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The Woman in White Marble

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Short Stories

by Chris Smedbakken

 

Chris Smedbakken is a writer and journalist from Sweden and will be publishing the occasional short story here at The Back Road Café. Chris has said that her writing “consists of equal parts late night thoughts, lived life and improbable fantasy - all infused with a healthy amount of humor.”

Tuesday
Jan162018

Two Takes

I know that there are hundreds of stories about the life of Ferdinand Baresi, and while most of them consist of idolizing exaggerations I also know some of them to be true. I also know, however, that there are in circulation just as many stories about his death, and this is the reason behind me at long last sitting myself down to write. Because whichever one of all these stories you yourself have chosen to give credit – be it the one about drugs or one of the more fanciful ones about clever, premeditated murder – I want you to know that you are wrong. Ferdinand was my closest friend, and I think that his memory deserves truth. This account is written in honor of that conviction.

Here follows thus the one true story of Ferdinand’s life and death, as far as I know it. I shall endeavor only to relate the hard facts, and refrain from speculations. There are enough of those already, even though the circumstances of my friend’s demise have confounded me as well. Let us begin.

There was no actor, dead or alive, who could compare to Ferdinand Baresi. He was simply a legend, an uncrowned king of the silver screen. His agreeable appearance, of course, did him some favors, but that was not nearly half of it. For where this trait obviously gave him an edge towards his audience, he also sported another characteristic that made directors and cameramen love him to pieces. Ferdinand, namely, had one fantastical ability: no matter how difficult the setting, he was always able to masterfully complete every scene in no more than two takes.

Ferdinand was not always this mythical movie star hero, however. When I first started knowing him, he was struggling with his beginning career. We were both in our early twenties and found ourselves enrolled to the same college literature class. By that time I was just yet developing the manners and characteristics of the dry scholar I was later to become, while Ferdinand was already the full blown, hopeless romantic that the world would soon come to know and love. Irrespective of our severe differences, however, we found one another in our common love for Oscar Wilde, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and the three typical Williams: Wordsworth, Blake and Shakespeare.

Our daily talks about literature and poetry soon morphed into drunken late-night discussions about the mysteries of life, love and the future. I told him about my dream to become a teacher, and he told me about his passion for acting. As I nagged him about sociolinguistics and advanced grammar he shared with me the rules of the acting-trade, like how you should never look directly into the camera. 

I was never one to entertain many loose acquaintances. Instead I have always preferred to keep a smaller selection of close, trusted friends – and before long I began counting Ferdinand among those. There was simply something about him and his open, honest ways that made me like and trust him.

For the sake of credibility, I feel obliged to here mention that while I am positive that Ferdinand himself never saw me as more than a dear friend, I grew to think and dream of him as something more. I strainedly endured the awkward situations when he helpfully tried to introduce me to girls he knew, and suffered secretly as he dreamily told me about the different women in his own life. This has no impact on the story, however, and I mention it only as a show of scholarly transparency. This account is not about me, after all, and there is still much to be related.

I told you that Ferdinand was struggling, but that choice of words was a staggering understatement. When he first told me about his aspirations as a Hollywood actor, of course, he sounded so sure of himself. His reports of recurring successes in the local field made me think that his breakthrough surely must not be far off into the future. But months turned into years and his participation in some smaller independent productions, that initially had brought him such pride and hope, began to appear sarcastically in his daily speech as proof of tragic failure.

I know that many of these cynic thoughts were pure internalization of his stoical father’s harsh words to him. The old man did not approve of his son’s career choice, and I even came to understand from Ferdinand’s frustrated descriptions of their meetings that his father strongly wished for him to be more like me. It is my deepest hope that this never caused any hatred towards me in my friend’s heart, but I was never able to find out. If this was the case, however, he never let it show.

Ferdinand idolized his father, and although he never expressed any will to follow in his footsteps he often vented a desperate wish to make him proud. He was convinced that were he only able to really succeed as an actor, his disappointed father would change his mind about him. And so he struggled on, worked part time jobs and never gave up hope about that elusive next, defining casting.

During all this time Ferdinand and I had continued studying literature and poetry in different setups. Some semesters we took spontaneous campus classes together, whilst during others we settled for reading and analyzing texts together in cafés, libraries, in my spacious flat or in his rustic attic apartment. I had managed to get an advantageous position as a history teacher at a local school and was getting along rather well in life.

On the particular night of which I am now going to tell you, I was sitting alone in my home, reading. My work was taking up much of my time, and I had to plan my days well in order to keep up with the reading for the class me and Ferdinand were taking together that year. We were reading and analyzing Faust, and I remember this so clearly only because of what happened next.

Suddenly there was a hard knock on the door, and when I opened it I found my friend standing outside in the stairway. He was soaking wet from the rain, but I could clearly see that he had also been crying. Perhaps he still was. I had never seen him in such a rueful state. I quickly ushered him inside and made sure to get him into new, warm clothes. I gave him tea and wine to drink, but he only touched the wine. It did not take me long to realize that this was not the first glass of spirits he had taken that night. After some solacing suasion on my part he finally managed to calm himself enough to tell me about the terrible thing that had happened.

Ferdinand’s father had died earlier that evening. It had not come completely unexpectedly, and Ferdinand had managed to get to the hospital in time to be there with him during his final minutes. But instead of sorrowful comfort, this final visit had only brought Ferdinand excruciating pain. Because what his father had said to him with his dying breaths was almost more than what Ferdinand could bear to recount.

In short, the dying man had accursed the cruel fate that ever endowed him with such a failure for a son. He had told Ferdinand of all the high hopes he had ever had for him, and how it pained him eternally that he had not even tried to live up to them. He had called him names and finally disowned him; Ferdinand had been written out of his father’s will, lest all the old man’s hard-earned fortune be misappropriated by a son too shiftless to use it wisely.

I tried helplessly to comfort my friend as best as I could, but it was futile. His father’s words had broken him completely. He drank more wine and fell asleep on my couch that night, and when the morning came he was gone without a word. Over the next few weeks I tried to get a hold of him in any way that I could, but it was as if the earth had swallowed him entirely – he was gone.

Of course I feared the worst. Given my friend’s emotional and impetuous nature, I was frightened that in his desperation he might have done something to hurt himself. For several weeks I lived in a constant state of rising panic that distracted me from everything else. In the end I was almost completely convinced that my friend was dead; that he had ended his own life in a desperate response to his father’s harsh, final words. My surprise and relief all the greater, then, when Ferdinand one day showed up on my doorstep again. But my surprise did not end there.

