Unnatural Disaster

Unnatural Disaster

The storm has come and gone, readers, and boy, was it a doozy. The Hemlocks, I’m pleased to report, came away mostly unscathed, but I’m afraid I cannot say the same for the town at large. Days later, Prism Bay is only beginning to wring out its many soggy corners, and I fear there is still a long way to go. To be honest, the place is a mess, albeit a fittingly eccentric and unconventional mess. 

Last week, you will remember, we were battening down the hatches for something called an “ethereal vortex”—what I’d determined, using the best of my investigative reasoning, to be a local variety of tropical storm. At Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen, we readied for inclemency of all descriptions, both physical and metaphysical—as it turned out, storm prep in Prism Bay involved a good amount of superstitious precaution to accompany the more traditional protection-of-property concerns. Mrs. Sylvester, meanwhile, took a far more blasé attitude toward the coming meteorological threat, hardly even bothering to shut the windows as the skies grew dark with swirling clouds. I was pretty worried, readers, about the Hemlocks and about Mrs. Sylvester—for no reason, it turned out. The Hemlocks still stands; if anything, it looks a little tidier post-vortex.

That is not to say there was no storm at all. There was a storm, readers, a ferocious and noisy one that wailed and roared and rattled the shutters for thirty-six hours straight. It was one of those big, angry summer tempests that unzip the sky in a rush of white lightning and fling down every manner of mess the clouds know how to store. Hailstones the size of a baby’s fist pummeled the roof between long bouts of rain that sprayed as though from a pressurized hose, and thunder became less a noise than an impact, a giant’s foot stomping hard enough to make the cutlery leap. I was at times tempted to go out and see it up close, to stand on the cliffs and observe nature’s fury sweeping over Prism Bay, but stayed in out of a vague fear of running into “storm wraiths” and a reluctance to leave Mrs. Sylvester alone amid the atmospheric upheaval. She hardly seemed to notice, but I knew I’d have felt awful if she’d suffered some accident while I was away.

By the time the storm was over, however, I was convinced Mrs. Sylvester had been right all along. The so-called ethereal vortex never got much worse than a particularly bad thunderstorm—for someone like me, who rather enjoys a little foul weather now and then, it was actually rather pleasant. I spent most of the day reading by the window with a mug of coffee, now and then looking up to watch the pine trees sway in the wind. We lost power for an hour or so at the very height of the vortex (or whatever), but that was as bad as things got. I was a little disappointed, to tell the truth.

Late Friday morning, with the rain reduced to a patter, I decided to head into town to check on my friends. The Hemlocks had weathered the storm without trouble, and Mrs. Sylvester appeared almost cheerful—as energetic as I’d seen her since mid-July at least—so I expected to find the rest of Prism Bay in similarly good shape. But hardly had I donned my Hemlocks-issue slicker and wellingtons and set out on my Hemlocks-issue bike than I began to encounter evidence that all was not entirely right in these here parts.

On the long drive leading from the house, I began to notice things scattered across the grass—translucent, slimy things, about the size and shape of hamburger buns. It wasn’t until I actually ran one over that I realized they were jellyfish. The context was just all wrong: jellyfish belong in the ocean, so what were they doing out here among the pines? The idea that some manner of water-borne tornado had sucked them from the bay and deposited them over the Hemlocks hit me just as a gust of wind loosed several more from the surrounding trees, dropping them with a series of wet plops, like water balloons full of slime. I pulled down my hood and peddled faster, making sure not to hit any more as I coasted toward the main drag.

 Right, so  ew .

Right, so ew.

Things only got worse from there. Fallen twigs littering the road became thick fallen branches, then whole fallen trees. Several times I was forced to stop and lift my bicycle over some heavy wooden blockade—nor was there any cleanup effort going on that I could see. There were fewer jellyfish in evidence, which seemed like a good thing until I realized they might all have been smashed into a general coating of slime, now possibly being sprayed about by the wheels of my bicycle. Getting splashed with mashed-up jellyfish tentacles sounded like a spectacular way to ruin my day—dead jellies can still sting, I’ve heard—but I pressed onward, increasingly concerned about what I would find once I got into town.

Readers, the place was a disaster. Even before I reached the town center, I encountered sections of street that had caved in, the pavement giving way as rushing water eroded the ground beneath. These potholes had become pools where live jellyfish now swam, while low areas of roadway had been submerged entirely to form lurid jellyfish lakes. Things were even worse along the waterfront: the boardwalk had been shattered, completely torn away in some places, and whole sections of Main Street had collapsed as the embankment below fell to the ocean’s relentless pummeling. But that, readers, was only the beginning.

There was crud everywhere. Not just slime, or jellyfish—though there were plenty of those about, dotting the ground and floating in the puddles that had collected along the remaining sections of Main Street. But here in the town center, it seemed jellyfish weren’t the only things that had been dredged from the depths. There were huge hunks of what looked like meat and blubber, bones in sizes I’d only ever seen in museums littering the pavement, tentacles that must once have belonged to giant squid draped across the street and over buildings, thick as the tree trunks blocking roads elsewhere in town. I was reminded of photos I’d seen on the Internet, of decomposing whale carcasses washed ashore and mistaken for sea monsters. Well, this storm must have churned up every rotting deep-sea corpse for miles around.

Considering all the aquatic carnage, the local businesses were holding up pretty well. There was some damage, to be sure—a place simply does not have dead whales dumped upon it and come away unscathed—but things weren’t nearly as bad as they looked. The sidewalk on Main Street’s inland side was mostly whole, as were the storefronts, even if they were quite befouled with gunk. Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen, my first stop, had suffered no major structural injury that I could see, and not only that—it was open.

The windows remained boarded, and inside, the floor was damp, but there was a lively crowd, and the air was redolent with good smells. There was still no electricity, but the gas must have been working—unless Amy had simply built a fire out back, which I would not have put past her. Amy herself was in good spirits. She’d ridden out the storm in the small apartment above her store, standing guard against the weather like someone fending off looters in the midst of a riot. “Hope you’re hungry,” she said, having emerged from the kitchen at the sound of the bell still mounted outside (“Yes We’re Open but Ring Bell Because Vortex”, remember?), “we’re having a storm feast.”

I was familiar with the concept of a storm feast, if not the actual term. Without electricity, much of the food in Amy’s refrigerators would soon spoil, and it was up to us to make sure nothing went to waste. A good amount of egg and milk was consumed in various forms, along with an esoteric selection of meats ranging from bacon and steak to alligator and snake. Meanwhile, we visitors helped clean up; there was no power to run a wet vac, but we managed to procure a squeegee, courtesy of the same Mr. Smith who had lent Amy her evil-eye-repelling nazar. Before long, cases of beer began to arrive as if from nowhere, and a full-fledged power’s-out-party ensued to celebrate our victory over the storm.

 Double  ew .

Double ew.

I would be happy indeed to end the tale of my first ethereal vortex there, readers, perhaps with a little epilogue to tell you how Prism Bay is even now on its way to recovery, electricity restored and repairs underway, but unfortunately that isn’t how the story goes. The power remains out and most parts of town are without gas, too; yesterday, I caught a rancid whiff on the wind, and later found out the sewers had begun to overflow. If anything, the number of random squid parts littering the roads has only increased. The jellyfish seem to be multiplying—breeding, maybe, but it’s almost like they’re materializing out of nowhere, like dew on the grass.

The realization that Prism Bay was not bouncing jauntily back from the storm dawned on me slowly, because at the Hemlocks everything was and continues to be A-O-K. We must have our own generator, because aside from those sixty-ish minutes of darkness during the vortex, the lights have never refused burn upon request. The best explanation I can muster is that the high cliffs on which the house stands shielded it from the wind’s most ardent ravages, with our relatively lofty elevation putting us beyond the reach of flooding waves. 

What’s harder to figure out is why the town isn’t doing more to set things right, to clear the roads of debris, to bring back power and other vital services, to get rid of all those jellyfish. Every time I go out, I have to find a new path around the maze of submerged streets, some with finned creatures wending through their muddy shallows. Boats sprawl like beached dolphins in lawns and fields. Twice now I’ve seen pillars of smoke trailing through the sky as some fire—possibly even somebody’s home—raged unchecked.

And yet, despite the deplorable condition of Prism Bay, hardly any of its residents seem interested in rebuilding. Everyone I meet appears listless and disheveled; the sense of sullen helplessness is especially evident in the Town Center, where citizens can be seen at all hours of the day and night shuffling glumly amid the wreckage. The speed with which the town has gone from prosperous summer community to band of ragged castaways wandering a desert island is astonishing. Now, I know that’s easy for me to say from my cozy perch at the Hemlocks, but honestly. It hasn’t even been a week.

There are, at least, a few people working to return Prism Bay to its former glory, even in the face of municipal indifference and public despair, and I’m proud to say I’m among them. Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen has become a sort of informal headquarters for efforts to repair the Town Center, and while our forces are not numerous—composed mostly of small business owners and their friends—we are determined. 

If one good thing has come out of the storm and its aftermath, it is the new friendships that have sprung up as people who might not otherwise have met are thrown together by circumstance. I could cite any number of examples, but one has stuck in my mind as particularly illustrative, a scene simultaneously poignant and adorable—and also relevant, since it involves characters you know, readers.

It happened this Sunday, as I was helping Pippa organize some books that had become misplaced from their shelves during the storm. How exactly this happened isn’t exactly clear, but I was given to understand it had to do with the owner of Prism Bay Literary Merchants, a shadowy individual who avoids the store during working hours but is rumored to come through and rearrange the inventory at night. Some independently wealthy reprobate, I’m guessing, rampaging around in a booze- or cocaine-fueled fit of literary mania. Anyway, I had a big stack of books needing return to their native shelves, and while I was shuffling a few volumes to fit Maritime Navigation for Dogs by Admiral H. T. Fluffington (humor, I assumed, though it was housed in a section called “canine professional development (excluding law and finance)”), I heard voices, low and urgent, in the next aisle over.

“No, look at this passage,” someone was saying—someone, readers, whose voice I recognized, because she had been making cryptic threats toward me only a few days before. It was Elle van der Geest—no surprise finding her hiding out among the shelves, I thought, even if the store was closed. But she wasn’t alone.

“Which, this one here?” another voice asked—a boy’s voice, I was almost sure. “What, just because it mentions a lunar eclipse? That doesn’t prove anything. Lunar eclipses happen all the time.”

“Not like this one,” Elle countered. “This one was right at the apogee, meaning it had the longest totality in like twenty years—and there won’t be another like it for almost ten more.”

“So what?” said a third voice, a girl. “It’s only like a ten minute difference, right?”

“Ten minutes can be pretty important if you’re performing a complex ritual,” Elle said, “especially one that involves drawing energy from an outside source, or directing it toward an especially powerful barrier. It could come down to a matter of seconds.”

“Like if you were forging a Lance of Unreason,” said the boy, sounding impressed and fearful at once, “and using it to pierce the Eleventh Sphere of Reality.”

Exactly,” said Elle. “This would be your only chance for like a decade.”

“And you’re sure you saw—”

“Yeah, the real deal, not just some cheap imitation salamanders.”

“Holy crap.”

“Guys,” interjected the third voice, which had been quiet most of this time, “will one of you please explain what in the name of leg-humping dachshunds you’re talking about?”

“Here, Mimi,” Elle said, and there was a brief rustling of pages. “This part right here. Read it.”

“‘Of all the Outer Horrors of the Nameless Void’,” intoned the voice I now recognized as belonging to Mimi, the young woman formerly of the explicit t-shirt, “‘few are as loathsome and abominable as’ oh you have got to be kidding me what the hell does that say?”

“Klexumwathi B’un Gatha Tohlaris Urusind’raxalai,” Elle pronounced fluently. (I, meanwhile, am transliterating entirely from memory—just as I’m reconstructing my general impression of this overheard conversation.)

“‘Few’,” Mimi repeated, “‘are as loathsome and abominable as Klexumwathi B’un Gatha Tohlaris Urusind’raxalai. Called sometimes the Rusted King, the Death of Dreams, He Clothed in Carrion, the Moldering Dark, Dissolution of All, the Endless—’ shit, Elle, this goes on for like twenty pages.”

“Just skip to the end,” Elle said, amid more page-rustling. “Look, right here.”

“This part?” Mimi asked. “OK, so, ‘the Emperor of Rot waits perched in the Outer Void, beyond space and time, and touches the realms of matter and light in only the barest measure, seen in all things that fester and decay. Yet it is ever his intent to bring all existence into his power, and render all life into a state of endless corruption. Only seldom and briefly has he held sway in this world, but where he takes hold, he makes for himself a domain neither living nor dead, where all is forever rotting but never destroyed. You may know his coming by the essence of decay that gathers before him, breaking from the cycle of death and renewal to assume true physical form, most often in the shape of orbs of putrefying jelly that litter the’ oh my god oh my god oh my god.”

 That'll put a scratch on your rims.

That'll put a scratch on your rims.

“But that still doesn’t make sense,” said the other voice, the boy. “I mean, the Outer Horrors can’t even find this place, and none of their servants could get past the guardians.”

“Well obviously one of them did, Tyler,” Elle said irritably. “Some servant of the Outer Horrors got in here somehow, and forged a Lance of Unreason and pierced the Eleventh Sphere of Reality, and now Klexumwathi B’un Gatha—”

“Can we just say the Rusted King or whatever?” asked Mimi.

“And now the Rusted King is here—or on his way here,” concluded the boy, Tyler, who I assumed to be Tyler the well-armed young man from the Prism Bay Beach Club (I was about to proven right, readers). “And we’re all about to be banished to a world of eternal decay, sure, fine. But I just don’t understand who would do something like that.”

It was fascinating stuff, readers. I wasn’t sure if they were talking about a role-playing game, or a television program, or a movie, or book, or what, but whatever it was, these kids were utterly immersed in it. Maybe they were even coming up with the whole thing on their own, an exercise in pure adolescent imagination. To me, it made perfect sense to find a group of young people escaping into a world of make-believe just now. Fiction—fantasy especially—is a tried-and-true method for coping with difficult or traumatic circumstances, and the situation around Prism Bay certainly qualified there. On top of that, these three all struck me as pretty lonely kids. I’d never seen them in the presence of friends—or anyway, not until now. So even if it was a little sad to think their lives were difficult enough that they were drawn to this other world—one that, as interesting as it sounded, was also pretty disturbing—it warmed my chilly writer’s heart to see them discovering it together.

All of this was going through my mind as I listened, readers—until I noticed the three had fallen silent. I realized that I had unknowingly sidled out from my hiding place, and was now in full view, the subject of stares from three pairs of surprise-widened eyes. They gaped at me, the bookish young woman, the well-armed young man, and the young woman formerly of the explicit t-shirt, from among a landscape of stacked books. I instantly felt guilty for intruding on their little world, but there was nothing to be done for it now. “Hey, kids,” I said, very awkwardly. “What’s going on?”

They fled in a rush, knocking over books as they went—rudely, I thought, but understandably. To have reality intrude upon a game of make-believe is a jarring, embarrassing thing, as I knew from once being a child myself. On top of that, the store was closed, and Pippa hadn’t mentioned they were here, meaning they’d probably snuck in. I wasn’t going to rat them out, though—they hadn’t taken anything, even if they did leave another batch of books off the shelves. (And who knew? Maybe the store’s drunken owner wasn’t responsible for the mess after all.) 

I picked up the books they’d been using and began returning them to their places—gaming books, I assumed, like for Dungeons and Dragons. Ah, youth. I’d put most of them away before I realized I was in the section where I’d found Essays in Eternity: “books better left alone”. Quite the opinion to have about role-playing games, I thought, but I made a note to come back and check a few of these out at a later date, when things weren’t quite so crazy. Whatever game this was, it sounded pretty cool.

So a few bright spots in all this squalor, is what I’m trying to get across. Hopefully next week I’ll be able to report that Prism Bay is more firmly upon the road to recovery. Send good thoughts, readers—until then!



Storm Season

Storm Season

A storm is brewing, readers. I haven’t figured out what kind of storm, exactly, but something is definitely headed this way. Everyone in town agrees. As a native New Englander, I’m used to the climate and its temperamental moods featuring prominently in popular discourse—gossip, almost, as if the weather were not so much a force of nature as a well-known and roguish local personality. Now scuttlebutt in Prism Bay indicates significant meteorological mischief afoot—except it isn’t the usual brand of mischief. This is something new, almost unrecognizable, like the rascally kids always hitting baseballs into your yard suddenly upgrading to securities fraud.

The first I heard of it was this past Sunday, during my weekly donut stop at Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen. Recently, Amy has begun plying me with samples of her more adventurous flavors in an effort to help me branch out. My appreciation for the simple perfection of her glazed and chocolate donuts appeals to her as an artisan, but as an artist, she chafes at my adherence to convention. On this occasion, she was trying to talk me into sampling a clamato croissant or some such monstrosity when a customer—another regular, the old fisherman type I’ve been thinking of as the Old Salt—stopped by our table to ask if Amy’s would be open on Thursday and Friday. “It says ‘All-Hours’, doesn’t it?” was Amy’s answer.

When I asked what was happening Thursday and Friday, Amy and the Old Salt both looked at me in surprise. “Storm’s coming through,” said the Old Salt, the message accentuated by his very Mainer accent, in which “storm” became a two-syllable word (“stow-ahm”)—what seemed to me a worthy emphasis.

Amy nodded gravely. “How have you not heard this?” she asked. “It’s been all over town. The municipal weather diviners are predicting an ethereal vortex late next week—same with astrologers from the public observatory and the secret cloud council at Nightfall Caste—but it was pretty obvious to everyone already. Hasn’t your weather globe been going crazy?”

