1.07

I was floating on top of a vast purple sea. It tasted like grape juice.

It was very late at night, but thankfully there was enough light to take a look around, mainly on account of all the various moons glowing brightly in the sky. There were at least seventy or eighty that I could see, all different sizes, most of them blue or yellow.

I maneuvered myself to float straight and craned my neck up as far as I could, peering off into the distance. After looking in all directions, I couldn’t see anything resembling ships or land, but I did see a small speck several miles off, something tiny rising just above the water. Deciding that I didn’t want to drown in Manischewitz, I started heading towards it.

I was still wearing all my clothes, and I didn’t have a hair cap, both of which made swimming more annoying than it would’ve been otherwise. After about a minute, I stopped to pull off my shoes, letting them fall into the depths without concern. I got the impression I wouldn’t need to worry about losing them.

Despite the extra weight, I didn’t have any serious trouble making my way through the sea of wine. I’d been on the swim team in high school, and I’d kept up with it since (albeit at a much less serious level). My favorite stroke had always been butterfly, as impractical and unpopular as it tended to be. (I was fine with freestyle and backstroke, but unlike a lot of my peers, I hated breaststroke. Even after so many years, I could never quite get the kicks right.)

The middle of the ocean was a terrible place to start doing the least efficient and most exhaustive style of swimming possible, but I found myself going with butterfly anyway. I didn’t feel worried about it, and for whatever reason, I didn’t get tired. I felt great as I slammed my arms together against the water and thrusted out my hips, propelling myself forward with a power and speed that seemed to defy all reason.

Before I’d had time to really process it, I’d arrived at the speck. It was a large stone platform in the shape of a flat circle floating about fifty yards above the ocean, a sturdy looking rope ladder hanging off the nearest side. The bottom of it met the waves, and I grabbed ahold of the first rung, taking a brief moment to rest before climbing up.

The platform was made of smoothly paved cobblestone, and as I reached the top of the ladder, I saw that the top-side of it had been nicely carpeted. Even with the additional height granted to me from the climb, I couldn’t make out any new land in the distance, but I did find something on the circle itself.

“Over here, By! We’ve been waiting for you.”

Far from me, a small round table sat directly in the center of it all, three vaguely humanoid shapes sitting around it. One of them waved me over, having softly called out to me.

As I approached the table, I got a better look at the three of them, all of whom were drinking out of mugs filled with an unidentified red liquid. A large pitcher containing more of the same rested on the middle of the table.

The first of the trio, to the right from where I was standing, sat an incredibly dirty and disheveled man of around sixty. He wore little more than a tattered rag stretched across his lower-midsection. His long gray beard was somehow covered with more grime than the rest of him, and his muscles were worn down to the point of atrophy. He looked broken and agitated.

The second, sitting on the left side, was probably the woman who had just called me over to the table by name. She was much younger than the man (although older than me), and much better dressed, wearing an old-fashioned brown jacket and a cute handkerchief that’d been wrapped around her neck. Her short red hair and bright smile did wonders for her face, and looking at her made me feel immediately welcomed.

An aviator’s hat had been placed aside her drink, which I took to be hers. I couldn’t exactly place why, but she seemed extremely familiar to me.

The last person sat in the middle, although it was somewhat presumptuous of me to assume that it was a person. At the very least, they were something with a drink placed in front of them, but they had been draped over with a thick white sheet, which made it impossible to see who exactly they might’ve been. They were moving a lot underneath the sheet, and small bumps rose and fell across the top and sides of it, more than seemed possible for a single person to make at once. While I tried figuring out what it was, a thin arm shot out the front and pulled the cup inside, only to return it to the table several seconds later.

From under the sheet, there was a faint sound, a rapid tapping noise.

An extra seat had been left out, but I wasn’t sure if it was for me or not. Still dripping wet, I looked at the women and apologized.

“…I’m sorry for ruining the carpet. I didn’t have any way of getting the wine off.”

The woman gave me an understanding smile.

“It’s fine, By. That doesn’t matter here.”

I paused, thinking about what she might have meant by that.

“Am I… dead?”

She laughed.