The Ferdinand that now stood outside my door was nothing like the sad creature that had last come knocking. He greeted me with a wide smile and a bottle of champagne. He told me that it had finally happened – he had been cast for a big role in an upcoming Hollywood production. As he strode past me into my living room to pour us both a glass of sparkling drink I just stood there, unable to take the whole situation in. During the course of the evening I was given all the more reason to be perplexed.

Ferdinand did not want to tell me what had happened since he left my apartment last, and masterfully avoided all my questions pertaining to the subject. Instead he told me a story about a chance bar encounter with the friend of a famous director, a successful meeting and a splendid audition leading to a fantastic contract.

“There are but two roads that lead to an important goal and to the doing of great things: strength and perseverance”, he said as he raised and downed his third or maybe fourth glass. The words rang an ominous bell within me, but it was not until much later that I was able to place their origin and realize what horrors they might actually have signified.

I was of course incredibly happy for my friend, especially since I knew that this was everything he had always been dreaming of. A part of me could not help but remain suspicious of his incredible story, however. Did he make all this up, or was it maybe symptoms of a stress induced neurosis? The healing, patterned scars across the palms of his hands would certainly support this theory, but when I hesitantly brought them up he hastily changed the subject and hid his hands under the table. I tried my best to likewise hide my own worries and disbelief, and we spent the remainder of the night celebrating. After four bottles of wine he even happened to kiss me, but I am doubtful he meant anything by it or even remembered it the next day.

So Ferdinand went to Hollywood, and even though we promised to keep in touch and visit one another often, things naturally did not happen that way. That first movie became an instant success, and suddenly Ferdinand’s face was on the cover of ever magazine and his name on everyone’s lips. He was given another contract, and then another one. From my place back at home I followed his blossoming career with a smile and a deep longing. Months became years and out letters and calls grew increasingly far apart. I never forgot him, however, and never gave up hope that he might one day return to me. But with the years that hope turned into dreams, and finally I began viewing it as little more than the silly wishes of the young man I once was.

Apart from all his skillful appearances on the silver screen, it was not until the night of my second wedding that I finally saw him again. Many years had passed by that time, and I was not a young man anymore. I had become a literature professor at the same collage as where Ferdinand and I once studied together, and already had one failed marriage behind me. My bride this time was a colleague and dear friend, and although we were both aware that this might not be love in that traditional sense, we were both happily taking this measure to preempt the loneliness that might otherwise come with old age.

He showed up at the wedding reception. It was late by then and many of the guests had already withdrawn for the night. I was standing on the porch of the house smoking that evening’s eleventh cigar when someone suddenly joined me by the banister.

“Congratulations”, he said – and I recognized his voice immediately. In shock I turned towards him, and it was as if all those twenty years spilled off me. He was just as I remembered him, and when I looked into his eyes my heart almost stopped as I realized how much I actually still loved him. I could not help but embrace him, and the relief as he returned the embrace was not of this world. I do not know which one of us suggested it, but we walked off into the night as Ferdinand told me about his life and I told him about mine. Of my new bride I entertained by the time not a singled thought.

I told Ferdinand about my work, my books and my travels, and he told me about his movies and his extravagant life. I do not know if I am to deduce something from it, but for some reason he did not tell me anything about any relationships during our entire walk. When everything else had been discoursed, we went on to talk about our shared youth and all our mutual, happy memories. We went on for hours, and I, for my own part, was in heaven. I never wanted this night to end, and had he asked me at that time to come away with him I would gladly have done so without a thought. 

Ferdinand seemed happy as well, but as the hours passed I grew to increasingly scent a hidden, deep sorrow in him – something he hid masterly with his acting skills, but which as an old friend I could not help but to notice. Finally, I could not refrain from asking him about it. At this, he became silent for a long time, as if lost in mournful thought or memory.

“We have led good lives”, he said finally – and now something in his voice – in the entire atmosphere – had changed. I did not know what to say to that, so I remained silent and waited for him to continue.

He sighed, and said: “We have done fabulous things, things we only talked and dreamed of when we were young together. Now that I’m finally nearing fifty, I sometimes find myself wishing that I would have let it all stay at that; as harmless talk and dreams.” He looked absentmindedly down at his palms, and I could briefly glimpse the faded scars that still adorned them.

I asked him what he meant, but I could feel as soon as I opened my mouth that my voice broke some kind of spell. He looked up at me, smiled and dismissively shook his head.

“Never mind the ramblings of an old, drunken fool”, he said. “Let us find a place to go that is still open, and forget about all sorrow. This is a night for celebration, after all, and not for the self-induced melancholy of an old, foolish friend.”

He refused all my attempts to approach the subject again after that, and we ended up drinking our wits away in some bar that I for the life of me cannot remember the name of today. I did not go home that night – a fact that I do not regret but which I will neither ever be able to forgive myself for.

When I woke up late the next day it was in a wide, disorderly hotel bed with no clear recollection of what had happened during those drunken, diffuse hours between night and morning. Ferdinand was gone, and on the pillow next to me was an envelope with my name on it in beautiful, careful letters. With shaking hands I opened it. Neither the envelope nor the piece of paper inside were from the hotel, and I realized that he must have prepared them in advance.

The message inside was short, but I remember it by heart to this very day – especially because it was the last I ever heard from him, and because of what I later realized that it might mean.

“While Man's desires and aspirations stir, he cannot choose but err.
I hope you will be able to forgive me for my choices,
and that you will never forget me.
Eternally yours,
Ferdinand.”

I never saw Ferdinand Baresi again. I tried to call him on his fiftieth birthday one week later, but his agent told me that he was working. He never called me back. Reading the newspaper the next day, I understood why: Ferdinand had died the night before, in the middle of shooting a scene for his next movie.

I was devastated at learning this, of course. My wife must have realized that my feelings for Ferdinand were more than just those of long-ago friendship, but she was supportive throughout and never said anything to question my grief.

I went alone to see the movie on its eventual release, more to honor my late friend than due to any personal love for the genre. The director, as you might be aware, is well known for his intricate and unconventional takes on the psychologically bizarre, and Ferdinand’s last movie was no exception. In countless interviews reporters had inquired the director about his unusual choice to include in the movie the take that shows Ferdinand dying. The man always defended himself with the claim that the decision was made in honor of Ferdinand’s memory, and that even in dying he had managed to deliver his act perfectly – in the second of two, final takes.

