Making the illusion reality since 2000
Pre-read by Shinji Langley
You ask me why it had to be this way? Is love really supposed to last forever? I thought so. But now I'm not so sure. I can't possibly trust myself when I don't even know what I am. Right now, you're feeling any mixture of anger and betrayal. This feeling is only natural. It's the solitude that follows those feelings that I could never take. The cold realization that your nightmare world has replaced reality. You are unlovable. But you don't need me to share that with you. You've lived it and learned it all a thousand times by now.
This, then, will be our legacy. And when you're sitting in a bar six years from now, remembering how close we came to having it all, I hope you will try not to hate me too much. Like you, I am only a fallible human being. But you are the last person I ever wanted to fail. I spent my entire life, practicing, waiting for the day when I could be your rock instead of your nemesis. Only now, I have become much worse.
I don't know if you shall hear from me again. It is not within the locust's nature to return to that which he has already ravaged. Instead, we seek the next crop to devour in an endless struggle to satisfy our ending hunger. But still, you did give me your love. Freely and without any existence. I have yet to find anything else comparable in this world. But then, I always knew from a child of three that there could be no greater commodity on this earth than the contents of this heart. 'Twas a poor bargain to trade it for my own, but I have seen too much in this world to say that no good shall come of it. Only time will tell.
Helga G. Pataki
P.S.—I have given back your name. To keep it would be to reward myself for cutting your heart into pieces. And it should be given to a girl who really knows what love is.
"Man is less delicate than the locust." Said Jorg, finally.
"Man is the sewer of the universe." Said Sergei
"Less Delicate Than The Locust"
Arnold sat quietly upon the wide, empty bed, feeling sorry for himself, a course of action he was not wont to engage in. Yet he could not find any other emotion, any other expression that could occupy his fragile mind and heart, not in this state. He had been left alone again. Throughout his entire existence, he was always the one to be left behind. It all seemed so unreal. And yet, there it was. He couldn't understand it. The schoolyard had beaten him again. Only this time, the stakes had been higher. Why? This time he had felt so certain, everything was so right. She was the one. It had seemed so obvious, once he had gotten inside. The person he had spent most of his life looking for, the one who would always be standing by with unconditional love and acceptance, beyond anything any family or friend could offer. And like a post-modern fairy tale, it had been the most unlikely one of all who had been ready, willing, and waiting for even longer than he had been.
For what surely must have been the thousandth time, Arnold lifted the picture frame that held an image of himself and Helga, taken at the local carnival only two weeks ago. They had been hideously overcharged for the photograph, of course, but it had been more than worth it. That night, they had reached an understanding, a merging of the lost and lonely. A cease fire. And the comfort they had found in each other's embrace had seemed the stuff of dreams. The kind of thing you never let go of. They were so good together. Arnold thought back to how they had come to be married in the first place, and stopped, realizing he no longer cared how crazy it was, how in the wrong Helga had been. It was past. And despite the fact that they had come together under extreme circumstances, it could never change the fact that they had come together. And she was the one. She protected and sheltered him from his demons, looked after him in a way more comforting than what he could only imagine a mother's embrace must feel like. And she did hold him so well. When they shared a bed, she had always kept him close, her chin lightly cradled into his hair, arms wrapped around his torso, her endless legs scissoring his lower half. She needed him just as badly, that constant reassurance that he belonged to her and would never leave her. The kind of made she practiced and gave, full of passion and perhaps slight dementia, but always real and deep and making you feel more alive. She was the answer to every question he ever had, veiled under the convincing camouflage of bravado, coupled with mistrust and cynicism. But beneath the façade, she was his all. Helga was light. Helga was air. Helga was food. Helga was life itself, pure and simple. And all because she dared to dream and refused to accept anything less than her goal. And she had left him because of that same insecurity that had bound her to him. She didn't believe in them. Or perhaps she didn't believe that he could ever love her. She was wrong. But none of it mattered now. She was gone somewhere, and he had no way of finding her.