“I, um, don’t have a weather globe,” I said, brain whirring as I tried to commit what Amy had just said to memory for future consideration. I’d heard there was an observatory somewhere in town, and Nightfall Castle was another local summer residence—like the Hemlocks, if vastly larger and more castle-like. “Municipal weather diviners” was probably just a tongue-in-cheek way of referring to habitually inaccurate local meteorologists. As for weather globes, I assumed those were similar to the blown-glass barometers (also known as a Goethe’s device or weather glass) you could buy, for instance, at the Museum of Science in Boston. Or maybe these two were just messing with me, like “Manny”, the man of middle years who has been successful in business and claims his name is pronounced “[ten seconds of gargling water]”.

 *Not available for purchase, but maybe a little side import/export business in my future?

*Not available for purchase, but maybe a little side import/export business in my future?

What interested me most of all was this “ethereal vortex”. I assumed it had to be some kind of regional term for a particularly bad storm, but what sort of storm? I knew of the “polar vortex”, a mess of cold air around the artic that occasionally blew southward to assault the people of New England with drastically sub-zero temperatures, but that was more of a winter phenomenon, as was the nor’easter, a pain-in-the-butt mess of snow and wind familiar to most denizens of the East Coat. In recent winters, I’d also heard talk of something called a “bomb cyclone”, but mostly assumed that was just the local news stations trying to freshen up a popular franchise. The more quintessentially summery extreme weather, meanwhile—tropical storms and hurricanes—usually doesn’t arrive until fall begins moving in. So maybe the “ethereal vortex” was something new—or anyway, new to me—a type of storm unique to this part of Maine. And I, readers, would have the chance to document it for everyone out there who, like me, had never experienced one.

“Usually happens a few times each season,” Amy said, when pressed for details. “Takes down a few trees, grounds a few boats, stirs up the sea monsters. Nothing too serious. We’re about due, anyway.”

“Ayuh,” agreed the Old Salt. “Over and done in a day or two.”

I listened with interest as the two locals discussed pronouncements from the town’s top authorities, the Prism Bay Selectmen and Board of Overseers, who had recently upgraded the storm from “mild” to “migraine inducing”. (When I asked what other levels of severity were possible, the answer I received was typically “summery”, and included such storm conditions as “demure”, “belligerent”, and “brain swapping”.) Prism Bay residents were instructed to prepare for loss of power and other services for up to a week, and to have a ready supply of food and water on hand, but Amy and the Old Salt agreed such measures, while prudent, were probably unnecessary. Amy still planned to take a few precautions for the sake her business, though, and as a loyal customer and friend I thought it only right to volunteer my help.

That evening, over dinner, I asked Mrs. Sylvester if she’d like any assistance getting the Hemlocks ready for the storm. I have a little experience in home maintenance, and it would be easy enough for me to board up the windows or strap down the roof, maybe check the gutters for clogs or take down a few dead tree branches that might fall and damage the house. There were some delicate-looking plants in the garden we might want to cover, and a few similarly fragile articles around the property—weather vanes and bird houses and sculptures I’d seen out on the grounds. But all Mrs. Sylvester said was, “The storm will not touch this place.”

It seemed a pretty cavalier attitude, and also very unlike the Mrs. Sylvester I knew. I could not imagine the person I met my first morning in Prism Bay, self-possessed and elegant and dryly intelligent, using such curt and guttural tones. She might have refused my help—I’d even have said it was likely—but politely. “Thank you, Mr. Black, but I assure you, we are quite adequately prepared,” would have been a bit more her style. Here was further evidence that Mrs. Sylvester was not herself—and hadn’t been, really, since before the Blood Moon Festival. Still, it was her house. I let her know I would be available upon request, and made plans to privately stock up on bottled water, Pop-Tarts, and Hot Pockets.

In the morning, I rode to the Town Center prepared for a full day of manual labor. Amy was already at work, nailing plywood sheets to the window frames of her All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen. Spray-painted across the front of these was the message, “Yes We’re Open But Ring Bell Because Vortex”. I assumed the plywood came from some local construction site, because beneath the black paint of Amy’s message it was covered in elaborate graffiti. “Nothing’s getting through that,” I said, observing her work.

“Dang straight,” she agreed. “Help me with this other one.” So I held another sheet of plywood steady while Amy nailed it in place. My handyman skills were already feeling unnecessary: she had a nail gun and air compressor and everything. With the shop’s exterior protected, Amy and I began carrying in tables and chairs from the small outdoor patio. The things were wrought iron, nice for enjoying an outdoor donut or kouign-amann or dragon’s breath bun, but a real hassle to move.

Pippa, who had already helped close down Prism Bay Literary Merchants, was inside, taping the windows to help prevent the glass from shattering should graffiti-strewn plywood prove insufficient protection. When the last abominably heavy metal chair had been stacked, she directed me to a cardboard box on the counter and asked, “Can you put those out for me?”

The box was full of small glass jars, filled with what appeared to be tangled fishing line and mounted with string. The way they were stored—somewhat carelessly coiled up—reminded me of Christmas lights, suggestive of regular if infrequent use. By now I’d learned that seeking an explanation for unusual practices in Prism Bay was an exercise in confusion and frustration, so I just asked where Pippa wanted me to put the things. “Anywhere not out in the open—in cabinets, draws, tight corners, that sort of thing,” she said, and laughed. “What is this, your first ethereal vortex?”

The question was intended as a joke, I guess, because when I answered that this was indeed my first ethereal vortex, Pippa only smiled and told me to find the box of silver bells and hang those too. Amy, meanwhile, had just finished nailing a horseshoe over the main entrance. “Did you remember to get the new nazar I wanted?” she asked Pippa.

“They were all out,” Pippa said, “but Mr. Smith at the hardware store said you could borrow his. I left it on the counter.”

It was the nazar that helped me figure out a bit of what was going on—and when I did, I was glad I hadn’t asked. For those of you who have never seen one, a nazar is an amulet shaped like an eye, featuring in several cultures as a talisman against evil. The fact that enough people in Prism Bay were putting them up that the hardware store would be sold out (or, for that matter, would stock them in the first place) told me there was some kind of local spiritual tradition associated with storms. That wasn’t so surprising, really—maritime cultures, constantly faced with the uncertainty of the sea, can be notoriously superstitious. Maybe some of that had lingered on from Prism Bay’s early history as a whaling town or clamming town or kraken-hunting town or whatever.

Once I understood something of the context, the day became a lot less weird. I helped find a good place for the borrowed nazar, hung silver bells in doorways, tied red strings around doorknobs. Many of the precautions seemed wholly fanciful to me, but a few appeared to have a practical basis as well, such as placing bunches of dried chili peppers around the kitchen. I could imagine hordes of rats and mice, driven from underground lairs by the storm, being particularly drawn to a bakery’s stores of flour and sugar and butter, only to end up with a nasty surprise when they bit into one of those peppers.

Less readily explained was the arrival of Amy’s neighbors from Articles of Some Considerable History, carrying a duffel bag full of baseball bats and machetes. “We had extra,” they said. “Do you need any?”

They seemed to be expecting looting and rioting, or possibly an attack of the walking dead. When I asked what all the weaponry was for, Pippa and Amy both grinned at me. “What isn’t it for? Absolutely everything comes out during a vortex,” Pippa said. “Better to have this stuff and not need them than need it and not have it,” Amy added sensibly.

 Ready for anything.

Ready for anything.

By the time we stopped for the lunch of baguette sandwiches Amy had generously provided, the store was thoroughly sealed against the forces of weather and ill luck both. Outside, the wind was picking up, and the usually calm waters of Prism Bay were beginning to ripple with turbulence. A procession of boats was on its way out to sea, maybe hoping to get away from the storm’s track, while other vessels were lined up along the docks, having sails and rigging stripped and tied down. On the street beside the boardwalk, an effort was underway to raise a sandbag wall against incursions by the sea, and when we had finished eating, Amy, Pippa and I joined in.

Overall, it was a positive experience, readers—the local community coming together for mutual aid and reassurance—but there was one rather awkward encounter late in the day. As I was at work stacking sandbags, I was approached by none other than Elle van der Geest, the bookish young woman from Prism Bay Literary Merchants. “Excuse me, sir,” she said, very politely, “would you mind carrying something for me?”

“I’d be happy to, Elle,” I replied, pleased for this opportunity to make up for my behavior at the farmers’ market, which—as you know, readers—I had since come to view with embarrassment and regret. “Lead the way.”

I thought I saw Elle’s eyes narrow with suspicion—possibly at hearing me use her name, since we hadn’t been formally introduced. Maybe it was the shyness Pippa had mentioned, but if so, Elle got over it quickly enough. She hurried ahead of me down the street, so swiftly that I had to jog to keep up—only to stop abruptly among a few boxes of rigging and miscellaneous buoys left ashore by some of the boats. I began to ask Elle if these were what needed carrying, but got only as far as “Are these—” before she spun around and threw a handful of something directly into my face.

I staggered back, blinded and sputtering, eyes, nose, and mouth choked with a dry, powdery substance, and at the same time, Elle let out a yell and—I’m pretty sure—punched me in the chest. “Elle!” I heard someone shout, a man—I could tell that much at least. “Elle! What in the world do you think you’re doing?”

“I told you!” Elle shouted back. “I told you—just look at him!”

“How did you expect him to react? You just threw crushed crab shells in his eyes,” said the man. “Sir, are you all right?” he asked, much closer to me now. I felt a steadying hand on my arm. 

 Come at me, vortex!

Come at me, vortex!

By this point, I had cleared enough of the powdery stuff from my face to see and breathe properly again, and I discovered the person beside me to be a tall fellow with steel-gray hair and the sort of weathered face one gets from a lot of outdoor leisure—skiing, sailing, that sort of thing. “Yes,” I said, “I’m fine, thank you.”

“I don’t know what’s gotten into Elle,” the man said.

“You should be asking what’s gotten into him!” Elle yelled, pointing so that there could be no mistaking the subject or her invective.

“She’s usually very well behaved,” said the man. “She certainly doesn’t make a habit of going around assaulting strangers.”

I almost said, I believe you mentioned it was powdered crab, not salt, but restrained myself. I, at least, did have some idea about young Elle’s motivation. It seemed obvious enough that this bookish young woman was reacting violently to my fraudulent insinuations of romantic involvement with Pippa. Whatever Elle’s feelings for Pippa—whether big-sisterly idolization, schoolgirl crush, or something entirely different—my boorish, dishonest behavior had trampled them, and now I was facing the consequences. “Yes, well, we all act out of character now and then,” I told the man. “I’m Patrick, by the way. Patrick Black.”

“Hector van der Geest, Elle’s father,” he replied, extending a hand to shake despite the fact that I was still covered in crab crumblings. “And believe me, Elle will notbe getting away with this behavior. Can I at least pay to have your clothes cleaned?”

“No, it’s fine,” I said. “They’re work clothes. They’re meant to get dirty.”

“Well, I’m very sorry about this, Mr. Black,” he said. “And I’m sure Elle is, too,” he added, raising his voice to include Elle in our conversation. “Isn’t that right, Elle?” Still standing some distance away, Elle nodded silently, eyes on her feet. This was not enough for Mr. van der Geest. “I want you to apologize to Mr. Black, then go straight home,” he said. “Your sisters and I will finish up here.”

Again, Elle nodded, and came forward, head still bowed. “I’m very sorry, Mr. Black,” she said to her boots. “What I did was inappropriate, and I humbly ask your forgiveness.”

“That’s all right, Elle, really,” I said. “These things happen.”

Elle glanced over her shoulder and, seeing her father was now out of earshot, glared at me. “I know what you’re up to,” she said, her voice low but no longer meek in the least. “I know what you’re doing and I’m going to stop you.”

It was a rather unnerving turn of events, and an odd way to reference my presumed relationship with Pippa, but I was glad for the opportunity to set the record straight. “Listen, Elle,” I said, “I think there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding. Whatever you saw at the farmers’ market, it isn’t what you’re imagining. There’s nothing going on, really.”

“You must think I’m an idiot,” Elle hissed. “Maybe you’ve got everyone else fooled, but not me. You’re going down, jerk.” And with that, she turned on her heel and strode away, looking equal parts awkward, determined, and furious.

I, meanwhile, looked like I was covered in powdered crab shells. I brushed at my shirt and jeans, trying to remove as much of the stuff as I could, and while thusly engaged I found a small strip of paper stuck to my shirt, right about where Elle had punched me. It was filled with some kind of weird writing—probably a local version of a “kick me” sign, I decided. I pocketed it for later examination, and at the same time noticed something on the ground: a colorful design drawn onto the pavement. It looked like elaborate street art, possibly left over from the Blood Moon Festival, and I assumed that’s what it was; the only really odd thing was that I happened to be standing directly in the center of it, right where I’d been when Elle launched her attack.

Fortunately, I was still in fine shape to fill and stack sandbags, because we had a long way to go before the waterfront was fully fortified. Amy and Pippa got a good laugh out of my be-crabbed state, which I explained away as a simple accident. We were out there until dark, but it was worth the effort: the local businesses of Prism Bay’s Town Center are ready for the coming storm—this “ethereal vortex”, whatever that turns out to be. 

Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you next time, readers. The skies of Prism Bay were dark and growling today as I set forth for Starbucks to deliver you this post. The storm approaches, readers—wish me luck!

 It was all just really super awkward.

It was all just really super awkward.

Amy's Blood Moon Soirée


Amy's Blood Moon Soirée

Astronomical events are something of a big deal in Prism Bay, readers. I suppose I might have divined this from the dates Mrs. Sylvester chose for her residency (“from two weeks before the summer solstice until the last week prior to the autumnal equinox”), but I’d thought this simply an expression of personal eccentricity, rather than community-wide eccentricity. The summer solstice was itself cause for some hearty celebration in late June, occasioning a level of pomp and circumstance that in another town would have been reserved for the Fourth of July. (The Fourth is still a thing, readers, but it’s one thing of many.) They like a good party around here, and this summer there has been a special addition to the calendar: a complete lunar eclipse, or “blood moon”, right at the height of summer. The whole town turned out to celebrate—and readers, it was glorious.

I didn’t see much of the summer solstice festivities, mostly because I hadn’t expected them to be so huge. I mean, when was the last time you went to a summer solstice party? (And if you have, readers, I welcome any experience you can contribute. How do you dress? What do you bring? Brownies? Seven layer dip?) The idea of an eclipse party at least made sense to me—there’d been a solar eclipse last summer, I remembered, and it seemed half of Boston emptied onto the Common to collectively scorch their retinas. A lunar eclipse—even better—would be at night. And not just any night: a Friday night. This was some prime party material, readers. As I understood things, a blood moon festival in Prism Bay was half New Year’s Eve, half Mardi Gras—so no way I was missing this. Fortunately, I’d been invited to a dinner party right on the main strip by none other than Amy of Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen.

Amy’s blood moon soirée was to be co-hosted with the antiques shop next door, Articles of Some Considerable History. As Prism Bay’s town center was to be the focal point of festivities, Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen would be catering to the crowds, selling special treats such as moon pies and cakes of deepest darkness. Articles of Some Considerable History, meanwhile, would be closing early, to avoid the volatile mixing of fragile antiquities and tipsy festivalgoers. As it happened, Amy’s neighbor had a full two stories, and the second, which housed antique furniture and other large items, featured a banquet table sized to seat twelve. So while Articles of Some Considerable History would provide the space, Amy’s would provide the cooking facilities—and Amy herself as chef de cuisine.

I admire people who can cook, readers, but I am not much of a cook myself. If anything, I’m a liability in the kitchen. Still, I like to help where I can, and so when Amy of Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen and Also This Blood Moon Party asked if I could help pick up ingredients for dinner, I was only too happy to agree. “You should be able to get almost everything at the market by Vagabond Farm,” Amy said. “Pippa’s a champ at finding the best stuff, so let her make the selections—unless you’re secretly a truffle sniffing pig or something.” I admitted I was not. “Just try and keep her on task—she has a tendency go a little overboard, especially at the meat counter,” Amy added. “And don’t let her steal anything, or eat half my produce on the way home.”

The day of the eclipse, I got up early. Figuring my role at the farmers’ market would mostly involve acting as beast of burden, I decided to take my car instead of the usual bike. I was just on my way out when Mrs. Sylvester appeared in the hall. Amy had, at my request, extended an invitation to the custodian of the Hemlocks, but Mrs. Sylvester had declined, as it seemed she declines all invitations. Today, though, she had a favor to ask for me. “I understand you will be going to the market at Vagabond Farm,” she said. “I wonder whether you might obtain certain items for me during your visit.” She handed me a long, narrow, curled sheaf of paper, bearing a carefully typed list.

 I do try to be a good guest, and picking up a few things seemed important to my very gracious host.

I do try to be a good guest, and picking up a few things seemed important to my very gracious host.

“Of course,” I said, accepting the strip of paper. The things listed were mostly what we might call “seasonal” ingredients. “Are you sure you don’t want to come tonight? Amy’s a great cook.” I’d begun to worry about her a little, readers. Lately, Mrs. Sylvester seemed to have become even more reclusive than usual. She is certainly no pushover, no shrinking violet; if there is one thing I’ve tried to convey to you about her, readers, it is her elegant self-assurance. I’d begun to wonder, though, whether that characteristic poise only went as far as the edge of her property—if, maybe, Mrs. Sylvester suffered from social anxiety disorder, or agoraphobia, or something similar.

“Quite sure,” Mrs. Sylvester answered with a thin smile. “Thank you, Mr. Black, but I have my own plans for the evening.” She seemed in fine fettle that day, I had to admit. Her long dress wasn’t exactly summery, but she looked comfortable in it. She was also wearing that pendant necklace, the one I’d found in my room. It had turned out to be a Sylvester family heirloom after all. When I got back after my visit to the Prism Bay Beach Club (the day of the Forest Wraiths, remember?), it had vanished from my desk—only to appear around Mrs. Sylvester’s neck the following morning.