Before seeing the movie I was afraid of what feelings might engulf me at seeing my friend dying on the screen in front of me, but this fear was nothing compared to what reality had in store.

I cannot say that the horror movie itself instilled in me any notable dread, but that might be due to me at the time being preoccupied with thinking about Ferdinand and my grief for him. My friend, as always, had made a masterful job with his character throughout the entire movie, and I found myself smiling amidst the tears at some of his more characteristic intonations and facial expressions. But then came the ending, where both Ferdinand and his character die, and the smile drained from my face.

In the plot of the movie, Ferdinand’s character is chased by a murderer from his past. In that final scene the past finally catches up to him, and the audience can see the character staring in terror and falling to his knees as the killer approaches somewhere outside the camera angle. Then everything dramatically fades to black, and the end credits start to roll.

I have seen the movie many times since then, have tortured myself with watching those terrible, final moments of my friend’s life time and again in an effort to realize what it is that I am actually seeing. But that first time I saw it I froze and could only stare in terror, even as the audience around me burst out applauding and cheering in honor of their fallen hero’s last achievement. And here, for the first time, I will deviate from my promise to refrain from speculations.

Because in those final moments before the cut, Ferdinand looks straight into the camera, and the bottomless horror in his eyes is real. I can feel it in my body every time I see it, and I know it in my heart. My friend saw something in his dying moments that no one else on the set could see, and which frightened him beyond compare.

Make of it what you will, but I for one think often of my friend’s dear wish that suddenly came true, the scars on his hands, his ominous mention of his fiftieth birthday and the two strange things he once said and wrote to me:

“There are but two roads that lead to an important goal and to the doing of great things: strength and perseverance”, and “While Man's desires and aspirations stir, he cannot choose but err”.

It took me a long time, and my friend’s tragic death, to recognize those lines as the quotes of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that they actually are. But when I finally did, I felt horror engulf me once more.

I am old now, and despite all my efforts to combat loneliness, lonely is exactly what I have become. Lonely with the memory of Ferdinand Baresi, and with the insight that there are things out there that defy sane logic and explanation. Things that might listen to the desperate wishes of a young man distraught with grief after an abusive father, and grant those same wishes – at a terrible price.

And I do not know what about these insane thoughts that frightens me more; that I might be going mad, or that I failed to save my friend from exchanging his soul for the ability to, no matter how difficult the setting, always being able to masterfully complete every scene in no more than two takes.

Copyright © 2018 Chris Smedbakken

Tuesday
Dec192017

The Dead Poet's, Manual Writers' and Pseudonym Authors' Society

Julian Jersey’s job sucked, and on a particularly sucky day at the office things got so dull that he decided to summon a demon from another dimension.

You see, writing user instructions for cheap furniture and electronics was boring at the best of times (although it comprised several stimulating challenges, including but not limited to formulating bullet-proof how-to:s that deprived the customer of any and all legal claims if the worst should happen and somebody lost a finger. Or a hand. Or a reproductive organ). But ever since Rich Gimmons, the only person at the office not totally dull, was sacked after being sent to prison, it totally sucked. Sometimes this dull job of Julian’s became too much to handle even for such a master of daydreaming and distraction as himself.

Julian had actually even begun to suspect that nobody really read his work anyway. Sometimes he fancied himself in league with the great masters. Homer. Shakespeare. Franklin W. Dixon. Surely their contemporaries didn’t afford them heroic status during their lifetimes? The latter, even, he wasn’t totally sure was a real person. Well, the same could be said about the former. And Master William? He could as well be grouped in with the other two, as far as Julian was concerned. At least non-existent people didn’t have to suffer lousy jobs and lousy payment for lousy jobs.

He sat sometimes looking out his twelfth story window, dreaming away to a time in the distant future when his work, too, would be afforded the attention it deserved, and he himself was contemplated in the same way as scholars of his own time pondered the writers of The Iliad, Macbeth and The Hardy Boys.

That people of today didn’t seem to acknowledge and appreciate his masterly user-instructions was of course only natural. For heroes and poets, after all, fame is a benefit that comes with death. Therefore he struggled on, making the best of the situation and even occasionally squeezing in small bits and pieces of verse in between the third and fourth steps of “How-to-Build-Billy-the-Shelf”. Nobody would read the crap in his lifetime, anyway.

Well, enough about daydreaming. Julian’s got a demon to summon.

He found the ritual on Google, and the demon came with a loud explosion in a puff of smoke and a nice symmetrical cardboard-box with its name printed in a tacky font across the front label. Julian eagerly tore open the box and started digging around in the compact mass of Styrofoam flakes that welled out of the package as soon as he opened the lids. (He always wondered how the people at the packing department even managed to fit that much Styrofoam into boxes in the first place, because he never managed to fit it back in).

One of his hands closed around a paper folder, the other around something small and furry. The flakes fell away, and he retrieved from the box some kind of manual, and a little hairy demon the size of his thumb. It grinned demonically at him, and he knew that this was the real deal. Sadly, the manual was written in some strange font that he couldn’t read – but what the heck, who read manuals anyway? He held the demon in one hand, and lifted the box with the other. More Styrofoam fell soundlessly to the floor. Shalyoo was the name written on it – along with more letters he couldn’t make out.

“Schalyoo…”, he muttered to himself and glanced at the fluffy evilness in his right hand. It already seemed to have grown a little. Perhaps they came in travel size and expanded on unpacking? What an idea… The little creature looked back at him with a defiant grin. The next moment the door to Julian’s office swung open and his boss’ head poked inside.

He wanted to know what the fuck Julian was doing making all that noise. When he saw all the Styrofoam he raised his eyebrows, and when he laid eyes on the little creature from another dimension his expression turned into a rather even mixture between incredulity and fear. He wanted to know what the fuck that thing was as well. Julian answered conscientiously that he thought the creature’s name was Schalyoo, and that he had summoned it from Hell in a moment of boredom. Schalyoo itself, which had apparently been growing some more while Julian was talking to his boss and was now the size of his hand, soberly jumped up into the air and bit Julian’s boss’ head off.

