See You Next Summer

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See You Next Summer

[Today is about conclusions, readers, but that doesn't mean you can't relive the summer in back-issue form! To time-warp to the beginning of this very unusual season, just click right HERE.]

Well, readers, it’s been quite a summer, hasn’t it? Yours, I hope, has been at least as enjoyable as mine, and a deal less dramatic. The last few weeks in Prism Bay, I am happy to report, were utterly unexciting, the weather warm and placid, as though to make up for the stretch of abysmal awfulness that came before. Now, cool breezes have begun to blow across the waters of Prism Bay, bringing with them the spicy scents of autumn. Since taking up residence in this little seaside town, I’ve become much more aware of the turn of the seasons and the movement of the heavens, and thus am well aware that the equinox is drawing near, and with it, the end of my summer at the Hemlocks on Prism Bay.

Being the concerned readers you are, I’m sure you will want to know how Prism Bay and its people have fared since my last post. You might recall that the town, brought to the verge of collapse by a strange weather phenomenon known as an ethereal vortex, had just survived a second storm, and was finally showing a few tentative signs of recovery. For the first time in days, people seemed to have hope for the future. That hope was not misplaced, readers. Repairs are well ahead of schedule, and while there is still a long way to go, we have every reason to believe Prism Bay will not only survive, but emerge stronger than ever. The local economy has made an impressive comeback, despite the fact that many places of business remain in less-than-presentable condition. Prism Bay has become a place of open-air markets, of food carts and street vendors, and shoppers have come out in force to make up for lost time.

I am pleased to report that Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen and the Dancing Squid have both resumed operation. Restoration of the town center is still far from complete, but the rubble and blubber have been cleared well enough to allow foot traffic for those seeking donuts and/or fine dining. Amy’s was the first to reopen—though in my view at least, it never really closed. Its main location might have been rendered unsafe for human occupation, but Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen goes wherever Amy does. For a few days, at least, it was established at the Hemlocks. As for the Dancing Squid, well, let us just say that the market for celebrations of escape from disaster is experiencing something of a boom.

Yes, readers, it seems there’s no reason to worry about our friends here on Prism Bay—and a good thing, too, because the autumnal equinox is this Sunday, meaning it’s time for me to skedaddle. For all Mrs. Sylvester’s hospitality, the dates of residency were laid out clearly (or anyway, pretty clearly) in her very first letter of invitation, and I have no desire to overstay my welcome. And so I have packed my things, and gone to say my fare-ye-wells—not goodbyes, because I plan to stay in touch—and stopped off at my wonted Starbucks outside of town to make one more post to you, dear readers, before heading south to Boston.

The end of summer is a melancholy time, especially a summer in which one has discovered a new place and made new friends—but Prism Bay will still be here, of course, as will its people, even if that special summer magic is gone. Still, Ta-Ta-For-Now at Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen and the Dancing Squid did get a little misty. Amy sent me on my way with a baker’s dozen (right now I’m enjoying a round flavored in “crisp autumn air”, saving “summer’s last languor” for when I get home) and a long hug, while Pippa was almost inconsolable—more over summer’s end, I’m guessing, but I can still flatter myself by imagining she’ll miss me. The man of middle years who has been successful in business, meanwhile, offered me the firm handshake of a man of middle years who has been successful in business. “We’ll meet again, Mr. Black,” he said. “Perhaps sooner than you expect.” When asked when he thought that would be, he only slapped me on the shoulder and raised his martini in a last toast to summer.

My final farewell of the day was with Mrs. Sylvester—the longest, too, and not just because I’d prepared a little speech intended to express my gratitude for her hospitality and the fantastic experience she had made possible for me. When I had returned to the Hemlocks and loaded my car with all the accessories of my summer, I went looking for Mrs. Sylvester, and found her in the small office beside the library, talking on one of the house’s old-timey phones. When I made as if to leave, however, she waved me to a seat nearby—but if I took this to mean her conversation was nearly over, I was mistaken. The call went on for another twenty minutes at least, all with me sitting right there.

I don’t mind sharing a bit of this conversation with you, dear readers, because I know you are discrete and thoughtful individuals, and also, if Mrs. Sylvester had really wanted to keep any of it private, she would have let me retreat to some other part of the house, instead of conducting her business in the presence of a known writer, and a blogger at that. Nothing terribly scandalous was said—most of it was rather dull, in fact—but it was nevertheless enlightening in its own way, because it was the only time I have ever heard Mrs. Sylvester mention inviting anyone to the Hemlocks other than me.

From what I could gather, the party on the other end of the line was a prospective future resident of the Hemlocks. This party, who Mrs. Sylvester addressed only as “sir”, was apparently quite anxious over several matters pertaining to next summer, and Mrs. Sylvester was doing her best to offer reassurance. When I first sat down, the mysterious “sir” seemed convinced Mrs. Sylvester intended to renege on her invitation. I could hear his aggressive, even accusatory tone—though not his actual words—emerging from the handset, which Mrs. Sylvester held several inches away from her ear. She, meanwhile, remained ever patient, no matter how many times she repeated the same message: “As I have said, sir, our agreement stands: you will have full residency once the season begins again.”

Far more intriguing, from my position as eavesdropper, was how concerned this mysterious sir seemed to be over the effect his presence would have on Prism Bay. He seemed to anticipate some strongly negative, even violent response from the town at large. Mrs. Sylvester, however, was confident she could head off any trouble. “It will be perfectly safe, I assure you,” was one phrase I heard again and again. Also, “I am quite well-versed in special accommodations, even for those of your unusual background.” And, “I have looked into the matter and remain confident no problems will arise so long as the necessary etiquette is observed.” And, perhaps most telling of all, “so long as you have an invitation from the Hemlocks, sir, none can bar your way.”

For some reason, the whole conversation felt weirdly familiar, and as I listened, I realized why: it reminded me of the chat I’d had with Mrs. Sylvester after I asked her to open the Hemlocks to the displaced people of Prism Bay. This time, though, Mrs. Sylvester was the one trying to placate the aggressive, resentful attitude of someone else: this mysterious “sir”. It was as if she had somehow phoned up her past self—that angry, abrasive person so unlike the Mrs. Sylvester I’d come to know—and was trying to talk some sense into her. Which was ridiculous, of course. I’ve checked the special functions listed by Prism Bay’s telephone provider (*69 for the number of your last caller, **8 for the person you’d most like to talk to, *5* for your subconscious, etc.) and ringing up your past self isn’t on there anywhere.