Preparation for the festival was already well underway when I arrived in Prism Bay’s town center. Stalls for vendors and carnival-style amusements were going up along the boardwalk, and farther down I could see the little park beside the water decorated in red flowers. I noted with interest but not much surprise that the carnival games were not all throwing baseballs at milk bottles and popping balloons with darts. There was one stall, called “Throne of Consequences”, into which masked individuals were loading what appeared to be delicate glass spheres—like large light bulbs—filled with tarantulas, and another intriguingly labeled “Wrestle Your Doppelgänger”. I made a note to come back and have a look later, once the action was in full swing.

Pippa was waiting for me outside Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen, the donut line even longer than usual this morning thanks to the profusion of workers along the boardwalk. “Hey!” she said, sliding into the passenger seat. “I found that book you told me about!”

“Oh,” I said, a bit embarrassed to recall the circumstances under which I had recommended it to her. “Great.”

“Turns out we had it all along. It was in the ‘local authors’ section.”

This was pleasant news, readers, though it did make me wonder how exactly Prism Bay Literary Merchants defined “local”. Maybe Mrs. Sylvester had let them know I would be staying at the Hemlocks and thus secured me honorary local status—since I wasn’t actually from Prism Bay, or even Maine for that matter.

“It was really great,” Pippa said. “Your next one, too. Under Seven Skies.”

This last bit of dialogue might come as something of a surprise to you, readers. It certainly surprised me—because Under Seven Skies isn’t supposed to be on the shelves yet, here or anywhere. Did Prism Bay Literary Merchants somehow acquire an advance reader copy? I’d be interested to know how, since even I didn’t have one yet. Maybe they had some connection with my publisher? Spies engaged in literary espionage smuggling copies from the printer?

“I can’t wait for the third one. I promised Amy we’d read Experiments with Alternate Currents of High Potential and High Frequency by Nikolai Tesla—you know, before the movie comes out—but I’m having a hard time resisting yours. I really want to find out what happens.”

I did not quite know what to say, readers. I was torn between asking who was making a movie based on Tesla’s electrical engineering research and whether Pippa actually meant she had a copy of my third book, which is not even finished, let alone published. Had the computer djinni that infiltrated my machine started disseminating my drafts across the Internet? It occurred to me that I’d first encountered that critter at Prism Bay Literary Merchants—could the hacker have been there with me the whole time, somewhere in the store?

I opened my mouth, unsure what would come out, but Pippa waved her arms frantically at me, shouting, “No spoilers! I want to find out for myself! Same goes for all your other books, so just watch your mouth, mister.”

The conversation was getting weirder by the moment, readers. Probably Pippa meant she didn’t want me spilling premises for future novels so she’d be able to enjoy them in their fully-realized, published form, but I couldn’t ignore one other possible way of interpreting what she’d said, which was that everything I had ever written or would write was already there in the “local authors” section of Prism Bay Literary Merchants. It seemed pretty unlikely for a number of space/time-related reasons, but I still felt a little superstitious chill, the sort you might get hearing someone make a very firm prediction about the time and place of your death. 

I chose instead to ask about her readings in Nikolai Tesla, after which the conversation turned away from my future literary output, much to my relief. I was already nervous about this farmers’ market business. Generally I enjoy outdoor bazaars, especially where food is involved, but in Prism Bay I half expected to find the place sold actual farmers (the placing of that apostrophe in “farmers’ market” had begun to seem pretty important). But as we turned up the road toward Vagabond Farm, the sight awaiting us seemed to be a pretty traditional collection of local producers selling their wares—albeit a highly elaborate one, rambling across a multi-football-field-sized stretch of grass around a pristine little farmhouse and barn. Despite the relatively early hour, there was already a crowd, and the air was filled with voices—both human and animal—and heady, spicy smells.

It seemed like everything that could possibly grow from the earth was gathered into this one place, if only you knew where to look. There were indeed plenty of “summery” items for sale, such as supposed bottles of “ocean shimmer” displayed next to the cumin and nutmeg, but such curiosities were almost lost amid the profusion of fruits and vegetables, the cheeses and freshly-cut flowers, potted plants, steaming-hot pies, homemade ice cream, creatures bleating and mooing and clucking. (Did I hear a lion’s roar or an elephant’s trumpeting somewhere amid the din? Maybe I just imagined it…) There was cider, both hard and soft, and locally brewed beer, and many things distilled. The collection of tall, longhaired folk around the mead stand was one of several surreal glimpses among the mostly mundane traffic—because seriously, readers, who drinks mead these days? That stuff is pretty gross.

Pippa was, as promised, a marvel at finding the best melon in a stack, or choosing the absolute most fragrant sprig of mint, but she was far better behaved than Amy had led me to expect. She might have sampled more grapes than was really politic without buying the bunch, and I’m ninety-percent sure she ate a raw egg from the carton of three-dozen we bought, but that was as far as her transgressions against polite social norms went, so far as I saw. 

We had a lot to buy—most of it, I was relieved to see, pretty standard fare. Really, things didn’t start to get weird until I asked Pippa for help filling the shopping list Mrs. Sylvester had given me. I’d read it already, and thought there were a few pretty tall orders on there, but Pippa only gave it glance and said, “Oh, sure, most of this stuff should be around someplace.” She crinkled her nose, perhaps recognizing some particularly pungent ingredient. “What does she want all this stuff for?”

“No idea,” I said. “Actually, I was pretty surprised she didn’t have eye of newt on there, too.”

“Don’t worry, eye of newt’s easy,” Pippa said with a smile—then, probably seeing my face, “it’s just a creepy name for mustard seed.”

This is true, readers; I looked it up. In fact, pretty much all the ingredients mentioned in the witches’ famous “double, double, toil and trouble” song from Macbethare just different names for common plants. “Toe of frog” is buttercup; “wool of bat”—holly leaves. None of those were on Mrs. Sylvester’s list, but a few things that were: snakeroot, devil’s tongue, starflower, earth smoke, crow’s foot, sundrop, hearts bursting with love. Lamb’s tongue, too, and because we weren’t sure if Mrs. Sylvester wanted the plant (also known as English plantain) or, you know, the tongue of an actual lamb, we got both.

A few items, though, were most definitely not just common plants with unusual names. Bottled screams, for example, which came in several varieties (“surprise”, “terror”, “delight”, etc.) and appeared to be novelty items similar to the cans of “Irish air” my mother once brought home from Dublin. Also crystalized starlight, jellied mouse souls, and ashes from a burned church (“or any recognized house of worship”, said the list). Most spectacular of all were “hell crawlers”, which Pippa said were merely a temperamental variety of salamander, though to me they resembled glowing droplets of red-hot nickel. We found them in a rather seedy end of the market, at what looked like an artisanal smithy. They were about as big as “fun size” candy bars, and appeared—because of the heat, I suppose—to writhe in the tongs a burly, bearded fellow used to pull them from a live furnace.

It was while Pippa and I were waiting at the hell crawler stand that I finally confirmed something I’d suspected for some time. As we’d run hither and thither seeking out Mrs. Sylvester’s requests, I thought I’d noticed a figure scurrying stealthily in our wake. It was hard to tell for sure in the busier areas of the market, where someone was almost always walking behind you, but here, where the crowd was sparser, I was sure of it: we were being followed. Our pursuer had now taken up position behind a stall that apparently sold only rotting vegetables, and as Pippa accepted our insulated ceramic container of hell crawlers from the blacksmithy guy, I spun abruptly to look. Sure enough, a young woman was hiding there, peering at us over a stack of decomposing pumpkins.

“Hey Pippa,” I said. “Do you know that girl?”

Pippa turned, to where the girl still stood as if stunned, and broke into a radiant smile. “That’s Elle van der Geest, my best customer,” she said, and began to wave, calling, “Elle! Hey, Ellie, over here!”

It was the bookish young woman I’d met at Prism Bay Literary Merchants, readers. If Pippa was pleased to see her, however, young Elle was not at all glad to be seen. A look of sheer horror washed over her face, and after remaining frozen in place for perhaps five seconds, she dove into a nearby pile of overripe plums. “She’s really shy,” Pippa whispered, by way of explanation.

To me, it seemed rather obvious Elle van der Geest had been stalking us. I could guess why: she had made a point of warning me off of Pippa, and now here the two of us were, together, at a farmers’ market no less. Possibly this bookish young woman had proprietary feelings of some sort for our distractingly good-looking bookseller, and did not want Pippa’s attentions usurped by skeevy dudes like me. Not that there was much chance of me stealing Pippa’s affection; she was not much into dudes, skeevy or otherwise—or, if she was, she was much more into Amy of Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen. Young Elle had no obvious way of knowing this, however, especially with Pippa and me gallivanting among the produce like characters in a rom-com. I mean, honestly, I knew how this looked. We’d even bought a baguette.

Although it was childish and rather unkind of me, I decided, just for the moment, to encourage Elle’s misconception. My pride had been stung by her implication that I had no shot with Pippa—even if this was, strictly speaking, the exact truth. So while Pippa settled the jar of hell crawlers into her basket, I glanced back toward the place I guessed Elle would still be watching—and was, sure enough, down among the squashed plumbs, like a soldier ducking machinegun fire—and gave her a sly little how-do-you-like-me-now grin. It had the desired effect, readers: the bookish young woman’s eyes widened in a way that suggested she was seriously reconsidering my ability to woo foxy booksellers.

Overall, the trip to Vagabond Farm was an immense success: we got everything on Mrs. Sylvester’s list, and everything we needed for dinner, and I made fraudulent claims of romantic conquest for the purpose of impressing a teenager I hardly even knew. Amy was thrilled with our work, but I must say Mrs. Sylvester didn’t seem particularly grateful. After I dropped off Pippa and the goods at Amy’s, I went back to the Hemlocks to change and trade my car for the usual bike, and to deliver Mrs. Sylvester’s shipment of mysterious ingredients. I expected to be praised in a wry, vaguely condescending way, as one might a dog who has learned a difficult new trick, but all she said was, “Yes, Mr. Black. This will do nicely. This will do very nicely.” She didn’t even mention the hell crawlers, which had cost me fifty bucks and a lock of my hair (“one lock of a science fiction writer’s hair” was right there on the little blackboard listing the stall’s prices). But, as I reminded myself, I’d been staying at her house all summer for free—a bargain even at a hundred jars of hell crawlers. And I still felt sorry that she’d be missing all the fun.

 Hey, don't ask me about the recipe. I just do the shopping.

Hey, don't ask me about the recipe. I just do the shopping.

It was fun, readers, lots and lots of fun. There were about a dozen guests in all, what Amy affectionately called her “summer family”—a group in which I was very flattered to be included. The man of middle years who has been successful in business was there, and after a little more gin than was probably good for me, I tried to get him to tell me his actual name. “You couldn’t pronounce it,” he said with a grin. I did not believe him, readers. I try not to stereotype, but the man of middle years who has been successful in business does not look like a person whose name I cannot pronounce. He looks like a John, or a Henry, or an Arthur, or a Richard. When I persisted, he decided to have some fun with me. He took a big gulp of water and proceeded to gargle for ten seconds or so. “That’s my name,” he said when he was finished, and handed me the glass. “Go ahead, give it a shot.” I thought I made a pretty decent attempt, but the man of middle years who has been successful in business declared my accent to be way off. At last he told me I could call him “Manny” if I wanted, which I thought was a joke until I heard other people addressing him in the same way.

The dinner was lovely, and expertly prepared, with a great many courses, each perfectly paired with wine or beer or, yes, mead (far tastier stuff than I remembered). The windows were open to the night, allowing sounds from the celebration outside to punctuate the conversation. After dessert, we gathered by the windows to watch the parade on the street below. It was an elaborate, astonishingly high-production affair, readers, featuring floats in the shape of fantastical creatures and processions of local organizations, probably similar to the Shriners or Elks or Rotary Club, or those brotherhoods in Spain you see during Easter marching around in what look like (but which are most definitely not) Klansman robes. 

I tried to sketch a few for you, readers, but I don’t think my art skills were much helped by the extended cocktail hour and all that very good wine. As the Earth’s shadow washed over the sky and the moon began to turn red, a group of crimson-robed figures appeared, floating through the streets and among the crowd. “Here come the Moon Wraiths, ladies and gents,” I announced. I thought I was being clever, but Amy, who was standing at the window with me, laughed and said, “Yeah, just stay out of their way and you’ll be fine.”

 It's Fri-day, Fri-day, gotta get down on Fri-day / Everybody's lookin' forward to the weekend, weekend

It's Fri-day, Fri-day, gotta get down on Fri-day / Everybody's lookin' forward to the weekend, weekend

With the red moon growing ever darker, our little company descended to the street and joined the festivities. It was quite the party, readers, a jubilant and more than a little creepy whirl of motion and color (the color in question generally being red). I didn’t get a chance to play the carnival games, most of which were completely overrun with young people, though I did watch a few and will freely admit I probably wouldn’t have done very well, even if I wasn’t already a little tipsy. Many had obscure and complicated rules, and a few looked downright dangerous—far more violent than the mere massacre of metal ducks by air rifle. 

One such game appeared to involve throwing bladed weapons at diving birds of prey—scaled-down metal models, anyway, though the booth did feature a lot of realistic screeching sound effects. A large crowd had gathered around, though as it was mostly made up of adolescent boys I could easily see over their heads to what was happening at the booth, where a stout young gentleman was really laying into those metal birds. I don’t think he missed a single one, though afterward I couldn’t quite remember where he’d actually gotten all those knives and hatchets.

“Holy crap,” said one young man standing in front of me. “That Tyler kid is scary.”

“What a spaz,” opined another young man of the same group. “Dude is a total psycho,” commented a third.

The Tyler in question, I’m quite sure, was Tyler the well-armed young gentleman from the Prism Bay Beach Club. I hadn’t recognized him without his catcher’s mask. I remembered him as being very polite, if somewhat overindulged by the adults around him, but here, readers, he did look like sort of a psycho—the kind of kid who might bring a crossbow to school for show and tell, and be the subject of tactful but serious meetings in which teachers would be asked to observe him for signs of violent or antisocial behavior.

It seemed the whole town was out that night, readers—with the exception of Mrs. Sylvester, anyway. I even saw Mimi, the young woman formerly of the explicit t-shirt, now wearing a party dress, carrying her shoes in one hand, and crying. It was an upsetting sight, readers, but I wasn’t sure how I could help. Generally speaking, teenage women in fragile emotional states do not appreciate being approached by mildly intoxicated older men they barely know, even if those mildly intoxicated older men have nothing but the best intentions. Since I was with Amy at the time—the whole dinner party was making its way to the little park at the far end of the town center—I pointed Mimi out and asked, “Hey, does that girl look OK to you?”

Amy, a bit blurrily, glanced in Mimi’s direction. “Oh yeah, she’ll be fine,” she said. “Have you even been to middle school? If it isn’t the worst night of someone’slife, it isn’t a party. Amiright?” She raised her hand for a high-five, and by the time I had reciprocated—she was my host, and it was only polite—Mimi had vanished.

We watched the eclipse’s darkest moment, the Earth’s shadow submerging the moon in red so deep it was nearly black, from the seaside park. There was a huge crowd, and everyone cheered and kissed like the ball had just dropped in Times Square. Over the bay, the sky lit up with fireworks launched from what seemed like every possible direction: boats on the water and houses on both sides of the bay. I glanced toward the Hemlocks, thinking of Mrs. Sylvester all alone, and thought I saw a flash of light up there, too, almost like a bolt of lighting. So maybe she wasn’t so lonely after all—maybe she was having a little celebration of her own.

I got back late—or early, I suppose—and there didn’t seem to be anyone around, so I snuck up to bed, making a note to wish Mrs. Sylvester a happy Blood Moon Festival in the morning. I couldn’t wait to write everything down for you, dear readers, but first I needed some sleep. 

It’s a shame eclipse parties like this aren’t more of a thing, wouldn’t you say? I plan to make it a tradition of my own, on those rare occasions there is an eclipse around which I can party. One piece of the whole event did seem a little off to me, though. As I was at Starbucks today, getting ready to post this week’s entry, I did a little web search on the eclipse, just to see whether anyone else was having a party even close to what I saw in Prism Bay, and it turns out the eclipse should not have been visible from Maine—or, for that matter, anywhere in North America. The ideal viewing location was, like, Iran. It makes me wonder whether what I saw wasn’t really an eclipse, but a cloud covering the moon, maybe just some drifting smog. It’s sort of disappointing, I’ve got to admit, but I won’t let that overshadow (or “eclipse”, ha-ha, get it) the memory of such a wonderful night.

It’s turning out to be one heck of summer, readers. Until next time!

 A magical evening indeed!

A magical evening indeed!


Pretty Popular Blob


Pretty Popular Blob

High summer is upon us, readers, the days warm and sunny, the evenings long and languorous, and I think, at last, I am beginning to feel at home in Prism Bay. That is not to say the local culture makes any real sense to me—I’m still surprised, confused, and/or mildly terrified by the things I see here almost on a daily basis. But I think, finally, I’m beginning to understand that a certain base level of bewilderment is part of the pace of life in Prism Bay, at least for me. After two months of having my assumptions and expectations violently exploded before my eyes, I suppose I’m getting used to it. I avoid seasonal menus and no longer worry about wifi. More than that, I’ve made some friends.

You might have noticed, readers, that my first weeks at the Hemlocks on Prism Bay were not exactly overflowing with social engagements. This was at least partly by choice: Mrs. Sylvester has made it clear that she would happily arrange invitations for me to any of several events held around town throughout the summer. For the most part, I’ve avoided these, claiming an excess of work—but really because they were mostly held at places like the Prism Bay Beach Club, strongholds of the summer people, and I knew I would feel out of place, constantly running afoul of strange customs and unfamiliar codes of conduct. This town really feels like a foreign country sometimes, and if you’ve ever lived abroad, readers, you know how exhausting it can be, not knowing how things work. At the same time, my status as an outsider makes the locals wary of me. I’m caught in between, neither one thing nor the other. Generally, I don’t mind the solitude—writing is solitary work, after all, and that’s one reason I like it. But in a foreign land, human connections become that much more important—as I’ve recently rediscovered.