The first emotion to strike Julian’s mind at this rather drastic turn of events was not, as might be assumed, fear and disgust at the limp body falling with a thump to the floor of his office and the blood gushing out of its severed neck. No, initially he was simply amazed that such a relatively small creature could fit a man’s entire head into its mouth and then swallow it whole. Then the full impact of what had transpired before his eyes struck him, and he fell to his knees and yelled “Schalyoo! No!”

The creature grinned at him, displaying several rows of oversized, very sharp teeth, and grew some more. Its belly was round now, Julian observed, and he imagined he could discern the contours of a human nose poking out through the soft, furry skin of the demon’s abdomen. Schalyoo licked its lips and jumped away, out the door. It was not until Julian heard the screams of fear and pain drifting up the corridor that he was able to muster up the will to defy his paralysis and stumble out the door after it, avoiding the sight of the limp body as best as he could.

The creature called Schalyoo ate the heads of ninety percent of the people in the building. Some areas it would simply not enter, so some of the cleaning staff, at least, got away safely. It never touched Julian, but stopped and purred smilingly every time he caught up with it and called its name. Then it grew and jumped off again on its killing spree.

When the building was empty it left through the front door and snapped the head off of a passing Chihuahua in a by-the-way fashion when crossing the street. Julian tried to follow, but was soon thrown off the chase by crossing cars and inquisitive press and police. The last he saw of the creature was its silhouette, now twice man-sized, in front of the burning wreck of a car a couple of blocks away, before it disappeared between the buildings.

Julian told the police everything, and after some consideration he gave the press the whole story as well. The police set to work immediately roping off the stricken area (although the fact that the stricken area expanded all the time made their efforts quite futile), and did their best to make sense of the situation. The journalists were more effective, and soon Julian’s face was on every TV-screen in the city – and the name Schalyoo on every person’s lips.

People were ordered to stay inside and keep away from doors and windows, and this helped for a while – before the creature had grown to such proportions that it could begin cracking houses like nutshells and plucking people from their homes like very small grapes, dropping their bodies back to the ground like apple cores after their tasty heads had been devoured. The National Guard was called in before long, but by then Schalyoo had grown so much that none of their weapons affected it – and they didn’t dare try a nuclear strike.

Things exploded everywhere, people were crawling around in the streets and police and military fought for space in a city that more and more began resembling an outright war zone. The president appeared on TV, conducting a speech with lots of mentions of our Lord and Saviour. The speech had to be interrupted, however, when Schalyoo stepped down close to the White House and Mr. President with family had to be evacuated. Simply put, it was mayhem – and all the while the creature continued to grow.

Julian became something of a national celebrity, appearing regularly on TV and radio broadcasts simultaneously as Schalyoo sacked the country. He was allowed to publish several of his user instructions in a large anthology, with every other how-to alternated with a little poem or story of his own. This, of course, made him happy – but he could never quite shake off the feeling that he was responsible for the terror. No shit Sherlock.

The disaster finally turned into some kind of strange every-day situation, and people began to adapt. The weather report began to include Schalyoo-reports as well, informing the public about where in the country the creature should be expected to rampage in the next twenty four hours. People could thus plan their lives, and most often not too many died as a result of miscalculations on this front. The problem was that there was no way to really adapt to the crisis since Schalyoo kept growing all the time. Nobody knew why. Then one day the creature crossed the sea, and the entire world was in turmoil.

Julian Jersey watched the live broadcast from his new penthouse apartment as the crossing was reported by all news bureaus at once. He had an important press conference in a couple of hours about his new book, but at the moment he was caught up in an inescapable vortex of guilt. It was not so much that he had summoned the creature from another dimension that plagued him, as the feeling that he should have read the user instructions before unpacking it. Now he sat with the cardboard box in his hands, struggling to make something out of the strange letters crammed over the sheets that came with it. All to no avail. And what was worse was that he didn’t even know where to send his complaints about the poor manual.

He was not alone in watching this broadcast. In another dimension the Dead Poets’, Manual Writers’ and Pseudonym Authors’ Society had gathered before their altar to observe the commotion. Franklin W. Dixon smiled sinisterly, Homer shook his head and William Shakespeare eagerly produced quill and scroll from somewhere inside his robes to document the mortals’ tragic misfortune. Behind them in the darkness several voices began muttering while pens and notepads were retrieved from pockets and little convenient fanny-packs.

This was proving to be a very productive month, and the Society never missed out on an opportunity to occupy themselves. Fame really was a benefit that came with death (for some), but it was also the only benefit that came with death. Homer looked troubled, as always. He’d never liked the idea of tricking people into hubris, because that would imply that the ones doing the tricking had the right to meddle in the affairs of mortals – the task of the gods – and to him that equalled hubris in itself. He’d much rather have had the mortals tricking themselves, leaving him to record the comical or tragic outcomes. William just smiled, always loving the drama following in the wake of a good misunderstanding. Dixon just hated everybody. In fact, this whole affair with the summonings had been his idea to begin with. Maybe it was because he wasn’t entirely sure of his own existence. Who knows?

There were others there in the dark dimension with them, all dressed in that kind of black robes favoured by evil cultists, ring-wraiths and Sith-lords, but these three were the leaders. They had long been watching Julian Jersey, knowing him to be a potential victim and maybe also a future member of their Society. After all, they had all started out just like him (with the possible exception of Franklin W. Dixon, of course).

Behind them in the darkness loomed uncountable rows of symmetrical cardboard boxes, all ready to be delivered in the blink of an eye to whomever wished to incorporate a little dangerous excitement into their everyday lives. They were all adorned with a laminated label on the front, with the name of the contents printed in big, bright, common letters, and below was a lengthy disclaimer written in a language the Society had made up themselves, as a joke. This same language comprised the exhaustive user’s manual that was included in every package, informing the customer how to handle the product in order to ensure the most beneficial outcome for everyone involved.

For example, the manual warned the user about the risk inherent in calling the product by its label name too frequently, since this triggered its inbuilt growing function. It also encouraged the user to keep the product away from domestic animals, children, wild animals, receptionists, firemen, grownups and all other species and persons the user didn’t want dead, or at least beheaded. It should also not be fed after midnight.

