He sat down to start Chapter 5 with no idea where he wanted to go. Writing is about making choices and sometimes Tom gets stuck staring into a specific option’s probable eventualities. Down the rabbit hole, further and further he falls, for minutes and hours of his day, just to climb back out of the dream— fatigued and less certain than before.
Tom knows that knowing which door not to open is just as important as knowing which one to choose. Writing, he thinks, is a lot like raising a child. You nurture, nurture, redirect, and nurture some more until the story takes on a life of its own. Often, Tom makes mistakes, much more often than not. But, he perseveres. He has to. There is no other option, for him.
He is a parent, and good parents allow their stories to choose which doors to walk through. Too much control and Tom risks strangling the genius out of his child, while not enough support leaves a story’s potential unfulfilled. Defining success, for his child, blinds Tom to possibilities beyond even his own wildest dreams.
Staring out his second story window, Tom surfs patiently through the possibilities, waiting for the right wave to carry him forward. Language is a puzzle. Its pieces are meaningless without context and emotion. Words got me the wound, he thinks, watching Nick, the neighbor’s middle child, scramble along the rock wall Tom built, for just this purpose.
The sight sends him back to his own elementary school days, when everyone called him Thomas:
His father, Sam, loved puzzles—word puzzles, number puzzles, and hands on puzzles like the horseshoe and ring game they’d purchased from Parrott’s in Columbia, California.
As soon as Thomas solved one riddle, he was given another. Eventually Sam began concealing them within real life. If Thomas asked, “What are we doing this weekend?” Sam might reply, “you tell me,” and Thomas would have to look for subtle clues, while considering past patterns he’d uncovered within previous riddles. A roll of quarters could mean laundromat or arcade, while an empty clothes hamper points toward…
“The arcade,” Thomas answers.
Observing Sam for clues, Thomas realizes that people are nothing more than complex riddles—great enigmas, ready to be cracked open like so many fortune cookies. “The Boardwalk,” he answers.
“What gave me away?”
It wasn’t one thing in particular. In fact there were too many things occurring all at once for Thomas to confidently express anything; so, he just said, “I don’t know.”
Besides, Tom thinks, as Kali nudges her ball against his knee, forcing him back into the present, not everything can be discerned using logic and reason. “You, on the other hand,” he says, petting her head, “are an open book.” Actually, he thinks, everything is. Humankind’s greatest deficiency lies in our believing otherwise.
Drifting back down into the street, Thomas sees himself standing on the blacktop of his elementary school, just outside his circle of friends.
Like a scientist he observes them, feigning shyness. The less he says or does, the less anyone takes notice of him, allowing Thomas to blend in with his surroundings like camouflage. It’s lonely, but interacting with them makes it harder to remember what was said and done.
Later, that same day, back home, Thomas role plays each and every detail, dissecting his friends’ body language until he is capable of mimicking their every expression, right down to the slightest blush, brow movement, and quiver. Then, he goes deeper; searching for their emotions, until he’s certain that what he is feeling is what they were feeling in that moment, until each role fits into all the others seamlessly.
By the time Rubik’s cube comes along, Thomas figures he understands puzzles better than most. Ultimately, he recognizes them as meaningless, like school. Solving the latest riddle or doing his homework, neither seems to make much of a difference—to him. This is why he hacks into Rubik’s cube with a butter knife, snapping the pieces back together into their appropriate order. He’d learnt an important lesson.
Those in charge create the rules everyone else must live by. IQ tests, like riddles, do not measure intelligence so much as they measure a person’s ability to navigate someone else’s maze, in search of some cheddar. A mouse not interested in their agenda is marked less intelligent (or desirable) than a greedy one, whose only goal in life is to get more of what those in power are currently offering.
Prisons are filled with people who’ve realized this hypocrisy too early to appreciate the natural order of our earthly experience, Tom thinks, as Kali nudges his knee, bringing him back into the present, once again.
“Unless you have an army backing you up,” he tells her, “it’s best not to rock the status quo.”