“Not at all, By. You’re just sleeping. This place is a perfect representation of the portion of your subconscious responsible for curiosity. Any of the individuals you might encounter here are people who you very deeply wanted to know more about. There’s more than the three of us, of course, but we can’t all pop in at once. It’s a small table, after all.”

“…Seriously?”

“Well, not really, no. Technically speaking, this is a regular dream. You’re just dreaming that you’re in a perfect representation of the portion of your subconscious responsible for curiosity.”

“Is there a difference?”

She shrugged.

“Probably not, in terms of how it affects the narrative.”

Thinking back, I realized why I’d found the woman so familiar. Someone who I had deeply wanted to know more about. My eyes widened.

“Are you…”

She smiled.

“See! I told you she would recognize me.”

The dirty man rolled his eyes. Ignoring him, the woman extended her hand towards me, offering a greeting and gesturing me to sit down.

“Amelia Earhart. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Most young people, during at least one point in their lives, find themselves suddenly and inexplicably obsessed with a particular subject. The length of the obsession can vary wildly, but almost everyone is guaranteed to get them, often times with said obsessions fading just as quickly as they came, and other times with them becoming more or less permanent.

I had gathered quite a bit of those, by that point. Some of the most obvious were murder mysteries and web serials, neither of which had ever gone away, but I’d had plenty of smaller and less life-altering ones too, many stretching back from when I was a little kid.

Probiotics. Dead letter mail. Judaism. Aspics. Capybaras. The Supreme Court, and the legal system in general. Epistemology. New Zealand. That one freaky Franz Kafka story about an execution machine that slowly carved a person’s crime into their back over and over until they died. Neopets. Stepladders.

One of the weirdest and most extreme ones that had ever gripped me, however, happened in the seventh grade. A lot of girls I knew went through weird phrases in middle school, be it goth or emo or horse or whatever brand of pubescent insanity their developing minds happened to latch onto. Me, though?

I went through an Amelia Earhart phase.

I didn’t know what it was about her, honestly. It wasn’t like I had any interest in aviation or mechanical sciences or exploration. I had just randomly cracked open a book one day about her in the library and found a tidbit about her life as a teenager in high school, where she reportedly had a very miserable time. She hadn’t been popular, and human sensitivity being what it was in 1916, her yearbook had chosen to caption a picture of her “the girl in brown who walks alone”.

It was one of the meanest things I’d ever heard, and after that, I felt weirdly connected to her in a way I couldn’t adequately describe. I wasn’t seriously antisocial myself, so it wasn’t like I had a good reason to have empathized with that so much, but I just did. I didn’t want to be her, and it wasn’t even that I identified with her; more than anything, I just admired what she’d made of herself. (I did cut my hair short around the time, however, which had more than a little to do with me wanting to copy her look.)

As one would expect, the mystery aspect of her disappearance only fueled my interest. I’d wished more than a few times that I could’ve spoken to her, both to know more about her life and what’d definitively happened to her when she went missing.

The whole thing faded after about three months, but I guessed that some part of the Earhart fervor had managed to survive within me, because I found myself starstruck to finally be in her presence. She was gracious about it, at least, not seeming to mind the way I tripped over myself to find the right way to greet the woman I’d read about fifteen separate full-length biographies about.

She put her hand on my shoulder.

“It’s fine, By. Relax. Everything’s going to be okay. Do you want a drink?”

I was suddenly holding a mug with the red stuff they all couldn’t seem to get enough of.

“…I don’t like to drink all that much. I get really terrible hangovers.”

She laughed.

“By, it’s kombucha.”

Surprised, I took a small taste. She was right.

“…You like kombucha?”

“I’m your mental construct, By. Of course I like it.”

“Oh, right.”

I took another sip.

“I’m sorry, though. I can’t tell you what happened to me.”

“…Is it a secret?”

“Not exactly. I would if I could, but I don’t know how I disappeared either.”

“Because it wasn’t really you, right?”

She nodded, smiling.

I pointed to the dirty man.

“…Who is he, then?”

“Well, that’s a little more difficult, since you’ve never seen a real picture of him to base his image on. Let’s just say he does his fair share of boulder-pushing.”

That made it easy.

“…Sisyphus?”

He grumbled.

“He’s not the most cheerful of companions, but we get along. I do have to ask, By — what question did you want to ask him?”