The last pages were entirely made up of a collection of very witty formulations (sometimes in rhyme) that effectively deprived the user of all legal claims should he or she refrain from following the instructions and advice provided in this folder. There actually was a phone number at the very bottom – in fully legible, though very, very small, numbers this time – but nobody ever called it. And this was probably just as well, since it had long since been taken over by a pizza baker in your town. Homer always thought this was stretching it a bit – I mean, someone might want to call and ask something, especially since the language used in the folder was one nobody knew save for the Society themselves. But Dixon irritably dismissed this notion at once; being famous after death (if assuming one had in fact actually lived and existed at one point) is really quite boring, and they could not be blamed for at least wanting to have some fun. Besides, he dryly observed, nobody reads these fucking instructions anyway.

And somewhere in the darkness behind them another box dematerialised with a loud explosion and a puff of purple smoke.

THE END

Copyright © 2017 Chris Smedbakken

Tuesday
Nov142017

The Hotel 

Driving through the desert, Liam wondered – not for the first time – what could have driven his old friend to leave everything and just disappear. His had been a great employment at a fancy magazine, and from what Liam himself had gathered in the way of clues and information, there had been no shortage of beautiful company to kill the time in between assignments with. But Patrick was gone, there was no question about that. The fact that his disappearance had left a job open for Liam as a photographer at before mentioned magazine did not help keeping his thoughts off the matter.

The police hadn’t found anything that would indicate a crime, and had dismissed the whole matter as just another case of young-man-running-away. Liam hadn’t been as sure about that diagnosis when he had returned home after several years abroad just to find his childhood pal missing. In any case he would want to find Patrick and try to help him out of whatever shit he had gotten himself into during Liam’s absence. So here he was, driving alone through the autumn twilight along the desert highway where Patrick was last spotted, wondering.

He had not planned on stopping for the night until he reached the next city, but suddenly he felt his eyelids getting heavier and his thoughts going all dreamy and disconnected. Before he had any time to wonder about this sudden sleepiness, he saw the light in the distance. Faintly shimmering, the warm glow woke him up a little – just enough to close the distance between himself and its source. When he got closer he saw that the building had three floors and was surrounded by several smaller sheds, garages and quite a large, well kept lawn decorated with some apple trees and surrounded by a small fence.

The light did not come from any of the windows, which were all dark, but from a small candle flame in the hand of a woman standing in the doorway. She was the first detail Liam noticed – not until he was right in front of the opening in the fence did he notice the sign that announced the building as being a hotel. Dazed, he drove up and parked his car in front of the house. The woman had an eerie beauty about her that was kind of unsettling, but he pushed those thoughts away as he approached her on slow moving legs.

“My name is June”, she said. He thought that she was smiling, but he wasn’t sure.

“Welcome to the hotel, we have plenty of room!” And before he had a chance to answer, she disappeared into the darkness. He had no choice but to follow her inside. Somewhere along the way they passed a reception desk, and he was made to sign his name in a tome-like ledger.

She showed him the way up some stairs and into a long corridor, and he thought he heard the voices of the other guests somewhere further on. They stopped in front of a door, and she unlocked it and handed him the key. “Your room”, she said.

“Thank you”, he replied and looked inside. The room was large and contained a spacious bed, a bathroom and a table with an old telephone on top and some chairs. No television set. “Have you by any chance had a guest recently who went by the name of Patrick Day?”, he asked absentmindedly. But when he turned his head towards her again, she was gone.

He made himself at home as best as he could in his room, and noticed several things. The first was that the room had a balcony, overlooking a small courtyard at the back of the main building. The second thing was that the room actually had a television, but a small one in black and white hidden away in a closet. The third thing he discovered was the thing that disturbed him the most (not that the balcony was in the least disturbing, but the bad quality TV certainly was): taped to the underside of the table was an envelope that seemed quite modern. Written on it was only this: “Patrick Day, 21/6”. Liam froze when he read this – the date indicated that Patrick had been here not two months ago, just around the time of his disappearance. Uneasily he brought the envelope with him out on the balcony and sat down in a wicker chair. With not so steady hands he started opening it, as he began hearing faint music from below. He cast a glance down, and saw to his surprise that there was light streaming from all the windows now, onto the courtyard. Even in the windows of the smaller buildings there was light. The yard was really quite beautiful in this light, with roses growing on espaliers along the brick walls and garlands of ivy spanning the air above the courtyard. The music sounded live, but he could not detect its source. What he could see, though, was that the other guests had come out to dance to it in the last twilight rays of the sleepy sun.

They were all young, as far as Liam could see, and all male. Maybe some kind of bachelor party out here in the middle of nowhere? He opened the envelope at last, and read the letter inside. It was not written for him, but that wasn’t surprising. However, it didn’t seem to be written for anyone else in particular, either. “To whoever reads this”, it was addressed. Liam’s eyes widened more and more the further he read, and when he was finished he just sat there, staring at the piece of paper in his hands. Patrick had come here at will, investigating for his magazine a spree of disappearances of young men on this particular stretch of highway; this hotel had caught his attention when he passed it. The letter told Liam that the hotel was not in any tourist guide, but that it had been – several decades ago. He now suspected that someone was using it as a blind for some other kind of activity – possibly of the more sinister and illegal kind. Perhaps the disappearances had to do with people passing through by chance, and happening upon something they weren’t meant to see?

In any case Patrick had felt uneasy about staying at the hotel, and had suspected that someone was on to his investigation. He had caught the other guests (and the sparse staff, even) casting him strange and ominous glances. Were they all in on it? Patrick urged whoever read his letter to tread with the outermost care, since he would have removed the hidden envelope himself if he had ever left the hotel.

Liam put the letter inside the envelope again, and turned it over thoughtfully. And there, written in the same handwriting but much more hastily, was this: “The portrait in the lobby.” Quickly he stood up, overturning the chair in the process. Tucking the letter inside his pocket, he grabbed his camera bag and hurried to the door. There was a story here, and if he could not find his friend he would at least uncover the circumstances behind his disappearance. Just as he got to the door, though, there was a knock on it. Without really thinking about it, Liam opened. Outside stood an old man, dressed all butler style and holding a handkerchief and a fancy looking notepad.

“Can I get you something to drink, sir?”, he asked monotonously in a voice that made a little chill crawl down Liam’s spine.

“Uh… Sure”, he answered, anxious to be rid of the man. “A glass of wine or whatever would be nice”. He started to push past the old man, when he suddenly saw the tired smile on his face.

“I’m sorry, sir, but we haven’t been serving that kind of spirit here since the master passed away several decades ago. I would recommend our fine champagne, though, if I may, sir.”