The point at which things began to change was, I think, also one of my most traumatic experiences in Prism Bay so far. You will remember, I hope, my run-in with a computer gremlin or computer djinni, also potentially a Russian hacker or crazed fan, on the wifi network of Prism Bay Literary Merchants. That story had a happy (or, anyway, non-disastrous) ending, but left me frazzled and shaken. When I returned to the Hemlocks that evening—after Helpful Hernán of the Best Buy Geek Squad had successfully booted up my computer, without even treating me like a hapless bonehead or Luddite, despite the appearance of both—Mrs. Sylvester instantly took in my careworn state and asked how she could help.

“I think it’s all sorted out, Mrs. Sylvester,” I said, after giving her a brief summary of my trials. “What I’d really like right now is to go out and have a drink somewhere. Would you care to join me?”

“It’s very kind of you to invite me, Mr. Black,” she answered graciously, “but I’m afraid I must decline.” Mrs. Sylvester gave no reason for her refusal, and I didn’t ask. Nor was I all that surprised—disappointed, maybe, because I enjoy Mrs. Sylvester’s company, but not surprised. It isn’t that Mrs. Sylvester doesn’t drink; she often has wine with dinner, and I’ve seen her sipping brandies and sherries and cordials from small crystal glasses. It’s that she never seems to leave the Hemlocks grounds. Maybe it’s only a coincidence that I’ve never seen her away from home; for all I know, she could be out and about all the time, and I simply haven’t noticed. Really, it’s none of my business. This is her house, after all. I’m just a guest.

Mrs. Sylvester asked if I had any particular destination in mind, and when I said I did not, she recommended a restaurant in town called the Dancing Squid. “A venerable establishment and local mainstay,” she said, “and a worthy setting for nearly any celebration, but especially when celebrating escape from disaster.” This was all the recommendation I needed: it’s true that Mrs. Sylvester sometimes steers with an unusually firm hand, but she has never steered me wrong.

The Dancing Squid is near the center of the town’s main drag, past the commercial docks, along the part of the harbor reserved for pleasure craft. As soon as I saw it, tall windows glowing yellow in the purple twilight, I remembered it from my first night in Prism Bay: it was one of the few restaurants still open as I drove through the town center that early morning, not yet knowing I’d found my destination—the one where I’d seen the staff gathered around the bar for an after-hours drink. Even now, with the whole street busy, the evening in full swing, the Dancing Squid seemed livelier than most, emitting an almost palpable hum as I stowed my bike (an honest to goodness oil lantern hanging by the handlebars to light my way home) and walked inside.

 Looks like fun to me.

Looks like fun to me.

Standing in the small waiting area, I had a good view of the dining rooms I’d glimpsed through the windows, and I could see what Mrs. Sylvester had meant by a “venerable establishment and local mainstay”. Everywhere I looked, I saw well-dressed patrons enjoying elegant meals on white tablecloths. This, I surmised, was Prism Bay’s “fancy” restaurant, the place to go for those seeking to spend as much as possible on food and drink. When folks around here said, “Let’s go somewhere nice,” they probably meant the Dancing Squid. It would be where they went to celebrate anniversaries and important birthdays, to have rehearsal dinners for weddings, to entertain special out of town guests. The realization put me instantly on my guard, not because I don’t like fancy restaurants, but because in small resort towns there is often only room for one in the local economy, and the lack of competition makes them lazy. They act like being the most expensive is the same as being the best, and generally get away with it.

My initial impression was not improved by a trip to the bar—never a good sign, readers. The bar was a straight shot from the door, at least, and had a few comfortable, high-backed stools open at the counter, a gleaming strip of warm, lacquered wood. The barkeep, however, didn’t seem much interested in taking my order. He was posted—an appropriate description, since he was tall and sturdy enough to seem almost like a structural element in the overall architecture—at the far end of the bar, in conversation with a group of customers dressed in capes and bow ties, like Victorian era stage magicians. It was fully five minutes before he deigned to notice me, and then he poured my bourbon (I’d decided the situation called for bourbon) with a faint air of distain, as if under protest, before lumbering off to banter with a party of what looked like blinged-out lumberjacks but might in fact have been the Visigoths and Ostrogoths I’d heard so much about.

Yes, readers, it was a “summer person” bar. I hadn’t been surprised at the amount of khaki and blue blazers and pearls I’d seen in the dining area, of course—that was to be expected of virtually any fancy-pants resort town restaurant. And if the Dancing Squid was as overpriced as I suspected, the locals would know to avoid it anyway. But the crowd in here wasn’t the same as the conservatively dressed clientele enjoying their swordfish and chardonnay. They weren’t quite cloaked and masked crepuscular customers, either, but despite the cozy lighting and quietly tuneful piano music drifting through the air, I was getting a distinct Star Wars cantina vibe.

The bourbon, at least, was very bourbony, and the atmosphere was, as promised, a fine one in which to enjoy having recently escaped disaster. I sipped my drink and sat back and took in the crowd, which included, in addition to the Dr. Strange-looking guys and the collection of Vandals and Huns, a trio of women in dark sunglasses (inside, at night), and what I can only assume was the cast of a local community theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—a version set in modern-day New York City where Oberon and Titania’s fairy court was hidden in Central Park and populated by eerily beautiful homeless people—who had all decided to go out tonight in full costume. I know that’s a fairly elaborate description, readers, but it’s the best I could come up with.

The community theatre troop, as I immediately began to think of them, was the largest group around the bar, taking up one full side and mingling freely among the other seats and high tops. I was curious enough about them to risk conversation with the barkeep, despite an expression that implied one wrong word would see me tossed onto the street. When he stopped by to refill my drink—with the obvious intention of moving on as quickly as possible—I said, “So, is there like a Shakespeare in the park sort of thing going on in town?” 

He paused, and for the first time actually seemed to notice me as more than the chaperone of an empty glass. “Shakespeare?” he said, as if I’d asked about someone known to operate under several aliases.

“The playwright,” I said, more unsure of myself with each word. “The Bard. You know, HamletRomeo & JulietThe TempestKing Lear. I’d sort of thought this bunch here was from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The barkeep glanced over at one cluster of the fair folk, then back to me. “You’re not from around here, are you?” he asked.

“I’m in town for the summer,” I admitted. “I’m staying at the Hemlocks.”

You might remember, readers, what sort of reaction this information earned me my first day in Prism Bay—but if not, let’s just say it was less than friendly. At the Dancing Squid, however, the result was just the opposite: this sturdy yet standoffish barkeep warmed to me immediately. I can only guess that he’d had some bad experiences with locals, and assumed me to be of that set due to my attire, which was nicer than my usual but did not involve a cape, mask, or crown of flowers. Where before he could hardly be bothered to spare two words for me, now he became positively gregarious.

His name was Larry, and he was something of a fixture (his term) at the Dancing Squid. When I mentioned I was a writer, he asked, “Like Shakespeare?” with such a deadpan expression that I could almost believe he seriously did not know who I was talking about. I said I was working my way up to Shakespeare’s level but hadn’t made it there yet. Privately, I reveled in the idea of having two things in common with the man who penned Much Ado About Nothing: we were both writers, and Larry the tall and sturdy barkeep had never heard of us. And Larry had not heard of me, readers, which was fine. Actually, it allowed me to puff myself up a little more than would have been feasible if he’d actually read any of my stuff.

When you get away with as much bragging as I did in the fifteen minutes that followed, readers, it’s time to quit, but I couldn’t resist. “How about blogs?” I asked, when we’d finished talking science fiction. “Do you like blogs?” Larry the tall and sturdy barkeep said he did indeed, which I took as a good sign. “Well I’ve got a blog, too,” I said. “I’ve got a pretty popular blog, actually.”

Readers, I’m not sure what sort of reaction I was expecting. Unless this guy was already a fan of my work, he probably wouldn’t care about my blog, even if “pretty popular” weren’t already a bit of an exaggeration. But I did not expect for him to become instantly offended. It was as if I’d just said something lewd about a beloved relation. “A pretty popular blob?” he asked, sneering.

“A blog,” I answered, taken aback but wanting to be clear. “A pretty popular blog.”

“Well it can’t be as popular as Mr. Bentley’s blob, Harold,” said Larry the tall and sturdy barkeep. “Harold is the most popular blob in town,” he added with barely-contained rage. “He’s the most popular blob at Blob Academy.”

Readers, I cannot be one-hundred percent sure he was saying “blob” instead of “blog”, but that’s what it sounded like to me. Maybe it was his accent; I don’t know. Really, I was far more concerned with his bewildering reaction, because who gets that upset over a blog? Maybe this Mr. Bentley was some local writer—one who chronicled life in Prism Bay on a blog of his own, perhaps. That would make me direct competition, possibly out there stealing Mr. Bentley’s material. If so, Mr. Bentley needed to work on his web presence, because I’d searched all over for information about Prism Bay before coming out here, and came up with nada. Also, who names their blog “Harold?”

I said none of this to Larry the tall and sturdy barkeep, however. He was so enraged that just letting him drift off without another word seemed the safe (if awkward) thing to do. Fortunately, I still had plenty of bourbon, and the bar’s curious crowd for entertainment. I watched as Larry took orders from a few members of the Shakespearean theatre troop who’d wandered away from the main group, amused at first by the novelty—not only their outfits, but the fact that they were plainly ordering from the “seasonal menu”. The more I witnessed, however, the more I felt the sense of lost-in-the-woods confusion that sometimes comes from close encounters with the summer people of Prism Bay.

There was an old lady who resembled a walking walnut but moved with the grace and power of an Olympic gymnast, and ordered (I felt instantly compelled to copy this into my notebook) “the sap of a pine tree, no less than one-hundred years of age, garnished with a rusty razorblade”. There was a woman with doll-like features and red dreadlocks, who asked for “the tears of a man weeping at the sight of a great work of art”. But what weirded me out the most, readers, was when a waifish little boy—he had to stand on tiptoes to reach the bar—requested “a teacup of doe’s blood, drawn at midnight in the depth of a new moon”. It wasn’t just his age, though he couldn’t have been much older than eight or nine—much too young to be hanging around in a bar, even with actors. What really got me was that the drink he received was not, as I’d expected, some fanciful kiddie cocktail—something with a lot of grenadine, maybe, like a Shirley Temple—but what looked disturbingly like an exact, literal interpretation of his order.

 At least I got to practice drawing glass?

At least I got to practice drawing glass?

I watched the boy depart, gory teacup clasped between his delicate hands, and no longer felt even remotely sure I was in the presence of a theatre company, Shakespearean or otherwise. If this was the cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who was he? Puck? The two women went with him, each holding a drink that was at least a visual match to their requests, right down to the rusty razor blade (no way to tell if I was looking at real sap and real tears—except, maybe, by ordering the same thing myself). I couldn’t decide what would be more appropriate just then: to get another round (maybe two, or seven) for myself, or to run for my life.

The decision was made for me, however, when Larry the tall and sturdy barkeep arrived with a new glass of bourbon. When I offered to pay, deciding this had probably better be my last drink, he said, “Already taken care of,” indicating a man a few seats down, at the edge of Oberon and Titania’s court. “You looked like you could use it,” the man said with a smile, raising his own drink—which, I noted with relief, seemed to be a perfectly ordinary martini.

“Thanks,” I said, toasting in return. “That isn’t, you know, three ounces of scorpion venom or something you’ve got there, is it?”

“Just gin and a very secretive whisper of vermouth,” he said with a laugh. He seemed a reassuringly mundane sort of person, with white hair and the roundish belly of a comfortable existence. His clothes were clearly expensive, if not particularly well tailored. He looked like a man who enjoyed his food and drink, and could afford the best of both. He looked, readers, like just the sort of person you’d expect to find in a bar like this—or, maybe, its counterpart in any other summery town. Like a man of middle years who has been successful in business.

“I’m Patrick,” I said, leaning over to shake his hand.

“I’m a man of middle years who has been successful in business,” he replied, shaking.

Readers, I cannot now recall whether I began to think of him in this way before or after he offered the label himself. It must have been after, of course—it would have been too much of a coincidence otherwise—but that wasn’t how it felt. He didn’t tell me his name, and I didn’t want to press. He’d just bought me a drink, after all. Instead I nodded toward the Shakespearean theatre troop and asked, “Friends of yours?”

The man of middle years who has been successful in business glanced over his shoulder toward the crowd of nymphs and satyrs. “Sort of a family reunion,” he said.

“Quite the family,” I opined, still a bit distracted by the ethereal boy (that shrewd and knavish sprite, as Bill might say) sipping from his teacup, a thin moustache of red painting his upper lip. Bloody Mary mix, maybe? Or tomato soup?

“You might say I’m the clan’s nonconformist,” he said. “The black sheep. Only really feels that way when we’re all together, though. At least it’s at a bar.” And with that, he finished his drink and signaled to Larry the tall and sturdy barkeep for another.

This was not how I usually pictured nonconformity, readers, but among this crowd, a man of middle years who has been successful in business did seem incongruous. In another context, this guy would have been the very image of entrenched power, but not here. I felt a surprising pang of sympathy. “Well, you’re not alone in feeling a bit out of place,” I said. I offered a few anecdotes from my summer misadventures—all of which you have already heard, readers. The man of middle years who has been successful in business seemed to enjoy them, at least, especially my story about the sinister Forest Wraiths Ornithological Society.

By this time, the family reunion was beginning to disperse. “Were you all waiting for a table?” I asked, noting how most members of the fairy court seemed to be disappearing into the restaurant.

“No, it’s just that you can never keep them all in one place for very long,” said the man of middle years who has been successful in business. “They go where they want, when they want.” He glanced at his watch, a heavy, expensive thing. “I’ve got a few friends showing up any minute, if you want to stick around.”

I was definitely interested to find out what sort of friends these would be. Other men of middle years who have been successful in business, perhaps? The cast of another theatre company, maybe one with more of a science fiction theme? I think I would have been equally surprised to meet the CEO of General Electric as I would a talking velociraptor in a top hat. Even so, when the man of middle years who has been successful in business raised a hand and waved to a couple across the room, I still did not expect to see Amy of Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen making her way toward us through the restaurant, and with her, Pippa, the distractingly good-looking bookseller.

They were all old friends, readers, and had decided to get together after the “sort of a family reunion”, as described by the man of middle years who has been successful in business. He’d deemed the Dancing Squid an appropriate meeting place, not just because he already planned to be there, but because it was, as Mrs. Sylvester had put it, just the place to celebrate escaping disaster. Apparently surviving this family reunion qualified.

I’ve been back many times since, not only to celebrate other escapes from disaster, but for the company of this unlikely trio. Even Larry the tall and sturdy barkeep appears to be warming up to me, albeit very slowly—I still don’t think he’s gotten over my claims of blog or blob popularity. Those three are all outsiders in their own way, I gather—and even if I don’t really know what they’re outside of, exactly, they’re good company, and company of this sort, readers, is one thing I’d been missing.

As it happens, Amy and Pippa are planning a little party later this week, during a sort of town-wide festival. I’m sure it will be intriguingly unusual all around, readers, so please do check in next time. Until then, be sure and tip your servers, you never know what’s behind the bar!

 Yeah, more or less like that...

Yeah, more or less like that...


Terror, Panic, etc. by the Sea

Terror, Panic, etc. by the Sea

Disaster has struck, dear readers. I am partly to blame; this is true, but the ordeals I have endured this past week are such as I would not wish upon my worst enemy. Things turned out all right in the end—I think—but it has taken me days to recover. After much beachside convalescence, I finally feel prepared to tell my tale—just in time for my next post, as it happens. This story is not for the faint of heart, readers: you have been warned. And so, lock your doors, turn on all the lights, and prepare yourselves for the terrors I am about to relate.

As you might remember, dear readers, last week I visited Prism Bay Literary Merchants, an elaborate and strangely-organized bookstore along the town’s main street, where I met a distractingly good-looking bookseller, purchased a tome of weird stories, was frowned at by a bookish young woman holed up inside on a beautiful sunny day and, most pertinent to today’s story, discovered what is possibly the only operating wifi network in all of Prism Bay. This week (well, technically last week—but anyway, after my most recent post), I returned with my laptop and a long “to do” list of things I hoped to accomplish online: research, shopping, but most of all, correspondence. The backlog of emails that can build up when you are without an Internet connection, readers, is hardly to be believed.

As it had been on my first visit, Prism Bay Literary Merchants was apparently empty when I arrived, bearing the contents of my mobile office (laptop, notebooks, and coffee). I had a quick look around before setting up—just in case there were, for example, any snarky children hidden nearby, who might be tempted to read over my shoulder as I worked—but it seemed I was alone for now. I arranged my materials on one of the desks in the little reading area, opened my laptop, and found the network labeled “PrismBayLiteraryMerchants” already waiting. That seemed a little odd, since I’d never signed onto it from my laptop, but I assumed this was a case of electronic products talking to one another, in the same way my phone and computer often shared contact info without bothering to consult me. I signed on with the password provided (“throomhbustah”), opened my email, and went to work. And that, readers, was when things began to go wrong—horribly, horribly wrong.

I began with some simple inbox sweeping. My spam filters catch a lot of the more egregious crud, the phishing schemes and untargeted mass-mailings and attachment-heavy messages from mysterious addresses in Eastern Europe; there is a whole other class of emails, however, that have some vague reason to land in my inbox but require no response from me: informational missives from organizations I’ve volunteered with, coupons from retailers I’ve visited, social media platforms making tenuous and rather pathetic bids for my attention. Deleting these emails allows me to feel like I am doing something productive without requiring too much actual thought. (Oh, someone I barely know just commented on something I don’t care about?! Thanks for the heads up! Into the trash with you!)

As I banished these sub-spam emails one after another, something strange began to happen. They started coming back. When I deleted a message from my college alumni organization advertising a cocktail hour I wouldn’t be able to attend, it reappeared at the top of my inbox, and when I clicked on it, preparing to hit “delete” once more, I noticed a line that hadn’t been there before, written just above the greeting in an unusual, reddish font. “you should go this sounds fun”, said the strange scrawl of text. I deleted the email again, and again it returned, this time with the added line, “i bet no one wanted you there anyway”.