Sisyphus was one of the unluckiest bastards in all of Greek myth. Punished for his hubris, he was cursed by Zeus to push a boulder up a steep mountain for all eternity, the twist being that it’d roll back down every time he finally managed to make it.

During high school, I’d read an essay about him written by some depressing French guy, and it ended up influencing me quite a bit philosophically. The essay had made the argument that Sisyphus would have eventually found happiness by embracing the absurdity of his hellish situation, and although I knew he wasn’t actually real, I guess a part of me wished I could’ve met him to ask whether or not that was true. Was, in the end, Sisyphus able to find happiness?

At the encouragement of Amelia, I asked him. He slowly put his mug down, not looking very happy at all.

“Have you ever pushed a boulder up a mountain, By?”

“No.”

He glared at me for a moment before showing me his palms. They were more callus than flesh.

“Do these fucking look like the hands of a happy man?”

“…Sorry.”

Amelia laughed again.

“Don’t mind him, By. He’s just mad that he doesn’t really exist.”

“It’s… it’s fine. My fault. Though…”

I pointed to the last of the three, the mystery person under the sheets.

“And them?”

“Oh, him. That’s The Canadian.”

“The Canadian?”

Compared to Amelia and Sisyphus, his identity wasn’t nearly as easily deciphered.

She nodded.

“Today’s his work day, which is why he’s wearing the sheet. He’s a lovely person to speak to, but not if it’s his work day. You probably won’t be able to ask him your question, I’m afraid.”

“His work day?”

“Yes. He has a very particular schedule, you see. He works as hard as he can for one entire day, and then he’ll rest all the next.”

“That sounds very demanding.”

“It works for him, he says. Would you like to see him?”

Before I could answer, she pulled back the sheet, revealing The Canadian.

For the most part, he was a rather ordinary-looking fellow, his pale face and body nothing to comment on in either direction. His arms, however…

There were ten of them, all nearly twice the length of a normal arm, all but two bursting out from the center of his chest.

I realized why he’d been moving around so much, as well as the source of the noise he’d been producing. There was a laptop resting on his thighs, and his arms were directed towards it, him somehow able to type with all ten at once. He had a calm determination about him as he worked, and despite having never seen anything like him before, I didn’t feel unnerved.

If he noticed that we’d taken off the sheet, he didn’t say it, his eyes glued to the computer screen.

“You know who he is, right?”

I thought about it for several seconds, unsure. I was about to admit defeat when I saw him take a drink again from his mug with a spare hand. After he set it back down on the table, I noticed that it had a peculiar design, a cute little doodle of a pig printed on the side.

My eyes widened again.

“Oh. Oh.

“You got it. That’s him. The Canadian.

“That’s… oof. Wow. Can I…”

“I wouldn’t. He doesn’t like it very much when people bother him or call him by name, especially when he’s trying to work. I’d just come back another time.

“I… I know, but it’s not very often that I get flung into the meta-recesses of my mind. It might be awhile before I can get another chance.”

“I’m sure the wait will make it better. Besides, it’s not as if it’s really him, after all.”

I took another sip, eventually nodding.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Amelia and I talked for some time, drinking and occasionally poking fun at Sisyphus, who continuously looked like he was seconds away from flinging himself into the sea.

Eventually, she set her cup down, wanting to ask me a question. It caught me off guard. We had been talking about my writing, at the time.

“By, I’m curious. Would you ever write a story with an extended dream sequence in it?”

I thought about it.

“Probably not,” I said. “That seems like the type of thing that might be annoying to an audience. If I did, it would have to be done carefully, especially timing-wise. You wouldn’t want to put something like that after some dramatic cliffhanger. I’d probably also want it closer to the end of the story, if it could be helped.”

Amelia laughed again. It wasn’t like her other laughs.

More of a cackle.

“So, now you don’t want to bother your audience. Interesting.

“Hey, wait. That- that was a long time ago, when I wrote that.”

Sisyphus jumped in too. By his tone, I got the impression that we’d gone beyond a friendly chat over kombucha.

“That’s not an excuse, By. You hated them, didn’t you? That’s why you wrote that ending. That ending. God. What were you thinking?”