The strength of the dark side lies in our own deceits. Those in power know that the best way to ensure their rule is to divide those under it. Don’t fall for their tricks. It is better to starve than to sell your soul for cheese. Like Edward says, Death always arrives too soon. No amount of anything can guarantee a long life or happiness.
“Good girl,” Tom says, and Kali drops her ball. Am I making a mistake? he wonders, bouncing her ball into the hall. Sam called mistakes, not thinking. “But,” Tom says, tugging on Kali’s ear when she returns. “Some puzzles only get more complicated the deeper I look into them.”
And some puzzles, he thinks, taste like bait. Take Edward’s 59th State. When he’d first discovered the package Edward had left for him, he felt a tinge of excitement. It was all Cloak & Dagger and shit. But, as he continued to read through the material, he couldn’t stop thinking about Borges’ Lönnrot.
“By the time you taste the hook, it’s too late,” Tom tells Kali while thinking about Graveyard Annie, the woman who was recently murdered at the library…
“Fuck it,” he says, after a long pause. “Ideas that aren’t dangerous, are not worthy of being called ideas at all.” Standing up, he removes Edward’s package from its hiding place, climbs up onto his second best bed, and sets the envelope in his lap. A fortune cookie, fortune, is taped over the return address: Every wise person starts out by asking many questions. And only a fool wants to be wise, Tom adds, removing the owl key chain first.
Some cultures insist the owl symbolizes death. But, Edward says, this is an example of how language is distorted over time, and through translation. Death, Edward likes to say, “is a sunset, on a small tropical island: ) Nothing to be afraid of…”
Death is a changing of the seasons, Edward writes. 他 is integral to the great circle of life. Without Death, nothing lives. Experience becomes sterile. No ups, no downs—just one ever expanding flat line. So, yes, Death is only ever experienced from a distance. The living can experience a sense of dying, but will never experience Death. 他 is like a dream in this manner. The dreamer can watch others die, but when Death comes for them, they merely wake up and think, what a strange dream I had. Then they go about their day, none the wiser. [I]
Tom sighs. It’s also Bubo, the Owl of Minerva, he thinks. Rome’s virgin goddess of wisdom. But, this Bubo has three blue eyes, two where you’d expect them, and one giant eye for a belly. An evil eye, Tom thinks, rubbing the owl like a worry stone, pondering its meaning.
The answer is simple, Edward writes. Like you, my thoughts move me closer toward tomorrow. By definition we humans are incapable of perceiving the unknown; therefore, we know only what we carry within us—thus what we see is who we are. To point the finger is to pass blame upon ourselves.[II]
“Or…” Tom slides off his bed. “As Forrest Gump would say,” he says, hanging Bubo above his laptop. “Evil is as Evil does.” Who’s to judge? He wonders, while climbing back onto his bed. People who shut their doors or fence their yards (to keep the uninvited out) are just as evil, to Tom, as someone who wants to build a U.S. border wall. If you don’t want fences, tear yours down first!
Next, Tom pulls the cellphone and battery out of the package. He considers putting them together, imagines himself sliding the battery into place and seeing a small red light blink into existence, signaling to someone, somewhere, that he’s taken the bait. “Stupid,” he says, setting the phone aside, for now. Or, Tom thinks, is it smart?
Nobody has seen Edward since he dropped the package off with Betty. That in itself isn’t unusual. He’s a bit of a recluse. But, the day before Edward went dark, he stopped by Tom’s wearing a CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE T-shirt. He’d turned around so Tom could see the back.
“If you join the Evil Power Master,” Tom reads, “hoping it will gain you time, turn to page 36. If you refuse…”
Edward spins back around. “Turn to page 91,” he says, finishing the sentence.
His stare makes Tom nervous. He’ll never admit it, but Edward has a way of making him feel small. “Haven’t read it,” he answers, feeling the weight of Edward’s world close in around him. “My first instinct,” he says, pushing back, “is to fight evil.”