Liam paused for a moment, overcome by this sudden strangeness, but got himself together finally and answered quickly “Yeah, champagne will be fine, yeah. Excuse me, I’ll just…”, and the man moved aside for him to let him leave the room.

After several episodes of trial and error, he found himself back in the hotel’s lobby, staring at a huge painting of what could not be anything else than this very building; the sign even read Hotel in spindly brush stroke letters. In front of it were painted two people, a man and a woman. No, not a woman. The woman. She who had let him in earlier. They looked happy at first glance – this was obviously a wedding portrait – but at closer inspection he could see that the woman wasn’t really smiling but just pretending to smile. It was something in her eyes… Then he noticed the date in the lower right corner, where the artist’s unreadable signature could also be found. June, 1969. Then how come the woman looked exactly the same still? And was the man the diseased master the porter had been talking about?

He turned around at a sudden noise behind him, and started in fright as he found himself face to face with the mysterious mistress of the house. Even now, in the light of this strangeness, he found her eerily attractive – and there was no doubting that this was really the same woman as in the painting, not a day older.

“I can explain”, she stated in a soft voice that made him believe her – that made him want to believe her. The music was still flowing in from outside, but Liam didn’t really care about anything else but her deep blue eyes.

She brought him back to her chamber, where the porter was just finishing setting a table for two with high glasses of pink, sparkling liquid. They sat down, and the porter left them. This was a much larger room than his, with beautiful (and probably expensive) furniture and, as he noticed, a ceiling completely covered in mirrors that cast the light from the chandelier all over the place.

“Drink”, she said, and he did. He kept throwing longing glances in the direction of the large bed, secretly hoping they would end up there, but in the end he was all but lost in her eyes as she seductively compelled him to tell her all about himself. He didn’t know how much he had told her, when she finally began to speak again in that calm, flowing voice he could not help but fall in love with.

She told him about her husband, the owner and master of the hotel. She told him about the wedding, about the summer they had spent together running the place and about all the ways in which he had failed to please her. Then she told him about her others – her secret lovers, all young and beautiful. She was so unhappy, couldn’t he see? It was no wonder that in the end it had gotten out and her husband had been furious. She told Liam about the fight that had started autumn and ended everything. About how her lovers had gone in between to protect her from his wrath at discovering the secret, and about how in the heat of the battle someone had drawn the first knife. A candelabra had turned over. The fire had broken out.

“The fire?”, he said. For some reason he felt quite groggy now. What was he drinking? “But nothing seems to have gotten burned…” Then he happened to look out one of the huge windows and saw, down on the ground and hidden behind one of the smaller buildings on the premises, a fiery red Mercedes Benz. Patrick’s car.

“We’re all prisoners here”, she said dreamily. “Prisoners of our own device.” The room started to spin around him, and Liam felt himself falling from his chair. Not champagne

He awoke to the sound of screaming. There was something in his hand, and he didn’t feel all too well. He turned his head, and had to steel himself for what he saw. A man was lying on the huge bed, surrounded by half a dozen robed figures and screaming as they plunged their gleaming daggers into him, again and again and again. As one of them raised it’s bloody hand for yet another blow, the hood slid back just a little and Liam let out a scream in alarm. Patrick turned his head and looked at him, a zealous smile on his otherwise expressionless face. Then he turned again his attention to the grizzly work at hand.

Liam scrambled to his feat and lunged for the door in a fear frenzy. In the action he struck a tall candle holder by mistake and felt the intense heat as the flames instantly caught a velvet drapery and started to consume it. The fire was roaring deafeningly by the time he reached the door, just as if it had only been waiting for the chance to break out. The last thing he laid eyes upon before he threw himself out of the room was a feline figure standing in a corner, watching it all with a cruel and satisfied smile on her beautiful face.

He had to find the way out, but he hadn’t been paying attention when the woman led him here. After an eternity of wrong turns he finally found himself back in the corridor where his own room was. He considered making a dash for his luggage, but by now the whole floor was filled with smoke and he knew that where there was smoke, fire would be soon to follow.

Down the stairs he ran and was soon back in the lobby. The large painting had already caught fire and in it the red brick building was going up in flames. How come he hadn’t noticed all the scars on the groom’s face the last time he looked at it? Desperately he stared at the painting, and first now he remembered he was holding something. It wasn’t his camera – it lay on the floor before him. A voice behind him brought him back to reality.

“Please relax, sir”, the butler-like porter said. “Anything I can do for you?”

Liam turned to stare at him. How could the man act so calmly? “I’m getting the fuck out of here!”, he exclaimed, but was still quite unable to move. Why in hell am I holding a knife…?

“Certainly, sir”, the porter answered, moving to go get the heavy ledger. “You can check out any time you’d like, but I’m afraid you can never leave.”

I am wearing those same fucking robes…! The heat and smoke was starting to get to him and the lobby started spinning before his eyes. Then darkness.

When he woke it was to the sound of live music from the courtyard. He sure felt like dancing.

Copyright © 2017 Chris Smedbakken

Wednesday
Oct252017

Queen Mother

Golden walls in this palace, perpetual twilight atmosphere. Countless hexagonal windows overlooking the grand hall, overlooking the Queen’s court. Patrolling this place are the young maidens, armed with black swords, dressed to kill in the name of their mistress. They have yet to see the introduction of the male knights, but rumors abound.

In the great throne room sits the Queen Mother, goddess and matron of all. She knows them all by name, because they share one and are one. She expects them to serve, just as they expect her to ensure their survival. It is not protection they need; in the way of the sword they all by far exceed her. But she carries a divine endowment that none of them share. The spell of life’s creation.

Audience in the throne hall. The walls shiny with hard earned glory, the throne a monument to all the courtiers have ever known and worshiped. Mistress of all, queen and mother. The goddess speaks to them, beckons them closer. Black swords sheeted, heads bowed in silent reverence.

They all see the signs, and know a brooding yet inexplicable sensation of impending doom. The voice in their heads. The goddess is expecting, what joy. But there is foreboding in her ageless eyes, she knows the truth as well.

Sun in their faces as they move out, wind under their crystalline wings. Is the air colder now? Death and violence to all they encounter. Where they just recently dug for gold in the name of their Queen, they are now murdering and abducting in the name of her coming children. Word spreads like wildfire. Their prey, the commoners, try to hide, try to run. But they are the royal guard, the shield maidens of the Golden Palace. Nobody escapes their fury. And in their wrath, somewhere deep inside, they harbor a vain hope that somehow these horrible deeds will keep their mistress from dying.