When at last the conversation ended, and Mrs. Sylvester replaced the telephone’s handset on its stand, she turned to me with her usual wry smile. “I hope you will forgive my discourtesy, Mr. Black,” she said. “That call could not wait, and I wanted to speak with you before you went on your way.”

I assured her I didn’t mind at all, and took the opportunity to launch into my little speech about what a wonderful and inspiring summer I’d had, the flowery rhetoric of which I will spare you, readers.

“It has been quite a summer, hasn’t it, Mr. Black?” Mrs. Sylvester said, once I’d finally wound down. “I will admit I was not entirely sure what to expect. As you might have heard, we have not entertained residents here at the Hemlocks for some time. I’m very pleased at the way things worked out.”

“I’m glad to hear that, Mrs. Sylvester,” I said—I do like to know I’ve been a good guest. “I’m still not exactly sure why you invited me, but I feel very fortunate you did.”

This was a less than subtle invitation to explain what had prompted her to send that mysterious letter and fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information back in May, but Mrs. Sylvester only smiled and said, “Then we were both fortunate, I think. It was a pleasure to have you with us, and I would be honored if you would consider joining us again next season.”

Readers, I won’t tell you how much I was hoping to hear something like this, but I was hoping a lot. I’d been internally writhing with envy the entire time Mrs. Sylvester was discussing summer plans with that unnamed sir—now, it appeared I would have the chance to meet him, and see what all the fuss was about. “I’d like that very much,” I said, in what I’m sure will be a strong candidate for my personal understatement of the year. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“No thanks are necessary, Mr. Black,” Mrs. Sylvester said, “but I do wonder if you might do me one favor, after you have taken your leave.”

In a more cynical mood, I might have suspected Mrs. Sylvester of leading me intentionally into this exact exchange, but I wasn’t feeling cynical, readers—I was feeling like no favor would be too great. “Of course,” I said. “Anything.”

Mrs. Sylvester opened a drawer at her desk. “A certain item has come recently into my possession, and I wish to see it returned to its rightful owner,” she said. “I hoped I might entrust that task to you.”

“Absolutely,” I said, thinking I would gladly fly to Australia and carry a suitcase of rattlesnakes deep into the Outback for this season’s invitation alone.

“Excellent.” From her desk, Mrs. Sylvester removed a small box—what looked like a necklace case (spoiler alert: that is what it turned out to be, readers)—and an envelope sealed with red wax. “This is the item,” she said, handing me first the box, then the envelope, “and these are the instructions for its return. Please be sure to follow them to the letter.”

I promised I would do precisely that.

“And if you would, Mr. Black,” she said, with another of her wry smiles, “do not open either until you have left the limits of Prism Bay.”

I agreed to that as well, readers, and now that we have said our farewells, and I have left Prism Bay behind, and am now here, at this Starbucks outside of town, I have decided it is time to see what my favor to Mrs. Sylvester will entail.

Inside the box, readers, is the pendant necklace I first saw beneath my desk the day I visited the Prism Bay Beach Club, the pendant necklace I assumed must be an old Sylvester family heirloom, an assumption I considered confirmed when Mrs. Sylvester began wearing it everywhere she went. The same pendant necklace that has not surfaced again, so far as I’ve seen, since the storms cleared over Prism Bay. 

Apparently it doesn’t belong to Mrs. Sylvester after all. Who the true owner is, I cannot say—not because I’m being secretive, readers, but because that owner isn’t mentioned in the instructions I have for the thing’s return. The instructions are, in fine Prism Bay tradition, rather unusual, but I intend to follow them to the letter, as promised. I will deal with the pendant necklace of unknown provenance, readers, but it will have to wait—until the equinox has passed and I can secure passage aboard a reliable watercraft. Worry not: you’ll hear all about it.

Until next time, readers—safe travels to you all!

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A Spell of Bad Weather, As It Were

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A Spell of Bad Weather, As It Were

[Hey folks, just a quick note to anyone just joining us this week: a whole lot has happened this summer, and if you want to see where it all began, I'd recommend following this helpful link HERE!]

I haven’t left Prism Bay yet, readers. I mean, I’m not there now—I’m in a Starbucks a few miles out, because I still haven’t been able to find a decent non-gremlin-infested internet connection in the whole dang town—but I haven’t fled forever. Once I’ve finished posting and bought myself an iced coffee and maybe one of those cake pops, I’m headed back. There’s a lot going on these later-summer days, most of it refreshingly non-terrible.

Last week, as you might remember, I was pretty much dead set on getting out of Dodge, Dodge having gone from a placid and idyllic summer retreat to a town-sized open sewer filled with aggressively filthy derelicts, where a trio of delusional, fantasy-obsessed teenagers tied me to a chair and destroyed my laptop with a sword. I feel a bit ridiculous typing it all out, but those, readers, are the facts, and I think they qualify as adequate justification for leaving an artists’ residency a bit ahead of schedule. But I didn’t. If anything, I’m more determined to stick around and help out.

What changed my mind? Well, it wasn’t the drive home, that’s for sure. Ever since the storm, it seemed I had to navigate a new maze of fallen trees and collapsing pavement every time I left the house. By the time I got back to the Hemlocks, I was convinced I had only a few days before I’d be unable to get my car through at all. I could wait until tomorrow at leas, though, and I wanted to bid my friends farewell. One does not become part of someone’s summer family and then up and leave without a word. I had ideas of inviting my friends to Boston with me, if that would help—my apartment there isn’t large, but it is dry and (last I checked) free of jellyfish.

So I got into my slicker and wellies and set forth on my Hemlocks-issue bicycle, dodging potholes and muck-filled puddles, riding alongside tidal streams, some deep enough to host sizable fish, their fins cresting and circling through the bubbling water. The town center, readers, had become a mere shell of itself, hardly recognizable as the quaint, elegant little street I’d first driven down that early AM back in June. The pavement was a jagged shambles, the stores boarded up, the few windows I could see dark, many broken, the sidewalks empty, not a person anywhere. The place looked dead—long deceased, even; a ghost town. Nothing brought this home to me more than seeing Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen, the sign reading, “Yes We’re Open but Ring Bell Because Vortex” written over with a new notice: “Closed Until We’re Not”.

The bell was still up, so I tried ringing it anyway, but no one heard. That’s what I thought, anyway, until a voice from behind me said, “She went home—held out longer than anyone, though.” I was surprised, but not as alarmed as I might have been: the voice didn’t have the slimy slurp of the hoodie-clad, purple-tongued reprobates, for one thing. Also, it was someone I knew. I turned, and there stood the man of middle years who has been successful in business. He didn’t seem to have descended into vagrancy, I was pleased to see, but as always looked prosperous if not actually fashionable, just as a man of middle years who has been successful in business ought.

“It does say ‘all-hours’,” I said. “I was hoping that included ‘darkest hours’.”

The man of middle years who has been successful in business grinned. “I think if you went to her house, she’d happily make you a donut or ten,” he said. “Out here things have become rather more hazardous than is good for business, especially considering the lack of customers.”

Sound commercial acumen, just as I’d have expected. “What are you doing here, then? If not buying donuts?”

“Surveying the damage,” replied the man of middle years who has been successful in business. “Assessing the potential for repairs.”

“Oh?” I asked hopefully. “Has there been word from the town? Are we finally going to get some help?”

“Unfortunately not. This would be more of what you might call a private initiative.”

Even better, I thought. If this man of middle years who has been successful in business had some kind of financial conglomerate behind him, or even a collection of concerned—and, hopefully, wealthy—citizens, then maybe the municipal authorities wouldn’t be needed at all. Still, that wouldn’t be enough to help local businesses like Amy’s, businesses that likely needed summer money to carry them through to next year. With this summer ending early, who knew whether they’d be able to survive until the next one?

I suddenly felt pretty cruddy about my plan to leave town, right when things were at their worst—and with no one outside of Prism Bay even pretending to care, just acting like the whole place didn’t even exist. “Is there anything I can do?” I asked. “Maybe I could make a donation or something? Or organize a crowd-funding campaign? Or, I don’t know, help local merchants post their stuff for sale online?”

“I’d recommend keeping your head down for the time being,” said the man of middle years who has been successful in business. “First let’s see if there’s anything left to save, shall we?” He glanced out over the water, toward a place where the greasy gray sky collected into a knot of clouds glistening with a dull rainbow sheen, like oil on dirty water.

“Is that another storm?” I asked. “Another ethereal vortex?” That would probably be enough sink this place, I thought, wash it away like a clump of seaweed.

The man of middle years who has been successful in business let out a little harrumphing sound. “No, not quite, but it’s just as bad,” he said. “A lot of people have packed up and gone. You might want to do the same.”

“What about the people who can’t pack up and go?” I asked.

“I’d recommend they try anyway.”

“Maybe they could stay with me,” I said. “At the Hemlocks. It’s still in pretty good shape, actually. You’d hardly know anything had happened.”

“Is that right?” asked the man of middle years who has been successful in business, with a sly sidelong glance. “Well I’m not sure how Mrs. Sylvester would feel about you inviting folks over, but that’s your business, I suppose. Care for a drink?”

This question took me off guard, but I reflected that a drink would not be unwelcome. “Is anywhere open?” I asked.

“I thought we might take the opportunity to support a local business, albeit unofficially,” he said.

The local business in question turned out to be the Dancing Squid, and after a bit of light breaking and entering (as my companion referred to it) we found ourselves at the bar enjoying gin martinis with cocktail onions (also known as Gibsons, I was informed). Impressively, there was even still a block of cocktail ice that hadn’t quite melted. We left full payment, plus a lavish tip, beneath the bottle of gin and unopened vermouth (the proper ingredients for a martini, according to the man of middle years who has been successful in business), after which I set out for the Hemlocks, now determined to stick things out in Prism Bay at least a little longer.

I was actually pretty ashamed that I’d been planning to make a run for it. Were I merely here on vacation, it would have been another matter. When you pay good money for rest and relaxation and instead have to witness the general breakdown of society, you’re pretty justified in taking off for other parts. But I wasn’t just a visitor anymore—I was part of the community. A very marginal, often confused part, it was true, but I still had friends here, friends who needed help. 

 Does look a tad dicey, doesn't it?

Does look a tad dicey, doesn't it?

By the time I got back to the Hemlocks, I had what might be called a plan, but as that plan involved speaking to Mrs. Sylvester, and Mrs. Sylvester was nowhere to be found, things stalled out pretty quickly. I must have spent half an hour walking around the house, which was dim and spooky in the fading day, before returning to the foyer, where Mrs. Sylvester scared the stuffing out of me by calling out from the top of the stairs, “What do you want, Mr. Black?”

“Oh, hi, Mrs. Sylvester,” I said, feeling oddly nervous as I looked up her, perched there among the shadows. “I was hoping I might ask you a favor, if you wouldn’t mind hearing me out.”

“A favor,” mused Mrs. Syvester, in the low, rasping register she’d assumed of late. “Yes, for all you have done, I might grant you a boon. Ask, and it shall be yours.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by “all you have done”—certainly nothing that had happened this summer would put her in my debt. I’d been staying at her house and eating her food for free, for goodness sake! But maybe she had some idea how much I’d accomplished over the summer, literature-wise, and thought I deserved a reward. That, at least, was a little more like the Mrs. Sylvester I remembered: I’d been a good boy, and now I could have a treat. Her air of a conquering general dispensing the spoils of a successful campaign, though, and her low smoker’s voice—well, these were somewhat less encouraging.

“I was hoping I could invite some friends over,” I said. “To stay, here at the Hemlocks. Some people from town.”

“Never!” Mrs. Sylvester bellowed, so loudly I could swear my hair actually blew back, as though from a cartoon lion’s roar. “Whatever else you desire you shall have, but not that.”

My first impulse, after I’d recovered from the surprise of being shouted at, was to ask why not, but something told me that would only make her angrier. “You should see the town, Mrs. Sylvester,” I said instead. “It’s bad out there. There’s no electricity, no running water. The roads are a mess. People are having a hard time.”

“So they have been brought low,” Mrs. Sylvester growled. “What concern is that of mine—or of yours?”

“We’re part of the community,” I said. “If we can help, we should.” 

Mrs. Sylvester laughed at that, but she didn’t sound amused in the least—it came out almost like a cough. “Part of the community, you say? I would not have expected to hear you say so, Mr. Black—you, who have been so direly mistreated by this place.”

Well, OK, she a point there. I hadbeen ambushed and illegally detained by three Prism Bay residents only the previous night. I’d also been shouted at by a bartender for bragging about my blog, and toyed with by a computer gremlin, and stalked by a sinister ornithological society. “Yes, well, every town has its own quirks and characters,” I said, fully aware what an understatement this was in the case of Prism Bay, “but I’ve also met some really wonderful people—people who recognized me as an outsider and made me feel welcome anyway.”

“Maybe so, but I have seen no such welcome, Mr. Black,” Mrs. Sylvester snarled. “I have been shunned, excluded, barred from this community, as you call it. I came here only through cunning, and force, and now that I have arrived, I see no reason to aid those who would have kept me out, were it in their power.”

Over the course of the summer, I’d had the impression there was quite a bit of backstory surrounding Mrs. Sylvester and the Hemlocks. Now, finally, it seemed I was getting a piece of it. Was Mrs. Sylvester’s seclusion out here not entirely voluntary? Was she an exile in some sense? Was that, perhaps, the reason I was the only resident at the Hemlocks? If so, why? Was it simple prejudice? Had there been some sort of incident I didn’t know about? Curious as I was, it seemed best not to bring any of this up at such a sensitive juncture. “I know small towns can be harsh, and judgmental,” I began.

“And so why,” Mrs. Sylvester hissed, “why should I offer to them the hospitality that was denied me?”

“Because it isn’t about repaying anyone for anything,” I said. “It’s about forging a connection. You’ve done that before, Mrs. Sylvester—you invited me here, offered your hospitality. It was such an amazing act of generosity I almost ignored it—I thought it had to be a hoax. But it’s turned out to be one of the best summers of my life, despite all the strangeness, despite even everything that’s happened in the past few weeks. And it was all because you reached out to me—from nowhere, and with no expectation of repayment. I’m part of this community because you brought me here. And that means you’re part of it, too.”

This is only the general essence of what I said that night, readers. The speech I actually made involved a great many more “um”s and “er”s and assorted verbal crutches. I’m pretty sure I said, “think of the children”, apropos of nothing, at least once. But I got the point across—at least, I think I did. Mrs. Sylvester fell into quiet consideration. For a moment, it seemed like the consideration that precedes advice to go jump in a lake, but then she said, “Yes, Mr. Black, things would have been very different had you not come to Prism Bay.” Another long pause, then, “Very well. I shall grant you this boon—not because it is owed, not because it is deserved by any who would receive my hospitality, as you called it, but because you have asked.”

 You know, I think my art has really improved this summer. The atmosphere in the house is always so weird but I feel like I kind of nailed it here!

You know, I think my art has really improved this summer. The atmosphere in the house is always so weird but I feel like I kind of nailed it here!

That was good enough for me. The first person I called was Amy—it was the first time I’d used a real phone book in I-don’t-know-how-many years. “Can I bring Pippa?” she said, when told she was being offered a warm, slime-free residence for an as-yet undetermined period of time.

“I was hoping you’d be able to find her,” I said. “She isn’t in the phone book.”

“Most foxes aren’t,” Amy said, confusingly—if, I suppose, also accurately. “I’ll be right over.”

She showed up an hour later, bringing Pippa, who looked like she’d spent the day crawling through wet hedges, and fresh donuts—nothing fancy, but that was fine by me. Both Amy and Pippa proclaimed me a lifesaver (the donuts were silent on the subject). “You should thank Mrs. Sylvester, not me,” I said, but Mrs. Sylvester was not present to be thanked.

“So,” Amy said, when I had explained a bit about Mrs. Sylvester’s offer of hospitality (leaving out her initial reluctance and lack of sympathy toward the plight of Prism Bay), “how far exactly does that hospitality extend?”

By the end of the day, we’d brought in various owners and employees from Articles of Some Considerable History, the Dancing Squid, and several other local businesses, including a few of Pippa’s fellow booksellers from Prism Bay Literary Merchants (the mysterious proprietor, however, was nowhere to be found). I sought out Mrs. Sylvester after each new invitation, always expecting her to place a cutoff on the guest list, but she never objected. Instead, she watched the growing crowd from her perch atop the stairs with what one might describe as grim triumph.

Before very long, the Hemlocks was home to some three dozen refugees, and though it still wasn’t overcrowded, it was certainly lively. I began to get a sense of what this place must have been like in summers past, when the fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information Mrs. Sylvester sent to me would have been important to keep everyone’s shoes and tails from being trod upon. I did not see any horned children, but I did meet a few young people with a reputation for devilry (however figurative). By the end of the second day, Mimi, Tyler, and Elle van der Geest were all once again beneath the roof of the Hemlocks.

“We’re really sorry about your laptop, Mr. Black,” Mimi told me as evening rolled in. “All of us,” she added, with a stern glance toward Tyler and Elle, who were watching us suspiciously from across the room. “We’ll pay you back for it.”

“No, don’t worry about it,” I said. Hector van der Geest had already made a similar offer, and if I refused his money, I certainly wasn’t going to take anything from a girl whose main source of income was presumably working at her uncle’s junk shop. Nor did I care to add to these kids’ problems. I gathered Tyler and Elle had both returned to Prism Bay after being taken elsewhere by their parents—resulting, after many complicated phone calls to the households of Flavius and van der Geest, in Earl of Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium acting as temporary guardian of all three. Earl did not need more trouble, and to me, running away from home seemed like a general improvement in behavior over assaulting innocent writers, so I merely advised Elle to stop and consider next time before taking a book too seriously.

The house seemed almost to expand as needed, though cots were eventually brought out for those unable to find beds. Food, meanwhile, proved to be no problem at all: apparently the pantry and cellars had been stocked for a full house, and with only Mrs. Sylvester and me in residence most of the summer, there was plenty to spare. Of far more concern was the storm rolling toward Prism Bay—the one that, according to the man of middle years who has been successful in business (a notable absence in the growing crowd), stood to sink the town once and for all.

For days now, the storm had seemed to linger just off the coast, but when it finally arrived, two days after I first invited Amy and Pippa to the Hemlocks, it turned out the oily clouds we’d seen over Prism Bay had been only the leading edge of something much bigger. The combination of wind and driving rain that descended onto the Hemlocks was far worse than anything I remembered from the ethereal vortex, and I could only assume it was coming from a different direction, one where the sloping cliffs couldn’t shield us. The windows and shutters rattled, gusts whistled beneath the doors. At one point, Amy told me the toilets and tubs on the first floor had filled with jellyfish, and we spent a frantic ten minutes turning off the water and plugging the drains, sure the sewers must be flooding. Then, as the storm’s wailing reached a new crescendo, the lights went out.

The house’s generator must have failed—that’s my best explanation. I suppose it might have been a blown fuse (the wiring in those walls was positively ancient), but whatever the reason, we were all thrown suddenly into thick darkness, broken only by the sudden white flashes of lightning outside. Cries of alarm and dismay went up through the house as people already left nearly destitute by one storm now saw their only shelter about to succumb to another. I tried telling folks to remain calm—we had a supply of storm candles around somewhere—but I doubt anyone heard me. I could hardly hear myself. Until, that is, the glow of a single flame welled up through the dark: Mrs. Sylvester, a newly struck match in her hand.

Later, when people told stories about that night (and they have, readers), I heard several different opinions about when exactly the storm broke. Pretty much everyone agrees it was over by the time the sun came up, and we all stepped outside to the sound of water dripping from pine branches, the air fresh with the clean scent of new rain. Some claim to have sensed the weather turn at this or that point during the night, a change in the wind’s pitch, or the growing silence between lightning and thunder. But really, readers, I think it was when Mrs. Sylvester lit that one match. It sounds sappy, I know, but if nothing else, it altered the mood in the house. That little light helped us find the rest of the storm candles, and soon the Hemlocks was aglow with warm, flickering orange.

We still had a long way ahead, to be sure, but I think from that point on the night became something to be enjoyed rather than endured. People seemed to understand the best way through the storm was to wait it out together; board games and playing cards were produced, the conservatory (in this case, meaning the music room) was looted for instruments, provisions were procured from the basement, and a full-on storm party ensued.

Most of my night was spent patrolling the house for leaks or other incursions by the storm, but the Hemlocks is about as sturdy a house as I’ve ever visited; every window was sealed tight, and the roof held fast. Together, Amy and I were even able to flush most of those jellyfish. Mrs. Sylvester, meanwhile, seemed finally to be warming to her role as host. Generally she stood apart, watching the festivities with an abstracted smile—remembering, I imagined, summers past, when the Hemlocks was crowded all season long—but occasionally someone managed to cajole her into some conversation or game. We were up all the way to morning—though as the time for dawn approached, I did notice some people dozing off, leaning on couches or propped on the house’s thick carpets. 

And that, readers, was when the lights came back on. Probably the storm had been dying down for some time by then, but it was the abrupt flicker of electric light that signaled to everyone that something had really changed. People shouted with surprise and delight—and, yes, a little disappointment to see the festivities coming to an end. The snoozers were roused, the front doors flung open, the clearing skies—still dark, but shifting with the approach of dawn—greeted.

It was as everyone crowded onto the front porch and into the new day that I noticed Mrs. Sylvester sitting alone at the long dining room table, which over the course of the evening had become strewn with games of Monopoly, Settlers of Catan, and something called Canadian Boondoggle. Mrs. Sylvester had been observing a particularly heated game of Risk, now temporarily abandoned. She wore a contemplative expression, and seemed—though I couldn’t be sure from this distance—to be talking to herself.

Sitting down by the remains of a local curiosity—possibly a variation of Go—known as Quamaruuk, I asked if she was feeling all right. She blinked, like someone recalled from a daydream, and looked at me with that wry smile of hers—the one I hadn’t seen for weeks. “Yes, Mr. Black,” she said after a pause. “Yes, I do believe I am. Thank you for your concern.” The harsh, combative tone I’d come to expect, the rasping smoker’s croak—these were gone, replaced by the same refined, assured diction I’d remarked on our first meeting.

“Looks like we made it,” I said. “And you’ve got a lot of happy customers.”

“Quite,” Mrs. Sylvester said, one eyebrow arched. “Now then, I’m sure our guests will want breakfast. As you were responsible for most of the invitations, I expect you can manage the bacon.”

I did manage, more or less (I burned myself only once, readers), and breakfast was both a joyous affair and the last with a full house of storm refugees. That morning, Hector van der Geest arrived to collect a rather rebellious-looking Elle, and brought word that electricity and running water had been restored in town. As the day progressed, people began to trickle away, even as the floodwaters receded from the streets and shores. By nightfall, our collection of exiles was cut in half, and the next day it was halved again, as more and more of Prism Bay returned to livable condition. As of this writing, readers, Mrs. Sylvester and I are once again the only residents of the Hemlocks.

Mrs. Sylvester, I am pleased to say, is back to her old self. I’m not sure what exactly changed, but that air of brash, abrupt hostility I’d remarked in her over the past weeks seems to have vanished along with the storm. Perhaps it was just having a full house again, I don’t know. Certainly she had convincing proof that she isn’t really the outcast she imagined. 

I’ve noticed, too, that she no longer wears that odd, gaudy pendant—the one I first spotted under my desk. Its disappearance from her wardrobe wasn’t obvious at first; I just knew something that had been there was gone. The only reason I thought of that pendant at all is because I’d noticed it the night of the storm. As Mrs. Sylvester rose from the game-board-strewn table to begin breakfast, something made a scraping sound beneath her hand: yes, readers, the pendant. She held it there, gently but firmly, as one might a captured moth, then, with a rather uncharacteristic wink, slid it into a fold in her dress. That was the last I saw of it, I now realize. All the better. I hate to speak this way of a family heirloom, but the thing really was sort of ugly.

And that, readers, is the story of the storm that nearly washed away Prism Bay. The general cleanup has finally begun, and the rather complicated local government, which involves both a Board of Selectmen and a Board of Overseers, has announced a program of repairs intended to restore public and private property both. We’ll have to see how that goes, readers, but I will say that people around here seem pretty optimistic. For the first time in weeks, hopes are high.

I expect I’ll be too busy helping out (and making the most of these summery dog days) to post next week, but I’ll be sure to tell you how it all turned out. Until then, readers, send good thoughts, and hang onto summer while it lasts!

 The nice weather returns, just in time for the long weekend--have a great one, readers!

The nice weather returns, just in time for the long weekend--have a great one, readers!

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An Evening with the Dark Lord

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An Evening with the Dark Lord

Something terrible has happened, readers, a disaster that makes my encounter with the computer gremlin of Prism Bay Literary Merchants seem like nothing more than a pleasant interlude. To use the word “tragedy” would be melodramatic, but let us say that I am shaken, quite shaken indeed. No one has been hurt, and for that I am grateful, but I have been most gravely mistreated. The episode I am about to relate is a disturbing one, violent even, so please take note: it is not for the faint of heart. If you would prefer to avoid the worst of it, I recommend skipping to the end. But if you are feeling courageous, dear readers, read on, as I relive the traumatic events of a night not so long ago.

I will begin by noting that the state of Prism Bay has only declined since you last heard from me. Where before most of the town was left without electricity or gas, it now seems running water is also scarce, and the general failure of local sanitation is evident in the clouds of foul air hanging over many of the neighborhoods. Only the Hemlocks, it seems, has been spared—high on its stalwart cliffs, with its own generator and well and septic system, it remains an oasis of civilization in a place otherwise given over to barbarism. Everything else seems to have descended into a mire of squalor and filth, the citizens of Prism Bay included.

Last week, I described how the privations following the storm left many Prism Bayers feeling hopeless and helpless—a feeling manifest in the marked decline in personal hygiene. Well, that trend has only worsened, and now it seems entire segments of the community have been rendered utterly destitute. They can be seen wandering aimlessly among the darkened buildings and flooded streets, usually dressed in clothes much too warm for the weather—hooded sweatshirts, more often than not—indicating the kind of trouble maintaining body temperature that comes with ill health and malnutrition. Many, I fear, have turned to substance abuse in their despair.

This Sunday, when I made my weekly visit to Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen—Amy no longer serves donuts, or much of anything, but she keeps the place open, almost like a shelter for the people of Prism Bay—I ran into my pal the Old Salt. Only he was no longer really my pal, readers; in fact, he was almost unrecognizable. He had lost a good deal of weight, and his beard had been reduced to a stubble of irregular and soiled white scruff. When he first approached, he seemed ready to accost me (to ask for money, I supposed); there was no recognition in the sunken eyes looking out from beneath his hood. Not until I actually spoke to him did he seem to realize who I was, and even then his merry, salty manner was gone, replaced by something slithering and subservient.

“So sorry to disturb you, Mr. Black,” he said, sidling away from me. “So sorry.” His mouth was thick with saliva, readers, and I’m quite sure I saw a purple tongue in there as well—yes, like the man who invaded my table the night I arrived in Prism Bay. It seemed the Old Salt had succumbed to drug use as well. I asked if he needed money, or one of the sandwiches I’d been bringing over to Amy’s, but he only continued backing away, saying, “No, you have done more than enough, Mr. Black, more than enough.”

It is a distressing state of affairs, readers, and I’d been at my wits’ end looking for some way to help. It seemed unconscionable that a town in such need had been left to fend for itself. Where was FEMA? Where was the National Guard? Where was the Red Cross? Why wasn’t someone down here handing out bottled water and blankets? Again and again, I found myself thinking of the disastrous aftermath of hurricane Katrina, the collapse of local authority and all the suffering that resulted. So far as I could see, no one outside of this little town knew what was happening at all. It seemed the seclusion that contributed so much to the charm of Prism Bay had also allowed it to fall between the cracks.

Well, I wasn’t going to let that happen, readers. I could not allow Prism Bay to be ignored. Something had to be done, and fortunately, I was a writer—a science fiction writer, yes, but that would do in a pinch. I would bring the calamity of Prism Bay to the wider world, document the plight of its citizens, expose the civic and federal neglect that allowed such a disaster to occur. And if I ended up being published in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, well, it would all be worth it to raise awareness and bring much-needed relief to the people of Prism Bay.

 A true American tragedy. Somebody call the publisher of  Hillbilly Elegy .

A true American tragedy. Somebody call the publisher of Hillbilly Elegy.

For the last week or so, I have been trekking through this half-submerged town, taking notes and making sketches. It has not been easy, or pleasant, or even safe. Those few people I have encountered seemed distant and hostile—desperate individuals who, I fear, might commit desperate acts. Wildlife displaced by the storm has been driven dangerously into human company, pets abandoned by their owners roam the streets; only a few days ago, I saw a pack of dogs devouring the bloated corpse of a drowned deer.

All of that is for context, readers. What comes next was, I think, brought on by the desperate condition of the community, but it is very much a personal story.

Yesterday, after long hours spent bearing witness to the privations of Prism Bay, I returned to the Hemlocks weary in body and spirit. I’ll admit to feeling a bit guilty at being able to so easily escape the town’s hardships, but I was also quite ready for a hot bath, a good meal, and a stiff drink. I began with the bath, as I was sweaty and gunk-covered from being out among the dispossessed, then poured myself a scotch and began heating a few Hot Pockets (laid in before the storm, as planned). Mrs. Sylvester had become a rare sight at the house, and seemed to be spending more and more time walking the grounds, so I wasn’t surprised that she wasn’t home to greet me.

I was on my second broccoli and cheddar Hot Pocket and my third glass of scotch when the doorbell rang—an unusual occurrence at the Hemlocks, where as far as I know I have been the only visitor all summer. Waiting on the front porch when I opened the door was none other than Mimi, the young woman formerly of the explicit t-shirt. She appeared a little uneasy, but nowhere near as raggedy and forlorn as most residents of Prism Bay had become. When asked what I could do for her, she gulped nervously and said, “Could I come in, Mr. Black? I, um, I need to make a phone call.”

In retrospect, I think there must have been a glint of determination, even excitement in her eyes, but at the time I only wondered what could have brought her all the way out here at such an hour. “Does your uncle know where you are?” I asked, aware that Earl of Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium would be only one on a long list of people who might not approve of Mimi being alone after dark in a house with a strange older man.

“He’s the one I wanted to call. I’ll only be a minute, I promise,” she said, then added, “it’s kind of urgent.”

I didn’t see the need to ask anything else—that would be Earl’s responsibility. Whatever was going on with Mimi, it wasn’t any of my business; all she needed from me was directions to the phone. I was rather grateful to have something small yet useful to do, after my day amid the general helplessness of Prism Bay. So I opened the door to let Mimi through. As I pushed it shut again, however, the door pushed back—then swung open, striking me rather awkwardly in the shoulder.

When I peered around the door to see what had prevented it from closing, Elle van der Geest leapt forth from the porch, flinging a handful of something into my face. It was the second time Elle had ambushed me in this way, and my reaction was faster this time out: I was at least able to get my eyes and mouth firmly shut before whatever powdery substance she’d flung connected—a good thing, too, because I’m pretty sure it was salt, or at least something very salty. When I opened my eyes, still sputtering, I saw Tyler there as well, ready with a bucket of what I later determined to be buttermilk, which he tossed at me as though at a raging fire. Another, softer impact struck me from behind, like a loosely-packed snowball, and small greenish flakes—mint, by the smell—fluttered to the floor, cascading over my head and shoulders. This courtesy of Mimi, who had apparently come armed with several plastic baggies of the stuff.

The assault continued, readers, for what felt like a good five or ten minutes, though it was probably not quite that long. The three young people darted around me, hurling various substances in my direction—everything from herbs and spices to baking products to what I’m reasonably certain were iron filings—while I stood immobile, too astonished to move. I realized I was being made the subject of some sort of mean prank, intended to humiliate me, like tarring and feathering. Maybe it was even an expression of local censure, of communal outrage. If so, I had to admit I was not completely undeserving, sitting here in this comfortable house while the rest of Prism Bay was forced to boil its water simply to have a source of potable hydration.

 Grim times, readers. Grim times.

Grim times, readers. Grim times.

Mob vengeance, readers. Social outcry in its most primal form. Or maybe just three unhappy children taking out their frustrations on a solitary writer. Whatever the reason, it was time to stop. “That’s quite enough!” I shouted, once I’d recovered enough from my surprise to form a complete sentence. “I know you’re upset, but this won’t solve anything, and you’re making an abominable mess. Calm down and let’s have a chat like reasonable adults.”

“It isn’t working!” shouted Tyler, ready with a new bucket containing what appeared to be soap shavings.

“Do something!” cried Elle, waving a bundle of burning leaves—the air, I noticed, was thick with fragrant smoke.

“Hey, put that out!” I yelled, now envisioning the whole house aflame. “You’re going to cause a fire!” This is what I meant to say, anyway—I’m not entirely sure I actually got the words out. Around this point, readers, a conspicuous gap opens in my memory. I don’t know if it was the shock of this sudden intrusion or what. Possibly I overdid it a little with the scotch, I don’t know. But I cannot rule out the possibility that violence more serious than attack by spice rack was done to me, especially given what happened once I again had full use of my senses.

The next thing I knew, I was seated in one of Mrs. Sylvester’s dining room chairs, my arms and legs bound securely to the chair’s wooden counterparts. The party responsible for this state of affairs was none other than Tyler, as I gathered from the fact that he was still in the process of tying down my left leg with a length of clothesline. It was a knot that would have made any scout leader proud, were it not being used in the context of a violent home invasion. I thought back to the night of the Blood Moon Festival, those kids referring to Tyler as a spaz and a psycho. Well, I believed them now.

“Tyler, listen,” I said, “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but it isn’t too late to stop. Whatever the problem is, we can figure it out. But let’s start with untying me.”

“Don’t listen to him, Tyler!” shouted Elle, who was standing nearby with Mimi. “He’ll say anything to get loose!”

Tyler didn’t listen. To me, I mean. He finished his knot and stood back, watching me uneasily. “What do we do now?” he said to the others. “No way that is going to hold him forever.”

“And it doesn’t matter whether it holds him or not, right?” Mimi said. “Not in the end. He’ll get what he wants no matter what.”

“What I want,” I said, rather exasperated now, “is to finish my dinner, preferably while not tied to my seat. Really, guys, I know you’re going through a lot of stuff right now, but this isn’t going to help anything.”

“He’s right,” Elle said grimly. “None of this is helping. He shrugged off everything we threw at him like it was nothing.”

Around this point, readers, it began to dawn on me that I was dealing with more than some adolescent prank. These kids weren’t thinking straight. Elle, for example, appeared to have heard only about half of my appeal to reason. All three were talking about me in the third person, as if I wasn’t there, or couldn’t understand them. My unease only grew as their conversation went on.

“It has to be the heart, right?” Tyler said. “That singularity thing we read about. This guy—” (And here, readers, he aimed a finger directly at my nose) “—this isn’t actually him. It’s just a puppet.”

He meant me, readers. I was just a puppet. Not a person, not actually a “him”. Merely a thing.

“But the heart could be anything, right?” Mimi asked. “The well of power from the Outer Void or whatever? He could be hiding it anywhere.”

“Then we’ve got to find it,” Elle declared. “We’ve got to find the heart and destroy it. When we do, it should destroy him, too.”

“What, you mean like a horcrux?” I shouted, horrified. “Are you insane?”

And the thing is, readers, I think they were insane—or, at least, very confused. These three were operating within a very different world, I could tell—and Tyler’s reference to the “thing we read about” gave me some idea of which world that was. It was the world I’d heard them discussing that day at Prism Bay Literary Merchants; somehow it had made the leap from make-believe to reality, enough to eclipse the real world, at least for these three. And isn’t an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality the very definition of insanity? In a legal sense, at least, the answer was yes, and at this thought, my mind flashed to tales of teenagers taking their Dungeons and Dragons role-play to violent extremes, then to Peter Jackson’s beautiful but disturbing Heavenly Creatures.

Was I about to become the next small town horror story? A summer paradise transformed into a land of dread and despair, a group of outcast teens, no doubt already unstable due to various personal and family problems, escaping so far into fantasy that they lose their grip on reality, culminating in a ghastly home invasion and murder of well-known author J. Patrick Black? It was just the sort of true crime novel any writer would kill for (figuratively), and, I reflected bitterly, would surely become a huge success for someone else. I, however, would not be around to see it. 

 I mean, look, I'm all for encouraging imagination, but let's keep the home invasions to a minimum out there, OK?

I mean, look, I'm all for encouraging imagination, but let's keep the home invasions to a minimum out there, OK?

