just disappear. It’ll work?’
Like it has every other time it’s happened.
Parricid felt a chill in his bones as he let his grip go and the doors, now free and reckless, crept closer together. The room outside was a slowly closing dream, a memory lost to the wilderness of time, the doors closing and the books and the mad scribbling and the storm screaming over barren fields vanishing from sight, the sounds muffled beyond the glass portal of his cramped little coffin.
‘The loop can’t start until it starts,’ he said.
Zeno’s paradox. You’re a quick learner.
‘Do I get any last words?’ he asked as the doors started to cut him off from the world.
What would you like?
‘Something poetic, I think. Something meaningful.’
That stories are like a web? We are all caught in its threads. We’re the spider and the fly, the predator and the prey, but we’re also the strands and the spinner, weaving the web in a beautiful pattern, pasting it with our little flourishes. Letting it taste the morning sun’s heat as it dances over it.
‘I guess that, in the end, all we can really hope for is to have a good story, to weave a good web.’
I rather think it would be infinitely more preferable to be a good story.
Parricid laughed. ‘That’s so cheesy I can almost see your nose wrinkling in horror. Least it’s not as bad as vegan cheese.’
Agreed. That would not be good.
The doors closed shut, edges moulding together like two long lost lovers finally reunited. Smoke started to pour up from the platform underneath.
Parricid closed his eyes, finally feeling the peace he thought he deserved, then opened them suddenly.
‘Fuck meaningful,’ he shouted. ‘I want my last words to be memorable, to hell with poetry!’
He took a deep breath.
‘People who order coffees in bars should be strung up by the eyeballs and ‘smart watches’ are the dumbest thing to have ever been inflicted on society and you can’t complain that a queue is taking too long because that is literally the entire point of a queue and fascinators look stupid no matter who wears them and humans don’t deserve the preciousness that is a dog and reckless war is an idiot’s game and laugh and be happy because god knows what’s coming around the corner to punch you in the face so you might as well make the most of happiness because let’s face it, it’s fleeting and tea is just hot water with leaves in it and no one with an open mind has ever said “I’m very open-minded but” and the earth is just a big spinning ball of dirt and even if I am just a story at the end of it all, I was a good one and I enjoyed every second.’
He grinned and extended a finger. It was the obvious finger. He waggled it at the world around him as one last insult.
And then the closed vat was filled with smoke, and the man inside, like a relic in an ancient museum, was perfectly preserved in that one final moment, a wolfish grin painted on his face as he laughed silently at his own quiet, perfect ending that wasn’t quite an end.
The silent, storm-battered orphanage rested in the easy quiet, while the millions of books it kept safe inside roused in a deafening artillery of frantic scribbling, and a thousand million words ran across a thousand million pages, and the infant threads of stories began to unravel themselves. The threads spiralled deeper and deeper into their own dizzyingly complex patterns and the stories spread out into the wider world like the first pollen of early spring.
Into the loop again, for the first time.