by: Jill Hand
What if you found out you were a character in a story, and you got to meet the author, what would you ask?
The spiders attacked almost as soon as I blew out the lantern. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, the question being not if something would happen, but when. Sure as God made little green apples, some kind of animal tried to kill my buddy Troy and me every time we went camping. It made me wonder why we kept on doing it. Wouldn’t any sane men throw in the towel and decide that camping just wasn’t for them? Not when it meant battling murderous bears, bloodthirsty weasels, venomous snakes, even goddamn snapping turtles, for Pete’s sake?
This time it was spiders, big hairy ones, like tarantulas, only bigger. I’d snuggled down into my sleeping bag and closed my eyes, preparing to drift off to sleep, when I heard Troy cry out. I struck a match and lit the lantern to see his shadow dipping and swaying crazily on the canvas wall of the tent as he brushed frantically at his bare chest, to which at least a dozen spiders clung. Spiders were everywhere, swarming across the tent floor like some kind of undulating nightmare carpet. Troy’s white-blond hair stuck up in wild tufts and his blue eyes were wide with panic. He screamed, “Get ‘em off me!”
The next few minutes were hectic. We killed those spiders, every last one, stamping on them with our boots, and squashing them with rocks as they tried to scurry away into the night. Their eyes like tiny jet-black beads gleamed horribly in the flickering lamplight, and their fangs dripped ichor. Sweat ran from our rugged faces and streamed down our chests, as we fought the hideous eight-legged monstrosities. Is ichor the right word for the stuff that drips from a spider’s fangs? I’m not sure if it is.
What was puzzling (aside from the fact that we were wearing boots inside our sleeping bags) was why, when wild animals were always attacking us, did we keep loading our gear into the back of Troy’s wood-paneled station wagon and setting out for adventure? At least I thought it was Troy’s station wagon, it might have been mine. The details of our lives when we weren’t camping in the Canadian Rockies or exploring the upper reaches of the Amazon were hazy to say the least.
I didn’t even know my last name, or Troy’s. I didn’t know what else we did beside have adventures. Did we have jobs? We must have, but for the life of me I couldn’t think what they were. I recalled a pretty blonde woman wearing a blue dress with a nipped-in waist and a wide skirt, waving goodbye to us as we set out on one of our trips. She had on nylons and high heels and was standing in front of a brick ranch-style house with a white picket fence and a thick green lawn that looked like it belonged in an ad for lawn seed. But whether she was my wife, or Troy’s wife, or someone else entirely I had no idea.
We were breathing hard, recovering from the shock of being attacked by giant spiders, when we heard voices outside the tent. It sounded like a man and a woman were engaged in conversation. Troy and I exchanged startled glances. “There’s somebody out there,” he whispered.
We dropped down on our hands and knees and crawled to the tent flap. Troy put a finger to his lips. “Shhh, listen,” he said.
I listened. From close by I heard the woman say, “You outdid yourself this time, Morrie. That’s one of your best yet.” There was a clicking sound, followed by the smell of smoke. Whoever she was, she’d lit up a cigarette.
“Thanks, Dottie,” the man replied. “I think it came out pretty good. Lookit that big lunk covered in spiders! And with your other story in it, the one about the crazy nymphomaniacs, this issue’s gonna fly off the newsstands. What’s that story called again?
“It’s called The Island of Sex-Starved Women,” Dottie replied. “Nymphomaniac’s too big a word for our readers. Plus, Ed thinks it sounds even dirtier than ‘sex-starved.’ He doesn’t want the censorship board making a big stink.”
“Buncha bluenoses,” Morrie scornfully remarked.
I heard a match strike, followed by the sweet, heavy scent of cherry-flavored tobacco.
“He’s smoking a pipe,” Troy whispered.
We stared at each other, nonplussed. Who were these people and what were they doing in the woods in the middle of the night?
“For next month’s cover story, I’m gonna have them get attacked by mutant hornets the size of bananas,” the woman said, sounding pleased.