I wondered if maybe the alumni office had somehow included a read-receipt without my knowledge, and now one of the interns was using it to mess with my head. Whatever—I still wasn’t going to the cocktail hour. But something similar happened on the next email, a clothing store where I’d once bought a few t-shirts advertising new summer fashions. This email, too, came back to life once deleted, along with a message reading, “you should get that green sweater it would look good on you”. Again, I re-deleted, and again, the email returned. This time, it said, “fine just go on wearing the same old crap see what i care”.

The right thing to do, readers, would have been to shut down my computer then and there. Part of me already knew something was very wrong, but I had big plans for this Internet session, and so I convinced myself I had simply encountered some new and very aggressive form of spam bot, one that re-sent deleted messages along with pre-written responses. Though annoying and alarming, such a development wouldn’t prevent me from accomplishing my next task: answering actually important emails.

Giving up on the Zen of inbox sweeping, I opened a letter from my editor about my latest draft. I’d read and downloaded this email on my last trip to Starbucks, and had already worked up a few ways of addressing the issues she’d raised, including one very nasty plot hole. But as I began typing my notes into the email (and don’t worry, readers: I’ll keep things spoiler-free), the situation began to get genuinely out of control. Since I was really just copying responses I’d already written, my eyes were mostly on my notebook, not the screen, so I didn’t see what was going on until I stopped to turn a page and looked up to discover several strings of words I had definitely not typed myself.

At one point, my editor had recommended removing a certain romantic subplot, and I had to admit she was right: upon rereading, the whole thing felt a bit contrived and didn’t add much to the overall story. I’d written as much in my reply; now, on the next line, I saw the words, “no they deserve to be together how dare you stand in the way of true love”. Elsewhere in her comments, my editor had made a very good argument for taking out a new character I’d included the latest draft; again, this was the right move, and I’d answered, “Yes, we can cut her”. In response, the reddish words proclaimed, “why would you cut someone for no reason she did nothing to you”.

That, readers, was when I understood I had done something truly dangerous and dumb. I had signed onto a strange wireless network—password protected, yes, but with who knew what level of security beyond that? And now my computer had been infected with some malicious software, possibly allowing unknown parties free reign over the entire system. Hackers—Russian, maybe, or North Korean. Because this was no mere bot: someone was responding to the specific content of my email, and not even an email I’d sent, meaning they could potentially see what was on my screen right now. Probably they’d logged my keystrokes, and now had my email password. They might already be reading my new draft.

 Artist's interpretation.

Artist's interpretation.

I closed my email and began saving and shutting down my other programs, but I was fooling myself, readers. It was too late for damage control. My web browser had only just quit when a new window appeared, and in it, the words, “we need to talk mr black you will find i can be very reasonable”.

I froze. Crap; they knew my name. Of course, I told myself—they’d been in my email. Slowly, carefully, I typed back, “Who is this?”

“that is not important mr black”, said the reddish text. “only my demands matter and your willingness to meet them”

That’s it, then: a ransom. I’d heard about this sort of thing. Whoever was in there, they possibly had access to everything on my computer, and could, if they chose, post it for the entire Internet to see. I couldn’t think of anything terribly incriminating hidden away in the depths of my hard drive, but still. Then there was the possibility this person would just erase the whole kit and caboodle. Since I’d arrived in Prism Bay, I’d been backing up my work once a week at most. I thought back to my last Starbucks visit—had I run a backup then? I couldn’t remember. Lost work could be replaced—I could rewrite my last few chapters if necessary—but it would definitely be worth something to save the time and aggravation. “What do you want?” I typed.

“first we must discuss your plans to cut that poor girl this cannot be allowed”

I was a bit nonplussed, readers. Here I had been envisioning financial ruin and the wide dissemination of drunken college photos, and the intruder wanted to discuss the revisions to my latest draft. “Well,” I wrote, “I get where you’re coming from, I do. I like her, too, but she’s sort of superfluous. She doesn’t really fit in anywhere.”

“that is no reason to cut her”

“Actually, that’s a very good reason,” I wrote, feeling more in my element, now that were discussing story craft. “If you’re not relevant, you get cut. That’s just how it works.”

“you heartless monster you must be stopped”

I knew this sort of thing happened in the realms of pop culture fandom, readers: enthusiasts developing proprietary feelings for a given character or story or world, and becoming enraged over changes to their beloved fiction. I’d heard of similar revolts over developments in the Star Wars universe, for example, or in the lives of Marvel superheroes. To be honest, I was a little flattered—I didn’t know I had any fans rabid enough to hack into my computer and hold me hostage over a plot point. The odd thing was, that character I’d been planning to cut wasn’t even inmy first book, so how did this hacker know about her? Was I dealing with some kind of speed-reader, who’d gone through my entire draft in the time it took me to write half an email?

“Look,” I wrote, “I’m really grateful for your interest in my work, but I have a responsibility to all my readers, not just you. Sometimes doing the right thing is hard, and you have to cut someone you like. Haven’t you ever heard the old advice, ‘kill your darlings’?”

“what an evil motto watch vile fiend as i strike you down”

And with that, readers, my screen went blank.

Readers, I do not know if anything like this has ever happened to you. I hope it has not. But if it has, you will understand the shock and horror I felt as my desktop vanished in a flash, as silence replaced the whirring of cooling fans, as the light receded from my screen, leaving only my own astonished reflection staring back at me through the glossy black of my monitor. I hit the power button; nothing happened. I depressed various combinations of keys, hoping to initiate a hardware reset, but no hardware reset was initiated. Panic rising, I attempted some percussive maintenance, shaking my laptop as if to send the intruder rattling out onto the floor. I shouted, “Get ahold of yourself, computer!” But my efforts were in vain, readers: not a blip, not a beep, not a boop emerged from within the metal frame.

I promised you terrors, readers, and here they are: my laptop had gone insensible, and all attempts to revive it had failed. I needed professional help, stat—ideally an Apple Store, but barring that (as I do not think Apple Stores are common in northern Maine), any computer maintenance outfit. My first action, though, was to get out of Prism Bay Literary Merchants and away from the infected network. That done, I tried the laptop’s power button again, but to no avail. I thought about returning to the Hemlocks, to ask Mrs. Sylvester where the nearest computer technician could be found, until I remembered I had a friend close by who might be able to point me in the right direction.

Since my first visit to Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen some weeks back, I have become a Sunday regular and frequent lunchtime customer. I’d entered full computer panic during the post-post-lunch, pre-teatime lull, and when I rushed through the bakery’s door, wild-eyed and waving my laptop, Amy was enjoying a coffee behind the counter. She listened sympathetically to my woes, but could not direct me to Prism Bay’s foremost computer maintenance facility, as I requested, because no such place existed. “There’s one sort of general repair shop a little way inland,” she said. “I don’t know if they do computers, but they’re supposed to be able to fix anything. Could be worth a try.”

It did sound worth a try. Surely someone with a reputation for being able to fix anything would have seen a computer or two in their day. I was further encouraged by the place’s name, “Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium”. Amy wrote down directions to the shop on a napkin, which she presented to me along with a donut, refusing all payment because, and I quote, “There’s no charge for sympathy donuts”. (“Sympathy”, incidentally, was the donut’s purpose, not its flavor. The flavor was chocolate.) Amy is a true friend, readers.

I arrived at Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium roughly fifteen minutes later, sweating from a warm and sunny day I was far too agitated to enjoy. If Earl’s choice to include the word “entropy” in the name of his business had left me hopeful of his potential computer expertise, the overall state of his emporium did not. It looked like a junkyard, readers, albeit one full of artfully restored and cool-looking stuff—at least, from what was visible of it. Most of the place was surrounded by a high wooden fence, but I could see all manner of crap poking up over the top: old carnival rides, and gigantic novelty roadside attractions (livid green tyrannosaurus Rex, enormous kewpie doll, off-brand King Kong gorilla, gaping Jaws-sized shark), some oddly-configured construction equipment, and what was very possibly a full locomotive engine. 

Out front was a small red building, bearing a billboard that declared this to be Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium. A line of vintage cars, like the ones I remembered from the Prism Bay Beach Club, told me Earl likely did a brisk trade maintaining the town’s fleet of classics. I stowed my bike and made my way gingerly inside, very aware that the ground might be strewn with sharp, rusty objects that would make short work of my flip-flops. At the door, I was greeted by a room that seemed filled with just about everything to which the word “machine” might be attached: sewing machines, washing machines, vending machines, slot machines. There were bicycles, unicycles, motorcycles, monocycles. All manner of audio and visual equipment, too—phonographs, gramophones, televisions, kinetoscopes—so long as it was made before 1960, apparently. I did spot one actual computer, though—an Apple, in fact. It was an Apple II, circa 1980.

The whole place had a weird vitality to it, the kind of rhythmic motion you might expect in a room full of cuckoo clocks. Earl, I supposed, was Prism Bay’s version of a nineteenth-century gentleman scientist—maybe even its Victor Frankenstein. On another day, it would have been an awesome discovery, but today I had more pressing concerns, and creepy coolness was not going to revive my computer. Where I would find the help I needed was still unclear: I was by myself in the midst of this clutter—unless, of course, you counted the array of animatronic robots, seemingly salvaged from every amusement park ever built, their wide, white eyes staring at me from various points around the room.

 To be honest there was a lot more stuff but drawing that dang clock took forever.

To be honest there was a lot more stuff but drawing that dang clock took forever.

After some searching, I discovered a front desk with an attached call bell, the ringing of which summoned the store’s eponymous Earl. He was an unassuming fellow, of relaxed and unhurried demeanor—just the sort of attitude that will drive you crazy if, for example, you are frantic over the state of a misbehaving computer. At first, he stared at my laptop like it was the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, not even opening it, just considering the shiny exterior and embossed Apple logo. Eventually, he lifted the cover, but didn’t touch the keys, or plug the laptop in, or really do anything except gaze into the darkened screen for a few seconds, then lower the top again and declare he couldn’t help me.

“You didn’t even try to turn it on,” I said, flabbergasted.

“You told me it wouldn’t turn on,” he replied, quite sensibly.

“Well, yeah,” I said, “but I’m no expert.”

Earl of Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium shook his head. “Sorry, kid,” he said—rather gruffly, I thought. “You bring me something that’s broken, I’ll fix it, but that there isn’t broken.”

“It’s certainly acting broken,” I protested.

“Could be acting broken, but it isn’t,” Earl replied with a chuckle. “What you got there is a malicious entity. A little gremlin in your machine, I’d guess.”

“A gremlin?” I asked in blank astonishment. “You’re saying I have a computer… gremlin?” I knew the term, readers—probably you have heard it as well. Also known as a computer elf or a computer gnome, a computer gremlin is a fanciful way of anthropomorphizing computer problems that have no obvious explanation. The only way to banish a computer gremlin is to find the actual problem and fix it. Gremlin spray, for example, would be ineffective.

“I’d say it’s a djinni, if you want to get specific,” said Earl.

“Right, OK,” I said, willing myself to remain calm. “Is there anyone in town who’d know how to deal with that sort of thing?”

“No one’s going to touch it, kid,” Earl said with another laugh. “Won’t want it coming after them. No, thing like that, you either got to make friends with it or give it what it wants.”

Readers, I was trying to be polite, but it was becoming more and more obvious that Earl was, as they say in the British Isles, taking the piss. This did not seem like a very gracious thing to do; the instrument of my livelihood was in jeopardy, and here was Earl, having a grand old time messing with the out-of-towner. “Listen,” I said, “my entire lifeis in this thing. I just need to find someone who specializes in this sort of problem—or not even specializes. They just have to know something. Please.”

But Earl of Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium was not swayed by my sincerity. If anything, it made him angry. “Maybe it’s your life, kid,” he said, a new edge in his voice, “but this here is my business, and I don’t need you wrecking it on me. Something needs fixing, come back and see me, but I’d like you to get that thing out of here, if you please.”

I suppose, in retrospect, that it wasn’t too outlandish a precaution. If we’d succeeded in booting up my laptop, any malware lurking in its systems might have spread through Earl’s local network, if he had one. I didn’t find out if he did, because Earl continued to glare at me with increasing ire until I was out the door, gremlin-or-djinni-infested computer beneath my arm.

By the time I left Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium, my panic and despair had been largely replaced by anger—a good thing, I thought, because anger is an active emotion, one that will drive a person to seek solutions. Unfortunately, the only solutions I could imagine involved vandalizing Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium. I’d seen an old punch-card computer by the door, and considered walking back in and dumping a program or two onto the floor. See how Earl liked that for a computer gremlin. I did nothing of the sort, however, and my virtue—or, anyway, non-despicableness—was rewarded. As I was retrieving my bike, I heard someone call out, “Hey! Hey you!”

A young woman had appeared at the entrance to Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium—not the bookish young woman from Prism Bay Literary Merchants, though I did feel like I knew this one from somewhere, too. She looked sullen, angry, and mildly embarrassed, which I seem to recall being the primary emotions of teenagerhood. “Yes?” I said, assuming the “hey you” referred to me, since there was no one else around. “Can I help you?”

“Your computer,” she said, with a glance toward the metal rectangle I’d been preparing to return to its bag. “What happened to it?”

The fact that she was referring to my laptop as a “computer”, instead of “that thing” or “what you got there”, was the most encouraging thing that had happened since I arrived at Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium. “I logged onto a wifi network in town,” I said. “It must have had some pretty lax security, because I ended up with a bit of nasty malware, and now it won’t turn on.”

“You found wifi in town?” she asked, openly amazed.

More encouraging still. “At the bookstore—Prism Bay Literary Merchants.”

“Oh, that place.” She sounded disappointed, but didn’t explain further. “Look,” she said, “can I give you some advice? Forget trying to get that fixed in town. You’ll save yourself a lot of weirdness and aggravation if you just go to a normal computer place, or an electronics store—anything, but not here.” She thought about it, and added, “There’s a Best Buy in Augusta. Try there. I guarantee they’ll be able to fix it.”

She seemed pretty confident, readers—confident enough that I thought she deserved to be taken seriously. “OK, thanks,” I said. “Much appreciated. So are you Earl’s technology specialist, then?”

“I’m his niece,” she said, sighing in a way that indicated a good amount of backstory. “Just here for the summer. You too, right?”

And that, readers, was when I remembered her. She wasn’t asking whether I was also Earl’s niece, of course, but whether I was here for the summer—and I realized we had more than that outsider status in common. We had, very possibly, arrived on the same night. Here, readers, was the young woman in the explicit t-shirt I’d overheard arguing with her mother as I debated giving up my search for Prism Bay. The explicit t-shirt was nowhere in evidence, and there was not as much black-and-white makeup, but it was her. “Right,” I said.

“Thought so,” she said. “Sucks, doesn’t it?”

“It’s been an adjustment,” I admitted. “Lovely views, though.”

“There’s no cell reception for miles,” she countered. “I can’t even find out what my friends are doing back home. You ever try sending a text through a rotary phone?”

“I haven’t, no. But there must be a few things to do. I’ve met some nice people since I got here.”

The young woman formerly of the explicit t-shirt answered this with a derisive snort. “That’s what Earl says, too. Except everyone here is insane. You know what he told me the other day?” she asked, smirking now. “He said, ‘Your mom tells me you’re a little Goth, Mimi. Well we’ve got Goths here, too, you know. We’ve got Visigoths and Ostrogoths, and also Huns and Vandals. Maybe you want to hang out with some of them.’”

It was a spot-on impression of Earl, and also a fine example of the sort of thing you hear a lot around Prism Bay. I laughed, and thanked Mimi, formerly of the explicit t-shit, then rode back to the Hemlocks for my car. From there, it was off to Augusta, where the promised Best Buy awaited.

Well, readers, I bet you can guess what happened next. When, after many hours of anxiety and driving, I presented my laptop to Hernán, licensed Geek of the Best Buy Geek Squad, it started right up. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience: some piece of technology pushes you to your wits’ end, and when you finally find professional help, it works perfectly on the first try, making you look like a complete idiot. That is what happed there at the Augusta Best Buy, readers. Hernán was very understanding—he even scanned my hard drive for malicious software (there was none, readers). It seemed Earl of Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium had been right, in his way: my computer had suffered one of those inexplicable glitches sometimes called computer gremlins, and now that glitch had resolved itself just as inexplicably.

I know there was something else going on too, of course. Strange reddish words do not just appear on their own—at least, not with angry commentary about the latest draft of your novel. Someone was in my computer, readers. Perhaps this person wasn’t able to do any damage, but I wasn’t interested in taking chances. I purchased a full suite of antivirus software, and made sure it was updated and ready to go before I left Augusta for Prism Bay. In the days since, I’ve waited for the intruder to contact me again—maybe to demand further story alterations on the threat of releasing old photos from my past life, photos in which I can clearly be seen wearing cargo shorts (ugh)—but so far, I have been spared.

Whatever the reason, Mimi, formerly of the explicit t-shirt, had known going to Augusta would be my salvation. Maybe she could just tell I was frazzled and needed a long drive to cool off. She was wrong about one thing, though: the people of Prism Bay are, in a sense, just like everyone else. If you give them a chance, they really can be very nice. More on that next time, readers. Until then, may your days be sunny, your donuts doughy, and your laptops gremlin-free!

 I sort of wonder about the legal liability for that ferris wheel. Also the Bathysphere. Really the whole place looks like a lawsuit waiting to happen, so maybe Earl was right to be a bit cagey around new customers.

I sort of wonder about the legal liability for that ferris wheel. Also the Bathysphere. Really the whole place looks like a lawsuit waiting to happen, so maybe Earl was right to be a bit cagey around new customers.