“That’s everyone’s instinct,” Edward says. “Abraham’s, Hitler’s, Gandhi’s.” He laughs. “Democrats and Republicans,” he says. “Both believe they’re at war with an evil power master.” Edward displays his agony-sweet smile. “Trouble is,” he laughs, again. “They’re both right.”
“Let’s take a walk.” Tom changes the subject. He likes a good philosophical conversation as much as the next guy; but, Edward has a way of making them feel… Tom grabs his keys, locking the door behind them—as if, right now, he thinks, we are making real decisions, with real-world consequences that will affect all of humanity.
“I’ve been reading Tom’s Kure,” Edward says.
“I didn’t think you owned a computer.”
“Using the library’s.”
“And,” Edward says. “It’s interesting. I like all the random people, milling about. Do they have a purpose?”
“Are you talking about my story, or the library?”
“Both, I guess.” Edward pulls a bag of mixed nuts from his pocket. “Want some?” he asks, following Tom down the brick steps and across his front yard.
“Thanks.” Tom grabs an almond and cracks it in half with his teeth before chewing it up.
“So,” Edward continues. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“Make a wish,” Tom jokes, holding up a Dandelion seed head. Edward closes his eyes, takes an extra-long deep breath, and then exhales, sending one-hundred and fifty seedlings off world. They watch the dainty, white, parachutes float like jellyfish through the air. “I’ve read that the pilgrims brought them over on the Mayflower,” Tom says, plucking a couple flowers and handing one to Edward.
“Or,” Edward says, as they start up the sidewalk, “it was the Vikings…”
“Either way,” Tom continues, “humans have been cultivating dandelions for thousands of years.” He bites off the flower’s head, chews it up real good, then swallows. “Hm, hmm,” he says.
Edward nibbles at his, pulling a few petals off at a time. “Now, it’s just a weed.”
“I suppose you could say,” Edward says, “marketing is to the capitalist, what propaganda was to the Nazi.”
“Hold that thought…” Tom stops in front of the Peterson house to pull out his phone. Thanks again, he texts his reply to Ken. “Sorry,” he says.
“No worries.” Edward watches Tom slip his phone away. “Imagine…” he says, following the redbrick path to the fenced courtyard entrance, with his nod.
“Third owner,” Tom says, walking on. “I think.”
“Did he do it?”
“Who knows? His brother’s wife swears he’s innocent.”
“The dark side clouds everything,” Edward says.
“Impossible to see, the future is,” they say in unison as they descend the steep, sandy park entrance, just beyond Covena’s dead end.
Staying off the main path in favor of the trail closest to the creek’s edge, Edward points to a place that doesn’t exist anymore. “Our BMX trails,” he says.
Tom agrees. “New Year’s flood, ‘97, washed them away.”
Strolling alongside the Dry Creek, meandering downstream through the Oaks and chestnuts, past the palm trees and outcroppings of bamboo, they see several rafts of mallards mingling about, looking for food. A crane and blue Heron watch them pass.
“We spent whole summers here,” Edward says.
Down, around and back up they wade with their heads deep in thought, until they reach the dry gulch. “Deadman’s Drop,” Tom says, leaning against the metal railing, meant to ward off BMXers.
“After Act V,” Edward says, “I have a story I want to tell about this place.”
“You are writing, then?”
“Of course,” Edward says. “But, Hope’s End, you know” he says. “I didn’t just write it. I relived it.” His voice drifts ahead of him, to where Deadman’s Gulch meets the Dry Creek. Edward isn’t the same person he was before he went road tripping. He never hesitated before. Was always the first to test whatever rickety contraption the older boys had dreamt up. A regular, leap-before-you-look, type of guy. “I remember,” he says. “Things I spent the last twenty-two years trying to forget.” He leans into a young, inedible, chestnut tree with his back to Tom. “You’ve heard the phrase, my life flashed before my eyes?”
“Sure,” Tom says, pulling out his camera-phone.