I pulled back the tent flap and we cautiously stuck our heads out. What we saw shocked me right down to my toenails. In the middle of the dark forest clearing surrounded by towering trees, hung a window that glowed with a cold inner light. Inside it we could see a room occupied by two people, apparently Dottie and Morrie. Dottie wore her brown hair in a puffy bouffant that flipped up on the ends and she wore cats-eye eyeglasses. She wore a sharply tailored grey suit jacket, a white cotton blouse, and a tight-fitting calf-length grey skirt. Dottie looked like a tough customer. She was smoking a cigarette and casually leaning up against a battered wooden desk on which sat an Underwood typewriter and some untidy stacks of paper.
Morrie was skinny and balding and had on horn-rimmed glasses. His shirtsleeves were rolled up and he sat smoking a pipe in front of an artist’s easel on which was propped a canvas that looked to be about three feet by maybe four feet. On it was a painting in colors so lurid that they practically leaped off the canvas. It was an attention-grabber, the kind of picture that made you stop and look. The subject in the foreground was none other than Troy, as he’d appeared a few minutes earlier, frantically batting at the spiders on his chest. A muscular guy in the background was holding up a glowing lantern and staring in horror, eyes popping, jaw dropped. Both were clad only in shorts and boots.
“Holy cow!” Troy blurted. “That’s us!”
Dottie and Morrie’s expressions changed to looks of shock. They heard Troy’s exclamation. Their heads whipped around and they stared in our direction, aghast.
“Jesus, Morrie! Look!” Dottie said, pointing. Her eyes behind the lenses of her cats-eye glasses were wide with shock. There were little rhinestones on the pointy parts of the rims of her glasses. They sparkled under the fluorescent lights of the room.
Morrie turned pale. He gasped, “Dem iz ummeglich!”
“This is impossible,” Troy murmured, automatically translating.
I looked at him in surprise. “It’s Yiddish,” he said.
“You understand Yiddish? I didn’t know that.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Neither did I,” he said.
Dottie leaned closer, her eyes narrowed, intently listening. “I can hear them talking,” she said to Morrie.
“Oy gevalt, this I don’t believe,” he said.
Dottie put her hands on her hips and regarded us. Speaking loudly and enunciating carefully, as if she were addressing someone who was hard of hearing, she said, “We. Can. Hear. You. Can. You. Hear. Us?”
“Yes,” Troy and I called out in unison.
“Oy vey iz mir,” Morrie wailed. “They’re alive. The brushes that meshuggener sold me made them come alive. What do we do now?”
Dottie opened a drawer in the desk and took out two glasses and a bottle with a black and white label. Whiskey, I thought, although to the best of my recollection I’d never drunk whiskey. Troy and I either drank water from our canteens, or we made coffee over a campfire in a blue and white enameled coffee pot. Dottie poured a slug of golden brown liquid into one of the glasses and handed it to Morrie, who downed it gratefully, never taking his eyes off us. Dottie poured herself some too.
“Tell me again what happened at that store,” she said to him, tossing back her drink. “Start at the beginning.”
“Okay,” Morrie said. The color was returning to his face and he was looking less rattled. The whiskey was doing its job. “So I needed some paint and brushes, right? So I’m thinking I’ll get up early and go down to that new store that opened on Belmont Avenue, the one that says Simon’s Superior Art Supplies on the awning. I figure I’ll be the first customer of the day and get a good deal.”
Morrie raised his eyebrows and held out his glass. Dottie poured him another inch of whiskey before prompting, “And that was because?”
He took a drink. “Because I saw this red-headed guy putting a Grand Opening sign in the window, the owner I figured, Simon of Simon’s Superior Art Supplies. He was wearing a yarmulke and had a beard and payes.” (Morrie made twirling motions with his forefingers in front of his ears.)
“Side curls,” said Dottie, nodding her head. “In other words, he was an Orthodox Jew.”
“Yeah, exactly,” Morrie replied. “There’s a belief, a superstition, whatever you wanna call it, among Jewish shopkeepers that it’s bad luck not to make the first sale of the day. I figured I’d take advantage of it and get there early, be waiting when he opens up. Then I’d get what I need at a good price, see?”
Troy and I looked at each other, perplexed. What did this have to do with us?
“And you were the first customer, so you got a good price?” Dottie asked.
“Yeah. You know how Ed drags his feet about reimbursing us for supplies. I didn’t want to shell out too much and wait around for him to pay me back. I have bills to pay. So anyway, I wait outside the store until I see the red-headed guy come up and turn around the ‘Closed’ sign. He unlocks the door and says good morning. I say Hi, and in I go. I look around. I pick out some tubes of oil paint and then I tell the guy I wanna see some paintbrushes. He shows me what he has. They were okay, but they were nothing to write home about, so I go, ‘Is this the best you got? Because frankly, these I could get at the five and dime.’ I say I guess I don’t want the oil paint either. I’ll take my business elsewhere. That’s when he says to hold on a minute. He goes in the back and comes out with a box.”
“A box with strange symbols carved on it,” Dottie said. She’d clearly heard this story before.
Morrie nodded his head. “It was flat, about two feet by two feet, maybe three inches high, made outta some kinda wood that was so dark brown it was almost black. It had carvings on it of what looked like Greek letters. You know, little pitchforks and triangles, and things that looked like hieroglyphics: eyes and birds and guys walking sideways. It looked old.”
Morrie drained his glass and cleared his throat. He pushed his horn-rimmed glasses up on his nose and cast a glance at Troy and me, checking to see if we were still there. We waited impatiently to hear what happened next. This wasn’t making any sense. I wondered if the spiders had bitten us and injected us with some kind of venom that caused us to hallucinate. But this didn’t feel like a hallucination. It felt real. I could feel the rough canvas of the tent floor under my bare knees and smelled the forest smells of crisp, cool air, damp earth and leaf mold, as well as the tang of my own sweat, and Troy’s. I could see the wind stirring the leaves on the trees. I could hear Troy breathing next to me.
“What was in the box?” Troy asked.
“A dozen paintbrushes. I could see right away they were expensive. Polished ebony handles, hand-hammered copper ferrules, beautiful reddish-brown bristles made not from sable like some people think, but from hairs from the tail of the kolinsky, a kind of weasel that lives in Siberia. I tell the guy I’ll take them, and I make him an offer. He asks me am I joking? Do I want his children to starve? Yadda-yadda. We go back and forth, and finally he sells them to me for ten bucks, along with the oil paints and some sticks of charcoal.”
“But not the box,” Dottie said. “He wouldn’t sell you the box.”
Morrie said that was correct. He thought his wife might like it to display on their living room coffee table, maybe keep cocktail napkins or something in it, and show it off to her friends when they came over to play Mah Jong.
“He goes, ‘It’s special; it has powers like you wouldn’t believe.’ He tells me what those powers were and I’m thinking, ‘Uh-oh, this guy is Looney Tunes.’ I decided to play along so I tell him that’s nice. Then I paid and got the heck out of there,” Morrie said.
He asked Dottie, “You know how they say you should play along with a crazy person?”
She nodded her head. “That’s what I did when I interviewed the Canarsie Cannibal. He was off his rocker, but I pretended to believe every word he said. I got an exclusive. The story ran on the front page, above the fold.”
As soon as she said it I pictured a room full of desks, with men and women seated behind them, busily clacking away on typewriters or talking on the telephones that were ringing nonstop. I pictured Dottie, cigarette in one hand, a sheaf of papers in the other, shouting, “Copy!”
“The story made the bulldog edition,” I told her. “Your boss gave you a raise of five dollars a week.”
“How did you know that?” she asked.
Morrie smiled ruefully. He told her, “He knows it because you know it, Dottie. You wrote the Troy and Dean stories and I painted the pictures. We created them. They’re part of us. That meshuggener was right: the box gave the brushes the power to make whatever you paint with them come alive, sort of.”
“Sort of?” Troy scowled. “We’re sort of alive? What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” He got up and paced back and forth outside the tent, his boots crunching through the fallen leaves. I noticed he didn’t get too close to the glowing window and I didn’t blame Troy for keeping his distance. That window was spooky. The whole thing was spooky. It also made a horrible kind of sense. No wonder Troy and I never did ordinary things like going to the dentist or taking out the garbage. We weren’t real; we were characters in stories. With that realization came more information about our creators, Dottie and Morrie.
“You’re Dorothea Genevieve Mayhew,” I said to Dottie. “You’re thirty-eight years old. You write for the Tribune under your real name, but you also write for a magazine called Real Male Adventures as D.G. Mayhew. That’s so readers won’t know you’re a woman. Morrie is Morris Fein; he’s from Philadelphia and he paints magazine covers.”
“That’s right,” Dottie said, lighting another cigarette and blowing a plume of smoke in our direction. “Morrie does the covers for Real Male Adventures. That’s the magazine the Troy and Dean stories are in. He also does the covers for Strange Detective, and Blastoff to Outer Space, all of which are pulp magazines published by a man named Ed Knorr.
“Who is a penny-pinching putz,” Morrie remarked.
Troy looked stricken. He said, “You mean we’re made up?”
“You are, I’m sorry to say,” Morrie said.
“It’s not so bad,” Dottie told us, blowing another plume of smoke. I was beginning to think that she wasn’t sympathetic to our plight. “You get to do exciting things, like search for lost cities in the jungle, and look at you two! You’re better-looking than Rock Hudson and Aldo Ray.”
“Who are nothing to be sneezed at, by the way,” Morrie put in. “Listen, guys who read Real Male Adventures, working stiffs who punch a time clock, they wish they could be like you. That’s one of the reasons why they buy the magazine: so they can imagine what it’s like to explore the wilderness and sleep under the stars instead of going home to a cold-water flat and a nagging wife and a buncha whining kids.”
Troy said he’d prefer punching a time clock to being attacked by alligators, like we were that time in the Everglades. I had to agree with him. Putting up with a nagging wife and some whining kids would be a day at the beach compared to the sort of things we had to contend with on a regular basis. Swamps full of quicksand, packs of hungry wolves, those were real problems. I felt resentful toward Dottie for putting us through all that.
“It hurt when weasels ripped our flesh that time,” I complained.
“And the piranhas, don’t forget those,” Troy added.
Dottie had the good grace to look ashamed but she still wasn’t about to give in. Giving in didn’t seem to be part of her nature. It could have been one of the reasons why she was a good reporter. “But you got over it. There’s not a scratch on you,” she said.
Troy said he still had nightmares about the weasels. I did, too. Man, their teeth were sharp! It was like getting stabbed with red-hot needles over and over again. And the way they kept up a low-pitched growl as they tore into us gave me the shivers just thinking about it.
Morrie looked at us shyly. He said, “You were my favorites. Commander Starr of the Space Patrol and Dirk Denton, Private Detective, them I could take or leave, but I always liked you boys. You got a nice friendship, always helping each other out, and I liked the way you stayed positive no matter what kind of crazy jam you fell into. That’s why you were the only ones I painted with the brushes from Simon’s Superior Art Supplies. Those brushes were beautiful, but like any brushes they wear out.”
Morrie’s pipe had gone out. He tapped the ashes into the metal waste basket by his knee before going over to a shelf and taking up a rolled-up piece of canvas. He unrolled it and I saw it had narrow pockets sewn into in it. Each pocket held a paintbrush. Morrie withdrew one and held it out for our inspection. We could see that it was looking pretty beat up.
“They’re all like this. They probably got one more painting left in them,” he said.
“The next issue is going to have them being attacked by giant mutant wasps while they’re exploring the Forbidden City of Xhu,” Dottie reminded Morrie.
Morrie said he wasn’t going to paint that, not with the special brushes. “We owe them better than that,” he told her sternly. “What if you found out you were a character in a story, and you got to meet the author, what would you ask him?”
Dottie gave a derisive snort. “I’m not a character in a story,” she said.
Morrie insisted, “But if you were, what would ask?”
Dottie sighed. “I’d want to know why they wrote the story in the first place, what was the point? Then I’d ask to be made managing editor of the Tribune, not that that’s ever likely to happen. There’s never been a female managing editor. That’s not the way things work.”
She lit another cigarette. “Did you know that idiot Bruce Stevens makes twenty dollars more a week than I do? Twenty dollars! And he’s the worst reporter on the staff. When I asked how come, Old Man McGinley looked at me like I had two heads. He said, ‘Dottie, Bruce is a man. He has a wife and baby to support. He has to be paid more than you. It’s only fair.’ I wanted to scream.”
“It’s not fair that some schlemiel gets paid more than you,” Morrie told her. “It’s also not fair, when I can only paint one more picture with the special brushes that it’s a picture of them getting the daylights stung out of them by giant mutant hornets.”
“Wasps, not hornets. All hornets are wasps, but only some wasps are hornets,” Dottie told him pedantically.
“Whatever,” Morrie said. “We’ve put them through a lot, so have a heart. What do you say we make it up to them? “
Dottie appeared to think it over. Finally she said, “You mean I should write a different kind of story, and you’ll illustrate it?” She looked at us and we looked back at her, mutely begging for mercy. Her gaze softened and she smiled. “Okay. Sure, why not?”
Dottie seated herself behind the typewriter and rolled a fresh piece of paper into the platen. Morrie put a fresh canvas on the easel, got out a palette and started mixing paints. Dottie turned to Troy and me. “What do you want me to write?”
Imagine if you were in our position, and your creator asked you what you’d like to have happen to you. If you could say anything, ask for anything, what would it be? It probably wouldn’t be what Troy asked for, which was not to be a millionaire playboy, or a jet pilot, or any of the other things that you might imagine. Troy said he wanted to own a café, one where they made the best milkshakes in town. The town would be small and sleepy, located on the bank of a meandering river. The river was a good pace to fish, and to have picnics. The people of the town liked to have picnics, and they always brought along a couple of extra sandwiches and an extra bottle of pop, in case a friend showed up. They were a friendly bunch in that town. Everybody got along.
The town was called Oakdale. That was my suggestion. I liked the sound of a town called Oakdale. Nothing bad would ever happen there, aside from minor mishaps, like the neighbor’s dog digging up your flower bed, or a kid missing a tossed ball and a window getting broken as a result. The more Troy spoke, the better I could picture it, and the more I liked it.
I saw my house, a brick ranch-style house with a white picket fence and a lawn so green and lush that it looked like it should be in an ad for grass seed. I saw my wife out front, wearing a sleeveless top and Capri pants, watering the flowers with a garden hose. Her name was Yvonne and she was a nurse. Yvonne was smart as a whip and pretty as a picture. We loved each other very much. We had twin daughters, Amy and April. I saw them playing hopscotch on the sidewalk. I saw myself behind the wheel of a wood-paneled station wagon, lifting a hand to wave as I pulled into the driveway. The girls squealed, “Daddy’s home!” and Yvonne playfully squirted the hose at the car as I raised my hands in mock horror.
I’d come home from working at my garage, where I repaired cars. I was good at working on cars, and I enjoyed doing it. I could feel a smile spread across my face. The lawn was getting a little overgrown, but that was not a problem. I’d cut it this weekend, using the push mower. I liked cutting the lawn and the resulting smell of new-mown grass and sitting on the front steps afterwards, drinking a glass of lemonade. Life was good. Tonight after supper I’d treat Yvonne and the girls to milkshakes at my friend Troy’s café. Troy made the best milkshakes in town.
The window that hung in the forest clearing winked out, as did the canvas tent, and the two men who’d been there moments before. In another place a car door slammed and a man named Dean who’d always lived in Oakdale and whose flesh had never been ripped by weasels, embraced his family
Jill Hand is the author of The Blue Horse, a science fiction/fantasy novella based on a true story. Her work has appeared in several anthologies, including Urban Temples of Cthulhu. Her work has appeared recently in Aurora Wolf, Bewildering Stories, Jersey Devil Press, Nebula Rift, New Realm, and The Sirens Call, among others. She is an associate editor for Bewildering Stories and FictionMagazines, and is one of those odd people who enjoys reading slush.