Not for the first time, he wept, but Arnold tossed the emotion aside. It wouldn't bring Helga back to him; only push him further into loneliness and self-pity. Tracing the image of his love one last time, he set the picture down and picked up one of the many unread newspapers that had been delivered in the past week. Feeling the need to reflect upon something, anything other than the mess his life was collapsing into, Arnold flipped to the opinions and editorials section, smiling very slightly as he began reading what had become his favorite column.
Hello, Strangers! By Ginger Foutley
Sometimes the best and worst part of this job is the freedom I have to write what I want. Whatever I want! Every time I think about that, I can't help but wonder if they have the right person. I just recently found out that my editor and a computer program are the only people (or inanimate object as the case may be) who even see this thing before it's published and distributed to different papers around the country. I've been told it's because my publisher and backer has absolute faith in my talent and professionalism. Somehow, I think it has something to do with my friendship with the woman who just happens to own the publishing house. Hi Courtney!
Well, I guess that's enough about the business end of things for today. See how dangerous it can be to let me run rampant? This isn't the kind of job you might expect, it's really a lot harder than it looks. I'm lying across my bed, pecking away at the keys on my laptop. Sounds difficult, huh? The catch is, this isn't my home, so much as the home I grew up in. I come back to my mother's house to help my brother get ready for college, and suddenly I realize I haven't even written my column this week. It's amazing what a call from your boss can motivate you to do. Anyhow, I'm typing on my old bed, spending more time sneaking glances out the window than I am writing. I haven't been here in awhile. There's a lot of memories around me. It's funny; I kind of assumed that Dr. Dave would've turned my old room into a den or something by now. Score another one for maternal sentimentality and apron strings. I should've known Mom wouldn't let me down.
It's a strange feeling, when you keep expecting your childhood to just pick up where it left off. I keep waiting for one of my BFFs to call, or for Darren to climb through my windowsill. And then something in my brain reminds me that I'm not in Kansas anymore. Everything is different when you're on this side of the line that separates kids and adults. Not better, not worse. Just different. I like who I am and where I'm going, but when I'm in these surroundings, suddenly I want to stop myself from getting any older. I want to go back to the way things were, back when I only had to worry about getting a date for the dance, or battling with teachers, helping out a friend, getting term papers in on time, or just eating chocolate and staying up late. Now I have to worry about things like rent and car payments and finding the time to do something as simple as getting my hair done. Now I'm on the outside looking in, and like most everyone else in my age bracket, I've realized too late that grades 7-12 were the best times of my life.
We rarely appreciate what we have until it's gone. Maybe youth is wasted on the young. As I lay here on my bed, I find myself second-guessing everything I ever did as a teenager. I was always a pretty good kid; I didn't do much to make my mom pull her hair out. But should I have done some things differently? There must be. There always is. But is there anything to be done? It's past, over and gone. All you can do now is look. But sometimes, when you shut your eyes, the sounds and smells will come back to you.
Forgive me, but suddenly, I don't feel like writing. Maybe it's a little unprofessional of me to tell you how the soup is made, but this kind of thing happens sometimes. I end up starting and stopping almost every day, but my editor manages to take it and make it look like genius at work. And it looks like this is one of those days. Don't worry, I'll be back in a bit, I promise.
The column continued on, but Arnold did as Miss Foutley suggested and took a break. It was exactly as she had written, an illusion. Perpetrated by a machine and a literary witch doctor that could make even the most piecemeal work into another brilliant column for the masses. And yet, she exposed her weakness to millions of people she didn't even know. She didn't have to, she chose to. It shamed him to be cooped up in the building, afraid to even go outside, to face his own life. He had to be stronger. For so long, people had come to him with the answers. It wouldn't do if he couldn't help himself. Frustrated with his inaction, Arnold read on.