Returning to the Palace, this castle they themselves helped build in their youth, the army carries with it not gold but living and breathing game. Merciless slaughter next, pouring blood in the sacred halls. No remorse in their hearts, only the Queen’s voice in their minds singing the song of righteous deeds. This will surely save her.

The screams have long since died out, no echoes between the mute castle walls. Only the Queen herself voicing her woe as she walks from room to room, preparing and reviewing each and every recess before the birth of her children. Her guards waiting silently, anxiously, for the point of no return. They cannot know what it means; they have never been through this part of the cycle. But they can feel it in their hearts, the truth of generations come before, the truth of the beginning of the end.

Queen, goddess, mistress, mother. Their sacred divinity is dying. Attending her night and day the honor guard stand helpless before the cold reality. Come autumn, the subject of their devotion will be no more.

Hate in their hearts for the new brood, princes and princesses young enough to be eligible of no odium. Nevertheless sorrow did not enter the palace until in company with them. Feasting day and night upon the carcasses brought from out this secluded haven they grow stronger and stronger. And the thing most vexing to the knightesses, apart from the explicit order not to harm the young ones, is the unignorable fact of the heirs’ beauty. Never, apart from in the presence of their matron, have they seen creatures so fair as these. Their golden hair lush with life, their dark eyes filled with death.

Time and summer passes. One little princess, randomly chosen from the lot, wanders alone in her mother’s castle. Guards everywhere, jealous, spiteful glances in the eyes of many. But the princess has grown. She is not a child anymore. She knows her mother will not outlive the sun, but who will take her place?

On the balcony, feeling the wind in her golden hair, almost blowing her away. Soldiers here, too, but no men. Why is that? Only her brothers, but they are acting strangely. Always striving to leave the palace. Not old enough yet, though. Her sisters just like her, longing for safety. But are they not safe in the palace? Something telling her it is not so. A red leaf blowing past…

Another sunrise, another dawn closer to the fall. One little prince has taken off. Just as well, says the Captain. Only misfortune in their wake. More will go soon. The little princess stands on the balcony, watching him leave. Maybe he will find what he is looking for. Will she?

Colder days, longer nights. The Queen has not much time left, they all know it. The Captain chases the remaining princes away. Some of the young princesses leave, too. One little princess goes to see her mother, but is not let in. Filth, she is, death for the Mother. The little princess runs away, crying.

Out of the palace, over the fields. The Captain said she would be killed did she remain. No wish to die, has she. Safety gone, no home and no Mother. Only the black sword that is her inheritance. An old tree gives her shelter for the rain and the darkness. Wild animals in the night, and angry spirits who wish her harm for what has been done in her mother’s name. The little princess does not remember eating all that flesh.

Dawn upon the dew coated world. Or is it maybe melted frost? A voice on the wind, singing her name. Does she really have a name? Now she does. A young man, not much older than her, climbing onto her branch. Beautiful eyes, fair hair. She sings, too. Gives him a name. A prince from a faraway land he is, and in accordance with all princes’ vows of love he bears no sword on his golden armor. Still he knows her pain. The song goes on and on; the day and summer ends.

All the way back, hastily. Time passes in a rush in the eye of bliss, almost no leaves remaining. Joy and excitement, Mother will surely want to know. The prince, the prince, has gone away. The little princess wonders where. But somehow it does not matter. In some way she feels complete now. A destiny fulfilled.

The Golden Palace ahead, but a darkness brooding. Was it this way when she left? Dark windows, dark clouds. No guards at the gate. Anxiety rising inside her.

She enters. The gold is gone, the first thing she notices. The second, the guards not on their posts. Noises. Screaming. Crying. Further inside, fear getting a grip. Now she sees it. Madness, madness. The guards have gone mad. Crying, screaming, tearing down the walls. Hatred as they look at her, hatred that she is the one responsible.

Confusion, fear. She reaches the throne room. Mother? But woe, Mother does not answer. Lying on her throne, in the golden room. Countless windows overlooking. The little princes approaches her Queen, goddess, mistress, mother. Time stops. The Queen’s eyes are empty, her body devoid of all divine spark. Tears for the princess, the mother is dead.

The guards reach the throne room, start tearing down the walls. Gold falling everywhere. They reach the throne, tearing it down as well. Princess crying, screaming, pulling, fighting. No avail. They refuse to see her, hear her. The roof is coming down. Flight.

Hearing the mad screams of the guards dying in the Palace, a little princess flies across the fields. Sun is setting on this first day of fall. Where to hide? Where to break? The sound of crumbling gold far behind her. The prince, where is he? Calling, singing, searching.

She finds him on the ground, under the tree where they first sang. Cold, dead, already partly eaten by smaller creatures. Shock, tears. The breaking has begun. Did he lie here all the time, fallen from the branch as she slept? Dead all the time after their coming together in the canopy? Could she have saved him? Selfish, selfish princess. No mother, no lover. Only one princess with a terrible, joyful secret. Nightfall.

A tree becomes her shelter as the first heavy flakes of white start to fall from the heavens. Winter, the season of death and hiding for creatures like her. Tired she is, tired of it all. Once loved, once hated. Now, no one remains to grant her those feelings. Death all around. Only sleep remains.

One little princess, randomly chosen from a brood of many, sleeps silently inside a hollow tree as the world turns white and quiet. She is not found by hostile beasts, but her dreams are troubled. In time, though, they give way for other dreams as the smaller lives inside her grow and take hold. The new dreams are of spring, of awakening to a world newly born. Of rippling creeks and sprouting seeds, of a sun returning at last to it’s rightful realm.

And on that first day of spring awakening, she dreams, a little wasp princess, hair golden and eyes black, will crawl out of her tree. She will fly high in the warming sunshine, heavy with the seeds of new beginnings given her by a dead prince, looking for a place suitable for the building of her own Golden Hive Palace.

And there, finally, she will find peace and safety – Queen, goddess, mistress, mother.

Copyright © 2017 Chris Smedbakken

Tuesday
Sep262017

How to Write a Definite Bestseller

After quite a miserable life Mr. Collins was sent to Hell to atone for his sins.