Summer Reading

Summer Reading

This week, dear readers, I decided it was time to make a serious effort at finding some decent wifi—or even a little indecent wifi—within the borders of Prism Bay. It isn’t just that driving twenty miles to the nearest Starbucks every time I want to check my email or post on social media is a pain in the butt—though that is definitely Reason Numero Uno. I’d also like to find a regular workspace in town. Being a writer involves many hours of solitary labor, and sometimes a little change of scenery—maybe even a shift to scenery that includes other people—can be helpful. It would be nice to have a bar or café where I can order coffee or tea knowing I’ve got someone trustworthy around to watch my laptop while I use the washroom. So to that end, I took my show on the road to scout a few possible locations.

What seemed to be me the two most likely sources of free Internet, national food chains and public facilities, were both nonstarters. When in urgent need of wifi, places like McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and IHOP (or, I guess, IHOb?) are all excellent targets (as is Target, now that I think of it), but I have yet to find a nationwide corporate food establishment within the environs of Prism Bay. Same goes for any large-scale public amenities: libraries, municipal offices, schools, hospitals. All notably scarce. That left Option Three: local businesses. Of these, the vast majority are located in and around the Town Center, so that's where I began. My plan was to just stroll through, watching my phone, until I detected a wifi signal, then investigate and find out what was necessary to connect. Maybe I would have to buy something, but previous experience had taught me simply asking for the password would probably be enough.

One thing I am learning—slowly, readers—is that experience with the outside world is not terribly applicable in Prism Bay, and this excursion was yet another lesson. I walked up and down the main drag for over an hour, spending at least a few minutes in every establishment, including ladies’ fashion boutiques and children’s toy stores, where I received looks ranging from amusement to dark suspicion, all without registering a single blip of wifi. I began to wonder whether wireless internet access might actually be outlawed—maybe to promote civic togetherness or an overall “unplugged” atmosphere. Perhaps moral panic over the spread of violent video games and/or electronic pornography had incited a local ban to protect the public virtue.

Whatever the reason, there was no wifi whatsoever to be found in the town center. I had a few candidates elsewhere in Prism Bay, but they were all some distance away, and before I moved on, I wanted to stop into a few shops that had piqued my interest while canvasing the street. In particular, a place called Prism Bay Literary Merchants had caught my eye, not just because it was the local bookstore—always a preferred retail stop—but for its tagline: your resource for the printed word in all matters factual and fictional, historical and speculative, verifiable and fraudulent, someday to come and never to be. These were bold claims, readers, and if I did not quite expect Prism Bay Literary Merchants to make good on such grandiose pronouncements, I was more than willing to extend a little creative license, especially to an independent bookseller.

My initial impression of Prism Bay Literary Merchants had been positive, despite the lack of wifi: a place of tall ceilings and winding shelves, where books seemed as much a part of the architecture as items for sale. As I returned, I noted a sign in the window that read, “summer help wanted”, and wondered whether there was an intended double meaning there. Were they simply seeking additional staff for the summer rush, or did they want help in the sense I had occasionally desired it since my arrival, as when faced with a young man armed with a dirk standing between me and a refreshing dip in the ocean, or stalked through the woods by a sinister pack of ornithologists?

The front of the store featured a small retail counter and a reading area furnished with tables and overstuffed chairs, all of it a bit squeezed together—so that as much space as possible could be devoted to books, presumably. The place had been seemingly empty when I first came through, and as this hadn’t changed on my second visit, I showed myself straight to the stacks. I was glorious, readers: a labyrinth of books, where each turn and corner created its own little world, twisting alleys and narrow nooks that felt all the more secluded for the way the shelves seemed to stretch up and up forever (though the place could not have been more than two stories tall, if that).

 So yeah, definitely an adventure.

So yeah, definitely an adventure.

It had everything I look for in a bookstore, with one notable exception: I couldn’t find a copy of Ninth City Burning, my one published novel, anywhere. The thrill of seeing my work in print, and on the shelf of a real live bookstore, has never faded for me—even now, two years after NCB first came out. I hope you will not judge me too harshly here, readers. I’m aware how vain it is to go around looking for myself like this—not to mention counterproductive, at least in terms of stoking my ego, because as often as not there isn’t any sign of me. I hold no grudge against booksellers who choose not to stock my work; I understand shelf space is limited, and omissions must be made somewhere. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a little disappointing to find myself left out, but it is a disappointment I’ve learned to accept.

What did surprise me, readers, was who else had gone missing there among the stacks. Long before I could look myself up in a bookstore, I developed a habit of seeking out my favorite writers, just to read a passage or two while browsing the shelves, but at Prism Bay Literary Merchants, this was not as easy as I’d expected. Part of the difficulty arose from the way the store was set up—a method of organization I would describe as “entertaining but inefficient”. Many sections had no labels at all, and those that did were often collected along themes that drifted significantly from the usual standbys of biography, self-help, literary fiction, and so forth. For example, I found at least four different shelves labeled “history”, but also ones entitled “forgotten history”, “pre-chronological history”, and “future history”—all variations on “alternate history”, I assumed, though it wasn’t obvious these were being presented as fiction. In a similar vein, there was a section of memoirs divided into “lies told by memoirists” and “true but uninteresting stories”. A few more sections I recall from that weird little tour: “stories to traumatize young children”, “romantic mistakes”, “books about talking cats”, “books written by talking cats”, “home improvement projects you will injure yourself while attempting”, “books that will look awesome on your shelf”, and, my personal favorite, “books that could really teach you a lot about what it means to be in a mutually respectful and trusting adult relationship, Jonathan”.

It reminded me a bit of the first chapter of Italo Calvino’s book, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which describes the experience of buying the very book you are now reading, having passed by a great many other books, including “Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread” and “Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them”. I can’t be sure, readers, but I think I might have passed one of these sections, too. What I could not find, however, was anything by Italo Calvino himself. Nor could I locate Borges, or Bulgakov, or Márquez, or Murakami. In fact, a great many writers I'd have expected to be waiting for me just about anywhere failed to turn up: Stephen King, Maya Angelou, Harper Lee, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood. Agatha Christie? Not a clue. Tom Clancy? Missing in action. J.K. Rowling? Wingardium levios-no. (Sorry, readers; I couldn’t resist.)

It’s possible they were there, somewhere—I’m still not sure. Part of my trouble—most of it, probably—arose from the peculiar way the place was arranged. Maybe if I’d been more familiar with the overall organizational scheme, I’d have known whether to look for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights under “symbolic weather” or “heroes who deserve a good, hard slap in the face”. What I needed, readers, was the assistance of a knowledgeable employee—and as it happened, one did show up, eventually. As I was browsing a section labeled, “nonsensical dictionaries”, I was approached by a woman whose nametag identified her as “Pippa”. She asked if I needed help finding anything—and we all know I did, readers, but I didn’t ask for it. The reason is very embarrassing, but I’ll tell you about it anyway, since we’re friends.

What prevented me from asking Pippa’s advice in navigating the shelves of Prism Bay Literary Merchants was the fact that Pippa was alarmingly gorgeous. Debilitatingly handsome, readers. Bewilderingly comely. Generally I prefer not to dwell on attractiveness as a descriptive attribute; there is more to a person than appearance, and more evocative ways of describing appearance that to say simply that someone is or is not pretty. I do so here only because her beauty was impossible to ignore—striking in an almost physical sense. I wouldn’t even say that I was attracted to her per se. A similarly beautiful man would probably have produced the same disorienting effect. It was more that people who look like this just aren’t generally found walking around in the normal world.

So, with that said, let us return to the shelves of Prism Bay Literary Merchants, where I am staring, befuddled, at this distractingly good-looking bookseller. She has asked if I need any help. Again, readers, we all know I do. This bookstore is largely a mystery to me. I am on a mission to find a connection to the Internet. There are many things I might have asked, readers. But what did I say? What I said was, “Do you have Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black?”

If I am making you cringe, readers, I sincerely apologize. I’m cringing a bit myself, just at the memory. It was a boneheaded thing to say for several reasons, and not just because I was referring to myself in the third person, or asking after a book I had written, a book of which I had no fewer than a dozen copies at home. I also knew it wasn’t there—or, I was reasonably sure it wasn’t. So why did I ask? Honestly, I don’t know. It’s why I thought it important to explain this distractingly good-looking bookseller’s distracting good looks: because I hoped also to explain (if not actually justify) a number of unusually stupid things I did or said. Pippa, meanwhile, was polite and professional. She confessed that she didn’t think Ninth City Burning was in stock, but said she would be happy to take a look.

“It’s really a great book,” I said. “It’s science fiction. And fantasy. Science fiction and a little fantasy.”

“Sure,” said Pippa the distractingly good-looking bookseller. “Anything else you can tell me about it?” (In retrospect, I wonder whether she was trying to pinpoint which of the store’s esoterically themed shelves would be her most likely bet.)

“Well, the author isn’t that well known,” I said, “but he’s very respected among those familiar with his work.”

“Great,” she said. “Just hold on a minute. I’ll ask our inventory parakeet and see if we can turn it up.”

She left me there among the stacks, and I had just enough time to begin getting embarrassed (while also thinking, “inventory parakeet”?) before she returned. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t find it anywhere,” she said, with what sounded like real regret. “Would you like me to see if we can order it for you?”

I was feeling regret, too, readers, and with much more justification than Pippa the distractingly good-looking bookseller. “No, thank you—I’ve already got a copy,” I said, not wanting her to waste any more time on my foolishness.

To her credit, Pippa was not outwardly upset with me—if anything, she seemed more interested than before. “It must be really special to you, if you’re looking for another copy.”

“Yes, it is,” I said honestly. I’d recently reread a few passages, actually, and it is still quite special to me.

“I’ll make sure to keep an eye out for it,” she said. “Is there anything else I can help you find?”

I told her no, thank you—I would just stick around and browse a little more. I didn’t like to imagine what would happen once Pippa went looking for my book. Possibly she wouldn’t find it at all—who knew how her inventory parakeet operated?—but maybe she would. Either way, I would look like an idiot, and it would be difficult to come back here. I decided my best course of action was to own up to the truth, that I was a vain and silly writer, and to me this seemed best done while purchasing a book. Every time I go into a bookstore, I try to leave with a book (one I have paid for, readers), and I’ve found this to be an excellent way of ingratiating myself to booksellers, who I like as a matter of principle anyway. I picked a hefty and impressive-looking volume from a shelf labeled “books better left alone” and brought it to the front, where Pippa the distractingly good-looking bookseller was waiting by the register.

 Carrying this around is going to make me look SO smart.

Carrying this around is going to make me look SO smart.

Essays in Eternity by Honorius Holt,” she said, examining the cover. “Careful with this one.”

“You’ve read it?” I asked.

“I’ve heard of it,” she said. “It’s one of those books people are always going on about.”

I had a pretty good idea of what she meant. In college, I knew a kid who seemed constitutionally incapable of getting through a conversation without making some reference to Infinite JestEssays in Eternity looked almost as long, but I wasn’t planning to attempt the whole thing from end to end. As far as I could tell (I’d only really perused the table of contents), it was the sort of outdated pseudo-academic text I find makes amusing reading in a certain mood, like treatises on phrenology, the now wildly discredited theory that a person’s psychology can be determined by mapping the contours of their skull. I just hoped it wouldn’t be too expensive.

“So it isn’t on your list?” I asked.

“Oh, sure,” she said, “but everything’s on my list, and the summer’s only so long, right? I’ve got to prioritize.”

“You don’t read in the winter?” I wondered if maybe she was a teacher, too busy with her students to read for pleasure except in the summer.

“Well, I try, but it’s hard,” she said, a little sadly, and held up her hands. I thought this was a sort of “what are you going to do?” gesture, until she said, “Also, no hands, you know?”

I did not know, readers. This comment made pretty much no sense to me at all. Thinking back, I wonder if it might have been some kind of idiom referring to how difficult it is to find reading time when your hands are always full with something else. In the moment, I just went for sounding sympathetic. “Oh yeah, definitely,” I said, or something to that effect.

Essays in Eternity was not very expensive at all—or, at least, I don’t think it was. The price was six dollars and one opinion about literature. My opinion, “I fear Calvin and Hobbes is in danger of being lost to future generations”, was recorded on a small green note card and sealed in a small green envelope. It was sort of a fun gimmick, I thought, like Dave Eggers’s Pirate Supplies Store in San Francisco, where kids can barter drawings for pirate-themed products. Anyway, it felt like a lucky break, since six dollars was exactly the amount of cash in my wallet, and the place didn’t accept credit (almost nowhere in Prism Bay does, I’ve noticed).

I retired to the little reading area across from the register and set up with my new book, not just to check out Essays in Eternity, but to try a sneaky sketch of Pippa the distractingly good-looking bookseller. After going on the way I have about her appearance (I was planning this post even then), I thought I owed you a picture, readers. It was a bad idea for several reasons. The first was that my art skills are not yet up to the demands of realistic portraiture, as you will see from my less-than-perfect attempt. The second was that I got totally busted mid-drawing by a young woman who had been sitting, unseen, behind an extravagantly huge book. I’d thought I was alone, and so hadn’t been all that discreet about what I was doing. From the front, anyway, I might have looked like I was taking a few notes on my reading, but from the back, it was obvious I was trying to get a rendering of Pippa the distractingly good-looking bookseller, and doing a less than proficient job.

“That doesn’t look like her at all, you know,” said the bookish young woman, peering over the top of her book. She had been perched at one of those small desks, all but invisible thanks to the breadth of the great tome before her.

“What?” I shouted, guilty but also annoyed, and turned to face her. “Hey! It’s rude to read over peoples’ shoulders, you know.”

“I wasn’t reading, I was looking,” she said, not unreasonably. “That’s rude also, I know, but you were sitting right there. I mean, come on.”

“Well, thanks for your input, but—”

“And I just wanted to warn you,” the bookish young woman went on, with an air of inarguable authority, “that your whole drawing is out of proportion, and the nose is way off, and the perspective is wrong. Also you should really watch out with her. Or didn't you notice she’s a fox?”

This isn’t a word-for-word rendition of the conversation, readers, but that last line at least is accurate to the syllable. I remember it clearly, because of the bookish young woman’s unusual choice of vocabulary. I have already described Pippa to you as distractingly good-looking, but I would never have thought to call her a “fox”, and I was quite surprised to hear such a term coming from someone probably not past her early teenage years. Really, I can’t recall anyone born after 1950 using the word “fox” in this way, meaning a particularly attractive person. Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” began to play in my head, guitar riffs and all. “Right on,” I said, grinning, “now excuse me while I kiss the sky.”

For this attempt at humor, I received a very teenage roll of the eyes. “Dude,” said the bookish young woman, with a snort of exasperated derision, “I mean she’s literally a fox.”

Much has been made, dear readers, of the word “literally” and its sometimes careless use. For me, hearing “literally” used to mean “figuratively” does have something of a nails-on-chalkboard effect, but I won’t get preachy on the subject. Words are elusive, mutable things, and my meaning might not always be yours. Let us just say that Pippa is most definitely not a fox in the sense of a four-legged mammal with red fur. She does not belong to the taxonomic category of vulpidae, or even canidae. She does not have a fluffy tail, or pointed ears, or amber eyes with slitted pupils. She is a human woman who works in a bookstore with a very nonstandard method of shelving, and also possibly a schoolteacher.

There is a time and a place for long digressions on the word “literally” and its uses over the centuries, but this, readers, was not it. I might also have asked what this bookish young woman was doing inside with that prodigious book on such a pleasant summer day, except that I myself had once been a bookish young person, and was thus familiar with a few of the potential answers, and knew too that she would not want to discuss any of them with me. 

“Thanks for the heads up,” was how I chose to answer. The bookish young woman only shook her head and returned to her prodigious volume. I, meanwhile, concluded that it was about time to move on. I had my attempted sketch, and I’d read enough of Essays in Eternity to feel pleased with my purchase. It turned out to be what might be described as “weird fiction”, with elaborate chronicles of long-forgotten times, places, and beings. I found the world building especially impressive, even if the story, such as it was, seemed a bit dry and meandering. 

If it was new to me, however, Essays in Eternity certainly got a reaction from the bookish young woman. As I rose to leave, she looked up from her reading, catching sight of my book. Her eyes grew wide, and her mouth dropped open. Possibly she’d been wanting this very edition for herself. I couldn’t help feeling a little smug, after the way I’d been treated. I hefted the big, leather-bound volume, so there could be no mistaking the title. “Can you believe it was only six dollars?” I said. “Think this was the last copy, though. Sorry.”

 Despite what the critics might say, I think I'm improving... at drawing backgrounds, anyway.

Despite what the critics might say, I think I'm improving... at drawing backgrounds, anyway.

On my way out, I stopped at the front to talk with Pippa the distractingly good-looking bookseller one more time. It seemed cowardly to run off after that awkward conversation among the shelves, and I was feeling contrary after having been warned off because of her literal foxiness. “Thanks again,” I said, waving with my new book. “I’m already enjoying it.”

“Oh, great!” she said. “Come back soon—I’ll be sure to look for that one you mentioned. Ninth Burning City?”

Ninth City Burning,” I said, “and don’t bother, really. I’ve got plenty of copies already. I wrote it, you see.”

Most booksellers I’ve met have mixed feelings about people who introduce themselves as writers. Perhaps they’ve encountered a fellow lover of literature, but more often, especially when they have not heard of this writer already, it signals someone seeking free publicity, or possibly just a crazy person. But Pippa at least seemed to take me at my word. “Oh, you’re an author?” she asked, without any obvious skepticism. “I’ll make sure to look you up!”

It was a pleasant way to end my visit, but it became pleasanter still as I headed for the door. There, tacked just beside the threshold, was a card that read, “password: thoomhbustah”. Yes, readers, a password. I must have walked right by when I came in.

“Is this the password for the wifi?” I asked Pippa.

“Oh,” she said, smiling, “it’s the password for the whole place.”