That's so much better. I just really needed a break from all this. Some of these thoughts aren't very pleasant, and I don't like to dwell on them. But when I'm surrounded by all these memories, I find myself thinking about the fights I had with my friends, not just the good times. And the fact that they aren't here right now. I came here alone. Simple excuse, help my brother move out and get settled into a dorm. But now it's getting much harder to deny the truth I've had trouble letting go of. And I just ended a sentence in a preposition, that's like a cardinal no-no in grammar! I'm breathing faster. There's this creeping fear that's been assaulting my thoughts; that maybe when all is said and done, I, too, am less delicate than the locust. That it's just part of the curse of being human, something I haven't been able to overcome. And what does that make me? I'm a senior in college and I don't even know what I want to do with my life yet! If this were high school, my friends would be here to help me. And yet, as I lie here on this bed, I realize that my relationships with those people are falling apart. That maybe we've done too much to each other, gone our separate ways, gotten selfish, knives in the back. Put everything before our friendship. Work, success, guys, everything that becomes important in those final years of your childhood—getting ready for the end of it. I didn't even call my best friend for fashion advice the day of senior prom! I don't call her anymore. I don't know why. I'm not upset with her, I don't even think badly of her. Well, maybe a little, but we've been friends for a long time, I know I have blemishes on my record as well. And then there's my other best friend. I talked with her once this year, but it's a little painful to speak with her. She's doing exactly what she wants to do, and I'm naked in the dark. I'll be graduating from college this year and now I find myself worrying that maybe I've been wasting the past four years on something that isn't for me. Even my brother knows what he wants out of life! So where's Ginger's turn? The only thing I feel confident about right now is this column. A column which I am paid a substantial amount of money to bring to the Gripling Publishing Empire every week. Am I name dropping here? Maybe I've just lost my tact; I don't feel like I have a lot of dignity right now. Courtney, if you're reading this, I'm not badmouthing you. Quite the contrary, I'm really grateful for the chance to share a little slice of life with America every week. But I'm just. . .going through some stuff here.
And I'm probably wearing out my welcome, and for that, I'm truly sorry, all of you. This isn't what you came here to read. I know, I check my fan mail. People like my stories. They like my observations, my rally cries, my semi-annual call to stop and smell the roses because life is passing you by. But now I feel like my life isn't going anywhere. That maybe I won't get it started. Before this paragraph, I broke again to stop and call someone very near and dear to me. I really needed it. He made me cry. Some guy, huh? But, they weren't the bad kind of tears, so don't worry.
Okay, so this is it. No witty punch line. Nothing to make you smile. Foutley's all tapped out today, forgive me. But please, if you never take anything else I've said in this forum to heart, then keep this with you. Find yourself. And don't ever let go. Give some serious thought to who you are, and what you want out of life. Love deeply and with all you are. Love each other. Don't let the sun go down on your anger. Don't talk about making the world a better place, do something about it. Keep your cool. Fire your passions. Call your parents. Plant tulips. Drink herbal tea. Spit into the wind. Breathe deep. Pinch yourself to know that you're alive. But don't feel sorry for yourself. It only leads to self-indulgent writing. Self-indulgent writing. In tenth grade, I was taught that this is the greatest sin an author can perpetrate. Well if that's true, then go ahead and put me in the queue for the hot place, because today I just can't take it anymore. Does anybody out there need instructions how to cry? Because over the past several hours, I've become something of an expert. And if I have to hear my mother knocking on my bedroom door one more time, begging me to tell her what's wrong while I'm sobbing like a schoolgirl, I don't think I can keep me myself from getting hysterical. This is Ginger Foutley, 21 going on 12, saying good night.
Arnold dropped the paper from his hands half in shock. He felt a deep feeling of shame wash over him, followed by a sorrow for whatever was happening to Miss Foutley. His own life was pretty much a shambles at the moment, yet obviously she wasn't doing much better. And even though he had never met the girl in his life, her words had made him feel as though she were reaching through that paper, imploring him not to give into his pain, to keep fighting. And she was right. He was taking the easy way out. Letting go, shutting out his family and friends. He had to fight on, open himself up again, be willing to risk getting hurt. As though life were cheering him on, his phone rang. Tentatively, Arnold rested his hand on the plastic contraption, his fingers tracing along the surface of the handset before picking it up. "Hello?"