“Look, kids, let’s just slow down a minute,” I said. “Tell me what you want. Maybe I can help.” I didn’t have high hopes for reasoning with these three hooligans, but I thought maybe if I could play into their delusion, I might possibly use that to negotiate my way out of this.

“I’ll stay here and make sure he doesn’t try anything,” Tyler said, with obvious determination. “You two find the heart.”

“Tyler, you don’t stand a chance alone,” Mimi said, a bit fearfully.

“You’ve read what he can do—there’s no time to waste,” Tyler said. “Finding that singularity is our only chance. Just go!”

Elle exchanged a look with Mimi, then nodded to Tyler. “If he tries anything, anything at all, use Cherroval on him,” she said. “Mimi, you check this floor. I’ll look upstairs.”

“I don’t have a singularity!” I shouted, as the two young women sprinted away into the house. “If you want me out of Prism Bay, I’ll go! I’ll leave tonight!” I had no intention of being run out of town, readers, but if that’s what these three were after, I was willing to play along. My protestations were useless, however—they acted as if they couldn’t even hear me. 

Tyler, meanwhile, had produced a roll-up bag, the sort a wood-carver might use to carry chisels, or a painter to carry brushes—only this one was full of knives. Swords, actually, none shorter than two feet in length. As I watched, horrified, Tyler drew out a thick, gunmetal-colored blade, and stood, sword in hand, glaring at me.

“So,” I said, “is that Cherroval?” I hoped maintaining a lighthearted attitude would dispel the sense of drama and dread that had settled over the room, but no luck. Tyler only watched me silently as Elle and Mimi ransacked the house, looking for some made-up charm that contained my evil essence. Even in my state of creeping terror, I found it odd none of them had reacted to my horcrux comment—I mean, hadn’t these kids read Harry Potter?

Over the next ten minutes or so, various knickknacks were brought forward for consideration: figurines, timepieces, photographs, fancy glassware, jewelry, quite a few hats—including the nice Panama hat Mrs. Sylvester gave me earlier in the summer—but none was deemed to have the qualities of a “singularity” or “heart”, according to the three kids’ addled brains. Until, that is, they found my laptop.

“Look at this!” Elle said, holding my computer triumphantly aloft. “This is it, right Mimi—the thing you told me about?”

“Yeah,” Mimi said uncertainly.

“No!” I shouted. “I mean, hey, come on, that’s really important to my work. It’s also very expensive.”

“You heard him say it had his whole life inside, right?” Tyler asked, now as excited as Elle. “When he was at your uncle’s shop?”

“I thought that was just something people say,” Mimi ventured. “I guess maybe not.”

“No, it was!” I said. “It was only a saying! Totally idiomatic!”

Right then, a sound emerged, almost like an interjection, from somewhere upstairs—the typical groan of an old house settling, but the three young thugs jumped as though it had called them each by name. “Hurry!” shouted Mimi. Elle, running down the stairs, carried my laptop with the look of someone who had just realized there was a spider crawling up her back. She placed my laptop on the floor, jumped away as though expecting it to explode.

“You sure about this?” Tyler said.

“Tyler!” both girls yelled at once.

“Right!” Tyler shouted back, and hefted the sword that might or might not have been named Cherroval.

Readers, what came next is still too raw, too painful to describe in any explicit detail. I will say only that, when Tyler and Cherroval were finished, my laptop, my companion in so many creative labors, lay in shattered pieces before me.

It was a nightmare, readers. I have some memory of uttering an extended cry of “Noooooo!”, possibly even as the sword descended (the blade passing in slow motion before my widened eyes), but I cannot say for certain. When the deed was done, we all stared in silence at my broken computer—me disconsolately, the others expectantly. But whatever magical denouement those kids were hoping for, readers, they didn’t get it. No beam of light shot forth into the sky, no orbs of power dissipated through the house, no ectoplasmic spirits went wailing away into the night. As they stood in the darkened foyer, Elle, Tyler, and Mimi looked much as I expect the members of a doomsday cult must as the countdown to destruction reaches zero, and yet the world endures.

“What is happening here?” It was Mrs. Sylvester, looming at the top of the stairs. I was glad to see her, certainly, but worried, too, unsure how this new element would influence the already volatile situation. There was no need for concern, however.

“Mrs. Sylvester, be careful!” I called. “They’re crazy! They’re crazy people! They charged in here and tied me up!”

“Untie him,” Mrs. Sylvester said, and immediately the three children obeyed. I was very impressed—reminded of the way a talented schoolteacher can subdue a rowdy classroom with nothing more than a look or a sharp word. In no time at all, I was free.

“You three,” Mrs. Sylvester said, gazing down at Elle, Tyler, and Mimi. “You will leave this place at once. Mr. Black, please see them out.”

The three home invaders looked at me disconsolately. They knew the game was up. “We won’t bring the police into this,” I said, knowing the police were unlikely to answer, anyway, “but I want each of you to call home so I can have a little chat with whoever’s responsible for you.”

Within the hour, cars had arrived to retrieve the three ruffians. Hector van der Geest, Earl of Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium, and Mrs. Gwendolyn Flavius, Tyler’s mother, were all positively mortified by the behavior of their charges. Swift and decisive penalties were promised. There was talk of grounding for the balance of the summer, of paying back every cent of my lost laptop’s value. I left decisions regarding appropriate punishment up to the parents and uncles, simply glad to have those three off my hands.

I write to you now from a public library several towns over from Prism Bay, where I feel at least reasonably safe I won’t run into anyone from that accursed town. I have not decided whether to go back—or, if I do, whether I will stay more than one more night. Perhaps it’s time to move on. Prism Bay seems intent on chasing me away—first a storm, then a flood, and now crazy teenagers. Well, I think it’s worked this time. I’ll pack my things and bid Mrs. Sylvester farewell—she, at least, has always been on my side.

One more night in Prism Bay, then. I’ll tell you about it next time, readers. Until then, lock your doors and hold your laptops close.

 My savior: a worshipful portrait.

My savior: a worshipful portrait.

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Unnatural Disaster

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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!

 Aren't they just  adorable ?

Aren't they just adorable?

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Storm Season

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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.

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Amy's Blood Moon Soirée

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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!

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Pretty Popular Blob

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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...

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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?