“…I was nineteen, okay? It was my first time writing anything. I didn’t realize how long it was going to get. I didn’t know I had to plan stuff. And then the one time I finally thought I had it figured somebody came and suckerpunched me right before I was about to see it through. It wasn’t like I was fucked up enough to actually plan that shitty ending out from the start. DM put me in a corner and I was inexperienced and didn’t know how to handle it. That’s not…”

I took a breath, unballing my fists.

“…It doesn’t matter. Why are you criticizing me about this? Nobody… nobody cares anymore. Nobody really cared back then, either. There are bigger problems in the world than the work struggles of some glorified blogger.”

They both grinned again. Amelia stared into my eyes, baring teeth.

“By, if we care, that means there’s at least one person who can’t stop thinking about it.”

“…Go away.”

“You know, you’ll never admit it, no matter what anyone says, but deep, deep down, I think the reason you can’t stop thinking about it is because you liked it. It was fun, wasn’t it? Fucking with your audience like that. Setting up the false pretense of solvability and laughing about it as they cried and whined that things didn’t go the way they thought they would. You should do it again. I know you didn’t with Ionia, but that’s over, so you’re free to pull another Space Attorney whenever you want. Your audience is so much bigger now, so much more expectant. Imagine how much you could screw with them.

“That isn’t…”

“More than anything, it’s about the power, isn’t it? Those who choose to consume media as opposed to creating it have already made the ultimate concession that they will submit to the ideas and imaginations of others. No matter what they say to the contrary, no matter how much they bitch and complain about wanting a good reason for why something happens the way it does, in the end they’re just children screaming out for a greater force to dominate them. And there’s nothing wrong with that, you should know. That’s just their nature. To submit. They crave it, the knowledge that someone else is in control of things.”

“You don’t… just…”

“When you try and explain things to them — when you try to justify what you’ve created — you imply that the people who read your work are equal to you. That they deserve an explanation. They don’t, and in their hearts, they know that. You’re already well aware of the fact that they don’t have a clue what they really want. They don’t want to sit across the table from a worthy opponent and think for themselves and be challenged; they want to be cradled, to be held and owned, to be reassured that nothing makes any sense and that the universe is unfair and nonsensical and that no one but you will ever understand them. They want to be stupid little babies that you hug and kiss and tuck in so they can go to sleep and keep being stupid little babies forever. They tell themselves otherwise, they’ll tell you otherwise, but they resent the fact that they have to think. They’d much rather you be their mother, so you can do it for them.”

“I told you to go away.”

“Tuck them in, By. That’s all they want.”

Finally listening to me, they obeyed, vanishing into red sand.

The Canadian remained, still hard at work. I guessed that he was hard of hearing. That was fine. I hadn’t really wanted him to leave anyway.

Sighing, I reached for my glass. I almost took a small sip before realizing that the cup was filled with more sand. I looked at it for a moment before tossing it as hard as I could to the side, where it landed on the floor, not reaching the ocean. The Canadian didn’t react.

I gave him another look. He hadn’t seemed to notice any of what had happened. I saw that his glass was still filled with kombucha.

“I don’t believe all that stuff she said, just so you know. That’s a bunch of reductive childish bullshit.”

I leaned back in my seat, staring at one of the larger yellow moons.

“…And I know it wasn’t good. When did I say that it was? I was a novice. God, I still am. But that’s what novices do. They suck. That’s the point.”

He didn’t respond. I wasn’t expecting him to.

“It was my first time. Nobody gets it right the first time, especially with endings. Endings are hard.

I remembered who I was speaking to.

“I mean, uh, not you. You’re an exception, obviously. But that’s rare, you know that. Most people stink the first time. And I just want to improve, that’s all. I just want to improve.”

I sat in silence after that for some time, listening to the sounds of his typing and the distant clashing of waves. It was nice. I thought about D, and then about someone else, wondering if the purple sea had any dolphins in it.

Eventually, he finished.

8 thoughts on “1.07

  1. Happy new year! 😀

    You know, with all this talk of trolling the audience with your ending, I can’t help but think you might be planning to pull the rug out from under us right near the end of this, teddy. Don’t even think about it, teddy teddy!

    Really though, gosh, I’m enjoying this. Your writing is fantastic, I really hope more people read and comment here.