It so happens that no matter how long is the period of time you actually spend in that steaming place, it is perceived by all on the inside as at least thirty years. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know why.

Anyways, it so turned out that for Mr. Collins, the Purgatory was really not that bad. Not worse than the stinking life he’d led on the surface, at least. So while the torture and burning and lashing and flaying wore on, Mr. Collins used the massive amount of relatively passive time to think. And after years of thinking he got the idea for a book. A book so innovative and fresh thinking that it would without question be the best book in the world – if it was ever written, that is.

Decades after his arrival in Hell, a plump man in a gray suit approached him on the rack. He wore an apologetic look and insisted on shaking hands, even though Mr. Collins’ hands were rather… sticky. He explained that regretfully, there had been a minor misunderstanding concerning Mr. Collin’s lodgings, and that of course they would see to it that he was properly compensated for his unnecessary suffering. Obviously this situation was very embarrassing for the family company, and they would appreciate it if he didn’t speak of the incident to his friends.

It was arranged so that he was sent back to earth with a full refunding and a promise of a long and pleasant Second Life as a small but oh, so well meaning apology for the conceivable complications caused by this error on the company’s behalf.

Mr. Collins shrugged and went home, only to discover that his house had been sold in an executive auction during his absence. So he checked into a hotel and started writing his book by hand on copier paper. Three weeks later he finished and could conclude that it really did turn out the best book in the world. The hotel porter, after a quick review, could confirm that this was unquestionably the case.

The manuscript was sent to several major publishing houses, all of which returned within short, completely afire with enthusiasm for what they labeled “the potential bestseller of the century”. All made Mr. Collins juicy offers, but he settled with the one that, among other things, offered him a lifetime subscription of the New York Times and a well bred puppy of his own choice. He didn’t have very high demands on his Second Life.

He moved into a nice villa overlooking Toluca Lake and lived very happily there for the rest of his life. He attracted many fans who had read the Book, and met more women in one year than he had talked to during the whole of his First Life – but he only married one of them. He never wrote another book, and he didn’t go back to Hell.

***

Ms. Morris found a copy of the best book in the world lying on top of her kitchen table one day. She read it in lack of better occupation, and then read it again. And again. She felt that it really fulfilled its promise about strengthening the reader in taking hold of her own life and granting her the tools to follow her own dreams. That’s why she sneaked out of the house the next day and headed for the city.

She had a clear picture in mind of just what parts of herself she wanted to change and how, and it didn’t take her long to find the people who could help her with that. The kindly doctor at the plastic surgery clinic was careful to let her understand that they usually did not do cats, but that for such a charming lady as herself they would be sure to make an exception.

A few hours later she walked out of the clinic, happily testing out her new, very own, dashing woman’s legs. Dressed in some borrowed clothes she set out to explore the city from a somewhat higher point of view than usual. She attracted many impressed looks and would soon find that her new life was to be a pleasant one. The only thing she would have to work a little on was her skittish and feline nature, that seemed not always to fit in with the way that humans expected a young woman to behave. Except for that, she was very happy with her decision to change. And all thanks to the best book in the world

***

Chris Larkman was a sorry figure until he passed by the bookstore one rainy day by chance, and happened to pick up a copy of the best book in the world. He was a slow reader, but a week later he quit his job as a public toilet cleaner and started working on his very own solo album as a singer-songwriter. It just so happened that the owner of one of the major record companies had finished reading the very same book only the night before Chris’ ill recorded demo was sent to him. The book had touched him in a weak spot, and had made him decide to start taking more risks with new talents instead of just betting on the safe old horses. As it turned out, this was a very profitable bet. You have probably heard of Chris – under another name, of course – since he is now one of the leading pop musicians of our time. To think that we would have missed out on him if it weren’t for the best book in the world!

***

Mrs. Louis drove her car to work every day. Until the day she read the best book in the world, that is. After that, she sold her Ford and instead bought herself a nice, blue bike. Now she goes by bicycle to work everyday, and is starting to consider participating in her area’s big bicycle race next summer. She doesn’t even know she was running a high risk for diabetes before she started exercising, and now she will never have to find that out, either. Thanks to the book.

***

Ted was being bullied at school by a boy a year older than him. As a last resort to cheer him up, his mother borrowed him a copy of the best book in the world from the local library. He was a lonely kid, so he finished it in one day. The next day he went to school hell-bent on striking back. Funny thing is, though, that the bully – Jim, he was called – had been reading the book too. He answered Ted’s wallop with not another blow, but with an apology. Today they are best friends. What a great book, huh?

***

Ms. Jamieson finally got herself an apartment of her own. Jack Finnings broke up with his abusive wife and started dating a top model. Simon Curtis chose the police academy instead of the safer but more boring economy program that his parents recommended. Lisa Watson started her own fight club, went to jail for it and met the love of her life behind the bars. Jill practiced for weeks and at last managed to beat the district record in Counter Strike. Mrs. Henrikson finally finished the oil painting she began when she was in junior high, forty years earlier. The book changed the lives of all who read it, and always to the better in some strange way. It made everyone happy that it came in contact with.

***

Except, of course, for God. God started worrying when his angels began complaining about job scarcity, and when even the easy-going Raphael mentioned that he’d been suffering from boredom lately, God decided to look into the affair. It turned out that the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” doesn’t really work out in practice – at least not for the heavenly party. Well, it certainly makes Heaven’s work a whole lot easier if some people just stop complaining and do something about their problems themselves, but it is another thing completely if all people suddenly decide to help themselves. That makes God feel obsolete and supernumerary. And that isn’t a good thing. Unfortunately, that is just what the best book in the world managed to accomplish.

That’s why God banished the book from Earth and let his vengeful angels throw it into Hell, lest they go on strike and force the Lord to go into the troublesome business of sorting out a celestial rising.

The best book in the world was returned to where its idea was first conceived, ’cause even though its contents was very much in line with the supernal, it was also doing its work for it. Nobody ever read the book again, except for the sorry souls in Hades, of course. And I’m sure they found it very useful. But the lives that had already been changed by it remained so, and the Nether Family Company greatly enjoyed this little haphazard consequence of their precedent malpractice – that was by the way completely forgotten thanks to this chain of events. So advantageous was the minor chaos caused by the book, in fact, that they did not back away from the possibility of some day staging another, similar, practical joke on Heaven.

Who knows where next year’s top ranking novel was written?

Copyright © 2017 Chris Smedbakken