The password for the whole place, readers. I still didn’t see any wifi networks listed on my phone, but when I clicked on “other network” and typed in “PrismBayLiteraryMerchants”, I got a password prompt, and just like that, I was in. I didn’t even have to try “PrismBayBooks”, which would have been my next guess.

What luck, readers! This time next week, I'll be posting to you from Prism Bay Literary Merchants. Until then, have a literally brilliant day!

Summer People (Ep. 2)

Summer People (Ep. 2)

This week: seascapes, beach lounging, and fleeing for my life through the woods. What’s not to like?

Summer People


Summer People

Fabulous donuts, crepuscular customers, and unexpected traditions of early-morning fog sailing. Just another summer in small-town Maine, readers!


Pics or It Didn't Happen


Pics or It Didn't Happen

I am now in my second week at the Hemlocks on Prism Bay, dear readers, and so far as I can tell, Mrs. Sylvester and I are still the only ones in residence. I say “so far as I can tell” because the Hemlocks is large enough, and complex enough, that a professional football team could conceivably hold regular practice sessions here without my knowing anything about it. 

Often, I have the impression that some rooms are rearranging themselves, even appearing and disappearing entirely, though on closer inspection it generally turns out some wall hanging or item of furniture has been moved in such a way as to subtly but significantly alter the room’s appearance. When these redecorations are actually occurring, and who exactly is performing them, I have yet to discover. Adding to the confusion, some rooms have more than one name, while others have none at all. The “conservatory”, for example, might refer either to what is also sometimes called the “greenhouse”, or to what is known as the “music room”. Readers, these are two very different rooms, and it is a little embarrassing to end up in the wrong one. When I asked Mrs. Sylvester exactly how many rooms are to be found at the Hemlocks, she merely smiled and said, “Many, Mr. Black.”

Mrs. Sylvester always refers to me as “Mr. Black” (which I get a kick out of), and prefers I call her “Mrs. Sylvester”—or, at least, she hasn’t invited me to call her anything else. She is, as I’ve said before and will surely say again, a remarkable woman, with many hidden rooms of her own, as it were. She is tall and slender, a tallness and slenderness she offsets with a wardrobe of voluminous dresses. I would call them old fashioned, except that I can’t quite pinpoint exactly which era of the past they would be from. It might be better to say her outfits are outside of fashion, or possibly in keeping with a fashion I don’t recognize or understand. There is, to my knowledge, no Mr. Sylvester, though I haven’t broached the subject explicitly. Mrs. Sylvester values her privacy, and even were I bold enough to ask her directly (and I’m not there yet, dear readers), I doubt I would get anything like a direct answer. (It would not surprise me one bit to hear the conversation go like this: “Is there a Mr. Sylvester?” “Many, Mr. Black.”)

 Yes, I know, my photography need work, but I think you can at least get a sense of the serenity out here, right?

Yes, I know, my photography need work, but I think you can at least get a sense of the serenity out here, right?

If Mrs. Sylvester looks and acts vaguely like a character from Downton Abbey, however, she is most certainly not my faithful servant. Whatever the duties of a “house custodian” entail, it is not the same thing as being a butler or formal housekeeper. Mrs. Sylvester considers it her responsibility to ensure I am happy and comfortable during my stay, but there are times when I feel I’m more a curiosity than an actual guest—almost like a pet. Her air of good-natured indulgence often reminds me of the way someone might treat an adorable but clumsy puppy. Not that I’m complaining. Maybe there is a subtext here I don’t fully understand; perhaps Mrs. Sylvester is simply eccentric; whatever the reason for the faint amusement I’ve been detecting, it’s no reason to give up life in this amazing house (with free food!) in a lovely seaside town. Unless, that is, I’m being fattened up so she can feed me to G’lal the Devourer (he says with a nervous chuckle).

My first conversation with Mrs. Sylvester—at least, the first not carried out by post—has turned out to be pretty typical of our relationship thus far. You will remember, dear readers, that I reached the Hemlocks on Prism Bay, at the end of Five Fathom Drive, after a day of trials and tribulations, during which I was nearly run off the road, had my personal space invaded by an exceedingly strange man, and performed an arcane ritual—which might or might not have actually been successful—to win the favor of a mysterious and gluttonous being. At last, with dawn approaching, I arrived at my destination to discover a note directing me to my room and from there to breakfast promptly at 7:30 in the morning. At the time, I didn’t remark on Mrs. Sylvester’s boldness in leaving her door unlocked so late at night, but I did the next day, especially as it became more and more apparent she’d been in the house alone. Having known her now for almost two weeks, however, this doesn’t strike me as the least bit strange. I would be far more surprised to meet anyone who dared risk her displeasure by entering the Hemlocks uninvited.

Despite having slept less than three hours, I awoke refreshed, and had no trouble presenting myself in the dining room by 7:30, unless you count my trouble actually finding the dining room to begin with. I was expecting the house to be busy with morning traffic: my fellow residents discussing plans for the day, their children running about—all fitted with the recommended horn protectors, of course. I took special care with my outfit, aware I would be making a great many first impressions. When I descended the wide, wooden stairwell to the first floor, however, it was to an almost dreamlike quiet. The sun was out, and shone in a variety of colors through the foyer’s stained glass windows, and this multi-hued light, along with the dark wood throughout, gave the place a warm, inviting feel—it was just an invitation no one except me seemed to have accepted.

 These boats were just the cutest.

These boats were just the cutest.

I wandered through the rooms of the first floor, all of them richly furnished but still light and airy thanks to high ceilings and tall windows, feeling a bit like an intruder, waiting for someone to appear and ask what I was doing there—until finally I found a room with a long wooden table at its center, a place setting at either end. One had a card that read “Mr. Black” in a sweeping hand I’ve come to know as the work of Mrs. Sylvester, and as I stood examining this, feeling both impressed and unnerved, a voice from the far end of the room said, “Welcome, Mr. Black. I trust you had a comfortable evening.”

It was the much-anticipated Mrs. Sylvester. This I somehow knew, though she had yet to introduce herself. Her voice was surprisingly deep, formal but friendly, with the hint of an accent I couldn’t quite place. Nothing British, though that was what I’d imagined when reading her letters—possibly some echo of an old New England dialect.

“Yes, it was very comfortable, thank you,” I said, flustered, because I hadn’t heard her come in, though that’s something else I’m becoming accustomed to, both about the Hemlocks and Mrs. Sylvester herself—things around here move quietly. I think it’s the thick carpets.

“I am Mrs. Sylvester, custodian of the Hemlocks,” she said. “I apologize that I was not present to greet you last night.”

“Oh, sure, no problem,” I said, though I didn’t think she was actually sorry about it.

“Please have a seat. Your meal will arrive shortly.” 

She made it sound as if this meal was some thinking entity with its own sense of action and initiative. I half expected to see a parade of sentient cookware marching in, like something out of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, but to my relief (and disappointment), the food arrived in the company of a perfectly normal human being: a cook, perhaps, bearing two trays. He set one in front of me, and the other before Mrs. Sylvester, who had taken her seat at the opposite end of the table. “Who was that?” I asked as the cook or server retreated from view.

What I meant was, “What was that man’s name, and what is his role in this house?” I was expecting an answer like “the cook” or “my nephew” or “Jeffrey”, but Mrs. Sylvester only smiled and said, “Who was who?” I didn’t quite know what to say to that, readers, so I decided it would be best just to turn my attention the meal itself.

The meal itself was, like every meal I’ve had at the Hemlocks since, simply wonderful. Poached eggs with sausage and shredded potatoes, toast, croissant (which I am fairly certain was homemade), grapefruit and sliced pineapple, and dang good coffee. Despite all the feasting of the night before, I was famished, and tucked in with gusto. Mrs. Sylvester, meanwhile, ate in such a way that her food vanished as if by sleight of hand: afterward, I couldn’t recall actually having seen her eat; it was just that, whenever I looked, her plate was a little emptier. I have come to imagine this as a technique learned at some very proper finishing school, where it is believed ladies should never be witnessed eating and students are therefore trained as veritable food ninjas.

 Not my canoe, but I can imagine how nice it is to be alone with your thoughts in the middle of this placid little lagoon.

Not my canoe, but I can imagine how nice it is to be alone with your thoughts in the middle of this placid little lagoon.

As we ate—or, as I ate, and my host absorbed her breakfast by osmosis or teleportation—Mrs. Sylvester questioned me about my plans for the summer. My answer, that I hoped to make progress on my next book, seemed to amuse her. It was like she suspected me of having some other, secret project in the works, and of using my writing to avoid the question. “Well, I hope you have a very productive and profitable summer,” she said, as the cook-or-maybe-nephew-or-Jeffrey arrived to take our empty plates, replacing them with smaller versions bearing a single, artfully-proportioned cinnamon bun. “Please consider me a resource in all aspects of your stay.”

“Thank you,” I said, “that’s very kind of you. And let me say how grateful I am for the invitation to stay in your lovely house.”

Mrs. Sylvester answered with a gracious nod. “I expect certain aspects of our little summer community will seem unusual at first, even strange,” she said. “Often, it takes residents time to adjust to the pace of life here. I am sure that, by the time July and August arrive, you will feel right at home, but if there is anything I can do to aid in your work, or to make your stay here more comfortable, I hope you will not hesitate to ask.”

This was my opening to set loose any of several questions then clamoring for expression. For example, Why had I been invited here, exactly? Mrs. Sylvester hadn’t mentioned any familiarity with my work, and seemed almost surprised to learn I was a writer. Or, maybe, Where are the other residents? Why have I never heard of the Hemlocks or Prism Bay? For that matter, How did she get my home address? Most of all, I wanted to know whether we would be getting an Internet connection anytime soon. In the moment, though, these questions all struck me as rude, and anyway I would have time to investigate later, so I decided on a question more directly relevant to my day. “I thought I would explore the area a little,” I said. “Are there any places I ought to see? Any local attractions I shouldn’t miss?”

Mrs. Sylvester smiled one of her subtle smiles and said, “Many, Mr. Black. Many.”

 I mean, the views! Well, guess you're going to have to trust me on this one...

I mean, the views! Well, guess you're going to have to trust me on this one...

That first day, most of Mrs. Sylvester’s recommendations concerned the town and surrounding landscape. She outlined a tour that would take me past most of Prism Bay’s prominent landmarks and impressive sights, while avoiding areas she considered, and I quote, “dangerous or unsavory”. She also suggested I take one of the bicycles kept on hand for residents, rather than my car, pointing out that the purpose of this excursion was the journey, not the destination. I of course knew about the house bikes—they were mentioned in the fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information, and I narrowly avoided making a quip about certain other modes of transportation described therein, such as the carriage that could, on formal occasions, be hitched with winged horses. I didn’t think Mrs. Sylvester and I were familiar enough yet for me to be making jokes about her hospitality. I also didn’t mention that I hadn’t ridden a bicycle for some years, and that it would be of no help that my skills would surely come back, because I hadn’t been much good in the first place. She was the knowledgeable party here, and I decided to follow her recommendations. I would adjust to life in Prism Bay, and I would begin doing so by bike.

The bicycle was an old-fashioned affair but well maintained and comfortable (a description that would, I think, apply to much of the Hemlocks and its contents), and it performed well, both on the paved streets around town and along narrower dirt paths that would have confounded my automobile. Prism Bay is an aptly named place: when the sun is out, its waters are positively prismatic. The sun was out that day, readers, and it was glorious.

Like most ocean inlets on the coast of Maine, Prism Bay opens southward; the passage in is relatively narrow, and surrounded by high cliffs populated by large summer homes. There is a sort of East Egg / West Egg thing going on with the high headlands that face one another across the water, and while I doubt any quite approach the opulence of Jay Gatsby’s roaring twenties Long Island, some of the houses there are very impressive indeed. The Hemlocks, if anything, is one of the more modest examples (and, again unlike Gatsby, the western side is the more lavish, and the eastern is where your narrator resides). In between these two high bluffs, raised like the points of a crescent, the land dips closer to sea level, and the town center—where I drove through my first night in town—runs along a sandy beach. There is a little port area in the same vicinity, and what looks like a marina or yacht club. The bay is dotted with small islands and boats at mooring. It was all very majestic, and I made liberal use of my digital camera as the sights rolled by.

 Don't know whose yacht that is, put pretty flash, no?

Don't know whose yacht that is, put pretty flash, no?

Inland from the town center is a collection of neighborhoods, not so different from what might be found in any small New England town, where most of Prism Bay’s permanent residents live. I wasn’t surprised to learn there was some distinction made between summer visitors and those who reside here year-round; it’s a trait common to resort towns the world over, the seasonal influx of affluent vacationers, bringing cash and commerce but also crowds and cacophony, and perhaps an uncomfortable glimpse at how great disparities in wealth can sometimes be. Having visited my share of such places, I was prepared to occasionally be looked at askance, obvious interloper that I was. I’m beginning to get the sense, however, that in Prism Bay the relationship between locals and summer people is somewhat more fraught than the norm.

My first experience of what it means to be a summer person in Prism Bay occurred at lunch that first day. By the time noon rolled around, I’d had about enough of fresh air and exercise, and decided to stop in at a little bistro in town Mrs. Sylvester had recommended as a local favorite. The crowd seemed sparse, especially for a Friday, but summer was only just getting started, and I had the sense they did a lot of seasonal business. I set up at the bar, ordered a beer, and struck up a conversation with the bartender, Hank, a local kid back from college for the summer. He seemed friendly enough, until I mentioned that I was staying at the Hemlocks, whereupon his face became several shades paler and he disappeared without explanation into a back room. 

 It's like the coast goes on forEVER out here!

It's like the coast goes on forEVER out here!

A few minutes later, he returned, looking visibly nervous. “It’s a pleasure to have you with us, Mr. Black,” he said, handing me a piece of laminated paper.

“Thanks, but I already have a menu,” I said, because that was what he’d just given me, despite having already delivered a similar laminated sheet along with my beer.

“That’s the seasonal menu,” said Hank the uneasy barkeep, without further explanation.

Readers, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a restaurant with more than one menu. I have—mostly Chinese restaurants that feature both traditional dishes and more typically “American” fare, such as General Tso’s chicken and crab rangoons. Some places will offer you both menus up front, but at others, certain snap judgments will be made, often based on the appearance of the customer receiving the menu. Such judgments appear to have been made here, dear readers. I think Hank the uneasy barkeep initially took me for a local, and only gave me the seasonal menu upon learning I was visiting from elsewhere. (Also, I hadn’t told him my name; he must have discovered I was “Mr. Black” in the course of whatever happened in that back room.)

The first menu was pretty standard fare: your garden and Caesar salads, your onion soups and turkey chilis, your chicken wraps, your burgers, your fish and chips. The seasonal menu, meanwhile, was ridiculous. A few selections that stuck in my memory: squeezed slug chowder, essence of early summer soup, fairy circle mushroom salad dusted with late spring frost, Hank’s memory of where he left his keys, braised barbecue manticore tail with pickles (careful: spicy!), devil bunny ragout, dreams of lost teeth (locally sourced and freshly harvested), goat blood (1 pt.).

 The sun reflecting off the water--well, it's almost beyond description. So, um, yeah, let's just say it's really pretty.

The sun reflecting off the water--well, it's almost beyond description. So, um, yeah, let's just say it's really pretty.

I thought about asking Hank the uneasy barkeep if he was the same Hank whose memories I could order for lunch, but sensed such a joke would not be taken well. Plainly this menu had been written along a similar theme to the fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information I’d been sent prior to my arrival—maybe even by the same person. It seemed this bistro, in addition to serving normal food, was also some kind of theme restaurant—but only for the benefit of Prism Bay’s summer visitors. I wondered if this was a town-wide gimmick, perhaps even municipally mandated to support the seasonal tourist trade. Or maybe it was just this one restaurant. Either way, I could see why Hank would be upset about the whole thing. He was just trying to earn money for books, food, and beer, and here he was, being called upon to serve these rather silly novelty dishes, and possibly even to play a part in their presentation. Would he have to squeeze the slugs by hand for my entertainment? Dust the winter frost (probably just flaky sea salt) over the fairy mushrooms?

I sympathized with poor Hank. I really did. I myself have worked in what might charitably be called a theme restaurant, where I was compelled to dress as, among other things, a budget off-brand version of the Red Power Ranger. But I still ordered a bowl of essence of early summer soup as a prelude to my more traditional fish and chips. Sorry, Hank—I just couldn’t resist. At least I didn’t eat your memories.

I was expecting some hokey play on cream of broccoli or something like that, but readers, what I got was an astonishingly accurate fit to the description. My essence of early summer soup was clear, like a broth, and pale green, and it tasted just as I’d expect early summer to taste: like new vegetables and slightly under-ripe fruit, with a not unpleasant undertone of freshly cut grass. Readers, I’d never had anything like it. I was a little hesitant to say anything to Hank, but at last I told him how much I liked it, and was glad I did, because he seemed relieved, and even returned to some of the familiarity he’d shown before I mentioned my residency at the Hemlocks.

Meanwhile, I set myself to getting a proper photograph of the soup—one that would display the faint pink sheen that could be seen whenever my spoon broke the surface. Sharing this experience with the Internet was, of course, every bit as important as the experience itself, because, as we all know, if you can’t brag about something to your friends and distant acquaintances, it might as well not have happened. When I had snapped my photo and opened the file to ready it for upload, however, I made a disturbing discovery: the picture was completely out of focus. I took another photo, one that included my recently arrived fish and chips, with the same results. In fact, every picture I had taken that day was blurry to the point of illegibility.

Something is wrong with my camera, readers, and I am much vexed about it. I know I came to Prism Bay to work on my next book, to develop creatively as an artist, to live the contemplative life of the mind, but seriously, what’s the point if I don’t have pictures? This is a problem I intend to solve, readers, believe you me. I’ll have more for you next time. Until then, I hope you, too, have the chance to taste the essence of early summer, whether in liquid form or otherwise. Cheerio!