"Are you alright? I heard about what happened, news is traveling fast."
"No, I'm not all right."
"Do you want to talk about it, or is it too soon?"
"I want to talk about it, but I just don't even know where to start. Everything hurts, Rhonda."
"I know." She whispered. "Wait there, all right? I'm going to come over there."
"I don't know if that's such a good idea, Rhonda."
"Arnold. . .who was the last person you saw?"
"Phoebe. That was four days ago."
"You can't lock yourself away from the world in there. Come on, Arnold, I know you. Let me be your friend here. Especially with Gerald. . ."
"All right." Arnold relented. "You can come over. But give me a few minutes. It's been a rough few days, and I need a shower."
"Half an hour. And don't you dare think of leaving."
"I don't have anywhere to go."
"I'm bringing something with me. I think it'll help. Or at least loosen you up a little."
"Just don't throw too much at me all at once." Arnold sighed.
"Arnold," Rhonda whispered again, "Your entire life, you've been helping other people, playing the part of a living sacrifice. You've gone so far out of your way for me. Please just let me do something to comfort you now, don't pretend you don't need it."
The faintest of smiles cropped on Arnold's face, he knew he could never deny Rhonda. Perhaps she did as well. "I'll see you in half an hour, Rhonda."
"I'll be there." She smiled, and then hung up the phone before he had a chance to change his mind.
Sighing to himself, Arnold climbed off the bed and made the journey to the bathroom, where he brushed his teeth, shaved, and got into the shower to wash away four days worth of filth. As the hot water ran over his body, soothing is muscles, he wondered how he could possibly explain everything to Rhonda. Or even keep his composure, as everything around him continued to remind him of Helga. Much to Arnold's chagrin, he quickly realized that the only place to begin would have to be at the beginning. . .
And so it begins. Nothing like you expected, I'm sure. It was when I began writing this story in earnest that I decided I wanted to start with the ending rather than the beginning. I feel that this gives me the opportunity to go off in different directions and tell a far more interesting story. Different angles to work and all that. So I'll be cutting back to this scenario with Arnold with some amount of frequency.
So now, I guess, is the major question a lot of you are wondering about. Why on earth did I include a column written by Ginger Foutley? There are a lot of reasons. Her writing is supposed to underscore the general mood and parallel the situations that unfold as the story progresses. I chose her to be my own voice. She's a writer, she lives in Connecticut, it just seemed like a very natural fit.
I'm very proud of this chapter as a whole. I feel that it has a good hook, really makes you want to know more about what's going on. I know I'm going to enjoy writing this story. I feel that it will be a completely different experience than The Sweet Hereafter was, and I don't consider that to be a bad thing. The primary difference is that I'm really trying to write a hit, here. TSH was mostly experimental for me, to see if I could cut it in this fandom. I got a very flattering amount of positive feedback on that, and quite a bit of interest in this story since I first announced it back in January. That's really helped in my creative process. The downside is that I have expectations to meet. There's no greater fear as a writer than to start something like this and be worried that it will fall flat. Because I've been working on this for so long, I'd really appreciate your feedback. Even if you don't like it, that's alright. I'd like to know why.
Anywho, assuming that everyone hasn't hated this and you want this story to stick around, I'm going to turn the clock back next chapter to, well, the beginning. Those final days of high school where everything began. I'd like to tell you more, but I don't want to ruin any surprises. So you'd better get ready! You asked for it, you begged for it, you pleaded with me to release it sooner, and it's too late to back out now! Instant Gratification has begun!
As always, send your questions, comments, compliments, complaints, love letters, death threats, marriage proposals, and ransom demands to: