Matt and James started this second collaborative short story project in November 2008, but they never concluded it.
Originally posted by James on 17 November 2008.
Over the past weeks, it had become common knowledge that something was wrong with Stephen. Since beginning his job at the engineering firm last March, he had only arrived on time to work a handful of times. Stephen’s lifestyle was the prototype of disorder, disfunctionality, and utter disarray. On any given day in Stephen’s apartment, there would be a growing pile of dirty laundry piled up on his living-room couch, and another on the kitchen table, shrinking proportionately. He never bothered to hang his clothes up, put them away, or iron them. Although in terms of personal hygiene, Stephen’s manner of life was comparably commendable–that is, he showered and brushed his teeth daily–his bathroom was in a style of even greater anarchy, if that is imaginable. A stench, far too familiar to Stephen personally, rose from his toilet vengefully, while soap scum and filth lied his tub like a group of conspirators, huddling to exchange their venemous plots of chaos. The kitchen was a grade better, on account of the daily inevitability of eating, but upon a closer examination of his grocery receipts, which lay scattered in the corner by the overflowing trash-can, anyone of even the mildest sense would realize that the kind of food Stephen most typically consumed was hardly fit for the human body. Altogether, Stephen lived as if he had never had a mother.
The first sign of a fresh wind of change blowing into Stephen’s life was three weeks ago, to the day. Marcus, Stephen’s boss, came into the office holding his hot cup of Starbuck’s coffee in one hand, and his laptop case in the other. Coming through the door, he mechanically reached out to turn on the lights. When his hand reached the switch, he realized that the lights were already on. “I’m going to have to have a word with Phillip, the new janitor. He must have forgotten to turn the lights off,” Marcus thought to himself. Marcus was walking down the prematurely-lit hallway to his office, when he passed Stephen’s small cubicle, and to his surprise, a well-kempt, nicely-dressed man sat in Stephen’s chair, typing away at his computer. “Who are you, and what are you doing in this office?” Marcus inquired. The figure swivelled around as he straightened his tie and looked up into Marcus’ puzzled face. “I just thought I would come in a little early today, boss, to try and get these reports in order for the big meeting next week,” articulated Stephen. Marcus almost dropped his coffee when he realized that the man sitting in front of him was no stranger, but that certain misfit and protagonist of this story, who was surely going to be “laid off” when he went up for review next month. To use the old familiar phrase, he hardly recognized him, but in this case, Marcus really could hardly make and concrete connection between the Stephen he knew and despised, and the collected, business-man in front of him now.
Although Marcus was utterly shocked at the morning’s singularity (which was on its way to becoming a plurality), having grown to be disgusted by the disheveled appearance and disgusting habits of his underling over the past months, and justifiably so, the greater shock lay in the fact that back at Stephen’s apartment, his dress shirts comfortably lined his closet next to his freshly pressed black pants. The bathroom glistened with freshness, the carpet bore the striations caused by the comb of the vacuum cleaner, and the refrigerator was filled with food that was palatable, healthy and unexpired. Marcus had never visited Stephen at his home, nor would he ever have dreamed of doing so, but if he had, reality would have been in such incongruity with his perception of reality, that the shock would have more than just caused him to drop his coffee. I will now try to explain the cause of this rather queer metamorphosis.
Originally posted by Matt on 24 November 2008.
Two nights prior, Stephen lay in bed unable to sleep. He spent so much of his days sleeping that he often had trouble sleeping at night. Now his head and back ached from the excessive slumber. He threw the covers off himself and painfully rolled out of bed, thinking that maybe going for a walk would help. He carefully picked his way across the dark room, groping blindly with his toes for the many piles of clutter strewn about the floor. He stumbled out into the living room where the moon beamed through the window, lighting up the shadowy mountain of dirty clothes. Upon reaching the pile, he pulled the most recent additions from the top and slipped them on. He donned his coat, started to pull open the front door and then paused. Slowly backing away from the door, he turned and scanned the room, his eyes ultimately returning to the mountain on the couch. Then with surprising energy he dug through the mountain until reaching a worn out pair of jeans at the bottom. He reached inside the pocket and pulled out a smooth black case that glinted in the moonlight. Slipping the case into his coat pocket he returned to the door and strode out into the cold winter night.
Though the moon was out, it was clear that the weather was deteriorating. A gusty wind blew in from the north and small wispy clouds whipped past the moon. Upon reaching the street, Stephen set off down the sidewalk, the cold wind quickening his step. The road was lined with old brick houses with small but neatly kept yards. At the end of the block Stephen crossed the street to head into a wooded park. Given the time of night, and the weather, no one else was around. The walkway through the park was lined by rows of giant oak trees. They towered over Stephen like rows of sentinels peering down disapprovingly at the disgrace that passed below. Given Stephen’s recent slothfulness, he quickly tired of his brisk walking pace and gradually began to slow. He had also now generated enough warmth that the cold wasn’t quite as unbearable. The path approached a pond with a small wooden dock that stood out into the water. As he walked out onto the dock it creaked and groaned as if Stephen had woken it from a peaceful slumber. At the end of the dock he sat and dangled his legs over the water. It was still early in the winter and the pond had not yet frozen over. The wind died down slightly and Stephen starred off into the depths of the water – beyond the depths of the water.
By now the moon was completely enshrouded in clouds and a steady snowfall had replaced the wind. Thousands of dense flakes dropped into the pond instantly melting at the surface like hopeless kamikazes. A dusting of snow had covered Stephen’s coat and hat – leaving him as a white figure against the dark water. Had Stephen then simply returned to his house and gone back to bed I might not be telling you this story. However, at this point, something unusual happened. Stephen’s trance was broken by a sudden creaking and groaning as the dock was once again woken from its slumber. He turned to see a figure in a dark suit standing behind him.
Originally posted by James on 1 December 2008.
Stephen looked up at the man’s face–if it could be called a face. Although Stephen could discern the outline of a wirey mouth beneath a slender nose, the accompanying pair of eyes were nowhere to be found. Anyone in his right mind who thinks he is alone is naturally startled by the unanticipated discovery that he is not, particularly when it is dark outside, not to mention when it is well below freezing and snow is falling endlessly from above. On any other night, perhaps Stephen, too, would have been frightened, but not tonight. Somehow, the circumstances were too weird. It couldn’t possibly be coincidence that this man without a face now stood behind Stephen on the dock. For an instant, Stephen had the feeling that he was the hero of some great epic, or the protagonist of a tragic novel; only he realized that just as a character, however willful he may be, is powerless to contest the author’s desires, so he, too, was governed by the cold hand of fate. It was at this moment that Stephen rose to his feet.
(It may seem to the reader that these several thoughts occurred singularly in Stephen’s mind, and that he was staring blankly at the man looming darkly over him, but in reality they occurred to him concurrently. To the reader what may seem like a few minutes was only a few moments in Stephen’s mind.)
When Stephen got up, the dock groaned for the third time on that otherwise still and soundless night. Snowflakes still fell perilously, yet peacefully into the lake behind him. Stephen was preparing to ask the man why he had followed him onto the dock, when he was addressed by the mysterious other:
“You are probably wondering why I am wandering around at such a late hour of the night, but it would be just as reasonable for me to ask you the same question. The difference between us, though, is that I know why you have come here tonight. You couldn’t sleep.”
“No,” answered Stephen, his mind in a fog and his voice suddenly seeming distant, as if being channeled through a long tunnel. “I couldn’t. But how did you know?”
“I knew,” he started, “because…well, let’s just say that I knew, because it always starts this way. It’s far too complicated to get into right now, and we’d both surely freeze before I finished explaining it all. Plus, I simply don’t have the time at the moment. I have pressing matters to attend to. But Stephen…”
When he heard his name, Stephen regained his focus and returned to the present. “Yes, I understand. You can’t leave until I give it to you. It’s just that…” Stephen trailed off.
“No! That is simply out of the question,” the man insisted. “It must be done tonight. Give it to me.”
Stephen reached his hand into his coat pocket and drew out a shiny black case, the same one he had fortuitously gotten from his jeans’ pocket before leaving home. Some of its gleam was now gone, since the moon had slipped behind a cloud, though its rectangular frame could still be made out in the neon glow of the electric lights reflecting off the snow. Without any further thought and mindless of the necessary consequences, Stephen responded obediently and extended his hand. This was quite possibly the first time in Stephen’s life that he had ever complied so gracefully to a command, but as you will find out, it wasn’t the last.
The dock moaned and rocked beneath Stephen’s feet, as the other man received the case gratefully and turned to disappear into the night. Then he paused suddenly and twisted around again. “By the way, you will hear again from us soon,” the man plainly said and, almost as an afterthought, added “and tie your shoes. You wouldn’t want to trip and fall in the cold snow.” He then turned again and wandered into the falling snow.
There were many times in Stephen’s life that he thought back on this moment with mystery and awe, but at present, he stood alone contemplating nothing for at least a quarter of an hour, while he was silently shrouded in snow. Then, as if woken from a hypnotic sleep, he squatted down, tied his shoes, and mechanically marched away from the pond and onto the wintry sidewalk. The dock groaned for the fifth and final time that night, as Stephen disappeared into the distance. By this time, Stephen’s face had grown blue with the cold, and he would have enjoyed a cup of hot chocolate to warm his hands and face, but he wasn’t heading home, not yet at least. Stephen feet sank rhythmically into the freshly fallen snow. He walked as if with great purpose.
Originally posted by Matt on 21 January 2009.
During Stephen’s befuddlement the faceless man was on the move. He had left the park and begun a brisk walk across the city. Drawn upon a map, his walk might appear as a drunken stumble, or perhaps as the sort of path that two lovers would take with no aim except to prolong their journey. However, he moved with great purpose – five blocks to the north, two to the west, one to the south, three to the east, and so it went.
At last he rounded a corner into an abandoned alley. Midway down the block lay a steaming grate. As the dark man reached the grate he gave a quick glance to assure that he was alone. In a flash he had lifted the grate and disappeared beneath the street. Though a much more comfortable temperature than the air above, the atmosphere of the tunnel reeked of the city’s filth. A filth that had been washed from above only to decay and mildew in the sewers below. The man proceeded, stooping down the tunnel toward the sound of rushing water. He needed no light, as he knew the way well. The small passage emptied into a larger one with a small waterfall that spewed forth a putrid mist. The man strode silently along the channel, wasting no time. Within minutes he reached a portal in the wall, slid it open, and stepped inside. With the flip of his wrist, the room glowed. It stood in stark contrast to the sewer that surrounded him. The room was neat, clean, and basked in an amiable light.
Stephen awoke in his bed. “What happened?” he thought to himself. At this time in his life it was often difficult to differentiate waking and sleeping. It was still dark outside. At least he had fallen asleep, but he still felt so tired. “Was it a dream?” He rose from his bed once again, stumbled through the cluttered room, and out into the living room walking immediately to the mountain of clothes. His worn out jeans rested at the top of the pile. Snatching them up he felt inside the pocket. It wasn’t there. It was then that his gaze fell upon snowy tracks leading in from the front door. A ping of adrenaline hit him as he realized that it was not one set of snowy tracks, but two.
In the warm glow of his workshop the faceless man bent over his table. A pair of scissors lay beside him. His spindly fingers worked a needle and thread, back and forth, back and forth, as he sewed shut a gaping hole in the back of an Elmo doll.
Originally posted by James on 30 January 2009.
Over breakfast, Stephen strained himself trying to recall the events of the previous night. Although it was hard to remember exactly what had happened, the fact that something really had happened was clearly set in his mind. It wasn’t a dream. He just knew. Plus, how else would he explain the extra set of tracks leading up to his door. Also, if it had occurred to him that he was actually eating breakfast, which he was never in the habit of doing previously, he would have known beyond all doubt. But the change that had taken place in him last night was too deep and too pervasive for him to notice.
Stephen was accustomed to laying around watching TV on Sundays, but today he knew he had to get out and take care of something. The fact that he didn’t know exactly what it was he had to do, or where he had to go, didn’t really bother him. After shaving and taking a shower, Stephen dressed and got ready to go out, but he first thought: “No, I really need to clean this place up a little first.”
While Stephen furiously cleaned his apartment, a man walked resolutely out of a narrow alleyway with a small brown package in his hands. It looked much like a gift wrapped in parcel paper. It even had a string tied around it and a note fixed to the top. The man’s collar was turned up to hide his neck, and the gray fedora that crowned his head tilted down in the front to obscure his face, if he had one.
After two hours, his apartment was almost spotless. Stephen proved to be a surprisingly fast cleaner, considering how out of practice he was. His mindless determination fueled him. He was now ready to face the task at hand. He put on his heavy winter coat, stepped outside and locked the door. Then he began to forge a new set of tracks in the snow, this time heading perpendicular to the other two sets. He was on his way to the office, or toward the office I should say. He wouldn’t make it that far, at least not today anyway.
Stephen entered the subway station located several blocks north of his apartment, just as if he were heading to work. And, just as if he were heading to work, he boarded the Blue Line with his freshly swiped ticket in his hand. Again, just as usual, he sat down in the next to last row in his car. There were two details, however, that were out of the ordinary this morning. The first was how few people there were on the car, but then again, it was a Sunday, not a weekday. The second, and more importantly, the significant discrepancy between this subway ride and any other trip to work, was that Stephen sat down on the left side of the car, not the right. And next to him in the seat was a brown package wrapped in parcel paper. It had a string tied around it and a note attached to the top. Stephen flipped open the card out of impulse, though he didn’t need to read the five words written upon it in scratchy handwriting. He already knew what it said: “Just wait. You will know.”