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Tuesday, January 6, 2004
By Paul Ford
A late night, last-ditch story.
Here it is 11:40, and I am trying to get something written before midnight, and at my request, my girlfriend is calling out potential story titles.
“Write about...Budweiser 16 ounce cans,” she said, spying one. “Or sponges, like the living sponges. Interesting.”
“I don't want people to know about the Budweiser.”
“Tell them the truth, that it was the only large-sized beer I could afford and still buy a lottery ticket.”
“They'll get the wrong idea. These are not really topics I can use. Anything?
She bit her cheek. “Write about alien autopsies performed by a team of monkeys led by chief monkey Harolde, with an e, and his pet pencil named Jennifer.”
Through the long corridors of the laboratory, a half-mile below the Gwondanaland desert, came the team, their white coats trim and tight, the circular seam where the tail emerged cut in a precise circle. Three at the front, two behind carrying communications gear, and in the center, impossibly tall at 3 and a half feet, with a severe face, his surgical scrubs in a dark shade of orange that belied his status: Harolde.
In one hand he grasped his orders, printed on flimsy blue paper; the other stroked his gray whiskers as they walked, as he thought through the procedure they were to perform. It was essential that nothing be lost, no datum be ignored, no fact refused simply because it did not fit with inward notions.
He tapped his shirt pocket, its protecting sleeve of plastic, and smiled to himself as he felt the stiff, resistant body of the peculiar creature with whom he shared the rare bond that only a brain-augmented long-tailed primate, living in the earliest age of Earth, soon after the split of Pangaea, when intelligent monkeys ruled the world, and a common yellow sentient implement of writing can share. The creature in question was his pet pencil Jennifer, whom he only half jokingly referred to as his #2. She slept peacefully, dozing lightly against his chest.
They had been summoned here to this bunker under the highest alert, a code Orange request, one level below code Apple. The alert had landed on his desk only that morning and the hours between had been filled with thousands of miles of travel by car and plane, and the assembly of this team: Astrid and Chim, archivists, Bokbok, an intern of unusual promise at the hospital, Donald, a veterinarian, and Alvie, a defense specialist attached to the group by the same general who'd invited them here. General Croot.
The sight of General Groot, as he scampered down the halloway to meet them, threw Harolde off his stride. He had not seen Groot in 20 years, and he travelled back in mental time, for a potent but fractional moment, to that long week at Vine Ridge. There he had been a young army surgeon, only recently given his scrubs. No one knew what the grub eaters had planned; no one could predict that this would go down in history as the day in which the largest amount of feces was ever thrown. At the end, he could only brush away the flies and pray.
“You've been briefed,” said the General.
“Yes. And my team has reviewed the photos.”
“Then let's proceed to the operating theater so that you might meet our patients,” he said. The General turned, and at this prompt the 6 monkeys followed, all but Harolde and the General moving gingerly on all fours, afraid of what they were about to see.
They entered the great white room and were immediately riveted by the sight of two surgical tables, on which two distinct beings of impossible strangeness were laid: massive, pale-skinned, primatoidal—but hairless, and with their foreheads terribly distended, their arms proportionately short and ridiculous, both of them seemingly lifeless—
“Shit, there, it's midnight.”
“This is what it feels like to be a muse,“ she said. “Whoo.”
“What's your name in this?“ I asked. “You need a fake name.“
“You have five minutes while I edit.”
Two minutes later, I asked, but she had no name. “I had a fish named Ollie, one named Tuesday, and one named Olive,” she said. “And a cat named Molly....no, Ernie. Molly is a cousin..”
“Ernie was Molly's cousin?”
“No, Molly is my cousin.“
So there was no name forthcoming for that night, only a half-written story of some monkeys, and a pet pencil.