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.
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.
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.
“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.