“It’s true,” Edward continues. “And,” he says, “if you stay near Death long enough…” He turns around. “All of existence flashes by.”
Tom takes the shot.
“Trust the process,” Edward says, ignoring him. “That’s what I keep telling myself. No matter how bad things seem to be…”
“Continue,” Tom says, and Edward smiles—a real smile; not just with his mouth, but with his eyes and face too.
“Exactly,” he says, walking past Tom. “Humanity,” he continues, across the troll bridge, “is at 他’s crossroad.” He stops at the edge of the vast green expanse called, Kewin Park. “Key West,” he says, staring out into nothing. “I know,” he continues. “Feel stupid just saying it. And, honestly, I’d rather pretend it never happened. But it did, and now I’m having one hell of a flash back.”
A quietness settles in around Tom. The breeze dies. The traffic, birds, and squirrels disappear. Not one single human stirs. It’s as if Time has stopped.
“Some days,” Edward says, breaking the silence, “I know I am Iron Man.” He starts walking again. “On those days,” he says, “I don’t dare lock eyes with anyone.”
Tom wasn’t there in ’96, but he’d read Edward’s story and heard tell of more than what was written. That which he could confirm, he has. And, that which he couldn’t… Well, Tom thinks, time will tell.
An old woman with her butt on the cold, hard, concrete has taken refuge with her back to the large iron doors of the bathrooms exterior wall. Her clothes are permanently stained from camping, her face permanently marked by Life. Tom nods, but she only has eyes for Edward.
“No one needs you,” she says.
“Earth don’t need trees.” She adjusts her denim bag, pulling it up, closer to her body.
“Organics,” she cuts Edward off. “Clean water,” she says. “Earth needs nothing.”
“Humans,” Edward tries again, but the woman shrugs; with her whole body she makes a, what’cha gun’a do, face before turning sideways like an ostrich, make-believing that the world has disappeared; and, it works.
“What was that?” Tom crosses the bridge into Moose Park, alongside Edward.
“Imagine a beach with doors, instead of sand,” Edward says, crossing Morton Boulevard. “You must choose,” he says, lengthening his stride up Rue De Yoe. “No second guesses, and no way to determine what lies on the other side.”
Turning right at La Loma, they stop alongside Burney Street. Tom leans over and pushes the crosswalk button with his elbow. Edward makes his head spin, like this intersection which is really an intersection leading to more intersections. Two way streets wrestling with one way streets, spreading downtown, out of town, and into Modesto’s older neighborhoods before stretching back out into newer ones.
At H Street, near the fountain, Edward starts back up. “It isn’t so bad,” he says, pulling a notebook from his pocket. “I’m meeting someone.” He opens it up. “Anne or Annie. Maybe, in a bookstore, or library, or cemetery,” he says. “Handwriting’s blotchy.”
“And?” Tom asks, as the light turns green.
“Who knows?” Edward crosses the street. “I’m just the gatekeeper,” he says, with a laugh while looking through his notes. “She has a secret. Something called the 59th State, which refers to an obscure comment made by Lennon back in ’74, during an interview with Jim Hartz on the Today Show.” He rolls his notebook between his hands before slipping it back into his pocket. “Faith,” he says. “That’s all I really have to go on.”
Isn’t that all anyone really has? Tom writes, as Kali nudges his knee, again. Looking up from his laptop, Tom stares out his window. The air is thick with fire retardant and flesh. “Paradise is lost,” he tells Kali, and she puts her paw on his lap, as if to say: I need a break. Tom smiles. “Me too,” he says, following Kali downstairs while checking his twitter feed.
I stopped reading this book about narcissism, because there wasn’t anything about me in it.
Tom laughs, ♡’s it then responds: @RickyGlore Well, you just made it into mine: )
MEANWHILE, back on his second best bed, a red light stops blinking as a new message comes in…
[I] This is a direct quote from a letter Edward sent to his favorite sister, who shall remain nameless: )