 I'm really sorry these didn't come out, guys, I'd have loved for you to see everything the way I did!!! Ugh, technology >:-(

I'm really sorry these didn't come out, guys, I'd have loved for you to see everything the way I did!!! Ugh, technology >:-(


The Devourer


The Devourer

Readers, something miraculous has happened. I use the word “miraculous” here in the sense of “so unexpected or amazing as to seem like a miracle”, of course. I do not think any miracle actually occurred. In fact, given the events of last Thursday night and early Friday morning, I would decidedly prefer not to believe the world was supernaturally altered for my benefit, because the idea of exactly what was doing the altering is simply too disturbing to contemplate. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I write to you now, dear readers, from the Hemlocks on Prism Bay. Yes, I made it. I’m here. And it is glorious and wonderful and very much more than I had imagined. There are no horned children, at least not that I have seen. Actually, the house, in addition to being quite huge, is quite empty. Aside from Mrs. Sylvester—sender of the Letter of Invitation, fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information, and mysteriously posted riposte—I appear to be the only person in residence. It could be that I am simply the first to arrive; Mrs. Sylvester has been pretty coy on the subject. She is a remarkable woman, readers, (I will, of course, not call her “interesting”, even if that would be an accurate description as well,) and I will be sure to tell you more about her as the summer progresses. For now, let me explain how I got here—at least as much as I understand it myself.

When last we saw our hero (meaning me; I am pleased enough with the outcome of this adventure to cast myself as its hero), I was finishing a serving of pie à la mode in preparation for my renewed attempt to locate the elusive Prism Bay. I never finished the pie, readers; after my encounter with the exceedingly strange man who invaded my booth, I had more or less lost my appetite. If you had seen that purple tongue of his, glistening with extra-thick saliva like a still-living hunk of freshly-chopped octopus, gooey pie filling and melted ice cream might not have seemed all that appealing to you, either. The young woman with the explicit t-shirt and her mother were still watching me, too, perhaps convinced some kind of drug deal had just gone down at my table, so I thought it best to pay my bill, pack up my laptop, and be on my way.

You will recall, readers, that there was one more route to Prism Bay I hadn’t really considered. The reason I hadn’t really considered it was that it seemed very silly—even sillier than asking birds for directions. Also, finding this other route required a good amount of work and preparation, and I was being lazy; I did not like the idea of more work, or more preparation, not after the day I’d had, and especially not in pursuit of something so silly. But now I was filled with renewed determination, and I thought you might enjoy a bit of silliness. I remembered, too, that laziness is one of the worst possible traits in a writer—far worse than silliness. And so I would do something silly, and then write about it, for your entertainment. Thus, without further ado, here is the pertinent excerpt from “Directions to the Hemlocks on Prism Bay”:

If you miss your exit, you may still gain access to the Harbormaster’s Road by a direct Appeal to the Guardians of Prism Bay. This is by no means a recommended means of travel, and a different route should be used if at all possible. If you choose to make an Appeal, however, please follow these instructions with the utmost care.

Locate a town with no fewer than one hundred human inhabitants, but no more than one thousand. At the last four-way intersection before exiting the town boundaries, construct your Table of Offering. Upon this Table, place the Offering to your chosen Guardian, and perform the appropriate Binding and Appeal. If your Offering is accepted, you will find the Harbormaster’s Road by taking four right turns after leaving the intersection. If not, you will be promptly torn apart by angry raccoons.

Visitors unfamiliar with this procedure should see the attached list of Guardians and their associated Tables, Offerings, Bindings and Appeals—we have found G’lal the Devourer, Lysplendi-Queen-of-Wilds, and She of the Foam-Capped Waves tend to be the most pliant in early summer.

Do you see what I mean, readers? Compared to this nonsense, crashing my car into a ditch while counting stars seems almost like a sensible course of action. I will admit, however, that the author of these fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information took their silliness very seriously indeed. The attached list was there, as promised, and included no fewer than a dozen “Guardians”, each with a detailed procedure for gaining their favor and thus entry to Prism Bay.

I decided to go with G’lal the Devourer, not so much because he was on the list of recommended Guardians as that his appeals process seemed the most reasonable. I rather liked the sound of “She of the Foam-Capped Waves”, but getting her on my side apparently required, among other things, that I “drown a bird of the sky in the salt water of an ebbing tide”, which was not only completely messed up, but also impractical, because where was I going to get a “bird of the sky” at eleven pm? Late-night pet shop? Anyway, G’lal the Devourer had far more sensible demands.

G’lal the Devourer, Ever Ravenous Lord of the Starving Darkness, desires only to indulge his hunger, though that hunger is eternal, and can never be sated, only assuaged. He is drawn to places of feasting, but take care, ye who would have him linger beyond the lights of your revels, for where his eyeless gaze falls, all who stand before it are consumed.

To win the favor of the Infinitely Insatiable One, set him a banquet of great excess. Gather ye those fruits that grow upon the earth, and those that grow beneath the earth. Bring him the flesh of beasts that walk the plains of the earth. Give him to drink of the earth’s sweetness, and the intoxications of its fermented grains. Set a table to make one overfull, for he that can never be filled.

Sort of makes you feel for this G’lal guy, right? I mean, which of us couldn’t relate to the idea of never truly having your fill, of wanting something you can never fully attain? And that part about “[lingering] beyond the lights of… revels”? How sad is that? Poor G’lal the Devourer just wants to be invited to a few revels! It seemed like the perfect fit for my mission—wasn’t I, like good old G’lal, out here searching for something just beyond my grasp?

On top of that, I had a good sense of where I could find that “banquet of great excess”. It is a well known fact that Wendy’s stays open until the wee hours, and with a little help from my trusty mobile device, I was able to find one within a relatively short drive. For the banquet itself, I thought the Dave’s Triple Cheeseburger Meal probably qualified as “great excess”, especially once you added the large fries and soda, but I decided to get a side of chicken nuggets just to be safe. The tomato topping would take care of the “[fruit] that grow[s] upon the earth” and the fries would be “those that grow beneath the earth” (potatoes, right?). The burger itself, of course, was the “flesh of beasts that walk the plains of the earth”. I was probably taking some license treating the soda as “the earth’s sweetness” (I got non-diet, of course), but I thought I made up for it with my “intoxications… of fermented grains”. I still had that tax-free scotch from New Hampshire, readers, and it was really nice scotch.

 Seems like this is how my weirder nights always end up...

Seems like this is how my weirder nights always end up...

 Diet? Psh. Only the finest for G'lal the Devourer.

Diet? Psh. Only the finest for G'lal the Devourer.

 A feast indeed.

A feast indeed.

 What have we gotten ourselves into, girl?

What have we gotten ourselves into, girl?

Finding a town with between five hundred and a thousand “human inhabitants” was also relatively easy, thanks to our pal the Internet, as was zeroing in on the “last four-way intersection before exiting the town boundaries” (which seemed to me like a pretty relative reference anyway). I was a little worried about the next part, readers, because things were going to get very weird very quickly, and I didn’t like the idea of what would happen if a patrol car drove by while I was appealing to G’lal the Devourer. I got as far away from the road as I thought I reasonably could, and started setting the table.

In wax the red of a young sow’s life’s blood, draw four connected lines, each meeting at its ends the end of another. This diamond is the perch G’lal holds in the blackness and the endless cold.

Therein, create three more lines, their ends terminating at the diamond’s edge, to be the three pillars of his temple, for at G’lal’s altar, all light is swallowed, and all ornament destroyed, and no more than these three stark pillars may stand.

Grim stuff, right, readers? And the grimness continues:

Within the temple, inscribe a circle. This will be his seat. Another circle, then, outside his temple, outside his realm, beyond his reach. Here, his offering will be placed.

I mean, honestly, what kind of bullshit was this? Poor G’lal the Devourer. Here I was, building him a domain, then setting his whole banquet outside of it? But I thought I’d better follow the directions, such as they were. Fortunately, there was a diagram showing how all this stuff was supposed to look, because it was a little hard to tell from the instructions. There were also a bunch of symbols I had to draw—not easy working with hot wax. Oh, and if you’re wondering where I got wax “the red of a young sow’s life’s blood”, I picked up a big apple scented candle at a convenience store on my way into town. I also got a few sheets of poster board to use for a tablecloth. Maybe I'd be performing a bizarre occult ritual on a lonely stretch of road in the middle of the night, but I saw no reason why it shouldn't be a classy occult ritual.

 Neither exactly screams out "sow's blood", but I thought "Fresh Apple" was probably the closest.

Neither exactly screams out "sow's blood", but I thought "Fresh Apple" was probably the closest.

 We've got scented candles for all your dark magic needs!

We've got scented candles for all your dark magic needs!

I don’t think I’m flattering myself when I say the banquet looked pretty good by the time I got everything in place. I’ve included a photo, readers, so you can judge for yourselves. As everyone knows, there’s hardly any point in having a nice meal if you don’t preserve it for social media posterity. I’ll be posting this one soon—I just need to find the right filter. What do you think works best for an offering to G’lal the Devourer? Valencia? Mayfair? Earlybird? We can try a few different ones and decide. Anyway, there wasn’t really time to stand around admiring my work. It was getting late, and I still needed to do the “Binding and Appeal”.

When the signs of binding have all been drawn, partake lustily of your own banquet. To G’lal the Devourer, there is only feaster and feast, and any not reveling when his eyeless gaze descends will become his fodder, to be banished forever to his hollow eternity.

Fortunately I’d read this part ahead of time and thought to buy a banquet of my own at Wendy’s. I probably could’ve gotten away with stealing a few of G’lal’s fries, but I wanted to do the thing right. On top of that, prepping an arcane ritual really works up an appetite, and it had been a while since dinner. I had a spicy chicken sandwich, and it was delicious.

With the delights of your banquet filling your mouth, call forth the name of G’lal in a gluttonous roar.

Readers, this is a little embarrassing, but I’ll didn’t really know how to pronounce “G’lal”. Was it “guh-lall”? Maybe “gull-al”? What sort of “a” sound were we talking about here? What was I supposed to do with that apostrophe? Maybe it didn’t matter all that much, since I was yelling with my mouth full of spicy chicken, but I know how annoying it can be when someone mispronounces your name. I ended up making it rhyme with “the mall” and flinging much semi-masticated food in the process.

There is no appeal to G’lal the Devourer other than the satiety of your hunger. Eat, petitioner, and make your pleasure at the feast known. Set in your mind that which you desire, just as you have set G’lal’s table. If G’lal is pleased, your request shall be granted you. Pray, petitioner, that he is pleased.

So I stood there beside the road, in front of all this melted wax and burning candles built around a full Dave’s Triple Cheeseburger Meal with a side of chicken nuggets and single-malt scotch, and made nom-noming sounds while I thought about my innermost desires. I will say, readers, just then it was a little difficult keeping my innermost desires straight. For one, I really wanted to avoid being arrested for performing what had started to look like a vaguely satanic ritual in the middle of this sleepy little town. I also wanted to get a decent blog post out of all this, though that wasn’t quite mutually exclusive with avoiding arrest. I did think about finding Prism Bay, but that was possibly the vaguest desire of them all, since I had about zero hope this Appeal to the Guardians thing would actually work.

 This is fine.

This is fine.

 This is totally fine.

This is totally fine.

 Everything is OK.

Everything is OK.

 Nothing terrifying happening here at all.

Nothing terrifying happening here at all.

Well, readers, I’ll leave you to decide. I will merely point out that I was not arrested, and that you are now reading the resulting post. And that, most surprising of all, I found Prism Bay.

The first sign that things had gone well was that no raccoons appeared to tear me limb from limb. This tends to be a pretty good sign in most situations, generally speaking, but especially then, since the possibility had actually been mentioned in the fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information. I wasn’t really sure what to do with my red wax table of offering, now that the appeal to G’lal the Devourer was over, so I swept away as much of the wax as I could, removed all wrappers and refuse, and left the food where it was—maybe it would distract the raccoons until I could make my escape. I’d served the scotch in a paper cup, and was tempted to down it before heading on, but I knew, whatever happened, I’d have some driving to do.

 Keeping it classy in small-town Maine.

Keeping it classy in small-town Maine.

My next task—the last step from my directions—was to take four right turns. This would, of course, put me more or less back where I started, depending on how the roads fit together, but I had already sacrificed a triple cheeseburger to an unknown entity of eternal hunger, so at this point I was pretty much down for whatever. I started up my car, took my first right, then the right after that, then another right. 

The final right turn set me on a narrow, wooded road. I drove, expecting any minute to see the intersection where I’d had my late-night snack with G’lal the Devourer, local detectives now sifting around for evidence of satanic activity, but the road only continued on, became bumpy and dirt-covered, twisted and turned. Checking my GPS map, I saw myself—or, the little dot representing my position—in a featureless swathe of green. My phone proclaimed “no service”, not an unusual turn of events in rural Maine, but not exactly welcome, either. The woods grew ever darker and closer. Turning on my car’s high beams only made it harder to see: the predawn fog was rolling in.

Then, readers, just as I was beginning to get nervous, to imagine scenarios involving flat tires on this secluded drive, masked lunatics, packs of raccoons that had tracked me all the way from town and now stalked through the darkness, awaiting the moment to strike—that is, as it was starting to seem like I’d have to just put the car in reverse and back my way to the road—just then, the trees cleared, and I was driving beneath a wide, starry sky. Ahead, I saw the lights of a small down, and the ocean glittering beneath the last sliver of a waning moon.

Minutes later, I was driving through the town center. Most of the buildings were dark—it was past two in the morning by then—but through the windows of one restaurant I saw the servers and chefs gathered for an after-hours drink. I was tempted to knock on the door and ask where exactly I’d turned up, but I didn’t want to disturb them—and readers, part of me knew already. By some miraculous turn of events—whether coincidence, serendipity, or the favor of G’lal the Devourer—I had found my way to Prism Bay.

 The maaaaaaaaall! Um, I mean, Ga-laaaaaall!!

The maaaaaaaaall! Um, I mean, Ga-laaaaaall!!

As the road curved away from the little collection of shops and eateries, I pulled over and got out the fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information, so I could check my directions one more time. My destination, the Hemlocks, was located at “Five Fathom Drive, approximately three miles from the town center”. I drove on, and on, and on. For maybe an hour, readers, I drove, around and around, back and forth, looking for Fathom Drive. I saw my first real evidence that this was, indeed, Prism Bay: a poster for the Prism Bay Theatre Company, which was holding auditions for its first production of the season, The Revenger’s Tragedy. But there was no sign of Fathom Drive.

Finally, I found what I needed: evidence I’d made a mistake. The first signs of dawn were beginning to show over the horizon, and as I took yet another turn toward the town center, I noticed a rickety sign hanging from a tree. The letter “F” caught my attention, and when I went to look, I saw it read “Five Fathom Dr.”. I hadn’t been looking for number five Fathom Drive, it seemed; “Five Fathom Drive” was the name of the road. Sure enough, just about three miles from the town center, Five Fathom Drive ended at the doorstep of great house, situated deep among the trees. A single light shone over the porch, and on the door was pinned a small note. I’ve copied it below.

My dear Mr. Black –

The door is open. Your room is on the second floor, second door on the right. Breakfast will be served promptly at half past seven tomorrow morning.

— Mrs. S

Well, readers, I don’t think I have to tell you this was a welcome sight indeed, but so that you can see it for yourself, and partake in my sheer relief at coming to the end of the day’s odyssey, I’ve included a photograph. It was, as will be apparent, that same typewritten text. I had, it seemed, finally reached the origin of the mysterious Letter of Invitation. I crept quietly to my room, doing my best not to wake any of the other guests (I still expected there to be other guests then), all the while reveling in my good fortune.

card 04 for 06:12:2018.jpg

Probably it was just luck. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences, readers—of getting lost to some ridiculous degree, of wandering around what seemed like forever, only to emerge, suddenly, just where you wanted to be. Even so, before I went to bed, I drank a toast to G’lal the Devourer, who had, it seemed, seen fit to smile upon my endeavors with his eyeless gaze from all the way out there in the starving darkness. What a guy, right?

A postscript, dear readers, to my tale of searching and finding: though the majority of this post was composed the day after my arrival in Prism Bay (and I did get up in time for breakfast—but that is a story for another time), I am in fact posting to you from a little café a few towns over. The Hemlocks is quite the impressive house, readers, but its technology is far from up to date. I was hard pressed to find an electrical outlet that didn’t seem ready to fry my laptop down to its circuits; wifi was out of the question. So too fiber optics and DSL. Even if I could somehow acquire a dial-up modem (do such things still exist?), and even if I could convince Mrs. Sylvester to let me attach it to the house’s one telephone (and I seriously doubt that would fly with Mrs. S), I don’t think it would even work with the house’s old-timey wiring. I’m seeking a better solution, but for now it seemed easiest just to drive to the nearest Starbucks.

Hopefully I won’t have any trouble retracing my steps back to Prism Bay. If I have to make an Appeal to the Guardians every time I leave town, this summer is going to get very expensive, and that’s if the raccoons don’t get me. I’ll let you know next time, dear readers. Until then, I say to you, with much joy, gravity, and seriousness, NOM-NOM-NOM!

 This place is just AMAZING. You cannot even get a table unless you know someone.

This place is just AMAZING. You cannot even get a table unless you know someone.

 It's all about the plating.

It's all about the plating.

 I've been on worse dates.

I've been on worse dates.

 A little mood lighting. A little horrifying mood lighting.

A little mood lighting. A little horrifying mood lighting.

 #popuprestaurant #hottestplaceintown #amfeasting #yums

#popuprestaurant #hottestplaceintown #amfeasting #yums

 #foodie4lyfe #forkyeah #feedthedevourer #eatfamous

#foodie4lyfe #forkyeah #feedthedevourer #eatfamous

 #feastgoals #cleaneating #eternalhunger #nibbles

#feastgoals #cleaneating #eternalhunger #nibbles

 #glal #... #eatthehumans #foolishmortals #snacktime

#glal #... #eatthehumans #foolishmortals #snacktime