    Oh, and get well soon!!

    Like

    1. Thanks again, Penguin.

      I struggle to see how I could; I don’t even own a rug.

      I’m still on the waiting list to get on WebFictionGuide, which I’m hoping will give me a little boost in terms of views, but realistically it’s going to be kind of sparse for awhile (as seems to be near-universally the case with new serials from non-established authors). At this stage in the game word of mouth is probably going to do more than anything else, so my attitude right now is just to keep my expectations as low as possible while working as hard as I can. (I think my current metric for “making it” as an author is having someone who isn’t me get excited enough to make a TV Tropes page for this.)

      Like

  2. I can’t get the stupid grin off my face whenever I’m reading this story.

    I wonder why DM wasn’t in By’s dream. I’d think that they would make the cut for the list of the three people she wants to know more about. Maybe By’s subconscious knows it wouldn’t be a satisfying meeting since she doesn’t know enough about them. Unless.. the Canadian is *also* DM? (Where does he find the time?)

    Amelia’s, erm, sales pitch, got me thinking about what the ending is going to be like. We’ve been promised a stupid ending, but there’s more than one way to be stupid. By’s absurdism rule made me think of Layton endings (and a weird, mind-altering drug has already been introduced!). I think I’d prefer a different flavor of stupid though, I’ve only played the Ace Attorney crossover and that was plenty.

    Also, god damn pleurisy sounds awful. Hope you get better sooner rather than later.

    Like

    1. Appreciate it, Badewell.

      To clarify, Amelia never said that the people in the dream/subconscious experience/whatever it was were the *only* people By was very curious about. I think I could’ve reflected this better, so I changed and added a couple lines to make this a little clearer.

      In reluctant defense of dumb Professor Layton endings (most of which I love but acknowledge to be total asspulls) I’d probably say that the crossover was the most contrived out of all of them. (Maybe Unwound Future beats it, I dunno.)

      Like

    2. “I can’t get the stupid grin off my face whenever I’m reading this story.”

      This! Exactly this! I have the biggest grin on my face reading every chapter. 😀

      Like

  3. The ultra rationalist part of me is chiming in but at 23 By was born in 2000 (this is set in 2023 right?), so Neopets seems like it would have missed her, maybe I’m overestimating the age kids would get into things like Neopets, but it peaked in what 05? Just struck me as odd.

    ” I had just randomly cracked open a book one day about her in the library and found a tidbit about her life as a teenager in high school”

    Similarly I can more imagine a 13 year old in 2013 finding out about Earhart via a random reddit link or some wiki page.

    Nothing wrong with either of these things, and perhaps they’re deliberate or I’m just out of touch with the youth.

    “By, I’m curious. Would you ever write a story with an extended dream sequence in it?”

    I thought about it.

    “Probably not,” I said. “That seems like the type of thing that might be annoying to an audience. If I did, it would have to be done carefully, especially timing-wise. You wouldn’t want to put something like that after some dramatic cliffhanger. I’d probably also want it closer to the end of the story, if it could be helped.”

    I LOVE IT

    This meta stuff just really tickles me. The Earhart rant makes me think you must have at least thought about By just being out of the game and dead. Actually, from that rant I was considering the possibility that you might have just ended the story in this chapter and walked away. Subversive and all that.

    Like

    1. It’s slightly odd that By would have an interest in Neopets, but not that out of the ordinary; while Neopets did hit its peak a long time ago, it’s still around even today, and apparently is doing well enough to maintain a decently-sized userbase and remain profitable. It’s not uncommon at all for people to get into games or media franchises after they’ve already hit their zenith, especially if they were too young to experience it during the peak. Take most traditional MMOs; most of them have peaks, but new players still keep coming in even when things are on the downswing. Same for games, media franchises, etc.

      (It’s worth noting that By has already long grown out of her obsession by 2023, and her Neopets have been in a perpetual state of dying from hunger for at *least* five years.)

      Similarly, with the Earhart thing; definitely more likely that she would’ve found out about it by searching online, but it’s by no means unprecedented that she’d find it in a library. I think the mental image I had of her in that scene was her browsing through her school’s library, so maybe that’s how she was deciding to spare lunch/study period, if that makes it more believable.

      Liked by 1 person

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